Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson
Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts (“The Kings of Summer”)
Written by: Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler”) and Max Borenstein (“Godzilla”) and Derek Connolly (“Jurassic World”)
What if “Apocalypse Now” was remade today, but with a twist: instead of the Viet Cong, you replace them with King Kong? While the movie isn’t shameless enough to title itself “Viet Kong,” instead “Kong: Skull Island” foregoes subtlety—and, damningly, simplicity—to sort of retell Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece with a giant ape and connective tissue to other giant monsters in the pipeline ready to star in their own film franchises. In short, “Kong: Skull Island” is a weird fucking movie, albeit one that squanders that weirdness by bogging it down in a swamp of exposition, an overabundance of characters, and weird shifts in tone.
After a prologue shows us a pair of pilots, one American and one Japanese, crash landing on an island in the South Pacific during World War II and encountering our title character, we’re thrown ahead nearly 30 years to the waning days of the Vietnam War. Satellite photography and mapping is all the rage, and would-be explorer Bill Randa (John Goodman) uses the threat of Russian discovery to convince a senator to finance an exploratory mission with a military escort to Skull Island, which is permanently surrounded by storms.
The military enlists Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a career soldier looking for a fight after having to “cut and run” in Vietnam, and his men to facilitate the expedition. Along for the ride is former British special forces tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), the latter of which provides the story with its inevitable “Beauty and the Beast” allegory. As soon as the team arrives and sets off bombs for, uh, some reason, they’re met with a fury by Kong himself, swatting helicopters out of the air and leaving Packard with a thirst for revenge.
Cool monster fisticuffs aside, “Kong: Skull Island” ends up a mess as we’re expected to follow too many different poorly-drawn characters (big ape included) as they make their way across the unclear geography of Skull Island, during which moments of would-be or unintentional comic relief mar what comes down to a movie about a crazed Samuel L. Jackson taking on King Kong. I mean, that sounds badass, right? But then what the hell is with Tom Hiddleston tossing on a gas mask and grabbing a katana to knife through a flock of pterodactyls in a poisonous gas cloud in slow motion? Is THAT supposed to be badass? Because it’s just sort of laughable. And the glut of characters leaves fine actors, like Goodman, Brie Larson, Shea Whigham, and Toby Kebbell, either stranded with nothing to do or with so little motivation the whole thing feels like a byproduct of bad editing.
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen
Directed by: James Mangold (“The Wolverine”)
Written by: Scott Frank (“The Wolverine”) & James Mangold (“Walk The Line”) and Michael Green (“Green Lantern”)
In the 17 years since Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” birthed the modern comic book movie, there have been a sizable number of really good films in the genre—but transcendent ones are as rare as adamantium. 2008’s “The Dark Knight” obviously makes that list, and many would put 2012’s “The Avengers” right behind it, followed in some circles by last year’s “Deadpool.” And now, nearly two decades after his first, career-making appearance as Wolverine, Hugh Jackman and director James Mangold join their company and outdo every film in the X-series—and most comic book movies, period–with the R-rated “Logan.”
Set in 2029 after something mysterious (and blissfully unexplored) left most mutants dead, “Logan” opens with Jackman’s erstwhile berserker X-Man, weak and hungover, sleeping in a limousine. When a group of guys try to steal his rims, Logan can’t muster the strength to take them down—until a shotgun blast to the chest awakens his anger and he cuts them to ribbons. Later, he’s met by a woman named Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez) who offers him $50,000 to take her and her young daughter, Laura (Dafne Keen) to North Dakota—both of whom are also wanted by a ruthless, robotic-handed mercenary Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook). When the shit hits the fan, Logan and an elderly, dementia-addled Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) escape in the limo with Laura, who mysteriously mirrors Logan in both rage and the presence of razor-sharp claws that extend from her appendages.
Clearly owing a debt to the financial success of the brilliantly profane and grisly “Deadpool,” Jackman and Mangold were taken off the PG-13 leash, free to pepper “Logan” (seemingly not beholden to much of the series’ notoriously convoluted timeline) with all of the fucks and gory decapitations that have been missing from the character’s DNA. It pays off, too, allowing the film’s achingly bleak, last-of-its-kind tone to wash over everything without the compromise normally required for something meant to sell action figures and breakfast cereal. 17 years later, after pretty great movies (“X2,” “X-Men: Days of Future Past”) horrible duds (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) and underappreciated turns missing just a little something (“The Wolverine”), Jackman—in what he insists is his final performance in a role he 100 percent owns—finally has his comic book movie masterpiece.
