Thursday, June 15, 2017

'The Mummy' review

Dark Universe feels like an exercise in futility, but that won't stop the good people at Universal from trying. Even though the studio already houses a plethora of big ticket franchises like the Fast and Furious series, the Jurassic World films, and the Despicable Me cash cow, in the eyes of studio executives, you can never have enough surefire hits based on recognizable properties. So since the breakout success of The Avengers in 2012, Universal has been trying to replicate the shared universe format with their Classic Monsters, bringing together Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, and more for some kind of team-up movie. The whole thing had a serious lack of vision for a while, leading to the disappointing box office of Dracula Untold. But as the stakes grew, Universal decided to lay it all out there. They put together a massive press release last month, announcing stars, movies, and labeling the connected series of films as the "Dark Universe."

In some ways, this showed that the people at Universal were ready to make this work, and in other ways, it came off as desperate. Going into the press release, The Mummy was not tracking well at all, and Universal needed something to get butts in seats. So they scrambled to announce the next steps for Dark Universe, hoping that it would pique audience interest and turn Alex Kurtzman's massive production into a hit. There was a lot riding on this movie from both a commercial and critical perspective, and Universal needed something that would solidify Dark Universe as an important franchise to watch. Unfortunately, that didn't turn out to be the case- The Mummy is currently the worst-reviewed film of the summer, and in addition to those widespread pans, it bombed in North America. Worldwide box office was better, but there's no question that the Dark Universe is on shaky ground now. 

I remember when the first trailer for The Mummy played in front of some NFL game last year, and my immediate response was "No, no, no." This looked like everything that I wanted Dark Universe not to be- I wanted a new series of horror movies, not some overblown action fest. As the marketing campaign pushed forward, I eventually settled into the idea that The Mummy would be just another big, expensive summer blockbuster. And on the surface, it didn't look particularly bad- there seemed to be some fun adventure stuff, Tom Cruise is usually pretty reliable, and Universal opted to open the film in the heart of summer, the same spot that led to massive worldwide numbers for Jurassic World. But ultimately, there isn't much beyond the surface level shine of The Mummy, as it quickly reveals itself to be another tedious, soulless film that doesn't really know what the hell it wants to be. Simply put, The Mummy is a very, very bad movie, one that starts Dark Universe with a pathetic whimper.

The Mummy is the story (?) of Nick Morton (Cruise), a soldier who specializes in stealing things and finding antiquities across the globe. As the film opens, Morton and fellow soldier Chris Vail (the ever-reliable Jake Johnson) are in modern day Iraq, searching for some kind of treasure that they believe is in the area. After an air strike saves them as they're being surrounded by insurgent forces, they discover that there's an ancient Egyptian tomb buried beneath the surface. Why is there a tomb from Egypt thousands of miles from the country? With the help of archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), Nick and Chris investigate the tomb and realize that this was really a prison for a force of pure evil. Being the brash moron that he is, Nick accidentally unleashes this evil, setting in motion a series of events that will change his life for the worse.

This ancient evil is known as Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), a being of true cruelty whose jealously led to a pact with Set, the god of death. In order to bring Set back into the world of the living, Ahmanet needs a human host. At the last possible minute back in the days of the Pharaoh, she was stopped, leading to her being imprisoned in the top-notch tomb. Now that she's unleashed, she has a new human host in mind, and he just so happens to be the protagonist of the story. But to bring Set to life in the form of Nick, Ahmanet will need some kind of magic dagger, one that was separated during the days of the Crusaders. Ahmanet has the dagger, but she needs the stone to make it work- a stone that is currently under the protection of Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe) and the good people at Prodigium. Basically monster S.H.I.E.L.D., Prodigium is devoted to guarding our world from the forces that threaten us. The result is a convoluted trek across London with lots of running, shooting, and other dumb things.

The Mummy has lots of pieces in place to be a successful piece of entertainment, but it's one of those films that never coheres into anything. It has a weak script that amazingly required the talents of six writers (David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie, Dylan Kussman, Jon Spaihts, Alex Kurtzman, and Jenny Lumet are all given screenplay or story credits), an untested director behind the camera, and a lot of complex baggage coming from its position as the Dark Universe kick-off. The result is this weird middle ground between an average dull blockbuster and a misshapen fiasco like Suicide Squad, and the fact that it never firmly falls into either category makes it all the more fascinating. For the most part, The Mummy is just a chore to watch, the kind of movie that is shrill, loud, and constantly trying to amuse the audience to no avail. Honestly, I'm not opposed to the idea of the Dark Universe, but if they want me to stay on board, they're gonna have to do something much more interesting than this.

The Mummy is at its worst when it's actually trying, which is a funny thing to say about a movie. Usually, you want a film to at least make an attempt to be good, right? The problem is that Kurtzman and company don't seem to be content with making a schlock action horror movie- they're consistently striving to do something more. The most egregious error involves the character of Nick Morton, who is bland, unsympathetic, and just plain terrible in every way. So yeah, doesn't it totally make sense to have his character be the emotional core of the movie? Every character choice made by Nick is unbelievably laughable, and the "arc" that Nick takes is downright absurd- it's so bad that not even a bona fide movie star like Tom Cruise can pull it off. The forced emotional beats in The Mummy show an extreme lack of self-awareness on the part of the filmmakers, which is an issue that extends to the rest of the movie.

Tone is another big problem in The Mummy, and it's clear from the first moments that during the course of production, nobody really sat down and figured out what they wanted this movie to be. Is it supposed to be an adventure comedy in the vein of the Brendan Fraser trilogy from the late '90s/early 2000s? There are moments early in the film that certainly are meant to make you laugh. Or is it designed as a straight horror movie, setting the tone for Dark Universe as a scary franchise? Well, there are some moments that are generally pretty frightening. Or is it just a regular action movie, similar to the output from Marvel and other Tom Cruise projects over the years? Those elements are present as well. This leads to the question- what is Dark Universe? Are they trying to replicate Marvel and DC or are they going to do their own thing? Matt Goldberg at Collider seems to think that they're aiming to create their own superhero franchise using these characters, but that goal is never clearly established. The Mummy sees Kurtzman and the screenwriters running around like a chicken with its head cut off, throwing everything at the wall and hoping that some of it sticks.

And lucky for them, some of it does. I actually kinda bought into the whole Prodigium thing, and I like the idea of Russell Crowe being the Nick Fury of Dark Universe, even if the Mr. Hyde stuff is straight-up preposterous. Jake Johnson is actually fairly decent in the movie at times, even if they do this weird American Werewolf in London thing that really doesn't pay off at all. Unfortunately, these fun or engaging elements are stuck in a film that ranges from predictable to haphazard, an uneven blend of recycled garbage with a story that, frankly, sucks. Actors like Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella, and Courtney B. Vance are completely wasted, and even the action scenes fail to be distinct or memorable in any significant way. The Mummy is dreadfully messy, featuring lots of running and screaming over the course of its 110 minute runtime that all leads to nowhere. To be quite honest with you, it's difficult to remember anything about it once those credits roll.

As a kick-off for the concept of Dark Universe, The Mummy probably could be worse. As bad as this movie is, I still wanna see more out of some sense of morbid curiosity. But as an actual piece of cinema, The Mummy is about as tedious as a blockbuster can get. It's the kind of soul-sucking "entertainment" that evaporates as soon as you leave the theater, and the fact that this film tries to be more than that is genuinely laughable at times. It's dark, ugly, and stupid, with some of the most distracting 3D I've seen in recent memory. It's been a pretty good summer so far, but it's safe to say that you can skip The Mummy and never even think twice. 

THE FINAL GRADE:  D+                                           (4.6/10)

Poster courtesy of Universal
Images: Coming Soon

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Jessica Chastain in talks to play villain in 'X-Men: Dark Phoenix'

Looking back on it, X-Men: Apocalypse is probably one of the most disappointing films in recent memory. After two films that brought the X-Men franchise back from the dead (Matthew Vaughn's First Class and Bryan Singer's Days of Future Past), the 2016 film ended up being a bizarre hodgepodge of laughably over-the-top nonsense and territory that had been explored far too many times in previous films. It's probably the worst of the X-Men films, and boy, there have been some clunkers in this series. The mutants at Fox have seemingly found their niche with solo genre movies, as films like Deadpool and Logan have garnered critical acclaim and done very well at the box office. With the Merc with a Mouth returning in 2018 and Josh Boone jumping aboard to tackle New Mutants as a horror thriller, you would think that Fox would stick to this formula. Instead, they're continuing the story established by Apocalypse with next year's Dark Phoenix, bringing back many of the same actors for another go-around. And with the November 2, 2018 release date looming, things are kicking into high gear for the latest in the main X-Men saga.

According to The Hollywood Reporter and many other sources, Jessica Chastain is in talks to play the villain in next year's X-Men: Dark Phoenix. This comes shortly after it was confirmed that Simon Kinberg, a prominent producer and writer involved with the superhero films at Fox, will direct Dark Phoenix, with James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Sophie Turner, Alexandra Shipp, Tye Sheridan, and Kodi Smit-McPhee all set to reprise their roles. If everything goes as planned, Chastain will play Lilandra, an alien queen who captures the mutant known as Dark Phoenix (Turner) and begins to fight a war with the X-Men. So yeah, Logan this is not. Look, there are a lot of things that I like about what Fox is doing with their superhero films. The solo stuff has been tremendous (Logan is still my #1 film of the year), and I love that they continue to mess with genres and hard R content. That being said, I'm having trouble getting excited for more films with this cast and these characters. It's beginning to feel more and more like Days of Future Past was the peak, and I'm not sure there are many interesting directions left for these characters. Throwing someone like Chastain in there isn't really gonna help matters, considering how poorly Singer and friends utilized Oscar Isaac in the last film. Until I see something tangible to get me excited, I'm gonna remain skeptical about Dark Phoenix.

The film is scheduled to debut on November 2, 2018.

Images: FOX/Europa
Sources: THR/Collider

'Wonder Woman' review

This really goes without saying, but it hasn't exactly been a smooth ride for the DC Extended Universe so far. While there are passionate defenders of every installment in the franchise, the response from the majority of fans and critics has been highly negative. It started in 2013 with Man of Steel, which was supposed to be the big kick-off for the series and the epic return of Superman to the big screen. The result was decidedly more divisive, with fans and critics split by Zack Snyder's brooding, hyper-violent vision of the classic American hero. Reactions to the next two DC films were significantly less divided, as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad were almost universally panned. The latter ended up being a fairly strong box office hit for Warner Bros., but there's no question that Batman v Superman should have been a much bigger hit, even with a worldwide total that surpassed $873 million. With all kinds of poor buzz and controversy, many supposed that the DCEU could be dead before it even really began.

But Warner Bros. desperately needs a franchise like this, and they've put all their chips on this series of comic book films. That makes 2017 an incredibly important time for the studio, and DC has two new chapters in theaters this year- Wonder Woman and Justice League. There was almost an unfair amount of pressure on the first solo adventure for the most popular female superhero on the planet, but after a monumental opening weekend that broke records all over the globe, it's safe to say that Wonder Woman has temporarily saved the DCEU. While there's still no clear plan going forward beyond James Wan's Aquaman in late 2018, the fans and the critics have finally united behind a DC movie, and that is a huge step forward for this series. As someone who loves these characters and read the comics as a kid, this is immensely exciting for me. I was ecstatic when I saw that Wonder Woman was receiving positive reactions, and I hope that this represents the new normal for the DCEU.

There's only one question now- does Wonder Woman live up to the buzz? When those first reactions came out, it almost seemed too good to be true. After three movies that ranged from flawed to straight-up disastrous, could the team at DC really turn it around that quickly? The trailers weren't particularly strong for much of the marketing campaign, there were rumors of trouble behind the scenes, and I wasn't a huge fan of Gal Gadot's performance in Dawn of Justice. There was no way this movie could be THAT good, right? Thankfully, despite maintaining skepticism until the very end, I was completely bowled over by Wonder Woman. It is astonishing, thrilling, awe-inspiring superhero cinema, an origin story for the ages that manages to feel both epic and hopeful. It's emotional and touching, funny and clever, beautiful and thoughtful- simply put, it is everything that I have ever wanted from this franchise. Even as a Batman v Superman apologist, this is undoubtedly the pinnacle of the DCEU so far. Believe the hype- Wonder Woman blew me away.

Wonder Woman is the origin story of its titular heroine, telling the tale of how she became the fiercest warrior of the Amazons and fought in World War I. Born on the isolated island of Themiscyra, Diana (Gal Gadot) is trained to be a fearsome warrior from a young age, despite the concerns of her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). Diana's homeland is comprised entirely of female warriors, and her aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright), is instructed by Hippolya to train her harder than anyone else on the island. The Queen knows that Diana is destined for greater things, and that her worries are futile. By the time she's a young woman, Diana is strong and fierce, able to even take down Antiope in battle. She's the strongest of the Amazons, and she knows that there's something her mother is hiding.

But her whole world will be shaken by the arrival of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American spy working for British intelligence who crash lands on Themiscyra. The German army is following Trevor, and after a fierce battle on the island, they interrogate Trevor about his true purpose. He informs them that the Germans are building a weapon that could devastate humanity and prolong the war, which Diana deduces must be the work of Ares, the god of war. She realizes that Ares must be stopped, making the decision to leave with Steve and fight on the front of the most brutal war in human history. With General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and the woman known best as Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) planning to unleash a weapon that will create insane havoc, Diana and Steve are forced to assemble a ragtag group of soldiers to fight the Germans. In a race against time, the fate of humanity and Diana's destiny hang in the balance of this monumental conflict.

It's kind of amazing that in a cinematic universe that features a Superman movie where an entire city is leveled and a film that unites two of the greatest heroes in American history, the most epic film is also the most straight-forward, old-fashioned origin story. Despite being a superhero film and part of a connected universe, Wonder Woman feels like the kind of movie that Hollywood doesn't make anymore- or maybe they never made them at all. It's long and deliberately paced, grand and sweeping storytelling driven by a core cast of likable characters. And perhaps most importantly, Wonder Woman is led by a woman and directed by a woman, resulting in a film that full embraces its feminist message and the spirit of the character. It proves once and for all that representation is important in front of and behind the camera, and it also proves that you don't have to reinvent the wheel to make a great film.

Going back to the days of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, DC films have always been about something (with the exception of Suicide Squad, which isn't even a movie), which is their greatest asset and one of the major reasons why I defended Batman v Superman so much. They've tackled topics like 9/11, the idea of God vs. man, the burden of heroism, and so on, but none of the films in the DCEU have been able to successfully marry themes and entertainment value. Patty Jenkins changes that by making a film that uses its optimism as a weapon and finds its heroine basically fighting the idea of humanity's inherent evil. Wonder Woman does not have Diana view her power as some kind of tedious intergalactic responsibility, but instead as a choice, one that sees her viewing the best in people at all times. The characters fight for what they believe in, and even the ultimate villain has some good points- Wonder Woman manages to have surprisingly complex messages about ideology and worldview, and I love that about it. This is a film that has a lot to think about if you're looking for such subtext, but it never fails to be compelling and enjoyable. Optimism is good, guys. I'm glad Jenkins realizes this.

I wasn't a big fan of Gal Gadot in Batman v Superman. Everyone praised her appearance in the film, but I thought she was entirely superfluous to the plot and kinda disappointing. But from the very first moment that she appeared on screen in this film, I was sold. Gadot is noting short of sensational as Diana Prince, and her Wonder Woman is the first DC hero who actually seems like a genuinely good person. Gadot is a bright, lovable presence in every scene, a character you can empathize with whether she's kicking ass or engaging in a bit of uncomfortable banter with Steve Trevor. Diana's motivation is clear, and her desire to help people and save humanity is....well, heroic. She's fiercely independent, incredibly intelligent, deeply romantic, and consistently kind- in short, she's everything that Wonder Woman should be. She's the perfect role model, and I was in awe of Gadot's performance and this character.

Gadot is boosted by a terrific supporting crew that manages to have a surprising degree of depth, warmth, and charisma. There's no question that Wonder Woman is heavily influenced by Joe Johnston's Captain America: The First Avenger, an origin story that made use of a historical setting (in that instance World War II) to introduce us to a modern hero. But while The First Avenger is stronger in some aspects, I would argue that the supporting cast in Wonder Woman is leagues more impressive. For starters, Chris Pine is tremendous as Steve Trevor. Pine has already demonstrated that he's an actor with a whole lot of range, but he's so damn impressive here and he creates such an admirable hero that audiences are going to simply adore. The affection that Trevor shows for Diana at every turn is wonderful, and Pine's spirited performance turns the character into an instant favorite. In addition, Diana's platoon, comprised of Said Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, and Eugene Brave Rock, is filled with very strong characters, each having been marginalized by society in some way, shape, or form and fully empathetic to Diana's fight. Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright also crush it on Themiscyra, while Danny Huston and David Thewlis add a bit of prestige to the proceedings. It's just a great ensemble through and through.

But most importantly, Wonder Woman is an expertly crafted piece of blockbuster entertainment. It's well-acted and deals with some worthy themes, but the sheer craft of the filmmaking and the atmosphere of adventurous fun made me downright giddy. Jenkins is a genius behind the camera, creating a film that feels undoubtedly like the work of a true filmmaker, someone with a cinematic eye who can direct everything from dazzling action scenes to moments of romance and subtlety. The World War I scenes are nothing short of brilliant (you've probably already heard plenty about the No Man's Land battle), standing as some of the most distinctly memorable setpieces in recent memory, while even the predictably explosive climatic battle manages to impress in its own way. In addition, Themiscyra is a gorgeous paradise, improved upon by the terrific cinematography from Matthew Jensen. And there's a great score by Rupert Gregson-Williams, one that takes the theme created by Junkie XL and delivers something that matches the tone set by Jenkins. This is an excellent piece of blockbuster filmmaking, one that feels bold and beautiful in its own unique way.

