Imagine finding out that single-minded discipline in high school yielded no more success than that of the the cool kids who also partied all four years. That’s the premise of first time director Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart (B), one of those very sweet films wrapped in the package of a vulgar comedy, in which its central duo endeavors to make up for lost time with a free-spirited romp on graduation eve. This irreverent movie has plenty of great laughs and gags and is notable for its central friendship between a lesbian character (Kaitlyn Dever) and her loving but controlling straight best friend (Beanie Feldstein). Feldstein steals the show with her potent mix of feisty friendliness and devious directness (for those who don’t know, she’s Jonah Hill’s sister and equally super-badass). The film is largely a series of episodic moments through misbegotten parties with its ladies getting into maiden voyages of mischief, but the film’s characters are generally good-spirited and it never gets too dark. Jason Sudeikis, Jessica Williams, Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow are enjoyable in small roles. Wilde demonstrates command of the medium and brings a fresh female perspective to the notion that all hard work and no play is no fun for anyone.
While the studio that pioneered 2-D animation has evidently put that art form on ice, Disney has adapted its golden age cartoon musicals into Broadway shows and transformed them back into hybrid “revisal” live action movies to mixed effect. What was vintage or even moribund is now cryogenically reawakened as both blatant cash grab and opportunity to amend already sterling properties with new flourishes. Macho action film helmer Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin (B-) mines his man cave of wonders and faithfully recreates many of the nostalgic beats of the madcap magic lamp comedy, but here’s the rub: it doesn’t add enough new invention to distinctively better its predecessor in many remarkable categories. This live action lark is clearly bringing something borrowed and something blue: the latter, Will Smith’s cyan-hued comic Genie, is the surprise here and literally saves the movie at mid-point from an odd gloominess, the megawatt star nailing the iconic wish-granting role by simply being himself in fresh-prince mode as if the RuPaul’s Drag Race team had whispered him some funny shade to throw. He almost has to slow his droll to avoid eclipsing the rest of the ensemble, but his bromantic bond with the title character is shining, shimmering and sometimes a little splendid. Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott are attractive and in good voice in underwritten but appealing roles as Aladdin and Jasmine; Marwan Kenzari is less effective as villainous Jafar who comes across, well, too cartoonish. Lavish craftsmanship of handsome sets, vivid spectacle, eye-popping costumes, whimsical effects and fairly woke casting fill every frame in this entertaining bazaar, with rooftop parkour, a girl power anthem and Bollywood style dance moves adding spice to the pixel dust. Overlong and under-cooked, Ritchie’s romp finally gives Genie and company their wish to be real humans and gets a mild ride into recommended territory.
Jonathan Levine’s comedy set in the high stakes world of international diplomacy, Long Shot (B+), is equal parts shock and aw-shucks. Its central odd couple pairing is a meeting of hive minds and makes a wry statement about not always playing it safe, even in love and politics. Charlize Theron’s character is living in the bubble of a secretary of state role with eyes on the presidency when she encounters Seth Rogen’s schlubby ex-journalist turned speechwriter, and it’s a burst of unexpected laughs and chemistry as they embark on a world tour to save the planet, boost her likability polling and dodge a few unexpected hazards of the job. June Diane Raphael and O’Shea Jackson Jr. are supporting delights as the central duo’s witty advisors. If you’re not easily offended by vulgar sex and drug references, par for the course on the Rogen milieu, you’re in for one of the snappiest rom coms in quite a while. Theron steals the show as she reveals the vulnerability behind the statuesque veneer, especially in a sequence when she diffuses a global crisis while recovering from a night of particularly hardcore partying. Rogen enjoys his best role in years and gets to demonstrate his earnest side. The state of this union is quite satisfying.
Bring on the ballet of bombast! Chad Stahelski’s John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (B-) delivers more of what fans desire – the stoic Keanu Reeves as the titular retired hit man now with quite a bounty on his head, brutally graphic action sequences and elaborate fights and stunts staged against epic and ultra-cool set pieces. A few Oscar winners and nominees are thrown in the mix – Halle Barry, Laurence Fishburne and Angelica Huston chief among them – and none should expect a repeat nomination from this outing. Barry is particularly hit or miss. But for sheer propulsive action and energy, this flick brings the goods. Front-loaded with some of its best sequences including a fight in a library with books as weapons and a more straightforward showdown in an actual weapons store, the film ultimately gets a bit campy with elaborate lairs resembling Bond villain hideaways re-imagined by Max Headroom’s electronica DJ nephew. Following the rules and lore of the assassin underground becomes a bit puzzling, but by the time the travelogue has taken viewers from NYC to Casablanca and back, you realize it’s all just a big canvas for grotesquerie, kung fu and bloodsport. Nothing seems to slow down this earnest and absurd series.
The bar is set low for movies based on video games, and Rob Letterman’s Pokémon Detective Pikachu (D+) lurks right below that threshold. Justice Smith is a bit adrift as an insurance agent who lost his estranged father in a mysterious accident near a lab on the outskirts of a utopia where humans and Pokémon (plural!) live mostly in harmony (like humans and toons in Roger Rabbit‘s milieu). Smith’s reluctant hero is joined by the spry voice of Ryan Reynolds as the titular adorable yellow creature at the heart of the story. The film fails to take full advantage of its film noir set-up nor does it add many compelling layers to chase and action sequences, so it basically isn’t interesting, funny or exciting enough to justify all the average special effects bouncing around its screen. Because Pikachu’s dialogue can only be heard by his human friend, there could have been something wry or subversive here, but alas it’s all aimed at a very young audience. And to that end, it doesn’t really set much of a life lesson or warm the heart either. Perhaps there’s a demographic to whom this will have exact appeal, but Letterman and his intrepid detectives didn’t make the case to many new fans with this one.
Nearly eight decades after the animated original, Tim Burton’s live action Dumbo (C+) has flown onto the scene again, and the pachyderm protagonist remains a charming silent star, no matter what’s going on in the peanut galleries around him. Disney executives appear to operate under the premise that, unlike elephants, moviegoers sometimes forget, so there’s liberty to color in some detail around the original 64-minute cartoon’s plot for those with only a hint of familiarity about the circus-set story. Burton adds generous dollops of fussiness around what was formerly a pretty simple storyline about a misfit animal who finds his big ears actually enable him to fly and become a sensational performer. The human actors including Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton and Eva Green have very little to do in underwritten roles. Characteristic of all but about a half dozen of Burton’s films is his propensity to deliver style over substance or story, and this entry comes up short on all of those metrics. The art direction and costumes are quite lovely, and there are some nice homage and heartstrings moments, but largely it’s a mediocre show at the multiplex.
Anyone who’s ever fantasized about having a twin has probably not seen many horror movies, because doppelgänger-dom is typically hell one earth when your double turns out to be trouble. In telling the suspenseful story of a privileged family facing off with unfortunate duplicate “others,” Jordan Peele’s Us (B+) peels back lots of layers about Modern America and reveals a complex and fascinating motion picture experience. The terror – set largely in West coast enclaves near a lake and a beach amusement park – is taut and the tone of unease singularly stirring, but the imaginative writer/director overreaches at times in his ambition to top Get Out with this unsettling sophomore effort. Lupita Nyong’o is simply fabulous in two distinct and challenging performances, but the problem with all the players is that allegorical characters aren’t that fundamentally interesting. Winston Duke doesn’t fare quite as well with a ho-hum husband character who can only be described as not wearing the pants much, literally or figuratively. Peele’s parade of timely topics spans from red state politics to the digital divide, from defanged authority figures to upper class malaise as clones endeavor to claw their way into the mainstream. A viewer could enjoy the fresh and breathless action without absorbing all the creative points of view the auteur is trying to convey. Ultimately although everything doesn’t add up in this creative piece of speculative fiction, film fans and horror enthusiasts will relish the journey. Peele’s undeniable style and subversive commentary about a country of haves and have nots is sly and smart.
Here’s a heroic hot take: It took 21 Marvel Cinematic Universe films for the creators to accomplish the hat trick of making it all not look so damn hard. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s easy, breezy entertainment Captain Marvel (B+) places its plum protagonist in a hybrid mystery/prequel set in the ‘90s, and it reveals its plot and characters with leisurely delight and a stunning lack of urgency. The easygoing ensemble includes Brie Larsen being cool and collected in the title role, a special effects de-aged Samuel L. Jackson as ultra-chill Young Nick Fury, Ben Mendelsohn as a funny and super casual alien menace and a fetching feline stowaway low-key stealing its sequences. Aerial dogfighting, mind bending, light speeding and urban outrunning its way into the beloved comic book franchise, the movie builds atmosphere and drama without Thor sledgehammering or strange doctoring into too much needless complexity. The unfussy story: find yourself, find a secret charged object and set the stage for saving the universe. Plus it’s fairly woke in the casting and character departments. Mawkish supporting performances by Jude Law and Annette Bening are thankfully eclipsed by the nifty grunge-era songbook, splendid visuals and generous helpings of heart (Lashana Lynch and Akira Akbar are wonderfully warm as the captain’s surrogate family). The cast and crew clearly worked hard on this one, and it’s nice they put on a show without being so showy.
Acclaimed and criminally under-appreciated motion picture director William Friedkin is known for the gritty near-documentary reality he imbues in projects such as The Exorcist, The French Connection, Sorcerer, Cruising and Bug, so it’s fun to witness the man behind the movies sounding off about his approach. Francesco Zippel‘s Friedkin Uncut (B) stitches together interviews with the titular director and many of his contemporaries about his place in history and examines sequences from the seminal works of his outrageous oeuvre. He’s a cunning subject with a POV on topics such as staging a great car chase, mounting an opera, embedding with priests and police for ultimate authenticity and getting deep in the heads of filmmaking pioneers. Quentin Tarantino, Ellen Burstyn, Willem Defoe and Francis Ford Coppola are among the most compelling storytellers about Friedkin’s influence. One of the greatest tricks Friedkin pulls is the art of filming with one simple take. Some behind the scenes and archival footage is better than others, but Zippel captures a compelling portrait of an exacting auteur.
Constructing a clever comedy requires a lot of bright component parts, and I suppose even Henrik Ibsen would marvel at the master builders behind this month’s blockbuster sequel! Veteran animator Mike Mitchell’s The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part (B+), wisely written by the original film’s writer/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, is a deft deconstruction of the walls governing plot and pacing. The result is a madcap bricks-and-mortar tour de force filled with hilarious highjinks, industry in-jokes and winning life lessons to be enjoyed by all ages. Chris Pratt (two roles), Elizabeth Banks (heroine) and especially Tiffany Haddish (shape-shifting emerging villain) shine in voice roles as the heroes face “Ar-mom-ageddon,” basically becoming toys thrown in the storage bin. The film blasts its ensemble of heroes and superheroes from a Mad Max style dystopia to an outer space world, with time travel and live action thrown in for good measure. It’s a pretty great musical too, following up “Everything is Awesome” with a variety of enjoyable new tunes including an earworm called “Catchy Song.” Just when you think you know where the plot is going, the creators have a few more bricks up there sleeve. There are so many great throwaway lines and creative gags that this second part may require a second viewing.
Review of the original film here
M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass (B) could also be called Superhero Erased as the always fascinating Sarah Paulson plays a conversion therapist to humans who believe they have superpowers. She turns her attention to a trio introduced in two films now considered the opening salvos of the “Eastrail 177 Trilogy”: Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), The Overseer (Bruce Willis) and The Beast plus his 23-member Horde (James McAvoy). Spencer Treat Clark, who played Willis’s son and Charlayne Woodard who played Glass’s mom in 2000’s Unbreakable and Anya Taylor-Joy as the abducted teen with a touch of Stockholm Syndrome in 2016’s Split round out the primary players in this mystery/thriller oddly devoid of quite the twists and turns the director usually has up his sleeves. Shyamalan puts the puzzle pieces together with joy and precision 90 percent of the time and a bit of clumsiness in the margins (his cameos in his movies, for instance, are almost always stupefyingly bad). The central trio of oddities each gets to showcase a brilliant bag of tricks, with Willis embodying silent heroism, Jackson devilish masterminding and McAvoy a whirling dervish of over-the-top schizophrenic characters. The pacing loses momentum in the denouement, but even a prolonged sequence which begs “get to the point already” gets ultimately explained. There are knowing references for devotees of the first films and enough soap opera twists and turns to catch up newcomers to the series. For a film called Glass, it could use a bit more sharpness and clarity. Although far from perfect, it certainly falls into the recommended works by this director.
This is the third film in what is unofficially called the Eastrail 177 Trilogy. See also these reviews of the other films, which were a bit better but together make an interesting observation about heroes and humanity: