THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (2022)

July 5, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. With a steady stream of Marvel movies and TV serials, maintaining coherent and connected storylines has become challenging. In fact, it’s probably best if fans take these at face value, rather struggling to connect the dots, only to end up frustrated. Perhaps no one understands this better than Taika Waititi, the director behind what many (including me) consider the best MCU film, THOR: RAGNAROK (2017). Waititi and co-writer Jennifer Kaytin Robinson once again embrace the blend of quick quip comedy and expected action sequences, supplemented this time a love story.

The pre-opening credits sequence provides the backstory for the film’s villain, Gorr the God Butcher, played by Oscar winner Christian Bale. Gorr has spent a lifetime worshipping the Sun God, only to realize his worshipping has occurred in an actual God-forsaken world that costs him dearly. Gorr ends up learning the lesson of ‘never meet your heroes’, and this confrontation gives him the power and curse of the Necrosword, and sets him on a revenge mission to kill all Gods. We have to respect a villain who has a legitimate claim to his mission – it’s not just a thirst for world domination. Gorr wants the Gods to pay for their ambivalence.

We then pick up Thor Odinson (Chris Hemsworth) as he has been fighting with the Guardians of the Galaxy since the end of AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019). With no shortage of characters who excel in comedy, this sequence shifts us into laughter and light-hearted mode after the bleak Gorr opening. It’s this pacing that holds for most of the movie … Waititi never lets things stay too serious for very long. Soon, Thor splits off from the Guardians, as he returns to New Asgard, being run by King Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). Now based on Earth, New Asgard is a theme park and tourist attraction. One of the features is the theater acting group we’ve seen previously, and this time Matt Damon, Luke Hemsworth, and Sam Neill are joined by Melissa McCarthy as Hela. While this is going on, we learn Thor’s old flame, astrophysicist Jane Foster (Oscar winner Natalie Portman) is now an author being treated for Stage 4 cancer. A trip to New Asgard provides her strength as the shattered Mjolnir hammer magically re-forms in her presence. Jane’s story boils down to whether she wants to try to extend her life through science or live every remaining day to it’s fullest.

Gorr kidnaps the Asgardian kids, forcing Thor, Valkyrie, Korg (voiced again by Waititi), and Mighty Thor/Jane Foster to track him to the Realm of Shadows. Their plan is to stop by Omnipotence City to request assistance from the almighty Zeus (Russell Crowe). They are shocked to discover that Zeus is little more than a colorful televangelist with a Borat accent performing a whiz-bang show so that he can get on to the next orgy. Zeus refuses to assist with an army, but he does manage to chain Thor and strip him nekkid centerstage. The good guys nab Zeus’ golden lightning bolt and head off to rescue the kids and confront Gorr.

In a reverse Wizard of Oz twist, the films turns to Black & White when they reach the Realm of Shadows. It’s an eerie environment befitting Gorr. Bale is certainly at his best when he is terrifying and menacing, although the writing is a bit inconsistent for the character, and sometimes it drifts into Pennywise mode, a definite drop in suspense. The action sequences are fine, but really nothing we haven’t seen before. And that’s probably the biggest issue with all superhero/comic book stories these days. Anything new must come from the story or the characters, and we know the characters far too well at this point.

Waititi’s version delivers many laughs throughout. Among the best is the odd relationship between Thor and his hammer Mjolnir and his axe Stormbreaker. Thor’s jealousy of his ex-hammer hooking up with his ex-girlfriend is almost as funny as Stormbreaker’s jealousy of Thor trying to steal back the hammer. Also cool is Thor’s homage to Jean-Claude Van Damme, and the look of the Altar of Eternity, where one last wish is granted. Maybe not as effective is the apparent Guns ‘n Roses fetish or Jane’s struggle to come up with a catchphrase. Sure to be a divisive element is the recurring gag of bleating goats … I found them hilarious, but many won’t. Another piece that simply didn’t work for me is Ms. Portman’s performance, especially in the scenes with Hemsworth. Her comic timing can’t match his, and it’s a match that just never clicks.

Obviously, the characters originated from the minds of Stan Lee and Jason Aaron in Marvel Comics, and it’s Taika Waititi who brings his unique touch to the project. Since he directed THOR: RAGNAROK, he won a screenplay Oscar for JOJO RABBIT (2019), and I’ve been a fan of his style dating back to EAGLE VS SHARK (2007), and on to the brilliant HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (2016), and TV series “What We Do in the Shadows”. Waititi is scheduled to direct a Star Wars movie in the near future – one surely to be divisive among that fan base. As for this latest Thor movie, it may be tonally jagged and have a few too many zippy quips for some, but it manages to be silly and tender and emotional, while having the look and feel of a comic book come to life. Stay for the two end-credit scenes.

Opening in theaters on July 8, 2022 (Thorsday)

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LIGHTYEAR (2022)

June 16, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. At the beginning of the film we are informed that this is a movie about the story that made Andy want a Buzz Lightyear action figure in the first TOY STORY (1995). It’s fair to ask – is this a spin-off, a prequel, or an origin story? The answer is a dash of all the above, yet also not exactly any of those. As with all Pixar features, the pedigree is beyond reproach. Writer-director Angus MacLane was the co-director on FINDING DORY (2016), while his co-writer here was Jason Headley (ONWARD, 2020), and the story was developed by Matthew Aldrich (COCO, 2017).

Following the murkiness of the prologue … he looks like Buzz and acts like Buzz, but that’s Chris Evans (CAPTAIN AMERICA), not the familiar voice of Tim Allen, as Buzz Lightyear filing his Mission Log to Star Command. We adjust quickly enough, although it is a bit jarring at first. Buzz is headstrong and not always the best at following orders. It’s that mentality and an error in judgment that results in those on the mission becoming stranded on a distant planet. Time and space theories are likely to baffle the younger viewers, as the various test flights Buzz takes finds him basically maintaining his current age, while those from the original mission age and ultimately die. This includes his mentor and friend Commander Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), whom, with each of his return flights, Buzz watches her age, marry a woman, have kids, and get sick. Again, it’s kind of jarring, but Pixar has never shied away from life’s tough moments, and that don’t do so here.

It’s on his return from one unexplained extra-long flight when Buzz encounters Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer), granddaughter of Alisha. Izzy is trying to follow in her grandmother’s Space Ranger footsteps, and with her rag-tag band of misfits, Mo (Taika Waititi) and Darby Steele (Dale Soules), they help Buzz avoid his first encounter with the evil Emperor Zurg (James Brolin). Completing this new group is SOX (Peter Sohn), the robot cat previously issued to Buzz for emotional comfort. SOX is the latest in a long line of scene-stealing Disney fur-baby sidekicks, even if SOX happens to be mechanical. SOX is also the best thing about the film, other than the spectacular visuals and the late-in-the-story appearance of Commander Burnside, whose instantly recognizable voice belongs to Isiah Whitlock Jr (and no, the colorful word Mr. Whitlock has made his own in so many roles does not appear here, to no one’s surprise).

No voice by John Ratzenberger (at least that I heard) and no Pizza Planet (at least that I spotted), but more importantly, the film simply lacks the charm and story-telling brilliance that Pixar has spoiled us with over the years. We never really connect with the characters, even Buzz, who seems quite aloof. Michael Giacchino does serve up another terrific score on the heels of his work on THE BATMAN and JURASSIC PARK DOMINION, and the visual effects really are top notch. Pixar films consistently deliver a message and here it seems to be that collaboration and friendship create strength in numbers. LIGHTYEAR doesn’t go to infinity and beyond, but even the lesser Pixar projects have something to offer.

***NOTE: TOY STORY is one of my all-time favorite movies

Opens in theaters on June 17, 2022

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JURASSIC WORLD DOMINION (2022)

June 8, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been almost 30 years since Steve Spielberg captivated us, and John Hammond (the late Sir Richard Attenborough) “spared no expense” in stunning Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) with our first look at dinosaurs in JURASSIC PARK (1993). Best-selling author Michael Crichton’s original characters and ideas have since spun off into THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK (1997), JURASSIC PARK III (2001), JURASSIC WORLD (2015), and JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM (2018). We now have this latest franchise entry to cap off the second dinosaur trilogy, and it finds director Colin Trevorrow back at the helm. He also wrote the story and screenplay with Derek Connolly and Emily Carmichael.

The big news here (other than the dinosaurs) is the 4-doctor reunion of Dr. Alan Grant (Neill), Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), and Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong). It’s the first time all of these characters have reunited since the original, and those of us who hold a special place in our movie heart for the transformative 1993 film, are most appreciative of the nostalgic touch. However, the hopes for a magical finale to conclude the franchise are dashed in the film’s opening segment … a cringe-worthy “news” report designed to catch us up four years after the destruction of Isla Numbar, and set the stage for what’s to come.

You might assume that dinosaurs roaming our planet would be the headliner, but somehow locusts get the nod. Well, they are genetically modified locusts threatening the world’s non-Biosyn food supply. See, Biosyn is the evil corporation run by twitchy CEO Lewis Dodgson (Campbell Scott) that is attempting to control dinosaurs, the food supply, and even human cloning via DNA manipulation. It’s that last part that brings Maisie Lockwood (an excellent Isabella Sermon) into the fold, and the DNA-mix also provides an easy punchline to Trevorrow’s approach to this final film (blending DNA from the two trilogies). Maisie has been living deep in the Sierra Nevada forest with Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard). When poachers nab both the offspring of Owen’s favorite raptor and his quasi-offspring Maisie, the hunt is on. The only question remaining is how are they going to finesse this so that the old crew (Grant and Ellie) collides with the new crew (Owen and Claire)?

A stop in Malta to confront smuggler Santos (an impeccably dressed Dichen Lachman) results in the film’s most frenetic action sequence. As Owen eludes trained killer-raptors while zipping his motorcycle across streets, alleys, and stairwells, Claire is sprinting (not in high heels) across rooftops like she’s Jason Bourne or James Bond. While Owen and Claire deliver the heart-pounding action, Ellie has tracked down Grant on a dig in New Mexico, where he’s “educating” a group of teenagers who remain glued to their mobile devices. Ellie convinces Grant to help in her mission to expose Biosyn, but we get the feeling he’s making the trip for her, not to save humanity. With an assist from ice-cold pilot-for-hire Kayla Watts (DeWanda Wise), everyone ends in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains at Biosyn’s stunning headquarters. Slowly the connections become apparent, as it’s Malcolm (Goldblum) who is the resident philosopher (all evil corps need one), and the one who has been feeding intel to Ellie.

The rest of the movie exists so that all of these characters, along with Biosyn whistleblower Ramsay (Mamoudou Athie) can get in and out of trouble and dodge various stages of peril. The callbacks and nods to previous ‘Jurassic’ films are numerous. Some work and some don’t. Malcolm’s sardonic quips are mostly in tune, Grant’s grumping and knowledge are spot on, and Ellie has remarkably little to do for someone who is responsible for one of the two main plot lines. Owen and Claire spend the bulk of their non-Malta time consistently recreating the facial expressions that have become all too familiar, though of course, Owen does get to hold out his palm in an attempt at controlling dinosaurs. There is a well-timed small dose of John Williams’ iconic score from 1993, but it’s the musical work of composer Michael Giacchino who mostly guides us along the way.

Credit goes to director Trevorrow for the multiple location shoots around the globe, which helps minimize the set pieces … most of which disappoint. Especially surprising was the weak CGI effort in the mines as some of the characters end up where they shouldn’t be. DNA manipulation run amok is perhaps the underlying theme, but we have to ask why this is … all we really desire are cool dinosaurs and a story that makes sense. Despite the film’s best shot coming at the end – a Mosasaurus underwater – we do hope that, in regards to continuing the franchise, Hollywood doesn’t find a way.

Opens in theaters on June 10, 2022

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THE BATMAN (2022)

February 28, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Riddle me this: does “The Bat, The Cat, and The Rat” sound more like an opening line to a joke or the title of a Dr. Seuss book? In fact, those are three core elements of this new, COVID-delayed, and highly anticipated film from writer-director Matt Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig. I’ll confess to being a huge fan of Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy (that concluded 10 years ago), and being a bit skeptical to a new version featuring Robert Pattinson in the titular role (I’m choosing to totally ignore the in-between portrayals in the “Justice League” movies). Knowing full well how important it is for fans to watch these films with fresh eyes and a clear head, this review is purposefully vague on what will surely prove to be some of the more popular and contentious discussion points.

Let’s start with a general description and the setup. The film is dark and gloomy and gritty and grimy. Gotham is a cesspool of corruption and crime, and we get no glimpse into the other side, assuming there is one. Billionaire Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) is still in his second year as the Batman, often referred to as “Vengeance”. There is substantial backstory for Mr. Wayne, who lives in relative seclusion with his trusty manservant Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis), while the Batman prowls at night in his efforts to clean up the city. Of course he is unable to keep pace with crime and corruption, even with the close alliance he has built with good cop, Police Lt. James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright). It takes Batman’s Poirot-like detective skills to solve a riddle left as a clue in a particularly high-profile murder case. Soon it’s obvious a serial killer is at work and he has purposefully drawn the Batman into his game.

The caped crusader proceeds to cross paths with Selena Kyle/Catwoman (a terrific Zoe Kravitz), Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin (an unrecognizable Colin Farrell), District Attorney Gil Golson (Peter Sarsgaard), and crime lord Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). As city VIPs begin showing up dead, it’s a masked Edward Nashton/Riddler (Paul Dano) who always seems a step ahead. All of the above receive their chance to shine on screen, and while none let us down, it’s not until the mask is ripped from Riddler, and Dano really shines, that we are left wanting more. It should be noted that Farrell (with his facial prosthetics and fat suit) is kind of a second fiddle here, but it’s surely intentional and meant to set the stage for more Penguin antics down the road.

Pattinson will certainly receive the most scrutiny. I found him to be an excellent Batman, with black eye makeup smeared by sweat under his cowl, maintaining the grungy tone. His whispery voice differs from Christian Bale’s gravely growl, but works for the character’s withdrawn nature and preference for detective work over than fighting. Staying true to the premise that this is only his second year, there is a significant shortage of “wonderful toys”, and the batmobile is less rocket ship and more souped-up coupe. The contrast to these is a batsuit that seems quite advanced (and looks cool). It’s Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne that didn’t work for me. I respect the reclusive billionaire aspect, but he mostly looks like someone on their way to a Nirvana gig, leaving us wondering how the heck could anyone not connect the dots between a creepy rich guy and a nearly identical creepy guy in a bat suit. It’s a minor complaint, but one that stuck with me.

Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino (UP, 2009) takes a more classical approach than the dramatics of predecessors Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman. Giacchino has been a frequent Pixar contributor, and scored some well-known blockbusters in franchises like ‘Jurassic World’, ‘Star Trek’, ‘Planet of the Apes’, ‘Mission Impossible’, ‘Spider-man’, and ‘Star Wars’. His work fits nicely here. Adapting characters and stories originated by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Matt Reeves and Peter Craig have found a way to put their own stamp on the work. Mr. Craig is Oscar winner Sally Field’s son, and his previous scripts include THE TOWN (2010), parts 1 and 2 of THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY, and upcoming high-profile projects in TOP GUN: MAVERICK and GLADIATOR 2. Director Reeves has previously helmed the excellent horror film LET ME IN (2010), as well as DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014) and WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017).

This marks the first in a planned Batman trilogy, and a couple of the last scenes seemingly set the stage for what’s to come. Although this is an odd movie, here’s hoping the franchise maintains this tone and avoids the typical Marvel/DC overblown CGI approach. After all, the Batman is but one man, not a God of superpowers. This film is an unusual blend of noir-horror-detective-action-psychological thriller wrapped in a gray box with a black bow, and though it will likely be divisive among fans (isn’t everything?), this 3-hour epic leaves us anticipating the next ‘bat time’ and ‘bat channel’.

Opens wide in theaters on March 4, 2022

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LET HIM GO (2020)

November 5, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Diane Lane and Kevin Costner reunite on screen, only this time it’s not as the earthy and earthly parents to Superman (MAN OF STEEL, 2013). Instead, this film from writer-director Thomas Bezucha (THE FAMILY STONE, 2005), based on Larry Watson’s 2013 novel, features the two stars as long-time married couple, Margaret and George Blackledge, living a peaceful existence on their Montana ranch. Well, it’s peaceful now, as George is retired from his career as a lawman.

Their son James (Ryan Bruce), his wife Lorna (Kayli Carter, “Godless”), and young son Jimmy live on the ranch with Margaret and George. Grandma Margaret’s devotion to her grandson and judgmental nature sometimes crosses the line, creating quiet tension with his mother Lorna. George’s trained eye sees it all, but he mostly keeps his thoughts private, although the communication he shares with Margaret is often through a simple gesture or nod. Their chemistry is one that’s only built through time (and fine acting).

When a freak accident leaves James dead, we flash forward three years as Margaret and George attend Lorna’s wedding to Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain, who was excellent in this year’s BLOW THE MAN DOWN). George senses that Donnie does not possess the highest moral character, but Margaret is hit hardest by the newlyweds moving off the ranch and taking her beloved grandson with them. Concern escalates quickly when Margaret witnesses Donnie being physically abusive to Lorna and Jimmy, and then he relocates them to North Dakota to be near his family … without so much as a warning or goodbye to Margaret and George.

Crossing Grandma Margaret is like kicking the hornet’s nest. Poor George arrives home one day to find the car packed and Margaret on a mission to bring Jimmy home. George’s feeble attempt to reason with her fails (as he knew it would) and the two are soon on the road through some gorgeous countryside captured by cinematographer Guy Godfree. Along the way, they cross paths and befriend Peter (Booboo Stewart), a Native American who deserted “Indian School” for a life of solitude on the plains. It’s also on this road trip where Margaret and George are inundated with every possible warning about the notorious Weboy clan of North Dakota. No specifics are provided, but the message is clear … no one messes with the Weboys.

A tip leads the grandparents to Bill Weboy (Jeffrey Donovan, “Burn Notice”), and he provides living proof that the Weboy clan is rotten to the core. Behind an evil grin, Bill invites Margaret and George to the family ranch for dinner and a visit with their grandson. At the ranch, we are introduced to the twisted matriarch, Blanche Weboy (Lesley Manville, PHANTOM THREAD, 2017). This meeting of the families is about as tense as any we’ve seen on screen. A clash of good versus evil is always welcome, which makes it so disappointing that a film so stellar to this point, abruptly shifts from an intriguing psychological thriller into a ludicrous circus of violence, poor decisions, and absurdity.

There is a lot to like here, before it spins off the axis. Diane Lane is ferocious in the role, and Costner is very effective as her ‘still waters’ husband. It’s a hoot to see Ms. Manville lose her British accent and go over-the-top as nasty Blanche, and the early 1960’s setting looks great, including the vehicles. As mentioned before, the scenery is breath-taking, with Alberta (Canada) standing in beautifully for Montana and North Dakota. Composer Michael Giacchino is more accustomed to working on superhero and animated movies, and the score is often distracting in the first half, but fits better in the final act. Brace yourself for a couple of tough to watch scenes and a jarring tonal shift.

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JOJO RABBIT (2019)

October 31, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Welcome to the most divisive movie of the year. Some will scoff at the idea and deride the filmmaker without ever even seeing the movie. Some will relay disgust after seeing the movie. A few won’t appreciate the style or structure, and will fail to find the humor. Ah yes, but some of us will embrace Taika Waititi’s wacky adaptation of Christine Leunens’ 2018 novel “Caging Skies” as one of the funniest and most heart-warming films of the year … fully acknowledging that many won’t see it our way.

One wouldn’t be off base in asking why a successful filmmaker would tackle such a risky project: a coming-of-age comedy-drama-fantasy about a 10 year old Nazi fanatic who has as his imaginary friend, not a 6 foot rabbit, but the Fuhrer himself, Adolph Hitler. After all, writer-director Waititi is coming off a couple of brilliant indies (2014’s WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, and 2016’s HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE) and a major score with Marvel money on THOR: RAGNAROK (2017), arguably the most entertaining superhero movie of the past few years. He certainly could have continued to cash in with ‘safer’ choices; however, Mr. Waititi sees the world differently than most of us. He finds humor in the drudgery, and humanity in malevolence. He’s also a bit goofy.

Playing over the opening credits is the German version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, as we see old clips of German citizens cheering for Adolph Hitler in a similar manner to how fans used to scream for The Beatles. World War II is nearing the end as we meet 10 year old Jojo Betzler (newcomer Roman Griffin Davis). Jojo is fervent in his fanaticism towards the Nazi way, and buys into the belief that Jews are monsters with horns on their head. He’s such a believer that his imaginary friend is actually Hitler, well at least a bumbling boisterous version played by the filmmaker himself – enacted to extreme comedy effect (recalling a bit of Chaplin in THE GREAT DICTATOR). Mel Brooks managed to play Hitler to a laughable extreme in “Springtime for Hitler” in THE PRODUCERS, but the only thing missing her from Waititi’s costume is an old timey dunce cap.

Jojo lives at home with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), while dad is off fighting on the front line. Ms. Johansson’s performance is terrific (despite limited screen time) as she creates a believably warm bond with her son during horrific times. Soon, Jojo is off to a Nazi camp designed to teach the boys how to fight (and burn books), as the girls learn the virtues of having babies. The camp leaders are Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), who is a bit of a joke on the surface, but more interesting the deeper we dig; Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) who boasts of having 18 Aryan babies; and Finkel (Alfie Allen) a violent psychopath. At camp with Jojo is his best friend Yorki (newcomer and scene-stealer Archie Yates), and the two show what a genuine friendship can be as the movie progresses.

Things change quickly for Jojo when, by happenstance, he discovers a Jewish girl living in the walls of his home. Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie, LEAVE NO TRACE) shows none of the characteristics that Jojo has been brainwashed into believing all Jews possess. She has no horns, flashes a good sense of humor, and is actually very nice and knowledgeable. In other words, she’s no monster. As they get to know each other, Jojo realizes this “nice” Jewish girl contrasts starkly with his lunatic hero Adolph.

Waititi’s film is ingenious satire, and it likely won’t sit well with those who think not enough time has passed to justify making fun of Nazi atrocities. It’s funny and heavy, and deals with some thought-provoking matter in an unusual way. The “Heil Hitler” count approaches the ‘F-word’ frequency of most Tarantino movies, and there is a German Shepherd gag that caught the audience off-guard. Stephen Merchant’s Gestapo search of Jojo’s house is comedy at its weirdest. The movie messes with your head as it’s some odd blend of SCHINDLER’S LIST, “The Diary of Anne Frank”, and an extended Monty Python skit.

It’s rare for a film that borders on slapstick at times to have so many touching and emotional moments. The actors are really strong here, especially Ms. Johansson and Ms. McKenzie, who as gutsy Elsa, proves again she is quickly becoming a powerhouse young actor. Roman Griffin Davis carries a significant weight in the story despite being a first time actor, and I can’t emphasize enough how young Archie Yates will steal your heart while he’s stealing his scenes. Michael Giacchino’s score and Mihai Malaimaire Jr’s terrific cinematography work well with Waititi’s vision … a satirical vision that would never work outside of his unique filmmaking talent. The story is basically proof of the adage, ‘Kill ‘em with kindness’, when what we are really killing is hatred. At its core, this is a story of humanity and human nature, and how we grab hold of the wrong thing until the truth becomes evident. Now, please pass the unicorn.

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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)

watch the trailer:


WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017)

July 12, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Counting the original in 1968, this is the ninth Planet of the Apes film (sourced from the Pierre Boulle novel), and the third in the most recent reimagining – including Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014). That’s almost 50 years of talking apes questioning the role, purpose and intent of humans. Director Matt Reeves (Let Me In, Cloverfield) is back after ‘Dawn’ and clearly has an affinity for the characters and the continuing saga. This one is by far the most personal … if that’s the right term when applied to a species other than persons!

Opening with the film’s best battle scene (and perhaps the most superb and vivid of the franchise); the film stuns us with the realism of apes on horseback and searing violence that rivals any war film. We are immediately drawn in by the thrilling and intimate battle scenes, and the accompanying adrenaline rush. It’s a beautiful and heart-pounding opening that will surely satisfy even the most demanding action-oriented fans. This is also when we notice that Michael Giacchino’s score as a complementary thing of beauty and not just more over-the-top action film music bravado.

The great Andy Serkis returns as Caesar, the leader of the apes, and dare I say, one of the most exciting and dynamic recurring characters in the movie universe. This third film belongs to Caesar and we see his intelligence, personality and skills have evolved in each. His human nemesis this time is Woody Harrelson in Colonel Kurtz psycho-war lord mode. In the years since Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a simian virus has wiped out much of the human race and now the last two human factions (one led by Harrelson) are preparing for a final epic war, while at the same time, all remaining humans are united against apes.

Apes simply want to be left alone in the forest, but humans focused on their destruction are forcing the apes to fight. One particular attack causes Caesar to erupt in anger and strive for revenge, providing the foundation for a movie with less action than the previous two, and a more concerted focus on story and character. Some may be disappointed in this. Others (like me) will find it fascinating.

Joining Serkis/Caesar for a third round are Terry Notary as Rocket and Karin Konoval as Maurice (orangutan). Also returning is Toby Kebbel as Koba – this time in a manner that really messes with Caesar’s mind. Steve Zahn steals his scenes as the comedy relief chimp known only as “bad ape”, with Judy Greer as Cornelia, and young Amiah Miller as Nova (same name as Linda Harrison in the original). Nova is a human girl who seems to fit much more with the apes than the warmongering humans. Fans of the original will also note Caesar’s son is named Cornelius (the same as Roddy McDowell’s ape in the original). Director Reeves delivers what would be a fitting end to a trilogy, but there is likely to be yet another if fans can appreciate that the series has evolved every bit as much as the apes.

watch the trailer:

 

 


JURASSIC WORLD (2015)

June 21, 2015

jurassic world Greetings again from the darkness. I’m guessing that most anyone who enjoys movies and is at least 30 years old, has vivid recollections of Steven Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park from1993 (based on the Michael Crichton novel). The iconic theme from John Williams, that initial awe-inspiring look at the dinosaurs grazing in the valley, the reminder that “objects are closer than they appear” in side mirrors, and the late Sir Richard Attenborough stating that he “spared no expense” in creating the park … all merged to became part of an incredibly moving and huge new movie theatre experience.  This latest (and fourth in the franchise) offers us “big”, but very little “new”, and unfortunately nothing very “moving” in its presentation.

Set two decades after the tragic and messy park trial run of that original movie, we find Bryce Dallas Howard (The Help) managing the financially-challenged theme park owned by Irrfan Khan (Life of Pi). Chris Pratt is training Velociraptors, while BD Wong is cooking up hybrid and genetically modified monsters such as Indominus Rex – designed to excite the audiences who have become bored with an old-fashioned T-Rex.

Even though this is technically a sequel, there are numerous similarities to the original film, and a fun parlor game consists of spotting all the homage’s and tributes sprinkled throughout. Two of my favorites are the “Winston’s” shop in the park, and the ViewMaster shot early on. These two are tips of the cap to Stan Winston and Ray Harryhausen … two giants in the world of special effects.

In what has become the Hollywood “go to” for evil-doers, the secret plan to militarize the dinosaurs is being carried out by Vincent D’Onofrio. Of course, this clashes with Pratt’s ideal life for “his” trainees. The mandatory kids-in-peril are played by Ty Simpkins (Insidious) and Nick Robinson. Much has been made of the absurdity of Ms. Howard’s numerous scenes of sprinting in high heels, and I found her overall demeanor to be every bit as exaggerated and unbelievable as her actions in heels. Jake Johnson (TV’s “New Girl) and Omar Sy (so wonderful in The Intouchables) were the most “real” characters, though neither was given much to do.

Much of what is written here is “in comparison” to the original. While this may not be fair, it is inescapable when dealing with such a respected and iconic film. Youngsters unfamiliar with the original film, are likely to find this one exciting – even terrifying at times – and that’s an important distinction to make. The Mosasaurus alone is worth the price of admission … and good for a few nightmares!  And who among us wouldn’t pay up for a Baby Triceratops ride in the Petting Zoo?

For the Jurassic Park stalwarts, the inconsistent (sometimes great, sometimes fake-looking) CGI will be as tough to overlook as Ms. Howard’s cartoon character. And yes, composer Michael Giacchino is new to the Jurassic series, and he is wise enough to work in the terrific and familiar John Williams theme in more than one scene.  However, none of the downsides will keep the true fans away, and there is an entire generation of kids who should have the chance to marvel at lifelike dinosaurs on the big screen courtesy of director Colin Trevorrow (previously known for his work on the indie gem Safety Not Guaranteed).

watch the trailer: