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Incredibles 2

[3 stars]

The largest part of what made The Incredibles so successful and ripe for a sequel was Brad Bird (Tomorrowland).  Up till now he never treated any of his animations as cartoons, he approached them like drawn movies. Few animators (and their studios) took that approach before him, though it is more common now. It isn’t just in the subject matter, it is in the composition of the frames and the choices of the edits. Watching a Bird animation you could sometimes forget these aren’t real people on screen, unlike, say the Despicable Me series.

But while this sequel picks up seconds (and 14 years) after the original ended, some of the Bird magic seems to be missing for me. For starters, the whole point of the first movie was the family learning to accept who they were and to work together. This second throws that out and starts again, admittedly for different reasons, but it still feels a bit like a loop rather than a progression. The action, probably thanks a lot to Jack Jack, is broader and more cartoon-y. And the mystery…just isn’t in this one. Or at least it wasn’t to me.

This is certainly enjoyable family fare…and with more going for it than most family movies. There are nods and comments for adults throughout that were noticed and enjoyed by the crowd. But I expect a bit more from Bird instead of a, basically, a solid Pixar action flick that took very little time to build characters. There weren’t even any voice performances worth calling out as anything special, though Catherine Keener (Nostalgia) and Bob Odenkirk (The Post) come close. Keener’s exchanges with Holly Hunter (The Big Sick) also verge on something unique, but never quite get there. Overall it felt like Bird was afraid to let the action lull too long and so quickly left any quiet moment. To be fair, it certainly seemed to work to keep the kids all engaged through the 2+ hours (including the uneven, if ultimately surprising, short, Bao).

Certainly, make time for this rollicking and entertaining distraction. But it isn’t quite everything I had hoped for, though it was great to spend time with these Supers again after so long; they deserved a new adventure. Perhaps we’ll get that next time.

Incredibles 2

Solo: A Star Wars Story

[3 stars]

Solo marks the first attempt at a really new direction for Star Wars since the end of the first trilogy. Episodes 1-3 and 7-9 are all echos of of 4-6…a bit by design and a lot by laziness and inability to write good stories. The fact that this story overlaps with the worst of the triple trilogy and dovetails into that morass is a different matter.

There is also a lot of cultural weight pressing down on these characters. Solo and Chewy are two of most recognizable and beloved of the many movies. Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!) had huge shoes to fill…and his feet are almost the right size, but not quite. He doesn’t have the same charisma nor the acting ability to help me see Harrison Ford the way that, say, Josh Brolin did for Tommy Lee Jones in MIB III or the entire cast of Star Trek did for that prequel. Donald Glover (Spider-Man: Homecoming) came a bit closer for Lando, but there was more leeway there, even if the script made him a bit more craven than swashbuckling. Also, all that talk of pan-sexuality for Lando in this incarnation is utter bull.

The real standouts in this story are Emilia Clarke (Me Before You, Game of Thrones), Paul Bettany (Avengers: Infinity War, Transcendance), and the very unexpected scene-stealing showing by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Flea Bag, Goodbye Christopher Robin). The three new characters they brought actually had some depth and interest. OK mostly that was only Clarke. Bettany was interesting, but not very deep…bit more of a cookie-cutter psycho. And Waller-Bridge was quite amusing, but not with a lot of impact, despite the plot attempts to elevate her. Woody Harrelson (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) was not bad, but again, just didn’t really rise above what you’d expect in this adventure. Jon Favreau’s (Spider-Man: Homecoming) and Thandie Newton’s (Westworld) characters also stood out and had promise, but the story never did anything with them.

The real issue with this film is two fold. First, the script by the father/son Kasdan duo is predictable and without any risk whatsoever. Second, Ron Howard’s (Inferno) directing is just empty. That Howard came late to this project and still managed to save its release is impressive, especially having reshot more than 70% of the film after his arrival. But the film is flat. There are no great highs, though there are fun and funny moments. There are no great surprises, though there are one or two surprising moments. Even the music avoids the emotional touchstone of the series until the very end. I actually think that last bit could have been a good thing since it provides some breathing room for what is set to become a new branch of the canon. But no one was clapping or excited at the end in my theater. I’ve never seen that at a Star Wars film. Even Rogue One, the only other standalone to date, had chatter and at least light applause as the credits rolled.

