reviews

Over the last decade, the Portland, Oregon-based Laika Studios has not only revived old-school stop-motion animation, albeit with a CG gloss as needed, it’s produced a series of startlingly high-quality films, starting with Coraline and continuing with ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, Kubo & the Two Strings, and now their latest triumph, writer-director Chris Butler’s Missing Link, a Victorian-era set fantasy-adventure that gives Laika a perfect five-for-five record. Each film has stretched and expanded the limits of labor- and time-intensive stop-motion animation while also pushing the boundaries of family-oriented storytelling. Each film mixed humor, drama, characters, and, of course, stop-motion animation into a unique whole unlike anything in cinemas over the last decade. (more…)

The road to Game of Thrones Season 8 has been hard on viewers.  Taking an emotional – and to some a physical – toll. Death, despair, a cyclone of political machinations, copious amounts of violence…oh and did we mention death? Lots and lots of death! Seeing beloved characters find their demise while villainous vultures continue to find victory (*cough* Cersei *cough*) , has almost been too much to bear. One would teeter on being a real masochist to have held on for this long. But that’s GoT for you, a show that defies convention. There is nothing quite like it and there may never be again. And here we are, the beginning of the end for one of the biggest, most ambitious, ground-breaking entertainment franchises ever.

After 7 seasons of war and individual hardships, the sprawling story has dwindled itself down to but a handful of characters. The fight for the (Iron) Throne remains, but so does the threat of the Night King and the horde of white walkers. Unless differences are put aside and lasting alliances forged, the fate of Westeros hangs in the balance.

Below is a SPOILER FREE take on the premier episode. Alludes, implies, and discusses, but never spoils.

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Hellboy: The Reboot proves what so many fans of Mike Mignola’s long-running comic-book series or Guillermo del Toro’s unfinished trilogy suspected and/or feared: Just because you can reboot a series, doesn’t mean you should. Just because del Toro, a master filmmaker with a singular vision, isn’t available any more doesn’t mean you replace him with Neil Marshall (Centurion, Doomsday, Descent, Dog Soldiers), a competent, journeyman director who can’t deliver anything except a bland, colorless retread of a justly loved, if truncated, two-film series. Just because you can start all over again doesn’t mean you can or should revisit the title character’s origin story, via flashback or not. Killing Nazis is fine, of course, but killing Nazis while reminding everyone sitting in a darkened movie theater of del Toro’s far superior take on the same material isn’t. And just because you promise fans that you’ll deliver a hard R-rated film doesn’t mean you should go all out on the gratuitous blood and gore – and even if you do, for the love of all things unholy, stay away from blood and gore of the CGI kind. (more…)

Let’s start off by saying that, by far, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is my favorite teen drama I’ve watched in a very long time. While it definitely leans into its younger demographic, it still tells an engaging story with interesting characters in a unique setting. For a TV show, the teens are much more teen-like than most teen drama types, actually worrying about classes and making clubs and thinking of teen solutions to teen problems (most of the time). They aren’t adults acting like college kids while we’re pretending it’s high school. They’re adults acting as high school students who act like frustrated teens. It’s honestly impressive, in the world of absurd Riverdale, Pretty Little Liars, and the like.

Now to the problematic shit. (SPOILERS galore, so be warned).

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Not every blockbuster or franchise starter/wannabe can – or should – be seen through a superhero prism, but Dumbo, Tim Burton’s (Ed Wood, Mars Attacks, Edward Scissorhands) misguided remake of the 1941 Disney animated classic, certainly can be. The superhero in question can’t speak or even control his own destiny (for that, he depends on the kindness of strangers), but he can communicate except through overlarge, blue eyes, giant, floppy ears, and expressive body language. And like every superhero, he has a tragic backstory (forcible separation from his mother) that unfolds in reel time, and a unique superpower (flight) that once used purely for good and not entertainment, will help free them both from the chains of captivity. He’s also an outcast, a pariah among his own kind, the deliberate subject of ridicule, humiliation, and shame. In short, the all-CGI title character is a misfit-outsider after Burton’s own, not-yet-curdled, middle-aged heart.

Unfortunately for Burton and his audience (i.e., us), doubling the original’s thankfully brief 64-minute running time effectively means opening up Dumbo, shifting the focus from Dumbo and his plight to a circus family also beset by tragedy (the symmetrical loss of a mother and a visibly wounded war veteran) and the larger circus itself, beset less by tragedy than a sputtering post-war economy that has little room or space for their kind of old-school entertainment. Not that there’s anything wrong per se in the non-Dumbo circus characters, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), the aforementioned war veteran, a one-time trick horseman and circus mainstay pre-war injury, or his two children, Milly (Nico Parker), a wannabe scientist in early 20th-century America, and her younger brother, Joe (Finley Hobbins). They make for an endearing, if remarkably well scrubbed, trio. It’s just that their individual and collective story often distracts from Dumbo’s journey from sideshow outcast to world-class entertainer and beyond. (Props for Dumbo’s surprising, surprisingly welcome pro-conservation, anti-animals-in-circuses-or-zoos message.)

And when Dumbo isn’t focused on the Farriers and their intra-personal jousts, conflicts, and reconciliations, it’s focused on the circus proper, specifically owner-ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito), a kind-hearted, well-meaning impresario who treats circus workers less as employees than an extended family. Burton and his screenwriter, Ehren Kruger, use broad strokes to introduce the circus performers, most of whom leave little if any mark. To Burton, however, the circus represents a near-socialist utopia of equals or near-equals, with only one or two mean-spirited workers who represent both the worst humanity has to offer (i.e., cruelty to animals) and function as a plot device (one callously instigates the incident that separates Dumbo from his mother, Jumbo). The real villain, V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a Trump-like venal, morally and ethically bankrupt showman, doesn’t appear until the bloated, overlong, and over-indulgent second half. He’s as bland, dull, and uninteresting a villain as any found in Disney’s animation library.

Once Dumbo switches from the shabby, worn-out environs of the picture-book circus to Vandevere’s static amusement/theme park, Dreamland, Dumbo practically stalls out. Besides Vandevere and his machinations to permanently separate Dumbo from the circus, Dumbo introduces another characters, Colette Marchant (Eva Green), an aerialist who proves crucial to the evolution of Dumbo’s high-flying act and – no surprise here – a potential surrogate mother and significant other to the Farrier children and their wounded father, respectively. She has a semi-tragic history too (because of course, everyone who’s not a villain in Dumbo does). In exchange for a career and financial stability, Colette has handed over control of her life to Vandevere. A minor-league, bald henchman, Neils Skellig (Joseph Gatt), in thrall to Vandevere for no discernible reason other than the usual villain’s need for gofers and day-to-day evildoing, and J. Griffin Remington (Alan Arkin), a crotchety, curmudgeonly banker who holds the financial keys to Vandevere’s future, round out the non-circus performers.

As a director, Burton’s recent career has floundered more than it has soared (to deliberately mix metaphors). His attempt to start an X-Men-inspired franchise in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children failed to generate much interest from audiences while his attempt at spectacle-free drama, Big Eyes, came and went with little fanfare despite another winning turn from Amy Adams. And while his biggest successes over the last twenty years, Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, generously filled  the coffers of their respective producers/studios, they did little to discourage the argument that Burton’s best days as a filmmaker with something to say, with the equivalent of a vision beyond CGI-driven, heavily production designed filmmaking, were and will remain behind him. With the occasional moment or scene in Dumbo, all but one or two tied to the Dumbo character and his plight (Burton spends close to half of Dumbo’s running time in close-ups of Dumbo’s large, expressive eyes), he does little to convince naysayers that they’re wrong.

