Mike at the Movies

Peter Rabbit (PG) *****

A rival for the recently released “Paddington Bear” hit, this one is equally as clever with even funnier dialogue. James Corden does a crackerjack job as the antagonistic Peter. A supporting cast including Sia, Sam Neill, Margot Robbie, Daisy Ridley and Domnhall Gleeson as animal voices and the always-radiant Rose Byrne as Beatrix Potter excel. Some of Potter’s original drawings of her characters appear in the film as animations.

The only disturbing part of the story is that Beatrix is portrayed as falling in love with Thomas McGregor, Mr. McGregor’s grand-nephew—highly unlikely and she remained a spinster her whole life. Thomas inherits his grand-uncle’s farm when the elder Farmer McGregor dies after narrowly missing capturing Peter. His purpose is to clean out the animals to prepare the house for sale so he can start his own toy store. The animals—the whole Potter cast including Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, the entire Rabbit clan (Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, Peter and Benjamin), Jemima Puddle-Duck, Felix D’Eer (who has a funny bit as a “deer in the headlights”) and Pigling Bland who eats everything—combine to attempt to force Thomas to leave the house and Beatrix alone and give them free access to the vegetable garden. They are opposed by electric fences and even dynamite but unite in the end. Peter relies on Benjamin and at one point says, “I don’t know where I’d be without you, Benjamin,” to which Benjamin replies, “In a pie, probably!”

The animation and live-action roles are so smoothly coordinated that it is not possible to believe it is mostly animation, the action is non-stop, the characters delightfully disruptive and supportive of each other. Families are certain to enjoy the story, the color and the humor. It is “veddy” British, of course, but not unintelligible. The ideal double feature this summer would be this one and “Paddington.” You’ll love yourselves and the kids will love you as well. First-class movie making, all the way!

Hostiles (R) ****

This may be the slowest, but most pictorially beautiful Western ever filmed. The plot is relatively simple: A soon-to-retire U.S. Army captain, Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), is assigned against his will to deliver an ill Cheyenne chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), back to his reservation in Montana. The catch is that Blocker hates Indians, and Yellow Hawk in particular for past massacres. Is he forced? Well, if he doesn’t take the mission, he loses his pension. As the column leaves their home fort, renegade Indians massacre Rosalie Quaid’s (Rosamund Pike) family and she flees with the dead body of her infant daughter and the corpses of her other two children. Before she leaves, she buries her children and her husband. Blocker and his troops escort her with them and the chief whose presence, along with his female relatives, sends her into hysterics.

From this point on, the real theme of the film emerges: Who are the real hostiles? The Indians or the whites? A racist prisoner who joins the procession in chains delivers a biased diatribe but we discover that Blocker is probably not guiltless either. Rosalie suffers from well-justified bias and keeps a distance between her and the Indian women and the chief and his son, Buffalo Man (David Midthunder). A Comanche raid convinces Blocker that Yellow Knife and his son would be more valuable unchained in fighting other attacks, and more barriers to understanding are broken down. Master Sgt. Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane) is the first to break out and confess his sins and walks away from the detachment. The pace is very slow, but Pike is absolutely brilliant as the widow Quaid and the developing affection between her and Blocker is sincere and meaningful. The photography by DP Masanobu Takayanagi is almost unreal, it is so beautiful. If you are patient and get with the message, you will find this a fascinating film. If not, you’ll be treated to a lovely couple of hours.

Winchester (PG-13) ***

As horror films go, at least this one has a rationale, of sorts. It still relies too heavily on sudden bursts of loud sound to accentuate sudden scene changes and the lighting is stark, angled and often confusing—all gimmicks of horror films—but it does have Helen Mirren, emoting as Sarah Winchester and Jason Clarke as Dr. Price, a skeptical psychiatrist. His job is to assess the sanity of Sarah, who is still part owner of Winchester Arms. It seems that Sarah is against the violence done by the products her company manufactures and is so disgusted that she has introduced roller skates into the Winchester catalogue! She is also in the process of adding on to her mansion with a room for every soul that Winchester rifles killed. It turns out that Dr. Price was killed by a Winchester while defending his wife, but he came back to life three minutes later. Or so he says.

