Film Review: “The Commuter”

Starring: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson
Directed By: Jaume Collett-Serra
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 104 minutes
Lionsgate

Sometimes the best compliment you can give to absolute schlock is that it’s alright. “The Commuter” doesn’t try to be more than it is. It manages to be mildly thrilling, sometimes genuinely intriguing, but mainly remains over-the-top. Sometimes bad movies sacrifice entertainment for the sake of attempting to become logical, or God forbid, taking itself too seriously. But luckily “The Commuter” is as fun as it is forgettable.

The fun begins after Michael McCauley (Neeson) is fired as an insurance salesman. Not looking forward to delivering the news to his wife, he sits quietly on the train ride home, attempting to push his troubles out of his mind. In comes a mysterious woman, calling herself Joanna (Farmiga), offering the recently fired and down on his luck Irish immigrant a chance at $100,000. $25,000 is offered up front if he accepts her strange quest and the rest comes if he completes it. His mission is to find a passenger named Prynne and plant a tracking device in their luggage.

“The Commuter” does a decent job establishing that Michael is desperate for money, and not just with his firing. He has a son at home who’s about to head to college and back in the 2007-2008 financial crisis, he and his wife nearly lost all their assets; so $100,000 dollars seems very tempting. Of course as Michael unravels the mystery around him, he finds that his task isn’t easy as it originally appears and there’s more at stake.

Consistently hinting at powerful men, evil that’s pulling the rods behind the curtains and other allegorical bad men, “The Commuter” never really fulfills on what should be a promising solution to the puzzle. Maybe the socio-political commentary was there, but scratched out in a noble attempt to make “The Commuter” sillier than it was originally attended. There are plenty of solid laughs intentionally written in, but an equal amount of unintentional chuckles at the absurdity of it all.

However, when “The Commuter” buckles down for drama, it wrings out a lot of tension from Michael going back and forth through train cars, as well as some surprising twists and turns. Neeson commands a lot of these scenes, conveying checked anger and frustration, as well as general bewilderment at the unfolding scenario. The movie does shoot itself in the foot when several other actors, like Jonathan Banks and Sam Neill, distract from the plot more than provide to it.

Without Neeson or director Jaume Collett-Serra, “The Commuter” would have certainly been a stumbling mess. The moments of mystery, amplified by Neeson’s willingness to go along with it, are what keep this train moving. There are moments that feel cliché and contrived, but they never actually feel like they’re beneath the 65-year-old actor. It’s a testament to Neeson’s body of work that he can still make the silliest of premises believable and fun without going full on Nicolas Cage with his performance.

Film Review: “Downsizing”

Starring: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz and Hong Chau
Directed By: Alexander Payne
Rated: R
Running Time: 135 minutes
Paramount Pictures

The most positive thing I can say about “Downsizing” is that you’ll never be able to guess where it’s headed. Even as the film hit the homestretch, I kept waiting for that “a-ha” moment or the singular statement that the movie looked to deliver. I never got that moment and in a way I left the theater in disappoint. But what lingered was uncertainty. Even after weeks of thinking on it, I’m still unsure about the message in “Downsizing” and whether or not it’s a peculiar sci-fi reflection on humanity or a tonal misfire.

Environmentalism is at the forefront in the opening minutes as we watch the Norwegians at work in a lab. They’re looking for a solution to the world’s overpopulation crisis. A solution comes in the unlikely form of shrinking. They’ve developed a way to shrink fully-grown humans down to five inches tall. This mean that the tiny humans will produce less waste, take up less space, and use less energy. Thinking long-range, they say in a few centuries they hope that all of humanity is down to a miniature size to help save Planet Earth.

Fast forwarding a few years after this scientific breakthrough, we meet Paul (Damon), who’s manages to persuade his wife, Audrey (Kirsten Wiig), to sell their assets and move to one of the biggest downsized communities in America. The pint-sized world, smack dab in the middle of the Arizona desert, presents an opportunity for the lower middle-class couple from Omaha to be millionaires in the miniature world, since you can stretch a dollar farther when your house is the size of Barbie’s Malibu dream home. Of course, not everything goes to plan.

Like I stated at the beginning, “Downsizing” is unpredictable because it manages to take every possible detour away from its original comedic premise of Paul attempting to adapt to his new life in a tiny world. It soon becomes a film about societal constructs, then organized crime amongst elites, then refugees, then class warfare, and then back to environmentalism. There’s the possibility I’m forgetting a few themes that Director and Writer Alexander Payne manages to wring out of his script. It’s a bold, bizarre endeavor that pays off sometimes.

But because of the constant gear shifting, there were moments I found myself bored and wondering if I really should get invested in any of the characters introduced, especially with how disposable most are outside of Paul. The sprinkling of humor sometimes keeps the movie grounded in its roots, but when it branches out it pokes you in the eye rather than enlightens. “Downsizing” may be a fun movie to discuss after watching, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into an entertaining film.

Film Review: “Darkest Hour”

Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James
Directed By: Joe Wright
Rated: R
Running Time: 125 minutes
Focus Features

Earlier in 2017, Christopher Nolan gripped audiences with a land, sea and air telling of the evacuation of “Dunkirk.” While I personally wasn’t wowed with Nolan’s WWII film, I appreciate his craft at conveying fear and desperation in the eyes of thousands of Allied soldiers looking to escape the stranglehold of the German army. For those, like me, who were looking for a little bit more in narrative substance, “Darkest Hour,” might scratch that itch.

“Darkest Hour” begins with Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) being named Prime Minister after multiple failures by Neville Chamberlain. Despite commanding respect from the House of Commons, his blunt speak and unorthodox approach quickly draws enemies behind the scenes. Lending their ears to the embattled Prime Minister is King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) and his personal secretary, Elizabeth Layton (James). While showing passion for defense his homeland, Churchill becomes increasingly difficult to work with as Hitler’s grasp on Western Europe grows bigger and tighter.

“Darkest Hour” tries it’s best to summarize a turbulent short span of time between Churchill’s ascent into one of the most difficult positions at the beginning to WWII to the formulation of Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of Dunkirk. While narratively confusing sometimes, white lettering telling us the specific date keeps things in line as Churchill digs in heels and sticks to his guns against confrontations with his enemies and his allies.

Thanks to history books, and “Dunkirk,” we do know how the story will play out, but the drama and emotional turmoil behind the decision making makes for a fascinating retelling. The war room, that Churchill manages to glide through at his brittle age, is always buzzing and the potential for a “negotiated peace” with Germany sheds light on the diplomatic crisis at hand as the body count for the good guys mounts.

Underneath heavy makeup, Oldman is able to capture Churchill’s warmth, impatience, generosity and unpredictability. At times his tongue slips and we hear a little bit of the actor’s voice come through, but overall his mannerisms, matching Churchill’s voice, keep him in a grounded and highly believable role. Oldman’s performance is just as commanding as Churchill’s presence in the face of insurmountable odds.

History junkies may like this straight-forward and poignant approach to political discourse during war. But that’s not to say that movie goers will find themselves entranced by Oldman’s performance and this unique history lesson. Not only is the Oscar hype real about Oldman’s performance, but it’s a refreshing reminder about the power of genuine men and the power of their words during a world at crisis.

Film Review: “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart and Jack Black
Directed By: Jake Kasdan
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 119 minutes
Sony Pictures Entertainment

In 2015 there was a collective gasp by 90’s kids after Sony confirmed long held rumors that the studio would be making a sequel to the much-beloved “Jumanji.” The 1995 film is just one of the many reasons Millennials fondly remember Robin Williams, so creating a sequel for it over two decades later for a new generation is no easy task, even if their the goal is to cash in on nostalgia.s

The new film picks up in 1996, where an unnamed boy is given the classic Jumanji board game by his father. He tosses it aside and proceeds to play a video game instead. Sensing its expiration date, the board game creates a video game cartridge for the unnamed boy to pop in. Tripping ahead 20 years later, we meet four teenagers, stuck in detention with a mundane task, and looking for an escape. That’s when the Jumanji video game rears its ugly head, with those iconic jungle drums, entrancing the high schoolers to plug it in.

Whereas the original brought the jungle to our realm, the new Jumanji transplants it’s victims into its realm. The teenagers take the form of video game avatars, played by the surprisingly charismatic and charming hodgepodge of Johnson, Gillan, Hart and Black. Their comedic strengths (except Gillan) are somewhat subdued so that there’s a lot more group improvisation and camaraderie so that no one overwhelms or steals a scene.

With five screenwriters, there are moments where “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” seems to understand video game clichés and utilizes them while at other times it seems to be written by a middle-aged man who believes video games are the death of creativity. In some ways you could say this movie suffers from the pitfalls of other video game movies where there’s not enough time to flesh out exposition and the action sequences suffer from rushed conflict resolution. But when the movie embraces video game tropes, it genuinely excels as popcorn entertainment and parody.

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” benefits from a fun cast, willing to embody their absurd characters and the even more ridiculous plot. But that doesn’t mean the film isn’t without its flaws. The third act is weak, sometimes neglecting established plot points and making little use of the actual jungle. I’m also curious as to how well it’ll be received and understood by those who grew up without the film or are unaware of the previous flick. For those looking for a healthy dose of nostalgia, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is a passable film, but it doesn’t make the case for a potential franchise or another sequel.

Film Review: “The Shape of Water”

Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon and Richard Jenkins
Directed By: Guillermo Del Toro
Rated: R
Running Time: 123 minutes
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Guillermo Del Toro is known for his love of monsters, creatures, ghosts, ghouls and the macabre beauty of it all. That love takes on a new meaning in “The Shape of Water,” where Del Toro conjures up classic cinema vibes with the setting, cast, and trademark visuals throughout his latest film. After years of scaring and provoking thought, it appears that Del Toro is instead reflecting, not only on himself, but his influences.

On paper, “The Shape of Water” is a curious, if not off-putting, love story between Elisa (Hawkins), a woman made mute by an injury, and an amphibious creature, played by Doug Jones under heavy makeup. Elisa first spots the creature at her janitorial job at a secretive research center. She comes across the creature as it arrives at the base, after recently being captured in a South American river where it was worshipped as a God by local tribesmen. Curiosity gets the best of Elisa as she sneaks in to see the creature first-hand. She quickly becomes enchanted, spending her lunch breaks in the enclosure, to feed it hard boiled eggs and share her love of music with it.

The love story, as usual, has a deeper meaning that speaks volumes, but is unappealing to those who will simply see something else that’s a little too much for average audiences. It’s not necessarily a complaint of mine, but it is a scenario that’s a little rough to warm up to. It also lacks the benefit of necessary build-up and wordless romance that might not be Del Toro’s strong suit. If you can get past the strange romantic entanglement, there is a lot of beauty in Del Toro’s script.

Beyond that, there’s the evil in the world that inadvertently tries to tear the two apart. The creature’s captor, Richard (Shannon), is a dangerous control freak. He takes out his own insecurities on employees and looks to kill what he does not understand. His inflated sense of self-importance is compensation, but he’s looking to attain more power and work his way into the hierarchy of the military and other powers to be.

Because this takes place in the 60’s, there a sense that Elisa and the creature represent the counterculture to Shannon’s violent character. Very few people aid Shannon in his pursuit, while those around Elisa go against their common sense and assist in her attempts to break the creature out of confinement. It’s once the creature is out and Elisa gets to spend some alone time that I begin to feel conflicted about the attitude and direction of the film.

Del Toro’s “Beauty and the Beast” take for adults hits and misses in its third act when everything comes crashing together. There are signs of a cinematic masterpiece in “Shape of Water,” but too often Del Toro seems to cheapen the message about love for those without a voice and those who are alien in a “normal” society. It’s a tricky juggling act that would have been tough for any director, but Del Toro does make it work with his gothic imagery and performances from his cast. “The Shape of Water” should be a stronger film under Del Toro’s direction, but it’s still an emotionally resonant film.

Film Review: “The Disaster Artist”

Starring: James Franco, Dave Franco and Ari Graynor
Directed By: James Franco
Rated: R
Running Time: 103 minutes
A24

“The Disaster Artist” is a film where you have to continuously remind yourself that the characters portrayed on-screen are real people and that the events that transpired actually happened. The absurdity of Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) is like something out of a fantasy novel. His confidence is matched by his obliviousness. He steps onto the stage during an acting class giving a performance that borders reveals his narcissism. On the surface, his awful interpretation of “A Streetcar Named Desire” could be viewed as intentional deadpan genius.

But in the class, looking on after failing to work up the nerve to put together any acting chops, is Greg Sestero (Dave Franco). Unlike the rest of the class, which looks on in gross astonishment, Sestero sees a man who’s unafraid of the lights, the crowd, and of his own lackluster talents. Sestero approaches the Eastern European sounding man, already aged with wrinkles, to figure out how to obtain that fearlessness. Although what Sestero doesn’t realize, is that that fearlessness was birthed in a pool of egotism. But what arises is one of the most bizarre creations of the 21st century.

“The Disaster Artist” somewhat chronicles the beginning of the friendship between Wiseau and Sestero, which led to the disasterpiece known as “The Room,” a film that’s now shown at midnight screenings around the country and mocked much like the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” The film is almost a love letter to the boldness of Wiseau as well as the fragile bromance that develops between the two. It’s in the Franco wheelhouse, which brings in other actors and directors from that genre, like Seth Rogen, Zac Efron and Judd Apatow.

Because the film plays out as an ode and embrace of Wiseau’s misguided efforts, it does tend to gloss over some of the troubled rumblings of the production of “The Room.” Tales of gross negligence and fights are shown, and sometimes played for laughs, but we don’t get a good enough grasp on the story behind the movie. A lot of that may be because Wiseau and Sostero, in real-life, remain good friends and even still work together. It’s understandably tough to trash talk a friend, but “The Disaster Artist” could have benefitted from getting out of bed with Wiseau’s quasi-charming ambiguity.

Mirroring the film’s creation, Franco is the director, lead, and one of the producers of this film, highlighting his eerily physically similarities to Wiseau as well as perfecting the mannerisms of the mysterious man who explains away his Eastern European accent as being from New Orleans and profusely lying about his age. Franco plays Wiseau as an unlikable dolt who shouldn’t be liked or applauded for his efforts. But by the film’s end you find yourself warming up to Wiseau with likability that’s almost beyond explanation to a layman.

Generally when discussing the latest Marvel film, I don’t tend to think about how the average moviegoer, who has no prior knowledge of the other films. Marvel’s cinematic universe sometimes requires a little bit of visual homework, but superheroes are so pervasive in culture, you’d be hard pressed not to find someone who doesn’t at least know of Captain America and others. However, you’ll find plenty of people scratching their head over Wiseau’s name and who might mistakenly think of Brie Larson’s award winning role in the film “Room.”

“The Disaster Artist” is more or less bonus content for fans of Wiseau’s passion project and cinematic abortion. I’m in that camp and enjoyed Franco’s recreation of particular scenes, along with the behind-the-camera retelling of insufferable moments with Wiseau, as well as the monumentous occasion where Wiseau premiered the six million dollar film that’s considered one of the worst in modern history, if not all time. For those outside that bubble of knowledge, you may find yourself wondering what all the fuss is about. For those in that bubble, you’ll relish and eat up this biographical travesty.

Film Review: “Coco”

Starring the Voice of: Anthony Gonzalez, Gail Garcia Bernal and Benjamin Bratt
Directed By: Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina
Rated: PG
Running Time: 115 minutes
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Death and life after death are incredibly tricky subjects to maneuver for filmmakers in the animated-children’s movie genre. When making a family friendly film about the passing of a loved one and what waits beyond in the afterlife, you run the risk of not only upsetting children, but also their parents for how you’ve delivered your content. To say Pixar has done it again is an understatement because they’ve seemingly handled the subject matter with ease.

Miguel Rivera (Gonazalez) is an aspiring musician, trapped in a family that has barred music from the household. The Riveras are a shoemaking family because Miguel’s great-great-grandmother started the practice as a way to prove her own independence after her husband abandoned the family to pursue his musical dreams. Hence this is why artistic pursuits in music are frowned down upon, even to the point where Miguel’s grandmother smashes Miguel’s makeshift acoustic guitar after finding it in his secret room/shrine dedicated to popular singer-songwriter, Ernesto De La Cruz (Bratt)

Despite those attempts to dismay Miguel, he develops suspicions that he’s related to his idol Ernesto and enters the Mexican singer’s enshrined tomb on Dia de Muertos (The Day of the Dead). Believing that he’s simply borrowing a long lost relative’s heirloom, Miguel steals Ernesto’s guitar. But instead he’s committing an unspoken cardinal sin that isn’t grave robbing. He’s transported to the afterlife where he meets his long deceased relatives and discovers unspoken family secrets long forgotten.

There’s a lot of moments where “Coco” could have easily coasted on spectacular visuals and charming characters, but instead Pixar does what it does best, surpass expectations and craft a unique and heartwarming vision. The animation studio also manages to package its themes of perseverance, family togetherness, forgiveness and following your dreams, all in a cohesive message that’s easily consumed for parents and kids alike. “Coco” immerses audiences in a culture and tradition that speaks universal truths.

The music, which will surely win an Oscar, by Robert Lopez keeps tempo with the animation pushing audiences into fresh colorful territory, but also bringing audiences back down to Earth during the film’s most subtle moments. The man whose done music for everything from “Frozen” to “The Book of Mormon” makes another catalogue of music that’s seemingly timeless, fitting Pixar’s effort’s to make “Coco” an instant classic, worthy of standing atop their growing catalogue of masterpieces.

“Coco” takes a while to get going, but once it does, it manages to hit every high note along the way. It may not be as clever as “Inside Out” or groundbreaking as “Wall-E,” but it finds a way to wedge itself into contention with many of Pixar’s great because of its expert use and understanding of the Mexican heritage that it uses as a plot device and backdrop. It’s a movie that not only enlightens some about a specific culture, but makes audiences feel like one of the family. And for those who’ve ever dealt with the loss of a relative, you’ll find the ending equally heartbreaking and endearing.

Film Review: “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri”

Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell
Directed By: Martin McDonagh
Rated: R
Running Time: 109 minutes
Fox Searchlight Pictures

“Raped While Dying.” “And Still No Arrests?” “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” The billboards put up by Mildred Hayes (McDormand) hope to shed more light on the rape and violent murder of her daughter Angela. But the billboards aren’t the powder keg, they’re the fuse. The bright red billboards with black lettering quickly become the talk of the town, despite being placed on a rural stretch of untraveled road outside the sleepy Missouri town of Ebbing. Frustration turns to anger. Anger turns to rage. Rage turns to violence.

As “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” slowly unravels and reveals it’s hodgepodge of townsfolk and officers in the local police department, we learn that justice isn’t black and white, literally and figuratively. We learn that Chief Willoughby (Harrelson) isn’t incompetent or ignoring Angela’s murder, but the case has simply gone cold. We do however learn he acts as warden of his own prison that houses racist, bigoted officers, some of whom are drunk and known throughout town for savagely beating minorities.

What director and writer Martin McDonagh does so wonderfully is avoid propping the two opposing sides, Mildred and the Ebbing Police Department, as the heroes and villains. All the characters in his film are flawed creatures, and McDonagh twists the audience’s expectation on their heads and plays with our distaste and sympathy simultaneously. Despite the obvious commentary on contemporary on social and political topics, McDonagh constantly reminds us that morality is a fluid beast.

For a film with such dark thematic content, like rape, murder, racism and hatred, there’s a lot of witty dialogue and wicked humor. It’s a perfect counter-balance to some of the film’s more gripping moments, serving as an exhale during those tense scenes. There’s even a twinge of sardonic humor for those guilty enough to laugh at it. The laughs are mainly led by Mildred in her most ferocious moments or when one of Ebbing’s most incompetent boys in blue, Officer Jason Dixon (Rockwell), wants to retort.

McDonagh is a master at introducing characters and automatically telling the audience who they are, but at the same time manipulating their actions in realistic manner that subverts our expectations. Caught in the war between Mildred and the police is the townsfolk, sometimes offering their condolences in private, but publicly taking the side they disagree with. It’s an honest portrayal of small town politics, how rumors become truth, and how sometimes no one’s really right or wrong in an argument.

Led by an outstanding cast, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a smartly written film capturing the raw emotion of tragedy, it’s tangled aftermath and how attempts at a resolution sometimes leads to more pain. It conveys a lot of unspoken truths without providing a lot of answers. If “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” has a message, it’s not one of optimism or pessimism, but it’s complicated, just like the characters populating this rustic Show-Me state town.

Another Successful Outing for Kansas City Comic Con

A super reunion and the “Comic Book Men” helped fill the halls of Bartle Hall over the weekend. Kansas City Comic Con, now in it’s third year, saw thousands upon thousands of people pass through the entrance between November 10th-12th.

Fans from all walks of life showed up for the weekend gathering. The “Superman: The Movie” 40th anniversary, which featured a two-hour panel and guests like Margot Kidder, Sarah Douglas, and local Jeff East, was the big draw. The other big draw was a visit by Filmmaker/Podcaster Kevin Smith, Jason Mewes, and the men behind the AMC show “Comic Book Men.”

There was plenty to do, including lively panels, events on the main floor, and meeting celebrities, animators, creators, cosplayers and othersw. During the hustle and bustle, the MediaMikes crew met fans of the website and garnished new fans with a booth featuring “Superman” memorabilia and a few free promotional items.

In a city full of cons throughout the year, Kansas City Comic Con has sliced out it’s own piece of the year to entertain and reward those in attendance. MediaMikes looks forward to working with and joining Kansas City Comic Con in 2018.

Photos by Dan Lybarger

“Superman” display at the MediaMikes table Lee Meriwether is all-in for “Justice League” Ron Burgundy setting up for a live shot A couple of Supermen taking in the MediaMikes memorabilia display The “Comic Book Men” enjoying the latest issue of “Good Housekeeping” featuring Deadpool “It” cosplay is in this year A “Ghostbusters” and “TMNT” crossover

Film Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz and Willem Dafoe
Directed By: Kenneth Branagh
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 114 minutes
20th Century Fox

One of the most impressive ensemble casts of the year seems lost in sweeping CGI landscapes and overstuffed set pieces. “Murder on the Orient Express” is geared more towards technical film geeks who enjoy richness in their production design, more than they do in the script or the acting. I only say that because “Murder on the Orient Express” is awfully pretty to look at, but there isn’t much behind the lens.

Through happenstance, world-renowned detective Hercule Poirpot (Branagh) has found himself on the Orient Express. The luxury train connects Istanbul to the rest of Europe, which means the train is filled with socialites heading back to the Western World. The hodgepodge of characters seems at odds during casual dinner and indifferent during coffee, but there’s a singular thing that connects them all. It’s something Detective Poirpot will have to uncover after a passenger is found murdered in his cabin.

Murder mysteries are usually good, if not Oscar bait this time of year. However, “Murder on the Orient Express” is neither. While I haven’t read Agathe Christie’s work or seen the previous adaptations of her work, I can still confidently say that this isn’t on par with its predecessors or source material. I can surmise this because of how ambitious it looks, but the story never matches that visual gusto.

Johnny Depp plays the murder victim, but he’s not painted as a victim. We’re told he’s a scumbag, but we never feel like he’s one, despite the overwhelming evidence. The others on the train are played by the likes of A-listers, like Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, and Michelle Pfeiffer, while up and comers, like Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley and Leslie Odom Jr. round out the cluster. The ensemble is too overwhelming, visually and narratively, with the film struggling to divvy up enough even time for the audience, and Poirpot, to question the lengthy list of suspects.

For those unsure of how this film will play out, like me, it’s slightly interesting in some spots to watch Poirpot work out the tangled web surrounding the murder. For those who love a good whodunit, you may not be disappointed, except for how the end and reveal is executed. “Murder on the Orient Express” is a classic in the literary sense, but this 21st century retelling offers nothing new.

Film Review: “Thor: Ragnarok”

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston and Cate Blanchett
Directed By: Taika Waititi
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 130 minutes
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

While “Avengers: Age of Ultron” was only about two and a half years ago, it feels like an eternity since we last saw Thor (Hemsworth). It can easily be said that Thor’s cameos in other Marvel films are a lot more enjoyable than his own feature length vehicles. That’s mainly because his two previous movies are devoid of mentally stimulating storytelling, hollow villains and an inescapable sense of forced plotting. Luckily, third time’s the charm for the God of Thunder.

In an attempt to get to the meat of the story, “Ragnarok” spends the first handful of minutes rushing through plot points about Thor, Loki, Odin and Jane Foster, and what they’ve been up to since we last saw them. It’s taxing, especially since no one really cares about Odin and I think Loki is a reminder of Marvel’s previous attempts to make him more of an imposing bad guy than he actually is. But it’s during these clichéd moments that “Ragnarok” still manages to find fun and establish tone.

For instance, the cold open finds Thor having the most fun we’ve ever seen him have on screen. With a flick of his wrist and a twirl of his hammer, he obliterates dozens of faceless foes, and it’s all set to Led Zepplin. We also get a much needed detour from the story line catch-up with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). His cameo is unexplained and seemingly unnecessary, but it’s certainly one of the most delightful highlights of the film. Once the film catches up on two years, we meet the Goddess of Death, Hela (Blanchett)

Hela may be the blueprints needed for a Marvel universe in sore need of a compelling, yet dangerous villain. Hela is a genuine threat, demonstrating her overt God-like powers throughout. Her first scene shows her destroying Thor’s hammer with a singular flex of her arm and disregarding Thor’s threat much like a pesky fly. There’s a charming menace behind her smile as she slaughters countless soldiers on her way to Asgard’s throne. Blanchett’s performance is simply magnetic.

Most Marvel films know how to have fun, but “Ragnarok” is an entirely new beast. It draws upon child-like humor, usually seen in more mature Saturday morning cartoons. The film expertly utilizes humor to introduce new characters flawlessly and in minimal time. Jokes convey their attitudes and mentality easier than any drawn out exposition could. It also helps when you have the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) aggressively stomping around like an upset Kindergartener. Director Taika Waititi deserves a lot of credit for taking the title character and its world in such a retro direction so that’s equally lighthearted and visually joyful.

“Ragnarok” isn’t breaking the established Marvel mold, as much as it wants to. Film executives might have pulled their hair out if the film didn’t still lean on protagonist redemption subplots, cheeky squabbles amongst allies and fanboy pandering. That shouldn’t take away from Waititi’s vision. He’s brought his own brand of goofiness, managing to make the film and its characters crass, yet warm, and brutish, yet charming. “Ragnarok” is a dazzling space opera that finally gives Thor meaningful purpose in the vast Marvel cinematic universe.

Film Review: “Goodbye Christopher Robin”

Starring: Domnhall Gleeson, Margot Robbie and Kelly MacDonald
Directed By: Simon Curtis
Rated: PG
Running Time: 107 minutes
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Origin stories are all the craze in Hollywood right now, so why not one for Winnie the Pooh? I know that’s a tough sell. But luckily “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is a decent enough biopic drama that sometimes handles the weight of its thematic messages. The film is about author A.A. Milne (Gleeson) and how through his own struggles and an attempt to bond with his son, he created one of the world’s most iconic children’s characters.

The mood of England is to forget rather than confront the demons of WWI that linger throughout its picturesque countryside. Milne’s writer’s block is compounded by his that he suffered on the front lines. When Milne’s wife Daphne (Robbie) gives birth to their son, Christopher Robin (or Billy), Milne sees it as an opportunity to hit the restart button on life. The young family moves to rural Essex where Milne’s bouts with PTSD flare up, Daphne becomes disenfranchised with her husband and a young Christopher Robin has a more meaningful connection to the family’s live-in nanny.

It’s not until Milne’s life begins crumbling around him, that he attempts to find some sanity and joy to grasp on to by playing with his son in the surrounding woods. Milne views these moments initially as an opportune moment to bond, but as time passes, he finds that his creative juices start to flow again. He brings his son’s stuffed animals to life and makes the sleepy humdrum woods around them more vibrant and adventurous. But not everything works out in the end as Christopher Robin’s persona becomes larger than his own life.

Most of “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is mired in turmoil, with happy moments and achievements sprouting up few and far between. But even those tiny victories for our characters are quickly overshadowed by more troubling developments. It’s interesting watching a family suffocate from early-to-mid-20th century tabloids and a boy’s childhood innocence and wonder get smothered in a flood of worldwide fame. Instead of playing with his toys or meandering outside, he’s making global calls to radio stations and having tea with dignitaries.

Gleeson plays an emotionally fragile, yet stonewalled man who’s finding it hard to tap into his own youth that was nearly killed in No Man’s Land. Much of his role is spent expressing the difficulty of restraining tears and fear while raising a child, teenager, and then a man. He’s definitely the highlight of the film considering Robbie is wasted as her character is relegated to bored housewife/angry spouse purgatory for unknown and unexplained reason. Gleeson also has to work with a child actor that’s equal parts adorable and annoying.

“Goodbye Christopher Robin” spends a little bit too much time playing in the woods instead of expanding on its emotional stakes for a finale that should have been way more impactful. It attempts to tie a lot of its theme together in the final few minutes, with some hitting harder than others. It manages to squander its theme of unnecessary war and the heartache it causes, but manages to find beauty in forgiveness and child rearing. We also learn that Christopher Robin’s miserable childhood led to happiness for millions of children and adults. Almost makes you hate yourself for ever taking pleasure in ever loving Winnie the Pooh.

Film Review: “A Silent Voice: The Movie”

Starring the Voice Of: Miyu Orino, Saori Hayami and Aoi Yuki
Directed By: Naoko Yamada
Rated: Not Rated
Running Time: 130 minutes
Eleven Arts Anime Studio

Wracked with guilt over early childhood wrongs, Shoya Ishida (Orino) is a teenager in search of atonement. The wrong he is looking to right is the bullying of a deaf girl, Shoko Nishimiya (Hayami), that he spearheaded back in elementary school. During those turbulent times, Shoko can only smile and fight back tears as Shoya’s harassment moves from verbal to physical. It piles on as Shoya not only becomes the instigator, but the ringleader for others looking for an excuse to pick on Shoko as well.

Shoko reaches her breaking point, during a particularly unflinchingly cruel moment in the film, and transfers schools. But left in her wake is chaos as the bully becomes the outcast and Shoya’s shunned by friends and classmates. Current day Shoya believes his life, which is devoid of any friends and little meaning, is punishment for his prior torment and vicious taunting. It’s only by happenstance that he realizes his salvation may be in befriending a reluctant Shoya.

Despite clocking in over two hours, “A Silent Voice” is a brisk journey through high school drama and emotional maturity. Within its first few minutes, the film grips viewers with Shoya ominously on the edge of a bridge, narrating his meaninglessness. While the movie may feel like a bullying redemption story, there’s an unmistakable tone of depression. Part of the film’s purpose is to relay how depression, with its tentacle-like grasp on the heart and mind, can impact every facet of one’s life. Most characters, even unnecessary secondary ones, suffer some emotional or mental issue.

The most subtle touches of the film are when we get Shoya’s point of view. He can’t make eye contact, he places an x over people’s faces as if mentally marking them off as potential friends and his depression is clearly compounded by crippling social anxiety. He eavesdrops into nearby conversations, hearing only negative things about himself, but even those poisonous remarks by classmates may be his imagination. There’s even a scene, which on the surface is about miscommunication, which has a deeper meaning implying that Shoya believes unworthy of anyone’s friendship or love.

Shoya’s attitude and demeanor amplifies Shoko’s purity. But we have to wonder how much the stress is getting to Shoko and what kind of impact it’ll have as the film lingers into its third act. It’s not that her personality is simplified, but a lot of it comes from everyone inability to properly communicate with her. The ones who are able to speak with her do open a door into Shoko’s thought process, but just like Shoya, the viewer would only truly know what’s going on if Shoko was able to narrate. This is an intentional frustration on the audience’s’ end that matches the characters on screen.

“A Silent Voice” risks’ being melodramatic on several occasions, but it’s moments between Shoko and Shoya, or when they’re on their own, are when the film works best. During those moments, the duo is treated with teenage realism that isn’t bogged down by oversexualization, drug use, or other clichéd youth problems. Its two teens being treated like adults by the filmmakers. It makes for a better relation to the audience that can reflect on their own troubled youth or their own struggle with depression.

Film Review: “American Made”

Starring: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson and Sarah Wright
Directed By: Doug Liman
Rated: R
Running Time: 115 minutes
Universal Pictures

How does a TWA pilot go from tedious commercial flights and a blue collar existence to the Walter White of international arms and drug sales? The tale of Barry Seal (Cruise) almost seems to outlandish to be true as he finds himself working for the CIA and one of the most notorious drug cartels, at the same time. The tag, “Based on a True Story,” is stretched to the max in “American Made,” but at least they had a hell of a time embellishing the facts and telling a few fibs along the way.

We meet Seal midway through life and quickly learn that he hasn’t always been straight and narrow. Even while charting passengers across the country on the daily basis as one of the youngest pilots to be hired by the once major airliner, Seal was a low-time smuggler. Apparently smuggling Cuban cigars here and there for some extra side cash was enough to attract the attention of Schafer (Gleeson), a mysterious CIA agent who wants Seal to take his aeronautical expertise to help spy for the U.S. government.

Spying then turns into drug and weapons smuggling for both sides. At $2,000 a pound, Seal gladly begins smuggling cocaine for the Medellin Cartel. And when spy photos aren’t enough for the CIA, under the direction of the Reagan administration, Seal is asked to help run guns to the Contras. Seal is even given a slice of land by the U.S. in rural Alabama so that he can keep up the charade that he’s a small-time business owner who happens to own his own tiny airport and fleet. Of course all of this is only the tip of the iceberg as Seal goes full-Heisenberg and carves off his own slice of the criminal underworld to create a smuggling juggernaut.

For historians, “American Made” is pulpy trash, glorifying a drug smuggler turned informant, but for everyone else it’s a funny and entertaining take on a biographical crime tale. Cruise, who’s best when he’s unbalanced, is the every man of Louisiana looking for a thrilling escape from monotony, and finds it by playing both sides of a dangerous game. Cruise is doing some of his best humor since “Tropic Thunder” and finding fresh acting life outside his stereotypical smug good guy role.

But “American Made” suffers from pop-culture being saturated with multiple anti-heroes over the past couple of decades. Everyone from Omar Little of “The Wire” to Tony Soprano of “The Sopranos” have familiarized audiences with the genre’s tropes so much so that much of the film’s runtime comes with few surprises, making for an elongated ending to Seal’s entrepreneurial smuggling empire. That’s not to say that “American Made” spends most of its runtime having fun. The film proves that maybe in 30 years, we’ll be able to have a good laugh about the current impending doom we’re experiencing with North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. Maybe.

“American Made” works best as a comedy. There are hints of global political satire, where at the end of the day, no one is really the good guy and that it all comes down to who’s responsible for the lowest body count. That kind of bleak humor is kept on the back burner as Seal smooth talks his way out of precarious situations. There are also plenty of visual gags to feast on, outside of Cruise’s physical and verbal humor.

In amateur hands, “American Made” would be a mixed bag, but Cruise and Director Doug Liman, who previously worked on “Edge of Tomorrow,” combine for infectious manic energy. Cruise makes” American Made” charming in a way that Jon Hamm made Don Draper a likeable womanizer and scumbag. Cruise isn’t only slick with criminals and government officials, but he’s also drawing in the audience to cheer on his illegal shenanigans. History be damned, “American Made” is an engaging circus act with a realistic final bite to keep its audiences grounded in reality.

Film Review: “Kingsman: The Golden Circle”

Starring: Taron Egerton, Colin Firth and Julianne Moore
Directed By: Matthew Vaughn
Rated: R
Running Time: 141 minutes
20th Century Fox

As if emboldened by an impressive box office receipt and growing fanfare, studio executives clearly handed over a blank check and unrestrained creative control to Matthew Vaughn. For better or for worse, his second time around with the “Kingsman” franchise has him embellishing every little detail to the point of nausea. Like some of James Bond’s sillier outings (“A View to a Kill” and “Die Another Day”), “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” is pure insanity as we’re rushed through another absurd outing with Britain’s super-secret intelligence organization.

Within the first five minutes, the movie drips in excess action and CGI, immediately taking viewers out of anything resembling sanity. Eggsy (Egerton), the hoodlum turned hero from the first film, fights a former Kingsman recruit, also from the first film, who has a robotic arm with a mind of its own. That’s not even the craziest thing in this film. After disposing of him, we then go through the set-up motions as we meet Eggsy’s girlfriend, the sexually exploited Princess from the end of the first film, and catch-up with the other holdovers from the first flick. Anyone who hasn’t seen the first will unquestionably be confused and lost from the get-go.

The film squanders very little time getting to the villain of the film, Poppy (Moore). Poppy is the leader of a high-powered drug cartel. She wears a psychotic smirk on her face, forcing her underlings to undergo grotesque tests of allegiance. Her hideaway, Poppy Land, is a nostalgic step back into 1950’s Hill Valley with robotic murder dogs patrolling the compound. Her beef with the Kingsman is unknown other than she needs to eliminate any potential threats to her devious global plan. After missiles strike several targets in England (which is seemingly shrugged off by everyone else outside the plot), the remnants of the Kingsman activate their doomsday protocol and are forced to rely on their United States counterparts, the Statesman.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the biggest name in a film containing Halle Berry, Channing Tatum, Julianne Moore, Jeff Bridges and Elton John (yes, that Elton John). Very few are used to affect except for Elton John. He arrives as an unnecessarily needed and gratuitous cameo, but evolves into a delightfully needed and gratuitous cameo. However, my disappointment stems from a lack of Bridges, Tatum and Berry, who play different components of the Statesman organization. You could also make the argument for Moore’s character. “The Golden Circle” could have benefitted from as much Moore as possible, just like the previous film benefitted from a lisping Samuel L. Jackson.

The action isn’t entertaining in the traditional sense, but in a fun, manic Saturday morning cartoon kind of way. The laws of gravity, rudimentary physics, the limitations of the human body, and common sense are an afterthought for most the film’s runtime. Just like the first film, there are the over-the-top gadgets that serve one inane purpose. There’s even one gadget that’s too sexually explicit to even attempt to convey in a PG way.

“The Golden Circle” is delightfully bonkers, locking reality out of the writing room and barring believability from the set. The “Kingsman” universe has American citizens being locked up by their own government in cages, bad guys driving down the streets of London with .50 cal machine guns blasting away in full sight of civilians, and oddly placing a retirement home below an avalanche danger zone. To expect anything remotely logical would be a dishonor to the film’s status quo, but adding a little of intelligence certainly wouldn’t hurt it in the long run.