Wednesday, September 11, 2019

It: Chapter Two - Film Review

It: Chapter Two demonstrates how little director Andy Muschietti had left in his bag of tricks following the first film. It’s got all the same problems as its predecessor - lame, repetitive scares and an overreliance on computer-generated trickery. Add to the mix a frantic, unfocused storyline, which never manages to find its way and an unnecessarily long running length and you’ve got a film that never manages to live up to the charms of its predecessor. It’s a tonal mess, leapfrogging horror for comedy at nearly every and plays plays out many of the same beats as the first film, but without the benefit of that film’s pre-teen cast and their energetic chemistry.

As I mentioned in my review of the first film, It is my favorite of Stephen King’s novels. While it’s typically labeled as nothing more than ‘the one with the creepy clown,’ people neglect to mention it’s also a genuinely affecting and thoughtful coming-of-age tale. Aside from King’s standard unforgettable scares and terrifying imagery, his story said something profound about the nature of growing up, the importance of friendship and the bittersweetness of leaving your childhood behind.

There’s an overabundance of narrative and thematic ground to cover in this 1,100+ page tome. While the novel intercuts the grown-up Losers’ story with that of their childhood counterparts’, Muschietti and company opted to split the adult’s portion and the kids’ portion into two separate entities. On paper it seems like a smart idea, but the reality proves otherwise. In King’s novel, the intercutting format allows the reader to rediscover the adult Losers’ childhood memories as the characters’ do. When the two stories are split in two, all it accomplishes is further re-emphasizing information we already know, drawing attention to the repetitive nature of the story. We know how things will play out because we’ve already seen the entire story in the first film and this robs It: Chapter Two of much of its potential for suspense and mystery.

Somehow three hours feels both too long and not long enough. The first hour’s chaotic pacing and editing finds It: Chapter Two’s screenplay struggling to discover its way. I don’t envy Gary Dauberman, the sequel’s sole screenwriter. He’s tasked with re-introducing no less than seven characters, catching us up with their adult iterations and sending them back to Derry for a showdown with an evil clown. The sheer amount of information thrown at viewers makes it difficult to register the reunion between these characters. We’re supposed to believe these are the same life-long friends we’ve come to know and love, but because we’ve spent so little time learning who they are in the present day, it doesn’t feel like we know them at all. Whereas the source material frames the battle between the Losers and Pennywise as an epic showdown between the forces of good and evil, the film version portrays it as little more than ‘group of kids fights scary monster.’ There’s no sense of the greater stakes and it makes the battle at the center of both these films feel insignificant.

The film never recovers from the disconnect between the adult Losers and their younger counterparts. While the ensemble is strong, made up of the likes of James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain and Bill Hader, there’s little chemistry between them. Hader, as has already been stated, is the highlight here. His youthful performance brings the energy and humanity It: Chapter Two sorely needs. His interactions with James Ransone’s Eddie provide many of the film’s best moments.

The remaining cast members, while giving solid takes, are surprisingly stiff and awkward. McAvoy never seems comfortable in the role of Bill Denborough and it doesn’t help that his and Chastain’s ‘romance’ feels shoehorned in. The lack of chemistry between the adult versions of these characters holds It: Chapter Two back from hitting its emotional beats. Every time the film flashes back to the Losers as kids, it reminded me just how well the young ensemble worked as a unit and how much the first film benefited from their involvement. Their presence is sorely missed this time around.

And then there’s Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise the clown. It’s as if Muschetti didn’t trust that Skarsgard’s take would be frightening enough. At nearly every opportunity, the performance is amplified by hokey computer-generated effects that diminish the work Skarsgard is doing. Maybe it’s just the reality of the situation: the more you see of Pennywise, the less scary he is. Seeing as how we’ve already seen an awful lot of him in the last film and nearly three hours worth of him in this one, it’s no wonder Muschetti struggled to make it work. But the addition of morphing, CGI faces don’t help the cause and, in fact, take away from Skarsgard’s effectiveness in the role.

Just as ineffective are the goofy, computer-generated monstrosities that pop out of every which corner to terrify our heroes. There are a few genuinely effective scares, such as when Jessica Chastain’s Beverly pays a visit to her childhood home, or a scene in which Pennywise lures a young girl to her demise under the bleachers during a sporting event. The film’s final act also features a number of inventive sequences that give it a much needed jolt. For the most part though, the scares play out in exactly the same way: a disembodied voice lures one of our heroes off to a dark, secluded area where a monster is waiting to pop out and provide the obligatory jump scare. This happens to every single one of the main characters, and it plays out in nearly the exact same way every time. Any potential for terror is diminished by the repetitiveness. It ends up being annoying more than anything else.

