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2014’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service” was a pleasant surprise, released during the otherwise sleepy late-winter box office and chewing up spy thriller tropes with a gleefully irreverent, R-rated, comic-book aesthetic.

It was the kind of movie that featured a villain with swords for legs, leaning full-tilt into the absurdity. And as its centerpiece, an unforgettable sequence of frenetic violence as chaos is unleashed inside a church, resulting in a choreographed slaughter and [barely-a-spoiler alert] the impactful death of a major character.

But in continuing the series with “Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn outruns his own creativity. Good ideas are squandered while his sequel blows up (literally and figuratively) everything built by its predecessor and bends itself into a pretzel of expository nonsense in order to fruitlessly resurrect the same character whose death gave K1 its Midas touch.

Now a full-fledged member of the Kingsman spy agency, our hero, Eggsy, is in a committed relationship with Princess Tilde (who provided the first film’s controversial stinger). But when the Kingsman organization is all-but wiped out by an eccentric, robophilic cartel leader (a…bizarre…Julianne Moore, Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) must seek the help of their American counterparts, The Statesman, to save the world.

The addition of the Statesman is inspired, building out the world of the franchise and providing some of the best gags as Eggsy is introduced to a bizarro version of the Kingsman tailor shop. But while the Statesman are the best element of the sequel, they’re not used to their full potential (major actors appear only to vanish with only perfunctory plot participation) and come at the expense of pre-existing plot and characters.

To whit: [spoilery-rant alert] Kingsman is an egregiously male-centric franchise and it’s an enormous miscalculation that the film abruptly jettisons Sophie Cookson’s “Roxie,” arguably a co-lead of the first film and one of the franchise’s few named female characters. Her energy was critical to K1, providing a much-needed respite from the machismo (and borderline misogyny) on screen, despite being relegated to second fiddle behind Taron Egerton’s “Eggsy.” I assume a scheduling conflict made Cookson’s participation difficult, but the second film suffers as a result. [/spoilers]

It also suffers from a paint-by-numbers redundancy in the film’s third act. Having assembled the team and wakened the dead (again, stupid) K2 globe trots around the necessary action beats before arriving at the eventual showdown with Moore’s kingpin Polly.

There are robot dogs, a kidnapped and expletive-tossing Elton John (yes, really), and a man with a robot arm to fill the void of Sofia Boutella’s sword-legs. But while the camerawork is slick and the effects are top-notch, the going’s on lack all of the wide-eyed inspiration of the first film’s madcap insanity.

It’s fun enough, to a point, but rapidly loses steam as it reaches the final curtain. If a third trip to the tailor shop in store, Kingsman: The Golden Circle fails to make the case for why moviegoers should care.

Grade: C+
Kingsman: The Golden Circle opens nationwide on Friday, Sep. 22

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For two decades, the films of writer-director Christopher Nolan have been steadily growing bolder in ambition, scope and dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams mental trickery. From the relatively humble beginnings of “Following” and “Memento” came the genre-defining Dark Knight Trilogy, the mind-tripping shenanigans of “The Prestige” and “Inception” and, most recently, the time-and-space traversing spectacle of “Interstellar.”

From the trajectory, one might have expected Nolan’s next feature to be a smorgasbord of bombast and celestial mystique. But instead, the auteur turned his lens toward the decidedly earth-bound and human setting of World War II and the battle of Dunkirk, the first time Nolan has tackled a historical subject — Nikola Tesla dramatizations notwithstanding.

*Disclosure: While there are many who find Nolan’s shtick tiresome, I am an unapologetic fanboy. Prestige may very well be my favorite movie, and he is one of only a few directors whose filmography I have viewed in its entirety (others including, but not limited to, Rian Johnson, Wes Anderson and David Fincher).*

Interweaving three stories — of land, sea and air — Nolan’s “Dunkirk” follows the evacuation of allied forces from France, with hundreds of thousands of soldiers effectively trapped on the wrong side of the English channel and surrounded on all sides by Nazi forces. On land, young men wait through enemy bombardment for any opportunity to sail across the channel, only to find an equally — if not more — perilous situation on ships targeted by submarine torpedo and dive-bombing attacks. They are aided by civilian ships called in to the rescue effort, and protected from above by a coterie of fighter pilots.

