A Wrinkle in Time (Full Review)

A Wrinkle in Time, published in 1962 by author Madeleine L’Engle, is one of the most beloved children’s novels ever written.  Who better to adapt this sci-fi fantasy for the big screen than Disney? The studio has decades of successful films that have dazzled young and old audiences. Tabbing Ava DuVernay (Selma) to direct an impressive cast of well-known actors and fresh faces, this adaptation had the ingredients to be something exciting and fun.

AWrinkleInTimeTeaserNewcomer Storm Reid plays 13-year-old Meg Murry, a feisty middle school loner who lives with her scientist mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her genius kid brother Charles Wallace Murry (Deric McCabe). Her father (Chris Pine) has been missing for four years, disappearing after working on a device known as the tesseract that could theoretically transport people through time and space. One day, Charles Wallace introduces her to three strange witches (Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, and Reese Witherspoon), who recruit Meg and her smitten classmate Calvin (Levi Miller) on a mission to rescue her father from darkness that is spreading throughout the universe.

Let’s start with what this film does well. Visually, the movie is absolutely stunning and works beautifully with 3D technology. From the costumes to the environments, this adaptation brings L’Engle’s fictional worlds to life like no other. The movie also strikes the right cord for any wide-eyed youngster, especially young girls who can relate to Meg’s journey to find her identity and embrace her own individuality.

But it’s hard for adults watching the film to not feel bored. The story feels almost too simplistic, with events happening so quickly that the entirety of the film could be explained in a few brief sentences. The first planet visited in the film seems to only be there to look pretty and there are only two real perilous moments, making it hard to fully categorize the movie as an adventure.

Not helping matters is the lightweight performances and cheesy dialogue. Zach Galifianakis is the perfect brand of quirky in a brief appearance and Reese Witherspoon brings wit to her role as snarky Mrs. Whatsit. But Mindy Kaling leaves a lot to be desired as the constantly quoting Mrs. Who. She recites her lines so awkwardly bland that it leaves her character void of any charm. Storm Reid is admirable in the lead role, but her younger counterparts don’t seem ready for such large screentime. As for Oprah, she basically plays herself, while the dialogue from Mbatha-Raw and many of the teachers in the movie comes off as wooden and unrealistic.

If you are the parent to young girls, by all means bring them out to enjoy this film. Several bad movies I saw as a kid were some of my favorites, so younger viewers likely won’t be bothered by the film’s flaws. But if I were to recruit someone like Maya Angelou to write a children’s story, I’d expect some nuance to her tale that would make it enlightening for people of all ages. With such an impressive cast, and such an intelligent director, it just feels like this product is shallow and rushed.  Comparing it to book adaptations like The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, this version of A Wrinkle in Time may be nice and wholesome, but it skimps on intrigue and is relatively forgettable as a narrative.

FINAL GRADE: C

 

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Wonder Woman (Full Review)

In baseball, when you’re losing, you don’t always need a homerun to restore the hope in your fans. Sometimes, you just need a solid base hit to get your team back into a rhythm. 2016 had two strikeouts for the DC Comics Extended Universe. Batman v Superman was the most dreary, self-indulgent superhero movie ever and Suicide Squad was a sloppy mess that had to rely on a seasoned cast to make it watchable. But now Wonder Woman is up to the plate, and after being one of the few bright spots in Batman v Superman, the most iconic superheroine in comic book history looks to get DC and Warner Bros. back in the cinematic game.

Wonder_Woman_(2017_film)Gal Gadot returns as Diana, the youngest of an island of Amazonian women created by Zeus to defend mankind from Aries, the God of War. Trained by her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright), Diana becomes the fiercest Amazonian warrior, much to the dismay of her protective mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). When a World War I spy named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes on their hidden shores, Diana embarks on a mission with him and his friends (Lucy Davis, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock) to find Aries and end the war before a German General (Danny Huston) and his chemist partner (Elena Anaya) can release a deadly gas on all of mankind.

From the beginning, when we see Diana as a starry eyed little girl, the movie has a charming tone to it that never ceases. All of the supporting protagonists are likable and the chemistry between Gadot and Chris Pine always comes off as genuine. Both Diana and Steve Trevor are wonderfully layered characters that uplift each other. Diana is portrayed as a strong but naïve fish out of water who learns the nuances of mankind from Trevor while he is a brave soldier who lacks faith until being inspired by her strong willed and unyielding nature.

Great chemistry between the cast is coupled with a strong dose of well timed humor that, unlike Suicide Squad, never feels forced. It should also come as no surprise to anyone that saw the character in Batman v Superman that the battle scenes are thrilling. So despite being over two hours, the movie paces beautifully with only the beginning feeling a tad slow.

Wonder Woman isn’t without some glaring flaws. There is an overuse of CGI which often clashes with the more tangible scenes in the film that feature well choreographed fights and gorgeous costumes and scenery. The movie also has some hokey moments and lacks a strong central antagonist (The final reveal seems a bit forced). So while it isn’t quite a homerun, Director Patty Jenkins does manage to make it DC’s first film that feels smart, fun, exciting, and endearing throughout. And that makes it a solid double off of the back wall and enough to give us faith in the studio again.

FINAL GRADE: B

Star Trek Beyond (Full Review)

I was never a Trekky before J.J. Abrams reinvigorated the Star Trek franchise with his sensational 2009 reboot. 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, while divisive among purists, was an equally exciting adventure for me. So needless to say my expectations were set high for this third installment about the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Even with Justin Lin (Fast & Furious) taking over for Abrams in the Director’s chair there was little for me to believe that Star Trek Beyond wouldn’t be another exciting entry.

STAR-TREK-BEYOND-5Beyond follows up with the crew of the Enterprise as they are knee deep in a five year expedition across space. Ship captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) contemplates stepping down as life becomes mundane aboard the ship, while his first officer, Spock (Zachary Quinto) juggles his faltering relationship with shipmate Uhura (Zoe Saldana) along with the thought of also leaving the Enterprise to lead his home world. After a pit stop at a state of the art space colony brings them into contact with an alien (Lydia Wilson) who has lost her ship and crew, the Enterprise sets out to help her only to fall into a trap set by a mysterious villain named Krall (Idris Elba). The encounter leaves the Enterprise destroyed and its crew (Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, and the late Anton Yelchin) kidnapped or stranded on an alien world. Kirk’s only hope of rescuing his friends lies in a orphaned alien warrior named Jayla (Sofia Boutella).

The film’s biggest issue is that it struggles to live up to the heights of its predecessors thanks to a script that makes the plot feel like a one off television episode more than a third installment in a film franchise. The stakes don’t feel nearly as high as in Into Darkness and the individual characters aren’t highlighted as well as they were in the 2009 installment. Throw in a relatively goofy ending featuring a song by the Beastie Boys and Elba’s stock adversary who simply grumbles and growls for most of the movie and it all feels like a step down.

But if you’re a fan of Star Trek in general, or just a fan of Abrams’ previous movies, then there is still plenty to love in Beyond. While some characters don’t get much of anything to do (Cho and Saldana), others have phenomenal dynamics that add social context and humor. The relationship between Pegg’s Montgomery Scott (Pegg) and Jayla is an endearing one and the dynamic between Spock and Dr. McCoy (Urban) is one of the film’s biggest highlights. Also, unsurprisingly, Pine is once again sensational as Captain Kirk, a leader so witty and brave that it’d be hard not to run through a brick wall for him.

The visuals are also stunning which should come as no shock. So even though Star Trek Beyond isn’t quite a classic, it’s still time well spent. It’s hard to blame any of the pieces directly involved when the story simply isn’t pertinent enough, so there’s nothing wrong with just sitting back and enjoying this one and hoping for a little more the next time around.

FINAL GRADE: B

January 2016 Quick Reviews

Sometimes it’s hard to keep up during Super Bowl week, but here are a few recent films worth checking out (or staying away from).


5th-Wave_posterTHE 5TH WAVE
Former Kick Ass star Chloe Grace Moretz stars as Cassie, a teenage girl whose life is turned upside down when aliens invade the planet. First, the aliens disable the entire world’s electronics then signal a string of natural disasters, before a plague wipes out nearly all of humanity. With the aliens, or “Others” as they’re called, now infiltrating the human race, a military colonel (Live Schrieber) looks to turn the world’s remaining children into an army to combat them.

The film, which is based on a book series by Rick Yancey, has a decent enough premise. The problem is that it is filled with too many young adult novel clichés, from characters that are quirky for the sake of being quirky, to a sappy romance that is as gag-inducing as something out of Twilight. And while there are a few plot twists, none of them are original enough to not see coming. A few likable sequences are sprinkled throughout to keep the film from being a complete bore, but at the end of it all there’s nothing that manages to make the movie memorable. FINAL GRADE: C

Kung_Fu_Panda_3_posterKUNG FU PANDA 3 A sequel to Kung Fu Panda 2 was imminent when at its conclusion it was revealed that the father of bumbling, lovable series hero, Po the Panda (Jack Black), was alive and living amongst a secret village of pandas. In this follow up, Po’s father (Bryan Cranston) seeks to reunite with his son, much to the dismay of Po’s adoptive goose father (James Hong). Meanwhile, an ancient warrior (J.K. Simmons) returns to exact his revenge and steal the life energy of the world’s greatest kung fu masters.

