Tag Archives: Fantasy

Kiss & Spell (Yeu Di, Dung So!)

[3 stars]

This Vietnamese rom-com cum horror is an amusing and touching escape for an evening. A remake, or seriously inspired by, the Korean movie Spellbound, it follows a magician and his muse as they both struggle with finding out what actually makes them happy…with a bit of the supernatural thrown in along the lines of My Left Eye Sees Ghosts.

The comedy is broad at times, but it is well-contained and not nearly as over-the-top as you might fear. Even the romantic bits remain very sweet, but never melodramatic. Thanks to the late writer/director Stephane Gauger, it balances rather well and never wanes in energy despite its two hour length. He managed to walk the line of Far East and American comedy nicely, keeping it accessible to both audiences. Even the horror bits, which lean more toward Japanese horror influence, aren’t so much scary as pointed for the tale.

Gauger had a short but impactful career. He came out of the gate strong when he shifted to the director’s chair and gathered a number of awards quickly. He clearly had a career ahead him and it is a damn shame we’ll never see what it could have been. In the meantime, he left us with a range of films worth spending some time with…this one included.

 

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

The City & The City

[3 stars]

Much like the title and conceit of the story, I had two simultaneous reactions to this story. First, I was awed watching the impossible being brought to screen. At the same time I was led down a path of disappointment in support of the purpose and the plot.

I’ll come back to that, but be assured there is a great ride for a long part of the series. A good part of that success goes to David Morrissey (Extant, Doctor Who). He is subtle but intense in his role, which is highly flavored with an East European flare. Mandeep Dhillon (Whitechapel), as his sidekick, is energizing and entertaining and far from superfluous. Maria Schrader (Fortitude), as another associate, brings a very different type of intensity to help it all along. And Lara Pulver (Electric Dreams) is a great Macguffin for the tale, slowly peeling back layers and history for Morrissey. And that’s just a sampling of the characters. You may have  noticed that despite the male lead, this story is dominated by strong women. In smaller, pivotal roles, Christian Camargo (Europa Report) and Danny Webb (A Little Chaos) are a bit less believable, but still serve their purposes.

Now, back to the plot. The first three episodes of the four installment series are brilliant and engaging. The combination of writing, directing, and cinematography walk you through a challenging set of ideas in a convoluted world. But in the fourth episode, after a promising start, it all falls apart into either an odd political polemic or disappointing bit of naturalism. I haven’t read China Miéville’s book of the same name yet, so can’t speak as to whether it follows the source closely, but I can believe it does; the flavor of the ending matches Miéville’s sensibilities.

But here’s the thing about The City & The City, you’ll get to the end and, probably, be annoyed. But you will keep thinking about this show and its  points and implications. In fact, it may not even land at first, but will keep poking at your brain demanding to be acknowledged; the metaphors are incredibly powerful. However, that doesn’t make it satisfying, only poignant. I think that it would have done better as an episode in an anthology series or a one-shot film rather than a four-part series that seems to lead in one direction only to veer off into another. Forewarned, it is likely a better experience than going in blind. So take this as your heads-up and then make time for the series, it really is worth it just for the brilliant execution of the near-impossible by director Tom Shankland (The Fades) and writer Tony Grisoni .

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

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

Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (Psiconautas, los niños olvidados)

[3 stars]

A surreal romp about finding hope in hopelessness. At least that’s what I took away from it this viewing. Pedro Rivero and
Alberto Vázquez (with additional help from Stephanie Sheh [Your Name.] and Joe Deasy) give us a landscape that borders on Bakshi’s Wizards: post-apocalyptic, mutated, venal, self-absorbed, and still focused on the value of the past rather than providing life for the future.

The main characters are children; children who are trying to survive and find purpose in a broken world. Somehow that part of the story feels very contemporary in terms of the feelings and challenges if not the specific events and issues. The overall plot echos the global trend toward migration, economic disparity, and the ecological disaster that is picking up steam with every year. But this is less warning than it is the (merest) suggestion that there is a solution if we can just hold on to what makes life worthwhile and control the darkest parts of our own selves. It makes for a pretty packed 76 minutes.

For the animation alone, this film is worth it. It isn’t grand, highly CGI’d animation, rather it is a reflection of its graphic novel roots. It is simple, but effective. The result is fascinating, inventive, and gripping at times. It refuses to blink from horror, but also often twists it to something of beauty or potential beauty. If you like the craft and enjoy challenging animation, this is worth your time.

