Thursday, July 12, 2018

Tower Rescue: "Skyscraper" throws out plausibility for vertigo-inducing excitement


Skyscraper (2018)
102 min., rated PG-13.

“Skyscraper” is bound to be compared to 1988’s first-rate Bruce Willis-starrer “Die Hard,” and it’s not hard to see why, but it’s more comfortably familiar than an outright rip-off. Like Willis' John McClane, Dwayne Johnson plays a man trying to save his family out of a high-rise populated by terrorists, only this time he’s an amputee and the titular skyscraper is a towering inferno. There’s never any doubt that the brawny protagonist and his family will get out of this sticky (and fiery) situation alive, and that CGI/green screen gives a vast assist, but the getting-there is full of perilously overblown situations that are mounted with palm-sweating, vertigo-inducing excitement and seamless stunt work. Lest anyone is buying a ticket for a crowd-pleasing B-movie to think real hard or to not hear a lot of expository dialogue, “Skyscraper” is a purely entertaining Dwayne Johnson vehicle tailor-made for the summer movie season; it isn't aiming to be rocket science or a documentary. Its greatest ambition is to thrill, and it quite skillfully delivers on that count in spades.

Ten years after an explosive hostage situation that lost him his left leg below the knee, Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson) is a Marine and FBI agent turned security consultant with a prosthetic leg. His latest job has taken him and wife Sarah (Neve Campbell), the Naval surgeon who saved his life, along with their twins Henry (Noah Cottrell) and Georgia (McKenna Roberts), to Hong Kong, thanks to a referral by former FBI Hostage Team member Ben (Pablo Schreiber). Before its residential opening, Will must analyze The Pearl, a gleaming, technologically advanced skyscraper, created by billionaire tech magnet Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han) that stands 225 stories tall like its own vertical city. On that same day, the tablet controlling The Pearl’s mainframe and its anti-fire systems is stolen from Will, while a crew of terrorists, led by the vengeful Kores Botha (Roland Møller), unleash flammable chemicals inside the building. When the 96th floor is engulfed in flames, it is directly below the residential suite, trapping the Sawyer family, leaving Will as the one-man army to go and save them.

Writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber (2016’s “Central Intelligence”) knows “Skyscraper” is a check-your-brain-at-the-door action picture that’s larger-than-life, over-the-top and unable to ace a plausibility test. There aren’t many surprises, either, but in the name of derring-do, Thurber finds an easy thrill in dangling his star from high places and having him leap across precarious chasms, and it’s effective every time. Even though Dwayne Johnson isn’t actually climbing a crane elevator 2,000 feet from the ground, scaling a narrow ledge to reach a control panel behind a turbine, or hanging upside down only by his prosthetic leg, audiences will get an adrenaline rush, clenching their armrests anyway, while acrophobics will try hard not to look away. It’s about as hairy as Tom Cruise scaling Dubai’s Burj Khalifa building in “Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol,” only stretched across several set-pieces.

Coinciding with “San Andreas” and “Rampage” before this, Dwayne Johnson stands firmly in disaster-movie savior mode here without getting the chance to play up his charming, funny persona too much. Even as Will Sawyer, he's a believable family man, doing what he does well and still having charisma for days. The most vulnerability Will has comes from his prosthetic leg, which the filmmakers at least have the sense to have Will use it to beat someone and to hold open a closing door. Working in TV but not seen on screen in a high-profile project since 2011’s “Scream 4,” Neve Campbell makes a game comeback in not playing wife Sarah Sawyer as a helpless victim who stands back and waits for her muscle-bound knight. It could be a thankless role, but Campbell makes Sarah resourceful and intelligent, and as it should be, she gets much more to do (by speaking Chinese, Sarah can understand the Hong Kong police discussing their suspicions that Will might be involved with the starting of the fire) and enough badass moments of her own. 

Taking itself seriously enough but handled with dabs of humor that don't displace the stakes, “Skyscraper” efficiently runs through its plot mechanics and double-crossing twists before getting to the set-pieces. What the bad guys want is an afterthought of a McGuffin, and where the film needed a Hans Gruber, the bad guys here are either generically bad as can be or generic turncoats. There is, however, a tightly edited and well-choreographed hand-to-hand fight in a kitchen before Will even gets to the skyscraper, and there are amusing payoffs to setups involving Will rebooting Sarah’s iPhone and The Pearl’s house-of-mirrors holodeck-like dome. Those who call “preposterous” as soon as Will takes the jump from a crane to a broken window above the fireline in the burning skyscraper will miss out on the fun that “Skyscraper” has to offer. Credibility might not always be its strong suit, but then again, just in April, Dwayne Johnson played an ex-Special Forces turned primatologist battling genetically enhanced, havoc-wreaking animals, and that was fun, too.

Grade: B - 

Monday, July 2, 2018

Double Stingers: "Ant-Man and the Wasp" spins wheels a bit but nearly matches fun of predecessor


Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
118 min., rated PG-13.

2015’s “Ant-Man” was something of an anomaly in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with its own loose, breezy rhythm, and that’s what made it such a delightful breath of fresh air. It took itself seriously enough, while mostly remaining in the now and not putting too fine a point on setting the table for future Marvel movies, and wasn’t above having fun and laughing at itself as an exceedingly likable, visually inventive, smaller-can-be-better entertainment. “It’s about damn time,” Hope Van Dyne remarked at the end of the film when she got a sneak peek at a prototype suit she would don as The Wasp, and the prospect of a sequel was inevitable and necessary for the MCU to finally recognize a fierce, fully capable woman in the title. The twentieth installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is the follow-through of that post-credits scene, and while the film is heavily plotted, the level of smile-inducing fun has not shrunk in size and the goofy but earnest tone is still appealing.

Having been sentenced a two-year house arrest for partaking in the Avengers’ airport tarmac battle in Germany (see 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War”), former burglar Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) tries to keep up his good behavior as he’s only days away from the end of his probation. Going stir-crazy when he’s not playing drums, tearfully reading “The Fault in Our Stars,” and entertaining daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) in an indoor cardboard maze, he tries reaching out to Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who have gone into hiding. Once he receives a message of sorts from Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), Hank’s wife and Hope’s mother, in his head through “quantum entanglement,” Scott is enlisted by Hank and Hope to rescue Janet, the original Wasp who’s been lost in the so-called Quantum Realm for 30 years after stopping a missile attack. Having built a quantum tunnel, the father-and-daughter team now has the technology to return Janet from subatomic size. Their mission runs into a few snags when black marketeer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) and the stealthy, intangible Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) separately want a component of Hank’s technology, while Scott tries evading the feds and S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), who think he’s still home wearing his ankle monitor.

Nimbly directed again by Peyton Reed and co-scribed by a quintet of screenwriters—Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers (2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming”) and Paul Rudd & Andrew Barrer (2014’s “Haunt”) & Gabriel Ferrari—“Ant-Man and the Wasp” recaptures everything that “Ant-Man” did so well without merely going through the motions and still keeping the stakes more personal and earth-bound. Whereas the first film felt zippier and more focused, this one does admittedly meander and spin its wheels at times, as “the component”—really, it’s just a McGuffin—keeps turning into a keep-away game of hot potato with so many ancillary characters. In the grand scheme of things, however, director Reed finds a sweet spot along the way with an irresistible sense of humor, a sincere heart, and imaginative action.

Paul Rudd still makes for an amiable and identifiable everyman hero, two qualities in Rudd’s reliable wheelhouse as Scott Lang/Ant-Man. When Hank and Hope speak convoluted scientific jargon, Scott is the audience surrogate, asking, “Do you guys just put ‘quantum’ in front of everything?” Rudd’s scenes with Abby Ryder Fortson, as daughter Cassie, are sweet, and it’s refreshing to find a friendly relationship between Scott and his ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and her husband Paxton (Bobby Cannavale). A very funny sight gag involves Scott shrinking down to the size of a kid at an elementary school due to a malfunction with his new suit and getting caught by a teacher, and Rudd also handles more physical comedy well when Janet overtakes Scott’s body, like a one-sided “Freaky Friday” moment. Receiving equal billing as Hope/The Wasp, Evangeline Lilly solidifies herself as a radiant, eye-catching star with cool and charm. She is a badass in and out of her costume, getting to do much more of the fighting and rescuing this time, and there is a certain amount of emotional heft in Hope wanting to reunite with her mother after all this time. 

Michael Douglas is as enjoyable to watch as he was before as Hank Pym, stubborn but also warm, and Michael Peña is a burst of scene-stealing energy each time he comes on screen as ex-con sidekick Luis; his breathless recap during an interrogation, told again like a “Drunk History” episode, is enormously funny. T.I. and David Dastmalchian, as Luis’ X-Con security business co-workers Dave and Kurt, return, adding to the comic relief, particularly when they’re given a “truth serum,” and Randall Park is hilarious as Agent Jimmy Woo who’s tasked with keeping tabs on Scott. That Michelle Pfeiffer doesn’t get as much screen time playing Janet van Dyne as she deserves is a disappointment, but when she’s on screen, she hits the emotional marks. Hannah John-Kamen (2018’s “Ready Player One”), as the mysterious Ava/Ghost, is compelling without necessarily being a villain; although she has support in Hank's old colleague Dr. Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), she wants to inflict pain upon others because she's tired of feeling pain herself. Finally, it seems like lazy casting for Walton Goggins to play another baddie, but he at least doesn’t seem bored here with a glint in his eye as Sonny Burch.

In spite of needless overplotting, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is still a fair amount of high-spirited fun, carrying over the goodwill of its predecessor. Without the fate of the world at stake, it feels like a lighthearted snack and side adventure after the grim consequences of “Avengers: Infinity War” (though it is set before that film). The literally small-scale effects are still inspired, including a running gag where Hank makes his laboratory building portable and shrinks it down to a suitcase on wheels. A kitchen-set melee between the Wasp and Sonny Burch’s henchmen is thrillingly staged, as she dodges a large butcher knife in small size and blocks the door with an enlarged salt shaker. A climactic car chase is also anything but standard, involving a giant PEZ dispenser, cars shrinking to Hot Wheel size, San Francisco’s winding Lombard Street, and a flatbed truck being used as a scooter by a big Ant-Man. Marvel fans will already know to stay in their seats until the final credits are done rolling, and rest assured, the stinger is worth the wait as connective tissue to “Avengers 4.” Luckily, it’s not the only reason to see “Ant-Man and the Wasp" when just two of the main selling points are in the title.

Grade: B - 

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Dino Volcano: "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom" wackiest in the series but delivers genuine thrills


Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)
129 min., rated PG-13.

