Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Caesar wages personal war in "Apes" conclusion



More than any movie franchise of recent past, the rebooted Planet of the Apes is the defining cinematic trilogy of the new millennia, and its hero, Caesar (a CGI heavy Andy Serkis), is the post-modern Mad Max, in a way.  Waging more than a general apes-vs-man Earth-wide battle, War for the Planet of the Apes pits our favorite super-smart chimp leader in a personal vendetta against an army rebels leader, known simply as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson).  In this (allegedly) final chapter, Caesar doesn't just want to save his Ape species; he's also out for blood, literally.

The storyline has evolved quite a bit since 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, when Caesar was a small, curious chimp being raised by James Franco's Will Rodman in his San Francisco suburban home, with its by-now-recognizable star-within-circle design on the attic window.  The sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), ignited the conflict between the remaining human survivors of the simian flu and Caesar's apes, all the while proving that some apes are just as bad and ambitiously flawed as humans.  War for the Planet of the Apes, however, is the biggest, grandest chapter yet, a conclusion that relies heavily on moral dilemmas and ingeniously staged action and explosions (a perfectly timed gigantic avalanche near the end is a cherry on top of the movie's third act frosting climax).

Matt Reeves's film (he also directed the previous installment) is that rare adventure movie, an epic spectacle that wows the eyes and the ears, all the while warming itself to your heart to the point of tears.  I only wish the filmmakers had ended War on a more open note, instead of closing the idea of (SPOILER ALERT!) potential sequels featuring the same protagonist.  Nevertheless, this is one of summer's best entertainments, and likely to be one of top 10 movies of 2017.
A-


Friday, July 14, 2017

Dark Universe off to a slow start in "The Mummy"


Halfway through The Mummy, we finally meet Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russel Crowe), the narrator we heard early on in the prologue.  He told us the history behind Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), the woman who would sell her soul to the prince of darkness and ultimately become the titular evil entity known so well across the horror movie landscape.  Now, as the scene continued to unfold, I couldn't help but think, "What the fuck is the protagonist of Robert Louis Stevenson doing in this present day Dark Universe?" 

The movie, featuring Tom Cruise as a soldier who's more interested in selling off old artifacts for big bucks on the black market than actually serving his beloved country, starts off well enough, but quickly succumbs to a frantic narrative that proceeds with The Mummy being dug out of a large hole in a small desert village, put on a plane, the plane crashing, killing Cruise's character, and somehow, without explanation, bringing him back to life. All this within a fifteen minute window.  Sometimes less is actually more, fellas.

Cruise's charm carries the film only so far, as flashes of demonic spirits of his friend (Jake Johnson) pop up throughout to remind him of his "curse", and Boutella's facial features are effective enough to embody the evil she carries within.  There are also some nice moments between Cruise and his love interest (Annabelle Wallis), sprinkled with comic relief, but the story quickly shifts into bizarre and absurd as the above mentioned Dr. Hyde alter ego reappears and explains the characters' fate to them. Ugh.

I was not a fan of the unimaginative 1999 Stephen Sommers/Brendan Fraser franchise of the same name, and I must say, this new version is a slight improvement, despite its many flaws.  The Mummy, directed by Alex Kurtzman, leaves a lot to be desired, and its final act is a mess that, perhaps, not even an injection of other worldly wit could have saved (I wasn't sure if I was supposed to laugh at or be scared by the countless zombies, both above ground and underwater).  And based on its poor box office performance, I doubt that we'll be seeing additional sequels that the movie's ending would suggest.
C

Thursday, July 13, 2017

"Homecoming" lowers age & elevates humor of Spider Man



More than any Spider Man we've seen so far, Tom Holland's Peter Parker is the first that actually looks and feels authentic and loyal to his source comic book counterpart: he's young, unsure of himself, and, unsurprisingly, convinced that he always has to do more than he really should.  Nowhere is this more evident than in a scene late in the movie, when Peter, nearly buried by tons of cement debris, cries out for help, like a desperate child in pain.  The scene is the official bar mitzvah for this particular franchise's world famous Marvel arachnoid.

Spider-Man: Homecoming, directed by Jon Watts (of the superb low budget Cop Car), combines some of the fun elements from the Sam Raimi and the Marc Webb-directed previous franchises: flying villains, a girl who makes Peter blush on a daily basis, and some virtuoso action sequences spread across Manhattan's high rises.  However, Homecoming incorporates The Avengers's own Iron Man, a.k.a. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) as Peter's father figure, a man who's all too well aware that with "great power comes great responsibility", and he simply doesn't want to see Peter go in over his head.  Their scenes together are expertly written and played to perfection by its two stars, who are Marvel's version of DC's Bruce Wayne and his wise butler, Alfred.

Based on this first installment of the Tom Holland era Spider Man, Marvel has clearly regained the upper hand in the superhero film market, and for many years to come, it would seem.  Here's hoping this Peter Parker's youthful looks stay the same for a few more years, because the last thing we need is another twenty-something year old looking Spidey.
B+


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Wright's "Driver" a combination of old & new gimmicks



As the titular young hero in Edgar Wright's new action/comedy/romance Baby Driver, Ansel Elgort - with his dark sunglasses and his iconic white iPod earphones - spends the majority of the movie letting everyone else do the talking while he mostly listens.  That is, until he meets a charming waitress by the name of Deborah (Lily James) and gets smitten with her completely.  Such is the fate of a young genius behind the wheel whose favorite past time is recording people's conversations and creating music out of them.

Wright has always been an original, exciting filmmaker (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scot Pilgrim vs The World), and here he infuses his typical kinetic style with plenty of good music and some original writing to produce a movie that is equal parts Drive, Fast and the Furious, and pretty much any Michael Mann heist flick.  The likes of Kevin Spacey and Jamie Foxx play charismatic villains to Elgort's thug-with-a-heart-of-gold Baby, but the movie, which is a lot of fun, simply recycles way too many cliches ("this is my last job", "the girl is his weakness", etc) of thieves-behind-a-wheel genre in order to be truly great.  But don't let that keep you from seeing it, because it's still very good as is.
B

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

"Alien: Covenant" adds blood & guts, but little else



Traveling through space in a gigantic spaceship with most of the crew in hibernation? Check.  Receiving a distress signal from another planet?  Check. Discovering deadly aliens whose sole purpose is to destroy all life?  Double check. About the only plot element that Ridley Scott's Alien: Covenant doesn't recycle from previous installments of this franchise is the inclusion of not one, but two (nearly) identical androids, David and Walter, one good, the other bad (both played by Michael Fassbender), with the former now representing a much more evil version of Dr. Frankenstein, albeit in a galaxy far, far away (he first appears cloaked in a hoodie, resembling a Jedi from a George Lucas alternate universe).  The movie really is a mash-up of the original 1979 Alien and 2012's Prometheus, with an added touch of ultra-violence and gore, but with far less thrills.

The franchise was much better served when Aliens were creepy monsters that lurked in the darkness of outer space; when we see way too much of them, they kind of lose their mystique.  And we're still no wiser on the subject of "engineers", the large extra-terrestrial humanoids who allegedly created humanity millions of years ago, and are responsible for creating the Alien lifeforms as well.  We see a glimpse of them in a brief flashback, but their motivation and their philosophy remains a mystery.  It would seem that Mr. Scott has made a very generic sequel/prequel whose script is not only short on inspiration, but also on ideas.  There really is no reason for this movie to exist at all, for we've already seen it before.  Twice.
C-


Monday, July 10, 2017

Ideas in "The Circle" as stale as its screenplay



Although I will admit that Emma Watson is a beautiful actress - and rightfully deserved to play the role of Belle in the recent live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast - I still have not seen much evidence of her acting skills being transcendent.  In The Circle, Watson plays Mae Holland, a young woman who gets hired by a conglomerate communications corporation headed by the Steve Jobs-like Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), who somehow thinks it's ok to film every single person for every second of every day, using new revolutionary tiny cameras whose video quality is so good that it's mind-bending (and of course, never truly explained) why they would be so inexpensive to purchase.

The movie treads the universal-surveillance-versus-personal-privacy issue with such confidence that one would think it's actually saying something groundbreaking about our technologically and social media dependent society, but alas, its screenplay is way too dull and immature for its themes to resonate at all after the credits have rolled.  A scene involving Mae's friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane) being harassed by common citizens as they film him obnoxiously with their smart phones is especially cruel to watch, and even more devastating is the scene's outcome, which is telegraphed well in advance.

The Circle is pure trash - unfunny, unwise, and just plain stale - masquerading as profound social commentary on our modern techno times, and downright laughable all the way to its ridiculously dull climax.
D-

Monday, July 3, 2017

Joon-ho's "Okja" exposes corporate political hypocrisy



The super pig at the heart of Okja (it looks like a larger hippopotamus with flappier ears) is a cute and lovable animal, and the only thing that raced through my mind as I watched it fill up nearly every frame of Bong Joon-ho's (Mother, Snowpiercer) film is, "How much food does that thing eat?" Created through a scientific lab project by the ambitious Mirando Corporation and its CEO Lucy (Tilda Newton, doing her best animated human these days only in Joon-ho's films), Okja, raised in rural South Korea by young Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and her grandfather, is one of 26 super pigs lent to farmers around the world who are about to be re-possessed by Mirando a decade later in order to cash in on the animals' plumb and juicy meat.  I suppose everything that moves on this Earth is at some point edible.

The creatively bold director assembles a unique movie that is simultaneously two films at once: a marvelous children's adventure about a girl and her pet, and a socio-political dramedy about corporate greed and animal cruelty.  Its characters are also vast: Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), a cooky shorts-wearing scientist whose ego has been bruised by his boss; an animal-rights activist leader, Jay (Paul Dano), whose principles are "to cherish every living thing" (but there are exceptions); and last but not least, K (Steven Yeun), another activist whose morality line isn't quite in sync with his boss.  Everyone in Okja has motivation, depth and sympathy, regardless of how few lines they speak.  It's another testament to Joon-ho's talent, whose vision isn't limited just by what we see.

Okja is further proof that some of the most original and compelling cinema in the world consistently comes out of South Korea, and I, for one, can not wait to see what Joon-ho does next.
B+