Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (B-) includes several moments of such unmitigated bliss that it’s a shame the full picture has a sloppy aesthetic, a cluttered and overlong story and utterly one-dimensional characters. It’s such a pop culture bonanza that it sometimes feels more like an incidental Comic-Con documentary than an actual feature film with a plot we’re supposed to relish. The intrepid director has a recent track record of rallying in the final sequences (“Didn’t you have a great time?”) but it’s a long slog cribbing plot elements of Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka, Tron and more to tell the futuristic story of a teen trying to unlock three clues in a virtual reality game to win a life-changing fortune against evil corporate raiders of their own lost arc. Tye Sheridan and Ben Mendelsohn are wasted in the roles of the central players, with only T.J. Miller and Olivia Cooke getting standout moments as a wry animated bounty hunter and a spry revolutionary, respectively. There’s a wall-to-wall sense of nostalgia that culminates in a horror movie homage that is by far the best sequence. Otherwise the CGI is ugly and overwhelming and the action hollow with an undeveloped emotional core. This film should have been a magical sensation, but its user experience needed a bit more polishing.
A nihilistic murder mystery posing in pretensions and occasional droll droplets of gallows humor, Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds (C-) neglects consistent character development in the service of a nifty premise. Olivia Cooke is a revelation as a young woman incapable of emotion, and she becomes the perfect partner in crime for a differently depressed rich teen (Anya Taylor-Joy, also good in her role) motivated to slay a wicked stepfather. The men in the film don’t stand a chance, especially Paul Sparks as the diabolical daddy who doesn’t get to do enough evil to justify the trouble. The late Anton Yelchin is charismatic in an underwritten role as a would-be third conspirator. The set-up is elegant, but ultimately the structure crumbles under the women’s feet while they continue to act the hell out of their parts. Like the central character, the film is not funny or absorbing enough to justify getting to know it.
Writer/director Alex Garland’s Annihilation (B) is largely an incredibly absorbing sci-fi thriller about an army of women who venture behind a quarantined force field to resolve the enigma of the atmospheric abnormality going on inside. Natalie Portman is solid as the former military biology professor with a secret who discovers many of the chilling mutations and mysteries within “the shimmer.” The story is often hypnotic and the effects impressive, but the movie runs into some final act troubles. Some of the key characters are also underwritten, and there are myriad missed opportunities to more clearly articulate the film’s thesis, involving our cellular imprint toward self-destruction. The film is still smarter than your standard issue adventure, and like Christopher Nolan’s similarly ambitious Interstellar also overextends its reach.
Writer/director Ryan Coogler’s entry into the Marvel franchise, Black Panther (B+), is a regal rouser with a superhero who also presides as monarch of a fictional secret African nation. Chadwick Boseman is dashing as the lead in the globetrotting film set largely in his high-tech palace city, but (like Thor) he’s often upstaged by a moody, Machiavellian villain, played with swagger by Coogler muse Michael B. Jordan. A supporting cast including Lupita Nyong’o, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker brings pluck to the proceedings, but the best actors in the bunch are Winston Duke as a reluctant warrior and Letitia Wright as the king’s Q-like kid sis. The film takes a while to accelerate into the throne room barn burner it becomes, but once it generates steam, there’s a deliciously delirious set of showdowns in Korean crime dens, atop waterfall cliffs, in battle meadows and aboard Tron-like light rail tunnels. It’s a vibrant adventure and a morally urgent political parable that delivers on a variety of levels.
Chad Stahelski’s John Wick: Chapter 2 (B) doubles down on the surprisingly solid franchise’s signature nonstop action while expanding the backstory and lore of Keanu Reeves’ eponymous character, a retired hitman seeking vengeance. Who would have guessed this wall-to-wall actioner would go full Godfather 2 and serve up a gracious expanded universe? The acting is pretty sloppy, but the fight choreography is to die for. Full-on action in New York City and Rome lead to a nifty cliffhanger and certainly another sequel.
Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, for a sensational three-ring outer space circus featuring amazing planets, phenomenal creatures, stunning acrobatics and very little believable plot or character development. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (B) is basically Rian Johnson’s Galactic Exposition of 2017, in which the visionary sci-fi writer/director assembles an absolute cavalcade of activity while neglecting the delights the preceding film breathed into a trio of new central characters, a bratty villain and a spherical droid. During its bloated running time, Johnson introduces far-fetched new technologies and powers for his ensemble but requires most of them to tread water until what is expected to be the conclusion of this trilogy when J.J. Abrams retakes the reigns. This middle film’s marvels include a pretty casino planet and at least one intergalactic dogfight with pizzazz, lots of cotton candy for the soul. Misfires involve both old and new characters, who behave with perplexing lack of clarity and continuity; some are done no favors through long periods of separation. There’s a gas shortage that rivals the taxation disputes of the prequels in terms of dramatic inertia and at least one moment of sky walking that defies both gravity and belief. Laws of space and time, be damned! Even for this fantasy space opera, this one hits some bizarro notes. For all its fussy audacity, you may leave this funhouse a bit dizzy and more confused than you should feel for the ride.
A triumph of production design with a colorful supporting cast surrounding a bit of a hollow central storyline, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (B) reimagines The Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1960s Cold War Baltimore with Sally Hawkins as a mute janitor at a military science lab who falls for Doug Jones’ captive Amphibious Man. It’s a visually arresting and solidly rendered fairy tale for adults, but the quirky central couple doesn’t get to do much more than display the traits of their tropes in an update of archetypes. Hawkins is effective in the quirky lead role, but the juiciest parts are played by Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer as her wry sidekicks and Michael Shannon as a corrupt colonel with a penchant for popping pills from a grotesque gangrenous hand. His unhinged performance, marked by a myriad of deplorable traits, is one of the film’s most notable delights. Alexandre Desplat’s score, layered with stardust melodies from classic Hollywood, sets the mood gracefully for outcasts in love. Del Toro clearly has a singular vision for his monster romance, but the film suffers from tonal shifts as its final act revolves into a protracted waiting game. Ultimately this beauty is missing a few beats.
All the lasers and lassos and Aquaman kin can’t put this comic book franchise together again. Studio dictates, glimmers of personality from its female characters and slight moments of inspiration from temporary script doctor Joss Whedon are the only redeemable qualities of Zack Snyder’s Justice League (C), more a series course correction than standalone story of interest. After confusing the motivations of cherished DC Universe icons and draining them of literal color in the previous installment, there’s a bit more shine on this apple, although it’s still kinda rotten. The plot, centering on alien supervillain Steppenwolf who wields three dangerous cosmic cubes that would be the envy of Q*bert and Coily, is superfluous to getting the comic book ensemble together to fight him (great, another origin story with a bass-voiced CGI antagonist!) Jason Momoa is brash but hardly makes a splash, his superhero of the seas largely sidelined in battle. The miscast Ezra Miller’s fast-moving Flash is relegated to awkward comic relief. Ray Fisher as Cyborg is mainly seen fussing around with technology and might as well be mute, since he has so few lines. At least the luminous Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman improves every sequence she is in, and Amy Adams’s Lois Lane shows some signs of life in an extended cameo. Ben Affleck sleepwalks through his role as Batman, leaving a hollow core in the protagonist circle. So we are left with watching contemplations of re-animating Henry Cavill’s Superman and witnessing the super troop fight a bento box toting baddie and his army of insects for a very long final act. The best two sequences in the entire film are in the final credits. Ultimately this anemic entry into the DC canon wins just a little simply for stopping the hemorrhaging.
It’s a “Hela” family reunion as Thor and Loki meet their long lost sinister sister in Taiki Waititi’s anything-goes Marvel movie Thor: Ragnarok (B-). The director’s casual humor and electric interplanetary aesthetic channeling Flash Gordon make for a much-needed change of pace after the solemn second film in this trilogy. But it’s all a bit fussy and cluttered to distract from a rather one-note protagonist. To his credit, Chris Hemsworth does get to flex some comedic chops, balancing out the scenery-chewing sequences featuring Cate Blanchett. Lugubrious back stories get in the way of the central plot, but flourishes such as an Incredible Hulk parade, a flamboyant politico played by Jeff Goldblum and a recurring gag of botched entrances and exits keep it all breezy. I wish the director had been as clever with his editing.
Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 (B-) continues the slow-burn neo-noir dystopian atmosphere of Ridley Scott’s 1982 predecessor and flips the script on some of the motifs about androids (“replicants”) being able to approximate human emotions. Handsomely produced with mesmerizing imagery and endowed with a good-looking cast of characters sorting out future L.A. life a few decades after the events of the original, the film succeeds in moments of discovery and drags when presenting indulgent sequences of exposition. This time Ryan Gosling is the “blade runner” (rogue robot hunter), and the way his character is written doesn’t do him many favors. Harrison Ford is back in what amounts to a brief cameo and doesn’t bring much either. There’s a subplot about family secrets, a nice bit about how embedded memories are made and some twisty surprises that up the ante, but the film definitely short circuits in the final act. The first film was an efficient mystery and action thriller. It was ponderous too but delivered the goods on action, which this installment does all too infrequently during its near three-hour running time. This sequel looks spectacular on the big screen. I just wished it dreamed with a little more electricity.
Fall is coming! The first two episodes of a new Marvel TV series, presented in IMAX prior to release on ABC, Inhumans (B-) is a fairly formulaic but mostly well executed comic book adaptation of a royal espionage action drama, as realized by director Roel Reiné. As a baddie leading a coup on a secret city on earth’s moon, Iwan Rheon is a forceful presence and eclipses all other actors. Less successful is Anson Mount as his brother the king, ostensibly the protagonist. He manages a vacant performance of questionable facial expressions while mute. As his wife Medusa (so named for her supernatural serpentine locks), Serinda Swan is commanding. Most of the titular band of mutants are separated during this mega-episode, so it’s not completely clear how their camaraderie will click in the long term. But the creativity of the source material carries the day in a brisk and bright tale of intrigue. The cliffhanger sets a pretty good stage for events ahead.
Jon Watts’s Spider-Man: Homecoming (B+) marks the superhero’s seventh on-screen adventure (as played by Tom Holland, he most recently had a minor but memorable role in Captain America: Civil War) and his first standalone Marvel movie, with small bits by a quintet of actors popularized in other universe franchise series. Thankfully this third reboot of the series eschews the origin story, spider bites and uncle tragedy and simply lets Peter Parker be a regular high school kid with an extraordinary extracurricular life. Tom Holland is superb as the awkward arachnolescent, and the film’s best sequences show him fumble through the stickiness of growing up. Following other roles in the bird and bat family, Michael Keaton is strong as villain Vulture, a salvage purveyor turned arms trafficker who assembles Avengers scraps into fancy new weapons. Watts is inventive with the teen scenes and largely successful on the action front (disaster sequences at Washington Monument, aboard a Staten Island Ferry and at Coney Island are believable). The stakes seemed a bit smaller than the usual Marvel epic, but the characters reveal themselves nicely. Robert Downey, Jr. is fun as mentor/impresario Tony Stark, and Jacob Batalon is a delight as sidekick Ned. Effective storytelling and upbeat, compelling characters continue the Marvel winning streak.