reviews

If nothing else, we can thank Tim Burton‘s 1989 film for the explosion of the Bat-franchise. Even if you hate the flick (and I understand there are some that do), we all owe it something. Without it, we don’t get the brilliant animated series that kept much of its tone (and Danny Elfman‘s glorious score), we don’t get nearly as many Batman action figures and t-shirts. Sure, someone would have made a Batman film eventually, even if this one never got off the ground. But it did, and thus it’s the launch pad not just for the Batman franchise, but for the modern age of superhero cinema.

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An unsurprising exercise in brand extension and hopeful franchise starter, Pokémon Detective Pikachu, the first, big-screen iteration of Pokémon, the made-in-Japan series of interconnected stories, videogames, trading cards, and animated films (TV and feature-length, including 21 of the latter, an unexpectedly mind-blowing number if there ever was one) centered on the titular, super-charged fantasy creatures who battle for supremacy with the guidance of their human trainers, partners, and friends, fails to fully or even partially embrace the inherent weirdness of its central premise in exchange for a slipshod, sloppy, slapdash neo-noir storyline involving a twenty-something searching for and reconnecting with his lost, presumably dead father (figuratively, if not literally). Repeatedly slowed down by logic lapses, coincidences, and contrivances that can be listed or described in a single review, Pokémon Detective Pikachu misses the mark by too much to be called anything except a middling misfire. (more…)

Note: Mild spoilers to follow. 

It seems like an eternity ago, but just a year ago, moviegoers around the globe emerged from multiplexes stunned, shocked, and otherwise shook by Avengers: Infinity War. Ten years and 20, interconnected, universe-expanding movies didn’t prepare them for the utter and complete defeat of the Avengers and Thanos’ overwhelming victory. In a snap felt around the universe, Thanos extinguished half of all life sentient life, including many (actually, most) of the superheroes who’ve made their home in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) over the previous decade. Even knowing that Avengers: Infinity War was just part one of a two-part, superhero epic did little to give moviegoers a sense of hope, however small, that the MCU would be restored to balance – not Thanos’ idea of genocidal balance – but where might and right stood together on one side of the wish-fulfillment equation against cosmic forces of evil and where individual and collective heroism, super or otherwise, clearly and simply mattered. (more…)

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…)