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Teen Titans Go! to the Movies – A Movie Review


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TeenLooking for some brilliant silliness? Looking for a laugh-out-loud time at the movies? Looking for a self-aware, self-conscious, self-skewering narrative? If the answer to any of the above questions is “yes,” Teen Titans Go! to the Movies is for you. Based on Teen Titans Go! which is, itself, based on a classic DC comic book, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies takes the barest of plots (Robin believes himself the only superhero who has not had a movie adaptation of his adventures and sets out to get one) and manages to fill 75 minutes with some truly inventive and involving, hilarious scenes.

For Robin to get a film, his friends (Beast Boy, Cyborg, Raven and Starfire) help him with two plots. The first, and most uproarious, is eminently logical: if there were no other superheroes, the powers that be in Hollywood would have to make a movie about Robin. If he is the only show in town, what choice would they have? Thus ensues a devilish skewering of the origins of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and others (the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?). This may well have been the high point of the movie and it is so very good that it warrants a second viewing.

The second idea the Titans posit is that, if Robin had an archenemy, then he would be A-list enough to inspire a film. To that end, the Titans try to make an enemy out of Deathstroke the Terminator – a name not particularly kid friendly. It is changed to Slade in the television show (as Deathstroke’s civilian name is Slade Wilson) and the movie follows suit. One of the best running gags of the film is that the Titans consistently mistake Slade for Deadpool. Since Deadpool was most likely based on Deathstroke (you can read about that here if you choose… it is a pretty twisty story), this joke is all the more fun.

Teen Titans Go! to the Movies is fun overall. There are terrific voice performances (including Nicholas Cage as Superman and, if you do not get the significance of that one, here is another piece for you to enjoy) and the movie goes down incredibly easily. There is much for adults to marvel at (pun intended) while the kids laugh at fart jokes and, frankly, the fart jokes themselves are highly entertaining, too.

Teen Titans Go! to the Movies was one of my favorite movies of the late summer. Go see it. Sit back, relax and let the silliness and meta-humor wash over you. You will be glad you did.

Boo-yah! Bravo, Warner Animation!

TEEN TITANS GO! TO THE MOVIES receives FIVE WAFFLES out of a possible FIVE

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Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again – A Movie Review


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mamma Mia

If you are a connoisseur of fine films, you may wish to take a pass on this one. But, if you liked the first film and enjoy outlandish musicals, take a chance on

You get it.

I had a great time. Seriously. I had a great time at Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again That does not, however, mean it is a great movie. It is not. In fact, it is, likely, a bad movie held together by the thinnest of plots and propped up by the audience’s affection for the first film and for the returning cast.

And that is fine. Not every comedy has to be Tropic Thunder. Not every movie musical can be La La LandMamma Mia: Here We Go Again! knows precisely what it is and it has no pretensions to be anything else. It is completely self-aware  and in on all its own jokes and conceits. It does not pretend to be anything other than what it is.

That is very refreshing.

Who is the audience for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again? Anyone who saw the first film and knows the “story” of Donna and her daughter Sophie and of the trials and tribulations that face them on the occasion of Sophie’s wedding. The antics of the first Mamma Mia! were set to the Abba catalog and the movie itself is a full fledged musical, based on the Broadway hit of the same name. Needless to say, the film is a direct adaptation of that play and this sequel is a direct adaptation of… nothing. It is all original, featuring the characters and situations from the first movie. And it is set to the what is left of the hits in the Abba catalog – those that were not used in the first film.

This is the first issue with Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. It turns out that Abba has great hits, yes, but most were used in the first movie. The hits here play more like B-Sides and leave you wanting the As. When the audience gets those, the music really rocks. But, sadly, the high points for the musical numbers in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again do not hit as high as they did in the first film.

