Before "Kinky Boots" became the Broadway musical sensation, it was a British film starring Joel Edgerton ("The Great Gatsby") and Chiwetel Ejiofor ("12 Years a Slave"). The comedy about a shoe factory in financial trouble and its unexpected savior opened in the UK in 2005, wasn't released in the US until 2006, and earned Ejiofor a Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical Golden Globe nomination in 2007.
Roger Ebert praised Ejiofor, who played Lola, the feisty and sensitive drag queen (whose real-name is Simon), in his 3-star review: "[he] shows an actor doing what not every actor can do: Taking a character bundled with stereotypes, clearing them out of the way, and finding a direct line to who the character really is." However, the movie got hardly any attention, with a very limited release, and made less than $2M.
The Broadway adaptation of "Kinky Boots", which began its run in 2013, had the powerhouse team of Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper behind it. The show soared to Tony-winning heights, earning Best Musical honors, and as Lola, Billy Porter won for Best Actor in a Musical. I just saw "Kinky Boots" in New York (with Porter back in the starring role), and it's simply sensational. There's a deep, rich and meaningful story, with several fantastic songs, including "The Most Beautiful Thing", "Step One" and "Soul of a Man".
For the amazingly choreographed "Everybody Say Yeah", the cast races up and down working conveyor belts, never missing a step or note. And Porter is outstanding. "Not My Father's Son" and "Hold Me in Your Heart" are the show's signature songs and provide its most powerful moments. If you're planning on taking a trip to NYC and haven't seen it yet, put "Kinky Boots" on your to-do list. The show is also currently touring around the US and is finally opening in England.
“Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation” is the fifth installment in a 20-year-old film franchise. Last time, for 2011’s “Ghost Protocol”, Hollywood superstar Tom Cruise risked his life (and pure sanity) by climbing the tallest building in the world. In the opening scene of “Rogue Nation”, he hangs on to an airplane for dear life. And, yes, Cruise actually did this stunt - eight times.
As a producer on “M:I5”, Cruise was clearly in control of what was in store for his character - Ethan Hunt. This latest mission, which Hunt eagerly chooses to accept, is to bring down the anti-IMF organization called the Syndicate. Problem is, the CIA has shut down the IMF, due to their reckless activities of the past. So Hunt and pals Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) have to go rogue.
Jeremy Renner is also back as Agent Brandt, who has to balance both working with Hunt and the IMF and keeping the agency’s mission a secret from the Feds, including CIA boss Hunley, played by Alec Baldwin. And new to the cast is Golden Globe nominated star of “The White Queen”, Rebecca Ferguson, who plays the mysterious Ilsa Faust, who’s working for the Syndicate, but may or may not be a double-agent - or a triple agent.
At one point Hunt says to Benji, “You want drama? Go to the opera.” Well, you want action? Go to M:I5. The action scenes in “Rogue Nation” are ambitious and extremely impressive, from an electrifying motorcycle chase through Morocco, to Cruise in a daring underwater tank sequence. They do keep your attention, even though they get pretty long. But then again, so does the entire movie. It seems (for some reason) to be almost “impossible” to bring one of these films in under two hours.
“Rogue Nation” is heavy on plot explanation and characters analyzing what they plan on doing next. And like “Ghost Protocol”, it takes the story and itself way too seriously. Sure, there are a couple of nice surprises, and all of the stunts are quite bold, but as a whole, “M-I” disappointed that it’s not consistently and genuinely ‘fun to watch’? Yes “I - M”.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation” gets a C+. No matter how successful this one is, there’s no doubt Cruise will be looking to continue the spy series, if for no other reason than so the sixth installment can be called “M:I6”.
As the son of loving husband and father Clark W. Griswold (who, in the previous "Vacation" movies, may have looked like he did everything wrong, but actually did everything right), Ed Helms is the grown-up version of Rusty in this modern version of "Vacation", which is just as zany and uneven as the original. Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis Daley (who also co-wrote the script for the underrated 2013 Steve Carell magician comedy "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone") clearly used "National Lampoon's Vacation" as a road map, but mix-in some fresh elements for this wacky reboot.
Rusty decides that after years of taking his wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) and constantly-fighting sons James and Kevin on the same, boring Memorial Day holiday vacation to a cabin in the woods, it's time to follow in his father's footsteps. And so the Griswolds are going to Walley World! Instead of the Wagon Queen Family Truckster, which Chevy Chase and company used in the original, Rusty rents a uniquely shaped, bright blue Tartan Prancer ("It's the Albanian Honda"). This becomes the "vehicle" (pun intended) for much of the film's crazy hijinks, many of them very funny.
As in the original, this road trip takes the Griswolds from disaster to disaster, as they make their way from Chicago to California. And in between there are some clever homages to the '83 classic, including a shocking update of the famous Christy Brinkley highway scene.
"Vacation" isn't a 5-star experience by any means. Some of the situations are simply too ridiculous and others go way too far (including a stop at Debbie's old sorority that is too long and a potential career-low for Applegate). The character of Stone Crandall (played by Chris Hemsworth), the husband of Rusty's sister Audrey (Leslie Mann), is over-the-top and completely unbelieveable as a TV weatherman being looked at by "the networks". And a "Four Corners" bit involving rival police officers from the border states immediately falls into the category of "been there, done that". But there are an equal number of gags that do work, most notably a Grand Canyon river rafting session, featuring the hilarious Charlie Day ("Horrible Bosses") as a guide who has lost his way. However, the Walley World climax is a bit underwhelming and doesn't compare to the John Candy cameo in the original.
Helms is pitch perfect here, with many great one-liners and displaying that same, spot-on comedic timing and delivery as Chase showcased in the "Vacation" franchise films (Chase and Beverly D'Angelo do make welcome, but brief appearances late in the movie.) The thing that made those films (including my favorite - "Christmas Vacation") work is that they knew they were really silly, but smart at the same time, and allowed the audience to be in on all of it. Having the creative talents of John Hughes, Harold Ramis and Chase on those movies set them apart. This "Vacation" may lack some of the warmth of those films, but in an age where raunchy, often unfunny R-rated comedies are now commonplace, "Vacation" provides just enough of what you're hoping for out of a summer escapism comedy. As Chase says late in the film - "it's NOT about the journey, it's about the destination." And this trip - with all its highs and lows - is definitely worth taking.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Vacation" gets a B-.
"Paper Towns" is based on the 2008 YA novel by "The Fault in Our Stars" author John Green. That book came out in 2012, and the 2014 film adaptation featured a nomination-worthy performance from Shailene Woodley - the centerpiece of an emotionally moving story about teen troubles and love. Don't worry about having tissues handy for "Paper Towns". Though it tries very hard to manipulate you, in many different ways, the story and the performances just can't get you there.
In some ways, this is the teenage version of "Gone Girl", as the mysterious Margo Roth Spiegelman (played by British model Cara Delevingne) disappears following an unforgettable evening with neighbor and former close friend Quentin (Nat Wolff from "Admission"), who's been secretly been in love with Margo ever since her family moved-in across the street 11 years ago. Margo was out to get revenge on her ex-boyfriend and other friends, with Quentin serving as her assistant "ninja" (her word, not mine). She makes grand philosophical statements to Quentin about the importance of her quest. He's just happy to be hanging with her.
A few days later, following her disappearance, Quentin and his two stereotypical best friends find some messages and clues that Margo left behind. Quentin believes this is Margo's way of telling him to come find her, and this becomes his mission.
And that's when "Paper Towns" becomes a road trip movie. For practically the entire second half Quentin, his buds and their female companions skip the last few days of high school to travel, in his mother's van (he finally calls her 2 days later), so they can see how this game of "Margo! Polo!" plays out. Along the way, they stop at a convenience store and we get one of the film's very surprising moments thanks to a cameo by a familiar face to members of the tween/teen girl John Green fanclub.
The vast majority of "Paper Towns" is all-too familiar - teen coming-of-age/end-of-HS stuff we've seen in dozens of other films. The theme of finding oneself and realizing (or not yet realizing) who you are is important, but it's presented in some of the most unoriginal ways possible. If you didn't read the book and go into this film cold, the ending may catch you off-guard a little bit, but it's uneven and asks the audience to take some big leaps of logic.
Wolff is likable enough to carry us along, but he's not ready to become the next Miles Teller (who I'm sure might've jumped at this role pre-"Whiplash"/3-5 years ago). As for Delevingne, she recently told Entertainment Weekly that the ultimate goal of her acting career is to "f---ing Meryl Streep it!" Streep herself once said, "It is well that the earth is round that we do not see too far ahead."
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Paper Towns" gets a flat C. Never dull, but never exciting, this is the perfect example of a story that clearly worked on paper (and for a specific demographic) but fails to ignite any sparks on screen.
“Southpaw” is about a down-on-his-luck boxer trying to make a comeback. Sound familiar? There are a few unique elements to this story, but ultimately, “Southpaw” relies on its knockout performances to carry you through a solid, but predictable, two-hour melodrama.
Jake Gyllenhaal continues his winning streak, following excellent work in “Prisoners” and “Nightcrawler”. Here he plays undefeated light-heavyweight champion Billy “The Great” Hope. His wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) has been by his side since they were kids, both making it out of NY’s Hell’s Kitchen. But, as the film begins, she is seriously concerned for Billy, who is taking too many beatings. She wants him to stop fighting and spend more time with their young daughter, Leila.
Tragedy strikes the Hope family and Billy soon learns that he’s out of money (ironically, rapper 50 Cent, who recently filed for bankruptcy, plays Hope’s manager and financial advisor). Leila ends-up in the custody of Child Protective Services. Billy reaches-out to gym owner and former pro trainer Tick Willis (played by Forest Whitaker) for a job and a shot to get his life back.
“Southpaw” doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the boxing scenes - they are very graphic and, for the most part, authentic. And Gyllenhaal, once again, immerses himself into his character - an emotionally unstable boxer and father. Whitaker’s multi-layered performance is actually the most impressive - as the Oscar winner greatly elevates the typical trainer role.
I give director Antoine Fuqua (whose Denzel Washington action film “The Equalizer” came-out just 10 months ago) and screenwriter Kurt Sutter (TV’s “The Shield” and “Sons of Anarchy”) a lot of credit for the gutsy twist that comes within the first half hour. The film has an overall gritty feel, which adds to the realism, and some of the scenes with Billy and Leila are surprising and emotionally powerful. However, the ending is forced and disappointingly safe, as the arc of the story plays-out exactly as expected.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Southpaw” gets a B.