Movie Review ~ The Meg


The Facts
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Synopsis: After escaping an attack by what he claims was a 70-foot shark, Jonas Taylor must confront his fears to save those trapped in a sunken submersible.

Stars: Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Rainn Wilson, Ruby Rose, Winston Chao, Page Kennedy, Jessica McNamee, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Robert Taylor, Cliff Curtis, Sophia Shuya Cai, Masi Oka

Director: Jon Turteltaub

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 113 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I like sharks.  I like movies.  I like shark movies.  From Jaws to The Shallows to 47 Meters Down, I’m a fan of anything featuring an underwater predator snacking on unsuspecting prey.  Even in lesser known entires like Bait or Shark Night 3D, there’s a certain amount of satisfied fun that comes with these creature features.  Of course, it helps I’m writing this review from the landlocked safety of Minnesota (aka Land of 10,000 Lakes) so these ocean tales of killer sharks don’t dredge up the same fear in me that might plague someone living near the open water.

Steve Alten’s 1997 “Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror” was tailor made for a screen adaptation.  After spending a solid 20 years in development hell and tossed around by several studios, directors, and stars, The Meg has finally surfaced.  Was it worth the wait?  Did director Jon Turtletaub (While You Were Sleeping) and star Jason Statham (Spy) strike the right balance of fun and fear that made Alten’s original novel (and multiple follow-ups) such a blast?   I can’t say for sure whether or not you’ll go for this sometimes scary, sometimes silly late summer adventure but for someone like me who has waited so long for this sizable shark soup it satisfies a hunger two decades in the making.

Not having read the book in a good decade, I picked up my tattered copy and skimmed the pages before heading out to the screening.  Alten’s no Hemmingway but he manages to take the reader along for a plausible (for 1997) ride to the depths of the ocean where a fish long thought extinct has been living undisturbed for thousands of years.  The screenplay from Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber (Battleship), Erich Hoeber (Red 2) retains elements and a few characters from the novel but alters the action for its star and international supporting cast.

At an underwater research facility in the South China Sea, scientists are using sophisticated underwater submersibles to dive deeper than any human has before.  They hope to prove the existence of another underwater ecosystem thousands of feet below sea level.  Their attempts at a scientific breakthrough instead release a gigantic Megaladon, a shark long since though extinct.  With little time to warn neighboring countries, the crew must track down the deadly shark before she gobbles up throngs of swimmers along the coast.

Reframing Statham’s character Jonas Taylor from a marine biologist to a grizzled deep sea rescue diver allows Statham to do away with the formality of a pretending he’s had a scientific education and clears the way to draw on his brawn to save the day.  Whereas the novel’s Jonas eventually comes into his own set of brass balls, Statham presents as a no-nonsense Hercules from the word go.  He’s nicely matched by Li Bingbing (Transformers: Age of Extinction) as Suyin, the plucky daughter of the head of research (Winston Chao, The Wedding Banquet) at the scientific laboratory involved with the discovery of the massive shark.  Suyin and Jonas parlay their growing (and nicely unforced) chemistry into believable teamwork as they work together to use their collective bravura to save the day.

While Statham and Bingbing are pleasing leads, Turtletaub has a bit of a mixed bag in the supporting characters.  There’s a whole lot of people popping up and sadly not all of them serve their purpose by becoming fish food by the time the credits roll.  Ruby Rose as a tough scientist and Sophia Shuya Cai as Suyin’s playful daughter fare best while Cliff Cutis (Whale Rider), Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), and Page Kennedy do what they can with their stock character roles.  The biggest head-scratcher is Rainn Wilson (Cooties) as the egocentric money man behind the entire operation.  Wilson, best known for his brilliant work on The Office is truly miscast here, never funny enough to be comic relief or villainous enough to earn our bloodlust in rooting for him to get tenderized by the shark.

Ah…the shark.  You want to know about the shark, right?  It’s well documented that during the production of Jaws the mechanical shark was prone to breaking down, which gave director Steven Spielberg the challenge of showing less and implying more.  This lead to that movie becoming a classic but also meant for future genre movies using a practical creation was far more difficult than creating a sizable beast using special effects.  I’m fairly sure our titular monster is all CGI and aside from a few sketchy renderings it’s mostly a handsome bit of movie magic that blends seamlessly with the live action.  This leads to some ample scares (jolts more like it) and sustained bits of action, especially in the jam-packed final third of the film.

Where I found the film to be lacking were the moments when the shark wasn’t on screen.  That’s where the screenplay shows it’s flimsiness and resorts to some eye rolling dialogue clearly meant to be judicious exposition.  This being a film largely financed by international producers , there are specific moments that feel like cultural insertions (father-daughter bonds, noble deaths, etc) rather than plot points.  Still, even the dumbest sounding dialogue is delivered with a harmless earnestness that’s easy to forgive.