Starring: Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Andy Lau
Directed by: Yimou Zhang (“House of Flying Daggers,” “Hero”)
Written by: Carlo Bernard (“Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time”), Doug Miro (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”) and Tony Gilroy (“The Bourne Ultimatum”)
For those prematurely concerned with another Hollywood whitewashing of Asian culture when “The Great Wall” was announced with star Matt Damon, rest assured: this is most definitely a Chinese movie with Americans along for the ride. With most of the dialogue in Mandarin (with English subtitles) and some of the Chinese film industry’s biggest stars in actor Andy Lau and acclaimed director Zhang Yimou, “The Great Wall” doesn’t feel culturally compromised (at least to this ugly American), but it doesn’t ever fully embrace its potential for mash-up weirdness either.
When a pair of European men, William (Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal), narrowly escape a monstrous creature while on the hunt for black powder in China during the Song dynasty, they stumble across the Great Wall as the color-coded soldiers prepare for an attack by the Tao Tie. The Chinese army, made of up archers, wall-walking infantrymen, and rope-assisted crane fighting women, are defending the capital from the creatures (essentially telepathic monster dogs who came to earth in a meteor and represent greed!). When William proves himself to be an effective warrior, he earns the trust of Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) and devises a plan alongside the Chinese soldiers to defeat the dog-monsters once and for all.
While “The Great Wall” isn’t a bad movie, it is mostly a boring one—and one that leaves what could be epic multicultural weirdness on the table. Damon is fine, if not totally committed, to the role of a semi-scoundrel looking for honor, but the trio of screenwriters (including frequent Damon collaborator Tony Gilroy) fail to drum up much internal conflict for William—or anyone else for that matter. “The Great Wall” presents its conflict (the fight against the telepathic dog-monsters from space), the threat they pose (the dog-monsters have breached the Great Wall) and the unlikely secret weapon Damon introduces (a magnet!) that can help take the Tao Tie down and save the planet in the process. If that sounds potentially bananas, especially in the hands of Zhang, you’d be right. But “The Great Wall” never lives up to its batshit crazy potential.
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable”)
Written by: M. Night Shyamalan (“The Visit,” “After Earth”)
Former Hollywood golden boy M. Night Shyamalan has been working on a comeback for longer than he was at the top of his game, and since the double-sided nadir of “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth,” Shyamalan has gone small, like a former world-class athlete rebuilding his game in the minors. 2015’s “The Visit” was a fun found-footage horror romp with zero big stars and a sly wink at the audience from time to time. With his latest, “Split,” Shyamalan starts to play a little hero ball like it’s 2001 again, shooting to spin an intimate psychological thriller into an epic tale of supernatural ability using showy performances and, yes, a twist–with mixed results.
At a birthday party for popular high school student Claire (Haely Lu Richardson), the quiet, introverted Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) remains an outcast, invited only so it wouldn’t be awkward in class. When it’s time to go, Casey hitches a reluctant ride with Claire, Claire’s dad, and Claire’s friend Marcia (Jessica Sula), only Claire’s dad is knocked out before he can get in the car and the three girls are taken by a stranger named Kevin (James McAvoy) and locked in an underground bunker. When the girls come to, they find that Kevin suffers from dissociative identity disorder, and they’re visited and/or tormented by several identities including manically methodical Dennis, taciturn Miss Patricia, and lisping 9-year-old Hedwig. These identities are revolting against the reasonable artist persona Barry, who keeps trying to break through and reach psychiatrist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) — who likens Kevin’s disorder to superhuman abilities — before an unknown entity known as “The Beast” arrives to devour the captive girls.