Sadly, It: Chapter Two feels like an obligatory comedown from the unexpected high of the first film, almost as if the filmmakers themselves weren’t sure how to live up to expectations and decided to scrap the whole attempt. Ultimately this adaptation fails because it lacks the emotional nuance and sense of stakes established in Stephen King’s novel. By honing in on cheap scares and cramming in unnecessary subplots, Muscheitti loses the essential heart of the story. His ambitions are admirable, but the final product sinks rather than floats.


Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Toy Story 4 - Film Review

There’s no need to fret, Pixar fans. Toy Story 4 is good. In fact, it’s better than it has any right to be. Especially when you consider how perfect a conclusion Toy Story 3 was to this story. Once again, Pixar demonstrates their winning blend of humor, heart and family-friendly excitement paired with the standard gorgeous visuals.

All that said, Toy Story 4 is also the first in this series to feel inessential. The thematic territory explored here had already been explored to perfection in the first three films. Despite some great new characters (as well as some old favorites) and some intriguing ideas, the film never reaches the same heights as its predecessors. But while it lacks the freshness of Toy Story 1 and 2 and the emotional gut-punch of 3, Toy Story 4 is still solid entertainment from one of the most reliable studios out there.

This time around, we find Woody, Buzz and the rest of the gang living out their new lives with their new kid Bonnie. Woody’s struggling to find his place in this new environment. He’s no longer the leader and clearly not one of Bonnie’s favorite toys. When Bonnie returns from Kindergarten with ‘Forky,’ a new toy she made out of a spork, some googly eyes and a popsicle stick, Woody takes it upon himself to protect him and ensure he stays by her side.

This becomes complicated as Forky is resistant to being a toy. He knows he’s trash, like, literal trash, and longs to fulfill his true purpose, making a mad dash for the closest waste bin whenever the opportunity presents itself. When Forky escapes during a summer road trip, Woody gives chase and winds up running into his old flame Bo Peep. During his time with her, Woody discovers there may be potential to pursue another, better life. But is he willing to give up his life with Bonnie and his friends to do so?

Does any of this sound familiar? You could pick out many of the plot points from the previous Toy Story films: Woody helping a toy realize it’s a toy while they try to get back to their kid (#1); Woody realizing he has the potential to live another life outside of the one he’s familiar with while his friends try to rescue him (#2); trying to figure out one’s place when the life you’ve known is no longer an option (#3).

There are a few interesting ideas presented here that we haven’t seen before, one of them being that children are essentially gods and can give ‘life’ to toys. But screenwriters Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom and director Josh Cooley steer clear of that complex and potentially problematic subject matter. (You can only ponder the nature of existence so much in a family film) Instead, they focus on Woody’s displacement, his feeling that he lacks any purpose in his new life with Bonnie.

Well, kind of.

Honestly, the film can't decide if it's about Woody or Forky. About halfway through, Forky takes a back seat to Woody's story. The writers sort of set up Woody’s conflict at the film’s start and there’s an emotional payoff near the end. Overall though, his character arc feels a bit undercooked resulting in emotional beats that lack the impact they need. And what about Buzz, Rex, Slinky Dog and the rest of the gang? Well. They’re there. But there isn’t a whole lot for them to do aside from fretting and worrying. The massive ensemble is just too unwieldy and the characters we know and love end up getting left behind. Buzz in particular doesn’t have much to do, and although the screenwriters try desperately to get him involved at any given point, they’re unable to give him much purpose here.

Toy Story 4 also suffers from a general lack of conflict. The villain introduced here, Gabby Gabby (voiced by Christina Hendricks), is well-developed. Her ventriloquist dummy henchmen are the stuff of genuine nightmares. But, for reasons I won’t spoil, the threat she presents ends up being more of a minor one. I appreciate the creative team’s attempts to present a different kind of villain, but it robs the film of much of its suspense.

But while Toy Story 4 may be lacking in the storytelling department, the creative team fills the gaps with superb visuals and colorful new characters. First we’ve got Keanu Reeves’ Duke Caboom, a Canadian motorcyclist and daredevil, who provides nothing but pure joy whenever he’s on-screen. We’ve also got Bunny and Ducky, voiced by none other than Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. These characters keep things feeling fresh and fun, providing some of the film’s biggest laughs. (They also feel like fodder for a potential Disney+ series down the line.)

Look, I get it. Toy Story 1-3 are masterpieces. It was only a matter of time before we’d get to one that was just plain ‘good.’ And I get that these films are money in the bank for Pixar. (You’ve gotta pay the bills somehow.) Perhaps Toy Story 4’s biggest accomplishment is that despite being a clear money-making venture, it feels like a genuine, heartfelt storytelling effort as opposed to a cynical cash cow.

But maybe, just maybe, it’s time to really really close the book on this film series. You got away with it this time, Pixar, but it’s time to let Toy Story go. As this wonderful film series has taught us: nothing is meant to last.

And that’s okay.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Captain Marvel - Film Review

Captain Marvel, the latest entry in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, provides ample entertainment and a much appreciated ‘Girl Power’ message to inspire the young’uns. It features plenty of 90s references to get your nostalgia senses tingling and an adorable kitty cat, which is an element I will never fault any movie for including.

It’s also another by-the-numbers superhero origin story that doesn’t strive for greatness so much as it just checks off all the boxes we’ve come to expect from Marvel Studios. You’ve got your generic CG-powered action sequences here, a joke or two (or twenty) there. Throw in some Avengers Easter Eggs to make fans the world over positively wet themselves with glee and, baby, you got a stew going. But it’s a lukewarm stew at best, joining the ranks of such middle-tier MCU episodes as Ant-Man, Doctor Strange and most of Phase One.

At the very least, Captain Marvel is relatively fast-paced and fun. The Writer/Director duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck of Half Nelson and Sugar fame try their darndest to spice things up with some weird, non-sequential storytelling pulled straight from the Christopher Nolan screenwriting handbook. In some ways, the zigzagging story helps distract from the fact that there isn’t a whole lot to engage with. It hits all the standard superhero beats, but rarely offers up much inspiration. Since these ‘self-contained’ origin stories tend to fall outside the primary, overarching storyline featuring the characters we’ve come to know and love, they can’t help feeling insignificant in the process.

As Vers, a.k.a. Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Captain Marvel, Brie Larson is...fine. She’s been great in other roles, but with her performance here, I couldn’t shake the vibe that she’s already over the whole Marvel thing. To be fair, the screenplay doesn’t give her a lot to work with. There isn’t much of a reason to invest in Carol’s personal journey because it’s not entirely clear what that journey is. She might be tough, she might be snarky (a little too snarky, if I’m being honest - some of these one-liners are painful), but she’s not very interesting. Maybe it’s the dull ‘I don’t remember who I am’ trope she’s saddled with, or maybe it’s because she’s able to take on every foe with what appears to be minimal struggle, the latter being especially noticeable during the film’s climax when she demonstrates a full mastery of her abilities without much of a learning curve. Whatever the reason, Captain Marvel lacks an engaging arc for its titular character. Lots of people around Carol keep telling her how wonderful she is and why she’s such a powerful person. It would have been nice to see a little more evidence as to why, not just a fifteen-second montage of her getting up at different points in her life to stand in for a total absence of character development.

But let’s be honest. The true star of Captain Marvel is not Brie Larson. It’s Ben Mendelsohn as the film’s villain Talos. As Talos, Mendelsohn is charming, threatening and, for reasons I won’t spoil, incredibly endearing. Talos’ journey in this film is far more captivating than Captain Marvel’s.

Oh, and Goose the cat is great too, know...he’s a cat

Despite the standard plotting, there are some genuine twists and fun surprises as the story plays out that lend Captain Marvel some much-needed flair. I enjoyed the ‘buddy cop’ angle between Captain Marvel and Nick Fury; Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson have solid chemistry and play well off each other. But, as is often the case with these origin MCU entries, the film doesn’t feel the need to do anything more than the bare minimum. The 90s nostalgia gives the film a unique flavor, but the references don’t delve much deeper than the surface. The soundtrack takes great pleasure in milking some of your favorite hits from the decade, but the song selections are a bit on-the-nose. I guess Boden and Fleck are trying to follow the example set by James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, but it never gels in the same way. A particular song choice during one of Captain Marvel’s climactic fight scenes is more cringeworthy than anything else.

