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.

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.

Movie Review ~ A Quiet Place

The Facts:

Synopsis: A family lives an isolated existence in utter silence, for fear of an unknown threat that follows and attacks at any sound.

Stars: Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Noah Jupe, Millicent Simmonds

Director: John Krasinski

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: It would be a smart movie for theaters to support concession-free screenings of A Quiet Place because nothing will ruin this movie more than a noisy candy-wrapper or your neighbor munching on a tray of nachos. It would also save the clean up afterwards from people absent-mindedly spilling their popcorn in fright. Director John Krasinki’s slick, tension filled freak-out of a horror film makes for a monumentally entertaining movie-going experience and one that will, I think, hold-up on repeat viewings.

Set several years in the future, the world has been invaded by blind creatures that hunt by sound. Vicious and apt to strike without warning, they’ve decimated populations and driven the few survivors into hiding.   When A Quiet Place opens, we meet Evelyn (Emily Blunt, Edge of Tomorrow), Lee (Krasinski, Aloha), and their children as they venture into town in search of medication. Speaking in sign language and walking barefoot to avoid any unwanted noise, the family clearly knows the rules to abide by in order to avoid drawing attention to themselves from three monsters that roam the area.

Back on their farm, Lee and Evelyn try to keep a sense of normalcy amidst the terror. Son Marcus (Noah Jupe, Suburbicon) and daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds, Wonderstruck) play Monopoly with cotton balls and felt cutouts and are silently homeschooled by Evelyn while Lee continues to try to contact the outside world. They build a nightly bonfire on top of their silo and watch for other sequestered families to do the same, desperately trying to remain connected with those in similar situations.

Originally conceived as a totally dialogue free film, screenwriters Bryan Woods and Scott Beck team with Krasinski on a screenplay that is still light on dialogue but one that winds up saying a lot. There’s no backstory provided, save for brief glimpses of newspaper clippings and a white board filled with information on the creatures. Audiences are left to fill in the blanks and much credit should go to Kransiski for handling these large chunks of exposition in a decidedly un-fussy fashion.

At 90 minutes including credits, the film makes the most of its short running time by maximizing on sustained bursts of tension. This is one where you can’t help but find yourself white-knuckling your armrest (or your companion’s arm) as scene after scene ratchets up the fear level until it’s almost unbearable to watch. You’ll cringe at every creak in the floor, wince when you can see an unwanted noise on the horizon, and fight the urge to yelp when Krasinki introduces several well-timed jump scares.

Beautifully photographed by Charlotte Bruus Christensen (Far from the Madding Crowd) and scored with restrained flair by the usually bombastic Marco Beltrami (World War Z), Krasinski has assembled a talented group on both sides of the camera. Spouses in real life, Blunt and Krasinki have an easy chemistry that feels unforced, as does their nurturing relationships with their children. With several high profile roles in 2017, Jupe continues to impress and works well opposite the striking Simmonds who is actually deaf. The film benefits from Simmonds mesmerizing presence in every way, often switching to her perspective by having the sound completely removed.

Along with the scares, the movie has a few unexpected twists along the way that I wouldn’t dare reveal here. One happens fairly early on and others emerge naturally as the film goes for broke in its relentless final act. Though the creatures are the product of solid special effects, Krasinski keeps them largely out of full view until the conclusion. There’s a lot of work done in close quarters, further heightening the immediacy of the danger facing this family.

A worthy spree of scares, A Quiet Place may face some criticism for being too simple of a set-up and execution but I was bowled over by Krasinski’s efforts. Add to that a quartet of dynamite performances and more jolts than you’d imagine and you have a film that’s easy to recommend. Just make sure you keep a firm grip on your popcorn.

 

Movie Review ~ Love, Simon

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Simon Spier keeps a huge secret from his family, his friends, and all of his classmates: he’s gay. When that secret is threatened, Simon must face everyone and come to terms with his identity.