2015’s Colin Trevorrow-helmed “Jurassic World” was the next logical step in the evolution of the “Jurassic Park” franchise, and while the film had its detractors, it was a spectacularly entertaining return to form that felt Spielbergian in spirit and ignored the previous two installments. Its direct sequel, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” is a slightly different beast, sometimes evoking the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach of a Roland Emmerich disaster movie, sometimes rehashing plot elements from 1997’s “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” but also veering into Gothic horror. Simultaneously sillier and darker than any of the previous films, it is certainly the biggest “Jurassic” installment—all $170 million of it—and electrifies whenever director J.A. Bayona (2016’s “A Monster Calls”) puts audiences vicariously through hairy situations for hair-raising, genuinely thrilling set-pieces. The awe and thrill of seeing dinosaurs run amok still hasn’t grown extinct.

Four years after the prehistoric attractions overtook the theme park, former Jurassic World operations manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) is now campaigning to rescue the remaining dinosaurs from the island of Isla Nublar, which could be destroyed from a long-dormant, now-active volcano and render all of the dinosaurs extinct. The ailing Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), a silent partner to Jurassic Park creator Dr. John Hammond, and associate Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) recruit Claire for a Noah’s Ark-like rescue mission to save eleven species and relocate the dinosaurs to a remote sanctuary, but she will also need the expertise of raptor whisperer and former flame Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) once again. Owen is reluctant to the idea, realizing everything could go wrong again, but his sympathy for velociraptor Blue drives him. Once Claire, her team—paleo-veterinarian Zia (Daniella Pineda) and IT specialist Franklin (Justice Smith)—and Owen arrive on the island with a group of mercenaries, led by Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine), already there, they begin to realize that they called under false pretenses and not to preserve the animals. Cue the volcano.

“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” hits the ground running at once with a fevered bang, set during a stormy night on Isla Nublar as scientists embark on an unwise underwater expedition to snatch a DNA sample from the bones of the defeated Indominus rex. It’s as tensely scary and heart-racing as a pre-credits sequence should be and decidedly the most attention-grabbing since 1993’s “Jurassic Park.” Once our heroes get to the island as the volcano is ready to blow, more nail-biting tension is achieved when Claire and Franklin pick up a proximity alert from a control center heading toward them in a dark tunnel as lava starts slipping through and then rolling off the cliff, along with the dinosaurs, inside a Gyrosphere. Another dicey scene has Owen and Claire secretly getting a blood sample from a tranquilized Tyrannosaurus rex in a tightly enclosed cage. Split into two distinct halves, the film’s first half is of its own piece, the eruption of the volcano and escape off the island being the breathtaking, stomach-dropping crescendo.

Every one of these films has had a cautionary throughline about hubris (or call it stupidity) and humans repeating the same mistakes, thinking it was will play differently each time, only for their genetically engineered creations to turn around and literally bite them. That same notion carries over here, but suspension of disbelief is often required while watching “Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom.” In spite of Derek Connolly & Colin Trevorrow’s screenplay that underserves the human characters, the film is grandly wonky in its vision, going out on a limb and admirably trying something different, particularly its radical change in location. As the film segues into a Gothic fairy tale of sorts, director J.A. Bayona’s horror-adjacent sensibilities and sense of mood come into play in the second half. Not unlike “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” when the T-Rex was transferred to San Diego and inevitably broke out to wreak havoc on the city, the film switches to an auction among the dumb and rich set at the Lockwood Mansion, a castle nestled in Northern California, and unleashes dinosaurs from an underground laboratory throughout the rest of the house, primarily the newly engineered Indoraptor.

Proving she was capable of outrunning a T-Rex in high heels (which get a playful cameo when Claire first comes on screen in an elevator, just like her introductory scene in “Jurassic World”), Bryce Dallas Howard now wears more sensible footwear as Claire, but beyond that, the actress shapes Claire into a sympathetic figure whom the viewer understands with her share of fierce moments of saving the day. As Owen, Chris Pratt gets to put his comedic skills to better use this time around, not only in his verbal goofiness where he subverts the potentially sappy “If I don’t come back…” line but also in a rather inspired bit of physical comedy where the sedated Owen must lurch his body away from encroaching lava. In supporting parts, Daniella Pineda and Justice Smith (2018’s “Every Day”) bring personality, respectively, to saucy paleo-veterinarian Zia and anxiety-ridden systems analyst Franklin. Newcomer Isabella Sermon is emotionally available as Lockwood’s young granddaughter Maisie, but a nonchalantly left-field revelation about her character is left unexplored, and Geraldine Chaplin isn’t given nearly enough to do as Maisie’s caretaker. Jeff Goldblum returns only in bookending scenes as Dr. Ian Malcolm in a courtroom, although it is nice to see him again anyway, stating his case on why the dinosaurs should just be taken out by the volcano unless humanity wants to cause its own extinction. There might be too many bad guys, all of them stock and free of three dimensions, and their individual comeuppances can’t come soon enough in the mouths of a dinosaur. Rafe Spall is effectively smarmy, serving his purpose as Lockwood’s duplicitous associate Eli; Ted Levine immediately oozes evil when he steps on screen as mercenary Ken Wheatley, extracting dinosaur teeth as trophies and even sneaking in an on-the-nose utterance of “nasty woman”; and Toby Jones hams it up with a toupee and porcelain veneers as a black market auctioneer.

