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2 ½ (out of 4)
With a decade of horror-comedy hindsight, the ingenuity of Zombieland rings considerably fainter than it did in 2009. Whereas Shaun of the Dead is a legitimately animate genre-niche template reinforced with as many iconic touches as its flesh-eating progenitor, Zombieland is really just as boorish and haphazard as you’d expect any latent American counterpart to be.
Besides beating a couple of catch phrases into the ground and securing an uncommonly fair profit for Sony, there was no reason why this afterthought of a sequel to the first Z-land demanded creation. Whatever the present momentum behind such a follow-up, the questionably aged modesty of Zombieland has been remotely improved with a new installment – but the trivial, hardly noteworthy adjustments are too slight to celebrate exactly. The original movie and now Double Tap’s reliance on rom-com remedies ultimately places them closer to the forgettable mashups of Warm Bodies (recollect that one if you can) than little cultural moments inspired enough to treasure.
But most of the audience is there for the cast rather than spoofs and trashy gore. Of course the most bankable performer is Woody Harrelson, who thank god has dropped the twinkie thing and pleases most reliably as himself and himself alone. Jesse Eisenberg and Emma Stone follow suit although to far less dependable results – Harrelson's essence alone can shift lifelessness into revelry with satisfaction guaranteed but Eisenberg’s meekness, much like his shtick, hasn't matured much. And although Stone has retracted the bangs and excessive make-up, the Academy Award-winning actress is barely removed from the Queen of Sarcasm she was known for in her Easy A days. Meanwhile the former innocence of Abigail Breslin doesn’t hold weight when the young lady is 23 years old – as the smallest celebrity on the poster, the writers do what they can to remove her character from the centerfold of the movie. The search for an absconded, impulsive 18-year-old is more of an actual story than the near-sketch comedy of the former movie and the additional characters apart from undead cannibals are the film’s only antidote to sameness.
Borderline cameos by Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch lead you to a gleefully choreographed one-take sequence, making up the best second act action-comedy excerpt you could ask for from something like this. But it takes Zoey Duetch (of Everybody Wants Some!! and other far worse movies) playing a stereotypical mid-20s dumb slut to secure some decent chuckles and give this Z-quel a specific flavor. Unfortunately Deutch's character is just a pawn in Double Tap's labored attempt to shade the Eisenberg-Stone romance with a new hew, but this reliance on the most shopworn sitcom jealously angles severely limits the degree of charm these movies exude.
In theory, misfits surviving a zombie apocalypse is genre gold, maybe once; in practice, it’s marginally strained and underwhelming in either case. The continuation of Eisenberg’s narration exacerebates things, tying together faint, unrelated themes in a fashion passable perhaps for a random episode of Scrubs. Both Zombieland flicks fall just short of the laugh-out-loud funny threshold, and if this new movie didn't revise the sloppiness that had a hand in the previous film's popularity – accommodating sharper self-awareness, inserting a twist or two beyond the accidental murder of Bill Murray – Double Tap would be hazardous to your health rather than a mid-October evening-killer.
3 ½ (out of 4)
Even with a resemblance to Lynne Ramsay’s fiery You Were Never Really Here a few years back and roots soundly planted in Martin Scorsese’s revered early history – Taxi Driver and most directly The King of Comedy – Joker is nonetheless a 2019 movie mile marker all its own. DC's latest standalone success is more meritorious than your garden-variety comic book movie, but is it as hazardous to mass consciousness as was preordained? Would it be such a bad thing if it was?
So despite an unwarranted forecast of devastation before this film's debut, obviously no one was slaughtered and anyone who feared and/or expected some eruption of white male aggression at the cinema should have felt a tart combination of shame and chagrin. As a film alone though, my prior wariness to whatever variety of villain exposé I was walking into was due entirely to Todd Phillips' place at the helm. With the overrated quintet of Old School, the Hangover trilogy and Due Date behind him, the symptomatic normalization of boyish men seemed to make Phillips precisely the wrong choice to handle material so potentially inflammatory and disruptive. Little did I expect some realist themes, such gorgeously candid digital cinematography or third act risks so ballsy – the cumulative moments of insanity alone are enough to destine Joker the status of cult favorite at the very least and deservingly so. This near-masterpiece enriches DC with the best of the brand's preceding year of consecutive solo features: the underrated Aquaman, Shazam!'s undeniable appeal and now Joker's timely, ferocious acting showcase.
The remarkably provocative movie around Joaquin Phoenix eclipsed my middling expectations, but it is the Method (acting) Man himself who quickly removes every other reservation. Phoenix's marvelous commitment exponentially amplifies the film's cinematic power – then again, try not capturing documented gold after a spell with Phoenix and an expensive camera. Sure, Heath Ledger’s role will reign supreme forever as the exquisite capper to an all too brief legacy because, ya know, he's the best part of the cultural touchstone that was The Dark Knight – though when you watch Phoenix there’s nothing reminding you of Ledger, Jack Nicholson or anyone else. It’s almost as if you didn’t need Phillips or any direction whatsoever to mold Phoenix's utterly feral exertions, especially after a decade of mesmerizing performances (The Master, Inherent Vice, YWNRH). His magnetic, impeccable role-playing averts both foolishly portraying mental illness or pissing off comic book disciples.
Of course, given how divisive this film has been even ahead of hitting theaters, there’s no denying how many feathers have been ruffled, or maybe even plucked, in public or critical circles. The philosophical backbone of the film – that seedy, spiteful nihilism – will rigidly appeal to the most dejected members of the audience, the 4chan-browsing incels we should be oh so cautious of at the local cineplex. Just like the folks with common sense who exasperatedly oppose those claiming callous video games and Tarantino films manifest real carnage, all I can say for the crowds using the ideology of the Joker as a liberating model for their own dispirit is let them enjoy the movie and vicariously rid themselves of a few repressed impulses as each one of us subconsciously does when we enter a dark theater.
Still, the very fact that Warner Brothers has to remind people this film is not a call to incite actual anarchy should tell you how explosive the narrative substance is and, more importantly, how little implicit trust can be placed on the general public's facility to process any subtextual satire, irony or motifs nowadays. This is without mentioning how swiftly pop culture journalists and easily offended social media users will scramble to scandalize anything incongruous with their worldview. The whole sick escapism/heinous portrait angle of Joker, in addition to the unreliable narrator ticks and classist rage within, screams American Psycho more than any Marty film. Hilarious, horrifying – it's an incredibly fine line and Phoenix is there to disguise the spaces between pity and empathy, catharsis and disgust better than the much less enthralling script.
Even if you loathe this film in its entirety you’re bound to ponder it significantly more than the movies you casually despise. Certain screenwriting tropes are so completely smoothed over by Phoenix's unshackled lunacy – clichés become a non-issue when trying to distinguish between a main character's prescribed nuttiness and our lead actor's eccentric, undefined personal level of crazy. I'm sure many will find fault in aspects of the film's composition, but my only real grievance is Arthur Fleck inflicted revolutionary change occurs is almost entirely without his impetus. Fleck's largely accidental V for Vendetta-esque symbol of collective resistance doesn't really reflect the character's renowned ingenious mastermind.
In fact, other than the intriguing psychopathy, all this Joker really seems to have in common with DC is the new wrinkle in portraying the Wayne's as ignorant, elitist yuppies. DC and WB apparently have learned antithetical prudence is the way to outsmart, or at least counter, Marvel’s epic monopolizing – simply by stripping the blockbuster masquerade to the essentials with thrifty filmmaking, Joker became the most profitable superhero film of all time in the wake of Endgame's record-annihilating run. Whether absorbed by overeager nerds or average Joes, it's rather infrequent that a mainstream standalone character study warranted intense dissection or considerable pondering, let alone one billion dollars in earnings, a first for an R-rated film. From whichever perspective, if all else is overlooked, it's impossible to ignore Phoenix's rare, distinctive sensibilities.
2 (out of 4)
The contemporary cinematic space race has been in full sprint since 2013 when Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity became the first in a line of comparably ambitious affairs continuing with Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, Ridley Scott’s The Martian and Damien Chazelle’s First Man. It’s not that director James Gray is exactly late to the cosmos-obsessed blockbuster party but his final efforts, after delayed release dates and a lengthy post-production, are so compromised, disimpassioned and disappointingly dim the movie fails to serve as the truly anti-sensationalist sci-fi fare we've been sorely missing. Though even before I saw Ad Astra, it was evident how little the project had to lend to the genre's revival.
