Tag Archives: Bob Garver

Review: Star Wars takes a dark turn in ‘Rogue One’

By BOB GARVER

A particular hurdle a genre picture needs to clear, whether the movie is a western, a musical, a horror film, science fiction or fantasy, is how to make it accessible to an audience member who’s not necessarily a fan of that genre.

That might not be so much of a problem for “Rogue One,” the latest picture in the Star Wars franchise. The raw numbers seem to suggest that nearly everyone in the civilized world has seen one or more of the Star Wars movies since the 1977 release of the original picture. And the collective gross revenues from the Star Wars franchise long ago entered the rarefied air of literally trillions of dollars.

Since the release of the first historically popular picture in the series, even the weakest among the six subsequent entries can claim the distinction of being the unquestioned vanguard of the fantasy genre, just by virtue of its solid platinum heritage. Because even when a Star Wars picture is laughably bad (remember Jar-Jar Binks?) it inevitably becomes a blockbuster — a money-minting success.

In the Star Wars lexicon, the new release “Rogue One” — not designated with an episode number but subtitled “A Star Wars Story” — inhabits a time roughly 30 years after the conclusion of 2005’s Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith, and just prior to the beginning of the original 1977 picture.

The oppressive Galactic Empire has designs to build a massive new spaceship called the Death Star, a craft already familiar to fans of the original picture. The Death Star will contain a weapon capable of reducing an entire planet to rubble with one single shot. But the primary architect of the Death Star escapes from the Empire’s service before the weapon is functional.

Sometime later, the Empire tracks down the architect and conscripts him to return and complete the weapon, leaving behind his young daughter. Years later the daughter, now an adult, is recruited by the anti-Empire Rebel Alliance to locate and enlist the services of the father in destroying the weapon, toppling the Empire, and restoring peace and liberty to the galaxy.

And as it happens, “Rogue One” is a fairly impressive movie in the fantasy genre, not as good as the best entries in the Star Wars series, but better than many. Actress Felicity Jones is cast in what is nominally the leading role, as Jyn Erso, the adult daughter of the Death Star architect. Jones’ colorful resume includes an Academy Award nomination for her role as the wife of physicist Stephen Hawking in the 2014 biographical picture “The Theory of Everything,” and also recent appearances in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” and this past summer’s “Inferno,” directed by Ron Howard.

Jones’ Jyn Erso is consistent with the Star Wars tradition of strong female leads, from Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia in the original pictures to Daisy Ridley’s Rey in last year’s “The Force Awakens.”  Erso is seemingly a little more indifferent to the niceties of good versus evil, but the character’s carefully-maintained ambivalence seems to inspire the audience to desire even more her eventual conversion.

But Jones is only the headliner in a strong ensemble cast which includes Mads Mikkelsen from “Casino Royale” and television’s “Hannibal,” the always-engaging Forest Whitaker, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed, Donnie Yen and Genevieve O’Reilly all contributing memorable characterizations. Mexican actor Diego Luna is effectively cast in the swashbuckling role of Cassian Andor, a resourceful pilot working for the Rebel Alliance.

There’s very much a sense of unification about “Rogue One,” with appearances by a variety of characters from both previous trilogies. At least one character from the original 1977 picture reprises his role posthumously, via the not-quite-persuasive magic of computer animation. 

And since his image figures strongly in certain of the film’s publicity, it’s no great spoiler to reveal that Darth Vader also appears in the picture, albeit briefly. That popular villain’s big scene is preceded with a buildup worthy of a Wagnerian opera, but with the strains of John Williams’ “Imperial March” from Episode V trumpeting forth from the soundtrack during his entrance instead of “Ride of the Valkyries.”

Certain of Williams’ familiar musical themes are reprised from the previous seven pictures, although the actual music score for the picture is credited to composer Michael Giacchino. Giacchino, who also scored the recent Star Trek pictures and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” already seems to have been so influenced by Williams that his name in the closing credits instead of Williams’ is a mild surprise.

“Rogue One” director Gareth Edwards has proven his mettle for putting legendary film characters through their paces with his work on 2014’s “Godzilla” remake. And certainly Edwards’ sure hand keeps “Rogue One” moving along at a pace brisk enough to almost disguise some of the more preposterous turns in the film’s script, credited to Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy . . . although 20 minutes could’ve easily been trimmed from the picture to bring the running time to under two hours.

In October of 2012, seven years after the release of “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” — which Star Wars creator George Lucas assured us would be the last installment in the franchise —the entertainment world was stunned to learn that a deal had been finalized for Lucas to sell his Lucasfilm Ltd. corporation to the Walt Disney Co. As part of that transaction, the Disney organization also acquired ownership of the Star Wars series of films, released originally by the 20th Century-Fox film studio.

Simultaneous to the Lucasfilm acquisition, the Disney company announced the production of new entries in the Star Wars series, beginning in 2015 with “Episode VII: The Force Awakens.”  The new picture would reunite most of the cast of the original three pictures, and Lucas’ services would be retained by Disney as a creative consultant.

The first clue that “Rogue One” is not a typical entry in the Star Wars canon comes in the picture’s opening seconds. Although the Lucasfilm Ltd. logo appears prior to the opening shot, as well as the familiar legend “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . .” there is no opening stab of John Williams’ iconic theme music, no words crawling from the bottom of the screen to the top explaining the story so far.

But the differences between “Rogue One” and the earlier Star Wars pictures are not limited to the modified opening moments. Since 1977 the pictures in the series have grown progressively more somber, developing a mythology almost as complex and challenging as Tolkien’s novels. Last year’s “The Force Awakens” seemingly only barely avoided an R rating, with a My Lai-style massacre at the beginning of the picture and the violent death about halfway through of one of the saga’s most enduring and beloved characters.

