Movie Review ~ Alita: Battle Angel

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: An action-packed story of one young woman’s journey to discover the truth of who she is and her fight to change the world.

Stars: Rosa Salazar, Keean Johnson, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Eiza Gonzalez

Director: Robert Rodriguez

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: The journey of Alita: Battle Angel to the screen has been an adventure almost three decades in the making. Originally a Japanese manga series created by Yukito Kishiro, it caught the attention of director James Cameron (The Abyss) and became one of those passion projects that followed the director over the ensuing years. With his attention focused on other films, documentary projects, pioneering technological advances in filmmaking, and talking about his Avatar sequels ad nauseum, Cameron eventually realized that he’d have to abdicate the director’s chair if the film were ever to get off the ground. That’s where director Robert Rodriguez (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For) comes in and how we have arrived at this strange 2019 release.

It’s been several weeks since I’ve seen the film and I honestly can’t decide whether it’s glorious or garbage. I can fully see where the effects extravaganza will be overpowering and maybe even off-putting but at the same time there’s a piece of me that silently was cheering on the never-ending barrage of bizarre your ticket purchase will provide.  I can tell you this, I was never, not even for one minute, bored.  If the film community and audiences decide to pass judgment that Alita: Battle Angel is a failure, it will have gone out swinging because it doesn’t seem to be afraid to embrace its oddity.

Five hundred years in the future the Earth has suffered a series of cataclysmic events, culminating with “The Fall” which separated cities of the sky from the junk-laden wastelands on the ground. Only the most elite live in that last surviving sky city, Zalem, while the rest of Earth’s inhabitants scrape by a living where they can. Some have turned to bounty hunting to earn enough money to travel up up and away and there are certainly enough sundry individuals roaming the streets for people to make a buck or two eliminating dangerous threats.

Scouring a junkyard for spare parts to aid in his robotic repair practice, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz, Big Eyes) finds the remnants of a female cyborg and rebuilds her, giving her the name Alita. When Alita (Rosa Salazar) comes back online and eventually falls in love with a local teenager (Keean Johnson), she begins to piece together her history as she discovers new strength and agility that seem to come naturally. At the same time, a killer is on the loose and Alita becomes a Hunter-Killer bounty hunter to track down who is harvesting people for their spare parts.  In doing so, she raises the ire of a punk bounty hunter (Ed Skrein, Deadpool) who doesn’t appreciate the competition from the supposed teenage girl.  When her mysterious past is revealed, it will put all who come in contact with her in danger as she’s revealed to be an important weapon and the only one that can stop the evil Nova (played in an uncredited cameo by an Oscar-nominated actor) from keeping bigger truths about Zalem from the public.

As you can probably tell, there’s a whole lot going on in the movie (I didn’t even bother to describe a sport called Motorball that figures heavily into the action) and Cameron’s script (co-written by Laeta Kalogridis, Terminator Genisys) is his usual mish-mash of overly syrupy dialogue intermixed with made-up jargon. Usually, this works against the film but here the script manages to serve things quite well as it prompts numerous set-ups for eye-popping special effects (see it in IMAX 3D, if possible) and nicely crafts a new world for our characters to explore.

Rodriguez has always had a way with making his films rock and roll even on a minuscule budget but here he’s given the keys to the bank vault and has cleaned out the coffers. It’s all rather lovely to look at, especially in an underwater sequence when Alita finds a crashed spaceship that holds a clue to her origins. Where things don’t go quite as swimmingly are in the character arcs, with several A-list actors left to fend for themselves with roles that are underwritten and underdeveloped. Oscar winners Jennifer Connelly (Only the Brave) and Mahershala Ali (Green Book) treat the material as high art, which leads to their performances taking on a camp factor that is surely unintentional. Salazar, digitized in post-production, turns in the most realistic performance – there were times I actually forgot she was an animation.

Not being familiar with the source material, I can’t say how close Cameron and Kalogridis stuck to the original story but there’s a definite energy injected throughout that’s hard to deny. It may be overstuffed and too effects-heavy but there’s an admirable bit of workmanship that has gone into the look of the film, even if the more dramatic pieces don’t quite gel correctly. This being a Cameron property, there’s a romance subplot that isn’t fully satisfying and Rodriguez has tacked on maybe two finales too many, but it ends on a high enough note that I’m curious to see if another installment might get the go-ahead now that Disney owns 20th Century Fox and could benefit from this property with international appeal.

Movie Review ~ The 2019 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Animated

BEST ANIMATED SHORT

Animal Behaviour (Directed by Alison Snowden and David Fine)
Synopsis: A group of five animals with emotional and psychological problems meets for therapy with compassionate canine Dr. Clement. Their group dynamic is rattled by a new member, Victor, a gorilla with anger management issues who believes that talking cannot change someone’s innate tendencies.
Review: A word to the wise viewer taking in these Oscar nominated shorts: enjoy the comedy in Animal Behaviour because it’s the last bit of true levity you’ll get among the nominees.  Taking place during a therapy session for a group of animals with emotional problems, the short has some genuine moments of humor mostly derived from the outlandish anthropomorphic situation we are dropped into.  There’s the leech with dependency issues, the pig with a tendency to overindulge, the praying mantis who can’t keep a mate, and so on and so forth.  It’s all a bit bizarre but still a sharp short.

Bao
(Directed by Domee Shi)
Synopsis: A lonely Chinese mother suffering from empty nest syndrome is thrilled to become a parent again when one of her homemade dumplings comes to life. As Dumpling grows, however, the inevitable conflicts between parent and child arise and Mom must acknowledge that no one stays little forever.
Review: My original review of Bao (shown before Incredibles 2 this summer) can be found here.  It still packs a nice little punch, especially if you remember halfway through that you forgot to call your mom when you told her you would.

Late Afternoon
(Directed by Louise Bagnall)
Synopsis: Emily, an elderly lady with dementia, is increasingly alienated from the world around her. Whenever she sees her reflection, Emily wanders through memories of her childhood and young adulthood, and thereby attempts to use her past to reconnect with the present.
Review: Here’s a real emotional success story, featuring simple animation and a huge heart.  Following an older lady combating a failing memory with her joyous recollections of the past, Late Afternoon looks like it’s jumped off the pages of a picture book from forty years ago with its overly round faces and detached limbs.  Still, it’s so delicate in the way it unfolds that the feelings it stirs will likely sneak up on you.  It isn’t hard to figure out the path the short is following but director Louise Bagnall says a lot by choosing her passages carefully.

One Small Step
(Directed by Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas)
Synopsis: Bolstered by the unwavering support of her devoted father, a humble cobbler, Luna Chu grows up determined to become an astronaut. Although she is sometimes daunted by the obstacles she faces, Luna always shoots for the stars.
Review: Coming on the heels of Late Afternoon, One Small Step keeps your heart in your throat as it takes you on the journey of a girl aiming for the stars with the help of her supportive father.  Without dialogue, we are guided by the storytelling of the animators and it’s marvelous how well they navigate some tricky emotional turns clearly and with a compelling voice.  It’s a rewarding and moving bit of fantasy that manages to keep itself grounded even as it ambitiously reaches higher.

Weekends
(Directed by Trevor Jimenez)
Synopsis: After his parents split up, a young boy must adjust to living with his mother during the week and his father during the weekend. Their new routine is difficult on all of the family members, but is especially confusing to the youngster as his parents move on with their lives without each other.
Review: The strangest offering is also the most complex, narratively speaking, as a boy travels between the homes of his divorced parents.  Over time, the boy doesn’t change much but the relationship with his parents does, as do their lives as they meet other partners and create new families.  Abuse and emotional immaturity are explored with care and without judgement. Seen through the eyes of their son, it’s a revealing look at the things children observe which parents might not be aware they are taking in and understanding.

Final Thoughts
: The 2019 nominees feature a nice selection of animated shorts that don’t shy away from emotional issues and adult matters. Many people see a film like the charming Bao and think that’s what all nominated shorts are like and it’s nice to see the Academy being inclusive of material and themes that cater to a more discerning taste that challenge us.  Four of these clearly target the emotional cortex of the voter while Animal Behaviour is aimed straight at the funny bone.  I found Late Afternoon and One Small Step to be the ones that stuck around in my mind in the days that followed and could easily see one of those two emerging with a gold statue.

Movie Review ~ Isn’t it Romantic


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A young woman disenchanted with love mysteriously finds herself trapped inside a romantic comedy.

Stars: Rebel Wilson, Adam DeVine, Liam Hemsworth, Priyanka Chopra, Betty Gilpin, Jacqueline Honulik

Director: Todd Strauss-Schulson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 88 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: A fun thing happened in 2018, audiences finally got a genuine romantic comedy that broke new ground and did killer box office. That movie was Crazy Rich Asians and it restored some faith I had that Hollywood knew how to craft an old-fashioned yet modern romance and layered it with a decent amount of comedy. For a movie that was admittedly formulaic and strategically designed to press every button in the crowd-pleasing cortex of a movie-goers brain, it was remarkably well done and overwhelmingly entertaining.

For Valentine’s Day 2019, Warner Brothers (the studio behind Crazy Rich Asians) has taken a gamble in gently spoofing its own good fortune with the release of Isn’t it Romantic. This light-as-a feather send-up of romantic comedies shouldn’t work as well as it does but it gets extra mileage from its leading lady and in an array of clichés the filmmakers turn from been-there-done-that rehashes into something that feels fresh. Mostly, it’s a movie that sets up a joke and then beats itself to the punch by lampooning it’s corniness before the audience has a chance to.

Growing up, Natalie (Rebel Wilson, Pain & Gain) was always told the types of romance found in the movies are the stuff of fairy tales and would only happen to girls that are prettier and size zeros. Now living in a modest NYC apartment and holding down a job as an architect specializing in parking lots, she scoffs at her assistant’s (Betty Gilpin) passion for cheesy love stories while missing the obvious affection harbored by one of her coworkers (Adam DeVine, The Intern). To Natalie, true love doesn’t come with a pop soundtrack, a perfect wardrobe, and a loft dwelling no true New York 9-to-5er could ever afford.

