film

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.

Black Panther's Wait was Worth It by Ryan Hill

 
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It’s taken entirely too long for something like Black Panther, a superhero movie starring an African American, to see the light of day. In the period leading to that film’s release, Marvel has given us movies about a guy who communicates with ants (Ant-Man), two movies featuring a talking raccoon (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 and 2), Doctor Strange and three Thor films. Granted, those are all enjoyable – save Thor: The Dark World – but it shouldn’t have taken so long for Black Panther to become a reality.

The saving grace for the delay is that Marvel, and especially writer/director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole, did Black Panther right. It wasn’t rushed, like, oh, Justice League. The property was handled with care and precision, resulting in a film steeped in African culture, with fantastic, three-dimensional characters, gorgeous costumes and a wonderful theme. Even the villain, typically Marvel’s weak spot, has layers. It’s a film everyone should get behind.

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Taking place soon after the events in Captain America: Civil War (probably on the same point on the Marvel timeline with Spider-Man: Homecoming), Black Panther finds the newly crowned King of Wakanda, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), mourning the death of his father and the responsibility of becoming a new king in a changing world. Wakanda, home to the metal that created Captain America’s shield, is technologically far ahead of the rest of the world, but they’ve remained largely hidden, afraid of influence and corruption from outsiders. That fear leads one outsider, the twisted Erik Killmonger (Coogler mainstay Michael B. Jordan), to try and use Wakanda’s technology to make it a superpower.

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In a short period, Ryan Coogler has become one of the best directors out there. At 31, he’s already directed the devastating Fruitvale Station, his Rocky update Creed was a crowd-pleaser, even netting Sylvester Stallone an Oscar nomination, and with Black Panther he’s proven adept at handling blockbuster entertainment without letting special effects swallow up the important things, like character and story. Arguably the film’s only real weak spot, the plot hews a little too close to the average Marvel fare, but the focus on the characters more makes up for it. Black Panther is more than a big budget action spectacle. It’s a personal film that deals with real emotions and themes, which makes Black Panther resonate more than any other Marvel entry.

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Marvel’s Phase Three of its cinematic universe was always going to be interesting. Having already made three Iron Man movies, three Captain Americas and three Thors, the studio has not only exhausted some of their biggest properties, but their level of quality is established such that movies like Black Panther can be made. If Panther is any indication, the Marvel films may be moving in a direction more exciting and diverse than ever before.

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

 
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Thor Brings on Ragnarok with a Wink and a Nudge by Ryan Hill

 
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Let’s be honest. Thor may do cool things with his magic hammer, but he’s one of the least interesting characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He’s not particularly funny, he’s difficult to connect with, and he’s, well … kind of boring. The first Thor was decent enough, but after the mess that was The Dark World, things needed a drastic makeover if Thor: Ragnarok would be worth anyone’s time.

Enter writer-director Taika Waititi, another art house director getting their big break on a comic book film. Waititi doesn’t have a high profile here in the U.S., with his highest grossing film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, making a little more than $5 million. Waititi sounds like a major gamble, but look closer. Wilderpeople was a delight from beginning to end, and the director’s vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows is a comedy classic.

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Maybe to assuage fears that Waititi wasn’t up to the task of Thor: Ragnarok, Marvel released a sort of preview of what to expect with Team Thor, a short detailing what the God of Thunder was up to during the events of Captain America: Civil War. Some of the jokes from Team Thor even made it into Ragnarok.

Ragnarok finds Thor learning that he has an older sister, Hela (a delicious Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death. The only thing that’s kept her from destroying Asgard all these years has been their father Odin, who imprisoned her. The problem is Odin at death’s door, and once he dies – which he does early on – Hela is freed, and quickly returns to wreak havoc. Things get tricky when Thor is captured by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and becomes a slave/prisoner who works for free under the control of the Grand Master (Jeff Goldblum). Thor is forced to fight to the death in a sci-fi gladiator arena, and runs into his old pal Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who’s been missing since the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron.

