Tag Archives: Fantasy

X-Men: Dark Phoenix

[2.5 stars]

How often do you get a second bite at the apple? Even with all the time-travel in the X-Men universe, I never thought we’d get a chance to see Dark Phoenix after the horrible rendition of it in X-Men: The Last Stand. I mean, it was done, they’re not going to go back and pick it up again, right? Better to leave it buried and forgotten.

Well, nothing is ever really dead and gone in the MCU (or apparently Star Wars either). But why do you give this last of the pre-merger Marvel films to a basically untried director, Simon Kinberg? He may have a lot of producing and writing credits, including the previous two First Class films, but there was a lot to make up for after Apocalypse that no amount of Logan (or even Deadpool) was ever going to wash away.

So what we’ve been offered, as a wrap up to this cycle of X-Men, is a great idea with a talented cast, and some of the worst direction I’ve seen in a major in years. When Jennifer Lawrence (Red Sparrow), James McAvoy (Glass) and Michael Fassbender (The Snowman) can all come off as disingenuous, or worse: wooden, the director has failed them. (At least Lawrence managed to deliver the best line in the movie.) Even returning and proven up-and-comers Tye Sheridan (Ready Player One), Alexandra Shipp (Spinning Man), Evan Peters (Pose), and Kodi Smit-McPhee (A Birder’s Guide to Everything) felt disconnected from their previously portrayed versions of these younger X-Men. Sheridan, in particular, just had no leadership qualities whatsoever, and no chemistry with Lawrence.

Only Jessica Chastain (Woman Walks Ahead) and Scott Shepherd (Bridge of Spies), who were integral but not amongst the major characters, gave us any kind of performance. Neither was a brilliant performance, but at least they felt real. Sophie Turner (Game of Thrones), in the title character, was somewhere between the ineptitudes of her younger colleagues and these established two. In better directorial hands, she may have actually, fully delivered.

The story of the Dark Phoenix is legend, and Kinberg’s script had some really good ideas and structure…even some good dialogue. But the final delivery and handling of the material was amateurish, at best. The result isn’t quite as bad as Last Stand, which killed the franchise for years, but the damage is done. Should the X-Men be folded back into the Marvel Universe now that they’re all under the same banner again, they’ll have to wait for the disappointing taste of this movie to fade before they try again.

Ultimately, if you like this storyline and these characters, you do have to see this final installment (for now). It isn’t unwatchable, but it is lacking in the humor and emotion of the previous movies that made them work so well. It feels like they filmed a dress rehearsal rather than a full performance, with some characters just hitting their marks and saying their lines rather than acting. This all comes back to Kinberg who directed the takes and selected the edits. He just wasn’t ready for this kind of challenge, no matter how familiar he was with the story and involved with the earlier movies. I wish I could be more enthusiastic…I waited a long time only to be disappointed again. I’m sure I’m not alone in that sentiment.

Godzilla: King of Monsters

[3 stars]

It isn’t the movie, it’s the nostalgia that creates the joy in this latest Godzilla sequel…and the huge spectacle doesn’t hurt. The very fact that the production design keeps the CGI monsters very close to the original men-in-rubber-suits look is one of the biggest indicators of just how hard they lean into that sensibility. And, frankly, that’s OK. It strikes all the right chords on that level, but with an updated look and feel.

Returning to continue their story are Kyle Chandler (First Man) and Vera Farmiga (The Front Runner) and they’re joined by Millie Bobby Brown (Stranger Things) as their grown daughter. Wait, you don’t remember them from the first movie? There’s a reason for that, they weren’t there. However, the flick does a good job of convincing you they were. I have to give them credit on that point alone. However, it is only Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water), David Strathairn (November Criminals), and Ken Watanabe (Bel Canto) returning to connect the flicks. Additionally new to the mix, and to varying degrees of low-end success, are Charles Dance, Bradley Whitford (Destroyer), and Thomas Middleditch (Replicas). Honestly, none of them are at all believable.

Writer/director Michael Dougherty has a mixed set of results in his past and this movie is no exception. From Trick ‘r Treat to Krampus to X-Men: Apocalypse he often has good ideas and partial execution. In the case of this Godzilla installment, there is some real attempt to make the science work by him and collaborator Zach Shields; at least as much as it can. It is still a lot of hand-wavy nonsense, but the veneer does help. And there is an over-arching plot that is being set to tie together the past movie with this and those to come.

In some ways, the driving eco-terrorism plot the writers concoct is true to the roots of Godzilla, but comes across in a sort of uncomfortable way. While the original movies were about what was wrong in the world and what needed to change, this is much more negative on the side of those who see the truth and want to fix it all. But that isn’t the reason we all show up anyway. We’re there for the big monster fights and crazy situations. All make an appearance. This is also mainly just a bridging movie to get us to Godzilla vs. Kong.

I never expected much of this film… and, in fact, I got more than I anticipated. Is it great? No. But it is sufficient to the purpose of entertainment and it is a BIG screen movie. So grab some popcorn and settle in for the silly and the mayhem. As long as you like the genre, you’ll like the movie. If you don’t, well, it’d be a waste of your time. It doesn’t rise above its roots in any way that will reach beyond its core audience.

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.

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

Avengers: Endgame

[5 stars]

Who would have thought, watching that first tag at the end of Iron Man 11 years and 22 films ago, that today we’d be here? Talk about delayed gratification.

I didn’t rewatch all the films again, but I did rewatch all of Phase 3 in prep. Still an amazing trip. Thor is certainly the odd one out in flavor and Black Panther is still not my favorite (though its resonance has changed for me again in the last year with our own political mess), but as a whole the sequence continues the huge landscape and story. It has to be said, though he left after Age of Ultron, the success and structure of this audacious and incredible ride owes a huge amount to Joss Whedon’s grand vision of architecture.

And that is where this movie shines. Christopher Markus
and Stephen McFeely, writers of the entire Captain America sequence and Infinity War, landed this saga beautifully. It is a tight three acts loaded with humor and drama, and the biggest sequences since The Hobbit or Dunkirk in terms of battles. The Russos did a great job directing it all, never losing the pacing nor the sensibility of the characters. I can’t recall the last time an audience had so much spontaneous applause and tears.

Despite being over three hours, the movie doesn’t feel long at all. Every character gets their moments and resolutions and nothing is easy. And even the forced moments work because you want them to be there. Markus and McFeely also, almost, manage to get out of it all without a paradox, gap, or gaff. Just don’t pick at it too much, there was no way to avoid some of the issues they ran into. If there is any real ding on Endgame as a film, it is that it doesn’t and can’t stand on its own. Without the lead up (forgetting even the Infinity War cliffhanger) it would be obvious something is going on, but not what. That isn’t a bad thing for a finale, it just is being honest.

Anticipation couldn’t have been much higher for this movie, which concludes the emotional and character arc of Phase 3 of the MCU for so many characters and marks a change in direction for the stories. What that change will be remains to be seen in the official end to the Phase in Spider-Man: Far From Home. It has been floated that the overarching stories aren’t going to continue, though some characters are getting series on Disney+. I have to say, I am worried that they cannot sustain the franchise with that approach and thinking. It shows a lack of comprehension of what made the last 11 years one of the grandest adventures and experiments in movies.

I did see Endgame in IMAX 3D for this first go-round. It was worth it. The story is huge and gorgeously shot. The 3D is subtle rather than cheap most of the time. Most of the f/x are seamless, though some of the Hulk’s moments are a little threadbare. But definitely the way to go with this movie, at least once. Now, get yourself out there and see it before you get the story spoiled. You’ll only get to experience it once without knowledge, enjoy the surprises. And while there are video tags during the credits, there is an audio tag that is causing much discussion and little confirmation as to the meaning.

The Kid Who Would Be King

[3 stars]

When Joe Cornish (Attack the Block) took on the Arthur legend, the hope was for something like Excalibur by way of Time Bandits. And while there are slight nods to both, it is really more just a solid kid’s film with some humor and light action, but none of the dark, satyric edge of his previous effort. This may not have been the film anticipated, but in some ways it is the right movie for the right audience now. And, certainly, it is a better reconception than the other recent Arthur movie.

Louis Ashbourne Serkis (Alice Through the Looking Glass) is nicely earnest in the lead, if a little lacking in levels. And his gang of knights, Dean Chaumoo, Rhianna Dorris, and Tom Taylor (Dark Tower), all turn in similarly appropriate performances for the feel of the tale.

In truth, though, Angus Imrie (Kingdom) and Patrick Stewart (Logan) steal whatever thunder there is to steal. Imrie’s performance is unselfconsciously weird and Stewart gets to play it up as well.

Denise Gough (Colette), as Serkis’s mother is suitably mother-like without being too smarmy. While Rebecca Ferguson (Mission: Impossible: Fallout) never really gets to stretch her wings as the big bad. She spends the entire film in a harsh whisper that is promising and foreboding, but never really comes off as entirely threatening.

But the tale itself is only part of the story here. Sure, there is adventure and action and humor, to a degree. But the message, just like the book it mirrors, is the real point. And in today’s world, perhaps that is more appropriate. I did enjoy myself through the two hour jaunt. It isn’t a simple film, fortunately, taking some pains to have some bits of reality, but neither is it really aimed at adults. So go in for the mindless fun or to share with a tween of your choosing. I think Cornish is capable of much more and much better…especially if let off his leash. The result here smacks of a studio panicking and forcing him to scale back from the very sensibility that probably landed him the job.

Dumbo

[3 stars]

You can see the dark edges of Tim Burton (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) in the production design and the plot of the first act of Dumbo, but not his trademark sense of wonder and magic. The movie, as a whole, has a lack of focus in tone and a lack of characters. Given the potential of some of the clever updates to the story, the result is surprising.

In their first roles, Nico Parker, as a bright young woman who drives the story in the stead of the mice from the Disney cartoon, and Finley Hobbins as her brother are solid, but flat. Even Colin Farrell (Widows), Eva Green (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children), and Danny DeVito (Smallfoot), all with solid foundations in the story, were left without much development or payoff. DeVito, in particular, has rich potential, but was left to be just a clown. Michael Keaton (American Assassin)never moves beyond being a simple black hat with no depth at all. And Alan Arkin (Going in Style) was just a throw-away.

Adaptations are just hard. Fighting everyone’s memory of an original while trying to create something new is challenging at best. Dumbo was due an update to leave its problematic issues behind and bring it into the modern world. It is a great tale of believing in yourself and family. And there are interesting new choices in this telling of the tale, but they just aren’t fully explored. Ehren Kruger’s (Ghost in the Shell) script is devoid of real challenges and resolutions for the human characters. Everything is either too easy or too assumed. The reality is that a flying elephant isn’t magical on its own, it has to become magical…  romance doesn’t just happen, it has to be earned… families don’t heal on their own, you have to work at it. And even Dumbo’s challenges all seem too easily resolved, not to mention that his understanding of the world is inconsistent and seemingly omniscient at times.

I will say that Burton’s dark take on Disney World is delightfully subversive and ironic, but it doesn’t make up for the missing magic in the movie. What is left is a somewhat entertaining, though surprisingly surfacey story that never reaches the heights it should have, but isn’t entirely without entertainment or merit, it just isn’t a new classic. As always, Burton’s designs are best on a big screen, but this is a somewhat neutered fantasy that will play better to younger audiences than adults and that won’t survive the ravages of time.

Captain Marvel

[4.5 stars]

Here we are at the penultimate breath bridging Infinity War and Endgame. A pause and some historical background to fill in missing pieces and characters before the final battle. And it is also our first peek at what a post Phase 3 MCU might be like with a whole new feel and rhythm, even if the journey is the same iconic trail. Collaborating directors and co-writers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (It’s Kind of a Funny Story) built on the sense and structure of Guardians of the Galaxy, but made it their own giving us an action-packed and humor-filled romp.

DC may have beat the mouse house to the screen with Wonder Woman, but Marvel built a better character and story, not to mention put women in almost every major power role of consequence. Brie Larson (The Glass Castle) tops that bill, landing a solid super hero out of what comes perilously close to not working. But a little trust, earned by the directors, lets you ride any concerns to understanding and support for the choices.