Director J.A. Bayona does bring more technical verve than Colin Trevorrow did to “Jurassic World.” Twice, he uses flashes of light or even lightning to illuminate the presence of a carnivorous dinosaur; before the rain-soaked rooftop confrontation, there is a stylishly helmed, classically spooky set-piece in Maisie’s bedroom where the Indoraptor opens her balcony door, its shadow mirroring a stuffed horse on the wall and its claw inching toward the scared little girl cowering in her bed. There is more empathy for some of the dinosaurs, too, this time out, particularly in one powerfully mournful shot of a Brachiosaurus left behind on the island before disappearing behind the smoke and fire. The dinosaur effects are top-notch as ever, the seams never showing where the CGI takes over for the animatronics, and composer Michael Giacchino’s musical orchestrations are often bombastic but rousing and suitably Gothic. Bayona retains reverence to the source throughout, including knowingly affectionate homages to the kitchen scene in “Jurassic Park,” here in Lockwood Mansion’s dinosaur museum and then again with a dumbwaiter door. From the sublime to the ridiculous, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is the wackiest in the series, but as a full-throttle ride, it still provides the brand of rip-roaring, danger-filled thrills that the “Jurassic” series—and summer moviegoing in general—is all about. 

Grade:

Friday, June 15, 2018

Men Will Be Boys: As a summertime crowd-pleaser, annoying “Tag” is not "it"


Tag (2018)
100 min., rated R.

The ridiculous logline—grown men playing a serious game of tag—is certainly an amusing idea for a movie, and even more so because it’s inspired by a true story that got its own Wall Street Journal article, “It Takes Planning, Caution to Avoid Being ‘It,’” in 2013. A truish high-concept comedy, “Tag” earns points for novelty, but it’s barely a movie at all, just a premise stretched out to a piddling 100 minutes like a rough draft of a script. Without reasonably well-rounded characters and not a lot of narrative driving anything forward, there’s not much to it, not even enough laughs that stick to not make it close to insufferable. First-time feature director Jeff Tomsic and writers Rob McKittrick (2005’s “Waiting…”) and Mark Steilen are blessed with a likable cast, but “Tag” is underwritten and rarely ever as funny as it thinks it’s being.

“We don’t stop playing because we get old, we get old because we stop playing” is the mantra for a group of middle-aged friends who have been playing the game of tag since 1983. Every May, veterinarian Hogan Malloy (Ed Helms), hotshot insurance exec Bob Callahan (Jon Hamm), divorced slacker Randy “Chilli” Cilliano (Jake Johnson), and voice of reason Kevin Sable (Hannibal Buress) take off the month to play tag. When Hogan takes a janitorial job at an insurance company, it’s merely a ploy to tag Callahan in a conference room as he’s being interviewed by Wall Street Journal reporter Rebecca (Annabelle Wallis). Realizing there might be a human-interest piece there, Rebecca tags along with these buddies on a road trip. Hogan wants Callahan’s help to round up the troops—Chilli and Sable—with Hogan’s wife Anna (Isla Fisher) in tow and head back to their hometown of Spokane, Washington, to crash a wedding and once and for all tag their most obsessively competitive friend, successful fitness guru Jerry Pierce (Jeremy Renner), who’s tying the knot with Susan (Leslie Bibb). Not about to lose his thirty-year winning streak of never being tagged, Jerry didn’t invite his four buddies to the wedding, but can they get him this time?

A lightweight lark, like “Tag,” can work if it’s funny; if the laughs aren’t firing frequently, then more attention is called to the threadbare script. When Hogan, Callahan, and Chilli head to Denver to wrangle up Sable, they somehow end up in the closet of Sable’s therapist during his session. Um, did they teleport? Disinterested in developing any of its characters beyond single dimensions—they have names and a shared pastime—the film gives no reason to care or to take stake in Jerry getting tagged. Amid the pratfall-heavy hijinks, "Tag" isn't above R-rated bad taste, but all it does is offer a demented waterboarding joke and a mean-spirited line in which a character hopes the bride has a miscarriage. And then, by the time one of the married couples fakes a miscarriage all in the name of tag and then there’s actually a medical scare, it’s hard not to sneer at how ethically irresponsible, selfish, and tone-deaf these characters are being. To make matters worse, everything gets wrapped up in a hospital in an unearned, disingenuous, too-big-for-its-britches attempt at heartstring-pulling. 

Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, and Jake Johnson evince a strong-enough camaraderie on screen, but these characters loosely depicting the real ten men whose story inspired the film come off as irritating, infantile jackasses who rarely feel like real, flesh-and-blood people. They claim that the game brings out the best in them, but it does the complete opposite, as they run through other people’s apartments and breaking someone’s window air conditioner early on without any consequence for their childish, inconsiderate behavior. It’s as if they never left recess and became sociopaths. None of them really have lives beyond anything directly related to the “plot,” and their lack of depth and unique personality traits—well, Chilli likes to stoned a lot—make them interchangeable. Thank God, then, for Hannibal Buress (2018's "Blockers") as Sable, the most thoughtful of the five friends. Buress is the lone bright spot in this lackluster comedy, slaying every one of his sharp, unpredictable line deliveries and deadpan reactions. Not associated with comedy, Jeremy Renner is also sometimes fun to watch, playing the elusive Jerry like an agile, highly trained action hero not unlike his “Bourne Legacy” character Aaron Cross.

Then there are the female “characters" who each deserved a rewrite. Isla Fisher, adorably funny or hilariously unhinged when given well-suited material, has gusto and thankfully isn’t treated like a harpy as the aggressively competitive Anna, but she more often than not waits for the script to throw her a bone since tag is a “no girls allowed” game. It’s also a shame to find a fetching actress like Annabelle Wallis (2017's "The Mummy") stranded in a purely reactive role as reporter Rebecca that, aside from one sneaky line about the death of print journalism, gives her nothing funny or interesting to do, except stand around as if invisible and barely get a word in edgewise. That there’s never even a payoff to Rebecca finalizing her story after following around Callahan and his buddies for a month gives one the impression that a lot of material was left on the cutting-room floor. Leslie Bibb’s overcaffeinated cheerfulness is entertaining as teeth-gritting bride Susan, but one action makes her more reprehensible than the rest of the lot. Also, in a few scenes, the charmingly acerbic Rashida Jones is wasted as Chilli and Callahan’s junior high crush Cheryl Deakins, merely there to cause weightless tension between the two friends and observe how stupid these guys are.

