Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Film Reviews: “Amsterdam” Is David O. Russell’s Version of Whimsy; “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” Is “Green Book” Follow-up for Peter Farrelly; “Hocus Pocus 2” Is Hokey Too

Amsterdam (c) 20th Century Studios

Film:  Amsterdam 
In Cinemas 

It’s the 1930s right after World War I and three war-scarred vets meet at a French hospital and become devoted friends. Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) is the officer in charge of an all-Black infantry and Harold Woodsman (John David Washington) is in that troop. They both get injured right as armistice is declared and are tended to by nurse Valerie (Margot Robbie). They move to and live an Arcadian life in the titled city with a romance budding between Harold and Valerie, before Burt feels the need to return to his life as a doctor in New York with his wife and her disapproving and antisemitic wealthy parents. A few years later, Burt is a doctor running a makeshift clinic specializing in helping wounded war veterans who have no other resources. Harold, now a lawyer, asks Burt to do an autopsy of their former army commander who he and the commander’s daughter (a very short but memorable cameo by Taylor Swift) believe may have been murdered. Soon, the two are mixed up in a big conspiracy in which they are now murder suspects which somehow leads them back to Valerie, who neither had heard from since Amsterdam. This leads the newly reunited trio and amateur sleuths to a 1930s rogues gallery of quirky characters, played by an impressive cast of supporting actors like Anya Taylor Joy, Michael Shannon, Rami Malek and Robert De Niro that ultimately unveils a cabal that might be behind the rise of some leaders in Germany and Italy. 

Amsterdam (c) 20th Century Studios

Director David O. Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook,” “Flirting with Disaster”) has a huge fan base and his films have amassed many Oscar nominations, and while I certainly liked performances, I just don’t see what distinguishes him from his peers, despite his perfectionism that sometimes seems to alienate many of his stars to the point of near or actual violence. What distinguishes his latest film, “Amsterdam,” is that it’s his first period movie (past the disco era 1970s of “American Hustle”). Here, he is inspired to take a more whimsical Wes Anderson approach, giving the audience intricate choreographed blocking in intricate diorama sets, but Russell doesn’t really do anything interesting with it. The way-too-intricate plot with all these stylistic moving parts makes for a very mixed bag of fun (usually involving Bale) and pretentiousness (re: Malik). It's an enjoyable but uneven ride, but once it’s over, “Amsterdam” disappears from your memory, which shouldn’t be the case with a cast this stacked. 

The Greatest Beer Run Ever (c) Apple TV+

Review: The Greatest Beer Run Ever 
In Cinemas and Streaming on Apple TV+ 

If you think the whole plot of “The Greatest Beer Run” is summarized by its title, well, you’re not wrong, but the most interesting thing about this patronizing tale (right wing rah rah rah, peace marchers are unamerican, but maybe both sides could be right) is that it’s based on a true story. It’s the 1960s and the Vietnam War is being televised, but only Lyndon B. Johnson’s version, so John “Chickie” Donahue (a likeable but in-over-his-head Zac Efron), a merchant sailor, who decides to take a job on a ship in order to deliver beer from the local bar (run by a WWII Vet played rather unconvincingly by Bill Murray) to his friends serving with different units in Nam. Director Peter Farrelly’s follow-up to his Best Picture Oscar-winning “Green Book” is carrying a lot baggage, and I’m not talking about the lone duffel bag Chickie seems to carry an unlimited supply of beer in (it must be made of the stuff of Newt Sacmander’s “Fantastic Beast” briefcase). It’s true that “Beer Run” is equally heavy-handed with leaden messaging and wishy-washy politics, but “Green Book” was anchored by a fine and honest performance by Mahershala Ali that seemed beamed in from a better movie. That analogous role should have been the war journalist played by Russell Crowe, but he doesn’t have much to do until almost the end of the movie. All of Chickie’s friends when they see their neighborhood buddy on the battlefield with cans of beer, their amazement quickly turns to anger but soon softens when they realize how good-hearted his wrong-headed action really was. Chickie is seen as a Forrest Gump-like character in that way. In that respect, Farrelly might actually have another crowd-pleaser on his hands, no matter how clunky the messaging. 

Hocus Pocus 2 (c) Disney+

Film: Hocus Pocus 2 
Streaming on Disney+ 

It amazes me how some movies I have rarely given a second thought to from years ago now have a cult following. I mean, not even I thought “Clue” was a good movie when it first came out, but it’s fun to rewatch, not because it’s perfect, but because it’s a comfort ( “Flames, FLAMES!”). So, when the perfectly unextraordinary “Hocus Pocus” from 1993 became a favorite film to rent every Halloween, well, you can forgive the generic plot after the tenth viewing and just enjoy the three lead performers, Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker as the sisters Sandersons, doing the equivalent of drag queens, camping it up as witches who still haunt the woods of Salem. But this is gentle fun–probably only scary to very young children–even with the talk of eating children, poisoning the town and virgins (scary!!). This time around, it’s the plan of Gilbert (Sam Richardson), who has transformed the original Sanderson house into a magic store, to bring back the sisters, even retelling their lore and myths. He gets two smart but nerdy girls to light that black candle in the woods, and before you can say the eponymous incantations, the witches are back (sung to Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back,” because why not). The trio all have a good time, with the best taking place at Walgreens–talk about scary lighting–but there’s no doubt that it’s Midler’s game, and good on Najimy and Parker for playing second banana. This year’s “I Put a Spell on You” set piece, at a Sanderson Sisters cosplay competition (with some actual drag queen cameos), is fine, a bit hokey and not as inspired as the original. In the end, I’m glad the “Hocus Pocus” Stans finally got the sequel they feared they would never get (the original only grossed $45M). Maybe it’s time to break Miss Scarlet and Professor Plum out of limbo for another murder mystery?

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