Sure, Gray maneuvered through his early career with numerous crime dramas only to swap that alcove for his recent pair of historical features – the hushed poetry of The Immigrant and the Amazonian adventure epic The Lost City of Z. Ad Astra adheres to similar father/son dynamics of Gray's last film not to mention themes weighing the toll of legacy and levying critiques of both archetypal masculinity and Manifest Destiny-esque conquest.
However everything so supple and honorably old-fashioned about Gray's 20th century odyssey doesn't equivalently benefit his futuristic one. Even without some god awful narration – which feels tiresome, tacked on and otherwise clumsy – the film is an impotent slog despite principled intentions, confusing every one of its pedestrian attempts at existential investigation for something Kubrickian or at least likewise distant and new. Many have likened Ad Astra to Apocalypse Now, which is a fairly insulting comparison to draw between a perennial classic and a modern snooze. Rather than draw out those parallels, all I'll say is Tommy Lee Jones is no Brando and the epic journey of disappointment has a quarter of the introspection and even less odious beauty.
Expectations of galactic intrigue may have misled the average moviegoer but I was one to anticipate some mind-numbing slowness from Ad Astra knowing the plot would venture through the vaguely immigrated and colonized solar system. But even as one who never associates the word 'boring' with any kind of moviegoing, this film is painfully tedious and emotionally dormant. Sometimes that can be my exact cup of tea – an underplayed and aged near-future, as in Blade Runner or Children of Men, can elaborate on purposeful global predictions as easily as it implements stirring escapist stimulation.
A mundane, gloomy space voyage to Neptune could be wonderful if paced out properly, but with certain swells of action akin to Gravity's technical flourishes, the clip of the space voyage through daddy issues takes a plain plot and makes its dull to feel out as well as think about. Whether it's Brad Pitt's character sneaking onto a rocket mid-takeoff only to murder everyone onboard or detours with deadly lab monkeys, there's minimal intelligence to discover in Ad Astra in any sense.
And it can't be emphasized enough: not a single sentence of Pitt’s inner voice-over improves any given scene – even when we're blessed with actual dialogue the utilitarian drudgery and the emotive outbursts are equally cheesy. There's even an underused Liv Tyler as an ex-wife seen through stodgy flashbacks just to hammer down the customary melodramatics of the script.
If it weren’t for Hoyte van Hoytema’s lovely Roger Deakins-inspired cinematography – the gifted director of photography trades his Interstellar expertise for a visual scheme ripped right from Blade Runner 2049 – Ad Astra would be agonizing. There’s no shame in a film being the product of multiple, rather pronounced past influences, but Gray’s film is vastly inferior to every one of them and drawing from so many cinematic benchmarks eventually feels more like pastiche than inspiration. In theory this movie was designed to please me by way of old-fashioned genre storytelling and spectacle, but every modern insert – hasty editing, bisexual lighting, set piece interludes – sully such a possibly striking and pensive sci-fi fable. The mostly meditative film feels ripped apart by the simple conflict of studio prerequisites and artistic intent.
Pitt – an actor you can’t believe burned so bright in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood just a month or two ago and will likely secure his first deserved Academy win for such a surefire supporting role – would have been a monotone bummer to see Ad Astra through even without his torturous internal monologues. Drawn on the Latin phrase per aspera ad astra, or "through struggles to the stars," Gray's film has all the conditions for classic science fiction filmmaking, but its minor victories just aren't worth trudging through so much preceding discomfort.
3 (out of 4)
It’s no small thing to make America sit through a three-hour movie, let alone one half of a supernatural clown story. Stephen King’s gargantuan bedside table paperweight has become the centerpiece of a madman’s prolific paperback output and, for the sake of cinematic clarity, the nonlinear, cocaine-fueled coming-of-age creeper has been severed into halves. The second and final portion of It is handily structured, pleasingly grotesque and thoughtfully cast – Chapter Two also has neat practical and visual effects, nasty (if at times oh so cheap) frights and a bargain bin of relatable humor courtesy of Bill Hader. In the philistine domain of horror sequels, this is one of the most justified of its kind in terms of both coasting off a former film’s success and in the knotty abbreviation of a daunting adaptation.
Chapter One separately had its own nostalgic simplicity as well as direct genre conventions and the latter part of the tale should be held accountable for the same indiscretions: jump scares aplenty, half-baked (if self-aware) conclusions, not to mention every cliché and oddity each screen version has inherited from King’s own inscrutable kookiness. Both installments are some of the highest grossing horror films in history, which suggests things will not exceed a certain threshold of weirdness for today's eyeballs – but even abridged, King’s peculiarities have exited the page and provided the sort of monstrous entertainment that lives up to It’s horribly big reputation.
So yeah, I admit I didn’t read the 1000+ page novel – I didn’t even make it all the way through The Shining and Kubrick's variation is one of my favorite films of all time. Neither It movie will become as iconic as other classic realizations – Brian De Palma’s Carrie, John Carpenter’s Christine, Rob Reiner's Stand By Me and Misery – but damn if the pair of films in question aren't scary by the masses’ standards and at least a few cuts above the garbage enticing typical audiences to flock in fear. My personal lack of refresher to the events of Chapter One made the collective amnesia of the Losers all the more relevant, the evolution of their childhood phobias more cogent and film's unavoidable repetition not only forgivable but satisfying. And the absence of the original film's camaraderie left the modified relationships full of apprehension and confusion – the borderline wistful crowd-pleasing of the former film is exchanged for disillusionment and unshakable unease.
If there are mistakes in adapting King’s unconscious insanity, I am gladly none the wiser – and I know about the space turtles and tween orgies and whatever else. It Chapter Two expands the budget, scope and momentum of its predecessor by taking risks with elaborate set-pieces and generous narrative clip. The movie could have easily reeked of indulgence, but trying to reasonably relay King's overcooked omelet of nightmare ideas is bound to inform your final film with a fair share of both heedless experimentation and some dumb deficiencies. This It nestles into the seldom-entered territory of epic horror and leaves you there to bask in the genre's most self-evident and arcane gratifications.
2 (out of 4)
Richard Linklater has been long overdue for a misstep, an honest mistake. It wouldn't be his first flub, especially with that Bad News Bears remake in the rearview. He had a handsome hot streak this past decade with Before Midnight, the completed Boyhood and Everybody Wants Some!!, but now rather than the enterprising filmmaker we’ve come to know and love since the early '90s Linklater is looking more like a washed up Jason Reitman. Without appealing humor, captivating performances or even useful revelations, Where'd You Go, Bernadette? is a comedy-drama excelling at neither, and the venue for some of the indie savior's most deflated introspection.
Bernadette has plenty in common with Linklater’s customary inclinations: optimism, philosophizing, gentle laughs – his trademark humanism is at the forefront where it usually sits. But whereas the writer-director's reflective dialogue often leads to magical spells of wit and burning, veracious insights, the adapted voice of Maria Semple, not to mention a handful of other screenwriters, reduces Linklater's ability to impart his typically harmonious truths. I didn’t need to see several bad trailers to know this was going to be more than a little underwhelming – after numerous delays for the release date spanning the last ten months, the movie’s precarious mediocrity became readily apparent even without dispiriting confirmation of its internal confusion on the level of Fast Food Nation.
Cate Blanchett is always fun to scrutinize and as fascinating an actor as you could pray to have steer your film, but her graces here are underutilized. Her depressive, pretentious role reminds you of the class catastrophes of Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, except that 2013 pearl was an actually adroit character study anchored by a full-blooded performance. Blanchett seems wasted on this cheap consideration of fame, talent and individuality, whereas Billy Crudup and Kristen Wiig seems right in at home filling in the background of the bland status quo. Whether a miscalculation of tone, adaptative finesse or general cinematic potential, Where’d You Go is lost in purposelessness.
2 ½ (out of 4)
It only took nine successively dumber movies for the Fast and Furious franchise to eventually realize just how stupid it actually is. Even with the most rudimentary skeleton of a plot, a heavy injection of cheekiness and a competent man of action behind the camera in director David Leitch, somehow the seemly spin-off Hobbs & Shaw fails to outshine the best of the adjacent films like it seemed properly primed and poised to.