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Ragnarok isn’t the best Marvel film, but it is one of the best, and is definitely the funniest. None of the other Marvel films come close. Not even the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

Chris Hemsworth has always been funny, but he takes it to another level under Waititi’s direction. His dry, silly brand of humor works perfectly with Hemsworth. Waititi injects a lot of the humor himself, playing Korg, a character made up entirely of rock. There’s also fun cameos galore, and the supporting cast, especially Jeff Goldblum, is clearly having a blast. Ragnarok is the first time Hulk has been featured as someone who does more than just smash things, teaming with Thor to make an intergalactic odd couple. Blanchett’s Hela, despite being a typical “big bad,” has some fun moments, and even Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is more enjoyable than usual. It should be noted that while I’ve enjoyed Loki, I’ve always found him a bit overrated. He’s never as fun as he could be.

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Anyone familiar with Waititi’s previous films will delight in Ragnarok. This isn’t a case of an art house director cashing in on a studio film or getting overwhelmed with the jump from working with a $2 million budget to $180 million. Marvel wisely let Waititi do his own thing, and the result is Thor: Ragnarok is exactly the entertaining and joyful ride one would expect from a $180 million budgeted Taika Waititi film.

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.

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.

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.

 

Put THE MUMMY Back in the Tomb by Ryan Hill

 

The first reboot of The Mummy in 1999 was silly, cheesy popcorn entertainment. It wasn’t anything special, but it grossed more than $400 million worldwide, spawning two sequels of decreasing quality. The franchise, like the Mummy itself, was left for dead in 2008 after the disastrous third entry, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. Like any good member of the undead, the Mummy is back after 11 years, this time sporting Tom Cruise and the kickoff to a cinematic universe of classic movie monsters.

Even with a megastar and an entire universe behind this dark and dreary version of The Mummy, it doesn’t hold a candle to the bright and colorful 1999 version.

Cruise stars as his typical cocky self with Annabelle Wallis, Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, Jake Johnson and Sofia Boutella as the title character. The plot is a rehash of the previous Mummy films: a mummy wakes up, sucks up people’s life for regeneration, then goes on a rampage as epic as the CGI and budget allows.

The decision to create a cinematic universe out of a group of monsters that were at best loosely connected to begin with reeks of money, but that’s a “no, duh” statement. Dubbed the Dark Universe, this is Universal Studio’s attempt to cash in on the cinematic universe craze started by Marvel and copied by DC, now Universal, and soon Paramount’s Transformers universe will hit theaters.

The funny thing about the Dark Universe is Universal tried it once before with the horrific, awful, please God burn the negatives of the print Van Helsing. That Hugh Jackman monstrosity – phrasing – combined Abraham Van Helsing, Dracula, Frankenstein and his monster, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and a werewolf, much like this new Dark Universe. The Mummy is meant to be the start of that universe, which also includes a Bride of Frankenstein film, The Invisible Man, The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

But why kick things off with a new Mummy? It’s lazy. More to the point, why would Cruise star in the film? Sure, The Mummy tries to be a “Tom Cruise” movie, giving his character the typical, “cocky a------e turns good” arc that defines most Cruise films, but it fails in spectacular fashion. If Cruise’s arrogance isn’t fun, or in the case of Edge of Tomorrow leads to a series of deaths, there’s no point. The Mummy has neither, instead featuring the most unlikable Cruise character since … ever? Maybe Lions for Lambs?

Alex Kurtzman, making his directing debut, seems lost behind the camera. Every decision made feels like it was done to appease a studio suit, editing out everything that isn’t loud or goes boom. The result is a near-incoherent mess with massive gaps in logic and questionable character motivations that never go unanswered.

If this Dark Universe – which is such a big deal, the film has a logo for the universe before the opening credits – is to thrive, things better improve. Because if The Mummy is any indication, this universe will get sucked into a black hole before it even has a chance to untangle its bandages.