When she bonks her head after an attempted mugging, she wakes up in an alternate reality where all of those things become real. Everywhere she goes she hears a Vanessa Carlton song, when she leaves the hospital she returns home to a gigantic apartment and designer wardrobe, and her stoner next door neighbor (Brandon Scott Jones, Can You Ever Forgive Me?) has now become her gay best friend armed with sass and flare. At work things have changed as well. While the love from her coworker remains unrequited, her assistant has transformed into a severe alpha female that’s become her competition instead of her support system.

Director Todd-Strauss-Schulson and the three credited female screenwriters have front-loaded the film with all the plot points that will come into play over the next brisk hour and a half. You can count on any sappy rom-com trope Natalie rolls her eyes at pre-head injury to come true when she’s living her new life, down to her hunky client (Liam Hemsworth, The Dressmaker) falling for her while she starts to have feelings for her office mate. It may be too late, though, as the friend-zoned guy has caught the eye of a beautiful yoga ambassador (Priyanka Chopra) who is fast-tracking their relationship.

With several engaging musical sequences interspersed and a cast that has come to play, it’s more than sporadically funny but undeniably a bit hollow when all is said and done. I appreciated that Wilson is honing in on what makes her comedy so appealing and is distancing herself from the bumbling mess she normally leans into. The role gives her opportunities to play physical comedy and capitalize on her charm, she’s a leading lady it’s easy to root for. There’s also nice work from Jones as a dreadfully stereotypical character that puts all that on hold for a heart-to-heart with Wilson in a sweet scene. DeVine is less offensively stupid than usual and Hemsworth and Chopra bite down hard on their roles as prime examples of perfect specimens.

Isn’t it Romantic plays it fairly loose much of the time, picking up threads and dropping them at will. There are plot gaps big enough to drive a flower truck of roses through but I’m guessing it’s not going to be that much of an issue for audiences that have come to have fun. The critic in me that loves follow-through would have liked to see more of Gilpin’s wicked side but I have a feeling much of her role was left on the cutting room floor in favor of keeping the film moving into another sprightly sequence of mirth. I also think there were some missed opportunities to directly send-up some notorious rom-coms that would have made the film feel a bit more meta.  Still, this is engineered as a perfect date film or a movie the gals can all see together and taken on those merits it succeeds in its mission.

Movie Review ~ The 2019 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Documentary

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT

Black Sheep (Directed by Ed Perkins)
Synopsis: Following the killing in 2000 of a 10-year-old boy of Nigerian descent, Cornelius Walker’s Nigerian mother, fearing that her sons could also be targeted, moves her family from London to Essex. Their housing estate is filled with racists, however, prompting Cornelius to go to extremes to fit in and find friendship.
Review: This documentary boasts a strong central subject in Cornelius Walker and benefits greatly whenever he’s onscreen relaying his story of moving to a suburb of London and the racism he encountered as a teenager.  How he adapted is startling, challenging, and not in any way you might expect.  Yet I was left mighty conflicted with this one because so much of it comes in the form of dramatic reenactments.  I guess I’m more used to documentaries featuring more substantive footage than just a taped interview spliced together with (well-made) re-created sequences.  Director Ed Perkins nicely weaves the real Walker in with his cinematic younger self at times but I kept wanting the picture to grab me more than it did.


End Game
(Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman)
Synopsis: At Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, teams of medical professionals, social workers and counselors work with patients and their families to ensure that their end-of-life care is compassionately tailored to their needs while also trying to alleviate their fears about death.
Review:  Available on Netflix, End Game is a tough watch in that it deals with the stark reality of death in very frank terms.  Following a palliative care team at a California hospital as well as taking us inside a hospice, directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman approach their subjects with compassion and care but don’t candy coat the proceedings.  As someone who has had a parent go through a hospice experience, I would have preferred perhaps a bit more emphasis on that side of things because while we are introduced to the care teams there isn’t time to dig deeper than the surface explanations as to how they came to do what they do.  It takes a special soul to do this work and hearing more about what brought them there would be comforting as well.


Lifeboat
(Directed by Skye Fitzgerald)
Synopsis: In 2016, the German nonprofit Sea-Watch aids refugees braving the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Europe. One such rescue mission, piloted by British captain Jon Castle, plucks refugees from several tiny boats and carries them to safety. During the journey, the refugees reveal how poverty, violence and sexual trafficking forced them to flee their homes.
Review: I feel like every year there is a documentary about immigration and the rescue attempts by foreign countries that step in and provide care for refugees that are fleeing their country.  This year that nominee is Lifeboat and unfortunately, there isn’t much being said here that hasn’t been captured in similar films in the recent past.  Once again, the short running length doesn’t give audiences a chance to get their bearings with the crew, much less the rescued people, before the credits are rolling.  Aside from Jon Castle, a reasonably appealing grizzled sea captain, everyone sort of blends together and become footnotes in their own story.