Not that this flick isn't immediately superior to a majority of the rest of the macho, metal-minded affairs. The simple onscreen marriage of The Rock and Jason Statham – the antagonistic furrowed brows of parts 5 and 7 respectively before each antagonist became an ally – adds up to more chemistry, allure, likability, what have you than any cast led by Vin Diesel. Statham doesn't extend beyond his Transporter gruffness and The Rock just plays himself as always, but their personalities properly suit the marginally sillier material. Idris Elba deserves better than his stock villain role but the esteemed actor has some appreciable fun as our bionic baddie. Leitch, the tactician behind Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2 and part of the original John Wick, implements at least some kind of cinematographic gravitas akin to Justin Lin's (The Conjuring, Aquaman) series-best direction in Furious 7.
And the right turn into broad laughs – not just tired quips via Tyrese Gibson – should have happened ages ago. Remember when the crux of The Fate of the Furious just two years ago was Charlize Theron threatening to murder a baby? Johnson and Statham's over-the-top personas bring about enjoyable repartee but the indication to laugh is spelled out a little too clearly given prominent supporting roles for Ryan Reynolds and Kevin Hart to ad-lib it up. The lighthearted direction also follows less trodden paths by reducing the fetishization of the major female players (mostly Vanessa Kirby, not the only element reminiscent of Mission: Impossible – Fallout). All I'm saying is there’s only one obligatory ass shot – the times really are a-changin'.
Still, at over two hours – the runtimes of these movie have ballooned just as fast and furiously as the budgets and 'splosions – you couldn’t have indulged in more paint-by-numbers action plotting. This "presentation" sports so many genre clichés (a mad scientist, a deadly virus McGuffin, world ending stakes, evil corporations, twisted bad guy logic and monologues) you might get whiplash. Now, having binged every Fast & Furious movie in one week awhile back, recalling the finer narrative facets of any of them would be too impossible even for Ethan Hunt. But there'd be no reason to whine about a braindead story if the action icing on top of this cardboard cake was considerably worth licking off.
Sadly, apart from a few seconds of practical exhilaration scattered throughout, Leitch’s proficiency in superbly arranged stunts and standoffs is all but lost amidst the numbing stubbornness of quick-cutting and 200 million dollars of VFX. When there is something worth mouthing “wow” for, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw usually feels the need to spoil it with gratuitous slow motion. Still, within a relative scale in quality that almost forces you to call crap palatable, on charm alone the film becomes part of the upper crust of a rather barrel-bottom-tier media property.
3 ½ (out of 4)
Quentin Tarantino has managed to sustain the novelty of his immediate success rather flawlessly. His filmography really only diminishes in quality based on individual taste and how you feel about Tarantino's exceptional ability to tread the middle ground between high and low-brow filmmaking. The man's reputation long precedes him by now – the inexhaustible penchant for graphic violence, the ear for the musicality of film dialogue, the sheer number of female feet and so forth. Tarantino is a sort of perpetual wunderkind, informed by a multitude of cinematic obsessions and nonetheless a stalwart original all the same.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood broadens the scope of his controlled catalogue and helps make the case that despite his last film The Hateful Eight forming the lowest rung on the ladder of his career, Tarantino's historical revisionist trilogy (Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, and now this) are on par with his most laudable work. His latest doesn’t quite attain the momentary high highs of Basterds' scrupulous tension or deftly merge genres like Django’s fearlessly satirical Blaxploitation/Spaghetti Western hybrid. Once is Tarantino’s most restrained, sophisticated and sweepingly subtextual film in years, and already destined to age finer than anything he’s composed in a long time.
For as indulgent as Tarantino is (really? Tarantino? Indulgent?) with the runtime and the restlessly breathable pacing, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood saves its darkest gratifications for an ending at once marvelously tasteless – like some of his best bloodbath finales, though it's no Crazy 88 massacre from Kill Bill: Volume 1 – and in touch with the purpose of movies. In making a mockery of Manson's murderous followers, he's able to retroactively alter the evil and immorality of the world by creating an idyllic and hopeful antidote, not unlike killing Hitler and exacting retribution upon slavers. Of course the director’s insensitive sensibilities spawn new detractors at every turn (he got away Django guys, he’s going to get away with anything) but any fresh semblance of misogyny or racism is clearly satirical, and any naysayers are probably projecting their values against a radically different period in hope of contradiction. This epic tinsel town fairy tale abides only by well-considered scripting and the intrepid auteur's childhood idea of the era.
Which means the lens with which Tarantino sees late '60s Hollywood is intensely nostalgic if still unusually authentic. Neither Charlie nor Sharon Tate is key to the sprawling, era-capping chronicle. Splendid as Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Tate is, the moviemaking reality here is obviously obfuscated by Tarantino’s ageless playfulness, and the inserted fiction shuffling around the events of 1969 is in sharper focus. The fictitious Western actor Rick Dalton (played to pure excellence by Leonardo DiCaprio), his equally fictitious stuntman Cliff Booth (a perfectly pitched Brad Pitt) and the steady wane of their respective careers form a tragicomic snapshot of the seemingly copious possibilities Hollywood, and popular culture at large, appeared to offer through the 20th century's most culturally prosperous decade.
It’s not exactly worthy of Sergio Leone’s titular legacy and yet, my god, Tarantino's ninth feature is in the same ballpark, which is no small feat. Everyone should witness the sublimity of Once Upon a Time in the West unless you, like Rick Dalton, believe Italian Westerns to be awful. As much as Brad Pitt anchors the film in classic, studied cool and an everyman fantasy only he could provide, Leo is the one turning out perhaps the peak performance of his career (up there with The Wolf of Wall Street and The Aviator). In terms of sheer virtuosity, especially backed by Tarantino's ability to harness Leo's larger than life, 120% persona, you end up with a faultless dramatic display and priceless performances within performances – DiCaprio's really exquisite here.
Tarantino's myriad influences have always been plainly conspicuous but while he's never made a fool of himself in relying so dearly on homage, it's sad that his seasoned skills will likely be with us for only one more film, if he sticks to his word and ends his career with ten features to his name. It's wise to quit while you're ahead but Tarantino's singular style of post-modernist, hyper-escapist, cinematic history potpourri still feels like a taste of a Brand New Wave after more than 25 years in the racket. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood may come across underwhelming side by side with his most unshackled, exaggerated works but it's yet another Tarantino film worth carefully dissecting, gleefully quoting and lackadaisically living in, only this time you can feel reasonably less ashamed.
3 ½ (out of 4)
Ari Aster effortlessly entered horror's ongoing revival with last year’s Hereditary but he swiftly secures his name as one worth remembering in his gonzo follow-up a mere thirteen months later. Swapping out demons and mental illness for culture shock, PTSD and ancient perversions, Midsommar is a real doozy.
Grandly composed yet atmospherically insular, Aster ignores the safeness of the supernatural to take a classically inspired look at the most macabre facets of human nature – grief, resentment, temptation and betrayal. The commitment to measured realism naturally informs the irresistible slasher setup with grace and patience while invoking copious genre thrills. Aster sows together break-up subject matter with once-a-generation Swedish folk festivals, finding advantageous ways to thread together the setting, mythos and themes without sacrificing verisimilitude at the altar.
With strong subtext coursing through its scarce plot, the narrative overambition noted in Hereditary is channeled into a discreetly organized summer vacation from hell, packing its own punch of internal panic while justifying the evolution of its enticingly psychotic premise every creeping step through. Reminiscent of seminal excerpts in film history (the sinuous trickery of The Shining, the patient escalation of Rosemary’s Baby and of course the cult crazies of The Wicker Man), Aster reverts today's tastes craving more spookhouse hogwash to create a vivid psychological horror epic abundant in dauntlessness.
Tonally Aster has achieved something so delicately bizarre it becomes difficult to resist laughing along with the absurdity just as surely as we wince at the freakiest turns. Midsommar is so strangely funny – thanks Will Poulter – even its most jaw-droppingly grotesque moments may have you guffawing simultaneously. It’s a risky spatial and emotional balance to strike – this could have so plainly been parody in lesser hands.
