Movie Review ~ Shaft (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: John Shaft Jr., a cyber security expert with a degree from MIT, enlists his family’s help to uncover the truth behind his best friend’s untimely death.

Stars: Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie T. Usher, Alexandra Shipp, Regina Hall, Method Man, Richard Roundtree

Director: Tim Story

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I usually keep a good ear to the ground for movies that are in the pipeline but I was surprised to see a preview and poster for another Shaft film pop up earlier this year.  What started in 1971 as a blaxploitation classic gave way to two sequels, a handful of television movies, and a modern-day follow-up twenty seven years later.  Now, 19 years after the last Shaft film played to middling reviews and a decent box-office, Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema are trying to reignite the franchise by taking a different approach to the material.  While the first films had a darker edge to them (the 2000 version was an all-out thriller) this one would combine those crime elements with comedy in the hopes of attracting a new audience.

After narrowly avoiding the bullets of a drive-by shooting, Maya (Regina Hall, Vacation) walks out on her private eye husband John Shaft II (Samuel L. Jackson, The Hateful Eight) and takes their baby boy with him.  Aside from the occasional birthday and Christmas present, J.J. (Jessie T. Usher, Independence Day: Resurgence) grows up not knowing his father and doesn’t care to seek him out.  Graduating from MIT and joining the FBI as a data analyst, J.J. has managed to stay out of the same trouble his dad got into but finds himself plunged into a crime he can’t solve when his war veteran friend turns up dead.  Blocked by his work in investigating the death, he asks his dad for help in finding out what happened to his best friend, finding that the crime may be tied to a figure from his father’s past.

Working through numerous Avengers films over the last decade, I haven’t felt like we’ve gotten a real true “Samuel L. Jackson” performance in quite a while.  I finally saw some of that energy he originally brought to his roles spark back to life with his uncensored performance.  He’s foul-mouthed, un-PC (points off for the script’s strange fixation on gay jokes), quick to action, and stubborn and that all works in the films favor.  Whenever Jackson is left to his own devices, he positively commandeers the movie.  He’s got some competition from Hall as his no-nonsense ex-wife who isn’t afraid to call her husband on his crap and keep her son on the straight and narrow.  Usher is a mixed bag as the third generation Shaft.  Not quite nerdy but not quite leading man, he feels like an authentic MIT grad but isn’t always convincing when he has to slip into action mode.  As J.J.’s love interest, Alexandra Shipp (Dark Phoenix) begins the film as a strong female only to disappointingly turn into the damsel in distress standing in awe of the men in action later on.

Those unfamiliar with the Shaft films don’t have to worry about catching up before seeing this because director Tim Story (Ride Along) works in scenes from the 2000 film into the credits, yet strangely totally ignoring the earliest films that gave this franchise its genesis.  At least we get original John Shaft Richard Roundtree (What Men Want) showing up as J.J.’s grandfather, finally clearing up a strange twist introduced in the previous movie.  If only he had more to do and a more interesting storyline to be involved with.  When the three generations team up and go after a drug king-pin, the movie should be hitting its apex but by that time it has plateaued.

The set-up of the new Shaft is nothing you can’t piece together from any mid-range run-of-the mill crime thriller and most of the time that’s exactly how the film plays.  Writers Kenya Barris (Girls Trip) and Alex Barnow have largely written for television and their hammy dialogue that is pure exposition just barely gets us from one scene to the next.  While the film is arguably entertaining and even fitfully funny at times, it’s a disappointing and flawed finished product.  The 2019 Shaft feels like a good try by all involved, and a sign that the producers might be headed in the right direction.  If there’s another Shaft to be had, a tighter script and stronger performances are a must.  Just let Samuel L. Jackson do his thing, though.

Movie Review ~ Dark Phoenix


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Jean Grey begins to develop incredible powers that corrupt and turn her into a Dark Phoenix. Now the X-Men will have to decide if the life of a team member is worth more than all the people living in the world.

