Movie Review ~ Solo: A Star Wars Story


The Facts
:

Synopsis: During an adventure into a dark criminal underworld, Han Solo meets his future copilot Chewbacca and encounters Lando Calrissian years before joining the Rebellion.

Stars: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Joonas Suotamo, Michael K. Williams, Ian Kenny, Warwick Davis, Clint Howard, Paul Bettany, Jon Favreau

Director: Ron Howard

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 135 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: I was one of the few people that didn’t latch on to 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Most thought it was one of the best (!!) entries in the Star Wars universe but I found it to be a cash-grabbing, gap-filling, problematic undertaking that brought to lax life characters and situations we had heard about in the original trilogy of films. It just didn’t go anywhere for me because it had nowhere to go. We knew what was going to happen so, like Titanic, audiences were waiting around for a couple of hours for the ship to sink.

Like Rogue One, Solo: A Star Wars Story reaches back into galactic history to the origins of Han Solo, the character first portrayed by Harrison Ford. Unfortunately, the same problems of storytelling and purpose existed for me while watching Solo, which, though a marked improvement in pace and plot over Rogue One, still had me struggling with the question of “Why?” Even for a slightly-more-than-casual-fan of the Star Wars series like myself, I kept wondering when the story would take a surprising turn or stake its claim as the original tale it claims to be. Despite some stray sparks of ingenuity, Solo winds up being another strange miss by Lucasfilm that finds itself yet again playing it safe with its cash cow franchise.

Bursting into action before the title is even on the screen, the problems I had with Solo also started pretty early on. For one thing, the cinematography by Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year) is so dark that I half-believed something to be wrong with the projection. Large stretches of the movie are so dim that facial features are fuzzy and action sequences feel like they were filmed inside a dank warehouse that forgot to pay their electric bill. Introduced to wannabe pilot Han (Alden Ehrenreich, Beautiful Creatures) as he wriggles out of a sticky situation with his band of criminals on Corellia, taking his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke, Terminator Genisys) along with him. In the first of several well-staged space chases, Han and Qi’ra attempt to evade capture with Han’s flying skills put to the test. Though Han escapes the planet, Qi’ra isn’t so lucky. Pledging to return to save her, Han joins the Imperial flight academy and gains his last name in the process. Flash forward three years to find Han has been kicked out of the academy and is now a grunt on the ground doing battle.

It’s in the wages of war that the resourceful Han buddies up with a cadre of thieves led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson, Now You See Me 2) and Val (Thandie Newton) but not before almost being torn apart by a muddy Wookie named Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo, Star Wars: The Force Awakens). Befriending the hairy beast, Han and Chewie join Tobias and Val on a mission that sets the stage for a whole new world of trouble and adventure. Along the way Han plays cards with the charming Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover, The Martian) in the hopes of winning his prized ship the Millennium Falcon, avoids a band of mysterious space pirates, and runs afoul of Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany, Avengers: Infinity War) who has a familiar face from Han’s past in his employ. Then there’s Han’s first experience with the Kessel Run, a hyperspace route known for its treacherous tendencies that plays a factor in Han’s later years.

It’s well known that Solo had a bumpy go of it during its production. Original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired when filming was nearly complete and producers brought in Oscar winner Ron Howard (Splash!) to oversee the rest of the process and film additional scenes. There were also rumors certain stars had to work with an acting coach to beef up their likability factor. Strangely, this isn’t unusual for this franchise; in several of the recent Star Wars films (and Rogue One), the director was replaced at some point during filming or just prior to getting underway. Lord/Miller are known for their comedies (21 Jump Street) and Howard couldn’t be any different in style as a director – it’s a credit to the film that you can’t always tell where the Lord/Miller material ended and the Howard contributions began.

Where the film falls flat is in the dull script by Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan. Lawrence has a long history with this series, dating back to writing The Empire Strikes Back while Jon is the newbie yet neither bring the type of history or fresh voice that feels necessary. It’s the same dusty triple cross heist tale we’ve seen done before and far better. Only Glover’s memorable Lando and especially Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Goodbye Christopher Robin) as Lando’s wry droid L3 create any real excitement. Both Glover and Waller-Bridge are known for their writing so one wonders what this film could have been had producers colored outside the lines a bit more.

