Reel Opinions


Saturday, July 28, 2018

Teen Titans Go! To the Movies

Aside from a few clips on Youtube, I am not exactly familiar with the Teen Titans Go! TV show on the Cartoon Network.  But, having seen Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, I wonder if I am not missing something.  This is a supremely silly, and at times laugh out loud funny, film that mercilessly and at times intelligently pokes fun at just about every Superhero Cinematic Universe and Hollywood cliche.  Kids will come for the characters from the TV series and the occasional fart joke, while accompanying adults will find themselves laughing at the pop culture references that have been slyly inserted into the dialogue.

I am aware of the controversy behind the show, and how there was an earlier Teen Titans cartoon in the 2000s that was somewhat more serious and faithful to the original comics, and that fans of this earlier show are upset with this new series that is pretty much aimed squarely at kids.  For those of you who honestly do get bent out of shape at a cartoon that is clearly not made for you, there is a mid-credit scene that might lift your spirits.  But onto the movie itself.  The Teen Titans are a team of wannabe superheroes who are pretty much seen as jokes by every major hero and villain out there.  They are led by Robin (voice by Scott Menville), who is egotistical and tired of being seen as solely Batman's sidekick.  There is also Beast Boy (Greg Cipes), who can assume the form of any animal he wishes, and seems very excitable.  Next is Raven (Tara Strong), a girl with demonic powers who speaks in an ominous monotone, but secretly has a heart of gold.  Cyborg (Khary Payton) used to be human, but his body now is mostly robotic, and hides various weapons and a tape deck for which to play music.  Finally there is Starfire (Hynden Walch), a sweet and ever-optimistic alien princess.

The plot of the film centers around Robin's desire to have a movie made about him and the other Titans after seeing how every other superhero is getting their own movie. (Oddly, the movie does not bring up the fact that Cyborg appeared in last year's Justice League movie, but maybe the filmmakers want to forget that one ever happened.) After the Titans are forbidden from attending the premiere of the latest Batman movie (titled Batman Again), and they find out movies are being made about Batman's butler Alfred, the Batmobile, and even the Utility Belt, Robin decides that the only way that they can get a movie and impress world famous Hollywood filmmaker Jade Wilson (Kristen Bell) is to have an arch rival.  The villain they pick is Slade (Will Arnett), a masked bad guy who has recently stolen "the ultimate plot device" - a crystal that can power a mind control Doomsday Device.

From there, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies starts throwing one visual and verbal gag at the audience in rapid succession.  The ones that get the biggest laughs are the hidden jokes (The Titans live in Jump City, whose welcome sign assures visitors that it is "Safer Than Gotham".), and the non-stop parodies of other superhero films.  Naturally, the movie pokes fun at the overly serious DC Cinematic films like Batman v. Superman, but the Marvel Universe is not spared either.  They even manage to throw a Stan Lee cameo in the film.  There are some clever nods at movie tropes as well, such as when the Titans try to cheer up Robin with an upbeat 80s tune performed by Michael Bolton that's titled "An Upbeat Inspirational Song About Life".  I was actually surprised by how well the movie plays to the adult audience.  After the visually interesting but somewhat drab Hotel Transylvania 3, this is a kid's movie that knows how to speak to both audiences.

Speaking of the visuals, the movie is drawn entirely in 2D animation, just like the TV show.  I kind of found myself admiring the approach, which is not exactly eye-grabbing, but has a unique charm.  It's also kind of nice to have an animated film where professional voice actors play the lead characters, rather than bankable celebrities.  Yes, there are "names" in the movie like Kristen Bell and Will Arnett, and while they are fine, for once they are not the draw.  There's even more celebrity stunt casting when Nicolas Cage turns up as the voice of Superman, which is a funny Hollywood in-joke that most will miss out on.  It never goes beyond that basic gag, but it's not supposed to.  The characters from the TV show that kids love are the draw, and they work well in a cinematic feature.

Teen Titans Go! To the Movies is smarter than you might think, and a lot of fun, even when the jokes don't always work.  The fact that the movie never lets up and is consistently entertaining is probably its greatest asset.  There's no doubt that the built-in under 10 crowd will love this.  What's more surprising is that adults may find themselves laughing more at certain jokes than the kids.

