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Movie reviews from Bob Garver

Monday, July 8, 2019

"Toy Story 4"

            This may be the most boring movie review you ever read. Don’t get me wrong, “Toy Story 4” is far from a boring movie. In fact, it packs in so much action that I wondered if it could even reach a satisfactory conclusion in its 100 minute runtime (spoiler alert: of course it did). No, it’s boring because I have nothing but compliments for this movie. The most consistently praise-worthy franchise in movie history continues its praise-worthiness, Pixar has done it again, this movie should make history by becoming the first animated movie to win the Best Picture Oscar, blah blah blah.

            After a prologue where we learn how Woody the cowboy (Tom Hanks) and Bo Peep the shepherdess (Annie Potts) became separated between the second and third movies, we cut to Woody’s life post-“Toy Story 3.” He enjoyed a comfortable life as the favorite toy of previous owner Andy, with his position only threatened briefly by astronaut Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) in the first movie, with the two eventually learning to coexist at the top. But he’s nowhere near the top with new owner Bonnie, who seems to only want him for his sheriff’s badge, which she can put on Jessie the cowgirl (Joan Cusack). Bonnie is so fickle, in fact, that when she handcrafts a new toy out of items found in the trash, Forky the spork (Tony Hale) becomes her new favorite toy of all.

            Bonnie takes Forky, Woody, Buzz, and all the other toys (I won’t rattle off the full list, but if they’re a series mainstay, they’re probably here) on a road trip where Woody constantly has to keep Forky from returning to the trash from whence he came in order to keep Bonnie happy. That’s how he maintains his importance, by watching out for the true favorite. Forky, for his part, isn’t crazy about living the toy life and just wants to be trash again, not out of a lack of self-preservation, but just because he really likes trash. He attempts escape in small town with a carnival, and Woody pursues him, but notices something in a nearby antiques store. Could it be… Bo Peep? He figures he and Forky can peek inside the store, possibly reconnect with his old friend, and get back to Bonnie before anyone’s the wiser. As you can probably imagine, things don’t go according to plan.

            People are going to come out of this film singing the praises of the new characters. Likely the most popular will be Forky, who gets laughs anytime he moves with his googly eyes and popsicle stick feet. Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) is the de facto villain, a bygone baby doll with a fleet of ventriloquist dummy henchman who wants a voicebox to attract an owner, and decides that Woody’s will do. Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele) are a conjoined pair of carnival prizes eager to attack humans. Duke Kaboom (Keanu Reeves) is a traumatized Canadian stuntman figure. This movie has the good fortune to be coming out at a time when every entertainment outlet seems to be obsessed with Reeves on a level not seen since the Betty White craze of 2010 (oh, and she’s in this movie too!). And Bo Peep has been on the lam(b) (sorry, had to do it) for so long that she’s practically a new character herself. She’s taken to the life of being a “lost toy,” though Woody knows that toys can only be happy if they have a human owner… right?

            Kids are going to love “Toy Story 4” because it’s funny and engaging and its main characters are toys. Adults are going to love it because it’s bittersweet and nostalgic and because Pixar managed to make a fourth movie after three great ones without screwing up the franchise. Who am I kidding, everybody has every reason to love this movie. I recommend seeing it as a family and loving it together.

 

Grade: A
11:43 am edt 

Men in Black: International"

            “Men in Black: International” doesn’t deserve to call itself a “Men in Black” movie. Sure it’s about a mismatched pair of secret agents (Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth) who wear black suits and sunglasses and police space aliens and wipe people’s memories with a flashing neuralyzer, but it lacks the heart that gave the first three “Men in Black” movies their identity. And I’m not just saying that because we have two new leads instead of the legendary team-up of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, I would have been fine with any two leads as long as they had good chemistry. I’m saying that because these new characters and the story surrounding them are not funny, exciting, or interesting.

            Agent M (Thompson) is the new kid at MIB’s New York City branch, having pursued a spot in the mysterious organization since childhood. Her boss (Emma Thompson, no relation to Tessa) feels that her talents could be more immediately useful in London. So M is off to a world she doesn’t understand (the steering wheel is on the right over there!) to do a job she doesn’t fully understand, where she has to work with beings that she definitely doesn’t understand.

            One such hard-to-understand being is her new partner H (Hemsworth). He’s a human, that part she can understand. But she doesn’t understand why the reckless slob has such a high standing in the organization. Apparently a few years ago he and now-head T (Liam Neeson) defeated a powerful enemy called The Hive using nothing more than their wits and a couple of Series 7 de-atomizers. It would seem that the “wits” component has since diminished in H, and he now succeeds only through bribery and dumb luck, creating headaches for T and the justifiably grouchy C (Rafe Spall).

            M and H’s first mission together is a simple bodyguarding assignment for an alien royal. But the mission gets botched with the return of The Hive. They’re back and have their sights set on conquering Earth. Suspecting that The Hive has a mole in MIB, M and H go rogue and travel to Morocco, where they find more dead royals, discover that they’re in possession of a weapon of mass destruction, get in a flying motorcycle chase, burgle H’s multi-armed arms dealer ex-girlfriend (Rebecca Ferguson), and have other adventures typical of this franchise. Along the way they take on the services of ineffective protector Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani). My only strong opinion of this movie is that Pawny is incredibly annoying.

            Most of the film’s humor comes from either alien weirdness or M and H bickering with each other. As far as the aliens, there is literally a universe of possibilities, but the film rarely goes for anything more ambitious than “they sure look funny when they’re amorous, huh?” As for M and H, I won’t go so far as to say they have zero chemistry because I think it’s scientifically impossible to make these two actors unlikeable, but they already teamed up in “Thor: Ragnarok” and they were much better there.

            I loved 1997’s “Men in Black” so much that I bought it on video. This was at a time when the number of movies I owned (as opposed to rented) didn’t reach double digits. But I liked the creative aliens and gadgets, the funny script, and the general sharpness of Smith and Jones so much that I wanted to have access to them at a moment’s notice. Compared to that movie, or even one of its less-inspired sequels, “Men in Black: International” is staggeringly ineffective. Nothing outside of Pawny is truly terrible, but this is a film that is all too satisfied to merely be “not truly terrible.” An easy joke would be to say that I wish I could be neuralyzed and forget this movie, but this movie is perfectly capable of being forgettable on its own.

 

Grade: C-

11:41 am edt 

"The Secret Life of Pets 2"

            I just barely enjoyed 2016’s “The Secret Life of Pets.” The cutesy animated movie about house pets had to scratch and claw its way to a Two and a Half Star rating (now a B-) from me. I remember that the main story about cozy domestic dog Max (Louis C.K., a bad casting choice at the time and an even worse one in hindsight) having his world turned upside down by overbearing rescue Duke (Eric Stonestreet) and the two having to learn to cooperate and share did nothing for me. Fortunately, that movie was saved by its supporting players, especially villainous bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart). Now comes a sequel that does not need to be saved by Kevin Hart (of all people), it’s funny at every turn.

Not long after the first movie, Max and Duke’s owner (Ellie Kemper) got married to loving schlub Chuck (Pete Holmes) and the two had a baby named Liam. Max (now voiced by Patton Oswalt in the film’s first brilliant decision) was at first worried that Liam would turn his world upside down, but has come to realize that he’s turning it upside down for the better. Skipping over the part where Max worries about the owner’s attention being divided like it was with Duke is the film’s second brilliant decision.

Max and Liam get along fine, and Max has even assumed the role of protector for the toddler. He takes the role seriously, so seriously that he’s beginning to hurt himself with anxiety attacks whenever he thinks Liam might be in danger, which is constantly. He has to wear a cone for the family’s trip to a farm, where he meets a gruff herding dog (Harrison Ford) with a different approach to… parenting, basically.

The farm storyline gives purpose to Max, Duke, and the humans. But the movie has many more marketable characters it wants to use. So it comes up with a story where pampered poodle Gidget (Jenny Slate) loses Max’s favorite toy in the home of a batty cat lady and has to reach out to wicked feline Chloe (Lake Bell) to teach her The Way of the Cat to get it back. That still doesn’t give everyone a purpose, so there’s yet another storyline about Snowball fancying himself a superhero and teaming up with a determined Shih Tzu (Tiffany Haddish) to rescue a tiger from a deranged circus owner (Nick Kroll).

Maybe it was just the mood I was in when I saw the movie or maybe the writing and direction really are better this time around, but I thought that every joke in this movie landed perfectly. At no point was I rolling my eyes or thinking the humor was beneath me or wanting the movie to end. As if the well-executed humor wasn’t enough of a reason to see this movie, it is an animated movie about furry animals and a baby, so I shouldn’t have to tell you that it operates on the highest levels of cuteness.

I can’t say that the film holds up incredibly well under scrutiny. Storylines could be tightened, characters could be developed (Duke, a major physical presence, contributes almost nothing to the story). This movie isn’t painstakingly written and directed on the level of, say, a Pixar movie. But its flaws are well-hidden under layers and layers of fun. I wasn’t even out of the theater before I felt compelled to send my mom a text telling her how much I loved this movie. And if I’m in a hurry to recommend this movie to my own family, it’s only fitting that I highly recommend “The Secret Life of Pets 2” to you and your loved ones.

 

Grade: B
11:40 am edt 

"Aladdin"

            The big question surrounding the new live-action remake of Disney’s 1992 animated classic “Aladdin” is, can the iconic comedic performance that defined the original be replaced and still make the movie marvelously magical? I’m sorry to say that the film doesn’t pull it off. Alan Tudyk tries, but he falls short of Gilbert Gottfried in making Iago the parrot memorable. Fortunately you’ve got Will Smith as an excellent replacement for Robin Williams as the Genie to offset the disappointment.

            Disney buffs already know the plot, but for those who don’t: Arabian street-rat Aladdin (Mena Massoud) falls in love with Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) after she ventures out of her palace disguised as a commoner. He and his monkey Abu are directed by evil royal vizier Jafar (Marwen Kenzari) to retrieve a magical lamp that can only be taken by a “diamond in the rough.” Jafar betrays Aladdin, so Abu betrays him and steals the lamp, which Aladdin rubs. Out pops a Genie (Smith) who is bound to grant Aladdin three wishes. Aladdin only wants one thing, the love of Jasmine, but she can only marry a prince, so he uses his first wish to become Prince Ali Ababwa and woo Jasmine with his flying carpet. He’s so happy with the arrangement that he promises to use his third wish to set the Genie free from a life of wish-granting, presumably after he figures out what he wants for a second wish. But his new persona is a lie, and Aladdin soon finds himself ensnared in a moral quagmire, one that the suspicious Jasmine and power-hungry Jafar aren’t exactly helping.

            Some things are changed from the 1992 movie, some aren’t. Some changes are good, others aren’t, and the same can be said of the non-changes. The samenesses that work can by nature be taken for granted, but the ones that don’t make for some of the weakest parts of this movie. A lot of Aladdin’s early dialogue and song lyrics are unchanged, and Massoud tries to put new inflections into them to “make them his own,” but these lines were clearly not written with his voice in mind.

            As for the changes, my favorite is the addition of a new character. Dalia (Nasim Pedrad) is Jasmine’s handmaiden who serves as sort of a big sister. She’s also a scene-stealing romantic interest for the Genie, who in this version disguises himself as Prince Ali’s human manservant, which thankfully means that he’s not a blue CGI blotch the whole time. Also high in the running for my favorite change is a new song for Jasmine called “Speechless,” no doubt added when the filmmakers realized that Naomi Scott’s voice was too good to be limited to half of “A Whole New World.” And I like the decision to have Smith take over “Arabian Nights” at the beginning. He’s not the best singer per se, but his charisma more than carries the song, think Dwayne Johnson’s “You’re Welcome” from “Moana.”

            But every time there’s a change I like, it’s cancelled out by one I don’t. The initial Cave of Wonders scene, a great source of suspense in the original, here goes by so fast that new viewers probably won’t know what’s happening. Jafar is supposed to be a miserable old man, but this newer, younger version just sounds like a brat when he’s delivering “I’ve worked for this all my life” dialogue. The less said about a rambling riff about jams, the better. And the movie’s not immune from the CGI ugliness that has plagued a lot of these recent Disney live-action remakes.

            The whole thing averages out to a movie that’s, well, average. Smith, Scott, and Pedrad push the movie into “recommended” territory (and sure, Massoud and Kenzari have a few moments as well). This new version of “Aladdin” doesn’t fully capture the magic of the original, but it makes for a decent family viewing experience.

 

Grade: B-

11:39 am edt 

"John Wick Chapter 3"

            Neither the first “John Wick” movie from 2014 nor its 2017 follow-up did enough business to warrant an official review from me. How I wish they had. I could have written about how much fun I had watching Keanu Reeves play the world’s greatest assassin amidst a world full of assassins. The second movie in particular had me beaming for hours afterward, trying to whittle down which scene was my favorite before giving up and declaring something like a five-way tie. Now comes a third movie, which I wish we had gotten right after the second. How come “The Matrix” gets two sequels less than six months apart from one another and this vastly superior franchise doesn’t?

            At the end of the second movie, John Wick (Reeves) let his emotions get the better of him and killed an enemy within the consecrated walls of the Continental hotel. The Continental, run by a man named Winston (Ian McShane) and his concierge Charon (Lance Reddick) is supposed to be a safe haven for assassins, and anyone who violates this rule incurs the death penalty. Winston could have killed Wick himself, but opted instead to excommunicate him from his community of assassins, with a $14 million bounty on his life going into effect in one hour.

            In “Chapter 3,” we see what happens when that hour is up. Several New York-based assassins try to collect the bounty, and Wick has to fend them off without underworld privileges like guns and cars. He has to settle for using a heavy book as a weapon and a horse for transportation (and also a weapon). He makes his way to a Russian ballet Director (Angelica Huston) who can send him to Morocco, where he has an old friend (Halle Berry) who can put him in contact with his world’s High Elder so he can beg for his life. Meanwhile, an Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), who works for this world’s High Table, is using an assassin of her own (Mark Dacascos) to punish those who helped Wick escape justice, including The Director, underworld crime boss The Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), and Winston. The High Table is willing to deconsecrate The Continental in order to punish someone whose crime was violating the sanctity of The Continental - how’s that for logic?

            The high points of the movie are of course the gleeful action sequences where Wick dispatches one would-be killer after another. His favorite method is a gunshot to the head, but he’s not above breaking into a knife museum and using whatever he can find in there. The fighting is always crisp with no wasted motion. And it’s worth mentioning that Wick and the other assassins are all professionals, and they’re excellent about not harming or even bothering innocent bystanders. An early fight scene takes place in a library, and Wick and his attacker don’t get shushed once.

            “John Wick: Chapter 3” is the usual trigger-happy good time I’ve come to expect from this franchise. My only real complaint is the ending, where some of the fighting seems rushed (Wick should get more time to fight with two henchmen that I recognize from a certain Indonesian action franchise) and nothing feels resolved. Granted, nobody promised that this installment would represent a resolution, but could this movie be a little less blatant about sequel-baiting? I’m already sold on “Chapter 4” because I like these movies, not because it’s implying a series of showdowns that frankly we could have gotten here. On the other hand, what am I complaining about? We’re getting more “John Wick” movies and that’s a good thing!

 

Grade: B

11:37 am edt 

"Pokemon Detective Pikachu"

            I should start off by saying that I’m not a fan of “Pokémon.” I have never found the game or its creatures to be cute, funny, interesting, or worthwhile. Except for Squirtle the Turtle, who I just “get” because of my love of turtles. But I feel that it’s important for you to know that this review is not coming from a place of fandom. If you or someone in your family is indeed a fan of Pokémon, they will probably like this movie more than I did. I’ve been told that many people who don’t like Pokémon do in fact like this movie (it’s currently sitting at a 63% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, making it the best-reviewed video game adaptation of all time), but I am not one of them.

            And I tried to give this movie a chance, I really did. I was looking forward to a grittier Pokémon movie where cat-thing Pikachu’s incessant repetition of his own name was replaced with Ryan Reynolds smart-aleckry. Deadpool trying his hand at a children’s franchise was something I had to see. I knew he couldn’t be too crude in this PG-rated movie (though a surprising amount of smutty jokes make it into the film), but I was looking forward to seeing how his general attitude would translate. Sadly, “Pokémon” dopiness wins out over “Deadpool” irreverence.

            The movie takes place in Ryme City where humans and Pokémon live side by side. Supposedly they’re equals in contributing to society, but I didn’t see the Pokémon bringing many skills to the table, with the unsurprising exception of Squirtle, who can put out fires. Tim (Justice Smith) is the estranged teenage son of detective Harry (whose casting is a surprise), who has to travel to the city when he learns his father’s been killed. At Harry’s apartment, Tim runs into Pikachu, who was apparently Harry’s partner, though a recent bout of amnesia has left him unclear on the details. Also, Tim can hear Pikachu speaking in Reynolds’ voice, where everyone else just hears “Pika Pika.”

            Pikachu believes that Harry is still alive somewhere, and that solving a case they were working together will help reunite him with his son. Tim and Pikachu form an uneasy alliance and team up with aspiring reporter Lucy (Kathryn Newton) to investigate Ryme City’s seedy underbelly. They wind up in front of founder Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) who believes that his son (Chris Geere) is performing illegal experiments on Pokémon and that Harry was about to thwart him. The son is clearly not sharp enough to be the movie’s Big Bad, and I gritted my teeth waiting for the obvious “real” villain to be revealed. The final showdown occurs during a sloppy mass panic where even Ken Watanabe (who made the film seem respectable in an earlier scene as Harry’s captain) can’t maintain his dignity.

            The action scenes are lame, Tim and Lucy are shoddy human protagonists, and the worldbuilding is a knockoff of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” without the legendary chemistry. On top of that, we get a last-minute twist that makes Tim look like the least-cognizant person on the planet. A lot rides on what Reynolds can bring to the table, and of course he’s the best thing about this movie (I even found myself quoting some of his dialogue at work the next day), with my favorite bit being a tearful version of the “Pokemon” theme that he sings while wallowing in self-pity, but he’s not enough to save the movie as a whole. I’d recommend crossing “Pokémon: Detective Pikachu” off your list of suspects for which movie to see.

 

Grade: C-
11:36 am edt 

"The Intruder"

            The first lamb for “Avengers: Endgame” to slaughter is “The Intruder,” a home invasion thriller where the invader cares deeply about the home. It’s hard to talk about this movie without talking about the positioning of its release. Weekend estimates indicate that the “hot” new film (of three new releases, and you’re lucky I’m not here to voice my displeasure with “UglyDolls”) did roughly one thirteenth of the domestic box office as the second weekend of the unprecedented overperformer. I have to wonder how much of its $11 million haul came from it being the second choice of “Avengers” turnaways. It certainly wasn’t the first choice of anyone who likes good movies.

            Rich couple Scott (Michael Ealy) and Annie (Meagan Good) think they’ve found their dream home: a creaky old mansion overgrown with vines, far removed from Scott’s job in San Francisco, and available for just over $3 million. The outgoing owner is Charlie (Dennis Quaid), a swell-seeming guy who greets the prospective buyers by firing a gun in their direction. His target is a nearby deer, but it still gets the hopefully-friendly relationship off to a hostile start. Scott isn’t as crazy about the place (and Charlie) as Annie is, but “happy wife, happy life” and all that, so they take it. Eh, Charlie’s on his way out, so his unnerving presence won’t be a factor much longer.

            Charlie’s unnerving presence remains a factor for a long time. He shows up uninvited to give the lawn a final mow. He shows up admittedly invited to Thanksgiving where he disapproves of some remodeling ideas and develops a distaste for Scott’s muscle-headed work buddy (Joseph Sikora). He shows up uninvited to advocate for guns in lieu of an electronic security system. He shows up uninvited to skulk around the woods. He shows up uninvited to leer at Annie. He shows up uninvited to wing Scott with his car. It is clear that Charlie isn’t ready to let the house go.

What isn’t clear is how exactly he intends to get the house back. I think his plan is to get rid of Scott and marry Annie so the two of them can live in the house together, but that seems like an awfully long game for a guy like him to play, and even in his twisted mind, does he really think that he’s that good of a seductor? He’ll probably have to settle for just eliminating both of them and… getting the house back through squatting, maybe? A more thoughtful movie would see Charlie try to get the terrified couple to sign the house back over to him, and this would lead to a series of mind games and calls for submission, but this is not a thoughtful movie. All we know is that he wants to get rid of Scott, and that is where the suspense and action lie.

Bad news: “The Intruder” is an awful movie, with stupid characters and a script ripped off from better stalker/home invasion movies. Good news: Quaid gives a fun, scenery-gnashing performance that fills the film with unintentional laughter. Bad news: A lingering scene of sexual assault undoes even the film’s accidental charm. Good news: the film goes by rather briskly and the credits hit before you know it. Better news: those record-smashing crowds for “Avengers: Endgame” are beginning to taper off, so you’re increasingly unlikely to have to settle for “The Intruder.”

 

Grade: C-
11:34 am edt 

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

"Avengers: Endgame"

            Here it is – the grand finale to the superhero franchise that defined a whole generation of blockbusters. We thought we were going to get a definitive end last year with “Avengers: Infinity War,” but then the evil Thanos (Josh Brolin) procured the powerful Infinity Gauntlet, snapped his fingers, and half the cast died. Never before had a superhero movie ended with a bad guy standing tall on that level. It was hard to believe that Marvel Studios would kill off so many popular characters, and even harder to believe that they’d let those characters stay dead. Now comes “Avengers: Endgame,” where those characters are probably going to be brought back to life, but how? And how long will the movie take to get there?

            I suppose I should start off with a roll call. Still alive are Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), Nebula (Karen Gillan), and last-minute contact Captain Marvel (Brie Larson). Marvel returns a stranded Iron Man and Nebula to Earth, where they join the others in formulating a plan to go after Thanos. The plan doesn’t work out. This is one problem that won’t be solved with a finger snap.

            Five years pass. The Avengers disassemble and go off to deal with the grief in their own ways. But then a speck of hope appears, no bigger than an ant. It’s Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), miraculously freed from the quantum realm, where he was trapped at the end of last summer’s “Ant-Man and The Wasp.” For him, the five years felt like five hours. If time works that weirdly in the quantum realm, maybe it is possible to use quantum physics to travel back in time and stop Thanos. It’s crazy, and confusing, and overly complicated, but it just might work.