While McAvoy’s go-for-broke performance as the multiple personalities is bold and grimly funny at times, the nearly two-hour run time leaves a few aspects teetering on the brink of annoyance (I’m looking at you, Hedwig). Also puzzling is the inclusion of a grossly depressing backstory for Taylor-Joy’s Claire that does essentially nothing for the plot accept to provide a head-scratching end to the climax and an icky aftertaste in the epilogue. Why her character was made to suffer that fate to have such a confusing payoff is a mystery.
So, let’s talk about the twist—which, really, has more in common with the Marvel school of post-credits stingers that open up the movie’s world instead of turning what we just watched on its ear. It’s a bold decision, for sure, and it’s hard to decide if it’s a brilliant move or a boneheaded one. Either way, it will make you leave the theater talking. Although it’s a little like watching Kobe Bryant back in the day score 60 points in a game—thrilling, to be sure, but maybe an indicator that Shyamalan hasn’t quite learned his lesson.
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Kevin Bacon, John Goodman
Directed by: Peter Berg (“Lone Survivor,” “Deepwater Horizon”)
Written by: Peter Berg (“Friday Night Lights”) Matt Cook (“Triple 9”) and Joshua Zetumer (“RoboCop”)
Reliving real-life, recent historical events through the eyes of a single character in a film is the hallmark of the docudrama. Think Tom Hanks’ in “Sully” or, well, Tom Hanks in “Captain Phillips.” These two lead characters are portrayed as rather ordinary people thrust into incredible drama, and as an audience we identify with them, we relate to the events through their eyes. So, what if they didn’t exist, made up to heighten the tension, to put the audience in the shoes of someone who was “there” without really being there? In “Patriots Day,” that’s Mark Wahlberg’s put-upon Boston police officer Tommy Saunders, a super cop who has the ear of the commissioner, the FBI, and the governor while also being on scene for every major development in the Boston Marathon bombing, from being at the finish line when the bombs go off to each step of the manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers. It’s a strange action movie cliché that somewhat mars an otherwise solid and high-tension retelling of the worst act of domestic terrorism (sadly, since eclipsed) since 9/11.
Everyone knows the story: on April 15, 2013, two homemade pressure cooker bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring more than 260 others. After scouring security footage, two suspects dubbed “white hat” and “black hat” were identified, and the release of the photos sparked the duo, Chechen brothers Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff, all spooky, clueless Millennial disaffectedness), to go on a crime spree on their way to Times Square. In the process they killed an MIT police officer (Jake Picking) while trying to steal his gun and carjacked and kidnapped a Chinese exchange student (Jimmy O. Yang) before engaging in an explosive-fueled shootout with police. Tamerlan is killed in the standoff after being run over by the fleeing Dzhokhar, who became the target of an unprecedented manhunt that shut Boston down and brushed the edge of martial law. He was ultimately located, hiding in a sailboat in a suburban backyard.
If you can look past Wahlberg’s fictional cop who never sleeps, director Peter Berg has put together a fantastic ensemble piece that never loosens the screws, even if along the way it ends up painting law enforcement as maybe a bit too infallible. One scene in particular, featuring Tamerlan’s American wife Katherine (Melissa Benoist) being interrogated—after we’re told explicitly she wasn’t read her Miranda rights—by a mysterious hijab-clad government agent (Khandi Alexander) who questions her commitment to Islam, comes closest to breaking that streak, though. The FBI special agent in charge (Kevin Bacon) and Boston police commissioner (John Goodman) look on in wonder as the extra-legal interrogation takes place, but the feeling we’re left with is this—and the virtual lockdown of Boston—is for the greater good. “Patriots Day” isn’t interested in questioning those ideas, but it could have been a much richer experience had it done so.
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae
Directed by: Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent”)
Written by: Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent”) and Allison Schroeder (debut)
Films based on historical events have a tendency to feel like well-crafted museum exhibits, in that they politely lead you from beginning to end, illuminating certain events along the way without affecting your emotional state too much one way or the other. It’s a perfectly pleasant experience and you learn some stuff, sure, but you can feel yourself being ushered through all points along the way, the velvet ropes mentally brushing up against you as it unfurls. “Hidden Figures,” the true to life tale of three African-American women instrumental in the success of NASA’s early space flight, is a pleasant, heartwarming, and effective enough. These women are inspirational, no doubt, but by the time the film ends, it lacks a resonance strong enough to differentiate itself from the well-trodden genre.
