This sequel to the silly, but adorable, Gnomeo and Juliet is aimed at the same audience as its predecessor (15 and under). That isn’t to say that the riffs on Sherlock, and a dozen or more other shows and movies, aren’t entertaining for adults but it is thin feasting between those moments. However, the message of partnership and equality is a bit more palatable than most animated films aimed at this age group, which tend to fall into cringworthy cliché when it comes to relationships and roles.
This is John Stevenson’s (Kung Fu Panda) second feature from the director’s seat. He doesn’t break new ground, but he keeps up the pace and finds some solid moments. However, it isn’t for a broad audience like, say, The Incredibles, so approach with caution and ready distraction as you keep your younger companions company (or that necessary large glass of happy juice to launch a mindless evening of entertainment).
You don’t check into the Hotel Transylvania expecting depth or subtlety, even though it was directing and co-written by Genndy Tartakovsky (Samurai Jack). You check in for silly fun, like its previous installments.
There isn’t any voice talent really worth calling out other than Chris Parnell (Life of the Party), whose silly fish was nicely surprising and dry. The rest are either reprising their roles from the past movies or are standard cartoon. Even the new additions of Jim Gaffigan and Kathryn Hahn (Flower), while effective, weren’t great performances.
There some good aspects to this cinematic distraction. Primarily, it is some silly distraction and humor for the summer and kids. The message is solid and well placed for its young audience (and even a good reminder for adults these days). Oddly, the best joke of the entire film is a throw-away chupacabra reference for which the film pauses and then moves on. It doesn’t really come back or mean anything, but it is clearly a gift that Tartakovsky or the producers weren’t willing to give up, even though it added nothing other than a brilliant nod and wink to the audience for those that understood it.
There are some big issues as well. The animation is a bit uneven in design approach. There are very realistic moments followed by oddly flat, cartoonish sequences. Though you can can clearly see Tartakovsky’s sensibility in some of the characters, but it isn’t nearly as inventive overall. Also disappointing was the ending battle, which desperately needed a music expert to pull it off. The idea was a riot, but the presentation was far too clunky to get to the result. A shame, really. It could have been an amazing final sequence.
If you enjoy the series, be assured it hasn’t really diminished over time. It is what it always was and even opens up some new avenues to continue. It isn’t really aimed at adults, though there are some gifts sprinkled in the script throughout. Go to escape the heat or distract your kids, but it isn’t some high form of animation.
The real star of this predictable actioner is the title character. The concept building brought to life is jaw-dropping in its scope and design. And, thanks to an utterly bland script by Rawson Marshall Thurber (We’re the Millers, Central Intelligence), it is the most interesting part of the story.
The issue? Well, there are some typically bad research problems about how some things work, but let’s assume you can squint through them. But the main lack is tension. In a PG rated film, you know who’s going to die and how and who just isn’t. Dwayne Johnson (Rampage) and Neve Campbell (House of Cards) deliver what they can, but you never really worry that they or their twins will survive. And there isn’t even enough outright humor to make it a fun romp. It is purely a series of puzzles for Johnson to solve, admittedly some spectacular, in order to get to endgame.
Many compare this to a watered-down Die Hard, which is fair. Towering Inferno also came to mind for me. But Thurber didn’t manage to really secure the bones of either of these classics and update them; he simply borrowed their set-ups. If this had been more of a hard R presentation, there would have been more tension and anticipation. Good characters are allowed to die in the red-band world. But if you aren’t going to kill them, let them at least have some killer laughs.
Having poked this bear a lot, I’m not going to say it wasn’t a little bit of fun. It was distracting, even when I was saying the lines before the characters (because they were that obvious). Certainly many around me were gasping and enjoying the romp. It is a pretty distraction if not a great one. I guess it depends on how much you want to see yet another Johnson film in less than a year, and how old your movie-going partners are going to be.
Backtrack will feel very familiar when it begins. In fact, you’ll likely be thinking, “I’ve seen this all before…I know what’s going on.” And, to a degree, you’d be right. However writer/director Micheal Petroni (Till Human Voices Wake Us) manages to subvert and co-opt the situation and take it somewhere more interesting.
Adrien Brody (The Grand Budapest Hotel) brings all his vulnerable and scruffy best to his distraught and mildly unhinged psychologist. He’s helped along his journey nicely by Sam Neill (Mindgamers) and Robin McLeavy (Hell On Wheels). But it is George Shevtsov’s (Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries) quiet energy as his estranged father that adds the last bit of necessary tension to pull the whole story together.
This bit of suspense/horror doesn’t break new ground, but it does navigate it all very well. And at 90 tight minutes, it will keep you focused, interested, and never let you get too far ahead of it all. It also has some very nice and creepy scares to spike your adrenaline. When you’re looking for a clever horror distraction, this is a good choice for your popcorn evening.
Did we really need to see Liam Neeson (Silence) kick a bunch of butt again? Is there really anything new to see here? Well, honestly, no, not much. No matter how well he sings his nice-guy-with-a-secret-past, it is a tired tune.