In this movie, we are treated to the flashback narrative of Donna and the fleshing out of the story of how she came to be with child and how she was not precisely sure of the identity of the father of the baby. Though the movie (distractingly for those of us who re-watched the original in preparation for this film) breaks with some of the narrative established in the first film, the flashbacks are gamely staged and Lily James, as the young Donna (a role originated by Meryl Streep) is utterly charming and delightful as the founder of Donna and the Dynamos. She gives herself over completely to the overt goofiness of the character and the proceedings and outshines all of her flashback co-stars by, conservatively, about 1000 watts. It is not that they are bad, but James is simply so much better. She is a rising star and is wonderful here. She has a lovely voice.  Side-note: Jessica Kennan Wynn as a young Tanya (Christine Baranski’s character) is far-and-away the most spot-on doppelganger.

In the present, the entire cast returns for more, yes, I will say it, fun. They are just as conscious of the ridiculousness of the proceedings as the filmmakers are and they are just as committed to it. Pierce Brosnan gets the most screen time with Amanda Seyfried’s Sophie and the two are very good together. Seyfried has a lovely voice and, mercifully, Brosnan has less to sing than the first time around. Both Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard come aboard in Act Three as, for reasons that only work in a movie like this, does Cher as Donna’s mother, pronounced dead in the first movie… c’mon, folks. Andy Garcia rounds out the group and he, too, knows his place. He is surprisingly funny and seems (seems?) to have a good voice.

If one can ignore the plot holes, forget that the best music was spent in part one and embrace the silliness, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is a fun time at the movies.

But even I do not need to see Mamma Mia 3.

MAMMA MIA: HERE WE GO AGAIN! receives TWO AND A HALF DYNAMOS out of a possible FIVE

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Mission: Impossible | Fallout – A Movie Review


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mission impossible falloutMission: Impossible | Fallout is a breathlessly-paced, loud, overwhelming, brash, brave, fun and intelligent movie that is a perfect, popcorn, summer entertainment and will, likely, be an enduring example of the zenith of the action movie genre. At some point, a discussion of whether the Mission: Impossible movies do this type of thing better than the James Bond movies will be required.

Perhaps we have reached that point.

Not only is Mission: Impossible | Fallout crackling with energy derived from increasingly amazing set pieces (more on those below), it is also engaging and charming, funny and poignant with a final problem that makes the heart race both from an extended action sequence and from character drama created by writer/director Christopher McQuarrie’s taut and compelling script. This installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise is the most sequel-like, with action and characters picking up very close to where the excellent Mission: Impossible | Rogue Nation left off, and McQuarrie wastes little time in set up. Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and his team must contend with simultaneous threats from missing balls of plutonium, a former foe who is shockingly back on the loose and a new group of antagonists calling themselves The Apostles. They must do this while saddled with a CIA watchdog in the form of wry and imposing Henry Cavill’s August Walker. Cavill is terrific in the movie.

McQuarrie’s script is top-notch, boasting a plethora of twists and turns along with featured moments for each of the main characters and just the right smattering of humor to balance the proceedings. And it also provides some stunning action sequences.

Much has been written of Tom Cruise doing his own stunt work in the movie but, truly, seeing is believing. In an age when computer generated images has made it so we cannot trust our eyes and almost anything seems possible on screen, there is something deeply authentic and utterly gonzo about Mission: Impossible | Fallout’s set pieces. Cruise seems to throw caution and concerns of his own well-being to the wind here (he famously broke his ankle filling one of the stunts for this movie) and the audience is the beneficiary of this part of his seeming insanity. Mission: Impossible | Fallout sets the bar so high for future installments (and for any other like-minded movies) that it hard to believe it will be easily cleared. From halo jumps to helicopter battles to the most compelling car chases put on screen in quite a while, action movies your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to contend with a new standard.

Good luck.

Cruise is both breezy and weighty as Ethan Hunt, a role he has now assayed for over twenty years. In recent films in the series, he and the writers have discovered that a more human and flawed Ethan is a better version than an almost cold, Jason Bourne-like superhuman he might have developed into and the movies are better for that choice. Cruise does crazy stunt work, for sure, but he also brings much to the portrayal that is not about risking life and limb. Returning teammates Ving Rames (the only actor outside of Cruise to be in all six Mission: Impossible movies), Simon Pegg (a delight) and Rebecca Ferguson (a welcome addition) are engaging and more than 2-dimensional set dressing. Alec Baldwin and Angela Bassett (along with the aforementioned Henry Cavill) are also excellent and lend gravitas to the movie. Sean Harris is the only villain to return in a Mission: Impossible movie, likely because he is the only one to have survived his installment, and he is more than a match for the I:M team.

Mission: Impossible | Fallout does everything an audience would want it to do, and more. The “more” might be the only problem with the movie. The brilliant action sequences might try the patience of some audience members, up-to-and-including the final one which plays out in increasingly amazing though, possibly too draining ways. Mission: Impossible | Fallout is a long film. A stronger editor’s scissor may have improved it.

But this is a minor quibble. Mission: Impossible | Fallout is the gold standard of action films for the summer of 2018 and, quite likely, beyond.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE | FALLOUT receives FOUR AND A HALF HELICOPTER CRASHES out of a possible FIVE

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Equalizer 2 – A Movie Review


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equalizer 2The first installment of this Equalizer franchise was a far better movie that most might have thought. Inventive and surprisingly heartfelt with the star power of Denzel Washington, The Equalizer was one part Punisher, one part McGyver and one part action opus. So what is the second chapter missing that the first one has?

Not much, as it turns out.

Denzel Washington, brilliant and ageless as ever, is utterly engaging as Robert McCall, an ex-CIA agent who has, before the first movie opened, had left that life behind by faking his death. Living a quiet life was not in the cards for McCall, so began to address – violently – wrongs that came across his path.

Spoiler alert: if you are a bad guy, do not cross McCall’s path.

Following a James Bond-like, gripping opening sequence (and how, since Washington is American, how about a Felix Lighter spin off starring him?), The Equalizer II finds McCall driving for Lyft, mentoring a neighborhood tough and equalizing in his spare time. He seems calm. He seems relaxed. He seems at peace. He has made friends or, at least, he has sustained acquaintances and he has settled into a routine which, for his character (who Washington subtly and never exploitatively plays with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) is a very good thing.

The harmony will not last and McCall is pulled back into the government life he left. He does not want this, but, when the challenge comes, he meets it with steely intensity.

The movie is surprisingly slow paced and introspective for a film of this type and that suits Washington fine. His McCall is a philosophical man with a firm sense of what tips the scales of justice. He follows a code and it is a compelling one. Washington is so good in the part and so effortlessly embodies McCall, imbuing him with dignity of purpose  that, before the final credits rolled, I was rooting for part three of this planned trilogy.

On an interesting side note, this movie is the only sequel in which Denzel Washington has ever appeared. In today’s Hollywood, that is something of a shock.

The only drawback of the film is that Washington is so strong, so good and so magnetic that everyone else on screen (including the talented Melissa Leo who – no spoiler if you have seen the trailer here – is dispensed with rather quickly and Pablo Pascal who takes a two-dimensional role and does some fine things with it) suffers by comparison. They seem disposable whereas Washington is indispensable. In at least one way, that is fine as the television show on which the movie is based handled ancillary characters in just the same way and Washington is simply so good that one hardly notices anyone else anyway.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua, The Equalizer II does not play out in the manner in which the trailers suggested. They hype the action and the violence and, while there is some (Fuqua is well established as a director who knows how to handle these sorts of films), there is much, much more here. In some ways, and it is strange to say this, The Equalizer II is almost meditative in its approach to McCall’s story. That was a refreshing take on a genre that can be overly loud, overly violent and overly crass.

The Equalizer II is none of these things. What it is is a solid film with a taut character arc at its heart.

EQUALIZER 2 receives THREE AND A HALF STOP WATCHES out of a possible FIVE

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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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