Look, Captain Marvel isn’t terrible, but it just feels so run of the mill, giving into the worst inclinations of the MCU’s origin stories. What should have been a unique, standalone entry ends up being little more than a less-than-satisfying appetizer for next month’s main event. The film’s tagline ‘Higher. Further. Faster.’ really should have just been ‘High enough. Far enough. Fast hold you over until Avengers: Endgame.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Creed II - Film Review

Creed II fits the mold of your standard Rocky sequel. That is to say it’s bigger, louder and much, much dumber. You’ll be able to predict nearly every move it has up its sleeve because we’ve seen this movie a dozen times already. The carefully crafted, grounded aesthetic of writer/director Ryan Coogler’s Creed has been replaced with the hokey dialogue and bombast found in the series’ weaker entries. If Rocky Balboa and Creed I redeemed this franchise from the abyss Rocky IV and V created, Creed II is the start of its descent down the same path that led to its needing redemption in the first place.

Creed II kicks off in high energy fashion with Adonis winning the title of Heavyweight Champion of the World under the tutelage of his mentor Rocky Balboa. Things are still great with his girlfriend Bianca. He’s just proposed to her and they’re about to have their first child. But then along comes Ivan Drago, the evil, one-liner spouting Russian who killed Adonis’ father in Rocky IV. Drago has been training his son Viktor for a match against Adonis, an attempt to regain his former glory in Mother Russia, a glory lost when Rocky defeated him back in 1985. Naturally, Adonis jumps at the opportunity to avenge his father’s death, but his cocky, headstrong nature estranges him from his friends and family. When Rocky refuses to support Adonis’ decision to fight, Adonis decides to go it alone. You can pretty much figure out what happens from here. Think Rocky III, but without Mr. T or Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger. So basically, way less entertaining.

Creed II suggests some interesting ideas, but never bothers exploring any of them to their fullest potential. Everything about it feels pronounced and obvious, following the well-worn path of superior entries. The screenplay, crafted by Sylvester Stallone and Juel Taylor, is subpar, saddling this otherwise talented cast with some truly embarrassing dialogue. Performances suffer as a result. As Adonis, Michael B. Jordan is still as likable as ever, packing the role with every ounce of emotion he can muster, but the character isn’t given a worthwhile drive this time around. The same goes for Tessa Mae Thompson, who the screenwriters struggle to give anything worthwhile to do. A particular attempt during the film’s climactic showdown to have her be more involved is just as embarrassing as anything you’d find in Rocky IV or V. Stallone himself mumbles and stumbles through the role that made him a star forty years ago. It’s difficult not to love Rocky, but the character is reduced to being the standard mentor, spouting lines of wisdom when needed and the angle is already starting to get old.

Perhaps the biggest casualty is the Drago father/son storyline. Dolph Lundgren isn't given much more to do aside from scowl and repeat his best lines from Rocky IV. Florian Munteanu follows suit, throwing in some quizzical looks and emotional outbursts for good measure. Their relationship reaches a surprising and touching conclusion, but it comes out of nowhere and doesn't feel earned, undermining the whole thing.

None of this is helped by newcomer Stephen Caple Jr.’s direction. Caple Jr. had a tough act to follow, and he does an admirable job stepping up to the task, but his directorial stylings feel more pronounced and far less refined. His creative choices are bland and obvious, calling attention to themselves in all the wrong ways. This applies not only to the cinematography and color palette, which is more extreme and stylized, but to the sound design as well, which is extremely odd in places. For instance, there’s a scene in which Bianca and Adonis' mother Mary Anne sit in Mary Anne’s living room and have a conversation about Adonis’ struggles. This is intercut with Adonis training in a swimming pool in a completely different location. The conversation between his mother and Bianca plays over the soundtrack and, for some reason, every time Adonis submerges, the audio becomes muffled as if he’s hearing it from underwater. But they’re not in the same location and he can’t hear them, so why does this happen? I guess because Caple Jr. thought it sounded cool, even though it’s completely unmotivated in any creative sense. It feels amateurish, like a film student showing off without any justification for doing so. The fight scenes and training montage have a spark of life, but you can always expect as much from these movies. Even Rocky V had a decent training montage. Nothing about Creed II pulses with the same life as Coogler’s previous effort.

The story simply isn't up to snuff. There’s no emotional drive. It’s all about the fight, which is never a good sign for a Rocky movie. The best films in this series were never about the fight, not really. The first Rocky is a love story about two lonely people who desperately need one another in order to feel their lives are worthwhile. In that film, the fight is an extension of Rocky’s internal journey with the character striving not to win, but to prove to himself that he isn’t just some bum, that he can stand toe to toe with the greatest and hold his own. These themes are reflected in Rocky Balboa and Creed I; it’s why they’re so compelling and engaging and, in my not so humble opinion, the best this series has to offer.