I admittedly went into this movie thinking it was going to be as bland as most sequels to successful movies. Too much screen time is spent with panda slapstick instead of kung fu action sequences and many of the new characters (Kate Hudson’s Mei-Mei) fall flat, but overall I was pleasantly surprised by how solid the story was. Kung Fu Panda 3 certainly doesn’t have the exhilarating plot of its predecessors, but it makes up for it with a solid dose of heart and a great family message. Combined with another formidable villain, the movie isn’t great but pretty good, and that’s enough to make for one of the finest animated trilogies since Toy Story. FINAL GRADE: B

The_Finest_Hours_posterTHE FINEST HOURS Titanic may be a classic, but anyone more interested in a disaster film than a romance had nearly two hours to fast forward through before things got interesting. For those people, The Finest Hours is the perfect film for you. The movie stars Chris Pine as real life Boston Coast Guard, Bernie Webber who is sent out amidst a dangerous storm to rescue a crew of a severed oil tanker. Casey Affleck costars as the crewmen charged with keeping the other survivors alive until they can be rescued and Holliday Grainger portrays Weber’s spunky fiancé Miriam.

The movie wastes little time getting into its suspense and unlike most films based on true stories it doesn’t drag on with an unruly run time. It is filled with fine performances and likable characters and also manages to be concise as well as exciting. The film also manages to deliver the other necessary elements, such as an endearing romance, that will entice a multitude of audiences.  While it does dip into a few genre clichés toward the end, The Finest Hours manages to be hours well spent. FINAL GRADE: B+

Into the Woods Full Review

I’ve never been to Broadway, but it’s safe to say I’m a Stephen Sondheim fan. The man that brought us West Side Story and Sweeney Todd is one of the greatest musical theater composers of the 20th century. Into the Woods, which first hit Broadway in 1987, is just one of his famous works and in the age of Walt Disney, it only makes sense that this story would be adapted for the big screen.

Into_The_Woods_(film)The film, which is an intermingling of several fairy tales, is a splendid romp with a simple premise: Be careful what you wish for. Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) knows his way around a musical and brings Sondheim’s vision to life with the utmost Disney flare. It helps that he has a magnificent cast. Lilla Crawford (who got her start playing Annie on Broadway) and Daniel Huddlestone (Les Miserables) are equally jovial as Red Riding Hood and Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk. James Corden and Emily Blunt have fine chemistry as the Baker and his wife. Anna Kendrick upgrades even more from her Pitch Perfect days as Cinderella while Chris Pine is downright hilarious in his over the top portrayal of the handsome Prince. Of course, it isn’t hard to identify the best performer in a movie with Meryl Streep in it. Streep is captivating from start to finish as the Wicked Witch.

Like with any Sondheim classic, the music is magnificent. If you don’t like musicals, or only find them tolerable, this may not be the movie for you. More than most of the film is sung, but hopefully there is some consolation in the fact that all of the singing is good (There are no Russell Crowe’s here). If you’re a fan of Disney fairy tales, then this should be right up your ally. Sondheim’s music is wisely not tampered with by Rob Marshall, but he still gets to infuse his vision in the stylish costumes and storybook cinematography.

The movie’s final act is its unavoidable biggest flaw. While the story still manages to be emotional and poignant throughout, the execution of the dramatic twists gets a bit sloppy and excessive. One of the characters’ deaths comes so suddenly that it’s almost anti-climactic. But, luckily there is enough magnificent music, brilliant performances, and important life lessons to make Into the Woods a satisfyingly uplifting experience.

FINAL GRADE: B+

Winter Quick Reviews (John Wick, Horrible Bosses 2, Penguins of Madagascar)

Here are a few quick reviews. Better late than never…

John_Wick_TeaserPoster Keanu Reeves stars as a former mob assassin who gives up his dangerous lifestyle when he falls in love. Before an illness claims her life, his wife leaves him with an adorable puppy to help him mourn. But, after a Russian mobster’s son (Alfie Allen) kills the dog and steals his car out of spite, John Wick is forced to come out of retirement. With the help of a secret hotel for assassins (run by Ian McShane) and an old friend (Willem Dafoe), he embarks on one last vengeful rampage against the Russian (why is it always Russians?) organization that used to employ him.

Yes, the plot is as B-Movie as you can get, but director Chad Stahelski knows what he has. If you enjoyed Denzel Washington’s Equalizer, you’ll enjoy this one even more. John Wick delivers its cartoonishly thin plot with vigorous, frenetic action and a comic book sleakness that makes it fun from beginning to end. Even stoic Keanu Reeves is right in his element, delivering just enough of the necessary emotion to make the titular character one we root for.

FINAL GRADE: A-

Horrible_Bosses_2I guess… if it isn’t broke, you shouldn’t fix it. Horrible Bosses 2 carries this concept almost as much as Hangover 2 did… and just as much to a fault. Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day return as the group of friends who tried to murder their bosses in the previous film. This time around, after they are hustled out of their invention and left for broke by a sleazy billionaire (Christoph Waltz) they concoct the ludicrous idea of kidnapping his spoiled, manic son (Chris Pine). Jennifer Aniston and Kevin Spacey return in smaller roles while Jamie Foxx also returns as “Motherfucker” Jones… probably the only consistently funny character.

It isn’t that Horrible Bosses 2 isn’t funny, because it is. But it isn’t nearly as funny as the first one, which in itself wasn’t too memorable. The antics go from laugh out loud hysterical to flat out moronic and stale. Sometimes the characters’ stupidity is so over the top that it makes it impossible to believe they’d succeed at any task, let alone a felony. Nevertheless, there are far more unwatchable comedies out there. If you liked the first, you’ll at least find this one watchable.

FINAL GRADE: C+

 

Penguins_of_Madagascar_posterI was never a big fan of the Madagascar movies. In fact, I want to punch anyone who plays or sings that stupid “Move it, move it” song. But I can admit that the most watchable thing about any of the movies were the four penguins who carried themselves like an animal A-team. Brainy Kowalski, muted maniac Rico, leader Skipper, and young Private return for their own adventure that pits them against a league of secret agent animals known as the North Wind (Bendedict Cumberbatch, Ken Jeong, Annet Mahendru, and Peter Stormare) in a race to save penguins across the world.

The story and animation are just as frenzied as they are in the Madagascar movies, but the humor is much more sophisticated. Kids may enjoy the slapstick gags but many of the jokes will be good enough to make even the most straight laced adults chuckle. The villain, Dave (voiced by John Malkovich) also manages to provide enough humorous moments to move an otherwise forgettable story that is best suited for a an episode of the TV show. The four penguins themselves all get there moments to shine, and are all likable all on screen (which is more than I can say for the leads of Madagascar) so in the end, the movie is a fun flick worth watching if you’re into animated adventures.

FINAL GRADE: B

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Full Review)

The late Tom Clancy has always had a knack for writing thrilling espionage. The Hunt for Red October (1990), Patriot Games (1992), Clear and Present Danger (1994), The Some of All Fears (2002)… all films made from Clancy’s Jack Ryan book series. This time around, director Kenneth Branagh (Much Ado About Nothing, Thor) looks to reboot the film series with Chris Pine as the lead.

ImageYou don’t need to be a fan of Jack Ryan movies or even familiar with them to take a chance on Shadow Recruit. Like James Bond films, Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible series, or anything with Jason Statham in it, each outing is meant to stand on its own. Shadow Recruit in many ways feels like an episode of 24. There is no point in wasting time on character development or weighty emotion filled drama because at the end of the day you’re only in it for the thrills. And Jack Ryan’s latest adventure has plenty.

The plot, which is too convoluted to describe fully, mainly involves Russians planning a terrorist attack that will topple the U.S. economy.  Chris Pine takes the helm as marine turned CIA analyst Jack Ryan (previously played by Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and Alec Baldwin). He isn’t nearly as magnetic as he is in the Star Trek films, but he is good enough to warrant being an action star. Director Branagh, himself, plays the villain who is as dark, deranged and one dimensional as any antagonist in a Jack Ryan movie. Meanwhile, Kevin Costner is at his stoic best as Jack’s CIA mentor and Keira Knightley portrays Jack’s whiny fiancé.

Like with most action movies, Shadow Recruit does well to know that thrills and action sequences are more important than characters or even plot. This isn’t Daniel Craig’s thought provoking Skyfall nor does it try to be. What it is, is a solid two hours of hotel room brawls, car chases, and covert missions that should keep you interested enough to warrant spending a few bucks if you’re bored at home.

FINAL GRADE: B-