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.
Four decades after Bandit’s criss-crossing car chases left Smokey in the dust of Georgia, Edgar Wright’s Atlanta-set Baby Driver (A) grafts grifts and getaways, criminally comic chase capers and manic musical syncopations that yield new song to this southern boomtown into a wholly original new entertainment. This candy-colored fantasia is an engrossing and involving tale from the get-go, propelled by a very charming Ansel Elgort in the central role as a go-to guy for driving armed robbers from scenes of the crime and plucky Lily James as the waitress who wins his heart and may just pull him away from his life in the shadows. Add to these great performances scenery chewing Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm, and it’s off to the races. Wright has drawn his characters finely with clever quirks that pay off perfectly in episodes behind the crimes and behind the wheel. Because Elgort’s character has “a hum in the drum” and relies on an iTunes shuffle for the soundtrack to his days (including sweet, swift exit music), the film is laced with an electric and eclectic jukebox of joy ranging from Blur to The Beach Boys to the Incredible Bongo Band. The movie is faster, more furious and funnier than most anything in the marketplace right now because it sweats the details, cares for its characters, goes out on a limb for adventure and doesn’t mind crossing lanes between genres. It’s an ultracool summons into trippy territory. It’s the mix-tape and mash-up of summer that you didn’t know you were looking for, and it’s ready for a fresh spin.
Director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot lasso a true kickstart to the summer movie season with grit and girlpower, spunk and splendor in the satisfying superhero movie Wonder Woman (B+). After an origin story prologue on Amazon island where warrior Diana grows up with a peacekeeping destiny and mentorship from Robin Wright, the narrative thrusts to Europe, where our heroine marshals a team of ragtag ruffians to infiltrate WWI enemies and attempt to thwart a bunch of baddies and their chemical weapons plot. Jenkins proves masterful in taking us to tentpole territory with a reverent tone, pulpy production values and motivated action. Gadot is a delight as a woman with singular purpose and a refreshing lack of irony. Chris Pine is superb as her foil, an American spy who answers her questions about the nuances of men’s modern warcraft and anatomy. Mostly, it’s old-fashioned adventure building on the spirit of the original Captain America or The Rocketeer, with moments of comedy in London a most enjoyable surprise. For thrills and good-natured fun, this is a high point for the otherwise murky D.C. comics cinematic universe and the antidote for and female-driven counterpoint to Michael Bay style phone-’em-in summer blockbuster machinations.
It’s sink or swim time at the multiplex, and Seth Gordon’s feeble film adaptation of guilty pleasure lifeguards on the loose TV series Baywatch (C-), complete with beach-side booty and treasured chests but not much else, fails to deliver enough compelling content to stay afloat. Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron are fine in stock roles as mismatched ocean-side officers, trading tired barbs and partaking in minor action sequences. Priyanka Chopra adds some sinister and Kelly Rohrbach some sweetness to a reed-thin plot line about a ritzy resort with a drug-dealing underground. The movie keeps its surf-ready bodies front and center but rarely scratches the surface in terms of consistent tone, wit or sentiment. It never quite settles on whether it’s a full-fledged parody, a hard-R comedy or just an action lark set in a familiar retro milieu. This is another comedic knockoff of the 21 Jump Street formula that just can’t capture magic in a bottle. Folks shouldn’t plan an adult swim or a breezy getaway expecting much out of this movie.
Told in multicolor hues that would make a frappuccino unicorn whinny and packed to the gills with gee-whiz gadgetry, action and laughter, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (B+) is most successful when it examines the unconventional family dynamics of Marvel’s outer space superheroes. With baby on board (Groot, that is, and his highjinks are precious), the Guardians’ shipmates encounter Peter’s father and Gamora’s sister, among assorted new characters, and must reflect on their place in the universe. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista display natural chemistry and charm. It’s like a Corleone saga with blasters and dick jokes. The new planets and plot lines are full of intrigue, and the dialogue is witty and wise. It’s an early summer movie that delivers the goods.
F. Gary Gray’s The Fate of the Furious (B-), the eighth film in the adrenaline-soaked automobiles and action series (and the reported first part of a three-film story arch of international espionage involving a cyberterrorism ring), logs a lot of miles to deliver its promised blockbuster goods. Heroes in hacking and hot-roding such as Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges are in fine form as Vin Diesel’s character is co-opted into a diabolical plan versus his mates by a criminal mastermind played by Charlize Theron. As Cipher, the film’s most interesting character, Theron singlehandedly ups the game. Her dialogue delivery is cunning, and it’s a hoot to watch her weaponize driverless cars on the streets of New York as easily as she mobilizes Russian submarines to torpedo our heroes. There’s a funny bit involving Jason Statham and a baby and a lovely cameo with Dame Helen Mirren (yup). Part of the fun of these films is the wanderlust, but Gray guides this entry all over the place. The pre-title sequence in Havana, featuring a fiery photo finish of a road race, may be the most simple and satisfying auto stunt in the whole movie. Later as we slog from Berlin to Russia with every type of pile-up possible, it occasionally feels like 13 year olds are going wild with their matchbox cars. Still, there’s an undeniable alchemy at work here, with machismo humor, high caliber stunts and those spoilers polished like a thing of beauty that keep folks clamoring for more.