This year’s ultimate heist movie includes a bard, a barbarian, an amateur sorcerer and a shape-shifting druid, infiltrating a castle to topple a villain, steal riches and reunite a family. It’s also inspired by a tabletop role-playing game. Set in the fantasy milieu, Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley’s Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (B+) announces its intent to comically entertain with everything short of clanking coconuts as its merry revelers interrogate the dead, jailbreak with flying beasts, grapple with awkward teleportation techniques and generally make up the game as they are playing it. Chris Pine is droll perfection as the man with a plan – actually many of them – as he commandeers a team featuring Michelle Rodriguez (grand physical performance), Justice Smith (earnest in mustering his magic) and Sophia Lillis (good as the skeptic). Hugh Grant is a scene-stealer as an arrogant and acerbic baddie, and Regé-Jean Page has a funny bit as a stoic paladin. The CGI has a throwback quality to adventure yarns of the ‘80s but plays a supporting role to the abundant comic treasure trove provided by the central quartet. Although it drags a little in the final act, this is the triumphantly entertaining family film for which many will seek. It might as well be called Dangers & Dad Jokes with its slings and arrows of gags, but the undercurrent of strong characters devising impromptu strategy in a mythic land with high stakes will keep everyone engaged in the experience.
Spelunk-tacular! Ron Howard’s real-life survival film Thirteen Lives (B) chronicles the daring 2018 rescue of a dozen young soccer players and their assistant coach trapped for 18 days in Thailand’s Tham Luang Nang Non cave after heavy rainfall flooded the structure and blocked their way out. It’s sometimes an uneven match of the endlessly optimistic director and the sometimes mundane mechanics of the procedural plot, but once the expert divers played by Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell discover the trapped entourage and enlist Joel Edgerton who also dives and offers additional medical skills, it’s a battle of brains and brawn to get everyone out safe and sound. The narrow passageways and the deluge of water compound the scope and scale of the disaster film, with some rather remarkable underwater cinematography. The familiar actors bring notable realism to the screen, and Teeradon Supapunpinyo is an underused gem as the empowering coach who keeps his players’ hope alive during the grueling ordeal. The first hour is sluggish but the second and third acts pick up the pace. Howard ultimately wrings a heartfelt message from the global story of cooperation between 17 countries to complete the miraculous mission. It’s a noble and inspiring work with takeaways for nearly every family viewer.
It’s “who framed ribald rodents” as a slew of Hollywood’s top comics provide an often uproarious tribute to the cartoons of their youth in a new Disney+ live-action/animated action comedy film. Akiva Schaffer’s Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers (B) is a throwback thrill with funny friends John Mulaney and Andy Samberg as the odd couple Disney duo most prominently featured in a ‘90s TV adventure. The movie is chock-full of unexpected cameos as the estranged pint-sized pair reunites three decades after their heyday to solve a co-star’s disappearance in a human and toon filled modern L.A. From the central conceit that one of the hand-drawn chipmunks has received a CGI glow-up to a hilarious sin city of animated bootleggers, the film throws inspired madcap mayhem at every corner. It’s a dad joke paradise with animated Will Arnett getting in the action as a child actor turned villainous adult and Keegan-Michael Key as part of a Muppet-inspired crime syndicate. Alas the film short shrifts both KiKi Layne as the perfunctory human character, a fangirl policewoman, and the west coast metropolis itself, which could have provided some cleverer sites for high-profile gags. The film’s novelty runs out a bit in the final act, but it’s hard to fault a film so crammed with such singular hilarity and homage. This film is fun for all ages with nuttiness and cheekiness galore.