            The reformed Avengers need to keep Thanos from getting his hands on the six Infinity Stones that control the gauntlet. To do this, they’ll have to travel back to three of their previous adventures: “The Avengers” (2012), “Thor: The Dark World” (2013), and “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014). They see old friends and enemies in these scenarios, and the movie keeps you guessing as to who will pop up in a cameo next (a certain late Marvel honcho does make an appearance). Needless to say, things don’t go as smoothly as our heroes would like, and they’re forced to make some hasty decisions with results ranging from humorous to tragic.

            Naturally, there are some laughs, tears, and excitement along the way. But nothing compares to the last half hour of the film, which effectively had the audience at my screening roaring, bawling, and screaming. Especially screaming. Then again, maybe “bawling” should have taken it because there are some majorly sad moments in the film. But they’re beautiful, well-earned, touching sad moments, unlike the cheap “things are not right with the world” shocker that was the ending to “Infinity War.”

            “Avengers: Endgame” is every bit the juggernaut it’s been made out to be. I’m perfectly fine with it making a record-shattering $350 million in its opening weekend. Do I have some problems with it? Sure, some of the time travel stuff doesn’t make sense, certain characters pose for a moment of fan service instead of helping where they’re needed, and I think one character could have replaced another in a climactic moment (email me if you want to know which one). But this movie is so much fun, so emotional, and just so big that it’s nearly impossible not to find several things you like about it.

 

Grade: B

12:37 pm edt 

"The Curse of La Llarona"

            Valek the demonic nun is the stuff of nightmares. Annabelle the possessed doll is a freaky sight. La Llorona is about two-thirds as scary as either of them. Her yellow eyes certainly aren’t inviting, nor is her constant stream of tears that could easily be mistaken for blood. But her face is reasonably well-proportioned and she has to open her mouth really wide to give you the full effect of her ghastliness.

            La Llorona (Marisol Ramirez) is the latest supernatural entity from the “Conjuring” universe, arguably the most lucrative franchise in horror right now (assuming Jordan Peele doesn’t count as a “franchise”). With a name that translates to “The Weeping Woman,” La Llorona is the ghost of a Mexican woman who drowned her two children, killed herself out of guilt and sadness (hence the tears), and now roams the Earth looking for replacement children… that she can drown again. Nobody said she was one for sound logic.

            Anna (Linda Cardellini) is a single mom in 1973 Los Angeles. She’s a social worker, assigned to the case of fellow single mom Patricia (Patricia Velasquez). Anna is shocked to discover Patricia’s two children locked in a closet, and takes them into custody, despite Patricia’s pleas that they be returned to the closet. Later, at the child services center, the boys are abducted by La Llorona and drowned. Patricia blames Anna and prays that La Llorona go after her children next.

            Anna’s children Sam (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) and Chris (Roman Christou) are haunted by La Llarona, as is Anna herself. None of them want to admit to the others that they’re being haunted by a ghost for fear of disbelief and mistrust, so it takes a while for all of them to get on the same page. Once they do, they reach out to Rafael (Raymond Cruz), a former priest who knows how to deal with evil spirits. Can he save the family from La Llorona? Probably, but the real question is, given how many stupid mistakes they make, who’s going to save these people from themselves? Your dolly can stay on the other side of the sanctified doorway until morning, sweetie.

            If you’ve ever seen a “Conjuring” movie, you know the formula at work here. La Llorona spends half the movie with no greater aspiration than to give people a cheap jump scare. Characters investigate darkened rooms and ominous hallways (credit to the movie for making these hallways look really, really ominous), and you wonder where she’s going to come from, but a lot of times this movie cheats and she’s all of a sudden just in a shot, having apparently taken advantage of some inconsistent powers of invisibility.

            The characters get terrorized, but the R rating on this movie is a joke. The drownings are bloodless, a non-fatal shooting is bloodless, even an impaling of dubious fatality is bloodless. The only bit of violence that leaves any kind of mark is that people get burns from La Llorona’s tears. Don’t worry parents, the MPAA has seen fit to protect your children against scenes of injurious crying. Not that I’d recommend this movie to kids – or anyone else – even if it was PG-13.

            “The Curse of La Llorona” is just another entry into the “Conjuring” series. If this was ten years ago, I’d say it was designed to pad out a DVD box set. I’m annoyed that it got to dominate a holiday weekend at the box office, though I know the only reason it did so well is because all the decent movies were rightly scared away by “Avengers: Endgame” opening next weekend. And who knows, maybe this movie will get to capitalize on a surprisingly lucrative “Avengers is sold out, should we see something else?” market. But even then, this movie should be considered a low priority.

 

Grade: C-

12:36 pm edt 

"Little"

            The top two movies in the country right now have the exact opposite premise. “Shazam!” is about a young boy who is happy when he turns into an adult. “Little” is about a grown woman who is miserable when she turns into a child. I guess a good companion piece would be “The Hot Chick,” where overgrown teenager Rachel McAdams turns into man-child Rob Schneider. Eh, probably best just to stick to the two new films.

            “Little” stars Regina Hall as tech mogul Jordan Sanders. She’s a genius entrepreneuse, but also a demanding bully, having taken the wrong lesson from a “someday you’ll be the one in charge” speech when she was 13. Her staff fears and hates her, especially April (Issa Rae), her undervalued assistant who wants to pitch an app that would make her a star in the company. The latest victim of Jordan’s outrage is a nearby donut truck, whose driver’s daughter wishes Jordan would go back to a time before she was so mean. In other words, she wishes she was little.

            Jordan wakes up the next day as her 13-year-old self (Marsai Martin, the youngest executive producer in history thanks to this film). Suddenly all her power is gone: people don’t move out of her way, she can’t get coffee the way she wants it, and her building’s valet isn’t about to hand car keys over to a minor. She enlists April to cover for her at the office and try to track down the cursed donut truck, and April agrees on the condition that she gets to pitch her app.

            Complications arise when Child Protective Services learns that Jordan has an unauthorized minor living in her apartment. An agent (Rachel Dratch) insists that she be enlisted in school. For some reason, neither Jordan or April thinks to just enlist her in home school so she can run the company from her apartment all day. No, it’s much more fertile ground for comedy if Jordan is sent back to public school, where she’s haunted by memories of her unpopular past. And things haven’t gotten any easier now that technology has advanced and cyber-bullying is a thing.

            From here, the film goes through pretty predictable territory where April needs to learn a lesson about self-confidence and Jordan needs to learn a lesson about selflessness, which takes the form of helping the uncool kids perform in a talent show. There are detours where Jordan tries to get her hands on wine, an impromptu karaoke performance (which got some serious applause at my screening), and her libido being activated by her teacher (Justin Hartley) and boyfriend (Luke James). Cringey comedy about men being uncomfortable with a teenage girl hitting on them isn’t really my thing, but apparently some people like it.

            “Little” is a mixed bag. Martin and Rae have terrific chemistry, and it is funny to see Martin inflict Jordan’s overbearing personality on the world around her. But too many gags are just low hanging fruit, along the lines of the “my hair was out of control at this age” variety. At least it’s better than “What Men Want,” that other “black people do the opposite premise of a famous white-led comedy” movie from earlier this year. Mind you, it’s not better by much, maybe just a… “Little.”

 

Grade: C

12:35 pm edt 

"Shazam!"

            “Shazam!” tells the story of Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a wily teenager who has spent his life running away from foster homes so he can search for his long-lost mother. His latest home includes five other children, including handicapped superhero aficionado Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). He’s probably going to run away from them soon, but he notices Freddy getting bullied and performs a rare selfless act in standing up for him.

            Billy’s act of heroism earns him the attention of the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), a powerful being who has been waiting decades to find somebody pure of heart enough to inherit his powers before he dies. He has a weird system of testing mettle: he abducts a subject and says he can give them powers, but then allows for a counteroffer from the evil stone-encased demons he keeps prisoner. If the subject tries to take the evil powers, he decides they’re unworthy and sends them away with nothing. I have a hard time believing that decades’ worth of candidates wouldn’t side with the human, but apparently that’s the case. The opening scene shows a boy named Sivana (Ethan Pugiotto) fail the test and gleam the wrong lesson: that there are really cool evil powers out there. Normally Shazam would give Billy the same test, but he’s out of time, so he just gives him the good-guy powers and hopes for the best before dying.

            It’s unclear as to what powers Billy has been given exactly, the only thing he knows for sure is that he’s been given an adult body (Zachary Levi), designed to represent him at his physical peak. He gets in contact with Freddy, and together they experiment with sorting out his powers, which include super-strength, bullet immunity, and flying, though not to a degree that it won’t take some practice. Billy mostly uses the powers to screw around and achieve stupid teenager aspirations like buying beer, visiting strip clubs, and showing off. He’s in no way prepared to deal with a real threat, like that of Sivana (now played by Mark Strong), who has finally gotten his hands on the evil powers after all.

            The character of Sivana is perhaps the movie’s biggest weak point in that he sorely lacks motivation. Oh, he’s extremely motivated by the desire to gain superpowers, prove a point to his disapproving father and brother, and eliminate Billy because he’s a threat, but he seemingly hasn’t thought beyond that. Does he want to take over the world? If so, what kind of ruler does he want to be? Or does he just want to enjoy the powers on a selfish level like Billy? He does confront his father and brother, but it’s so quick that even to his warped mind I can’t imagine that he gets much out of it. The movie is based on a DC property, and between this and “Green Lantern,” wasting Mark Strong seems to be a hobby of theirs.

            “Shazam!” is at its best when it’s exploring the relationships between Billy and the people in his life. There’s Freddy, who is thrilled to have probably the best friend he’s ever had and doesn’t quite know how to handle that friendship, and the same can be said of Billy. There’s the rest of his foster family, my favorite of whom is the chatty and overly affectionate Darla (Faithe Herman), though the parents (Marta Milan and Cooper Andrews) are disappointingly shunted to the background for much of the movie. There’s even his mom, whose heartbreaking truth devastates Billy but also shows him where he needs to go with his life. The movie is at its worst when it’s just a superhero action movie because the straight-up battle scenes are unfunny and even worse, overlong. The movie is a mixed bag and I can’t say that I liked it overall, but I respect the things that it does right.

 

Grade: C

12:34 pm edt 

"Dumbo"

            I know I saw the 1941 animated version of “Dumbo” on multiple occasions back when I was little, but I don’t remember much about it. I remember that the main character was an elephant with overly big ears and that he had a mouse sidekick (who at one time I could have sworn was Jiminy Cricket) and there was a scene where the two of them got drunk and the mouse got his whole body encased in a bubble and floated upwards. But I don’t remember the notoriously nightmare-inducing Pink Elephants scene and I don’t remember the notoriously tear-inducing shackling of Dumbo’s mother and I don’t remember the notoriously outrage-inducing crows, probably for the best. My point is that I don’t have much of an attachment to the original, so I wasn’t really “missing” anything with the new remake, which seems to be working in the film’s favor as the consensus seems to be that it’s inferior.

            The film largely follows Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) as they travel with a circus in 1919. Holt is a trick rider who has just returned from war minus an arm. He can’t ride anymore, and even if he could, Max Medici (Danny DeVito), the circus’s owner and ringmaster, has sold all the horses. There’s only one way for Holt to earn a living in the circus now, and that’s by tending the elephants, one of whom has just given birth. The kids are immediately enamored with the baby elephant, even though the grownups grouse that its ears are too big (because elephants aren’t known for big ears, apparently). The baby ruins a performance, which earns it the moniker Dumbo (instead of Jumbo) and leads to its mother being sent away when she comes to rescue it from a hostile crowd.

            All seems lost for poor Dumbo, but then the kids discover that he has a unique ability, he can fly. His ears flap and lift him off the ground when he catches whiff of a feather. Dumbo becomes an overnight sensation, earning the attention of circus mogul V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) who wants to put him in an act with his trapeze artist girlfriend Colette (Eva Green). Vandevere buys the whole Medici circus and hires Holt and his kids as Dumbo’s handlers. The kids think that if they can train Dumbo to sell enough tickets, Vandevere will reunite him with his mother. And really he should, because he owns the mother and Dumbo is at his best when she’s around. But Vandevere has to overthink things and concoct an evil scheme that is sure to leave everyone miserable if it succeeds, probably including him.

            “Dumbo” makes a mistake focusing so much on humans, partly because we could spend all day fawning over adorable little Dumbo and partly because the human characters aren’t that interesting. The kids in particular are annoyingly wooden, though DeVito as the shyster carnie steals the movie. The plot is a mess, filled with problems that could easily be solved by humans simply realizing that elephants have to power to crush them so they shouldn’t antagonize them. And there’s an ill-advised cameo that took me right out of the movie when a modern catchphrase was invoked in 1919. But I couldn’t stay mad at this movie. Maybe it was because it opens on a visually spectacular note with a well-designed circus train, a piece of magical eye candy courtesy of director Tim Burton. Maybe it was because I liked the little world of circus life contained within the film. But the reason I’ll choose above all is that Dumbo himself has such an infectious presence, infectious enough that it just barely saves this film.

 

Grade: B-

12:33 pm edt 

"Us"

            Jordan Peele’s “Us” is a film whose reputation precedes it. Almost every conversation about the film over the past month has included talk about its inevitable place among the greatest horror movies of all time, the same with Peele among the greatest writers and directors. Peele already made history in 2017 when his horror film “Get Out” made him the first African-American to win an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Could this film make him the first African-American to win for Best Director? If you believe the buzz, it might. If you believe me… it’s probably somebody else’s year.

            This is a film that loves its twists, but I’ll try not to get too far into spoiler territory. The film opens in 1986 where young Adelaide (Madison Curry) is looking forward to Hands Across America. Her parents take her to an amusement park, where she wanders into a house of mirrors and suffers a traumatic experience when one of her reflections doesn’t move along with her. Peele fills the carnival with so much foreboding atmosphere that Adelaide should count herself lucky that she made it as far as the house of mirrors. Credit to composer Michael Abels for giving this film a bone-chilling score that will make you check under your bed at night for mere noises.

            We then cut to present day. Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) are vacationing with their kids Zora (Shahadi Wright) and Jason (Evan Alex). Adelaide is dismayed that Gabe is dragging the family to the same beach where her childhood was forever altered. She’s also not thrilled with the company of the shallow Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty (Elizabeth Moss), but that’s more about annoyance than ominousness. She loses track of Jason, who is seduced by the sight of a man holding hands with nobody, and the day ends badly. But the night is even worse.

            The family finds themselves accosted in their vacation home by a group of four strangers: a man, a woman, a teenage girl, and a boy, the same lineup as them. Upon further examination, it is them. Or to their point of view, “Us.” The family of doppelgangers looks like our heroes (they’re all the same actors), think like our heroes, even occasionally involuntarily move like our heroes, but they also want to kill our heroes, preferably with some handy-dandy perfectly-symmetrical scissors that are just part of this film’s ever-dichotomic imagery. The group, known as The Tethered (invoking the bondage of slavery) would do well to just kill everybody and move on to their larger plan, but Peele isn’t above the horror movie trope of having his villains relish in toying with their victims so much that they give up the element of surprise, which just sets the heroes up for a daring escape.

            There’s a lot that can be done with a horror movie that sees people face-to-face with murderous versions of themselves and their loved ones. There’s a lot that can be said too, about how we as Americans have a tendency to spoil ourselves and not think about others, or in this case, The Other. But then the film itself gets surprisingly greedy with its concept, escalating the scope of the attack to a point where it’s no longer believable, relatable, or impactful. The movie seems overstuffed, both in apparent action and underlying social commentary. Perhaps it should have been split into two movies, one about the family being stalked and another about the grander scheme (the title “Us Too” is right there). Still, I’d much rather see a movie that’s overly ambitious than a movie whose ambitiousness is lacking, and Peele fills practically every frame of this movie with pure ambition. Peele has put a lot of thought into “Us,” and in return we’re expected to do a lot of thinking ourselves, maybe about too much at once.

 

Grade: B-

12:32 pm edt 

"Wonder Park"

            “Wonder Park” seems like it was conceived as a writing exercise: come up with the most agreeable premise in the world and then screw it up. This is a movie that dares you – dares you – to dislike it. Go ahead and dislike an animated film largely set in a giant amusement park of the main character’s creation where all the rides are fun and unique. Go ahead and get mad at the supporting cast of cute furry mascots. Go ahead and get mad at the film’s promotion of creativity and its message to cherish the best parts of a relationship with someone who may be gone. All of these elements should make for an excellent family adventure, or at least a passable diversion for the kids. Instead we get a film that squanders one opportunity after another to do so much as entertain.

            The film opens with our young protagonist June (Sofia Mali) planning out an amusement park with her mom (Jennifer Garner). June wants the park to be real, so she sets up an extremely dangerous roller coaster in her yard. The experiment causes rampant destruction, and June is only allowed to continue building her park using unrideable models. A few years pass, June comes to be voiced by Brianna Denski, and the mom gets sick, so sick that she has to move to a faraway treatment center full time. With her park-designing partner gone, June decides to leave behind childish things and devote herself to making sure nothing bad happens to her father (Matthew Broderick). He insists that he can take care of himself and sends her off to camp, but she can’t bear to leave him alone and ditches the bus when it has to make a stop. I found it incredibly bothersome that not only does June not consider how running away will affect the people at the camp, but nobody even thinks to give them a call once she finds her way back to civilization.

            In the middle of the woods, June stumbles upon a car on a track. It looks like the car to a roller coaster. She gets in, and the car whisks her off to the very amusement park that she and her mother designed. Could it be that the fantastical land is real? Not really, but apparently June is stuck in a hallucination until she learns a lesson. The park is in danger from an army of stuffed souvenirs run amok. The only beings capable of saving the land are June and the park’s mascots, who, like June, have lost their sense of wonder. Boomer the Bear (Ken Hudson Campbell) has grown lazy, Greta the Boar (Mila Kunis) is hardened and cynical, Steve the Porcupine (John Oliver) is cowardly, beavers Gus (Kenan Thompson) and Cooper (Ken Jeong) are always fighting with each other, and leader Peanut the Chimp (Norbert Leo Butz) has disappeared entirely. If the team wants to save the park, they’ll have to get creative, think positively, and of course, work together.

            The biggest problem with “Wonder Park,” aside from its many loose ends and unfunny jokes, is that the storyline with June losing her sense of wonder is at once underdone and overdone. It’s a heavy, crucial part of the story, and some members of the creative team clearly wanted to give the subject matter the respect it commands, but the rest of the team just wanted to work on designing the park itself. The result is a tonally-inconsistent mess that needed better decisions in leadership, which can be explained by the film’s director being fired by the studio for inappropriate conduct and not replaced. The film was dumped out on a weekend where it was sure to lose to “Captain Marvel,” and I suggest you follow the studio’s lead and treat “Wonder Park” as an also-ran. I do want to go in that bounce house, though.

 

Grade: C-

12:30 pm edt 

"Captain Marvel"

            There’s a weird structure to “Captain Marvel,” the latest entry in the all-powerful Marvel Cinematic Universe. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) sent out a distress call to Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) at the end of “Avengers: Infinity War.” It is no secret that this movie is an origin story set in 1995 (Marvel Studios does not want us to get our hopes up and expect the business with Thanos to be resolved here), so in a way, we already know how this movie ends: Captain Marvel will be alive and reachable by some sort of super-pager, but at the same time be so far removed from relevant action that she hasn’t been a part of the Avengers’ adventures until now. Has she been retired? In hiding? On another planet? Another fair question: who exactly is Captain Marvel?

            We first meet the character, known as Vers, as she fights on behalf of an outer space race called Kree against another outer space race called the Skrulls. The Skrulls are ugly and have a leader played by Ben “Hollywood’s Go-To Villain Actor” Mendelsohn, so no need to question that they’re bad guys. Vers likes being a Kree soldier, though she isn’t crazy about the amnesia that has wiped out memories of all but the past two years of her life. Or having to answer to a mysterious Supreme Intelligence that takes the form of someone she respects, in this case a scientist (Annette Benning) whose significance she can’t recall, but apparently has a special place in her subconscious. Or that her mentor (Jude Law) counsels her mostly through punches to the face and is constantly nagging her to keep her emotions in check. But she can fight Skrulls with the power of a lost energy-core, so that’s pretty cool.

            A battle with the Skrulls sees Vers crash-land on Earth, where she is first pursued by, and then joins forces with, a not-yet-cycloptic Fury. She begins to find out clues about her past, like that she was formerly an Earth-based Air Force pilot named Carol Danvers who was on a mission to protect Dr. Wendy Lawson (Benning) who had created an energy-core powerful enough to win the war between the Kree and the Skrulls. She meets up with some old friends, like fellow pilot and single mother Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), and a cat named Goose. As soon as I saw that cat I knew how Fury was going to lose his eye. Cats are… let’s say “jerks” like that. Truths are uncovered, battles are fought, and Carol discovers that she’s stronger than she ever knew, in more ways than anybody thought.

            “Captain Marvel” is a perfectly agreeable superhero origin movie. Larson is an extremely likeable lead, has great chemistry with Jackson and Lynch, and adds a much-needed female chapter to the MCU (still no Black Widow movie, though). Girls can look up to the way the character has spent her life overcoming obstacles in a recognizable version of society, unlike Wonder Woman, who spent her whole life in the bubble of Themyscira. Still, there’s something played-out about the whole “superhero origin” template at this point, and this movie feels like it could be interchangeable with any number of similar movies from the past decade. The MCU claims that it’s going to go on a break after this year, and that might be a good thing if it means we get a break from well-meaning but ultimately middling efforts like this.

 

Grade: B-

 

NOTE: The moment in the film that caused the biggest reaction at my screening occurred not at the climax, or at a meaningful early victory, or even during the MCU’s trademark mid- or post-credits sequences. It occurred at the very beginning, in the first thirty seconds or so. Be prepared for a huge ovation right off the bat.

12:29 pm edt 

"Tyler Perry's A Madea Family Funeral"

            When we last saw curmudgeonly crime against cinema Mabel “Madea” Simmons (creator/writer/director/star Tyler Perry), “she” was starring in “Boo! 2: A Madea Halloween,” a film so bad I doled out my first D- grade in nearly five years. Now she’s back with “A Madea Family Funeral,” and I’m sorry to say that the funeral isn’t for Madea. In fact, not only does death not make for less Perry obnoxiousness, it makes for more. Perry has inexplicably chosen this occasion to debut yet another character, a legless throat-talker named Heathrow who serves no purpose to the story, but does drag out the film’s run time with unfunny antics.

