Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Ant-Man and The Wasp (2018)

This review was a special request by Marianne Brody. 

Peyton Reed's Ant-Man and The Wasp is the continuation of both Ant-Man and Captain America: Civil War. With a lot of catching up to do, and very little that could just be swept under the rug, Ant-Man and The Wasp writes itself into corners. As quickly as the title characters grow and shrink, the movie impressively writes itself out of those corners, and apart from the original.

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) has been under house arrest since helping Captain America and Falcon in Germany, and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lily) have cut ties with Scott and have been laying low because the FBI sees them and their tech as national security threats. All three have to come out in the open when they discover a way into the Quantum Realm to save the original Wasp, Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer). Once they're exposed, everyone comes after them. FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), Ava Starr/ Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) and Hank's old partner Bill Foster/Ghost (Laurence Fishburne), and a black market tech dealer named Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), form a busy, but dynamic, rogues gallery.

Ant-Man and The Wasp acknowledges what's come before in the MCU, giving the universe real weight and consequences. However, it also starts the movie out on the wrong foot. There's a mean-spiritedness to the trio's early scenes together, and it's made worse when considering that Scott at least was fighting against Tony and Sokovia Accords, something they'd support on principle. Hank and Hope take every possible jab they can at Scott, joking about his (lack of a) relationship with "Cap," his lack of knowledge about the Quantum Realm, even a bit about his house arrest, until they can't anymore When it starts feeling old, the original Ant-Man humor and chemistry opens back up like a window. 

There's one joke in Cassie's, Scott's daughter, (Abby Ryder Fortson) school to bring the band back together. It's because of something that could've happened to any of them (even Hank who gets his hands tiny this time), is temporary, and just works as a great gag in general. The movie really gets moving after this, and is even able to pull it off one more time during one of the last action scenes. 

This is not an action-heavy movie, but the fights are pretty fun and, once five noticeable seconds of car manufacturer product placement is out of the way, the chases are even better. A lot of time is spent with the heroes instead. Yellowjacket, from last time, may have been the bald boardroom member to break the camel's back for corporate MCU villains, even though he may have been one of the underrated ones. This time, every bad guy except Sonny Burch is empathetic and just trying to do their best with given circumstances. Goggins' character actually feels pretty unnecessary compared to the others, but he gives a good performance.

Both movies have had a greedy jerk escape and/or survive at the end. If the MCU wants to take a stab at the Sinister Six, just with Ant-Man and his rogues, they're setting it up well. Here and now though, there's no disgustingly evil villain, there's (mostly) just people trying to get by or, in Ava's case, survive. It's reflected in the trio as well, and in Scott's other cronies, who have now gone legit. Yes, Michael Peña is back as Luis, cranked up to eleven, and he's cranking everyone else up with him. 

The best parts of the fights are when characters are caught off guard. The best and the worst parts of this movie are when the audience is caught off guard. Hang in there for those best parts. 

3.5/5


Friday, June 29, 2018

Marvel's Runaways: "Reunion" (Pilot)

Does Marvel's Cinematic Universe really need another show that will the expand the world, but actually only mention the Avengers in passing, if at all? Probably not, but after binging the Netflix shows, the variety from this one on Hulu is incredibly refreshing. Mix The MCU, The Breakfast Club, and some identity politics (because that sounds better than saying "woke"), and what pops out is surprisingly a well-crafted episode of what's most likely a well-crafted show.

Runaways is about "six diverse teenagers who can barely stand each other, but who must unite against a common foe - their parents." That summary is a little misleading, these are former friends who drifted apart for years after the death of one of their other friends, and this is their last chance to stay in each others' lives before college and the real drifting starts. It's not typically how these stories go, timeline wise, and it's the first part of Runaways to stick out. Next was the characters themselves.

It's a pretty busy episode, but luckily an exposition-light one. Runaways is primarily character-driven, or at the very least "Reunion" is. They've all become loners in their own way, but also there are glimpses of that reaching out shown. Going out to parties, trying out for sports, offering/requesting tutoring. Indirect ways of saying, "talk to me." "Reunion's" director made sure to emphasize how social media and tech can make this so much more difficult, when used improperly. The selfie, it's ripe for mocking, but a personal attack is still a personal attack.

What hit hard was one of the characters, Gert (Ariela Barer), a social activist, passing out flyers for the club she's starting. It's probably the toughest way, especially in high school, to get back out there, but also the most rewarding.

So one character's a social activist, there's also a reclusive gamer named Alex (Rhenzy Feliz), the sister of the deceased friend whose name is Nico (Lyrica Okano), a church-going girl seeking rebellion called Karolina (Virginia Gardner), a jock going by Chase (Gregg Sulkin), and last but not least, the coming of age Molly (Allegra Acosta).

It sounds stocky because these things always start out that way. It's helped by a cast that has great chemistry with each other, and with the actors playing their parents, and by a warmer feel than these kind of scenarios usually create. Typically these shows or movies start out with a real uphill battle for friendship, and every second is devoted to making that work. Instead "Reunion" was able to spend time on individuals and then bring them together properly. You can bet that it'll go a long way when they start kicking butt together.

Runaways starts slow on the superhero aspects of the show, as it is an origin story. From what's been shown so far, the show has a pretty good visual effects budget and knows how to use it. Feats of super-strength are easy to film, but because of how it's shot,  it's still fun to see someone, in this case Molly, stop a moving van and feel that excitement run through her veins. Even if it didn't, Runaways looks to be putting intrigue before spectacle. In the closing minutes a mystery begins, and when it's a mystery involving parents wearing red robes and standing in a circle, it's a mystery worth checking out.

4/5

I'm not one to do season/series long reviews, but wanted to get this one out there because I highly recommend people try it, or at least something like it. If you love it, or if you're looking for something a tiny bit different, I recommend CW's Black Lightning too. It's also set in high school, but if the principal had powers, and it's a mix of The Incredibles, DC, and Luke Cage.


Monday, June 11, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story

This Review Contains Some Spoilers

I wanted to love Solo, I really did, but it has serious problems that cannot be overlooked, and it makes me question some of what Lucasfilm is doing. How will they move forward after Episode IX? By looking forward.

Solo: A Star Wars Story has a semi-similar issue The Last Jedi had. In The Last Jedi, the humor was forced and similar to Marvel movies. In Solo, callbacks are forced, harder than they were in Rogue One or any other recent Star Wars movie, and they often set back the movie. The references go out of their way to ask and answer questions that could've been left alone, like how Han got his name and how he and Chewie met.

Depending on the viewer, the answers to these questions may fall under character assassination. Chewbacca is a bit of a brute when he's introduced, as he was held prisoner of the Empire, and killed and ate deserters of the army who were dropped in his pit.

Some of these references unnecessarily setup the original trilogy, or foreshadow it in a way that's more like fortune telling. Rogue One had to setup the original trilogy because it's a tight timeline. On that note, Solo does fix one issue in The Last Jedi, the use of fuel in ships, and that's appreciated. Solo's timeline isn't clear, so talking about a job on Tatooine near the end of the movie is over-icing the cake.

There's still a good cake underneath though. The production issues people were nervous about do not show. This movie should've looked like a mess story and editing-wise, but if any of Phil Lord & Chris Miller's work was used (about 30% of it was), it's mixed seamlessly with Ron Howard's. In fact there's only one scene for sure I can say with certainty that's done by Howard. The cast is great, not perfect, but great.

Alden Ehrenreich is doing his damn best to capture Han, and Harrison Ford, and make it his own all at the same time, and overall he nails it. My only complaint with him, and it may be odd, is I wish his voice was deeper. That's all I would've needed to buy it 100%.

Donald Glover faces the same challenge but hits the mark as Lando. He gets everything just right, and adds a great deal to Lando, like his eccentricities, beautiful wardrobe, and his relationship with Han, Chewie, and the Falcon. When either of them is sitting in the captain's seat, I flashback to the original trilogy, and it does feel right, even if most moments like that feel off.

It's just a misfire, a movie that shouldn't have been made, but I don't feel like my time was wasted by seeing it, either.

If you want the full nostalgia treatment, and the Kessel Run (which is a great sequence), see Solo while it's in theaters. If you're nervous about the movie, wait til it can be seen at home, but don't pass on it entirely.

2.75/5

Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Star (2017)

The Star, directed by Timothy Reckart, is what the Bible, and by extension Christianity and other religions, was made for. It's an adaptation of a story. It can be adapted a hundred different ways, and viewed another hundred different ways. Being, partly, a major studio film (Columbia Pictures and their subsidiary Sony Pictures Animation), The Star's target audience is everyone, so it handles religion differently than the faith-based films that have been coming out. Actually, this isn't a faith-based film as much as it is just The Nativity Story for kid. The only problem here is kids over a certain age may not find it funny.

This Nativity Story centers around Bo the donkey (Steven Yuen) wanting to do something important with his life and joining the Royal Cavalry. Instead, after breaking out of the mill he worked at, he winds up in the care of Mary (Gina Rodriguez) and Joseph (Zachary Levi), just as Joseph realizes that she's pregnant. The scene is handled great, as they carefully sidestep the term "immaculate conception," while still stating and accepting that that's what happened. Instead Joseph instantly jumps into scared and unprepared, but excited, father-mode. If Joseph had asked for an explanation, the movie would've either become inappropriate, boring, or both, so it's best to avoid the conversation. They soon leave for Bethlehem, and the movie is only about a third of the way through and some padding is needed. 

