INCREDIBLES 2 (2018)

June 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. In 2004 THE INCREDIBLES became the 6th Pixar film in a row to dominate the box office, and also the 6th straight to “WOW” us with a combination of animation, story, action and characters. All these years later, Brad Bird, the creative force behind the original, is back with the much anticipated sequel. Mr. Bird’s career over those years has featured a blend of other animation (RATATOUILLE, 2007) and live-action (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL).

Bird is not the only returnee for the sequel. Also back is the entire Parr Family: Holly Hunter as Elastigirl/Helen/Mom, Craig T Nelson as Mr. Incredible/Bob/Dad, Sarah Vowell as Violet, Huck Milner as Dash, and Eli Fucile as baby Jack Jack. The story picks up not long after the original ended. “Supers” have been outlawed, and the Parrs are in some type of Super Protection Program – similar to Witness Protection. Of course when one is a superhero, doing the right thing just comes naturally, and the opening scene finds them battling their old nemesis Underminer (voiced by Pixar good luck charm John Ratzenberger, who voices a character in each of the studio’s films). Our heroes stop the crime, but cause significant damage to the city. This leads to our first social commentary when the powers that be scold the Parrs and inform them that the banks have insurance, and it’s cheaper to let the criminals get away so that the damage is minimized.

As superheroes non-grata, the Parrs try to go “straight” and live a normal life. That is until a powerful brother and sister corporate duo offer a proposal. Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and Evelyn Deavor (twist that pronunciation just a bit, voiced by Catherine Keener) want to generate a PR plan to help rebuild the reputation of supers. The idea is to make Elastigirl the public face of the program by having her wear a body cam to show off her heroic deeds (in this age of ‘pics or it didn’t happen’). She’s chosen over Mr. Incredible for economic reasons, and he’s relegated to stay-at-home parent (or as we called Michael Keaton in 1983, MR. MOM – an unacceptable sexist term these days).

Elastigirl enjoys her time in the limelight, while Bob doesn’t much like being just Bob. Plus he can’t understand why they changed math, as he gets frustrated trying to help Dash with his homework. He’s also challenged with Violet’s teen angst over a boy, and even moreso over the discovery that Jack Jack has POWERS! In fact, Jack Jack has multiple powers, but as a baby, he has little control – though his battle with a raccoon is not a segment you’ll soon forget.

Also returning is Frozone – voiced by Samuel L. Jackson (minus his trademark “MF’er), and costume designer Edna Mode – voiced by director Bird. Other new voices include (Odenkirk’s fellow “Better Call Saul” castmate) Jonathan Banks as Rick Dicker, Isabella Rossellini as the Ambassador, and Sophia Bush as Voyd, one of the new generation supers (which includes Reflux – one you’ll just have to experience).

The big new villain causing problems for Elastigirl is ScreenSlaver, who hypnotizes large groups of people through their screens – more social commentary on our dependence on technology and the addiction/affliction we have toward device screens. The flood of superhero movies over the years since THE INCREDIBLES exposes the not-so-complex story in this one, but it’s terrific that the film keeps much of the original look and feel, and yet brings something new … baby Jack Jack is a star!

Filled with the beautiful colors and art design we’ve come to take for granted from Pixar, the film also features some of the best action sequences you’ll see in any movie. The train sequence with Elastigirl is simply spectacular – as is the final action sequence. It’s also nice to see the flip in gender roles as Mom (Holly Hunter) takes the lead. Michael Giacchino returns as the composer and he blends in a touch of James Bond theme with his wonderful work. If the film needed extra credit (which it doesn’t), certainly the inclusion of a “Jonny Quest” clip would qualify. Family films don’t get much better than this, and even though it runs 2 hours, the closing credits feature the theme song for each of the superheroes, and could easily have been a short film unto itself.

Speaking of short films, a Pixar tradition is to include one before new releases. This time it’s BAO, a Chinese mother/son and food-oriented story from director Domee Shi (animator on INSIDE OUT)

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HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018)

June 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The feature film directorial debut of Drew Pearce is original and clever, while teasing with hope for a bit more than it delivers. Mr. Pearce is best known for writing the screenplay for IRON MAN 3, and now as a first time director, he shows enough promise to leave us interested in what comes next.

The film is set in dystopian Los Angeles a mere 10 years in the future. The streets are flooded with desperate rioters after a mega-corporation shuts off the clean water supply. The company is the film’s real villain, and the only one that The Nurse (Jodie Foster) can’t treat. See, she runs Hotel Artemis, an underground hospital for top tier criminals – the element that can’t just pop into the local community clinic for treatment on the latest bullet hole or knife wound. These patients follow a subscription plan and must stay current on their dues to gain admission.