A pure popcorn extravaganza, The Meg swims ashore this August to take a bite out of the late summer box office and stands a good chance at doing well in the U.S. but even better in foreign markets.  Expect the movie to open big in Asia and take in enough money to generate a sequel – and if it’s handled with the same balance of camp and thrill, I’ll be first in line to see it.

The Silver Bullet ~ Bel Canto

Synopsis: A world famous opera singer becomes trapped in a hostage situation when she’s invited to perform for a wealthy industrialist in South America.

Release Date: September 14, 2018

Thoughts: It’s been four years since Julianne Moore won her long overdue Oscar for Still Alice and she’s largely avoided the Best Actress curse popping up in interesting, if underperforming, films like Wonderstruck and Suburbicon.  In 2018 she’s back with two interesting projects: Gloria, a US remake of a popular Chilean film and this adaptation of Ann Patchett’s bestseller which casts Moore as a opera singer who becomes a hostage and political chess piece in a South American uprising.  Written for the screen and directed by Paul Weitz (Admission, Grandma, Being Flynn) and co-starring Ken Watanabe (Godzilla) I have to say this looks more important than entertaining.  Also, while I’m glad they are being transparent that Moore’s singing voice is dubbed by the legendary Renee Fleming based on the few shots of her singing I’m a bit nervous it’s going to look too fake-y.  In the end, it’s Moore that appeals to me so I’m always interested in her work…but Bel Canto feels like it has an uphill battle in front of it.

Movie Review ~ Christopher Robin


The Facts
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Synopsis: A working-class family man, Christopher Robin, encounters his childhood friend Winnie-the-Pooh, who helps him to rediscover the joys of life.

Stars: Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Bronte Carmichael, Mark Gatiss, Jim Cummings, Chris O’Dowd, Brad Garrett, Toby Jones, Nick Mohammed, Peter Capaldi, Sophie Okonedo

Director: Marc Forster

Rated: PG

Running Length: 104 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: A year ago, this Winnie-the-Pooh fan was excited to learn of two upcoming projects. One promised to go deeper into the life of the author A.A. Milne and the other from Walt Disney Studios would bring the famous bear and his friends to life in a live-action/CGI hybrid. Both films had serious potential considering the beloved material and high nostalgia factor. Well…fool me once (Goodbye Christopher Robin), shame on you. Fool me twice (Christopher Robin), shame on me.

Whereas 2017’s Goodbye Christopher Robin was a manipulative mess of a biography, Christopher Robin is a dreary miss that clings too tightly to its wistful moments. The movie is constructed to have you biting your lip and furtively wiping away tears at very specific points but it tries too hard to get you to go that sad place. Maybe I’ve turned into a monster in my old age but I resisted and outright resented the way the film went about its business.

Opening with young Christopher Robin attending a going-away party in the Hundred Acre Wood thrown by his animal friends, we learn he’s off to boarding school and will be leaving his friends far behind. Thus begins a rather long prologue where the lad becomes a man (Ewan McGregor, Beauty and the Beast) and eventually a war veteran. He’s now working for a luggage manufacturer with a wife (Hayley Atwell, Cinderella) and young daughter (Bronte Carmichael, Darkest Hour) he rarely spends time with. It’s a familiar sketch of a child that grows up and forgets what it’s like to conjure the kind of make believe fun that fueled a rich imagination. I mean, we all saw Hook, right?

With his family away for a weekend, Christopher is supposed to be working through the logistics of making cost-saving budget cuts at his job when he meets up with Winnie-the-Pooh. Pooh can’t find his friends but found his way through a magic door that connects the Hundred Acre Wood to the outside world. Christopher follows Pooh back through the door and begins a sentimental journey through his past that connects him back to the likes of Tigger, Piglet, and Eeyore.

Director Marc Forster has been hit or miss in my book for a while. I enjoyed World War Z, am slowly coming around to his James Bond entry Quantum of Solace, and last year’s All I See Is You was pretty underrated in my book. He’s had a diverse range of tones/genres which I respect but there’s this curious heaviness he adds to Christopher Robin that feels wrong. Even though it makes a last ditch effort to zing up the action in the last 20 minutes, the majority of the movie is too somber for young children and far too slow for older kids. Adults are advised to bring a pillow.