Parents conducting young children to a “Rogue One” screening should be warned: Even the darkness of vision revealed in “The Force Awakens” doesn’t completely prepare the viewer for the unflinching loss of life and disturbing images in the picture. 

“Rogue One” works hard to earn its PG-13 rating: Characters we grow to like are killed onscreen, and the graphically depicted results of the Death Star weapon are more reminiscent of a nuclear holocaust than the bloodless big bang we remember from the original picture. Darth Vader also engages in some genuinely frightening antics.

Those who professed wonder or surprise at the 2012 sale of Star Wars to Disney shouldn’t have been — Lucas always did profess admiration for that studio’s entertainment heritage.

More perplexing at the present time, and especially while viewing “Rogue One,” is the knowledge that when the Star Wars saga began to explore its darkest and most disturbing themes and images, it did so under the Walt Disney flag of wholesome family entertainment.

Review: ‘Office Christmas Party’ is no fun

By BOB GARVER

For years, I thought that Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston and Courtney B. Vance all seemed like nice people. I know nobody’s perfect, but I didn’t have any problems with them. 

Now, having seen them in “Office Christmas Party,” I have to assume that they are in fact horrible people. They’re not necessarily horrible because they did this movie, but they’re horrible because of something they did before this movie. They did something horrible and now have to do this movie as part of a blackmail.

The setup is that computer company CEO Carol (Aniston) is ready to shut down the branch run by her empty-headed brother, Clay (T.J. Miller), unless he can land major client Walter Davis (Vance). Davis is reluctant to do business with the company because he correctly senses that they have a morale problem. 

Clay decides to impress Davis by inviting him to a huge Christmas party so he can see that everyone is happy. He enlists CTO Josh (Bateman, giving a particularly disinterested performance) and tech head Tracey (Olivia Munn) to help him. 

Tracey is game, but Josh would rather just wallow in self-pity over his recent divorce and pine after Tracey. Josh isn’t exactly sold on the idea, and frankly I didn’t get the impression that Clay really thinks it’s going to work. It’s just an excuse for him (and the movie) to throw a wild party and maybe write it off as a business expense.

The party scenes are exactly what you would expect from an R-rated comedy about office workers cutting loose. There’s drinking and drugs and hookups and people going to the bathroom in inappropriate places. This is the kind of movie that banks really hard on you laughing at awkward dancing, lewd misuse of office copiers and people using loads of profanity when they’re people who shouldn’t be using profanity.
 
And yes, we get the obvious gag where an illegal substance is treated like snow. Such is the kind of cheap joke this movie relies on.

More than being unfunny, this movie is just lazy. Most of the antics and dialogue look like they were invented on the day of filming. There are funny people in this movie, not just the ones I already mentioned, but also Kate McKinnon, Vanessa Bayer, Rob Corddry, Randall Park, Karan Soni, Jillian Bell, Fortune Feimster and others. 

But no matter how funny these people are with decent material, they can’t save the lame situations they’ve been given. And that’s when they’ve even been told what to do and not just told that they’re so funny that whatever pops into their head on the first take will be fine. It’s no surprise that there is a reel of outtakes over the credits of this movie. The cast was clearly filmed going through hundreds of poorly considered jokes and then the editors chose the “best” ones without concerning themselves with getting the “right” ones.

The good news about “Office Christmas Party” is that it goes for such a high quantity of jokes that a few of them have to work. The big names, especially Bateman, know they’re above this material, but many of the lower-tier players are hungry enough that they give energetic performances and compete with each other over who gets to “steal” the movie (my pick is Bell as a pimp who’s out to prove that she’s capable of both kindness and cruelty). 

But this movie brings nothing new to the “party spirals out of control” genre, and it certainly isn’t going to fill you with holiday cheer. Give yourself an early Christmas present and go see something else.

(“Office Christmas Party” is rated R for crude sexual content and language throughout, drug use and graphic nudity. Its running time is 105 minutes. Contact Bob Garver at rrg251@nyu.edu.)

Review: ‘Fantastic Beasts’ is no ‘Harry Potter’

By BOB GARVER

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” should have been a book first. 

Yes, I know it was, sort of. A fake “Harry Potter”-themed textbook about magical creatures came out in 2001, written by “Newt Scamander” (actually J.K. Rowling). Now we’re getting a five-part movie series about Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and how he came to write the book, and all five movies are to be written by Rowling. 

Of course, the “Harry Potter” series found worldwide success as books turned into movies. With “Fantastic Beasts,” she’s skipping right to the movie stage, and the franchise is worse for it.

The film takes place in the 1920s when British wizard Scamander visits New York City. The brilliant-but-clumsy researcher lugs around a broken suitcase that is clearly filled with animals. A few creatures escape, and he has to adventure through the city to get them back. 

Goofy misunderstandings force him to partner up with local non-wizard, or “Nomaj,” Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and disgraced former magical police officer, or “Auror,” Tina (Katherine Waterston) who simultaneously wants to help Scamander and arrest him to restore her credibility with the Magical Congress of the United States. Scamander is going to be in hot water when high-ranking Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) finds out that he’s been so negligent. 

Then again, the Congress doesn’t seem to have time to deal with Scamander. They have to deal with a series of attacks from a destructive black cloud called an Obscurus, an anti-magic movement led by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) and the possibility that the dark wizard Grindelwald is somewhere in the United States.

We are, mostly through Kowalski’s perspective, introduced to the wizarding world of this place and time. We also get to meet some exciting new magical creatures, some able to walk around in everyday society, but most contained in Scamander’s magical suitcase, which it turns out is spacious enough to house an entire ecosystem. 

