film

The Potterverse Continues with FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD by Ryan Hill

 
beastslogo.jpg

In 2016, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was released. While not as good as most of the eight Harry Potter films, the prequel scratched an itch for more of author J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World. Audiences may be getting more than they bargained for with four planned sequels, the first of which is The Crimes of Grindelwald.

Revealed to be a pale Johnny Depp with weird eyes and bleached hair, Gellert Grindelwald was Voldemort before, well, Voldemort. Grindelwald was mentioned in the Potter books, but very little of him was seen. Crimes puts the villain front and center as he tries to convert wizards and witches to his cause of ruling the non-magical world.

fantastic-beasts-2-images-6.jpg

Once again, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is recruited into action by Albus Dumbledore (or Dumbledamn, as some have termed the character since Jude Law plays him) to find Credence (Ezra Miller), the Obscurial thought to have died at the end of Fantastic Beasts. Once again, Newt needs to find Credence before Grindelwald. There’s so much more story going on including Newt’s brother, his childhood sweetheart, his current sweetheart, her sister, and lots of other characters old and new, but it’d take the entire review listing everything out.

Take a look at all the characters in this banner. All of them have their own backstories, motivations, etc. It’s a lot to take in.

beastsbanner.jpg

Suffice to say, while Rowling (who wrote the screenplays for Fantastic Beasts and Grindelwald) introduces oodles of plot threads, none of them are tied up or pay off. They’re all merely introduced, waiting to be concluded in a future entry. Grindelwald would’ve been a much stronger film if it focused on telling its own story first and the bigger picture second, but that seems like something Rowling might’ve forgotten with the Fantastic Beasts series.

One of the things that made the Potter films so good was that each entry told a story that could stand on its own. It helped to know what came before, but it wasn’t a pre-requisite. Sure, each book/movie built up the bigger story piece by piece, but it wasn’t the main goal. Except for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. That one is basically nothing but set-up for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. An outsider to the Potter-verse could watch Goblet of Fire or Chamber of Secrets without having seen anything else and be fine. The Fantastic Beasts series, to date, hasn’t been so lucky. Especially Grindelwald. The film really is the Half-Blood Prince to the upcoming Beasts films, in that all it does is set up future entries. Viewed outside of the series, a person would go wonky trying to figure out what was going on plot-wise. Instead of a standalone film, Grindelwald feels like the second chapter in a five-chapter story. Without seeing the big picture, it just doesn’t totally work.

rev-1-FBCOG-CCTRLR-001_High_Res_JPEG.jpeg

Despite the controversy over his casting, Depp makes for a fine Grindelwald, who’s seductive words are nicely juxtaposed against his intimidating appearance. Despite the wizard’s pale skin and strange eyes – one of which is menacing to the point of distracting – Rowling has written the villain in such a way that it’s easy to see how someone who looks so much like a villain can in people over to his cause. There Voldemort used force and intimidation to build his army, Grindelwald may be even more dangerous. He can talk someone into choosing to join him, a much scarier proposition.

Oscar winner Redmayne is always charming as Newt, who sadly gets pushed to the background so new characters can have the spotlight. Newt and his kind demeanor carried Fantastic Beasts, and its sorely missed among all the plot threads in Grindelwald.

fantastic-beasts-2-images-4.jpg

The Crimes of Grindelwald isn’t vintage Harry Potter. It has some great visuals and good action, but the film is tasked with carrying the load of three upcoming sequels, and the weight is too much for one film, especially one that isn’t three hours long. Grindelwald is fine for what it is and will probably age well as the other Fantastic Beasts films are released, but with nothing else to go on, it’s an enjoyable enough film for Potter fans, but everyone else will probably be bored.

FIRST MAN is scary, exciting and terrific by Ryan Hill

 
firstmanbanner.jpg

Everybody knows who Neil Armstrong is. He’s the first man to walk on the moon. An American hero. All that jazz. But there was more to Armstrong than that. He was a stoic man who lost a daughter to a brain tumor when she was only two-years-old. Damien Chazelle’s First Man fleshes out the iconic Armstrong, stripping away everything romantic about the man and his mission: to walk on the moon.

firstman1.jpg

Ryan Gosling, re-teaming with La La Land director Chazelle, takes on the difficult task of capturing Armstrong, a stoic, quiet man who kept his feelings buried deep inside him. Sometimes Gosling pulls it off, sometimes he doesn’t. First Man frames Armstrong’s drive having to do with his daughter’s death, and it may have. It’s a great motivational device with a wonderful payoff, though it’s unclear if that truly drove the man. The Crown’s Claire Foy co-stars as Neil’s wife, Janet. Foy does everything she can with the role, which is basically another iteration of the “suffering astronaut’s wife.” Janet keeps the peace around the house, but sadly she doesn’t have much else to do besides be a mom, worry about her husband and occasionally get angry.

First Man is the perfect middle chapter in an unofficial trilogy of space films. It covers the two-man Gemini missions up through the three-man Apollo missions, ending at the moon landing with Apollo 11. Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff depicts the one-man Mercury missions that kicked off things for NASA, then Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 is the book-end. The three films make for a nice, long afternoon of movies covering the space race.

hero_first-man-image-2.jpg

First Man is clearly influenced by The Right Stuff, Apollo 13 and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it eschews the patriotism of the first two (which is almost suffocating in Stuff) in favor of the harsh, dangerous reality of being an astronaut. Chazelle’s framing is tight and claustrophobic, shooting the missions in a you-are-there style, rarely venturing away from what the actual astronauts saw. It isn’t until Apollo 11 that Chazelle opens things up, enjoying the history of the moment while also acknowledging the inherent danger in space flight, and boy is there danger. Every cockpit sounds rickety and unstable, as if they’ll break apart and kill the astronauts at any moment. First Man doesn’t depict Armstrong and his fellow astronauts as great patriots, but more what they really were: men with steel guts willing to strap themselves on top of a giant rocket full of gasoline that could explode at a moment’s notice, incinerating their bodies, all for the chance to go to space, and eventually the moon.

First Man is fantastic, but it isn’t perfect. There are hints of the space race against Russia early on, then that subplot disappears. Public outcry over the number of astronauts who’ve died pops up, only to go away when it isn’t necessary. Both complaints are nitpicky. First Man is a fantastic achievement and one of 2018’s best films.

Is Denzel Washington in his TAKEN phase with EQUALIZER 2? by Ryan Hill

 
xTheEqualizer2_banner.jpg.pagespeed.ic.K9q33npHLG.jpg

Denzel Washington deserves better than this. He received Best Actor Oscar nominations for his previous two films, Roman J. Israel, Esq. and Fences. The two films he made prior to Israel and Fences were the forgettable remake of The Magnificent Seven and the disappointing Equalizer. At 63, maybe the actor is entering the Liam Neeson/Taken phase of his career, because Washington has made his first sequel, Equalizer 2.

The sequel finds Washington’s Robert McCall still retired from the CIA and still reading books, but he’s also a Lyft driver, who’s befriended an elderly customer who survived the Holocaust. McCall is also trying to steer a kid in his apartment building away from a life selling drugs for painting and zzzzzzzzzz.

Melissa Leo turns up a little as McCall’s former CIA boss, and her death is supposed to spur The Equalizer 2 into action, but only McCall seems busy with retired life, fitting his tale of revenge in between other endeavors. Pedro Pascal also appears as a former comrade of McCall’s, but with so few suspects as to who could’ve killed Leo’s character… who could it have been?

Why would Washington waste his time with something like Equalizer 2? Or 1, for that matter? Does the movie studio have incriminating evidence on him? Did he agree to the film so the studio would bankroll a passion project? The same goes for Fuqua, a solid director who can’t seem to break free from the upper tier of filmmakers considered little more than hired guns. Does he have a master plan in mind, or will we have to satisfy ourselves with the knowledge that Training Day is the best we’ll get from him? It got Washington his second Oscar, but 17 years later it remains a teaser of Fuqua’s talent behind the camera.

eq21.jpg

In all fairness, the first Equalizer had moments of Denzel bad-assery, but on the whole it lacked momentum – a nice way of saying it was boring. There’s no need to be nice about Equalizer 2. It’s a slog. McCall is still driving his Lyft well past the film’s halfway point, begging the question what the film is really about. Is the film a rumination on the boredom of retirement? That even in retirement someone needs bursts of excitement to keep things moving along? It doesn’t matter.

Equalizer 2 can’t even be bothered to confirm if McCall is injured at one point, despite him leaving a blood trail for the bad guys to follow. Topped off with a major villain having perfect – and dry – hair in the middle of a hurricane, Equalizer 2 is the worst parts of a ‘90s action film; messy, predictable, and worst of all slow as molasses. This may have been Denzel’s first sequel, but hopefully it will be his last.

Truth: Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare is Weak Sauce by Ryan Hill

 
todlogo.jpeg

Going on a trip over Spring Break – be it to Mexico, Florida or anywhere else – is guaranteed to end poorly. At least in movies. People are murdered to appease ancient gods (Cabin in the Woods), killer plants attack (The Ruins), and sometimes a corn-rowed James Franco shows up, saying, “Spring Break” over and over (Spring Breakers).

Basically, it’s best to stay home over Spring Break if you’re in a movie. If only the characters in Truth or Dare did the same. Or went on a Habitat for Humanity mission, which Olivia (Pretty Little Liars’ Lucy Hale) was planning on doing before her best friend Markie (Violett Beane) convinced her to go to Mexico instead for Spring Break. There, the meek Olivia meets a cute guy at the bar who convinces everyone to leave the bar in favor of making the long trek to an abandoned church to play… wait for it… Truth or Dare. And in Truth or Dare, once someone plays, they have to follow through with the truth or dare. Otherwise, they die in a some PG-13 way that’s not nearly as graphic as it should be.

truth-or-dare-movie-trailer-tw1.jpg

The idea of making Truth or Dare a horror film is genius. It opens the door for all sorts of ingenious death scenes, the kind that would make the Final Destination series jealous. Instead, Truth or Dare is saddled with a PG-13 rating, so there goes any hope for wild, gory death scenes. Throw in some silly plot involving a demon and Truth or Dare becomes another low-level horror that’s more cash grab than inspired terror.

Truth or Dare is one of those horrors where the characters get picked off one at a time by some supernatural, all-powerful being. Those don’t work unless the characters are awful people, making the audience root for their demise. It’s one of the biggest lessons Cabin in the Woods taught us. Even Blumhouse’s Happy Death Day was smart enough to have its main character start out as a horrible human being.

tod3.jpg

It’s hard not to draw comparisons between Truth or Dare and Happy Death Day, since both are PG-13 horror flicks from Blumhouse. Death Day wrung every ounce of PG-13 fun from its Groundhog Day premise. Truth or Dare, on the other hand, does very little with its premise, even forcing the characters to pick dare after a while.

Written and directed by Jeff Wadlow, who made the bad Kick-Ass movie, Truth or Dare is lazy from the start. Before leaving for the Spring Break trip, Olivia and Markie talk about having fun “before life tears them apart,” which isn’t ominous. At all. The rest of the dialogue is so on-the-nose, that every dare (and truth) is visible from a mile away. And what fun is a game of Truth or Dare with predictable dares? My guess is probably as much fun as watching Truth or Dare, i.e. not much.

 

Hate to say it, but A Wrinkle In Time is not good by Ryan Hill

 
FIN01_AWIT_LA_Color.jpg

In Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time, people communicate with flowers, Mindy Kaling speaks in quotes (ranging from Gandhi to Chris Tucker), Oprah Winfrey’s first appearance looms large over everyone (it is Oprah after all) and the film’s emotional anchor is played by Captain James T. Kirk, though in fairness Chris Pine is a good actor. That’s A Wrinkle in Time. If that sounds like a mess, it’s because it is a mess. And that stinks.

Adapted from Madeleine L’Engle’s novel, the film stars Storm Reid as Meg, a 13-year-old who’s been in and out of trouble since her scientist father (Pine) disappeared without a trace. She has an adopted younger brother, who’s been palling around with three mystical women known as the W’s, played by Kaling, Winfrey and Reece Witherspoon. Once Meg learns of this, it’s decided – by the others – it’s time for all of them to look for her father.

AWIT-12771.jpg

In a taped message before the film’s screening, DuVernay said she made Wrinkle with the intent of making the audience feel like they were 12 or 13 again, and in that regard the film is a success. With a vibe similar to other kid-oriented fantasies like The NeverEnding Story, Wrinkle feels like a blockbuster made specifically for kids. That also means scenes play out longer than they should, dialogue is overly simple, and the children in the film are never in danger, even when they are. One scene is supposed to have Meg being violently whipped around, but she never really moves.

AWIT-16217R.jpg

The bigger issue with Wrinkle is that what works in a book won’t always work in a film. Some of the film’s visuals are fantastic, but there isn’t much of a plot. Meg isn’t a very active main character most of the time, doing little more than complaining as the others hold her hand, whisking her off to different places in the universe. There, they ask the locals, be it Zach Galifianakis or a bunch of flowers, if they saw her dad. Once the answer is no, the W’s whisk the kids off to the next place.

AWIT-15027R.jpg

It’s not until the third act that the plot kicks in and a villain takes shape. That doesn’t even get into the bits of stunted, awkward dialogue lifted straight from L’Engle’s novel, which was first released in 1962.

A Wrinkle in Time marks a watershed moment for minority directors, especially coming so close to the amazing success of Ryan Coogler and Black Panther. Wrinkle is the first film directed by a woman of color to feature a budget or more than $100 million. That’s a big, big deal. Directors, regardless of sex or race, deserve the chance to make bigger-budgeted fare like Wrinkle, and an influx of different perspectives can only make commercial films more interesting in the future. Wrinkle just isn’t one of them.

James Franco At His Best in The Disaster Artist by Ryan Hill

 
the-disaster-artist-james-franco-dave-franco.jpg

Crazy James Franco is the best James Franco. The Interview, Spring Breakers, 127 Hours and This is the End all benefited from a less-than-normal Franco performance. Considering his prolific output, it makes sense that the actor would want to let loose on occasion. The Disaster Artist, Franco’s latest acting and directing effort, is one of his looniest outings yet.

giphy (36).gif

Based on The Disaster Artist, which chronicles the making of the 2003 cult favorite The Room, the film features Franco as Tommy Wiseau, the eccentric, European, vampire-looking director/star at the center of The Room. With his long, black hair, funny accent and broken English, Wiseau is a character unto himself.

The Disaster Artist opens with testimonials – that come across as scripted – from actors like Kristen Bell and Adam Scott that make The Room seem like this one-of-a-kind experience that is not to be missed. The book, written by Room star and friend of Wiseau Greg Sistero (along with Tom Bissell), is an entertaining tome about best intentions, rampant egos and the creative process, but watching The Disaster Artist doesn’t feel like we’re being let in on something truly special. With a cast that includes Franco’s brother Dave as Greg, BFF Seth Rogen and Dave’s wife Alison Brie, The Disaster Artist feels more like something a bunch of friends decided to make in honor of this one specific moment in time than a film that needed to be made.

giphy (37).gif

Not that that’s a bad thing.

Franco is fantastic as Wiseau, using prosthetic make-up, contacts, and a wild wig to disappear into the cult filmmaker’s persona. Franco is so good, there’s a post-credit stinger where his fictional Wiseau goes up against the real-life Wiseau, and the result is a resounding draw. Don’t be surprised if Franco racks up some awards consideration for his work.

giphy (38).gif

The Disaster Artist isn’t for everyone. Wiseau is weird. Franco playing Wiseau is weirder. Those unfamiliar with The Room probably don’t care that there’s movie and a book about that film.

The Room is one of those bad movies that should’ve died a quick and painless death, gone from the movie-going lexicon as fast as it came. Instead, it became a cult sensation. One of those “so bad it’s good” kind of films that live on in midnight showings, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Did it deserve its own “making of” film? Probably not, but The Disaster Artist still stands as an entertaining look at the million-and-one things that can go wrong on a movie set.

Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman... Everyone is Wasted in Justice League by Ryan Hill

 
jlbanner.jpg

When director George Miller, he of the Mad Max films, was gearing up to make a Justice League Mortal film years ago featuring a younger cast (including Armie Hammer as Bruce Wayne/Batman) there was outcry among the fan community. It was developed during the height of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and that plus aging down the DC Comics characters to their early twenties made the movie a bad idea from the beginning.

giphy (33).gif

Ten years later, the Justice League has finally made their way to theaters, courtesy of the minds behind Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Honestly? I wish the studio had moved ahead with Justice League Mortal.

The “plot,” as it is, centers around the big bad Steppenwolf, trying to get a hold of these three mother boxes – or whatever they’re called; it doesn’t matter – so he can remake Earth in his Hellish image. It should also be noted that Steppenwolf, voiced by Ciaran Hinds, is made up of the finest computer graphics that 1997 has to offer. Standing in his way are the Justice League: Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Superman (Henry Cavill), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). After the league spends the first hour trying to figure out if they want to team up, they decide to stop Steppenwolf.

giphy (35).gif

Where to begin with Justice League and its buffet of issues. Zack Snyder’s direction? His muted, bland color scheme? The unnecessary slow-motion, which even features a crate of fruit flying? The special effects, which look worse than they did in the trailers? The fact that its painfully obvious which parts Joss Whedon reshot, especially the scenes where the filmmakers used CGI to get rid of Henry Cavill's mustache? The obnoxious use of green screen thrown into bits of every scene, including an exterior corn field conversation between Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent/Superman and Amy Adams’ Lois Lane? Giving well-known characters like Commissioner Gordon nothing to do except show up on screen? Ben Affleck’s paunch? His obvious boredom? The film’s three beginnings, none of which connect to the other? The plot, which doesn’t even kick in until halfway through the film? The overreaction – again – to BvS’s criticism that it unnecessarily killed thousands of people by having some random family get caught in the crossfire between the heroes and the villain?

source (1).gif

My mother always said if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all, so here’s the nice things about Justice League. Composter Danny Elfman resurrects his old Batman theme from 1989, and even John Williams’ original Superman theme for the score. Aquaman has a couple of cool scenes, mostly because Momoa himself is cool and will always be cool, because he’s Khal Drogo and that’s just the way the world works sometimes. Ezra Miller’s Flash has a moment or two, but all the speed scenes are wasted. Quicksilver, the Marvel universe’s resident speedster, was utilized so much better in two X-Men films and The Avengers: Age of Ultron. In response, Justice League offers up Miller obviously running on a treadmill as CGI lightning bolts fly around him.

Oh. Wait. I got back into saying not nice things. Sorry Mom!

giphy (34).gif

Justice League s garbage. In their rush to replicate Marvel’s success, Warner Bros. and DC have skipped the years of legwork their adversary put in to get to The Avengers, which works so well because most of the characters were established in standalone films. On the other end of the spectrum, Justice League is overburdened with the task of establishing so many characters, spending the first hour going in six or seven directions trying to let the audience get to know everyone, including newcomers Aquaman, The Flash and Cyborg. At 119 minutes, Justice League was edited down to the bone, leaving more breathing room in outer space than the film. There isn’t close to enough time to do anyone justice – GET IT??? – leaving everyone with maybe one okay scene to strut their stuff.

Considering the $300 million budget, Justice League shouldn’t feel like a workprint that still needs effects work and editing.

Audiences deserve better.

The DC films deserve better.

The world deserves better.

 

 

Stephen King's It Gets a Scary, Funny Adaptation by Ryan Hill

 
itmain.jpg

Does anybody really like clowns? There’s something not right with them. The white faces? The wigs? The silly behavior? All of the above? Hard to say. But pretty much everyone under the age of, say, 45 is terrified of one clown in particular.

Pennywise, the evil clown from Stephen King’s novel It.

giphy (24).gif

Famously played by Tim Curry in the 1990 miniseries, Pennywise comes to Derry, Maine every 27 years to feast on scared children. In the hands of Curry, the clown was as evil as he was fun. An all-time villain that to this day still holds up. Now, 27 YEARS AFTER THE MINISERIES, Pennywise has returned on the big screen.

it1.jpg

It’s the summer of 1989, and a group of kids dubbed the Losers want nothing more than to have a fun summer with no worries and no run-ins with the local bullies. That doesn’t really go according to plan, thanks to Pennywise, who terrorizes the kids one by one, feeding on their biggest fears. Bill, the Losers’ leader, is haunted by the death of his little brother Georgie, whom Pennywise killed the year before. Another is terrified of a strange painting. In true Stephen King fashion – and an obvious nod to his novel Carrie – the lone girl in the group is most afraid of her period. As the summer goes on, the Losers realize they’re all being hunted by Pennywise, and since the adults won’t do anything, take matters into their own hands.

it2.png

The 1990 miniseries version of It introduced a generation to the work of King with a bang. The author was HUGE in 1990, and King’s novels, with their supernatural elements, piqued the interest of eager young readers like myself. The catch? Most of us weren’t allowed to read his books, because they were “too scary.” The It miniseries was a chance for my generation to finally get a taste of King, and it did not fail to deliver. I was 10, and even though the miniseries aired on network TV, prompting a lack of gore, Pennywise scared the dickens out of everyone.

This new version of It is the first of two films based on the novel, with this one focusing on the Losers as children. Cutting King’s 1,100-page novel into two is no easy feat, and the first half of It can basically be described as evil clown messes with kids. There’s a struggle to reconcile the connection between the Losers and Pennywise, but once those two threads come together, It becomes almost non-stop horror.

giphy (26).gif

The film is vintage King. Children coming of age, over-the-top adults, sadistic baddies, shocking terror … It, more than maybe all the other King adaptations, feels like one of his novels come to life.

It’s also maybe the funniest King movie.

Yes, It is full of solid scares. Where the 1990 version of Pennywise was scary and fun, this version, played by Bill Skarsgard, is just plain menacing. With the freedom to work within an R-rating, director Andy Muschietti doesn’t skimp on the gore, fully realizing the horror within It. But none of it would work without the Losers. They trade rapid fire quips, and drop F-bombs just like regular kids. The best of the bunch is Richie (Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things), who regards his mouth as a gift. The Losers are so funny and authentic, they’d fit in with any of the John Hughes films around at the film’s 1989 setting.

it3.jpg

It’s hard to look at this new adaptation of It without acknowledging the miniseries’ huge influence, but the film really does stand on its own two feet. Alternately hilarious and scary (and not without a couple of shortcomings), It is, to coin a generic critic phrase, a roller-coaster ride.

Atomic Blonde's action can't overshadow plot by Ryan Hill

 

Not that there was any doubt, but Charlize Theron is a bad ass. She’s never been afraid to mix it up, but 2015’s classic Mad Max: Fury Road only solidified things. The Oscar winning actress takes things to another level with Atomic Blonde, beating the ever-loving snot of everything that comes her way, and looking good while doing it.

Atomic Blonde is 100 percent style over substance. It looks gorgeous, has a great soundtrack and the action sequences are amazing, though the film could’ve used one more to keep things from dragging a bit in the middle. But the plot?

