Wonder Woman 1984


Did video kill the movie star?

(2020) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Lilly Aspell, Amr Waked, Kristoffer Palaha, Natasha Rothwell, Ravi Patel, Oliver Cotton, Lucian Perez, Gabriella Wilde, Kelvin Yu, Stuart Milligan, Shane Attwooll, David Al-Fahmi,Kevin Wallace, Wai Wong, Doutzen Kroes . Directed by Patty Jenkins

 

It is somewhat ironic that the first Wonder Woman took place during the waning days of World War I which saw the world (although not depicted in the film) struggling with a global pandemic of the Spanish flu. The sequel has finally made it to theaters (and to streaming platform HBO Max until January 26th) after being delayed more than a year, argely due to the current global pandemic.

It is 1984 – morning in America, right? – and Diana Prince (Gadot) – the alter ego of Wonder Woman – still mourns the death of her love Steve Trevor (Pine) in an explosion at the conclusion of the Great War. She has managed to lie low for the intervening years, occasionally showing up in costume to foil a mall robbery. She works in the antiquities department of the Smithsonian, along with a new colleague, the confidence-challenged and somewhat clumsy Barbara Minerva (Wiig). The two become friends, and work on identifying a strange artifact – it turns out to be the Dreamstone, a magic relic that grants wishes to the bearer.

Before they realize it though, the two women each make a wish – Minerva to be more like her new friend Diana, and Diana to regain her dead boyfriend. Each woman receives exactly what they wish for – and in Minerva’s case, she also inherits Wonder Woman’s powers. Steve returns, his consciousness inhabiting the body of a handsome man (Palaha). At first, the two are happy.

Television huckster Maxwell Lord (Pascal), a cross between Gordon Gekko, Tony Robbins and Donald Trump, gets wind of the stone and decides to use it to become the dreamstone himself – with the power to grant wishes to whomever touches him. With a steady income of well-wishers, his failing business is turned around and Lord becomes a wealthy man in fact instead of just an illusion.

However, the Dreamstone was actually the creation of the God of Lies and it has a terrible downside – it takes from the user as much as it gives. When the President of the United States (ostemsibly Reagan) wishes for more nukes, the world is brought to the brink of destruction, unless Diana can find a way to stop it.

In many ways, this is a worthy successor to the first Wonder Woman and in others, it is disappointing. Gadot has proven herself perfectly cast as the Amazonian superheroine; beautiful and exotic, graceful in her action sequences, and possessed of a strength and confidence that makes her a tremendous role model for sure, but also not incidentally, a budding A-list movie star. She is quite frankly the reason to see this film; she’s spectacular in the part.

 

Pine is second banana here, and he seems comfortable in the role. He serves mainly as fish-out-of-water comic relief, evincing awe at period technology (the space shuttle, computers and cheese in a can. He kind of gets lost in the shuffle here; Wiig shows some real dramatic skill as Minerva, going from a put-upon, mousy nobody to a self-confident supervillain. The transition is not as jarring as you might think. Pascal as the huckster Maxwell Lord, is surprisingly bland; the part certainly shows some Trumpian overtones, but in the end Lord seems to have more of a heart than Trump, or at least so it seems. Still, I would have expected more spice out of Pascal.

There are some really great moments here – like a flight through fireworks – and some truly head-scratching moments as well. The opening prologue, set when Diana was a girl (Aspell) in a competition with fully grown women, nearly lost me at the get-go, while the shoot-out at the mall really made me wonder if I wasn’t about to watch Jenkins bomb after doing so well with her last film. Not to worry though; it does get much better as it goes along.

There has been a lot of chatter on the Internet about a sex scene with the resurrected Steve Trevor and Diana. As Steve was inhabiting another man’s body, some people complained that this was essentially rape as the man whose body Steve was inhabiting couldn’t give consent. Far be it for me to besmirch sexual assault in any form, but could it be we’re getting oversensitive? I don’t think bodies driven by foreign consciouses are a big problem, or ever likely to be. Can we save our outrage for real world rape culture?

That said, this isn’t the home run that Wonder Woman was, but it’s not a strikeout either. It’s definitely a solid base hit, if we’re going to continue the baseball metaphor. Is it worth going to theaters for? I’m sharply divided on this. I think that it should be seen on the big screen in a big theater, but at the same time I can’t really justify the risk for those who might be concerned about picking up COVID and passing it along to loved ones. I think it was the right call for Warner Brothers to make it available at home and that’s probably where you should see it. However, once you feel comfortable going back to the multiplex, hopefully some theaters will show it as a re-release so we all get a chance to see it as it was meant to be seen.

REASONS TO SEE: Gadot continues her ascent as a major star and Wiig delivers a bang-up performance. Gets better as it goes along.
REASONS TO AVOID: Extremely uneven. Pascal is surprisingly bland.
FAMILY VALUES: There is superhero action/violence as well as a scene of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Wiig was Jenkins’ first choice to play Barbara Minerva, the role was initially offered to Emma Stone, who declined. Wiig was then offered the role.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Fandango Now, HBO Max
CRITICAL MASS: As of 168/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Green Lantern
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Soul

The Witches (2020)


Someone itches to find some witches.

(2019) Family Horror Comedy (Warner BrothersAnne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Chris Rock (voice), Jahzir Bruno, Brian Bovell, Kristen Chenoweth (voice), Stanley Tucci, Charles Edwards, Morgana Robinson, Eugenia Caruso, Ashanti Prince-Asafo, Eurydice El-Etr, Orla O’Rourke, Codie-Lei Eastwick, Josette Simon, Joseph Zinyemba, Ana-Maria Maskell. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Most people remember author Roald Dahl for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or James and the Giant Peach, but he also wrote a book called The Witches which back in 1990 was turned into a movie by director Nicholas Roeg. Thirty years later, a different Oscar-winning director takes a crack at it.

A young boy (Bruno) – whose name we never know but is referred to in the credits as “Hero Boy” – is orphaned in a car crash and sent to live with his down-to-earth Grandma (Spencer) in Alabama. She is loving and hipper than most grandmas, dancing to the strains of the Four Tops’ “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” which sets the tone as definitely the late Sixties in a place where it wasn’t especially pleasant to be African-American.

Grandma as a young girl had discovered that witches are real – demonic creatures that masquerade as women but are actually completely bald, so they wear wigs that give them nasty rashes on their scalps; they also wear gloves because their hands possess only three fingers that end in razor-sharp claws. Their feet are square with a single toe, and their mouths are extra-wide and full of wickedly sharp teeth. When the grandson has an encounter with one in a store, Grandma realizes she can’t protect him and decides to take him on a vacation to a swanky hotel, where the witches can’t find him, right?

You see, witches also hate children with a passion, complaining that they are noisy (true), selfish (true) and smell like dog poo (wellllll…some do, some don’t). The Grand High Witch (Hathaway) who turned Grandma’s closest friend (Prince-Asafo) into a chicken, has a plan to rid the world of kids once and for all. She’s going to reveal her evil plan to her colleagues at a witches convention (disguised as a do-gooder organization dedicated to the welfare of children) – which as bad luck would have it, is taking place at the very hotel where Grandma and her charge have fled to.

More I will not reveal about the plot; if you’ve read the book, suffice to say that this version of it follows the plot of the literature pretty closely, certainly more so than the 1990 film. If you’re not familiar with it, then it’s best not to reveal too much because that will spoil the fun, and above all, that’s what this movie is – fun.

Hathaway chews the scenery with grand gusto, deliciously, delightful evil with a mock-Eastern European accent that makes her somehow even creepier. Much of her facial features and body has been redesigned digitally, giving her the look of a witch while remaining still recognizably Anne Hathaway. She camps it up quite a bit, but the role definitely calls for it, and Hathaway delivers. We sometimes forget that the woman is a fabulous actress who is capable of doing just about anything she wants to in front of the camera. Another reviewer posited that she was acting as a kind of surrogate Betsy DeVos, proclaiming she’s doing everything for the good of children while in reality she was out to cause harm to them, particularly those who are poor or members of minorities. That reviewer for Consequences of Sound wasn’t wrong, I think.

Spencer is a diametric opposite; she’s the loving, warm embrace that we need watching the boy suffer the loss of his parents, withdrawing into an uncaring shell; not eating, not engaging, not smiling ever. She gradually wins him over and brings him back to life, and those scenes early on in the film are among the best in the movie.

Zemeckis is a big believer in CGI and true to form, he employs a whole lot of it here. Some works, but there’s some that doesn’t. There are some talking mice in the movie that look awfully cartoonish, like they stepped out of a Looney Toon, and that doesn’t do the movie any favors.

The big question here is how appropriate is this movie for kids. Yes, it’s based on what is ostensibly a children’s book, but there are some scenes that are going to absolutely terrify the more impressionable wee ones in the house. Parents might want to give the movie a bit of a preview before determining if their kids have the maturity to handle it. Also, the first part of the movie concerns how the grandson deals with the death of his parents in a fairly realistic manner, which might also upset kids who are sensitive. Older kids, say into double digits on the age scale, or particularly mature young ‘uns should be able to handle this.

As mentioned in the Trivial Pursuit entry, this was supposed to be one of the fall tentpoles for Warner Brothers this year, but obviously COVID made the studio revert to Plan B. The movie recently debuted on HBO Max here in the States but in other countries that have handled the pandemic somewhat better than we have will be able to see it in theaters as soon as this weekend. Enjoy.

REASONS TO SEE: Outstanding performances by Hathaway and Spencer.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally too cute for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES: This is some mild profanity, some scary images and difficult thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally set for theatrical release in October, the release date was moved out due to the pandemic, until Warner Brothers decided to send it direct to streaming on its HBO Max service.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews, Metacritic: 46/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hocus Pocus
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness continues!

Isn’t It Romantic


Three’s a crowd.

(2019) Romantic Comedy (Warner Brothers Rebel Wilson, Liam Hemsworth, Adam Devine, Priyanka Chopra, Betty Gilpin, Brandon Scott-Jones, Jennifer Saunders, Alexandra Kis, Jay Oakerson, Rao Rampilla, Marcus Choi, Hugh Sheridan, Luciano Acuna Jr., Ray Anthony Thomas, Zach Cherry, Sandy Honig, Rosemary Howard, Ron Nakahar, Tom Ellis, Michelle Buteau. Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson

 

I have never been a huge Rebel Wilson fan, but even I can see that the girl’s got skills. Part of my problem with Wilson is that she seems to be cast in very similar roles that after a while, get monotonous. The good news here is that she is the lead for the first time In her career, and she has been given a part that is unlike anything she’s ever played before.

The bad news is that it isn’t a part like anything we haven’t seen before. She’s Natalie, a junior architect at a New York City firm in which she is ignored and marginalized – the billionaire client (Hemsworth) whose project she’s working on, continually asks her to fetch coffee for him. As with many people in the Big Apple, she is alone. Cynically rejecting the tropes of romance and of romantic comedies in particular, she sees herself as a realist – until a bonk on the head during a subway mugging knocks her unconscious, leading her to wake up in a world that IS a romantic comedy.

This is a nightmare for a cynic. All the clichés are here, from the gay best friend to the PG-13 coupling, to the way it always seems to rain when she kisses someone romantically. Most satires tend to be pretty hit and miss and that’s very true about Isn’t It Romantic but it does get some laughs – just not as many as I would have preferred. The ending is a bit sappy but pleasant in a surprising way and is geared to lift even the most grumpy soul out of the doldrums, which is something all of us can use lately.

REASONS TO SEE: Pleasantly surprising, particularly the ending.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too much of the humor doesn’t work.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some sexual references and brief drug material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Strauss-Schulson watched over 90 rom-coms in just over two weeks in order to note similarities in visual styles so he could apply them to this film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Max Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/20/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews, Metacritic: 60/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Enchanted
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Sunlit Night

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part


Everything is still awesome…isn’t it?

(2019) Animated Feature (Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Tiffany Haddish, Stephanie Beatriz, Alison Brie, Nick Offerman, Charlie Day, Maya Rudolph, Will Ferrell, Jadon Sand, Brooklynn Prince, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Richard Ayoade, Jason Momoa, Cobie Smulders, Ralph Fiennes, Bruce Willis, Gary Payton, Sheryl Swoopes. Directed by Mike Mitchell

 

The 2014 hit The Lego Movie was a breath of fresh air in the animated feature universe, chock full of pop culture references but with enough whimsy and creativity to satisfy children and adults alike. After two spinoffs hit with a bang (The Lego Batman Movie) and a thud (The Lego Ninjago Movie), will the sequel recapture the magic of the original?

Well, no. In the new film, Emmet (Pratt) is building the dream home for himself and Lucy/Wyldstyle (Banks), complete with double decker porch swing. But all is not well in Bricksburg; Finn (Sand), the little boy whose imagination powered the first movie, is forced to play with his little sister (Prince) and her Duplos with catastrophic results. The town is a barren wasteland, populated by Duplo-built monsters. Everything is decidedly not awesome.

To make matters worse, Emmet’s friends have been kidnapped by General Mayhem (Beatriz) to attend the wedding of Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (Haddish) and Batman (Arnett) is busy “on a standalone adventure” so it is up to Emmet to save the day, although Emmet who still retains his optimism despite the devastation, may not be up to the task.

The pop culture references are still plentiful, the oddball humor is still there, but it all feels really stale. There’s a feeling that this is geared towards even younger kids than the first, which isn’t necessarily good news for the parents roped into watching this alongside them. While Pratt, Arnett (who arrives late in the third act) and Haddish do their level best, they can’t overcome the sense that we’ve seen this before. I really enjoyed the closing credits, though; it is not a good sign when the best thing about a movie are the credits at the very end.

REASONS TO SEE: Pratt, Haddish and Arnett get the job done.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not an improvement from the first film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some peril and rude humor, as well as mild profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After the disappointing box office results for the film, Warner Brothers let the rights lapse; future Lego movies will be coming out on Universal, who snatched them up.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Max,  Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews, Metacritic: 65/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
No Small Matter

The Mule (2018)


The look you get when everything you’ve spent a lifetime building falls apart.

 (2018) Drama (Warner BrothersClint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Peña, Dianne Wiest, Alison Eastwood, Taissa Farmiga, Andy Garcia, Ignacio Serricchio, Loren Dean, Diego Cataño, Daniel Moncada, Victor Rasuk, Ashani Roberts, Lobo Sebstian, Devon Ogden, Cesar De Léon, Richard Herd, Clifton Collins Jr., Jackie Prucha. Directed by Clint Eastwood

 

Clint Eastwood is something of a folk hero, and has made a career playing other folk heroes. His latest is Earl Stone, a man driven to the wall when his business fails and he falls into a job delivering coke for the cartel. It’s the perfect front; on the surface, he appears to be a harmless geriatric and that’s pretty much what he is. But it’s a dangerous game he’s playing, with a magnanimous cartel boss (Garcia) overseeing suspicious and ambitious underlings (Serricchio) and a driven DEA agent (Cooper) all on the hunt after Earl.

Eastwood was pushing 90 when he made this film (he’ll become a nonagenarian on May 31st of this year) but still retains the gruff charm that has carried him through the late stages of his career. While his character is not so admirable – he essentially has alienated his entire family, choosing work over ,loved ones at every turn, is a serial womanizer and a not-so-subtle racist – but Eastwood has always made guys like these seem not-quite-so-bad. He’s also still a skilled director who builds up a strong tension throughout the film; will he get caught? Will that police dog find the drugs? Stay tuned.

Currently on iMDB Eastwood has no projects lined up either as a director as an actor; this is very likely his swan song in front of the camera (although we have learned to never say never in that regards – 2008’s Gran Torino was supposed to be his last acting role but he has appeared in several films since then) as last year’s Richard Jewell is likely his final film as a director. While this film isn’t a disgrace to his legacy, neither does it enhance it much. It’s reasonably entertaining, elevated by the presence of one of the last authentic stars of Hollywood.

REASONS TO SEE: Eastwood is always watchable. A “so bizarre it has to be true” story.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the racist remarks Earl says made me a little uncomfortable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Earl Stone character is based on Leo “Tata” Sharp who was also a horticulturist who became a drug mule for the Sinaloa cartel from 2001-2011.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/14//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic:  58/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Old Man & the Gun
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Bombshells and Dollies

Aquaman


Under the sea, a princess waits.

(2018) Superhero (Warner BrothersJason Momoa, Amber Heard, Patrick Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Temuera Morrison, Ludi Lin, Michael Beach, Randall Park, Graham McTavish, Leigh Whannell, Julie Andrews (voice), Djimon Hounsou, (voice), John Rhys-Davies (voice), Andrew Crawford, Sophia Forrest, Natalia Safran. Directed by James Wan

 

It’s no secret that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has far out-stripped the DC Extended Universe for box office supremacy. There are a lot of reasons for that; regardless, the fact of the matter is that DC has a lot of catching up to do, and here’s where they start.

Arthur Curry (Momoa) a.k.a. Aquaman (although he is rarely referred to by that term) is the son of Polynesian lighthouse keeper (Morrison) and Atlanna (Kidman), a princess of Atlantis. Bullied as a young boy, he learns that due to his half-Atlantean lineage he can communicate with sea animals, control water and swim faster than a dolphin. He can also breathe underwater as well as on land. He is tutored by Vulko (Dafoe), an advisor to the king of Atlantis, Arthur soon becomes a kind of superhero, although he prefers very much to be left alone to drink beer and brood, mainly over the disappearance of his mother and his father’s sad faith that she will return to him someday.

However, the arrival of new princess Mera (Heard) tells Arthur of a power struggle going on in the deep. Orm (Wilson), his half-brother, has claimed the throne, although Arthur apparently has a better claim. Orm means to declare war on the surface dwellers and who could blame him, given all the pollution and damage we have inflicted on the oceans. Arthur and Mera will need to go on a quest to find Neptune’s trident, the most powerful weapon in Atlantis that has been lost for generations, if they are to challenge Orm and save the human race.

Wan is an accomplished director who has launched two major movie franchises – Saw and The Conjuring – and looks to give DC a badly needed infusion of fun. It’s no accident that Jason Momoa’s Aquaman resembles Chris Hemsworth’s Thor in many respects; the roguish demeanor, the royal bloodline, the affection for humans and the wisecracks; Wan’s no fool, and that lighter sort of superhero sells better in today’s market than the brooding, dark heroes of DC’s recent past.

Other than that, this is pretty standard superhero movie stuff; big battles, lavish special effects, the existence of the human race on the line. Aquaman is at its best, oddly enough, when Momoa’s charm is allowed to shine through; the big special effects are almost too busy with too much going on so that the end result is not eye candy but vertigo.

Heard delivers the best performance of her career as the agile Mera, and Kidman lends needed gravitas as Atlanna. There is also a subplot involving regular Aquaman nemesis Black Manta who is played by the underutilized Mateen, who is due a superhero character of his own one of these days. The wow factor is definitely here, but the movie is a little too long, a little too overwhelming. Still, where it shines, it really shines and Momoa is certainly an action star for the new decade.

REASONS TO SEE: Best DC film since Wonder Woman. Momoa was born to play a superhero.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a little too artsy for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES: The special effects are on the busy side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to director James Wan, the octopus playing drums during the duel between Orm and Arthur is Topo, Aquaman’s sidekick during the 50s and 60s. Wan figured that if Mad Max: Fury Road could have flame-throwing guitars, he could have an octo-drummer.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Now, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews, Metacritic: 55/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Waterworld
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Capital in the 21st Century

They Shall Not Grow Old


The Great War, made living once again.

(2018) Documentary (Warner Brothers)  No cast listed.  Directed by Peter Jackson

 

When we think of Peter Jackson, we mostly think of Middle Earth. Some of his fans are aware, however, that he is a World War I buff, a war that his grandfather fought in and who died of injuries sustained in the war before little Peter was born. So when the Imperial War Museum offered to allow him to make a documentary using their film archives he jumped at the chance.

What has resulted is nothing less than an epic documentary, but this isn’t a typical “How the War was Won” informational film with maps and narration. This is the stories of the soldiers who fought the war, in their own words (taken from audio interviews decades after the fact) on footage that has been restored from jerky 18-frames-per-second hand-cranked jerkiness to smooth 24-frames-per-second realistic motion. He has also digitally colored the film, bringing depth to the faces and making the war something less from the dusty history books and more real and immediate for audiences.

Initially released in 3D IMAX, it is available at home now and in a lot of ways, it is less distracting to watch it from your couch than in a big IMAX seat with all the overpowering sound, even though the sound is part of the realism here. To be honest, I got lulled a bit during the middle as the film stretches on. I like to think of myself as a history buff but at times even I found it tedious, although it’s possible that when I saw it I was on the tired side which may have impacted my enjoyment of it.

Still, this is a document that comes as close to making the viewer a part of history as I think it is currently possible to become. The faces even given the hair styles and period dress, could be anyone you encounter on the street, in church, at your local theater. Or at least, used to. Some of the images of corpses, of dead horses and of explosions disturbingly close by may be a little much for those who are sensitive.

One other thing; we are never introduced to any of the soldiers speaking; we only get a sense of their experience and not who they are. That’s a lot like reading a dust jacket and trying to get a sense of what the book is like. This was deliberately done by Jackson so as not to bog down the film and I understand his reasoning, but I think it backfired. I would have liked to have known these men a little bit better. At least, some of their names.

REASONS TO SEE: The footage is incredible and the technology that brings it to life breathtaking.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too long, a little too tedious, a little too impersonal.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images from the war.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jackson was given carte blanche by the Imperial War Museum to use their footage however he saw fit (so long as it was respectful). Some of the footage has never been seen by the public.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Now, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 91/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Great War
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald


An expanding family portrait.

(2018) Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Eddie Redmayne, Johnny Depp, Dan Fogler, Zoë Kravitz, Ezra Miller, Alison Sudol, Katherine Waterston, Jude Law, Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, David Wilmot, Brontis Jodorowsky, Jessica Williams, Hugh Quarshie, Isaura Barbé-Brown, Victoria Yeates, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Ingvar Sigurdsson, Derek Riddell, Poppy Corby-Tuech. Directed by David Yates

 

The Harry Potter franchise has been nothing short of a cash cow for Warner Brothers. After Harry’s adventures came to an end, we looked forward with some eagerness to the adventures of New Scamander in a prequel of sorts. When Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them became the expected massive hit, the proposed trilogy was expanded into a five-film series.

Heavy on exposition, the second film in the series has turned out to be a bloated mess. The evil wizard Grindelwald (Depp) has escaped from captivity and looks to continue his quest to amass an army to take over the world and rule all muggles. He has seen a vision of the future and it includes a mushroom cloud, so one can hardly blame him there – we muggles certainly made a hash of things.

Newt Scamander (Redmayne) would rather continue to gather magical beasts from around the world but he is under a travel ban until his old teacher Albus Dumbledore (Law) gives him a new quest – to find Creedence (Miller), the emotionally abused young man from the first film. It turns out that the Ministry of Magic is also after him. And so is Grindelwald. Newt, aided by the woman he loves, American auror Tina Goldstein (Waterston), her ditzy sister Queenie (Sudol) and Queenie’s boyfriend (as well as Newt’s buddy from the first film) Jacob the Baker (Fogler) will have to step lively if they are to find the elusive Creedence, who is searching for his past so he may discover truly who and what he is. He is, for all intents and purposes, the crux of the show.

The tone is distinctly darker here, as most second films of fantasy series’ are. J.K. Rowling’s world-building skills are beyond reproach but I get the sense she was trying to accomplish too much with this film; in addition to the main characters from the first film there are also plenty of new ones running around, so much so that it becomes difficult to determine who’s who and what’s what. The movie gets bogged down in plot exposition and character development, eschewing action a little bit too much.

The special effects are wondrous, of course, as you would expect. There are plenty of amazing creature effects here, both CGI and practical. The cast does it’s level best but I got the sense that they, too, were confused by what was going on behind them. The third film, after the disappointing reviews and box office of this film, is being retooled but hopefully it will right the course for the series which has made a most definite misstep.

REASONS TO SEE: The beasties continue to be nifty.
REASONS TO AVOID: Underwhelming performances and plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Newt Scamander’s basement, where he keeps his beasts, was inspired by an M.C. Escher print (Relativity).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Now, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews, Metacritic: 52/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eragon
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Mowgli

Creed II


The obligatory staredown.

(2018) Sports Drama (MGM/Warner BrothersMichael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Florian Munteanu, Dolph Lundgren, Phylicia Rashad, Russell Hornsby, Wood Harris, Milo Ventimiglia, Robbie Johns, Andre Ward, Brigitte Nelson, Patrice Harris, Jacob “Stitch” Duran, Ana Gerena, Christopher Mann, Robert Douglas, Zack Beyer, Chrisdine King. Directed by Steven Caple Jr.

The Rocky franchise may be the ultimate American movie franchise; it has tackled everything from the triumph of the underdog to Cold War politics to father-son alienation over the years. With the 70-something Stallone more than long in the tooth to get back in the ring, it was decided (after a misfire featuring Milo Ventimiglia as Rocky’s son, who also cameos here in the same role) to pass the torch to Michael B. Jordan as Adonis, son of Apollo Creed and in the 2015 movie Creed director Ryan Coogler managed to put together a movie that garnered a lot of awards season attention.

With a new director, the writers (including Stallone) looked back at the storied history of the franchise, remembering that Daddy Creed died in the ring at the hands of Ivan Drago (Lundgren). Now, with Viktor Drago (Munteanu) having turned into an unstoppable behemoth like his old man, Adonis wants payback and despite the concerns of Rocky (Stallone), Adonis’ wife Bianca (Thompson) who is losing her hearing, and mom Mary Anne (Rashad), Adonis looks to show Drago and Son who really is The Man. Of course, things don’t go as planned, a rematch is set and nobody thinks Adonis can win.

The plot takes almost all of its cues from Rocky IV nearly note for note; if you haven’t seen that film (some say the best in the franchise), you’re basically watching it here. The newer Creed misses the sure hand of Coogler at the helm but Caple does a pretty capable job in the relief role. While this film doesn’t measure up well to Creed (or Rocky IV for that matter) it has enough going for it to make it worth your while looking it up; it’s pretty much available everywhere at the moment so it’s not that hard to find. Just like Stallone.

REASONS TO SEE: Jordan is one of the best actors working today.
REASONS TO AVOID: Formulaic throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of boxing violence, some profanity and a scene of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The two turtles, Cuff and Link, are appearing for the fifth time in the franchise. They are also Stallone’s real-life pets and they have been with him for more than 50 years at the time of filming.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Epix, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews, Metacritic: 66/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rocky IV
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind

A Star is Born (2018)


A song is born.

(2018) Musical (Warner BrothersBradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Rafi Gavron, Anthony Ramos, Dave Chappelle, Alec Baldwin, Marlon Williams, Brandi Carlile, Ron Rifkin, Barry Shabaka Henley, Michael D. Roberts, Michael J. Harney, Rebecca Field, Derek Kevin Jones, William Belli, Dennis Tong, Joshua Wells, Greg Grunberg, Drena De Niro. Directed by Bradley Cooper

 

Talk about a tale as old as time: big rock star Jackson Maine (Cooper) wanders into a bar to get a drink (that it is a drag queen bar is a concession to these woke times) and hears a lovely ingenue named Ally (Gaga) belt out a jaw-dropping version of the Edith Piaf classic “La Vie en Rose.” Turns out that Ally also writes songs. Turns out the songs are really good.

Jackson likes one so much that he decides to perform one at his next concert. Just as icing on the cake, he drags a petrified Ally onstage to duet with him. And guess what? The song goes viral. Suddenly the songwriter-performer, who had just about given up on any shot at a career in the music business, has a career in the music business.

But what goes up must come down. As Ally’s star rises, alcoholism brings Jackson’s career to a standstill. A new manager turns Ally from a rock-oriented singer-songwriter into a pop diva complete with orange hair and a dance troupe. It is no accident – and in many ways, an acid comment on the state of music today – that as Ally grows more successful her music becomes less memorable, and in fact, becomes downright shitty.

This is the fourth version of this tale; it is also Cooper’s first foray into directing. He also co-wrote the screenplay and is one of a gaggle of producers. Word has it he also mopped the floors of the sound stages after shooting was done for the day.

The music here is pretty good, other than the robotic pop that Ally performs in the second half of the film. Cooper and Elliott (as Jackson’s manager and big brother) give outstanding performances, but it is Lady Gaga who will always be remembered for this movie. Already a huge pop diva, she shows that she is capable of being a movie star if she wants to be.

The movie runs a bit too long as we watch Jackson’s decline and Ally’s ascent; those scenes should have been a bit more streamlined. To be honest, I don’t think any version of the film is ever going to hold a candle to the Judy Garland-James Mason version back in 1954 – that’s a true classic. Still, there is a lot to be said for this movie, which was a major Oscar contender at last year’s Oscars (it did win one for Best Music Score). It remains a popular film – most people who saw it liked it or even loved it. I didn’t love it but I certainly did like it.

REASONS TO SEE: Lady Gaga is a true cinematic presence.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too long, drags in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexuality and brief nudity, and some harrowing alcoholism depictions.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cooper studied Elliott’s voice to come up with Jackson Maine’s voice – before Elliott had been cast.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews, Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Every other A Star is Born
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Venom