The Incredibles 2 (2018, Directed by Brad Bird) English 7

Voices of Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabella Rossellini, Sarah Vowell, John Ratzenberger, Jonathan Banks

Incredibles 2' China Release Date | Hollywood Reporter

Image result for the incredibles 2(7-Very Good Film)

Exciting. Dazzling. Lesser.

The Parr family, alias The Incredibles, are back. Fourteen years, four pretty undistinguished Pixar sequels later, and we finally get The Incredibles 2. There’s the father, Bob or Mr. Incredible(voiced by Nelson), with super strength, the mother, Helen or Elastigirl (voiced by Holly Hunter), who can stretch to insane lengths, oldest child, Violet (voiced by Sarah Vowell) who can turn invisible and create force fields, son, Dash (now voiced by Huck Milner), who has extraordinary speed, and the infant, Jack-Jack, whose powers were only hinted at in the first film. The good thing about animation is that all that lapsed time isn’t a problem. Writer and director Brad Bird can pick up right where he left off, unburdened by the effects of time on his actors, able to capably portray the Parr family just as we remember them from the first film.

So that’s what Bird does. The Incredibles 2 starts where the first film ends. Dash finished his race, Violet asked out a boy, and a new super villain, calling himself the Underminer, showed up to spring the heroic family back into action. This ending seemed like a perfect setup for another installment, but as The Incredibles 2 plays out, the Underminer proves to be only a small part of the whole. The important part of the scene is that The Underminer gets away, the Parr family cause a lot of damage protecting people, and the mandate outlawing superheroes sees the protagonists relocated once again, this time to a shabby motel where Bob contemplates returning to his soul-deadening insurance job. Fortunately, their good deed in fighting The Underminer was not completely in vain as it caught the eye of billionaire, Winston Deaver (voiced by Bob Odenkirk), who has very personal reasons for wanting to bring superheroes back. He believes the Parr family are the key. The only thing is, he thinks Elastigirl is the better choice as the face of his plan, throwing Bob for a loop. This go-around, Helen is out fighting crime while Bob stays home with the kids, dealing with Violet’s lovesick teen angst, Dash’s complicated homework, and Jack-Jack’s ever-growing list of abilities, while a larger plot begins to form slowly involving a masked figure known as The Screenslaver.

The over-arching plot, due to the supervillain of the piece, is good, not great. It’s the one thing holding the film back from being in line with its predecessor. The villain’s secret identity with all of the red herrings has been done before, to the point that we can see the film’s third act coming a mile away. This ends up not being a major detractor since Incredibles was always best as family commentary, genre satire, and situational comedy. All of this remains intact. Jack-Jack steals the show with one of the film’s chief pleasures being his expansive roster of powers slowly being revealed throughout the movie. I won’t spoil them here. The great scene-stealer from the first Incredibles, Edna Mode (voiced by Brad Bird himself) returns and has a wonderful scene with the infant Parr.

The action sequences in The Incredibles 2 are stunning. We’re reminded that the possibilities in animation are endless, and Brad Bird pushes the envelope with every new film. Stunning is how I’d describe the animation and design of the film as well. Even without living up to the ridiculous heights of the first movie, The Incredibles 2 is a fantastic superhero film.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(599)

Hereditary (2018, Directed by Ari Aster) English 8

Starring Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Ann Dowd, Gabriel Byrne, Milly Shapiro

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Surprising. Haunting. Riveting.

Guilt. Resentment. Strife. Cursed bloodlines. A dysfunctional family. Tragedy. Alas, a nightmare. Hereditary takes its time before becoming a horror flick, and until that point, until its diabolical bloom, I was at a loss as to what the film really was and where it was going. Is it a ghost story? A haunted house movie? The only thing I could firmly grasp was the tangible dread the filmmakers and actors build up so well. A feeling that something horrific was coming, and when it does, Hereditary achieves the status of great modern horror film.

If you’re like me, you’ve noticed the overwhelming praise given to the film by critics across Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. If you’re like me, you’ll go into Hereditary skeptical since critics rarely know what they’re talking about when it comes to the Horror genre. The majority of critics don’t like the genre, which is fine, but then what is their review of a horror film worth? To me, this explains why films like The Quiet Place and It Comes at Night do very well critically (fine films but without any actual bite), and legitimately scary genre pieces like Sinister get middling reviews. Thankfully, Hereditary delivers. Not just as a well-made film (a remarkable debut from writer/director Ari Aster), but as a superb, bloodcurdling horror story.

