Film Review: “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum”

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry and Laurence Fishburne
Directed by: Chad Stahelski
Rated: R
Running Time: 130 minutes
Summit Entertainment

Lionsgate probably began 2019 with the hopes of their own superhero franchise. Well, at this point in the year, we know that “Hellboy” was a massive flop, critically and financially. At least they can hang their hats on the future of another franchise, one that was unexpected back in 2014, John Wick (Reeves).

Just like the prior film, “John Wick: Chapter 3- Parabellum” rapidly continues the saga of the assassin known as “The Boogeyman,” although no one refers to him by his nickname this time around. If you haven’t seen the previous films, then this film review is going to read like gobbledygook. When we last left Wick, he had just got done putting a bullet between the eyes of a powerful crime lord, he had been declared excommunicado from the Continental for those actions and the High Table had slapped a $14 million bounty on his head. With every assassin hungry to become a multi-millionaire, “Parabellum” wastes no time as the game is quickly afoot.

At this current time, if I was to rank the Wick films, I would put “Parabellum” last. That’s not to say this is a bad movie because it’s still a solid entry, but it doesn’t quite match the highs of the two previous films. Thankfully, my knocks against the film aren’t in the action department. This movie is tight, quick and exciting when the guns are drawn. The humor from the prior films remains intact as characters treat every scene seriously, despite the absurd circumstances and weapons at their disposal. When he has a gun in his hand, Wick remains a dead shot, but it’s during fist fights and other hand-to-hand combat moments that the movie shines as a violent tour de force. Not only does Wick get to utilize knives and swords a lot more this time around, but he manages to use various inanimate objects as instruments of death. It’s like a watching a symphony play to most stylized and brutal balet. This might actually be the goriest Wick film so far as Wick disposes of people in several gruesome ways. I could ramble on a bit more about the film’s glorious savagery, but it’s once the action subsides that the movie begins to falter.

The movie pumps the brakes towards the middle. While the first two films built upon the world during the lulls, this one seems to sputter. The filmmakers seem hesitant about building upon the rich tapestry because it seems unsure of how to proceed or grow. We get dashes of Wick’s past, but there’s not enough for audiences to grasp and understand Wick or the world around him. We get the feeling that the Continental and High Table have their tentacles around the globe yet the film doesn’t necessarily follow those tentacles down any fascinating wormholes. Instead we’re left with a throwaway character, played by Halle Berry, some trash bin villains and a mysterious figurehead that seems to be the “God” of this criminal underbelly.

It’s safe to say that because these film sequels are “chapters,” more Wick films are down the pipeline. So those lingering questions and thirst for more information will hopefully be fulfilled in later films. For now though, this may be viewed as a minor hiccup in an otherwise impressive film franchise. “Parabellum” reminds us why Wick is such a likable killer while offering up another glorious knockdown, beat down, visual smorgasbord of unblinking gun porn and fist throwing viciousness that remains unmatched by other contemporary action blockbusters. Compelling storytelling problems aside, Wick is still just as strong as trigger finger.

Film Review: “Pokémon: Detective Pikachu”

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith and Kathryn Newton
Directed By: Rob Letterman
Rated: PG
Running Time: 104 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures

“Are you Pokémon savvy?” That’s a question I was asked after the screening of “Pokémon: Detective Pikachu,” since I’m one of a handful of Millennials who shows up to screenings to review a film in the Kansas City area. I told them, “Yes. And the movie still bad.”

The film begins with a lot of heavy-handed fan service that’ll put a smile on fans faces. I know this because during the Pokémon craze of the late 90s, I watched the animated show, collected the battle cards, and played the various Gameboy games that were increasingly cranked out during its peak in America. But I’m not a die-hard. My interest waned and I inevitably moved on to the next pop-culture video game fad, although I did download Pokémon Go when that was a thing. So for those who aren’t “Pokémon savvy” or have any kind of knowledge, you’ll want to avoid this movie at all costs or else you’ll be demanding your money back at the ticket counter after five minutes. So as a casual fan and critic, where do I think it all go wrong as a movie?

I give credit, “Detective Pikachu” sets up an interesting world where humans and Pokémon live together and interact in various ways. It’s not quite on the intricate levels of a movie like “Zootopia” where every scene is littered with clever sight gags and visuals, in the foreground and background, of how this world, while like ours, is incredibly different. The scenes of underground Pokémon battles and the hustling, bustling marketplace are an interesting mix of futuristic noir and cutesy animals. But the filmmakers seemed to be more focused on making the sidekick, Detective Pikachu, voiced by Ryan Reynolds, the focus of nearly every scene after his introduction. His dialogue is either expositional or quips that are more miss than hit.

The main character, and human counterpart to Pikachu, is Tim Goodman (Smith). He encounters Pikachu while rummaging through his father’s apartment in Ryme City, the epicenter of this world. Goodman believes his father to be dead, but Pikachu believes that Goodman’s father is missing, since they were partners on the Ryme City Police Force. But Pikachu doesn’t quite remember the circumstances behind what caused Goodman’s father to go missing and can’t quite fully confirm that he’s even still alive. The one element to all this, which is heavily shown in the film’s trailers, is that Goodman can understand Pikachu. For those who don’t know, a Pokémon’s language is their name. So while everyone else hears Pikachu saying “Pika Pika Pikachu,” Goodman hears Pikachu’s bad “Deadpool” jokes.

For the majority of its runtime, “Detective Pikachu” bumbles and stumbles around looking for any kind of meaning or purpose. The special effects artists have built this visual feast, but the film never seems to stop and take it all in, nor does it seem interested in the nuances of this universe, instead opting for big, loud, obnoxious action sequences that have no reason to exist. In fact, when the movie does decide to expand upon the story, it over explains, over shows, and does a bad job at disguising the bad guy of the film who clearly shows up 10 minutes into the film.

Not to be a dead horse, or in this case, a dead Ponyta, I can understand how none of this film makes any sense to anyone outside the fanbase because of how poorly the ideas are conveyed. It takes it another step further though, by dumbing down everything so much; it forgets to actually explain what’s happening to our characters while over explaining minor details that spoils the twists of the final act of the film. The four screenplay writers tangled up an otherwise simple buddy-cop film that might have been enjoyable to the fanbase, and those idling on the outside of it. Because even if you remove the Pokémon and replace them with any kind of bizarre creatures or popular franchise, the movie is still an utter mess.

The film moves at such a frenetic pace, it’s sometimes easy to lose yourself in it and forget that you’re bored. But that’s just it. It’s boring. After the movie you realize what transpired could have been told in a singular episode of television and that you have no exciting set pieces or gags to take home with you. Reynolds is charming, but it’s hard to stretch that smug, likeable voice over what is inherently a lengthy advertisement for the Pokémon brand. When you scrape off the gunk that builds up over time in this film, there’s something genuinely interesting. The animated “Pokémon” show is set in an era before phones, social media and the 21st century. Bringing Pokémon into the future could have been a novel idea, where Pokémon actually help humans solve crimes. Instead, the film tosses in the laziest villain and the most nonsensical sinister plot he could concoct, and slaps it on the big screen for the fans that will devour it.

Film Review: “Long Shot”

Starring: Seth Rogen, Charlize Theron and O’Shea Jackson Jr.
Directed by: Jonathan Levine
Rated: R
Running Time: 125 minutes
Lionsgate

I’ll give a smidgen of credit to Hollywood for attempting to change up the tired trope of the average guy getting a woman who is way out of his league. The “Long Shot” follows in line with other movies before it, like “Knocked Up,” “Superbad,” etc. So it’s no surprise that Seth Rogen, the go-to as of late for the down on his luck schmuck, gets paired with Charlize Theron for “Long Shot,” a movie that’s better than it’s supposed to be, but not as good as it thinks it is.

Fred Flarsky (Rogen) is a journalist, who has decided to quit instead of being let-go or continuing to work after his small time paper is bought by a media conglomerate. Through the most bizarre and unlikely of circumstances, Fred becomes reacquainted with Charlotte Field (Theron, his first crush, when she used to babysit him. Charlotte is now one of the most powerful people on the planet, the U.S. Secretary of State. But she has higher aspirations, especially after the President, played briefly, yet incredibly well by Bob Odenkirk, relays to her that he has no plans of seeking re-election. Sparks and complications arise when Charlotte hires Fred on to punch up her speeches as she gets ready to hit the campaign trail.

Whether you like “Long Shot” or not is based solely on the chemistry between Rogen and Theron. The odd couple matching work surprisingly well because Rogen tones down his frat boy antics and Theron demonstrates the comedic timing she’s shown flashes of previously on “Arrested Development” and in “A Million Ways to Die in the West.” Outside of the pull and tug of their contrasting personalities, they manage to have their characters do a bit of soul searching and learning along the way, which elevates the humdrum plot. The comedy is hit or miss, with the hits being crude and the misses being the stereotypical “fat man fall down go boom.”

There’s an underlying smugness to “Long Shot,” but luckily it stops itself from reveling in liberalism for too long in the film’s third act. Granted, I agree with a lot of the film’s political and social insights, but I and others don’t need it being delivered to us in such a ham-fisted fashion. It’s about as politically ferocious as a middle school class president election debate. Although I’d gladly watch a TV show of Rogen and Theron on the campaign trail, munching on the political landscape because it once again plays into the character’s complimentary personas.

“Long Shot” is an average rom-com, where the performances elevate the mundane story. A handful of riotous moments keep the film from dragging during its two-hour runtime, although those with an easily upsettable nature may find the film too crass. It’s hard to ignore the charm of the on-screen duo, even if you find yourself rolling your eyes when the film falls back on rom-com clichés.  

TFF Film Review: “Ask Dr. Ruth”

ASK DR. RUTH
Starring: Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer
Directed by: Ryan White
Running time: 100 mins.
Hulu/Magnolia Pictures

Dr. Ruth Westheimer–or as the world knows her simply “Dr.Ruth”–is an icon of modern pop culture both for broadening the discussion of sexuality in the mainstream as well as her larger than life personality. At just 4’7″, the diminutive German radiates a warmth and sense of humor that easily draws people to share their deepest personal concerns with her. Dr. Ruth has been on the world’s radar since her debut radio show “Sexually Speaking” in 1980 but at ninety years old, there is so much more of her story to be told. Fortunately for film goers, director Ryan White has chosen to take a thorough look into this extraordinary woman’s history. This internationally loved figure survived the Holocaust and time as a sniper in war-torn Jerusalem all before she reached Ellis Island to begin life in America as a single mother at a time when that was far from the norm. And then she took the media by storm. The documentary itself is as accessible and often light-hearted as its titular sex therapist while not shying away from her tragic beginnings.

Dr. Ruth was born in 1928 as Karola Ruth Siegel to Orthodox Jewish parents in Germany. As WWII was brewing, Karola saw her father arrested and she was sent away by her grandmother as part of the Kindertransport to an orphanage in Switzerland. The small Karola did not know she would not see her parents again but she kept up writing letters with them as long as they could in addition to her detailed journals. Dr. Ruth’s own records are a boon to this doc and her diligence in conserving them is rewarded with some lovely animation work that White introduces to bridge the time before she came to the public eye (though White’s choice of an unaccented young American woman reading her diaries is at times jarring). The film also has a nice blend of her home movies chronicling her life as she finally reached America.

There’s no doubt that the strength of this documentary is owed to its magnetic subject. Watching Dr. Ruth query an Amazon Alexa in her uber-thick accent (and it takes a few tries for the electronic helper!) is a pure delight. Fortunately for White, Dr. Ruth also surrounds herself with equally well-spoken company. Her two grown children, her quartet of grandkids and even her first “boyfriend”, a fellow Holocaust survivor, are welcome additions to rounding out her life off-camera. Finally and naturally, White doesn’t skimp on emphasizing her media impact. There’s highlights from the times she embraced a certain kitsch take on her pop persona–I am guilty of first being aware of her as a kid due to that cheesy ‘sex-noises’ Herbal Essences ad from the 90s–as well as the more critical role she played in the conversation during the AIDs crisis. There is so much of the human experience packed into Dr. Ruth’s tiny frame that this documentary is an embarrassment of riches.

Ask Dr. Ruth has its New York premiere tonight as part of the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. Fest screenings will be followed by a limited theatrical release on May 3rd and will debut on Hulu on June 1st.

Film Review: “Family”

FAMILY
Starring: Taylor Schilling, Brian Tyree Henry, Kate McKinnon, Allison Tolman, Bryn Vale
Directed by: Laura Steinel
Rated: R
Running time: 85 mins
The Film Arcade

At the start of Laura Steinel’s Family, we find hedge fund manager Kate (Taylor Schilling) getting beaned in the head with a bottle of orange soda at the Gathering of the Juggalos. It’s an ambitious and fitting start for a film whose primary appeal is celebrating outcasts. As it turns out, Kate is hunting for her niece, Maddie (Bryn Vale), a middle school oddball who was entrusted with her aunt for the week while her parents dealt with grandma’s hospice care. Overworked city-dweller Kate is not the least suited for childcare but winds up being the kind of outside perspective that Maddie needs in her life while her hover-parents are distracted. Though it strays unnecessarily at times, at its best moments Family works as a well meaning tribute to letting your freak flag fly.

Kate is some sort of financial guru who’s climbed the corporate ladder by presumably shirking personal attachments and steadily getting drunk with important clients. It’s the kind of movie where office drones scramble over gaining or losing “THE IMPORTANT SOUNDING NAME ACCOUNT!” but you never know what they’re actually doing because it doesn’t matter. If that set up makes you roll your eyes, I get it, I’m really reluctant when it comes to the “cold career woman softens up with a kid” trope. That said, Schilling does well by leaning into how honest and awkward Kate can be. She says what’s on her mind without the finesse demanded by social mores and even if she’s right–and she sometimes is!–her coworkers ostracize her. I sympathized with Kate despite some of her callousness because Schilling can be so funny and charming and it rings absolutely true that a woman in this environment can more easily fall off the tightrope that is the line between “speaking your mind” and being pegged as a bitch. Her work life is interrupted when her brother calls on her for babysitting duties and she’s saddled with 14 year old Maddie. Kate is supposed to be picking her niece up from ballet but finds her instead in an adjacent karate studio where she’s been secretly studying under sensei Pete (Brian Tyree Henry, just one of a number of strong supporting cast here) for weeks. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg for the disconnect between how Maddie’s parents are raising her and where her actual interests lie.

Kate and Maddie’s relationship is definitely the strong point of the film. Bryn Vale brings a frankness to Maddie that allows Kate to open up to her. Maddie knows who she is, she knows why the other kids mock her and while she might avoid them, she is not even attempting to conform to them. Instead, Maddie takes a shine to fellow weirdos at a convenience store who introduce her to the Insane Clown Posse despite Kate trying to shoo them away. An ill-fated attempt at a makeover from Aunt Kate is a standout sequence. There’s also something very endearing about this awkward niece looking at Kate hopefully when in actuality she’s falling apart inside her business-attired exterior. The trouble comes when Steinel’s script attempts to go off on tangents with Kate–a random meetup with her father in rehab, a tacked on subplot with a nosy neighbor (Kate McKinnon)–when she should have stuck with the Maddie-Kate relationship. It’s as if Kate has to make amends with literally everyone in her life before the credits roll instead of allowing her to simply have her heroic juggalo transformation for the love of her niece.

Film Review: “Shazam!”

Starring: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong and Asher Angel
Directed By: David F. Sandberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 132 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures

While I have yet to watch “Aquaman” at the time of this review, it’s safe to say that “Shazam!” is the most endearing and feel-good of the new batch of DC films, known as the DC Extended Universe. Instead of brooding, cries of pain, and mothers named ‘Martha,’ all it took was a little heart, humor and family for “Shazam!” to solidify itself as a top tier superhero film. Not only is it a solid origin story, it also manages to remain serious despite being light in tone, and keeps things simple while building a fresh new DC world around its title character.

When we meet Billy Batson (Angel), he’s been arrested and sent to child services after committing a petty crime. He’s been in and out of foster homes dozens of times ever since he was separated from his mom at a carnival. While most adults who encounter him view him as a wasted youth, those who see past his troubled past see a compassionate orphan who’s afraid of being abandoned and hurt again. One day he finds himself transported to the Rock of Eternity where a wizard, played by Djimon Hounsou, crowns him as a new champion of good, Shazam (Levi).

The film doesn’t begin with his origin story though; it begins with the villain’s origin story. An adolescent Thadeus Sivana in 1975 (Ethan Pugiotto) is offered a chance at becoming Shazam, but instead shows the wizard that his heart can be easily corrupted. Statues of the Seven Deadly Sins, perched nearby at the Rock of Eternity, tempt him. When Thadeus is banished back to reality, he’s resentful that he wasn’t given the ultimate power. Now as an adult, Thadeus (Strong) doesn’t specifically seek the powers of Shazam, but the powers of those seven deadly sins who once whispered promises of vengeance in his young ears.

The juxtaposition of Billy and Thadeus isn’t lost on the audience. Both deal with their own childhood traumas. Billy is lost in the worst possible way by his mother and Thadeus is emotionally and verbally ridiculed by his uncaring father. In two tales of abandonment, we see how two different circumstances can lead to two different outcomes. In that regard, “Shazam!” speaks more about the human condition than nearly any other contemporary DC film, save for “Wonder Woman.” Not everything is peachy about “Shazam!” though.

It’s not that it’s too long, but it’s just that some of the middle of the film sags a bit as opposed to the beginning and end. There’s a lot of odd editing and set changes, along with some odd choices on how exactly Billy learns about the true meaning of being a superhero. There are also some stylistic choices that I could have done without, like the handful of horror scenes that don’t quite mesh with the family friendly tone of the film. These are just some nitpicky things, in an otherwise wholesome movie that’s sorely needed.

The character of Shazam is a blend of childhood innocence, teenage curiosity, and the more G-Rated elements of other superheroes like Deadpool or the Guardians of the Galaxy. Even with those influences, Levi and Angel propel Shazam to another level, not only creating a physical superhero force that could physically go toe-to-toe with Superman, but also a relatable man-child that’s equally harmless and adorkable. It’s hard not to love Shazam as he becomes acclimated with his power, but it’s when the audience watches him mature and open up his heart that we as an audience welcome him into ours.

It’s safe to say that Warner Bros. and DC have officially washed their hands of the bleak, overly dark Zack Snyder comic book vision. Snyder’s name doesn’t even appear under the producing credits of this film. After a morose beginning to the DC Extended Universe, “Man of Steel,” “Batman V. Superman,” and half of the “Justice League” film, it appears that the secondary characters of this universe may end up salvaging it. It also might be a realization, especially after “Avengers: Infinity War,” that fans will only warm up to a dire and tragic storyline after years of sugary visual goodness and uplifting storylines.

Film Review: “The Wind”

Starring: Caitlin Gerard, Julia Goldani Telles and Miles Anderson
Directed By: Emma Tammi
Rated: R
Running Time: 86 minutes
IFC Midnight

When it comes to horror in the Old West, there aren’t a lot of great examples, or even average examples. That’s peculiar because of how isolated people were in those times, complimented by the fact that urban legends and tales of the unexplained permeated the landscape. That brings me to “The Wind,” a film that doesn’t take long to introduce the audience to Lizzy (Gerard), who’s alone and distant from any signs of civilization. She only has one neighbor and they’re several miles away, far enough away in fact that she can barely see their cabin dot the horizon. Compounding her isolation is the fact that her husband is constantly gone, weeks at a time. She also suspects she isn’t alone.

“The Wind” is told, sometimes wordlessly, in a nonlinear fashion, forcing the viewer to piece together a tragic sequence of events involving Lizzy’s failed pregnancy, failing marriage, and the possibility that her mental health is deteriorating. Or maybe there is something howling with the wind at night. The nonlinear storytelling choice can be confusing, even for astute viewers. The single setting and bland landscape sometimes fail to help highlight at what point in time we’re at in the story. Some of the only signs that we notice we’re in the past is when Lizzy is sporting a soon-to-be miscarriage. On top of that, the film leaves various breadcrumbs surrounding the supposed evil entity lurking in the empty prairie lands surrounding her cabin, as well as what exactly has transpired to where Lizzy has found herself in such a precarious situation. It’s difficult to reveal too much in a short film that builds towards a harrowing final few minutes.

Since actress Gerard is left alone in many scenes, just like Lizzy, it’s up to her to pull off a solo performance that’s not only captivating, but also keeps the plot moving forward, and she nails it. Gerard does a magnificent job at handling both the fear and frustration that Lizzy is surely enduring. Even though she is relatively alone and without a life preserver in the great unknown, Gerard never paints Lizzy as a damsel in distress or shows any signs of helplessness. Instead Gerard beefs up that steely reserve that Lizzy must muster to overcome whatever comes at her, supernatural or not.

There’s an underlying commentary about how women have been mistreated, and not just in the 19th century. Lizzy is constantly ignored and her concerns are mocked. Instead of lending an ear and/or investigating her claims of something sinister stalking her cabin at night, she’s told to be quiet and to keep up with her wifely duties. It’s also implied she’s treated worse after losing her child. While the written story doesn’t hit the right notes, the visual story on screen is masterful. Director Emma Tammi, in her feature film debut, shows a knack for building a dread-filled atmosphere through hair-raising cinematography. This is the kind of freshman outing that promises better films down the pipeline.

Film Review: “Captain Marvel”

Starring: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Mendelsohn
Directed By: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 124 minutes
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

It only took 21 movies for Marvel and Disney to finally release a female-led superhero film, and it’s not about Black Widow. It’s the kind of some comic book fans have been clamoring for, for about a decade now. For those fans, I have to warn you up front, this isn’t the monumental moment you’ve been hoping for.

“Captain Marvel” is an origin story in reverse. When we first meet Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers (Larson), she goes by Vers and is having her skills crafted under the observant eye of the Kree military. She’s in a unit that serves as an important cog in the intergalactic war between the Kree and Skrull. Honestly, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you have a lot of movie binging to do. The film really doesn’t pick up pace until “Vers” is stranded on Earth after being ambushed by some Skrull. It’s on Earth that she not only chases down the Skrull, but begins chasing down fleeting memories of a life she’s forgotten.

The first 30 minutes or so are pretty rough, even if you understand and know all of the necessary backstory that’s been glossed over in “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Thor” films. It attempts to juggle exposition, mystery, and introductions, while handling them all poorly. The exposition isn’t interesting, we already know who “Vers” is, and Marvel is generally terrible about disguising their surprise villains. The movie actually gains momentum and gets a lot more fun when Danvers crashes through the roof of a Blockbuster Video, one of the dozens of reminders that this takes place in the mid-90’s.

As a child of the 90’s, all the winks, nods and nudges are welcome, but they ultimately come off as pandering. The movie feels like it needs to tickle some nostalgia bones, in lieu of character building or plot development. That being said, I don’t mind a little Nirvana or No Doubt in my soundtrack or jokes about how painfully slow computers and the Internet used to be. Millennial inside jokes aside, it’s on Earth that Danvers runs into a young Nick Fury (Jackson), which helps serve as a bit of an origin story for the Avengers initiative.

The 70-year-old Jackson and the 29-year-old Larson are actually a dynamic duo. Their green screen scenery chewing brightens up some otherwise dull moments. It’s regrettable that Marvel missed out on giving them some 90’s buddy cop tropes to gnaw on. “Captain Marvel” may have actually worked better as a parody or homage of films like “The Last Boy Scout” or “Bad Boys.” Luckily these two stars share a lot of screen time and seem to feed off each other’s energy.

“Captain Marvel” is what we’ve come to expect from these yearly Marvel traditions, a lot of CGI, fun set pieces and eye candy for the masses. I actually had quite a bit of fun when I wasn’t analyzing its flaws. So if you want a mindless superhero film, then that’s what you get. That being said, it’s still above the mindless action of Snyder’s DC films because it doesn’t bog the fun down with a bleak atmosphere and outlandish character interactions. For others who are expecting a little more or something a lot more audacious, you’re out of luck. Disney probably over thought this one a bit; and it shows.

If it weren’t for Larson and Jackson, the film may have been a forgettable dud in the same vein as “Thor: The Dark World” or “Iron Man 2.” Those two wring out so much from a minimal script. The writers seemed to be more interested in padding time and setting up a payoff, which never pays off. The film has about half a dozen writers and doesn’t do anything remarkably different with tone or style, like “Thor: Ragnarok” or “Black Panther” managed to do in recent years. “Captain Marvel” is the kind of film you could nitpick to death if you don’t turn your brain off. Everything from visual effects to casting choices is suspect and up for ridicule.

I actually didn’t have high hopes for “Captain Marvel,” so I may not find it as underwhelming or disappointing as some people. Whereas a film like “Wonder Woman” felt like it was breaking new ground, “Captain Marvel” seems to tread water. A lot of that may be due to Disney’s weariness of trying something outlandishly new or daring with its multi-billion dollar baby. Disney could merely be testing the waters. You should be frustrated if the next female superhero film from the studio powerhouse is another cookie cutter film. A progressive step requires a fresh idea, not a copy-and-paste formula that’s slowly becoming stale.

Film Review: Woman at War

WOMAN AT WAR
Starring: Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, Jóhann Sigurðarson, Jörundur Ragnarsson
Directed by: Benedikt Erlingsson
Running time: 1hr 41 mins
Magnolia Pictures

The personal and political overlap in Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman At War which opens this Friday, March 1st in New York and Los Angeles. The Icelandic comedy-drama stars Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir as Halla, to everyone in town she is the local choir director, but to only a close pair of confidants she is The Mountain Woman. Under this guise, Halla goes far into the Icelandic highlands to single-handedly sabotage a nearby aluminum plant and make global investors wary of further industrializing her country. In addition to Geirharðsdóttir’s passionate lead performance, there’s gorgeous scenery and some quirky narrative choices which make this timely, but never preachy, film well worth checking out.

As she sets about doing the opening mission of Erlingsson’s story, Halla marches to the beat of her own drum, literally. When she draws back her bowstring to let loose an arrow which will fell power lines of a whole factory, Erlingsson’s film composer, Davíð Þór Jónsson, and two additional musicians are diegetically staged behind her drumming (and sousaphoning) along in support. This deadpan trio make recurring appearances each time Halla’s actions tend towards the illegal, sometimes even before she knows she’s in hot water. At least they’re visually charming harbingers. Halla appears to be a lone wolf but she finds support in a local farmer, as well as a choir member who happens to be high up in the government team on Halla’s tail. With all this already on her plate, she also learns that years after submitting her paperwork to adopt a child, the agencies have dropped their age limits and she’s the candidate to take on a daughter from the Ukraine. The additional prospect of motherhood also introduces a beautiful trio of female Ukrainian choir singers who, at the best of times in the film, join Jónsson’s instrumental trio to lovely effect.

Erlingsson doesn’t get too bogged down in the whys of Halla’s quest to save the planet she literally hugs at times because his biggest ally in this is his DP, Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson. The wide shots of the Icelandic countryside are breathtaking and stand in stark contrast to the industrialized locales that Halla is railing against. In some of the films stunning helicopter and drone chase sequences, the quick-thinking Halla could have easily been a goner but for the natural resources and shelters offered up by the countryside she so loves. And while the film’s core cast is small, Erlingsson takes many opportunities to touch upon what’s at stake here whether through background telecasts, school girls posing in support of The Mountain Woman’s manifesto, or a finale that hinges on a flood that’s more than likely influenced by climate change. Seeing all this and knowing that Halla had retired her hopes for motherhood before seeking a way to save the world for its own sake, for me, makes her a woman to root for.

Film Review: “The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part”

Starring the Voices of: Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks and Will Arnett
Directed By: Mike Mitchell
Rated: PG
Running Time: 106 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures

“The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part” was never going to live up to the first. Well. I take that back. It could have. The first film’s core creators, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, are no longer at the directorial helm, but have their names plastered throughout the credits as producers and writers. Personally, I don’t think the oddball duo have yet to fail when they’re behind the camera. But as writers and producers, their names are surprisingly all over the place in Hollywood, from movies like “Smallfoot” to “Brigsby Bear.” They generally hop on board projects with promise, and while the follow-up to “The LEGO Movie” had promise, it partially delivers.

The sequel, just like in real life, takes place five years after the first film. The first one ended on the ominous announcement that real world child, Finn (Jadon Sand), has a baby sister. That baby sister has intruded on Finn’s imagination, therein intruding on the imaginary LEGO world on-screen. Emmett (Pratt) and Lucy’s (Bank) brick world has gone from a thriving metropolis to a “Mad Max” hellscape where other worldly LEGO creations stop off in their world to abduct and torment Emmett and Lucy’s pals. It’s only later that the duo find out that Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish), of the Systar System, is abducting their friends for a specific purpose and are now targeting them. Trying to explain this almost feels more confusing than it should be. So if you haven’t seen the first, just skip this one.

The manic whimsy of the first is still intact, as jokes sometimes come flying fast and furious with a kinetic energy that’s reminiscent of other Lord and Miller productions. Unfortunately the film takes a while to find out what new stories and themes it would like to tell the audience. The first handful of minutes are spent catching viewers up on events in the fictionalized worlds, as well as retelling jokes, beat by beat, down to the punchline. Older viewers might feel like they’re being duped, much like fans in the 80s felt when seeing “Airplane II: The Sequel.” Luckily that feeling dissipates after a while.

You may have forgotten, as you should, but there was a silly controversy back in 2014 when the first “LEGO Movie” came out. Some found that the movie was bad for kids because of its “anti-corporate” message. I can feel your eyes rolling as you read that. But for those who felt like that was a legitimate gripe, you’ll be pleased to know that this film feels a lot more like a cash grab and doesn’t have an anti-capitalist leaning. That being said, there are still a lot of moments of subversive brilliance possibly directed at the studio.

A good chunk of those clever jokes seem to be digs at Warner Bros., who may have demanded a sequel after money came rolling in. I won’t give the playful comedic jabs away since they’re in the film’s third act. In a handful of instances before that, the film appears to be taking part in other kid’s movie tropes, like musical numbers or sequel/world building, as a chance to not only make-fun of the constructs, but point out how they’re generously shoehorned in to most narratives in kid’s movies. If Lord and Miller merely served as producers, and not writers, I might actually feel like some of these creative choices were studio notes. It’s also possible I’m looking far too into it.

Even while scraping away some of the layered intellect this film has, this sequel is non-stop eye candy accompanied by rapid-fire jokes that’ll put smiles on the faces of kids and adults alike. While there’s no doubt that this’ll please the young ones, it might have some parents who watched the first one feeling fatigued. That’s because it doesn’t quite match the persistent irreverent wit of the first, or the revelations that reward viewers who watch the film a second time. Even though I’ve spent a lot of time comparing this one to the original, this sequel still manages to squeeze out some heart from its human and brick characters. “The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part” is beautifully animated, uproariously funny and mischievously inventive, but not as much as as its predecessor.

Film Review: “Glass”

Starring: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson
Directed By: M. Night Shyamalan
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 129 minutes
Universal Pictures

What are some of the best non-DC/Marvel superhero films? That’s when folks would throw out movies like “The Crow” or “The Rocketeer.” But what about truly original superhero films, ones not based on comics? That’s when you really get down to the nitty gritty of films that hold their own against CGI-filled blockbusters. Before “Unbreakable,” there was “Darkman” and “The Toxic Avenger.” But unlike the latter, “Unbreakable” has spurred some worthy sequels.

It’s been discussed online for nearly two decades that director M. Night Shyamalan had always intended for “Unbreakable” to inevitably be a trilogy. The question remained even after the release of “Split,” a trilogy about what or who? So does “Glass” fulfill what fans were told, a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy? Or does it pull a Disney and create the possibility of more sequels? Luckily Samuel L. Jackson’s character doesn’t reveal himself to be Nick Fury all along.

Much to the surprise of fans, the throwdown between David Dunn (Willis) and Kevin Crumb as the Beast (McAvoy) happens fairly early on as Dunn is tracking down some kidnapped cheerleaders, the latest in a string other kidnappings and vicious murders in Philadelphia. Police are hot on both their trails though and arrest both before they can spar for too long. Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), is at the scene along with authorities because she wants to study the two for their delusions of grandeur, believing that comic book culture is behind their perceived abilities. Also in custody, and sitting down with Dunn and Crumb for some bizarre group therapy, is Mr. Glass (Jackson). Dr. Staple’s hope is to convince the trio that their super strength and super intelligence isn’t what it seems.

While sometimes clunky, everything that feels out of place or misguided eventually comes together in the third act. When everything is said and done, David Dunn (probably because of the salary Bruce Willis commands), seems to be more of a side character in this film. But it’s also not necessarily about the origins of Mr. Glass. We already got that in “Unbreakable.” The movie does have him play a key role, revealing why the film is inevitably named after him. But a good chunk of story outside the trio’s therapy sessions is Mr. Glass and Crumb’s multiple personalities scheming, talking and acting. It’s in these scenes that audiences are treated to every individual inhabiting David’s head. Acting wise, nothing’s quite as impressive or entertaining as McAvoy’s scenery chewing, but other side characters from the previous films provide some emotional weight as they make their way in throughout the film, building towards the climax.

It feels a little long, and is as the longest film in the trilogy, mainly because Shyamalan unfortunately falls back onto some poor storytelling mechanics that we’ve seen before with some of his weaker films. He tends to over explain plot points by showing and telling the audience what’s happening. It can feel a little condescending since the film is built around the idea that you’ve seen the previous two films and that you should be smarter than the average moviegoer. I would usually chalk it up to a talking head at the studio, but this is something Shyamalan has done in films like “The Happening” or “The Village.” Luckily he doesn’t do it ad nauseam.

“Glass” doesn’t subvert superhero tropes or makes any kind of new critiques of the genre, but it manages to manipulate viewer’s emotions and expectations enough to where everything genuinely feels original. The action is filmed in a way where our imagination, instead of computers, fills the void. Even the simplest things that Dunn or Crumb do, feel grand because of the lives they’re saving and taking. Because they’re not throwing each other into buildings like Superman and General Zod, but instead slowly bending steel or taking their time to punch down metal doors, the story feels more grounded in reality. It helps that every character is morally flawed. The good and evil on display blend together to elicit sympathy and disgust.

“Glass” ends up being the weakest of the three films, but it’s still an entertaining finale. Some might be turned off by how it all ends, but I applaud the bowtie. While most directors would have left the door open, just in case the box office receipts warranted a sequel, Shyamalan promptly wrote “Glass” as a final chapter to this superhero story. It feels complete, without the need to tell us anymore or asking us to sit through another chapter, something most superhero movies these days don’t know how to do.

Film Review: “Vice”

VICE
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Sam Rockwell
Directed by: Adam McKay
Rated: R
Running time: 2 hrs 12 mins
Annapura Films

Our Score: 5 stars

On the animated program “Lil’ Bush,” which was a comical look at the administration of President George W. Bush, his vice-president, Dick Cheney, was portrayed as possibly the son of Darth Vader. If Adam McKay’s latest film is to believe, Cheney may in fact actually have been Emperor Palpatine!

Dick Cheney (Bale) is a man who came from a troubled youth – lots of drinking and carousing – and rose to be within a heartbeat of
holding the highest office in the world. And, if the film “Vice” is to be believed, he did it in the most ruthless way possible. You have to love a movie that informs the viewer at the beginning that it is a “true story,” than clarifies itself by explaining it’s as true as it can get considering nobody really knows anything about Dick Cheney.

After being kicked out of school and forced to live with his wife, Lynne (Adams), in her parents house, Cheney is given the ultimatum from the missus to either make something of himself or hit the road. He is chosen to be part of a group of young men whose job is to assist members of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington D.C. and is chosen by the straight-shooting Congressman from the state of Illinois, Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell). Sensing a kindred soul – or lack of one – Rumsfeld takes Cheney with him as he progresses through the ranks of government. And, like Michael Corleone, he teaches Cheney to keep his friends close and his
enemies closer.

I have always marveled at the talents of Christian Bale. From first seeing him at age 12 in “Empire of the Sun” through “American Psycho,” the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy and his Oscar winning turn in “The Fighter,” he has always impressed me. So when I say that here he gives the best performance of his career, give me credit that I know what I’m talking
about. In fact, if you didn’t know Bale was in this film I would dare you to tell me you know it’s he portraying Cheney, so immersed in the character is he. He is joined note for note by Adams, the strong woman-behind-the-the man, who adds another award-worthy performance to her repertoire! Throw in Carell, Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush and Tyler Perry as Colin
Powell, and you have a true actors workshop on display.

The other half of this film is the script from director Adam McKay. Long known as Will Ferrell’s partner in crime on such films as “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights,” McKay hit the big time by winning the Best Adapted Screenplay Award for his film “The Big Short.” “Vice” is told in a similar way, with narration and flashbacks that make you chuckle while still lamenting the fact that this guy was basically helping to run our government. With no apologies. In fact, when the incident where Cheney, on a hunting trip, accidentally shot a fellow hunter in the face, we are shown the news clip where the VICTIM actually apologizes for causing any inconvenience to the Cheney family!

Dick Cheney has been with us for over four decades. Like cockroaches and Keith Richards, he may never go away. But if there is one positive to his story, it’s that it gave us what, in my opinion, is the best film of 2018!

Film Review: “Welcome to Marwen”

Starring: Steve Carell, Leslie Mann and Merritt Wever
Directed By: Robert Zemeckis
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 116 minutes
Universal Pictures

Back in 2015, director Robert Zemeckis brought the story of Philippe Petit to life in “The Walk.” It was a visually stunning film with a gripping story that was accompanied by a sore reminder at the core of its story, the Twin Towers in New York City. It was an awe inspiring flick that was equally joyful and tragic. That kind of nuance has been lost from Zemeckis’ touch in 2018 with his latest film, “Welcome to Marwen.”

I mention “The Walk” because it came seven years after the gripping documentary, “Man on Wire,” which many would agree is the better story of Petit. This time around, Zemeckis is crafting another story in the shadow of a documentary. Back in 2010, “Marwencol” brought the world the story of Mark Hogancamp, a man who finds solace and comfort in dolls and a miniature city he built outside his residence after a vicious attack that robbed him of thousands of precious memories from his previous life. It’s a humbling and breathtaking story that has been robbed of its magic in “Welcome to Marwen.”

Steve Carell does bring that humble nature and PTSD terror to Hogancamp’s story, but it comes up short once Zemeckis’ starts monkeying with the mechanics. About a third of the film is told through the eyes of the dolls that Hogancamp craft’s, as well as their surroundings. These scenes are a little jarring, as they come to life to fill in a plot point, or in Hogancamp’s mind, during a restless night of sleep. These scenes feel out of sorts with the film because they pop-up like a jump scare or are inadequately shoehorned in alongside real-life events.

While it’s a creative concept, with the dolls literally coming to life and talking to Hogancamp or playing out parallels in his life, they muddy the storytelling waters. Zemeckis’ attempt to be clever, end up diluting the various themes of Hogancamp’s story, one that is about recovery, acceptance and the mental struggles that victims of vicious attacks go through. Also undercutting these serious subjects is misplaced humor that disjoints the overall narrative.

Moments that should move you emotionally fall short because of how tonally misshaped “Welcome to Marwen” is. The doll sequences become overbearing, stretching out the story, with several aimless subplots and awkward moments that come off unintentionally funny as opposed to sympathetic. I can’t complete dislike something that comes from a good place, but it’s understandable if someone walks out of this movie confused or bothered by its half-hearted attempts at compassion.

Film Review: “Ben is Back”

Starring: Lucas Hedges, Julia Roberts and Kathryn Newton
Directed By: Peter Hedges
Rated: R
Running Time: 103 minutes
LD Entertainment

“Ben is Back” starts out well-intentioned enough, but by the end it comes off as a hyper-exploitive freak out. The movie, a day in the life of the Burns’ family, tackles the dire issue of opioids from several different angles. Sometimes it tackles it in very realistic terms, specifically the pain and awkwardness it can create for families in its wake. However, it predominantly tackles it like a daytime soap opera, with the gauche touch of those 80’s drug PSAs.

Ben (Hedges) has unexpectedly returned home on Christmas Eve. His younger siblings, who have no memory of the terrifying nights he put his family through, are happy to see him; His sister and mother not so much. Holly (Roberts), Ben’s mom, immediately goes to work hiding drugs that could trigger her son’s addiction, as well as jewelry and other sellable knick knacks, just in case he’s already relapsed. It’s in these opening moments that the film is emotionally riveting by not holding back on any of its emotional gut punches. Then it starts going off the rails when Holly confronts Ben’s old doctor at the mall and tells him that she hopes he rots in Hell. Merry Christmas from the Burns family!

To dive into the specifics of why “Ben is Back” continues to fall off the wagon, and hard, would be to ruin the film’s second act, which feels more like another movie with the same actors was flipped on in the projector booth. What should have been a harrowing story about addiction, becomes an even more over-the-top “August: Osage County,” involving drugs and crime. There are also several moments where I can just hear Nancy Reagan bemoaning the horrors of addiction and paralyzing viewers with fear that we too can suffer every feasible scenario from just one night of drug use.

It’s not that the things that happen to and around Ben, haven’t happened before or could happen to an addict and their families, but it’s the frequency, severity, and occurrence of which it happens in “Ben is Back” that’s laughable. I half expected Walter White of “Breaking Bad” to pop-up and tell Ben to stay out of his territory. That’s how comically bad it gets. Because of the dire subject matter though, it takes a veteran actor or two to wring out any semblance of seriousness in the script.

No matter how bad the dialogue gets, Roberts and Hedges tow a fine line to keep their characters within the realm of “maybe this could happen.” It’s actually quite impressive seeing Hedges go toe-to-toe with Roberts when they argue or clash. I couldn’t imagine anyone else, in either role, pulling off the same acting acrobatics and making it remotely watchable. In that regard, “Ben is Back” is admirable in its dramatic attempts. Like I said, it’s well intentioned and the first 30 to 40 minutes are good, but sometimes the best of intentions can hurt the cause you’re reportedly fighting for.

Film Review: “Roma”

Starring: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira and Fernando Grediaga
Directed By: Alfonso Cuaron
Rated: R
Running Time: 135 minutes
Netflix

You know the phrase, “a slice of Americana,” or at the least the variations of it? In pop-culture it’s used to describe pop-culture that capture a moment in time, with the values and ideas reflected in the American characters on screen. Classics like “The Best Years of Our Lives” or “A Christmas Story” come to mind, while its contemporary cohorts are films like “Mudbound” or “Friday Night Lights.” Alfonso Cuaron’s latest movie, “Roma,” could be called a slice of Mexicana.

Cuaron returns to his roots in “Roma,” a film about Sofia’s (Tavira) strained household in Mexico City in the early 1970s. Living under the roof is Sofia’s four children, her mother, her “husband,” and two maids. The drama involving Sofia and her husband, who are separating, is placed on the backburner to stew to its natural boiling point towards the end of the movie. But one of her maids, Cleo (Aparicio), is surprisingly the core drama for most of the film. That’s because Cleo believes she’s pregnant and once she shares this news with her boyfriend, he quickly abandons her in the worst possible way. Unfortunately things don’t get any better for Cleo.

So much transpires in such little time, and sometimes in such few words, that “Roma” feels like the most poignant chapter of an autobiography. At face value, there’s nothing extraordinary about the people in the Sofia household, but because Cuaron captures the seesawing family dynamics so perfectly, it’s hard to look away during some of the film’s simplest scenes. It also makes some of the most emotionally devastating scenes, and there are several, much more impactful and riveting.

The actors in “Roma,” who’ve never starred in anything before or aren’t household names in the U.S., but are in Mexico, are outstanding here. Kudos to Cuaron for finding Aparico, who effortlessly handles the hefty amount of emotion, her character demands. This is her first role and certainly won’t be her last. The multi-layered maternal roles that Aparico and Tavira tackle are difficult, but their performances are nuanced and subtle, but speak volumes about gender roles, whether it be in society as a whole or in the Sofia household.

While Cuaron broke visual ground in “Gravity,” he proves to be an equally captivating director with the classic panoramic format, capturing rarely before seen beauty in the black and white picture. Even in monochromatic, the city streets pop, the seaside is picturesque, and the surrounding mountains have never looked more beautiful. Nearly every facet of “Roma” has been meticulously groomed by Cuaron, whose letting us watch him blow a kiss to his native land as tears fall from his eyes.