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Movie Review: Glass

Anyone who expected better as a follow-up to Split, well, you get what you deserve. While Glass isn’t quite as terrible as that garbage, this is the proof of the adage that you can add as much mayonnaise as you want to chicken crap, but you’re never going to make chicken salad out of it.

Glass tries to borrow from the good will we have from Shyamalan’s Unbreakable by pitting its protagonist David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and antagonist Elijah “Mr. Glass” (Samuel L. Jackson) against The Horde/The Beast (James McAvoy). At the center of all of this is psychiatrist Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) whose name couldn’t be any more indicative of her place in the movie– to staple the disparate elements together. Shyamalan no doubt thinks that this is “symbolic.” It’s about as deep as the film goes in its symbolism.

On the plus side, the film does have both Willis and Jackson. The film even lifts entire scenes from Unbreakable and puts them in this movie. Unfortunately, we get too little of them– Jackson plays catatonic for fully two-thirds of the movie. Willis just isn’t given that much to do, except to play hero.

They’re also joined by David’s son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) and Elijah’s mother (Charlayne Woodard) reprising their roles from the original cast of Unbreakable, and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) returning from Split. These five actually do their best and are mostly watchable. And that is where the good will for this film ends.

For a movie with so many women in it (and Shyamalan pointing out how he oh-so-progressively gender swapped Staple’s character. . . ugh), it’s amazing that the film still fails to pass the Bechdel test. Every single female character in this movie only serves as an adjunct to male characters.

Those who thought McAvoy was good in Split were and still are wrong. Shyamalan learned nothing from the criticisms of that film and, indeed, doubled down on some of the more problematic elements. Since Shyamalan lifted pieces of Unbreakable and Split into this film, I’m going to do the same with quoting my review of Split and McAvoy’s acting, because nothing has changed:

McAvoy’s performance is also. . . just. . . not good. A lot of what he does makes the audience laugh– and not in a good way. Because we are not laughing at a joke or a funny person. We are laughing at a person suffering from a serious mental disorder. That is not ok. And even if it was, so much of what McAvoy is doing is jarring and borrows from the “Master Thespian” school of scenery-chewing “ACT-ING!!!” McAvoy is better than this. And him as a goat-footed faun or a guy who can bend the path of bullets are more believable. At least X-Men doesn’t pretend its superpowers are anything but myth and fantasy.

He does, however, go hard AF in this movie. Some of the scenes where he becomes The Beast, shot in full daylight instead of being obscured by the darkness of Split, are actually kind of cool. If only this movie made a lick of sense on a narrative or thematic level.

Unbreakable was a good movie. It was a love letter to comic books and posits that our stories of super-heroism are based in reality. Glass adds literally nothing to that except to repeat the conceit several times. I also have a hard time taking any film seriously that wants to talk about comics on the meta level who keeps saying “limited edition” in their dialogue when they mean “limited series.” Unbreakable worked, partially, because the superhero explosion hadn’t happened yet. It was a novelty. Glass plays like no one has touched a comic book since 2000 or the world hasn’t changed. Your insights aren’t new or interesting or unique.

Add to that numerous plot holes and a “twist” ending that isn’t really a twist because you see it coming miles away, and this is just unsatisfying. The movie also teases an ending (with a not-so-subtle Die Hard homage) that it then doesn’t do at all. It’s not misdirection. It’s an excuse to do a smaller-scale finale. And actually, the final showdown is one of the parts of the film that works best, but the tease of something else entirely is just annoying.

It’s clear there’s a market for this schlock because so many people went to see (and apparently enjoyed?!?) Split, and those people deserve this movie the same way people who enjoy eating fast food deserve it too. But it’s objectively terrible and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. The nicest thing I can say about Glass is at least it wasn’t as bad as Split.

1 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Aquaman

Aquaman is a complicated movie. Literally. Its overly complex plot weighs down what otherwise might be an incredibly charming and action-packed film. Like its namesake, it’s also a weird hybrid — not of human and Atlantean, but of what is going to appeal to audiences on both sides of the Pacific. That means spectacular action sequences made for the lowest common denominator between the American heartland and the Chinese mainland. It’s destined to make half a billion dollars — and deservedly so — but more cynical and choosy audiences should maybe gravitate to other films in the crowded holiday-season-cinemascape that includes both Spider-Man and BumblebeeDespite all of that, this is easily the second best film of the DC Extended Universe. That’s not necessarily a compliment.

The film is charming, and we should pause for one moment to sit with that. An Aquaman movie is actually kind of cool. Yes– Aquaman. The charm here lies with stars Jason Momoa and Amber Heard. Momoa is having a lot of fun here, and embraces the film’s camp and hokeyness. He also sells it, helping most audience members swim along with the current. It also doesn’t hurt that in parts of the film he has his shirt off. In an opening scene (shown in the trailers) when he enters a submarine and asks, dripping with ocean water, “Permission to come aboard?” there was an audible gasp and a “Oh, Lordy, yes. Anytime!” in response from the seat behind me. The equal-opportunity-cheesecake here is pretty fun, but does beg a question. . . why does Momoa need to have a shirt on in any of the scenes? (Inquiring minds want to know.)

Heard is the salt and spice to Momoa’s sweetness. Unfortunately relegated to a lot of exposition, having to teach Arthur Curry (and us the audience) about things like Atlantean politics and the overly labyrinthine plot, she has to do more work than anyone else in the cast, but she does it well. And, she does it all while in the most ridiculous outfit and fake-looking wig possible, which is also impressive. Also unfortunately, she and Momoa get set up in the trope of the bickering-will-they-or-won’t-they couple. The romantic payoff in Act III is telegraphed way off, and is also strangely unearned. Despite being weighed down with all of this, Heard actually does a really great job. But so much of her potential is wasted.

But then there’s the villains. Patrick Wilson is serviceable as the angry King Orm / Ocean Master, but there’s not much more to him than he really, really wants that Atlantean throne. It’s Shakespearean, but sorta dumbed down to a lowest common denominator of the big superhero blockbuster.

And then you have Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), whom you could literally erase from the movie and solve a third of its problems. It’s not that the character is bad — he’s actually really cool looking fully decked out with that crazy helmet and shooting lasers from his eyes. It’s just that in a film this complicated, we didn’t need a second villain, and all he does is pad an already overstuffed film.

And can we talk for a second about the scene where he’s building his helmet and Depeche Mode’s “It’s No Good” is playing? What is he, me freshman year crying about my girlfriend breaking up with me? The song, even this new remix, is twenty years out of the zeitgeist and sticks out even worse than if Pitbull sampled Toto’s Africa and put it in the movie to signify they were in the Sahara desert. Oh wait. . .

It’s these kind of schlocky choices that make this movie more the equivalent of cotton candy than anything more substantive. But, that’s also what makes it a sort of great popcorn movie.

Most of the other DCEU movies sort of falter in their third acts with a big brawl against the big bad. In this one, we get our final showdown, but it takes place against the backdrop of an epic underwater battle that takes advantage of the sci-fi epic setting where you can do anything underwater. This is Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Avatar, complete with sea monsters, battle seahorses, and giant underwater ships firing lasers. It’s a little bit silly, but it’s a lot of fun.

It’s that sense of fun that is this movie’s saving grace. Yes, it’s overstuffed, overwrought, and overlong. But it’s essentially director James Wan doing what he has done previously in directing Fast and Furious, Saw, or The Conjuring movies. Ridiculous, over-the-top action somehow works as long as you don’t take it too seriously and let your stars chew up all the scenery they can. But this time– it’s under the sea!

Just like previous films this year like The Meg or Skyscraper, there are very clearly some things here designed for the Asian movie-going audience. Luckily, many of those things are the same things demanded by middlebrow American audiences as they shovel popcorn down their gullets by the buttery fistfuls. Hence, lowest common denominator.

That still makes it one of the best films of the DCEU. While it doesn’t hold a candle to Wonder Woman, at least it feels like these characters are able to have some fun and not be so dark and brooding all the time. Let’s hope they continue that sense of fun into next year’s Shazaam! and our DC characters get some of the movies they deserve.

3 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Aquaman

Aquaman

One of the great joys of reading superhero comics is the eclectic nature of their inspiration. The genre has drawn on everything from pulp fiction to mythology, creating a body of work that is idiosyncratic and often gloriously absurd. Superhero movies, however, have tended to eschew this everything but the kitchen sink approach to present more grounded, realistic visions of the world they are trying to represent.

James Wan’s Aquaman is the first movie I have seen that really felt like reading a comic rather than just watching an adaptation of one. It’s the story of Arthur Curry, the son of an Atlantean queen and a human lighthouse keeper who must claim his birthright to stop his evil half-brother, Orm from becoming Ocean Master and waging a war of vengeance upon the surface world. The plot follows the same sort of meandering structure one would expect of a story being spread across five issues rather than three acts and its influences are pulled from across the cultural landscape including comics, film and mythology.  Wan’s visuals are spectacular presenting us with a lot of old concepts that feel fresh in the new light of his directorial vision. I was never really surprised but I wasn’t bored either. The characters are  archetypal and they fill their roles in the story with a good humor that is missing from more serious movies of this genre while never descending into parody.

Aquaman’s  greatest flaw is that the script itself is weak, relying far too heavily on tired tropes and cliched dialog for its own good. The first forty five minutes are a slog through a morass of set-up and exposition accompanied by some very dodgy CGI that makes several actors look more like cartoons or the victims of an over-enthusiastic plastic surgeon. The performances are mediocre overall though it’s hard to say whether they might have been improved with better material. Jason Momoa and Amber Heard  manage to plow through on shear charisma and almost impossible levels of raw sex appeal but I am forced to admit that Momoa’s range as an actor is limited to playing versions of himself. The comparison has been made to Flash Gordon but Aquamanlacks an actor of Max von Sydow’s talents to lend it weight and one of Brian Blessed’s exuberance to lift it up.  

Aquaman isn’t a great movie. It’s not going to win any Oscars and it may well be largely forgotten a year after its home viewing release. In spite of all its defects however  I enjoyed it more than any other superhero movie I’ve seen this year even if both Black Panther and Infinity War were better made.  Aquaman wears its soul on it’s sleeve and while there are moments where it struggles to stay afloat, it still manages to keep its head above water.

Overall Rating: 8 Recommendation: See

Movie Review: Bumblebee

Bumblebee

On the run in the year of 1987, Bumblebee finds refuge in a junkyard in a small Californian beach town. Charlie, on the cusp of turning 18 and trying to find her place in the world, discovers Bumblebee, battle-scarred and broken.

I’m a big Transformers fan having grown up on the original cartoon, played with the toys, read the comics, and still collect the toys (I stopped playing with them, too complicated now). I’ve been a patient fan watching the Michael Bay relaunched films and their progression down the tubes and attempting to get my enjoyment from the animated releases (some aimed at my demographic and some not). So, going into Bumblebee I, as I usually do, hope for the best and expect the worst. Bumblebee it turns out is the best and what we’ve been waiting for.

All those years ago, before the release of Michael Bay’s first Transformers, Steven Spielberg described the concept as “a boy and his car.” That’s not what was released but 11 years later we finally get that vision courtesy of director Travis Knight and writer Christina Hodson.

The duo of creatives have taken some of the best concepts of the original Transformers Generation 1 (ie the cartoon) and infused it with kids classics like ET and Iron Giant.

At its heart, Bumblee is about family. Hailee Steinfeld stars as Charlie Watson who is struggling after her father has passed away and her mother has found a new boyfriend (assuming that they’re not married, it’s never really said) and her brother has accepted the new family dynamic. Charlie is also turning 18 and doesn’t fit in with the kids in her school. She’s rocking 80s to the California bright pop 80s around her. She doesn’t fit in. Enter Bumblebee who has escaped Cybertron to hide out on Earth, protect it from Decepticons, and begin a new beachhead in the Autobot resistance.

Bumblebee has come to Earth after an opening that’s everything fans of the original Transformers have wanted. With designs hearkening back to those designs, it’s a who’s who battle on Cybertron as the planet falls to the Decepticons and the Autobots abandon the planet realizing it’s lost. The opening is a flag in the ground to forget the five live action films that have come before. This one has more in common with the cartoons.

Bumblebee is lost on Earth. Separated from his fellow Autobots, he’s more ET than anything else. A military is pursuing him, he’s scared, lost, and afraid. Knight and Hodson have made sure to focus on the heart of it all, emphasizing this is a story of two outcasts coming together in friendship and forming a new family in a way.

The conflict is both Decepticons who are in pursuit of Bumblebee and the US military who mistaken him for an enemy after a series of mistakes. The film falls into tropes in a way but delivers them in such a way it feels more of an homage at times to films that have come before than anything else. The idyllic suburban homes remind us of a certain setting for an alien who also wanted to phone home, including the lock down of the home due to the threat. The pursuit of the military and want by the military to use these aliens as weapons reminds us of another animated robot film.

The film is an homage in a way diving deep into its 80s setting in both movies it winks at and everything we see. There’s cassettes, old televisions, the music, so much will take you back and that includes the robots themselves.

Is any of the film new? No, not really. What we see on screen is nothing new but it’s done at a level that’s so good, we can forget that and just enjoy the fun. And that’s exactly what the film is, fun. It never forgets what it is and pokes fun at itself (with John Cena delivering one of the best lines as far as that). It also has a lot of heart as well. And that’s where the film soars. There’s touching moments, just like those classic films. The family dynamic, the situations presented, they’re all something we can relate to. There’s something here for everyone to see themselves in.

A lot has to do with the casting who beyond Steinfeld and Cena include the underrated Pamela Adlon as Steinfeld’s mother, Jorge Lendeborg, Jr. as Memo, the love interest for Steinfeld, Jason Drucker as her younger brother Otis, and Stephen Schnelder as her mother’s new love interest. They’re the main humans and behind the scene there’s an impressive voice cast that includes Dylan O’Brien as Bumblebee and Justin Theroux, Angela Bassett, Peter Cullen, and more. The list of Transformers present is long and fans will go wild trying to see them all. But, it’s the humans that bring the film down to a level we can relate to a grounds it in so many ways.

Bumblebee is one of the best blockbusters of the year and an unexpected triumph. It’s everything we’ve wanted in a Transformers film and shows how off the mark the original five were and are. This screams Spielberg in both its plot and its heart. It’s one of the best family films of the year and hopefully the start of something special going forward.

Overall Rating: 8 out of 10

Movie Review: Welcome to Marwen

It’s taken a long time to find the perfect dramatic role for Steve Carell, but this is it. Playing real-life comic book artist Mark Hogancamp dealing with the trauma of a vicious hate crime that left him with brain damage so severe he is unable to draw, Carell brings a heart and comedy to what might otherwise be an incredibly bleak and depressing film.

Welcome to Marwen mixes live action realism with a Secret Life of Walter Mitty-esque fantasy life where the poseable action figures and dolls he uses in his photographs come to life and act out the inner feelings of his mind. Their setting is the fictional town of Marwen, a Belgian villa in World War II, under seige by Nazis who no matter how many times they kill them, they always come back.

The city is guarded by “Hoagie,” an American pilot who is an avatar for Carell, and a cadre of powerful women who represent the real-life women around him. They’re also besieged by a witch, another manifestation of Mark’s psyche, intent on destroying Hoagie’s happiness.

The best thing about this film is the true to life feeling of the animated action figures. Using highly detailed motion-capture similar to what director Robert Zemeckis previously used in The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol, the Uncanny-Valley-ness of that technology goes away because they are mapped to action figures rather than real people. The resulting animation is like watching a heartfelt, lifelike Robot Chicken.

It’s good that those portions of the film are so light, funny, sometimes over-the-top violent, and entertaining, because the rest of the story is rather bleak and sad. 

The only real complaint with the film is its lack of a seemingly broader message. While we feel a lot of things, we’re not necessarily left with any sense of what that means. Not every film needs to have a meaning, but it feels like this film should maybe have had one. It’s fine as just a nice character study and fun use of visual effects, but that’s all it ends up being. It just feels like it’s missing something and that leave it on only the cusp of greatness.

The film also has some problematic depictions of its female characters. While they are numerous and diverse, all of them only have an existence around Mark and his trauma. It’s like it would almost pass the Bechdel test, except that every conversation is literally about him. The point of this film is not necessarily to be about the agency and lives of other women, but it is still almost 100% focused on only its singular character.

It feels like somewhat of a waste of people like Janelle Monae to show up and only deliver a few lines in service of a white man’s trauma. Leslie Mann is also incredibly good as his across the street neighbor Nicol. Mann, like Carell, is able to work both the comedy and serious sides of the film to an incredible degree. It is one of the best performances of her career.

But this falls short– when you have other incredibly female forward films in theaters right now like Widows or The Favourite, despite being focused on female leads, they do not present their male co-stars with such short shrift.

Hogancamp is a very broken person still dealing with his trauma. So much of this film is working out his post-traumatic stress and trying to find a normal existence. It’s very heartwarming but also very sad depiction what trauma does to people.

We’re very lucky to have this film so beautifully rendered and have Hoagie looking out for us as a testament to survival.

3 out of 5 stars

PS – There is also a documentary Marwencol that also tells the true story of Mark Hogancamp from 2010. It is available to watch on iTunes and Kanopy, which allows you to stream films through your local library.

Movie Review: Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins Returns is the Practically Perfect sequel in almost every way, but it’s potentially pandering to fans. What is almost a beat for beat and scene-by-scene song by song remake of the original, it’s a remake in sequel’s clothing. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

After all, that is essentially what The Force Awakens was for Star Wars. But there are enough differences and updates to keep it fresh and make it fun and new.

Chief among these is its cast. Emily Blunt is Mary Poppins. Period. And the way she puts an extra bit of pizzazz on so much of her delivery helps set this Poppins apart from Julie Andrews’ performance. Blunt’s is a bit more playful and mischievous, but also at the same time more serious and menacing. Julie Andrews’ Poppins was nurturing, Blunt’s Poppins is just straight badass.

Lin-Manuel Miranda as Jack The Lamplighter falls into Dick Van Dyke’s shoes as the “Bert” of this story, and he’s having an incredible amount of fun here. You can tell this is someone who has dreamed of being in a big Disney musical like this his entire life, and he’s soaking up every moment that he can. Unfortunately, just like with Van Dyke, his American accent bites through the attempt at Cockney, exposing a small gap in the performance. When the songs require Miranda to fall into his rap delivery that Hamilton and In the Heights fans are so familiar with, Miranda’s natural timbre and delivery come out and he’s just Lin-Manuel Miranda — not some cockney lamplighter.

The Banks children are also just perfectly adorable. They couldn’t have been better cast if Disney were to have assembled them in a factory somewhere, which I always, in fact, fear that Disney has done. Little Georgie (Joel Dawson) especially is a particularly great find.

And Ben Wishaw and Emily Mortimer are no slouches as the grown-up Jane and Michael Banks either. Wishaw delivers some of the more tender moments of the film, singing about the loss and grief of losing his wife, the children’s mother. It is with this that Mary Poppins Returns sets itself apart from the original. While Mary Poppins (1964) was morally complex, layered, and beautiful, it never sought to delve into something as emotional as loss of a primary family member. The way the film deals with this is endearing and beautiful, and hopefully will be a salve to any children who face this incredible trauma in the future.

The visuals are also phenomenal. Mary Poppins’ first adventure with the children is to get them clean. In an outing in their own bathtub they swim with playful dolphins and through pirate treasure in some of the most beautiful animation that we’ve seen mixed with live action in a long time.

This continues to crop up throughout the film as the children jump into a china dish and go to a circus and face off against a scheming fox (Colin Firth.who plays a symbolic double role here also as the acting head of the bank where Michael works).

Of course this is all filled with the most wonderful of music as well. While maybe not as polished and classic as the Sherman Brothers songs, these new songs from Marc Shaiman (Hairspray) are still incredibly serviceable. many of them take on an edge of vaudeville or the jazz music of the time period, which is a fun touch. As mentioned before, the theme of loss is what sets this apart, and the songs “A Conversation” and “The Place Where Lost Things Go”are particularly heartfelt as they relate to the loss of Michael’s wife/the childrens’ mother. 

While the film really wants to be its own, director Rob Marshall feels like he’s merely mimicking the original film. It is scene for scene, beat-for-beat, song for song an homage, if not a straight rip-off, of the original. There’s also a turn at the end in service to the plot to tie up all loose ends that I personally had a thematic problem with, but for those who don’t necessarily share my very specific views or head canon of the original Mary Poppins, you will likely not even blink at it.

Emily Mortimer is also tragically underutilized. While they make mention of her labour organizing and a nacent possible romance with Jack, these plotlines are somewhat dropped and underdeveloped. It felt like there might have been more there at some point that was cut from early scripts or versions of the film.

The film is also full of engaging cameos. Don’t let anyone spoil them for you, and don’t even look at the soundtrack listing or IMDb, because when some of these folks show up on screen it is just an absolute delight.

This film will surely entertain parents and children young and old for years to come. Beautiful and emotionally resonant, if a little too formulaic to the original, but if you’re a fan of the original 1964 Mary Poppins and don’t mind seeing an updated version of that, this film is absolutely for you. It’s supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

4 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Image result for into the spider verse

Directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman  serve up one of the more unique visual feasts of the holiday film season with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which is the first big animated superhero theatrical film since 1993’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. More importantly, it is the big screen debut of Miles Morales, the Afro-Latino teenager who succeeded Peter Parker as Spider-Man in Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli’s (Who is credited as an animator on the film.) 2011 Ultimate Comics Spider-Man series and is still Spider-Man in the mainstream Marvel Universe. The film chronicles Miles’ (voiced by Shameik Moore) origin story as Spider-Man as he teams up with Spider-People from other dimensions, including Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) to fight crime lord the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who has gone from threatening just Hell’s Kitchen to all of the multiverse.

Beginning with a flashing Ben-Day dot take on the traditional Sony/Columbia/Marvel opening credit sequences, Into the Spider-Verse‘s animation style and color palette take center stage. The film’s presentation is an intoxicating blend of 3D animation, pop art, some photorealism (Like in the classroom scenes.), traditional animation, and of course, classic comic book storytelling motifs like sound effects and text boxes. The animators make what would be rote sequences in other films, like interdimensional portals or web slinging, imaginative like using stop motion animation to show when another dimension has crossed over into the main one. In a way, Into the Spider-Verse does remind me of  the great stop motion animation work done by Aardman (Wallace and Gromit) or Laika (Coraline), but with a slick big city sheen that matches the glossy sound quality of the music in Miles’ headphones in the first scene of the movie.

However, writers Rothman and Phil Lord (Co-director of The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street) don’t just rest on the laurels of the engrossing animation style, kick-ass action sequences featuring an inventive riff on a classic Spider-Man villain, and scene stealing voice work from Nicolas Cage’s Spider-Man Noir and Mulaney’s Spider-Ham. They take their time establishing a world where the tropes of Spider-Man and superheroes are well-understood and give Miles himself a compelling heroic journey. 

But it’s not all superhero stuff for Miles. Rothman and Lord spend some time in the film exploring his other interests, like street art and music, and his complicated relationship with his school, Brooklyn Visions and family. Miles would rather stay with his friends and community at Brooklyn Middle instead of going to a charter school, and so he sneaks out and fails quizzes on purpose. He feels a bit awkward at Visions, and this connects with his growing pains as Spider-Man.