Stars: Nick Robinson, Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Miles Heizer, Keiynan Lonsdale, Logan Miller, Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel, Tony Hale

Director: Greg Berlanti

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I was recently reading a book about the impact of John Hughes and The Brat Pack on the generation of teens that grew up in the mid ‘80s.  The book talked about what was going on at the time and how movies once celebrated as sleepover musts are now revered as essential entertainment time capsules for those that came of age in the Reagan era.  I was slightly too young for that wave of influential filmmaking, though I was in my prime when ‘90s teen classics like Clueless, Cruel Intentions, Scream, and 10 Things I Hate About You were first released and I feel that same sense of protection about them.  So I understand why the early buzz around Love, Simon compares the viewing experience to the influential teen movies that came before it.

I tend to recoil at films that are so current that they’ll become dated in six months but Love, Simon is a rare exception.  It’s a genuine gem that speaks to those navigating high school life now while evoking a palpable sense of wistfulness to audience members like me who so wish they had something as assured and confident as this when they were a kid. Yes, Love, Simon is the kind of truthful message movie I wish I had on VHS on the shelf between The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink.

Simon Spier lives a pretty good life.  His family, his house, his friends, his high school experience all seem like the dictionary definition of growing up without much complication.  Yet Simon is more complex than people think.  He’s gay and struggling with resolving some inner conflict about that fact but outwardly showing no signs of stress (or so he thinks).  The good news is that there’s not a lot of self-loathing on display here so it’s not the torturous experience other films have made the coming out saga to be.  He doesn’t hate that he’s gay, he just doesn’t know the right way to say it and risk losing out on future happiness.

Surrounded by friends with their own romantic hang-ups, Simon finds a kindred spirit in the form of an e-mail relationship with an anonymous fellow student who is gay as well.  Reaching out first as a way to take his own baby steps out of the closest, he becomes closer and closer to the guy on the other side of the e-mail who can’t reveal his identity.  Not knowing whom the friend he calls Blue looks like, Simon starts to imagine who it could be.  Is it the handsome quarterback that has a sensitive side?  What about the pianist for the high school musical?  Or could it be the Waffle House employee?  When the e-mails are discovered by a fellow classmate and Simon is blackmailed into playing matchmaker or risk being outed, he finds being gay is the least of his worries as friendships, true love, and familial bonds are tested the more he tries to hide who he is.

As Simon, Nick Robinson (Jurassic World) is a handsome star in the making that ably carries the weight of the movie on his shoulders. Though he’s Hollywood Leading Man Gay, meaning not too gay, he convincingly plays the conflict without making the journey the least bit maudlin.  By presenting Simon as “just like you”, a balance of normalcy is struck that shows the audience that being gay is who you are and not what ultimately defines you.

Simon’s friends include Katherine Langford (Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why), Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Apocalypse), Jorge Lendeborg Jr. (Spider-Man: Homecoming), Keiynan Lonsdale (The Finest Hours), and Logan Miller (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) as a charmingly diverse group that feels like they could be friends had they gone to high school together.  Though each have their own secrets that arise during the course of the film, these developments don’t feel forced or simply existing in service to Simon’s coming out rite of passage.  The adults in the film wisely say their piece and let the youngsters take the spotlight, but kudos to Jennifer Garner (Dallas Buyers Club), Josh Duhamel (Safe Haven) for presenting understanding but not phony portrayals of Simon’s parents.  As the Vice Principal of Simon’s school, Tony Hale (American Ultra) has some good moments and special mention must go to Natasha Rothwell as a drama teacher that hates her job and Clark Moore as an out and proud gay man at Simon’s school that has two of the funniest lines in the whole film.

Yeah, let’s not forget that as dramatic as the story arc may be this is still a teen comedy at heart and the film is consistently funny throughout.  The parties, the hallway discussions, the afterhours heart-to-hearts, the long walks home, the car rides…all strike a nice balance between sentiment and humor without tipping the scales either way.  Adapting Becky Albertalli’s popular YA novel, screenwriters Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker have played around with some characters and characteristics from the source novel without losing the message of Albertalli’s original work.  Director Greg Berlanti resists against getting overly saccharine as the film develops and Simon’s secret starts to get out – there’s pain and hurt but laughter winds up making the wounds sting less.

