Film Review: “Ant-Man and the Wasp”

Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly and Michael Pena
Directed By: Peyton Reed
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 125 minutes
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

There should be a dark cloud hanging over “Ant-Man and the Wasp” after the events in the previous “Avengers” film, but there isn’t. The events in Marvel’s follow-up film take place several years after “Captain America: Civil War” and just before “Infinity War.” Because of that, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” doesn’t ever really take itself too seriously and concludes as a decent dose of sloppy Summer fun.

Two years after “Civil War,” Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Rudd) is under house arrest while Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope/Wasp (Lilly) are on the run. Scott is recruited by Hank and Hope after Scott experiences an odd dream involving Hope’s long lost mother, and Hank’s wife. The answer to her whereabouts lies somewhere in the Quantum Realm. If this all sounds a little confusing, it may be because you didn’t watch the first “Ant-Man” or because you don’t remember much from it. Either way, it’s still a messy script.

“Ant-Man and the Wasp” feels like it was written by five people (which it was), directed by someone who ignored that script, and then edited by someone who was on the first day of their job. The film supposedly takes place in a two-day span, but the time jumps and editing make it feel like it’s longer in some moments and shorter in others. There’s also a lot of quick edits that make you feel like you’re missing out on a big chunks of film. It’s most likely an attempt to shorten the film’s runtime.

The previous “Ant-Man” was supposed to be Edgar Wright’s singular vision, but Disney monkeyed with that vision making it a little foggy. That fog lingers into this film as other writers try to keep previously established characters in a film that feels like it’d be better suited as a spectator to Marvel’s cinematic universe. Instead of piling on even more, I have to reassert that I still had a lot of fun and believe this is still a decent film.

This film is like a palate cleanser after the dark end to “Infinity War.” Rudd, in the role of dad and hero, is undeniably likable as he charms both the good and bad guys. Even though superheroes like the Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor are supposed to be outsiders, Rudd’s Ant-Man feels more like the stranger in a strange land. He quips about the absurdity on screen and seems oblivious to the scope of it all. When Rudd talks about world-building elements of the cinematic universe, it feels unnatural. Rudd works best when he gets to crack a joke and highlight the humanity of Scott.

I could be accused of being a homer because I like Rudd (from my hometown area) and how Ant-Man fits into the world’s narrative. I wouldn’t expect him to fight Thanos one-on-one and I honestly wouldn’t want him to. This film is more catered to Rudd’s strengths and it shows as his charisma rubs off on others in the film. “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is like a side story to the main event. Maybe once Disney realizes Ant-Man doesn’t have to fit in to their ever-growing univserse, he can evolve in a story that doesn’t feel overwhelmed and entangled by everyone else’s problems.

Film Review: “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”

Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard and Rafe Spall
Directed by: J.A. Bayona
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 128 minutes
Universal Pictures

You can only keep the dinosaurs in the park for so long. That might be the one takeaway the creators of the latest “Jurassic Park” film, “Fallen Kingdom,” took from “Lost World” and “Jurassic Park III.” Instead of doing something unique or different though, the writers and director of “Fallen Kingdom,” did what their predecessors did, create another forgettable, mundane entry into the franchise.

The tongue-in-cheek joy of “Jurassic World” is gone. “Fallen Kingdom” is devoid of fun from the get-go as the film begins with the U.S. Senate debating whether or not to save the dinosaurs from an impending volcanic eruption on the island which has been abandoned for three years after the events of the previous film. The one lone voice of common sense in this movie, Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) tells Congress that nature is correcting man’s mistake by killing the dinosaurs. He urges Congress to let them die. I agree, but no one wants to watch a five-minute dinosaur film.

Congress rightfully decides to let dinosaurs die. That doesn’t sit right with Claire (Howard), the former operations manager of Jurassic World turned activist. She meets with Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) and his right-hand man Eli (Spall) to do something about it. The plan that’s hatched is to save a few dinosaurs from each species and take them to a refuge. Of course they’ll need the help of former dino trainer Owen (Pratt), whose expertise will help them catch and save the most dangerous of dinosaurs, the Velociraptor.

The movie spends the first act of the film with old and new characters having dry expositional dialogue that makes you wonder who and what is going on with the Lockwood estate, and most importantly, why you should care. The movie tries to answer some of those questions, but by the end, you still don’t care and you still don’t know what’s going on with the Lockwood estate and some of the film’s new introductory characters. I have to be vague as to not spoil key elements of the film’s final act, but even then I’m a bit confused as to what I could potentially be spoiling.

The film treats the audience like a Marvel movie crowd, expecting us to have kept track of every idiosyncratic character, name, place and word. At times I felt like I had forgotten to study for an exam and that I was failing miserably with each supposed revelation during the film’s runtime. I’m lucky I wasn’t the only one after the screening who didn’t know who was who or what had supposedly transpired between different characters.

As for the dinosaurs, they’re average. There are moments of fun, but they’re few and far between. There’s also a few moments where they’re not as menacing as they have been in the past. It’s mainly because there’s no fear that any of our main heroes or their companions will die. Once you understand that, you’ll know that every scumbag you encounter in this film will meet his or her end. There are a lot more horror movie elements like long drawn out silences before a loud jump scare or a character lurking through the dark intently listening for any bump or bite in the night.