Set in the early days of the space race at NASA’s Langley campus in the 1960s, “Hidden Figures” follows a trio of genius-level black women at a time when two of those three traits were detrimental to a career in literal rocket science. Math savant Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) works with Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) as “computers” in the colored-only wing at a NASA. When a position opens up to work on the trajectory calculations that will put Americans in space, Goble ends up working under mathematicians Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) and director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). The men are initially reluctant to trust Goble’s work (her being a black woman and all), but begin to warm to her after charming, pioneering astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) gives Goble’s work his complete and total trust.
Meanwhile, Vaughan verbally spars with by-the-book supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) about advancing her position while secretly learning to work with the mysterious new IBM computer. Also, Jackson is eager to become an engineer, but NASA regulations require engineers to take extension courses at a local school—a school that remains segregated even after federal order. So in order to attend, Jackson must seek a court injunction to even begin to advance her career.
Fine performances abound in “Hidden Figures,” but nothing stands out, except that Spencer and Monae seem to have been shorted in the story department—they feel like footnotes to Henson’s character. Noticeably, however, all of the likable actors—Costner, Parsons and Dunst—in parts that are traditionally more villainous in Civil Rights-era historical films are given relatively bland, inert roles. Maybe it’s all true, sure, but it all feels a little too safe, right down to the climax cribbed from “Apollo 13,” one of the safest movies ever made. There’s never a doubt where “Hidden Figures” is going to splash down.
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn
Directed by: Gareth Edwards (“Godzilla”)
Written by: Chris Weitz (“About A Boy”) and Tony Gilroy (“The Bourne Supremacy”)
Prequel is one of the dirtiest words in the English language to “Star Wars” fans, right up there with midichlorians and Jar Jar Binks. The increasingly negative reception to George Lucas’ prequel trilogy that unspooled from 1999 to 2005 has rendered the word toxic, which is why Disney’s marketing of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” has expressly avoided using the word at all—even though the movie is very much a direct prequel to the original “Star Wars” movie from 1977, known now as “A New Hope.”
This is the first live-action “Star Wars” theatrical adventure to deviate from the so-called saga of the Skywalker family being chronicled so far in Episodes I through VII (there was an animated “Clone Wars” film in theaters, as well as a pair of Ewok-centric TV movies in the ’80s and the infamous “Star Wars Holiday Special” from 1978) and represents the opening salvo in Disney’s mission to release a “Star Wars” movie every single year for the rest of all of our lives.
Opening around 15 years BBY (that’s Before the Battle of Yavin—the events of “A New Hope” and the super-geeky way in which the “Star Wars” timeline is sometimes parceled out), “Rogue One” focuses on Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson), the reluctant brains behind the weapons tech in the Empire’s planet-killing Death Star. He and his family, including daughter Jyn, are in hiding from the Imperial officer heading up the Death Star project, Director Krennic (Ben Mendolsohn). When Krennic tracks them down, he kills Jyn’s mother and captures her father as she flees, taken in by militant Rebel Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).
Fifteen years later, Jyn (Felicity Jones) is busted out of an Imperial prison by the Rebels and given the choice of helping Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his droll, reprogrammed Imperial droid 2-KSO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) capture her father back from the Empire to find out how to stop the superweapon. When plans go awry after a test-firing of the Death Star levels a Rebel stronghold, Jyn and Andor must team up with a blind, Force-sensitive monk (Donnie Yen), his heavily-armed sidekick (Wen Jiang) and an Imperial defector (Riz Ahmed) to steal the plans for the Death Star, a monumental event that set in motion the entire franchise nearly 40 years ago.