The Nurse forgoes any attempt at personal vanity and is instead an agoraphobic, booze-chugging, (mostly) stick-to-the-rules type, who pops in anti-anxiety tapes and ear buds whenever her pulse quickens. She has run the place since it opened 22 years prior and is assisted by a mountain of man named Everest (get it?) played well by Dave Bautista. He’s a combination bodyguard, bouncer, handyman and assistant healthcare professional (check his badge).

The set design by Ramsey Avery deserves special mention as the Hotel Artemis is quietly housed in the shell of a former grand art deco hotel, now a victim to the city’s carnage – though the neon sign remains illuminated. Its vacation spot-themed rooms are a sight to behold, despite the frustratingly low lighting. Occupants are incognito and use their room names as identifiers. Sterling K Brown is Waikiki, a philosophical bank robber who dragged his brother Honolulu (Brian Tyree Henry) here for treatment after a heist went wrong. Acapulco (the always energetic Charlie Day) is a crass, motor-mouthed arms dealer, while Nice (Sofia Boutella, THE MUMMY) is a freakishly skilled assassin.

The stress level picks up when the biggest crime lord of Los Angeles shows up seriously wounded. Known as The Wolf King, an admittedly bad choice for a nickname, Jeff Goldblum brings some smooth-talking toughness, humor and twisted class to the proceedings. More than a few tentacles are attached to The Wolf King and other folks we’ve previously met, not the least of which is a very special ink pen stolen by Honolulu. Mix in an injured cop (Jenny Slate) with a personal link to The Nurse and her constantly alluded to tragic backstory, and the movie puts off a Graphic novel vibe … missing only the off-the-cuff insanity. It’s just a bit too grounded for its own good.

The high tech/low rent feel forces us to recall BLADE RUNNER and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, but of course, this film isn’t at the level of either, as it lacks top tier suspense. It is a terrific reminder of what a talented actress two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster is, and what a shame that we haven’t seen her in such a substantial screen role since 2013’s ELYSIUM. She really sinks her teeth into this odd character, and more than the action scenes, she keeps us interested the entire run time. The score is a bit too heavy on the droning electronic bass line, and while the Florida joke and nod to John Phillips (The Wolf King, “California Dreamin’”) earns some bonus points, it’s really the performance of Ms. Foster and the set design that saves a too-safe script.

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SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (2018)

May 24, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The second feature film directed by STAR WARS creator George Lucas was AMERICAN GRAFFITI in 1973. It starred a fresh-faced 19 year-old (mostly) TV actor named Ron Howard. Now 45 years later, Mr. Howard directs a prequel in the STAR WARS universe designed to fill in the gaps on the background of the beloved iconic character Han Solo – a role made famous, of course, by Harrison Ford.

Alden Ehrenreich stars as young Han Solo, and like most everything in this film, he is fine. Some will recognize Mr. Ehrenreich from his two starring roles in 2016 – the Coen Brothers 2016 film HAIL, CAESAR! and Warren Beatty’s RULES DON’T APPLY. He was also fine in both of those. His boyish Han Solo is wide-eyed and already sarcastic, though the familiar grizzled cynicism of Ford’s version has yet to emerge.

Since the film’s purpose is to fill in the gaps, here is what we learn (the questions only, no answers provided here):

What did Han do before the Rebellion?

How exactly did he win the (shiny) Millennium Falcon in a card game?

What is the origin of his name?

How did he first become linked with Chewbacca?

How strong are Wookies?

How exactly did he make the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs?

Each of these questions is answered in the film, and of course will not revealed here

When we first meet Han, he is basically a Juvenile Delinquent plotting an indentured labor escape with his girlfriend Qi’ra (played by Emilia Clarke, who is fine). Qi’ra evolves the most of any character in the film, but it’s still just fine, not surprising or revolutionary. The film starts slowly but there is a minor spark once Han meets rebels Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton). What follows is an extravagant and jaw-dropping train heist – the kickoff of many set pieces of which the filmmakers are quite proud and eager to show off.

The supporting cast consists of Joonas Suotamo (taking over for Peter Mayhew who is physically unable to play the role) as Chewbacca, rising star Phoebe Waller-Bridge as L3-37, and Paul Bettany as bad guy Dryden Vos. There is also voice work from Jon Favreau and Linda Hunt, and quick but fun scenes with Warwick Davis (STAR WARS regular beginning with 1983 STAR WARS: EPISODE VI: THE RETURN OF THE JEDI) and of course, Ron Howard’s good luck charm, his brother Clint Howard. The real gem of the film is Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian – a less than honorable gambler in the game of Sabacc.