And what do all these movies have in common? The main character loses the fight. This presents a dilemma for any sequel. What angle is left except for the main character to win? And if winning the fight is the main thing driving everything that happens, it’s not nearly as interesting. Every other Rocky sequel is about besting bigger and badder opponents to the point where it descended into cartoon territory. Creed II follows suit, and if you think my bringing this up is at all spoiling Creed II’s ultimate outcome, you clearly haven’t seen one of these movies.

It all boils down to this: Creed I was made because a talented filmmaker had something meaningful he wanted to say. Creed II was made because Creed I made money. Might I suggest throwing in the towel before things get any worse?

Here's how I'd rank the series overall:

  1. Rocky
  2. Creed
  3. Rocky Balboa
  4. Rocky III
  5. Rocky II
  6. Creed II
  7. Rocky IV
  8. Rocky V

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald - Film Review

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is the cinematic equivalent of a rainy day: it’s cold and grey and it made me long for a nap. Now let’s be clear, I do enjoy watching a rainy day from time to time, but I’d prefer to watch from inside with a warm drink in hand and a pair of pink, fluffy slippers on my feet. (Yes, they have to be pink, and yes, they have to be fluffy.) The Crimes of Grindelwald isn’t something I appreciated watching, nor is it pink or fluffy. In fact, this movie is more like being stuck outside in the downpour, ruining my pink, fluffy slippers in the process. This is something I cannot forgive.

This is all to say that The Crimes of Grindelwald, which from here on out I will refer to by its acronym ‘CoG,’ a fitting descriptor as these movies aren’t so much interested in telling a story as they are in serving as a cog in Warner Bros’ money making machine, is a miserable viewing experience and further indication that this prequel series is in dire need of a revamping or, better yet, a complete dismantling.

Just so you know where we stand, I wasn’t a fan of the first Fantastic Beasts either. In my review, I called it ‘a plodding, tonally inconsistent mess’ and noted the glaring absence of either an involving storyline or compelling characters. Those complaints apply tenfold to CoG. At every turn, author turned screenwriter J.K. Rowling fails to craft a compelling story from a number of disparate pieces. Remember when Warner Bros. announced this new series and Rowling stated it wouldn’t be a sequel or a prequel to the Harry Potter series? My guess is Rowling originally wanted to tell a fun, standalone story, but Warner Bros. got greedy and forced her to connect this series more explicitly to Harry Potter, hence the awkward, jumbled storytelling and clashing tones. CoG feels like a whole lot of filler and you feel the strain of Warner Bros’ decision to turn Fantastic Beasts from a trilogy into a five-film series every step of the way. Did we really need to know Nagini’s origin story? No. No, we didn’t, but for some reason it’s included here and it’s just as pointless as you’d imagine.

Rowling throws multiple plotlines, characters and Potter references into the mix, but despite the overwhelming amount of things on screen, nothing seems to actually happen. Everything in CoG is disconnected, every character motivation is independent of what seems intended as the driving story. Most of the film’s runtime consists of stern, serious looking characters sitting in bland, nondescript rooms, wearing bland, nondescript outfits and talking and talking and talking. There’s a lot of talk of Grindelwald leading his followers into battle against the wizarding community and a great deal of discussion regarding the true identity of Credence (Ezra Miller), which seems to be a topic of large concern. Maybe all this would matter more if Rowling gave more attention to the characters most directly affected by and involved with the story, but for some reason she opts instead to focus on Newt and his companions, making them the primary players even though they have very little, if any, personal connection to what happens here. The story functions outside of their involvement, making it all the more apparent how little they matter in the grand scheme of things.

It would help if these characters were likable in the slightest, but they’re not. They’re as bland as the oddly colorless Paris portrayed in the film. Eddie Redmayne continues to play Newt Scamander as emotionally disconnected from everything and everyone around. He’s incapable of making eye contact with anyone, and I’m not sure if Redmayne intended to portray Newt as if he’s on the spectrum, but that’s exactly how it comes across. This would be fine, except it has zero bearing on anything that happens in the story and isn’t reflected in the script or the way other characters interact with him. Newt lacks a compelling motivation and his general disinterest in everything happening makes the prospect of following his character through three more films extremely unappealing.

The supporting cast returns too, though they aren’t given much to do except stand on the sidelines. As Newt’s best friend Jacob Kowalski, Dan Fogler flails about, making odd noises and giggling at random moments, which I guess is supposed to be funny? Katherine Waterston looks like she’s either on the verge of tears or in need of a decent nap. Probably both. She and Newt are supposed to be madly in love, but there’s a glaring absence of chemistry between them. And then there’s Alison Sudol’s Queenie, who is saddled with one of the film’s more nonsensical character arcs. To her credit, Sudol gives it her all, but it doesn’t make it feel any less ridiculous.