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Mission: Impossible - Fallout

Since it's inception with the 1996 Brian De Palma film, the Mission: Impossible cinematic franchise has been that rare blockbuster creation that has improved over time.  The latest and sixth installment, Fallout, is a reminder of what a truly satisfying, white-knuckle action film can be.  And after recent disappointments like Skyscraper or The Equalizer 2, it's all the more satisfying.  It's not just the best pure-spectacle and non-superhero related action film we've had this summer, it's also the best one we've had since Baby Driver.

One of the interesting things that writer-director Christopher McQuarrie does is that this is a direct continuation of the previous film, 2015's Rogue Nation, as all the previous entries have largely been stand alone.  If you didn't see that one, or have forgotten it over time, worry not.  The movie does a great job of getting you up to speed, while at the same time not wasting time catching up with a lot of exposition.  This is a lean action thriller that cuts right to the chase.  Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) continues his battle against the Apostles, a terrorist organization that essentially wants to create peace out of chaos.  Their philosophy is the greater the suffering, the greater the peace that comes afterward.  They have gotten their hands on some weapons-grade plutonium, and now have dirty bombs in their possession that they are ready to unleash upon the world. 

When it is revealed that the Apostles have been working with an agent on the inside of Hunt's force with the code name of John Lark in order to get the plutonium, Hunt's boss Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) sends him to Paris where the mysterious John Lark is going to make a sale with an underground arms dealer.  Ethan must take out Lark, pose as him, and make the sale so that the bombs never fall in the wrong hands.  However, before Hunt can leave for his latest mission, he is handed an unwanted sidekick by Alan's superior Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett).  Sloan does not entirely trust Hunt on such an important mission, so she sends one of her own agents, August Walker (Henry Cavill), with Ethan.   The reason for the mistrust is that during a recent mission, Ethan chose to save one of his allies rather than getting the job done, which caused a potentially crucial mistake in their battle against the Apostles.  August is cold, calculating, and mostly uncaring.  His only concern is getting the job done.

This contrast between Ethan and August makes up a majority of the tension in the film, as both men have different methods to getting the job done.  As the two embark to Paris for the mission, they are joined up by Ethan's teammates from previous movies, such as the calm and collected Luther (Ving Rhames), master of disguise Benji (Simon Pegg), and the lovely and precise Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson).  Where the plot goes from here, I'd better not say, but it involves the villain from the last film, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), and a lot of brilliantly executed action set pieces that I dare not reveal.  This is one of those movies that is constantly moving at almost a breakneck pace, but never sacrifices the plot or characters.  It's almost brilliant how the movie just flows from one sequence to the next, giving us just enough information before it goes onto the next thrill or stunt.  McQuarrie clearly understands how to balance the spectacle and a plot we can care about, which concerns a lot of issues about trust and loyalty. 

I also was surprised by how much I found myself caring about Ethan Hunt in Fallout.  He is not a super spy, he makes mistake, and he even misses his target once in a while.  Again, this is almost key to the movie, as the plot revolves around which of the two lead agents has the more effective method of performing the current mission.  At the same time, the movie knows that we have come for the thrills, and so it puts Ethan in one harrowing situation after another that is bound to have audiences gasping for breath and then laughing almost immediately afterward.  Speaking of laughs, the movie can be very funny at times as well, with British comic Simon Pegg providing some funny one-liners.  There's an easy chemistry between Cruise, Pegg and Rhames as the three main agents, and while it's easy to see why, since they've done a number of these movies together before, it comes across as strong as ever here.  They're having fun together, and it brings to the film a sense of joy that you might not be expecting.  It's just fun to watch them work together.

When you get right down to it, this is a complete cinematic experience that we so seldom get at the movies anymore.  It has an interesting story, while not getting bogged down with it, and it provides plenty of thrills and action that are not only brilliantly executed and shot, but stuff that we really have not seen done before or that often.  It also has a sense of fun without having to resort to cheap laughs or constantly reminding the audience that you're not supposed to be taking it all that seriously.  The high stakes and intensity are always present, but the movie knows how to take the time for some genuine laughs once in a while.  With so many mindless or familiar action movies out there, it takes one like this to remind you just how it's supposed to be done.  It's the kind of film you almost want to slip under the door of anyone who might be working on an action project, so that they can study and learn from it.

There have been no shortage of sequels this summer.  Heck, last weekend, all three major releases were sequels.  But Mission: Impossible - Fallout easily rises to the top accompanied only by Avengers: Infinity War and The Incredibles 2.  It might even be better than them in some ways.  It's the kind of invigorating summer entertainment that you just want to embrace.

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Saturday, July 21, 2018

The Equalizer 2

Denzel Washington has been making movies for well over 30 years, and The Equalizer 2 is the first sequel he's been involved in.  Too bad it has to be such a plodding and middling one.  Don't get me wrong, I wasn't exactly wishing for Fences Part II, or Another Training Day.  But then, a followup to 2014's cinematic take on The Equalizer (based on a TV show from the mid-80s) wasn't exactly high on my list, either.  Much like before, Washington is giving a fine performance here, and the action is brutal.  But it's hard to get excited about the undercooked plot and characters that surround them.

Washington is back as Robert McCall, a man who passes himself off as a regular blue collar guy, but secretly possesses a certain set of skills that he can use to avenge people who have been wronged.  Last time, he worked at a big box store, and used his skills to help his co-workers when they were wronged.  I remember the scene where he took a hammer off the rack of the store, used it on a goon, washed the blood off, and then put it back on the shelf the next day.  McCall lives by a simple code - Be nice, or prepare to have your bones broken or worse.  In one scene, he takes out a room of wealthy, self-important young jerks because they abused a woman that they paid for the night.  He dispatches them brutally, breaking numerous bones and skulls in the process, and then walks away and the movie forgets it ever happened.  That's the kind of movie this is.  But hey, at least that scene ends on a touch of dark humor when McCall asks one of the men he just ravaged for a five-star review for his service as a Lyft driver.

When he's not beating the living snot out of young punks or putting bullets in other people's heads, he's usually giving rides as a driver, cleaning graffiti, reading as many books as he can, and helping a troubled youth from his apartment building (Ashton Sanders from Moonlight) find a different path in life that doesn't involve gangs and drugs.  As long as you don't get on his bad side, he's an alright guy.  Maybe a bit quiet and isolated, but he cares, such as his personal mission to help a Holocaust survivor (Orson Bean) track down the family he was separated from during the war.  All of this is supposed to help us identify with McCall, but it's not as developed as well as it should be.  There are some good moments between Washington and Sanders, and Sanders does get one very tense and suspenseful moment late in the film.  But these get bogged down by long action scenes, like the lengthy and not at all effective shootout that closes the film.

The plot doesn't truly kick in until he is paid a visit by an old friend from the first movie, Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo).  She shows up in his apartment uninvited one day with some soup and the words of wisdom of how helping random people isn't going to fix the hole in McCall's heart that was left by the death of his wife.  Maybe McCall thinks she is right.  Maybe he should settle down, let more people into his life, and try to be normal again.  But then, he suffers a personal tragedy, and he's back to gunning after the bad guys who are responsible.  The Equalizer 2 clearly wants us to sympathize with McCall, and make him a vigilante who does have a heart and genuinely cares about the few people in his life.  But he is written so bland and so thinly that we often can't get a handle on what makes him a gentle and caring man, and what makes him the sort who snaps necks in mere seconds and without a single thought.

The bad guys behind all the trouble aren't much more interesting.  They're mostly just hired assassins that kill whoever just happens to be their next target, and that's about it.  There's just not a lot of motivation driving this plot.  It tries to thrill us with its hyper-violent action, but I think it also wants us to care about these people too, and it doesn't go far enough in that regard.  For most audiences, the thrills and action will likely be enough.  But I found McCall to be a potentially interesting character who just doesn't have enough behind him.  I felt the same way about him last time, and I was kind of hoping the sequel would build upon the character and maybe open him up more.  Maybe I'll have to wait for the inevitable third movie, but I doubt that director Antoine Fuqua wants to mess with a formula that has been winning at the box office so far.

The Equalizer 2 is slickly made and well acted, but it never engaged me on a lever where I cared about what was happening to these characters.  Just like before, I wanted to like this one more than I did, but again, I was held at a distance.  I will keep on holding out hope for this franchise, however.  It does appeal to me, even if it does come up short consistently. 