Stars: Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Alexandra Shipp, Tye Sheridan, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jessica Chastain, Evan Peters

Director: Simon Kinberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Having never been someone that has done a deep dive into the comic book realm, I can’t speak to fan reactions when a franchise plays fast and loose with characters and story arcs. There are some that can’t look past a studio wanting to continue their cash cows by making financially motivated choices to keep their films alive and there are others (like myself) who don’t mind sitting back and taking in the movie for what it is – entertainment. It’s not for lack of interest or ambivalence on my part, it’s stepping back and seeing the big picture. Of all the superhero tentpole films, it seems the X-Men movies take the biggest beating from critics and fans that revolt at the slightest stray from where they want to see the action go and I find that so strangely fascinating.

I’ve gone on record multiple times saying that by and large I’ve enjoyed most all of the X-Men films and their numerous spin-offs. True, some have been problematic and less winning than others but they’ve been more consistent than most long-running series and have evolved from the silly seriousness of the original film (you know it’s true!) to something bold and musclar like 2016’s brilliant Logan. A new era of the X-Men began in 2011 with X-Men: First Class and I was not moved either way by that semi-reboot until X-Men: Days of Future Past arrived in 2014. That film was a grand return to form and while The Wolverine didn’t connect with some I appreciated what it was doing in advancing Hugh Jackman’s character toward Logan. Knives were unfairly out for X-Men: Apocalypse in 2016, even though I found it a weirdly fun film.

Arriving amidst an ominous cloud of bad buzz is the next film in the X-Men series, Dark Phoenix, and I imagine it will take the same beating from former fans and critics eager for an easy target. Delayed several times by 20th Century Fox due to highly publicized reshoots not to mention its pending purchase by Disney studios which had its own Marvel superhero movie to attend to earlier this summer, I’m not sure this ever would have had a fair shot when it was released. Honestly? The film has some major flaws and often feels like it’s held together by packing tape that’s long since lost its ability to keep things in place but when it works it works like a charm. For all the negative things I’d heard about it going in, maybe the bar was set low enough that my opinion couldn’t be worse than what people were saying.

When we last left our world-saving mutants, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) had unleashed the full force of her powers to destroy Apocalypse. After a brief prologue shows us the tragic beginnings of how Jean came to stay with Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, Glass) at his school for teens with extraordinary talents we are thrown right into action set in 1992. The team, comprised of Jean, Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, Mud), Raven (Jennifer Lawrence, mother!), Beast (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies), Storm (Alexandra Shipp, Love, Simon), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee, ParaNorman), and Quicksilver (Evan Peters, The Lazarus Effect), is dispatched to save the crew of a space shuttle in the path of a solar storm. This is no ordinary space mission, though, and Jean is exposed to an energy source at the center of the storm.

Now possessing remarkable power that begins to consume her, Jean goes rogue to seek out answers from her past to help her decide what to do with her new gifts. At the same time, she’s pursed not only by Professor X, the X-Men, and a revenge-seeking Magneto (Michael Fassbender, Prometheus), but by alien huntress Vuk (Jessica Chastain, Lawless) who has arrived on Earth with a large number of her own warriors aiming to harvest the lifeforce within Jean that has the power to create new worlds…and destroy Earth in the process. It leads to a showdown that begins with Jean’s allegiance and ends with the lives of many hanging in the balance.

It’s clear this movie has been through many an edit and it shows not only in the hastily reshot footage but in the tonal shifts throughout. Looking at the success of grittier fare like Deadpool and its sequel, you can see where writer/director Simon Kinberg (Murder on the Orient Express) wanted to push the boundaries a bit by making this one more intense but without being able to go all the way with the blood, language, or violence it comes off as too tentative and neutered. There’s also a strange reliance on scenes with characters gulping down booze whenever they can’t cope with pressure or wanting to tamp down their own emotions. Normally good actors paint with broader strokes here, perhaps knowing this was their final time at bat they are really swinging for high camp. Chastain, Hoult, and McAvoy in particular seem to be trying to outdo each other in who can be the most ostentatious…until Fassbender shows up and puts them all to shame.

Yet somehow the movie checked off enough of the right boxes on my score sheet to emerge a winner and that’s mostly due to a fantastic finale set aboard a train. Usually a reshot ending can be one big eye roll since it often is an afterthought that rarely gels with the rest of the film but this one felt like it came after the filmmakers had some distance from the work and came back refreshed. There are some crowd-pleasing moments to be had here and it provided the requisite thrills some other parts of the movie lacked. Also, it showed once again that Shipp’s Storm (and just the character of Storm in general) needs her own movie, like, yesterday.  I still long for the filmmakers to spend more time at the school so we can see more of the youngsters and their burgeoning abilities — anytime we’re in the school and we see hints at the comic-books fringe characters people recognize you can tell people want more.  Now that 20th Century Fox is owned by Disney, perhaps Disney will get a series together for their streaming Disney+ service that’s all about the school?  Might be a good idea.

I’m still grappling with these recent X-Men movies not totally lining up with the original three X-Men films that started off this whole series of films. Don’t think too hard that the first X-Men movie is set a mere eight years after this one is to take place…or wonder what happens to Fassbender and McAvoy in those eight years to turn them into Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. Instead, take these movies as the prequels they were always meant to be and for what they are, casual entertainment. Perhaps if you go in with the lowered expectations like I did you’ll set yourself up to get something more out of this than others who went in prepared to hate it. Give it a chance.  I’m not totally sure where the series goes from here.  There’s absolutely room for more sequels but based on the struggle this one had to get to theaters and the boos and hisses already coming from the Twitter-verse, a reset might be in order to restore some faith in this franchise.  Clearly, I’m easier to please than most and found the fun in this Phoenix…but I’m also not a hardcore fan that had a great investment in it either.

Movie Review ~ Love, Simon

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: Simon Spier keeps a huge secret from his family, his friends, and all of his classmates: he’s gay. When that secret is threatened, Simon must face everyone and come to terms with his identity.

Stars: Nick Robinson, Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Miles Heizer, Keiynan Lonsdale, Logan Miller, Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel, Tony Hale

Director: Greg Berlanti

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I was recently reading a book about the impact of John Hughes and The Brat Pack on the generation of teens that grew up in the mid ‘80s.  The book talked about what was going on at the time and how movies once celebrated as sleepover musts are now revered as essential entertainment time capsules for those that came of age in the Reagan era.  I was slightly too young for that wave of influential filmmaking, though I was in my prime when ‘90s teen classics like Clueless, Cruel Intentions, Scream, and 10 Things I Hate About You were first released and I feel that same sense of protection about them.  So I understand why the early buzz around Love, Simon compares the viewing experience to the influential teen movies that came before it.

I tend to recoil at films that are so current that they’ll become dated in six months but Love, Simon is a rare exception.  It’s a genuine gem that speaks to those navigating high school life now while evoking a palpable sense of wistfulness to audience members like me who so wish they had something as assured and confident as this when they were a kid. Yes, Love, Simon is the kind of truthful message movie I wish I had on VHS on the shelf between The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink.

Simon Spier lives a pretty good life.  His family, his house, his friends, his high school experience all seem like the dictionary definition of growing up without much complication.  Yet Simon is more complex than people think.  He’s gay and struggling with resolving some inner conflict about that fact but outwardly showing no signs of stress (or so he thinks).  The good news is that there’s not a lot of self-loathing on display here so it’s not the torturous experience other films have made the coming out saga to be.  He doesn’t hate that he’s gay, he just doesn’t know the right way to say it and risk losing out on future happiness.

Surrounded by friends with their own romantic hang-ups, Simon finds a kindred spirit in the form of an e-mail relationship with an anonymous fellow student who is gay as well.  Reaching out first as a way to take his own baby steps out of the closest, he becomes closer and closer to the guy on the other side of the e-mail who can’t reveal his identity.  Not knowing whom the friend he calls Blue looks like, Simon starts to imagine who it could be.  Is it the handsome quarterback that has a sensitive side?  What about the pianist for the high school musical?  Or could it be the Waffle House employee?  When the e-mails are discovered by a fellow classmate and Simon is blackmailed into playing matchmaker or risk being outed, he finds being gay is the least of his worries as friendships, true love, and familial bonds are tested the more he tries to hide who he is.

