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…)

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…)

Adapted, produced, but not directed by Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit mega-series) – that honor (assuming it’s an actual honor) goes to longtime Jackson collaborator and visual effects man Christian RiversMortal Engines, a steampunk Mad Max meets Star Wars (all of them) crossed with The Terminator sci-fi tale that unfolds in a wholly absurd, post-apocalyptic future, earns the no longer rare distinction of being both a franchise starter and a franchise ender rolled up into one disappointing package. An overlong, over-loud, derivative revenge-plot occasionally elevated by semi-inventive production design and semi-convincing CG, Mortal Engines was made for the long forgotten and currently non-existent fans of Philip Reeve’s 2001 YA novel, the first in a quartet that obviously piqued Jackson’s desire to find another potentially profitable, spectacle-driven sci-fi or fantasy series. Apparently, though, someone forgot to tell Jackson or his legion of collaborators at WETA digital and elsewhere. (more…)

Looking back, it wasn’t the military might, economic power, or moral right that won the Cold War for the United States and its Western European allies, but onetime underdog turned world heavyweight champion and Reagan-era propagandist Rocky Balboa (writer-director-actor Sylvester Stallone) who entered the ring against symbolic incarnation of the Russian Soviet Empire, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), and knocked him down flat. America won, but it took another four years before the Soviet Empire dissolved into Russian and former Eastern and Southern satellite countries. Thirty years later, the Soviet Empire might be a half-forgotten memory, but for Rocky and Drago, the Cold War never really ended. It just went into a deep Artic freeze, waiting for the perfect opportunity – a stealthy, unexpected, ultimately rousing combo of carefully calculated nostalgia and the one-two punch of filmmaker Ryan Coogler and actor Michael B. Jordan – to thaw and get the sequel Stallone apparently always wanted. (more…)

You don’t have to be a verbal anti-Disney critic or an all-around cynic to recognize that Ralph Breaks the Internet, the six-years-in-the-making sequel to Wreck-It Ralph, the incredibly inventive videogame-inspired animated film and modest box-office hit (by Disney standards), functions as keen, insightful storytelling, and a cautionary tale about our social media- and Internet-obsessed culture, and maybe most importantly of all to Disney’s shareholders, as a two-hour commercial for Disney’s wealth of pop-culture products. Ralph Breaks the Internet never breaks stride during its nearly two-hour running time – a compliment in and of itself – when the story segues into a branded exercise in modernizing Disney’s princesses or throws tangential asides for Disney’s other, more recently purchased studios – and cinematic universes of their own, Star Wars and, of course, Marvel’s stable of superheroes. (more…)

Less an artistic leap forward than a strictly commercial one, Widows, director Steve McQueen’s (12 Years A Slave, Shame, Hunger) six-year-in-the-making follow-up to the 2012 Best Picture winner, 12 Years a Slave, tries to strike a path between The Wire-influenced social and political commentary and a conventional heist thriller with a semi-subversive gender twist. It almost succeeds, largely due to McQueen’s keen eye for visual composition, intuitive sense of pacing, and an incredibly strong, talented cast that begins, but doesn’t end, with Academy-Award Winner Viola Davis (Fences), Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki (The Night Manager, The Great Gatsby), Michelle Rodriguez (the never-ending Fast & Furious series), and Tony winner Cynthia Erivo (Bad Times at the El Royale). And that’s just the top-line cast. Several paragraphs can be devoted to every perfectly cast, note-perfect performance in Widows. (more…)

When Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them went all Scooby Doo on moviegoers two years ago, swapping out a Colin Farrell mask for a Johnny Depp, a hundred million Harry Potter fans cried out in agony and disappointment. Whatever his personal failings (many, by tabloid accounts), Depp had long lost his luster as a genre leading man, devolving into one of the highest paid cosplay performers in Hollywood. It’s not that Depp, once considered a talented, if eccentric, performer, can no longer act. It’s that Depp has lost interest in acting ages ago, exchanging goofy accents, over-broad physical acting in exchange for one lucrative paycheck after another. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, but Depp and his steady descent into a caricature of himself mirrors the diminishing returns of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, a prequel/spin-off series set in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter cinematic universe. (more…)

What the world didn’t need – and quite possibly, didn’t want – was another adaptation of Dr. Seuss 1957 stone-cold, illustrated classic, “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” After all, we already had the perfect expansion of Dr. Seuss’ story more than 50 years ago, a 26-minute TV special directed by Chuck Jones and narrated by horror icon Boris Karloff. But as we’ve learned over and over again, where there’s IP (intellectual property), there’s a major studio eager to bring another adaptation (remake, reboot, reimagining) to the big screen and separate nostalgic parents and grandparents, children and grandchildren, from their bank and debit cards. And with the Illumination Entertainment, the fine people who brought the Minions to vivid, if annoying, life in the Despicable Me series and their own spin-off, a class act like Dr. Seuss and the Grinch seemed like a no-brain, surefire excuse to print (digital) money. Unfortunately, the aggressively mediocre, ultimately forgettable results match the obvious lack of ambition on the part of Illumination’s executive board. (more…)

When it’s not absorbing rival movie companies (20th Century Fox, LucasFilm, Marvel) or expanding its TV empire (ESPN), Disney’s trawling the public domain archives for exploitable intellectual property (IP), like, for example, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, a loose adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s classic 19th-century short story-turned-perennial ballet that probably should have skipped multiplexes and premiered on the Disney Channel on a long holiday weekend. A mid-production switch from one veteran filmmaker, Lasse Hallström (The Cider House Rules, My Life as a Dog), to another veteran director, Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger, Jurassic Park III, The Rocketeer), should have given Disney execs a clue that they should have shelved their Nutcracker adaptation at worst or skipped a theatrical release altogether at best, but apparently common sense went missing on whatever day the decision was made to release The Nutcracker and the Four Realms a few weeks before the long Thanksgiving weekend. (more…)

One-time Spartan king and opera phantom Gerard “Gerry” Butler continues his descent into B-movie mediocrity and – eventually – straight-to-VOD obscurity with Hunter Killer, a lazily scripted, short-on-logic, long-on-absurdity submarine “thriller” (mostly minus the thrills) released during the end of a month known for Halloween-themed horror. Maybe the studio behind Hunter Killer decided to risk a late October release as a bit of counter programming. Or maybe they thought Butler’s name – combined with recent Academy Award winner Gary “Paycheck” Oldman and rapper-turned-actor Common – would be enough to recoup their investment in or even make a modest profit from Hunter Killer before it inevitably sinks into the deepest of ocean depths, never to be seen or heard from again (except on late-night basic cable as a perfect antidote for lifetime members of the insomnia club).

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