So here’s what you get for your ticket. Huge effects. Beautiful scenery. Some interesting background. A couple of new characters. Some potentially classically comic moments. Some answers to some questions. Two and a half hours of distraction. Worth it on the big screen? Yes. Good as a movie? Eh. I admit I am not a rabid fan any longer (Episodes 1-3 took care of that), but I was willing to be won back. Apparently I left the theater un-wooed, but not entirely un-entertained. I just wasn’t wow’ed the way I wanted to be or certainly expected after the Avengers summer kickoff.

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Deadpool 2

[4.5 stars]

Despite having one of the best posters and some of the worst cover art (see below) Deadpool 2 is as funny as the first, if not quite as surprising now that we know the shtick. In fact, it might have the highest ratio of referential jokes per minute ever (I’d love to see a counter on the disc when it is released akin to the original Taken’s body count meter).

Ryan Reynolds (The Hitman’s Bodyguard) continues to rip up the screen and unequivocally supply the energy for the film. His returning cast from the original Deadpool have fun as well, though there was far too little of Morena Baccarin  and Leslie Uggams for me. I will say that T.J. Miller lost some of his game this round, though Karan Soni got to up his in some ways. On the other hand, Brianna Hildebrand had a similarly minor role but made more of it this time. And Stefan Kapicic’s Collosus got to have a bit more fun than his last outing.

As much fun as it was to see the old gang strutting their stuff, Zazie Beetz (Geostorm), Shioli Kutsuna (The Outsider), Eddie Marsan (The Limehouse Golem) and a smattering of fun surprise guests provide the real zazz to the remix. And Josh Brolin (Avengers: Infinity War) not only delivers, but gets to be part of another of the biggest films this summer; talk about great career choices. And speaking of great choices, perhaps the most surprising addition was Julian Dennison (Hunt for the Wilderpeople), who is probably very new to most audiences but who proved he could handle a major motion picture leap without blinking.

Reynolds joined Reese and Wernick in writing this sequel, which may explain the extreme density of the jokes, and director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde) took the franchise reigns well in this sequel. The overall effect isn’t quite as polished or paced as the original, but it acquits itself well by the end; it just has a rather long setup. And, it should be noted, in Marvel tradition, it has little gifts up through the end of the final credits. They also are continuing another more recent Marvel tradition of wickedly funny (and at times astute) music queues. If I have any real gripe with the script and character it is that Deadpool is still a bit more homophobic than the pansexual, which has more to do with current society than the original material.

So is it all you hoped for? Yes. Is it a worthy sequel? Yes. Does it set up yet more stories? Of course it does. Should you see it on big screen? You bet your red-clad ass. In fact, you may have to see it more than once to catch all the references. Deadpool is the perfect pallet cleanser for the avalanche of serious super hero stories. It reminds us you can have fun and carnage and even a certain amount of intelligence while it is all going on.

 Deadpool 2

Den of Thieves

[2.75 stars]

When the writer of London Has Fallen, Christian Gudegast, decided to write, direct, and produce this bit of caper-violence, I didn’t hold out much hope despite its surprisingly good reception on release. The result is mixed. It is either hyper-realistic, like The Departed without the careful control, or slow and boring with little understanding of pacing, depending on your point of view and likes. On its side, Gudegast really tries to create characters with depth on all sides rather than cardboard cutouts. The problem is that there isn’t a single likable character in the tale and it is clear from early on where the story going to end up, at least it was for me.

The two sides are led by Gerard Butler (Geostorm) and Pablo Schreiber (American Gods). Both are powerful actors and each brings some levels to these fairly flat characters. They each have a crew of misfits and some have families, but no one really stands out as anything special.