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Unfriended: Dark Web

2014's Unfriended was a slight, but mostly effective high-tech variant on the slasher movie.  Instead of having a bunch of kids being bumped off by an evil spirit in the woods or in a sorority house, they were being killed by the ghost of a former classmate that was somehow able to take control of their computers while the heroes were doing a live internet chat.  No, it did not make a lot of sense if you applied any sort of logic to it, but it was a clever gimmick for a horror film, and it was kind of fun to watch it with an audience of uppity teenagers.

I think the reason why Unfriended: Dark Web did not work for me is because the movie is much more ambitious than the first, and tries to explain too much.  Rather than chalking the events that happen to the kids this time around as "paranormal", the movie tries to convince us that a bunch of murderous hackers can do impossible things when it comes to voice editing and video photoshop.  The movie can be graphic and gruesome, and many of the deaths are way over the top, and not in a "fun" sort of way.  This movie wants to be edgy, harsh and unforgiving.  But, because it asks us to take so many leaps of logic and is constantly trying to explain itself, the movie is just not that scary.  And as the movie becomes more and more absurd, you just kind of stop following it.

The plot this time around centers on Matias (Colin Woodell), who needs a new laptop, so he decides to swipe one that's been sitting in the Lost and Found for the past few weeks at the Internet Cafe where he works.  He sets up a Game Night over Skype with some of his friends, which include comic relief AJ (Connor Del Rio), British tech genius Damon (Andrew Lees), the recently engaged to each other Nari (Betty Gabriel) and Serena (Rebecca Rittenhouse), and the rebellious Lexx (Savira Windyani).  Matias also has a girlfriend named Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras), who is deaf, and whom he is having issues with early on.  When the killers start stalking Matias' friends, the movie does build a little bit of tension by having Amaya not being able to hear that the villains are in her apartment or following her, but it doesn't do enough with this angle to be successful.

While Matias is chatting with his friends and trying to work things out with Amaya at the same time, he begins to uncover some things about the laptop's previous owner when he digs into the computer's files, and starts bringing up creepy videos of people on camera who obviously don't know they're being filmed.  Chief among them is a video of someone sneaking into a teenage girl's bedroom while she sleeps.  Matias does a quick search, and finds an article about that same girl having gone missing.  It turns out that the previous owner was involved in the criminal dark web, and now Matias has gotten himself and his friends involved in a deadly game where these hackers and criminals can pretty much control every aspect of your life.

You kind of have to admire these criminals, because as Dark Web goes along, their plans and methods to wipe out Matias and his friends one-by-one become more elaborate and far-fetched.  Some of the scenes are actually pretty depraved and would have been shocking if writer-director Stephen Susco (a long-time horror writer making his directorial debut) did not ask us to suspend so much disbelief.  This could have been a poignant and chilling film if it had just taken a less extreme approach to everything.  As it turns out, it's a lot of missed opportunities mixed with some unintentional bad laughs.  The internet can be a scary place, and this movie could have tapped into something raw and powerful if it hadn't been so concerned with going after shock horror and violence.

It all boils down to the simple fact that Unfriended did not need a follow up, and this one doesn't do anything to warrant the existence of one.  There is a movie coming out next month called Searching, and uses a similar "on line" gimmick to tell the story of a father searching for his missing daughter, and uncovering her secret on line life.  I can only hope that film takes itself a bit more seriously, and taps into the genuinely chilling experience that certain areas of the internet can be.

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Friday, July 20, 2018

Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again

I'm pleasantly surprised by how well Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again turned out.  Not only was I able to resist the forced charms of the original 2008 summer blockbuster, but I am against the very idea of musicals having sequels.  They have seldom if ever worked, whether you look to the stage (see Love Never Dies, Andrew Lloyd Webber's misguided attempt to pump out a sequel to The Phantom of the Opera) or to the screen (see 1982's notorious Grease 2).  To me, it's just a bad idea.  Musicals really come across as self-contained spectacles in my eyes, and there's really never a need for a continuation.  Yet, it's an idea that Broadway and filmmakers continue to chase once in a while, such as when they attempted to do a sequel to Annie for the stage, where the evil Mrs. Hannigan tried to murder the little orphan and replace her with a doppelganger in order to fool Daddy Warbucks.  And yes, that really happened.