It’s enough to make you wonder why Scamander doesn’t secure the latches better. It’s definitely enough to make me wonder why I’m supposed to be rooting for someone who’s so careless with well-meaning-but-dangerous animals. I am not won over by Scamander’s “charming bumbler” act. He needs to get a hold on his “fantastic beasts” and then find them a place where they can’t bother Nomajes or Muggles or whatever you call the rest of us.

What makes me say that this movie should have been a book first? In a word, detail. 

The “Harry Potter” world was so successful because there was a new detail around every corner, from characters to settings all manner of magical objects. But Rowling had more than 3,000 pages in which to explain and develop these details. Here, too, the world is filled with details, but it’s all limited to 133 minutes. 

Don’t get me wrong, a lot is covered in those 133 minutes, but it still feels rushed and underdone. Perhaps releasing a book first would mean that we could watch this movie and instinctively think “oh, that’s such and such, I know how it fits into this world, so I’m not going to ask too many questions” instead of wanting to know the backstory of a new detail every 30 seconds.

I have to be honest: I don’t see “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” earning the same following as “Harry Potter.” Granted, that’s a tall if not impossible order, and a lukewarm performance might be tolerable were we not locked in for four more movies. But as it is I don’t like Newt Scamander, the special effects aren’t where they need to be (the beasts are creatively designed and decently animated, but at no point do they look like they’re sharing the same space as the live-action actors) and the world falls short of being immersive. 

I’m not exactly dreading the next four movies, but I’m hoping that this is the only disappointing one out of the five.

(“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is rated PG-13 for some fantasy action violence. Its running time is 133 minutes. Contact Bob Garver at rrg251@nyu.edu.)

Review: ‘Trolls’ tosses a few crumbs to parents

By BOB GARVER

Of all the surefire blockbusters of 2016, “Trolls” was probably the one I was dreading the most. 

If you’re a parent whose kids are this film’s target audience, you’ve probably been dreading it, too. This is a film designed to revive an annoyingly cute toy line that we all thought we had left in the past. And the early trailers didn’t help: nauseatingly colorful little goofs with their trademark wispy hair dancing up a storm. 

Every adult knows that the most sickening part of animated kids’ movies, even the good ones, is the inevitable dance party at the end. The bad news is that “Trolls” is every bit the buffet of cinematic junk food you think it is. The good news is that you go numb to it pretty quickly, and then you can appreciate the things the movie does right.

Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) throws a big obnoxious party to celebrate the 20th anniversary of her father (Jeffrey Tambor) saving the entire troll race from being eaten by their mortal enemy, the hideous Bergens. An unhappy troll named Branch (Justin Timberlake) warns her that if the party is too bright and loud, it will lead the remaining Bergens right to them. Poppy brushes him off, throws the party, and watches as her friends are carried off by the Bergens’ royal chef (Christine Baranski), who was banished for letting the trolls escape 20 years ago and is now bent on redemption and revenge.
The airheaded Poppy has at least inherited her father’s determination to never leave a troll behind, so she sets out on a mission to save her friends. But she can’t do it alone, so she drags survivalist Branch along to help her. 

The two don’t get along at first, because she’s an optimist and he’s a pessimist. Also, she loves to sing and he hates it. Everybody who actually thinks that the character voiced by Justin Timberlake won’t love singing by the movie’s end, please do a backflip now.

Poppy and Branch hatch a plan to save the captured trolls by helping a lowly Bergen kitchen maid named Bridget (Zooey Deschanel) woo her crush, the miserable King Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who is perpetually unhappy because he’s never gotten to eat a troll. Maybe if Poppy and Branch can help Bridget and Gristle fall in love, they won’t need to eat trolls to be happy and then everybody can be happy without anybody getting eaten. Everybody, that is, except the poor chef who was just as troll-hungry as everyone else in the kingdom and had to be homeless for 20 years. The movie can’t think of an outcome where she can be happy, so it just treats her as a villain unworthy of happiness.

The story is entirely predictable, from the celebrations to the hardships to the supposed twists to the gradual relationship between Poppy and Branch. Along the way there are musical numbers and hair gags aplenty. 

Some of the songs are fun (I laughed heartily when Poppy took a request literally), but this movie can’t come up with nearly as many interesting things to do with hair as say, “Tangled.” Much more imaginative is the danger that Poppy and Branch face on their way to the Bergen kingdom. A wide variety of creatures want to eat the trolls, but they’re so greedy that they end up eating each other. This leads to some delightfully dark humor, as the filmmakers probably wanted to reward themselves for putting up with so much cutesiness in other scenes.

“Trolls” is mostly kiddie stuff, though adults will be able to appreciate a handful of scenes. I’m not saying it ever gets to that next level where adults can watch it by themselves and find value in it, but it shows occasional flashes of brilliance. And I’m not above saying that a tiny bit of the constant happiness is infectious.

(“Trolls” is rated PG for some mild rude humor. Its running time is 92 minutes. Contact Bob Garver at rrg251@nyu.edu. And check out more reviews at the newly updated www.bobatthemovies.com.)

Review: ‘Doctor Strange’ a wild, wonderful film

Movie Review stars

By BOB GARVER

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the latest superhero to be added to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

Prior to becoming a superhero, he’s a lot like Tony Stark: an arrogant genius who coasts through life on incredible talent without really pushing himself beyond his comfort zone. Strange is a surgeon who gets in a car accident and loses use of his hands. 

He’s lucky that’s all he loses after his car went over a steep cliff, but as a surgeon, he’s still devastated. He plunges into a downward spiral where he goes broke and turns away his caring girlfriend (Rachel McAdams).

No doctors in the Western Hemisphere will help Strange, so he travels to Nepal to be treated by a mysterious “ancient one” (Tilda Swinton). She introduces him to a form of magic and subjects him to things he never thought possible, like separating his spirit from his body and sending him hurling through the multiverse. He becomes her student, with her training him for what he thinks is his own benefit, but is actually to make him a defender of the planet. A dangerous former student (Mads Mikkelsen) is trying to steal all of the Earth’s time and is planning to turn it over to an evil outer space cloud monster who will use it to achieve world domination.