That’s the plot, in a nutshell, as Nolan is less interested in exposition, character and dialogue as he is in setting the scene before a tense, 100-minute exploration of survival and war. For long swathes the film is silent but for the haunting Hans Zimmer, which adds suffocating weight to moments of hopelessness and agonizing claustrophobia as men are trapped inside a series of sinking ships or blindsided by enemy gunfire.

There are a few familiar faces along the way, including Kenneth Branagh as a stoic commander, frequent Nolan collaborators Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy, and boy-band alumnus Harry Styles as a rank-and-file soldier. But the movie isn’t interested in star power, relying on a largely unknown supporting cast and spreading the running time throughout its characters in lieu of a clear protagonist. The result is, paradoxically, a more personal tale of war, bolstered by breathtaking aerial photography and the minimalist action sequences that highlight Nolan’s career. He knows that death and destruction don’t require window dressing, and the film is better for it.

While comparatively a much more traditional film, the elements of Nolan’s chronological and visual trickery are still present. He uses the spinning camera work of “Inception” for the interior shots of his sinking ships. And the three main storylines move forward and backward through time — a la Memento and Prestige — to cover overlapping periods of one week, one day, and one hour. Events are shown out-of-sequence and repeated from various character viewpoints while plot is doled out only as needed.

It works incredibly well, resulting in an impactful film in which every second feels significant and climactic, while the mechanics are veiled by a screen of simplicity. There’s no 5th-dimensional beings, dream machines, dueling wizards or masked vigilantes, but “Dunkirk” dazzles all the same. It’s a neat trick, even for a magician like Nolan, resulting in what is easily one of the best films of the year.

Grade: A

*Dunkirk opens nationwide on Friday, July 21.

Note: Portions of this review were first published during coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival

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Written by and based on the life of Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick functions like an inter-nationality take on “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” for the millennial generation.

Before he was an anchor player on TV Comedies like Silicon Valley, Nanjiani was a stand-up comedian slumming it on his way up the food chain and a closeted agnostic in a family of strict adherents to Islam and Pakistani culture, which includes arranged marriages. In the dramatized version, he meets the decidedly *not* Pakistani Emily (Zoe Kazan) after a gig, kicking off a courtship that is tested first by his reluctance to reveal all to his disapproving parents and second by a mystery ailment that places Emily in a medically-induced coma.

The writing is sharp, with a sharp blend of comedy and drama as Kumail deals with the titular “Big Sick” Emily experiences. It also includes knock-out supporting roles by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily’s parents, who arrive with their own marital demons in tow to the bedside of their ailing daughter. The film’s best moments derive from the stuttered progress Nanjiani makes winning over the parents of a woman he scorned as the three characters hope for the best but fear the worst.

That the based-on-a-true-story film ends on a positive note isn’t spoiling much , but “Big Sick” keeps the tension under the breezy humor and the film easily earns its sentimental finish.

Grade: A

*The Big Sick opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 7.

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Let’s start with some caveats, as few summer blockbusters arrive with the baggage that “The Mummy” is carrying on its shoulders. Not content to simply launch a new franchise, the fat cats at Universal are pinning the hopes of a brand new Cinematic Universe — the de riguer requirement of all major studios in the post-Avengers world — on the merits of this modern retelling of the old Boris Karloff ambling menace.

First, there’s nothing inherently wrong with making a new mummy (lowercase) movie, just as there’s nothing wrong with telling stories on screen that feature ghosts, ghouls, trolls, chupacabra, giant snakes, giant spiders, or any other fantastical antagonists.

Second, there’s nothing inherently wrong with cinematic universes. If the movies are good, the movies are good: that’s really all there is too it.

That said, “The Mummy” is not good, and it suggests Universal maybe shouldn’t have cashed its chips so early on its so-called “Dark Universe” (with a slate of films announced already and Johnny Depp cast as The Invisible Man). Russel Crowe pops in as Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde in a few heavy-handed scenes that hint at his potential menace and one of the better-choreographed sequences, but to little impact.

What “The Mummy” does well is make the already-good 1999 version starring Brendon Frasier and Rachel Weisz look resplendent in comparison. New protagonist Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) passively trips toward the film’s convoluted and undercooked finale, driven by a combination of demonic possession and a desire to rescue a romantic interest (Annabelle Wallis) with whom he shares all the chemistry of an elementary school science fair project. There’s a dagger and a red stone and crusader tombs and a lot of talk of Set, the Egyptian god of war, all of which is thrown at the viewer like obstacles in an Asian game show.

There are exactly two things this movie does well: the zero-gravity plane crash in Act I that was aired *in its entirety* during the film’s trailers and a chase scene underneath London’s streets that features a brief scene of eye-poppingly impressive underwater photography. Beyond that, it’s a muddled mess of corporate cash-grabbing.

As for the mummy herself, gender-swapped for the modern era, Sofia Boutella does as good as can be expected with the material, but is robbed of any her predecessor’s menace and mystique by the movie’s rush to make her telegenic. Compared to the genuinely chilling Act II of the 1999 film, in which Arnold Vosloo’s Imhotep slowly regenerates while haunting his human prey, Boutella’s reanimated corpse makes light work of a few nameless meat sacks before she’s back to her old, strategically-shrouded-to-appease-the-MPAA-rating self.

It’s a rushed, narratively delinquent disappointment that could have injected some of that old-fashioned movie magic into the modern cinema landscape, but instead falls victim to the paint-by-numbers CGI malaise we’ve all grown fatigued of.

Grade: C+

*The Mummy opens nationwide on Friday, June 9.

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I Don’t Feel At Home in This World Anymore

We typically have to wait almost a year — or more — for the public at large to see the big winner from the Sundance Film Festival. But not only is “I Don’t Feel At Home in this World Anymore” out less than two months after snagging the Grand Jury prize in Park City, its also viewable from the comfort of your home due to Netflix scoring the distribution rights.

Starring Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood, IDFAHITWA sees a woman shaken out of a rut after a break-in at her home triggers a compulsion to pursue justice. It’s also the directorial debut of Macon Blair, best known for his acting collaborations with director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room). Blair borrows from Saulnier’s style of minimalist, organic and unflinching violence, but also injects his feature with a heavy doze of sardonic humor. The result is something like a marriage of hipster comedy and Coenesque drama and shows a lot of promise for an emerging multi-hyphenate storyteller.

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Mascots

If you’re a fan of Christopher Guest…well, you’ve probably seen Mascots already. But otherwise you should know that the team behind the mockumentaries Best in Show, A Mighty Win and Waiting For Guffman have a Netflix Original film about the cutthroat world of competitive Mascot-ery.

To  be sure, Mascots is a lesser-Guest. But it is still hilarious in its survey of bizarre, pseudo-surrealist characters, like Chris O’Dowd’s Tommy ‘Zook’ Zucarello, who performs as “The Fist” for a hockey team, and whose every action in the musculatured foam hand suit is a master class is sight gags.

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Burn After Reading

Speaking of Coenesque, and lesser-entries, “Burn After Reading” may not be the strongest entry in the Joel and Ethan Coen canon, but don’t let that stop you from its unique pleasures, number one on that list being that fully-committed and unbelievably ludicrous performance of Brad Pitt as a pompadoured buffoon of a personal trainer.

Combining gym rats, DIY sex toys and international espionage in a way that only the Coens can, “Burn after Reading” wrings gallons of humor out of a few ounces of its characters poor decision-making.

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It Follows

The horror genre is experiencing something like a creative renaissance, and just in the nick of time. After 2004’s “Saw,” there was a decade in which horror producers were arms-racing each other to up the ante on torture porn. Thankfully, the trends are showing sign of shifting back toward risk-taking and storytelling, and there’s perhaps no better example of that New-School thank the incredible “It Follows” (which, as you may recall, was among my picks for the 10 best films of 2014).