Rampage

[2.5 stars]

Abandon hope all ye who saw Jumanji. Not even The Rock could save this weak offering with his charisma and humor. I’d say it was on par with Geostorm, expect that weak bit of sci-fi had more believable villains. I really had a secret hope this latest Dwayne Johnson entertainer would surprise me. Well, it didn’t, other than at how ham-handed and bad the script and direction was. Johnson certainly gave it his standard all, but that wasn’t enough to overcome the writing.

Likewise, Naomie Harris (Moonlight) did her level best opposite Johnson, even though they barely made her credible as a person and as a scientist. There were other familiar faces that struggled along in the same way. Perhaps the least harmed was Joe Manganiello (Magic Mike XXL), whose scarred mercenary was never anything but over the top. Then there was Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Extant), whose cowboy caricature just got tiresome, even with him modifying it at times. Again, a game effort, but not fully successful.

But for our good guys to truly triumph, you need credible and engaging villains. Sadly, Malin Akerman (I’ll See You in My Dreams) and Jake Lacy (Miss Sloane) as sister and brother baddies were about as cardboard as they come. Stupid criminals that never would have survived as long as these two supposedly had (especially Lacy’s character).

There is basis of a fun story here, despite being adapted from a video game. And there are moments (some massively obvious or telegraphed) and some good one-liners, but there are no real characters and just horrible plot construction. Director Brad Peyton (San Andreas) just went a bit too broad to make this work. The result is too intense for the young audience level it was aimed at but not believable enough for the people showing up. It isn’t even a non-stop action ride which might have helped cover for the bad plotting; it certainly has for many other films by The Rock.

Honestly, if you’re looking for a good Kaiju distraction, Pacific Rim: Uprising is much better.

Rampage

Isle of Dogs

[4 stars]

It’s hard to believe, but it has been four years since Wes Anderson brought us the near-perfect Grand Budapest Hotel.  Since then he has been working on this piece of stop-action magic, his second effort in the art after The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Isle of Dogs, by luck or incredible insight on the part of Anderson and his various co-writers, is a mirror of today’s politics and growing xenophobia, but in a fun way. It is, to say the least, quirky, but full of heart and humor. One thing it isn’t, it isn’t for kids. These characters lead rough lives and live in a corrupted and selfish world, but they remain driven and hopeful throughout. You could say they’re dogged, but that might get you slapped.

If you’ve seen the trailers, you may have noticed that the voice talent for this movie is extraordinary. In fact, it is far too long to even try and list. But Bryan Cranston (Why Him?) leads the story with Ed Norton (Collateral Beauty), Jeff Goldblum (Thor: Ragnarok), Bill Murray (The Jungle Book), and Bob Balaban (The Monuments Men) poking him from the sidelines. All, in Anderson’s style, just let the story unfold and show itself. Scarlett Johansson (Ghost in the Shell), Greta Gerwig (Maggie’s Plan), and Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) balance them all out with quiet performances of their own. However, this is very much a male dominated story.

There is something magic about this movie. Like Budapest used music, Dogs uses Japanese stage-craft to pull you into its world and set up the approach. And it also plays with keeping you in the dog’s perspective. For instance, one of the main characters speaks only untranslated Japanese, but yet you understand him.

It is hard to explain why this film works, but it does. If you like Anderson’s work at all, this is a must-see. If you enjoy stop-action animation, it is also worth seeing, though it isn’t up to the standards of Laika studios (e.g., Kubo and the Two Strings). But it is delightful, adult, and emotionally satisfying which still providing a good story and a point. As it expands its number of screens, find a theater and go see it. If nothing else, it will be one of the  most unique films you see this year.

Isle of Dogs

Ready Player One

[3 stars]

While Ready Player One is a fun romp while you watch it, it isn’t a great movie; it missed being the brilliant classic it should have been.

Like many of the gamers in the Oasis, it hovers at the edges of greatness, but never manages to cross the finish line. There are certainly casting and script reasons for this, but primarily the fault lies with Spielberg’s (The Post) direction. What he delivered feels something like The Wizard of Oz meets Tron (with a bit of Zardoz thrown in) for High Schoolers. But let’s start with the good.

Production-wise, the creative team really got it. Even forgetting the lack of tech advancement they envisioned at points, they created wonderful interfaces and a good sense of an immersive game world. The VR sequences are imaginative and absorbing. See it on a big screen to really get the full effect and appreciate the richness and complexity of the view.

Another great part of the fun in this popcorn flick is that Spielberg manages to make more bald references to other movies than any other film I can remember (barring satires like Scary Movie that do it to make fun of the source). There were constant groans and laughs of joy at recognizing the references. I won’t spoil any here as, honestly, they are about the best part of the film. Now, whether those references were appropriate for a story that takes place in 2045 is a different question.

Despite these pluses, action, and visual candy, the movie just ends up sitting there on screen.

Tye Sheridan (X-Men: Apocalypse) is a large part of the reason for that lack of life. He just isn’t up to the task of carrying a major motion picture, though Olivia Cooke (The Limehouse Golem) does her level-best to help him through it and support him. She sparkles on screen. But you just can’t connect to the characters or story. Sure, we want the crazy kids to recognize their totally obvious and middle-America attraction to one another as two healthy, white, young folk (talk about unbrave choices given the possibilities that are even discussed at several points). There are also some great one liners and moments by T.J. Miller (Deadpool) and Lena Waithe (Master of None) but neither gets a plotline or payoff. Ultimately, we don’t really care all that much who lives or dies or who gets together or not. Heck, even Sheridan doesn’t seem to care who lives or dies; he doesn’t carry the weight of any action that occurs to or around him in the tale as it progresses.

Even the bad guys, Ben Mendelsohn (Una) and Hannah John-Kamen (The Tunnel), don’t raise a burning need in the audience to wipe them out. Why? First, because we’re always sure who will win, but second because there is no gray. Our bad guys are just bad and their storylines are just absurd. C’mon, John-Kamen’s character is named F’Nale. Seriously? Only Cameron’s unobtanium was sillier. If you’re going to go for that kind of tongue-in-cheek, then you have to do it across the board, not just in spots.

The truth is that most of these gaps in acting are really more how they were directed. In trying to make a 4-quadrant film, Spielberg blew it, however sacrilegious that may be to say. The result was something that aimed broadly intellectually, but was emotionally targeted squarely at the 12-17 year old bracket. The real-world sequences are as distant and unbelievable as the VR sequences are wonderfully fantastic. It is an issue Spielberg often has (A.I. comes to mind as a comparable tale in scope and maturity). Spielberg, when aiming at a younger audience, never quite lets you in to connect with anyone. He likes to keep it all “safe.” And the ending sequences in the real world of Ready Player One just fall apart, being both unbelievable, too easy, and just plain, well, stupid.

Part of the problem was the script by Penn (Alphas) and source book author Cline. It shortcuts a lot of the plot and forces relationships and situations in very unnuanced ways. That approach played into Spielberg’s hands and weaknesses. He loves evoking that sense of the 50s in modern garb, trying for a storybook feel that offends no one but, at this point, also illuminates nothing. We’re past the days of E.T. and Close Encounters feeling real; show us less than truth and reality and our bullshit meters goes off. Life is messier and we know that. We may crave simplicity, but it needs to be a believable simplicity.

Spielberg, even misdirected the brilliant Mark Rylance (The BFG) and Simon Pegg (Ice Age: Collision Course), allowing them to be put in makeup and costumes that made them look ridiculous. The intent was to bring out the nerd in the nostalgia, but they just never came across a bit as believable or natural. They felt like clowns, neither smart enough nor adept enough to have built the empire that included the Oasis.

Ready Player One is a reasonable distraction. There have been many adaptations of video games to screen, most of which have been middling at best. The recent Tomb Raider was only the latest in a long line. We’ve also been assaulted by adaptations of books since the beginning of film to varying degrees of success; for me, that was most recently Love, Simon. This is, however, one of the few times I can remember an adaptation of a book about a fictitious video game. Talk about going completely meta. Only Jumanji (which was a way better movie) comes to mind, but that was a picture book, not an adult novel.

Ready Player One is certainly a big screen film, so if you do want to see it, you really do have to see it at the theater. But, as a story, it will not stand the test of time. For many, I suspect it will not stand the test of its 2.5 hours as anything other than as a short-lived amusement. You can see the possibilities in the result and you’ll enjoy the cultural insider jokes that glue it all together, but you’ll leave it empty and unfulfilled, or perhaps filling in the missing aspects mentally for yourself to prop it up. The more I thought about the film as I walked away, the more disappointed I became with it. That was not the experience I had hoped for, nor the experience I had expected from such a master filmmaker. At one point, all I could think was that I wished Spielberg’s good friend Kubrik had still been alive to take this one on. He would have the balls to keep it real and dark while still entertaining. As it is, Ready Player One needs some Extra Life of its own to succeed.

Ready Player One