If there’s one thing that might keep Love, Simon from achieving long-lasting high rank status it’s that it feels like the fantasy way a coming out story would go.  While Simon claims to be just like us in the opening voice-over, can the majority of teens that will see the film relate to a privileged white guy who gets a new car for his birthday, doesn’t seem to have a job but has spending money, lives in an upscale home in the suburbs, and has more than his share of compassionate and understanding family and friends?  Also, there’s an uncomfortable value placed on looks – when Simon is scoping the halls for Blue and pondering who he could be he wrinkles his nose in horror at bearded nerds, Game of Thrones loving dorks, and roly poly dweebs.  Heaven forbid Blue turns out to be an ug-o.

Yet the film ultimately has its heart and message in the right place and any nitpicks are easily shooed away in favor of recognizing the accomplishment at a major movie studio putting out a sweet love story surrounding a gay youth and his friends.  It may not live totally in the reality of now but it rhymes with the truth without much discord.  Now if people will actually line up to see this…that would be the real victory.

Movie Review ~ Tomb Raider (2018)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Lara Croft, the fiercely independent daughter of a missing adventurer, must push herself beyond her limits when she finds herself on the island where her father disappeared.

Stars: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu, Sir Derek Jacobi, Kristin Scott Thomas

Director: Roar Uthaug

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: I’m more of a Mario guy so I don’t pledge allegiance to Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider series of games that originally spawned two movies starring Angeline Jolie in 2001 and 2003. That’s important to note because while most fans of the video game didn’t care for the Jolie adventures I found them to be pleasant (if slight) diversions and a noble attempt to introduce a strong female into the male-dominated halls of gamer heroes. With Jolie declining to continue, the series sputtered out until a recent reinvention of the game got Hollywood interested in further adventures of Lara Croft.

Enter recent Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) who beat out a host of fresh faced ladies for the role of feisty Lara Croft in a reboot of Tomb Raider. With direction from Roar Uthaug, a Norwegian who first made a splash with his 2015 film The Wave and scripted by Geneva Robertson-Dworet & Alastair Siddons (fairly new names on the screenwriting scene) the results of this new take on an old premise are decidedly mixed. While the first half of the film lays some nice groundwork in re-introducing audiences to our heroine, there’s precious little in the way of overall payoff during the last hour of action.

Vikander’s Croft is less self-assured than Jolie’s previous incarnation and that makes for a nice entry point to her world. Vikander’s impressive abs actually appear onscreen before she does when she’s found sparring in a London gym and getting her butt whupped. Mountain biking her way around town working for a delivery service, she proves she’s one of the guys early on during a spirited race through the city streets that leads to trouble with the law. That’s when Ana Miller (Kristin Scott Thomas, Darkest Hour) appears as Croft’s guardian and she’s none too pleased with her ward’s antics.

After her globe-hopping employer disappeared, Miller was left to take care of his young daughter and the vast family estate and business that bears his name. Long declared dead, the memory of Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West, John Carter) lives on in his daughter who still can’t fully accept he’s gone. When it comes time to sign over the company to her, Lara discovers a clue that sends her on an adventure around the world to an uninhabited island in Japan that supposedly holds the remains of a Queen who brought death to all she touched that was buried alive and forgotten.

Once Lara makes it to the island, the myth of this evil royal turns out to be the most interesting thing the film has going for it. I was more invested in seeing her remains unearthed than I was in watching Lara outwit Japanese street thugs or escape the clutches of a deranged treasure hunter (Walton Goggins, The Hateful Eight). While Uthaug puts Vikander into many perilous predicaments, many of these are so CGI and stunt double heavy that it felt like the film was moving through levels of a video game instead of building any kind of cinematic momentum.