The marginal good news is the period film looks amazing and the characters (much closer in design to Milne’s vision) are brought to impressive life through CGI. Whatever crazy subliminal product messages Disney put in the film worked because I left wanting to get a set of the updated Pooh and co. for my very own. The action blends seamlessly with the live actors and McGregor gets a gold star for making me believe he’s interacting with a stuffed bear. The film doesn’t try to hide the fact these animals can talk, nicely avoiding at least one tired plot device hurdle of stories such as this.

With bits and pieces culled from better movies about growing up too soon (add Peter Pan and Mary Poppins to the list while you’re at it), Christopher Robin is a disappointing entry in Disney’s attempt at giving its characters a live-action treatment. The film scores high in production value and is often saved by its CGI creations but it’s too tangled in its gloomy plot and obvious attempts at wringing tears out of you to be more than a summer bummer misfire.

Movie Review ~ Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again


The Facts
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Synopsis: Five years after the events of Mamma Mia!, Sophie will find out more about her mother’s past, including how she fronted The Dynamos, started her villa on the island from nothing, met each one of Sophie’s dads, and raised a daughter.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Julie Waters, Christine Baranski, Amanda Seyfried, Dominic Cooper, Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgård, Colin Firth, Lily James, Alexa Davies, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Jeremy Irvine, Josh Dylan, Hugh Skinner, Cher

Director: Ol Parker

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 114 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I happened to be in London in January of 2000 and was able to catch the original London cast of the smash hit, Mamma Mia! It was one of the most exciting nights I’ve had in the theater, not just because the show was enormously entertaining but because the audience just went absolutely nuts for it. I was in the highest point of a steep balcony and watching grown men and women shaking their groove thing to the finale megamix without fear of falling was a sight to behold. In touring productions over the past 18 years I’ve seen the same effect, audience members that came in looking glum but leaving with a crazed look in their eyes.

2008’s Mamma Mia! was a surprise hit, though anyone that didn’t expect a global phenomenon starring one of Hollywood’s most A-list stars to rake in some kind of cash likely isn’t still working in the industry today. Released in the summer months when people were tired of explosions and CGI, it was a perfect (if slightly underwhelming to me) summer antidote to the loud and noisy fare ticket buyers were bombarded with. If anything, it showed us how star Meryl Streep (Hope Springs) could turn even the silliest project on paper into a fully-formed performance with feeling.

When a sequel was announced, I was fairly surprised. After the box office success of the first one, it’s not that a sequel was unheard of, just unexpected. Hearing the gang was getting back together again with a few new additions was interesting and with new songs from the ABBA catalog being added the stage was set for a repeat of the fun frivolity the original almost outright encouraged.

Look, times are hard enough as it is so when movies like Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again are released there’s a certain amount of goodwill restraint I believe critics should utilize because while this is far from an equal, this prequel sequel has its heart and, often, voice in the right place.

So now we reach the point where we can’t go on without a few spoilers, but nothing that hasn’t already been hinted at by the trailers.

It’s been five years since about-to-be-wed Sophie (Amanda Seyfried, Love the Coopers) invited three men she thought might be her father to a taverna on a remote Greek island without telling her mother they are on their way. Comic and musical hijinks were the result and the film, like the stage musical it was based off of, ended with a spandex and platform heeled finale set to ABBA’s Waterloo. Now, Sophie is re-opening the hotel one year after her mother’s death while harboring a growing secret of her own. As the guests arrive, the film bounces back and forth between the present and 1979 to see how Donna (Lily James, Cinderella) came to the Greek fantasy island and made a life for herself.

It’s rough going for the first twenty minutes or so as the film dives headfirst into exposition and a few lesser known ABBA songs. A strange musical opening set at Oxford has valedictorian Donna doffing her cap and gown for a lycra bodysuit to bump and grind through the sunny but silly When I Kissed the Teacher along with her fellow Dynamos, Rosie (Alexa Davies) and Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn). It’s an off-kilter and gangly way to introduce us to Donna and the film stays safely in idle mode until she lands in Paris and meets young Harry (Hugh Skinner, Les Miserables) before heading off to Greece where she’ll sail away with young Bill (Josh Dylan), and fall in love with young Sam (Jeremy Irvine, The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death).

While we’re getting this backstory, the events taking place in the present aren’t always as sunny. Sophie and Sky (Dominic Cooper, Dracula Untold) are halfway around the world from eachother and experience the stress of a long-distance romance (explained in a sketchily sung One of Us) and other dads Harry (Colin Firth, Magic in the Moonlight) and Stellan Skarsgård (Avengers: Age of Ultron) can’t make the re-opening due to business commitments. Tanya (Christine Baranski, Into the Woods) and Rosie (Julie Walters, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) do arrive and try to brighten Sophie’s spirits when a storm threatens to derail the proceedings.