So, why did this work for me?  Was I just in the right mood for a piece of cinematic fluff built around the hit songs of ABBA?  Did the rainy and gray weather outside just put me in the right mood for something cheerful and energetic?  Well, I honestly think that this is a better movie.  It's sweeter, not quite as empty-headed (it's still not that smart, mind you), and there are some genuinely touching moments near the end.  The movie was able to get past my defenses, unlike the original.  There are some laughs, a lot of enthusiastically sung and choreographed songs, and it genuinely made me feel happy when it was done.  That's obviously what writer-director Ol Parker (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), has set out to do, and he succeeds.  I'm sure there will be plenty of cynics who shy away from this, but I don't care.

One element that is missing from the original that might disappoint some fans is Meryl Streep, whose character Donna Sheridan has died one year prior to the events of this sequel.  Her character is still ever-present, however.  Not only is part of the film's plot based around flashbacks of her as a recent college graduate (played in flashbacks by a winning and charming Lily James), but there are constant reminders throughout of her, and the filmmakers have even managed to work in a clever and very heartfelt cameo for Streep.  So, it's not like she's completely been obliterated from the storyline.  And James is a wonderful stand-in as the younger Donna, who after graduating decides to explore the world, eventually finds her way to the Greek Island where the present day action is set, and meets up with the three men who will all play a big part in her personal and romantic life.  The three men are once again Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and Harry (Colin Firth), and in the flashbacks, the young men are portrayed by Jeremy Irvine, Josh Dylan and Hugh Skinner, respectively.

If you remember the original Mamma Mia!, Donna's daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) invited the three men to her wedding, because she was certain that one of them was her birth father.  There was a lot of over the top singing, dancing and characters hooking up with each other.  This time, there's a little bit more plot. (Just barely, actually.) With her mother gone, Sophie has taken over the vacation villa that Donna used to run, and is planning a grand opening celebration after having fixed it up.  Working on the place that was her mother's dream is what brings about the flashbacks, where we see the younger Donna finding the villa in the first place, meeting the men, and eventually giving birth to Sophie on her own, which inspires her daughter to do her best.  There is once again over the top singing, dancing and characters hooking up with each other, and there's the arrival of Sophie's grandmother Ruby (Cher), who crashes the grand opening party by showing up in a helicopter and making a spectacle of herself.  And no, I don't know if I just described the character or Cher herself.  There's even a small but charming role for Andy Garcia, who after Book Club and now this is becoming quite winning in romantic comedy roles.

Nothing has really changed all that much from the original, but for some reason, I just found this movie funnier and a little less desperate.  Christine Baranski and Julie Walters are back as Donna's best friends, Tanya and Rosie, who are here to give Sophie emotional support leading up to the big day, and they get some big laughs with some of their one liners and personal exchanges.  There is also a small but very funny role for British Iranian comedian Omid Djalili as a man who stamps passports, but can't help but be critical of people's appearances based on their passport photos.  And of course, there are the songs, which are once again a jukebox of random ABBA songs.  Your feelings for the music will undoubtedly be connected with how you feel about the 70s super group.  I'm kind of mixed on them myself - They've done some catchy stuff I've enjoyed, and others I'm not so fond of.  The sequel is mostly made up of the songs I don't mind.

Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again knows what kind of movie it is, and as long as you do as well and don't mind an overflow of cornball romance and musical dance numbers, you can enjoy.  I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would, so maybe you will also.  Still, I won't argue with the people who think the movie is mindless and unnecessary, because it certainly is.  But it's also a lot of fun.

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Saturday, July 14, 2018

Skyscraper

Skyscraper is Dwayne Johnson's third starring role in less than a year after December's Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and Rampage in April.  This probably puts him comfortably in the position as one of the hardest working men in Hollywood.  However, after watching it, I can't help but feel he might need a break soon.  He still has charisma and star power to burn here, but the projects he picks are not up to his talents.  I'd hate to see him become a victim of overexposure.