As he has shown in previous roles and especially in Hail, Caesar!, Ehrenreich is an easy-going presence and it’s not hard to see why he was sought out for the role. Strangely, it’s Ehrenreich that was supposed to have needed additional help to increase his matinee-idol appeal and I’m also guessing Clarke benefited greatly from Howard’s more nuanced work with actors. Harrelson is doing his usual grizzled shtick while Bettany feels like he’s played this role multiple times before. The less said about Jon Favreau (Iron Man) voicing a CGI member of Beckett’s group, the better. Bonus points if you spot other key figures from the Star Wars universe who aren’t always playing the characters they are most known for.

I’m sure hardcore fans will find a lot to enjoy here as there are many tidbits discussed in later films that are introduced (yes, you’ll find out how Han gets his blaster) and which likely will cause a ripple of knowing laugher in well-versed crowds. There is a strange abundance of annoying periphery players and it says something when the star of the movie isn’t even one of the Top 3 interesting characters of the film. Personally, I wish the film had reached a bit farther back in Han’s tale instead of starting so late in his game but that would likely be a whole movie unto itself. Aside from a scant few twists and one major head-scratching appearance near the end there’s little here in his first real adventure that hasn’t been seen before.

Movie Review ~ Book Club


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Four lifelong friends have their lives forever changed after reading Fifty Shades of Grey in their monthly book club.

Stars: Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, Andy Garcia, Don Johnson, Alicia Silverstone, Katie Aselton, Wallace Shawn, Richard Dreyfuss, Ed Begley Jr.

Director: Bill Holderman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 104 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: There are some that would say a comedy featuring four multi-award winning actresses of a certain age humorously discovering that “the next chapter is always the best” would be a no-brainer. Turns out they were spot on…Book Club has no brains to speak of. Here’s an aggressively dull, pandering movie that manages to do a disservice to its distinguished actors and an intended audience already woefully underserved. With its tin ear for realistic dialogue and a baffling cluelessness to how humans behave, no clichéd stone is left unturned.

Friends since college, Vivian (Jane Fonda, Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding), Sharon (Candice Bergen, Home Again), Carol (Mary Steenburgen, Parenthood), and Diane (Diane Keaton, And So It Goes) meet for their monthly book club in one of their pristine dwellings. Starting with Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and recently coming off of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, vampy Vivian introduces the ladies to E.L. James’ famous smut tome Fifty Shades of Grey. That’s the first red flag that pops up in the script from Erin Simms (Pete’s Dragon) and director Bill Holderman (A Walk in the Woods). As poorly written as it was, James’ book was a phenomenon and you’d have to be living under a rock to not have heard of it or seen the movies adapted from her trilogy of novels. Aside from Vivian, none of the ladies seems to know much about it and are shocked to discover its titillating scenes of bondage and explicit couplings.

All four ladies are, naturally, having trouble in the romance department and find that the book not so much ignites a newfound lust for life as it influences their choices. Hotelier and notoriously single Vivian runs into a long-lost paramour (Don Johnson, Django Unchained) who might have been the one that got away while federal judge Sharon, still bruised from her divorce, signs up for a dating service and winds up attracting the attention of Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws) and Wallace Shawn (Admission). Carol is finding it difficult to connect with her husband (Craig T. Nelson, Poltergeist) in and out of the bedroom and widowed Diane ventures into a new relationship with a swarthy pilot (Andy Garcia, Jennifer 8) while her children pressure her to move closer to them.

What laughs there are to be had (and trust me, there aren’t many) come, surprisingly, from Bergen who I’ve always found to be a little aloof in films. Here she seems to be having a ball as a high-strung intellectual embarrassed she has to resort to finding a date online. Sadly, the film doesn’t give her a full arc so by the time we’ve gotten into her rhythm with Dreyfuss he’s disappeared, never to be heard from again. There’s even less time spent with Shawn who pops up in for a well-timed cameo but doesn’t get much chance to make an impression.

For my money, far too much time is spent with Fonda’s storyline, which is the most ham-fisted of the bunch. Wearing an awful wig and decked out in one gaudy outfit after another, it’s not hard to see where things are headed for the woman who likes to sleep with men but doesn’t like to “sleep” with them after. Always an underrated commodity in film and television, Steenburgen has nice moments here and there and while her thread is likely the most relatable, by the time the film has her tap dancing to a Meat Loaf song at a talent show you can literally see her working hard to keep up with things.

Then there’s Keaton who, to me, seems like the most natural fit for this type of froth. Sadly, Holderman and Simms make her character such a doormat and allow her children (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton) to take her for granted far too long. (It’s also a mystery to me why there are two daughters when the film only needed one) Keaton coasts through much of the movie on fumes and only comes alive when there’s some physical comedy to execute, if only Holderman and Simms had given her character dimension of any kind.

