The Upside

[3.5 stars]

When do American remakes ever really stand up to the originals? They creatives involved typically just go for the cheap laughs or the silly sap and forget the humanity that often marks the small foreign successes they are copying. Adding to my doubt going in was that this is an adaptation of a retelling and my confidence on the potential result was low. The original, Intouchables, was a heart-warming, but often gritty tale of two men finding their way. It was full of surprises and interesting tensions that captured audiences and helping it gross nearly 500M worldwide. I suppose with only 10M of that coming from the US, studios saw an opportunity.

Jon Hartmere’s rewrite, The Upside, keeps the base story laid out in the original, but finds a different tale and path. The story remains  surprising, but in different ways. As a first feature script, it was a surprisingly effective achievement. Even with the momentary lapses of Kevin Hart (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) drifting back into his shtick, the movie holds up nicely. In fact, much better than I expected.

But it is Neil Burger’s (Divergent, Limitless) direction that keeps it all on track. Everyone is in a restrained tension within themselves and with each other. It helps that he balanced Hart with two extraordinary performers in Bryan Cranston (Isle of Dogs) and Nicole Kidman (Destroyer). Both of their performances are compelling and spot-on. Kidman even manages to look frumpy with some very minor changes of appearance. Against them, Hart feels appropriately abrasive and out of tune. But Hart also gets his moments. I can’t say I truly invested in his reality, but Cranston and Kidman kept me anchored and pleased with the story.

If you haven’t seen the original, you should. But the two movies really are different, despite the main plots tracking closely. Two very different story tellers are at work and the results will transport you in different ways.

Prospect

[3 stars]

I couldn’t help but think of Dark Star while watching this film, even though Prospect has much more action and story. The reason, I think, is that Prospect, like Dark Star, tries to show real life for the grunts out in the universe. In other words, it isn’t particularly quick-paced. However, it’s not a comedy, dark or otherwise. Prospect is a character-focused drama that takes place within an interesting world and set of challenges.

It is also, basically, a Western in space. Pedro Pascal  (Equalizer 2) doesn’t even try to hide that…in fact, he leans into it massively. Pascal uses Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl’s first feature (as writers and directors) to deliver overblown homilies and colorful language that seem at once self-conscious and, somehow, wholly believable thanks to Pascal’s consistency and talent.

But it is really Sophie Thatcher, in her feature debut, that holds everything together as we get to know her and her abilities, not to mention rooting for her survival. She is a strong female character who has layers we discover over time. At first, with her father, Jay Duplass (Beatriz at Dinner), Thatcher is the supportive, if frustrated, daughter. But it becomes apparent rapidly that she has much more going on.

As I said, this isn’t a fast film, despite its action. And it isn’t a great film, despite its ambitions and delivery. However, it is a good film if you trust it. Enjoy the characters and the complicated world that is presented. Caldwell and Earl don’t insult you by explaining too much and they allow the actors to shade in their stories around the edges of it all. You do have to be a science fiction geek to want to spend the time, but if you are, it is worth it. I’d love to see what they come up with next; it is so rare to see a story like this that isn’t ham-handed in its world-building.

The Quake (Skjelvet)

[3 stars]

You’d think that writers John Kåre Raake and Harald Rosenløw-Eeg would have scratched their collective disaster-itch with The Wave. But, like their first, much lies hidden in plain sight beneath the feet of humanity, and they wanted to bring it into the light.

However, this isn’t just a repeat of the first film’s formula, even though it picks up the story and the family from after their survival. There is the mystery and the suspense of the titular event, but the film isn’t about tilting at windmills, it’s about getting out alive, and family. Think of it as a San Andreas in the north, but with an actual script and story that that is way more than the special f/x (which are certainly impressive for an indie).

Director John Andreas Andersen takes over the helm of this tale, acquitting himself nicely. He keeps the reactions and interplay very natural, while not losing track of the stakes. Certainly there is some lack of communication between characters I’d like to have seen done differently, but some of that was cultural more than weakness. And it was all within the scope of the characters we’d met before.

Ultimately, The Quake is a tale about family and redemption. Survivor’s guilt and PTSD play into it as well. We care about Kristoffer Joner (Mission: Impossible: Fallout) and his continuing journey, while still wanting to slap him on occasion. And the facts of the story, much like The Wave, make it clear that the fictional risk is very close to the truth. This sequel is also less preachy than the first film, which hammers both the science and the resistance to facts a little too hard.

I can’t imagine watching the two films back-to-back. However, watching them in close proximity would be interesting to see just how well it all comes together over the several year span of the tale. I’d like to see what the writers come up with next…but I am hoping it is a new tale with a new focus. They’ve shown themselves capable, but I’d like to see it applied to something less specifically pointed.

Avengers: Endgame (redux)

[5 stars]

There are two different ways to approach Endgame. My first viewing, in IMAX 3D, was without knowledge, loaded with years of anticipation, and awaiting the resolution from Infinity War. I even fed the beast (both times) but rewatching the previous movies to capture every small thread. Yes, I was a geek… and no I was not disappointed. As the culmination of all the films and storylines, it is an emotional powerhouse and fully satisfying, while leaving openings for a way forward. In short, it is near perfect for its purpose (and $2 billion in world-wide earnings after two weekends in release speaks volumes as to how it is connecting with audiences).

Then there is the question of just how good is it as a movie. The answer isn’t as straight-forward. My second viewing was in standard 2D and it allowed for a bit of distance as the wow-factor was dialed back. It is a tightly constructed three hours. Episodic, but juggling all the threads to bring us to the finale. The character journeys are complex and, mostly, well executed (with some minor clunking moments as it finds its feet at the top and at the end). Avengers movies always had the challenge of meshing the many styles of the character stories to create a harmonious tune. Part of the fun, of course, is seeing characters with wildly different approaches to the world clash in action and in humor.  Pulling off that kind of scope and story without losing your audience is truly a credit to the directors’ and writers’ craft. During the three+ hours, I saw maybe eight people go out for the bathroom out of two packed theaters. Scientific? No, but certainly indicative!

But the movie, as I recognized the first time around, doesn’t stand on its own. There is almost no movie in the full cycle that you could drop and not lose meaning from this concluding chapter. Endgame is exactly that, a final payoff, a gift, to the loyalists and interested. It is the last book in a series, the series finale of a beloved show. No matter how well constructed, it isn’t a great movie on its own. I won’t even get into the details of the plot (which will be divisive for decades to come) as therein lies madness. I will grant the writers, yet again, the tip of my hat for at least not making any of the moments easy for the characters, even if they went to one of the cheapest solutions in the writers’ handbook. And even if it will cause all manner of issues for the MCU down the road.

I am sure I will rewatch Endgame many times over the years…though I’m also sure it will always be as part of a marathon of some sort. And that’s fine. I’ve done the same with Buffy, Angel, Babylon 5, Lord of the Rings, even some of the Treks. But the hyperbole of Best Picture I’ve started to hear, given Black Panther’s run last year, is somewhat misguided and isn’t really looking with clear eyes. There is nothing wrong with being honestly and completely entertaining, nor with paying off a bucket of storylines with aplomb. Endgame is exactly what it needed to be. The first viewing of it is powerful (and do make one of your viewings in IMAX…it was filmed that way and it is completely worth the ticket). Rewatching is just, simply, fun seeing all the pieces getting laid out and put together…with all the humor and action we’ve learned to expect over 11 years.

And, also honestly as many have been whispering for fear of reprisal, don’t look at it too hard. Let the adventure and ideas sweep you away. Squint through the silliness. Close your mind to the potential paradoxes. Near as I can figure, they haven’t shattered anything we are sure we knew, though they may have explained some of what we thought we knew. But I’m purposefully not trying to dissect it as it works so well on an endocrine level that I just don’t want to care. At least not yet.

John Wick 3: Parabellum

[2.5 stars]

It is a sad irony that this sequel is going to make more than the others in the series, despite being the weakest entry. Parabellum is a hollow shell that has a few good moments, but generally just a lot of disconnected fights and very little to recommend it.

The fights, the unmitigated and unadorned violence of Wick, had a sick kind of glee in the first two films. They felt, well, justified or at least unavoidable. You could revel in them and not feel too guilty. In this installment they feel choreographed. None of the characters are people and none seem to feel any risk. Returning director Chad Stahelski (John Wick, John Wick 2) even heightens this aspect with a ballet theme that even comes back in the credits…it is all choreography. But it leaves the fights flat; you can almost see them counting at times. It had little of the organic mayhem of the first two films, which got to absurd levels, but in more believable ways.

The brief, shining moments of this movie are really Halle Berry’s (Kingsman: The Golden Circle). Her sequence has a story and fights you can invest in. Until she joined the story, about a half hour in or so, I was really checking out of the movie. And after she exits it, even with the addition of Mark Dacascos, it never really comes back together. Dacascos gets to let loose, but not really act (they tried, it didn’t work).

The first two films, while thin on story had a through line. This third is simply about survival and greed. People getting punished for obscure reasons and people simply killing to kill. I get that it’s partially the rules of the world Derek Kolstad created, but that doesn’t make it interesting without some emotion attached. And Wick just has no real emotion. In fact, his one emotional moment makes utterly no sense at all and is contradictory to the man we’ve gotten to know.

It doesn’t help that Keanu Reeves (47 Ronin) is completely outclassed in acting by everyone around him. It is almost painful to watch him speak Russian to Anjelica Huston (Isle of Dogs), who has a flawless accent. Or try to match the chops or gravitas of Jerome Flynn (Loving Vincent), Lance Reddick (Bosch), Laurence Fishburne (Ant-Man and the Wasp), or Ian McShane (Hellboy) as well.  The wooden Keanu worked fine in the first two films because there was a seething ocean of emotion underneath it. This time, his only discernible motivation is about making it to the next, more inventive fight. And the fights are inventive. But that isn’t enough to hang two hours on.

Short version: if you must see this, see it, but it isn’t as good as either of the first films. And worse, it doesn’t wrap it up, it simply delays the ending of Wick’s story yet another film. I’m not sure I’m going back after this one. There just isn’t anywhere interesting to go.

I Love You Both

[3 stars]

Twins have always been fertile ground for stories, whether modern tales of living, horror, or, in this case, sort of romance. Part of what helps set this very indie film apart is that it was written, directed, and stars the twins in question: Kristin and Doug Archibald.

The slow, naturalisticly paced tale of co-dependence is at times a riot and, at times, a bit painful. It’s fairly solid for a first film, but it certainly suffers for pacing even as it manages to land some of its points.

A catalyst to the mix is Lucas Neff (Raising Hope). His arrival causes, let’s just say, quiet complications. That aspect, however, never dominates the story the Archibald’s wanted to tell. That is both a compliment and a failing of the story. Frankly, Neff’s character and interference into the small world of the twins is actually the most fun and interesting part of the story; it also includes the most believable scenes in the movie. The awakening of the twins to a new plateau in their lives, while highly personal to them, is less impactful for the audience. It isn’t that the story needed to change, so much as the balance needed to adjust just a bit so that the ending felt clearer.

All of that said, the movie is entertaining and enjoyable. It shows talent and wonderfully wry sense of humor. Though the comedy is a little more broad that I like at times, it never lingered there so long as to make me run away. If you want a slightly skewed story with a bit of humor and romance, this is a reasonable choice for an evening.

 

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

[3 stars]

To quote the movie: What evs.

The first Lego movie had the element of surprise and uniqueness going for it. The last 20 minutes of the film, especially, helped set it apart. But that aspect now revealed, left writers Lord and Miller (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) with a challenge that the humor and approach just couldn’t manage to overcome when revisiting the world. The first movie was funny, but relied on those final moments to make it something special.

This literal continuation of the tale, starting from the final moments of the first, just isn’t nearly as clever or interesting. It is too forced and not nearly as funny because it is obvious. Director Mike Mitchell (Trolls) just couldn’t find something new, though it has its moments.

One of those moments is the end credits, which are both visually impressive and, at least for the first minute or so, a wonderfully self-conscious plea to watch them. But the rest of the movie was fine for kids, obvious for adults, and more or less a retread of the first. You’ll have to decide if there’s enough there for you to see that again…for me, I’d have been fine if I’d never gotten around to this somewhat empty sequel.

“Skin in the Game” hits shelves!

My story, “Skin in the Game” appears in the newly released Alternative Truths III: Endgame, the final volume in the best-selling Alternative Truths series from B Cubed Press. Edited by Bob Brown and Jess Faraday. Skin in the Game explores what might happen if our leaders were held a bit more responsible for their decisions, right or wrong, in very permanent ways.

From the publisher:
Endgame features 30 of today’s best writers and political thinkers taking a look forward at possible outcomes of our political decisions.

This collection has visions of a better world as well. In Paula Hammond’s “Fortunate Son,” we explore what kind of man Donald Trump might have become had he answered his country’s call and served alongside his fellow Americans in the Vietnam War.

Most of all Endgame will make you think, with thought-provoking essays by the likes of David Gerrold and Adam-Troy Castro as they seek to share their understanding of how this happened and what do will we do.

A significant portion of the proceeds of this book are donated to the ACLU of Washington to honor and support their unending quest for the freedom of the American people to express themselves.

The book is available from Amazon.com on Kindle Unlimited as well as in Kindle Edition or Print Book.

A quick word about Kindle Unlimited…the authors get paid as long as you “read” at least 10% of the book (more or less). So read a story or two and help authors earn as well as supporting the ACLU!

Pokémon Detective Pikachu

[3.5 stars]

After so many failed adaptations of games and anime of late, this movie manages to acquit itself well. First and foremost it is because of the script. Tick writers/producers Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit treated the main story with honesty and focused on creating a believable emotional journey. Director (and co-writer) Rob Letterman’s (Goosebumps) handling of the property was adept as well, at least with the main characters and storyline. The side characters and stories are less credible, but not so much as to ruin the movie.

Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool 2) and Justice Smith (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) build on the core foundation as an unlikely pair of detectives and offered some real promise for the movie. I say promise because as much as the movie surprises in its quality and maturity, it falls back on short-cuts in the resolution, making it much more of a kids film than one that could have been something much more enduring. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun, it most certainly is, it just isn’t what it could have been.

There are a number of smaller roles as well… but they are all fairly flat; without depth. Among them, Bill Nighy (The Bookshop), Kathryn Newton (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), and Suki Waterhouse (Assassination Nation) get to contribute the most. Waterhouse, in particular does a lot with very little.

Ultimately, this is a nice distraction, but not the Deadpool for kids vibe that trailers promised, nor the unique vision that might have made it a classic. You can still have a fun 90+ minutes with it…especially if you’ve spent a lot of time with Pokémon. The fact that I haven’t and yet still enjoyed the story is only another indication of the quality of the tale.

Stargate Origins: Catherine

[2 stars]

Stargate was a fun and long-running show. Even its spin-offs managed to be entertaining, if not long-lasting. They never quite found the chemistry of the first show again, try as they might. So, when it ended, there was a sense of relief (much like when Enterprise finally died).

But studios are loathe to give up properties they think they can milk, and so Origins was born as a way to sell one of the first digital streaming services. This movie is a compilation of the that one-season attempt of 10-ish minute episodes. It is…well, not very good.

The story picks up a well known storyline from the original series and movie, and shoe-horns in a tale that, by the skin of their teeth and with obvious tricks, manages not to entirely blow up canon. But the acting is cardboard at best. The story is forced and retreads a lot of different aspects of the shows that came before. It is far from satisfying on its own, and leaves little sense of how they could build on the story. Especially true given how many of the holes have already been filled through our time-travelling and flashback buddies over the years in the previous series.

What is clear is that the brains and abilities that provided over a decade and three series of shows were nowhere to be seen. The look is similar and the background established, but the talent is a gaping void. In other words, the only reason to torture yourself with this movie is a sense of complete-ism. Expect to grit your teeth a lot and to feel you haven’t learned much of anything new or, for that matter, of value to the original series.

Stargate Origins: Catherine

Art, writing, life explained… or at least commented upon…