While Vikander makes for a plucky lead, her Croft is almost completely devoid of any kind of personality to speak of. She’s clearly damaged by the absence of her father but aside from that we know as much about her at the end as we did at the start. Goggins has made a career out of playing these big toothed crazies so this doesn’t feel like much a stretch for him, his danger comes not from anything internally cracked but all external weapons that easily take down targets. Appearing only briefly, Scott Thomas seems to be waiting for a sequel script to arrive to give her something more to do (though the film makes a pretty giant leap at the end to keep her involved) while West finds his way back into the movie through predictable means.

I kind of knew what Tomb Raider was going to be when I went in but honestly I was hoping it would be a little more intelligent. Lara and her dad shared a love of puzzles so the assumption would be that we’d see her solving some clues to his whereabouts along the way…but Lara tends to solve all of these riddles and clever traps in her mind. We, the audience, never see the inner workings of that thought process so it becomes dull viewing when we aren’t let in on the secret. Even a finale inside a tomb has oodles of opportunities to bring some fun obstacles to overcome, ala The Goonies and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that sadly never come to be.

The framework is clearly laid for future installments of this new Tomb Raider franchise and I’d be up for more of Vikander if the plot was firmed up a bit and more fun was injected into the mix. This first outing, while sporadically entertaining, felt too paint-by-numbers to be considered much more than a middling popcorn feature.

Movie Review ~ A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After the disappearance of her scientist father, three peculiar beings send Meg, her brother, and her friend to space in order to find him.

Stars: Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, Reese Witherspoon, Storm Reid, Gugu Mbatha Raw, Chris Pine, Zach Galifianakis, Andre Holland, Levi Miller, Deric McCabe, Bellamy Young, Rowan Blanchard, Will McCormack, Michael Pena

Director: Ava DuVernay

Rated: PG

Running Length: 109 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: It was always going to be possible for any adaption of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic 1962 novel A Wrinkle in Time to get bungled on its way to the big screen. The deep ideas, meditational themes, and introspective characters didn’t exactly lend themselves to a sure-fire project that could easily be translated from page to film. I grew up with this book and it’s one of the few I’ve gone back to several times over the years. I’ve seen the previous television movie adaptation, performed in it onstage, and seen other theatrical productions over the years. So, full disclosure, this one was close to my heart.

When Walt Disney Studios acquired the rights to the novel and brought on red-hot director Ava DuVernay (Selma) to guide its development, my interest was piqued and my hopes raised. When DuVernay went on to assemble a cast of A-List stars there was another jolt of confidence brought on by the names and faces of actors that had previously chosen their projects wisely. Then a much-hyped debut of the first trailer got me thinking that the magic of A Wrinkle in Time would indeed survive and thrive.

So imagine how deflating it was to sit in an IMAX theater and watch what should have been a slam-dunk miss the mark entirely. Like, completely. Now I know that I may hold the source material as perhaps a tad more precious than I should, which would make any attempt to bring it to life an impossible bar to overcome. No, I actually went in with eyes wide open and arms outstretched ready to be transported off the ground only to be depressingly earthbound throughout.

Several years after her scientist father mysteriously disappears, Meg Murray (Storm Reid) is still struggling to adjust to his absence. Her mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Beauty and the Beast) and younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) offer support but Meg has descended into a funk that’s robbed her of self-confidence and her spark. That all changes with the late-night appearance of flighty and flame-haired Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon, Home Again) who is the first arrival in the trio of ladies that will bring Meg, Charles Wallace, and Meg’s school friend Calvin (Levi Miller, Pan) on an adventure across time and space.

Joined by Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling, Inside Out) who only speaks in quotes and the grand Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey, Lee Daniels’ The Butler) the children explore Uriel, a world far distant from their own. There the Mrs’ reveal to the children that the universe as they know it is coming under siege from a being they call The IT which is an embodiment of evil. After a visit to The Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis, Muppets Most Wanted) the kids must travel alone to the peculiar realm of Camazotz where they will come face to face with their fears, relying on their inner strength to battle the forces of darkness.