What kind of message is the movie ultimately sending? A detriment to the film’s credibility is its stupefying lack of diversity. Taking place in present-day Los Angeles (and made on the cheap with a ton of questionable green screen and downright lousy Photoshop), there’s nary a person of color to be seen aside from a few random service workers. Purporting the myth of the white woman fantasy so grossly admired in Nancy Meyers movies with its affluent rich white ladies, Book Club feels completely out of touch and out of step with our society. Even worse, when you get right down to it, every woman in the film needs to be defined by the men they are with.  There’s something uncomfortable about watching that unfold before you.

Book Club is for easy readers only.

Movie Review ~ Deadpool 2


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Foul-mouthed mutant mercenary Wade Wilson (AKA. Deadpool), brings together a team of fellow mutant rogues to protect a young boy of supernatural abilities from the brutal, time-traveling mutant, Cable.

Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Zazie Beetz, Leslie Uggams, Jack Kesy, Shioli Kutsuna, Julian Dennison, Morena Baccarin, Brianna Hildebrand, Stefan Kapicic, Karon Soni, T. J. Miller, Bill Skarsgård, Rob Delaney, Terry Crews

Director: David Leitch

Rated: R

Running Length: 119 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: When Deadpool arrived on the scene in 2016, it sent a much-needed electric charge through the comic book genre that was quickly beginning to grow stale. Proving there was an audience for an R-rated superhero, Deadpool established a new breed of franchise that saluted the foul-mouthed and violent. To date, the copycat factor is low and if anything it’s asked PG-13 audience friendly fare to step up their game and get back to providing entertainment instead of just laying ground for future installments. Now, two years later Deadpool 2 is upon us and it’s poised to create similar sparks.

Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds, Woman in Gold) has settled into life as Deadpool, a mercenary for hire intent on wiping out bad guys and gals in all walks of life as indicated in a prologue that brings us up to speed with his recent exploits in bloody fashion. Living with his love Vanessa (Morena Baccarin, Spy) and thinking about starting a family, Wade is just getting comfortable when everything goes wrong. Thus launches a surprisingly complex story involving time travel and Deadpool’s protection of a young mutant (Julian Dennison) from the Terminator-esque hulk Cable (Josh Brolin, Sicario).

There’s little more I could relay here without giving away major spoilers but if you were a fan of the first film you’ll find an equal amount of fun to be had here. I was worried the success of the wisecracking style in the first movie would result in smart-alecky shenanigans that were too self-aware and sure enough the movie struggles with sincerity out of the gate. In all honesty, the film takes a solid 20 minutes to find its feet and a frenzied bit of opening exposition weighs the film down needlessly. Thankfully, director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde) and screenwriters Rhett Reese (Life), Paul Wernick, and Reynolds himself get these tiresome trapping out of their system early on.

What I continue to appreciate about this series is its willingness to make itself the butt of the joke. There’s a hefty amount of self-referencing gallows humor that works almost every time and enough inside jokes to keep the most pop culturally adept among us satiated. As was the case in the previous film, no superhero is off limits and one of the first gags employed is a hysterical Logan reference that sets the tone perfectly. Keep your eyes and ears open for a cavalcade of digs and dings at everyone from The Avengers to Brad Pitt – the jokes come fast and furious so stay alert.

Another selling point to this film is that it’s unpredictable and not just because it moves so fast you don’t have time to catch up. No, the film actually takes some turns that feel unique and that creates a sense of engagement to keep you on the edge of your seat. As more and more characters join the mix (and, in one laugh out loud diversion, form the basis for X-Force) it can feel overwhelming but it’s clear Reynolds and company know where this clown car of craziness is headed.

The closing credits of Deadpool 2 are alone worth the price of admission – I wouldn’t dream of giving away any of the surprises but I almost felt like standing up and applauding once they were complete. It takes a lot of balls and brains to pull off the feat of living up to a heralded original film and everyone involved in Deadpool 2 meets the challenge head-on. If you can forgive a rocky start (and I’m positive you will) this is one sequel that feels equal.

Movie Review ~ Breaking In


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A woman fights to protect her family during a home invasion.