Opening at the funeral of the family matriarch, Ellen, her daughter, Annie Graham (Collette) gives a rather stiff eulogy revealing a strained relationship with her mother, and setting up the rest of the film which, as evidenced by its title, has much to do with family legacy and “visiting the sins of the father on the children,” or, in this case, the sins of the mother. Annie, a successful miniaturist artist has a patient husband, Steve (Byrne) and two children: a distant son, Peter (Wolff) and a daughter, Charlie (Shapiro). After a shocking incident, and I don’t want to say too much since I went in blind and was blown away by this particular scene, the Graham family is forced to live past a tragedy that lays a pall over their lives. Annie reluctantly seeks comfort in group meetings, but quickly gives up on the venture before meeting Joan (Dowd), an older woman grieving over a lost son. Joan turns Annie on to séances, and, naturally, this opens the door for evil and the ensuing horror show. It’s at this stage of the film, actually pretty late in the proceedings, that Hereditary becomes less surprising. The last act is an effective but conventional piece of storytelling. What still separates Hereditary from the rest of its kind, even in the end, is director, Aster’s entirely assured pacing which never settles for cheap scares but takes each moment to its peak horror and then wades on to the next set piece. He gives his actors long takes to work with, and they reward him with likely the best performances of the year. The story belongs to Toni Collette’s Annie, and Collette getting a rare starring role, is outstanding. She’s made a career out of playing mothers across a number of genres, but that hasn’t kept her from proving to be an incredible chameleon-like actor at times. Consider, this is the Australian actress who played the caring, American mother in The Sixth Sense, the kooky British mother in About a Boy, and the frayed matriarch of the hilariously dysfunctional family in Little Miss Sunshine. Consider too, her ultra-creepy performance in the underrated Night Listener starring Robin Williams. I’m simply a fan. Relatively new to me is Alex Wolff who plays the troubled son. I’ve seen him recently in the Jumanji reboot, but nothing to prepare me for the depth he gives to this role. He’s largely the character we’re most often asked to identify with, and it’s through his eyes, we see much of the tragedy and the horror. The ending works for me, but at the same time, is derivative of past classics like Rosemary’s Baby and the recent triumph, The Witch.

Finally, I’m still unsure as to what really went on in this film. I have more questions than answers.  I recognize the themes of persistent discord. Generations of parents and children at odds. I see the toll of tragedy on a family. How much of the blame seems to fall back on the mother? But what’s clearest of all is the talent of the young filmmaker, the impressive cast (I hadn’t mentioned Ann Dowd yet whose sensational in a performance likely inspired by Ruth Gordon in, again, Rosemary’s Baby), and the haunting account of evil that lasts beyond the closing credits.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(598)

Men in Black: International (2019, Directed by F. Gary Gray) English 6

Starring Tessa Thompson, Chris Hemsworth, Kumail Nanjiani, Liam Neeson, Rafe Spall, Emma Thompson, Rebecca Ferguson

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(6-Good Film)

Enjoyable. Fast. Worn.

Rewatching the first Men in Black film, starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, I was struck by how odd it is. It is surely one of the weirdest mainstream blockbuster films ever. That’s a great deal of what made it so fresh back in 1998. An inspired, inventive blockbuster movie. There were several back in the 1990s, but they are very nearly extinct now. When’s the last time a fresh blockbuster picture came out? I can’t remember one this decade. The closest I can think of is The Hunger Games, which, though based on a book, at least isn’t a remake or a reboot or an MCU film. In any case, after the success of the first Men in Black, two sequels followed, each further prioritizing CGI and their big budget over story, humor, and unique ideas which are what made the original special. Now comes Men in Black International, a film nobody asked for and is probably going to sink at the box office. The good news is, despite or more likely because of my exceedingly low expectations, I enjoyed this movie. Pleasantly surprised, I found it light, fast-moving, and just intriguing enough to get by. The bad news is I doubt anyone cares. Critics seem to be lashing out from remake fatigue because Men in Black International currently sits at a lowly 28% on Rotten Tomatoes. My movie taste is admittedly questionable but this film at 28% is hyperbole. It has worse reviews at the moment than the incomprehensible Suicide Squad. That’s honestly absurd.

Tessa Thompson plays Molly, first introduced as a young girl having an encounter with an extraterrestrial. Men in Black swoop in to control the situation but miss Molly when they do their memory-erasing of the witnesses. From that day on, Molly is obsessed with aliens and the mysterious Men in Black, hoping one day to join them. Eventually, she hits paydirt but on a probationary basis and MIB leader O (Emma Thompson) assigns her to MIB London where she meets their leader, High T (Neeson), and their top agent, H (Hemsworth), who’s lost his way and at this point is coasting on his past success. Molly, now Agent M, pairs up with H to protect an important alien visitor, Vungus, but when Vungus ends up murdered, M works out that there has to be a mole within MIB. I like the cloak and dagger aspect brought to this new Men in Black. The space oddity coolness is long gone and this franchise will never feel fresh again, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be entertaining. I always enjoy a good espionage thriller and MIB International imagines its fictional agency as being a lot like MI6 (via James Bond, not John Le Carré). The plot, however, like the franchise is well-worn. One of them is a traitor. That’s interesting enough, but the reveal is fairly obvious if you’ve seen enough movies. It also doesn’t help that there are really only two suspects; one highly suspicious and the other very unlikely. Of course, it’s the latter whodunnit.

Visually, I miss the practical effects of the first Men in Black. It forced the filmmakers to be more creative with their alien designs as well. There was CGI in that film, but not nearly as much as this one. Too many aliens here seem out of place, taken from another movie (John Carter, maybe).

Director, F. Gary Gary (Friday, The Italian Job, The Fate of the Furious), is capable of delivering entertaining fare if not always critically acclaimed works. Men in Black International seems destined for critical rebuke and box office embarrassment. Nobody wanted another Men in Black and this remake would have had to be amazing to overcome all the apathy. It’s not amazing, but I do think it’s good and a worthwhile diversion.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(597)

Parasite (2019, Directed by Bong Joon-ho) Korean 8

Starring Kang-ho Song, Cho Yeo-jeong, Lee Sun-kyun, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam, Jang Hye-jin, Lee Jung-eun

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Sly. Unexpected. Deranged.

Meet the Kims: the father, Ki-taek (Song), the mother, Chung Sook (Jang), the son, Ki-woo (Choi), and the daughter, Ki-jung (Park). A loving family of four. A classic family unit. They have a whole lot going for them. They’re a devoted group. The children are both attractive. They’re all intelligent and charismatic (the latter two qualities manifesting themselves as their story progresses), and yet, when we first meet the Kims, they’re living in some kind of damp, underground dwelling with the city’s sewage as a neighbor.  There’s never an explanation for how they ended up here. The opening scene shows the children wandering around the not-so-cozy cave trying to freeload off of someone nearby’s wi-fi, finally hitting pay dirt in the farthest corner of their bathroom, tucked in next to the toilet. The Kim family is a part of the lower-class. Parasite makes that point abundantly clear from the outset in over-the-top comedic fashion, setting the tone for the rest of this absurd, explosive, clever, surprising satire.

Naturally, the Kims are given a counterpoint. Ki-woo, with the recommendation of a friend, takes a job as an English tutor to Da-hye (Jung), a member of the beautiful and wealthy Park family. Her father (Lee), simply referred to as Mr. Park throughout, works some kush, corner office job. Her mother, Yeon-kyo (Cho), is a homemaker. Her younger brother, Da-song, is an energetic, artistic boy with an affinity for American Indian culture. The Parks, too, are a loving family of four. Classic family unit. Parasite’s first act unfolds as the unemployed Kims cleverly, one-by-one, become employed in the Park’s household. Ki-woo gets his sister a job as Da-song’s art teacher. She gets her father a job as Mr. Park’s driver, and her father gets her mother a job as the Park’s housekeeper. How they manage this is one of Parasite’s great pleasures. Knowing (at least at this point) what the film was doing and watching it play out provided huge laughs. The problem, though, is that the Kims get their jobs by pretending not to know each other. If you’re thinking that this might explode in their faces later, I’d say it’s a very minor spoiler to say that you’re right. How it happens and not that it happens is the surprise and what makes Parasite special.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that writer-director Bong Joon-ho made both families mirror images of each other (one upper-class and the other lower), or that he gave both families the two most common Korean surnames. The interesting touch to me though, as I’ve pointed to briefly before, is that both families are attractive. The Parks are younger. The parents look like models, but it’s not as if the lower-class Kims look like cave trolls compared to the upper-class Parks. Nor are the Parks more intelligent than the Kims. In fact, as the film plays out, the Kims are clearly more intelligent. The Parks are very trusting. They are completely dependent on their servants, and I think you could say that their servants are too dependent on each other, maybe even their phones demonstrated in the opening scene. On top of that, there’s a surprise character that needs help from another person just to survive. Overdependency seems to me to be one of the culprits of both the Parks’ and the Kims’ downfall because their outcomes are nearly identical. Knowing that makes me question the film’s title. Not that it isn’t appropriate, but who exactly are the parasites? Which family is using the other more? Who’s benefiting more at the expense of the other? I think it’s not as clear cut as you would guess in the beginning. Then the surprise character, part of a third family, I won’t mention who they are, but they play a huge role in what happens. I would say that they are all parasites. All three units.