While the script from Jennifer Lee (Zootopia) and Jeff Stockwell remains fairly faithful to L’Engle’s novel, it fails to bring forth any wonderment or magic in the proceedings. A novel with themes of rebellion against societal norms and overcoming struggle with finding one’s own originality winds up being an overly talky self-help seminar that’s dreadfully dull. As a strong advocate for social change and equality, you can see why the tenets of the book had long held an appeal for DuVernay but she surprisingly struggles mightily with keeping her film afloat.

While she’s found a nice discovery in the bold Reid who turns in a confident performance, the rest of DuVernay’s troupe is largely made up of miscasting. Winfrey feels like she’s playing a version of herself, a wise, level-headed sage that speaks in new age-y proverbs and spends the first half of the movie 50 times the size of any other character. Witherspoon is badly out of place in the space-y role that Kaling would have been an infinitely better fit for. Kaling instead is relegated to reciting eye-rolling quotes including a downright groan-worthy one from Lin-Manuel Miranda near the film’s conclusion. Galifianakis is a woeful low-point and poor Michael Pena (End of Watch) is stuck playing a red-eyed denizen of Camazotz. As written, Calvin has even less to do with the action than in the book but Miller has a sweetly platonic chemistry with Reid that works nicely. As Meg’s missing dad Chris Pine (The Finest Hours) may wear the cardigan of a scientist studying time travel but he won’t convince you otherwise he’s cracked a science book in the last decade.

For a movie from this family-friendly studio and adorned with a hefty-budget, the filmmakers seem to not understand who exactly the movie is for. It could have been pitched to mid-teens just fine but there’s so many silly elements and goofy developments that it feels like a wide net was cast. When Witherspoon turns into what looks to be a fantastic piece of flying lettuce and takes the kids for a ride through a field of humming flowers, you may wonder if any focus groups were even brought in to steer this one back on course.

A Wrinkle in Time spawned several sequels involving Meg and her friends but if this labored effort is any indication of the thematic future of the series, I hope significant time is spent smoothing out the wrinkles of the lessons learned here. Every person involved with this picture is capable of so much more than what was delivered – the first real disappointment of 2018.

Movie Review ~ Annihilation

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition where the laws of nature don’t apply.

Stars: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny

Director: Alex Garland

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Until last week when Black Panther was released, movie going in 2018 was lacking any real spark. There were some nice family films (Paddington 2, Peter Rabbit) and the final nail in the Fifty Shades coffin (Fifty Shades Freed) but January was mostly a chance for audiences to catch up on the awards favorites they missed during the holidays. With the arrival and phenomenal success of Black Panther and now Annihilation (not to mention the upcoming Red Sparrow), I’m wondering if we’re moving into a nice groove where entertaining, hyper-intelligent films designed to challenge audiences get their day in the sun.

I’ll say right off the bat that Annihilation is going to divide a lot of people. Your mileage may vary at how much the movie speaks to you or if it even works at all in your mind, but I found it to be a dazzling bit of sci-fi that gets pretty close to becoming a modern genre classic. Based on the first novel of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, it’s hard to classify, let alone describe, what goes on in Annihilation but my advice is to go in as blind as possible. My review of the teaser trailer was the last bit of footage I saw before the screening I attended and I’m positive that added to my overall enjoyment of the film.

Director Alex Garland (Ex Machina) adapted VanderMeer’s book with a bit of a loose interpretation of the set-up. I confess I only got halfway through the short tome before the movie screened but what’s onscreen clearly doesn’t follow VanderMeer’s cagey narrative. There are some facts that remain. Three years after a comet crashes into a lighthouse on the Florida coastline, the smartest minds in the world can’t figure out why a strange amorphous cloud has started to slowly envelop the surrounding land known as Area X. Dubbed The Shimmer due to its transparent yet colorful form, people may enter The Shimmer but they mysteriously never return…until now.

Mourning the loss of her husband who disappeared on a military mission nearly a year ago, biologist Lena (Natalie Portman, Jackie) is dumbfounded when he returns without fanfare not remembering where he’s been or how he got there. Something’s not right, though. Kane (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) looks the same and while Lena can’t put her finger on it is clear something’s off in her husband. How Lena winds up at Area X and enters The Shimmer is best left for you to discover but know that it’s important to pay attention to Garland’s informative but tricky script.