The film is co-written by the father-son team of Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan. Given the pre-production issues – original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were let go over “creative differences” – the film stands just fine on its own. The timelines will likely be debated by STAR WARS aficionados, but the fun action sequences and dazzling special effects make it entertaining enough after that slow start.

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DEADPOOL 2 (2018)

May 16, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. We couldn’t help but ask “why?” when the sequel was announced, even though we knew the answer was money. There was little hope in improving on the first DEADPOOL (2016), and since that film’s director, Tim Miller, was tied up with upcoming projects for X-Men and Terminator, there was understandable concern that changing the recipe could result in huge disappointment. While it may not be an improvement on the first, only those with unrealistic expectations are likely to be disappointed … the rest of us will spend most of two hours laughing and enjoying the spectacle.

Director David Leitch exploded onto the scene with last year’s surprise action hit ATOMIC BLONDE, and his stuntman experience is once again on display with even more frenzied action and fight sequences this time out. As you might expect, there is no easing into the comedy routine here. The Opening Credits are laugh out loud funny and the only thing better may be the closing credits sequence, which is an instant classic.

No punchlines will be spoiled here, and it’s an obvious statement, but clearly no topic or subject, or at least very few, are off-limits. Targets of barbs include LinkedIn, YENTL, FROZEN, Fox & Friends, and well, the list goes on and on. You’ll likely miss 20 percent of the dialogue whilst laughing. The “Merc with a Mouth” (Ryan Reynolds) breaks the 4th wall in atypical fashion – blurring the line through dialogue incorporated into the story. The self-awareness is comical in its own right.

Some familiar faces are back. Wade’s main squeeze Vanessa (Marina Baccarin) kicks off the “kids” discussion (Yikes!) and the couple seems to have settled into cohabitant bliss – never a good sign in a superhero movie. TJ Miller (despite his recent headlines) is back running Sister Margaret’s Bar, though his minimal presence is noted. Also back is Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic), and his expanded role finds him turning Deadpool into an X-Men trainee at Professor Xavier’s School for the gifted. This occurs after tragedy strikes and we are introduced to some new players. Julian Dennison (so good in HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE) plays FireFist, and of course, the arrival of Cable (Josh Brolin) shows us what happens when a time-travelling Terminator type is out for revenge.

Snarking, mocking and irreverence remain in full force throughout, but if you happen to pay attention to the story, you’ll notice a (not-so) subtle transition taking place. The renegade superhero shifts from loner to team player, and even picks up some life lessons along the way – mostly related to loss and collaboration. Deadpool even forms his own team called X-Force, and one of the more interesting members is Domino (Zazie Beetz), whose superpower is luck (yep).  We do get a surprise cameo, and there’s even a shot of Deadpool with no pants … and it’s markedly unsexy. The music selections are inspired, however, if you are unsure whether this movie is for you … it probably isn’t.

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AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018)

April 25, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. We are at the 10 year mark of the new Marvel cinematic universe that began with the revolutionary IRON MAN (2008). This 19th movie in the franchise is actually Part 1 of 2 films that will (supposedly) be the lasting legacy of The Avengers. The second “half”, much of which was filmed simultaneously with this one, is set for 2019. Co-directing brothers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo were responsible for the two most recent Captain America movies (and also one of my all-time least favorites: YOU, ME AND DUPREE), and have now taken on the biggest budget, biggest cast, and longest run time yet of any Marvel movie. In fact, it’s so big, it could only be named ‘Infinity’.

Being that the fan base for this movie is highly sensitive to anything resembling a hint, much less a spoiler, this review will tread very lightly, and instead function as an overview with very general observations. There are a few key points, most of which are quite obvious from either the trailers or the previous movies in the series. First thing to realize is that this is a Thanos movie. He’s the first big (I told you everything was big), bad, nearly omnipotent villain. It should be noted that Thanos sees himself as misunderstood, which leads to the second key point: melodrama abounds – moreso than any previous comic book movie. It seems to be reminding us that Superheroes are people too (but are they really?). The third point is that if every character with a speaking part simply said “I am Spartacus”, it would still likely be the longest ever comic book movie. There are at least 28 characters with “key” roles – and that’s not counting the end credit stinger, or the missing characters we thought we would see, or the one that gets a logo tease as a coming attraction for part 2.

Co-writers Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus had their hands full in working to come up with a coherent story, while allowing so many familiar characters to have at least one moment in the spotlight, if not a few. The fact that AVENGERS: CIVIL WAR divided the group actually allows for multiple segments to play out concurrently. Though we never doubt these fragmented cliques and isolated individuals will fight to save the galaxy, that doesn’t necessarily mean they get the band back together. In fact, it’s the Guardians of the Galaxy who are a much more cohesive group than our beloved Avengers. But fear not … there is plenty of fighting and action to go around.