“Fallen Kingdom” is a massive disappointment after the wildly exciting “Jurassic World.” Unlike its predecessor, it’s humorless, boring and lacking any genuine emotion. Three years ago I was optimistic about the future of this franchise, but now I believe it should go extinct.

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Media Mikes has teamed with their friends at Lionsgate to give 50 readers and a guest the chance to be among the first to see the new comedy “Uncle Drew.”

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All you have to do is click HERE. The first 50 readers to do so will receive a pass for two to attend the screening. This is a first come/first serve giveaway. Once all 50 passes have been claimed, the contest is over. GOOD LUCK!

Film Review: “Tag”

Starring: Ed Helms, Jake Johnson and Hannibal Buress
Directed By: Jeff Tomsic
Rated: R
Running Time: 100 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures

“Tag” shouldn’t be as fun as it is. Movies based on games (video or board) don’t necessarily have a great track record. Everything from “Super Mario Bros.” to “Battleship” are shining examples of how Hollywood has no problems picking the low hanging fruit in an effort to make a quick buck. There are only a few films that do an admirable or passable job, like “Clue” and “Rampage” (although my only caveat to “Rampage” is that I have to be in the mood for mindless garbage). So I’m a little shocked to say that “Tag” can join the handful of outliers.

Since nine-years-old, Hogan (Helms), Bob (Jon Hamm), Chilli (Johnson), Kevin (Buress) and Jerry (Jeremy Renner) have been playing tag. About 30 years later, during the month of May, the five adults throw decorum out the window and play the game without respect for one’s personal space, job, or therapy session. However, after all these years, Jerry has managed to avoid ever being the one who is ‘it’. The elusive Jerry overanalyzes every situation he’s in to the point where he’s like a trained assassin when it comes to playing the game, spotting his friends out in public when they’re trying to tag him, mentally mapping out scenarios, or predicting what his friends will do several moves ahead of their plans to ensnare him.

So Hogan, Bob, Chilli and Kevin all agree to team up to finally tag Jerry, as he’s about to get married and quit playing the game altogether. Upon my own first glance at the plot, and a watch of the trailer, I would have easily dismissed this movie as a lazy attempt comedy. But there are several moments that are legitimately funny because of the maximum effort on screen by Helms, Johnson, Buress and Ham. Renner plays his character with an incredible seriousness, effectively being the straight guy of the film in an outlandish scenario. He mainly elicits laughs by calculating escape routes and situations like a computer program.

Buress, who should be in a lot more comedies, steals the scenes he’s in with irreverent observations, and what I imagine is off-script improv that feels fitting, but unstructured to the overall narrative of the film. His character’s persona could actually be fitting in any other comedy, regardless of the film’s circumstances. Ilsa Fisher, playing Anna, the wife of Helms’ character, is equally funny as an essential part of the troupe, taking the game more seriously than anyone else in the film, even Jerry.

“Tag” is one of those ideas that seems like it was destined for failure on its first pitch. A movie about this simplistic juvenile game that we all played as children, where we sometimes made up rules on the spot or ultimately yelled at each other over the inane rules we had just made up, sounds like terrible fodder for summer audiences. But there is a bit of credence to “Tag” because it’s based on a Wall Street Journal article about a group of actual friends who’ve spent one month, over the past couple of decades, playing a game of cross-country tag. “Tag” had the potential of falling short or living up to the calamity of its origin story, much like 2016’s “War Dogs,” but it instead exceeded my set expectations.

There’s a lot of manic energy in “Tag,” sometimes culminating into some funny chase sequences and absurd action pieces. Even moments of subdued silliness play well as our characters come to question the ethics of the game, like when they’re about to waterboard someone who isn’t a part of the game. Those moments of moral questioning also prevent our characters from being viewed as mean-spirited and soulless during their antics. “Tag” shouldn’t work, but it does, thanks to a sometimes witty, yet immature script, and a cast where everyone brings their own unique brand of comedy.

 

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Film Review: Hotel Artemis”

Starring: Jodie Foster, Sterling K. Brown and Sofia Boutella
Directed By: Drew Pearce
Rated: R
Running Time: 94 minutes
Global Road Entertainment

Sometimes a movie feels and looks interesting, but it isn’t. That gorgeous outer shell, sometimes in the set design or on the face of its familiar and likable characters, inherently lacks a soul. “Hotel Artemis” is a movie that wants to be loved and adored by its viewing audience. It repeatedly tells and shows the audience that it’s grimy and noir, futuristic and relevant, funny and heartfelt, but it never really proves it’s any of those things.

Jodie Foster (who’s shockingly been absent from the silver screen for five years) plays Jean, a nurse running to and fro throughout the Hotel Artemis, a safe haven for criminals in 2028 Los Angeles. She’s assisted by the bulky and intimidating, yet soft on the inside, Everest (Dave Bautista). The two-person staff somehow operates the multi-room establishment, as they patch up wounds, remove bullets, and use 3D printers to create new organs for criminals from all walks of life.

“Hotel Artemis” shrivels up in the shadow of other, much better, films that it’s seemingly ripping off of. One can’t help but think of the Continental from “John Wick” throughout much of the film’s runtime. I was also reminded of several other grindhouse, dystopian future, and sci-fi films with more developed characters and fleshed out concepts. The film takes place in one night, with the backdrop being riots throughout the city over privatized water and a company hoarding what’s left. That actually sounds more interesting than Nurse Jean’s predicaments.

“Hotel Artemis” is so busy; it manages to glide over some of its storytelling faults, but not all of them. The film lags in certain moments, like ham-fisted exposition delivery in dialogue or lingering on its own visual aesthetics. It succeeds in banter between criminals within the hospital’s confines and slowly peeling back what makes Nurse Jean tick. Even as my mind drifted away from the premise, the movie had this knack for reeling me back in.

The acting talent brought in for this movie is impressive, but they feel like they’re playing down to the material or that they’re simply miscast. Charlie Day plays an all-talk arms dealer that should be replicating his naturally funny and manic strengths, while Sterling K. Brown, who’s shown his dramatic chops on TV, seems neutered in his range for this film. However, others, like Sofia Boutella, play well to their French femme fatale role and Bautista seems at home playing Drax-lite.

Director/writer Drew Pearce, who’s worked on “Iron Man 3” and a “Mission: Impossible” movie, seems a bit incapable of bringing it altogether. Instead of stirring all the film’s themes and ideas into a cohesive vision, he mainly paints everything in messy broad strokes that’s sometimes difficult to digest and unfortunately forgettable. There are a few things that work in “Hotel Artemis,” and in much better hands, it would have been an unforgettable film.

Film Review: “Avengers: Infinity War”

Starring: Josh Brolin, Chris Hemsworth and Robert Downey Jr.
Directed By: Anthony and Joe Russo
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 149 minutes
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

I can’t fathom the immense pressure the creators, directors, writers, producers and studio had going into “Infinity War.” Marvel has spent the past decade crafting content that not only stands on its own two feet, but was meticulously building towards this moment. Since Thanos first reared his ugly purple head in a post-credits scene in the first “Avengers,” fans knew that this monumental occasion was eventually going to happen. With lofty expectations, I’m happy to report that “Infinity War” delivers on nearly every level.

I usually type out a short summary or try to set-up the plot at some point early on in my reviews, but I feel like it’s a moot talking point because if you’ve kept up with the Marvel movies or have a good idea of what’s going on in them, you don’t need me to paint a picture about the Infinity Stones, the Infinity Gauntlet or the fight to save the universe. But I also know you don’t need me spoiling anything, so I’ll stay quiet on the specifics. However, I will say that it only takes the first five minutes of the film for “Infinity War” to knock viewers right in the jaw and set the tone.

Getting every character in one film, give or take a few, is an impressive feat on its own. But what’s cleverly done by Marvel’s creative crew is dividing our favorite heroes into different groups to tackle different tasks. The film pairs similar personalities that bounce or conflict well with each other. It also keeps the movie from being inordinate and having too many egos talking about the same thing or over each other, something that “Age of Ultron” ultimately suffered from. So there’s the possibility that fans of certain characters might be disappointed by the lack of screen time for their favorite hero or character.

That being said, Marvel’s gotten a lot better recently at villain building and Thanos (Brolin) may be the pinnacle. Not only is he fierce and overwhelmingly magnetic in his scenes, he’s a sadistic joy to watch stomping around the scene as he articulates his thoughts on death and the balance it creates. There’s also this shocking amount of softness to the character that we’ve rarely seen before with any other Marvel bad guy, except for maybe the one in “Black Panther.” While most of Marvel’s villains have been evil for the sake of being evil or because of their own vanity, Thanos seems genuine in his wickedness, because he’s not only a conqueror, but views himself as the universe’s scales of justice.

There’s a surprising amount of emotion and laughs mixed into the film’s bleakness and knockdown fights. “Infinity War” is never crushed under the utter weight of its own ambitions, serving up a worthy spectacle for audiences along with a captivating storyline that feels rich in content, but never bloated. This ambitious project, 10 years in the making, is not to be missed, but also raises the stakes even higher for when the Avengers assemble again in 2019.

Film Review: “Super Troopers 2”

Starring: Jay Chandrasekhar, Kevin Heffernan, Steve Lemme, Paul Soter and Erik Stolhanske
Directed By: Jay Chandrasekhar
Rated: R
Running Time: 100 minutes
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Sometimes you shouldn’t give the fans what they want. But the Broken Lizard comedy troupe put themselves in no-win situation by teasing for years and years that they were working on a “Super Troopers” sequel. It became a reality for thousands when they started an Indiegogo fundraising campaign. By the end, they had doubled their original crowdfunding target goal. Now that the sequel has arrived, some of those 54,609 backers might keep their wallets in their pocket next time Broken Lizard comes around.

“Super Troopers 2” isn’t a complete misfire, nor is it devoid of joy or humor. So in some regards, it’s the best case scenario for a comedy sequel that comes 17 years after its predecessors and nearly a decade after the last Broken Lizard film. The way the crew gets into this film’s main plot is a bit odd and unnecessarily lengthy. When we last saw the former Vermont state troopers, Thorny (Chandrasekhar), Foster (Soter), Mac (Lemme), Rabbit (Stolhanske) and Farva (Heffernan), they had quickly shifted into their new roles as immature local police officers. This film begins with the exposition that they’ve been fired and relegated to mediocrity as lumberjacks or home construction workers.

But a new opportunity arises when a border dispute between the U.S. and Canada reveals that Vermont’s border actually stretches farther North, encompasses a small Canadian town. So the five disgraced troopers are brought in by their former Captain, John O’Hagen (Brian Cox), to set up a new patrol station and make sure the town transition is smooth. It’s a complicated and unnecessary set-up, only meant as vessel for cheap Canadian jokes, north of the border sight gags and some bad accents.

As I said, the movie isn’t completely devoid of chuckles. I was pleased to see that the film didn’t pull an “Airplane II: The Sequel” and simply rehash every quotable joke from the first film. They can’t help but regurgitate some of the more memorable jokes, like them saying “meow” and Farva’s “liter of Cola” bit, but they’re so minuscule compared to the deluge of jokes this film throws at you. You’re likely to forget how the writers were along the way. But because the jokes are so relentless, when the film does pump the brakes a little, a lot of the film’s weaker elements blossom.

The first film felt like a cast of goofballs carrying out their wildest pranks in a reality where law and order is still a thing. This film seems to live in an alternate universe where common sense and international law doesn’t exist, as if it’s a fan-made film. There are certain elements that feel more like Indiegogo requests rather than natural comedic beats for these characters. The original also had a semi-realistic plot with a passable villain while this one feels cartoonish and intentionally over-the-top. Within that 17 year timespan, the Broken Lizard game may have lost touch of what made their characters originally loveable to more than just the stoner crowd.

A good comedy sequel isn’t impossible to make. In some regards, it can be better by embracing what works best and improving upon the film’s previous faults. But because “Super Troopers” is inherently a cult classic, it could never really live up to that status. The sequel feels more like “Anchorman 2” or “Ghostbusters 2.” While “Super Troopers 2” may scratch that itch fans have been feeling for over a decade and a half, that itch won’t go away because of how unfulfilling this film is when compared to the original. Even if you enjoy yourself, you won’t be quoting this film 17 years from now or asking for “Super Troopers 3.”

Film Review: “Rampage”

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Malin Akerman
Directed By: Brad Peyton
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 107 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures

I remember several quarter eating games from my childhood. Most of them were first-person shooters like “House of the Dead” and “Carnevil” where it didn’t matter how good you were or if you were a sharpshooter, the game was designed to kill you so you’d have to keep pumping in change. Most other games that I would spend endless hours playing at the arcade were fun for a five-year-old boy to play, but inherently dumb because of its repeating pattern and repetitiveness. There were side-scrollers like “X-Men” and smash and destroy games like “Rampage.”

21st century video games are championed for interactive gameplay and in-depth storytelling. The games of the late 80’s and early 90’s could be crowned as mindless time wasters. That’s “Rampage” in a nutshell. How they made a movie out of that is genuinely impressive. One, because it should be towards the bottom of the list for potential big screen adaptations and second, there’s honestly not much to adapt other than the idea of giant monsters smashing buildings, something that’s already been done multiple times.

“Rampage” is like a melting pot of any Kaiju film, “Mighty Joe Young” and that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson charm we’ve become accustomed to over the past decade. Johnson plays beefy anthropologist Davis Okoye, who relates more to primates than he does his human co-workers at a San Diego wildlife sanctuary. The introverted scientist can fly helicopters, has a military background, and communicates with a massive albino silverback gorilla, named George, like it’s his frat brother.

The movie quickly picks up steam when George is infected with an experimental gas. The mutating fumes are from the remnants of a company space station that was experimenting with DNA. The gas acts like a steroid to all of George’s senses, turning him into a monstrous creature overnight. He’s bigger, stronger and angrier. He’s not the only creature to get hit with a dose of plot as several other canisters of this harmful gas have landed in rural Wyoming and some Florida swamplands, infecting a wolf and crocodile.

“Rampage” is a tad too long, padding it’s runtime with a lot of unnecessary character backgrounds, silly exposition, and a quick shoehorned message about poaching. It doesn’t help that the show stopping fight between all the monsters, in downtown Chicago, feels like it takes forever to get to. The pace that it moves at feels more like a painful tease rather than an actual build-up. Johnson, like he is in most of the other sub-par films he stars in, does give an otherwise limp noodle script a bit of life.

While in 2017, we learned he’s vulnerable to a complete inadequate script (“Baywatch), 2018 seems to prove once again he can do a lot with very little. While everyone merely acts scared of the CGI monstrosity that is George, Johnson brings some warmth to a cold creature and seems to be genuinely interacting with it. Johnson, along with Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Naomie Harris, provide a likeable trio of heroes looking to save lives and the life of George. But after watching scores of service men and women die while civilians flee in terror in the final act, shouldn’t George be lumped in the same category as Superman in “Man of Steel?”

When it wants to be light-hearted, “Rampage” is quite fun, but when it wants to be dark with jump scares, and scenes of death and destruction, it’s off putting to the overall vibe the movie’s trying to establish with George and his nurturing human savior, Davis. There’s fun to be had in “Rampage” as long as you understand that this is a bad movie. But just like the old “Rampage” arcade game I played in my youth, I don’t necessarily feel like I should ever revisit this one or reflect on it as anything more than a cash grab.

Film Review: “Isle of Dogs”

Starring the Voices Of: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin and Edward Norton
Directed By: Wes Anderson
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 101 minutes
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Since bursting on to the scene in the mid-90s, Wes Anderson has had a steady and solid film catalogue. Even his average movie has an enchanting whimsical nature to it and is never visually boring. He may have a few blemishes, but none of his films had me believing the film was a complete misfire. So there shouldn’t be any kind of flirting on my end with you, the reader, on whether or not I enjoyed “Isle of Dogs,” because I did.

In Anderson’s alternate universe, a dog-flu virus has spread throughout the population, and not just the canine one. The solution, by authoritarian leader Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), is to have all dogs banished to Trash Island. The isle is a culmination of man-made disasters, mankind’s carelessness with experimentation, and of course, trash. Making his way onto the island, via a small makeshift aircraft, is Atari (Rankin), who’s looking for his guard dog, Spot.

Helpining Atari around the island is Chief (Cranston), Rex (Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum); a pack made up of alpha dogs with their own individual quirks. Like most Anderson films, the cast is filled with a who’s who of Hollywood’s past and present. Some of the surprising ones are Harvey Keitel, Liev Schreiber and Yoko Ono. While each voice may not seem recognizable at first, their character certainly brings a flash in the pan of joy, humor or bite to the scene they’re in.

While Trash Island is its own visual character, the nearby Japanese city of Megasaki looks like a tourist greeting card. It may be off putting to some viewers because there are no subtitles for our Japanese characters. Sometimes we only understand the human characters because of stylish visual storying telling, or an English translator for the moments of broadcast news (which seems odd that a Japanese TV station would have an English translator, but I could easily be wrong about that). I can’t speak to the authenticity some of the film’s culturally significant moments or the settings, having never grown up in Japan and having a basic American public school system understanding of the island nation.

Even though the stop-motion animation screams “kid’s movie,” it’s not. The deliberate peculiarities in the film add to its charm or help build the sinister undertones running beneath Kobayashi’s leadership. The film’s subtlety mainly makes remarks about unity and loyalty, and how both of those can be good to the extreme, but on the same scope, be used to pursue evil endeavors. As to whether or not that message has been adapted to fit a more contemporary narrative, instead of a universal one, is unseen.

Visually, “Isle of Dogs” is one of Anderson’s best. Narratively, it’s sometimes deflating, but still overwhelmingly charming and loveable. The film’s sentimentality and warmth is thoroughly earned. On a basic level, “Isle of Dogs” is Anderson’s straightforward love letter to man’s best friend. Some of the individual tics for each of the characters are something dog current and former dog owners will pick up on. Even cat lovers might find something to smile at by the time the film ends.

Film Review: Ready Player One

Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke and Ben Mendelsohn
Directed By: Steven Spielberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Time:
Warner Bros. Pictures

Capturing the awe and power of video games has long eluded Hollywood, whether it’s adaptation of the games themselves or bottling the culture’s essence. “Wreck-It Ralph” came close, but it’s fair to disregard its efforts because it was animated, hence it was able to replicate the visual absurdity and calm in the chaos sometimes in video games. With a book, that I’m assume is page soaked in pop-culture references over two decades, Steven Spielberg appears to have cracked the code.

Instead of feeling like you’re watching someone play a video game at the arcade, Spielberg immerses viewers in the OASIS, a worldwide massive multiplayer experience at the center of “Ready Player One” The OASIS is where anyone can be anything they want to be, with digital avatars ranging from humanoids to iconic media characters. Before people can inhabit their digital body, they have to plug into these free-hanging set-ups that look like someone plugging themselves into “The Matrix” via a full-body suit, Nintendo power gloves and a VR viewer attachment. It seems like a hassle and unnecessary expense, but the alternative, reality, is a lot less exciting.

Wade Watts (Sheridan) lives in Columbus, Ohio in 2045. He lives in the slums of Columbus, which is filled with metallic clutter like older cars and technological trash. Most of its inhabitants take up residence in dilapidated trailer park trailers stacked on top of each other like a white trash Kowloon Walled City. With no parents and no real-life friends, or even a job, Watts retreats every day to the OASIS in a makeshift gaming room he’s carved out of the surrounding scrap heap.

Inside the OASIS, he and other players, which make up his clan, are on the hunt for the ultimate Easter egg. The creator of OASIS, the late James Halliday (Mark Rylance), has hidden several clues throughout the game that lead to three keys. If you find all the keys, you get full ownership of OASIS, as well as the money and stock attached to it. But it’s more than just a dream of riches and power; it’s a dream of escaping the rat hole that Watts perceives he lives in. Of course he’s not the only one on the hunt for these keys. An evil corporate shadow looms over the OASIS and looks to control the one thing used by billions.

Despite flirting with the risk of saturating the film with too much exposition, “Ready Player One” cleverly layers it over action sequences and visual feasts. Spielberg, who’s created some of the most iconic figures, creatures, and heroes for the silver screen, handles everything with a master stroke. Watts is immediately sympathetic and likeable; his friends and cohorts are equally the same despite their minimal screen time. The motivations of Watt and his journey rarely get muddied, but because so much of the film’s focus is on him, we lose sight of some of the great characters accompanying him.

There’s the rushed love interest, Art3mis (Cooke). She’s pigeonholed more than a few times, but the moments where her character can demonstrate personality that isn’t cliché are some of her best moments. She’s able to breathe a little, whether it’s solo or complimenting Watt’s introverted personality, but it’s certainly not enough once we realize how powerful she truly is. The movie’s villain, played by Ben Mendelsohn, is an intern that works his way up the corporate ladder looking to cash in on someone else’s idea and then abuse the power he’s obtained. He’d be more menacing if he didn’t pass off so many of his bad guys duties to lackeys and spent his time relegating the fun missions inside the OASIS to a mercenary, played by T.J. Miller.

Character flaws aside, Spielberg puts viewers in this vast digital landscape without ever making it feel overwhelmingly and at times he even makes it feel intimate. The films has a chaotic “Mad Max”-style car race that smacks viewers with dozens of pop-culture references and has a more focused homage in the form of a Stanley Kubrick playground that I dare not spoil. Both work because they not only cater to different tastes, but are easily digestible for those who might not pick up on every reference. However Spielberg neglected the real-world that the OASIS was created in.

What global crisis is happening or has happened that’s led to Columbus looking like a third world country? Why does it seem like Watts and the head of an evil corporate entity is only a couple of blocks away at all times? Why is the resistance to this evil corporate on such a micro-level as opposed to the global scale it seems to be inside the OASIS. We feel like we’re trapping inside Ohio any time we’re not zipping through the OASIS. Those thoughts sometime minimize the character’s plight and the film’s overall narrative.

Luckily you won’t have too much time to nitpick the film’s shortcomings because of how brisk it moves, even within the time span of nearly two and a half hours. For all its faults, and there’s quite a few that I have and haven’t listed, “Ready Player One” had me grinning like a child at the movies for the first time. At times I felt like I was picking up a video game controller for the first time, waking up early on a Saturday morning for cartoons or sneaking out of my room past my bedtime to watch a bad cheesy movie. For those who don’t feel that sense of nostalgia, you’ll certainly feel young again.

 

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Film Review: “Midnight Sun”

Midnight Sun

Starring: Bella Thorne, Patrick Schwarzenegger and Rob Riggle
Directed By: Scott Speer
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 90 minutes
Open Road Films

“Midnight Sun” has the makings of an eye-rolling romantic drama. Katie Price (Thorne) suffers from an incredibly rare genetic disorder that makes sunlight deadly. So she spends her days and nights trapped inside her home, pining for a life outside those confines. For years she’s been watching the cute neighbor boy, Charlie (Schwarzenegger), that she wishes she could talk to, but instead she’s only been able to communicate with her lone friend, Morgan (Quinn Shephard) and her widowed father, Jack (Riggle). It’s set-up like some predictable coming-of-age tale with a terrible “Boy in the Plastic Bubble” twist lurking on the horizon. Thankfully it doesn’t play out like that.

There’s a happy middle ground that this film finds itself in. It’s caught between the polar extremes that we’ve seen in films like “The Space Between Us” and “The Fault in Our Stars,” and it’s not a bad spot to be in. It’s able to use a lot of familiar tropes, some of them annoying, to keep the story flowing along, but it takes a lot of the stronger assets, like unpredictability and charming leads. It’s also hard to hate a movie with a lot of good intentions.

“Midnight Sun” is a movie I would generally nitpick to death, but it managed to take me out of my sardonic element. It isn’t a great love story, but it’s still a worthy entry into the teen romance genre because of its broader message on love and life. I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t my favorite genre because of how overly sappy it usually is, but I sometimes find myself forgiving the fatal flaws because of how enjoyable the characters are to watch. And two of the main cast members in this film are surprisingly strong.

Thorne, who I’ve only seen in “Blended,” which honestly isn’t saying much, is quite magnetic as the mousey Price. Price’s disease has matured her character beyond simplistic teenage angst when it comes to the film’s conflict. Riggle, who’s known for his comedic bit parts in films and shenanigans on “Fox NFL Sunday,” legitimately shines here in a role that doesn’t require him to be overly dramatic by dipping into his real-life military experience. He’s a sympathetic father dealing with a horrific circumstance, by wearing a smile on top of his heavy heart. However, everyone else seems like a filler. Schwarzenegger, whose last name should be self-explanatory, is slightly believable in his role, but he comes off as wooden. There are also moments where he smiles and looks like the spitting image of his father, which nearly took me out of the film multiple times.

“Midnight Sun” follows some predictable beats in terms of character growth throughout the film. There’s nothing unique about the relationship that develops on-screen, but their likability is nearly off the charts. You forget about the casual, and sometimes sloppy, narration because of how much enjoyment you get out of spending time with Katie and her close inner circle. “Midnight Sun” doesn’t reach any new highs or lows, but its good enough excuse for those who want to shed a tear or feel something warm in their hearts.

Film Review: Terrifier

Starring: Catherine Corcoran, Jenna Kanell and David Howard Thornton
Directed By: Damien Leone
Rated: R
Running Time: 82 minutes

The past two decades have seen a lot of evil clowns enter the realm of pop-culture. In video games, there was Sweet Tooth from “Twisted Metal.” In television, there was Twisty from the third season of “American Horror Story.” We’ve also had plenty of evil movie clowns, from the reimagining of Pennywise in “IT” to Captain Spaulding in Rob Zombie’s films. Now enters Art (Thornton), a homicidal clown that may or may not have supernatural powers.

After a night out, Dawn (Corcoran) and Tara (Kanell) are grabbing a slice of pizza when a black and white painted and dressed Art the Clown enters, with a bag of unknowns in tow. Even with his grotesque smile and creepy hand emotes, he’s made even sinister by the fact he doesn’t utter a single word and seemingly doesn’t make a single sound. His pantomiming is sometimes meant for humor, but mainly meant to menace the two young girls on Halloween. The situation sours when the girls are stranded alone at night after their bizarre encounter with Art.

There’s not much to the story and there’s certainly not much to the plot. “Terrifier” is a vehicle for Damien Leone’s crew to exhaust their violence and gore budget. “Terrifier” is shot much like the violent grindhouse films it’s paying homage to. In moments of pitch black you notice a lot of grit in the picture quality. But in brightly lit scenes and in quick shots, you really appreciate the even grittier practical effects as Art lays waste to a naked woman or an unsuspecting bug exterminator.

The director manages to milk a lot out of his script, which is set in one night at one building. It’s helped by Art’s unquenchable bloodthirst. While he’s sometimes satisfied with the simple pull of a trigger, other times a bonesaw or knife are a lot more intimate and satisfying for the clown. We see the pleasure that Art derives from the senseless, brutal murders, thanks to Thornton’s creepy smile and gleeful silence while dancing in place.

It’s almost as if Art’s muteness is a reflection of everything about this movie, all substance with very little, if anything, to say. It’s entertaining in the midst of chaos as Art navigates through an old building worth of potential victims, but its rewatchability isn’t on par with other horror films because the characters aren’t sympathetic, relatable or distinctive outside of one note jokes. That’s not any of the actor’s fault, but that blame lies squarely on the shoulders of the director. Art the Clown had the potential to be a lot more terrifying.

Film Review: “A Wrinkle in Time”

A Wrinkle in Time

Starring: Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon
Directed By: Ava DuVernay
Rated: PG
Running Time: 109 minutes
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Disney has had no problems taking a few risks here and there, especially since their Marvel and Star Wars properties guaranteeing the studio an easy half billion dollars (at the very least) every time one is dropped. So it’s understandable that they can make a calculated gamble or two on tricky creative properties. With “A Wrinkle in Time,” the movie studio certainly rolled the dice with a very well-known, but difficult to transcribe, story. Unfortunately, Disney has rolled snake eyes.

By no means would it be easy for anyone to take the most frequently challenged pieces of literature of the 20th century and turn it into a big budget visual delight for mainstream audiences. The book’s blending of Christian spirituality and grounded science are a complicated combination that creates a fear for movies producers when it comes to potentially upsetting several groups. Writers had to not only conjure something enlightening and mentally stimulating, but have it be void of controversial thesis statements about life. Of course if you don’t know anything about the book, you’ll be confused on how the film handled that narrative regardless.

Meg Murry’s (Reid) father, Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine), has been missing for several years. Many believe he simply abandoned Meg, her brother Charles (Deric McCabe), and their mom. But others believe something planetary happened because of Dr. Murry’s pursuit and interest in interdimensional travel. He had a theory about the brain being able to traverse universes and being able to move from locale to locale with the use of the mind’s focus. It’s a lot of exposition and scientific theory to take in already; it doesn’t help that “A Wrinkle in Time” quickly ushers in three astral travelers, each with a specific quirk and power.

At about the halfway mark, I began to wonder if “A Wrinkle in Time” was more concerned with telling rather than showing. I also questioned the film’s direction because at this point, I felt nothing for any of the characters on their journey. Sure Meg and Charles feel slighted by their father, who they’re ultimately searching for, but outside of those abandonment issues, there’s not much there for viewers to latch on to. It doesn’t help that much of the emotional core of the movie is derailed by having to shoehorn in a new character every five minutes.

The movie really doesn’t work until the final act, after we’ve had to suffer through a lot of confusing tone changes, half-hearted story beats and dead end CGI spectacles. I believe the final act only works because the movie finally embraces the concept of alternate realities and begins treating Meg like the adult she’s maturing into. Although it could have paid off more if we got more time with the characters being themselves instead of reciting exposition and acting wooden in the face of extraordinary circumstances.

I remember reading “A Wrinkle in Time” back in sixth grade as an assignment. It came after a class reading of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” My recollection of the book itself is fuzzy, but I remember having to reread an entire chapter because I felt like I had just tried to digest algebra for the first time. Disney tried to adapt “A Wrinkle in Time” back in 2003 and it was met negatively. It looks like they’ll have to try for a third time in about 15 years.

Film Review: “Annihilation”

Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Oscar Isaac
Directed By: Alex Garland
Rated: R
Running Time: 115 minutes
Paramount Pictures

I really wanted to like this movie. Despite a poor advertising campaign and some unimaginative trailers, I was optimistic that Alex Garland could make some magic out of nothing with “Annihilation.” The man been attached to some great films over the past couple of decades like “28 Days Later,” “Dredd,” and most importantly, “Ex Machina.” Whereas “Ex Machina” was sleek and smart, “Annihilation” is clunky and confusing.

It’s not that “Annihilation” is lacking in interesting concepts, it’s that they’re wrapped around predictable subplots and a ragbag of conflicting tones. The movie begins with an interesting sci-fi premise, an extraterrestrial phenomenon, called the Shimmer by the scientists investigating it, has been slowly enveloping the land around a coastal lighthouse for three years. The government has sent in several teams of soldiers into the Shimmer, only for them to never return. Except for one.

A confused Kane (Isaac) stumbles back into his home, into the loving embrace of his wife, Lena (Portman) who had assumed the worst after he went MIA. She knew nothing of his mission into the Shimmer and his mysterious return only brings her into the fray. In the hopes of learning more about the Shimmer, Lena joins an all-female team, which is heading into the Shimmer. What they encounter, is a bunch of red herrings, glazed over plot points and horror movie tropes.

Throughout “Annihilation,” I kept putting off these nagging issues with the script and structure of the story in the hopes that the ending would provide a worthy payoff to some of my frustration. Without giving away the ending, “Annihilation” seems content on ambiguity, but without any legitimate bread crumbs to lead viewers down one path or another. I have my own theories, but none of them feel as profound as the ones birthed from other sci-fi greats in the past few years like “Blade Runner 2049” or “Under the Skin.”

There’s also the trouble as to what kind of movie “Annihilation” wants to be. It begins as a sci-fi, but has elements of body terror, jump scares and clichés from average horror flicks that are slowly mixed in. A fear of the unknown comes with movies about aliens, but “Annihilation” is bad at developing tension because it forces its characters to have the minds of teenagers at Camp Crystal Lake. We watch this group in the Shimmer split up into groups, avoid taking the high ground in dangerous situations, and camp out for the night near corpses and other macabre scenes.

Even if “Annihilation” is bad, there’s something slightly noble about a bad movie that at least makes you think, and not just about the glaring plot holes. There are a couple of moments that are trying to speak volumes about our relation to nature and humanity’s destructiveness. However there’s no real follow-up to some of these burning ideas and questions that are raised. There’s really nothing left to ponder or chew on when you leave the theater. This might be one of the most disappointing aspects of “Annihilation.” It’s a beautifully shot film that hobbles from the start and then whimpers in its final moments.

Film Review: Victor Crowley

Starring: Parry Shen, Kane Hodder and Laura Ortiz
Directed By: Adam Green
Rated: R
Running Time: 93 minutes

As director and writer Adam Green said himself, the “Hatchet” trilogy was a segmented, yet complete story. So there was never a need for a fourth “Hatchet,” yet here we are with “Victor Crowley.” Green can be forgiven for going back to the monster that made his career, especially since it’s taken on a life of its own and worked its way into the hearts of horror aficionados. Luckily, unlike others who’ve returned to their roots, Green has found a worthy amount of gory content and vicious fun to justify this fourth time around.

Picking up 10 years after the event of “Hatchet III,” the sole survivor of Crowley’s massacre, Andrew (Shen), is promoting a new book detailing how he survived. While many line-up to get an autograph or buy the book from him, an equal amount take the time to ridicule him for cashing in on death or accusing him of committing mass murder under the guise of the supernatural. What mainstream public could actually believe 40 people were killed by a disfigured Hulk-like entity in a swamp?

Of course it wouldn’t be a “Hatchet” movie without returning to that very swamp. Andrew is suckered back in, with the promise of more money on his book tour campaign. Getting mixed up eventually is an aspiring crew of filmmakers and the people transporting Andrew back to the site of the decade old massacre. Of course, the key component, Victor Crowley (Hodder), needs to be summoned to go on another killing spree.

The actually summoning is one of the few hiccups in an otherwise funhouse blood fest. Once Crowley shows up, “Victor Crowley” rarely lets up, spending the second half of the movie being relentlessly savage and overwhelmingly sadistic. But it’s equally funny, at least for those with an ounce of black humor in their funny bone. There’s a lot of fan service, within the own franchise as well as several nods to the horror community, that sometimes distracts from the core content.

I can’t give too much away because “Victor Crowley” is meant to be experienced instead of hearing my pitch as to why you should see it. Those who have already gone along for the trip will certainly check out “Victor Crowley,” and without a doubt I can say they’ll fall immediately in love with it. Very rarely does a sequel, much less the fourth of a franchise, live-up-to and exceed the expectations set by previous films, but “Victor Crowley” does. If this is the beginning of a new storytelling trilogy, it’s set the expectations for future films ridiculously high.