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.
Director James Cameron misses the mark again with gorgeous visuals at the service of a subpar screenplay in the action adventure Avatar: The Way of Water (C). Motion capture performers Sam Worthington and Zoë Saldaña as elongated blue creatures do lots of swimming as they endeavor to protect their family and the planet of Pandora from pesky human invaders. The first hour introduces their sprawling family, too many to much care about; the second feels like a nice visit to an aquarium as one of their teens communes with a large sea creature; and then there’s a frenzied finale of a showdown with battleships and annoying kids used as bait. Much of the conflict could have been saved by a better babysitter, and nobody needed a human character named “Spider” or a teen voiced by Sigourney Weaver. Still, the undersea vistas are often quite stunning. Perhaps this director, who has made many great movies to his credit, has a future in screen savers. I’ll save you three plus hours: “save the whales.”
A picturesque peculiarity worthy of finding a cultish niche audience, George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing (B+) is the Turkey-set tale of a bespectacled, pragmatic academic (Tilda Swinton) who awakens a kindhearted Djinn, or genie (Idris Elba) eager to grant his solitary liberator her obligatory trio of wishes, but only those she desires deeply. He arrives, Istanbul in a China shop, via a curious bottle as a giant misty creature in her hotel room and seeps into her soul as he shares storytelling flashbacks tracing his personal ancient history up to this moment in time. Miller’s asymmetrical structure interpolating fantastical past loves and battles in the Ottoman Empire and beyond with talky terrycloth musings about the cautionary qualities of their large-scale proposal is both confounding and rewarding. The callbacks serve to enrich the push-pull and burgeoning relationship between the unlikely protagonists. Miller maestros a master class of ornate visual effects, visceral cinematography and bright costumes as his two-hander unfolds and opens up to the syncopation of a lush score. Swinton and Elba are perfectly cast and prove quite believable embedded in the opus of the director’s glorious and sometimes goofy grandeur. Several plot elements could have benefited from a few more foreshadowing breadcrumbs, but a film with this many ideas about patience, mysticism and science is a bit of a delicate soufflé. You’ll likely know if you’re the adventurous audience for this creative think piece; and if you are, it’s a sumptuous big screen experience.
This is the ultimate film fantasia for channel surfers, with something pretty, punchy or profound to discover with each push of a button. The writing and directing duo known as Daniels have crafted their choose your own adventure inspired epic Everything Everywhere All At Once (B+) as one of the most complex and absurdist mind-trips set to screen. A blissful Michelle Yeoh plays a woman being audited by the IRS who realizes she has the power to exist in multiple universes and must thwart a familiar antagonist hell-bent on destroying them all. Aside from the creators’ meticulously crafted vision, which at times is too much of a good thing, Yeoh is a revelation, alternately summoning physical comedy, familial empathy and martial arts skills like they are hard wired in the game console of her acting brain. Helping her process all the new data is former Goonie Ke Huy Quan, who showcases fancy footwork in one of the film’s big choreographed action sequences and is great fun in a spry ensemble featuring Stephanie Hsu, Harry Shum Jr. and James Hong. Jamie Lee Curtis is also on hand as a quirky clerk with some outrageous pratfalls and unusual talents of her own. Center-punched for stylized fight sequences, ornate set pieces and everyday domestic drama, Yeoh is masterful maneuvering the demands of the black comedy and sci-fi elements alike. The Daniels are gleeful in throwing in every madcap notion, and Yeoh catches each of their creative impulses like juggling balls to keep aloft. The audacity of it all and the pacing ultimately weigh the film down a bit, but it’s hard to argue viewers have seen anything like this before.
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.
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.