The new characters don’t fare much better. The most prominent is Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz). She and Newt have some kind of past relationship that’s barely hinted at and for some reason she’s decided to marry Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner). There’s no explanation as to why this is, though, to be fair, an explanation probably wouldn’t make me care anyway, so why bother? There’s also Johnny Depp’s take on big baddie Grindelwald. He’s weird in his special Johnny Depp way, but he makes a minimal impression. To be fair, Rowling’s screenplay doesn’t give him much to do, so it’s not entirely his fault, but having him in this role still seems like an odd misstep.

And then there’s Jude Law’s performance as Albus Dumbledore, which provides the only genuine spark of life in this entire enterprise. (It’s a toss-up between him and that adorable cat-dragon thing) Even with his limited screen time, it’s clear Law is the right man for the job. The brief time we spend with him, which includes a stop-in at Hogwarts, is the only time the film manages to conjure up any magic or delight. This has more to do with the familiar setting and elements than the storytelling itself. The soundtrack takes great delight in recycling the soaring Harry Potter theme in this moment and it’s a sad reminder of the days when this franchise was something to celebrate. More and more, this series is shaping up as an epic showdown between Dumbledore and Grindelwald. When CoG focuses on these characters and their relationship, it manages to find its footing, however wobbly it might be. Why, then, does Rowling and co. insist on bothering with the story of Newt and his blank slate companions? They are by far the weakest element of these films and, seeing as how they have so little bearing on what happens in these stories, the easiest to jettison.

Now. Let’s talk about David Yates, shall we?

Watching Yates come into his own as a director during the latter half of the Harry Potter series was a delight. With each entry, he became more and more confident as a director, peaking with his work on Deathly Hallows. With Fantastic Beasts, it’s the complete opposite experience. We’re watching the disintegration of Yates’ talents as a filmmaker. The ability to construct a coherent narrative or frame a shot with even a touch of inspiration is long gone; his action sequences are borderline incoherent and he demonstrates such a lack of understanding regarding the basic principles of visual storytelling you can never tell what’s happening.

To make matters worse, Mark Day’s editing hasn’t improved either. Following Yates’ example, Day continues to demonstrate a seeming disregard for the basic rules on how to string scenes together in a way that makes a modicum of sense. One moment characters are talking in a room, the next, they’re standing in a completely different location with no logical connection as to how they got there. This happens CONSTANTLY, and yes, I need to use CAPS to emphasize how bad it is. That’s what CoG has reduced me to.

To be clear, this isn’t storytelling. It’s placeholding. And sure, you could blame the original Harry Potter series of doing the same, but at least with those we were spending time with characters we loved and there was a semblance of excitement and magic, that it was all leading to a worthwhile conclusion. Fantastic Beasts has nothing to offer except the threat of three more movies, and that may be the greatest crime of all.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Mission: Impossible - Fallout - Film Review

I’ll be honest: this is one of the toughest reviews I’ve ever had to write. The urge to just type ‘WOW’ in all caps over and over again is proving difficult to overcome. I’ll do my best to give you, the ever-supportive reading public, a critique worth your time. This is my mission, should I choose to accept it. Let’s hope I don’t self-destruct in five seconds.

Are there any film franchises out there that can claim their sixth entry as their best? Over the past two decades, Mission: Impossible has proven the rare example of a series that gets better and better as it goes along. With Ghost Protocol, director Brad Bird infused it with new life and now, with Fallout, returning writer/director Christopher McQuarrie and producer/star Tom Cruise have raised the bar for the action genre as a whole. They should have just called it Mission: Impossible - Standout. 

At the film’s outset, things are grim for the IMF (That’s Impossible Mission Force, for you uneducated heathens out there). Ethan Hunt and his team are tasked with intercepting three plutonium cores in order to ensure they don’t fall into the wrong hands. Naturally, things go awry when Hunt makes a split decision that saves the lives of his friends but costs them the plutonium. It ends up getting snagged by The Apostles, a sinister organization comprised of members from the now defunct Syndicate group, which was dismantled in Rogue Nation. It’s up to Hunt and his team to recover the plutonium before The Apostles can utilize it for their nefarious purposes. You know, world domination, explosions, chaos and mass destruction - all that standard bad guy stuff.