Well …

Maybe it’s best not to worry so much about that. All that’s necessary to know is near the end of the Cold War in 1989 Berlin, British spy Lorraine Broughton (Theron) has been assigned to find out who killed a fellow agent and stole a list containing the names of spies hidden in a watch. Lorraine is partnered with a shady agent played by James McAvoy, who’s intentions are very easy to figure out. The cast also includes John Goodman, Toby Jones, Sofia Boutella and Toby Jones.

Again, when watching Atomic Blonde, don’t worry about the plot. It borrows the list of spies idea from the first Mission: Impossible and surpasses that film’s topsy-turvy, hard to follow plot by throwing so many unnecessary twists into the mix near the film’s ending, it’s enough to make one throw up their hands and give up trying to make sense of life in general. It’s a true mess. Thankfully, the plot isn’t the main attraction. That’s the action and it delivers in spades.

Directed by David Leitch, one half of the duo behind the first John Wick (and the upcoming Deadpool 2), the action in Blonde is fierce. Wick was a ballet of bullets, but Blonde trades bullets for fists, culminating in a stunning fist fight that lasts a good five minutes. The best part? The characters actually get tired from the fighting, stumbling around as they struggle to get breaths in between punches. It’s fantastic.

The bonkers plot really hurts Atomic Blonde and justifies the film’s style-over-substance feel, but the action – and Charlize Theron – deserve better than a plot with a zillion holes in it. There’s been talk of a sequel, and if so hopefully Atomic Blonde 2 will have a plot that makes sense. Or at least partial sense.

Dunkirk is a modern war classic by Ryan Hill

 

The evacuation of 400,000 British, French and Belgian soldiers in Dunkirk during World War II is an amazing story, and one that has flown under the radar in the U.S., since it didn’t involve any Americans. With the German army surrounding the coastal town of Dunkirk, France, the armies only had one route of escape; via the sea. If the armies surrendered, Germany would have invaded Britain, and from there the United States. It’s one of the defining moments of World War II, and Christopher Nolan has made quite possibly his defining picture in Dunkirk, the director’s take on the evacuation.

Taking a page from Mad Mad: Fury Road, Dunkirk is more about the event than any one character. It tackles the evacuation from the land, the sea and the air. Each storyline lasts a different amount of time (a week, a day and an hour), but in typical Nolan fashion, the storylines interweave and time jumps back and forth.

There isn’t exactly a true “star” in Dunkirk, which features Mark Rylance as a civilian boater, Kenneth Branagh and Fionn Whitehead as the de facto lead, as his character is all over the place trying to get off the beach with One Direction’s Harry Styles in tow. But not to worry, Styles is fine. His presence as a soldier who only cares about survival isn’t a distraction. And yes, Nolan has once again cast Tom Hardy in a role where he wears a mask, a la The Dark Knight Rises, playing a courageous RAF pilot.

It’s hard to get true, genuine scares in a movie, at least for me. Having seen so many films, most standard horrors feel like a 90-minute prank show, with the director hiding out of frame, fingers tapping together like Mr. Burns and muttering “excellent” under their breath as they unleash scare after scare, but Dunkirk delivers 107 minutes of tense, suspenseful film making.

The best CGI for a film is the kind nobody notices, and Nolan knows that. Using practical effects when at all possible, whatever CGI made it into Dunkirk is impossible to spot. Combined with the director’s insistence on using film – mainly the large format IMAX – and the magnificent sound editing, Nolan has crafted a technical masterpiece. At no point does Dunkirk let up, and without CGI robots running around to remind the audience this isn’t real, the film has an authenticity that just doesn’t happen that often. In short, the deep, gorgeous imagery is immersive, the bullets are loud, the engines are louder, and there’s nowhere for the characters, or the audience, to run in Dunkirk.

And it’s scary as Hell.

Spider-Man’s “Homecoming” is Pretty Amazing by Ryan Hill

 

There was a minute there when nobody cared about a Spider-Man movie anymore. After the disappointment of “Spider-Man 3” in 2007, the series was rebooted in 2012 to mixed results, and that reboot was scuttled after only two films. It seemed Spider-Man could no longer do whatever a spider could. The character was so downtrodden, Spidey’s parent studio worked out a deal with Marvel to use the character in their cinematic universe.

Now, after all these years, Spider-Man is finally home with “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”

But does the world need a second reboot of Spider-Man, the sixth film featuring the web-slinger since 2001? In the hands of Marvel, the answer is hell yes.

“Captain America: Civil War” gave the world a glimpse at what Marvel could do with their most popular character. In short, they nailed Spider-Man. In the web-slinger’s limited screen time, Tom Holland portrayed the character with a perfect mix of wonder, amazement and snark. The Tobey Maguire trilogy was good but mopey, the Andrew Garfield films were, eh, whatever, but “Homecoming” is everything that makes Spider-Man so great.

“Homecoming” ignores Spider-Man’s origin story, but still focuses on Peter Parker/Spider-Man’s life in high school. He’s tormented by the bully Flash, crushing hard on his debate team colleague Liz, and wishing more than anything Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) would make him a full-time Avenger.

But the fifteen-year-old Parker has bigger fish to fry outside of the classroom, like stopping Vulture (Michael Keaton) from stealing weaponry left behind in the wake of battles fought by the Avengers.

Director Jon Watts, who made the Kevin Bacon indie “Cop Car,” also knows just how New York-centric Spider-Man is. Without the skyscrapers of that metropolis to swing from, Spidey is left to hitch rides on trains or run around, resulting in a great “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” homage. It’s one of many nods to the great John Hughes, which “Homecoming” takes most of its cues from. The film is very much in the vein of a Hughes film, just with … you know … a guy running around in red tights shooting webs from his wrists.

“Homecoming” is one of the most fun blockbusters – comic book or otherwise – out there. It rivals “Guardians of the Galaxy” for sheer joy and is as good as, if not better than, “Spider-Man 2,” which is considered one of the best superhero films ever made. It even has a solid villain in Vulture, something the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been missing outside of Loki, who even then hasn’t been fully utilized.

The key word for “Homecoming” is fun. By keeping the stakes lower – Spider-Man doesn’t have to save the world – the film avoids the underlying sadness of Ben Parker’s death, which anchored the original trilogy, and veer away from pretty much everything in the “Amazing Spider-Man” films. Marvel is free to embrace the Spider-Man character, relishing in Peter’s high school years, but without that pesky origin story.

It’s also one of the best Marvel films, and arguably the best Spider-Man film ever.

 

Pixar Mostly Makes up for Cars 2 with Cars 3 by Ryan Hill

 

When Disney purchased Pixar, the animation studio pledged to make a sequel every other year. It’s why there’s been a Monsters University and Finding Dory. Neither Monsters, Inc. or Finding Nemo needed a sequel, but in the quest for the almighty dollar, they happened. Pixar’s list of sequels also includes the worst film they’ve ever made, Cars 2, which should have put the franchise in the garage.

Get it?

Because it’s a series of films about cars?

Anyway. Considering around $10 billion of Cars merchandise has been sold to date, not to mention the combined $1 billion the first two entries earned worldwide at the box office, why wouldn’t there be a Cars 3?

This time around, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is the aging veteran struggling to hold onto relevance in the Piston Cup circuit. Once Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), a new, more powerful racer, enters the scene, its curtains for McQueen and his contemporaries. McQueen tries to hang on, but a horrific wreck sends him back to square one. Working to get back to a championship level, the racer butts heads with the smart but insecure Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonso), who once had dreams of being a racer herself.

The best thing about Cars 3? There’s racing. Lots of it. The opening race in Cars was stunning, and the lack of speed in a franchise about a race car has been more than disappointing. That’s not the case in Cars 3, thank goodness.

Cars 3 is completely unnecessary. After Cars, there wasn’t a lot of room for an organic sequel. How many movies about cars can there be? It helps explain the ludicrous premise of Cars 2. Cars 3 does its best to remedy things, forgetting all about the first sequel and building upon themes from the first film, especially the relationship between Lightning and Doc Hudson. Scenes from the original Cars are used in flashback, including Paul Newman’s voice. There’s even new material featuring Newman, with Pixar using alternate takes and behind the scenes conversations from his voice recording sessions during the first Cars for the new material.

The addition or original material from Newman, who died in 2008, only adds to the nostalgic and bittersweet McQueen/Doc relationship, which lies at the heart of Cars 3. Newman’s presence also makes up for the absence of Michael Keaton, who voiced the first film’s villain, Chick Hicks. Keaton has been replaced by Up co-director Bob Peterson. This time around, Hicks hosts a racing show, getting digs in at McQueen every chance he gets.  

Cars 3 isn’t as good as the original Cars, but it’s cute enough entertainment. Outside of Toy Story, Pixar has struggled with sequels, and Cars 3 doesn’t solve that issue. The threequel gets it right for the most part, For the most part, Cars 3 gets it right. At least, as much as a Cars sequel can.

Wonder Woman is DC's Finest but Still Can't Touch Marvel by Ryan Hill

 

In the time it took to get a Wonder Woman film on the screen, we’ve seen:

  • Five Spider-Man movies, including a hard reboot after Spider-Man 3
  • Nine Batman entries, including Batman v Superman and one version done entirely in LEGO
  • Six X-Men’s
  • Three Wolverine’s
  • Deadpool
  • Doctor Strange
  • Ant-Man
  • Two Guardians of the Galaxy's
  • Suicide Squad
  • Two Kick-Ass’s
  • Kingsman: The Secret Service
  • Three misbegotten Fantastic Four flicks

And that isn’t including the terrible Green Lantern experiment with Ryan Reynolds or Jonah Hex, which clocks in at about 80 minutes – including credits.

