BEN-HUR

The first words heard in the new remake of Ben-Hur are delivered in voice-over by – wouldn’t ya know it? – Morgan Freeman, meaning that the quality of director Timur Bekmambetov’s biblically themed epic is up in the air from the start. Will this be another Shawshank Redemption? A Million Dollar Baby? A March of the Penguins? A War of the Worlds? A Love Guru? A Hillary Clinton DNC bio-video?

So it shouldn’t be surprising that the movie, like Freeman’s vocal-track record, is similarly all over the place – sometimes lugubrious and laughable, sometimes powerful and exhilarating, sometimes merely blah. It’s hardly a threat to the legacy of 1959’s Ben-Hur and its record-setting 11 Oscar wins. But on the rare occasions that Bekmambetov’s unnecessary outing works, it works thunderously well, and either way we’re spared the monolithic orating of Charlton Heston, which is a plus right there.

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS

For more than 30 years, Meryl Streep has been singing on-screen in movies ranging from 1983’s Silkwood to last year’s Ricki & the Flash, with musical pitstops in a half-dozen outings in between. But not until the new bio-comedy Florence Foster Jenkins has the star ever sung quite this badly. Streep being Streep, of course, she sings badly brilliantly.

SUICIDE SQUAD

Everything you’ve likely heard about Suicide Squad is true – unless, for some reason, you’ve heard it’s great.

When I phone Wizard of Oz historian John Fricke for our scheduled July 21 interview, he doesn’t answer the call with a “Hello?”, or even a more formal “Yes, this is John Fricke.” Instead, the first three words he utters, or rather exclaims, are an exuberant “I love Iowa!

He asks if I like that intro, and I admit that I do, primarily because it’s no doubt sincere. Fricke, after all, enjoyed eight consecutive years (from 1979 to 1986) as emcee and chief entertainer for Davenport’s Miss Iowa pageants and even, during that period, co-headlined a two-person Col Ballroom concert alongside an 11-piece orchestra and former Miss Iowa Darla Blocker. So “I love Iowa!” makes total sense.

Given the subject of our conversation, however, “I love Kansas!” might’ve been more fitting.

CAFÉ SOCIETY

Woody Allen has made dozens of movies I’ve been happy to watch. Café Society may be the first one I’d be happy to eat.

BAD MOMS

Despite the film’s silliness and inconsequentiality, the experience of Bad Moms does prompt an almost existential question: If a crummy comedy makes you laugh out loud at least three-dozen times, can it even be considered crummy in the first place?

Friday, July 22, 9:55 a.m.-ish: Few things get me more psyched for a quadruple-feature – or, more accurately, get me less dreading one – than knowing my day’s first screening will be over in a scant 80 minutes. So I enter director David F. Sandberg’s Lights Out feeling pretty good. Somewhat incredibly, I exit feeling really good, because this hour-20 horror trifle gives you just what you want from these things and too rarely do: a creepy and clever premise, a snappy pace, a bunch of good scares, a few strong portrayals, and a relative lack of eye-rolling stupidity.

THE INFILTRATOR

A true tale that plays like fiction, director Brad Furman’s The Infiltrator concerns a federal agent (Bryan Cranston) who poses as a money launderer to help bust Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel, and it’s based on a memoir written by said agent Robert Mazur, not on a pre-existing movie. Yet it somehow feels like even more of a remake than the new Ghostbusters – principally a remake of Donnie Brasco, The Departed, or any number of similar entertainments involving disguised cops playing long cons, wire-tapping, bloody retribution, and swarthy gangsters in flashy suits conversing while topless women pole-dance in the background. It may boast saltier language and more bare breasts than broadcast-TV allows, but the movie wasn’t even 20 minutes old before I thought, “Hey ... haven’t I already seen this episode of Miami Vice?!”

GHOSTBUSTERS

Haters, as we all know, gonna hate. So there was probably no way the new Ghostbusters was ever going to win over the trolling Internet fanboys convinced that director Paul Feig’s female-led reboot – a nuclear bomb aimed directly at their childhood memories – was the end of civilization as we’ve known it. What consequently saddens me is that the movie spends so much time sucking up to those guys. While watching Feig’s latest, it’s easy to forget about the film’s underwhelming, dare-I-say-dreadful trailers, as the work in full is frequently very funny. But it’s also exhausting, because hardly a minute passes in which you’re not reminded of the Ghostbusters legacy – Ivan Reitman’s 1984 original, sure, but also the tired “controversy” surrounding its new presentation. All told, this might be the most simultaneously apologetic and defensive Hollywood blockbuster I’ve ever seen.

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS

Considering it doesn’t demonstrate any real ambition outside of providing 90 minutes of goofy, disposable family fun, the act of criticizing The Secret Life of Pets is almost literally like kicking a puppy. But while its pluses mirror those of many 21st Century efforts of its kind – sensational animation, a zippy pace, famous comedians voicing animals, yadda yadda – it’s hard not to see directors Yarrow Cheney’s and Chris Renaud’s outing as a bit of a blown opportunity, given that it keeps hinting at a potential greatness it seems forever uninterested in pursuing.

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