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-

 

Ocean’s 8 (2018, Directed by Gary Ross) English 6

Starring Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Richard Armitage, James Corden, Elliot Gould

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Debbie Ocean (Bullock), sister of the previous run of Ocean movies’ Danny Ocean, is fresh off of a five year stint in prison. Not reformed in the slightest, she puts into motion a plan she’s worked on for the whole of her sentence: a heist of a $150 million necklace by Cartier. To pull it off, she enlists her best friend, Lou (Blanchett), a master fence and suburban housewife, Tammy (Paulson), a jewelry maker, Amita (Kaling), a tech-wiz self-named Nine Ball (Rihanna), a pickpocket, Constance (Awkwafina), and an out-of-fashion designer, Rose (Carter). If you’re thinking that only makes seven, the eighth member of the group comes as a surprise late in the film. Debbie’s plan revolves around the Met Gala, where the necklace will be worn by celebrity Daphne Kruger (Hathaway), and her team spends three weeks leading up to the event preparing for the haul of their lives. There’s probably no point in harping on how original stories involving all female casts would better serve these stars and their audience, though it’s true. Ghostbusters struggled at the box office and this one isn’t exactly reaping in the money so far. That aside, I really liked this movie. I’m hearing the same thing from most people who’ve seen it: a breezy good time. Nothing substantial but perfectly watchable. I liked the cast which is likely a given. They all have their scenes, and Bullock always makes a compelling lead. Higher stakes (I know it sounds funny saying it about a $150 million heist) would have made the actual job more exciting, or even a more imposing villain fouling up the works. The operation went to smoothly.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018, Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo) English 6

Starring Robert Downey Jr., Josh Brolin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Don Cheadle, Sebastian Stan, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Mackie, Idris Elba, Bradley Cooper, Carrie Coon, Chris Hemsworth, Peter Dinklage

Point of order right off the top: I’m not what you’d call a “Marvel fan.” I’ve seen every film they’ve churned out, generally in theaters, if able, opening weekend even. I enjoy the surrounding excitement when watching these films. During Infinity War, I sat next to a mom and three young boys. Seeing her cover their eyes for half of the movie gave me a heavy sense of nostalgia from when I was a boy watching PG-13 movies in the theater with my mother.  They’re event films, and it’s fun to hear the nerds clap when ————-happens, or $%#@ arrives on the scene, or  ~~~ says something witty (for people serious about avoiding spoilers). In fact, another point of order, I will not be completely able to avoid spoilers in this review. I will not go heavy into detail, but I also cannot complain thoroughly enough without calling out specific incidents from the film. There’s my warning. With both disclaimers out of the way, allow me to unleash, or really, more accurately, temper the avalanche of over-the-top praise Infinity War is receiving, not dissimilar to what surrounded Marvel’s last effort, Black Panther. This is a good film. It held my attention. The acting was solid across the board, but Marvel movies have always lacked in certain areas, and that doesn’t change here. I consider Marvel more of a factory than a film studio.

The film opens strong, with Thanos (Brolin) reveling in the ashes and the corpses of another land that he’s massacred. He is a madman, a zealot who believes his purpose is to reduce the population of every planet by 50%, in order to sustain their people. He was unable to achieve this ideal on his home planet of Titan, and the entire civilization was destroyed, adding fire to his fanaticism. Josh Brolin gives the character a brooding, rigged sensitivity that makes the character more interesting than past “ultra-powerful” villains. That’s one element of the film I really liked. Making Thanos three dimensional goes a long way to making him more daunting.  Thor and Bruce Banner find out first hand the power Thanos possesses, aided by powerful stones known as Infinity Stones. Of the six in creation, Thanos already possesses 2. If he gets to all six, he’s virtually unstoppable, and so the stakes are clear. Thor and Banner split up and attempt to, essentially, sound the alarm, reaching out to all Avengers, because this latest threat is their most severe. That brings in a large array of characters, characters Marvel has done a nice job of setting up throughout the last decade. There are still some black sheep among the cast, however. No one cares about the Scarlet Witch, Vision, War Machine, Falcon, or Heimdall. They’ve been undercooked since conception, and can go the way of the Dodo for my money. I, frankly, don’t care about Black Widow either. What are her powers? If the Avengers are bringing in mortals with nice moves, why not recruit Jackie Chan or Donnie Yen? Gina Carano would beat Black Widow. All of these D-list heroes are space eaters, and Infinity War’s first mistake is not having them bite the dust first scene. Their purpose in this film should never have gone beyond dying by Thanos’ hand to show how powerful he is. The rest of the good superheroes split time well enough for the most part. Black Panther is short changed, but everyone else has their moments, and the actors make the most of their screen time. The writing in Infinity War was impressive. Some good lines and well placed comic relief make sure the movie is never a drag, no matter how serious the action gets.

One of my core complaints about the Marvel Universe has always been the lack of consequences that accompany the immense and, at times, overwhelming action. I said of the last Avengers movie, which was poor in my view, that it reminded me of the Shakespeare quote, “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Nobody important dies (don’t try to sell me Quicksilver), and it was just a bunch of flashing lights and deathless explosions. Infinity War seemed prime to change all this. Right off the back an important character dies. Later, down goes another. I was hooked into Thanos’ reign of terror, until the film ended on a lame string of fake deaths. Maybe this is premature, it’s hard to fairly evaluate two part films, so I’ll come back, but for now, I’m fairly confident what happens to end this part, will be mitigated in the second part. I hate when any work of fiction brings a character back from the dead. It’s the equivalent to ending on, “It was all a dream.” It undermines everything. Unlike the hardcore Marvel junkies, I’m not even going to waste a minute trying to figure out where the plot goes from here. I was basically tuned in the film’s entire running time, interested in who was going to die. What am I left with? No one knows. It was all a tease. I am anticipating the second one being devastating and strong, and if I’m right, I’ll recant this review, and give it a higher rating, but for now, a solid film/disappointment.

-Walter Howard-