Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018, Directed by Peyton Reed) English 6

Starring Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Walton Goggins, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Randall Park, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Peña, Judy Greer, T.I, Bobby Cannavale, Hannah John-Kamen

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Scott Lang (Rudd) seems to have burnt his bridges with Hank Pym (Douglas) and Hope (Lilly) after going rogue with Captain America back in Civil War (2016). On top of that, he was sentenced to two years house arrest. As he closes in on his release date, Hank and Hope see a chance to rescue, Janet (Pfeiffer), the former’s wife and the latter’s mother, from the quantum realm she was lost to decades ago. Unfortunately for everyone, Scott appears to be the key, forcing a reunion and putting Scott in danger with his parole officer. Meanwhile, an enigmatic figure known as Ghost materializes at every turn. Fun film and a 180 from the heavy, substantial Avengers: Infinity War. Ant-Man and the Wasp is slightly better than the first one. Often funny, with some cool ideas involving shrinking and growing. It does, however, feel like a modest entry in a series of films that all run through the same machine in my opinion. The end result is always nice, but never extraordinary. Add to that, Ant-man, or, more specifically, Scott Lang, is a second-tier hero, largely dependent on Hank Pym.

The Incredibles 2 (2018, Directed by Brad Bird) English 8

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-

 

The Dark Knight Rises (2012, Directed by Christopher Nolan) English 10

Starring Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Ben Mendelsohn, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy, Gary Oldman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

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When relatively unknown, at least in mainstream circles, film maker Christopher Nolan took on the Batman reboot all those years ago, who could have predicted what came next? I don’t recall any significant anticipation for the first film, Batman Begins, leading up to its release, but, for those who saw it, we knew it signaled something different. The first part of Nolan’s epic trilogy went beyond just a, “darker take on the material,” as it is so often billed and as it was promoted then. It was an intelligent action picture, an ensemble character drama, a crime epic. I didn’t realize how incredibly ridiculous the previous four Batman films were until Christopher Nolan’s Batman; especially Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. Can you even explain the plot of Batman Forever? What is The Riddler’s (played hilariously, the film’s saving grace, by Jim Carrey) master plan? To put televisions on people’s heads? I love Michael Keaton’s take on the Batman, an almost unexplained, enigmatic man. Batman gets more screen time than Bruce Wayne it feels like in the first, 1989’s Batman, but even that picture with its Jack Nicholson dancing around to a not new Prince soundtrack, submerged into goofiness at times. Christopher Nolan grounded his take on the Batman in reality, or as close to as possible with the material. Gone are the half-human, half-penguin antagonists of yore, and in come the very human, philosophic villains of the Dark Knight Trilogy. Every villain in the series has a philosophy, a compelling one to boot, and one of the main struggles is for Batman, while being seduced by this philosophy, to stand up and prove it false. Each villain’s philosophy essentially came down to, “humans are inherently bad,” and Gotham is not worth saving. Watching these films, seeing the level of corruption and depravity the city is immersed in, I’d be inclined to agree, but Nolan’s Batman never does, and this is the foundation of the new Batman’s (now, the benchmark Batman) heroism. As played by Christian Bale, considered a strong actor with a cult following before the series made him an A-list movie star, Batman is the brooding, thoughtful hero we deserved.

So, anyways, Batman Begins hits theaters in 2005, and changed everything. The late-great Roger Ebert declared, “This is, at last, the Batman movie I’ve been waiting for. The character resonates more deeply with me than the other comic superheroes, perhaps because when I discovered him as a child, he seemed darker and more grown-up than the cheerful Superman. He has secrets.” Ebert gave the film four stars, an anomaly at the time for super hero movies, a genre of film that had not yet reached its prime. Batman Begins ushered in the new, now seemingly never-ending, wave of super hero flicks. It showed that super hero movies could be serious.

Next came, The Dark Knight, and it was as if the world shifted on its axis. I can recall some of my feelings leading up to that film. Heath Ledger as the Joker? Really? Yes, I remember questioning the casting of Heath Ledger as the Joker, as incredible as that seems now. He died before the film’s release, but as soon as we saw the first trailer, excitement was at a boiling point. It released to rave reviews, another four star review from Ebert, and became the second highest grossing film domestically of all time. When it failed to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, complaints were made, and many feel its snub is the reason the Academy switched from five nominations for Best Picture to ten.

Finally, four years later, Christopher Nolan is now the biggest director in the world, and The Dark Knight Rises releases. After the colossal heights of The Dark Knight, still considered the best of all super hero films, how could The Dark Knight Rises not be anti-climactic? For some, that is, because I consider The Dark Knight Rises the best of the trilogy, despite its conspicuous flaws (Marion Cotillard’s unconvincing death, the mystery of how Bruce gets from the weird prison back to Gotham). The Dark Knight Rises is the best film about Batman. It’s his movie. The Dark Knight, while an excellent film, saw its title character dwarfed by Heath Ledger’s greatness. The Joker is one of film’s greatest villains and he owned that movie. The Dark Knight Rises introduces a new villain, Bane, played by Tom Hardy, but his character is more like a foil meant to enrich Bruce Wayne’s mythology. He’s stronger than Batman. He’s faster than Batman. He wants to destroy everything Bruce Wayne loves.

When the film starts out, we get a spectacular sequence showing off impressive stunt work in the air as Bane and his cronies demolish a plane and set their mysterious plot in motion. Cut to Gotham, and we learn while on the surface this once chaotic city is now at peace, that peace is rather tenuous and comes at the expense of truth. Batman and Commissioner Gordon (Oldman) have propagated the idea that Harvey Dent was a hero who died for the city at the hands of Batman, which somehow is responsible for the current state of the city. It’s been eight years since the events of the Dark Knight. No one has seen or heard from Batman or Bruce Wayne in that time (or put two and two together apparently). It’s no longer young Batman as it was in Batman Begins. He’s older now, physically old. We see the toll Batman’s taken on Bruce Wayne. We’re introduced to Catwoman (played by Anne Hathaway) as she steals from Bruce, and flirts a little. She later warns him that something huge is coming, something bad. She knows about Bane. Bane has taken over leadership of the League of Shadows, picking up where Ra’s al Ghul left off in his determination to destroy Gotham, or really to purge the city. In essence, playing Old Testament God, wiping out civilization, to start over again anew.

To stop him, Batman is physically tested beyond anything he’s ever experienced before. In the best scene of the film, around the middle point of this 3 hour epic, Batman runs into Bane for the first time. It’s a trap, setup by a desperate Catwoman. Batman and Bane begin a brutal fist fight in the leaky sewers which ends in the latter breaking the back (and the mask) of our hero. Batman destroyed, a broken Bruce Wayne begs to be killed. Bane responds diabolically, “You can watch me torture an entire city and when you have truly understood the depth of your failure, we will fulfill Ra’s al Ghul’s destiny… We will destroy Gotham and then, when it is done and Gotham is ashes, then you have my permission to.”

This sets up another great sequence. Broken Bruce Wayne is held in a bizarre underground prison where escape is nearly impossible. Again, where The Joker tested the people of Gotham, Bane tests Bruce Wayne. The best scenes in the film are between Bane and Batman. Their two boxing matches framing the arc of Bruce’s story. This is a long film with much else to fill its running time, but I mainly cared about Bruce. Like previous entries, this is an ensemble drama with plenty of characters getting their moments. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a new character named John Blake (later becoming Robin), Bruce has two love interests in Miranda Tate (Cotillard) and Selina Kyle or Catwoman, and old stalwarts Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman return in their roles helping Bruce.

The film ends echoing another great epic, the classic A Tale of Two Cities, with Bruce making the ultimate sacrifice like Sydney Carton in Dickens’ tale, who was, himself, a sort of Christ figure. I found it to be a fitting end, and though you could make a case for the penultimate scene being ambiguous or part of a character’s imagination, I’m fine with the happy ending. A great end for a great film in a great trilogy.

Deadpool 2 (2018, Directed by David Leitch) English 7

Starring Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Zazie Beets, Morena Baccarin, Julian Dennison, Terry Crews

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Being both blessed and cursed, Wade Wilson (Reynolds) is back, and so is his zany alter-ego, Deadpool. This time, after a significant tragedy, Wade reevaluates his life and seeks redemption in saving a delinquent mutant kid from a mysterious time traveler, Cable (Brolin). Needing help for his new purpose in life, Wade recruits a group of mutants to be a part of his team, the X-Force (which he acknowledges is pretty derivative). Reynolds is a perfect Deadpool. He carries off the joke a minute, rogue hero with ease, with this outing providing better action sequences and a more engaging plot. That being said, the meta humor isn’t as fresh as it was first go-around and that’s to be expected. There’s still enough juice to be consistently funny, clever, and exciting. The non-stop references are a blast as well.

Psychokinesis (2018, Directed by Yeon Sang-ho) Korean 5

Starring Ryu Seung-ryo, Jung Yu-mi, Park Jung-min, Shim Eun-kyung

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A thoroughly average man (Seung-ryo) working as a security guard mysteriously gains telepathic powers just as he’s reunited with the daughter he abandoned years ago. Initially, he uses the powers to make a quick buck as an illusionist, but he soon pushes his ability to the limit once he finds his daughter wrapped up in a serious battle against a corrupt corporation. It’s a unique take on the superhero genre, but ultimately lacks a compelling protagonist to make the action exciting. The average middle aged man hero is a nice idea, but here, he really is too average. He never comes across as a unique personality. There are some memorable moments, and the over-arching villain, or villainess, Director Hong (Yu-mi), steals the show. Unfortunately, she’s not in it more, and gets no significant closure in the story.

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-

Catwoman (2004, Directed by Pitof) English 3

Starring Halle Berry, Benjamin Bratt, Sharon Stone, Alex Borstein, Frances Conroy, Lambert Wilson

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Patience Phillips (Berry) is a meek, overworked, overlooked artist in the fashion world who gets killed after uncovering a conspiracy within her company. She revives mysteriously, and a Dr. Jekyll/ Mr. Hyde situation develops within her, spawning the alter ego, Catwoman. Soon she falls for a handsome cop (Bratt) who seems to be in every department with the police, as he arrives at every crime scene in the film.  An embarrassment for everyone involved, Catwoman’s plot is pushed forward rapidly through a series of dumb moments. The bad guys talk openly about their plot. Halle Berry has a painfully awkward basketball scene with Bratt (Love and Basketball, this is not). The cheesy puns. The catnip scene. It’s not boring. I’ll grant it that, but it’s just so dumb, much too frequently. It’s all an poorly executed excuse for Halle Berry to wear the costume. No need to watch the movie. Google images should suffice.