A missed opportunity and a waste of time and talent, “Tag” is charmless, annoying, and tonally all over the map. In his first time at bat, director Jeff Tomsic at least brings a little directorial flair to the material during some of the over-the-top, almost surreal slo-mo moments where Jerry mindfully strategizes his escape out of a tag situation like a ninja. Once concluding with the end credits' obligatory footage of the real guys tagging their other unsuspecting buddies, the film demonstrates a most glaring disconnect, turning the seemingly likable and decent real-life friends into exhausting, cartoonish man-children. One spends the entirety of this mediocrity wishing they were watching 2004's "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story" or this year's “Game Night,” far superior comedies about adults playing games. Aspiring to be a wild summertime crowd-pleaser to see, “Tag” isn’t “it.”

Grade: C - 

Monday, June 11, 2018

Super Sequel: Fleet-footed, joyful, delightful "Incredibles 2" well worth the wait


Incredibles 2 (2018)
118 min., rated PG.

Pixar is at their best when inventing new stories, but when they do go back to the well of a franchise, there are still more winners (1999’s “Toy Story 2,” 2010’s “Toy Story 3,” 2016’s “Finding Dory”) than losers (2011’s “Cars 2”). While any sequel is always approached with a fair amount of trepidation that it could just be a retread of the first film and exist to merely cash in on its predecessor, the long-awaited “Incredibles 2” is another winner, proving writer-director Brad Bird is not out to make a cheap cash-grab. Bird takes what audiences loved about 2004’s “The Incredibles,” an ingenious domestic spin on pre-MCU superhero lore back when superheroes movies weren’t so ubiquitous, and takes it in a fresh, worthwhile direction. Fourteen years may stand between the original and the sequel, but no time has passed in terms of where the story continues, and “Incredibles 2” is just as cleverly conceived, consistently funny, fleet-footed and joyful.

Picking up immediately where “The Incredibles” left off, parents Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible (voice of Craig T. Nelson) and Helen Parr/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter)—along with their kids, easily annoyed Violet (Sarah Vowell), hyperactive Dash (Huckleberry Milner) and infant Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile), are trying to defend the city from destruction by drill-happy baddie The Underminer (John Ratzenberger). When they fail to stop him, the government shuts down the “supers” program, forcing the Parr family to go into hiding for the time being and temporarily camp out in a motel. Not long after, Bob, Helen, and family friend Lucius Best/Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) are contacted by telecommunications tycoon Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and developer sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener) make them a proposal: turn the tides of how society thinks about superheroes and legalize crime-fighting again. With Helen selected to lead a mission because she causes less property damage, that leaves Bob to take care of Violet, Dash, and Jack-Jack in the high-tech, modern glass home provided to them by Winston. Meanwhile, when Helen saves a runaway train as Elastigirl, she uncovers a mysterious villain named Screenslaver with a nefarious mind-control scheme.

Once again written and directed by Brad Bird, “Incredibles 2” is an effortlessly delightful four-quadrant entertainment with a Pixar-level sophistication that never allows the film to try too hard or pander. It would be easy for an animated film to get caught up in its manic energy and lose sight of the characters at hand, but each and every character feels like they are in a different place than they were at the beginning. In an organic and refreshing switcheroo, Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl swap gender roles: the father stays home, helping Dash with math homework, making the kids breakfast, getting them ready for school, and then taking care of the baby, while the mother goes off to work. Helen runs at the chance to be in the spotlight and have adventures to herself, but she also doesn’t want to miss out on family time. For Bob, he supports his wife, wanting her to succeed so he can succeed in Mr. Mom mode. When the film gets back to the Incredibles foiling a villain’s plan, the reveal of the Screenslaver’s identity might not come as a surprise, but the film still subverts the predictable route it easily could have taken.

Even if it doesn’t quite reach the emotional chord of the preceding short film “Bao” about an Asian empty-nester and a dumpling, “Incredibles 2” never shortchanges the warm, dynamic relationships between all members of the Parr family. The voice performances are as superlative as they were in 2004, the enthusiasm in the voices of Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter returning as Bob and Helen so palpable that it’s infectious, and Huckleberry Milner stands in for the original’s Spencer Fox as son Dash without missing a beat. Eccentric, pint-sized super-suit designer Edna Mode (voiced again by Brad Bird) also makes a fabulous, scene-stealing appearance, this time putting her babysitting skills, or lack thereof, to the test. 

“Incredibles 2” is a complete blast, prevailing as a sequel with a wonderful spirit and plenty of heart. Michael Giacchino’s jazzy, distinguished score is a rousing fit for all of the lively superhero action. Speaking of which, this film offers some of the most exciting and inventively staged sequences seen this year, animated or not; Elastigirl’s bike chase to stop a runaway train is a dazzling highlight. Also, when Jack-Jack begins unleashing his superhuman abilities that run the gamut but won’t be spoiled here, a scuffle between the baby and a trash-rummaging raccoon is a hoot. It goes without saying, but it deserves to be said again that the animation is gorgeous and vibrant. The mid-century modern mansion in which the Deavors put the Parr family is especially mouth-wateringly swanky and excellently detailed, from remote-controlled features in a grand room with a fireplace and movable flooring to an infinity pool and a garage concealed by a waterfall. “Incredibles 2” was well worth the wait.

