Saturday, March 17, 2018

Movie Review: “Tomb Raider”

Tomb Raider

**** out of 5
118 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and for some language
Warner Bros. Pictures

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After what felt like an interminable two months — the only watchable films so far this year being Black Panther and Game Night — we’re finally getting some good releases. It may be surprising to hear glowing remarks when it comes to a reboot of the Tomb Raider series. It appears that a change of studio and star were just what the raider needed. Scrapping any connection to the Angelina Jolie films, this may not be a perfect action film. But it is a fantastic adventure from start to finish and sets the series up for a new generation, leaving you wanting more by the time the credits roll.

Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) is a spunky, street smart food delivery girl who’s in debt at her favorite MMA club. After an incident with the police leaves her in need, her missing father’s assistant, Ana Miller (Kristin Scott Thomas), comes calling to try to get her to accept her inheritance. Instead, Lara discovers that her father Richard (Dominic West) was up to more than just boardroom meetings.

Turns out, Richard was on the hunt for Himiko, the mythical Queen of Yamatai who was thought to have power over life and death. Now, Lara is on her own quest to find her father, along with the help of Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), whose own father went missing helping Richard. But just wouldn’t you know it, they find themselves facing off against Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), working for the mysterious Trinity who are trying to find Himiko’s tomb with ulterior motives.

No one expects Tomb Raider to be the smartest film, but it’s at least smart enough to get us from one action scene to the next. Director Roar Uthaug, and screenwriters Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons, give us a worthy updated reboot film based on the Crystal Dynamics rebooted video game from 2013.

The best part is in the casting. Vikander is perfect as Lara, using her Oscar-winning acting chops to take Lara from naive and confused to complete badass by the end of the film. A character arc is not something you see in an action film these days. The rest of the cast work well too, even if it feels like Goggins should have been allowed to get a little crazier as the villain. Wu makes for a great sidekick with the role reversal working fantastic as the two play off each other very well.

Hopefully this Tomb Raider finds a bigger audience than the one that left the Jolie films wallowing after two outings because Warner Bros. has done the series proud and now that we’ve gotten the origin story out of the way again, I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Movie Review: “A Wrinkle in Time”

A Wrinkle in Time

** out of 5
109 minutes
Rated PG for thematic elements and some peril
Walt Disney Pictures

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After the success of Thelma, Ava DuVernay was offered the chance to direct Black Panther. Quoting differences in vision, it’s very clear she was not the right choice. Instead of joining Disney through Marvel Studios, she moved on to adapt Madeleine L’Engle’s novel A Wrinkle in Time instead. You can’t blame her for trying. With an A-list cast and enough money to sink any film into CGI oblivion, DuVernay forgets to inject the film with any adrenaline while Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell’s screenplay meanders its way through wasting a $100 million-plus budget.

Meg (Storm Reid) is coping with her father, Mr. Murry (Chris Pine), missing for four years. Mr. Murry was a brilliant scientist who believes he found a way to travel the galaxy using only his mind. Bullied at school by Veronica (Rowan Blanchard), Meg finally defends herself and her younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) causing a chance encounter with Calvin (Levi Miller). Soon enough, Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) come calling to inform Meg that her father is trapped on a far away planet by The It (David Oyelowo). Now she must “tesser” via tesseract (a brain frequency) to a far away land along with Calvin and Charles Wallace in order to save her father and bring him home.

A Wrinkle in Time may only be 109 minutes, but it sure feels like an eternity. Before the film started, I asked a colleague’s wife if she’d ever read the book and she said she tried as a child and again as a teen and was never able to make sense of it. Prepare yourselves adults, you’re about to feel the same way. Nonsensical and boring, there aren’t enough visuals to keep the plodding pace from feeling glacial. The cast never feels inspired — aside from one particularly creepy sequence with Michael Pena — and the visuals aren’t anything special. With L’Engle’s book published in 1962, there are plenty of films since then that were clearly inspired by different aspects. Even Interstellar owes some debt.

Apparently it fares well enough with kids at least. Bringing an eight and four-year-old puts it in perspective: adults will hate it, but at least their kids will be entertained. There are family films and then there are children films. A Wrinkle in Time is the latter. If there’s one positive to the film’s release, it’s that at least representation/diversity will win at the box office. It’s just a really funny coincidence that DuVernay is going to lose up against the film she was supposed to direct.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

4K UHD/Blu-ray Review: “Coco”

2017 was a year of two Pixars. Cars 3 showed that the franchise is running on fumes, but thankfully, they also treated us to Coco. Set in Mexico and revolving around Dia de los Muertos, director Lee Unkrich proves that Toy Story 3 was no fluke. Together with co-director/co-writer Adrian Molina, Coco made a moving love letter to our Mexican neighbors and showed that emotion runs deep no matter which side of the border you’re on. Coco was a critical/box office smash and is being released on 4K UHD and Blu-ray with its evident Best Animated Feature win right around the corner.

Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) is living in Mexico, dealing with a family “curse.” His great-great-grandmother has forbidden the Riveras from indulging in music after her husband left the family with dreams of becoming a huge star. Now shoemakers, Miguel just wants to sing. He’s convinced his great-great-grandfather is the sensational Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt) and steals his guitar during the Day of the Dead festivities. When he’s whisked away to the Land of the Dead, he must earn his past family’s blessing in order to return to the land of the living. He’s joined by Hector (voiced by Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal) who also wants to take a trip to the living before he’s forgotten forever and suffers the “final death.”

Disney/Pixar delivers Coco in a 4K/Blu-ray combo pack, framed in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio on respective BD-66 (4K) and BD-50 (Blu-ray) discs. While the 1080p presentation certainly shines as much as you’d hope, the 4K disc really gives Coco the extra pop you’d expect. Upscaled from a 2K Digital Intermediate — Unkrich says that they can’t see a significant difference to finish their films in native 4K — anyone who can’t see the jump in resolution may need to check their settings. Coco in 4K almost looks 3D — something Disney seems to be wishy-washy on these days — and offers a marked improvement, even more so than their Cars 3 UHD debut. It’s definitely photo realistic. I can only imagine how spectacular The Good Dinosaur could benefit from a 4K upgrade. Unfortunately, the HDR enhancement doesn’t deliver too much of a difference, but the uptick in resolution sure makes up for it. On the bright side, blacks are expectedly deeper, shadows more revealing, colors better balanced, and contrast still super toasty without feeling blown out.

On the audio front, the Blu-ray comes armed with a decent 7.1 Dolby TrueHD track which forces viewers to pump up the volume well above reference settings. The 4K disc comes with an upgraded Dolby Atmos track that feels like a completely different mix. Surround heights provide the spacious soundscape you’d expect whether it’s Dia de los Muertos family activities, the bustling Land of the Dead city streets, or the De la Cruz concert finale. Dialogue is always clean and clear. Directionality is improved to pinpoint precision, but the most obvious improvement is during the end credits. The DTS track blares the vocals from the rear speakers, something I found odd and wondered if it would be handled better on the Dolby Atmos, and I was completely right. Dialogue is front and center as it should be.

As engaging as most of the track is, it’s surprisingly front heavy, rears themselves are rarely engaged. Additional audio tracks include English and Spanish Dolby Digital Plus 7.1 and English Dolby Digital 5.1/2.0 tracks. Subtitles include English, Spanish, and French.

If you’re looking for special features, don’t worry, Coco has you covered! The 4K disc doesn’t have any, so you’ll have to start with the Blu-ray. Disc One contains the film and the following extras: “Audio Commentary” featuring co-directors Unkrich and Molina, and producer Darla Anderson who sort through a collection of stories discussing the plot, characters, visual effects, voice work, and research. “Welcome to the Fiesta” (2:16) is a short and sweet “proof of concept” short with optional audio commentary. “Mi Familia” (10:00) features the filmmakers discussing the rules enforced upon them growing up and what they think about them as adults. “Dante” (6:14) examines the Xoloitzcuintli and its influence as Miguel’s trusty companion in the Land of the Dead. “How to Draw a Skeleton” (3:18) a quick, self-explanatory tutorial.

Disc Two features: “A Thousand Pictures a Day” (20:03) is a trip to Mexico with the crew to get up close and personal with the people and locations for optimum authenticity. “The Music of Coco” (13:12) covers the different genres and styles composer Michael Giacchino worked into the score to help tell the story. “Land of Our Ancestors” (6:19) feels like an expansion of “A Thousand Pictures” but focuses on the land of the dead. “Fashion Through the Ages” (8:39) explores the various costumes from different time periods. “The Real Guitar” (3:08) shows how they created De la Cruz’s guitar in real life before animating it.

“Paths to Pixar: Coco” (11:44) is a fantastic look at the Latino crew who worked on the project and how they came to work for the animation giant. “How to Make Papel Picado” (2:19) is another short tutorial showing to make the colorful decorations. “You Got the Part!” (2:12) is video footage of Unkrich delivering the best Christmas present ever to Gonzalez (Miguel). “Deleted Scenes” (33:07) features introductory scenes with Unkrich and Molina: “Dia de los Muertos” (an excised opening number when Coco was going to be a full-blown musical), “The Way of the Riveras” (another musical sequence), “Celebrity Tour,” “The Bus Escape,” “Alebrije Attack,” “The Family Fix,” and “To the Bridge.” And finally, the film’s “Trailers & Promos” include “Feeling — United States Trailer #1” (2:12), “Dante’s Lunch — Web Exclusive” (1:56), “Destiny — Mexico Trailer” (2:34), “Journey — Brazil Trailer” (2:01), “Belong — Australian Trailer” (2:13), and “Un Poco Coco” (3:05).