Accompanied in her journey by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight), Anya (Gina Rodriguez, Deepwater Horizon), Josie (Tessa Thompson, Creed), and Cass (Tuva Novotny, Eat Pray Love), Lena is plunged into an upside down world of mutated life that holds unseen dangers. With several detours into dreams it becomes harder to tell what is real and what The Shimmer is conjuring up to confuse the women, but the end goal is never clear and absolutely not foreshadowed. It’s refreshing to find a film that doesn’t let you get too far ahead of the plot and allows you a fair amount of surprise along the way.

The experience of watching Annihilation is harrowing, with Garland revealing only the bare minimum of information and allowing careful viewers to pick up his not very generous hints at the end game. We get time to know the women, which makes it all the more difficult to endure along with them the hell they go through the deeper they get inside The Shimmer. There are several terrifying sequences that give way to profound sadness, cinematic kicks to the stomach after the film has already delivered a debilitating punch to the throat.

I can’t imagine another actress taking on Portman’s role. The Oscar winner is notoriously choosy about projects and while at the outset I scratched my head at the thought of Portman as an ex-military biologist hauling her gun around a deadly jungle, she more than justifies her place at the top of the cast list. Leigh is another actress with curious but not universally loved gifts but I was taken by her quirky approach to the role of a psychologist possibly harboring a dark secret. Her voice is pitched higher than normal but that same dour expression is classic Leigh. Rodriguez may have won acclaim in her comedic role on television’s Jane the Virgin but she makes a compelling case for her star continuing to rise as a tough medic slowly unraveling in this new world. Thompson’s role is the most difficult for viewers to navigate because it’s so esoteric but it’s Novotny that leaves a lasting impact thanks to her delicately nuanced performance.

Garland hasn’t shied away from the darkness in his sci-fi tales before (he also penned the screenplays for Sunshine, 28 Days Later, and the traumatizing Never Let Me Go) but he’s gone to an even darker place here. Gorgeously shot by Rob Hardy (Endless Love) and featuring an omnipresent creepy score from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, the film easily manages to land its ending, which is largely without dialogue and surprisingly sustained suspense. You may walk out of Annihilation or you may crawl…either way, you’re in for a hell of a ride.

Movie Review ~ Game Night

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A group of friends who meet regularly for game nights find themselves trying to solve a murder mystery.

Stars: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Danny Huston, Chelsea Peretti, Michael C. Hall, Kyle Chandler

Director: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Game Night is one of those movies I refer to as a Goldilocks outing. It’s not really great but not really bad, it’s decently funny but isn’t chock full of laughs, it’s more creative than it should be but still oddly formulaic. In the end, it winds up being just right – very much what the doctor ordered for those looking forward to a harmlessly pleasant night out at cinemas.

Meeting and falling in love during a rousing round of bar trivia, Max (Jason Bateman, This is Where I Leave You) and Annie (Rachel McAdams, Passion) have settled into their suburban lifestyle, their ultracompetitive nature placated by a weekly game night with friends. Things are getting a bit staid, though, and when Max’s ultra-cool brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler, The Wolf of Wall Street) comes to town and offers to host game night in his new house, the group jumps at the chance to shake things up a bit.   Arriving for a night they think is coordinated by Brooks, they soon find themselves mixed up in the game Brooks orchestrated and real life danger, racing around town in pursuit of kidnappers while avoiding landing in the crosshairs of a deadly criminal.

Doesn’t sound like much of a comedy, right? Well, in the hands of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (who also directed the divisive update of Vacation) and screenwriter Mark Perez there are enough twists and turns to keep you guessing at what is part of the game and what actually is happening. Think 1997’s cool thriller The Game but not quite as clever. I have to say the movie kept my interest more than I thought it would considering it’s from “the guys that brought you Horrible Bosses.” That earlier film and its gross sequel upped the raunch factor that Game Night was wise to avoid replicating. There’s fairly little overly nasty humor here and what is present feels smartly placed as opposed to relying on cheap shocks for laughs. Sadly, one of the funniest gags involving an airplane engine was totally spoiled in the trailer.

