Up The Spout Again

SPOILERS

Ohh, geez… what happened here? What were y’all thinking? I don’t even have the energy to be mad at this one; I barely have the energy to write — this is decidedly not good. If this were Spider-Man fanfiction, I’d say it was the best ever put to paper, but as an official movie from Marvel Studios? Not. Gonna. Cut. It.

A la my bullet point review of Captain America: Civil War, I’mma give this movie the same bewitched, bothered and bewildered treatment.

  • Who approved this script and are they still employed by Sony or Marvel?
  • Did we really need a Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue recreation for a movie of this caliber?
  • Why erase everyone’s memory of Peter Parker at the end if you’re trying to extend Tom Holland’s contract?
  • In fact, Holland patently wants out — why not kill his Spidey? Woke folk are chomping at the bit to see Miles Morales make his live-action debut.
  • How come Peter doesn’t get to go to college after said erasure? A GED for a kid as smart as him? Pah.
  • Doctor Strange, you’re a selfish coward. You should have sacrificed your legacy instead of an eighteen year-old kid’s.
  • Hi, Thomas Haden Church! Bye, Thomas Haden Church!
  • This movie treats the audience almost the way Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End did… or, you know, Spider-Man 3.
  • Hi, Rhys Ifans! Bye, Rhys Ifans!
  • Where’s Kirsten Dunst? I’d like to see some proof to Tobey’s claims!
  • Sony proudly recycles on their film sets, which explains why Norman Osborn is who he is in this movie.

As I said of Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, I have no idea what movie the critics saw, but judging by their gushy reviews, I’m willing to bet LSD was involved.

Answer The Call

Absolutely brilliant! It took over thirty years and an extremely disappointing reboot, but we, the viewers have finally gotten our prodigal scion from the Ghostbusters franchise with the third chapter, Ghostbusters: Afterlife!

Helmed by Jason Reitman (Juno, Young Adult), noted son of original director Ivan, we pick up as time left off. Egon Spengler (the late, great Harold Ramis) has died, and his estranged daughter (Carrie Coon, “Fargo”), down on her luck and evicted from her home, takes her children, Trevor (Finn Wolfhard, “Stranger Things”) and Phoebe (Mckenna Grace, Annabelle Comes Home) to her reluctant inheritance — Egon’s old digs (and mountains of debt) in a backward town in Oklahoma… but there is more. Old haunts begin to resurrect; alliances once worn thin are retied, and the adventure of a lifetime, cliché though it is, will come to life… after death!

Let’s get this out of the way — this is a fantastic movie! Too often a long-awaited sequel is smothered by the familiarity of nostalgia, be it as far apart as Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens or even as short a wait as it took for The Mummy Returns, but in the case of Ghostbusters, we are given beats and references that are familiar, and yet, the paths taken are ever so different that it feels fresh, not stale. Expect the unexpected is the order of the day with this movie, and while that may stir fears of those who saw the reboot and left with a bad taste in their mouth (as I did), fear not — Reitman and his co-writer, Gil Kenan (Monster House) treats this film and franchise with the same reverence and respect that was given to films like Christopher Robin! It’s bizarrely one of the most heartwarming films of the year!

Further, whereas the reboot was drowning in poor acting (comedic and otherwise) and lousy visual effects, we are treated to excellent examples of both cases. I was surprised by the latter, as Reitman has never done a franchise blockbuster, or indeed, a blockbuster at all, but he is under the guiding hands of his father, and one could argue that his directing the (abysmal) visual effects-heavy Men, Women & Children only played in his favor! The ghosts in the film are genuinely scary and never once does this exude Robert Zemeckis-grade fakery. The acting is equally terrific, with excellent turns from Wolfhard and Grace, both breaking the norm of boring to cloying child actors and most endearing without being suffocating. Ms. Coon, previously known to many as Proxima Midnight (daughter to Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War), portrays the despair of single motherhood and parental estrangement with great skill, and when the time comes, brings the kindness and the scary sauce in equal measure. Also appearing is Paul Rudd (Ant-Man and the Wasp) as nerdy summer school teacher Mr. Grooberson, who brings his usual affability and kindly charm to the world of ghosts, but the real scene-stealing MVP is Logan Kim, in his debut movie, as a classmate of Phoebe’s known as Podcast. Unfazed by the events unfolding with some of the best jokes in the film, he’s a welcome addition to the fold!

Again, you have nothing to fear with this film — Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a sweet, loving third chapter in a long-cherished franchise that is every bit as great as the original films — dipping its toes into nostalgia without soaking its entire self in it, while still not betraying the (…heh-heh!) ghosts of its past. Jason Reitman has opened the door to a new chapter in his career as well, and I look forward to what becomes of that, in addition to this film!

“The franchise rights alone will make us rich beyond our wildest dreams!”

Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), “Ghostbusters” [1984]

We Live in a Self-Preservation Society

Theaters are (hopefully for reals this time I mean it damn it) reopening in spades, and while you have a movie made for the theatrical experience out this weekend as well — A Quiet Place: Part II — it’s well-matched by Disney’s latest live-action “remake,” Cruella. To be clear, this is neither a live-action remake of or live-action prequel to the animated movie or the 1996 live-action remake of that — consider it a soft reworking, much like Maleficent was.

The story, as portrayed by the film’s trailers, barely showcases a fifth of the movie, and I will not divulge it here, but what you get is a deliciously twisted, twisty story — not duplicitous, a problem that plagued tentpole movies like Atomic Blonde and Solo: A Star Wars Story, but twisty — you know not what to expect from this, trust me. Director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya) brings to life a sharp, biting screenplay with word after word bringing to mind The Devil Wears Prada meets David Mamet, and his actors bring performances to match! Under less inspired hands, this would have starred Margot Robbie (ugh) and Meryl Streep (UGH), but Emma Stone (La-La Land), also serving as an Executive Producer on the film, goes from innocent-looking pickpocket to psychotic nutcase with brilliance — I’ve never seen her play an out-and-out villain before, and she may not have played one until now, but what a way to break into the crew! It should be mentioned here and now that despite the Disney tag, the character of Cruella is not nearly as humanized as Maleficent was (you can put down the Molotovs, PETA), but one can definitely tell there was once a lost child in the character.

The dueling Emma, Ms. Thompson (Sense & Sensibility), commands the screen as much as Cruella does — the auditorium fell silent when she delivered her first monologue; you could have heard a pin drop — she pours on the creepy sauce and doesn’t stop; truly one of the best ladies of the English cinema and stage! Joel Fry (Yesterday) and Paul Walter Hauser (Richard Jewell) play as Jasper and Horace, Cruella’s erstwhile partners-in-crime, and while Hauser is funny as the idiotic one, it’s surprisingly Fry who gives humanity to the henchman, serving as the conscience on the lady’s shoulder… make of that what you will!

As much as I don’t want to say the movie is an audio-visual feast, it’s an audio-visual feast! Filmed in digital with a color scheme and grain structure suggesting the original The Italian Job and peppered with songs of the era (the 1970’s) and then some, the film plays a sort of carnal, lustful look at the worlds of fashion and theft — how the other half lived and how beauty corrupts everyone… absolutely everyone.

Lush and sharp as an acid-soaked whip, Cruella is a terrific live-action reworking that gloriously removes the stain of Mulan (2020), and though it’s available as a $30 extra on Disney+, you owe it to the theaters of America (to say nothing of your senses) to see it on the biggest screen nearest you! Again, if you think you know what to expect from this movie, rest assured – you do not! As the DeVil herself says, there’s much more bad things coming!

Just Around The Riverbend

There comes a time in every man’s and woman’s life that they wonder what the hell they’re doing and if people even care about them. I myself wonder that all the time; I don’t know a soul who doesn’t, and we all have ways of dealing with that. I take sanctuary in the nearest movie theater, and this week’s new release, an adaptation of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, proved refreshing and cathartic — just the right thing at the right time.

The film chronicles the story of Buck, a large St. Bernard belonging to a California judge at his wit’s end of how to deal with him — until Buck is stolen, shipped off and sold as a work dog in Skagway, Alaska. There, a series of events that take place shape his life, and after a chance encounter with lonely traveler John Thornton (Harrison Ford, The Age of Adaline), they plot a trail to finish a long-forgotten journey.

Having not read the classic novel on which it is based, I had to judge Call on what I saw, and to me, it brings to mind the best of the Disney Renaissance, and that is in great part due to its director, Chris Sanders — noted animator and story collaborator on Disney films beginning with Beauty and the Beast [1991], he takes to this film his love for human-animal relationships that he experimented with in Lilo & Stitch and expanded in DreamWorks’ How To Train Your Dragon and now perfects with his live-action debut under the newly-reminted 20th Century Studios. Plus, his animation background doubtless helped in the creation of Buck as a digital character, which, while it seems a big pill to swallow based on the film’s trailers, he quickly grew on me as a living creature, while still maintaining an animated nature, but in the best sense — think not Robert Zemeckis, but Don Bluth.

As for the film’s actors, in particular Harrison Ford, this is unlike any film I’ve seen him be a part of — it must have been very close to his heart, as he’s truly in his element, among the vast landscapes, mountains and trees of British Columbia (standing in for Alaska and the Yukon Territory). He’s in as fine a form as I’ve seen him, bringing to mind the best of Robert Redford in Jeremiah Johnson — plus, his portrayal of Thornton, a man broken by loss who finds joy in man’s best friend, brings to the film a charming and a welcome change of pace from the almost guaranteed schlock that releases in the first quarter of the year. Supporting cast members include Omar Sy (Jurassic World) as the kindly mail carrier Perrault, who provides Buck with friendship of his kind and of humans at the first. Surprising me with his entrance was Dan Stevens (Beauty and the Beast [2017]), going full creepy as the film’s villain, and it’s a welcome, continued change of pace for himself and us viewers.

I was feeling jaded and rather uncaring when I went to the theater, fully prepared to despise The Call of the Wild, expecting a discount Togo (I had even planned to title this review “Nogo” in that event), but it’s a long time since I’ve been proven wrong at the cinema, and for that, I’m so very glad. It’s more than the usual man-and-his-dog movie; it’s a heartwarmer that comes at the right time of year, and from my point of view, it’s just what I needed at this moment, and you might, too — a life-affirming tale of finding your place in the world.

You’ll Find Enchantment Here

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The much-awaited Disney+ launched yesterday, and with it, a slew of exclusive films and shows – tucked among them is a live-action remake of 1955’s Lady and the Tramp — I know what you’re thinking; the inundation of live-action Disney remakes continues, but lest we forget, the original was a personal favorite of Walt Disney himself, and even among the herd of the unnecessary remakes (don’t see also: Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, Jon Favreau’s The Lion King), this one’s a keeper, but not for the reasons you may expect.

Here is where I’d regurgitate the story in capsule form, but why bother when this is familiar territory? The fact of the matter is that there is very little new in this take on Lady and the Tramp, and the truth is, that’s wonderful. Too many of the Disney remakes have made pathetic attempts to overemphasize “modern qualities” in their characters (don’t see also: Emma Watson and/or Josh Gad in Beauty and the Beast), whereas in two of their best, The Jungle Book and Cinderella, it’s as much about honoring the past as it is looking to the future — rather like Walt’s vision, no?

Director Charlie Bean (The LEGO Ninjago Movie) makes his live-action debut with this film, playing it as straight as Sir Kenneth Branagh did with Cinderella, not once making fun of the film’s innocence and delight, and rather expounding on the emotion it brings the audience. His knowledge of CG animation also helps in the digital additions to the real animals portraying such characters — this isn’t like Tim Burton’s Dumbo (I know, I reviewed it well. I was wrong.); the animals in question look adorably natural to the viewer. Performances reflect that, too — Tessa Thompson (Avengers: Endgame) plays Lady warmly and to her own strengths, rather than either impersonating prior actress Barbara Luddy or trying to fix what isn’t broken. Justin Theroux (Wanderlust) does the same; he’s charming as Tramp, but also gives him a longing soul in his characterization. Additional canine cast members feature the note-perfectly cast Sam Elliot (A Star Is Born) as bumbling bloodhound Trusty and Janelle Monáe (Hidden Figures) taking up where Peggy Lee left off as Peg — she of the song He’s A Tramp. Rewritten as a girl is Scottish terrier Jock (now short for Jacqueline), aptly played by Scottish comedienne Ashley Jensen (After Life), and while it’s a needless change, it still works, and quite well. An additional animal character is Bull, played by Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange), finally getting to use his natural English accent — appropriately, as an English bulldog!

Human characters are in fine form, too — blind casting doesn’t work well, in my eyes, for period pieces, so it comes off a little bit Once Upon A Time for me to see it here, but the actors behind them are putting their hearts full of love into this, and that sells their performance, so such an argument is basically invalid. Lady’s owners, Jim Dear (Thomas Mann, The Highwaymen) and Darling (Kiersey Clemons, Hearts Beat Loud) are adorable as a couple who never stop falling in love with each other, while minor villain Aunt Sarah (Yvette Nicole Brown, Community) does the atypical crazy cat lady/dog hater to a T. The real lynchpin of the equation, though, comes from Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus), not as a villain, but as Tony, the serenading owner of the iconic Italian restaurant where the classic “Bella Notte” scene takes place. It brought a genuine tear to my eye, as it will for anyone else viewing it!

As said previously, while the movie doesn’t deviate from the core storyline or the 1890’s setting, what changes are made are largely welcome in my eyes — among them (without spoiling), giving Tramp a backstory, just enough not to overstay its welcome and still explain, adding a definite villain (of sorts) and giving a lovely twist at the end of the second act that only fuels the lead-in to the conclusion. One change is a little perplexing to me; the reworking of Aunt Sarah’s villainous cats — how is it less offensive for them to be voiced by and performed as African American rather than Asian? It’s just mind-boggling to me; who stands to gain by such a change?

Still, with all being said, this version of Lady and the Tramp is wonderful fun and a loving reminder of simpler times. I know, it’s nothing new, but it’s kindly and charming; just the kind of tonic needed right now, and a lovely way to open up Disney+. I look forward to all the service has to offer now and in the future.

Rating: 4/5

The Lonely Man

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Edward Norton has been on something of a career resurgence lately. Almost a member of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, his then-pompous nature resulted in his dismissal from the franchise, to say nothing of being confined to a host of straight-to-video films for a few years. Now, in 2019, he brings himself back to the silver screen in front of and behind the camera for the first time since his brilliant 2000 debut, Keeping The Faith, with an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s noir novel Motherless Brooklyn, one that is a proud success, but not without a key misgiving.

In 1950’s New York, a Tourette’s-stricken man, Lionel Essrog (Norton), orphaned at a young age and a victim of abuse, is now a partner in a detective agency. The roof, such as it is, comes falling down on himself and his comrades when the leader of the pack, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis, Red) is murdered while on the hunt of a major case. Despite having little to go on, Lionel makes it his prerogative to bring Frank’s killers to justice, which entails a massively corrupt politician (Alec Baldwin, Glengarry Glen Ross), a victim of a housing crisis (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Belle), a mysterious informant (Willem Dafoe, The Lighthouse) and a story that will blow the city’s darkest secrets wide-open.