Though the band of characters are function-only, they're developed enough that the typical frustration as a powerless horror movie audience member doesn't impede captivation. Partaking in the Kool-Aid and going with the flow bring you two tripping sequences so eerie in their own subtlety and thematic employment they stand apart as their own separate bookends of scariness. The lure of spiritual rebirth only to find death awaiting you with a warm smile on its face is its own warped brand of creepy.
Like anything so initially inviting, Midsommar doesn’t entirely deliver on every promise of its foregone potential but it arrives damn close. Hereditary had something special going until it wet the bed in the home stretch. Aster aims past the risers here and comes out far more unscathed than his debut.
2 (out of 4)
Well it appears the Marvel/Spidey mashup has officially hit the brink of diminishing returns. With Spider-Man (the character and Tom Holland) trapped like a cute kid in a nasty divorce, Sony and Disney's bickering and bartering over the rights appears to have finally settled down. After losing the webslinger for about a month or so, Disney reclaims Spidey as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – though, in that leg of limbo the Disney executives pretended they actually did everything they planned to with Spider-Man concluding with Far From Home. The Mouse can't help but affect the movie's themselves with their backstage wheeling and dealing, but even viewed as just a comic book movie, Far From Home is Marvel at its most conventional and monotonous.
After Endgame left nothing beyond Thor and Guardians adventures to forecast post-Phase 3 – at least until Comic-Con reminded us, inevitably, that nothing about this franchise is ending whatsoever – Far From Home approaches the cinematic situation with even less. Spidey's second subtitled affair doesn't come close to sufficiently serving as the soothing comedown to the biggest theatrical release of all time. Some impressive aspects notwithstanding, this Marvel "vacation" proves just why the long running and recycling series will never match the pure evocative earnestness of Sam Raimi’s original trilogy, let alone the better parts of the MCU.
The most bothersome blemish of Disney's two featureless Spider-Man films is the fact that the insanely iconic hero just isn't trusted to be the star of his own show. The boilerplate themes of Far From Home are even more frustrating than they were in Homecoming, particularly because they haven't changed at all. Peter Parker must once again strive to live up to Tony Stark’s precedent (now in death rather than the flesh), but the responsibility-shrugging struggles were lame the first time and RDJ's shadow looms all too imposingly and unnecessarily – it's a flagrantly unmasked repeat of stale ideas.
Tom Holland has been a dependable age-appropriate Spider-Man and Jake Gyllenhaal continues Marvel’s late-period streak of strong antagonists as Mysterio who, granted, may be one of the finest villains of the series. The underplayed teen romance is surprisingly sweet, although I do not respect Zendaya as an acting talent, or as any talent really. The third act gets things moving but by then the series has been slightly retconned and you’re being frequently reminded of a bad take on The Incredibles. Gyllenhaal's perfect casting as a nerd favorite has to be cathartic for some but still, whatever righteous reinvention Homecoming offered with our central characters, Far From Home has scrubbed off most of the residual charm. The movie wants to be a relaxing summer tonic following a far more eventful, emotional heavy hitter a la Ant-Man rearing Age of Ultron (or their respective sequels three years later) but the hype is all exhausted and any exaltation at new CG effects and freshly stale quips is long expired.
Furthering the John Hughes imitations and those pesky recurring jokes – best friend Ned's fling, Jon Favreau's Happy's infatuation with Marisa Tomei's Aunt May (haha isn’t she HOT?) – does not assist the amusement but deflate it. Never has the classic MCU “comedy” been so strained, the action literally been more artificial and the sense of wonderment and heroism been so dampened by the overwhelming serialization and minimal digestion between installments. This is the fourth time Spider-Man has played a key role in an MCU film, once per year since 2016 – it just makes Far From Home, especially as a farewell to the relatively grand, if overlong Phase 3, the antithesis of amazing.
Until J K Simmons reappears in a rare, actually worthwhile post-credits stinger (sadly more enjoyable than the entire preceding movie), Far From Home offers few particulars of enjoyment other than some psychedelic Spidey-screensavers via Mysterio's anticipated trickery and high school hipster courtship. There are no puzzle pieces left to put together and the forward motion of the most momentous Hollywood endeavor ever is suddenly glacial. As a mere passable dessert following Endgame's purposeful overindulgence, Far From Home purposely seeks to evade routine and ends up one of Marvel's most formulaic efforts.
1 ½ (out of 4)
In spite of noted classics and separate brushes with Oscar limelight lending him the status of household name, Danny Boyle is not a director you could accurately call an all-time great. But considering this is the man who initially brought us the lively licentiousness of Shallow Grave and the scintillating sickliness of Trainspotting, you’d hope his summer fairy tale flick in the form of a musical tribute to the Beatles wouldn’t share the same mediocre sheen of the rest of this season's releases.
I thought after Trance earlier this decade Boyle could never make a more frustrating film but never mind I guess. Unless he’s dipping into genre fare like space (Sunshine), zombies (28 Days Later) or an Aaron Sorkin-penned biopic (Steve Jobs) the dependency on Dutch angles and contrasted colors ironically highlights just how little substance Boyle's really bringing to the table and serves only to energize my anger. The premise of Yesterday (of a world where only one dude remembers the Fab Four) is already wildly dumb on arrival but the film averts every potentially fascinating direction for the story and the internal sense adds up to ass the more you ponder it. Would a song like "I Saw Her Standing There" really resonate with the contemporary pop music climate without a trap beat?
Some hazily creative choices are situated as insistent jokes, making for real narrative non-starters. In Yesterday not only the Beatles but other societal #1's (Coca Cola, Harry Potter, cigarettes I guess?) have also been erased from existence – but this is treated as a pointless curiosity unfit of investigation. Actual ingenuity is downplayed for more Ed Sheehan, pathetically spoonfed themes or the worst representation of an aged John Lennon conceivable – sorry no, the guy who scream-sang "I'm lonely, wanna die" on "Yer Blues" would not be dishing out love advice at random. Richard Curtis' maddening screenplay teases the odd and nightmarish by introducing a few strangers also not effected by this mass memory wipe. Instead of capitalizing on a neat aspect of paranoia that would have given our protagonist his deserved comeuppance, the film instead takes one last turn for the saccharine.
A movie so generally innocent shouldn't inspire such violent reactions but that's just how stupid Yesterday gets. The crucial romance is tepid, most performances are forced and even Kate McKinnon for all her charisma can't liven things up in the background. Himesh Patel is a grating lead to watch take advantage of this musical blackout and Lily James' doe-eyed loveliness is wasted on sugary mush. The dynamics of the banal love story are bafflingly backwards – yeah I'm sure Cinderella herself would be the one doing the yearning.
Even in a world where proper summer escapism had been erased, Yesterday would still dissatisfy. If I were as religiously attached to the Beatles as some, I'd be devastated by such an insensitive, unstudied and prosaic so-called "celebration" of the band. I can't believe I'm typing this out, but you're better off revering the most popular music act in history through 2007's Across the Universe.
3 ½ (out of 4)
I’ll be damned Disney – I came into the latest latent Pixar sequel with enough upfront cynicism to ready myself for Cars 4. Why oh why go out of your way to spoil a good thing? It goes without saying the Toy Story trilogy is the flagship of the Pixar brand – each installment has an abundance of emotional complexity and unencumbered creative freedom, as well as the potential for joy and pathos in devastating spells. Number four’s strongest distinction is the renewed inventiveness in addition to a consistently impassioned approach to more mature themes. It's hard to keep Disney's money-milking schemes out of your head (especially in the year of three remakes of their own animated classics, three Marvel movies, Frozen II and a Star Wars episode), but unbelievably Toy Story 4 is a product of prudence and intelligence rather than brand recognition and capitalist underpinnings.
It’s crazy to write out but this is some of Pixar’s finest stuff this decade, a few forgivable moments notwithstanding. The sympathetic villain in a voice(box)less Gabby Gabby doll improves on past antagonists while the major anthropomorphic trinkets are redrawn with enough new wrinkles to justify the very idea of this film's existence. Some inspired new character creations like Keanu Reeves' Duke Caboom mean some old favorites have to take the backseat, which would be disappointing if it weren't an even trade. Ultimately after having nightmares in anticipation of this sequel's mediocrity, I have to humbly admit the results of the previously predicted corporate devilry behind Toy Story 4 are as optimistic as one can imagine. The plot is appropriately minuscule for a film functioning as a touching epilogue to a great series. Just from the opening scene (a flashback of Woody and Bo Peep's parting that could work as its own short film), you know right up front this is not some obvious cash-in.