As an action thriller, Skyscraper feels recycled from top to bottom.  It's a throwback to those countless Die Hard rip offs that were a dime a dozen back in the 90s, and usually featured Jean Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal in the lead role.  The special effects and stunt work have been updated to the current standards, but the script can't be bothered to give us anything we haven't seen before.  The people who inhabit the movie are character types that have been plugged into the screenplay by writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Central Intelligence), only because they're the kind of stock types who usually show up in these movies.  There's the hero's best friend who turns out to be a traitor, the smarmy business associate who speaks with a snooty British accent (he's a traitor too), the stoic wealthy man who refuses to give into the terrorists' demands, the icy cold female assassin who kills without a single thought through most of the movie, then acts really stupid in her final scene so she can be defeated, and the hero's little girl who acts as a hostage through most of the movie, and screams "Daddy!" a lot to the point that you wish she would just be shipped off to a good day care for the rest of the movie.

The action is set in a glistening high rise in Hong Kong called The Pearl, which is the brainchild of an eccentric billionaire named Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han), and is the tallest building in the world, three times the size of the Empire State Building we are told early on.  Dwayne Johnson plays Will Sawyer, who was an FBI agent 10 years ago, until a hostage negotiation went wrong, and he wound up losing part of his left leg in a bomb blast.  We witness this event in an opening flashback, and it's the first of many instances where the movie has been cleverly edited to hide multiple casualties in order to obtain a PG-13 rating.  It gets a bit silly after a while, especially when we see armed men open fire on a room full of innocent people at one point, and despite the numerous innocent lives lost, the movie refuses to acknowledge it.  Since that day 10 years ago, Will has never touched a gun, and now lives in the Pearl building as a security consultant.  He also has a wife named Sarah (Neve Campbell), who was the nurse who treated his injuries back then, and two young twin children (McKenna Grace and Noah Cottrell).

There's a lot of clunky exposition early on as we learn about The Pearl, which is basically a high-tech city enclosed in a massive structure with all the latest security precautions.  Naturally, these precautions do not stop the terrorists from getting in, taking control of the building's advanced features, and using highly flammable chemicals to set one of the floors of the building on fire.  Led by the deadly Kores Botha (Roland Moller), the bad guys want a small device that Zhao Long Ji holds, which naturally holds some incriminating information.  Does the plot matter?  Not one little bit.  Thurber wastes no time in kicking the action up to high gear, and giving us a lot of thrilling escapes and shootouts.  The movie certainly looks good, and there are some impressive stunts on display.  It also gets some some interesting mileage out of the fact that Johnson's character has a prosthetic leg, and how he uses it in some situations.

But outside of these fleeting positives, Skyscraper feels like a movie from over 20 years ago.  The movies back then at least had the sense to be R-rated, and not hide the carnage from us.  We're supposed to be taken in by the thrills, and watching this somewhat "every man" outwit the villains and make up his plan to climb the building and reach his family as he goes along.  In this aspect, the movie does owe an obvious debt to the original Die Hard.  But that movie had a lot more tension and thrills, and the villains were more interesting.  This movie is never terrible exactly, it just feels assembled and overly familiar.  A movie like this can overcome these problems by adding in some unique action scenes or maybe likable characters, but like I said above, nobody is allowed to develop beyond their basic character traits.

I'm personally all for Dwayne Johnson continuing to make movies.  He's always enjoyable to watch, and he's one of the more personable action stars we have out there.  I just don't see the sense in plugging him into a role that relies so little on his charisma, and has him playing a character type we've seen many times before.  Skyscraper never lets him truly create a character behind the stunts, and that is its biggest flaw.

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Friday, July 13, 2018

Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation

The sole reason to watch Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation if you are an adult is to admire director and co-writer's Genndy Tartakovsky's unique character designs and animation.  This has been a staple of the franchise, and just watching the characters' movements and how their bodies bend, snap and stretch as they animate brings to mind the artstyle of the classic Looney Tunes shorts.  It's really quite refreshing to see a filmmaker use the CG format to invoke a classic animation style, rather than trying to create photo-realistic environments and characters.  Now if only the script was on the same level as the cartoons it was emulating, we'd have one heck of an entertainment.

