I'm back with more reviews for this current year, because I often have to catch up with movies months later. So even though this is being posted in August, these are mostly offerings from the earlier in the year that I finally saw, along with a brand new release from last weekend. Enjoy!
PADDINGTON 2 * * * (Dir. Paul King)
Paddington 2 turns out to be just as delightful and winning as the first film, which should perhaps come as no surprise, given that director and co-writer Paul King returned to helm this second entry in the franchise. The entire Brown family returns for more fun in enabling Paddington (Ben Whishaw) to live his very modest dreams, this time involving his quest to earn enough money to send retired Aunt Lucy a birthday present- a rare pop-up book of London. Things go awry for poor Paddington however, when the vain, has-been actor Phoenix Buchanan (an outrageously scene-stealing Hugh Grant) plots to steal the book and frame Paddington for it, sending him to prison and sending his family on their own quest to prove his innocence and capture the thief. It’s hard to explain the singular appeal of the Paddington movies, which comes down almost entirely to the light, magical touch of King, who constructs every screenshot in a colorful storybook frame and make you feel nearly as if you’re living in the picture perfect London of Paddington’s imagination, where strangers are non-plussed by a polite young bear wearing a red hat and blue corduroy coat wandering among them. Everyone eventually falls under his spell of course, as he makes friends with a prison gang (led by Brendan Gleeson) and is reunited with his family (the Browns still appealingly headed by the charming Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins). There’s a loving and affectionate glow that surrounds Paddington (both the character and the film) that extends itself to the audience- it’s impossible not to be won over by the simple charm and goodness with which the little bear believes in everyone he comes across. And if that’s not enough for you, it’s worth seeing for Hugh Grant’s performance alone, one of the highlights of his career, believe it or not.
READY PLAYER ONE * * 1/2 (Dir. Steven Spielberg)
Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is a book that reads like fan fiction for the fanboy crowd, a kind of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory set in a virtual video game world. It wasn’t exactly for me, but I was curious what a director like Steven Spielberg could do with the (admittedly entertaining) story. Well, the immediate answer is to change about 70% of it. The movie takes the basic concept of the novel, a bleak future where most of humanity spends its time plugged into the “Oasis,” and sets up the Wonka-esque contest to beat the game the creator left behind for the players, and then radically alters most of the events that took place in the book, including characters and relationships. It’s not such a bad trade-off, as one thing Spielberg excels at is world-building, and the virtual world of the Oasis is a massive maze filled with 1980’s pop culture references (one of the major attractions of the book) that you can get lost in. It’s kind of neat spotting the nods to Spielberg’s own productions (Back to the Future and Jurassic Park make appearances, as well as a very cool extended sequence taking place in the actual set of The Shining), and living inside what amounts to an arcade of nostalgia come to life is kind of fun for a while. You get over the odd avatars of the main characters (whose faces look a little too much like James Cameron’s Avatar for me) and find yourself chugging along for the ride, but the second half of the movie gets too caught up in the battle for the Oasis itself, as the heroes have to fight a corporate villain (played by Ben Mendelsohn) determined to take it from them. The movie bounces back and forth from the real world to the virtual one, but you never feel very invested in the characters (Tye Sheridan is a fairly dull lead both in the flesh and out of it), and when the movie devolves into non-stop battling with avatars it becomes a little too much like watching someone else play a video game that you’re not involved in. Yet there is fun to be had here (not least of which is the faux Shining sequence) and Spielberg is far too much of a pro to make an un-interesting movie. As a love letter to pop culture and those who worship it, it’s an affectionate tribute that works pretty well (and it’s far batter than the book on which it was based).
BLOCKERS * * * (Dir. Kay Cannon)
In the annals of movie history there’s no shortage of “teens trying to lose their virginities on prom night” comedies, and yet this might be the first one I really enjoyed. Blockers (tellingly directed by a woman, Kay Cannon, in her filmmaking debut) is about a trio of teenage girls who make a pact to have sex with their dates on prom night, and one of each of their parents (Leslie Mann, John Cena and Ike Barinholtz) finds out and sets off together to prevent them from doing it. It’s a familiar and well-trod premise, yet the way it’s handled in this movie results in a huge difference by simply making the teens young, sensible women with minds of their own who assert their right to own their sexuality no matter what choice they make, and the feminist message feels downright revolutionary for this kind of comedy. It helps that the girls are played very appealingly by newcomers Kathryn Newton, Geraldine Viswanathan and Gideon Adlon- this likable group is easy to root for as the heroines in their own story. But the parents are all scene-stealers as they foolishly trip themselves up tracking down the girls, even though their hearts are ultimately in the right place. Mann, Cena and Barinholtz have a naturally easy chemistry as each of them gets to make a fool of themselves and bring the house down at the same time while they solidify their oddly heartwarming parental bond with each other. There are some real laughs in this film (after stealing the movie Trainwreck, pro wrestler Cena especially has proven himself to be an extremely likable and willing to do anything comedic presence onscreen) and the screenplay is much tighter than some of the freewheeling Apatow-esque comedies that I’ve started to find annoying. in this one the plot and the action move along at a surefooted pace while the jokes are consistent throughout, and it never feels long. It’s a raunchy but sweet, goodhearted movie with a sexually progressive message that’s probably good for young people to see (and how many sex comedies can you say that about?)