Moments after crimson-red clad doppelgangers invade an upper-middle-class home in Us, writer-director Jordan Peele’s fbrilliantly provocative follow-up to the Oscar-winning black comedy/social satire Get Out, they win a brief, futile struggle for control, taking a terrified nuclear family of four hostage. One of the children, frightened, shocked, and disoriented, flatly states, “They’re us.” Part of the genius of Peele’s follow-up to Get Out lies in that single word, in the doppelgangers, led by Red (Lupita Nyong’o), both looking exactly like their upper-middle-class counterparts, but sounding and acting nothing like them. They might share the same faces and forms, but there the resemblance ends. Their life experiences, material comfort, emotional support, and sunlight for Adelaide Wilson (Nyong’o) and her family, material deprivation, emotional absence, and the cold, unblinking lights of a literal subterranean existence for Red and her makeshift family, raise multiple specters in American cultural, political, and social life starkly defined by vast income inequality, white supremacy/racism, and a hollowed-out American Dream.

Before, however, we get to that pivotal home-invasion scene, Peele, an exceptionally gifted filmmaker with an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture (especially horror, including Funny Games, The Strangers, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers) deliberately seeds Us with a steady stream of clues as to the underlying meaning – or more accurately, multiple, maybe even contradictory meanings – of his second feature-length film. An old-school, cathode-ray TV plays out a long-forgotten, feel-good, ultimately empty publicity stunt, “Hands Across America,” while nearby, a VHS copy of C.H.U.D., a mid-‘80s, low-budget horror shocker thematically tuned to Us’ socio-political commentary. A young girl, Adelaide (Madison Curry) pays little attention to the TV as her parents prepare for an evening at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. There, her father’s negligence, combined with her natural curiosity, leads her to a funhouse/hall of mirrors that proclaims visitors can “Find yourself.” Adelaide does, both literally and figuratively when she comes face-to-face with her silent double. When Adelaide returns – or rather found – she’s been so heavily traumatized that she can barely speak or interact with anyone.

That childhood trauma carries over into the adult Adelaide. Wary of returning to Santa Cruz or the boardwalk, she reluctantly agrees, in large part to go along to get along with her genial, even-tempered husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), her tween daughter, Zora Wilson (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and her introspective, preteen son, Jason (Evan Alex). But where she sees signs and portents of her past fears and anxieties, her family blissfully sees nothing. When Jason disappears, wandering, like his mother more than thirty years earlier, away from his family and towards the funhouse, Adelaide panics. But again and again, she allows her family and the safety and security that her family represents, to calm her mind and ease her fears, an error Adelaide and her family pay for repeatedly when Red and her clan of grunting, animalistic proto-killers make their expected appearance.

Peele lingers on the small, everyday details of Adelaide and her family’s life, sketching out their divergent personalities in necessarily broad strokes, but also avoiding turning them into stereotypes or caricatures before Red and her clan invades their home. Post-home invasion, Adelaide and her family split and reform (they’re always stronger together), letting moviegoers see and how they’ll react to the life-or-death situations embodied by Red and her clan. For Adelaide, it’s her own personal apocalypse, but Peele, a bold, audacious, and ambitious filmmaker, isn’t content with spinning out another variation of the home-invasion thriller, with or without subtext. He’s just as willing to take a bigger, broader view, both expanding Adelaide and her family’s experience and the film’s objectives as well. The red crimson overalls Red and her clan wear are intentional, not institutional. They represent more than uniformity or conformity. They represent the blood they expect to shed, but also to subconsciously associate Red and her clan with rebellion and revolt. When Red, speaking in a choked, hoarse whisper, says, “We’re Americans,” she’s not wrong. What she fails to add is that Red and her clan represents the forgotten, the invisible, and the repressed (their revolt represents “the return of the repressed”).

There’s more too, of course. More story, more thematic material, more subtext, though early on Peele, a keen observer and commentator on the African-American experience, hints at the doppelgangers representing something else, the “imposter syndrome” many people of color experience when they, like Adelaide and her family, either escape the economic deprivation of their respective biological families, embracing the privilege that comes with middle-class and upper-middle-class status: They feel like the lives they live, the lives they’ve earned, aren’t really theirs. They belong to someone else, someone better, someone who deserves all of the objects and signifiers of material and social success. A key, second half plot turn, however, suggests that Peele might have something else entirely in mind – or something in addition to the “imposter syndrome” idea – for Us and it falls along the nature-nurture divide.