I might not have gotten that last part quite right, but that part of the movie doesn’t make a lot of sense. Actually, a great deal about this movie doesn’t make a lot of sense. This movie can’t turn around without introducing us to something incredible. 

In a very short span of time, Strange learns about out-of-body experiences, the outer reaches of the universe, the creation of matter with his mind, the culling of resources from parallel dimensions, a protective cloak with a mind of its own, a portable prison of sorts, all manner of manipulating time and space and a librarian who has apparently never heard of Beyonce. Maybe a wunderkind like Strange can keep track of it all, but I couldn’t. 

And, frankly, the movie can’t either. These concepts are thrown around haphazardly so we can get about five minutes of cool visuals, but they don’t seem to have any long-term effects on our world.

That’s not to say that there’s not a lot about to like about this movie. Cumberbatch has finally found a blockbuster leading role that suits him, and he has excellent chemistry with everybody. The humor mostly hits, outside of tired mister/doctor confusion. And the aforementioned cool visuals are extraordinarily cool. The movie has a somewhat dull color palate until that multiverse sequence and then wham! — you’re hit with the full spectrum. 

One of these parallel universes sees Strange’s hand grow new hands out of his fingers, and then those hands grow hands, and those hands grow hands. You might not think you’re freaked out by fingers, but trust me, you are. Then there’s a chase/fight scene where the gravity is altered, so the characters run and fight up, down, all around, side to side and many other directions. I got nauseated by this disorienting sequence, but I appreciate the effort.

With pun absolutely intended, “Doctor Strange” is one of Marvel’s stranger movies. The film’s ambition knows no bounds.

Unfortunately, the film’s running time should have been a bound(ary). The film comes up with amazing ideas faster than it can handle them — maybe a few should have been cut. I hate to ask a film to ease up on the creativity, but taking more time to develop some of its higher concepts would have given this film some much-needed coherence. 

Still, when this movie works, it works beautifully. I loved this movie when I could wrap my head around it. Dr. Strange could probably use some kind of magic to literally wrap his head around it.

(“Doctor Strange” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence. Its running time is 115 minutes. Contact Bob Garver at rrg251@nyu.edu.)

Review: ‘The Girl on the Train’ is simply average

By BOB GARVER

“The Girl on the Train” is a mystery about a missing woman, based on a novel by Paula Hawkins. 

It was destined to be compared to similar adaptations such as “Gone Girl” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Those films were supposed to be in for a big awards push, but failed to secure Oscar nominations in any major category except Best Actress. 

Here, too, is a film where I could see the lead actress claiming the sole Oscar nomination — though the film around her is perhaps too weak to make her a true contender.

The story often switches narrators, but it mainly follows Rachel (Emily Blunt). She’s a trainwreck of a person, a chaotic alcoholic who spends her days drinking and riding trains to a job she doesn’t have. She pauses only to obsess over two couples.
 
The first is somewhat understandable: her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), and his former mistress and now-wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). They live in wedded bliss with the daughter Rachel always wanted. 

The other couple is more inexplicable: Megan (Haley Bennett) and Scott (Luke Evans) are neighbors of Tom and Anna who seem to have life all figured out. Although Rachel only ever sees them through a train window, to her they represent stability and perfection.

Then one day Rachel sees Megan in the arms of another man: her psychiatrist (Edgar Ramirez). Rachel is so infuriated by this betrayal that she sets out to confront Anna over Tom’s betrayal. She follows “Anna” into a tunnel, but it turns out she’s actually meeting Megan for the first time. Then she blacks out for several hours. Then she wakes up covered in blood. Then she finds out that Megan, who it turns out was a nanny for Tom and Anna, is missing. 

Who is responsible for Megan’s disappearance? Could it really have been Rachel, who is prone to erratic behavior and alcohol-induced blackouts and who can’t remember what happened in that tunnel?

From there, the film goes through all the paces that disappearance-based mysteries go through. Everybody has secrets, and everybody takes a turn being the most likely suspect. There’s a handful of twists, and then weirdly no twist when you’d think there’s one. 

I’m okay with the “perfect” characters turning out to be not so perfect — it comes with the territory. But I was disappointed that the “interesting” characters weren’t so interesting. The men are all drooling oafs in one form or another, The women are all annoyingly self-absorbed, but they fare a little better. 

Anna tries to maintain a relationship with a man she knows she can’t trust because it started with him lying to his wife. Megan is trying to make sense of the many mistakes she’s made in her life, including the worst mistake a mother can make. And Rachel is just trying to make it through her pathetic life. Her semblance of sanity depends on the happiness of others, and even that is quickly falling apart.

All of the performances are good in “The Girl on the Train” — better than the material deserves. The men manage to breathe life into thankless roles and the women all garner sympathy for inconsiderate characters who seem to like to fall back on the catchall justification of being “flawed.” 

Blunt in particular is compelling in every tearful moment with a character who is unable to survive in polite society. It’s a shame that the mystery aspect of this movie is so poorly done. I formed a theory about a third of the way through that turned out to be the solution; a twist that predictable should have another layer or two on top of it. 

This movie is a step down from, say, “Gone Girl,” but I wouldn’t label it an entirely useless knockoff.

(“The Girl on the Train” is rated R for violence, sexual content, language and nudity. Its running time is 122 minutes. Contact Bob Garver at rrg251@nyu.edu.)

Review: “Pete’s Dragon” inferior to “Kubo and the Two Strings”

By BOB GARVER

Nothing new was able to crack the top five at the weekend box office, and I’ve already reviewed first-place finisher “Don’t Breathe” and second-place “Suicide Squad.” So I’m going to take a look at the holdovers that came in third and fourth, respectively.

