Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

2018 Film Roundup, Part 4: The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).

The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition that comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's The Oscars and the Year in Review, The Top Four and Noteworthy Films.
Incredibles 2: The first film remains one of Pixar's best, and the sequel isn't as strong, but if you like the characters, you'll want to check it out. In this one, wealthy Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) loved superheroes as a kid and has a public relations plan to win back the rest of public to the idea. He's assisted by his tech genius sister, Elaine (Catherine Keener). In the first film, Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) has the starring role, but here he must adjust to be the at-home parent while Helen Parr/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) goes on the first missions (she's less likely to break things). While Helen tries to track down a menacing new foe, the Screenslaver, Bob has to deal with young Jack-Jack's burgeoning powers. Dash (Huckleberry Milner) struggles with his math homework, and Violet (Sarah Vowell) is justifiably upset that her potential boyfriend had his memory wiped to preserve their secret identities and can no longer remember her. Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) and mad scientist fashion designer Edna (Brad Bird) are back, too, of course. The film does a nice job during the last act of giving all the characters something to do. This installment's not a classic, but it's still a fun outing.

Deadpool 2: It's not as good as the first film (notice a trend?), but if you liked that, you'll enjoy this one. This time, Wade Wilson/Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) has to deal with personal tragedy and defends awkward teenaged mutant Russell Collins/Firefist (Julian Dennison) from Cable (Josh Brolin), a mutant cyborg from the future intent on killing Russell for horrible actions he performs in the future. Deadpool gets an assist from the preternaturally lucky Domino (Zazie Beetz). As you'd expect, the film is mainly an excuse for Ryan Reynolds to riff, ham it up, mock himself and others, and push the boundaries of taste, but he was born to play this character and the movie's often entertaining. This is definitely a rated "R" movie, with gratuitous violence to make you laugh and cringe. You probably know if this flick's for you.

Ant-Man and the Wasp: After Infinity War, maybe you were in the mood for a… smaller movie. Paul Rudd is back as Scott Lang, trying to creatively spend time with his daughter Cassie and not violate probation. This means occasionally facing off with FBI agent/probation officer Jimmy Woo, played by comic actor Randall Park with an amusing straight-man approach. But Hope (Evangeline Lilly) and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) come calling for help in possibly rescuing Hank's wife and Hope's mother, Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), and Scott feels compelled to try. Hope finally gets to suit up as the Wasp, and she and Scott are doing well until they run into the Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a high-tech thief who appears to phase through solid objects. Hank winds up seeking help from his old, semi-estranged partner, Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne). And of course, Michael Peña returns as Luis, the most memorable of Scott's business associates. The structure of the film is surprisingly tight, and I enjoyed it more than I expected. The Ant-Man films are funnier than most of the Marvel movies, but this one also makes some pleasantly unexpected choices, and Rudd remains good as the main character. Make sure to watch the end credit sequence (if you're a Marvel completionist).

Ready Player One: Steven Spielberg directs the adaptation of Ernest Cline's 80s geek nostalgia book, with entertaining but not overwhelming results. It's the future, and corporations rule the world even more than they do currently; most people live hardscrabble lives. They spend most of their time in the Oasis, a vast virtual reality consisting of entire solar systems. There's competitive gaming in the Oasis in any historical, fictional or fantastical world you can think of — and the best gamers can get rich — but school and other mundane activities are also handled in the Oasis. The Oasis' creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), decides to create a will leaving ownership of the Oasis to whoever can solve a series of riddles and find the ultimate gamer hidden Easter egg; that person would become one of the richest and most powerful people alive. "Gunters" are egg hunters, competing against IOI, an evil, powerful corporation led by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who's a ruthless CEO, yet also a skilled gamer with a staff of uber-geeks to help him and his IOI troops find Halliday's Easter egg.

Our hero is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) known online as Parzival, a poor, orphaned teenager and skilled gamer who spends all his spare time researching Halliday and trying to find the egg. His best friend is Aech (pronounced "H"), who he's never met in real life. They help each other out, and Parzival winds up in friendly competition with, and smitten with, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), a great gamer and cool customer who fiercely opposes IOI.