Burdened with extensive reshoots and the unavoidable fact that we know how it all ends, “Rogue One” represented somewhat of a risk for Disney—albeit a risk that will, worst case scenario, not make quite as much money as “The Force Awakens” did last year and only sell 85% of the toys. Happily, though, the movie ends up killer, with a brutality of war featuring the troops on the ground we’ve never seen in a “Star Wars” film before. The scars of the reshoots show through here and there, though, with Whitaker’s character seemingly suffering the most, relegated to a plot device that goes nowhere—and the same goes for a mystical crystal Jyn wears around her neck. Neither of those, however, are likely to conjure up the negative conversations that one prominently featured CGI character will over his too-many scenes. For the record, I’m not talking about Jar Jar Binks, but a long-dead British actor resurrected to look like a Playstation 4 cutscene character—pretty good, but still off-putting and not quite right. Ultimately, we’re left with a thrilling “Star Wars” movie that dares to be different—for example: no opening crawl, no transitional wipes, and no Jedi—and ends up as a better film than the widely-beloved nostalgia hug that was “The Force Awakens.”
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler
Directed by: David Yates (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2”)
Written by: J.K. Rowling (debut)
You didn’t really think Warner Bros. would let a multi-billion-dollar movie franchise vanish just because they were out of novels to adapt, did you? After magically stretching seven books about a boy wizard named Harry Potter into eight hit movies, multiple theme park attractions, and piles of merchandise taller than a stack of coins in a Gringott’s vault, the studio turned to author J.K. Rowling to reach back into the cauldron and conjure up a five-film prequel series based on a slim fictional textbook used in Hogwarts and published for us Muggles in 2001, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”
Set in 1926, the film focuses on the author of the fictional reference book, world traveler and magical creature wrangler Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he makes his way to New York City with a suitcase full of the titular fantastic beasts, including some snake-like dragons with egg shells of silver and a mischievous platypus-looking niffler that can’t help but swipe shiny things. The latter causes trouble when he escapes at a bank, causing Scamander to inadvertently expose a baker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Folger), who is a No-Maj—the American word for the now-familiar Muggle—to the world of wizardry. This is dangerous, you see, as there are those out to destroy witches and wizards, namely the New Salem organization who wants to them see burned at the stake. Scamander attracts the attention of Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a disgraced Magical Congress of the United States of America (aka MACUSA) agent who attempts to detain Scamander—only for the pair to stumble upon a brewing wizarding war after some magical creature begins murdering No-Majs.
First-time screenwriter Rowling ably expands her “Harry Potter” universe admirably, albeit a tad shakily as the movie first unfurls. The film takes a while to get to know Redmayne’s shy, soft-spoken Scamanader and “Fantastic Beasts” feels a tad adrift until we finally get to see what’s inside of his case. When the hunt begins for Newt’s escaped creatures, “Fantastic Beasts” shimmers to life, juxtaposing the whimsical with the supernaturally dreadful in the way Yates’ later Potter films did so well (when they weren’t being split in two for maximum profits, that is). Prior knowledge of the Potterverse isn’t necessary, and at times the whole affair can feel a little bit like it’s setting the table for the next four films promised in the series—which, after a high-profile cameo at the end of this one, pledge to dive deep into magical warfare. Get your wands ready.
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwitel Ejiofor
Directed by: Scott Derrickson (“Sinister”)
Written by: Jon Spaihts (“Prometheus”), Scott Derrickson (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose”) and C. Robert Cargill (“Sinister”)
At 14 movies in, Marvel Studios’ cinematic universe is humming along rather well. After two lackluster releases in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Ant-Man” in 2015, the studio stormed back this year with the certifiably-fantastic “Captain America: Civil War” and vanquished its longtime rival DC Comics in the battle for critical acclaim, because no one really liked “Batman v. Superman” or “Suicide Squad” all that much, volume of Harley Quinn Halloween costumes notwithstanding.
Anyway, here we are at “Doctor Strange,” Marvel’s latest effort in its (so-far) successful attempt to expand their theatrical bench using superheroes not quite as known to the general public. Doctor Strange, created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, is quickly explained as a mustachioed sorcerer with a high-collared cape and a giant amulet around his neck. Hardly Halloween costume material.
We begin quickly with a look at Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a hot-shot, egotistical surgeon bearing more than a passing resemblance to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark whose career is put in jeopardy after a high-speed, distracted driving Lamborghini crash leaves him without the use of his hands. After exhausting the limits of medical science and the patience of his on-again/off-again girlfriend Christine (Rachel McAdams), Strange travels to Nepal to solicit help from The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who isn’t some sort of faith healer but a sorcerer supreme. She offers to teach him the ways of sorcery to win back the ability to use his hands—oh, and maybe fight in an impending magical war, to boot.