Stars: Gabrielle Union, Billy Burke, Seth Carr, Ajiona Alexus, Richard Cabral, Levi Meaden, Christa Miller

Director: James McTeigue

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 88 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: There was a time in the early ‘90s when a movie like Breaking In would have gotten a pass as a mediocre mid-level film that might not be fully filling but was a harmless way to spend 88 minutes. Times have changed. Though it arrives with a striking marketing campaign promising “Payback is a Mother” and wants to position itself as a worthy alternative to blockbuster fare like Avengers: Infinity War, Breaking In is a bewildering exercise in all-around clueless filmmaking.

Things start rough as the filmmakers resort to one of the oldest gotcha moments in moviemaking for a brief prologue that introduces and dispatches of a character we never learn much about. Flash forward to Shaun (Gabrielle Union) and her two children Jazz (Ajiona Alexus) and Glover (Seth Carr) traveling to Shaun’s childhood estate to prepare it for sale. With the recent passing of her father, it’s hinted early on there were unresolved issues Shaun is attempting to put to bed once and for all. Arriving at a house equipped with a state of the art security system, the family isn’t there long before the kids are locked inside with a trio of burglars hunting for a money-stocked safe and Shaun has to, you guessed it, break in. What follows is an absurd game of cat-and-mouse that finds Shaun alternately trying to get into the house and then (spoiler alert) trying to get back out.

Working from a flimsy story idea from Jamie Primak Sullivan, screenwriter Ryan Engle (Rampage, The Commuter, Non-Stop) doesn’t have many creative places to go and the result is an exceedingly dull thriller. Though some rules about the security system are established early on, they seem to fly out the door as fast as the toy drone Glover brought along which figures into a few key jump scares. It’s also never clear what the thugs (including Richard Cabral and Levi Meaden, led by the charmless Billy Burke, Lights Out) are doing there in the first place or how much they were involved with the death of Shaun’s father. Attentive listeners might catch a hackneyed roundabout explanation that hints Shaun’s father was a criminal but without any more material to fill these gaps the whole plot stands on incredibly shaky ground.

Director James McTeigue (The Raven) first came to Hollywood with the stylish V for Vendetta but this is grab the money and run filmmaking at its worst. Dimly lit scenes, indistinguishable action sequences, and a general feeling of not knowing where anyone is speaks to the quality of the work with the whole thing feeling like a made-for-Netflix film that lucked out with a theatrical release. Clearly edited down to a PG-13 from an R (how many hardened criminals routinely use ‘frickin’ in their vocabulary?) even the dénouement of some characters are hard to decipher because the camera doesn’t provide any establishing shots or connectivity.

I was honestly looking forward to this mainly because I’m a fan of Union, very much finding her an underrated talent that has yet to latch on to a golden opportunity. While Union tries her best, she’s fighting against a movie that doesn’t have any stamina or guts – so her performance often comes off as out of tune with the rest of the actors and situations. Alexus has an uncanny resemblance to Union and a similar commitment to this dreck, their mother-daughter relationship was the only thing believable in the whole film.

Intentional or not, Cabral (Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones) and Meaden drew major laughs from the audience with their overly earnest performances as polar opposites on the threat scale. With his intense stare and crooked nose, Cabral is intimidating without even speaking while Meaden’s platinum blonde burnout has a doofus quality that humanized him more than Engle’s eye-rolling dialogue ever could. Burke never seems to decide on how to play his big baddie role – one moment he’s the epitome of calm cool sophistication and then next he’s a low-rent gun for hire.

Maybe the worst thing about the movie is how out of touch it feels in this era of #MeToo and similar social causes. There’s two seriously off-color homophobic jokes and a gross misogyny toward Union, Alexus, and poor Christa Miller who turns up halfway through the movie for a sorrowful (and totally unnecessary) cameo. Even more, Union’s character never truly feels like she’s granted the opportunity to take control of the situation. She’s easily caught whenever she tries to run away and always manages to take several hits to the face before escaping again. As a producer of the movie, I can’t help but wonder what Union was thinking letting some of these events play out like they did.

A poor answer to the call for more female empowerment in movies, Breaking In is one you’ll want to get out of as fast as possible.

Movie Review ~ Life of the Party


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After her husband abruptly asks for a divorce, a middle-aged mother returns to college in order to complete her degree.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Gillian Jacobs, Maya Rudolph, Julie Bowen, Matt Walsh, Molly Gordon, Stephen Root, Jacki Weaver, Adria Arjona, Debby Ryan, Luke Benward, Jessie Ennis, Heidi Gardner

Director: Ben Falcone

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: I’ve got good news and bad news for you if you’re considering making a trip to the movies to see Life of the Party this Mother’s Day weekend. The bad news is that most of the jokes have been spoiled for you in the previews, the good news is that the two best jokes haven’t. A semi-refreshing twist on the old fish-out-of-water/parent-going-back-to-school storyline, this isn’t a movie out to reinvent the comedic wheel but it does manage to capably overcome initial tone problems. What results is a sweet, if completely predictable, comedy that has its heart and brain in the right place.

The third collaboration between star Melissa McCarthy and husband Ben Falcone (What to Expect When You’re Expecting), Life of the Party represents the best of their work together so far. Their first outing was 2014’s Tammy, a movie so godawful I don’t permit its name to be uttered in my presence. They bounced back in 2016 with The Boss, which found more humor, less aggravation, and an overall better script. Writing together allows the couple to play off McCarthy’s strengths but continues to show Falcone’s weakness as a director – I’d love to see what another director would do with one of their screenplays.

Frumpy housewife Deanna (McCarthy, Spy) and her husband Dan (Matt Walsh, Into the Storm) have just dropped their daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon, Love the Coopers) off for her last year of college when Dan announces he wants a divorce. He’s fallen in love with a realtor (Julie Bowen) and is selling their house, leaving Deanna without a home or an income. In a surge of confidence, Deanna decides to reenroll at the same college she dropped out of in her senior year 20 years earlier…the college her daughter now attends.

Going back to school to finish her archeology degree, Deanna finds that while the times have changed the people getting the college experience haven’t. There’s still the mean girl (Debby Ryan) who tears down anything she doesn’t deem cool, the parties are drunken ragers, the sorority sisters have the same doubt about their futures, and Deanna’s fear of public speaking hasn’t dissipated over the last two decades. That proves especially hard during the film’s funniest sequence by far, when Deanna has to give an oral presentation that quickly devolves into a sweaty, knee-buckling, nightmare.

Still, a few things in her homecoming to co-ed life catch her off-guard. Unexpected bonding with her daughter tops the list as well as a realization she can reclaim some of the years she feels were spent in a troubled marriage by returning to finish what she started. Then there’s the romance with Jack (Luke Benward), a younger frat boy which takes some surprisingly genuine turns as the movie progresses. Eventually, even with one nice twist involving Jack, the movie works toward its predictable conclusion yet even though you know where it’s all heading it’s not hard in the least to sit back and be entertained.

That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have moments that call for a markdown on the final grade. As is usually the case with these McCarthy/Falcone features, there’s an overabundance of periphery characters that serve no purpose to any of the characters or the story. Usually friends (or family!) of the director and star, these annoying additions pad the running time and bring down some of the solid funny framework that has been created. Even the usually dependable Maya Rudolph (The Way Way Back) is given far too long a leash as Deanna’s friend – I almost wonder what things would have looked like had Rudolph and the tightly wound and miscast Bowen had swapped roles. There’s also at least one too many sorority sisters for my money. And Deanna’s parents (Jacki Weaver, Stoker, and Stephen Root, Trumbo) could have been removed all together and no one would have been the wiser.

You also have to ding the couple for not editing their films better or providing information to fill in large gaps that go unexplained. It’s never clear until far too late how Deanna is paying for college or what hoops she had to jump through to get back to her studies in less than several weeks. Timelines are also fuzzy, with events either happening too close together or too spaced out and, as with most college movies, everyone seems to only go to one class or not attend at all.

Yet the film is getting high marks from me because even with all these nitpicks, there’s a certain whiff of clean air and good intentions that keep this one afloat. McCarthy again carries an entire film on her shoulders and while that might get exhausting after a while she’s got the boundless energy to pull out all the stops when called upon to do so. While she’s never one to shy away from physical stunts, this is another pleasant example of McCarthy’s continued maturing as a performer with her comedy coming from situational happenstance instead of corporeal humor. Whether she’s dancing in ‘80s-inspired couture, trashing a wedding reception, or performing alongside a pop star’s amusing cameo, there’s always a human being underneath it all.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Predator

Synopsis: When a young boy accidentally triggers the universe’s most lethal hunters return to Earth, only a ragtag crew of ex-soldiers and a disgruntled science teacher can prevent the end of the human race.

Release Date: September 14, 2018

Thoughts: The original Predator celebrated its 30th birthday last year and remains a sci-fi genre classic.  While the alien hunter has shown up in several sequels and a two crossovers with the Alien franchise, he hasn’t had a real strong showing since his first outing.  This first look at 2018’s The Predator hints of a retro-tinged early Fall frolic and I’m all for it.  Writer/director Shane Black (Iron Man 3) usually does well in balancing tone with large scale action sequence and there’s been good buzz building for The Predator during its long production phase.  Featuring a strong cast including Jacob Tremblay (Room), Sterling K. Brown (Black Panther), Olivia Munn (X-Men: Apocalypse), Boyd Holbrook (Logan), and Keegan-Michael Key (Tomorrowland) this holds more than a little promise of being the fun sequel this franchise has been sorely needing.

 

Movie Review ~ Avengers: Infinity War


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The Avengers and their allies must be willing to sacrifice all in an attempt to defeat the powerful Thanos before his blitz of devastation and ruin puts an end to the universe.

Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Mackie, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Chadwick Boseman, Sebastian Stan, Don Cheadle, Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, Pom Klementieff, Benedict Cumberbatch, Benedict Wong, Sean Gunn, Tom Holland, Josh Brolin, Idris Elba, Letitia Wright, Danai Gurira, Benicio Del Toro, Karen Gillan, Gwyneth Paltrow, Peter Dinklage

Director: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 156 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: The ultimate villain of Avengers: Infinity War is going to be anyone that spoils what happens in this all-star extravaganza, the culmination of 19 films over 10 years that have made up the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As a true believer in the power of a spoiler-free experience, I’m reluctant to even talk too much about the movie here, lest I give away even a whiff of the game-changing developments worked up by screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. However further you venture to read, know that Avengers: Infinity War may be the first toll of a bell signaling the end of an era but there’s still a few clangs yet to ring out.

With the action picking up two years after the events of Captain America: Civil War, the film wastes no time in diving into the action as big baddie Thanos (Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice) continues his quest to procure six Infinity Stones by any means necessary. With two stones in his possession by the time the title card is displayed, you get the distinct impression that Thanos isn’t going to be defeated easily no matter what brand of superhero gang sets about to stop him. Sending minions to Earth to gather stones protected by Vision (Paul Bettany, Transcendence) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, August: Osage County), Thanos searches for the remaining gems in truly out of this world locations.

If Thanos secures all six stones in his gauntlet he’ll have power over the entire universe and be able to wipe out half the population with the snap of his very large and in charge fingers.   Never fear, though, because according to Marvel there are about 64 main characters featured and while not all of them get as much screen time as you’d think, there is often more than enough action to go around. Markus and McFeely concoct some believable ways to separate the various heroes as they unite to stop Thanos from achieving his goal. Even better, the combos of who is working with whom are surprising and often quite entertaining…but in an effort to maintain some suspense, you’ll have to see the movie to find out who teams up.

With the exception of two notable stars (again…not telling) the gang is all here, down to supporting players that haven’t been seen for a while. Even if A-listers like Gwyneth Paltrow (Thanks for Sharing) get limited screen time it’s nice to see these familiar faces along the way because their appearances act like mini Easter eggs, rewarding the actors as well as devoted audience members. Arriving a little over two months after Black Panther smashed all box office records, it would have been easy to do what Justice League did after the success of Wonder Woman and give a bit more attention to a breakout star like T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, Get on Up) but the filmmakers wisely keep things level.

The main stars that anchor the action are Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr., The Judge), Thor (Chris Hemsworth, Vacation), and Quill (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World) with some nice supporting turns from Captain America (Chris Evans, The Iceman), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher). In hindsight, it feels like the popular Guardians of the Galaxy are favored in the action ever so slightly more than a few of the veteran Avengers but watching the movie in the moment there is a greater feeling of equity. There’s little room for new characters to be introduced and when they are, like Peter Dinklage’s (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) painfully serious but ultimately silly turn, it feels like time is being taken away from the people we want to see.

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo have stuffed this prize package with an abundance of get-your-moneys-worth riches, from eye popping visual effects to spectacularly pitched action sequences. The finale is a showstopper, an all-out blitzkrieg assault that takes place in multiple places with numerous characters and still it’s never hard to follow what’s going on. It takes a special hand to guide these types of action set-pieces and their fourth film for Marvel has the Russo Brothers finding full scale power in their directing. That style in direction marries nicely with Trent Opaloch’s (Elysium) stunning cinematography that isn’t overrun by the dynamite visual effects. Alan Silvestri’s (The Croods) score is, as always, instantly recognizable and eternally heroic.

Do yourself a favor and get your bathroom breaks out before the film starts because at 156 minutes from start to finish it’s a commitment. You can’t afford to miss much, though, so even a well-timed pee break might set you back, especially in the last ten minutes. As with all Marvel movies, it goes without saying that you shouldn’t leave until the final credit has disappeared because there’s only one post-credit scene and it’s at the very end. Missing this one in particular would be a mistake.