The Star isn't a movie a movie that should have a conventional villain, but it does, unfortunately. When King Herod (Christopher Plummer) is informed that a new king is coming, he requests a soldier and two dogs (Ving Rhames and Gabriel Iglesias) track down and kill the king. It sounds terrible because it is terrible, but it also sparks substantive conversations about religion. There are a few moments like that, such as when God appears to a flock of (literal) sheep and asks them a request. That could play incredibly negatively to a religious-minded audience, but it's done lightly in a sincere adaptation of this story, so it's not a piece of commentary by Ricky Gervais or David Cross.  If nothing else, these moments lead to some mild action, chases, and excitement for the heroes. 

Speaking of which, one of the biggest surprises of this film is the animation. Sony Pictures uses their animation/visual effects studio ImageWorks to do some eye-popping work that ranges from the most photo-realistic (The Amazing Spider-Man movies) to the most rule-breaking and cartoony (Storks and the Hotel Transylvania movies), and The Star appeared to be no exception. But it is. The reason the animation looks more restrained than the off the wall nature of Hotel Translvania and Storks is because Cinesite is the animation studio responsible, and they did great. The animation is very clean and very smooth, and the texturing on every little clay or wooden object really shows. Most importantly, many characters at least look distinctive, even if their traits don't stand out. The best of Cinesite's work in The Star is their depiction of God. He's a beautiful blend of light and particle effects, and he's given just the right amount of personality and time on screen for this movie. 

The Star is a pretty standard, harmless family movie, but that means it's one of the few harmless contemporary Christian films. It may be the start to repairing the divides between religion, Hollywood, and the people. One of the last lines the movie is "[...]he's just a boy." And if these words are just insane ramblings then that means The Star is just a movie. One that may be worth trying.

2.75/5

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Don't Kill It (2016-2017) [Short Review]

Mike Mendez's Don't Kill It is a backwards B-movie, with pretty good writing and acting but weak action and editing. That's enough to save the movie though, as surprising as it sounds. The film is about Jebediah Woodley's (Dolph Lundgren's) hunt for a demon that takes possession of the person who kills it's last host. The demon finds a fun hunting ground in Chicory Creek, Mississippi, and Woodley is given the perfect opportunity to try to contain the threat. 

What's great about this movie is the performances by the leads, Lundgren and FBI Agent Pierce (Kristina Klebe). They work really well together, when the movie isn't trying to push them toward each other. Those moments come off forced, with Pierce going from stick in the mud to potential love interest. 

It's slightly balanced with Woodley being consistent. He's a fun guy to watch, and he's set apart a bit from most heroes, even if it's in ways that don't amount to much. It's mainly in the vape, the net gun, and the cowboy hat. It's the little touches that draw people to him. Strip those away and he's the smartest guy in the room, with a solid moral compass. It all adds up to a great savior that could show Evil Dead's Ash a thing or two.

The writing has a similar approach. For one thing, this is the only movie or show that actually does the police jurisdiction cliché in a way that isn't stupid. The FBI actually justify their reason for showing up, and it's something other screenwriters should take note of. Don't Kill It also builds itself up well, and quickly, making good use of its short runtime by focusing on the demon hunt and Woodley's character. At least that's how it seems on paper.

Mendez also edited the film, and at times it's choppy. It's most noticeable when Pierce is going over her origin. Every line is a separate cut, and every single one feels like it was shot separately from the one before it, so the scene artificially drags on. The action has similar issues. 

The action just feels slow, like it wasn't well choreographed or edited. Impacts don't really connect unless they're gunshots, and the saving grace is that the movie was clearly done practically and on-location. People with a bloodlust are going to have to look elsewhere, but people into mild psychological torture may enjoy the demon reveling in its inability to die. 

Don't Kill It is a fun action movie for all the wrong reasons, but that shouldn't stop it from being checked out. 

2.5/5

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Batman: Gotham by Gaslight (2018)

The Dark Knight Returns introduced the theory that Batman riding a horse is the mark of a good movie. Director Sam Liu's Gotham by Gaslight is compelling evidence and a great movie in its own right anyway.

Gotham by Gaslight is an alternative universe story where a 19th century Batman (Bruce Greenwood) must catch Jack the Ripper. At 78 minutes, that sounds like a streamlined story, but Liu and screenwriter Jim Kreig fit a lot into their runtime. This new setting includes a reestablished origin for Gotham.