It’s all set to a songlist from the ABBA canon, many repeated from the original film to lesser results. The old songs new to the sequel are clearly B-sides for a reason, though Baranski and Walters have fun with Angel Eyes. The biggest success is likely Dancing Queen, a highlight here just as it was in the first outing. It’s a huge production number set on land and sea, you’ll wish all boat rides had such excellent choreography.

The overall problem I had with the movie is that it feels like a project crafted around the availability of its returning cast. The movie was shot in London and plenty of it is done on green screen to recreate the Greek setting. Add to that a handful of cast members that feel like they filmed their scenes in several days (no surprise many did) and the film feels a bit clunky and unkempt. That being said, it takes about 90 minutes for the film to find any kind of rhythm or shape and that just happens to be the time that Cher (Mermaids) stops by.

It’s widely known Cher turned down the role of Tanya when produces approached her about it but we should all be glad she signed up to play Ruby, Sophie’s grandmother (try not to do the math when you consider Cher is only three years older than Meryl Streep), a Las Vegas entertainer not much for family gatherings. Not long after Cher shows up and sings a bang-up version of Fernando, none other than Streep herself appears in a scene/song you’ll need some tissues for. It shouldn’t have, but it honestly caught me off guard how moving her performance was and it serves as a wistful reminder of the below the surface heart the rest of the movie was missing.

Writer/director Ol Parker (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) might not improve on the formula introduced in Mamma Mia! in terms of cleverly blending songs in with the action but his film marks a vast improvement visually. He lets the camera take in more of the large action and dancing scenes, instead of quick cuts around the dancing he makes good use of the widescreen vistas. Like the first film, expect Greek tourism to get a bump from the lovely displays here.

 

Movie Review ~ Skyscraper


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A father goes to great lengths to save his family from a burning skyscraper.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han, Noah Taylor, Roland Moller, Byron Mann, Pablo Schreiber, Hannah Quinlivan

Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 102 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: In 1974 when The Towering Inferno was released, there were 3,164 drive-in movie theaters across the United States. By Die Hard’s release in 1988, that number had plummeted to 961. In 2018, if you want to see Skyscraper at a drive-in as part of a multi-feature summer night, data shows there are but 320 drive-ins for you to choose from. I mention these key dates and numbers because the silly but sturdy new film starring Dwayne Johnson is a big, if familiar, movie…big enough to warrant a mega presentation in a communal atmosphere. Watching the film unfold on a modest size screen in a perfectly decent theater I couldn’t help but wonder if it could have been more fun if viewed on a larger scale when the sheer size of it wouldn’t feel quite so overwhelming.

After an accident leaves FBI Agent Will Sawyer (Johnson, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) missing the lower part of his left leg, he starts a family and moves to the private sector to become a security specialist. Called to Hong Kong by an old army buddy (Pablo Schreiber), Sawyer brings his wife and twins to The Pearl, a 240 story building of the future designed by architect Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) that needs Sawyer’s sign-off to open up a residential section. Several double-crosses later, Sawyer is trying to find a way back into The Pearl to save his wife (Neve Campbell) and children trapped 100 stories up when a disgruntled mercenary (Roland Møller, Land of MineAtomic Blonde) tries to burn the place down.

Writer/director Rawson Marshal Thurber (We’re the Millers, Central Intelligence) knows he’s wading neck deep into familiar genre territory with obvious nods to The Towering Inferno, Die Hard, and Cliffhanger. The result is a mid-summer hunk of mild cheddar cheese that demands little of audiences and offers two hours of mindless adventure. It’s not bound to gather the same ire Johnson’s earlier 2018 feature Rampage did and it’s far from a simple paycheck film for the appealing A-lister.  Still, it doesn’t advance the actor into any deeper leading man territory for his efforts. It’s clear Johnson works hard at what he does but if he keeps playing the same kind of roles he’s bound to move into unintentional parody of himself after a while.

I was surprised the film had less of the lightness Johnson is known to bring to his features. Aiming for a more dramatic/serious tone, Johnson’s Sawyer is a man haunted by his past while recognizing that without the incident that took his leg he wouldn’t have the family he does today (wife Sarah was his surgeon). Any deeper dive into PTSD is abandoned by Thurber in favor of Sawyer’s increasingly superhuman measures to save his family from the burning building. Witness him climbing a crane nearly 100 stories and leaping into the building during one of the film’s more hair-raising moments. I’m not normally afraid of heights but there were some sequences in Skyscraper that had my stomach doing backflips.

What I liked about the movie was it’s commitment to not making Sawyer a one-man savior, judiciously giving screen time to Campbell who is far from a helpless wife waiting to be rescued. Though previews have given away many (too many) of the film’s key action scenes, the few that aren’t spoiled in the trailer belong to Campbell’s plucky butt-kicking and ingenuity. She’s arguably the best performance in the movie but warms to Johnson nicely – if sequels are planned let’s hope Campbell doesn’t get Bonnie Bedelia-ed and written out after the first one.

Though fraught with too much CGI fire and containing numerous foes dispatched without much ceremony, I found Skyscraper to be a larger than normal blip on the summer movie season that hasn’t turned the dial much on excitement. Audiences seemed to like the movie at my screening and I definitely watched a bit of it through splayed fingers, but it fades from memory pretty quickly if I’m being honest. My advice…get on the interwebs and find a drive-in close to you showing this with a few other features and make it a double or triple header night.

Movie Review ~ Whitney


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An in-depth look at the life and music of Whitney Houston.

Stars: Whitney Houston

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: When I was young and MTV was just starting, I remember asking a friend’s sister to record this one video from an artist I just loved because I wanted to be able to watch it whenever I wanted. I even used a tape recorder to nab a sound recording so I could listen to it on the go. The song? How Will I Know. The artist? Whitney Houston. It was the start of a life-long devotion to the singer and sometimes actress, one that didn’t end with her tragic death at 48 on February 11, 2012.  Before she died and even after she was gone, rumors about drug use, sexual abuse, and destructive behavior swirled around the artist leaving many to believe the lies without knowing the truth.

In the new documentary Whitney, director Kevin Macdonald (How I Live Now) explores Houston’s meteoric rise and untimely fall through an introspective lens. Though he’s become more well known for Hollywood films, Macdonald got his start with documentary filmmaking and has kept to his roots throughout the years. It’s Macdonald’s experience with this genre and his piqued interest in the subject that propels Whitney from being a standard biography to an electric showcase of the dark side of fame.  Seeing the previews for Whitney I expected to come out of the film sad but never expected to come out as mad as I did. Here’s another tale of a talent surrounded by people that loved her for what she gave them but turned a blind eye to her cries for help. Not wanting to upset their meal ticket, it’s clear that family, friends, and co-workers were unwilling to tell the troubled performer no and largely sat idly by as she imploded.

An interesting technique Macdonald uses is to give viewers a snapshot of what was going on in the world at various points throughout Houston’s career. Interspersed with family photos and videos are television ads of the day and news clips from key events. It’s not exactly a revolutionary method but it helps set the scene quickly and distinctly. Through the years we get a better idea of what kind of impact Houston had on pop culture and how, after her public battle with drugs, she eventually became a joke to the very people that once sang her praises.

As she was growing up in New Jersey, Macdonald interviews those that knew Nippy (Houston’s nickname) and could tell at an early age that she possessed something special. Raised by her civil servant father and groomed by her famous mother (Cissy Houston, a singer), Houston was exactly the kind of fresh face and powerful voice that the music industry didn’t even know they needed. Shepherded by Clive Davis at Arista records, Macdonald boldly moves the action far forward, jumping from the popularity of her first album and skipping over the next several years as Houston cements herself as a gigantic star.  Going beyond the music, Macdonald shins a light on secrets within the Houston family and goes into uncomfortable detail in how everything in Houston’s upbringing wasn’t as rosy as her PR team made it out to be.

A telling sign of how fame can affect family and friends, many of the subjects interviewed get “employee” added to their onscreen relationship credit over time. Eventually, everyone that she was close to got on her payroll which caused great conflicts of interest between the star and those she trusted. Were they giving her advice as a friend or as an employee? Did they have her best interest as a person in mind or were they just looking the other way to keep getting a paycheck.  Thankfully, Macdonald doesn’t fall on either side of this issue but keeps Whitney as objective as possible. This viewer surely made his own conclusions but the filmmaker lets the words of Houston and those that knew her tell the story…and lets some of them dig their own grave. In frank and honest interviews, people admit to, among other things, providing Houston with drugs, knowing about sexual abuse within Houston’s extended family, and worrying about her parenting of daughter Bobbi Kristina. Houston’s notorious ex-husband Bobby Brown pops up and does himself no favors while the brief time we sepnd with Houston’s mother tells us all we need to know about the fire in their bellies that fueled their dreams of success.

While Macdonald covers a lot of bases (including the rumors about Houston’s sexuality) he never fully ties up any loose ends. There are several items that are introduced but never truly explored, a sign the film could have been a lot longer had Macdonald been free from the constraints of a theatrical running length. My hope is that any excised footage or interviews are made available on a home release or that a longer version is compiled at a later time. There’s just too much to cover in two hours and, while it’s all fascinating, too many of the fairly important pieces to  a much deeper puzzle are left in the box.