Daley and Goldstein have assembled a crack cast that brings energy to the mix. Bateman is his usually Bateman-y self but with droll McAdams as his partner in crime there’s a nice balance between his snark and her sincerity. Billy Magnussen (Into the Woods), Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, and Kylie Bunbury find some funny moments as Max and Annie’s friends that bring their own baggage along for the crazy ride while Jesse Plemons (The Master) is a riot as a former friend and weird police office neighbor the group has shunned. Plemons is so note perfectly odd that he quite nearly steals the show from his cast mates.

As with most movies with a mystery at its core, the film gets less interesting the more it reveals but then it pivots nicely by pulling the rug out from under you just when you think you’ve got things solved. It’s a silly film but more entertaining than you’d expect just from watching the trailers. Bound to please fans of the actors and creatives involved, the real winners of Game Night are movie-goers that check it out with their expectations set slightly lower.

Movie Review ~ Early Man


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Set at the dawn of time, when prehistoric creatures and woolly mammoths roamed the earth, Early Man tells the story of Dug, along with sidekick Hognob as they unite his tribe against a mighty enemy Lord Nooth and his Bronze Age City to save their home.

Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall

Director: Nick Park

Rated: PG

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: With all due respect to our prehistoric ancestors, I’ve always found movies about the dawn of man to be a bit of a drag. In films like the prologue of 2001: A Space Odyssey to One Million Years B.C. to 10,000 B.C. to The Croods, there’s only so far my imagination can take me before I’m wondering when technology will find its way into the lives of primitive man. That may help explain why I wasn’t thrilling to the notion of spending an hour and a half with the cavemen and women brought to stop-motion life in Early Man.

I’ve been a fan of Aardman Animations since their Wallace and Gromit days and they’ve continued to churn out quality work for the past several decades. They’ve brought the barnyard to life in Chicken Run and the Shaun the Sheep Movie and snagged an Oscar nomination for their work on The Pirates! Band of Misfits in 2012. While their latest effort is packed with jokes on top of jokes and is another wonderful use of the stop-motion technique, it falls far short of the overall entertainment package Aardman has come to be known for.

Early Man is set at the tail end of the Stone Age and introduces us to the tribe led by Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner). Hunting rabbits as a group and going about their daily lives without much disruption seems like the long-term plan for all but young Dug (Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl) dreams of something more. Instead of the mammoth mammoth hunt he years for, he gets a taste of the future when Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston, Muppets Most Wanted) and his Bronze Age army tries to take over their land.

When Dug mistakenly hitches a ride back with Nooth’s troops he gets an eyeful. The crude stone utensils, clothes, and housing he’s used to give way to the latest in advanced design. Then there’s the stadium which houses the popular football (aka soccer for us Americans) games and it’s when he accidentally finds himself on the field and under Nooth’s glare that Dug proposes a challenge. If he and his tribe can beat the best players Nooth has to offer, Nooth will vacate the land. If they lose, they’ll be a nomadic tribe without even the most basic creature comforts they were used to.

The bulk of the film has Dug getting his team in gear with the help of a could-be love interest named Goona. As expected, the rag-tag members of this football party start without a prayer but (spoiler alert!) get good enough to take on Nooth’s ace team. It’s a disappointingly predictable affair with many of the standard lessons learned along the way. There are ample bits of comedy and visual sight gags but its low impact laughter if you think about it.

Director Nick Park could have trimmed the movie by a good ten minutes, truncating some of the characters more repetitive tics and eliminating a few of them all together. I kept waiting for something to inspire as well as entertain but Park and company just can’t get out of the deep valley of familiarity they’ve found themselves in. If there’s a strong positive for the movie, it’s that it’s as family friendly as they get. While adult audiences have had a spotty run in theaters lately, with Paddington 2, Peter Rabbit, and now Early Man, families looking to spend some time at the theaters have at least three decent options.