While the credits say this film is adapted from Lethem’s novel, Norton’s screenplay takes one major liberty with the text — that of resetting the time in which the story is set. The book is a product of the time it was written in, the 1990s, so the change from then to the 50s is quite baffling, to say the least; it almost renders the film a generic clone of films like Chinatown, but just almost. Norton delivers on his vision both as director and actor — he portrays Lionel not as a tragedy deserving of pity, but as a brilliant mind unrecognized in his time, and he plays his disability with respect and accuracy, as evidenced by the fact he actually consulted the Tourette’s Association of America for instruction and their blessing on the project. He clearly isn’t in this project for a hammy grab at an Oscar. As director, Norton moves the film at a brisk, clipping pace, stopping to muse only where necessary, keeping the film moving tautly, even at a 2 hour 28 minutes runtime. One could also argue (and I will) that relocating the movie to the 1950s requires more work to recreate the time and is a harder route to take than a 1990s setting, and Norton’s crew goes above and beyond in their delivery of that – from time-accurate subway cars to a recreation of how Penn Station used to look, this is an eye-candy binge of the best caliber, far beyond just vintage clothing styles and historical vehicles.

The supporting cast is in as fine a form as ever — Dafoe continues to prove his worth to the acting profession in his character’s strength and duplicity; you’re never really sure of who or what he is, and too many great actors still can’t get duplicity right in their characterization. Baldwin plays villainous Moses Randolph as a sick sadist with no care for his fellow men — autobiographical, no?

Willis, another vastly underrated quantity of an actor, while not entirely present in the flesh in this film, is the driving force behind this story — what time he has on the screen is as a principled man who functions as Lionel’s moral compass; when he goes, Lionel has next to nothing to go on, both in emotions and his work, and when Ms. Mbatha-Raw appears as activist Laura Rose, he finds greater purpose in his growing love for her — Mbatha-Raw plays Laura as one of the few shining lights of truth in a dark, uncaring world, and far from either an atypical damsel in distress or femme fatale that plague noir films.

Motherless Brooklyn may not please fans of the novel owing to its time displacement, and its anti-sensationalist performances won’t get it any Oscar nods, but I feel its embellishments and changes bring it right between my two favorite freely adapted films — David Lean’s Great Expectations and Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz. Further, I can safely say as a person with Asperger Syndrome who’s seen his fair share of ghoulish portrayals of disabilities (don’t see also: Cuba Gooding Jr., Radio; Jacob Tremblay, Wonder), this is probably the most respectful portrayal of a disabled person since Rain Man, and like that film, this doesn’t fall prey to tired tropes about such conditions. Bravo, Mr. Norton; your return is most welcome.

Rating: 5/5

Déja Vu

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De-aging an actor is something of a commonplace bit of tech work in today’s moviemaking culture, but it was the stuff dreams are made of as late as the early 2000’s, and in 1992, it was the very thing that shelved Darren Lemke’s script for a film titled Gemini Man. Directed by master filmmaker Ang Lee (Life of PiSense and Sensibility) (and  in no way related to a 70’s TV show of the same name,) the story centers around hitman-cum-retiree Henry Brogan (Will Smith, Men In Black), who is put on the run when his former contractors order him killed and send a threat his way — one he knows all too well, for the threat is his clone.

Let’s not beat about the bush — while it is set in the present day, this movie feels dated, with a lot of talking and unexplained plot, but in the best possible sense — it oozes all the elements of a classic 1990’s action thriller; think Face/Off meets GoldenEye. I love movies that echo a different time, whether literally, like The Artist or in spirit, like The Shape of Water. This plays into the movie’s innate history — grounded since its purchase, the film underwent many attempts at manifestation, under the batons of directors Tony Scott, Curtis Hanson and Joe Carnahan, to say nothing of a litany of stars attached, from Harrison Ford to Clint Eastwood, and each time, technology had not advanced to the point where an actor could be convincingly de-aged.

Fortunately, since then, the industry has been treated to multiple textbook examples of great de-aging in films, and Gemini Man is no exception, but an added twist comes into play from director Lee — having filmed his last movie, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk in an unheard-of 120 frames per second 3D, he did just that again with this film. While its wide exhibition is largely shows at 60fps, it still works, and it works much better than Peter Jackson’s 48fps attempt with The Hobbit, as the high frame rate sells realism easier with a contemporary action film than it did with medieval fantasy. This is a cinematographic eye candy binge, going above a mere tech demo and giving the viewer plenty of bang for their bucks. For that matter, it isn’t just tech that sells the film; it has terrifically choreographed fight scenes, lush locales and camerawork that never makes for a sickening 3D experience, and all this from the man with a CV that goes from Sense & Sensibility to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Bravo.