The plot is very much in the spirit of Oceans 11 (remake or the original) and Logan Lucky, though without the humor. In fact, the characters lead lives of fairly obvious desperation.  The plan is clever and the cat-and-mouse game with the police is intriguing. However, much of the police part lacks credibility and the final heist is a bit unexplained and unseen. Regarding the latter, it isn’t that you can’t guess what happened, but a few shots are missing to make it clear.

Overall, this will appeal to those who like dark and violent crime stories with exceedingly flawed characters. It isn’t so much a tragedy as it is a clusterf@*# on all sides. For Gudegast’s first time directing, it is an impressive show of juggling, and his script is better than some of his previous, but it isn’t a high recommendation. Basically, this is a distraction for the right audience, but it isn’t something that will demand rewatches to appreciate any nuance that may have been missed.

Den of Thieves

Avengers: Infinity War

[4 stars]

Just: Holy S*%#!

If you were ever worried that Marvel was over taking risks or didn’t have a game plan, this should settle it for you. But avoid all information before you go, if you can. The chance for spoilers is just too high.

We’ve seen all these folks before (me, very recently having rewatched it all)  so I’m not going to take up 1000s of pixels to list the actors and characters.

However, Josh Brolin’s (No Country for Old Men) Thanos does deserve to be mentioned. He, with the help of Makus and McFeely’s script, created a complex villain who, believably, doesn’t think of himself that way. He’s still totally nuts, but what a nice surprise in a world where things are too often black and white to help make it easy on audiences.

I have no idea if this is the film that was planned 10 years ago, but it certainly brings it all together. And in the first five minutes you’ll know you’re into something different. I also have to admit, some of the CG is really subpar (at least on IMAX), which was surprising.

What comes next as Phase Three heads to its final conclusion? Well, I have my guesses…and I’m sure you will too. Thankfully it is only year off till we find out if we’re right (and with a couple films to fill that gap in between).

Avengers: Infinity War

Proud Mary

[2.5 stars]

Coming on the heels of Atomic Blonde and John Wick 2, this movie felt like it had a lot to prove. It wasn’t helped by the miss-promotion of it as a kissing cousin to Jackie Brown. But it really isn’t any of these. The reality is that it owes more to the 1980  classic Gloria. In fact, one of the co-writers, Steve Antin, even worked on the 1999 remake of Gloria. And Gloria, of course, was also reflected of the equally classic Léon: The Professional. But Proud Mary is a pale reflection of all of these because it isn’t really anything on its own.

The heart of the issue is that Proud Mary relies on a single thing to sell it: all women want to have kids. Taraji P. Henson (Hidden Figures) is better than that, but I can understand why she took the role despite its weaknesses. How often do you get to drive a Maserati and play action hero? But the films from which it takes its roots got around the parenthood issues by removing that from the equation. Gloria and Léon were drawn into  protecting their wards by circumstance, not desire. It is the struggle of them finding a human connection again that drives the stories. It isn’t that they want to be parents, it is that they want to be human.

Proud Mary does attempt to set up the reasoning for Henson’s path, but we don’t really see any transition from guilt to love, though there is lip service to that being the case. Of course, director Babak Najafi (London Has Fallen) isn’t the most subtle or capable of guides, though he gets a great sense of 70s films at the outset of the movie. But, frankly, if that’s what you’re looking for, just rewatch Jackie Brown.

So basically, yes, skip this unless you have a real jonesing for Henson or Danny Glover…because though Jahi Di’Allo Winston (Everything Sucks!) does a fantastic job as the young man, the rest of the film and the performances are really pretty mediocre at best.

Proud Mary

Pacific Rim: Uprising

[3.5 stars]

Kaiju and giant robots just never go completely out of style. They’re great, silly fun with lots of action. It is the the same genre that brought you Godzilla and Kong and even offbeat riffs like Colossal. These kinds of films bring to life childhood fantasies that used to fill the hours with our toys.

That said, Pac Rim 2 is probably more than you think, even if it is of a genre. Writer/director Steven S. DeKnight (Daredevil) builds on the roots of the original tale, picking it up 10 years later, but does it in some clever ways and with some good humor. In doing so, he gets to show off his Joss Whedon writing-room roots as well as his own darker sensibilities.