Thanos claims he is saving many interplanetary civilizations and restoring balance with his plan to eliminate half of all living beings. While there might be some scientific evidence to back up his plan, it doesn’t sit well with the good guys. More focus is given to his cravings for ultimate control and power provided by tracking down all six Infinity Stones (Tesseract/Space, Mind, Time, Power, Reality, and Soul) to complete his Infinity Gauntlet. Many of these stones are in quite inconvenient locations and require some ingenuity and brute force from Thanos.

Perhaps the travel agent had the biggest challenge as portions of the film take place in New York City, Knowhere, and Wakanda (good luck finding a brochure on those last two).  We also get a budding romance from Vision and Scarlet Witch, as well as annoying quasi-romantic banter between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts. And while we are on the “TMZ” portion of the review, it should be noted that both Black Widow and Captain America (introducing himself as Steve Rogers) both have new hair styles – though only one of them sports a beard.

In the realm of comic book movies, this would be considered an epic. It has stunning action sequences, remarkable special effects and some terrific comedy mixed in. Of course, you’ll have to accept the melodramatic emotions and fear that we haven’t been previously subjected, and know that the final finality doesn’t arrive for another year. It’s very long (more than 2 ½ hours) but it seems to go pretty quickly. The filmmakers have mostly succeeded in the monumental task of remaining true to the history in order to keep comic book fans satisfied, while also creating something that most should be entertained by. Despite lacking the upbeat, feel-good ending we’ve grown accustomed to, there is a welcome Stan Lee cameo, a post credit stinger (after about 10 minutes of rolling credits). And to top it off, we get “Rubberband Man” from The Spinners. Now that’s big!

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I FEEL PRETTY (2018)

April 20, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Comedians taking the leap from TV to movies sometimes find the going a bit rough. Amy Schumer hit it big with critics and audiences in TRAINWRECK (2015), and then flopped with both groups in last year’s SNATCHED (2017). This time out, she quells the raunchiness, and instead serves us a PG-13 message movie aimed squarely at adolescent girls. Ms. Schumer doesn’t abandon comedy, it’s now just a bit tamer and comes with a life lesson.

Renee (Ms. Schumer) is a mostly normal person who works in a computer “dungeon” as website support for a high-end make-up company named Lily LeClaire. Adrian Martinez plays her usually unresponsive co-worker who seems quite comfortable with the lack of human interaction that comes with the daily process. When not at her dead-end job, Renee hangs out with her also mostly normal friends Vivian (Aidy Bryant) and Jane (Busy Phillips, wife of the film’s co-director Marc Silverstein). Renee does seem to spend an inordinate amount of time hoping for her dream job (receptionist at Lily LeClaire headquarters) and her dream lifestyle (being beautiful and slim like the Lily LeClaire models).

If you’ve seen the trailer, you know what happens next. Renee gets conked on the head during a fitness class, and when she wakes up, she sees herself as the beautiful woman she always dreamed of becoming. Of course, her appearance hasn’t changed the slightest, but the way she carries herself certainly has. Where once there was moping and hoping, there is now confidence and daring. Her self-esteem cup is overflowing and she falls into her dream job, and lands a terrific boyfriend, while also being pursued by a dreamy one.

Her time at the company headquarters finds her interacting with CEO Avery LeClaire played with drop-dead perfect comedic timing from 4-time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams. Yes, THAT Michelle Williams! It’s such a treat to see this talented actress step away from her usual dramatic characters and flat out nail a comedic role in which she seems to nearly flutter across the screen while sporting a voice that would typically only be heard in Saturday morning cartoons. The shared scenes with Ms. Schumer and Ms. Williams are the film’s best, but unfortunately are too few – leaving some unexplored humor to our imaginations.

Co-writers and co-directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (first time directors, co-writers of HE’S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU) work hard to deliver the type of humor that Amy Schumer fans expect, while also paying respect to the all-important female body image message the film strives to deliver. It’s a challenging proposal, however despite my finding much of the comedy predictable, the theatre was filled with laughter from what was very likely a group of loyal Schumer fans. The bikini contest sequence seemed especially effective in generating laughter and praise from the loyalists.

