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.
This mystical journey of meditation qualifies as a downward-facing dog. Despite tinges of uplift, Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time (D+) is a folly from the get-go, an interminable bore of pretentious drivel wrapped in a semi-shimmery package. Featuring bland line delivery rivaling George Lucas’s intergalactic prequels, inconsistent effects that miss the mark of even sub-Krull intentions and a meandering plot overestimating the cinematic drawing power of mathematical mind tricks, this sci-fi fantasy makes Disney’s similarly askew Tomorrowland look like a real people mover. Out-of-her-depth child actress Storm Reid can take no shelter or solace in the company of her adult co-stars as she is visited by three spirit guides (Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling, each vying for “most cloying”) to help rescue her astrophysicist dad (Chris Pine, stripped of his usual charm) from interplanetary exile. Only child actor Deric McCabe shows some signs of life as a strange and sometimes sassy li’l bro, and frankly a little of him goes a long way. This film is ultimately a chore of the first order, tripping over its own tesseracts and leaning into a laborious labyrinth with very few joys aside from occasional Sade music. Substituting new-age banter for action or substance, the film feels like a fever dream by Enya, and I just wanted to sail away. Bottom line: Know that you’re special, and you had the power in you all along; and you can spend two hours saving your world in a different way.
Bill Watterson’s Dave Made a Maze (C-) is puzzlingly one-note, like a student film stretched incessantly to feature length and a bit too pleased with its random acts of peculiarity. When a frustrated thirty-year-old (Nick Thune, unconvincing) builds a cardboard labyrinth in his apartment and unwittingly “boxes” his hipster friends within a walled garden that starts taking on a life of its own, metaphors and minotaurs are unleashed with reckless abandon. The acting is largely unconvincing and sometimes insufferable, but there are some nifty practical effects and epic moments of stoner whimsy sure to charm. It’s hard to completely dislike a film in which the ensemble is temporarily re-cast with paper-bag puppets. There are a few surprises around some of the corners, and Meera Rohit Kumbhani is fiercely committed to her underwritten role. Ultimately the story simply can’t support its playful premise and starts to feel more like a dumpster dive than a flight of fantasy.
Note: A hit at the Slamdance Film Festival, DMAM was featured as the opening night movie of the 41st Annual Atlanta Film Festival. #ATLFF and goes wide(r) in the U.S. August 18, 2017.
If you’ve ever felt like the late-night denizens on a bender in your neighborhood bar or Uber pool could be as destructive to urban life as Godzilla, Mothra or a Giant Robot, you’ll find comfort in Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal (B-), a hit or miss sci-fi fantasy with grander repercussions than are actually explored on screen. Anne Hathaway plays against type as a flighty NYC writer perpetually experiencing alcohol induced blackouts. Coinciding with her rural reboot to her childhood hometown, a worldwide panic breaks out with a gigantic monster appearing in Korea, and our protagonist and the creature just may be connected. Hathaway solidly anchors a far fetched and somewhat plot hole laden experiment with a tinge of a theme about the ripple effects of domestic squabbles and their unintended consequences. It’s a good thing the film’s undercurrents lean a bit on the feminist since the men in the ensemble including Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens and Tim Blake Nelson are fairly dreadful. The effects are impressive for what seems like a cult indie. Ultimately, it wasn’t quite an OMG when I was hoping it would at least be a BFG.
A genre hopping film about being lost in the wilderness and summoning the courage that only a best friend can help you achieve, Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan’s Sundance discovery Swiss Army Man (A-) is the year’s cinematic curiosity as well as a mild revelation. Paul Dano turns in a superb performance as a young man seemingly stranded on an island until he is joined by a one-of-a-kind companion played by Daniel Radcliffe, who brings with him an unexpected sense of magic and utility. A dramedy filled from beginning to end with flights of fantasy and a dreamlike approach to storytelling, the film’s furtive lessons will reward adventurous moviegoers. Prepare to be startled and astonished in equal doses in this rather wondrous parable. The lively and affecting a capella score by Manchester Orchestra is nearly a character as well. Too much description of what goes on would be reductive; but suffice it to say you’ve seen nothing like it, and its filmmaking craft is nothing short of life affirming.
Over the years as latter films in the Star Wars pantheon have produced diminishing returns, there’s been a bit of a grading curve – “pretty good acting … for someone in a Star Wars film,” “fairly cool action scene … in an otherwise lackluster prequel” and the like. So it’s good news indeed that J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (A-) earns its accolades outright in terms of solid acting, layered characters, genuine high stakes, some earned comic relief and relentless action. The film achieves most of its delirious highs in the first hour as it splendidly introduces four fantastic new characters (Daisy Ridley as fierce scavenger warrior heroine Rey, John Boyega as naive reformed Stormtrooper Finn, Oscar Isaac as cocksure pilot Poe and the precious spherical astromech droid BB-8). There’s considerable descent into incomprehension (alas Abrams gets rather Lost) during the final acts with strange pop psychology that only works in spurts and some tedious retreads of some action moments already depicted in six previous films. Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren makes for a so-so villain, albeit with an awesome lightsaber, and his CGI mentor is a bit of a misfire. Harrison Ford is a highlight reprising his role as everyone’s favorite rakish scoundrel Han Solo, this time showing more of his soft side along with his trademark quips. The art direction and physical production are gloriously rendered and are such a welcome return to form: sequences in the desert are lush and the first glimpse of evil TIE Fighters sleek indeed. The film works best when it functions as an archaeological dig into the myths and iconography of the original trilogy; in fact, much of the most spectacular parts of the quest – rescuing antiquities, piecing together lost maps, being chased in the desert and around sinister corners and plumbing the well of characters’ souls – resemble an Indiana Jones installment. The fresh storyline of new characters is actually the film’s novelty since Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill are shamelessly underused. But it’s hard to begrudge a big studio enterprise that is this packed with thrills and adventure, good characters and surprises. It largely hits the mark and sets the stage for some great new revelations.
Damned as the third and most inert installment of an already stretched out film adaptation of a novel barely as thick as a pamphlet, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies (C-) is the uninvolving conclusion of a most perfunctory trilogy. Coming alive only in an epic dragon village battle and an inventive swordfight atop a sheet of lake ice, the film contains beautifully rendered special effects but doesn’t connect in terms of emotion or storytelling. You’re left to reflect on lingering questions: Was Martin Freeman even the least bit compelling as a protagonist? Was Lee Pace’s elf character the spitting image of Chloë Sevigny with resting bitch face? Was it a cost saving measure to introduce virtually zero new worlds or landscapes? And maybe the dwarves singing in the first installment weren’t really the series’ low point? With the biggest threat in the trilogy slayed in the prologue, what was a post-Smaug epic intended to accomplish? The film’s central fight over the treasures in the mountain is prolonged into about a hundred mini-fights that we’ve definitely seen before in this milieu. This isn’t the worst movie prequel about trade negotiations, but it may wear a lamentable crown of being altogether unnecessary. Perhaps now that he’s milked all the funds from this cash cow of diminishing curds, Jackson can dream up something different and return one day as a king of imaginative moviemaking.
An absentee wealthy father, three spinster sisters hawking wish fulfillment and blather, a conflicted surrogate aunt with mixed feelings about a visiting teenager and a 16-year-old with a strong attraction to a needle somehow manage to create a fairly inert melodrama in Robert Stromberg’s Maleficent (C), a revisionist Sleeping Beauty told through the perspective of Angelina Jolie’s fabulous costumes. As the object of audience ambivalence, Jolie does strike a mighty mean pose and has some deliciously nasty lines from time to time. She was most surprising when her sensitive side shines through opposite Elle Fanning as about-to-be-a-cutter Aurora. The effects and characters of the enchanted forest are truly laughable: some look like second unit rejects from the Captain EO creature shop; and even though the running time is brisk, the lopsided narrative withholds most of the intrigue for most of the film’s duration. For reclaiming a villain from history, it’s no Wicked. But in saving Jolie’s virtually hit-free career from continued box office poison, she may have just earned her wings.
The second chapter in the Middle Earth set dwarf dynasty is slightly more interesting than its plodding prequel predecessor, upgrading Peter Jackson’s Hobbit 2 to a C+. Basically (1) an elfin forest needs better arachne-pest control, (2) a river escape in wine barrels drifts the adventurers to a lethargic lake town and (3) dwarves and an invisible Hobbit fight a very pyro-imprecise talking dragon in his treasure room. These raiders of a lost Arkenstone are especially frustrating when inside forests, castles or mountains, because there gravity and logic become that of video games rather than of cinema. You don’t fall into endless chasms in this fantasy, but rather a mysterious hook, mining cart, spider web or other device appears to save all central characters from freefall. Amazing how with all this action, it’s mostly notable for draggin’.
Director Sam Raimi has built a palace on a poppy field with the visually resplendent, narratively inert box office hit Oz: The Great and Powerful (C-). Built around a conman protagonist played by James Franco and featuring the most star studded trio of witches since Disney’s similarly hideous Hocus Pocus, this tedious journey through predictable prequeldom is pretty much a mess from start to finish. Ah, but that beautiful spectacle – almost everything emerald or enchanting you could dream of painting on a green screen! Too bad there are only about two or three moments that make you care. When Disney further extends this yellow brick franchise, I suggest new screenwriters behind the curtain.
The most unexpected thing about Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (C-) is what a letdown it is after his famous Middle Earth trilogy that came before it. If the Lord of the Rings novels were each dense books distilled into what amounts to a mini-series of episodic wonders, The Hobbit is a light paperback prequel stretched out into a three-part tedium. What else accounts for the first hour of this film being used for an unnecessary tacked-on framing device about Bilbo Baggins’ birthday party followed by an extended dinner party with a bunch of dwarves singing a song? By the time the underwhelming protagonist is introduced at his rightful age and played by Martin Freeman, the film has long since lost its ability to kickstart the thrills. This time around, the effects look like overproduced video games. There are simply too many characters winding through too many caverns for the eye to focus in on anything distinctive that looks at all remarkable or interesting. Instead of a cliffhanger that teases the thrills ahead, the ending prompts the question, “did this really need to be three films?”
Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust (B+) is a whimsical adventure in the tradition of The Princess Bride. Michelle Pfeiffer, Claire Danes and Robert DeNiro are standouts in this fantasy about getting over the walls that block our way to our dreams. Witches, pirates, unicorns, voodoo dolls and so much more are part of the journey ahead. This is a pleasant surprise of a movie that nobody seemed to see in theatres but that has enchanted folks who have seen it.