            The story sees Madea and her crew travel to an anniversary party for a heretofore unmentioned relation, a brother named Anthony (Derek Morgan) and his wife Vianne (Jen Harper). Madea’s entourage consists of her brother Joe (also Perry), nephew Brian (Perry again), and friends Bam (Cassi Davis) and Hattie (Patrice Lovely). The group checks into a hotel and hear a commotion in a nearby room. It’s Anthony, dying of a heart attack. And why was Anthony at the hotel? To have an afternoon fling a with a woman who is not his wife. To make things even more complicated, Anthony’s son A.J. (Courtney Burrell) was also in a nearby room, cheating on his wife Carol (K.J. Smith) with Gia (Aeriel Miranda), the fiancé of his brother Jesse (Rome Flynn). The anniversary celebration turns to funeral planning for Anthony’s family, and Madea and company have to keep the various secrets from coming out, though to be honest they aren’t very well hidden in the first place.

            The problem with this movie, as it is with all Tyler Perry movies, is that Madea and her crew (minus straight-man Brian but plus Heathrow) are completely insufferable. They’re ugly to look at (that’s not me being shallow, they’re wearing garish makeup for comedic effect) and unpleasant to listen to, both in terms of their grating, incomprehensible-at-times voices and the vile content of what they have to say. There isn’t an occasion too reverent for these characters to bring up sex references, bathroom references, drug references, racial references, and in this case, inappropriate death talk. And it’s all done without any sense of comedic timing, the characters just ramble on until Brian says “okay guys we’ve got to go.” Actually, sometimes it’s Madea who has to reign in the others. These other characters have gotten away from Perry so much that his screaming drag character has to be the voice of reason.

            It’s actually relieving when the movie takes a break from Madea to focus on the drama with Anthony’s family, where the characters are only deplorable for their lying and cheating instead of everything else about them. Though I don’t want to downplay my belief that several of these characters are reprehensible and deserve worse than their partners simply leaving them. There are some passionate words toward the end of the movie about strength and sacrifice, but it’s too little too late in a movie that doesn’t deserve them.

            At least “A Madea Family Funeral” makes an attempt at profound seriousness, as opposed to “Boo! 2,” which unwaveringly went for Perry’s unpalatable brand of silliness. Perry has said that this will be the last Madea movie, which I highly doubt because this film contains no closure for the character and made $27 million in its opening weekend. And make no mistake, Madea has legions of fans. The crowd at my screening roared with laughter while I was burying my face in my hands (as if that would stop the mortifying dialogue). I am dumfounded by Madea’s popularity, but I’ll be even more dumbfounded if Perry actually chooses to retire her while she can still make her creator millions of dollars in a movie this bad.

 

Grade: D.

12:28 pm edt 

"How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World"

            It’s a shame that I never got to review the first two “How to Train Your Dragon” movies from 2010 and 2014, respectively. The beautiful animation, engaging characters, and complex relationships made for some enjoyable family entertainment that I would have highly recommended. But the first film opened on a weekend where I thought “Hot Tub Time Machine” was more review-worthy (no, I don’t know what I was thinking) and the second got beaten at the box office in its opening weekend by “22 Jump Street” (that one was more worthy, though it is worth mentioning that HTTYD2 is in the all-time top ten for non-#1 opening weekends). But the third film isn’t having any problems with its box office. With an estimated debut of $55 million, it’s the strongest opener of 2019 thus far.

            Jay Baruchel returns as Hiccup, now chief of the kingdom of Berk following the death of his father. As always, his ambition is to provide a safe haven for the world’s dragons, hunted and hated until very recently. This means a series of missions to rescue dragons from poachers, where he is aided by his friends Snoutlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs, (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig), Tuffnut (Justin Rupple), and girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera), and receives moral support from his mother (Cate Blanchett) and old friend Gobber (Craig Ferguson). The humans aren’t terribly competent in their rescue efforts, but their fleet of dragons, led by original domesticate Toothless the Night Fury, makes them unbeatable. Their raids make them enemies of assorted warlords, who hire famed dragon hunter Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) to take out Toothless for them. He’s only too happy to destroy the last remaining Night Fury, even if it means destroying all of Berk in the process.

            Grimmel’s plan involves using a female dragon known as a Light Fury as bait. As predicted, Toothless falls in love with his female counterpart, which makes him susceptible to Grimmel’s traps and also means that there’s no stopping until she’s rescued too. And if she is to be rescued, then what? Will she be added to the already-overcrowded roster at Berk? Or will the two leave the humans behind for a new life among their own kind in the newly-discovered Hidden World? The Hidden World, by the way, is a dragons-only habitat, not to be confused with the long-lost mother’s dragon sanctuary from the second movie, the fact that the label could apply to both worlds is a minor quibble I have with the franchise.  

            The film is a delight, just like the previous two. Few sights are as adorable as Toothless trying to woo the Light Fury, especially when he’s practicing a mating dance while staring at his shadow on the wall like it’s a mirror (or possibly a partner). And it is also compelling to see Hiccup on the tail end of his journey from boy to man (the franchise has done an excellent job with continuity there). He still has some learning and maturing to do, and he’s feeling pressure to marry Astrid even though he doesn’t think he’s ready, but it’s all the more rewarding to see just how he grows.

            Unfortunately, I have to say that this is the weakest of the “How to Train Your Dragon” films, just by a smidge, mind you. Hiccup’s friends, usually a welcome source of comedic relief in the previous films, are here just dumb and annoying, especially Snoutlout, who’s harboring a crush on Hiccup’s widowed mother. Even more unforgiveable is that the screenplay never really knows what it wants to do with Cate Blanchett, an Oscar-winning talent who must never be allowed to go to waste. Overall though, “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” is a fine family film that brings one of the more consistently entertaining franchises of this era to a satisfying conclusion.

 

Grade: B-

12:27 pm edt 

"Alita: Battle Angel"

            The first trailer “Alita: Battle Angel” appeared over a year ago for a release in July, during the hot summer movie season. But apparently some edits needed to be made, and the film was pushed back to December, where it could take advantage of the Christmas season. Then got yanked away from that too, finally landing this past weekend, where there was a lot of money up for grabs with Valentine’s Day and Presidents’ Day falling only four days apart. It did claw its way to #1 at the box office despite not exactly fitting the bill of a date movie (there is a romance, but also a ton of violence). Still, there was an unmistakable air of studio nervousness surrounding the film, and if they didn’t have confidence in their own movie, then why should we? I will say that if any of the delays caused the film to be as passable as it is, then the wait was worth it.

            Rosa Salazar stars as Alita, a teenage cyborg living in what else, a dystopian future. Her human head was found in a scrapyard by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), who took her home and gave her a robotic body that he had left over from his late daughter, much to the annoyance of his ex-wife Chiren (Jennifer Connelly). Ido wants Alita to have a “normal” life, but even without her mechanizations, she’s too headstrong for that. She wants to become a star player in a popular sport called Motorball, an interest she shares with her best friend Hugo (Keean Johnson). The champion of Motorball gets to go live in the sky city of Zalem and leave all the chumps on Earth behind. It is also possible to earn one’s way into Zalem through the discretion of Vector (Mahershala Ali), a Motorball honcho who deals in an illegal robotic limbs trade.

            You could fill a whole movie with the Motorball business, but this movie also finds room for a bounty hunter storyline. Alita learn that Ido is a “Hunter Warrior” and she’s drawn to that life as well. She makes quick enemies of Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), a hulking assassin who works for evil Zalem scientist Nova, who knows some key information about Alita’s human life. Alita thinks that maybe she can collect enough bounties to buy her and Hugo’s way into Zalem, but she’ll have to do so at the expense of both criminals and fellow bounty hunters like cyborg Zapan (Ed Skrein). And she also she wants to stop Grewishka and Nova just because they need stopping.

            There is a lot of plot and world-building to unpack in this movie, and it’s easy to get lost. The Motorball and Hunter Warrior storylines do intersect at various points, and on one hand it’s nice that we don’t have to memorize two distinct sets of characters, but on the other it’s hard to keep track of who fits in where. And come to think of it, it’s hard to figure out just why the bad guys hate Alita so much. She’d probably leave them alone if they’d just quit escalating things and trying to kill her.

            The charm of “Alita: Battle Angel” lies in its ambitiousness. There’s a complex world at work here, filled with complex characters with complex looks. Seriously, a lot of time went into designing the cyborgs on display, especially Alita herself, with her two robotic bodies and manga-inspired facial features (some people will find her enlarged eyes off-putting, I think they’re pretty). Also complex are the action sequences, which contain violence not usually seen in a PG-13 movie (I assume the rating was saved because the violence is mostly happening to cyborgs), but are some of the most creative in recent memory. The story of “Alita: Battle Angel” is a mess, but there’s enough good for me to give the film a mild recommendation.

 

Grade: B-

12:25 pm edt 

"The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part"

            “The Lego Movie” was one of my favorite movies of 2014. It should have won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature that year, its snub in the category only explainable by a sort of unofficial disqualification due to its live-action climax. The finale was the icing on an already-delicious cake, a touching sequence where we learned that the mostly-silly computer-animated adventure that had preceded it was actually a mask for a strained father/son relationship. The father (Will Ferrell) realized that by spending all his free time building elaborate Lego sculptures alone, he was cutting his family out of his life. He decided to allow his son to play with his vast collection of Legos, as well as his daughter with her Duplo blocks. The son wasn’t 100% okay with this, as the Duplos were sure to interfere with his Lego adventures.

Five years later, the Duplos have indeed taken their toll on the animated Lego landscape. Gone is the happy, bustling city of Bricksburg, replaced with a post-apocalyptic desert. Most of the residents spend their days brooding, but heroic construction worker Emmet (Chris Pratt) is as optimistic as ever. His hardened girlfriend Lucy (Elizabeth Banks) warns him that if he doesn’t adapt to the changing world, he could fall victim to a Duplo invasion, or worse, bring about the dreaded Our-Mom-Ageddon.

Emmet’s insistence on positivity and goodness leads to Lucy getting captured, along with Unikitty (Allison Brie), Metalbeard (Nick Offerman), Spaceman Benny (Charlie Day), and Batman (Will Arnett), back from his standalone adventure. Their captor is General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz) who works for Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish), the shapeshifting leader of the Systar System. Wa-Nabi had the group kidnapped so she could marry Batman and peacefully unite the two worlds. But Lucy isn’t convinced that she’s on the up-and-up, even after the Queen tries to reassure her with a song about how totally not evil she is. Emmet, meanwhile, goes on a mission to save the group, getting some help from the rugged Rex Dangervest (also Pratt), a time-travelling outer-space explorer desperately in need of companionship after several years trapped underneath a clothes dryer and more time spent with only a crew of “Jurassic World” raptors to keep him company.

The good news is that the movie is pretty much as funny and heart-touching as ever, its crispness and wit retained from the first movie. It still amazes me that a movie with such block-y animation can have such impeccable comedic timing, though I could have done without the gags where the characters mispronounce words that they don’t understand (“Sis-tarr” and “Wash-arr” don’t exactly bring level of charm as the Kragle from the first movie). Beatriz and Haddish are excellent additions to the cast, especially Haddish with her movie-stealing musical number. There are some sad parts, but they’re appropriately sad, and they make it feel earned when the characters won’t settle for an unhappy ending like a certain recent installment of the biggest franchise in the world.

But there is an unavoidable downside to “The Lego Movie 2,” and it’s that we know there’s a twist coming in the form of the animated action being symbolic of a conflict in the “real” world. The live-action sequence, involving the human siblings and their mother (Maya Rudolph) is handled well, but the fact that we’re expecting it puts a damper on the rest of the movie, like seeing a magic trick again after it’s been explained. The film is still awesome on every level except that one, even to the point where I’d say that it’s the best film of 2019 so far (not that there’s much competition), but there is noticeably less magic and mystery this time around.

 

Grade: B

12:24 pm edt 

"Miss Bala"

            “Miss Bala” found a modicum of success this past weekend purely because it was a medium-sized fish in a small pond. Namely, it was the only new wide release on Super Bowl weekend. Opening on Super Bowl weekend means you can kiss your Sunday ticket sales goodbye, so most studios stay away from it. But the people behind “Miss Bala” must have seen that there was nothing else scheduled for the slot, and said “We may not be the biggest, and we may not be the best, but we can be the only game in town. Okay, except for a few pesky holdovers.” Two of those pesky holdovers did beat out “Miss Bala”: “Glass” in its third weekend and “The Upside” in its fourth, but it did beat out the twelfth weekend of “Green Book,” so I’m stuck having to pretend that it matters.

            Gina Rodriguez stars as Gloria, an American makeup artist visiting Tijuana so she can help her friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) win a beauty pageant. A nightclub shooting sees the two separated, and Gloria’s search to reconnect lands her under the thumb of the gang responsible for the shooting. The gang’s leader Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova) is willing to both let Gloria live and help her find Suzu, she just has to do a little extremely deadly favor for him first. She does the favor, which lands her in hot water with a DEA agent (Brian Reich), who’s willing to drop charges and provide her with safety, she just has to do a little extremely dangerous favor for him first. And so it goes, with Gloria falling ever deeper into a world of gangs, cartels, corrupt cops, human trafficking, fixed beauty pageants, and cell phone tracking. For some reason, the film is big on plot threads that involve cell phone tracking.

            Probably the biggest specific problem with the film is that it doesn’t know quite what to do with Lino. He starts out as the most intelligent member of the gang, the one who knows that Gloria will respond to a stern-but-calm demeanor rather than blatant hostility. Then he does something cowardly and sadistic. Then the film gives him a “humanization” arc, where we get an insight into his life and a determination to stay true to his roots. Then he’s practically heroic during a feud with the DEA where we’re supposed to be asking which side are the true villains (sorry, but still the gang). Then he commits an unforgiveable act of violence (one that’s makes Gloria a tad unforgiveable as well). Then he’s the straight-up villain for the rest of the movie, concluding with a twist where he’s even more of a villain. Is it really a twist if the movie has already made its sale on this character being the villain? To be clear, I don’t blame the charismatic Cordova, it’s just that the script keeps changing what it wants the character to be.

            “Miss Bala” is no more or less ambitious than any number of similar “everyday person gets dragged into criminal underworld” movies. Maybe it’s a little less ambitious because it just has to water its material down for a PG-13 rating (do we really need a film whose catchphrase is “In the end, the bullet solves everything” to be PG-13?). Then again, maybe it’s a little more ambitious because of Gina Rodriguez, who elevates the material from “blatant bomb” to just “bomb.” I’m patiently awaiting her being allowed to carry a better movie. I’ll say that the good performances and non-grittiness cancel each other out to form one bland, forgettable movie.

 

Grade: C-

12:21 pm edt 

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