A Night at the Garden
(Directed by Marshall Curry)
Synopsis: On February 20, 1939, more than 20,000 Americans gathered in Madison Square Garden to celebrate the rise of Nazism. Archival footage shows the speech given by Fritz Kuhn, the leader of the German American Bund, as he urges his supporters to mistrust the media and free America from the influence of Jews.
Review: At seven minutes long, this is the shortest documentary nominee I’ve seen and one of the strangest.  Featuring never before seen footage of a Nazi gathering at Madison Square Garden in 1939 before Hitler’s rise, there’s no context given or much in the way of directing your attention.  It plays like newsreel footage that is missing narration and, while it carries a passing curiosity as an anecdote for Madison Square Garden or a pre-World War II era scholar, it doesn’t do much to raise the interest of a casual viewer.


Period. End of Sentence.
(Directed by Rayka Zehtabchi)
Synopsis: In the rural village of Hapur, outside of Delhi, India, women hope to make feminine hygiene supplies easily available and end the stigma surrounding menstruation, which often results in girls having to drop out of school. A machine that makes sanitary pads is installed, and the women operating it find financial security and independence.
Review:  Ending on a strong-ish note, the least somber of the documentary shorts is certainly Period. End of Sentence. which follows a tiny village in India that receives a machine that can make sanitary pads.  Operated by the women of the village who can then sell the pads, there’s an energy to this entry that felt strangely absent from the other nominees.  Helping to liberate young girls and women from the stigma of negotiating their monthly cycle within a community that isn’t equipped to address it, the machine represents a newfound freedom that inspires many.  A definite crowd-pleaser, it may not be the most technically well-made of the bunch but for me it was the most memorable.  Also, this one feels like it could eventually be turned into a narrative feature film — the story is strong enough to support it.


Final Thoughts
: Usually, the documentary shorts is the one category I can rely on to be strong. In past years I’ve had positive responses to most, if not all of the nominees, and can easily see why they made the cut.  This year, I was pretty disappointed in the selections and while I can understand how their topics would have elevated them to the visibility of the Academy and its voting body, I didn’t find any of them to be outright Oscar winners.  So it’s hard to tell which film might wind up taking the award.  I could see voters responding to the conflict within Black Sheep and rewarding the filmmaking style, but it feels more like a feature film than a documentary. Period. End of Sentence. will likely be the easiest to digest which could be good news for that entry but might A Night at the Garden take the prize because of its sheer simplicity?  Even though the category is overall disappointing, this is a tough call.

Movie Review ~ What Men Want

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A woman is boxed out by the male sports agents in her profession, but gains an unexpected edge over them when she develops the ability to hear men’s thoughts.

Stars: Taraji P. Henson, Josh Brener, Aldis Hodge, Tamala Jones, Tracy Morgan, Shane Paul McGhie, Erykah Badu, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Max Greenfield

Director: Adam Shankman

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Now that Hollywood seems to be ushering in a full reboot/remake renaissance, they’ve taken it a step further and tried their hand at gender-bending these properties. We’ve already seen the disappointing results of the flips of 2016’s Ghostbusters and 2018’s Overboard but then again Ocean’s Eight last year was a cool treat in early summer. With gender swapped remakes of Splash, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and even The Rocketeer (!!) either in production or in development, it’s nice to see filmmakers thinking outside of the box and beyond gender because when it works it can be fun. So while What Men Want isn’t the most wholly original or even the most well-constructed comedy you’ll see this year, it’s still an unusually entertaining piece that finds the funny in some unique places.

Updating the 2000 rom-com What Women Want from a male-led piece about a chauvinist that sees the error of his ways when he starts to hear the thoughts of women actually makes a lot of sense. There’s ample room for comedy in making the lead a female sports agent who can hear what men are thinking and using it to her advantage as she subverts a boys club that continues to keep her from a promotion she deserves. The three credited screenwriters jettisoned the majority of the material from the original film, keeping only the basic concept of one person being privy to the inner thoughts of the opposite sex.

Hotshot agent Ali (Taraji P. Henson, Ralph Breaks the Internet) is at the top of her game in the all-male sports agency she works for. Though she has signed a stable of highly decorated athletes, she hasn’t yet broken into the big leagues and, according to her boss, that’s what’s kept her from being promoted to partner. When she’s passed over yet again for the recognition she deserves, she puts everyone on notice that she’ll be the one to sign the firm’s most desired client: the hottest basketball star (Shane Paul McGhie) who comes with a difficult-to-please father (Tracy Morgan, The Boxtrolls).  Attending a bachelorette party that same night, she gets her tarot cards read by a psychic (Erykah Badu) who recognizes that she needs some help at work. Drinking a suspicious tea prepared by the psychic before going out for a night of partying, Ali gets too much into the spirit of the dance and hits her head, only to awake with a new gift/curse of being able to hear what men are thinking. As expected, much of the private thoughts reveal men to be disgusting pigs but they also show them to be just as self-deprecating, vulnerable, and sensitive as their female counterparts. At first, Ali wants to rid herself of this newfound power but after visiting the psychic again she realizes she can parlay this gift into getting the upper hand on the men in her life that have held her back.