As both an homage and a satire of classic scarers, It Follows takes the trope that in horror, sex = death, and stretches it to its logical extreme. Its antagonist is a loosly-defined specter that relentlessly pursues its victims as they pass its curse from one to another through sexual intercourse. You can survive by passing “it” on to someone else, but if “it” gets them, then you’re back at the top of the list, being followed again.

The device is incredibly effective as “it” shapeshifts through various forms, visible only to the infected. It causes the viewer to dart their eyes around the screen, looking for anyone who seems out of place, or a little *too* determined in their gait. Layer on top a gorgeous, pulpy style full of neon lighting and synth-pop atmosphere and you have a cinematic experience that leaps above the rest.

 

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The Incredible Jessica James

Jessica Williams stars as the titular Jessica James, an aspiring New York City playwright on the bad end of a breakup. It’s a showcase for the comedian, consisting largely of her character’s whimsical take on life, love and ambition with little by way of plot besides wanting to make it big and maybe meet a nice guy while she’s at it.

It provides enough laughs for the price of admission, and is an encouraging argument in favor of Williams as protagonist. But there’s not a lot of there, there, and not much to say beyond what a million other young-in-New-York films have said before.

Grade: B-

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The Big Sick

Written by and based on the life of Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick functions like an inter-nationality take on “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” for the millennial generation.

Before he was an anchor player on TV Comedies like Silicon Valley, Nanjiani was a stand-up comedian slumming it on his way up the food chain and a closeted agnostic in a family of strict adherents to Islam and Pakistani culture, which includes arranged marriages. In the dramatized version, he meets the decided *not* Pakistani Emily (Zoe Kazan) after a gig, kicking off a courtship that is tested first by his reluctance to reveal all to his disapproving parents and second by a mystery ailment that places Emily in a medically-induced coma.

The writing is sharp and funny, with a nice blend of comedy and drama as Kumail deals with the titular “Big Sick” Emily is going through. It also includes knock-out supporting roles by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. That the movie ends on a positive note isn’t spoiling much, and the film easily earns its sentimental finish.

Grade: A

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An Inconvenient Sequel

In a way its frightening that we’ve had 10 years since Al Gore first delivered his power point presentation on climate change in “An Inconvenient Truth” only to still be debating the science of carbon emission.  But at least the ensuing decade has given the once-and-future president plenty of material for a round two.

Yes, the ice has melted, the waters have risen, the storms have worsened and myriad other Gore predictions have manifested, but “Sequel” also goes beyond the doom and gloom to track the real and significant political efforts made, notably the Paris Agreement of last year. Naturally, President Trump’s pledge to tear up that agreement and double down on fossil fuels is a bummer for Gore, and a bit of a thorn in the third act of “Sequel,” the documentary still manages a message of optimism among its impressively researched call to arms.

Grade: B+

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Rememory

The best way to describe “Rememory” is that it is relentlessly serious. Peter Dinklage stars as one of several broken souls in a pseudo-science fiction world in which a machine has been created that can record and display the mind’s memories. When the machine’s inventor dies under suspicious circumstances, Dinklage’s Sam steals the memory machine in order to both probe his own dark past and solve the inventor’s murder. But the final reveal on both points is underwhelming and bogged down by the slog of dull greys and moody glances.

It’s a notable film, largely due being one of the final performances of the late Anton Yelchin, and there are a lot of lofty ideas about how life’s experiences shape us into who we are. But its ambitions our ground into powder by its crushing atmosphere.

Grade: C+

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Landline

In this 90’s-set ensemble dramedy, a woman (Jenny Slate) learns of her father’s affair while having one of her own. There’s a lot of talent on screen, with Jay Duplass, John Turturro and Edie Falco rounding out the top billing, but the movie never seems to alchemize its components into something more.