Wonder Woman isn't a perfect movie. It still has to deal with some of the pitfalls of the DCEU, and I can't say I'm much of a fan of the decision to blend superheroes with gods and ancient monsters. In addition, the first act is pretty heavy on the exposition, which gets a little tiresome after a while. But for all of its occasional choppiness, Wonder Woman is a dynamite blockbuster. It's heroic, gorgeous, and entertaining as hell, which is exactly what this cinematic universe should be. Led by the wonderful duo of Gal Gadot and Chris Pine, Wonder Woman is a rollicking ride from start to finish, blending jaw-dropping action and thoughtful character work to great effect. It's another excellent superhero film in a year that has been very generous to the genre, and if it's any indication of the future direction of the DCEU, we finally have reason to hope again.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A-                                             (8.6/10)

Images: IMDB/WB

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Incredible first trailer debuts for Ryan Coogler's 'Black Panther'

Marvel has a spotty track record when it comes to working with auteur filmmakers. Sure, James Gunn has been able to pretty much have free reign over the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise and it looks like they've let Taika Waititi run wild with Thor: Ragnarok, but this hasn't always been the case. Marvel leader Kevin Feige drove off Jon Favreau and Joss Whedon due to overbearing sequel demands, clashed with Edgar Wright and Patty Jenkins on their respective projects (which led them to make Baby Driver and Wonder Woman, so I'm not really complaining), and led several great filmmakers like Ava DuVernay to turn down an opportunity to make a big-budget superhero film. So it's safe to say that I'm both excited and nervous to see what happens with Ryan Coogler's Black Panther. The 31 year-old director has quickly established himself as one of the best young filmmakers in the country, having teamed with Michael B. Jordan on the critically acclaimed Fruitvale Station and Creed. Coogler now has a shot to expand his horizons with a big blockbuster, the first Marvel film to be led by a person of color. And judging by this first trailer, it looks like Coogler has delivered something truly special. Check it out below!

This looks nothing short of terrific, and I'll frankly be shocked if this isn't one of the best solo films in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. For starters, Black Panther is stacked on paper. Not only is it directed by the immensely talented Coolger- it also has a cast led by Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Daniel Kaluuya, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis, Angela Bassett, Sterling K. Brown, Forest Whitaker, and Phylicia Rashad. That might be the best cast in the history of the MCU (well, before next year's Infinity War, that is), and based on this first look, they all appear to be cast to perfection. But beyond the impressive talent working on Black Panther, this trailer highlights a film that looks radically different from the rest of the MCU. Marvel has heard complaints for years of a distinctly troubling visual sameness, but with Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2, the aforementioned Ragnarok, and now Black Panther, I love that the studio is finally letting filmmakers take these movies in interesting visual directions. And finally, I adore the fact that Coogler appears to be taking the route of not doing too much origin work, instead just letting the character and the story work on its own merits. We already know Black Panther is a badass from Captain America: Civil War, and I can't wait to see him in action in this beautiful, futuristic African society.

Black Panther will debut on February 16, 2018. It's undoubtedly one of my most anticipated films of the next year.

Image: IMDB/Marvel

Thursday, June 8, 2017

'Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie' review

When you're a kid, some concepts are so inherently amusing that they're hard to resist. That's certainly the case when it comes to Captain Underpants, the series of novels by author Dav Pilkey that are as silly and juvenile as you would expect. As an elementary school age boy, I devoured those books. Sure, they're stupid and filled with toilet humor, but there's a sharpness and a clever wit to them that you probably wouldn't anticipate from a series based entirely on scatological comedy. When I heard that Dreamworks would be tackling a film adaptation of the books, I was immediately excited. Yes, even as someone who is now a legal adult, I was glad to see that my childhood favorite about an underwear-clad superhero was coming to the big screen.

And I'll say this for Captain Underpants- if I was still in grade school, this would probably be an instant classic It's hysterical, unique, and profoundly stupid, which is pretty much everything that the books represented. Kids are going to absolutely adore this movie, and if it manages to have legs at the box office, this is the kind of franchise that will go on to become a juggernaut for Dreamworks. But as a cynical rising college student, I found a few more flaws with this lovingly absurd superhero comedy. While it manages to elicit quite a few laughs and creates some memorable characters along the way, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (the official title) eventually wears out its welcome, falling short of the subversive, LEGO Movie-esque greatness that it hopes to attain. It's fun, solid entertainment for the whole family, but I doubt it'll find any kind of permanent spot in your brain.