And every scene he spends with his dad NYPD officer Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry), mother Rio (Luna Lauren Velez), and uncle Aaron Davis (Mahershala Ali) is to be cherished. Ali and Shameik Moore have an easy chemistry in a pivotal early scene where Uncle Aaron shows Miles the ropes of transforming his emotions into street art. He is a real rock for Miles as he struggles with school, his new powers, and growing up, and Miles is truly at ease around him.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a lot of things. A superhero origin story, a coming of age tale with an unlikely mentor figure, a crazy crossover, and a rare case of visual experimentation in a big studio animated film. (Those Rico Renzi pinks when Spider-Gwen first showed up rocked my world.) Persichetti, Ramsey, Rothman, and Lord also use the film to show the universality of Spider-Man, and that anyone of any race or gender could be under the mask as long as they help the helpless, take responsibility for their actions, persevere in the toughest situations, and maybe make a joke or two.

Overall Rating: 9 out of 10

Movie Review: Green Book

green book posterGreen Book is a relatively simple tail of unlikely people forming a close bond. It’s little formulaic but also incredibly problematic and tropey. However, its two lead actors Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen are undeniably charismatic.

Ali plays Dr. Don Shirley, a classically trained pianist embarking on a road trip that includes stops through the Deep South. Mortenson plays Tony Vallelonga aka Tony Lip, who is hired as his driver and protector of sorts. He is a guy who has grown up in the Bronx and run security at clubs across Manhattan as well as all sorts of low key scams. He is also… er, pretty racist and so is his big Italian family.

The film isn’t shy about its social agenda, showing the unfairness of a segregated South and all of the indignity that Dr. Shirley has to suffer through. But the problem is the point of view character for us is Tony Lip, and we’re still learning in 2018 that racism is. . . *gasp* bad? and still exists! *double gasp*

Well straightforward and easy to follow, it’s a tad long. The “odd couple” pairing works for the most part, though it’s very surface level. Luckily the actors so completely melt into their roles that it makes it all together enjoyable to watch.

With a not-so-subtle subtext of them having to get home from their tour Before Christmas, this is aimed directly at the heart of holiday moviegoers and Oscar voters. Both should find some of what they’re looking for here, but this is nowhere near as interesting as other similarly themed recent films such as Hidden Figures.

Despite this, the film has rightfully been criticized for its “white savior” narrative. While it might be funny or interesting for the streetsmart Tony to teach the fastidious musical impresario various things from how to eat fried chicken to who the popular black artists are on the radio, it really feels weird. I mean, some mook from the Bronx is teaching one of the country’s greatest musical talents “how to be black”? Yeah, not here for this. Also, Shirley’s family has weighed in saying that these things are complete fabrications. Strike One.

Then there’s the question of why Dr. Shirley would tour through the South and play such normally segregated venues. [Spoiler alert: skip to end of the paragraph if you don’t want to know] Near the end of the film, one of Dr. Shirley’s bandmates tells a story of how Nat King Cole played one of the same venues a decade before and after the show was taken out back and beaten. I’m left asking myself, “Why am I not watching that movie?” Strike Two.

And then there’s the not-so-subtle message. Racism is bad. We get it. Segregation is bad. However, in the hamfisted way this film is delivered, it pretends that it’s only the overt racism that is our nation’s great moral deficit. Well, since we don’t have Jim Crow anymore and Jay-Z and Beyonce can stay in any hotel, shop in any store, play at any venue that racism is over. That’s a deeply false statement. And the fact that a movie like Green Book can be made and be seen as racially progressive (“Compared to what?”) when it fails to address so many other subtle forms of racism is, if not a step backwards, at least a jog in place. Ok, maybe not Strike Three, but that’s a couple of fouls into the stands.

In essence, this movie is a perfect film for any number of white liberals. They’re not racist, per se, but not “woke” either. They’re the people who will casually say “All Lives Matter” and who think racism ended after we passed the Voting Rights Act. They’re the family from Get Out. 

All that being said, Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortenson really are spectacular. Even though their schtick can run thin at times, and even though the film’s message has the subtlety of a sledgehammer, it’s still enjoyable to watch.

3 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Grindewald posterFans of the Potterverse can rejoice: you have a great sequel on your hands. While the first Fantastic Beasts seemed more concerned with worldbuilding and funny side-business, this second act of a planned five Fantastic Beasts films goes deeper and darker than we’ve ever gone before. The adage goes that in act 1, you introduce characters; act 2, dig a giant pit and throw them in; act 3, get them out. This is a deep, dark wizarding pit and definitely in my top 3 favorite Potterverse films.

From the get-go, it hits you with a fierce intensity. An opening scene re-introducing our villain Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) and a subsequent jailbreak have more action crammed into the first ten minutes than the entire first film combined.

We also get continued beautiful character development of our hero Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he is recruited by Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) to try to track the escaped Grindelwald down. Grindelwald is obsessed with finding Credence (Ezra Miller), who against all odds survived the confrontation at the end of the first film and is now hiding in Paris. Dumbledore is hiding a mystery of why he won’t move against the dark wizard himself, but fears the Ministry of Magic’s Auror office, headed by Newt’s brother Theseus, and their heavyhanded tactics will play into Grindelwald’s plans.

