You Are (Not) Alone

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From the depths of development hell comes a new sci-fi classic; a masterclass in how to adapt manga to live action without sacrificing artistic integrity of its source — Alita: Battle Angel. Once a passion project of Oscar winner James Cameron (Avatar), it now emerges with Cameron’s producing power behind the unsung brilliance of director Robert Rodriguez (Sin City), who takes his skills to the next level with a story of equal parts convention and innovation.

The story opens in the 26th century – Iron City is the one of the last civilizations on Earth. Above lies the floating utopia of Zolum, where people of Earth would kill to gain passage to. Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz, Big Eyes) is a scrappy prosthetics repairman in Iron City who, on searching though a junk heap, finds a cybernetic torso, limbless but alive. Rescuing and rebuilding her, she awakens into a new world she doesn’t know. Given the name of Alita (Rosa Salazar, Maze Runner: The Death Cure), she embarks on a journey to find the truth about the past she can’t remember, all while Vector (Mahershala Ali, Green Book) and other pawns of Zolum will stop at nothing to acquire her.

Director Robert Rodriguez, largely known for making major movies on limited budgets (El Mariachi, Spy Kids, Machete) finally gets his just desserts with James Cameron’s producing prowess, to say nothing of a script to match co-penned by Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis (Terminator Genisys). In a first for Rodriguez’s career, the movie is shot almost entirely on-location in his beautiful home city of Austin, Texas, with palpable realism sight unseen in his career thus far. Technical skill is, however, not left to languish in the corner — filmed in 3D with scenes specially formatted exclusively for IMAX theatres, this is the finest 3D film since TRON: Legacy, and it demands to be seen in 3D — IMAX 3D, if possible (Sidenote: At Rodriguez’s orders, the IMAX presentations are only in 3D. Buck up.)

On the note of technical detail, in her design, Alita herself appears breathing and human despite her cybernetic body and exaggerated eyes, but those features are simply a means of honoring the manga — lesser filmmakers would have thrown the film’s source material to the wind and simply had an actress portray the character as they are (Dragonball: Evolution, I’m looking at you.) Truly, the team at Weta Digital are to be commended for their work, as are Rosa Salazar and the rest of the cast, for making sense of something that does not exist.

A film is only half of itself with a lousy cast — a problem not found here! Ms. Salazar is a joy to watch, performing the full breadth of Alita’s journey, from pretty innocent to street-smart fighter to warrior of Iron City, a type of story arc sadly not often seen in a decade of strong female characters. Christoph Walts makes a much-needed turn to a kindly character (which is apparently the main reason he took the role) — Dr. Ido is equal parts mentor to his charge and a bit of an overprotective father; it’s certainly a welcome change from seeing him play villains in American movies. Mahershala Ali is quite creepy in this, despite his status as the pawn of an unseen mastermind — more than once I was reminded, if not just in looks alone, of a very villainous take of Wesley Snipes in the Blade trilogy.

Additional cast members include Jennifer Connelly (The Rocketeer) as Dr. Chiren, a former colleague of Ido’s in league with the enemy, bringing a character that might otherwise be a one-note performance and giving it conflict and indecision. A brilliantly horrifying addition to the cast is Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen) as a hulking cybernetic sociopath named Grewishka — he exudes menace, as villains should, but is more than the token pawn of the villains. Alita has a love interest in the form of Hugo (Keean Johnson, Nashville), a character that years for passage to Zolum at any cost, except where true love is concerned. Johnson may be seen as a little too Aladdin-y by moviegoers, but as far as I’m concerned, he’s good. His arc is a little sudden, but nothing so strong as to warrant a truly bad mark.

The only downside to the film may be this: I was reminded more than once while seeing Alita of another unsung sci-fi classic of not long ago — John Carter of Mars. Though this film is a much easier pill to swallow, and I do hope for its tremendous success, I worry that audiences will find similarities between this film and other sci-fi classics — highly ironic if so, that like Carter, the source material for this film predates the films those may erroneously claim it copies. Still, time and the box-office returns will tell.

Alita: Battle Angel is a sci-fi masterwork many, many years in the make, and it’s all been worth it in this reviewer’s eyes. Manga has been proven to be adaptable to live-action, Cameron’s journey has ended yet begun, Ms. Salazar has her star vehicle, and Rodriguez has the gilded feather in his cap — hopefully the first of many! Of course, to see more adventures through the streets of Iron City requires we see this film, in grand numbers. Let’s make it count, because if you’re at all like me, you will be thirsty for more stories of the battle angel herself!

Rating: 5/5

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No Wonder That It’s Mary That We Love!

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Nothing is impossible, says Mary Poppins herself in this week’s new release, Mary Poppins Returns, and she is as right as ever! What many deemed impossible to happen has happened, and it’s one of the most welcome Christmas presents of the year!

Picking up during the Great Depression, a fully-grown and widowed Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw, Paddington 2) is doing his best to keep his children satisfied and his home intact, the latter of which is under threat of repossession by the very bank he works for. Despite help from his sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer, Lars and the Real Girl) and the erstwhile domestic, Ellen (Julie Walters, Billy Elliot), he’s barely holding it together until a sudden change in the wind brings none other than Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt, Into The Woods) back to scenic 17 Cherry Tree Lane. With help from Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda, In The Heights), a lamplighter (who apprenticed under Bert!), the Banks children, young and old, must relearn the beauty in life and the wisdom of having fun!

“Beautiful” is a word oft-overused in movie reviews, especially mine, and yet, it’s totally appropriate here; there isn’t a single movie this Christmas season as beautiful as Poppins, and it’s so lovingly crafted, with a briskly-paced script, sound direction by Rob Marshall (Chicago) and a host of new songs co-authored by Marc Shaiman (Sister Act) and Scott Whitman — to say nothing of its loving nods to the film which preceded it, with input from Richard Sherman and Tony Walton, among others’ influence. The standout moment has to be the hand-drawn animated musical number, which sees Poppins and her charge making a journey akin to “Jolly Holiday” in the first film — gloriously drawn digitally by a team of animators led by immortals Ken Duncan and James Baxter, this makes the case for Disney themselves to return to hand-drawn animation ASAP.

Our cast is in fine a form as I’ve ever seen them, with Ms. Blunt stepping into the shoes of Dame Julie Andrews with ease and care, and her work on Into The Woods doubtlessly helped in gaining her singing voice. Mr. Miranda is charming as can be as Jack; a true heir apparent to Dick Van Dyke’s work preceding — to say nothing of his much better Cockney accent! Mr. Whishaw, however, is in as great a form as I’ve seen him, showing a tender soul broken by loss, and what a singing voice!

Additional cast members unmentioned before now include Meryl Streep (The Devil Wears Prada), hilarious but not suffocating to us, nor chewing scenery — Colin Firth (The King’s Speech) as the villain of the story, William Weatherall Wilkins, plus a few loving cameos from Disney’s history. The real MVPs here are doubtless the Banks children, each one a young natural at their craft, with so much to offer in their career ahead.

Joyous though the picture is, the cast and script never stoop to the saccharine caricature of other movie musicals (I’m looking at you, The Greatest Showman), and rather honors the ghosts of Broadway long past — the generation that grew up on My Fair Lady, Camelot and The Music Man will find so much to love in this film, as will their children! You just don’t get movies like Mary Poppins Returns as much as we used to, and more’s the pity, as it’s a joyous reminder of what motion pictures used to be and can be if we try once again! Truly one of the best pictures of the year, its longevity will be tantamount to its source!

Rating: Practically Perfect in Every Way

Welcome Christmas

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Every Christmas season brings with it a glut of Christmas movies; most of them awful — from How The Grinch Stole Christmas to Daddy’s Home 2, each year brings double its fair share of cinematic atrocities, and it’s all too rare that a good movie breaks through the mess — for every five of the aforementioned films, there is The Santa Clause, The Polar Express and The Man Who Invented Christmas. With the impending season all set to unleash itself, one can take refuge without hesitation in this weekend’s new release of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.

Freely adapted from the E.T.A. Hoffman tale entitled The Nutcracker and the Mouse King and the Tchaikovsky ballet, the story opens on young Clara Stuhlbaum (Mackenzie Foy, Interstellar), enjoying Christmas Eve as much as one can in her situation — her mother has passed earlier in the year, and the loss still weighs heavy on her heart, as well as that of her father (Matthew MacFayden, The Three Musketeers). In an attempt to bring her from her sadness, he gives her a gift from her mother – a Fabergé-style egg, but it is locked. Already on her way to a Christmas party held by her inventive godfather, Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman, Going in Style), she seeks his help, but to little avail. While at the party, gifts are given in an elaborate hide-and-seek manner. This leads Clara on the inexplicable discovery of the Four Realms, where brightness and darkness await in equal numbers.

Directed twofold by Lasse Halström (The Cider House Rules) and Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger) and written by first-time screenwriter Ashleigh Powell, the film is a wonderful sight to behold! Lushly photographed entirely in 65mm and 35mm film, every frame is a painting fit to be framed, and the direction given to the actors is solid, not once feeling like the hodgepodge of two conflicting visions. It truly does feel like Christmas when you see this film, and for the Disney nerds, there are more than a few welcome homages to Walt Disney’s 1940 classic, Fantasia, which itself featured selections from The Nutcracker suite! Powell’s screenplay is a strong debut, but it falters in one key aspect — the inclusion of a throwaway line naming the setting of the real world segments as London. Now really, that’s not very Hoffman or Tchaikovsky, is it? It’s so jarring, especially when Clara and her family retain their original names; it would have been better to let the setting remain ambiguous, rather than compromise the origins of the story. Still, this a strong debut from a fledgling writer that is to be commended.

As for the actors, Ms. Foy has truly shed the stain of her Twilight Saga beginnings, and is charming and bright as Clara; she doesn’t falter in her English accent and she never hams it up. Kiera Knightley (Anna Karenina) is bright and cheery as the Sugar Plum Fairy, leader of the Land of Sweets, while supporting characters of the realms include charming performances by Eugenio Derbez (How to Be a Latin Lover) as the eccentric Hawthorne, of the Land of Flowers, and the venerable Richard E. Grant (Withnail & I), who was in the last (atrocious) cinematic adaptation of this story, among a better cast and crew this time around as Shiver, the ice-laden leader of the Land of Snowflakes. The titular character of the Nutcracker (Jayden Fowora-Knight, Ready Player One), is kindly and innocently charming — as for antagonist Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren, Red 2), let’s just say I’d rather not spoil the film.

Another welcome bit of brilliance in this film is the seamless melding of selections from the Tchaikovsky ballet with a score composed by the eminent James Newton Howard (Maleficent). Mr. Howard is, in my humble opinion, one of the more underrated composers in film history, and he is in as good a form as he’s every been — maybe not as memorable as his work on Snow White and the Huntsman or Treasure Planet, but certainly pleasant. Speaking of ballet, such a segment is in this film, with none other than Misty Copeland performing! Be sure to keep in your seats for an additional performance in the end credits.

Speaking honestly, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms isn’t quite an instant classic, but it truly is an adorable bit of Christmas fluff, and one could do an awful lot worse in theaters this season. Buy your tickets, get the kiddos in the car, and watch with confidence that you’re getting a charming Christmas movie!

Rating: 3.5/5

Magnificent Desolation

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Neil Armstrong — an American hero and a pioneer in the field of space exploration, it’s true, but does the public en masse know his struggles as well as he and his family did? The answer, and then some, is provided in First Man, the third feature film from Oscar winner Damien Chazelle. Certainly, it was an unexpected move from the director of music films Whiplash and La-La Land to do a period piece about the greatest voyage humankind ever bore witness to, but damned if it isn’t his finest, and one of the finest movies of the year.

Grounded as an Air Force test pilot and traumatized by a recent tragedy, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling, Blade Runner 2049) applies to NASA’s nascent Gemini program to get a new start for himself, his wife Janet (Claire Foy, Breathe) and their son. In doing so, Neil is tested in all manners of speaking as he tests the limits of the atmosphere, the patience of public and politicians alike and the strength of his family.

Among the cast, Gosling finally proves his mettle in my eyes as more than a handsome face and a cutesy voice, and brings realism and humanity to the legendary Armstrong. Similarly, Ms. Foy is at her career best with this film, bringing an truthful portrayal of the struggles felt by the wife of an astronaut, wondering if the man she loves will ever come home to her and holding the fort largely by herself (bringing to mind an equally stellar Sienna Miller in 2014’s American Sniper). Other notable standouts include Jason Clarke (The Chicago Code) as Edward White, a colleague of Neil’s who serves as a shoulder for him to lean on at times, and Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous) as Elliott See, an early acquaintance of Neil’s during the interview phase of the Gemini program. Finally, Corey Stoll (Ant-Man) brings all the requisite smarm and crass behavior to the utterly asinine Buzz Aldrin — the accuracy is much appreciated!

Chazelle shows real talent as a director with this film — unlike his wanton tail-riding of other, better movies (let’s face facts, La-La Land is just a modernized An American in Paris), he seems to have gone deep in ensuring authentic performances of his actors — no one is hamming it up for an Oscar — and portraying the 1960s without glamorizing or mocking it. Also, in a wise move, the lunar landing scene is entirely film in IMAX, bringing an expanded view for such a pivotal scene, and heightening the reality of the moment — if you have the good fortune of being near an IMAX Laser theater, get your tickets now! Josh Singer’s script — itself based on a chronicle of the same name by James R. Hansen —  never goes to the hysterical level of other space chronicles or period pieces. The words coming from these actors’ mouths feel natural, not at the Aaron Sorkin level of ego and hyperbole, and the events shown are certainly believable and honestly portrayed.

The film also arrives at a most apropos time, for in a day and age when public interest in our intergalactic future is at an all-time high, a film like First Man presents a reminding view to audiences; apathetic generations less concerned about contributions to history and human progress than putting band-aids on Earthbound problems — sounds to me like an additional past America, circa 2008-2016. The fact is we need to explore space continuously — even if no life exists beyond Earth, we can learn so much and further human advances in technology, medicine and countless other fields all from journeying from one habitable planet to the next. After all, why did maritime explorers look for a new world?

First Man is a brilliant, tautly-crafted film, honest in every detail, and while it almost certainly won’t win many, if any, of the awards it’s hyped to get (let’s be real, Oscars don’t do science… or honest history), it doesn’t need them. It never stoops to the overbearing caricature of space exploration and its conflicts that Apollo 13 was, nor does it bombard the viewer with fact and conjecture a la (the still very brilliant) Interstellar. No, this is a movie of its time for our time; a reminder that the future is up there, far beyond the atmosphere and, soon, the stars.

Rating: 5/5

Overplayed

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Proving once and for all that a turd can’t be polished, the seminal Hollywood favorite A Star is Born is remade for the third time, and it’s as cut-and-dry as they come.

All the original story elements are here – Jackson Maine, a drunken star on decline (Bradley Cooper, The Hangover), Ally, the talented ingenue he discovers (Lady Gaga, in her motion picture debut), and the love they share while one rises to stardom (heh-heh.) and the other falls flat (hee-hee.). I wondered on the way home why it took two other directors — Steven Spielberg (?!) and Clint Eastwood (?!?!) — to attempt this film before Mr. Cooper made his directorial debut with this, and also how nothing changed at all for these characters. If Warner Bros. & MGM, and by association, the screenwriters, kept the storyline the same for the sake of familiarity, or wanton laziness (you decide), that was a really bad move — If you’ve seen any of the previous versions, you’ve already seen this film. The only changes made are the actors, the songs and the time in which it takes place. Speaking of the former two, the only three actors worth their oats in this film are Lady Gaga, Sam Elliot (Road House), who deserves a Best Supporting Actor nod as Jackson’s beleaguered eldest brother-turned-handler, and, oddly enough, Andrew Dice Clay (The Adventures of Ford Fairlane) as Ally’s well-meaning father who can’t keep money even if it were sewed into his pants. Actors like Dave Chappelle (he of the eponymous TV show) are there and then gone; not much else to say about that.

As for the songs, most are bizarrely cut into snippets, with only three numbers played in full to my immediate recollection — the movie feels like a sampler designed solely to make you buy the soundtrack album, which Lady Gaga devotees will doubtless buy in staggering numbers. Don’t get me wrong, her voice is stellar, and truthfully, her future is not in monotone, drawling autotuned pop songs, but in hard rock. That being said, “Shallows” is the only number that truly resonated with me. Still, to each their own.

I honestly don’t want to be this unkind toward the film, but as it stands, A Star is Born, while a feast to listen to and look at (Matthew Libatique’s luscious anamorphic cinematography will win him the Oscar), is not worth seeing in the slightest. It almost reminds me of the cinematic adaptations of The Great Gatsby thus far, but with Gatsby, one need only look back to the source novel for the best version; A Star is Born has no good version to look back on, and that was the first of many mistakes with this one.

Rating: 2/5

Your Heart Will Lead You Home

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Unless you had an unfortunate upbringing, Disney movies are a part of every child’s life – with beautiful, lovable characters and stories that touch your heart. One of those many characters is the whimsical Winnie-the-Pooh — in the pantheon of childhood icons, there are few others who can make one smile as he can. Playing off of that notion, Disney and director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland) take us back to the Hundred-Acre Wood and, with it, our childhoods, in today’s new release, Christopher Robin.

Now fully-grown, Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor, American Pastoral) is working a thankless job in a luggage company in London — one that keeps his mind focused exclusively on work and away from his family, even when he’s at home. When ordered by his boss (Mark Gatiss, Sherlock) to stay at work over a weekend he promised to take his wife (Haley Atwell, Howard’s End) and daughter (Bronte Carmichael, On Chesil Beach) to the countryside, Christopher opts to keep to his job, but not without hesitation. While taking a quick break from work, his past finally catches up to him in the form of Winnie-the-Pooh (the inimitable Jim Cummings) – arriving when they need each other most…

Let’s not beat around the bush – this is a wondrous movie! If you haven’t been sold on Disney’s animated movies as of late, their live-action films have truly proven that the soul of Walt is alive and well! How, you may ask? I believe it’s in their knowledge of the meaning of nostalgia. Whereas so many movie remakes and TV revivals claim to be for the sake of “nostalgia,” they lack any feeling for the works that came beforehand and make little attempt to connect to the past. To better understand it, the etymology of the word “nostalgia” originates from the Greek words “Nostos” and “Algos” — translated, those words refer to “return home” and “pain,” both of which this film understands so very well. It further helps to have the accomplished Marc Forster directing — think what you will of his James Bond outing (Quantum of Solace), the man is experienced in pulling tears the same way dentists pull teeth — he brings all the wonder of childhood he did in Finding Neverland with the heartfelt feeling of time lost that he perfected in Stranger Than Fiction.

As for our cast, Mr. McGregor is in fine form as Robin, and it’s truly brilliant seeing him transform from stiff-upper-lip businessman to a grown child playacting with his old friends! Ms. Atwell plays his wife, Evelyn, wonderfully, initially a woman struggling to recognize the man she married as the man she loves, but still loving to both husband and daughter, and she has some great moments toward the end of the film! Young Ms. Carmichael, as daughter Madeline, is charming and lovable, even at her saddest, which she pulls off with aplomb. As for Mr. Gatiss… what a great sleaze he plays!

The voice cast is also terrific — Mr. Cummings plays both Pooh and Tigger as youthfully and joyfully as ever and with all the respect they deserve… there will never be another voice actor quite like him! Brad Garrett (Ratatouille) returns as Eeyore, the character he once played in Disney Interactive CD-ROM games in the 90’s, and he has some of the best deadpan comedy I’ve ever heard! Newcomers to the Hundred-Acre Wood include venerable English stars Sophie Okenodo (The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses) as Kanga, Toby Jones (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1) as Owl, Peter Capaldi (Doctor Who) as Rabbit (who has some great visual gags!) and Nick Mohammed (Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie) as Piglet, all of whom are wonderful additions to the cast and perfect heirs to the work of their previous actors.

I know I have been gushy in more than a few of my previous reviews, but the fact is, in this case, that Christopher Robin is a beautiful film that expands the stories we once knew so well and does it with the same loving care a parent would have for their child. Some would dismiss this movie as “depressing,” or the ungodly fusion of Ted and Hook — you’d be very wrong. Leave your prejudices at the door (where applicable) and enjoy wandering through your childhood memories that call you back once more.

(By the way, you’ll want to stick through the credits for a lovely nod to the past!)

Rating: 5/5

 

“Bee Movie” but instead it’s “Ant-Man and The Wasp”

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If it wasn’t official yet, it is now: Marvel does what DCan’t, and Ant-Man and The Wasp is even more proof! True, I was skeptical of Ant-Man well before its release in 2015, but it was no disappointment in my eyes or audiences — I’d even call it the sleeper hit of its year. Still, risks are greater this time around, both in story and in real life – Marvel Studios played quite a heavy trump card with Avengers: Infinity War back in April, and some would argue that there’s no point in seeing this movie. To those some, you’re very wrong.

Taking place at the same time of the events of Infinity War, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd, The Catcher Was A Spy) is under house arrest as part of a plea deal following his “criminal acts” in Captain America: Civil War — a light sentence, sure, but nonetheless boring. Alienated by his now-ex girlfriend, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) and her father/his mentor, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), Scott is stuck doing nothing until he is given, for the lack of a better term, a vision of Hank’s long-lost wife, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer, Murder on the Orient Express) and her location in the mythical, nanoscopic Quantum Realm. Quickly, Scott is dragged back into the world of micro-heists as Ant-Man, allied with Hope as The Wasp, in the hopes of rescuing Janet and fighting off a terrifying menace known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen, Tomb Raider).

Returning director Peyton Reed continues to prove his worth as an action director with this film – masterfully commanding visual effects as he did with the first installment, from the title characters to the pioneering de-aging effects, making the dramatic moments meaningful and poignant, while keeping the comedy light-hearted and never suffocating — to think, this was the man who was initially best-known for directing Bring It On! Composer Christophe Beck also returns, and while his score makes little variation on what was heard before, it doesn’t need to be — what wasn’t broken before remains untarnished, and it’s good to have another Marvel solo movie with as recognizable a theme as Thor and Spider-Man! My only gripe with the creative/technical side of things is that it was shot in 2.39:1 — I see no reason for this ratio to exist in this day and age, especially when the preceding movie looked so good in 1.85:1 and that its new aspect ratio fits lousily on an IMAX screen and HDTVs, though in the case of IMAX showings, the image expands at select moments. Still, it feels like a step backwards, particularly after Avengers: Infinity War was filmed entirely with IMAX cameras.

As usual, the cast is superb — Paul Rudd continues to build better stuff against his previously (as I saw it) lousy CV of 90% dumb comedies. Seriously, this guy can do it all, and while Ant-Man is one of the more comedic heroes in the Marvel universe, he’s also one of the most complex – a divorced ex-con who wants to do right by himself, his daughter and his friends. Rudd understands this better than any other actor, and he should keep at this for as long as he can. Evangeline Lilly continues to be a fierce force in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and her role is as equally as complex as her male counterpart — Hope still feels betrayed by Scott’s actions in Civil War, but the playful repartee is still there among them, and she is determined in her efforts to see her mother again. This brings us to another facet of the MCU that I love, in that when they have strong ladies, they’re endearing to people of all ages without having manufactured fierceness, forced cuteness or pigeonholed into being a girl’s-only property (i.e.: Ghostbusters: Answer The Call, Frozen, Ocean’s 8). After all, the movie is titled Ant-Man and The Wasp, and the cooperative nature of the title is well-reflected therein. But, I digress.

Hank Pym is still a charming curmudgeon, skeptical of Scott and his friends as before, but tender at the right moments and every bit as brilliant as his actor, Michael Douglas. Michelle Pfeiffer, once Catwoman in Batman Returns, is still beautiful as ever and charming as Janet Van Dyne, and while I wish she had more screentime (she kind of functions akin to a MacGuffin), it’s still great to have an actress of her caliber in the Marvel fold. Also jumping the doomed DC ship is Laurence Fishburne (Hannibal) as Dr. Bill Foster, an estranged associate of Pym’s — it’s great to see that he’s written so complexly and is far more than the throwaway that Fishburne’s last comic book role, Perry White, was. Hannah John-Kamen, a relative newcomer in cinema, puts quite a feather in her cap as the elusive Ghost, another well-written character and one of the best-written villains in Marvel Studios’ history. Rest assured, she does far more than the angry Brit trope; she’s honestly one of the more tragic characters in the MCU, a fact that will be made much clearer when you see the film. Also, if you liked Luis (Michael Peña, Gangster Squad) in the first film, inane stories included, you will love this movie to the end of your days!

To be clear, the actions of Avengers: Infinity War do take a toll on Ant-Man and The Wasp, and that’s all the more reason to see the film — every Marvel Studios film, the good and the bad, is imperative to enjoying the next team-up, and we’ve got quite the film coming next May. Besides, if Infinity War depressed you, this brings some much-needed levity to the summer of Marvel.

Rating: 4.5/5

Sabotage

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Rescued from the clutches of creative turmoil, director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13) makes a triumphant return to Lucasfilm long after his 1988 venture, Willow, and tackling a script about the Star Wars smuggler who shot first, Han Solo.

More than a simple origin story, young Han (Alden Ehrenreich, Beautiful Creatures) loses his freedom and his girlfriend, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke, Terminator Genisys), in one day. Reluctantly fighting for the Empire, Han literally stumbles upon a group of smugglers, led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson, Natural Born Killers), and believes he’s found both his true calling and a way back to his beloved. As usual, far more is at play for Han and his newfound compatriots, with villainous gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany, Avengers: Infinity War) demanding fealty for a failed mission, an uneasy alliance with Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover, Atlanta) and cloud-riding space pirates hot on their tails.

Rather infamously, the film was to be helmed by the duo of Phil Lord & Christopher Miller (The LEGO Movie, 21 Jump Street), but a massive conflict of creative differences forced a change of command. Enter Mister Howard, who brings all the best of what he learned on his fantasy efforts, like the emotional sincerity and computer effects of Cocoon, the innocent love story and its requisite conflicts from Splash and yes, even the creature and make-up effects from How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Rest assured, this is not a hodgepodge of two conflicting visions, a la Justice League; it has Howard’s signature on it, through and through.

The script, written by Lawrence Kasdan (he of Episodes V, VI and VII) and his son Jonathan (In The Land of Women), largely succeeds — the story moves at a brisk pace, stopping only when necessary, and while some characters are gone all too quick, they do get a day or two in the sun. Some parts come off a little superfluous, such as Lando’s droid companion, L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag), who is clearly intended to be the Susan B. Anthony in the group but comes off as a more mechanical Linda Sarsour — certainly a different type of droid than we’ve seen in the Star Wars universe, but really not worth revisiting. Also, there’s a lot of duplicity toward the end, a problem that also befell last year’s sleeper hit Atomic Blonde, and while I wasn’t doubtful of everyone by the end, it’s rather annoying to be throwing so many turns, not quite twists, in at the last half-hour… but hey, Han shoots first! Don’t worry, that was a declaration of fact!

In the case of returning characters, Han is well-rounded, perhaps a little bit too much of a softie, at least at first, but this is about his beginning; his transition to being a hard-ass takes time. This is well-reflected by his actor, Alden Ehrenreich, who succeeds in playing Han Solo, rather than Harrison Ford — there’s a huge difference, people, and Ehrenreich’s decision is all to the good. Lando is seemingly approached differently by Donald Glover, successfully emulating a young Billy Dee Williams, and just as smooth — plus, we finally find out exactly how Han acquired the Millennium Falcon.

Among newcomers, we begin with Emilia Clarke’s character, Qi’ra. While well-acted, she is not as well written — what would have helped, in my book, is to show the audience how she and Han first met, rather than have to guess that they are, for the lack of a better term, thick as thieves. Woody Harrelson, now freed from The Hunger Games, brings his trademark good ‘ol boy to Beckett, never going to the laughing place — his character is one that would shoot you and laugh at your corpse. Paul Bettany, in his second summer blockbuster this year, has all the right levels of creepy and intrigue as Dryden Vos, a gangster who rules with a knife at his victims’ throats. Roles played by Linda Hunt (Silverado), Jon Favreau (Swingers) and Thandie Newton (Westworld) are cut rather short; I’m guessing they took them in spite of that, knowing they would be in a Star Wars film.

As movies go, Solo: A Star Wars Story is a success — not largely, though; some parts do falter. Frankly, the thing that puzzles me most is the public’s response to the movie, complaining that parent company Disney has Marvel’d their beloved Star Wars — did you really not see this coming? Would you have complained if the movies continued beyond A New Hope? Do you really hate it when spin-offs connect to their past and future? More’s the pity if the answer’s yes, but if it’s no, go have a great time at the movies!

Rating: 4/5

The Beginning is the End is the Beginning

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SPOILERS AHEAD

What else can I say about Avengers: Infinity War that hasn’t already been said? Truly, it’s one of the year’s first triumphs, and in my loving and critical eyes, an early candidate for Best Motion Picture of the Year – pick your ceremony.

The stakes are as high as they’ve ever been in this film; Thanos (Josh Brolin, True Grit) has brought planets to their knees in the name of finding the Infinity Stones, and we open with his massacre of the Asgardian survivors (last seen in Thor: Ragnarok). Thor (Chris Hemsworth, Rush) is left for dead, but Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, Begin Again) manages to escape. Sheer luck lands him in the New York sanctum in front of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, Parade’s End) and Wong (Benedict Wong, Marco Polo). With all hell about to break loose, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., The Judge) is called in to help, but his won’t be enough – scattered, The Avengers must reteam after their Civil War and ally with the Guardians of the Galaxy to fight a war that will determine the fate of existence.

The heroes of this equation are at their best – Spider-Man (Tom Holland, The Lost City of Z) continues to prove his worth as an Avenger and is no longer the annoying Jamie Bell clone he once was in Captain America: Civil War. What’s more, Stark is well-written this time around (and it only took two writers!), and is once again a character I care about. Returning to the films is, at last, Captain America (Chris Evans, Puncture), now bearded, pissed off and ready for round two with an alien menace. Unexpected standouts include Vision (Paul Bettany, A Knight’s Tale) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, Kodachrome), the star-crossed lovers of the MCU, facing their hardest test yet – remember, Vision holds the Mind Stone in his head. The lynchpins, however, to this film are Star-Lord (Chris Pratt, The Magnificent Seven) and Gamora (Zoë Saldana, Star Trek Beyond), who hold the key to survival or death of all they love — Saldana especially is at her best as Thanos’ adopted warprize, seeking vengeance and then some.

Again, this is the ballsiest film in the history of comic book movies; more daring than Watchmen or even The Avengers, if for nothing more than this is a saddening film. True, there are jokes in this film, but not in the Justice League sense; they bring some levity to the film, but by and large, this is a David and Goliath story where Goliath wins — mercilessly. The emotion is sold to the audience by both the sincerity of its heroes as well as its villain — Brolin is at the top of his game as the sadistic titan, obsessed with balancing life in the universe through xenocide. He brings to a 2D drawing the drive and mania of a terrorist mastermind sight unseen since the late Heath Ledger’s Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight — exuding menace and filling the IMAX screen the movie was designed for, but all you can do is wonder what his next move will be.

Speaking of, if you live within the vicinity of an IMAX theater, cough up the $20 and see it in the way it was shot — this is the first major motion picture to be filmed entirely in IMAX; to see it in a lesser format is a waste of money. All this innovative story and tech is thanks to three people — Kevin Feige, erstwhile producer and president of Marvel Studios, and Joe & Anthony Russo, directors and favorite sons of Cleveland, Ohio. These men dare to dream big for characters they so love and aren’t afraid to both let us have fun and make us cry. Grounded in fantastic realism, we believe in the morals of these heroes, and when they fall, we mourn for them, but heroes rise again — they always get the last word, and you haven’t heard the last of The Avengers yet.

Rating: 5/5

It’s So Bad

I’m not even quoting The Wizard with the above title; Steven Spielberg’s latest truly is a SpielBurger (sue me), and ten times as cheesy! How could such an accomplished director rip a story like a Ready Player One to shreds and think it worth watching?

Barely resembling the novel on which it is based, this movie is, to quote Bill S. Preston Esq. and “Ted” Theodore Logan, “bogus.” All the film noir-y elements and sense of mystery found in Ernest Cline’s text are gone in favor of explosions and brain-numbing spectacle. Further, nearly all the novel’s 80’s-centric references are eschewed in favor of modernisms — I never wanted to see Tracer from Overwatch or even the eponymous Iron Giant, who is from the year 1999! It is true that the screenplay was co-written by Cline, but he bears second credit to Zak Penn (late of The Incredible Hulk and The Avengers), who destroys the poignancy with the writer’s equivalent of an impact drill.

But you may be thinking that the actors will carry this film. Actors? PAH! The only real talent in this film is the wasted Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) as a cut-and-dry villain and Mark Rylance (Dunkirk) serving again as Spielberg’s muse the way Christopher Lloyd was to Robert Zemeckis. Virtually (heh heh) everyone else is cast on how pretty they are — what is this, an ABC pilot?!

This isn’t Spielberg’s technological Gulliver’s Travels — it’s not even tantamount to TRON: Legacy! What it is is the ungodly fusion of Wreck-It Ralph and Spy Kids 3D: Game Over! One of the daftest adaptations this side of The Dark Tower! Read the book and skip this… or rather, fast-forward.

Rating: 0/5