Captain Underpants is the story of George Beard (Kevin Hart) and Harold Hutchins (Thomas Middleditch), two young kids who create comics in their free time as a way of escaping the doldrums of school. Their nightmarish elementary school is run by Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms), an authoritarian nut who hates fun and loves to make students suffer. George and Harold, in addition to their love of art and storytelling, are Robin Hood-like figures in their school, prank experts who deliberately disrupt Krupp's regime in the hopes of bringing a little bit of happiness to the lives of their friends and fellow victims. Krupp has an undying hatred for the two students, and one day, he makes an incredibly terrifying threat to separate the two boys and place them in different classes.

Krupp's goal is to end their friendship through forced separation, hoping to finally bring a close to their reign of pranks and mischief. This is the ultimate punishment for two grade school kids, and in a last-ditch attempt to change Krupp's mind, George pulls out a cheap ring meant to hypnotize its victims. Surprisingly, it works, and the boys find that they can do anything they want to their clinically insane principal. In a stroke of genius, George and Harold turn Krupp into the amazing Captain Underpants, a superhero of their own brilliant invention. He has no superpowers- but somehow he thinks that he does. But when the evil Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll) comes to execute his evil plan while masquerading as a school teacher, Captain Underpants will be thrust into action and forced to use his special set of skills to save the day.

When I first saw the trailer for Captain Underpants, what immediately caught my eye was the colorful, energetic style that is radically different from anything in modern animation. It's more like a CGI Looney Tunes cartoon than a modern animated film (director David Soren told EW that this was Dreamworks' first real cartoon), and I hope that we see more like this in the future. The retro flair and supercharged energy are the strongest attributes of Captain Underpants, and it helps the film always feel fresh and different. With David Soren in the director's chair and Neighbors filmmaker Nicholas Stoller penning the screenplay, this film has some moments of true hilarity, featuring a broad range of comedic sensibilities that range from extremely sharp satire to the lowest of lowbrow toilet humor. Soren and Stoller perfectly match those two contrasting styles and it works like a charm- for most of the runtime at least.

Captain Underpants also has the benefit of an exceptional voice cast that brings life to several memorable characters. The titular protagonist is oddly the comic relief of the story, but there's a nice emotional core that comes from Krupp's loneliness and anger. George and Harold are likable heroes, and for all of their cleverness and comedic genius, they're undoubtedly children- which is exactly what this story needs them to be. And Professor Poopypants is a straight-up incredible villain, one that manages to be both despicable and sympathetic at the same time. You can empathize with just about every character in Captain Underpants, which isn't exactly something you'd expect from a movie built around toilet humor and other gross-out jokes.

But despite all of its winking references and jokes that only adults will possibly understand, Captain Underpants is unquestionably a movie made for kids. And while it's the perfect film for its target audience, I must admit that it wore on me after a while. The film has a rather short runtime of 89 minutes, but it still manages to feel long, and the frenetic comic spirit grows exhausting after a while. The conclusion is fine, but I would argue that the movie starts stronger than it finishes, leaving little to linger in the mind. It's fun and it's absolutely hilarious at times, but for all of the raves from critics, manage your expectations accordingly.

Captain Underpants is exactly the movie you expect it to be, and while it's probably a bit smarter than those new to the series would anticipate, it's still a typical kids movie through and through. Watching Captain Underpants is like spending time with a 1st grader who has had way too much sugar. Sure, it's fun to watch them run around like a maniac for a while, but after a while, it gets a little grating. You'll probably enjoy Captain Underpants if you feel compelled to check it out, but will you remember that you even saw it in a month's time? Probably not.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B-                                             (6.8/10)

Images courtesy of Fox

Monday, June 5, 2017

First trailer debuts for Tom Cruise's action/comedy 'American Made'

For all the talk about Top Gun: Maverick (apparently the official title of the long-gestating sequel to the 1986 classic) and Live Die Repeat and Repeat (the potential sequel to the beloved 2014 sci-fi film), Tom Cruise has a pretty big year ahead of him, not to mention the highly anticipated release of Christopher McQuarrie's Mission: Impossible 6 in 2018. This Friday sees the release of The Mummy, the horror vehicle that will likely determine the fate of Dark Universe, Universal's attempt at cobbling together a cinematic universe comprised of their classic monster characters. Tracking is soft and the film has the tall task of competing with Wonder Woman, but there's still some hope left for the film. In addition to the blockbuster hopeful, Cruise has a more serious project on the horizon in September in the form of American Made. Reuniting him with Edge of Tomorrow/Live Die Repeat director Doug Liman, the film tells the story of drug runner Barry Seal, who played both sides during the height of the reign of the Colombian cartels in the 1980s. Just in time for the release of The Mummy, Universal has released the first trailer for the film- check it out below!