After his stunning work in last year’s dramatic Pig, a wonderful new comedy is another reminder Nicolas Cage is truly a national treasure. The notoriously always working actor plays an amped up version of himself opposite Pedro Pascal as a wealthy fan who pays him a million dollars to attend his birthday in Spain in Tom Dormican’s smart buddy comedy The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (B+). Through a series of unexpected events, “Nick” finds himself channeling his most iconic and beloved characters as part of a metaphorical and literal redemption story. The funny bits are top notch, and Dormican has a deft touch in hopping genres to serve the needs of the story, sometimes talky but with its share of car stunts and pratfalls as well. Cage is an utter delight and a wonderful sport fully committed to the circuitous ride, and Pascal is sensational as the funny foil fanboy. Lily Mo Sheen and Sharon Horgan also hit the right notes as Cage’s daughter and estranged wife, respectively, managing the well meaning diva dad in their family. While funny, Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz don’t get much to do as additional plot catalysts but are always appreciated. This is essential viewing for Cage fans but also great fun for anyone. It’s a well made comic romp with a hilarious double bromance at the center, between actor and fan and the actor and himself. More than an ego trip though, everyone’s in on the joke, and moviegoers are again the beneficiary of Cage’s underrated if not sometimes ubiquitous talent.
Welcome to the Arthurian art film that’s about to get medieval on your streaming service. A trippy and faithful adaptation of a 14th century poem, David Lowery’s Green Knight (aka Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Anonymous) (B+) is both cerebral and eerie in its duration, culminating in a brilliant near dialogue free final act as the protagonist faces his fears. It’s essentially about a bit of a deal with the devil and the ensuing consequences as a knight musters the courage for a showdown that will seal his destiny. Dev Patel is engaging as flawed protagonist Gawain. Alicia Vikander as two characters – Essel and the Lady – and Joel Edgerton as The Lord also turn in outstanding performances as pivotal pawns along the massive chess board of an epic. The film is earthy, pulpy and often looks like a Renaissance painting come to life. The production design and costuming are exquisite. Because it is rather intellectual and episodic (with lovely ornate title cards, incidentally), it’s sometimes difficult to trace exactly where the film is headed (or beheaded) in the journey of its sweeping storyline; but even when the pace is slow, it is a mesmerizing piece of cinema.
Hot off a series of horror movies and Liam Neeson-led thrillers, director Jaume Collet-Serra is an unlikely choice to helm an old-fashioned Disney adventure based on a classic theme park ride but acquits himself nicely in the pleasant summer escapism fare of Jungle Cruise (B-). Similarly, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, best known for muscular action films, gets to flex his unexpectedly assured comedic timing to successful avail as a South American skipper of a small riverboat who takes a group of travelers including siblings played by Emily Blunt and Jack Whitehall through a jungle in search of the Tree of Life. Johnson and Blunt are winning comic and would-be romantic partners with verbal and physical pratfalls aplenty, as he wields dad jokes and swagger in equal doses to her acerbic and acrobatic spunkiness. Faring less on the likability scale are characters played by Jesse Plemmons, Paul Giamatti and a coterie of cursed conquistadors in cartoonish or CGI villainous roles which add very little menace opposite the explorers. The film works best in rip-roaring action sequences and when Blunt and Whitehall provide some droll fish-out-of-water entanglements. As for the plot, we’ve been down this river many times in much better films. The first hour is fairly breezy fun; then as the protagonists get closer to their goal, the sogginess sets into sluggishness for a good while. Still, it’s competently made family friendly fun, and most of the kids haven’t seen the movies this riffs on, so it may all be new to them. Like its Adventureland origin attraction, you get to sit down in the shade and take a breezy ride for a while with a smile on your face for much of its duration, and that may be all we need this summer.
It may seem an odd piece of critical feedback for a cartoon, but this one needed more character development. Although splendid to look at and deeply in command of its world-building in a mythical alternate Earth, Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada’s Disney animated film Raya and the Last Dragon (B-) is missing foundational elements, namely clearer characterizations of Raya and the titular last dragon. It’s an extremely exposition-heavy tale with many quirky notions and fantastical details to recommend, but the sumptuous visuals overshadow a color-by-numbers plot line and two meh lead characters. The young heroine, skillfully voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, must travel to the five lands of her world to reclaim missing pieces of a gem that can bring harmony to the planet, and she’s accompanied by a water dragon, voiced by comedienne Awkwafina. From the character’s arrival on the scene, this tacky, talky blue dragon/narwhal/unicorn hybrid is a weak link and not quite as funny as a Disney sidekick should be. She’s the “friend like me” you kinda want to unfriend. The gamified story – spelled out in quite linear fashion – may keep youngsters’ attention on the screen, but it’s all not quite creative or original enough to break through as a classic for the studio. Without the characters breaking out into song, James Newton Howard’s score is nonetheless quite rousing. See it for some wondrous South Asian influenced imagery and enough flights of fancy to make the adventure nominally recommended, but know going in that you may wish upon a star that Raya and her last dragon are more interesting than they are.
A feel-good odyssey in the milieu of a Mark Twain tale, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s Peanut Butter Falcon (B+) wins over cynics with career-best performances from two young actors and an introduction to another indelible character plus an easygoing and authentic sense of human adventure. After escaping a residential nursing home to pursue his dream of becoming a pro wrestler, a man who has Down syndrome (joyously played by Zack Gottsagen) befriends an outlaw (Shia LaBeouf) who becomes his coach and ally. Dakota Johnson is the counselor on the hunt through North Carolina’s Outer Banks for the coastal castaways. Through boat chases and Baptisms, gun fights and hideaways, the human bonds become increasingly heartfelt. The final reel sputters a bit after already securing the glory of its fabulous fable. Familiar faces abound, including Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church and John Hawkes in supporting roles. The film is sweet without becoming saccharine, and the characters stick to the roof of your soul.
A bit more subversive at times than expected while still fun for the family, Jake Kasdan’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (B) is ostensibly a riff on The Breakfast Club if detention were actually a fantasy forest of video game characters and its ensemble of aimless teens transformed into avatars on a quest for their inner heroism. After a sluggish start, the film gains its footing once the characters start learning life lessons in and around thrilling action sequences involving animal stampedes, helicopter chases, encounters in exotic marketplaces and a subplot involving a stolen jewel. The film makes compelling use of its gaming conceits as characters discover their powers and vulnerabilities and preserve “lives” for the moments that matter. As far as characters go, Dwayne Johnson and Nick Jonas fare best with charisma in spades, and Jack Black sinks his teeth into the role of a female teen diva learning to care about others while adapting to her new male body functions. Kasdan finds the fables behind the fun and makes sure the escapism leaves everyone a wee bit wiser from the journey.
Co-directors John Clements and Ron Musker have animated quests with more Herculean tasks, drawn crooning crabs making a bigger undersea splash and created caves with greater wonders than the adventure afoot in Moana (C+), their mostly adrift Disney Polynesian epic wannabe. It’s quite enchanting to look at, at least for the first act; and newcomer Auli’i Cravalho brings lovely life to the brave and modern title character. Coupled with a goofy demigod convincingly acted and sung by Dwayne Johnson, the heroine embarks on an ill-conceived odyssey marked by listless villains, average banter and misbegotten mishaps. There’s one good song (of seven) played several times in the film, a propulsive anthem by Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda called “How Far I’ll Go,” but alas its prescient title begs the answer “too far” or “not far enough.” The most inventive use of tattoos since Memento and a creative battalion of Mad Max style pirate ships cannot lift the story to the gravitas to which it sometimes aspires. Bogged down in bluster and with story conceits which fail to differentiate it in the Disney kingdom canon, the film is barely better than its makers’ Treasure Planet and The Great Mouse Detective. The co-directors have found unexpected box office success but might have been better off leaving this journey in the bottle.
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.
Given the amount of frustration most Americans have trying to function when they’ve lost a smartphone, it’s fascinating watching Matt Damon play an astronaut stranded on Mars having to go Full MacGyver, tapping into his brilliant scientific and survival skills to improvise in a world of limited food, oxygen, shelter, technology, human contact and rescue plans. In what is most certainly both Damon’s and director Ridley Scott’s best film in years, The Martian (A) excels as a saga of persistence and problem solving, including narrative flourishes to continually up the stakes in what could have otherwise felt like a long slog to resolution. Scott deftly marshals seamless effects and an impressive supporting cast of characters summoned to kick off global and interplanetary collaboration to bring the hero home. Some of the roles are cast too well given limited screen time (Do we really need Kristen Wiig as stern PR counsel or Sebastian Stan as a NASA scientist with collectively less than a dozen lines?) Damon brings effective swagger and likability to the central role, and the actor’s penchant for working with prestigious directors pays off big time here. Scott does both human drama and outer space adventures well, and this one is one of his best.
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