The next Avengers movie is set for release in May 2019 and by that time two more Marvel films will have seen the light of day (Ant-Man and the Wasp in July and Captain Marvel in March 2019). Not every question is resolved by the end of Avengers: Infinity War and I’m more than interested to see what gets answered between now and next year…just do yourself a favor and see this one before anyone can spoil what happens. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…or that I let the cat out of the bag either.

 

Marvel Cinematic Universe

Phase One
Iron Man (2008)
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Thor (2011)
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)

Phase Two
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Ant-Man (2015)

Phase Three
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Doctor Strange (2016)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Black Panther (2018)
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Movie Review ~ Rampage (2018)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A primatologist shares an unshakable bond with a silverback gorilla who has been in his care since birth. But a rogue genetic experiment gone awry mutates this gentle ape into a raging creature of enormous size.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Malin Akerman, Jake Lacy, Joe Manganiello, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, P.J. Byrne, Marley Shelton, Breanne Hill, Jack Quaid, Matt Gerald, Jason Liles, Demetrius Grosse, Will Yun Lee

Director: Brad Peyton

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 107 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: We’re at an interesting point in 2018. After emerging from the stuffy cloud of more serious minded Oscar-y fare, we had a January and early February that stirred little interest. Then Black Panther hit and became the kind of audience-uniting game changer we often have to wait far into the year for. With studio hits like Ready Player One and A Quiet Place making bank as well good business being drummed up for indie films such as Isle of Dogs and Chappaquiddick, there was a little something to please everyone if you chose to buy a ticket.

Now along comes Rampage and it seems like we’re all going to have to pick a side again. You’re either going to go along for its silly but entertaining ride or you’ll spend an unusually brisk 107 minutes counting the seconds until your escape. I’m of the mind that you don’t necessarily need to lower your expectations to like what Rampage has to offer, you just have to go in with the right frame of mind. If you do, there’s a good popcorn movie waiting for you.

Honestly, it’s been so long since I’ve played the popular video game that inspired this film that I had forgotten nearly everything about it. What I did remember is spending quite a few quarters to keep the game going, even when it was clearly a futile attempt by an average arcade gamer like myself. It doesn’t really matter how familiar you are with the game, though, because aside from a few key characters and several winking nods to its source material it’s largely a modernized take on the game. Still, fans of the classic monsters should get a kick out of how they are incorporated into the action.

Opening in space with an action sequence that could have been the finale of a previous film, a scientist (Marley Shelton, Decoding Annie Parker) is frantically trying to return to earth with an experimental gene-splicing gas while being hunted by a genetically modified lab rat exposed to the pathogen. Without giving too much away, three of the canisters fall to earth and infect a wolf in Wyoming, an alligator from the Everglades, and an albino gorilla named George living in a California wildlife sanctuary. Lucky for us that the gorilla’s handler is the buff and brainy Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) and he’s pretty protective of his ape pal.

While Davis works with geneticist Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris, Skyfall) and twangy government agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding), a brother and sister (Jake Lacy, Love the Coopers and Malin Ackerman, Rock of Ages) in charge of a Chicago-based bio-engineering initiative (known as Project Rampage) activate a beacon meant to lure the creatures to the heart of the city. A cross-country race ensues as Davis and his crew tries to beat the beasts to their destination while seeking a cure to restore the otherwise kind hearted George to his former self.

If you can’t tell already, the movie is incredibly bonkers but credit should be given to director Brad Peyton (reteaming with Johnson for a third time after San Andreas and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) for getting the right team assembled for this Rampage. Working with four (!!) screenwriters, there’s a bit more meat to the plot bones and I was grateful that the eye-rolling dialogue is kept to a bare minimum. Sure, there are some big plot holes and your brain should be stowed under your seat for the duration of the flight but I found myself more than a little entertained at the various thrills on display.

Few actors today have the “It” factor that made so many stars in the heyday of Hollywood but with each new film released Johnson is proving himself to possess the power of “It”. His good-natured demeanor translates nicely into action superstar when needed and an early career tendency to oversell a line of dialogue has all but vanished. He’s a true A-Lister and I’ve a feeling most people will be lining up for Rampage based solely on his presence alone…and those people will definitely get their money’s worth.