You don't need to get all the references to enjoy the ride, but you'll probably like the movie more if you remember the 80s and its video games, role-playing games, movies, TV shows and other pop culture. (I'll admit some references made me smile.) The book presents the Oasis as central to society, and it's less so in the movie. But the book, while enjoyable, plays heavily on nostalgia and isn't that deep. Its main female characters start out well and then become disappointingly one-dimensional in the final stretch. In the book, Halliday is presented as a genius, but of the Asperger's variety; some readers might see past Wade's hero worship and find Halliday manipulative and a bit pitiable. His contest essentially amounts to an OCD guy forcing people to pore over all his favorite books, movies, TV shows and games looking for clues. Spielberg and screenwriter Zak Penn (Cline is also credited, but Penn was the lead) wisely try to translate the book's contests into cinematic terms, which includes a funny homage/parody of a notable 80s horror film. It was an inspired piece of adaptation, all the more enjoyable because one character doesn't like horror and goes on to make every horror character mistake imaginable. The single best choice Spielberg made, however, was casting his previous collaborator, Mark Rylance, as Halliday – Halliday in the book might be somewhat cold and problematic, but Rylance oozes humanity, and his Halliday comes off as brilliant, lonely and socially awkward, but truly kind-hearted and well-intentioned underneath it all. In this sense, he's a bit like Hammond in Jurassic Park, who Spielberg transformed from the book's ruthless, selfish capitalist eager to gouge money from rich families into a kindly Santa Claus figure played by Richard Attenborough (who would go on to play Santa Claus). I thought that change made Hammond less interesting, but Spielberg loves the warm-fuzzy family stuff, and I thought the film Halliday was more interesting and three-dimensional than the book version. Rylance is such a fine actor he can make a single word with a small pause or stutter hit you. Meanwhile, the young cast is pretty good, and the women drive the action a bit more than they do in the book. Spielberg deserves particular credit for casting actors with good vocal work, because Parzival and Art3mis especially are animated voices for much of the movie. Simon Pegg, he of impeccable geek cred, is well-cast as Halliday's former best friend and business partner, Ogden "Og" Morrow. Spielberg even gives his villain Sorrento a nice moment of wonder. This isn't a great film, but it's a fun popcorn flick for a certain crowd, especially the ones who still remember how to navigate the maze in the Atari 2600's Adventure cartridge without using the bridge (ahem). You might catch visual or aural references to Excalibur, Monty Python, Clash of the Titans, Krull, War of the Worlds (the 1953 one, not the Spielberg one), among the many, many more obvious ones.

Annihilation: Give Annihilation credit for being genuinely creepy at times. A phenomenon called "the Shimmer" has sprung up around a meteorite in Florida. No one who enters the Shimmer comes back… and it is slowly expanding. But then Kane (Oscar Isaac), the husband of biology professor and military veteran Lena (Natalie Portman), suddenly appears back home after being gone for a year and presumed dead after a covert mission. He doesn't seem fully himself and has potentially severe heath issues. It turns out he's the first person ever to return from the Shimmer. Lena is recruited by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to join her all-female team to enter into Shimmer; Lena hopes to find something to cure Kane (although she and Ventress keep her connection to Kane secret) and none of the rest have family attachments. (The other three are played by Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny.) The Shimmer messes with the team's sense of time, and they encounter a number of dangers, especially strange, hybrid mutations. The standout scene of the movie is a tense and legitimately unsettling one involving a mutant bear; if you've seen the trailer, you've caught a glimpse. At times, the Shimmer is rather pretty and not all of its oddities are menacing, but it seems to affect each member of the team differently. The score, by Geoff Barrow and Jeff Salisbury, is dissonant, jarring and pretty effective for creating unease. The movie's adapted from the first book in the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, which I have not read. I was not a big fan of adapter and director Alex Garland's previous film, Ex Machina (reviewed here), but I thought this one was much more effective. The premise and focus on atmosphere and personal histories reminded me the most of Tarkovsky's Stalker, although that's much more of an art house film, and "explore the odd phenomenon" and "big dumb object" are pretty standard setups in science fiction. More in the…

