Tag Archives: Fantasy

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

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

We Don’t Belong Here

[3 stars]

This is definitely an unconventional narrative that plays out in intriguing, and unexpected ways. As a first script and directing delivery by Peer Pedersen, it is both what you expect and not what you anticipate. So, basically, a well-executed indie with a solid cast.

Catherine Keener (November Criminals) is the relatively patient matriarch of one heck of a messed up family. She provides a shifting center to the story as all threads come back to pass through her, though she isn’t the primary point of view.

Her four children are all damaged in different ways, and all dealing with their issues in worlds of their own devising. Kaitlyn Dever (Short Term 12), Riley Keough (Logan Lucky), Annie Starke (Albert Nobbs), and Anton Yelchin (Jack) work well together as sibs without losing their individual aspects. And it is Dever’s point of view that walks us through the story, though the approach is inconsistent and less than edifying, particularly near the end.

Maya Rudolph (Maggie’s Plan) and Cary Elwes (Shadow of the Vampire) bring another set of layers to the tale. Each is nicely compartmentalized and human despite their own particular struggles. It is only Molly Shannon (The Little Hours) in the cast who comes off completely wrong, though there may be reasons for that…just none I felt supported her and her choices.

You can’t watch this movie without considering the loss of Yelchin. Bizarrely, I watched this the same day Yelchin’s family settled the suit for his tragic death. Since his passing, his last films have been trickling out into the wild. With this film dropping direct-to-disc and Thoroughbreds finally out in theaters, we’ve actually (and sadly) reached the end of his recorded efforts. This movie contains a powerful performance, but all the more bittersweet given the plot and knowing it is one of his very last.

We Don’t Belong Here is a quiet film, but Pedersen kept it full of tension and intellectual challenge. He did a great job laying out his plots and editing to the final moments. It isn’t for a wide audience, but if you enjoy a true indie spirit and approach, you’ll find this one worth your time.

We Don

Early Man

[3 stars]

There is something about stop-action animation that remains magical to me. I don’t know if it is the effort behind it or simply the way inanimate objects come to life when it is done right, but it captured me as a kid and continues to grab me as an adult. Until Laika Studios (Kubo and the Two Strings) came online about 10 years ago, the torch and almost sole standard bearer for stop-action was Aardman Studios and, in particular, Nick Park.

Park created the wonderful Wallace & Grommit, Shaun the Sheep, and a slew of advertisements and short films. Then, in 2005, tragedy struck when a fire wiped out nearly all the decades of models and sets Aardman had brought to life. What has followed that devastation has never quite hit their high mark, at least in long-form adult fare.

Early Man is no exception. If you love footy and have kids, this film is a riot. It is full of humor (adult and child) and has a sweet and empowering tale for all children. And, of course, it has a great animal sidekick, voiced by Park himself, that steals the film. The rest of the story, for adults at least, is fine, but not brilliant despite a well-known and talented voice cast. Most importantly, the animation is wonderful.

Where does it lose adults, or at least me? The movie starts off with cavemen and dinosaurs alive at the same time in order to tie in the great meteor strike to the plot (wholly unnecessary, but they couldn’t resist the dinosaur thing). Then it goes on to not think through its production design; the clothing is all whole, wild animal furs when all they hunt are rabbits for example. And, finally, it has several key script contradictions. Will kids notice any of this? Probably a tiny bit, but most won’t. However, it was effort to keep having to forget the errors as I was watching–and I love Park’s work. I will say the script does have a lot of fun British humor. Perhaps part of the challenge was seeing the movie after seeing the new Shaun the Sheep trailer, which looks so very funny and sly…and this film just didn’t seem to have the same level of intelligence and cleverness.

I’m not saying don’t go to this film. I am saying go with the right expectations. This is a fabulous film for young kids with enough humor for adults that it works. It just isn’t the classic I had hoped for, and always hope for, with Aardman Studios. Their technique is still great and their sense of whimsy still very much alive, but they need to get better writers on board to keep the adults fully engaged. Though, admittedly, Mark Burton, who brought us the wonderful and clever Curse of the Were-Rabbit and last year’s Shaun the Sheep Movie, was one of the primary writers on this feature. So it isn’t so easy to point to where this particular film went off-track. But go and support the art form and enjoy the escapism of it all. It may not be a classic, but it is still solid animation from a studio that is a master of the art.

Early Man

Black Panther

[4.5 stars}

This last year in film (and the world) has been one of evolution and, in some cases, revolution. With Black Panther, director and co-writer Ryan Coogler (Creed), has managed to both stick to the Marvel vision of super hero mythologies and remake them all at once. Like Wonder Woman (but with a better script), Black Panther is loaded with strong and smart female heroes as well as showing us a new view and venue for a story, never once touching down in the USA ( except for flashback and tag). It is also unabashedly fits into our current times, commenting upon world politics and the challenges that face the world. Oh, and it is also a hell of a lot of fun.

And Coogler managed to do all that while building on the tiny threads we’ve been getting about Wakanda, and amplifying smaller characters like Andy Serkis’s (War for the Planet of the Apes) Klaue and looping in Martin Freeman’s (Sherlock) Agent Ross. Of course we’d already met Chadwick Boseman (Captain America: Civil War), but we knew very little about him until now.

Now we see Boseman as a child and in his kingdom. He is surrounded by strong women without whom he would die more than once: Lupita Nyong’o (Queen of Katwe) as his top spy and love interest, Danai Gurira (The Visitor) as his General, Letitia Wright (Humans) as his scientist/sister, and Angela Bassett (Survivor, Chi-Raq) as his mother are all loaded with responsibility, brains, guts, and brawn. They all also have a healthy sense of humor and humanity about their young King; he doesn’t get a free ride anywhere. Each has some challenging storylines of their own, particularly Gurira.

There are also some standout performances in his retinue and world from Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), Florence Kasumba (Emerald City),  Winston Duke (Person of Interest), and Sterling K. Brown (This is Us).

But every hero must have his nemesis, and Michael B. Jordan (Creed) brings it with incredible style and ability. Jordan’s storyline, like the rest of the script, is far from simple. He also serves as an oddly uncomfortable voice for politics and society today while hearkening back through various movements of the last 40 years (and more).

I saw this in IMAX, which was glorious, but it is also the reason I had to ding the rating of the film. As good and fun as the script is, Coogler doesn’t quite know how to film up-close fight scenes for the truly big screen. He was a bit too close and cutting far too quickly in many cases, making what were clearly good choreographed scenes a blur. I plan on catching the film again on a standard screen, though probably not 3D, before too long. I’m curious to see if that will help with some of the issues.

So go see this, for so many reasons: great script and story, great humor, incredible visuals and action, and the shattering of many walls. I don’t know where they’ll take this in future, but Black Panther has earned his place among the Avengers as well as film history.

Black Panther

mother!

[2 stars]

Straight up, I am a Darren Aronofsky (Noah) fan and have been since Pi. His narratives are almost always complex and unexpected. Certainly mother! is anything but straightforward. Oddly, though, it isn’t anything new or unexpected either. And it certainly didn’t land with most audiences.

From the outset of the film, you know there is something off. First there is the apparent rollback in time from a disaster. Then there is the odd tension between Jennifer Lawrence (Passengers) and Javier Bardem (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) which just isn’t quite natural. By the time Ed Harris (Geostorm) and Michelle Pfeiffer show up, it is clear this isn’t reality, or isn’t being viewed from clear eyes. Domhnall Gleeson (The Revenant) makes a solid appearance as well to help seal the deal.

If you insist on still seeing the story as reality at any level after that point, it is no wonder that you would hate the film. Honestly, I was willing to go along for the ride, but in a year that included similar themes, like the more recent Phantom Thread, I was looking for something new, not just visually surprising.

Aronofsky has created a very personal vision and tale of his favorite themes: art, love, and religion/spirituality. But ultimately it is about a half hour too long to sustain the story and audience interest. After the first 90 minutes, you want answers, not more outrageous and infuriating situations. I appreciate he wanted to slow burn to the climax, but he asked too much from his audience; he never really fully earns our trust, providing no answers, only mystery and weirdness upon strangeness and offkey oddity. He has always been great skirting the edge of reality, as in Black Swan, to lead to a point. Here, however, the end result here is more the feeling of a surrealist play that is weird for weirdness’ sake alone rather than a cohesive movie. By the way, achieving that play-like presentation and pulling us along inexorably while staying true to the media is no small feat in itself.

I truly admire the craft and acting in the film, even if I disliked the result; it doesn’t feel satisfying in the end. After his last film, I was worried Aronofsky would try to stay more mainstream…I suspect he feared the same and veered way off the track to try and prove he wouldn’t both to audiences and, more importantly, to himself. The result is mother! Now that he’s made his point, I hope he will find his path again. He is a gifted film maker, but this isn’t his best onscreen musing.

Mother!

Geostorm

[2 stars]

I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I owe Maze Runner: The Death Cure an apology…at least as compared to this film. The only film at this scale that I’ve seen this past year that was worse than this was Life. I started compiling a list of bad science and stupid plot moments from the script, but gave up after about 5 minutes. Truly awful dialogue written by people who did almost no research on the science and none on the workings of the government.

And why do I owe Maze an apology after those statements? Well, because for all the bad science and silly plotting in Maze, at least the action sequences were good and there were some moments of value. Geostorm has neither. It is woodenly acted by actors who look so wrong for their parts the make-up artists and costumers should be shot.

Jim Sturgess (Cloud Atlas) , in particular, looked like a lost Millennial who didn’t know what a professional haircut was. Fine in business these days, but not as an Asst. Secretary in the White House (our current administration’s examples aside). His acting was equally hacked. Even Gerard Butler (London Has Fallen), while never the most impressive of actors, was decidedly phoning it in through much of this movie. Abbie Cornish (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), who has some reasonable cred, couldn’t even do much with the script and situations. And what was done to Robert Sheehan (Moonwalkers), Robert Schiff (Good Doctor), and Andy Garcia (Passengers) was near criminal. Only Ed Harris (Gravity, Westworld), Talitha Eliana Bateman (Nine Lives), and Zazie Beetz had anything approaching reasonable performances, but the bar was low in this flick.

Director and co-writer Dean Devlin (Independence Day: Resurgence) either rushed this or simply didn’t realize how clunky it all was. Though, perhaps, pairing up with his oft-time co-writer Paul Guyot (The Librarians) wasn’t the best choice, each reinforcing their small screen comfort zone onto what should have been a huge screen adventure in every sense, not just the special effects. They even tried to shoe-horn in a dog and a little girl to force you to feel emotions that just aren’t there in the story; cheap.

Yes, just skip this one. Even the thrills aren’t good enough to make it worth your time. You need something this silly and globe spanning? Rewatch 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow, both equally silly, but executed with better skill.

Geostorm