“Pete’s Dragon”

Disney has had a lot of success lately with live-action versions of animated classics such as “Cinderella” and “The Jungle Book.” Now they’re trying to have success with a live-action version of a 1977 film that was half animated and half live action. 

Actually, the dragon this time is computer generated, so it’s still a mix of live action and animation.

The good news is that they get Elliot the dragon right. He’s flawlessly rendered, super funny and adorable, and capable of a wide variety of emotions. How I wish the movie was complex enough to justify more of these emotions.

Instead, it’s a standard tale of Pete (Oakes Fegley), a boy who has grown up with Elliot, meeting other humans for the first time in years and having to prove the dragon is real. Then, of course, there’s the matter of what people will do with Elliot once they find out he’s real. There’s also an expected subplot about Pete maybe having to leave the life he knows with Elliot to live with a human family.

“Pete’s Dragon” feels incomplete; like Elliot has at least one more adventure in him than what we get. What we do get isn’t “bad” exactly, apart from a villain (Karl Urban) who makes a bunch of stupid decisions just because he’s the villain. I just wish this movie had more ambition befitting its awesome dragon.

(“Pete’s Dragon” is rated PG for action, peril and brief language. Its running time is 103 minutes.)

“Kubo and the Two Strings”

For “Kubo and the Two Strings,” the opening line is: “If you must blink, do it now.” That’s quite a claim that the forthcoming movie will have a hard time backing up. 

But yeah, that statement describes this movie pretty well, for better or worse.

Kubo (Art Parkinson) lives in a small Japanese village where he makes a living telling elaborate stories with even more elaborate origami puppets.
He’s attacked by his evil aunts (both Rooney Mara), and his magical mother (Charlize Theron) uses her last bit of strength to send him on a quest to find his late father’s missing armor, which will help protect him from his evil grandfather (Ralph Fiennes). Kubo is aided by a dour monkey (Theron) and a meat-headed beetle (Matthew McConaughey) who seem to have the hots for each other. 

This movie is so crazy that a monkey falling in love with a beetle falls perfectly in line with everything else.

When this movie works, it really works. The animation is beautiful, with the painstaking stop-motion work by plucky studio Laika (“ParaNorman”) paying off yet again. It ratchets up the intensity and darkness to a level not usually seen in a kids’ film, but is certainly welcome. But that’s not to say it doesn’t also have its lighter, fun moments, and those work pretty well, too.

The problem I have with “Kubo and the Two Strings” is the same problem I had with “Inside Out” in that sometimes it’s so ambitious that it can’t seem to keep up with the skewed rules of its own distorted world. Or maybe it does and I just blinked and missed something. 
At any rate, this is still one of the most exciting and delightful films of the year.

(“Kubo and the Two Strings” is rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril. Its running time is 101 minutes. Contact Bob Garver at rrg251@nyu.edu.)

Review: Hanks shines, as usual, in ‘Sully’

Movie Review stars

By BOB GARVER

“Sully” tells the story of eponymous pilot Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), who on Jan. 15 2009, after a dual-engine failure in midair, landed a large passenger aircraft in the middle of the Hudson River. 

The landing was rough, unconventional and controversial, but it saved the lives of all 155 passengers and crew on board. Though there were many heroes that day, including First Officer Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), Sully was proclaimed the biggest hero of all.

The film officially takes place a few days after the incident, as Sully is being hailed a hero, but is also facing an investigation from an inquiry board that seems unfairly antagonistic. He’s forced to relive the events of that day several times, and we are shown the incident three times in flashbacks. 

The first is interrupted by a cut to air traffic control, so we miss the most interesting parts. The second time is from the point of view of the passengers as they frightfully went through the near-death experience. And the third time is from Sully and Skiles’ point of view in the cockpit. 

I would have switched the second and third versions. Sully and Skiles are experts at keeping cool, which is certainly comforting, but it doesn’t make for the best movie climax.

It’s that version where we see the passengers surviving and being rescued that makes for the most exciting sequence in the movie. You are guaranteed to share in their fear and confusion. Knowing that everyone will be safe eventually doesn’t so much detract from the suspense as it makes it more bearable. Actually, the impact is one of the less scary parts of this sequence; maybe because it’s so quick, maybe because you’re probably over-prepared for its intensity. 

But the really nerve-wracking part is what comes next: the passengers actually being rescued from the plane. They have to go out onto the wings and a few inflatable surfaces that aren’t going to hold up for long, plus a few make the poor decision to just swim for it. Oh, and the whole thing takes place in January, so hypothermia is also a factor.

Sadly, someone made the mistake of thinking that this sequence alone doesn’t fill the film with enough danger. We are therefore subjected to a number of dream sequences in which Sully loses control of the plane and it crashes into the buildings of New York City. 

This is a cheap way of getting a reaction out of the audience, plus it makes this film’s release so close to 9/11 even more inappropriate. By the way, there is one line of dialogue that compares the incident to 9/11, and I found it to be in poor taste.

Watching “Sully,” memories of other Tom Hanks movies are bound to come up. His plane goes down, like in “Cast Away.” He guides his crew through a crisis, like in “Captain Phillips.” And he’s inserted awkwardly into historical footage, like in “Forrest Gump.” 

That last one is an unwelcome distraction. We see the Hanks version of Sully being interviewed by the 2009 version of David Letterman and boy is it clear that the scenes were filmed seven years apart. You wouldn’t think it would be that hard to smoothly add him to such recent footage, but the task was apparently beyond this film’s capabilities.

I’ve been doing a lot of complaining about “Sully,” but it’s actually quite a good movie. The parts that need to be done well are done well, and Hanks is a workhorse as always. He’s able to find the right balance of calmness and urgency; a lesser actor would likely overdo the former at the expense of the latter. This movie makes a few inexplicable, at times unforgivable mistakes, but overall it’s competent. 

Maybe focusing on its competence is boring, but like Sully himself, it needs to be given credit for what it does right.

(“Sully” is rated PG-13 for some peril and brief strong language. Its running time is 96 minutes. Contact Bob Garver at rrg251@nyu.edu.)

Movie Reviews: ‘War Dogs’ and ‘Don’t Breathe’

By BOB GARVER

WAR DOGS

Movie Review stars

“War Dogs” tells the story of two guys who use underhanded tactics to achieve the American Dream, live large and destroy themselves. It is based on a real-life incident that has not been brought to screen before, but still seems awfully familiar. 

The characters themselves love “Scarface” and compare their story to it at every opportunity. It also has a lot in common with those narration-heavy Scorsese mob movies like “Goodfellas” and “Casino” (the latter features Kevin Pollak, who is also in this movie). 

Speaking of Scorsese, it’s hard not to compare this film to “The Wolf of Wall Street” because of the subject matter and the fact that both movies star Jonah Hill. I also see a lot of recent Best Picture nominee “The Big Short” in this movie because both were directed by filmmakers known primarily for comedic work (frequent Will Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay did “The Big Short,” and here it’s “The Hangover’s” Todd Phillips), and both are very funny, but both go into darker, more serious and more challenging territory than we’re used to seeing.

The film takes place in the mid-2000s, when the U.S. government was spending trillions on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. David Packouz (Miles Teller) has floundered around from one dead-end job to another, and he just learned he has a baby coming. But then opportunity knocks in the form of his childhood friend Efraim Diveroli (Hill). Efraim runs a small business where he scoops up government contracts to sell things to the U.S. military. Sometimes it’s armor or surveillance equipment, but mostly it’s guns and ammo. David joins and soon the two are making tens of thousands of dollars. Then it’s hundreds of thousands. By the finale, they’re dealing with millions.

Of course, the path to wealth is not without its obstacles. The two 20-somethings don’t have the resources to manufacture the merchandise, which means they have to get it from other people, often taking shortcuts and dealing with shady characters. Sometimes this means putting their business and their lives in the hands of people they’ve never even met, sometimes this means trusting people they know are bad news, like suspected terrorist Henry (Bradley Cooper). Trade embargoes come up a number of times, forcing them to find ways of circumventing international law. And by “circumventing” I mean “breaking.” 

But perhaps the biggest obstacle is the volatile personality of Efraim.

David spends the movie in awe of his partner. At first, he’s in awe of what a genius he is. Then he’s in awe of how he always manages to succeed despite how crazy and greedy he is. By the end, even though the two hate each other, he’s still sort of impressed at what a magnificent scumbag he is. And it’s not just David, the movie itself is in awe of Efraim, making him the scenery-chewing wildman who always dominates the scene. Critics are saying that Hill single-handedly carries the movie, and while Teller as the spottily sympathetic narrator isn’t quite the weak link he’s being made out to be (the best scenes in the movie involve the two characters playing off each other, and it takes both of them to do that), there’s not going to be much debate over which character is more memorable.

“War Dogs” is being marketed as a comedy, and it’s hard to argue with that. Hill and Teller have impeccable chemistry in their banter, and Hill’s madness is always enthralling. 

But don’t underestimate this movie as a straight-up crime story. In that regard it’s a movie we’ve seen done before and done better with more well-developed characters. Teller’s blank-canvas narrator seems hollow at times, there isn’t much to the supporting cast and even Hill’s instability gets predictable after a while. 

Still, this movie holds its own. Like the characters as businessmen, the movie can’t really compete with the big boys that are classics, but it has enough pluck to pull out some noticeable minor victories.

(“War Dogs” is rated R for language throughout, drug use and some sexual references. Its running time is 114 minutes. )

DON’T BREATHE

Movie Review stars

“Don’t Breathe” is what I like to call an “Is That So Hard?” movie. I ask that question not of the film, but of other films.
 
In many ways, this film is simple. Ninety percent of it takes place in one setting. The number of cast members with more than one scene can be counted on one hand. It doesn’t do anything groundbreaking with its story or storytelling. The technical aspects, while I’m sure extremely difficult for a layman to perfect, can probably be accomplished by numerous industry professionals. 

In other words, this isn’t a particularly “hard” movie to make. And yet, it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen all year. 

Other movies surely have competent people working on them, why can’t they be as good as this one? Is that so hard?

For plot, you’ve got three burglars breaking into the house of an unnamed blind man played by Stephen Lang. Lang is one of those great underused veteran actors whose mere casting makes the movie all the more promising because it shows the filmmakers have good judgement. The burglars are Rocky (Jane Levy), the one who only steals to support her family; Alex (Dylan Minnette), the nerdy naysayer who always wants to back out for fear of getting caught; and Money (Daniel Zovatto), the dumb violent one. It’s Money who brings a gun along on the job, and he is the first to find out the hard way that they’ve messed with the wrong blind guy.

The best part of the film is the middle, where the blind man and the burglars cat-and-mouse each other. The burglars want to get the blind man’s stockpile of money and escape the house, though they might have to settle for just escaping. The burglars have a numbers advantage and sight, while the blind man has heightened senses, a military background, a knowledge of the house and one of the scariest dogs in movie history. He can also turn off the lights and disorient the burglars, which raises the question of why he has functioning light bulbs in the first place.

The breathless (a-ha!) intensity of these scenes is excellent, but what I really like is how the movie makes it hard to decide who to root for. In a lesser movie, this would be a bad thing, like the movie forgot to make its heroes likeable or its villains that bad. But here it makes for twisted psychological warfare. 

It’s heartless and wrong to steal from a blind veteran, and it’s easy to see why he’s reacting violently out of fear. But perhaps the breaking and entering warrants a less severe punishment than what the blind man seems to have in store for the burglars. There’s a debate to be had until the blind man turns into an unquestionable villain.

Thanks to a convoluted twist, the third act of the movie becomes more violent and torturous. It’s here where Lang gets the majority of his dialogue (it’s mostly of the strictly-functional “Who’s there?” variety up to that point) and he nails it as expected. It’s also here where we get a moment destined to go down as an all-time cinematic gross-out champion. It’s horrifying in a way not typically associated with horror films. But the trade-off is that the mystery and ambiguity are gone, and with it a lot of the film’s intrigue and appeal.

Good for “Don’t Breathe” for being a horror movie that earns its scares with a tense atmosphere and doesn’t rely too much on cheap tactics like jump scares, freaky imagery or sick violence. These horror staples are not absent, but they’re at least minimal. And while it runs out of steam toward the end (especially after that gross-out scene, because you’ll be dwelling on it the rest of the movie), that middle part makes it all worthwhile. 

If you’re up for an R-rated horror movie, breathe this one in.

(“Don’t Breathe” is rated R for terror, violence, disturbing content and language including sexual references. Its running time is 88 minutes. Contact Bob Garver at rrg251@nyu.edu.)

Movie Reviews: ‘Sausage Party’ and ‘Suicide Squad’

By BOB GARVER

stars3

SAUSAGE PARTY

If nothing else, there aren’t a lot of movies like “Sausage Party.” I mean this both in terms of subject matter (grocery items decide they don’t want to be eaten) and tone. It’s basically an R-rated kids’ movie.
 
So much of it is cute and chipper and it’s presented in a silly-looking animation style that screams “kid-friendly.” But make no mistake, this is one of the most vulgar animated movies of all time. 

If you can enjoy that vulgarity, great. If you don’t want to be subjected to vulgarity, or have kids that you don’t want to be subjected to vulgarity, you’d best shop elsewhere.

The plot sees Frank the Sausage (Seth Rogen) longing to be “chosen” by a customer along with his girlfriend Brenda Bun (Kristen Wiig). Almost every product in the store equates being chosen with going to heaven. If Frank and Brenda get chosen together, it’s the equivalent of getting married as they enter eternity. Needless to say, the film is not above making countless sausage-and-bun jokes. 

Frank and Brenda get separated from their packages and go on an adventure to get into new ones. Along the way, Frank learns the horrifying truth about what happens to food once it leaves the store and makes it his mission to save his friends, even though they don’t want to believe that the faith they’ve always kept is a lie designed to keep them from panicking over their inevitable fates.

It turns out that the film is a scathing critique of religion, about how people will believe what they want to believe, even when confronted with evidence to the contrary, with the catchall justification of “faith.” But here’s where the film’s logic breaks down: We don’t know what happens to the food after it’s violently prepared or eaten. The characters believe in eternal life, but they’re unaware that it includes Earthly death. 

Every religion has prominent figures who, at some point, had to leave their bodies, often violently. Death by itself is not evidence against any respectable religion. Now if the characters were looking forward to being eaten, and then discovered that nothing was waiting for them, then the film might be clearer on its point.

And I’ve just criticized the theology of a talking sausage movie.

The main attraction of the film is of course its humor. Just about every off-color joke that can be made about sausages, buns and a taco voiced by Salma Hayek is done here, though the sex jokes certainly aren’t limited to them. Swearing invades almost every line of dialogue, and while the words are usually spoken with grace, there were a few times where I got the impression that they were just added to remind us that these characters know swear words. There are ethnic jokes and stereotypes aplenty, from a Jewish bagel (Edward Norton) to a Muslim flatbread (David Krumholtz) to a Native American whisky (Bill Hader) to a black box of grits (Craig Robinson) to the taco again, to many others. Nick Kroll voices a villain, and I’m not comfortable revealing what kind of product he is, but it was the nickname of his character on “Parks and Recreation.”
 
This being a Seth Rogen movie, you can probably imagine that there are a few pot jokes. There’s a celebration toward the end that is frightfully raunchy I recommend “Sausage Party” to the right audience — people who like boundary-pushing humor. If you don’t think you’re the right audience for this movie, you probably aren’t. 

Me, I’m always up for a crude cartoon. I loved the opening musical number and the shameless finale. The script is sharp and the cast has excellent chemistry and timing. The jokes almost always land, and the ones that don’t are bad enough that you can laugh at how bad they are. 
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to eat a breakfast sausage.

(“Sausage Party” is rated R for strong crude sexual content, pervasive language and drug use. Its running time is 89 minutes.)

Movie Review stars

SUICIDE SQUAD

Simply put, “Suicide Squad” was my most anticipated movie of 2016. I’m a big fan of Batman, but I’m a bigger fan of his rogues gallery — his collection of colorful recurring villains. 

“Suicide Squad” brings us not one, not two, but three of those characters. We’ve got The Joker, one of the most iconic villains in all of pop culture, played by Academy Award-winner Jared Leto. We’ve got Harley Quinn, The Joker’s lover and complement, played by Margot Robbie, possibly my favorite actress of her generation. We’ve also got reptile-themed strongman Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a lower-tier threat who has nonetheless given Batman a few memorable outings. 

As if that wasn’t enough, the cast features box office champion Will Smith and the incapable-of-doing-wrong Viola Davis. This movie would get five stars for its casting alone were it not for the presence of “Robocop” washout Joel Kinnaman and notorious franchise-poisoner Jai Courtney.