Let’s just face facts, Whitney Houston was one of the best singers in history and to lose her so early was an outright tragedy. Could her death have been prevented? Was there something more someone could have done? Sadly, the answer is yes and while Whitney doesn’t try to answer all the questions audiences may come with, it does provide stunning evidence that many people let her down.

Movie Review ~ Ant-Man and The Wasp


The Facts
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Synopsis: As Scott Lang balances being both a Super Hero and a father, Hope van Dyne and Dr. Hank Pym present an urgent new mission that finds the Ant-Man fighting alongside The Wasp to uncover secrets from their past.

Stars: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Pena, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer, Abby Ryder Fortson, Tip “T.I.” Harris, David Dastmalchian, Laurence Fishburne, Hannah John-Kamen, Walton Goggins, Randall Park

Director: Peyton Reed

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Now that we’re 20 movies into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s clear where every character sits in the franchise family tree. While Iron Man is the father figure, the Guardians of the Galaxy folks are the Cousin Eddie’s of the group and Spider-Man is the kid brother. Black Panther has been established as the cool uncle and that leaves Ant-Man as the fun-cle, the one all the kids run to when he arrives because they know he’ll be good for a laugh, a jolly distraction while the other relatives are busy setting the table. The problem is that fun-cles eventually have to sit at the adults table when dinner is served and that can be an awkward fit.

Same goes for Ant-Man.

Introduced in 2015 right after Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man came on the scene right when we needed him most. Things were getting too serious and some levity was needed to save the superhero series from wallowing in too many apocalypse-like battle royales. Director Peyton Reed and Paul Rudd’s first outing felt a welcome deep breath of air…it may not have been totally fresh but it zapped some energy at a critical point.

What winds up being too bad about the timing of Ant-Man and The Wasp is that it’s coming on the heels of two widely (and wildly) talked about entries (Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War) and the film can’t help but feel a bit diluted by its bigger and better siblings. Make no mistake, it’s a perfectly fine bit of popcorn entertainment that works more often than not…but it doesn’t feel like a solid enough chapter in the overall story Marvel is trying to tell.

Taking place around the same time as the events in Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man and The Wasp opens with a flashback prologue that introduces us to Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer, Dark Shadows) and shows us how she winds up lost in the same Quantum Realm Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Rudd, Wanderlust) escaped from at the end of the first film. We learned in that movie no one had come back from this other dimension but with Scott’s return there is a possibility of the long-last Janet being saved. Now seemingly connected to Janet, Scott has to get an S.O.S. message to her husband (Hank Pym {Michael Douglas, And So It Goes}) and their daughter (Hope van Dyne, {Evangeline Lilly, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies}) before a thin opening of escape closes forever.

Standing in the way are several roadblocks the film juggles during its economical running length. Due to his involvement in the battle featured in Captain America: Civil War, Scott is under house arrest (a clever explanation of his absence from Avengers: Infinity War) and has just three days left on his sentence. The FBI is tracking Hope and Hank as well so how can the three join together to decode Janet’s message and bring her back from the Quantum Realm? Then there’s a toothy villain played by Walton Goggins (Tomb Raider) who keeps popping up at the most inopportune time and the mysterious Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen, Ready Player One) with her own reasons for wanting to find Janet.

With so many characters running around the film can feel a bit overstuffed, especially considering none of the villains make much of an impression. I found the original film to be a nice little burst of fun and was able to feed off the manic energy of the proceedings. Here, the sequel tries to recreate that feeling to mostly the same results, becoming a movie that’s quick on its feet, but one that has less of an impact by the time the credits roll. While the stakes are high on a personal level for these characters there’s nothing that rises to the importance of anything on a global scale so in the end your enjoyment factor becomes a matter of how invested you get in the performances.

All the actors that have retuned for the film pretty much pick up where they left off. Rudd has had the benefit of another Ant-Man appearance under his belt so he coasts along nicely. Though Rudd isn’t your typical choice for a super-hero, like Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool and Deadpool 2 he’s mined his comic talents for good and made a believer out of me. Douglas, Lilly, and Michael Pena (End of Watch) all bring individual strengths but I was left scratching my head at Laurence Fishburne (Last Flag Flying) and his drastically underwritten man-splaining role. Goggins is a bit of a bore by this point, having played this type of smarmy dude in one too many movies. He’s easily outshone by John-Kamen as a more layered foe for Ant-Man and his pals. Though she disappears after the prologue for nearly 90 minutes, when Pfeiffer returns to the screen she arrives ready to play — I’m looking forward to seeing what the future holds for Pfeiffer and this pfranchise.