Pacific Rim Uprising: The first Pacific Rim film (reviewed here) was a fun outing of humanity fighting giant kaijuwith giant mecha called Jaegers, driven by a pair of pilots in mental synch. It wasn't deep, but director Guillermo del Toro brought his usual zest and flair. This is director and cowriter Steven S. DeKnight's first feature film (although he's directed television episodes before), and it's not nearly as good, although you might like the fights and some of the actors. The stars this time are Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), son of Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) from the first film, Jake's former partner, Nathan Lambert (Scott Eastwood), with whom he has bad blood, and Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny), a teenage street urchin-genius mechanic. Her small, highly mobile mech makes for some entertaining sequences. Returning from the first film are former Jaeger pilot Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), who's now head of Earth's mecha defenses, and mad scientists Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) and Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day). Better mecha-kaiju stories definitely exist, so the main appeal here is seeing what a big Hollywood visual effects budget can do with the genre.

Solo: A Star Wars Story: Go in with low expectations, and you may be pleasantly surprised. Alden Ehrenreich gives his best shot at playing the iconic Han Solo as a young man. Along the way, we get to see how he met Chewbacca (now played by Joonas Suotamo) and Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover, who lobbied hard for the role). Woody Harrelson plays Beckett, head of a gang of thieves; Paul Bettany plays Dryden Voss, Beckett's main employer; and Emilia Clarke plays Qi'ra (pronounced Kira), who grew up with Han and who he still loves. The screenwriters, Jonathan Kasdan and his dad, Star Wars veteran scribe Lawrence Kasdan, have fun riffing on many of Han Solo's most famous lines and tweaking them in a way that'll make fans smile and chuckle.
The film has two major problems. One, it's almost impossible to find anyone with the raw charisma and charm that Harrison Ford had playing Han Solo. Ehrenreich gives it a go, even mimicking some of Ford's slouches and mannerisms, but falls short of the sheer wattage needed. Two, Han really needs to be much more a scoundrel. That's always been a key part of his appeal, and this film makes him far, far too nice and self-sacrificing. I'm going to blame that one on Disney suits. Original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired and Ron Howard took over, continuing a trend from Rogue One. Most of the film was reshot and the leaked stories from set were not encouraging. So although Solo could have been better, it could have been far worse.

Bohemian Rhapsody: Bohemian Rhapsody follows the usual rule for biopics: the lead performance is the best thing about the movie, which is otherwise so-so. We follow young Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek), part of an immigrant family in England, who redubs himself Freddy Mercury as he starts performing with the band that becomes Queen. Off-stage, Mercury is somewhat shy, and his pronounced overbite makes him looks a little odd, but he has an astounding voice and creates a flamboyant stage presence. He and guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee), drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and bassist John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) collaborate and spar as you'd expect among young bandmates, occasionally creating a big hit, the most unusual and ambitious being the title song. (The recording segments are fun to watch.) Meanwhile, Mercury adores his girlfriend Mary Austin (Lucy Boyton), but he's gay; they resolve to remain friends, and do so, with Austin even moving next to him in London. Queen becomes big, and Mercury enjoys the rock star life of sex, drugs and general excess. The film's final push centers on Mercury meeting love interest Jim Hutton (Aaron McKusker), Mercury's HIV diagnosis and Queen's 1985 Live Aid concert performance. The movie takes historical liberties, is fairly conventional and episodic, and also feels disjointed at times. Still, Malek gives a fine performance and the supporting cast has good moments (especially Lee as Brian May). Personally, I'm not a huge Queen fan (the songs make for good stadium rock but aren't very deep), but it would be hard not to be impressed by Freddy Mercury as a vocalist. Malek isn't much of a singer himself, but the sound team used recordings of Mercury, mixed in a little bit of Malek and used singer Marc Martel to fill in other gaps. (If you're into sound design, it's interesting stuff.) Malek worked with a movement coach, studying footage of Mercury and practicing relentlessly to nail his moves and timing. The overall effect is pretty compelling, and given some painfully bad lip-synching in recent years (Empire, La La Land), seeing it done well is all the more welcome. This film had off-screen controversy due to credited directed Bryan Singer being fired (and his sexual assault allegations); Dexter Fletcher finished directing the film and editor John Ottman supposedly did a tremendous amount of work to save the picture. (I would have given the editing and sound Oscars to other films, but good jobs by the teams.)

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: The Coen brothers latest movie wasn't well advertised, and mainly appeared on Netflix. The trailers also don't tell you much, so you might be surprised by a sudden ending and learning this in anthology film, with six tales in all. The quality markedly varies. The first segment is a hoot, starring frequent Coen collaborator Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs, a singing cowboy with preternatural shooting skills. It's basically a tall tale, live-action cartoon. "Near Algodones" stars James Franco and has some memorable scenes and lines, but doesn't have much of a point. The third story, "Meal Ticket," sees Liam Neeson as the promoter for Harrison, an actor with no limbs but strong voice, which he uses to perform "Ozymandius" and other poems and speeches. (He's played by Harry Melling, best known as Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films.) You'll probably see where it's going before the end, but the segment's memorable and creates a creepy mood, aided by Neeson's performance: all quiet facial reactions, never speaking. The fourth segment, "All Gold Canyon," stars Tom Waits as a grizzled prospector, and he's well cast, but the story isn't terribly strong. The fifth, "The Gal Who Got Rattled," stars Zoe Kazan and is something of a love story as a wagon train travels through perilous territory. It raised some plausibility questions for me, but I still found it moving. The last segment, "The Mortal Remains," is an absolute gem of writing, directing and performance, centered on five passengers in an evening carriage; the baggage on top includes a corpse. Featuring Brendan Gleeson, Tyne Daly and Saul Rubinek, it's got a wonderfully spooky feel, and you'll find yourself questioning the true nature of the ride and speculating about its conclusion. It's a segment that would excel as a short story or stage piece as well, and it's so good it's worth sitting through the less impressive vignettes. A little more in the…

Private Life: A middle-aged couple wants a child and struggle with fertility treatments, adoption and surrogacy in this comedy-drama (emphasis on the drama). Paul Giamatti is well-cast as Richard, weary but trying to be supportive of his extremely hormonal wife, Rachel (Kathryn Hahn, in her most serious major role to date). Relative newcomer Kayli Carter gives a memorable performance as Sadie, Richard's free-spirited, twenty-something niece, who feels closer to Richard and Rachel than her own parents, played by Molly Shannon and John Carroll Lynch. Almost all the actors chosen by writer-director Tamara Jenkins have comedic chops, and some are primarily known for it, yet Jenkins wisely has them playing their situations straight, rather than going for the joke. Private Life is well-acted and has its moments of levity, but is actually pretty somber and realistic, as Rachel and Richard face a series of setbacks that strain their marriage and other relationships. This is a decent flick, but don't go in thinking it's a light comedy. This film premiered at Sundance and then was distributed by Netflix.

Ocean's 8: This is a good-but-not-great heist film with an all-woman crew. Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) is the sister of Danny Ocean (George Clooney), who's presented as dead at the start of the film, although Debbie and other characters question whether that's true. Debbie targets the annual Met gala, full of celebrities and rich people who are sure to wear expensive jewelry. Debbie works to orchestrate that starlet Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway, basically playing a parody version of herself) will wear the Toussaint, a $150 million Cartier necklace normally kept in a vault. Just as in Soderbergh's Ocean's 11, there's also a personal angle beyond greed: Debbie wants revenge on her ex-boyfriend, Claude Becker (Richard Armitage), an art dealer who helped send her to prison, although pursuing payback could endanger the heist. As in Ocean's 11, the key partner is troubled by this, in this case, Lou Miller (Cate Blanchett, who's unfortunately underused in the movie). The film doesn't have many surprises, but it's enjoyable enough, especially if you like the cast or the idea of a female heist crew. The other members include Helena Bonham-Carter, Sarah Paulson, Mindy Kaling, Rihanna and Awkwafina. For a more serious all-female heist film with much higher dramatic stakes, check out Widows instead.

Crazy Rich Asians: Crazy Rich Asians, based on the book of the same name, is a fairly typical Hollywood romance, except the lead cast is all Asian and the cultural clash is a Chinese-American, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), meeting the Singapore family of her boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding). Rachel is a young economics professor at NYU, and has a good relationship with her boyfriend, Nick, who pitches her on a trip to Singapore for his best friend's wedding; he's to be best man. Rachel is surprised to learn that Nick's family is wealthy and powerful. This has its perks, but it also means that Nick's family has significant expectations for him, including taking over the family business (he's the favored child) and marrying someone of high standing, which in their world would not include Rachel .The biggest obstacle is Nick's mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh, in a rare semi-villain role), but she's far from the only one opposing their union. Crazy Rich Asians has some comedy – Awkwafina's scenes are particularly funny – but this is often more a romantic drama than a comedy. The leads are both pretty and pretty likable. Young is best known as a model, and Wu is best known as the mother on the sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, where she's quite funny – this is a much more serious role. There's little surprising here, but it's a solid pick if you're in the mood for a romance or find the cultural angle appealing.

Life of the Party: Just after Deanna (Melissa McCarthy) and Dan (Matt Walsh) drop off their daughter at their alma mater for her senior year of college, Dan announces he wants a divorce and has been seeing another woman. Deanna is devastated, but then decides she should return to school to finish her degree – she dropped out when she was pregnant with Maddie (Molly Gordon). Maddie is close with her mom, but a bit apprehensive about her crimping her style at school. Deanna is definitely uncool and is the object of ridicule from some, but she's authentically kind and Maddie's sorority sisters wind up liking her quite a bit. Various affirming moments and setbacks ensue; some really strain credulity. McCarthy's a comedic talent, but often doesn't get good scripts – and I'd say that's the case here. Apart from a great restaurant scene that's also genuinely funny, there aren't many surprises. Life of the Party is a feel-good movie more than a comedy; mother and daughter express their love for each other at least a dozen times. McCarthy's also playing a naively sweet woman, and even her most confrontational scenes are pretty good-natured; there's none of the biting, acerbic wit she flourishes in her best films, such as Spy, The Heat and Bridesmaids (reviewed here, here, and the 13th film here, respectively). All of Maya Rudolph's scenes are good, and not coincidentally, she also occasionally gets to be mean (and goofy, and raunchy). Deanna could have used more range as well. (I was also reminded a bit of Legally Blonde – Elle Woods is also an unconventional student but nice, so that approach can work, but I think her character's better written and Legally Blonde is a stronger film.)

Uncle Drew: This is a silly but enjoyable summer sports comedy centered on senior citizen, former basketball stars competing in the Rucker Classic, an annual New York street basketball tournament. Dax Winslow (Lil Rel Howery) has put together a team and paid the entrance fee, in hopes of winning the $100,000 grand prize. But his star player and team, and then his girlfriend, Jess (Tiffany Haddish), are stolen by his old nemesis, Mookie Bass (Nick Kroll), who blocked Dax from taking the winning shot in a key game when they were kids. The despairing Dax stumbles upon Uncle Drew (Kyrie Erving), an old man and local legend who still has incredible moves. Dax pleads with Drew to play for him in the Rucker, and Drew agrees, on condition that he gets to pick the team, which will consist of his old buddies. Those include Lights (Reggie Miller), who can't see, and Boots (Nate Robinson), who can't walk. Rounding out the group is Preacher (Chris Webber), who has to flee his wife Betty Lou to go (Lisa Leslie), Maya (Erica Ash), Boots' granddaughter and a Dax love interest, and Big Fella (Shaquille O'Neill), who's running a dojo and bears a large grudge against Uncle Drew for something in their past. The basketball stars are given funny one-liners and situations and not asked to do much; the exception is Erving, who as Uncle Drew has to carry some scenes and is surprisingly funny. (Although if you take a drink every time he says, "youngblood," to Dax, you'll get alcohol poisoning.) The wigs and old-age makeup are pretty obvious and sometime ludicrous (old face but young hands, for instance). The film's predictable throughout, but still fun if you're in the mood for this kind of flick; you know what you're getting here.

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