Harris received an Oscar nomination last year for her understated work in Moonlight but she gleefully jumps feet first into this lighter material. While Morgan is the most cartoony of the bunch as a secret agent initially set-up as an antagonist to Johnson, he wisely stops chewing the scenery long enough to let the monsters take center stage. As a smug villainess, cool as ice Ackerman is part of a great visual comeuppance while Lacy is terribly miscast as a nervous sidekick to his more take-charge sister.

Unlike the dull sameness of the monsters in Pacific Rim: Uprising, Rampage has a smaller but more engaging stable of fiends to threaten our main characters. The main beasts are fantastically rendered, from the more realistic George to the zonked out wackiness of the wolf and alligator, both morphing into nightmarish creatures that plow through crowds and buildings in the final act.

There’s quite a few nice action sequences leading up to the battle royale that takes up the last ¼ of the film but I just wish the preview hadn’t revealed quite so much. I won’t get into specifics but there are several great scenes that don’t play as strongly if you’ve seen the trailer more than once. It’s not often a disaster film destroys a less internationally recognizable city like Chicago but having just visited several days before I saw Rampage, it was fun to see some familiar landmarks topple.

Movies adapted from video games often get bad raps, often with just cause (see the recent Tomb Raider for proof) but Rampage has more than a few secret weapons. With Johnson as committed as ever, a plucky ensemble cast of humans and digital monsters, above average CGI effects, and more jump scares and thrills than you might expect going in, you’re not likely to be in a rage when Rampage is over. Just go in with the right attitude, I beg of you.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Meg

Synopsis: When a submersible lies disabled at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, an expert deep sea diver is forced to confront his fears and risk everything on a single question: Could the Carcharadon Megalodon – the largest marine predator that ever existed – still be alive and on the hunt?

Release Date: August 10, 2018

Thoughts: This lover of all things (and movies) related to sharks has been waiting for The Meg for almost twenty years.  Based on Steve Alten’s silly but entertaining beach read MEG, the film rights were snapped up right away but the movie took forever to get off the ground due to its sizable budget.  Warner Brothers (the studio behind Deep Blue Sea, the last decent shark flick released theatrically) finally took the plunge, added a “The” to the title, reworked the plot, wisely partnered with an Asian studio to maximize international box office revenue, and in August we’ll see just how well it all  paid off.  This first look at The Meg has plenty of exciting images but also an unexpectedly comedic slant that I’m not quite sure about.  Based on the tongue-in-cheek feel, Jason Statham (Spy) could be a good fit for the leading man but it’s clear that while this one has Jaws in its veins its not angling to take itself too seriously.

Movie Review ~ Pandas


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the mountains of Sichuan, China, a researcher forms a bond with Qian Qian, a panda who is about to experience nature for the first time.

Stars: Kristen Bell

Director: David Douglas & Drew Fellman

Rated: G

Running Length: 50 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I’ll admit that I have a rather large soft spot for the furry animals at the center of a new IMAX film opening at the MN Zoo. So it’s no wonder that I found myself on a gloomy Monday feeling downright elated watching panda cubs romp around their playground habitat and be a little mischievous as only baby giant pandas can be. More than this base joy that sends the cute quotient right off the charts, Pandas has a engaging story that follows one cub as she matures and gets ready to be released back into the wild.

With the numbers of wild giant pandas starting to dwindle, there is an effort in China to reintroduce cubs born in captivity back into their natural habitat. Most of these cubs have been born to mothers who have only lived in zoos or protected nature preserves so they don’t have anyone to show them how to hone their instincts. Researchers turn to a New Hampshire man who pioneered similar work with black bear cubs for ideas on how to achieve success with the giant panda.

Back in China we’re introduced to Qian Qian (Shin-Shin) who is singled out from her fellow cubs to become the focus of the second half of the movie. We watch her grow and prepare for her journey past the fence that separates her nature preserve from the mountains where pandas roam free. Over several years, her American handler works alongside the Chinese zoologists to ensure Qian Qian is progressing toward her intended release. When she does cross into the unknown, what will happen?

Pleasantly narrated by Kristen Bell (A Bad Moms Christmas), the nature documentary is presented in striking clarity that adds to the 3D presentation making it worth your time as well as your money. Watching the pandas from infancy (when they can’t even crawl) to their young adolescence is sure to inspire many a coo of approval from adults and children alike. I seriously could have watched Qian Qian chomp away at a stalk of bamboo for another thirty minutes and been more than content. Throw in some adorable baby black bears in New Hampshire and you have a film that is entertaining for young children and educational for older kids too.