Is Sarah Winchester batty? Of course, but don’t let that get in the way of the horror trademarks that you all know and love. Even “Beautiful Dreamer,” sung by a child, is used to heighten suspense. The film was shot mostly in Australia, around Melbourne, though the subject of the film is the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, and it appears in the film as well. The mansion was allegedly built with scores of rooms, one for each person or group that had been killed by Winchester firearms. When you get them all together, there is hell to pay! Just remember, as Sarah says, “Conditions can be cured; curses cannot!” (Google “Winchester Mystery House” for the full, weird history of this actual place.)

Fifty Shades Freed (R) **

The magic word is “freed.” We are now officially freed of having to watch any more of these artificially written, cliché-riddled pieces of Hollywood exploitation of women. Women made the novels popular and they have to take the blame if anybody goes to the film versions. The films, and this one in particular, appeal to the basest of instincts.

This one begins with a wedding, closely followed by a whirlwind honeymoon starting with a private jet to Japan, Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) and Christian’s (Jamie Dornan) first sex scene followed by a rapid tour of almost every status symbol of flagrantly rich waste you can imagine in Paris, Rome, etc. Christian makes Ana cover up her naked top on a French beach (“Boob after boob after boob” as Ana describes it) because of fear of tabloids but takes her home for some time with the Handcuffs of Love. (They are later used for one of the only funny scenes in the film after Ana’s security team disables Ana’s assailant. They have nothing to restrain the felon. Ana does!) From there on it is a scene and to the Red Room for some kinky stuff, always careful to avoid the problem areas of the body though highly suggestive of certain practices followed by a scene and another trip to the Red Room.

All the formula pieces fall into place: pregnancy (unwanted of course), engagement of Ana’s best friend, Kate, (Eloise Mumford) to Christian’s brother, Elliot (Luke Grimes), naked showers and baths that almost always lead either to the Red Room or some horizontal surface that can be roughly cleaned off and carnally used, a villainous ex-boss of Ana’s who stalks her and eventually holds Christian’s sister, Mia (Rita Ora), for ransom to Christian’s constant appearance as unshaven and rugged.

The film also serves as an advertising vehicle for Audi, particularly their sporty “Quattro” that does a wonderful job on the road evading trucks. It is also a weird fashion show. At one point, Ana wears a dress that exposes everything in front and is backless to a vivid extent and short to the groin. Why this costume was necessary you know only if you’re a fan of the feminine exploitation that lies at the core of the books and the films. In the day of “Me, Too,” this stuff rings hollow and is even more embarrassing. When I ordered my ticket I asked for “Fifty Shades of Boredom” and the ticket-seller laughed and said, “I know what you mean!” She has no idea.

Den of Thieves (R) **

OK. You’ve got a gristly Gerard Butler as “Big Nick”O’Brien and Pablo Schreiber as Ray Merrimen and tons of bullets and guns, with LA as a backdrop for a complex heist focusing on the LA branch of the Federal Reserve. The planning goes beyond that of a military operation as Merrimen’s gang of former US soldiers and specialists plans the heist. Nick warns Donnie the Bartender (O’Shea Jackson), who is a driver for the gang, “You’re not the bad guys. We are.” Meanwhile he is signing divorce papers at a dinner party at which his wife is present (Dawn Olivieri). He regrets the divorce, but, in one of the strange moments in the film, he goes to the school of one daughter to say hello but we never see the other daughter! Maybe she didn’t have bullets to share with him? In one of the longest and most boring of gun battles near the end, thousands of rounds are exploded with shockingly little effect. Is it worth the wait for such an explosive finale? Probably not.

15:17 to Paris (PG-13) **

What a terrible idea to cast amateurs in the lead roles for this boring film, even if they were the actual characters who perpetrated the 2015 rescue on a train to Paris from Amsterdam. It is more a travelogue of Rome, Amsterdam and Venice than a film about courage. The characters become all clichés in the awkward hands of Clint Eastwood, the director, and it becomes, at the end, a Christian token movie with a sappy prayer that has nothing to do with what happened and everything to do with framing the events the way Eastwood wanted them to sound and look.

The heroic conquest of a lone terrorist stands for itself and is the basis for the film, though it takes very little time for the heroic acts themselves. The rest of the film is padding and not good padding. Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler play themselves and had a good time, apparently. You will not have a good time reliving their experiences as tourists. Stone disarmed a terrorist whose weapon misfired though he did inflict some damage on Stone with a knife. That’s the core of the story and could have been handled with other than the usual close-focus camera work that stands for coverage of violence these days. Skip this unless you love watching stupid experiments go wrong.


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