Fantastic Beasts:The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018, Directed by David Yates) English 6

Starring Eddie Redmayne, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Ezra Miller, Zoe Kravitz, Alison Sudol

Image result for the crimes of grindelwald(6-Good Film)

Entertaining. Jumbled. Strained.

Your enjoyment of the newest entry in the Harry Potter canon will depend a great deal on your love of the series. I’m a massive fan of Potter, and am willing to watch what feels like the leftover scraps from a great meal. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald has very little to do with beasts. Protagonis, Newt Scamander (Redmayne), is being pushed into helping the Ministry of Magic catch fugitive dark wizard, Grindelwald (Depp). Newt prefers to stay out of such affairs. There are so many subplots and call-backs that I couldn’t keep up, and stopped trying at some point. As part 2 of a projected 5 part series, Fantastic Beasts still hasn’t proven to be compelling on its own feet, apart from its source. Author and screenwriter is still throwing monkey wrenches at the old Harry Potter plots to make this new series relevant. Redmayne has not proven to me to be an interesting actor. Scenes between him and Jude Law as Dumbledore accentuated for me how charismatic Jude Law is and how uncharismatic Redmayne is as Scamander. Then there is Depp as Grindelwald. Depp’s casting seemed to cause some doubt among fans. He gives a very good performance, and is one of the film’s highlights. In the end, for all of my negativity towards it, The Crimes of Grindelwald is an entertaining spectacle. It’s just a few rungs down from Harry Potter.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(83)

Venom (2018, Directed by Ruben Fleischer) English 6

Starring Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Jenny Slate, Scott Haze

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(6-Good Film)

Campy. Silly. Fun.

Occasionally, not often, I’ll watch a film that makes me question my own cinematic taste. I’ll watch Blade Runner 2049 and be bored to tears, or, on the opposite end of the pole, I’ll thoroughly enjoy a film like Venom. Torched by critics, who, to be fair, only reaffirmed my belief that the Tom Hardy, superhero vehicle would be a massive waste of time, a box-office dud, and an embarrassing cash-grab by Sony, I was surprised five minutes in to find myself intrigued by what was going on, and shocked by the end to find I liked what Sony did with the movie. Does that make it a good film?  I decided to let some time pass. Maybe I was influenced by the natural high I sometimes achieve eating Walgreen’s candy at the movie theater. Best to keep my opinion to myself, I thought. But I couldn’t keep it to myself. I texted a dozen people that Venom was, against all odds, a good film, and now, two days later, I feel confident enough to put it in writing. Venom is a good film.

Eddie Brock leaps from the comic book pages onto the big screen in a solo film that not many people thought would ever happen, and even fewer felt he deserved. Played by Tom Hardy, in a bewildering performance best described as Nicholas Cage-esque (I’m leaning towards that being a compliment), Brock is a hot-headed, investigative reporter who runs afoul of corporate thug, Carlton Drake (Ahmed, an odd but entertaining choice), resulting in him losing his job and his fiancée, Anne (Williams). Drake has some kind of sinister, shady plan afoot involving symbiotes from outer space (more interesting to watch than to explain; the film, to its credit, recognizes this), and Brock ends up merging with one of them. The symbiote, named Venom (I don’t remember why the symbiotes speak English but they do) inhabits Brock and can communicate with him through thoughts. Venom has seemingly unlimited power, though we learn his weakness is fire and high-pitched noise. Brock, as he grows accustomed to the powers, goes after Drake who’s planning to take over the world-typical super villain stuff-and Venom’s motivation for helping him ends up being quite funny rather than perfunctory.

Sony and the filmmakers eschew the problems of most super hero origin stories. Venom is never boring. It’s not dark and brooding, which, I know a lot of people were upset that this isn’t R rated. Maybe a dark and reflective Venom could have worked (it worked so well for Ang Lee’s Hulk), but this Venom is funny (usually intentionally), fast, cheesy, over-the-top, fresh, silly, and fun. At its core, it’s a compelling bromance between Eddie Brock and his symbiote friend, Venom, and it took me by surprise.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

Eighth Grade (2018, Directed by Bo Burnham) English 7

Starring Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Catherine Oliviere

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In Kayla Day, writer/director, Bo Burnham, has given us a protagonist who is smart, kind, thoughtful, motivated, self-improving, and fun. Where, outside of school, do these traits routinely go completely unnoticed? Unfortunately for Kayla (played wonderfully by Elsie Fisher), that’s exactly where she is. Eighth grade. On the cusp of high school, which is even worse. Since she is shy, often awkward, like anybody at that age with self-awareness, not model thin, and cursed with acne, the rest of her qualities go unappreciated, and she gets described as “the weird girl.” The bright side is, for people like Kayla, life does get better, and most of the events during this time, like the ones shown in this film, really aren’t the end of the world, though it feels like they are in the moment. The greatest accomplishment of Bo Burnham’s directorial debut is making us feel it too. The triumphs, the tragedies of 14 year old girl, Kayla. Yes, we laugh, but we wince too. There were moments that I watched this film through my fingers, like it was a horror flick. It’s a unique film that has you watching through your fingers and smiling at the same time.

As for the plot, I’m not sure Eighth Grade can be said to have one. With the accuracy of a documentary, it follows its subject, taking a fly on the wall approach, on the last days of her junior high life. Kicking off with Kayla’s class being subjected to a sex ed video (one that attempts to better relate to the students by acting “hip”), the proceedings only grow more embarrassing from there. She gets invited to the most popular girl in school’s birthday party; by the girl’s mom, not by the girl herself, who refuses to acknowledge Kayla’s existence. She goes to a pool party where everyone seems perfectly comfortable in their bathing suits except for her. She has a crush on a guy: Aiden. A kid who makes faces and weird noises in class. She hears that he broke up with a girl who wouldn’t give him dirty pictures of herself, so there’s a horrifying episode where Kayla thinks dirty pictures could win her his heart. The film also goes one or two darker places, without ever seeming trumped up or anything else but completely natural. One of the film’s highlights is Kayla’s single father, who obviously embarrasses his teenage daughter, simply by existing and being around. He manages to be utterly oblivious at times to her struggles but is also always there when she needs him.

As for the director, I’ve been aware of Bo Burnham, who’s had an impressive amount of success at such an early age, as a comedian for some years now, without ever enjoying his schtick, but a little research shows that he’s a man of many talents: published poet, stand-up comic, musician, now filmmaker. And Eighth Grade isn’t some minor indie success, suggesting one hit wonder. He is a genuine filmmaker, and Eighth Grade is an excellent film.

-Walter Howard-

Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation (2018, Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky) English 5

Voices of Adam Sandler, Selena Gomez, Andy Samberg, David Spade, Kevin James, Mel Brooks, Jim Gaffigan, Kathryn Hahn, Molly Shannon, Keegan-Michael Key, Chris Parnell, Fran Dreschner

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(5-Okay Film)

Unambitious. Witless. Technically-impressive.

Count Dracula (Sandler) has everything he could want in his life, only he’s lonely. He’s been a widower for a hundred years now, and has never taken a break from maintaining his hotel. His daughter, Mavis (Gomez), organizes a family vacation mainly to give her dad a break, which soon becomes a family vacation for all the monster families as they take off on a cruise to Atlantis. Count Dracula, determined not to have fun, nevertheless becomes infatuated with the cruise’s captain, Ericka (Hahn), who is secretly a descendant of Van Helsing and despises monsters. It’s a fantastic premise squandered by scatter shot writing. It’s a gag every second which is fine when a solid percentage of the gags land (Anchorman for example). When the gags are merely amusing at best, as they are here, one wishes the filmmakers aspired for more, instead of settling on quick jokes. The animation is breathtaking at times, and deserved a better purpose.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(162)

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018, Directed by J.A Bayona) English 5

Starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rafe Spall, Justice Smith, Daniella Pineda, James Cromwell, Geraldine Chaplin, Toby Jones, Ted Levine, Jeff Goldblum

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(5-Okay Film)

Unsurprising. Unfulfilled. Mediocre.

The fifth entry in the Jurassic Park franchise, and second film in the reboot trilogy, sees Owen Grady (Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Howard) return to the shut down theme park in order to save the remaining dinosaurs from an impending volcanic eruption. Of course, there are other people involved who turn out to have ulterior motives, and dinosaur chaos is unleashed once again, this time primarily on the affluent estate of patron Sir Benjamin Lockwood (Cromwell). This far into the franchise, you wonder if it’s fatigue or simply a sub-par entry, but this was an underwhelming experience. Despite some impressive camerawork, including a scene with two characters stuck in a pod while water fills in, at no point does this film provide any legitimate thrills. We’ve been down this rode before. It’s time for the franchise to veer. On top of that, the pacing seemed awfully fast, especially in the beginning.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(78)

Hereditary (2018, Directed by Ari Aster) English 8

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

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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 their 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 seances, 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 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. In fact, I think I’ll write a separate piece involving my lingering questions.  I recognize 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 Rosemary’s Baby), and the haunting account of evil that last beyond the closing credits.

-Walter Howard-

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

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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), can stretch to insane lengths, oldest child, Violet (voiced by Sarah Vowell) can turn invisible and create force fields, son, Dash (now voiced by Huck Milner), 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 super villain 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 have 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 the first film too is best remembered for its famil 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 movies, The Incredibles 2 will, in all likelihood, be the best action comedy of the year, and the best blockbuster of the summer.

-Walter Howard-