What the heck took so long? Was it fear? Wonder Woman is one of the most recognizable properties in comics, and arguably the most popular female property. Maybe sexism? The thought that a woman couldn’t open a film like Wonder Woman? I don’t know, but it’s ridiculous it took this long for the world to finally – finally – get a Wonder Woman film. Maybe duds like the Halle Berry starrer Catwoman and Elektra scared off the studio, despite having a pre-Avengers Joss Whedon ready to make a Wonder Woman film (he’s now doing a live-action Batgirl).

But I digress.

Gal Gadot reprises her role of Diana Prince, first introduced in the mess known as Batman v Superman. Instead of moving the DC Universe timeline closer to the next potential mess, Justice League, Wonder Woman moves the action back 100 years to World War I to tell Prince’s origin story. Believing Ares, the God of War, to be responsible for the War to End All Wars, Prince travels to London with superspy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) to take him down and end WWI.

Wonder Woman is far and away the best of the new, interconnected DC Universe films. For starters, it’s competent. That’s a huge step up. There are some truly entertaining sequences in the film, and the chemistry between Gadot and Pine is fantastic. But, it’s also painfully predictable – even character twists are obvious within two minutes of them appearing – and suffers from a third act riddled with bloated CG effects and weak storytelling, like most superhero films. Factoring in the Marvel films, Wonder Woman ranks in the lower half of the recent superhero films to come out.

Wonder Woman almost feels like a moment more than a film. It can truly open the door for not only female-led superhero films, but more women at the helm of these big blockbusters. Director Patty Jenkins is only the second female director to have a budget of more than $100 million to work with, the other being Kathryn Bigelow on K-19: The Widowmaker back in… 2002. The film itself may be hit and miss, but hopefully Wonder Woman will open the door for more unique voices in Hollywood today.

Those a-holes, the Guardians of the Galaxy, are back with Vol. 2 by Ryan Hill

 

In 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy was an outlier for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Nestled between Captain America: The Winter Solider and Avengers: Age of Ultron, the little-known property caught everyone by surprise. And how could it not? It starred Chris Pratt, the doughy doofus from Parks & Recreation, featured a talking raccoon and a tree that only said, “I am Groot,” and was directed by James Gunn, who’d found cult success with Super and Slither, but little else. As everyone knows, Guardians was a massive hit, made Pratt one of the biggest movie stars in the world, and gave the world the wonder that is Baby Groot. After three years, the a-holes are back for Vol. 2.

Set three months after the original, Pratt’s Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, Dave Bautista’s Drax, Bradley Cooper’s Rocket Raccoon and Vin Diesel’s Baby Groot are living off their victory against Ronan and the Kree in the first film, taking high-paying jobs across the galaxy, like protecting batteries for the Sovereign, a race that has gold, well, everything, and considers themselves superior to the rest of the galaxy. After Rocket steals some batteries for himself, the Sovereign are hot on the Guardians’ tail, looking for retribution. They’re rescued by Peter’s long-lost father, Ego. The living planet.

It makes sense, considering Quill’s ego, that his father would bear that name and be a planet that can manifest itself as a bearded Kurt Russell. That’s what we in the “biz” would define as ironic. Their father-son relationship sets the course for Vol. 2, which doesn’t get a good foothold until Russell appears.

For all that Vol. 2 does right, especially in the sense that it’s a sequel, it falls victim to a few sequel pitfalls. With all the characters established in the original, Gunn dives straight into the action, relying on the audience’s familiarity more than setting the stage for what’s to come. That familiarity gives Gunn more confidence in his direction, building off the visuals of the original for even more fantastic shots.  

Vol. 2’s marketing focused heavily on the characters and with good reason. For a film carrying a budget well north of $200 million, Vol. 2 is more character driven than anything else. One reason for sequels is to give audiences a chance to spend more time with characters they enjoy and Gunn has taken that to heart. He’s fleshed out fringe characters from the original – Yondu is fantastic – even going so far as to give Nebula depth.

Nebula!

The character who did nothing but shout generic lines in the original!

Even she’s fleshed out!

(That’s amazing).

Those character moments define Vol. 2. Yes, there’s big action and great special effects, but the heart of the original beats through every frame of Vol. 2, and the emphasis on character makes the sequel the most poignant and emotional in the entire MCU.

In some ways, Vol. 2 surpasses the first Guardians. The third act is more than CGI porn and there are even more character moments than the original. Vol. 2 also struggles to gain momentum out of the gate, and doesn’t establish a primary villain until late in the game. The emphasis on character may disappoint those who were hoping for a more rollicking adventure, but with time and repeat viewings, Vol. 2 may end up a more satisfying film than its predecessor.