Don't worry, Bruce Wayne's parents aren't featured in the movie, but the Monarch Theatre plays a central role, as Jack attacks women who perform there. First up, is a de-powered Poison Ivy (Kari Wuhrer) who starts things off on the wrong foot. The movie opens with her performance, and the animation feels noticeably rigid. While not wanting Poison Ivy to dance to provocatively is a good thing, there are ways to give her a creative, well-animated performance that's clean. She just kind of moves left and right a little. Luckily, once Batman tries to intervene the animation picks up considerably. The fight scenes are choreographed and sound similar to the ones in The Dark Knight Returns. Batman and Jack are fast, but their blows feel heavy and satisfying.

After their first meeting, a lot of time is spent on Bruce Wayne and the locals of Victorian Gotham and Gotham by Gaslight becomes its own film. The setting and characters are well-developed and set up in a way that suggests Liu and Kreig will return them. Characters featured include Harvey Dent (Yuri Lowenthal), Catwoman (Jennifer Carpenter), and, interestingly, multiple pre-Robin Robins who already know each other. There's no telling how this could evolve, and Gotham by Gaslight encourages second guessing of ideas.

Similar to the opening of the movie, animation unfortunately isn't the only thing that's occasionally rushed. Harvey unfortunately isn't that well written as the links between Jack the Ripper and Two Face are clear to anyone old enough to watch the movie. It's handled in a very upfront matter, and how annoying the audience finds it will vary. At the very least, all the lines are delivered well by the cast, especially Batman's.

Bruce Greenwood returns to the booth, after voicing Batman in Under the Red Hood and Young Justice. He's fantastic, and like Kevin Conroy and Roger Craig Smith (Batman: Arkham Origins), he understands what makes Bruce Wayne compelling with and without the cowl. Working with Jennifer's Carpenter's Catwoman and an extended amount of time as Gotham's socialite adds new dimensions to a role he already had down to a science.

Occasionally rushed writing and animation hold back a would-be perfect addition to the DC Animated Universe, but these moments are in a world as well-realized as the one in The Dark Knight Returns. That one, technically, got a sequel, so maybe this one should too?

3.5/5

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

A Quiet Place (2018)

A Quiet Place doesn't string audiences along through tension, building it from the beginning until the scares ultimately pay off or fall flat. Instead it starts with an actual sense of security backed by the film's family. When the monsters appear, we're with this family as tightly as they're with each other, through thick and thin.

John Krasinsky's film is directed extremely carefully, as the premise dictates. It relies on characters, a couple (Krasinksy and Emily Blunt) and their three children (Noah Jupe, Cade Woodward, and deaf actress Millicent Simmonds), making as little noise as possible to avoid the detection of blind monsters with extra-sensitive hearing. Every movement is deliberate to create as little sound as possible. And the use of sound, and shots, is completely engrossing, but loose enough to create needed breaths of fresh air every now and then.

A Quiet Place is surprisingly not scoreless, thanks to composer Marco Beltrami, and speaking is as crucial in the film as communication is in real life. Sign Language is used throughout the film, but what's surprising is what's being signed can be every so slightly heard sometimes by some characters. The variances in the language are brought out through moments like that and shows, if only for a moment, security has broken through the tension. Your heartbeat may spike at a moment's notice, but it is not toyed with.

The family, however, is toyed with. Krasinksy is not starting with a perfect story, as writers Bryan Woods and Scott Beck pull the rug out from under the family with a tight grip every once in a while. The monsters aren't given an unfair advantage, it's just whatever starts a potential attack, to a certain extent, is avoidable, sometimes it's frustratingly avoidable. Once that is out of their hands though, the movie doesn't add insult to injury by placing the family somewhere like a wind chime factory. In fact, great care is taken in showing that their environment is the anti-wind chime factory, with many everyday objects they use replaced with paper and fabric versions, so it evens these "get the ball rolling" moments out pretty well. The only other cheap shot like this that stuck out was some exposition, but at least it was given visually. The history of the monsters and the family's situation is slammed in the audience's face a little harder than it needed to be with some shots that could've been cut.

On that subject, the use of shots, by Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, beautifully display the Hudson Valley and upstate New York (parts were filmed in the same county as my college). What's displayed is quite an original site, aside from the woods and beautiful mix of natural and nighttime lighting. Krasinsky and his crew imagine new pits of terror and impersonal, environment-based torture. Those impersonal moments are heightened when the audio-centric monsters, designed by Jeffrey Beecroft and Scott Farrar, attack. The shots are too. Whenever the camera is on them, there's a want for it to stay there, to study the design. It should be considered an honor. One given to the Xenomorphs and Heptapods, and many in-between, that came before.

It's not necessary to encourage viewers to watch where they're going upon exiting the theatre. They'll be doing that on their own, at least until they start driving or return and feel comfortable to crank the volume on something, anything, to make sure they've snapped out of it.

4/5