It’s obvious from their second encounter as adults that Red and Adelaide if body switched, would each lead the other’s life or an approximation. Biology isn’t destiny, but environment can be. Peele also suggests, however, that environments and the circumstances they represent, can be broken and shattered, but only through violent means, violent revolt. That we initially, subsequently, and repeatedly root for Adelaide and her family to escape Red’s clutches alive says something about narrative form and our implicit biases. We’ll root for the characters a story tells us to root for, the higher the class, the better the social standing and we won’t think twice about who to root for and how hard we root for them. By the end of Us, as the smoke clears on what, at best, can be seen as a partial victory, Peele wants moviegoers to closely question our loyalties and our allegiances. We just might not like the answers.

On the surface, Captain Marvel, the 21st entry in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the first female-led superhero film, and the first MCU film to be directed or co-directed by a woman, seemed to have it all: A newly burnished Oscar winner, Brie Larson, in the title role, a literal tale of superpowered empowerment, a co-lead role for Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, the onetime, future director of S.H.I.EL.D., well-respected co-writing, co-directing indie auteurs, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck ((Mississippi Grind, Sugar, Half-Nelson), and a hyped connection – and a key, maybe universe-changing role –for the title character to the MCU redefining, Phase 3-ending Avengers: Endgame in just two short months.Showbox app But unfortunately what Captain Marvel doesn’t have is a central character worthy of the title “Marvel,” the obvious fault of a screenplay-by-committee and the heavy hand of uber-producer/Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige.

Captain Marvel’s (Larson) journey – because every superhero origin story gets a personal, character-revealing one – begins with the title character, currently known as “Vers,” awakening on the Kree homeworld, Hala, after a confusing jumble of images, a sign or rather signs of things to come for Carol Danvers, a onetime Air Force pilot mysteriously turned Kree warrior, fighting the supposedly good fight, protecting the Kree homeworld and Kree’s militaristic, authoritarian civilization, from the presumably evil Skrulls, green-skinned, pointy-eared, and scrotal-chinned shapeshifters who’ve waged a millennia-long war against the Kree (and vice versa). Part of the ultra-elite Starforce led by Danvers’ mentor/paternal figure, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), Vers and her team descend on a desolate, fog-shrouded planet to recover an undercover Kree agent. Almost immediately, the rescue mission goes sideways, leaving a captive Vers in the clutches of the Skrulls and their leader, Talos (Ben Mendelsohn).

Through a combination of logic-defying circumstances, Danvers’ frees herself from the Skrulls before promptly crash-landing on Earth in a Blockbuster Video store, the first sign of roughly 357 that Boden and Fleck will exploit Captain Marvel’s mid-‘90s setting for all of the cringe-inducing nostalgia they can cram into a two-hour prequel to Avengers: Endgame, including the grunge, pagers, and flannel, along with over-familiar ‘90s needle drops to underscore practically every action and non-action scene. Just as quickly, Danvers crosses paths with Fury (a de-aged Jackson, sporting a full head of hair and a complement of two, undamaged eyeballs) and all too briefly, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg, also de-aged, though far too smooth-faced to hold up under regular scrutiny). After Coulson gets literally left behind, Danvers, still believing herself a Kree warrior, allies herself with Fury to stop the Talos and his Skrulls from doing whatever evil Skrulls will do (i.e., steal tech, conquer the world and/or galaxy).

Sharing screenplay credit with Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Boden and Fleck (several other writers also receive story credit) settled on Danvers’ amnesia as plot device and story engine. The Vers we meet early on isn’t Captain Marvel’s true, authentic self, but an artificial, manufactured persona (manufactured by whom and for what reason spills into spoiler territory), the likely product of six years of gaslighting. Finding her true, best self involves more than training or fighting; it involves recovering her memories and reconnecting with her past, especially Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), her long-lost best friend and fellow Air Force pilot. The brief, table-setting scenes (literally in one instance) between Danvers and Rambeau give Captain Marvel much-needed emotional heft and depth, but they come in the second hour (i.e., far too late), as does a not unwelcome plot turn that connects the Skrulls and their fates – not to mention their depiction – in a different, more positive light, a light with contemporary political, social, and cultural relevance. The amnesia gimmick, a trite cliché by any definition, leaves Danvers – and by extension a game, but underserved Larson – with the equivalent of wheel spinning before yawn-inducing, ultra-predictable, third-act revelations eventually confirm what we’ve known for the better part of two hours.

While Boden and Fleck fail to dig beneath the surface of Danvers’ personality or psychology – she’s the sum total of what she did and does (pilot, warrior), a montage of men (always men) literally and figuratively knocking her down (a welcome feminist message it should be added), and her ability to emit energy blasts from her fists – they also fail in another, entirely predictable way: They make Captain Marvel far too powerful for the enemies she encounters in her self-titled film. By the time, she alters the colors of her suit from green, black, and silver, to red, blue, and gold, the revelation of a power-set meant to rouse moviegoers from their chairs instead feels perfunctory, an obligatory gesture needed to align Captain Marvel with her predecessors in the MCU. But it feels more like a set-up for Avengers: Endgame and a meeting between Captain Marvel and Thanos that will prove she’s his equal, if not his better. Until then, moviegoers will just have to reconcile themselves with a $150-million placeholder for Avengers: Endgame.

In probably the most famous, well-known speech of his short-lived occupancy of the White House, President John F. Kennedy promised to put a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s. He didn’t live to see Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin – with an able assist from command module pilot Michael Collins – walk on the moon. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, was also out of office, leaving Republican Richard M. Nixon to greet the astronauts when they safely returned to the Earth. And while the country, mired in a deeply unpopular war in Southeast Asia, the Civil Rights Movement and the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy the previous year for eight days, the Apollo 11 mission briefly united the United States. All of which has been well documented in books, TV, documentary, and feature-films (most recently, First Man), but director Todd Douglas Miller, working from hundreds of hours of unused, archived footage, sought to create the go-to, definitive, documentary testament to the Apollo 11 mission. Spoiler alert: Miller succeeds, sometimes spectacularly, in creating an immersive experience unlikely to be equaled in the near or distant future.  (more…)

Despite the occasional outlier (Byzantium), Neil Jordan, a one-time, A-list, world-class filmmaker with credits that include Mona Lisa, The Company of Wolves, The Crying Game, and Interview With A Vampire (among others), continues the long, inexorable slide towards irrelevancy with his latest feature-length film, Greta. Relying on a sub-par screenplay co-written with remake specialist Ray Wright (The Crazies, Case 39, and Pulse), clichéd genre elements grafted on fairy tale elements, and dueling performances from Chloë Grace Moretz (Suspiria, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, The Fifth Wave) and Isabelle Huppert (8 Women, The Piano Teacher, La Cérémonie), Jordan delivers the kind of a film that might get a passing grade from an ambitious, if talent- and resource-limited, first-time director trying to make a name for themselves, but a failing one for a director with more than four decades behind the camera. And that’s actually being extremely kind to a filmmaker who embraces genre clichés but refuses to also fully embrace the camp potential of those same genre clichés.  (more…)

Few filmmakers have crashed and burned – then resurrected themselves via a found-footage knock-off – like M. Night Shyamalan. After two lightly regarded, little remembered films (Praying With Anger, Wide Awake), Shyamalan wrote and directed The Sixth Sense. Shyamalan received Oscar nominations for Best Directing and Best Screenplay (he didn’t win), glowing magazine articles comparing him to Steven Spielberg, and the virtual blank check from Disney to make whatever he wanted next. That next film, Unbreakable, a semi-subversive, spandex-free, grounded take on superheroes and superhero mythology, underwhelmed commercially, but eventually became a cult hit with discerning critics and audiences. As Shyamalan moved on to the second biggest hit of his career, Signs, and a slow, but steady decline in audience interest and critical goodwill (The Village, Lady in the Water, and The Happening), an Unbreakable sequel didn’t seem like it’d ever happen, at least not in our lifetime.

The one-two combo of The Last Airbender and After Earth all-but-ended Shyamalan’s career as a big-budget filmmaker, but Jason Blum and Blumhouse Productions backed Shyamalan’s last (in all senses of the word) attempt at a career comeback, The Visit. Career resurrected, Shyamalan created a long-delayed backdoor sequel to Unbreakable with Split, a horror-thriller centered a killer with multiple personalities, including a super-powerful persona, the Beast, set in the same universe. Based on the evidence of Glass, the third film in an unlikely trilogy, Shyamalan should have stopped there. Calling Glass a “disappointment” would be a gross understatement. It’s that and so much worse. Glass is Shyamalan, once again letting his outsized ego, invulnerability to criticism, and disrespect for audience, get the better of him. It’s not the badly handled, repetitive exposition dumps. It’s not the stagnant, flaccid, turgid middle section that seemingly goes on forever. It’s not the cringe-inducing dialogue (a Shyamalan specialty at this point). It’s all that and another “twist” ending that treats his characters, especially David Dunn (Bruce Willis), Unbreakable’s hero-protagonist, with an incredible amount of contempt, all to service a “twist” ending straight out of Marvel Comics X-Men.

Glass doesn’t so much center on the title character, Elijah Price / Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), the superhero-obsessed, megalomaniacal mass murderer, than on Glass, Dunn, and Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), Split’s damaged, broke villain. When Dunn and his son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), track down Crumb and his 24 personalities, including the Beast, to an abandoned factory in one of Philadelphia’s disused industrial parks, a superhero-supervillain fight breaks out. But before Shyamalan can spend his modest budget on Marvel-styled fight, a state-sanctioned psychiatrist, and Philly’s SWAT-equipped finest, capture them. Staple ships Dunn and Crumb to the nearby Raven Home Memorial Hospital. Before long, they’re in a salmon-colored room with a heavily drugged, drooling Price, listening to Staple as she lectures them about not about the superhero/supervillain thing, but about their “delusions of (superhero) grandeur.” Apparently, she’s become an expert in mental patients who think they’re superheroes/supervillains (raising a whole host of questions Glass doesn’t bother to answer until the few minutes).

Glass promptly stagnates, barely recovering in the final twenty minutes. Staple repeats her lecture several times, Crumb goes through his personality changes multiple times (McAvoy gives his all again, to diminishing returns), Dunn sulks in a room lined with high-pressure water pipes, and Glass languishes in a semi-comatose state. Until he (Glass) doesn’t, of course, otherwise Glass would never end (it already feels like that). While Dunn and Crumb basically share the same superpower (super-strength, semi-invulnerability), Glass’ claim to supervillain status involves his big brain, a brain turned bitter due to his life-long disability (brittle bones) and a deeply unhealthy obsession with comic books (which Glass sees as Greek myth-turned-into-modern-mythology). Eventually, Glass being Glass (a self-styled mastermind and at times, a painfully obvious stand-in for Shyamalan and his divisive relationship with critics and uncomprehending audiences), he sets a master plan in motion that involves Dunn, Crumb, and a media event that will reveal their existence to the entire world. [Insert multiple yawns here.]

Besides bringing back Spencer Treat Clark as Joseph, Dunn’s son, Shyamalan also brings back Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey Cooke, the lone survivor of Wendell’s rampage in the previous film, and Charlayne Woodard as Price’s mother. Turning Joseph into the elder Dunn’s guy-in-a-chair makes sense on one level, especially given Dunn’s Batman-inspired, vigilante heroics. Likewise Woodard’s role as Mr. Glass’ long-suffering mother, but Casey’s involvement makes little to no sense (another Shyamalan sadly). Why Casey, the lone survivor of an incredibly traumatic event that left two other young women dead would first have any sympathy or empathy for her captor isn’t a question Shyamalan bothers to ask, let alone answer. Why she agrees to get pulled into Crumb’s treatment by Staple also remains a mystery, though it’s obvious Shyamalan wanted to use the “power of love” as theme and plot device. But that’s nothing compared both to how little Dunn appears in the film and what Shyamalan does with Dunn in the final few minutes – and that’s before an interminable wrap-up that doesn’t carry or convey the emotional weight Shyamalan thinks it does.