Larson carries the story and film, but is joined by several other women in key roles. A staid and smart Annette Bening (The Seagull) has a wonderful dual role. Lashana Lynch (Still Star-Crossed) adds some heart and grit as her fighter-pilot buddy. Even Lynch’s on-screen daughter, Akira Akbar, is a female of consequence in the story. All of these women stand on their own and drive as well as participate in the tale.

The men in this film are pretty much all sidekicks for Larson. On Earth, that is Samuel L. Jackson (Glass), who gives a good look at the early days of Fury. There are also a few moments of Clark Gregg’s (Spinning Man) as a newbie Agent Coulson.  And, of course, there is Jude Law (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald) in a mentor role guiding, but never quite controlling Larson’s actions.

Larson’s initial team also includes some fun performances by Rune Temte (Eddie the Eagle), Djimon Hounsou (Same Kind of Different as Me) and, in one of the surprise performances in the movie for me, Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians). Chan really stood out for me as trying on and delivering something new. We’re so used to seeing her quiet and controlled rather than as a kick-ass, warrior. I barely  recognized her even though I knew she was in the cast.

The movie isn’t perfect. Some of the plotting and character choices seemed convenient rather than real, though others really did work…eventually. But there were things that threw me. The beauty work on Jackson and Gregg was very disturbing at first. It got better as the movie went on, but it was a heck of a distraction initially. Ben Mendelsohn’s (Robin Hood) accent was a weird choice and felt a tad forced. And the inevitable return of Lee Pace (The Book of Henry) was interesting, but somehow felt a little off from the character we know, even though he appears on the same path. And the humor occasionally clunks or is too predictable to be as funny as they’d hoped. And the hand-to-hand fights aren’t filmed as cleanly as I’d have liked.

Like I said, it isn’t perfect, but overall it is damned fun and it holds together even when you think it won’t. It answers a lot of questions, raises more, and sets us up for the end of an historic 11-year cycle of movies. It even plays homage to Stan Lee in a couple of nice ways (starting with the opening). And for a couple of somewhat newish directors/writers, it is proof again that Marvel can find lesser known talent for those roles and give them the opportunity to run a successful blockbuster while giving us an new voice to enjoy.

Most importantly, Captain Marvel begins to build a path beyond the end of that huge arc, showing there are possibilities and stories still to go after some of our favorites have been primarily retired. And, of course, there are extra scenes, so stay till the very end.

Nutcracker and the Four Realms

[3 stars]

So, if you thought from the trailers that this was a thinly re-veneered Alice in Wonderland or Wizard of Oz, you’d be mostly right. But it is also an interesting retelling of the story Tchaikovsky adapted to his infamous ballet over 100 years ago. While it is more complete as a story than the ballet, it is still aimed at a young audience and is rather simple in its telling and resolution. Given its primary audience is tweens that isn’t unfair, it just is less enduring and interesting in the result.

I will say that co-directors, Lasse Hallström (A Dog’s Purpose) and Joe Johnston (Captain America) and first-time feature writer Ashleigh Powell did manage to provide a strong heroine to lead the tale. Mackenzie Foy (Interstellar) is not just an observer in this story. She is bright, charismatic, strong and very much her own savior.

The production values and design are also wonderful. Among these aspects I include the supporting players from the realms who are built out of that vision. Helen Mirren (The Leisure Seeker), Keira Knightley (Colette), Morgan Freeman (Just Getting Started), and relative newcomer Jayden Fowora-Knight are all just extensions of that world and each delivers nicely.

This isn’t a great movie. It is a simple tale of a young woman growing up and accepting herself and her family. There are no surprises and even the warmest moments feel a little glossed over. It doesn’t even rely heavily on the music you are so familiar with, which will be a disappointment to many, I’m sure. But it is a reasonable and beautifully escape for an evening and it has a good message. I didn’t feel I’d waste my time, I just don’t see this becoming the classic it might have been had the story been a little richer.