Of course, Neeson has to have an interesting villain to push against. Vera Farmiga (The Judge) provides a nicely cool opponent, but the script didn’t do her many favors. It is an incredulous set of circumstances and actions, however nicely tied up and pushed along with action and tension.
One fun surprise in casting was the brief appearance of Letitia Wright (Black Panther). Shazad Latif (Star Trek: Discovery) also has a small role. There are other supporting roles of note, particularly, Clara Lago, Jonathan Banks (Mudbound), Patrick Wilson (Young Adult), and Sam Neill (Thor: Ragnarok) but generally there are no standouts, just plot movers.
What is worth seeing in this movie is the opening 10 minutes or so of the the film. Director Jaume Collet-Serra’s (Non-Stop) first few minutes of the credits and action set up a tremendous amount about Neeson’s relationships, allowing Collet-Serra to focus the film on the plot, mystery, and action rather than backstory. Though for a rather different purpose (and not nearly as evocative) it is reminiscent of the brilliant opening of Up.
For a pure escapist, brain dead kind of evening, The Commuter is fine fare…and Neeson gets as much as he gives in this one. It isn’t groundbreaking, but it is well crafted and paced. There are some nice moments, and at least one forced “but wouldn’t it be nice if the world was this way” moments that you can see coming a mile off. But this movie shouldn’t be high on your list. Get to it if an when you have an urge.
Missions is a high concept, high production quality science fiction drama in a 30 minute format. It’s not going to win any genre awards for its writing (or most of its acting) but, as a suspense mystery, Missions is nicely constructed. It should be mentioned that is also in French and Russian with subtitles.
The frustrating aspects of the writing are mostly around the premise of who is on the crew and how some of the science works. There are many cliché and expedient choices over the 10 episodes…none of which would be made in real life, but which make for a more tense set of interactions. The show does run close to reality in terms of how space is currently on the edge of being exploited, however. And it plays just outside the margins of known facts to get us to a somewhat unexpected place with interesting possibilities. It is also an interesting contrast to Robinson Crusoe on Mars, which it echos in odd ways, even treading in some of its missteps in trying to build out its plot.
However, if you’re hoping for this first series to provide resolution or a sense of complete understanding, you’ll have to wait till the next season (at least). The first season sort of completes an arc, but then leaves you hanging with a pile of questions. I’d have liked a bit more buttoning up of ideas to feel incredibly enthused about the show. The characters aren’t quite compelling enough for me to have invested on that level, so it was up to the story to pull me in. I would certainly tune in to see where it goes from here, so that says something. Whether it will pay off or if the pulp-ish plot and dialogue will scuttle it on return, I don’t know. But it is a surprisingly well-produced piece and is clearly trying to hit it out of the park on ideas if not always in script.
Ok, Fallen Kingdom’s prequel, Jurassic World, was no great piece of cinema, despite its ridiculously high box-office gross. This sequel, however, made it look like Pulitzer material in many ways. Honestly, I’m fine with escapist silliness when it is done well, but I don’t like having my intelligence insulted.
There is exactly one adult, thoughtful moment in this entire film. It comes near the end and it is a good one too. The moment, and its resolution, actually reflect the core of the story that is buried in the bones of this popcorn trifle. The rest of the action and plot are predictable and, frankly, frustrating. Evil people are evil. Good people are good. Old men are foolish. Dinosaurs with big eyes are cute. Humans are greedy. Dinosaurs with big teeth are… well, you get the idea. You know what you’re walking into; there are no shades of gray, it is all black and white which leaves no room for any real lasting or surprising emotions or experience.
I will grant director J.A. Bayona (A Monster Calls) one thing: he kept the slaughter on screen to a minimum, though there is no shortage of comeuppance by the final credits. But Fallen Kingdom is merely a bridge to the third movie that Universal really wanted to make, which is hinted at in the tag after the credits. They realized that leap would have been too much to do straight from the end of the previous movie, so they made a nod at taking the time to tell it right. Unfortunately Trevorrow and Connolly’s follow-up script to their previous is even more rife with time, science, and character problems. Oh, let’s call it what it is: generally bad writing.
Will most people care? Probably not. They haven’t in previous installments, which were no better at times (including going all the way back to the beginning). It is a visual romp and the effects are, as always, pretty astounding. If you must see it, see it on a big screen and maybe even 3D to get the most you can out of the amusement park ride it is. In traditional 2D the fact that it is aimed squarely at pre-teens is unavoidable.
I expect more from my entertainment. Even when I want to turn my brain off it needs to be occupied rather than irritated to enjoy itself. I can suspend disbelief as long as things are consistent, honest, and marginally believable. Fallen Kingdom came close to those requirements, but, at least for me, missed just enough to leave me less entertained and more annoyed. As they say, your mileage may vary (and probably will).
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.
Caper films are a wonderful and difficult genre. They can go hyper-violent, like Den of Thieves, or incredibly staid, like Topkapi (or it’s earlier incarnation, Rififi) and everything in between. There is always a challenge, a personal angle (usually revenge), and, often, a death. But what drives a great caper film is the tension and pace and the great chemistry of those involved.
Ocean’s 8 has the chemistry in spades, led confidently and in style, by Sandra Bullock (The Heat) and Cate Blanchett (Thor: Ragnarok). The rest of the gang is entertaining and, if not entirely credible, engaging enough to make us forget that aspect. Made up of Sarah Paulson (Carol), Mindy Kaling (A Wrinkle in Time), Helena Bonham Carter (Alice Through the Looking Glass), Awkwafina (Storks), and Rhianna (Zootopia), the group play off each other well and create fun characters that feel like they have full lives. Even Carter, who plays into type (especially how she is dressed during the gala), still manages to give us something grounded and a bit new for her. With Anne Hathaway (Colossal) in the mix as the target L’Enfant terrible, great fun is had by all.
There aren’t a lot of surprises in this reboot of the series, but the more you know how these things work, the harder it is to misdirect. Logan Lucky learned that lesson last year. But co-writers Gary Ross (The Hunger Games) and first timer Olivia Milch do some clever work to keep us wondering nonetheless. However Ross’s directing didn’t quite get the pop and flow that would make this film a classic. The pace is just a bit slow, the rhythm just a bit off. It feels polished, but not perfect.
However, it isn’t so far off as to be disappointing. The performances are fun and the dialogue and intent satisfying, pretty much all around. And, for those keeping count, the men are fairly incidental: Richard Armitage (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies), and James Corden (Into the Woods).
If you like amusing, quick-paced caper antics, you need to make time for this film. It may translate to the small screen, but you’d be hard-pressed to find another film with so many great female actors in once place (and I’ve only listed a few…there are some wonderful surprises too).
There is more to Upgrade than you expect. Not a lot more, but it has a better story and script than a good portion of the films that have come out so far this year. On the artistic and intellectual side there are clearly intentional nods to Da Vinci, Frankenstein, Robocop, even a bit of Hitler in the visuals. This isn’t so much a dystopic future as it is an apathetic one with economic divisions just a bit more obvious than the present.
But while it starts off with a sense of Ex Machina, it loses that higher ground to drift closer to the sensibility of Automata. Both good recommendations, but very different movies. Upgrade is certainly willing to dive into ideas, like the potential amorality (or different-morality) of AI and what evolution means. And it is equally unafraid of emotions or taking its time to set up and execute on story. But they say “write what you know,” and writer/director Leigh Whannell just couldn’t quite shake his roots in Saw and Insidious. The ultimate result here isn’t very surprising–a good action and horror piece done with some talent. As a sophomore delivery from behind the camera, Whannell delivered a fairly solid bit of splatter punk. If there is any weakness, it is that despite some truly nice vistas and sets, the piece feels claustrophobic on a world level.
That smallness to the world may be due to its small cast, but Blade Runner 2049 had a similarly small cast without that sense, so I think it has more to do with Whannell’s framing choices. The cast are fairly solid and led by Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus), who gives us an Everyman we can definitely sympathize and empathize with. He is a Luddite in a world of tech, but a person with deep passions and a sense of self and love of his wife and muscle cars (in that order). Betty Gabriel (Get Out) delivers to us a committed, if exhausted cop. Her role is challenging because we only see her decisions from the outside, which makes her seem disinterested or lazy, but I found myself enjoying the removed perspective and trying to piece together her off-screen and unspoken efforts. Harrison Gilbertson (Picnic at Hanging Rock) has an interesting challenge as well. Playing the distracted genius can be tiresome, but Gilbertson manages, by the end, to give us a shade of something new.
As purely a voice, Simon Maiden (The Dressmaker) imbues our nascent AI with a subtle personality. Stem is neither human nor too removed to keep it from becoming a character. There is a sense of HAL, but Maiden makes Stem very much his own. And, finally, there is Benedict Hardie’s (Hacksaw Ridge) neo-Nazi-ish villain. Here is where Whannell could have done a bit more. Hardie’s performance is well directed, keeping him from going to extreme, though his first scene is somewhat misleading on that point. But the character’s motivations and drive, though stated, never feel quite true. Some of that is on the script and some on the direction, but a better set of choices could have elevated this unexpected low-budget flick a couple more notches.
You do have to like violent, splatter-filled moments (not many, but enough of them) to enjoy this ride. It has the feeling of a video-game at times, but not so much that it breaks the story or the sense of the film. The story is actually engaging and the pace swift, even humorous at times, without short-changing the experience of the plot. Yes, there are some shortcuts, but most are given reasons not just shrugged off, and very little is too easy for our main character. And, yes, this one is dark, so keep that in mind as well.
Stem is not for everyone, but I have to admit I’m glad I got to see it and I’m glad it got a wider release than a non-traditional film like this normally would; definitely alternative popcorn fare for the right audience. And, perhaps most importantly, it is something new, not a sequel or prequel or reboot…and how many of those are we getting this year?
Art, writing, life explained… or at least commented upon…