Those who have been riding a Marvel high on the two previous movies released in 2018 are best directed to lower the bar a little when approaching Ant-Man and The Wasp. I can see why Marvel positioned it as they did but with the ending of Avengers: Infinity War causing such drama and emotion I found it a bit of a tough sell to go into a movie that’s so dramatically different in theme. Here’s your frequent reminder to stay for the credits…I found the mid-credit scene to be one of the more meaty and imperative-to-see sequences yet.

Movie Review ~ Sicario: Day of the Soldado


The Facts
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Synopsis: The drug war on the U.S.-Mexico border has escalated as the cartels have begun trafficking terrorists across the US border. To fight the war, federal agent Matt Graver re-teams with the mercurial Alejandro.

Stars: Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan, Manuel Garcia Rulfo, Catherine Keener, Matthew Modine

Director: Stefano Sollima

Rated: R

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I must say that the thought of a sequel to 2015’s rock solid Sicario turned my stomach a bit. Why sully the original thrill of that film with a follow-up that moved forward without a few key players? Gone are the star (Emily Blunt), the director (Denis Villeneuve), the cinematographer (Roger Deakins) and the composer (the late Jóhann Jóhannsson) which just left the writer (Taylor Sheridan) along with co-stars Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro. Originally announced as Soldado before changing to Sicario 2: Soldado and ultimately landing on Sicario: Day of the Soldado…it was getting increasingly worrisome that my initial fears would be realized.

Turns out Sony Pictures and Sheridan knew what they were doing all along. Not only is Sicario: Day of the Soldado a worthy follow-up to the original, it signals the start of something I never would have expected…a franchise.

sicario m ([s̪iˈkäːr̺io]): hitman (hired killer)

soldado m, f (solˈdado): soldier (member of an army, person who fights for a cause)

Picking up several years after the events of the first film, Sheridan (Hell or High Water, Wind River) wastes no time in jolting audiences with an opening act that rockets all over the country. Those looking to turn their brains off best look elsewhere because Sheridan needs your attention from the word go. No time is wasted in his economical screenplay that shifts the focus from the efforts of operative Matt (Brolin, Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2) to combat the trafficking of drugs along the Mexican border to a covert operation authorized by the CIA designed to pit rival Mexican drug carters against eachother.

To start this fire, Matt calls up his old friend Alejandro (Benicio del Toro, Inherent Vice) and the two men work in tandem on a kidnapping plot involving the daughter of a Mexican druglord. The plan goes awry, however, and soon Alejandro is tasked with protecting this valuable asset while keeping one step ahead of corrupt police and a whole host of ruthless killers out to recover the young girl or bury her in the desert.

Incoming director Stefano Sollima picks up the reins from Villeneuve with a little less style but no less intensity. This is a fairly straight-forward film that flexes its considerable muscle when it has to but also takes time for quieter moments, such as Alejandro’s conversation with a deaf farmer that reveals more about the family Alejandro lost and is still seeking some kind of vengeance for.

Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir (Prisoners) continues the work of Jóhannsson with his ominous, omnipresent score that grinds at the nerves but doesn’t overwhelm the proceedings. Running just a minute longer than Sicario, the sequel again shows Sheridan’s uncanny knack for producing a script that doesn’t feel like it has an excess material to it. There’s none of the trite padding some lesser action/military films feel the need to employ and while it has a host of characters passing through including the droll Catherine Keener, Incredibles 2, as a gruff CIA leader and Matthew Modine, 47 Meters Down, as a government official, it’s not hard to follow who is being gunned down or who is doing the shooting.

Filled with a few surprising twists and universally strong performances (including Peruvian actress Isabela Moner, impressive as the hostage) Sicario: Day of the Soldado easily justifies it existence and creates interest in seeing these characters go deeper into the dark. Here’s hoping Sheridan has a doozy of a third entry planned…but how about bringing back Blunt? Please?

Movie Review ~ Incredibles 2


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Everyone’s favorite family of superheroes is back but this time Helen is in the spotlight, leaving Bob at home with Violet and Dash to navigate the day-to-day heroics of “normal” life.

Stars: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Samuel L. Jackson, Huckleberry “Huck” Milner, Brad Bird, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Jonathan Banks, Sophia Bush, Isabella Rossellini

Director: Brad Bird

Rated: PG

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: In this age of fast turnaround, never-ending binge options, and instant gratification, audiences don’t usually have to wait very long to get more of what they love. When Pixar’s The Incredibles opened in 2004, it was right in the studio’s heyday where they couldn’t lose and the spy adventure was a bona fide winner. Boasting innovative computer animation and pitched at a breakneck pace, it signaled a shift in tone that felt like a steppingstone to another level of prestige. Though Pixar famously claimed an aversion to sequels in favor of original concepts, after winning the Best Animated Feature film Oscar, it seemed like a sure bet another Incredibles adventure would be in the cards.

