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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 Rise of Skywalker
A Hidden Life
"So what've you been up to?"
"Escaping mostly... and I escape real good."
- Inherent Vice