“Amazing Grace” is 87 minutes of pure joy. No matter who you are, any one of any age, race, or religion, this film of a 1972 recording session in a small church in Los Angeles, will lift your spirit to the sky. Aretha Franklin, still in her 20’s and one of the top recording artists in the world, returns to the music of her youth to record what is still the number one gospel album of all time. A young filmmaker named Sidney Pollack was there to record it. But for a number of reasons, including an audio track that was not in sync with the visual, it was never shown to audiences.
Now it is here. Ms. Franklin barely says a word. Her father does, though, as does another preacher, James Cleveland. Other than that, it is just music, one of the greatest voices in history singing the church music she grew up with, accompanied by a choir led by Alexander Hamilton (that is his name), whose conducting is a movie of its own.
“UglyDolls” is less a movie than an infomercial for the plush Hasbro toys designed to be “ugly” in a commercially cute, lovable way. Unfortunately, the script is not particularly cute or lovable, just a muddled story with lukewarm musical numbers that takes pieces from better films like “Toy Story,” “Monsters Inc.,” “The LEGO Movie,” “Smallfoot,” “Trolls,” and all those other stories about how we should appreciate our own kinds of beauty and the individuality of those around us. It’s not bad. It’s just not very good.
Rated R for violence and language throughout, some sexual references and brief graphic nudity
Constant very strong and crude language
Drugs and drug dealing
Extended and intense peril and violence with many graphic and disturbing images, many characters injured and killed, extended mayhem and destruction
A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters:
July 12, 2019
Date Released to DVD:
October 14, 2019
At least once every summer we have to get a dumb action comedy about a mismatched pair, so this summer it is “Stuber,” about an Uber driver named Stu. If you find that portmanteau witty — or don’t care whether it’s witty or not because it’s summer and you like to see chases and explosions — then this movie is for you. If you want to see this premise at it’s best, try “Midnight Run” with Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin. If you want to see an entertaining recent example, try “Central Intelligence” with Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson. But if you just want some mindless summer movie mayhem, then “Stuber” will fill the bill.
Kumail Nanjiani (“The Big Sick,” “Silicon Valley”) plays Stu, who is struggling with not one but two jobs where he is constantly trying to handle people who disrespect and abuse him. He works at a big box sporting goods store under a bully who is also the son of the owner. He makes extra money driving for Uber and he tries hard for the five-star rating, providing phone chargers and water and selecting just the right music for the ride. He is saving money to start a spin class business with his long-time friend and wished-for crush, Becca (“GLOW’s” Betty Gilpin). Stu is a gentle soul who drives an electric car and cannot find the courage to tell Becca how he feels. He pretty much wants a five star rating from everyone; it’s even on his license plate.
And so we have to find someone who is Stu’s opposite, then, so we can have the fun of seeing them not get along and then prove themselves to each other and become BFFs while they’re chasing and shooting and exchanging banter, right? And so there’s Vic (Dave Bautista of “Guardians of the Galaxy” and the WWE), a hard-as-nails cop who has been chasing a drug dealer named Teijo (Iko Uwais) for years. And it’s personal, because Teijo killed Vic’s partner and because this movie needs to ramp everything up repeatedly to keep us from noticing that it is pretty dumb. Some more ramping up: Vic is a walking, punching personification of toxic masculinity with an adult daughter he neglects and who is having a big show of her sculpture the same night when Teijo may be within reach and the same night he has a significant temporary impairment — he cannot see due to Lasik surgery. (I trust that neither Lasik nor Uber paid for their product placement in this film.)
And so he calls Uber to take him to the various places he needs to go to interrogate people and track down Teijo. As is typical in R-rated action comedies, this includes a strip club, but in this case it’s male strippers, where Stu unexpectedly has something of a bonding moment with one of the performers. Stu also gets some frantic phone calls from Becca, who may for the first time be willing to see him as a romantic possibility — if he comes over RIGHT NOW. Plus, Vic keeps pulling him into increasingly perilous situations. But Vic won’t let him go, threatening a rating so bad Stu will lose his job.
These team-ups are always based on an id/superego mash-up, and Nanjiani’s trademark understated delivery plays off well with Bautista’s brawn. But the mayhem and senseless destruction overwhelms even the ramped-up stakes, with more death and destruction than an action comedy can support and a twist so obvious it doesn’t even work as parody.
Parents should know that this film includes constant action-style peril and violence with many characters injured and killed and graphic and disturbing images, very strong and crude language, and sexual references and brief frontal male nudity.
Family discussion: Why couldn’t Stu tell Becca how he felt? Why couldn’t Vic tell his daughter how he felt?
If you like this, try: “Central Intelligence” and “Midnight Run”
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments
Some strong language
Extended comic book/action-style peril and violence, mayhem, destruction, characters injured and killed
Date Released to Theaters:
July 3, 2019
Date Released to DVD:
September 23, 2019
Okay, three key points before we get into the details of “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” First, see this smart, funny, heartwarming and entertaining movie on the biggest screen possible, IMAX if you can. Second, yes, you have to stay ALL the way through the credits. There are some big developments/revelations/surprises you will need to know. Third, if you have not seen “Avengers: Endgame” be aware that there are spoilers, so watch that first if you can, so you will better understand some of the conflicts and believe me, you don’t want to be distracted by figuring out what you missed because this movie deserves your full attention.
Just a reminder, as we’ve had a variety of Spider-Men on film, including Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and a whole bunch of Spideys including a pig and an anime girl in the Oscar-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” In this version of the Spider-verse, Tom Holland has played high school student Peter Parker in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and in two Avengers movies. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) took a special interest in Peter, and had his aide Happy (Jon Favreau) act as messenger and mentor.
Now that that is all out of the way, let’s get into it, unless you have not seen “Avengers: Endgame,” in which case stop reading now as there will be spoilers. The movie begins with an in memoriam tribute to the characters who died in that film, as Whitney Houston sings “I Will Always Love You.” It’s touching but it’s cheesy and sappy and we find out why: it’s on a high school closed-circuit news program with student announcers who help bring us up to date. The people who turned to dust when Thanos snapped his fingers have been returned and their absence is called The Blip. But the returnees are five years older, while for the people who were not dusted no time had passed. Everyone is still getting used to the idea that the world has been saved and beginning to get back to normal or get used to the new normal.
Peter thinks he deserves time time off, so when Nick Fury calls, he does not answer his phone. Even though Tony Stark left him in charge of the Avengers, his priority is to go on the class trip to Europe and let Mary Jane (Zendaya) know that he likes her. As in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” this film combines adolescent angst and romance with special effects superhero extravaganza fights (remember what I said about the big, big screen), with a skillful blend of humor, action, and growing up. Sometimes that combination creates a problem for Peter, as when he gets jealous of a rival for MJ’s affection and accidentally calls a drone strike on the tour bus.
The school trip provides lots of picturesque (before they get trashed) European locations, including Venice and Prague, as Nick Fury keeps “upgrading” the trip to reroute Peter to where the action is.
I know I always say that the make or break for superhero movies is the villain, but I don’t want to tell you too much about the villain here because the details should be a surprise. So I will just say that the surprises are great and this one is a lot of fun, with a very clever updating of the comic book version of the character that create an opportunity for some trippy and mind-bending visual effects. And Peter gets a great gift from Tony Stark — be sure to listen carefully to what the acronym EDITH stands for.
The settings, fight scenes, and special effects are all top-notch, but it is the cast that really brings this story to life. Holland is a little less soulful than Maguire or Garfield (or Shameik Moore), a little more heart-on-his-sleeve energetic, with a natural athleticism that lends a gymnastic, almost balletic grace to his web-swinging and slinging. Zendaya’s MJ is smart, edgy and vulnerable. The villain is…surprising, and a welcome relief after the stentorian-voiced blowhards we have too often seen in superhero movies. Plus, Led Zep, Samuel L. Jackson gets to say, “Bitch, please,” and we get to see London Bridge (or the equivalent) falling down. This is just what a summer movie is supposed to be — fresh, fun, exciting, and with a wow of a post-credit scene to shake things up for the next installment. This one made my spidey-sense tingle.
Parents should know that this film includes intense comic-book/action-style peril and violence with massive destruction and mayhem, with characters injured and killed. The movie also includes teen kissing, some strong language, a crotch hit, someone giving the finger, and mild sexual references.
Family discussion: Should Peter have answered Nick Fury’s call? Why did Tony Stark pick him? What does it mean to say “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” and where does that expression come from?
“Yesterday” would have made a cute seven-minute sketch on “Saturday Night Live” (or, as this movie would say, “Thursday Night Live”) but it does not work as a movie. I wish I could say they ran out of ideas in the last third, but it’s worse than that. They had ideas; they just ran out of good ones. There’s a curious disconnect in watching the film between the weakness of the storyline, including a major jump the shark swerve near the end, and the imperishable music of the Beatles. Every time we hear “In My Life” or a rocking “Help!” or “I Want to Hold Your Hand” we say, “That sure is a great song” and forget for a moment that the movie is not very good. Richard Curtis admitted as much in an interview on Morning Joe: “When I type and run out of ideas I just put in ‘The Long and Winding Road.'”
Jack (Himesh Patel) has been trying to make it as a musician for ten years in his small home town on the English coast. His best friend Ellie (Lily James) believes in him and acts as his manager when she isn’t teaching high school math. But he is not making much progress. He is ready to give up when a mysterious worldwide blackout shuts down all power for twelve seconds and he is hit by a bus as he is bicycling home. During that twelve seconds, somehow the world is rebooted in a slightly different form. The Beatles never existed. Some other random cultural touchstones are missing as well, including Coke. Jack, just out of the hospital and still missing two front teeth, thanks his friends for the gift of a new guitar by playing “Yesterday.” Which they have never heard before and think he wrote. And of course they love it, though one of them says it’s not up to the level of Coldplay’s “Fix You.”
Jack starts playing Beatles songs and people like them. Ed Sheeran, charmingly playing a version of himself, invites him to tour as his opening act. In Moscow, Jack plays “Back in the USSR,” which is a huge success with the crowd, even though most of them were not born when their country was the USSR. Ed Sheeran challenges Jack to a songwriting competition, and has to admit defeat. “You’re Mozart and I’m Salieri,” he says.
An agent named Debra (Kate McKinnon in a sizzling performance) arrives to offer Jack “the poison chalice” of fame and money. Jack, who has waited so long for success as a musician and performer, says yes.
This is very much a lesser work from Richard Curtis, the man who wrote “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill,” “Pirate Radio,” and “Love Actually.” There are lovely moments — the first recording session, the fun of the astonishment when people are stunned by songs we all know so well they are a part of us, the fantasy of being adored by worldwide audiences, the hilariousness of playing one of the greatest songs of all time for your parents and their not having a clue. And it is intriguing to see a person of color appropriate white musicians’ work for a change. But the friend zone/romance storyline and a bad swerve at the end show that even the world’s greatest songs cannot prop up a script that outstays its welcome. The songs are all sublime, but these new versions do not add anything special.
George Martin, who worked more closely with the Beatles than anyone else, said that their charm was as important to their early success as their music. That early success gave them a chance to develop and grow and take huge risks and reflect on their experiences, all of which became a part of their endlessly innovative and ground-breaking work.
To have even some of their greatest hits all thrown into what is supposed to be one performer’s series of songs, unrelated to what is going on in the lives of the songwriter or in the world, and, to adapt the title of an ex-Beatle song, imagine there’s no Beatles, gives the music an unearned power, relying on our love for the songs and what they mean in our lives, whether we first heard them in kindergarten, at spin class, or as they first came out. That makes this story empty at its Apple Corps.
Parents should know that this movie includes sexual references and situations and some strong and crude language.
Family discussion: Why did Deborah call what she was offering the poison chalice? What did Jack learn from his meeting with John?
If you like this, try: “Begin Again” and “Across the Universe” and the Beatles movies