Well here we are 14 long years later and the Parr family has finally returned to the big screen in Incredibles 2 and the wait was most definitely worth it. Though computer animation technology has advanced leaps and bounds in the decade since the original was released, Pixar has fashioned a sequel that sits side by side with its predecessor on a high shelf. Re-watching The Incredibles in preparation for the sequel, I was struck by how, uh, quaint the film looks after all these years. It was still an entertaining ride, don’t get me wrong, but what once looked shiny and new then seems positively retro now.

Right from the start, the film hits the ground running by literally picking up where the first movie left off.  It’s a very Back to the Future II way to go by having the two films overlap in this way, effectively joining two separate movies into potentially one uninterrupted spree.  Mom Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter, Copycat), Dad Bob/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson, Poltergeist), daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) and son Dash (Huck Milner) spring into action against the mole-like Underminer, who first appeared at the tail end of the original. Through a city wide chase that racks up some costly amounts of destruction, it isn’t long before the family runs afoul of the government so intent on keeping superheroes illegal. When a brother and sister team intending to champion the legalization of superheroes approaches Helen, Bob, and their friend Lucious/Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson, The Hateful Eight), the heroes in hiding see it as an opportunity to show the world there’s still a need for crime fighters and help heroes from around the globe can come out of the shadows. Needing someone to be the face of the campaign, Helen becomes the star of this show, only to be pursued by a mysterious villain known as The Screenslaver who has big plans for a gathering of international heroes at sea.

Meanwhile, back at home, Bob is in charge of the kids. Between helping Dash with his math homework, (he learns the perils of New Math) and giving the lovesick Violet some advice on boys, he fails to notice his younger son Jack-Jack starting to develop a whole host of strange powers of his own. Jack-Jack is unquestionably the main attraction in Incredibles 2 and with good reason, his scenes are silly yet hysterical that result in some astounding physical comedy sequences that are pretty dazzling. Like much of the film, Jack-Jack’s adventures with his super powers blaze across the screen with color and sound so quickly that I’m sure I didn’t catch all of the sight gags created by the Pixar gang.

I’d put this sequel on an equal plane with the first film, maybe slightly higher just due to its clever construct and entertainment factor. The voice work is consistently good and it’s nice to hear interesting casting choices like Bob Odenkirk (Nebraska) and Catherine Keener (Peace, Love & Misunderstanding) as the brother and sister duo, not to mention the grand return of fashion designer Edna Mode (voiced by writer/director Brad Bird, Tomorrowland).  It’s also extremely funny, producing several laugh out loud moments that often caught me off-guard.  It’s sometimes easy to get a kick out animated films but it’s rare for one to elicit a well earned guffaw…and Incredibles 2 has more than a few of these instances.

At 118 minutes, Incredibles 2 is the longest Pixar film to date but it moves so fast and furious that you’re likely to either skip looking at your watch completely or sneak a peek as the film nears its conclusion. Sure, there are some overstuffed bits but if you’re going to the movies and paying through the nose for tickets and concessions for the whole family, don’t you want to get your money’s worth? Bird (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) knows how to give fans what they want, nicely continuing the tone of a kid-friendly Bond film that’s still a bit dark and definitely not for super young tykes. Parents, heed the PG rating because this one gets a bit intense and, coupled with Oscar-winner Michael Giacchino’s (Star Trek) robust score, can be quite loud.

Special Note: Don’t be late!  The Pixar short shown before the movie, Bao, is another winner!

Movie Review ~ Bao


The Facts
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Synopsis: A woman gets a second shot at motherhood when one of her handmade dumplings comes alive.

Director: Domee Shi

Running Length: 8 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Proving once again that there is no emotional well they can’t mine for a few surprising tears, Pixar’s latest animated short  (playing before Incredibles 2) falls right in line with some of their more plaintive fare.  Think UP territory kind of emotions.  Directed by Chinese Canadian illustrator Domee Shi, Bao is a tale of an empty nester that gets an eyeful just as she’s about to take a mouthful of her carefully prepared dumplings.  Over the course of eight minutes, Shi (the first female director of a Pixar short) takes us through a fast-tracked parental journey that culminates in a bit of a shock only to resolve itself in a most beautiful fashion.  Pixar would be wise to allow for a five minute “Call Your Mom And Tell Her You Love Her Break” after this one is over.