From the get-go, Fallout contains a welcome element of grim intensity previous entries in this series have lacked. That’s not to say those films weren’t effective or that Fallout is all doom and gloom. It’s just that McQuarrie, the only director to return for a second Mission, has done an excellent job crafting a stronger set of stakes this time around, upping the ante and making the resulting thrills all the more potent. But while Fallout may have more of an edge than McQuarrie’s previous effort Rogue Nation, its fun quotient is still off the charts, managing to top Rogue Nation’s highest highs with ease. All other puny action movies are left to sputter in the dust. 

That Fallout is such a successful effort is a pleasant surprise. I’ll admit I wasn’t rooting for McQuarrie’s return following Rogue Nation, which I enjoyed, but found a bit by-the-numbers, especially following Bird’s revitalizing and inventive Ghost Protocol. I’ve also been a fan of this franchise’s revolving door of directors, which gave each entry a unique stylistic stamp. Whatever reservations I had about McQuarrie’s return have been wiped clean by the resulting product. In fact, with Fallout, McQuarrie is elevated to the calibre of Great Action Directors of the 21st Century. There are sequences here that are simply unparalleled, made all the more breathtaking by the knowledge that the majority were done practically. In a cinematic landscape overwhelmed with admittedly awesome but undoubtedly cartoonish computer-generated action, Fallout sets itself apart and we, the audience, are the lucky saps who get to soak in all of these delights from the vantage point of of our (hopefully) comfortable theater seats while we munch away on candy and popcorn.

With one epic set piece after another, the danger is losing sight of the characters and stakes. Somehow, miraculously, Fallout thrives in this area, organically tying in storylines and characters from previous films in a way that enriches the plot, anchoring its intricate, criss-crossing happenings with surprising, but welcome emotional weight. We’ve got the return of all our favorite cast members, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Rebecca Ferguson and Sean Harris, plus an excellent turn from Henry Cavill as August Walker, the brutal assassin with a killer mustache. 

But while the supporting cast is superb and undoubtedly a crucial element regarding this franchise’s success, the star of the show, as always, is Tom Cruise, and God bless his monumental dedication to his craft. In the realm of big-budget action, Cruise is without peer. Throughout Fallout’s two-plus hour runtime, he seems intent on raising the threshold for action stunts so high, no other movie star not named Jackie Chan would dare attempt to match them. That HALO jump sequence? Yeah, that’s Tom Cruise skydiving from an ACTUAL AIRPLANE. That wince-inducing moment where he comes up short in a leap from building to building? Mr. Cruise actually broke his foot when he hit the building wall, delaying the shoot for months. (And yes, they used the actual shot this happened in, including the aftermath in which Cruise limps away like a total BAMF because he knew this was the only take they’d be able to get) And how about that breathtaking helicopter chase scene? Turns out, Cruise learned how to fly a helicopter to make the sequence as believable as possible, performing stunts that would give even the most seasoned stunt pilot pause. Cruise is so devoted to his craft, all you can do is watch in utter shock and delight and cheer him on. Don’t try to fight it. Just let it happen.

If it isn’t already clear, I adored this movie. In a franchise filled with monumental highs and minimal lows (for shame, Mr. Woo), Mission: Impossible - Fallout might just be the best yet. No other summer blockbuster this year comes close. Few action pictures this century come close. Accept this mission with all your being and make sure to buckle up.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Ready Player One - Film Review

A few years ago, my friend Richie recommended I check out Ernest Cline’s debut novel Ready Player One. He described it as a nerdy 80s-loving fanboy’s dream come true. “It’s like someone wrote a book FOR US.” He wasn’t wrong. Cline managed to tap into the 80s nostalgia craze that’s been sweeping the nation as of late (Oh hai, Stranger Things!) and craft a fun, throwaway novel filled to the brim with pop-culture references tailor-made to delight anyone that’s ever played a video game or seen a movie from the prolific decade that gave us the likes of hair metal and leg warmers. But its never-ending supply of movie, music and video game references is piles of icing on a cake that wafer-thin. Take those out and you’re left with little more than a familiar plot with a main character who solves every problem thrown his way without batting an eye. The book’s fine, but it’s not much more than that.

Steven Spielberg’s much-anticipated adaptation could be described the same way. It’s eye-candy bombardment with little-to-no substance. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it far more than I expected. While it doesn’t shy away from filling the frame with countless visual references and familiar characters designed to make you scream and shout, “OH! THAT’S THAT THING I LIKE!” seeing them on-screen versus having them described to you in obnoxious detail makes the experience feel less pandering. The weaknesses inherent to the source material - the simplicity of its story, the predictable emotional beats and the lack of legitimate stakes - hold the film back from being anything more than a decent time at the movies, but at least it's not a slog to get through.

