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: