Category Archives: Movie Review

Skyscraper – A Movie Review


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Skyscraper

When a movie shows you what it is, believe it.

If you have seen a trailer for Dwayne Johnson’s new action flick Skyscraper, you have seen the best parts of the movie and, conveniently, you have seen the only parts you need to see. The trailer promises a film high on action, low on logic and full of fiery escapes. The movie is high on action (though none of it is particularly compelling or engaging), low on logic (so-called “plot twists” are either telegraphed from the first reel or so outlandish as to be incomprehensible) and full of fiery escapes (each more ludicrous than the last).

So why did I pay my money to see this dreck?

Hope and Dwayne Johnson.

As the only major studio release for the rest of the summer (so I heard, at-any-rate) that is not a sequel or a movie derivative of another property, I wanted to like Skyscraper and I hoped it would be better than it appeared. I hoped for a modern Towering Inferno with an homage or two to Die Hard thrown in for good measure. Hopes dashed.

I also enjoy Dwayne Johnson, though I am not sure why. He is not a wonderful actor but he typically has a 200 watt smile and enough charisma to cover a myriad of sins in a movie. Such is not the case in Skyscraper. Even The Rock cannot save this one. Too many sins, too much silliness, too little room for Johnson to operate. When the best line of the movie involved using duct tape, you know there is a problem.

In Skyscraper, characterization is reduced to the broadest of strokes. Johnson is an amputee. His son has asthma. His wife is a former army nurse who can KICK ASS! His friend is… you get the picture. I was not hoping for David Mamet here, but would the smallest amount of nuance have killed the screen writers?

Apparently, yes. It would have. Oh, and extra credit is available to anyone who can explain the plot of the villains in this one. I sure cannot.

Typically, I know what I am getting from a movie and I am okay with that. I knew what Skyscraper could be and my bar was set pretty low. The movie failed to clear it. Utterly.

SKYSCRAPER receives ONE AND A HALF TITANIUM PROSTHETIC LEGS out of a possible FIVE

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Ant-Man and the Wasp – A Movie Review


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ant man wasp

Peyton Reed director of Ant-Man and the Wasp and his team of writers, which includes star Paul Rudd (in very fine form here) had an unenviable task ahead of them when they set out to make their film. Knowing they were going to follow the massive Avengers | Infinity War they had to decide, if you will pardon the pun, to go big or go home.

Surprisingly – and effectively – they chose to go home or, at least, to stay close to home. Of all the Marvel Studios films to date, Ant-Man and the Wasp might be the smallest (okay, that one was totally unintentional – I caught it on my proofread!) in terms of stakes and scope.

Picking up over a year after Ant-Man and almost a year after Captain America: Civil WarAnt-Man and the Wasp opens on lovable hero Scott Lang (Rudd) who is holding up as well as he can under the house arrest he agreed to in exchange for his release from prison following the events of Civil War – somebody get me his lawyer if I get into trouble. Violating the Sovokia Accords in Civil War was tantamount to treason. A year of house arrest? Nice job, counselor. Scott is waiting for the day, coming very soon, that he can take off his ankle bracelet, bid farewell to spot inspections by the FBI and leave his home.

Of course, completing his sentence will not be that easy. It turns out Hank Pym (a very fun, very game Michael Douglas) and Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly who is so good perhaps Marvel sound have titled the film The Wasp and Ant-Man) need help that only Scott can provide.

And off we go…

What is  bold about the movie is the change of pace tone it strikes. It is about as far removed from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as any one of these films to date and, following the heaviness of Infinity War, that is a surprisingly welcome change. The universe is not at stake. The fate of the world does not hang in the balance. The survival of the city is not in play. Rather there are personal goals at hand and family goals at that.

In setting the scale in this fashion, the filmmakers avoid one of the traps that hangs up superhero movies, namely how is tension created without building bigger mousetraps after bigger mousetraps? Ant-Man and the Wasp understands that its best assets are its sterling and delightful cast (Michael Pena is back as Luis!), the fantastic shirking/growing action scenes and a breezy plot (that may not hold up to very much scrutiny).

Paul Rudd is lovable, energetic and as excited by what he can do as the audience is watching him do it. He is all emotion and utterly convincing as a C-List superhero trying to simply be a dad. His comedic timing is spot on and his Ant-Man is the most grounded of all the Marvel characters – less silly than Star Lord and less angsty than Hawkeye. I could watch this shtick for a long time before it got old. Evangeline Lilly deserves a larger spotlight than she gets here, and the spotlight here is pretty large. Her Wasp is a no-nonsense, accomplished heroine who is more than capable of carrying the film and the caper on her own. Together, they are a wonderful team. The movie could have done a bit more with their dynamic, actually.

The set pieces are truly inventive and fun to watch. Peyton Reed does a remarkable job keeping them fresh and distinguishing them from the kind of action we have seen in prior films. There is some creativity at play here and the effects benefit greatly from being experienced on the big screen.

The plot of Ant-Man and the Wasp is intended to be light and airy. It succeeds. Perhaps too well. If there is a draw back its found in the success of these films. We expect them to be layered thematically, to swell with emotion, to make us cry while we laugh. Infinity War set that high a bar. Ant-Man and the Wasp is not that movie. It is something different. Once I allowed myself to settle into that, I had a great time.

You will, too.

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP receives FOUR GIANT SALT SHAKERS out of a possible FIVE

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – A Movie Review


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wont you be

After the showing I viewed of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, I departed the theater (after a surprise, final scene embedded in the closing credits – watch for it!) and headed into the bathroom as is my habit. I recognized the other bathroom goers as patrons of the same movie I had just seen. This assembly of men, colliding in the restroom, was the most polite, most kind, most considerate group I have ever encounter in this context.

I wonder if our collective dispositions had anything to do with the movie we had just watched. No, I do not. It had everything to do with the film we had just watched.

Lovingly directed by Morgan Neville and featuring conversations with Fred Rogers’ friends and family, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? weaves the compelling history of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood over the course of a far too short 94 minutes. It is clear that Rogers’ colleagues, children, sister and wife loved the man and it is equally apparent that the man we saw in his program is very much the man Rogers was: gentle, kind, compassionate and loving.

One of the most poignant suggestions of the movie is that these very qualities are not only lacking in our world today, they have somehow become square or stale, unrealistic or weak. Watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is an exercise in recalling that kindness and compassionate are mindsets that can make a world of difference.

That is a message to share.

Much of the narrative work of the film is accomplished with archival footage of Fred Rogers himself, telling a series of interviewers why he does what he does. Additionally, the audience is treated to plenty of scenes from the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood shows, scenes which triggered many warm memories of afternoons at my childhood home watching PBS. It is almost impossible, I would think, for anyone to see this movie and not find her or himself moved by the earnest Rogers as he thoughtfully struggles with how best to connect with children. Likewise, some of the moments Neville chose to share in the documentary cannot help but tug at the heartstrings: Rogers talking about divorce? Check. Rogers explaining assassinations in the wake of Bobby Kennedy’s death? Check. Rogers post 9-11, coming back to television after his retirement to discuss the tragedy with children? Check. Rogers meeting and talking with Koko the gorilla? Check and pass the Kleenex.

An audience will have to work hard to find a more affirming, uplifting and challenging time at the theater this summer. It will likewise have to work hard to find as much joy. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? tells us that life is good, that we are good, and that Mister Rogers’ message of kindness and love is more timely than ever.

I could not agree more and I cannot wait to see the movie again.

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? receives FIVE CARDIGAN SWEATERS out of a possible FIVE

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Jurassic World | Fallen Kingdom – A Movie Review


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jurassic world official

It was amazing. It was revolutionary. It was genuinely thrilling. It was thought provoking. It was nuanced.

It was released 25 years ago.

My affection for and anticipation of movies with “Jurassic” in their titles owes everything to Stephen Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park. It is still a masterful work of art and hues most closely to the message and moral compass Michael Crichton, the author of the original novel, had in mind. Of the resultant sequels, Spielberg can only be held responsible for The Lost World: Jurassic Park. And I liked that one. No, while he has produced the other movies, they are not really his fault.

The fact that they are still being made (and the third in the Jurassic World trilogy will likely be coming soon to a theater near you judging on box office) is the fault of people like me. If I am honest with myself (and I do try to be), I will see the next movie, too. I will resist. I will say I am not going to see it. I will encounter the trailer. I will hear the latest re-arrangement of the classic John Williams theme. I will buy a ticket.

A friend of mine saw the trailer for this latest Jurassic and said “that looks like a movie I really would have liked as a ten-year-old.” As it turns out, that is an almost perfect review.

Jurassic World | Fallen Kingdom plays like some pre-pubescent’s fever dream mash-up of GI Joes and dinosaur toys if the dinosaur toys can be broken apart and spliced together in increasingly ridiculous combinations. It is a collection of homages to earlier films in the series (none of which actually pay off), an adventure movie where very little adventurous happens (unless you count increasing gory human deaths) and a “what if” scenario taken to absurd conclusions  (no, sorry, the conclusion will be forthcoming in Jurassic World | Final Cash Grab). I rushed to see the movie this weekend because I truly despise spoilers and I had read that there was a spoiler at the end of the film. There was one. It was not worth the price of admission. I had heard the movie sets up a wild and crazy sequel… to that I say “damn you all to hell” or something like that.

The movie does manage to do something we have not seen on screen lately: it manages to make lovable lead Chris Pratt boring. His Owen Grady had a shine of charisma in the first installment (or, perhaps, I was just picturing Star Lord running from raptors, another concept they will probably try to wrestle into the next movie) which is absolutely lacking in this one. And Bryce Dallas Howard, as Claire Dearing, undergoes a radical change of character between the films which is unexplained and unsupported. But at least the movie makes a point of the fact that she is wearing sensible, running around footwear this time out. Thanks for that. The rest of the characters, including a bland stereotype of a villain and a retroactively added character with links to the first movie, make little to no impression. Even the token child-in-danger (upon whom major plot points rest) is unengaging.

The filmmakers know we have seen this all before, so they try to up the ante. At almost every point, they fail. The dinos do not take ones’ breath away, the characters barely rise above cardboard cut-outs, the action is repetitive to the point of tedium, the stars are stripped of charm. Yes, there will be a third film and, God help me, I will go see it.

But all hope of succeeding the original is gone. Like the cloned and spliced dinosaur breeds in this movie, the franchise yields less bang for more bucks.

That is a shame because there used to be thrills here.

JURASSIC WORLD | FALLEN KINGDOM receives TWO AND A HALF MASSIVE PLOT HOLES out of a possible FIVE.

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Incredibles 2 – A Movie Review


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incredibles 2

14 years. It has been 14 years since Incredibles hit the screen. 14 years is a long time. In the memory of movie going audiences, that time span can dull the sense of anticipation and leave people wondering, did we need this sequel at all? Was anyone asking for this?

As it turns out, we did need Incredibles 2 and, of course, almost everyone was asking for it. Frankly, audiences had been demanding it, so much so that the movie begins with something of an apology for taking so long to hit theaters… well done Pixar/Disney.

Therefore, Incredibles 2 had a lot of expectations, a lot riding on it, a lot to live up to. And it succeeds on almost every level.

Picking up almost precisely where Incredibles left off, Incredibles 2 spins the somewhat obvious story of the so-called “Supers'” (what super powered beings are called in the Incredibles universe) quest to reestablish their legitimacy in the world – a world that is not at all convinced it needs Supers to save it. Supers have done a lot of damage in the past (and present), have inspired complacency in those they save and have been forced underground, much to the chagrin of Mr. Incredible and his pal Frozone. While much of this ground was covered in the first film, Incredibles 2 makes the case – again – that the world needs Supers.

A mega-rich, mega-powerful brother and sister duo set out to bring the Supers back into the spotlight and to re-legitimize them. In doing so, they select Elastigirl (played most delightfully by a game Holly Hunter) as the poster child of the effort. Research has shown that she was among the most successful Supers considering a number of metrics including bringing the bad guys with little to no property damage. This is a great call by writer/director Brad Bird as the resultant situation created between Elastigirl and Mr. Incredible generates the perfect amount of narrative tension for the film.