Like Bong Joon-ho’s previous work, Parasite balances a number of tones and revels in straying from the expected path. It’s a comedy built around absurd reactions from its characters, an obvious satire of high and low culture, maybe even a comedy of manners, though, I’m unable to say for certain, since I would need to know more about Korean culture. I do think it went on for another 15 or so minutes after it could have ended. I prefer a blunt, pointed ending over this extended fade out of an epilogue. Aside from that, Parasite is a unique, memorable film that should hold up as one of the year’s best.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(587)

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019, Directed by Simon Kinberg) English 5

Starring Sophie Turner, Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Evan Peters

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(5-Okay Film)

Underwhelming. Uninteresting. Mediocre.

      X-Men is one of Marvel’s best creations. The potential is there for some truly great superhero films, but so far, Logan is the only adaptation that I would call great, with X2, Days of Future Past, and The Wolverine being very good. You can go to a lot of different places with these characters. The comics have done noir, mixed in historical fiction, post-apocalyptic, futuristic tales. There’s a wealth of opportunities. To my disappointment, the newest X-Men is a reboot of the Jean Grey/Dark Phoenix storyline previously adapted in the woeful but hilarious X-Men: The Last Stand.  I understand that The Last Stand told Jean Grey’s story poorly, but I still would have preferred an original premise. The worst part, however, is that X-Men: Dark Phoenix isn’t even better than that film. Sure, it’s darker and less silly, but to what purpose? It’s also less entertaining.

This seems like an opportune time to reflect on how much I miss Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. Instead of his charismatic Logan,  Dark Phoenix gives us a brooding Jean Grey (played by Sophie Turner) as a lead, and it’s just not as much fun. The film opens with a pretty typical at this point origin episode. A grade-school Jean Grey’s telekinesis causes her parents to get in a car accident, killing them and leaving the young girl an orphan. It’s pretty similar to Rogue’s story, isn’t it? Enter Professor Xavier (McAvoy) who takes her to his school and promises to help her, this scene reminding me of Dumbledore and Voldemort in Harry Potter. The rest of the film takes place in 1992. Jean’s a young woman now. Scott Summers, or Cyclops (Sheridan), is her boyfriend. Mystique (Lawrence) has returned to the school, and she and the other X-Men work towards Xavier’s goals of peace between mutants and humans. One of the film’s few compelling storylines is the tension between Xavier and his students who feel like he’s become egocentric. Early on, he seems more ruthless than we’ve seen him before; more interested in politics than his students. A near catastrophe leaves Jean vulnerable to traumatic memories and newly awakened powers causing her to hurt others without meaning to. It’s a storyline familiar to anyone who’s seen a classic monster movie (The Wolfman, anybody?). It’s too familiar. Spurring her on towards the side of evil are a group of mysterious aliens led by Vuk (Chastain), a sort of Svengali always whispering monotonously in Jean’s ear. The filmmakers decided to make these villains like Pod people out of a ’50’s B-Movie, except they took all of the mystery and suspense out of it since they’re revealed for what they are right out of the gate. The result is a dull and lifeless villain largely responsible for making X-Men: Dark Phoenix a dull and lifeless movie.

Directing, in his debut, is Simon Kinberg. He’s written several fantastic films including previous, successful X-Men installments. One of the biggest responsibilities of the director is managing the tone of the film, whether it’s switching between tones frequently like a Pedro Almodóvar film or a Tarantino film or it’s attempting to sustain one tone throughout like a great horror movie (The Thing, for example). Kinberg goes for the latter and it strikes me as one of Dark Phoenix’ biggest mistakes. This is not a horror movie and yet it’s humorless and grim from start to finish.

The actors, we know, are good, because we’ve seen them in other things. Some do good work here, mainly McAvoy and Hoult, with the majority given nothing to do but wear a tight outfit. Sophie Turner doesn’t prove that she can carry a film, but (though her English accent slips in once or twice) it’s not because her performance is bad. She plays a misunderstood monster, only instead of wonderfully grotesque features and practical effects like the classic Universal monsters, we just see a young woman throwing a tantrum and then running away like an overemotional teenager.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(584)

High Society (1956, Directed by Charles Walters) English 6

Starring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly, Celeste Holm, John Lund, Louis Calhern, Sidney Blackmer, Louis Armstrong

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(6-Good Film)

Sparkling. Snappy. Misguided.

The Philadelphia Story (1940) is one of Hollywood’s most popular classics. I’ve never been really taken with it. On paper, it’s a glamorous romantic comedy starring Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart. You can’t beat that combination, and yet I have only ever been mildly interested in their tangled love triangle and have gone nearly a decade now without rewatching it. Perhaps it’s due for another viewing. To be fair, I was underwhelmed by The Awful Truth (1937) my first time watching it, but years later found it to be charming and marvelous, watching it several times since. Seeing High Society, a musical remake of The Philadelphia Story, starring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Grace Kelly in lieu of the previously mentioned trio, however, hasn’t made me question my earlier judgment. High Society is entertaining, certainly, lovely to look at with its elegant technicolor visuals, but held back in the end by Grace Kelly’s character, if not her performance. It’s reminiscent to me of a much later picture, Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), which too had everything going for it but couldn’t escape its disappointing leading lady. Like Andy MacDowell in that film, Grace Kelly is beautiful and alluring and we can definitely understand the men running after her, but she never proves herself to be truly worthy of any of the male characters’ affection. Is she supposed to be a “modern woman?” Independent, strong, and intelligent? Because to me, she’s the Daisy Buchanan character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby published thirty years earlier except with a happy ending. Also like Andy MacDowell in Four Weddings and a Funeral, the charming male lead had a better option. Hugh Grant had Kristen Scott Thomas and Bing Crosby and Sinatra should be fighting over Celeste Holm here.

Kelly plays the wealthy socialite, Tracy Samantha Lord. On the eve of her wedding, where she’s to be married to a George Kitteridge (Lund), a nice enough man but bland of course, her ex-husband, C.K Dexter Haven (Crosby) shows up with eyes on sabotaging the engagement and reconciling with her. He still loves her, he admits. Later, two employees of a tabloid newspaper, reporter Mike Connor (Sinatra) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Holm), arrive to cover the event. Connor, initially convinced that he doesn’t like Tracy, soon falls for her and becomes Dexter’s rival in stealing her from George.

Bing Crosby is cool and as appealing as ever. Musical numbers between him and Sinatra and Louis Armstrong are the film’s real strength, as you’d imagine they would be. Armstrong narrates the film and backs Crosby up on one or two snappy numbers, but High Society, as fine as the supporting cast is and as impressive as all the auxiliary details are, is dependent on its stars. I don’t blame Kelly as much as I do the character. We’ve seen Grace Kelly in other films; magnificent films like: To Catch a Thief, Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, and Mogambo. She was magnificent in them, but in High Society, she’s asked from the beginning to be a spoiled brat for much of the movie, and though she’s humbled in the end, it doesn’t erase the fact that she was a brat for the majority of the “romantic” scenes. As a result, High Society really isn’t romantic at all (hence me putting romantic in quotation marks). That’s a huge limitation. As a romantic musical, High Society only delivers on the musical aspect, which is good enough to make it worth watching, but probably not more than once.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(580)

Always Be My Maybe (2019, Directed by Nahnatchka Khan) English 6

Starring Randall Park, Ali Wong, Daniel Dae Kim, James Saito, Vivian Bang, Casey Wilson, Michelle Buteau, Keanu Reeves

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(6-Good Film)

Simple. Likable. Funny.

       Girl meets boy. Girl loves boy. Boy blows it at some point. Girl gives him another chance, usually because of some terrific speech. Romantic comedies really haven’t evolved at all in cinema’s 100-plus year history, but they haven’t dipped in popularity at all either. People like their rom-coms one way and are perfectly fine to tread that oh-so-familiar territory an infinite amount of times.  There are few truly great movies in this genre over the past fifty years, but there are dozens of very good ones and even some mediocre films you watch on occasion precisely because they are undemanding.

Always Be My Maybe is Netflix’ newest original romantic comedy. Netflix has done a nice job for the genre over the past few years, and the one thing they really have going for them is their focus on representation and reaching all audiences. Always Be My Baby stars Ali Wong and Randall Park, two Asian-Americans, in the lead roles. We are still in a time when having Asian-American leads in something as light as this movie is tremendously significant, but you hope the film doesn’t rest on its cultural importance. On the one hand, outside of its fresh faces and perspective, Always Be My Maybe offers few surprises and doesn’t do anything to reinvigorate its well-worn trappings. On the other hand, I’ve already mentioned how those trappings never seem to get old, and this film is both funny and appealing. Plus it has a fantastic cameo from Keanu Reeves.

Wong plays Sasha, first appearing in the film as a neglected 12-year-old who befriends the boy next door, Marcus (Park’s character). They spend all of their time together, and Sasha feels closer to Marcus’ parents than her own. Fast forward a few years, Marcus’ mother dies, and, partly influenced by grief, but also partly inevitable, the two hook up. In the awkward moments afterward, Marcus blows it, and over a decade goes by without them seeing or speaking to one another. Pick up in present day, Sasha is an immensely successful chef opening new restaurants all over the country and on the verge of marrying the handsome and wealthy Brandon (Dae Kim). Marcus, however, still lives and works with his dad. He has a band that does well locally but is reluctant to branch out. The two reconnect when Sasha returns to San Francisco after breaking up with Brandon and her friend hires Marcus and his father to set up the air conditioning at her new home. Initially combative, it’s not long before Marcus realizes that he’s in love with her, but not before she’s swooped up by Keanu Reeves, playing himself, giving a very funny and self-deprecating performance.

Written by its leads, who have worked together on the fantastic sitcom Fresh Off the Boat (2015-), Wong as a writer and Park as the star, and directed by Nahnatchka Khan, that show’s creator, Always Be My Maybe never quite feels cinematic. Like other Netflix movies, this one feels more akin to old television movies than it does the Hollywood romantic comedies given big movie theater releases, and I do think it goes beyond its method of distribution. The actors are very good, the plot is predictable but compelling, the writing is funny, and yet there’s a slightly sitcommy and not cinematic quality about the proceedings that is hard to put my finger on. Perhaps it’s the simplicity of the shots. The majority of the film is a series of conversations and they are almost entirely made up of over the shoulder shots that are fine but uninspired and a little stiff at times.

I feel like I’ve seen every rom-com Hollywood has put out since its inception. I like watching something easy while I eat, and the assurance that the likable, attractive couple will turn out alright in the end. I like it even better when the couple is a little antagonistic towards each other for most of the movie like Sasha and Marcus are in this one. Films like this are as easy to condescend to as they are to watch, but, ultimately, my bottom line is that I’ll probably watch this one more than a few times. Among Netflix’s growing slate of films, Always Be My Maybe ranks with To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before as probably the two best.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(575)

If I Were King (1938, Directed by Frank Lloyd) English 8

Starring Ronald Coleman, Basil Rathbone, Frances Dee, Stanley Ridges

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Exciting. Intelligent. Lavish.

Anybody can relate to being dissatisfied with their country’s leadership. How many people believe, or at least boast that they could do better if given the chance? Not surprisingly, this feeling extends long before present-day issues, and, in a forgotten classic, If I Were King, we glimpse 15th century France, alternating at times between the much-maligned King Louis XI (played by Basil Rathbone) and the rebel rousing, street poet Francois Villon (played by Ronald Coleman). Never mind that the French historical figures are portrayed here by British thespians, and many supporting players are played by Americans. As a typical style in Hollywood films, I quickly looked past this oddity and was gripped by this exciting swashbuckler, and moved by the two leads’ excellent performances.  This is an exceptional film.