At nearly two hours, What Men Want wants a better editor as the film is a good 20 minutes too long. Director Adam Shankman (Rock of Ages) can’t seem to shore up the action to give the film a satisfactory rhythm so the movie becomes funny only in first and spurts. The time in between the laughs can be rough going, rarely fully redeemed by the comedy no matter how strong it may be.   It seems to me there’s large gaps in the movie from scenes that either were removed or never written because there are threads that are left dangling or huge leaps of faith audience members need to take without much explanation.

It’s lucky, then, that the film has Henson in the driver’s seat at she’s a genuinely strong comedian that balances good comic timing with believably dramatic sincerity. She’s appropriately freaked out when the voices start to come on loud and strong and manages to sell a shoddy sequence near the end where she spills some very private secrets in a very public setting. There’s a side plot featuring a romance between her and a widowed dad (Aldis Hodge, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back) that doesn’t quite work, mostly because it doesn’t generate any laughs and we are, after all, in a comedy.  I also appreciated that there’s a bit more holding Ali back than her gender or her race, the suggestion is that she doesn’t relate well to men and that seems to be confirmed by everyone in her life at one point during the film.  While the movie ultimately misses out on the opportunity to explore this opportunity for personal growth to the fullest, it’s an interesting piece to introduce, if not fully explore.

The movie has a secret weapon, though, and it’s Badu’s downright spectacular work as the kooky psychic. She’s a ninja in the art of scene stealing and don’t be surprised if you find yourself wondering where her character is when the movie starts to slow down as it approaches the 90 minute mark. Thankfully, she pops up again in the credits so make sure to stay and catch her act. As Ali’s long-suffering assistant, Josh Brener (The Internship) is fine in a stereotypical role the screenwriters try to be creative with but I wish he had better chemistry with Henson because they never seem to truly enjoy one another. Though Morgan is bewilderingly billed above the title with Henson and shares equal position on the poster, he’s barely in the movie.

What Women Want was already remade in 2011 in China but this is the first true re-imagining of the movie and, for the most part, it works. Would the film have been better if a little more attention had been paid to the script to fill in some plot holes and excised a bit more of the romance subplot? Sure. Would I have liked to see more of dependable character actress Wendi McLendon-Covey (Blended)? Of course. Does the film work in spite of all its ungainly faults as a rainy day harm-free matinee? Absolutely.

Movie Review ~ The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: It’s been five years since everything was awesome and the citizens are facing a huge new threat: LEGO DUPLO® invaders from outer space, wrecking everything faster than they can rebuild.

Stars: Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Channing Tatum, Tiffany Haddish, Will Arnett

Director: Mike Mitchell

Rated: PG

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Admittedly, I wasn’t the biggest champion of 2014’s The LEGO® Movie and I fully recognize I was certainly in the minority. In fact, while many were gnashing their teeth when the film failed the land an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature I was silently in my own little corner doing a small victory dance. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the film for its creativity but it was largely an obnoxious exercise of meta self-referential humor that took a misguided turn in its last act by bringing in a live-action subplot that failed to connect. Re-watching the film before heading out for the sequel screening only confirmed my original feelings that the movie was a colorful lark struggling to be more than the sum of its one-joke parts.

With the overall success of the original film and two other LEGO follow-ups released in 2017, The LEGO® Batman Movie (which I quite enjoyed) and The LEGO® Ninjago Movie (the one I haven’t seen), it was only a matter of time before Warner Brothers reassembled the players for a second outing and they’ve largely delivered more of the same. So fans of the original should be pleased while those that didn’t necessarily fall out of their seats for the first helping won’t find anything here to convert them. Sadly, the weakest element of the first film (the live-action scenes) is the one thing the filmmakers decided to expand upon here, creating an even greater disconnect between the action and the audience.

Nicely connecting with the original by picking up in the last few moments of the first film, the sequel introduces our heroes to an alien race (Duplo blocks) that sets about destroying the world they had just saved from the evil President Business (Will Ferrell, Daddy’s Home). Five years later, Emmet (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World). Lucy (Elizabeth Banks, People Like Us) and their friends have built Apocalypseburg out of the ruins of what was once their thriving community of Bricksburg. Even in the face of a life considerably less awesome, Emmet is resolutely positive, much to the frustration of his more grounded life partner Lucy.  Wanting a life of peace and harmony, Emmet even builds a quaint suburban style house for Lucy in the midst of the ruins they now call home.

It’s only when General Sweet Mayhem from the Duplo army arrives and kidnaps Lucy, Batman, and their other friends and brings them to the Systar system to meet Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish, Girls Trip) that Emmet is forced into action. The Queen wants to marry Batman and unite their worlds to gain ultimate power and it’s up to Emmet and his new friend Rex (also voiced by Pratt) to rescue his pals and stop the Queen before it’s too late. The adventure tests everyone as they are tempted by pop music distractions along the way, giving the movie ample opportunities to musicalize scenes and amp up the meta humor ten-fold.  (Reading this description back sounds like I’m telling a bedtime story to a toddler that’s only half-listening to me, doesn’t it?)

The first film saved the live-action reveal for the very end, showing the world we’d been watching was merely a playground for a young boy playing with his dad’s LEGO blocks. It didn’t make much sense then and it doesn’t make a lot more sense in the sequel that finds the boy and his sister having a turf war over their toys, forcing their mom (Maya Rudolph, Life of the Party) to step in and lay down the law. It never is clear just how the animated action is directly related to this live-action business and every time we switched to the actors badly going through their dialogue the movie ground to an interminable halt. Even the normally dependable Rudolph can’t turn the dial on this to make it funnier.

This is too bad because the film is once again beautifully animated and rendered with dazzling color and clarity. Far more musical than its predecessor (Haddish gets two songs of her own and the ear worm song, Everything is Awesome, comes back in several versions), the movie doesn’t break much new ground in terms of forwarding the story and it’s severely lacking the spark of invention that made the first film at least interesting. Now it’s just a good-looking movie with some fun nostalgia bits for seasoned movie-goers (you may need to see the movie twice to catch all of the references to other films) and a quaint message of self-acceptance Disney’s been making bank on for years.  With a run time stretching past 90 minutes and the longest end credits I’ve ever sat through, this is one you’ll need to think carefully on if you want to devote time to in theaters.  You’ll lose nothing by waiting to see this in the comfort of your own home.

Movie Review ~ They Shall Not Grow Old


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A documentary about World War I with never-before-seen footage to commemorate the centennial of the end of the war.

Director: Peter Jackson

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: With an abundance of celebrated feature films, made-for-TV movies, television series, and award-winning documentaries, I feel like I have a pretty well rounded knowledge of World War II. I’m not sure why, but it seems like that particular time in history has provided a wealth of opportunities to highlight the men and women that served their country and the horrors of the war they were fighting. I feel more than a little bit guilty in admitting I’m not nearly as familiar with the first World War; so, while I know the basics, it’s been some time since I’ve done any kind of deeper dive into it.

Spearheaded by Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, The Frighteners) the new documentary They Shall Not Grow Old isn’t the first film to explore the hell of the battlefield of The First World War but it’s in the way it is delivered that sets it apart (and, in some cases, above) similarly themed films. Using archival video from the Imperial War Museum and oral histories gathered from British servicemen, Jackson has crafted a strikingly immediate film that puts audiences right into the trenches.  With a personal connection to several of the soldiers that fought in the war, Jackson’s first documentary is (of course) a film that looks beautiful but also has a significant abundance of heart.

When war breaks out in July of 1914, a once-idyllic façade in England cracks, thrusting men as young as 15 into service fighting for their country. Though the 120 interviewees speaking aren’t identified until the end credits, each have a story about how they came to sign up and ship out into a war zone from which they may never return. These early sequences showcase an England and a people that might have been lost forever without this valuable film stock.  Seeing the faces of the enlisted men without a clue of what they were about to face is haunting.  The black and white footage that accompanies these early sections of the film (including establishing shots of soldiers training for battle and traveling to the frontline) gives way to a goosebump inducing moment when Jackson colorizes the film.

In transitioning to color, Jackson somehow makes things feel more “real” not just for the soldiers but for audiences as well. No shoddy colorization like you may have seen in old I Love Lucy episodes or that awful version of It’s a Wonderful Life, Jackson’s special effects team has painstakingly taken care in making wise choices in color and tone. It’s an astonishing effect and coupled with added sound effects, vocals, and a few tweaks to the film here and there, it helps the footage to feel brand new. Some showings of the film will also be in 3D and here is another example where I think the upgrade is worth it, adding that extra depth helped bring some of these amazing images even further into focus.

If there’s one thing that keeps the movie from being an outright winner it’s a saggy middle that finds Jackson falling into repetition in certain stories and images. I know he didn’t have a lot of material to work with to illustrate specific moments that are described in interviews but there are some images and film footage that are used multiple times to represent several different incidents. These become distracting after a while and near the end there are events described that have no accompanying footage so they are paired with artist renderings instead.  All in all, the film feels right on target when the stories being relayed in the voice-overs match up with the film footage (much of which has never been seen prior to this release) is being shown.

While it shouldn’t substitute for some good old fashioned cracking opening of a book, They Shall Not Grow Old is quite a remarkable achievement as a historical documentary. Managing to deliver a unique holistic overview of The Great War using innovative technology and narration culled from interviews by those that lived through it, it’s a sobering experience that benefits from a viewing on a big screen.

Movie Review ~ The Kid Who Would Be King

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A band of kids embark on an epic quest to thwart a medieval menace.

Stars: Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Rebecca Ferguson, Dean Chaumoo, Tom Taylor, Rhianna Dorris, Angus Imrie, Patrick Stewart, Denise Gough

Director: Joe Cornish

Rated: PG

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Is it too early to make a reference to a song from Mary Poppins Returns? Oh well, I’m going for it anyway as I kick off this review. In one of the highlight numbers in that 2018 family film, Mary sings that “The cover is not the book, so open it up and take a look” and that more than applies to The Kid Who Would Be King, a movie I easily looked past as a 10am Saturday screening was drawing near. Usually, family movies that screen early in the morning on weekends were films I decided against and the title just didn’t appeal to me in the slightest. Convinced to go by my partner who loves these types of medieval tales, I’m so glad I gave in because this is a dandy of a film that works on multiple levels, delivering entertainment for all ages.

Whether you’ve grown up on the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table or are like me and have just seen Disney’s The Sword in the Stone a whole bunch of times, you’ll already be familiar with the colorfully animated prologue that opens the movie. Detailing the magic and mystery surrounding the legendary King, his sword Excalibur, and the power struggle he waged with his evil half-sister Morgana, King Arthur represented the best of what people could aspire to be while Morgana fed off people’s unhappiness. Banishing his witchy sis to an underground prison after she tried to overthrow his rule, we understand the power anyone possessing the sword Excalibur will wield. Flashing forward thousands of years to an alternate universe modern day London that is considerably more downtrodden (newspapers feature depressing headlines of global despair), it’s clear the golden days of Camelot are finally fading.

Unbeknownst to him, young Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) is about to become the hero he never knew he could be. Living with his single mom and trying to survive the school day with his friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) without being bullied by Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris), he’s an ordinary kid about to go on an extraordinary journey. On his way home on night, he evades Lance and Kaye by entering a construction site where he finds Excalibur, unleashing its awesome power and corresponding enemies at the same time. Now, with Morgana gaining strength and sending her minions to retrieve the sword, Alex must enlist his friend and their bullies to form a present-day Knights of the Round Table and defeat the sorceress before she can break free and condemn the world to darkness.

Director and screenwriter Joe Cornish has given us something we don’t get that often – an original story. Remarkably, The Kid Who Would Be King isn’t an adaptation of a previous YA novel or based off of a video game. It’s a fresh product from a director that has injected his film with equal amounts of nostalgia and fun. I’ve seen the movie compared favorably to The Goonies and E.T. and I can see where people are making the connection but this very much charts its own course as well. It’s not the most polished family-centric film you’ll see this year and there are some filmmaking dots that aren’t connected as nicely as I would have liked but it’s exuberance more than makes up for any gaps in plot or pace.

Cornish has cast the film well with amiable child actors that don’t prove cloying or earnest with the material. Serkis (who looks remarkably like his talented dad, Andy) leads the film with distinction, handling the fantasy elements with easy while navigating some emotional terrain quite believably. I also quite liked Chaumoo as his nebbish friend that turns his meekness into a virtue. If the two bullies feel a bit one-dimensional and their arc of redemption a little stale, it isn’t the fault of Taylor and Dorris who do more than go through the motions with their stock characters. There’s a spirited supporting turn by Angus Imrie as a teenaged Merlin who only changes into the aged wizard (Patrick Stewart, Green Room) to make a point…like a mom using your middle name when she means business. As Morgana, Rebecca Ferguson (The Greatest Showman) is little more than a cameo but she slinks around her well-rendered dirty dungeon nicely.

At a solid two hours and featuring a few supposed climaxes, the movie stretches things just a tad longer than necessary but it’s a small nitpick for a film that works wondrously most of the time. Though it ends with the suggestion a sequel is possible, it doesn’t feel like this was always intended to be the kick start of a new franchise. If Cornish and company were all game to return and the same spirited approach was taken, this could lead to something special that has a lasting impact on audiences.

Movie Review ~ Serenity (2019)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: The mysterious past of a fishing boat captain comes back to haunt him, when his ex-wife tracks him down with a desperate plea for help, ensnaring his life in a new reality that may not be all that it seems.

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Diane Lane, Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou, Jeremy Strong

Director: Steven Knight

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: When you’ve been following movies as long as I have, you tend you get a feel for when a stinker is approaching. Take Serenity as a prime example. Here you have a movie headlined by two Oscar winners featuring an additional two Oscar nominees in supporting roles written and directed by another Oscar nominated filmmaker arriving in cinemas with no promotion and no buzz. Even more curious is that it’s being released the same week Oscar nominations were announced, typically a popular weekend for audiences to catch up on films going for the gold. This is a movie everyone, including the fledgling studio that produced it, is clearly hoping will go away quietly.

Set on a small island community where the days are hot and the nights wet, the film opens with a heavy dose of overbaked Hemmingway finding fishing captain Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey, Magic Mike) obsessing over a monster tuna that continually evades him. Audiences prepped for a steamy thriller by the previews are in for an off-kilter start as tuna talk takes up a good twenty minutes at the offset with McConaughey jabbering on about this fish to his first mate (Djimon Hounsou, The Legend of Tarzan), the town floozy (Diane Lane, Man of Steel), and anyone else within earshot. It’s not until a blonde bombshell from his past (Anne Hathaway, The Intern) enters the picture that the cash strapped Dill gets lured away from the titan tuna and hooked into a murder plot that leads to several large twists.

Written and directed by Steven Knight, who earned an Oscar nomination for 2002’s Dirty Pretty Things and was responsible for the hackneyed script for 2018’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web, the crux of Serenity hinges on a plot twist so bonkers that when I figured out it was coming I was almost begging for it not to be true. Even though it makes the film harder to review, I won’t spoil it for you. The twist comes from such a strange place and is at times so outright bizarre that I could see it almost working had Knight fully committed to it from the beginning. When it’s revealed around the halfway mark it just doesn’t hold up if you carefully replay the first part of the movie back in your mind.