Movie Review ~ Black Panther


The Facts
:

Synopsis: T’Challa, after the death of his father, the King of Wakanda, returns home to the isolated, technologically advanced African nation to succeed to the throne and take his rightful place as king.

Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis

Director: Ryan Coogler

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 134 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Audiences growing tired of the endless slate of comic book movies can roar a sigh of relief…Black Panther is here to cure you of all that ails you. After taking a fun leap with the wacky Thor: Ragnarok in November, Marvel Studios has scored another win with this not-quite origin story that manages to function extremely well as a stand-alone adventure while establishing its characters and place within the Marvel Universe. While the movie is clearly designed to make bank for its producers, out of all the Marvel entries so far it feels the most cleverly orchestrated – giving audiences what they want in terms of special effects and spectacle and slipping in a message of social consciousness.

Popping up first in Captain America: Civil War and set to return in May’s Avengers: Infinity War, the Black Panther (aka T’Challa, a price turned king of fictitious African nation Wakanda) is already familiar with his gifts when the film emerges from its flashback prologue. Coming from a long line of enhanced ancestors, T’Challa understands the mantle he has to pick up when his father is killed in the terrorist attack that occurred in Captain America: Civil War. Now, returning to Wakanda to mourn his king and grieve for his father, T’Challa must face his people.

There’s problems from the get-go, though, when a long-gestating conflict between Wakanda’s tribes must be dealt with and after several of the nation’s leaders press T’Challa to share the wealth of knowledge Wakanda has protected for years. On top of all that, there’s Ulysses Klaue (played with giddy ‘roided out rage by Andy Serkis, Breathe) trying to steal the powerful Vibranium mined richly in Wakanda’s mountains and the mysterious Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, Chronicle) who has arrived with a vendetta against T’Challa and his family.

By employing writer/director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) to sit atop the Black Panther proceedings, Marvel has opened up their universe even further. Coogler brings an intelligence and depth to the plot and character development we just haven’t seen before in these movies. Themes of social unrest, slavery, familial obligation, and correcting the mistakes of the past flow throughout Coogler’s tale without bogging it down in the slightest. Coogler has also brought along Mudbound’s Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Cake) to film the exciting action sequences and sure to be Oscar winner Ruth E. Carter (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) to design the jaw-dropping costumes. On a technical level, Marvel has truly outdone themselves with this one.

All the beautiful images in the world and keen knack for plot-driven storytelling would have been for naught had Coogler not assembled one of the best casts in eons. Chadwick Boseman (Draft Day) makes for a commanding T’Challa, showing the vulnerability of a well-liked son taking over for his well-respected father. Jordan is an inspired choice for Killmonger, creating one of the more memorable earth-bound villains in the Marvel canon. Serkis rips though the movie with a decent amount of glee, Martin Freeman (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) manages to nail his American accent and his droll comic bits as State Department representative Everett Ross, and new Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) is a confidant of T’Challa’s with his own score to settle

Let’s face it though…though a man leads the movie it’s the ladies that steal the show out from under their male counterparts with next to no effort. The regal Angela Bassett (Olympus Has Fallen) is Wakanda’s Queen and T’Challa’s mother; no one (NO ONE) does regal queen like Ms. Bassett. Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) is T’Challa’s warrior love interest and Letitia Wright (The Commuter) is a knockout as T’Challa’s mischievous sister. The MVP of the movie is surely Danai Gurira (TV’s The Walking Dead), though. As T’Challa’s army general Okoye, she’s the definition of badass and you won’t be able to take her eyes off of her each time she’s on screen. If The Academy was more adventurous, this is the kind of performance out of the box nominations for Best Supporting Actress are made of.

After a few ho-hum stumbles (sorry Doctor Strange and Ant-Man), Marvel is back on a roll at the start of 2018. Who knows what will happen when Avengers: Infinity War hits in a few months or when Ant-Man and The Wasp flies into theaters later this summer, but for now Black Panther is the king of the Marvel jungle.