There’s another wrinkle, as Theseus is set to marry fellow Auror Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) who was a Hogwarts girlfriend of Newt’s in the perfect Hufflepuff-Slytherin relationship the fandom has always wanted. Newt, however, is still in love with American Auror Tina who is also in Paris searching for Credence and Grindelwald. So when her sister Queenie and now-fiance Jacob Kowalski show up on Newt’s doorstep, they all head to Paris searching for each other, for Credence, for Grindelwald.

Everybody get that? Sorry, it’s complicated.

The plot is more layered and delicate than a perfect french pastry. Even better, the characters and their arcs also feed in to the broader themes of the film. A big part of this is also about accepting and loving people because of, not just in spite of, their differences.  Expanding the main quartet from the first film to six by adding in Theseus and Leta is a brilliant move that is executed flawlessly. You have a half dozen people who are so incredibly different from each other and they all love one another in very different ways. Whether related by blood or not, they are like family. And so much of Credence’s story — despite him being the macguffin for this story — is very much about his own search for meaning and who his family is.

There’s also great commentary woven in here about how we co-exist with one another. A major plot point revolves around the legality or acceptance of marriage between the magic world and the non-magic world. There’s a complex morality about whether maybe wizards and witches should reveal themselves to the human world in an attempt to help the humans? Or just outright rule them. And ultimately identity and who we love is the main focus of this film. It is heartbreaking on multiple levels.

You also have Dumbeldore and Grindelwald as these perfect foils for one another. While not mentioned in the film, it would be worthwhile to review their early relationship around searching for The Deathly Hallows and the fateful three-way duel between them and Albus’s brother Aberforth which resulted in the death of their sister. (Note that all of those events take place several years before the first Fantastic Beasts film– you’ll want to get your timeline straight when you see this.)

The film also delivers a climax of epic proportions. When I compare this to the artistry and moral stakes of the finale of The Empire Strikes Back, I do not invoke that comparison lightly, but it is the best analog to what we have in this film. There are emotional stakes. There are plot twists. Bring tissues.

Sounds pretty amazing, right? It is. But the film has some other, er. . . problematic areas.

The first is the casting of Claudia Kim as Nagini. In later films/books, we know Nagini becomes Voldemort’s pet/horcrux, and fans have (rightfully) pointed out the racism in casting a Korean actress as a character who later becomes a pet. Rowling also caught justifiable flak for defending her choice saying:

Yikes. Koreans are not Indonesian, Chinese, Javanese, or Betawi. Ok, so this is hella problematic.

Here’s the deal, though: Claudia Kim in this movie is magic– no pun intended. She gives one of the best performances of the movie. Her character is a strong woman with agency, morals, and a personal story arc. She can also transform into a snake and is Credence’s best friend. It’s actually really terrible that she has to be Nagini and not just some other unnamed Maledictus, as she was originally listed in the casting. This is, of course, a problem endemic to prequels.

The other giant glaring problem with this movie is Johnny Depp. I don’t care what you think of Depp as a person or as an actor. But he is garbage in this movie. I haven’t seen someone so clearly just picking up a paycheck and not expending any effort since…  well, Johnny Depp in the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I haven’t seen a character so grating and unappealing in a tentpole franchise film since… well, Johnny Depp in the last Alice in Wonderland movie. He is terrible, and Warner Bros need to cut their losses and recast him for the inevitable (and well-deserved!) sequel. He’s a distraction every time he’s on screen, because he is expending so little effort that it’s simply, “Look! Johnny Depp in a platinum wig!”

The film’s saving grace is he isn’t in it very much despite being the title character. The downside is, this character deserves better. Here’s the real deal: Grindelwald has a point. Like Thanos, like Erik Killmonger, like the best baddies of 2018, he is a villain whose logic is sound, whose grievances are real, but whose methods are immeasurably unconscionable.

This is otherwise a near-perfect film– easily the equal of an Infinity War. But Johnny Depp’s magic spell he casts on this film is to drag it down by an entire star just by himself. In a cruel twist of either irony or tonedeaf marketing, most prints are being paired with the trailer for Aquaman starring Amber Heard as Mera. If there is any sense of cosmic justice, Aquaman will kick Grindelwald’s butt at the box office and Warner Bros may wise up that, hey, maybe having Depp star in our tentpole franchise is a bad idea.

Just sort of expend as little effort as possible in paying attention to Depp– at least as little as he is expending in performing– and try to enjoy the film pretending he is replaced by, oh, say, Christopher Plummer– just kidding. But seriously– Ewan MacGregor. Or Russell Crowe. Or Javier Bardem. Or Paul Bettany.

If you can do that, you will absolutely fall in love with this film. It raises the stakes, dashes expectations, and leaves you wanting more. Bring on the third Fantastic Beasts movie — and look for a spoiler-filled article from me later about why Newt Scamander is the hero we all need for 2018.

4 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Ralph Breaks the Internet

ralph breaks the internetRalph Breaks the Internet may not be as good as the original, but it still has the same heart that its predecessor did. It takes a while to find its bearings, but when it lays in to making fun of internet culture and fellow Disney properties, it becomes an amazing thing to watch. And down deep, there’s a great story about friendship… and insecurities.

It’s been 6 years since the events of our first film, and everything is exactly as we last saw it. Wreck-It Ralph (John C Reilly) and Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) are still best friends. But while Ralph is enjoying the routine of his life, Vanellope wants more. She’s tired of racing around the same tracks over and over. And so, when Wi-Fi is installed in the arcade, Ralph and Vanellope find themselves scouring the internet for a part to fix the Sugar Rush game.

Of course, then they find themselves without the money to purchase what they need and find themselves at the mercy of the very strange economy of the internet. This is where the film takes off as they visit various locales trying to make some money. This includes a Grand Theft Auto / Twisted Metal type online racing game, where they encounter a racer played to perfection by Gal Gadot. I know this is weird to say about a 30-something and a 10-year old, but you really sort of ‘ship her with Vanellope. Friendship, of course! *wink*

Speaking of great new characters, we also get to meet “Yes,” (Taraji P Henson) the algorithm behind a Buzzfeed/YouTube type site. The film endlessly skewers internet trends and viral videos, which not only makes for a lot of fun but also some wry commentary on what it is we do for entertainment online.

But the absolute breakout scene of the film (Minor spoiler, but an early version of this scene was shown at Comic Con, so this shouldn’t be news to anyone) is Vanellope learning that she is now one of the Disney princesses.  Not only is this the best scene in the film, but they went to the lengths of getting as many of the original voice actors for each of the Disney princesses as possible. It’s also a great commentary on the tropes of Princessdom. Oh, and while in the Disney area, they make fun of Star Wars. A lot. It’s perfect.

What ends up working the most about this film is that it is driven by these two characters who we as the audience can see are drifting apart and want different things. We also see them making bad choices in how they communicate with one another about their wants and insecurities, which makes them drift even further apart. it’s a great introspection on friends and friendship and friends drifting apart.

The only downside of this is I’m not sure kids will buy into this message. It feels much more like an adult conversation about insecurities and why it’s hard to maintain adult friendships, whereas kids just make friends because they’re into the same stuff and in close proximity to one another.

The other downside of the film is it’s not clear if this will keep the same classic vibe that the original Wreck-It Ralph did. By being very comfortably retro, it set itself apart as being sort of a film placed outside of time: thanks to nostalgia for classic 8-but arcade games, it already has a classic feel before it’s even made.

This film trades in that classic vibe for such current and prescient content/memes as Fortnite dances, and it’s unclear what cultural impact (if any?) this will have several years from now. Then again, you might have said the same thing about Q-bert or Street Fighter, and we still have all of those characters in Wreck-It Ralph.

One thing writer-director Rich Moore knows is comedy. As a veteran of The Simpsons and writer/director of some of its most classic early episodes (“Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment” is a personal favorite), he knows how to bring giant belly-laughs and smart satire. All of that is served up here in giant Thanksgiving-sized helpings.

The only problem is the film takes 20 to 30 minutes explaining its newly revised premise until the funny really kicks in. Sequels usually can forgo some basic exposition and cut to the chase, but this has to reset its basic premise before wackiness can ensue. And it doesn’t really hit its stride until that scene where we’re making fun of Disney princesses. It hits that climax about 2/3 of the way through, and rarely approaches the same heights again. It’s really unfortunate, but at the same time, it’s hard to remember a better single scene of any animated film in the past several years. Those five minutes are worth the price of admission alone.

The original Wreck-It Ralph works so well because of its giant heart.

When Ralph embraces that he’s a bad guy and is willing to use his badness to save his new, weird, glitchy friend, we all shed a tiny tear. It’s a beautiful story about broken people finding each other and being ok with not being “perfect” according to everyone else’s standards.

Ralph Breaks the Internet might break your funny bone, but not your heart. It’s missing some of that beautiful magic of the first, but it’s sure to be a crowd-pleaser for families looking for a great time in theaters over the holiday season.

Here’s hoping Disney will green-light a third film where they just make fun of Disney properties.

3.75 out of 5 stars

PS- Be aware there are two after-credits scenes, but neither is a must-see. However, at least one provides more of the meta-humor poking fun at the film and its marketing. They’re worth sticking around to suck the extra marrow out of the film, but if your little kids have to run to the potty and can’t hold it much longer, you won’t miss too much. This isn’t the MCU. . . yet.  Wait a minute. . . Here’s a pitch: Ralph Wrecks the MCU— IN 2024! Crossover with Marvel vs. Capcom! Make it a team-up with Deadpool. BRILLIANT!!! Rich Moore– call me.

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