A QUIET PLACE * * (Dir. John Krasinski)
John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place takes one big gimmick and tries to rest a feature length film on it. For some, I suppose your usual jump scares will prove even more effective set against a backdrop of total silence (aside from the score), but I wasn’t convinced. Monsters of some sort have taken over Earth and though these creatures can’t see anything, they can apparently hear everything, which causes any survivors to hide out as quietly as possible. This is far more of a premise than a story though, and the premise brings up a lot of distracting questions. As we watch Krasinski and real life wife Emily Blunt take to the woods with their two kids (a third was killed by one of the creatures), it mainly serves as a setup to see how they can live a normal life as quietly as possible (music in earbuds only, no machinery, no talking, etc). But once you get past that stuff, you start to wonder about a lot of things. First of all, why on earth would Blunt’s character choose to get pregnant and have a BABY in the middle of this no noise apocalypse? The implication is she wants to replace the one she lost, but ummm…babies are loud. And you can’t do anything to stop that. And there’s no doctor or hospital anywhere, so why is this happening again? Oh right, it’s so we can see how agonizing it is for her to give birth without screaming. Second of all, we find out that the creatures can’t hear noise if you’re next to a river or an ocean, which begs the question…why are they not living next to a river or an ocean? They’re obviously within pretty close walking distance from one. They pour sand to hide the noise of footsteps, while again, simply living on the beach could take care of that problem, right? This movie is filled to the brim with annoyances like these, which wouldn’t stem from a movie that scares you enough to overlook the logical missteps. But as I said before, the jump scares are no different from your average cheap horror movie, and the setup for certain actions are too obviously telegraphed (when there’s an extreme closeup of a rusty nail sticking out of a step, you can’t help but roll your eyes when someone steps on it forty minutes later). This may have been material better suited to a short film, or possibly extended with a more imaginative, innovative director.
TULLY * * (Dir. Jason Reitman)
Charlize Theron plays Marlo, a stressed out, barely coping mom who’s about to have a third child in this Jason Reitman drama from writer Diablo Cody (re-teaming again after Juno and Young Adult), so she hires a “night nanny” recommended by her brother to help ease her bearings. The night nanny is Tully, played by Mackenzie Davis, and she is a godsend who’s not just there to take care of the baby but to take care of Marlo herself, as she tells her upon their first meeting. The perils and exhaustions of mothering three kids under ten are explored and wrung for all they’re worth, and the topic is legitimate, given the difficulties many mothers face in simply handling children day after day, even with a supportive husband (in this case the affable Ron Livingston) around and a mostly comfortable life to fall back on. But the movie seems to sense that there’s not quite enough story here and goes for a twist ending that upends the entire film and the character of Marlo, forcing you to question everything you’ve just seen and frankly, turning the subject matter and message of the movie far more serious than I think it wants to be. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say that using mental illness as a plot device to impart fanciful lessons of personal growth and brushing it off as “spiritual” episode doesn’t cut it when you realize what’s actually at stake for this family due to the consequences of this severe revelation. Even though Theron is quite good as usual, the lesson that I take from this movie is if you want to make a fable, make a fable, and if you want to explore mental illness and postpartum depression, do that. Reitman and Cody don’t mix the two well here, with the character taken seriously but the reality of her situation not. It leaves you with an oddly unsatisfying aftertaste.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE- FALLOUT * * * (Dir. Christopher McQuarrie)
It’s rare that an aging franchise just keeps plugging along, with the late in the game results featuring ever more death defying stunts and practical effects sequences, many performed by the star himself (also aging, yet seemingly ever more agile). Tom Cruise once again returns as Ethan Hunt for the sixth entry in the now 22-year-old film series (based on the 1960’s TV show), with Ethan called upon once more to save the world from nuclear terrorism (this particular threat has been thwarted many times by Hunt over the years), yet there are a couple of differences in this new sequel. For one, it’s a true sequel for the first time, with writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, who helmed Rogue Nation, back in the director’s chair, and he’s revived story elements from not just his own film, but previous films in the series, particularly M:I III, which introduced Ethan’s wife Julia, played by Michelle Monaghan. That plot thread is resurrected for more closure in this entry, while characters from Rogue Nation, like Rebecca Ferguson’s MI:6 agent Ilsa Faust, and Sean Harris’s villain Solomon Lane, come back to play as well. The action sequences are once more heartstoppingly superb, as Cruise does everything possible to let you know it’s really him driving that motorcycle directly into oncoming Paris traffic and piloting a helicopter through snow covered mountains in an absolutely insane climactic sequence. There’s a little less for Ferguson’s Ilsa to do in this one, as well as reliable teammates Luther (VIng Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg), since the storyline is a bit darker and more intense, making you miss those moments of team levity in the last two missions (Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation), but the wall to wall action makes the experience well worth your money and whatever buoyancy you miss from the last two is probably made up for in that sense. It’s the fastest two and a half hours you’ll spend in a theater this summer and probably this year.