As Simon, Nick Robinson (Jurassic World) is a handsome star in the making that ably carries the weight of the movie on his shoulders. Though he’s Hollywood Leading Man Gay, meaning not too gay, he convincingly plays the conflict without making the journey the least bit maudlin.  By presenting Simon as “just like you”, a balance of normalcy is struck that shows the audience that being gay is who you are and not what ultimately defines you.

Simon’s friends include Katherine Langford (Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why), Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Apocalypse), Jorge Lendeborg Jr. (Spider-Man: Homecoming), Keiynan Lonsdale (The Finest Hours), and Logan Miller (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) as a charmingly diverse group that feels like they could be friends had they gone to high school together.  Though each have their own secrets that arise during the course of the film, these developments don’t feel forced or simply existing in service to Simon’s coming out rite of passage.  The adults in the film wisely say their piece and let the youngsters take the spotlight, but kudos to Jennifer Garner (Dallas Buyers Club), Josh Duhamel (Safe Haven) for presenting understanding but not phony portrayals of Simon’s parents.  As the Vice Principal of Simon’s school, Tony Hale (American Ultra) has some good moments and special mention must go to Natasha Rothwell as a drama teacher that hates her job and Clark Moore as an out and proud gay man at Simon’s school that has two of the funniest lines in the whole film.

Yeah, let’s not forget that as dramatic as the story arc may be this is still a teen comedy at heart and the film is consistently funny throughout.  The parties, the hallway discussions, the afterhours heart-to-hearts, the long walks home, the car rides…all strike a nice balance between sentiment and humor without tipping the scales either way.  Adapting Becky Albertalli’s popular YA novel, screenwriters Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker have played around with some characters and characteristics from the source novel without losing the message of Albertalli’s original work.  Director Greg Berlanti resists against getting overly saccharine as the film develops and Simon’s secret starts to get out – there’s pain and hurt but laughter winds up making the wounds sting less.

If there’s one thing that might keep Love, Simon from achieving long-lasting high rank status it’s that it feels like the fantasy way a coming out story would go.  While Simon claims to be just like us in the opening voice-over, can the majority of teens that will see the film relate to a privileged white guy who gets a new car for his birthday, doesn’t seem to have a job but has spending money, lives in an upscale home in the suburbs, and has more than his share of compassionate and understanding family and friends?  Also, there’s an uncomfortable value placed on looks – when Simon is scoping the halls for Blue and pondering who he could be he wrinkles his nose in horror at bearded nerds, Game of Thrones loving dorks, and roly poly dweebs.  Heaven forbid Blue turns out to be an ug-o.

Yet the film ultimately has its heart and message in the right place and any nitpicks are easily shooed away in favor of recognizing the accomplishment at a major movie studio putting out a sweet love story surrounding a gay youth and his friends.  It may not live totally in the reality of now but it rhymes with the truth without much discord.  Now if people will actually line up to see this…that would be the real victory.

Movie Review ~ X-Men: Apocalypse

xmen_apocalypse_ver19

The Facts:

Synopsis: With the emergence of the world’s first mutant, Apocalypse, the X-Men must unite to defeat his extinction level plan.

Stars: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, Lucas Till, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, Josh Helman, Lana Condor, Ben Hardy

Director: Bryan Singer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 143 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Dear readers, it’s OK if you are in the throes of Superhero Movie Fatigue. I’ve been suffering symptoms of SMF for over a year now and I’m sure it’s helpful to know that you’re not alone if you suddenly find yourself recoiling at the first whiff of a CGI created villain or needing to lie down from exhaustion when you try to tie all of the various multi-film storylines together. While I don’t see a cure for SMF in the near future (both the Marvel and DC universe are mapped out for the next several years), I think we’ll learn to adjust to an onslaught of comic book adaptations that will eventually start to compete only with films from their own franchises until a death rattle finishes them all off.

In the meantime, 2016 has brought forth the good (Deadpool, Captain America: Civil War) and the misunderstood (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice) and judging from early reaction you might feel inclined to add X-Men Apocalypse to the miscalculated pile. I’d caution you to see for yourself though because this eighth X-Men movie is big (BIG!), rather exciting, and sets the stage for a new era with a careful hand and a gentle nod.

Admittedly, I’m not the biggest X-Men fan in the world. I was slow to warm to the series and never really had much of an interest or stake in the opinion of the overall quality or the consistency that true fans seemed to find the most fault with. The first movie was decent but half-baked, the second addressed the major concerns and righted a listing ship only to have the third one stank up the joint. Venturing into solo territory, Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables) tried to get a Wolverine series off the ground but fans weren’t interested. A prequel reignited the flame and led to another Wolverine film (which I enjoyed more than most) and the 2014 time-hopping head-scratcher X-Men: Days of Future Past.

I didn’t think the franchise could stuff more into its running length but X-Men: Apocalypse is the stone soup of the bunch…it’s got a little bit of everything. It’s going to divide many a fan/critic/movie-goer and maybe I was just in the right mood for it because I found myself highly engaged and, yeah, emotionally invested in the continued adventures of Professor X (James McAvoy, Trance), Magneto (Michael Fassbender, Prometheus), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, Joy), and their mutant co-horts that go up against their most formidable enemy yet.

His presence was teased at the end of X-Men: Days of Future Past and an energetic prologue in Egypt shows how Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) came to be buried under a pyramid until he’s uncovered in the ’80s by a faction of his descendant followers. Luckily, Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne, Spy) is there to see it all take place and sound the alarm that something big is about to go down.

Meanwhile, Mystique is spending most of her time sans blue skin (you can just hear Lawrence negotiating ever y second she has to be in full Mystique-garb), watching out for mutants being mistreated the world over. Rescuing Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee, ParaNorman) from a cage match with Angel (Ben Hardy), she brings him back to Professor X’s school where he falls in with Beast (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, Mud), and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). It isn’t long before the mutants find themselves under attack in their own home, culminating in a most impressive rescue sequence (it took the longest to film) led by Quicksilver (Evan Peters, The Lazarus Effect) who happened to be in the area looking for personal answers of his own.

With Apocalypse freed and intent on bringing the world back to square one by wiping the human population out, he gathers his four horsemen to assist him in his end of days plot. One will remain secret here but a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn, Magic Mike) are part of the mix. Scenes of massive destruction and special effects threaten to overtake the picture but those that complain about director Bryan Singer (Jack the Giant Slayer) focusing more on computer generated mayhem instead of human heart must not realize they bought a ticket for a movie about superhero mutants fighting a doomsday villain.

On the disappointing side are McAvoy and Fassbender largely sleepwalk through the movie and Munn is totally miscast, mostly because she’s not that impressive to begin with. Isaac gets lost in his big blue bad guy but he does what he can in moon boots under all that make-up. It’s the younger generation that impresses here, with Hoult, Smit-McPhee, Sheridan, and Turner signaling that they have what’s needed to continue on with the franchise. This is reportedly Lawrence’s last spin and her absence will leave a big hole in the emotional core of the film. Even though she’s a top-tier A-List star now, Lawrence never looks down on her role or gives it anything less than her full attention.

For a PG-13 film, the movie has a questionable amount of bloody violence (especially in a sequence that involves a cameo that seems to be standard issue for any film bearing the X-Men moniker). Parents should likely see this one first before bringing young children, it’s not only heavy on viscera but at nearly 2 ½ hours it can start to feel long during its mid-section. It ramps up nicely to a whopper of a climax but even I struggled to stay alert as the film reached the two hour mark.

There’s a lot going on in X-Men: Apocalypse and for those living with SMF you could find yourself stretched thin by the time the credits roll…but if you can hang on it’s highly worth seeing on the largest screen you can get to.