Hotel Transylvania 3 is pleasant and inoffensive, and will probably work best for kids up to a certain age.  I'd say if you're 12 or older, you're pushing it.  The movie continues the story of Dracula (voiced once again by Adam Sandler), who is not the blood-sucking ghoul you may remember from other movies, but is depicted here as an overworked family man who runs a hotel for monsters, and is in need of a vacation of his own.  His daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) recognizes this, and books her father and his fellow monster friends on a cruise across the Bermuda Triangle, with its main destination being the Lost City of Atlantis.  Tartakovsky and his team of artists fill pretty much every square inch of the screen with a wide variety of monsters, ghosts and gremlins, and it can be a lot of fun to watch.  Unfortunately, behind the clever visuals, there's virtually no plot and little to care about.

What little plot we do get is centered around the Captain of the cruise ship, Ericka (Kathryn Hahn), who unknown to our monster heroes is the great-granddaughter of Dracula's age-old nemesis, the vampire hunter Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan).  She's set this trip up as a trap to get all the monsters together in one place so that she can destroy them.  But then, Dracula develops a romantic interest in her, and after a while, she starts to return his affections, and begins to wonder if monsters are as terrible as her great-grandfather told her.  We also get a few underdeveloped subplots for some of Dracula's monster friends.  Wayne the Wolfman (Steve Buscemi) and his wife (Molly Shannon) experience freedom for the first time after they are allowed to drop off their pack of destructive wolf children at the ship's day care, while Frank the Frankenstein's Monster (Kevin James) literally loses his limbs at the gambling table.  Other returning characters like Murray the Mummy (Keegan-Michael Key) and Griffin the Invisible Man (David Spade) show up now and then, but don't really get to contribute anything.

The Hotel Transylvania franchise has always been somewhat of a second-tier animated series, with the inspired and clever animation being the main draw, but they were at least sort of fun and had some jokes that work.  There are still some good gags here, but they are fewer and far-between, and the whole experience just feels a bit slight and more unnecessary than before.  There are glimmers of inspiration to be found.  I liked the early scene depicting an airplane run by destructive gremlins, which transports Dracula and his friends to their vacation.  There's also a new character who was introduced in a cartoon short that showed before The Emoji Movie last year -a massive puppy the size of a dump truck named Tinkles, who sneaks on board the ship and tries to pass himself off as a monster when it learns there are no pets allowed on the ship.  He gets some laughs now and then, but again, the filmmakers seem unsure of what to do with him, and so they mostly just bring him on screen when the film requires some slapstick.

There's really not a whole lot to complain about here, other than the entire movie simply feels unnecessary, and the screenplay by Tartakovsky and Michael McCullers runs out of inspiration not long after Dracula and his friends have boarded the ship.  The movie tries to hold our attention with its technical and artistic style, and it works for a while, but it doesn't take long until you start to realize there's little to be offered here.  Still, the movie does provide a fun time that parents can share with young children, and maybe that's all you're looking for.  I would never discourage a movie for wanting to provide such a simple and noble goal.  There's just a certain lack of effort that eventually rears its head.

If you have young kids who want to see this, they can go without hesitation.  But if you're an adult animation fan looking for something to watch, you'll have to hold out a little while longer for something else.  Hotel Transylvania 3 can be a lot of fun to look at, but its joys are merely surface level.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Ant-Man and the Wasp

I think for me the big reason why the Marvel Cinematic Universe has worked as well as it has for the past 10 years is that for all of its superheroics and premonitions about world-ending doom, the heroes at the center of the stories have a certain looseness to them.  They understand the stakes, but at the same time, sometimes when you're facing a planet-conquering titan, you just need to crack a joke in order to lessen the tension.  Detractors will say that this makes Marvel films aimed squarely at kids, and that the much more dark and dire DC Comics fare like Batman v. Superman are superior, because they are more serious, and therefore made for adults.  I never understood this, as to the best of my knowledge, adults enjoy humor too, and it's not often frowned upon.