Those fearing another After Earth-style stoic cringefest from Will Smith need not worry; he knows that the role of Henry Brogan isn’t an Oscar worthy performance, but he doesn’t ham it up as either version of his character, which is always appreciated by this critic. Costars feature Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Live Free or Die Hard) as a defense operative colleague of Henry’s and Benedict Wong (Avengers: Endgame) as a resourceful pilot, but I largely feel they are unnecessary, and this could have easily been a “running man” style of film, with Henry left to fend for himself against himself. The villain of the film is played by Clive Owen (The International), who isn’t given much to work with, but he’s quite capable of being bad, and in a very different way which will be made apparent when you see the film.

Gemini Man is a fun movie that, while not anything revolutionary in its script, is just that in its visual affects and brilliant use of high frame rate photography. It begs to be seen in high frame rate 3D (which is now wisely being marketed as “3D+”), and again, while it feels like a movie of yesteryear, it most certainly doesn’t play that way.

Rating: 3.5/5

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Vindicated

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Left eye, motherf**ka!

SPOILERS WITHIN

In the backlogs of this blog, you will find a horrendously scathing review of 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, which I found to be a dishonorable mess and a poor facsimile of a John Hughes movie. This month’s sequel, Spider-Man: Far From Home, is everything its predecessor was not, and I’ve never been prouder to say that!

As the events of Avengers: Endgame take their toll on the world in the year 2023, New York’s friendly neighborhood wall-crawler, alias Peter Parker (Tom Holland, The Current War), is seeking an escape, particularly in the wake of the sacrifice of Tony Stark, his mentor. Conveniently, a summer school trip across Europe brings such an option, until a call from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, The Hitman’s Bodyguard), an encounter with the enigmatic Quentin Beck/Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal, Source Code) and elemental beasts puts a different tack on Parker’s need for rest and relaxation, and makes who he can trust all the more difficult.

Homecoming was, I felt, a cinematic trainwreck as a result of six (credited) writers’ conflicting visions. Though I worried at first with the return of two writers from said film, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, they are the only ones credited, and wisely so — any more than three writers on a script, I feel, causes a movie’s main characters and objectives to be lost in the herd of subplots and gags. What’s more, this feels like a Marvel Studios film, which the first outing did not feel like at all — eschewing the emulation of the late John Hughes brings a freshness to the film that proves itself a worthy heir to the throne of Sam Raimi’s saga, one built by writers like David Koepp, Michael Chabon and Alvin Sargent. Notedly, the film is not bogged down by the preceding Avengers films, but it does not bury them in the past — rest assured, if you want to see this, you’ve got (at most) 23 movies to catch up on!

Performances are top-notch in this — Holland has truly become the best Spider-Man/Peter Parker on film, bringing all the vulnerability of a kid who just wants to be normal with the bravery of an Avenger — what else could be better? Gyllenhaal, once slated to replace Tobey McGuire in Spider-Man 2, is brilliant as Mysterio, a villain I was clamoring for to appear in this movie; welding together equal parts Syndrome from The Incredibles with his Donnie Darko persona, he’s totally unhinged and truly scary once he makes himself truly known to us. Peter’s one true love, MJ (Zendaya, The Greatest Showman), is much less of an Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club clone and is truly cute when she reveals her knowledge of Peter’s alter ego. The MCU’s erstwhile connecting thread, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, Chi-Raq), returns in a capacity akin to his appearance in Iron Man 2, but don’t let that deter you if you weren’t a fan of that film; he serves a much greater purpose in this than he did there, as does Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders, Delivery Man).

Spider-Man: Far From Home is, at long last, a truly wonderful outing for the eponymous web-slinger — shaking off all the dusty mess that was Homecoming, integrating a genuinely terrifying villain in Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio, and charming performances from Holland’s Peter Parker and his surrounding classmates, plus a few shocking revelations that mean one hell of a sequel is inbound. Bravo, Marvel Studios and Sony!

Rating: 4.5/5

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

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The last time I saw a Pokémon movie was the winter of 1998 — Pokémon: The First Movie took its sweet time arriving to Patch Barracks theater in Stuttgart, Germany, and at age seven, I fully expected a cinematic classic. Upon departing the theater, I felt utterly betrayed (and envious of my father, who slept from start to finish!), and I never saw a Pokémon movie of any type in theaters ever again. Today’s new release, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu takes a turn in the right directon, moving to live-action and using ridiculously cute CG representations of the Pocket Monsters themselves, and attempting a relatively comedic take on film noir.

Based on the 2017 Nintendo 3DS video game Detective Pikachu, we follow the story of Tim Goodman (Justice Smith, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), a young man who just lost his estranged father, Harry, a detective, in an accident. Taking a journey to the mysterious Ryme City to collect his belongings, Tim gets more than he bargained for when he comes upon his father’s partner Pokémon — a Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds, Once Upon A Deadpool) wearing a deer stalker, who speaks fluent English, but only to Tim’s ears. In addition to being an amnesiac guided by the next cup of coffee that touches his super cute fuzzy lips, Pikachu believes that Harry is alive, and that the case they were working on has to be solved. The game is afoot, and it will take the help of put-upon intern Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton, Supernatural) and her explosive Psyduck to solve the case, one that will lead right to an old menace and a new threat.

When Detective Pikachu is at its best, it’s focusing on the things that made the series so great — big ol’ battles, buddying up with an obscenely adorkable creature that doesn’t exist in real life and having a blast with both, but when it isn’t at it’s best, it comes off as a poor man’s live-action Zootopia; make of that what you will. The story varies in quality — from moment to moment, you think you’re in the dark of what’s going to happen, and then the movie pulls old tricks out of the book, and you have the story pegged. It’s nowhere near as corny as The First Movie was (no cry-back-to-life here, folks!), but it’s such a letdown to have few surprises in this story. Also, the estranged relationship between Tim and Harry comes off as a stale afterthought by the end, which is a big mistake in a day and age when boys, and even girls, are without their fathers in their lives.

Still, director Rob Letterman (Monsters vs. Aliens) is to be commended for making a live-action film based on a video game that isn’t an audio-visual atrocity — technically speaking, this is a marvelous effort, with the Pokémon shown looking hyper-realistic (a la the brilliant Alita: Battle Angel) and still cuddly and cute as can be. Props also go to the actors in question, acting against almost nothing at all and still providing realistic reactions and performances — bringing to my mind two wonderful examples of such, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Bumblebee. Further props to Letterman for shooting entirely on Kodak 35mm film, providing a unique look in a digital age, and echoing the feel of 1960’s detective flicks.

Characters and their actors are not entirely successful — Justice Smith is terrific as Tim and brings the necessary angst of an abandoned child to the role with the needed tenderness he slowly builds toward his partner Pokémon. Reynolds is somewhat confused as to whether or not the movie is rated PG (sidenote: it is), and it’s really unnerving having him make jokes about Tim having last talked to a woman while he was in the birthing canal. I realize that an R-rated version of his jokes were recorded, but it’s so pathetic to be shoving that stuff in a movie largely intended for general audiences. Newton is charming as Lucy, is even cuter when she tries to be mysterious, and a prime example of how to write tough ladies in movies. Bill Nighy (Love Actually), playing Howard Clifford, the mysterious founder of Ryme City, is clearly having a better time in franchiseland than he did on either of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, but he’s not in it nearly as much as he should be. Still, he has more screentime than he did in the remake of Total Recall, and by all accounts, he had a ball making it.

Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is leagues ahead of the misery that was The First Movie, and might be the finest adaptation of a video game yet, but it’s bogged down by some tired plotlines, a few foul jokes and a weak story about the importance of a relationship between a father and son, something that needed to be stressed moreso. I can’t recommend it as a family film, and not so much as a film for the layman, but still, if you, the fully-grown reader, even remotely love Pokémon, you will have a ball, even if it’s only for visual callbacks to the characters we grew up with — this movie does nostalgia better than Ready Player One ever could have!