It’s a pleasant and charming enough film, doing interesting work with its web of familial and romantic relationships. Turturro and Falco, in particular, shine as two halves of a strained marriage.

It never quite pops though, resulting in a film that seems to simply exist and then  promptly evaporate when the credits roll.

Grade: C+

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Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press

It’s a tough time to be in the news business. Budgets are tight, left bare by the departure of traditional revenue sources, and the national readership is increasingly lacking in media literacy. According to Nobody Speak, those factors create an opening for the rich and powerful to bury the Constitutionally-protected voices that challenge them.

It’s a growing and disturbing trend expertly documented by director Brian Knappenberger, who focuses on the Hulk Hogan sex tape lawsuit that shuttered Gawker before spiraling outward to include the Silicon Valley billionaire that bankrolled that lawsuit as a personal vendetta, the Las Vegas casino titan that secretly purchased Nevada’s major newspaper to tailor coverage to his worldview, and finally to newly-inaugurated President Trump, who was pledged to “open up” libel laws to make it even easier to torpedo news outlets with crippling lawsuits if they step out of line.

For media junkies, the documentary is catnip. But to even the casual observer of politics and the free press it’s a chilling warning that the worst days for transparency are ahead of us.

Grade: A-

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In Loco Parentis

There’s a long tradition of the quirky school documentary at Sundance, but even within the limits of that at-times tired formula, In Loco Parentis woos with its charm and subtlety.

Set at a boarding school in Ireland, In Loco Parentis takes a fly-on-the-wall approach, soaking in the daily life of the school, with a particular focus on a married teaching couple in the twilight years of their careers. The decidedly European education style is half the fun, as the magicless Hogwarts nature of the boarding school differs from the traditional American school system. But the directors are also able to capture the special something that makes schooling special as kids open their eyes to a world of music, art, literature and discovery.

Grade: B

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Tell them We Are Rising: The Story Of Historically Black Colleges And Universities

Stanley Nelson is an extremely accomplished documentarian who is unafraid to capture difficult subjects. That said, his latest film, Tell Them We Are Rising, is boringly dull in its telling of America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs.

The first two-thirds of the film play like a discount Ken Burns, full of black and white still photos backed by dramatic voice-over reading of journal entires and other texts. It’s an extremely important subject and an often ignored piece of U.S. history, but by the time the film hits the modern era, injecting the screen with living images and color, the feeling of drag has already set in.

Grade: B-

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Chasing Coral

There’s any number of great documentaries out there that make the case that mankind is making devastating and potentially irreversible changes to the global ecosystem. Chasing Coral makes for a worthy addition that list, narrowing its focus to the damage that climate change inflicts on our oceans, in particular the life-giving coral that sustains marine activity.

It begins with the underwater photography of Richard Vevers before touching on the widespread bleaching that is occurring around the world. That leads to an Ocean’s 11-style assembly of a team to capture underwater time lapse of the bleaching in order to proof, in vivid detail the catastrophe occurring underwater.

It’s increasingly depressing stuff, as the vibrant and breathtaking coral scenes make way for images of death and decay. But the film allows for some optimism at the end, highlight the efforts underway to reverse climate trends, and a call to arms to push back against the dying of the light.

Grade: B+

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Wilson

Woody Harrelson’s “Wilson” is the type of movie that people will either love or loathe. The laughter in the screening venue proved that there are plenty of the former, while my own experience and the groans of patrons exiting afterward confirm a significant shareof the latter.

Harrelson stars as the titular Wilson, a loud-mouthed buffoon with no regard to personal boundaries or polite norms. After his father dies and his friend moves out of state, Wilson realizes he’s alone, prompting him to seek out his ex wife (the fantastic Laura Dern), which leads to the discovery that his presumed-aborted daughter is alive and living with an adoptive family.

The comedic punches lie solely on the shoulders of Harrelson, who plays his character in an uncomfortable grey area between clueless and mental illness. Dern elevates every film she’s in, but too much weight is carried by Harrelson, who prattles of an unending stream of listless dialogue. It has its moments, but they are very few and too far in between.

Grade: D