movies

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

 
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 
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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.

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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.

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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.

Han Solo's Star Wars movie is entertaining but unremarkable by Ryan Hill

 
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After The Force Awakens, Rogue One and the upcoming Episode IX, it’s almost expected a new Star Wars film is going to have production issues. Expectations are always through the roof for a Star Wars film, and there’s simply too much money – via box office, merchandising, life – riding on each new entry to not get it right. Solo is no exception and may have been the most difficult of all, firing the directors in the middle of production.

First thing’s first. Most films that fire their director (or directors, in Solo’s case) during production don’t turn out well. Solo turned out just fine.

Solo finds the title character (played by Alden Ehrenreich) starting out on his journey toward full scoundrel, even introducing a younger Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and the famed Kessel Run that’s been mentioned throughout the series. This Solo isn’t on the run from Jabba the Hut; no, he’s lovelorn over being separated from his love Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) and wants nothing more than to reunite with her. That and be a pilot.

After directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (the two Jump Street movies, The LEGO Movie) were let go, Ron Howard was brought in to right the ship. The Oscar-winning director shot around 70 percent of the finished product, but it’s unclear what shape Lord and Miller’s footage was in – at least the footage that wasn’t used. What’s there, like Howard’s is fine but unremarkable.

The combined work seen in Solo is fun, but it’s clear some scenes were rushed as Howard & Co. had less than a year to make that May 25, 2018 release date. Cinematography in some scenes, especially early in the film, are too smoky (hopefully watching Solo on Blu-ray or in 4K definition will clear that up), there’s very little in the way of insert shots or anything that resembles nuance. The filmmakers simply had no time. The most compelling character is Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s equal-rights-for-all android, L3-37, probably due to the special effects crew being hard at work well before Howard took over.

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Ehrenreich (Hail Caesar!), given the awesome opportunity to play Han Solo but also the unenviable task of replacing Harrison Ford, is perfectly fine in the role. He doesn’t have Ford’s charisma, but it’s important to note that this iteration of Solo isn’t that Solo. The seeds are there, but he’s young, optimistic and a bit naïve. The main standout besides Waller-Bridge is, of course, Glover as Lando. Glover’s always had that “it” factor, but channeling Billy Dee Williams sends his charisma into the cosmos.

Get it? Cosmos? Because this is a review for a Star Wars movie?

If the powers-that-be had pushed Solo’s release back to, say, Christmas 2018, following in the pattern of every Star Wars film since The Force Awakens, Ron Howard maybe could’ve crafted something special. It’s amazing he pulled off what he did and yes, Solo is worth seeing. It’s broad, easily digestible and is better than Rogue One, which really lags in the middle. But this is Han freakin’ Solo. A movie bearing his name should be more than just worth seeing.

Maybe if there’s a sequel, they’ll hit it out of the park. But what would it be called? Solo 2: Flyin’ Solo? Solo 2 Solo? Solo 2: 2 Solo’s Make A Couple? Solo 2: The Chewie Connection? Solo 2: Time to Lando? Book of Shadows: Solo 2?

 

 

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

 
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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.

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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.

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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?

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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!

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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

 
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.