The setup is that shady government operative Amanda Waller (Davis) wants to set up a task force of extraordinary humans to combat extraordinary threats. After all, this is the DC Expanded Universe, where General Zod and Doomsday have already run amok in two hugely disappointing films. She wrangles together Croc, the psychopathic Quinn, expert marksman Deadshot (Smith), double-crossing stick-tosser Boomerang (Courtney), human flamethrower Diablo (Jay Hernandez), slash-happy Katana (Karen Fukuhara) and alleged escapist Slipknot (Adam Beach). All have done bad things, some want to be better people, most are interested in saving the world if it includes them and all want time off their prison sentences. That’s why they band together under Captain Rick Flag (Kinnaman) to battle Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), an ancient South American goddess possessing the body of Flag’s archeologist girlfriend and trying to enslave the world.

Surprisingly (or perhaps not, given how much weight I’ve put on their shoulders), my biggest problems with the movie have to do with Harley and The Joker. First of all, why is Harley on the team? The Suicide Squad specializes in straightforward attacks where they can take out evil armies en masse. It makes sense to have members who can shoot, torch and pummel a lot of enemies at once. Harley is good at one-on-one fighting and her strange mindset might make her a good choice for specialized missions that require her to get into enemies’ heads. But I don’t see why Waller would think she fits in with this glorified assault team. 

As for The Joker, he needs to be the embodiment of craziness and chaos. There are hints of that in scenes where he interacts with Harley, but too often he just seems like a standard gang leader with a clown theme. He also has little relevance to the story outside of flashbacks. He makes a play to abduct Harley from the Squad, it fails, but we know he’s not really gone. Batman villains simply do not die by disappearing in explosions.

My other complaints about “Suicide Squad” are complaints I have too often about action movies. The action scenes are muddied, the editing unconvincingly conceals weaknesses in the filmmakers’ abilities, the dialogue gets flat at times (they couldn’t come up with something more creative for a key scene than “You hurt my friends”), the characters’ backstories are rushed and their motivations are inconsistent. 

I am not going to complain about the presence of Jai Courtney and Joel Kinnaman — they’re about as interesting as anyone else in this movie. Every now and then there’ll be a decent one-liner (the usually dense Croc gets some good ones), and I like that the movie wants to look like a cheesy carnival ride with neon everywhere, but this movie blows nearly every opportunity, and it’s presented with so many. 

The sad thing is that despite its pretty thorough awfulness, relatively speaking it’s actually the best movie from the joke that is the DC Extended Universe.

(“Suicide Squad” is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action throughout, disturbing behavior, suggestive content and language throughout. Its running time is 123 minutes. Contact Bob Garver at rrg251@nyu.edu.)

Review: Action scenes outstanding in ‘Jason Bourne’

By BOB GARVER

“Jason Bourne” gets off on the wrong foot by having a lame title. 

I guess the idea was to recover from the flop that was “The Bourne Legacy” by promising viewers that Jason Bourne would actually be involved in this one. But what it’s unofficially promising to do is break from the hot streak of the first three “Bourne” movies. 

Fans of the franchise expect the movies to be titled “The Bourne (something vaguely exciting).” Who cares if people like to make fun of these titles (“The Bourne Colonoscopy”): They’re essential to the way people identify the franchise.

Matt Damon is back as Bourne, brought out of hiding after nearly a decade when his hacker friend Nicky (Julia Stiles) digs up some information about the CIA program that turned him into a super-assassin only to erase his memory later. This leads him on a global quest to find more answers, all while evading CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), rising CIA star Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) and an unnamed rival “Asset” (Vincent Cassel). Bourne learns more secrets about his past, including some disturbing family history that makes his feud with “The Asset” even more personal.

For a movie whose title is simply the name of the main character, Bourne himself has a surprisingly limited presence. I’ve been told he has somewhere between 20 and 40 lines of dialogue, and most of them aren’t terribly lengthy. 

At first I thought the movie was trying to go for something impressively minimal with the character, but as it went along, I realized that it just forgot to give him a personality. 

When the character was first robbed of his memories, it made sense. He didn’t know who he was or how to feel. But by now he’s been cognizant of the last 14 years. Even if he doesn’t have a grasp on the man he was, there needs to be something relatable about the man he is.

The film is largely made up of the three CIA agents conducting operations and undermining each other as they squabble over what’s to be done with Bourne. As usual for this series, the crusty older male agent (Jones) is the hard-headed bad guy while the younger female agent (Vikander) is in more of a gray area where she’s open to betraying her superiors and maybe her country in the name of helping Bourne. Cassel is just another boring assassin. You know he’s a bad guy because he kills anybody in his way as opposed to Bourne, who just delivers those swift, no-lasting-effects knockout blows.

And yet, for all this film does wrong with its dull characters and overly familiar plot, it does action sequences, very, very right. The film is bookended with two chase scenes that make the film worth seeing all by themselves. 

The first takes place during a revolt in Greece. The characters go to a riot and a fight breaks out. The atmosphere is so violent that Bourne is able to just grab a guy’s Molotov cocktail and the guy doesn’t care that much. Nobody thinks it’s unusual that the main characters are crashing cars and starting fires. In fact, they’d look out of place if they weren’t. 

The second sequence is a car chase that turns into a gutter brawl. The movie really hopes you like the sound of broken glass, crunching cars, punches and whips. Luckily, I can appreciate the nastiness of all those things.

I can see why a lot of people don’t like “Jason Bourne.” The characters are uninteresting, the twists are typical of the franchise and it seems like 90 percent of the movie is people getting into position for operations as opposed to the operations themselves. But those cutting, inventive action sequences make it all worthwhile. 

Counting a quick gravitational spot in the middle, I’d say there are two-and-a-half great things about this movie.

(“Jason Bourne” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and brief strong language. Its running time is 123 minutes. Contact Bob Garver at rrg251@nyu.edu.)