The film seems to know it has a lot of ground to cover to get Strange from surgeon to sorcerer, and as a result the first half of “Doctor Strange” at times feels equal parts plodding and hasty. This is, after all, another origin story, and this far in, the setup portions of these films start to feel longer and longer. The movie perks up, though, when it finally gives way to a special effects bonanza, starting with a sentient cape reminiscent of Aladdin’s magic carpet and continuing on to a kaleidoscopic, geometric rearranging of the New York City skyline and a climax that plays with the passage of time in clever, head-tripping ways. Even as the most self-contained Marvel movie since “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Doctor Strange” is careful to toss in references to the Avengers, its own Infinity Stone, and the assurance that, of course, Doctor Strange will return.
Starring: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Ben Foster
Directed by: Ron Howard (“Angels & Demons,” “The Da Vinci Code”)
Written by: David Koepp (“Angels & Demons,” “Indiana Jones and the Kingdon of the Crystal Skull”)
Call me a philistine if you will, but I, like a lot of people in the mid-2000s, enjoyed the novels of Dan Brown. With titles like “Digital Fortress” and “Deception Point,” it should be abundantly clear what you’re putting your hands on: mindless distraction during your lunch hour that, maybe, you can talk about with someone else once you’ve finished. To further illustrate my point, I’ve also read a vast majority of James Patterson’s nursery rhyme-themed novels featuring Alex Cross for reasons I don’t fully understand, beside the fact that I’d been doing so for the better part of two decades. The works of either author are far from being considered high art—and their film adaptations aren’t really any better.
Which brings us to “Inferno,” the third movie in the series that includes “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels & Demons” from director Ron Howard (based on the fourth book—sorry, “The Lost Symbol”) featuring Tom Hanks as Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, a somewhat milquetoast professor who is a world-renowned expert in solving intricate puzzles based on or embedded in Renaissance works of art. This time out, Langdon wakes up in a hospital bed in Florence, Italy, having apparently suffered a gunshot wound and retrograde amnesia. This is all according to his young doctor, Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) who actually recognized Langdon from a lecture she attended when she was nine years old. The two must make a hasty escape, though, when moments after Langdon awakes, an Italian police officer comes in shooting. Langdon and Sienna retreat to her apartment, where Langdon discovers some gizmo in his jacket that projects an altered image of Dante’s 7 layers of hell, peppered with clues by bizarre billionaire Betrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), hinting at the end of the world. You see, Zobrist has created a supervirus that will wipe out half of humanity in a matter of days so as to save the earth from overpopulation, and it’s up to a 60-year-old professor and his young English doctor sidekick to stop Zobrist—once they shake the jack-booted thugs the World Health Organization (!!!) sends gunning for them, that is.
While bereft of fun and weighing heavy with a sense of “let’s just get through this” obligation, “Inferno” falls squarely into the same category as “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels & Demons” before it: inoffensive and forgettable. Howard and Hanks, who I’ve never thought was right for the role, must be making a mint off of all of this, and they both seem like super nice guys, so what’s the problem, right? Plus, Irrfan Khan seems to be having a good time (and if the script had any eyes on a continuing the series, would have been less beholden to his character’s inconsequential fate in the book) and seeing Felicity Jones is a good reminder of how excited you’ll be to see “Rogue One” in a couple of months. Just pretend the movie is like one of the many museums the characters visit: you’ll buy the ticket and hope the experience goes by as quickly as possible, and maybe you’ll share a small conversation about it with someone at work on Monday. It really is the best case scenario.
Starring: Elizabeth Reaser, Lulu Wilson, Annalise Basso
Directed by: Mike Flanagan (“Oculus”)
Written by: Mike Flanagan (“Hush”) and Josh Howard (“Before I Wake”)
I firmly don’t believe in the paranormal, and think it’s patently ridiculous that any mass-market product made by a toy company could possibly channel the undead. That’s why I’ve never been scared of an ouija board—it has a barcode on it, and the new ones even need batteries. What does a spirit need with batteries anyway?