Grade: B +

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Bling Ring: "Ocean's Eight" a breezy, fizzy, starry entertainment


Ocean’s Eight (2018)
110 min., rated PG-13.

A gender-flipped reboot worked for 2016’s “Ghostbusters,” despite its trolling haters, so why not one for Steven Soderbergh’s jazzy, ultra-cool, star-studded 2001 hangout caper “Ocean’s Eleven”? 2004’s “Ocean’s Twelve” and 2007’s “Ocean’s Thirteen” were slick, watchable larks but idled and coasted on the charisma and good will of its movie stars and splashy style, turning stale and lazy with a giant whiff of self-satisfaction. As those films were ruled by men, “Ocean’s Eight” is the distaff spin-off, led by Sandra Bullock playing the sister to the late Danny Ocean (George Clooney), and by comparison—and because of its own merits—it’s a breath of fresh air, breezy, glitzy and starry entertainment.

Prior to her release on parole from a five-year stint in prison, con mastermind Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) pleads that she just wants to live “the simple life,” or so she says. Immediately after she’s freed back into the world in New York City, she picks up where she left off, effortlessly shoplifting in Bergdorf Goodman by pretending to return merchandise and working her magic to get a hotel suite for free. Debbie has another score in mind, only this time she won’t get caught. First, she reunites with partner-in-crime Lou (Cate Blanchett) and gets her on board to steal the Touissant, a diamond necklace worth $150 million that comes with extra security. They hatch a plan to get the six-pound diamond on the neck of movie starlet Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), snatch it, and then replace it with a fake at the annual Met Gala. Of course, to pull it off, Debbie and Lou will have to round up a crew that includes Irish fashion designer Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter), jewelry maker Amita (Mindy Kaling), ace hacker Nine Ball (Rihanna), pickpocket Constance (Awkwafina), and profiteering suburban mom Tammy (Sarah Paulson). As a bonus, Debbie will also be getting sweet revenge on Claude Becker (Richard Armitage), the man responsible for selling her out and sending her to jail.

Director Gary Ross (2016’s “Free State of Jones”) may not have all of the stylistic pizzazz and directorial stamp that Steven Soderbergh brought to his all-shallow-style trilogy, but he keeps the pace fizzing along, even at the expense of character depth, and it’s the eclectic group of women who keep our interest in a heist film that can still work without dicey, life-or-death stakes. Screenwriters Gary Ross & Olivia Milch (2018’s “Dude”) do repeat the tried-and-true beats of a caper—the gradual assembling of each individual member of the team, the planning, the close calls, the third-act diversion hiding behind the curtain—but the dialogue has enough snap and the logistics of carrying out the heist at the Met are smoothly orchestrated and involving to offset the familiarity. With the aid of a female writer and a female-dominated cast, the script also has a shrewd throughline—“a him gets noticed, but a hero gets ignored, and this time we want to be ignored”—that works as a timely comment on the world we live in without being heavy-handed. “Somewhere out there is an eight-year-old girl lying in bed, dreaming of being a criminal,” Debbie Ocean tells her team. “Let’s do this for her.” 

Sandra Bullock is her cucumber-cool self and in complete command as Debbie Ocean, the brains behind the operation who turns up the charisma when the situation calls for it. Cate Blanchett serves as the voice of reason as Debbie’s second-in-command Lou, dressed as a rock-and-roll biker chick, and enjoys such a crackling chemistry with Bullock that one wishes the history of their prickly but affectionate friendship was more fleshed out. Each performer gets her moment to shine based on each character’s skill, including Helena Bonham Carter, delivering moments of loopy, neurotic comedy as quirky designer Rose; Sarah Paulson, innately intelligent as fencer Tammy; and Awkwafina (2018’s “Dude”), who has such an appealing, scene-stealing presence. It is Anne Hathaway, however, who comes away as the comic standout playing vapid, preening diva Daphne Kluger, a role that not only amusingly plays into the stereotype of an egotistical movie star but gets layered with insecurity and more intelligence than she lets on.

With such a dream line-up of talent, many of the supporting players would have been welcomed more fully written characterizations beyond their names and skill sets, as there is no downtime to see these women interact on a personal level or understand their reasons for taking the money when they have a job to do. Since the film is cut for time to get to all eight women, the fun they’re all having still rubs off on the audience and makes one want to spend even more time with them. If one just wants an escape to take in the to-die-for clothing and glamour of it all, the film satisfies on that level, but the sly statement it makes about the power of women and how they should not be underestimated gives it a much more valid reason to exist than the previous two sequels. Even as it carries on an established franchise, “Ocean’s Eight” stands wholly on its own. Debbie Ocean and her cohorts aren’t out to outcool one another like Danny and his entourage did; they support one another to pull off a job, and the viewer never stops rooting for these criminals to get away with it. This summer, these are the real Avengers. 

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Friday, June 8, 2018

Full House: "Hotel Artemis" pulpy fun with a buzzy style and an eclectic cast


Hotel Artemis (2018)
97 min., rated R.

Shockingly not based on any source material (not even an obscure graphic novel), “Hotel Artemis” is armed with a cool, original core concept that almost sounds like an off-shoot of The Continental, an exclusive hotel for assassins where rules are enforced, in the “John Wick” movies (which is, coincidentally, getting its own TV series). In fact, this almost feels like an extra-long pilot of a TV series that promises great things to come, which isn’t a knock but just shines a light on how condensed and underdeveloped the world-building and some of the characters feel when it’s all over. Helmed with buzzy brio and clockwork tightness by debuting director Drew Pearce (who wrote 2013’s “Iron Man 3” and this script), “Hotel Artemis” gets away with being a pulpy, highly enjoyable sci-fi chamber piece with eclectic, star-filled company. It’s not a substantial meal, but it’s a fun, swiftly paced ride to take.

It’s June 21st, 2028 in riot-torn Los Angeles, where the city is on lockdown and water has been privatized by the evil Clearwater Corporation. Expecting just another Wednesday night in her 22 years of managing the Hotel Artemis—a hotel front that is really a furtive, members-only emergency clinic for criminals of all types—agoraphobic nurse Jean Thomas (Jodie Foster) takes a reservation from Sherman (Sterling K. Brown) and brother Lev (Brian Tyree Henry) after a botched bank robbery that has left them both wounded. Mrs. Thomas is such a stickler when it comes to customers abiding by the hotel’s rules that the brothers must verify their memberships in order to get fixed up; if not, they get to deal with the hotel’s muscle, orderly and bodyguard Everest (Dave Bautista). There are two other guests, both named by their room assignments which are named after cities: there’s obnoxious arms dealer Acapulco (Charlie Day), who’s trying to call a helicopter to get out of the city, and slinky hitwoman Nice (Sofia Boutella), who’s waiting for her assignment, a V.I.P., to arrive. Meanwhile, as Sherman waits for Lev to recover, he realizes that his brother stole a pen that contains precious diamonds belonging to the hotel’s owner, The Wolf King (Jeff Goldblum). Putting everyone at risk, including herself, Mrs. Thomas breaks her own rules by sneaking outside and rescuing an injured non-member, cop Morgan (Jenny Slate), whom she knows from her past. When she gets a call from The Wolf King’s hotheaded son, Crosby (Zachary Quinto), that his father requires prompt medical attention, the night “goes to hell in a handbasket full of blood and shit.”

Leaving its dystopian world as a mere backdrop to all the goings-on, the microcosmic “Hotel Artemis” mostly takes place inside, atop, and around the eponymous safe haven. It’s not far off from 2013’s “The Purge,” efficiently conveying the hellish state of the world but confining the action to a single internal space. The location itself might be the most intriguing element, with its decaying, richly lived-in art-deco production design with futuristic technology, but watching a killer cast plucked in the middle and capably bringing color and interest to mostly broad-stroke parts is a major selling point, too. That all of the criminals are nicknamed after their city-named suites is a clever touch, purposely making them all enigmas trying to keep their identities hidden during their stays. As the night goes on, the storm brewing within Hotel Artemis gets just dicey enough, creating a powder-key situation that might be even more dangerous than anything on the outside.

Back to the screen after a five-year hiatus, Jodie Foster gets the most to chew on as the disciplined, no-nonsense Jean Thomas. She’s not only having fun here, acting jittery and taking quick, short steps down halls with her medical bag, but also creates a hardened character grappling with emotional baggage: the death of her son. Out of anyone, she may receive the fullest character arc by the end, overcoming her agoraphobia. Sterling K. Brown (TV’s “This Is Us”) is a magnetic, sympathetic presence as Sherman, a thief just trying to go straight, and it doesn’t hurt that he has charisma and swagger for days. While it was impossible to gauge anything in 2017’s “The Mummy,” Sofia Boutella gets to make a bigger impression, showcasing a femme-fatale glint in her eye and action-star chops as the seductive Nice, whose French nickname contradicts her fierce capabilities, particularly when she dares The Wolf King’s various henchmen to cross her line in a hallway that ends in a breathless 1-to-20 fight. Rounding out the rest of the cast is a terrific Dave Bautista, finding grace notes of humor and loyalty as Jean’s sole associate Everest, who likes reminding others that he’s a healthcare professional; Jenny Slate, who’s not a face one expects to see in an action picture but not given much to do at all or having any real consequence on the story as Morgan; Charlie Day, who has to be smarmy and chew scenery but he’s at least lively; Jeff Goldblum, dropping in briefly to be his deliciously flamboyant self as the ruthless Wolf King; and Zachary Quinto, shading his one-note role a little bit with pathetic insecurity and search for validation as the brutish Crosby. 

All of the guests in the hotel have something to lose, but there’s not quite enough weight to all of them, excluding Jodie Foster’s Jean Thomas, to feel any great sense of catharsis in the end. While the finished product may not always match writer-director Drew Pearce’s ambitious vision or amount to much, “Hotel Artemis” is a violent, amusingly quirky exercise in style and gleeful archness. Beyond the ace production design and the slick lensing by cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (2017’s “It”) that gives the interiors of Hotel Artemis scale and geographical coherence, there are also at least two great uses of music (Jean listens to The Mamas & The Papas’ “California Dreamin’” to soothe her anxieties) and another thrilling, brooding, synth-heavy score by the consistently dependable Cliff Martinez. “Hotel Artemis” is satisfying enough as a one-off, but with its delectably designed and detailed accommodations for flimsy characters setting a solid foundation, it does lend itself to checking back in with Mrs. Thomas for more stays and further adventures.

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Thursday, June 7, 2018

All in the Family: "Hereditary" knocks you on your ass and festers under your skin


Hereditary (2018)
127 min., rated R.

Of all genres, the horror genre unfairly gets a bad rap most of the time, but it is actually the most cathartic. When done right, a horror film can not only frighten and rattle but convey the uncomfortable darkness of the human condition. Horror fans, themselves, can also be tough customers, although being more discriminating and patient to wait for a great film can be rewarding. With that said, Ari Aster’s electrifying feature debut “Hereditary” is honest-to-God, face-melting, gut-level horror, the cinematic equivalent of a nervous breakdown into madness fueled by loss and grief. Never underestimate a first-time writer-director like Aster, whose attention to detail is meticulous and loaded with suggestion, his pacing so masterfully assured, and his narrative profoundly disturbing, risk-taking and thematically dense. One immediately knows that he or she is in the hands of a veritable filmmaking craftsman with the know-how to transcend any genre to the level of art, and as for “Hereditary,” which has already been branded this generation’s “The Exorcist”: brace yourselves.

After the death of her 78-year-old mother that should cause tragic mourning, miniature artist Annie Graham (Toni Collette) struggles over the complicated emotions of her loss. As she says in her eulogy, Annie’s mother was a strange, secretive woman with whom she was estranged for years before her dementia and mental illness worsened. Annie at least has support from her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), but their children, pot-smoking 16-year-old son Peter (Alex Wolff) and withdrawn, not-quite-right 13-year-old Charlie (Milly Shapiro), each had disparate relationships with their grandmother; Peter can’t seem to muster much emotion following the funeral and Charlie, who was Grandma's favorite, is a strange bird altogether, sleeping in her treehouse some nights and collecting severed bird heads. To add more stress to her plate, Annie fastidiously creates miniature tableaus in her home workshop and has a gallery exhibit deadline to meet. When she decides to sneak off to a support group to share her psychological scars, Annie confides in a woman named Joan (Ann Dowd), who has lost two members of her family. It’s not until tragedy strikes the Graham family again that Annie’s life really starts to unravel, and then there’s the discovery that maybe she didn’t know her mother at all.

A deeply raw and unflinchingly harrowing domestic drama at its core, “Hereditary” has one invested in the plight of the vulnerable Graham family well before they disintegrate into hell. Startling and courageous, this is an elegantly helmed slow burn with a tangible sense of foreboding and bursts of unsparing, heart-stopping horror that come in unexpected places and indelibly horrific imagery that instantly burns into one’s retinas. For anyone who thinks they know where the film is going, all bets are off, but everything is part of Aster’s soundly constructed master plan. When the film begins curdling into a take-no-prisoners nightmare and reaches an unforgettably distressing boil, it’s like watching a fiery vehicle with faulty brakes careen down a hill toward a cliff. All of the breadcrumbs—a necklace here, something scratched into the wallpaper there—lead to an astounding crescendo that leaves all hope for dead and allows audience members to share the characters’ intensely quaking anxiety and discombobulation. 

Ari Aster directs the hell out of his first film, ominously opening on an outside treehouse and slowly panning to a dollhouse diorama that mirrors the Graham family’s own house and tracking closer to son Peter’s bedroom that suddenly springs to life when his father walks in, and it’s a neat, bewitching technical trick that sets the icily intoxicating tone. The bravura lensing by cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski’s (2017’s “Tragedy Girls”) is visually potent with a commanding mise-en-scène in each and every thoughtfully composed frame, and editors Lucian Johnston and Jennifer Lame cut effectively, often leaving the unimaginable to the imagination, while also flipping from daytime to nighttime like a light switch that further enhances the hallucinatory dread. This is to say nothing of the shuddersome sound design and the unsettling, discordant score by former Arcade Fire saxophonist Colin Stetson.

Toni Collette is a riveting, shattering powerhouse, exposing a full range of emotions and layers as Annie, a wife and mother trying but failing to keep it together as the bastion of strength. In one of several piercing scenes, Annie lashes out at her own son at the dinner table with volatility, unleashing pent-up resentment and fury, and to Joan, she reveals her sleepwalking episodes, particularly one involving paint thinner and a match. Gabriel Byrne is solidly understated as concerned but skeptical husband and father Steve, holding strong for his family in need even as a dark force closes in on all of them. Alex Wolff (2017’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”) is excellent as Peter, being put through the grueling wringer as much as Collette's Annie. He sells every character facet—teenage slackerdom and disaffectedness, puppy love, guilt, anger, fear and confusion—as well as a terrifying freakout during class. It would be unthinkable to not say the name, Milly Shapiro. Destined to break out after her debut film, 15-year-old Shapiro (who played the lead in “Matilda” on Broadway) is an ethereal find and more distinct than any child actor working today; Charlie's bedtime conversation with her mother, asking the question, “Who’s going to take care of me…when you die?” is one of the many chilling harbingers of doom. Ann Dowd also makes a lingering impact as Joan, a seemingly trustworthy woman who gives Annie solace.

Going into “Hereditary” and knowing as little as possible beforehand is the only way to go. Above and beyond dishing out effective jolts—although, what “The Conjuring” did with the hide-and-clap game, this one does do the same with a tongue cluck—Ari Aster is operating on a deeper level, provoking themes of unbreakable familial bonds and poisoned lineage, and then culminating in Greek tragedy-level consequence and truly evil implications of what's to come after the story ends. He puts his characters first and grounds the possibly supernatural proceedings with the devastation of a helpless family, manipulated by a higher force not unlike Annie manipulating every piece of her dioramas. Even when the circumstances are heightened to extremes and could feel overwrought on screen, the film never seems less than controlled and tonally of a piece, beginning with an on-screen obituary and ending with what feels like a knife to the viewer's heart. Like a vivid, merciless nightmare that won’t be easy to shake or forget, “Hereditary” knocks you on your ass, festers under your skin, and leaves one haunted long after the end credits. Good luck not staggering out of the theater because this is a diabolically bold and unnerving piece of horror cinema that’s bound to endure.

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