Mr. Incredible (voiced by an energetic Craig T. Nelson) in his civilian identity of Bob Parr is left to play Mr. Mom as his wife, Elastigirl (Helen Parr), begins the quest to bring Supers back into the spotlight. Both story lines are enjoyable, though Mr. Incredible’s antics allow the audience to spend time with the two best characters in the film: Incredible son Jack (whose manifesting powers are something to behold) and a feisty raccoon. I would pay to see 90 more minutes of Jack Jack vs. that raccoon. And I would pay to see more of Violet (author Sarah Vowell is an angsty riot) and Dash (Huckleberry Milner) as well. Violet gets a nicely realized coming-of-age story line in the movie and, if Dash is given a bit short shrift, that is okay. He gets his moments, too.

The movie makes a simple but important comment on gender roles as Elastigirl becomes the de facto bread winner while Mr. Incredible has to determine how to run the domestic side of their lives. Neither has it easy and, as one might predict, neither is as successful alone as they might be together.

That message is, in fact, the heart of the movie. The Parr family – the Incredibles – are much more successful together than they are apart. This super powered five-some functions as a unit, if not always a well oiled one, and this dynamic drives the film so much so that one character towards the end of the proceedings notes “you’re a really close family, aren’t you?”.

So they are.

While Incredibles 2 may not soar to the heights of the original film (and, though I understand that this is a kids’ movie, did the denouement have to be so obvious?), it has an exuberance, a joy and a hopefulness that is welcome. We could do worse in 2018 than go to the movies to enjoy the adventures of a family that loves and cares about one another. We could do much worse. Something tells me we will not have to wait until 2032 for Incredibles 3.

p.s. – Disney seems poised to acquire assets from 20th Century Fox which includes rights to the Fantastic FourIncredibles and Incredibles 2 are the BEST Fantastic Four movies ever. When Marvel, inevitably, goes back to the FF well, it should look to these movies as a template. 

INCREDIBLES 2 receives FOUR ANGRY RACCOONS out of a possible FIVE.

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Tag – A Movie Review


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tag

 

Stick with me if you will. In 1989 Tom Hanks was on the brink of superstardom and was cast in a movie called The ‘Burbs about a working class dude who spends a week’s vacation at his home in the suburbs. Funny premise, right? Tom Hanks in the suburbs, a Mr. Mom type story – it should be a blast based on premise alone.

But The ‘Burbs blew up the premise, added a murder mystery and became one of the least beloved movies of Tom Hanks’ career.

What does this have to do with Tag?

The premise of Tag is incredibly engaging: a group of friends in their 40s, who have been playing a game of Tag since they were in middle school, converge on the wedding of one of the players to tag him. As it turns out, the groom has never been “it.” The movie sets out to chronicle the efforts of the four who have been “it” over-and-over to get him and saddle him with the “it” label for a full year. The rules of the game state that it can only be played in May and the friends converge on the wedding – a May wedding, of course.

That is a solid idea for a movie and Tag would, likely, have been plenty entertaining if it had stayed in those lanes. But, much like The ‘Burbs, the movie does not trust the premise and, in scene-after-scene, strains the audience’s credulity with an increasing cavalcade of impossible events and sequences: windows (including some stained glass ones) are shattered, characters are struck with trees and fire extinguishers and more, accomplices are engaged on a massive scale, and slow-motion, right out of Sherlock Holmes (complete with knowing narration) action pieces are staged. Your enjoyment mileage on each of these elements may vary, but it cannot be denied that these moments pull an “inspired by a true story” premise so far from reality that that world in which Tag takes has laws of both logic and physics with which the audience is not familiar.

That being said, the movie boasts a remarkably likable cast: Ed Helms, Jeremy Renner, Hannibal Burris, Jake Johnson and John Hamm are the five friends who have played a nationwide tag game for 30 years. Helms is a wonderful actor who seems to get better in each role. John Hamm’s comedic gifts are underrated and Jake Johnson and Hannibal Burris both have moments in which they shine. Their comradeship is believable as is their concern for one another. A lesser cast would really hinder the film. Rasihda Jones,  Isla Fisher and Annabelle Wallis are excellent as well as a former flame of two of the players, Helm’s wife and a Wall Street Journal reporter respectively (however, another hurdle the movie might have wanted to take on was the lack of a central, female character).

Wall Street Journal reporter, you ask? Yes. As it turns out, the movie is based on a real WSJ article about a game of tag played between nine graduates of Gonzaga Preparatory High School in Spokane, WA. Stay around for the closing credits to see video footage of their real tag antics and for a very amusing closing song.

Tag is fairly entertaining, mildly diverting and manages to capture some spark of how friends both struggle and succeed in remaining close over life changes, great distances and the passage of years. First time director Jeff Tomsic does good if unremarkable work, and the script offers enough laughs to keep the audience engaged. Though I would have liked a movie a bit more grounded in the actual events of the Tag players (and I note this movie is “inspired by” true events, not “based on” them), I was engaged more than I wasn not. While some of the over-the-top action sequences are amusing, it is the cast that makes the movie.

TAG receives THREE YOU’RE ITS out of a possible FIVE.

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Ocean’s 8 – A Movie Review


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Oceans

Ocean’s 8 owes much of its success (and it succeeds on almost every level) to the quality cast writer/director Gary Ross has assembled. If you plan to make an “Ocean’s” movie, you better reach for the coolest cats you can find and Ross scores with every choice. Led by a delightful Sandra Bullock (as George Clooney’s Danny Ocean’s sister Debbie), these 8 shine in a way that even the original 11 did not.

Bullock is spot on. Cool, collected, funny and fascinating, her Debbie Ocean is engaging from her first moment on screen as she talks a parole board into letting her out of prison (sound familiar?). From that moment on, Bullock’s Debbie sets out on executing a plan, assembling a team and pulling the con. And she is every bit as smooth as Clooney was in doing it. Cate Blanchette is Lou, Debbie’s old partner. Lou is every bit Debbie’s equal and the chemistry between the two actors is terrific and fun to watch. Blanchette is such a good actor, there seems to be no role she cannot play and she is in fine form here.

While Ocean’s 8 is at its best when one of its two leads in on screen, the rest of the team are not slouches. Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, Anne Hathaway, Sarah Paulson and Awkwafina each create distinct characters whose arcs may be flat but who are integral to the enjoyment of the movie. The standout is Rihanna as 9-Ball. Smart, sharp and hilarious, 9-Ball is the heart of the team and of the film. Rihanna plays her as resourceful, above-the-fray and unflappable. Smarter, perhaps, than either Lou or Debbie, 9-Ball seems as amused by the goings on of the plan as the audience is.

And the audience ought to be amused. The movie aims for the kind of laughs that only clever writing and nuanced performances yield. It had a lot to live up to especially as it does not shy away from references to the prior Ocean’s trilogy and it does not shy away from the challenge it meets it. The intricacies of the plot do not equal the hijinks of Ocean’s 11, but it surpasses the machinations of 12 and 13. When the cascading reveals are… revealed, the audience may see one or two of them coming, but will still be smiling as they unfold. This is a smart movie, solidly written, wonderfully acted and very entertaining.

And it features a leading cast of women.

That is a very good thing and, if one can draw any moral from a movie that is pitched to entertain, it might be that one of the keys to plan, mentioned in a line of dialogue that is almost thrown away, is that the team must be comprised of women. The audience can reflect on the reason given by Debbie at its leisure, but a point is absolutely being made here.

I cannot explain why Ocean’s 8 did not generate the negative reactions or vitriol that the similarly re-constituted Ghostbusters reboot did. Perhaps Ocean’s 8 is a better movie (it is). Perhaps the property is not as beloved (it is not). Perhaps it is simply better than the Ghostbusters film (it absolutely is). It is good that ugliness did not surround this release, for whatever reason.

Ocean’s 8 is not only a wonderful addition to the series, it is a great movie on its own. In actuality, all of the ties to the Clooney movies could be jettisoned and the film would, with few alterations, stand on its own. It is good enough (and it is situated 3 movies away from the first Clooney film) to inspire a sequel and I hope that it does. I would be very happy to spend a few more hours with Debbie’s team. I suspect most audiences would be, too.

OCEAN’S 8 receives FOUR YEARS (PLUS TIME SERVED) out of a possible FIVE.

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