Ant-Man and the Wasp is pretty lightweight stuff, even for Marvel, but it still works because it's playful with its humor, not cynical.  The filmmakers and writers are clearly having a lot of fun with this world where its hero can shrink himself to "ant size", thereby making everyday objects like Hello Kitty Pez Dispensers into the size of mammoth tanks.  It also has a great leading man in Paul Rudd, who plays Scott, better known as the titular Ant-Man.  This time, he's teamed up with his potential love interest from the 2015 Ant-Man movie, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who gets a super suit of her own, which allows her to not only shrink to ant size like Scott, but can also fly and is armed with blasters on her wrists to knock out foes.  She calls herself The Wasp, and when Scott sees her in action, he asks Hope's father, scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who invented both the Ant-Man and Wasp suits why he didn't give him wings and blasters.  Turns out Hank just didn't feel like it.

As the film kicks off, Scott is nearing the end of a house arrest sentence and slapped with an ankle monitor bracelet after he participated in the big smackdown battle in Captain America: Civil War.  He's lost touch with both Hank and Hope, and pretty much spends his days with his adorable 10-year-old daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson), and under the constant surveillance of a nosy FBI agent (Randall Park, a hilarious and welcome addition to the series).  Meanwhile, Hank and Hope are continuing their research into the disappearance of Hope's mother (Michelle Pfeiffer), who was the original Wasp, and disappeared when she shrank to subatomic size while trying to save the world.  Because Scott went to subatomic size and returned near the end of the last movie, they think he might hold the key to finding her.  The fact that Scott is having strange dreams that seem to be messages sent by Hope's mother only strengthens the notion that not only is she still alive, but she can be reached.

Fortunately, Hank has all the technology he needs to find his missing wife in his lab, which in one of the film's most cleverest visual gags can be shrunk and used as a wheeled suitcase.  But of course, it's not going to be that easy, as various evil forces want the technology Hank holds for their own ends.  First, there's the shady science technology dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), who realizes that he can make a profit out of the work that Hank and Hope are doing, and wants to double cross them.  But the more prominent threat is a masked figure who calls herself Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who has the ability to pass through solid matter after an accident at a lab granted her the ability.  Unfortunately, this genetic mutation is slowly killing her, and she needs Hank's research in order to save her life, and she doesn't care who she has to hurt in order to get her hands on it.

Ant-Man and the Wasp basically becomes one large chase picture, as the heroes constantly try to stay one step ahead of the villains who want their technology.  This by itself sounds fairly routine, but again, the film's imagination and coming up with inventive ways of playing with the size of the main characters and everyday objects is what sets it apart from your standard summer blockbuster.  This imagination and comic use of everyday objects being giant carries right through to the fight scenes, especially during a sequence where Hope as The Wasp battles some thugs in a kitchen.  This is simply a fun movie to watch, and returning director Peyton Reed obviously is having a great time coming up with new approaches to what would be generic action sequences in other movies.  An extended car chase late in the film ends up being a lot more fun than it should, due to the fact that Ant-Man's suit starts malfunctioning in the middle of it, causing him to grow to mammoth size, and he's forced to participate in the chase by using a truck like a child's scooter, riding on the back, and kicking his leg against the street to make it go.

This is also just a wonderfully cast film.  Paul Rudd (who also contributed to the screenplay) brings his signature joyful humor to just about every scene, but he also knows not to overdo it, so that the movie never becomes too silly.  His returning co-star, Evangeline Lilly, is the real stand out here, as she gets to finally step into the spotlight this time around as The Wasp, and proves that she not only can easily act alongside Rudd, but can hold her own in every action sequence.  Even more impressive are the supporting characters, who each bring their own sense of humor to the film.  Michael Douglas brings the grumpy sarcasm, Michael Pena (returning as Scott's business partner from the last movie) is winning with his somewhat detached sense of humor and love for epic, rambling stories, and Randall Park is scene-stealing as an FBI agent who wants to be tough, but can't help but hint he might want to join Scott for dinner one night when he's supposed to be grilling him. 

It's the playful way that Ant-Man and the Wasp lets everyone in on the fun in some way that makes the film more charming than your usual superhero blockbuster.  It's not as self-aware as the Deadpool movies, but it doesn't need to make fun of itself or point out its own cliches.  It's simply a light, fun summer film that's clever enough for adults and never too violent or scary for small kids.  And even though Ant-Man is not exactly an A-List superhero in the Marvel Universe, I would love to see more of his adventures.

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