Rating: 3.5/5

The End is the Beginning is the End

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SPOILERS AHEAD

To end a motion picture saga is a daunting task — from Richard Marquand to Peter Jackson to David Yates, it’s a heavy cross to bear, and not all of them are successful. Under lesser hands, Avengers: Endgame, the recently-released closer of Marvel Studios’ Infinity Saga, could have wound up a massive disappointment (a la Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, The Godfather: Part III), but Cleveland’s own Anthony and Joe Russo pull one last trick out of the hat that impresses your heart as it does your intellect.

First things first: if you haven’t seen any of the previous films, don’t go thinking you can jump in and enjoy this; you have your work cut out for you in 21 preceding increments, so do it — that’s not a request. If you HAVE kept up, you are in for the ride of your life. At times, this Avengers feels like the best video game you’ll never get to play, and yet, it’s so damn satisfying. Every loose end that needed to be tied up was lovingly tied up and wrapped in the most lovely paper, while still leaving enough leeway to continue the story in a suitable way.

Franchise fatigue doesn’t happen with Marvel, and this is due not just to Kevin Fiege and the Russos but also to erstwhile screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, who have stuck with the journey since Captain America: The First Avenger. Written strongly and with great knowledge of what came before, the film never feels confusing, despite traveling between timeframes and setpieces, and they are equal parts of the glue that holds the franchise together.

Fatigue is also not to be found in our actors — saying farewell to the role that made him a star once again, Robert Downey Jr. gives Iron Man his best hurrah, ending a role that began in 2008 with sacrifice and dignity. Similarly, Chris Evans bids a surprising farewell to Steve Rogers with the happy ending he always deserved. Some have complained about the sacrifice of Black Widow, claiming she was, in the nerd vernacular, “fridged,” but I beg to differ; it was a fitting farewell to a character who began chronologically as a villain, and if it was good enough for Scarlett Johannson, it’s good enough for the rest of us.

Villains on the brain, Thanos is, as he was, a monster, brilliantly portrayed as before by Josh Brolin, bringing an unholy threat to life with all the necessary menace of a terrorist mastermind and all the calculating daring of a stalker. Can we give Oscars to mocap performances yet? Not that it matters, for reasons I’ll mention later. A surprisingly great turn comes from Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, grieving for his lost family and dealing with it by killing off merciless criminals. Far from the pretty face with a bow and arrow he was in Thor, Renner has become one of the best Avengers in the group; a truly dynamic paradigm shift. Mark Ruffalo returns as Bruce Banner and, at long last, the Hulk, and brings an unexpected, healthy dose of warmth to the situation. A mark of great versatility goes to Paul Rudd as Ant-Man, showing his range beyond the usual dumb comedies he was once known for. Karen Gillan is in fine form as Nebula, an integral part of the universe now, and better written than ever. Chris Hemsworth plays Thor in a seemingly comedic turn, having gotten fat drowning his sorrows post-Thanos, but comedy of this ilk stems from pathos, and he brings both to the forefront with ease.

That being said, whomever feared a turn to DC levels of darkness and dread will also be pleasantly surprised by an abundance of quality gags in the film, and they alleviate the tension where necessary, while furthering the story. Technically speaking, as with Avengers: Infinity War, this installment was filmed entirely with IMAX cameras, and it brings great, expanded scope to this final journey taken by the Russos. See it that way, preferably in IMAX 3D, or else you’re wasting your money.

I’ve seen Avengers: Endgame three times now, and each time cements stronger the two words that came to mind when I first saw it — pure perfection. It’s the greatest closer to a saga since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and it further proves that Marvel Studios has something of far greater worth than Oscars — they have the love of the multitudes, spanning races, religions and generations. To put that into perspective, famed actor Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, was once asked if he received any royalties from repeat showings of said movie, and his response was pure and simple: “No residuals — just immortality.”

Rating: 5/5