The story takes place in a not-too-distant future where the world has gotten so crummy, the majority of its citizens have taken to spending most of their time in a gargantuan virtual world known as the OASIS. Created by James Halliday, the OASIS is like a cross between the mind-bending acrobatics of The Matrix and the colorful visuals of Tron if both those worlds were centered around fun and games and an ‘anything goes’ mentality. Halliday’s recent death triggered an epic contest where the winner stands to gain full control over the OASIS in addition to a number of other prizes. In order to find this Easter Egg, however, one must first discover three keys Halliday has hidden in his robust virtual world.

Wade Watts is our hero - a 'pure at heart' Halliday aficionado and lover of all things 80s. While he wants to find the keys as much as anyone else, he loves the OASIS more for the adventure and the friends he’s made rather than a desire to win absolute control over everything. When he stumbles on a sinister corporation’s plot to win Halliday’s contest in order to rework and commercialize the OASIS for financial gain, Wade and his friends will stop at nothing to prevent this from happening. 

As Wade, Tye Sheridan is tasked with playing the blandest of bland lead characters. He does an admirable job, instilling Wade with an endearing, nerdy quality that makes him instantly likable. In Cline’s novel, Wade’s constant reference-dropping made him feel like an obnoxious know-it-all. His ability to solve any problem thrown his way killed any potential suspense the story had to offer. Sheridan’s wide-eyed portrayal makes Wade come across as goofy and adorable more than an annoying genius. As depicted on screen, Wade is just a nerdy kid who stumbles on the right answers at the right time with a little help from his friends.

One of these friends (and the obligatory love interest) is Artemis, one of the OASIS’ legendary top players. In Spielberg’s adaptation, Artemis is given a more active role in the story, another wise storytelling decision. Olivia Cooke in the role is one of the film’s highlights. She makes a far more interesting protagonist than Wade. Ben Mendelsohn is appropriately menacing as the film’s primary villain Nolan Sorrento, the head of the evil corporation bent on winning Halliday’s contest and ruling the OASIS. His scenes with T.J. Miller’s i-R0k offer some of the film’s biggest laugh-out-loud moments. Even thought the cast spends most of their time as cartoonish digital avatars, they still do a bang-up job.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Spielberg’s adaptation is its lack of edge, its seeming disinterest in ascending above the rest of the pack to achieve something more memorable. Why attach a filmmaker like Spielberg if you weren’t going to shoot for the stars? His crowd-pleasing, fast-paced sensibilities are on full display, but frankly it feels like this could have been directed by anyone. That special quality Spielberg brings to his best works gets little chance to shine, replaced by one familiar CGI set piece after another.

Ready Player One’s candy-coated sensibilities also prevent the film from developing real-world stakes. When things go wrong in the real world and people die, the consequences are hardly felt by any of the characters. Little excitement is generated beyond the ‘gee-whiz’ thrill of the colorful action and visuals, but there’s hardly any risk It’s not all that dissimilar from the sequences in the OASIS. 

Speaking of which, I have to give credit where credit is due. The OASIS is a visual effects masterwork. The film’s exciting visual moments take place in this digital playing field. I was concerned the switch to the virtual world and reliance on CGI characters would create a disconnect, but it ended up reinforcing the universe all the more and never once took me out of the experience. There are some wonderful visual references and one extended sequence involving a re-creation of iconic scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a particular standout.

It all leads up to your standard, computer-generated BIG BATTLE SEQUENCE that will boggle your senses and leave you completely unmoved, a standard for many blockbusters in this day and age. It concludes with a sappy, hamfisted ‘put down your phones and go outside’ message that seems fitting for the times, but insincere based on what’s come before. (After all, none of these people would have met without the OASIS in the first place.)

Ready Player One won’t ever be mistaken for one of Spielberg’s finest moments, nor do I expect it to be remembered much in the coming years, but it is undoubtedly an enjoyable ride. I’d say I was disappointed it wasn’t anything more than the sum of its parts except I didn’t expect it to be. While it’s undoubtedly an improvement on its source material, it reinforces how little of substance there is to it. If you’re already a fan of the novel, you’ll have a good time; if you just want a fun, fast-paced blockbuster, you should walk away happy. If you want an engaging, involving experience that will blow your mind, you might be off staying home and playing video games instead.