As for the boyfriend role of nice guy Ethan, Rory Scovel may seem like an odd choice. He’s the anti-Hollywood leading man type – generally laid back with no glimmer of Type A personality. A quiet guy who takes Zumba classes is actually the perfect straight man for Schumer’s dominating screen personality … she does talk incessantly through most of the movie. Other supporting roles are filled by Lauren Hutton as Lilly “Gram” LeClaire, the company founder and grandmother to Avery; Emily Ratajkowski as Renee’s fitness class acquaintance, whose sole purpose seems to be in convincing Renee that beautiful women have life struggles too; Naomi Campbell as a company executive; and Tom Hopper (“Game of Thrones”), as the required eye candy for a viewing audience likely to skew heavily female.

Ms. Schumer is surely to receive backlash on the movie due to utilizing a head injury to show her character the road to self-esteem and confidence. In my opinion she should be commended for using comedy and her celebrity to send this message to the girls out there. We never know what delivery method will work, and if a fake bump on the head in a movie gets a few girls to realize success in life is not about one’s physical attractiveness, then I’m on board. Of course, there are many who say I’m not qualified to review the movie since, being a male, I can’t possibly understand what girls go through. And on that point, they are likely correct.

watch the trailer:


READY PLAYER ONE (2018)

April 5, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. While there is a massive target audience for Steven Spielberg’s return to fantasy adventure filmmaking, I am most certainly not part of that esteemed group. Although I very much enjoy throwbacks and tributes, I haven’t touched a video game controller in 3 decades, and of course have not read Ernest Cline’s popular novel – the source material that inspired Mr. Spielberg to veer from his recent heavy dramas (the exception being THE BFG). Still, being a movie lover, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the project.

Seemingly a match made in Virtual Reality heaven, we get one of the premier fantasy filmmakers joining forces with a screenwriter (Zak Penn) who has had success with comic book adaptions, and a bestselling first novel from a geeky author. Fascinating to watch, the film plays like Mr. Spielberg’s $175 million personal toy box.

There is a story, though one could argue it exists solely for the purpose of pushing the visual FX envelope. A Steve Jobs-type guru named Halliday (Mark Rylance) designed a 3-part contest of skill and strategy with the grand prize being full control over OASIS – a virtual world that allows the players to be anyone or anything they desire. Since Halliday’s death, most people in this dystopian future of the year 2045 spend their waking hours immersed in OASIS. Some use it as an escape from their bleak lives, while others are attempting to solve the mysteries of the 3 keys.

Set in Columbus, Ohio, which we are informed is the fastest growing city in the world (why??), there are two factions vying for the grand prize: true gamers/gunters and megacorporation IOI being run by corporate villain Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). Tye Sheridan (MUD) stars as Wade Watts, whose avatar is Parzival, one of the more thoughtful characters. Olivia Cooke (THOROUGHBREDS) plays Ar3mis, a rebel gunter (egg hunter) out more for revenge than victory. They are part of a group of misfits who label themselves ‘High-Five’, even though Parzival gets left hanging every time.

Near non-stop action and relentless pacing result in a whirlwind of lights and colors and visuals that are mixed with more 1980’s pop culture references than anyone could possibly catch in one viewing. As a primer, you should brace yourself for a key role from THE IRON GIANT (1999), as well as various appearances and nods to TRON, BACK TO THE FUTURE, Freddie Krueger, Chucky from CHILD’S PLAY, the Holy hand grenade (Monty Python), the infamous Big Foot monster truck, a speeding DeLorean, the 1960’s era Batmobile, that hideous A-Team van, Christine from CHRISTINE (1983), John Hughes, King Kong, BEETLEJUICE, and a personal favorite, Buckaroo Bonzai. It’s also a kick to see the Rubik renamed Zemeckis Cube. The most stunning sequence for this old geezer was the virtual recreation of Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980), especially the focus on Room 237. It’s these kind of nostalgic injections that prevent it from coming across as an overblown CGI spectacle with VR goggles.

Others in the cast (more time as voices than real people) include Lena Waithe (“Master of None”), TJ Miller as a bounty hunter with some of the film’s best one-liners, Simon Pegg as Halliday’s former business partner, and Phillip Zhao as Sho. Surely you’ve figured out that this one isn’t about the cast. OASIS is where your imagination rules and Easter eggs are driving plot lines. Alan Silvestri takes over the music from usual Spielberg collaborator John Williams, and delivers one of my favorite references (and one of the oldest) in the film – WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971). Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski must have been exhausted by the time filming was complete, though we can’t always tell what was filmed and what was created in the lab. Spielberg is a master manipulator when it comes to nostalgia, though we can’t help but wonder if he is making a statement with this being the next evolution as our society becomes ever-more-involved with their phones and personal devices. At least maybe some kid will leave this film with a greater appreciation of research.

watch the trailer: