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.  

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: “Dumbo”

Starring: Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito
Directed By: Tim Burton
Rated: PG
Running Time: 112 minutes
Walt Disney Studios

My recollection of “Dumbo” is incredibly brief and simple, and may even be a false memory. I believe I watched the 1941 classic when I was four- or five-years-old. I’ve never had an interest in rewatching it even though it is a relatively short animated classic, clocking in at barely over an hour. That’s a lot easier to digest than this Burton-ized remake, which has ballooned to nearly two hours, relies heavily on green screen and CGI, and has removed the talking animals element. Instead the story of Dumbo is told with the help of the humans around him at the circus.

Ringmaster Max Medici (DeVito) has recently purchased a pregnant elephant, believing that a baby animal could draw curious eyes to his traveling circus which has currently set-up shop in Joplin, Missouri. Much to his dismay, the baby elephant is a “freak.” Max believes the oversized ears will draw laughs instead of affectionate, “Awhs,” and he’s not wrong. Believing in the blue-eyed baby elephant though is Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), the children of Holt (Farrell), a WWI veteran returning home without an appendage and attempting to adjust to his sad new life as a widow. Milly and Joe also know about Dumbo’s talent as a flying animal.

There’s actually a lot to like about “Dumbo,” but it fails at doing two vital things, connecting emotionally with the audience and telling a story about acceptance. The components are there, but they never come together. Since the animals can’t talk, we’ll never know what Dumbo is actually thinking, but Burton does an odd thing. He never really shows pain, frustration, or loneliness etched across Dumbo’s face once he’s separated from his mother. Instead he has the human actors state how they think Dumbo is feeling. There are a few moments between Dumbo and his mom, but nothing on the level of the original.

As for accepting others for their differences, it feels more like a theme that’s left to simmer on the film’s backburner. Instead of hammering that point home through allegory, the film feels more interesting in introducing ancillary characters and distracting viewers with visual effects. It’s an odd observation because director Tim Burton is known for allowing his weird to overtake his more normal productions, as he fights for the voice of the bullied or marginalized hero. This might be his least weird movie, settling for a cookie cutter style, instead of his usual gothic imagery juxtaposed against mainstream aesthetics.

But like I said, there’s a lot to like in this movie. Despite its PG rating, it’s perfectly safe for kids of all ages and there’s nothing really terrifying. The children at my screening appeared to adore it. It may be nearly two hours, but it never feels boring or dull. It never stoops down to an Illumination level of humor and has several legitimate jokes. The green screen is very impressive considering and every adult actor manages to gnaw on that green screen while the child actors are believable most of the time in their roles. I just don’t see children rewatching this over the years and eventually showing it to their kids one day.

There’s one interesting part of the movie that I really enjoyed and it even gave me pause as to where or not Disney executives watched the final product. I say this because Burton seems to take a subtle jab at the Disney media conglomerate through the film’s villain, V.A. Vandevere (Keaton). He’s an “entrepreneur” that buys up other unique entities so that he can expand his amusement park empire called Dreamland. He has several rides and attractions that feel very reminiscent of Disneyland/Disney World properties. It’s almost as if Burton isn’t just commenting on Disney’s recent purchases of Marvel, “Star Wars” and Fox, but also their current trajectory of buying popular brands to financially exploit instead of giving a voice to fresh, young animators and filmmakers. Or maybe Burton realized that he’s become Hollywood’s tolken weirdo for oddball franchises (“Alice in Wonderland” and “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”) and wanted to remark on what’s become of the film industry. The intentional/unintentional metaphor certainly won’t be lost on adults in theaters who’ve spent a pretty penny on Disney’s “reimagining” that falls short of living up to the original.

Originality is no longer valued at the Walt Disney Company. The last original movie was under their Pixar brand, the film “Coco.” That was November 22nd, 2017. The next original idea? That isn’t until March 2020, another Pixar film. So in between this two-and-a-half year amount of time, one of the largest companies in the world is going to throw out every sequel and remake they can think of at moviegoing audiences, because that’s all that can guarantee the company billions of dollars. Maybe I shouldn’t be voicing my frustration about that in this review of a children’s film, but I find it necessary for you to be prepared for my and other’s annoyance at the litany of live-action remakes and sequels that continue to pour out of the Disney factory like a river spilling over its banks. Back in 1941, the House of Mouse took a brave attempt at something new and unique. That’s no longer the case.

Film Review: “Climax”

Starring: Sofia Boutella, Kiddy Smile and Roman Guillermic
Directed by: Gaspar Noe
Rated: R
Running Time: 96 minutes
A24

Usually for arthouse films, you hear the phrase, “This may not be for everyone.” When it comes to Gaspar Noe films, they may not be for anyone. Having only seen “Enter the Void,” out of curiosity on Netflix one night, my second trip into Noe’s twisted mind comes in the form of a dance troupe’s celebration before heading out on an international tour. They got the jams, they got the drinks, and they got the food. However, an uninvited guest is about to crash their party.

The jubilation slowly turns into a horrifying mystery as members of the young French dance team suspect someone has spiked their sangria with drugs. Things decline quickly as the LSD takes hold, leading to arguments, more dancing, graphic violence, more dancing, deaths, more dancing, graphic sex and more dancing. Luckily for audience members that might not have the stomach for Noe’s twisted vision, he never comes off as an edgelord looking to exploit his characters for ghoulish fun. Instead he’s more transfixed on how an eclectic group of young 20-somethings in the mid-90’s quickly turn on each other or flock into unsuspecting arms when their perceptions deteriorate.

“Climax” doesn’t abide by any cinematic rules, as it begins with the film’s end credits, then fixates on an old box TV that plays VHS interview tapes of all the dancers we’re about to meet. After every character’s brief introduction, the film switches to the old abandoned school where the madness goes down, beginning with a lengthy dance sequence, all within a single take. There’s actually quite a few single takes in the film, some that would make Alejandro Inarritu scratch his head in curiosity as to how it was pulled off.

A movie like this in anyone else’s hands would be boring, but Noe keeps you transfixed to the screen as he flies seamless and methodically around the school, like a curious specter watching the pure bedlam unfold. There’s genuine dread as several scenarios are left to playout as the LSD amplifies character’s primal instincts. It’s in these moments that you realize that despite our best attempts to do good for the benefit of society, self-preservation will kick in or we’ll resort to our most basic animal instincts. Of course it’s entirely possible that you’ll take away a different experience or viewpoint.

Much of the film is made even more impressive by the tidbit that the cast is made up of professional dancers, not professional actors. We never see the hallucinations from their point of view, but the pain or pleasure is etched all over their faces. The only person of note in this film is Sofia Boutella, and even she gets lost in the group theatrics. In several interviews, Noe has discussed his love of dance. Not as a participant, but more as an observer. “Climax” is almost like his theatrical version of people watching. “Climax” takes that club dancing expressionism that he fondly enjoys and cranks it to 11 by throwing in drugs, blood and sex. It’s a trial by fire where the people become marionettes, with the bass puppeteering their every movement. For those who break free from the trance, they meet an untimely fate or wind up naked with an unlikely lover. It’s a true Heaven/Hell on Earth.

I felt really unsure about “Climax” as I left the theater, but I couldn’t quite narrow down much in terms of technical or storytelling complaints. The cinematography is on another level, matching the constant dance beats in the background. The soundtrack ranges from foreign EDM to more recognizable artists like Daft Punk and the Rolling Stones. I only withhold unflinching adoration for a film like this because I may believe I’m consuming something of substance while blinded by its deliciously fresh style. It’s a brisk, but bewitching film that I’m sure I’ll watch again. It’s in that second watch I’ll either find distaste or amplified admiration for Noe’s vision. Love it or hate, viewers won’t be able to shake “Climax,” much like a bad acid trip.

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: “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: “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.

Film Review: “The Favourite”

Starring: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz
Directed By: Yorgos Lanthimos
Rated: R
Running Time: 119 minutes
Fox Searchlight Pictures

I’ve mentioned every time that I’ve had to review a period piece film, that I’m not the right person to critique it. Generally as a film critic, it’s a good rule of thumb to appreciate cinema in all its forms, genres and approaches. But that’s a little too idealistic. We all have that genre, actor, director, etc. that just don’t click with us and never will. That’s why I have to say that “The Favourite” has broken me of period piece films. It’s not that I’ve finally found one I like; it’s just that the film does such a good job of subverting what’s expected of the genre in a wildly amusing way. This is good news for those, like me, who don’t like the genre, but also those who eat it up and are looking for something fresh.

“The Favourite” takes place during a time where Britain is at war with France (when haven’t they been? amirite?) where a frail Queen Anne (Colman) appears more concerned about her gout flare ups than young British men dying on foreign soil. Sarah Churchill (Weisz) is her right hand woman, and secret lover, who generally handles all the matters of the Kingdom through whispers in Queen Anne’s ear. Trouble arrives in the form of Sarah’s younger cousin, Abigail Hill (Stone). While eager to work and toil in the belly of the castle, Abigail shows cunning and treachery that could spoil Sarah’s seat at Queen Anne’s side.

“The Favourite” is the kind of film that understands the tropes of the genre so much, that it employs them in a mocking fashion that also moves the story along. There’s certain elegance to the film’s crass humor. Maybe it’s because men in whigs and women in dresses are the one’s slinging four letter words along with the mud. They curtsy through insults and stab each other in the back with such kindness; you can’t help but laugh at their acts of sheer folly. The humor, while prevalent throughout, quickly grows dark as the stakes get increasingly dramatic.

There is a lot of high intrigue between the triad of woman. None of them seem to know what the other is up to, but in moments of vain anger and sheer depravity, they seem to understand what each other are up to. It’s almost like Queen Anne understands the sheer depravity of what the two women underneath her are doing because she’s getting off on it. Meanwhile, the women underneath Queen Anne understand what’s at stake if they don’t put their claws away and know that whoever blinks first will ultimately lose a seat at the Royal table.

There’s some adjacent storylines, but they’re just not as enthralling as the cat fight unfolding on screen. That’s thanks to some rich performances by the three leading ladies involved, who manage to create characters that can be easily hated and loved, all in the same scene. It’s almost like each one is attempting to steal an acting award, just as their character is looking to steal the throne away. The acting and witty script combine for highly amusing put downs and treachery. “The Favourite” is savage, nasty and cleverly funny.

Film Review: “Widows”

Starring: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki
Directed By: Steve McQueen
Rated: R
Running Time: 129 minutes
20th Century Fox

“Widows” begins with Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his partners in crime meeting a quick, fiery end, before we even really get to know any of them. But we quickly learn that the ripples from their deaths have major implications on a bitter election campaign in one of Chicago’s most blighted neighborhoods, along with millions in dirty money that needs to be repaid. Unfortunately caught up in all this, is three grieving widows. Veronica (Davis), Rawlings’ widow, decides to use a notebook left behind by her late husband, detailing his next planned heist, to prevent herself from being another victim.

“Widows” is the kind of movie we’ve seen before. Any number of political thrillers, revenge, or crime and heist movies come to mind. But what makes “Widows” unique is how much it subverts tropes or incorporates them into themes that touch upon racism, police brutality, class warfare, gender politics, and more. Sometimes the themes are heavy, layered on thick so that a general audience can understand. Other times they’re casually sprinkled in, only coming through the film’s visual aesthetics or the director’s incorporated camera techniques.

The blueprint for “Widows” could have easily been used to craft a well-made summertime popcorn flick that would have delighted the masses. “Widows” will still delight those masses, but it’s nourishing because of the sustenance it finds in the script and it’s performances. When the film could have easily told the audience what’s happening, it shows it. And when the actors could have easily read through plot points and pertinent topics, they etch everything we need to know on their faces and through their actions.

Davis, who should seriously be on everyone’s radar in Hollywood by now, channels a primal feminine rage about the destruction left behind by the men in her life, whether it be personal or circumstantial. Rodriguez and Debicki, playing the other two widows brought in for the all-female heist, feed off of Davis’ energy. Even in scenes where Davis’ is paired alongside any of her male cohorts, she seems to tower above them in terms of dramatic acting chops.

There is no small role in “Widows” as the likes of Colin Farrell, Jacki Weaver, Matt Walsh, and others provide another layer for viewers to peel back. The nuances of every role in this film beef up the main players, but also supply much life to an already bleak backdrop. Steve McQueen has entered the mainstream with a stellar ensemble crime heist film that interjects weighty thematic material that’s easily digestible and relevant. “Widows” is one of the must-see films of the years, for general audiences and cinephiles.