The King and his people have been pushed to holing up in Paris, besieged by the formidable Burgundians, and reduced to scraps for food. Well, actually it’s the common people who go hungry, while the King and his court eat rations of the finest food. On the streets, Francois Villon spouts poetry to the pretty girls and leads raids on the King’s supply of food, narrowly escaping capture. Meanwhile, in his castle, the King detects a spy in his midst and sets a trap to catch the rat. This leads him to a dingy tavern in disguise where he hears the popular Villon drunkenly bragging of what he would do if he were king while insulting the current leader. Naturally, King Louis makes plans to punish the man later, but fate intercedes. He discovers the identity of the spy in his quarters, and it turns out to be his Grand Constable, the man in charge of his military. When the Grand Constable attacks Villon upon recognizing him as a wanted thief, Villon kills him and unknowingly does the King a favor. In return, King Louis, more out of jest than true gratitude, names Villon as the new Grand Constable for one week, and so, Villon gets the chance to make good on his boasts, not knowing that the King plans on executing him at the end of the week.

Basil Rathbone, aside from his long string of Sherlock Holmes movies, is best remembered for playing suave villains who ultimately lose to the protagonist in a duel (The Mark of Zorro, The Court Jester, Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Blood).  He was great in those roles. Here, he plays a dramatically different character in the historical personage of Louis XI. He makes the unpopular figure a complex, anti-hero of sorts. He’s intelligent, back-handed, greedy, surprising, but not cruel. Rathbone is almost unrecognizable in the role.

Ronald Coleman, unfortunately not as big of a star today as some of his peers was a fantastic actor with some truly great films. While If I Were King may not be on the same lofty level as another of his films, Prisoner of Zenda, it represents another example of his greatness. He, too, could be described as an anti-hero. He’s a thief, a womanizer, a common criminal, but given the chance, he proves himself to be a hero, saving his city and its people.

A key aspect of any great adventure film is a compelling romance, and If I Were King provides in this as well. Villon falls for the lady-in-waiting, Katherine (Dee), letting her think he’s a high born noble. She eventually falls for the courageous and compassionate man he is, and not the strutting nobleman he pretends to be, and we leave the film giddy from a film that delivered in rich character, sweeping adventure and intrigue, and literate, well-developed romance.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(547)

Avengers: End Game (2019, Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo) English 6

Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlet Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Paul Rudd, Josh Brolin, Chris Hemsworth, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Brie Larson, Tilda Swinton

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(6-Good Film)

Sprawling. Anticlimactic. Silly.

Some spoilers ahead! I’ve considered several different options of reviewing this juggernaut of a film (what will likely be the biggest movie of a stacked year). I didn’t see any way of completely avoiding spoilers since I am most certainly in the minority with my opinion being that, like all Marvel films before it, Avengers: End Game is a decent, but ultimately disappointing film. In order to defend my position, I’d like to be specific occasionally. The truth is that a great number of people will love End Game. I can already hear the incoming choruses of “Avengers: End Game is the greatest movie of all-time,” made up of guys who think black and white films are boring. I respect the level of skill and talent that goes into a production of this sort while feeling alone in noticing how slick, safe, and unsubstantial all Marvel films are. Is it a bad movie? No. It’s a good movie. In fact, the entire first half of the film is incredible; special. Which is why I was so disappointed by the second half treading unsurprising, familiar turf. The great first half was just a tool to get to a fist fight between Iron Man and Thanos. That’s probably what most people want. I was bored.

End Game begins like a dystopian epic, with a fantastic opening involving Clint Barton/ Hawkeye (Renner) and his family, then moves to Downey Jr. as Tony Stark wandering into space, alone, searching for answers. The other remaining Avengers are all coping in their own way. Steve Rogers/ Captain America (Evans) seems to be the only one that maintains any degree of optimism. Though reeling, they band together to find and take down Thanos, this time aided by the supremely confident Captain Marvel (Larson), but not before they take back the Infinity stones and reverse Thanos’ massacre of 50% of Earth’s population. The Avengers confront Thanos very early in End Game, and, to be honest, at that point, I’m a bit thrown, unsure of what the movie’s up to. That surprise doesn’t compare to what happens when the scene ends, and, for the first time watching a Marvel film, I don’t know where it’s going and I’m excited. Cut to five years later, and I’m thinking this could be Marvel’s first exceptional picture. But…

At some point, Scott Lang (Rudd) shows up and he’s the one with the brilliant idea about time travel? How? He’s a thief. The writers do a decent job of deflecting from this absurdity by giving him some humorous lines and references to Back to the Future and Timecop. In any case, after this point, the film stops surprising. Everything I thought would happen before entering the theater, I was now sure would happen, and later proven correct. The third act, where every Marvel film loses steam, is where Avengers: End Game becomes predictable, loud, and uninteresting. Compare it to the quiet, dramatic, anything-can-happen atmosphere of the first hour or so, and tell me it’s not disappointing.

I give the filmmakers credit for weaving together an intricate plot and a large number of character arcs perfectly. I get it. That’s hard to do. End Game does so tremendously. But at the end of the day, it’s a bunch of people who can’t really die hitting CGI monsters for an extended period of time. The payoff is the least exciting moment in the movie.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

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The Magnificent Seven (2016, Directed by Antoine Fuqua) 6

Starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, Peter Sarsgaard

(6-Good Film)

Inferior. Entertaining. Unambitious.

I could have written my bottom line before seeing the movie. I knew how I was going to feel. This Magnificent Seven isn’t as good as the original Magnificent Seven, which in turn isn’t as good as Seven Samurai. Antoine Fuqua’s remake starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, and Peter Sarsgaard retells the story of a small town, bullied by what seems like a small army, that enlists the help of seven rogue men to save them.  Maybe a second viewing would be more revealing. It’s very easy to be unfair to this kind of film. It’s stepping into the shoes of a cultural giant and trying to take a different path to the same place. I commend the approach. They could have coasted off the aura of the original. That movie abandoned the austerity of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and instead went for a sense of pure adventure, on its way to becoming iconic. The score, by Elmer Bernstein, is a classic. The cast of heroes, most notably Yul Brynner, Steve Mcqueen, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson, was emblematic of 60’s era cool, linking hyper-masculinity and toughness with integrity. The latter three men would go on to be leading action figures for the next two decades. However, that Magnificent Seven achieved its immense popularity and esteem over time. Looking back at initial reviews, the consensus is pretty typical, and not dissimilar to reviews of this 2016 model. “Pallid reflection of the Japanese original,” said New York Times. So perhaps the final word on this new western is a decade or two down the line, in the hands of the millions of people who have never seen the original. After all, fifty-six years is a long time ago, and The Magnificent Seven 2016 does have pleasures of its own.

Any strong feelings about a Magnificent Seven film must start with the cast of characters:

Denzel Washington leads the gang as Sam Chisolm. He’s the only character in the group that is given a clearly defined motive in helping the town (one of the film’s weaknesses in my opinion). Washington is one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, and he’s more than compelling enough to stand out and distance himself from the original’s shadow.

Chris Pratt has the tricky assignment of being the film’s most charismatic personality. His Farraday character mixes some of the traits of Steve Mcqueen and Toshiro Mifune which means he will be compared to them. He comes up short in my estimation.

Ethan Hawke is one of the more interesting side characters. He is Goodnight Robicheaux, an old Rebel soldier and dubious friend from Chisolm’s past.

Vincent D’onofrio is Jacke Horne. D’onofrio is a proven character actor and does a lot with little screen time in this picture. His sheer size is one of the more memorable aspects of the film.

Manuel Garcia-Rulfo is a Mexican outlaw, Vasquez, coerced into helping the town by Chisolm. He largely gets lost in the shuffle of such a big cast. He adds diversity which is nice, but he brings more to the poster than to the film.

Lee Byung-hun is Billy, a former railroad worker and outlaw from…(they don’t ever say that I can remember, but the actor is Korean). The strong silent type in the mold of James Coburn from the original or Seiji Miyaguchi from Seven Samurai. His main purpose is to be cool, and he is, with a nod to the Coburn knife throwing scene for his introduction.

Martin Sensmeier a wandering Comanche named Red Harvest ends up being a pretty memorable character. I was sure he was going to be a token figure but he is given his moments to stand out, though without significant dialogue or motivation.

Overall, this new cast of seven is pretty good as they face off against a wealthy robber baron, played by Peter Sarsgaard, with his own private militia working for him. The action sequences are exciting for the most part, and the script manages moments of humor to make the proceedings feel a little more fun. My quibbles with the film are first, the way the film manages to fill out its diverse cast in a very politically correct fashion. Race never seems to be an awkward point in this 19th-century setting, and that’s kind of crazy. I was struck, watching Denzel Washington ride into town as the people’s savior, with the thought of how much more realistic Blazing Saddles (of all things) felt in the scene where Cleavon Little rides in and is eventually greeted with angry surprise by the white townspeople. Second, and to me, the most glaring flaw is the score or the total absence of a theme song to be more specific. It’s The Magnificent Seven. How can there not be a theme song? As escapism and as a setup for an action showcase, the film works, and the ride is never dull. Just don’t expect a whole lot more than that.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

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