Toy Story 4 even has the upper hand on 3, thought to be its own impressive series capper. I grant you the final act of the 2010 Story is masterly but the progressed quality of animation, elevated moderation in the storytelling and the revisionist examination of Woody’s character makes Toy Story 4 the sequel we didn’t know we needed desperately and deserved unknowingly. Similar to Incredibles 2 (a strong and reasonable revisitation to original properties unlike Monsters University or Finding Dory) there is little compromise of independent imagination for the sake of popular demand.
1 ½ (out of 4)
20th Century Fox’s former piece of the Marvel pie is going out with a wheeze rather than one last hurrah. After Apocalypse popped a blood vessel grasping for epic scope, Dark Phoenix, the fourth installment in the rebooted X-Men series, inverts the abnormality of X-cinema to its cheesiest and most frugal form. The final mutation of the now extinct franchise places its chips on Sophie Turner's latent Game of Thrones popularity and a twice-tried storyline stuck on the overpowered character Jean Grey. I thought Famke Janssen was always lacking personality, especially in X-Men: The Last Stand, but this immaterial redo (directed by the same spotty writer Simon Kinberg no less) is on its own level of eh.
As far as the 12-film, 19-year Fox franchise is concerned, there really is nothing new under the sun – same old themes, character traits, reflective politics, generic platitudes and clumsy confrontations. The story of Dark Phoenix is not unlike Captain Marvel in many ways (premise and villains largely) but the dialogue itself lands with a crash and thud from start to finish, as if a spec script made it through all of shooting. Even the extraordinary displays of mutant combat barely live up to the usual freakish fun until its admittedly exciting – and entirely reshot – finale.
Michael Fassbender's Magneto sustains his one beautiful note but he and Baby Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee, the best of the new X-generation) are underused despite being the current company's best in show. Baby Cyclops sucks (or maybe Tye Sheridan does) while Evan Peters' Quiksilver gets classically nerfed early on. James McAvoy hardly does justice to the role of Professor X anymore and J Law literally can’t die soon enough (whoops spoilers, like anyone cares).
Beyond Disney buyouts, this was already the bastard child of the X-Men series. An initial trilogy, a prequel trilogy and three successively improved Wolverine films (not to mention two separately successful Deadpool films) led to this: a hamstrung borderline-parody of a superhero film full of phoned-in acting, TV editing, lackluster visual effects and more than a few stretches of unintentional humor. Phoenix deserves to be left right in the ashes, never to be reborn except under strict direction of Master Mouse.
2 (out of 4)
As a sister of the mumblecore movement, Olivia Wilde should have felt right at home while crafting her own hipster coming-of-age debut. It's something of a right of passage from Welles and Truffaut to Gerwig and Burnham. In Wilde's case a less than stellar acting career has led to a desperate appeal to the Gen-Z audience in the form of the essay in clichés known as Booksmart.
What is this genre known for? Adolescent insight, barbed one-liners, high school tomfoolery and maybe even a tear or two shed. John Hughes' multiple distillations of this formula gave the 80s a few of its intrinsic flavors but Wilde’s amendment on the tactics matches neither Hughes' overrated abilities or the ingenuity of her contemporaries. Unlike the novelties of Edge of Seventeen, Lady Bird, The Diary of a Teenage Girl or especially and most recently Eighth Grade, Booksmart falls way shy of the creativity of its counterparts. The wisdom is weak, the situational comedy is forced and many characters do little other than secure an imagined quota of LGBTQ+ representation, a political move just as deliberately predisposed as the rest of the film.
Booksmart wants to be the female Superbad – let the losers loosen up just as high schools ends – but that 2007 flick still holds favor because its script finds the appropriate time for each instance of silliness, satire and insight in order maintain both relative realism and homespun, inappropriate entertainment. Wilde's attempts to illustrate the newfangled quirks of present-day youth are periodically cringe-inducing and ignore any semblance of universality. Even with a hard R, Wilde's film is a soft summer comedy – Booksmart desperately yearns to shine with the luster of an underseen cult classic. It's another faux-indie wide release with an oppressively modern soundtrack (sorry but these girls don’t listen to Death Grips along with Top 40 garbage), broad gags and big comedy names in the lesser roles (Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudeikis and Jessica Williams). As much as the supporting casts amuses, a few funny side characters don't outweigh the stock of stereotypes and agenda-fillers.
Leads Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever both seem typecast. The former repeats her exact role in Lady Bird albeit larger and the latter is still playing high schoolers, this time in a more comic context. Feldstein’s shtick is already stale and Dever’s improvisational chops are nonexistent. Their onscreen friendship has sweet moments but there’s no self-awareness in Wilde asking us to sympathize, not scrutinize, the most privileged teens imaginable. There’s nothing at all revelatory about realizing rich kids get into ivy league schools regardless of their grades, which is the inciting insecurity of Feldstein's valedictorian, straight-edge protagonist. If Booksmart took place in a Midwest town... well the premise would be moot but her character's shock is unrelatable and every succeeding act of their unexpected evening is contrived and unfulfilled.
If it weren’t for the fact that Booksmart has damn near unanimous praise, I wouldn’t blink an eye at a middling SXSW film. I would guess the deeply feminist slant has the liberal majority of critics on its side regardless of the film’s actual content, though I don't deny there are some inspired choices amongst the prescribed fun and feels. Wilde's work still lands without empathetic impact and its coaxing through breakneck editing and blaring needle drops is more exasperating than charming as intended.
3 ½ (out of 4)
Finally attaining the breadth of frenzied hysteria and hysterics this film series intended from the start, the third John Wick installment is an individually dynamite action picture systematically outdoing its predecessors and establishing a fresh benchmark in stunt perfectionism for today's genre enthusiasts. Of course, if you prefer sensible storytelling to violent skirmishes you most likely already don't look favorably upon Wick or any blockbusters of the same ilk.
But scrutinizing plot is wasted effort in this context and anticipating narrative innovation is misguided when one's focus should be fixed on the particulars of editing, choreography, stuntwork and set design – with uncompromising action thrillers, story usually does and should fade into the aesthetics of staggering blockbuster filmmaking, assuming there’s someone proficient behind camera. When your central premise is the most unbeatable assassin returning from retirement for a cascading series of absurdly brutal scenarios and new emotional motivations, the propulsion better be one more of feeling than logic. As much as Chapter 3 doesn’t necessarily solve persisting genre clichés – one-by-one henchmen attack plans or the elasticity of movie physics – this series already sits as the modern measure of action film greatness.
The first Wick was a blistering, left field gem, now standing as a downplayed action classic. The sequel posited impressive improvements on the finer fringe details of the assassin-verse but regrettably threw the combat switch from thrill to overkill. Parabellum lands firmly in between, reaffirming the original's brazen tongue-in-cheekiness and reverting the violence to a kinetic, outlandish fun house. The sheer amount of RPG headshots isn't as thoroughly numbing as last time and the sense of visual clarity and opulence has never been more uniformly crisp. Bourne has been forgotten and Bond has been the sight of every kind of reinvention process – only Mission: Impossible and Fast & Furious hold relevancy to the genre and each are two movies away from completion. John Wick had humble beginnings and expertly earned its cult following, critical raves and exponential box office numbers. Who knows where this crazy train ends but the views so far have been uncommonly spectacular.
Collecting the memorable antagonists from the Raid franchise – Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman – as merciless number twos to Zero, the deadliest fanboy on the planet (Mark Decascos), the Wick series reaffirms its genre cred and impossible niche in another martial arts/neo-noir hybrid brimming with gun-fu freak-outs and practical choreography tutorials. Ballet ties into its basic but functional themes on the harmonic relationship between art and pain – the exploration of the elegance of movement is at the core of John Wick 3, crystallizing the film and franchise within their own artistically justified heights. If lustrous final boss battles and antique knife fights bring us closer to the savage audiovisual poetry absolving us of our restrained recklessness, so be it. Chapter 4 will suitably raise the stakes, break the rules and have us laughing and/or gaping in awe once again – topping Parabellum's slew of sick opening set pieces and the algorithmically orchestrated climax will be a marvelous challenge.
2 (out of 4)
Like the Jack Sparrow of his own Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Ryan Reynolds is the recurring grace note keeping Detective Pikachu at all bearable. If it weren’t for his hapless ad-libbing, the first live-action Pokémon movie would be a true bust rather than the year's most forgettable summer flick for the whole family.
The actual narrative within the quasi-mystery of this Roger Rabbit-rip-off is pretty pitiful but Detective Pikachu thankfully doesn't rely entirely on nostalgia to secure your investment. The updated poké-politics – I suppose it is a little cramped inside those pokéballs – try to finagle the ridiculous reality of Pocket Monsters into a framework vaguely fit for live-action spaces. But nondescript lead characters in Justice Smith and Kathryn Newton, unmistakable bad guy Bill Nighy and some abysmal visual effects do not help the cause of this so-called urban fantasy. Plus no matter how many dead parents there are the film never gets even remotely emotional.
Now’s the moment to bellyache like I resemble a real fan: I grew up with Pokémon – the trading cards, the action figures, the television series and of course the video games – and had a peculiar attachment to the property. This PG movie is inspired by the 2016 game of the same name, undoubtedly placing its bets on the freshest, most susceptible generation of fans. Still, when you hope to see such fantastical delirium in a tangible setting, you'd like classic characters filling in not only the foreground but the edges as well. Favorites like Psyduck, Mr. Mime and Mewtwo are on the front lines, but the background is teeming with the most witless ideas those Japanese creators ever conceived. I could be doubly upset at the lack of an Ash Ketchum storyline but the gripes continue since Rob Letterman's film settles for a mediocre visual spirit when the bracing anime style of the original show and early films could've been cleverly converted.
But, like many mainstream blockbusters, this movie was not created with only myself in mind. Tweens and younger are probably gonna lose their minds watching Detective Pikachu. All I know is the first animated Pokémon movie from 20 years back didn’t require Pikachu to act human in order to convey the master-trainer bond with Ash. Primitive as the idea of battling is as each film in question suggests, the reverent relationship between man and the creatures of nature was always the point. Detective Pikachu has taken extraordinary effort to write its way around this crucial element of the world of Pokémon in order to have the Deadpool guy say funny things.
You’re better off watching Pokémon 3 if you want an actual story and not just placeholder plotting, weightless CGI and middling humor.
3 (out of 4)
Director Jonathan Levine has grappled with horror and hilarity from the Texas Chainsaw pastiche of All the Girls Love Mandy Lane to his exceptionally honest cancer comedy 50/50 to the rom-zom-com middle ground of Warm Bodies. Long Shot is in many ways just another Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg product – much like Levine’s last film The Night Before – but damn if Rogen hasn't maintained his acclaimed affability.
The sole smudge of Long Shot, an otherwise thematically frank and well-tapered romantic comedy, is the idea that the ceaselessly stoned Jewish schlep (yet again Rogen's 'character' is barely removed from his real persona) would ever obtain the love of someone as untouchable as Charlize Theron, let alone her as Secretary of State and future president. Rogen has been paired with fine ladies over the years (Katherine Heigl, Elizabeth Banks, Rose Byrne, Amber Heard for Christ's sake) but the pairing in Long Shot sails past even Adam Sandler-tier male fantasies.
With that primary nitpick out of the way, it's safe to say Long Shot is frequently hilarious, appropriately cast (Randall Park and O'Shea Jackson Jr. continue to and should pop up in everything) and discerning enough given the usual quota of sex jokes and pop culture references. The film actually has its own take on today's politics, namely the relationship between the media, the public and the powers that be. And regarding the premise – the early stages of a successful female presidential run – this is not a feminist film; It's Her Turn is not the big ol' message. The politics lean decidedly left – Bob Odenkirk as the current president, former TV star and self-obsessed dummy should spell this out obviously enough – but Long Shot's relatively complex view of public discourse and political candor is passable for mainstream amusement.
Apart from the joint topics on journalism and government, a Seth Rogen movie means we’re getting self-deprecating humor, drug sequences, offhand ad-libbing and a fairy tale ending. All of this is true of Long Shot but, like the best Rogen vehicles, the laughs come very natural and relaxation becomes second nature. The sequence wherein Theron’s Charlotte Field negotiates a hostage situation whilst on MDMA is a bit of brilliance. A forced namedrop here and there can’t spoil Long Shot's fun – Levine reminds us of all the shameless comfort you can glean from a romantic comedy worth suspending reality for.
3 (out of 4)
Avengers: Endgame is a virtually perfect resolution to a miraculous franchise and an adequate superhero movie all its own. We can forever argue in apocalyptic or utopic rhetoric about serialized filmmaking forever changing the very fabric of Hollywood's ability to satiate the masses. But as the crest of the superhero sensation appears to have finally broken on the shore, Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe will likely confirm the collective decline of the phenomenon. Endgame has reached audiences in numbers akin to just a few films in cinematic history – if this final Avengers (for now) felt more complete, emotionally conscientious or judiciously trimmed, it could have been a pop culture criterion worthy of the blinding spotlight.
Endgame traces the best and worst of Marvel's proven formula, from the studio's selective capacity to stir audiences to its most feeble attempts to pander to them. As a 3-hour triptych including a weepie, Back to the Future Part IV and finally the superhero showdown to rule them all, Avengers: Endgame is almost too much to process at once. For the most part the movie is a sustained wonder of synchronicity save for a soft joke or a jarring edit here and there. But like countless epics before it there are trade-offs to the long-form dramatic staging. Engrossing, multi-strained spectacle can be foolishly interrupted by condescending simplifications or structural top-heaviness.
But at least the Avengers finally have something to avenge. While clearly inferior to Avengers: Infinity War (pretty much tippity top on the MCU scale), the subsequent half of this titanic superhero sendoff is unwieldy and unexpected. Endgame strolls along a fine line between all-ages entertainment and nerd-specific sensory overload, just not quite as gracefully as its predecessor. As much as Endgame isn’t your typical latter half of a huge series finale (like Deathly Hallows, Mockingjay or Breaking Dawn), it still takes anywhere from a few flicks to up to 21 movies of preparation to enjoy. All the rewards meant for devoted Marvel fans are actualized primarily in the last hour of pornographic superhero battles which, ironically, can also be fundamentally enjoyed by just about anyone.
The mounting drama running through true film sequels can prompt instances so poignant they are capable of transcending the medium altogether – look no further than The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King for said pathos. Despite its enormous pleasures, Endgame feels in many ways like another link in the chain of endless buildup leading to all too little crowning compensation. Minor gripes aside – the misuse of Captain Marvel, lack of closure beyond the biggest characters, the overflowing narrative – Endgame is the sort of mass cultural orgasm that doesn’t need to earn over a billion dollars opening weekend to prove itself a mammoth event picture. Tapered, monopolizing execution lent this film unfathomable, impossible anticipation and expectations, a detriment only to people like me who scoff at comic book readers and yet take these movies way too seriously.
The Russo brothers have been upping their game since the Captain America sequels, and Marvel Studios' president Kevin Feige and head MCU screenwriter Stephen McFeely have handled the paramount points of the interrelated universe rather scrupulously thus far. Whether through absurdity, affect or sheer dumb luck, Endgame's outcome is involving and emotional in spite of its myriad moving pieces. The payoff for major character arcs – at least for the highlighted heroes, this time including Hawkeye and Ant-Man (absent from the last get-together) alongside big finishes for Captain America and Iron Man – are fairly reasonable in their ultimate satisfaction. Thor's blubbery, manic-depressive turn is fitting even if it's milked for many laughs – only Hulk and some of the previously dusted superfriends feel forgotten or underrepresented.
Seen with some measure of clarity – this is just a movie after all, no matter how many loose ends were dangling following Thanos' climactic snap – Endgame has as much fun as is logically allowed and makes a number of judiciously weighed gambles rearing the 22-film, 4D chess game. While no disappointment it's almost as if this one colossal undertaking needed another two-parter to elaborate properly. As an overworked three-hour superhero quasi-denouement the film may be Hollywood excess at its zenith and yet the highlight instances of catharsis are classically effective. Endgame became the highest grossing film of all time worldwide just as Phase 4's seeds were sown. If Disney's streaming service played no role in their best and surest property's future (I will NOT be watching television to prepare for Doctor Strange 2), the horizon would seem like the right kind of corporate comedown was in store. Instead Disney will do it all over again, just the same but bigger – they can't help but keep feeding a perpetually monopolized storytelling catastrophe in motion. Chances are Endgame will be looked upon fondly after superhero flicks – whether in general interest or relative quality – recognizably start to fade. For now, we can criticize and enjoy the peculiarity of the popular cinematic present for all its worth.
3 (out of 4)
It’s a new Laika movie – what more need be said? Maybe Boxtrolls has been lost to forgetfulness but Coraline, ParaNorman and Kubo and the Two Strings are some of the leading examples of what one of the most antiquated processes of animation has left to uncover in an overwhelmingly digital age.
Each project of this sort – Aardman is the only other studio crazy enough to commit to these insane undertakings – requires the investment and integrity of a painstaking collective. The efforts are always rich and rewarding purely by the homespun aesthetic, often regardless of how the story plays out. Missing Link, like other Laika features, secures an impressive voice cast (Hugh Jackman, Zach Galifianakis, Zoe Saldana) to bring an original oddity to life. Landing more on the comic side of the studio's crop, it follows a stubbornly stalwart explorer (Jackman) out to prove Sasquatch’s existence only to discover the myth is desperate to locate a purpose of its own. While these films typically have a bedtime aura between homey and haunting (Coraline most accurately), this movie’s jaunty edges and absurdly old-fashioned adventure trappings render Missing Link a revivifying albeit slightly less sincere shift from its predecessors.
As wee as it is, in relation to 2019's paltry context Missing Link is an unsailed channel in a sea of familiar. Though almost all these movies are created with the intention to fail financially, hopefully the founding Knight family doesn’t discontinue their factory of creative obsessions any time soon. As long as people are dedicated enough to continue stop-motion animation’s history of fastidious wonder there will surely be enough patient viewers to beam as their tedious work intricately unfolds.
3 (out of 4)
Where did DC's swift turnaround come from? After Wonder Woman broke the shite streak in 2017, Justice League arrived just in time to remind us why Snyder’s apocalyptic visions could only hypothetically operate in an era free of self-awareness and irony. Aquaman was recently a dynamically divisive change of pace and the global response has been resoundingly celebratory. The muted anticipation for Shazam!, the most prudent installment of the Extended Universe by far, suggested the movie would be worth a chuckle during the trailer. Instead Director David F. Sandberg proved although the superhero origin story is an exhausted template, with a heartfelt approach it remains a specifically sturdy framework for a resilient kind of moviegoing bliss.
A winning cast (young Jack Dylan Grazer is the highlight) brings out the best of an enchanting screenplay that levels out savvy, family friendly humor with situations of wickedness more in line with '80s movies and dark bedtime stories. As much as it plays to a general audience (even though it shares several traits with Deadpool) Shazam! emanates a classic sort of simplicity and understated idealism. After Aquaman successfully dropped the idea of crossover interconnection, Shazam! continues to show the essentials to caring for characters from scratch. You don’t need trilogies and team ups to develop a handful of well-acted personalities – even our generic villain (Mark Strong in his moody mode) has a slyly sympathetic origin.
The movie is a restrained rarity, an unanticipated, unfettered pleasure within a genre so bloated and saturated it could use hours of liposuction. Obviously Shazam! works with a narrative a child could understand but this universality is indicative of sentimental honesty, sharp, clean humor and occasionally profound realism. Orphanhood, estrangement, identity crisis – the film's emotional earnestness overcomes any lack of the expensive spectacle and headlong pacing we’ve been progressively attuned to expect. Shazam!'s whimsically meta delights are enough because the film resists easy, derisive smugness. Did I mention Zachary Levi is an absolute treasure?
3 ½ (out of 4)
Where to even begin – Jordan Peele rode the dystopian zeitgeist of our tempestuous times to several accolades with 2017's Get Out, which appropriately repurposed its genre and proved the director a horror film scholar of unrivaled promise. Us is a vastly different stroke of terror and one capable of creating conversations beyond certain political implications – it's spectacularly bizarre by its end and unfailingly suspenseful up front. Peele's sophomore bump is tailored for far more interpretation than the exaggerated racial nightmare parable that is Get Out, though each are authentic enough to prove lasting artifacts of a propitious career.
Especially with the foreknowledge of the simple twist, the profound universality of Us is in trading genetic themes for class ones to make light of our own domestic hypocrisy in the most unthinkably ambitious fashion possible. Peele puts up no barrier between the literal and implicit components of his Twilight Zone-primed phantasm – broken down even by cinematic logic Us doesn’t really make a lick of sense. What really matters is the film has still managed to impress audiences while forcing them into the throws of social speculation, sparking more valuable discourse than any movie this past Oscar season.
It’s very unwise to take Us at face value given all of its symbols, red herrings and metaphorical substance. It’s bug-eyed wacky at its core and the wiliest kind of ingenious on the surface. A movie idea like evil doppelgangers doesn’t even require an explanation and might have even been better for it – it's hard to say whether a freaky, straitlaced thriller from Peele would have made for a more effectively scary film but the unchecked resourcefulness of Us gives way to broad and brawny societal suggestions. Even the most half-baked conceit in this story is drawn from more inspiration than the entire Conjuring universe. Peele is already a savant of his mode, understanding the correct shape and atmosphere a pivotal genre excerpt must possess to retain everlasting value.
Lupita Nyong'o is incredible also, taking the complexities of an absurdly complicated dual role and shining in the ambiguous, uncomfortable strangeness on both accounts. But as cockeyed and batshit crazy as the steady rise to the climax of Us is, it's implications outweigh any grandstanding or Hollywood rug-pulling. We should not take our own national counterparts for granted; every life spent in comfort is karmically leveled by one spent in misfortune. The film's message and exhilaration is overwhelming in total and sure to short circuit any brain that's made a habit of absorbing the content of the latest popular film in one pessimistic sitting. Us is just as insane and brazen as Peele required to reclaim the status as a blossoming auteur of exceptional control. Harebrained as it is, Us is at once audacious as well as calculated and resolute, proving that theatrical ingenuity comes from expanding the possibilities of what the most basic gotcha premise can elicit in either a cinematic or sociological sense.
2 ½ (out of 4)
My god, how many of these are there? Even as Phase 3 reaches the ultimate culmination and climax of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we barrel toward the Endgame, they’re still introducing characters? And it took 21 movies for their first solo heroine? And, despite the most pernicious online precedent to one film's release, Captain Marvel is actually decent?
Listen, there’s very little left to critique stylistically regarding the MCU as it comes and goes, which happens more frequently than ever. The action and humor relieve each other in quick succession; a few jokes hit, many fall flat. The structure, despite any side-agenda universe building, is rooted in three traditional acts. Although you'd think grading Marvel movies on their own curve would bring about harsher appraisals, it actually leaves you far more lenient. Films like Infinity War, Civil War and the original Avengers had satisfyingly scopic spectacle. The offbeat, individual entries of this epic miniseries – the best includes Doctor Strange, Ant-Man and of course Iron Man – need to please in the premise of their story and the personality of their protagonist.
Captain Marvel as both movie and character is sensibly showcased for the sake of the collective franchise. She's a spark of hope for anyone dumb enough to have thought the final moments of Infinity War were permanent and her film itself is a way to introduce fresh blood into the Marvel crowd before the main players (Cap, Thor, Tony) more than likely depart. It's hard to understand the genuinely dissatisfied naysayers and "true" fans acting like she's ruining the whole enterprise. The actors are strong (casting has always been Marvel's forte and Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn and obviously Samuel L. Jackson don't disappoint), the story is architecturally fresh, self-contained and driven by nice twists and revelations. It’s all fairly routine at its core and even underwhelming in totality given what the MCU has offered before, yet it goes down as easy as many watchable Marvel flicks have before.
Despite not clocking in the same hours, Brie Larson is as talented as her seasoned co-stars with which she will soon share the universe. Carol/Vers' relationship with Jackson's long-returning and now de-aged Nick Fury is enjoyable indeed. Larson's public rants interfered none at all with my experience because all I see is the woman who moved me so in films like Short Term 12 and Room. Considering her character's ridiculously overblown invulnerability (a problem at large but not in context), she would have a chip on her soldier wouldn't she? However infested with trolls Rotten Tomatoes is, the reaction to her performance has been one of sickeningly undue scrutiny.
The sequences on Hala liken to old-fashioned sci-fi more than the majority of the Thor and Guardians films – the first act of Captain Marvel is like a Star Trek fan’s wet dream. The visuals are impressive for a movie as modestly budgeted as Ant-Man. Themes on memory and identity keep things intriguing and emotional. The comedy bits aren’t too distracting and the soundtrack choices/'90s references, while wearing thin after awhile, don't come down in bombardment.
Given how long we've known the Avengers, it's hard to ignore the drawbacks of the film's placement in the greater whole of the saga. I enjoy my superhero movies largely free of future moneymaking ingredients but the introduction of this character into MCU is the most shoehorned aspect of a corporate empire that usually places its bets conservatively and congeals its characters smoothly. With only eight weeks prior to Endgame, Captain Marvel is in line with production quality and yet little more than an appeteaser and an afterthought.
2 (out of 4)
Robert Rodriguez has an exalted reputation but considerably less clout. When the Spy Kids movies (the original, The Island of Lost Dreams and 3-D: Game Over that is) seem like career highlights alongside the trend-setting style of Sin City and the textbook precision genre-crossing of From Dusk till Dawn, there isn’t room for much else besides improvement. Rodriquez continues to be a polished practitioner of visual flair but what Alita: Battle Angel does most skillfully is pass the time.
Alita is positively the director's most ambitious undertaking and at least one of the most technically accomplished films of Rodriguez' career – Battle Angel is nonetheless a deficient example of what big-budget cyberpunk and sci-fi cinema can yield in emotion and prescience. There’s copious thematic substance to be extracted from the subjects of artificial intelligence even without great recent examples like Upgrade, Blade Runner 2049, and Ex Machina. Meanwhile Rodriguez' manga adaptation doesn't function as anything other than masturbation fodder for 14-year-olds. It's yet another Western take on a popular Japanese property about a mechanical female badass in a dystopian world; Alita barely has the upper hand over 2017’s disastrous Ghost in the Shell remake. Both films have little to ride on save for respected source material and a hot chick punching people – I guess that counts for something.
The uncanny valley and bloated eyeballs of our protagonist Alita (Rosa Salazar) aren’t as distracting as trailers suggested. The visual effects are for the most part intricate and grandiose – some of the action has show-stopping weight and transfixing choreography. With a 175 million dollar price tag and what felt like eons in development, at minimum Battle Angel looks properly belabored.
But as soon as I saw James Cameron's credit as screenwriter and not just as producer, I knew why the film was a halfway decent epic save for the laughably developed love story. Alita and her boy toy Hugo are the worst cinematic couple of the decade, maybe this century. A cast including a pair of two-time Best Supporting Actor Academy Award winners in Mahershala Ali and Christoph Waltz is not just for show, but even prime acting caliber doesn't salvage silly conflicts and a passable futuristic history. For all the money behind it and established popularity in other pockets of media, the cinematic Battle Angel is just short of DOA.
3 (out of 4)
A Blumhouse movie turned a profit?! Surprise, surprise. Weird thing is that 2017's Happy Death Day was actually great fun despite flagrantly thieving from its handful of influences. Just short of a gem, the sorority horror on repeat was nevertheless the most ingenious premise with which to perfect the PG-13 slasher.
Christopher Landon’s agreeable sequel to his gratifying original finds him favoring sci-fi over serial killers. Like the original Happy Death Day there is an inability to ignore the debt owed to Groundhog Day – this entry borrows mainly from the montage of inventive suicide scenarios – but now we focus on time travel claptrap fit for Doc and Marty or an Edge of Tomorrow sequel.
Borrowing from the Marvel manifesto of pseudo-heady plot concepts, quantum energy is used not only to explain a day repeatedly reset but parallel existences as well. Side character Ryan (Phi Vu) begins 2U experiencing the same phenomena as Tree (Jessica Rothe) did in the last film. Then his college science experiment malfunctions sending Tree back return her original birthday time loop, only in an alternate timeline this go-round.
Rothe remains as much a rarity of charm and comic chops as the temporal trooper. Her natural chemistry with Israel Broussard (as love interest Carter) let's Happy Death Day 2U slide as essentially a romantic comedy – the Valentine's weekend release (as opposed to October) is no accident. The mystery of the baby-masked psycho is of far less concern this time but the silly continuation is an enlightened alternative to Rebel Wilson, Battle Angels and Taraji P. Henson reading Tracy Morgan's disgusting thoughts.
It’s not terribly inventive given the scope laid out in its first and best act, but sweetness and well-tuned wit carry Happy Death Day 2U far indeed. If it wasn't so modest it could have been the rare superlative sequel.
3 (out of 4)
Last year when Guy Ritchie bestowed upon us a telling of King Arthur by way of PS4 cutaways, it would have been reasonable to suggest the popular legend never again be put to film. 1981's Excalibur did as much honest justice as the story could in serious fashion and in parody Monty Python conceived comythic perfection nearly 45 years ago.
It would take a Brit who actually knew what they were doing to revitalize the wearied lore. Cue Joe Cornish – following his lively 2011 indie sci-fi debut Attack the Block and a co-writer credit on Ant-Man, The Kid Who Would Be King functions as mighty tyke-friendly entertainment easily servicing the participation of the average viewer. It's a properly scary children's fantasy film (Rebecca Ferguson is as terrifying as she is wickedly attractive) and a pointed commentary on Britain's current national tumult. Cornish ruminates Brexit's massive toll to unearth the present-day relevance of Britain's most perennial legend, Tolkien notwithstanding.
It may be about twenty minutes too long but after so many poor attempts to make better on tired tales, the sheer ambition of The Kid Who Would Be King is of such gusto it makes the laptop visual effects and proudly absurdist English tendencies of Attack the Block's neighborhood alien invasion look quaint in the process. If you were wondering what took Cornish eight years to churn out what amounts to a tenacious kid flick, the answer is quiet diligence. He appeals to whatever helpless innocence is left in all of us while fancying himself a populist moviegoing antidote, January release and weak box office receipts be damned.
2 (out of 4)
M. Night Shyamalan has been lowering the bar for his own brand since The Village silenced those citing him as Spielberg 2.0 fifteen years ago. But thanks to the more recent success of Split, the director's esteem seemed to be restored following box office profits and favorable reviews.
Split’s positive reception was confirmation that Shyamalan needed only a decent premise and a few respectable actors in order to have people salivating over his trademark class of thriller once again. The borderline offensive depiction of mental illness by a mugging James McAvoy (a proven actor just having fun yet still pissing me off) was really baffling given how fervently people complain about every last thing nowadays. The bothersome 2017 flick needs the foremost focus considering Glass is less a trilogy capper beginning with 2000’s Unbreakable than it is a slightly more ambitious follow-up to Split.
The detriment of Glass is in spite of a strong continuation for the characters of Unbreakable (two-thirds of the film’s main cast with Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson returning), the loose connection between McAvoy’s multifaceted Beast and Anya Taylor-Joy's character from the film before is the key, dismally weak emotional tether. Glass also is and looks dirt cheap – Shyamalan's capacity to bore you apart from his visual sensitivity is rather insane when accounting for the X-Men psychology and stripped superheroics.
The film’s philosophy of finding the space where supernatural horror and comic book tropes coexist is admirable and yet the film cannot relocate the extraordinary realism and unique bleakness of Unbreakable. Glass is the best thing Shyamalan has done this decade and nonetheless unforgivably bland and sterilized by an inevitable and uninspired triptych of last-minute twists. Restraint has always marked the infamous director's most potent work (The Sixth Sense, Signs to an extent) – Glass finds Shyamalan indulging in his worst behavior even if the outcome is more interesting than it has been in some time.
To keep it brief...
Soon to Come:
The Current War,
"So what've you been up to?"
"Escaping mostly... and I escape real good."
- Inherent Vice