Knight uses John Boyega (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) to continue the thread Idris Elba’s character left behind. But, as he says in the opening, he is not his father. Along with newcomer Cailee Spaeny, who has a heck of a career ahead of her, the two dominate the film. They bring more of a street feel to the over-militarized sensibility of the first film.

To bridge the new and old films more directly, Rinko Kikuchi (Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter) along with Burn Gorman (Crimson Peak) and Charlie Day (The Hollars), get to continue their stories. They are welcome faces and they are all much more integral in this script than they were in the first. For Gorman and Day, even though some of their broader, comedic flare still remains, it also felt more natural in this plot.

There are a host of other characters, of course, but Tian Jing (The Great Wall) and Scott Eastwood (The Fate of the Furious) add the most to the story. Jing, in particular, does well.

This isn’t the great movie of the year, especially after Black Panther against which all else is being compared so far. Even Avengers: Infinity War may struggle against that one, though I have my hopes there. Uprising is exactly what it purports to be: escapist fun. It also has enough great effects and with a good enough script and cast to bring it into the majors.

Knight unsurprisingly sets up a third film with the ending (though in an acceptable way). Based on the results of this one, yep, I’ll be there to see if they can pull it off. Del Toro always planned several films in the universe and the shape of that is now coming apparent. As long as overseas boxoffice remains strong, we’ll get to see what comes next. But, in the meantime, this one was great fun and it delivered more than I expected (though I didn’t have a very high bar, I admit). The bigger the screen the better for your viewing, but it did just well in standard too, so it doesn’t have to be an expensive afternoon or evening. Go, have fun, be a kid again listening to the rain on your window as you set up your cars, Legos, and dolls, knocking over buildings in your mind.

Pacific Rim Uprising

Tomb Raider (2018)

[3.5 stars]

YAR (yet another remake). Which isn’t to say it is bad, it isn’t. In fact they took their charge seriously and tried to make a relatively good movie that hewed to the original material, sort of. To separate it from the previous films, Alicia Vikander (Tulip Fever) gives us a younger, more vulnerable Lara Croft. She is a woman who has to come into her own during the story rather than the fully established inheritor of her father’s wealth and lifestyle from the start. And Vikander is impressively up to the task both physically and with emotional chops. They make sure you understand and believe that from the top.

As her father, Dominic West (The Square) also does a credible job, though with a slightly more exaggerated sensibility. Similarly for Walton Goggins (Maze Runner: The Death Cure), who has to walk the line of mustache twirler, father, and slightly bonkers villain. Neither is completely realistic, but by the point in the story they show up, Lara’s deep into the fantastical world she will inhabit the rest of her life.

Three supporting roles were worth noting as well: Daniel Wu (Warcraft, Into the Badlands), Kristin Scott Thomas (The Darkest Hour), and Derek Jacobi (Last Tango in Halifax, Murder on the Orient Express). Ok the last simply because it was Jacobi…he doesn’t really get to do much, but I always enjoy his work.

Director Roar Uthaug  (The Wave), and his rather untried script writers Robertson-Dowert and Siddons, took their time to build a story and world for Croft to inhabit and to give her artifact-hunting motivations beyond some internal sense of guilt or nobelesse oblige.  Uthaug  mostly kept it all realistic in effort and response. Lara gets hurt. A lot. In fact she grunts more than Steffi Graff during a finals match. However, in the quest for reality, the script also leaves out some of the more interesting aspects of Croft’s world. I appreciated how they grounded the plot, but I like a bit more fantasy with my pony-tailed heroine.

There is a ton of action to keep this all going. There is even some humor and just enough emotion to tie it together. Personally, I prefer the more established Lara over this rite-of-passage version that will lead to her. It really depends on whether you want to see a super hero kind of film or something more grounded. This film skirts the edge of both. You’ll have fun, but since it isn’t likely to spawn a franchise, it feels a bit less satisfying as a stand-alone. Also, I’d recommend not seeing the larger format screens. There is a good deal of shakey-cam (used for purpose) that I always find annoying and difficult to watch on that size screen.

I don’t mean to damn with feint praise, but I did want a bit more than I got even as I was surprised by how well it was all done. I will admit, it may have been more my expectations than what was delivered, but this is a well-established character, so I can’t be the only one with assumptions. Should a miracle occur and they continue the franchise, this is a solid world and character start, if not an Iron Man-style blowout.

Tomb Raider

Game Night

[3.5 stars]

Though an ensemble film, the driving forces in this romp are Jason Bateman (The Family Fang) and Rachel McAdams (Doctor Strange). The two have great chemistry and timing, running the knife edge of comedy, action, and romance. As absurd and predictable as the movie can get, you really care for and cheer on this couple.

Around them are  are a host of, generally, small-screen actors breaking out nicely on the big screen. From Kyle Chandler (Carol), Sharon Horgan (Catastrope), Billy Magnussen (Into the Woods), Lamorne Morris (New Girl), to Kylie Bunbury (Under the Dome), there isn’t a performance that doesn’t match the need.

And then there is the outsider Jesse Plemons (Battleship) who has been popping up all over the place these days. Plemons plays a dry and creepy neighbor so over-the-top you almost believe in him. And, finally, there are two smaller amusements with Danny Huston (Wonder Woman) and Michael C. Hall (Dexter).

While this movie wouldn’t have worked without the comic and dramatic abilities of its cast, the real star is the direction and script that threaded the needle. The co-directors of the much less funny Vacation, John Francis Daley (also known for his turn in Bones) and Jonathan Goldstein, reteamed for this very entertaining farce. Add to it the clever, even when predictable, script by Mark Perez (Accepted) and the team really brought unexpected magic to what could have died up on the screen.

I admit, I wouldn’t have gone to this weren’t it for MoviePass, but it surprised me. I laughed a lot more than I expected and was even surprised at times. I admit, for me Bateman was also a draw. I find his brand of dark humor compelling most of the time, and he certainly entertained on that account. Whether you see this on big or small screen, make time for it when you want an off-color but not tasteless romp with action and humor. You won’t be disappointed.

Game Night

Altered Carbon

[4 stars]

Altered Carbon is solid science fiction. This also means it has struggled to find an audience. If you want real science fiction set in worlds that have been thought through and, sure, with plenty of violence and skin, you need to see and support it, or we’ll lose another opportunity.

This series was ably adapted for Netflix by Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island, Terminator: Genisys), based on Morgan’s award winning book. The world has some holes and gaps, but it is a believable society based on how the tech affected it. The show also has some incredibly complex plotlines going through it. In fact, probably a bit too complicated at times…the last couple of episodes have to rush to the end with a lot of rapid exposition to fill in the answers that are being revealed.

Driving the action, Joel Kinnaman (Suicide Squad) puts in one of his better performances. Alongside him is a kickass detective played by Martha Higareda (Royal Pains). A slew of great minor characters are around them, but it is their show through and through. Worth calling out, though, are Chris Conner’s delightfully weird and fun Poe and Dichen Lachman’s (Dollhouse) powerful and complex Reileen.

Adult science fiction is rare off the big screen (and not particularly prevalent on the big screen either). Typically, what is offered is something between Star Trek and Game of Thrones. In other words, something that may tackle tough issues, but usually in watered down or palatable ways without actually working through the true implications of the world that was created or the consequences of actions. Flash and action often substitute for actual logic and plot.

There are some exceptions. Humans is a current show that tries to tackle and deal with the implications of AI. Sense8, as well, took on a world altered by the possibility of gestalt entities. Farscape tackled an empire structured society with significant biotech. But, more often than not, you end up with something more like Stargate, Orphan Black, or The Walking Dead, all highly entertaining, but not good science fiction.

So, if you want the real stuff (with a bit of HBOness to it, without the HBO) jump on Altered Carbon so we can get another season. Even if we don’t, this 10 ep run is self-contained enough to not leave you hanging, but there is so much more to explore if they’re given the time to do so.

Altered Carbon