American Made doesn't look like it's doing anything revolutionary, but it sure does look like a whole bunch of fun. The basic pitch seems to be War Dogs and Wolf of Wall Street meet Narcos, and with Tom Cruise in the lead role, that's a tantalizing proposition. This film is a decided change of pace for the actor (good article from Forbes writer Scott Mendelson on the importance of this flick), and it looks like he's having a lot of fun messing with a southern accent and hopping around the globe. Domnhall Gleeson also looks terrific in this trailer, and the strong supporting cast includes Jesse Plemons, Caleb Landry Jones, and Jayma Mays. This appears to be a good, old-fashioned rise-and-fall story in the mold of Scorsese, and the action and comedy beats hit the mark in this trailer. But most importantly, American Made will reunite Cruise with Doug Liman, who seems to be his collaborator of choice these days. Liman knocked Edge of Tomorrow out of the park, and I have a feeling that this could be another spectacularly entertaining action flick.

We'll find out on September 29, when American Made opens in theaters across the country.

Poster courtesy of Universal

Saturday, June 3, 2017

'Baby Driver' review

Edgar Wright is one of my favorite filmmakers on the planet, and it has been far too long since we saw a new movie from the wickedly creative director. My introduction to Wright's work came in 2013 in the form of The World's End, his pub crawl comedy that most consider to be his weakest effort (maybe it's nostalgia, but it just might be my favorite). I saw the finale to Wright's Cornetto Trilogy the weekend before I started high school (an odd bit of trivia that will come back around later), and its dazzling mixture of action and humor absolutely blew me away. I quickly caught up with Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, the films that round out the rest of the director's filmography. Each became an instant favorite of mine, solidifying my position as a full-blown Edgar Wright fanboy. In my opinion, he's a true auteur worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, and the other pop visionaries of modern cinema.

Four long, crazy years after the release of The World's End, I'm graduating high school (told you it'd come back around), and Wright is finally back with Baby Driver. This was undoubtedly one of my most anticipated films of the last several years, and my expectations were through the roof. A heist film that combines insane action and musical wizardry, Baby Driver is pure Edgar Wright, an absolute blast that will certainly become an iconic masterpiece that I'll revisit time and time again. Radically different from everything that the director has made before while still carrying the distinct touch that makes his films so special, this car chase extravaganza is a pure dose of hardcore action that slapped a big nerdy grin on my face. After years of bending genre and creating cult classics, Wright takes on mainstream action and makes it his own, creating a euphoric experience that feels like the work of a singular visionary. Fans of Wright will surely be delighted, and there's a very good chance that this carefully crafted blast of pulp insanity will be his first true box office success. Wright just keeps hitting home runs, and it's magical to watch such a talented director work at the top of his game. 

To boil this film down to its essence, Baby Driver is the crime film you never knew you needed. It's the work of genius that could only come from Edgar Wright, a simultaneously bright and brutal heist movie that is entirely synced up to music. Every gunshot, every movement, every viscerally loud car chase- it's all set to the terrific soundtrack of its main character. Baby (Ansel Elgort) is one of the best getaway drivers on the planet, a genius behind the wheel who is paying off a debt by working for Doc (Kevin Spacey), a clinical, brilliant criminal mastermind. But here's what makes him unique- due to an accident as a kid, Baby has a constant ringing in his ears, which means that he always listens to music to drown it out. Baby carries around a variety of iPods for whatever mood he may be in, and when at his best, he executes with perfect precision.

But Baby is involved with some really bad people, and at his core, he isn't a bad kid at all. Baby meets and falls in love with Debora (Lily James), a friendly waitress at his favorite diner who also happens to be a big music fan. He starts to move away from Doc and his gang of thugs and criminals to focus on building a life for himself, making real money as a delivery driver and becoming closer and closer with Debora. But for his last big score, a heist that will see the team of four stealing millions in money orders from a local post office, Doc desperately needs Baby behind the wheel. Scared of what Doc and his thugs could do to his loved ones, Baby reluctantly agrees to drive one last time. But as things quickly go south, Baby will have to find a way out, fighting against the clock to escape the life that has turned him into one of the most wanted criminals in all of Atlanta.

Edgar Wright is a master of using genre to tell colorful and energetic stories, but like Tarantino and the other major filmmakers working today, his films never feel like rip-offs, instead taking on a life of their own. Since his career began, he has put his own spin on the zombie flick, the buddy cop comedy, the sci-fi invasion movie, and even the superhero genre, creating his own classics and making his career an eclectic blend that appeals directly to people like me. With Baby Driver, Wright is putting his stamp on the heist movie, taking cues from the crown jewels of the genre while making a film that could only come from his crazy, brilliant mind. It's Michael Mann's Heat designed as a musical, an action film that feels like it could have been made during the heyday of car chase movies in the 1970s. It's a film that hits the gas and doesn't look back, and it is one hell of a ride.

Wright is an incredibly funny writer and director, and like all of his other films, there's a fair bit of comedy in Baby Driver. But as the director himself said, this is a decidedly more intense and serious film. People die, the stakes are real, and the final act is incredibly tense. It's a big shift from what he has done in the past, but it's still the kind of movie that couldn't have been made by anyone else. Wright is no longer working with the fantasy of Scott Pilgrim or the parody of his Cornetto trilogy- this is a gritty, bold action movie. On paper, this is his most conventional film yet, but it's a testament to his skill as a filmmaker and his impressive control of action, emotion, and tone that Baby Driver feels nothing short of revolutionary. It's the kind of daringly original work that sends your jaw to the floor, a breathtaking tonic to the generic sameness that dominates today's Hollywood.

In a way, it's Wright's most complete film, the one that feels like his total vision executed to sheer perfection. Every music choice, every cut, every shot, every character arc- it all feels like pure Wright. The weakest part of the movie comes in the mid-section, when the filmmaker is forced to establish the stakes, losing some of his signature energy to the requirements of the narrative. But save for that one flaw, Baby Driver is simply a blast. The opening needle drop of "Bellbottoms" sets the stage, and if you're not on board after this bonkers setpiece, you might as well pack your bags and head home. This film is a breathless series of chases and gunfights, boosted by Wright's knack for dialogue and his ability to write characters that are instantly likable and clever. It's the kind of movie that invigorates your system, a joyous ride that is almost awe-inspiring in its carefully crafted kinetic insanity.

Baby is the perfect protagonist, and if this movie becomes a hit (which it really should), there's no doubt in my mind that the character will become a true icon. Ansel Elgort brings the mystery, the charm, the emotion, the sense of humanity- everything that this character needs to work. He's a great young actor, and this is a star-making performance. I wish that Lily James' Debora had a bit more development, but there's a connection between the characters and a chemistry with Elgort that pays off really well. Jamie Foxx does great work playing a person who can only be described as mentally insane (and maybe more than a bit evil), while Jon Hamm delivers a performance that is equally surprising and delightful. Eiza Gonzalez and young Brogan Hall impress in supporting roles, and oh, there's Kevin Spacey. One of the finest actors on the planet in an Edgar Wright movie- and he knocks it out of the park. He's sharp, precise, and funny as hell, and I adored his character.

And after making his most thematically-driven movie with The World's End, which confronted alcoholism, nostalgia, and the futile instincts of humanity, Wright has now turned around and made his most warmly emotional film. Baby's love for his mother is the crux, and his empathy for everyone around him is so important to the story that Wright is trying to tell. His relationship with his foster father (played wonderfully by CJ Jones) is almost tear-jerking at times, and he's always trying to be the best person he can be for Debora. Baby Driver never makes any excuses for crime and it doesn't let anyone off the hook, but Wright's script allows each character to make a choice between the right and wrong path, and it's interesting to see where they go. This results in some dynamite character moments, and it's that emphasis on the human touch that will make this an enduring classic for years to come.

But make no mistake- if you came for the musically-charged car chases, you won't be disappointed. Baby Driver is a mesmerizing achievement of action mastery, created by a filmmaker with such an immersive vision that it's easy to get lost in the madness. The soundtrack includes tracks from Queen, Blur, Focus, The Damned, Dave Brubeck, and more, and the fact that Wright knows exactly when to use each song is honestly astonishing. The individual heist scenes feel like cinematic masterpieces in their own right, as hyperkinetic and visually insane as anything I've seen in an action movie in a long time. And even the quiet moments are fast-paced, as the movie keeps grooving right along thanks to Wright's omnipresent soundtrack. There's nary a bit of silence in Baby Driver- this thing is surely one of the most tightly paced and energetic films in recent memory. It's a spectacle of pure fun, and it's as enjoyable as any action film you'll see this year.

For such a long review, my thoughts on Baby Driver can be condensed into one phrase- it's a blast. It has pretty much everything you could ever want in an action film, and for anyone who loves combining music and cinema as much as I do, something like Baby Driver is a dream come true. Some of these setpieces are ones for the ages, and while only time and multiple viewings will be able to determine where this places in the Wright canon, there's no doubt that this is another work of genius from a director who just can't seem to miss. The Baby Driver universe is one of music and color, where danger and action and romance lie around every corner. It's unpredictable and wildly satisfying, and it is as dynamic and complete as any action film this side of Mad Max: Fury Road. Simply put, Baby Driver is pop cinema at its finest.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.5/10)

Images courtesy of Sony