Coco was a true return to form for Pixar after a little bit of a slump and being overshadowed by Disney — who is on fire these days. But with a huge heart and jaw-dropping animation, Coco proves that Pixar can still deliver — not that I ever doubted them. The 4K disc provides the uptick in resolution you’d expect crafting and almost 3D appearance. Unfortunately, while the Dolby Atmos track is better mixed than the 7.1 DTS, it continues Disney’s underwhelming audio record. If only they could get their 4K discs to sound as spectacular as they look. Needless to say, the 4K UltraHD Blu-ray is the best way to watch Coco at home, but the Blu-ray disc continues to show there’s still some life in the format.

Article first published on Blogcritics.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Movie Review: “Red Sparrow”

Red Sparrow

* out of 5
139 minutes
Rated R for strong violence, torture, sexual content, language and some graphic nudity
20th Century Fox

Article first published at

In the current #metoo climate, Red Sparrow should be the last movie getting a wide release. Filled with enough rape and violence against women to make anyone uncomfortable, it’s surprising to see Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role — especially after being one of the original Fappening victims where nude photos were leaked online.

Reteaming with her Hunger Games director, Francis Lawrence, maybe the two of them were looking to make something more adult. But all I could think by the end credits is that Lawrence had some kind of vendetta against JLaw’s rising stardom he helped create and wanted to get some kind of revenge.

Ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is one of Russia’s top performers, until she breaks her leg. Scrambling to make ends meet for herself and her sick mother Nina (Joely Richardson), her uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) talks her into helping him He works for Russian intelligence and needs to replace a Russian politician’s phone with a state-provided phone. Of course things go awry. The diplomat is killed and Ivan offers Dominika the opportunity to work for the state.

Meanwhile, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) is a CIA operative in Moscow meeting an asset but the police set Nate on the run and his contact goes missing. Soon enough, Dominika is set after Nate and the two are caught up in a game of cat-and-mouse with the high ranking General Vladimir Andreievich Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons) hoping to flush out a mole.

There’s way more plot involved than this and that synopsis was already convoluted enough. Sometimes adaptations — this is based on the novel by Jason Matthews — can feel long-winded when they stick too close to the book and there’s no reason Red Sparrow needed to be 140 minutes long. When rape is used for entertainment purposes it’s one of the most uncomfortable thing you can watch.

While JLaw is telling bloggers to not see her movie on Stephen Colbert, I can’t help but wonder if she’s really upset with the bloggers or if she’s just embarrassed by the film. Hopefully the latter. Even Edgerton is surprisingly boring and Charlotte Rampling as the Headmistress of Sparrow School should know better than to star in something this seedy. Red Sparrow is simply reprehensible. It adds nothing new to the spy genre, while making you wonder what JLaw’s agent was thinking.

Movie Review: “Death Wish”

Death Wish
** out of 5
107 minutes
Rated R for strong bloody violence, and language throughout
MGM Pictures

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Eli Roth has never been become synonymous with revenge thrillers. After marking his territory in the horror genre with Cabin Fever and the first two Hostels, Roth may be more well known as Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterd, “The Bear Jew.” He went back to the drawing board with the horror/comedy The Green Inferno, but then shifted away with 2015’s Sundance entry, and remake, Knock Knock.. With Death Wish, yet another remake, Roth continues with the revenge thriller genre — and not in a good way. Death Wish has no idea what message it wants to say, and Roth decides to give it the kitchen sink approach instead.

For Dr. Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis), he’s got it all with a loving wife and daughter — Lucy (Elisabeth Shue) and Jordan (Camila Morrone) — and according to his brother Frank (Vincent D’Onofrio) he’s the one with all the money. Unfortunately, Frank tells this to the wrong valet and sure enough, robbers come calling. Paul isn’t home during the robbery which finds Lucy shot dead and Jordan in a coma, so now he’s dealing with the dead-end investigation by Detectives Rains (Dean Norris) and Jackson (Kimberly Elise). Now, Paul decides to take matters into his own hands, teach himself how to handle a gun via YouTube, and get revenge on the thugs who ruined his life.

In light of the Stoneman Douglas High School shootings, the most vulgar aspect of Death Wish is that the release date wasn’t bumped back. As cringeworthy as the dialogue may be, as bad as some of the acting may be, and as boneheaded as the directing may be, I can’t help but wonder if the NRA paid MGM to go ahead and release it. There’s also some painfully obvious reshoots, along with the film’s wishy washy handling of gun rights. Is Roth anti-gun, pro-gun, spoofing guns?

Death Wish tries to push the envelope as a ’90s wannabe thriller and falls apart on every level.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Movie Review: “Game Night”

Game Night

**** 1/2 out of 5
100 minutes
Rated R for language, sexual references and some violence
Warner Bros. Pictures

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The best black comedies walk a line between being too jokey and too dark. Thankfully, co-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein know when to go for broke in both cases for Game Night. Screenwriter Mark Perez delivers a hilarious alternative to David Fincher’s similar, little-seen masterpiece The Game. Especially with a cast that’s up for anything Daley and Goldstein throw their way.

For Max (Justin Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) it’s love at first pub quiz. Simultaneously answering a Teletubbies question they are instantly smitten with each other and their competitive natures. After years of happy marriage the two are now trying to start a family. Turns out, Max may be too stressed due to a lifelong sibling rivalry with his brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler). And just wouldn’t you know it, Brooks is coming to town and wants to join them for game night.

But this time, Brooks wants to hold it at the house he’s renting. The trick is Brooks has set up a murder mystery, but doesn’t know that it’s gonna be crashed by a real kidnapping which Max and Annie — along with their pals Ryan (Billy Magnussen), fellow married couple Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), and Ryan’s date Sarah (Sharon Horgan), all think is fake. The kidnappers show up, the game is afoot, and hilarity ensues.

I’m not sure exactly how much of Perez’s Game Night screenplay is intact — there sure seems to be a lot of ad-libbing — but he’s come up with some hilarious jokes. While a lot of this scenario has been played out before, there are some blisteringly funny scenes. One in particular involving a bullet extraction is almost laugh until you cry funny.

There are also plenty of movie references, in-jokes, and a hilarious is-that-really-him cameo. It helps that the cast is spry for shenanigans. Bateman may be playing another version of his snarky funnyman, but he’s super likable here. It probably helps that he’s paired with McAdams who seems to be having the time of her life.

And then there’s Jesse Plemons. Playing the creepy cop neighbor who used to join in on game night until his divorce, giving one of his best performances ever. He’s so funny, he’s already on my shortlist for Best Supporting Actor. Directors Daley and Goldstein may have been divisive after having directed the Ed Helms Vacation reboot, but more than make up for it here.

Movie Review: “Annihilation”


**** 1/2
115 minutes
Rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality
Paramount Pictures

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Writer/director Alex Garland finally made a name for himself with one of 2015’s best films in Ex Machina. Whenever this happens, there’s bound to be plenty of scrutiny no matter their next project. Deciding to adapt Annihilation, a possibly unfilmable novel that’s the first part of a trilogy — Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach series — proves Garland is more than up for continuing to take on hard sci-fi. Paramount’s decision to release the film overseas via Netflix shows even they had no idea how to truly market it. Filled with more questions than answers — and one of the most terrifying scenes ever filmed — Annihilation may not be here to break box office records, but it sure makes you think long and hard after it’s over.

Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist, trying to cope with the absence of her missing husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac). When Kane randomly shows up after a year — and acting super weird — she wants answers. But before she can have them, Kane has a seizure. En route to the hospital they are taken to the Southern Reach compound. Here, Lena meets Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who explains to her that “Area X” aka “The Shimmer,” is expanding after an object from space collided with a lighthouse in a national park. Kane is the only person who has managed to come back after going in to investigate. Now, Ventress and Lena are headed in — along with physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), anthropologist Cass (Tuva Novotny), and paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez) — to see if they can find the answers the military couldn’t.

And that’s all you should know. No review outside of a full thesis would be able to cover what’s going on in Annihilation. And multiple viewings are definitely required. This is one of those sci-fi epics that will long be dissected and analyzed for years to come. Even if most people might not see it. With that being the case, at least I can say that Garland has put together a film that’s so intense — even though a little too slow at times — and hypnotic that you’re glued to the screen.

The cast is fantastic with Garland leading a female lead cast into what used to be men-only territory. Just another layer of his cinematic onion. Visually compelling — it’s probably mesmerizing in a Dolby Vision theater — and mentally challenging, Annihilation demands your full attention. While never a love-it or hate-it affair, it’s certainly going to have just as many deterrers as those of us who love it. Garland continues his winning streak and proves that Ex Machina was no fluke. It left me dying to read all three of VanderMeer’s books and hope the trilogy gets completed theatrically.