Still, the brand has value and Hasbro, the toy giant behind such cinematic masterpieces as “Transformers” and “Battleship,” holds the licensing rights and someone at the company though “sure, why the hell not?” when it came to adapting the parlor game into a movie.
Just before Halloween in 2014 we got “Ouija” and it was awful. Two years later, we’re treated to the prequel, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” and, in spite of the previous effort and the fact it’s based on a board game that pretends to be a tool of dark magic, it’s actually not too bad.
Set in 1967 Los Angeles, a widow named Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) conducts séances in her home, setting up the illusion of supernatural powers with the help of her two daughters, Paulina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson). Sharp-eyed fans who loved (or even remember) the first film may recognize the names of the sisters from the backstory recounted in the present day, but don’t worry, you don’t need any prior knowledge of that piece of shit movie.
Anyway, after Paulina sneaks out of the house to hang out with friends and play with an Ouija board, the sisters suggest to Alice that one of the games might spice up the readings for clients. When Doris tries to use the board alone to contact her late father, a dark spirit inhabits her, allowing her to command the board with her mind and seemingly talk to the dead—which Alice immediately uses to her advantage to gain new business. But when frightening things start happening, Paulina reaches out to her Catholic school principal Father Tom (Henry Thomas!) for help in taking down the evil that’s haunting her family.
The ‘60s setting and low-rent con artist racket that Alice runs with her girls add immediate flavor to a premise that is, ultimately, just another haunted house story with an Ouija board in the mix to make good on the licensing. Still, it’s a story fairly well told, even if some of Alice’s choices, like the one to exploit her daughter’s obviously chilling new ability, never really make sense and the climax moves forward with little regard for anything other than getting to the point where the backstory in the first movie (which, again, who the hell remembers that?) lines up with what has happened on the screen. Maybe this new-found quality will be further explored in a Magic 8-ball spin off in a few years. Outlook not so good.
Starring: Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett
Directed by: Tate Taylor (“The Help,” “Get on Up”)
Written by: Erin Cressida Wilson (“Men, Women & Children”)
High-class trashiness in entertainment is underrated. Who doesn’t enjoy some preposterous airplane novel about a conspiracy to quash knowledge of Jesus’ wife and children? Or a well-made TV show about the O.J. Simpson trial featuring respected actors dolled up in ‘90s Court TV cosplay?
Based on the novel by Paula Hawkins you saw everyone at Starbucks reading, the film version of “The Girl on the Train” follows closely in the footsteps of that other twisty-turny-trashy novel-turned-movie “Gone Girl,” piling on the double crosses and diversions, only without ever elevating the trashiness to an enjoyable level or executing a satisfying twist.
Boozy, bedraggled Rachel (Emily Blunt) goes about her life in an alcoholic haze, riding the train into Manhattan every day. She fixates on the people who live (pretty unfortunately) near the track, namely a young blonde woman named Megan (Haley Bennett) upon whom Rachel projects her dream of a perfect life. She has a sexy husband (Luke Evans) and a beautiful home (if you don’t factor in the proximity to a commuter rail line). But, as we learn through shifts in storytellers, she is hardly happy. Megan is enamored with her therapist (Edgar Ramirez) and hates children and her job as a nanny working for Anna (Rebecca Ferguson)—who lives two doors down from Megan, is married to Rachel’s ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) and is fed up with Rachel’s stalker-like behavior. When Rachel spies Megan canoodling with another man on the balcony as the train passes by, she makes a booze-fueled fateful decision to get off the train and confront Megan for ruining her own life, only to wake up hours later to find she’s a suspect in Megan’s disappearance.
Where “The Girl on the Train” falters in comparison to something like David Fincher’s spiritually-similar “Gone Girl” is the absence of an appealing character when all of the dust settles. Bennett’s Megan is a petulant, dissatisfied adulterer. Ferguson’s Anna is a cold, shrill yuppie wife. And Rachel is a raging, destructive alcoholic—unless she wasn’t always, as the script weakly and ineffectively bails her out in the third act. The twist ending, if you can call it that, is easy to spot from a mile away and isn’t scandalous enough or, frankly, outrageously batshit crazy enough to elevate the material to the sublime nastiness a film like this demands.