That’s not to say Serenity might not have been a moderately enjoyable bit of C-movie trash had it been released as a Netflix original film with a lesser lauded cast. There’s something about the gathering of this caliber of talent that instantly elevates the movie to a higher level of prestige and, in doing so, invites a closer scrutiny of everyone involved. If the film starred Chris Pine and Mila Kunis in place of McConaughey and Hathaway, for example, I don’t think we’d be running the film through the same wringer. Knight’s script is heavy to the point of Mel Brooks spoofing on noir symbolism (though admittedly there’s a reason for that) and he’s given everyone at least one doozy of a line they have to deliver with a straight face. Example, from Hathaway: “You gave me this ring and said, ‘With this stupid ring, I thee wed, baby’…I memorized that.” Really? She memorized that? I mean, it’s not Shakespeare but…

Thinking about the performances after the fact, I’m wondering if only one actor knew about the twist. How else to explain the disconnect between what we know as an audience and what is being happening on screen. McConaughey plays things so deadly serious that you can’t help but laugh at his misguided intensity at the most minor of emotions. His reaction to catching a fish is pretty much in line with deciding whether or not to kill Hathaway’s abusive husband (a snarling Jason Clarke, All I See Is You). He’s either drunkenly stumbling around the island or cliff jumping naked into a deep blue vision quest. Some may find it worth the price of admission just for the gratuitous shots of McConaughey’s rump, which I think gets more screen time than Diane Lane.

Hathaway doesn’t seem like much of a femme fatale in my book and though she admirably goes for it here, I prefer her taking on bad girl roles that have a sly wink to them (think Oceans 8) instead of the cold calculation of her character here. I often wondered why Lane wasn’t playing this part instead – she seemed like a better fit for the role. As the lone voice of reason in an increasingly crazed cast of characters, Hounsou does what he can with his thankless role and Jeremy Strong (The Judge) kept my attention as a mysterious man following McConaughey’s every move.

Sometimes a movie is so bad I feel like recommending it just so we can have that shared experience of saying we survived it together. Right now, with the way our country is going and the amount of problems we’re facing…adding Serenity to that list seems irresponsible. It’s a movie you absolutely should avoid at all costs and skip over when it inevitably pops up on your streaming service in a month or so. Everyone involved is capable of better – even the title needed more thought.

Movie Review ~ Minding the Gap


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Three young men bond together to escape volatile families in their Rust-Belt hometown. As they face adult responsibilities, unexpected revelations threaten their decade-long friendship.

Stars: Kiere Johnson, Bing Liu, Zack Mulligan

Director: Bing Liu

Rated: NR

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Part of the joy of a documentary film done right is getting an insider look into a world different from your own and gaining some knowledge into a unique human experience. Sometimes that world is on the other side of the globe and sometimes, like in Minding the Gap, that new understanding can be found just a few states over. The three men at the center of Minding the Gap feel like people I’ve known or could have grown up with; that is, Midwestern guys from blue collar families that don’t want to grow up to be like their parents. Finding solace and friendship in skateboarding culture, their lives may center around that thrill seeking rush of adrenaline but as they take on more adult roles not all make the transition to maturity with ease.

Filmmaker Bing Liu brings audiences into his life as well as the lives of his friends Kiere and Zack over several years as the three deal with personal struggles and set-backs. Each bring a different set of conflicts to the table. Liu’s childhood involves unresolved issues with his immigrant single mother that brought an abusive stepfather into his life, leaving lasting emotional scars that have never healed between parent and child. Losing his dad unexpectedly just as he is entering manhood, Kiere pushes down that pain as he tries to find a male role model to guide him through his formative years…and quickly realizes his core group of older friends aren’t much wiser than he is. Then there’s the charismatic Zack, raised in a tumultuous home by young parents who seems destined to repeat history with his own girlfriend and infant son.

When the film began, I sort of slumped in my seat because I was expecting it to go in a totally different direction. I assumed it would be more focused on the skateboarding and didn’t see the emotional heft of the movie that, looking back on it now, was hiding in plain sight. While there are terrifically filmed scenes of grit as various skateboarders bob and weave around downtown Rockford, IL like locomotives (creating enough tension that my palms started to sweat like they did in Free Solo),  the skateboarding becomes the bright spot of the film to break away from the more emotionally taxing moments.

As he continues to peel away layers, it’s clear that Liu begins to discover things about himself and his friends he never considered when he started making the film. That’s what sets Minding the Gap apart from so many similar documentaries and what keeps your eyes glued to the screen, you just never know what turns the film will take next. It helps that Liu isn’t afraid to turn the camera around and direct the tough questions he asks of others to himself. Even at only 93 minutes, the movie gave me hints of Boyhood in that it truly shows its subjects growing right before our eyes. Where these people end up is so far from where they begin – it’s a remarkable achievement in documentary filmmaking.