Thursday, November 22, 2018

Movie Review: “Ralph Breaks the Internet”

Ralph Breaks the Internet

**** 1/2 out of 5
112 minutes
Rated PG for some action and rude humor
Walt Disney Pictures

Article first published at

It took me awhile to understand the title Ralph Breaks the Internet. Obviously a play on going viral — which is the film’s biggest plot mechanic — I just couldn’t believe it wasn’t Ralph Wrecks the Internet. Having seen the movie, it’s a brilliant title even if it also could have been Ralph 2.0 with it involving all things internet. Ralph Breaks the Internet continues Disney’s winning streak at 2-0 after this and Incredibles 2.

It’s been six years since Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman) saved Sugar Rush from the tyranny of King Candy/Turbo. The two are still best friends, but Vanellope is starting to want more with the predictability of her game causing some growing pains. When Ralph decides to surprise her with a new track, Vanellope goes against the controlling player in the real world, causing the steering wheel to break. Mr. Litwak (voiced by Ed O’Neill) can’t afford to replace the part. Now, Ralph and Vanellope are off to the internet via Litwak’s mysterious new Wifi router, to save Sugar Rush from being unplugged for good.

Director Rich Moore returns — with co-writer Phil Johnston joining as co-director — wringing every last laugh out of internet related jokes, with the same audacity as they did video games in Wreck-It Ralph. No stone goes unturned as they mine everything from Disney’s own monopoly — Marvel, Pixar, The Muppets, Lucasfilm, and themselves, of course — with the Disney Princesses getting the biggest laughs. They steal the film right out from under the big strong man. It’s a brilliant segment and could have made for a short all on its own. It’s also refreshing Ralph’s own insecure masculinity winds up being the villain.

A possible Best Song nominee is firmly in place with “A Place Called Slaughter Race” — Slaughter Race being the name of the way more violent online racing game, think PG-rated Grand Theft Auto — that hilariously skewers Disney Princess songs with the help of Disney’s own alum, Alan Menken.

The voice cast return with ample glee, clearly loving their characters. There’s even new characters here to steal the spotlight. Alan Tudyk gets to play polar opposite of King Candy as Knowsmore, the film’s version of Google; Alfred Molina wrings every laugh possible against Reilly as Double Dan; and Bill Hader gets to show a little seedier side as JP Spamley who introduces Ralph to the dark web. Gal Gadot is also great as Shank, the ringleader of the way more violent racing game.

Gorgeously animated, hilariously scripted, and its message of friendship and self esteem carry a different story from Wreck-It Ralph. Ralph Breaks the Internet honestly may fare better in the joke department with parents, but it’s still the perfect holiday treat offering something for everyone as families head out to theaters this weekend. Also be sure to stick through the end credits for two extra payoff scenes.

Movie Review: “Creed II”

Creed II

*** 1/2 out of 5
Rated PG-13 for sports action violence, language, and a scene of sensuality
130 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at

Looking back on my review of the first Creed — aka Rocky 7 — it makes me more aware of why Creed II didn’t sit as well this time around. Previously I said, “It helps that (Sylvester) Stallone took the backseat and didn’t even touch the screenplay, giving him the chance to loosen up for the camera.” While Stallone himself is still great in the film, he did co-write it with Juel Taylor, but at least he didn’t direct. Not that director Steven Caple Jr. can’t resist falling on hard and true sports film clich├ęs by the finale, making this the type of Rocky movie I was hoping the Creed series wouldn’t become.

The synopsis for Creed II is super simple considering it runs more than two hours: Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), has just claimed the Heavyweight title, catching the eye of promoter Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby). Buddy has flown Rocky’s (Stallone) arch nemesis Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) to the U.S. to challenge Adonis. Now, Adonis and Rocky must come face-to-face with the man who killed Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) — Adonis’s father and Rocky’s best friend — to settle old scores and heal reopened wounds.

Considering my lack of background with the franchise — the only Rocky I’ve seen all the way through is Creed — it also doesn’t help Stallone has turned this outing into a direct sequel of Rocky IV, a film my guest advised is the worst Rocky. Not exactly terms of endearment, although, he did also state with Creed II, they’ve managed to make a fantastic sequel to a horrible ’80s movie. So I suppose at least it comes with his blessing as a franchise devotee.

The cast all perform admirably. Stallone continues to work better as a real character than he does when he’s trying to be the action hero. Those days are long gone. Jordan also carries the film on his shoulders granting Creed the humanity necessary to want audiences see him succeed. Let alone carry the franchise in his own character’s name. This is clearly Rocky’s swan song judging by the last 10 minutes of the film.

Tessa Thompson makes up for an underwritten role after being given way more fat to chew on last time. And Lundgren manages to keep himself from becoming comically Russian even if he’s reduced to mumbling with a thick accent and glaring menacing looks. Creed II falls on predictable sports film melodrama where the first film aimed for a more realistic character study approach. I also said about the first Creed that at times it felt more like a Rocky documentary with how alive the boxer’s world felt. Here, director Caple lays on the cliches fast and furious by the end. From the hoots, hollers, and clapping though, it’s super engaging for Rocky fans and that’s really all that counts.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Movie Review: “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald 

*** out of 5
134 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some sequences of fantasy action
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at

It's not a good sign when my wife — a diehard Harry Potter fan — doesn’t care about J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts series. After And Where to Find Them kicked things off to a lackluster start, director David Yates seems to have come out of his post-Tarzan autopilot. It’s too bad Rowling still can’t conjure enough of the old Potter magic she weaved so well. Thankfully, the cast fare better this time around even if the plot still barely makes a lick a sense — as it plows through some challenging franchise growing pains.

London, 1927, Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) is imprisoned by the American Ministry of Magic. Grindelwald is being transported back to London and is freed by one of his followers. Also in the UK, the British Ministry of Magic calls upon Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), offering him a deal to earn back his travel rights: work for the Ministry as an Auror. Newt rejects, placing him on special duty to locate Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) who has surfaced in Europe. Meanwhile, Grindelwald is rising to power and it turns out Newt may be the only one who can stop him as Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) has made a blood pact with Grindelwald to not fight each other.

I’ve really minimized the plot here. It gets super confusing — something Rowling had a huge problem with in the last outing. After reading through my review of the first film, they have definitely improved upon a few things. The action may still be chaotic, but the effects are way better and more believable. Newt learned how to enunciate between films and they’ve put Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) in the background. However, Dan Fogler is still trying way too hard as he does in everything. At least Alison Sudol’s Queenie is nowhere near as annoying. Ezra Miller will make a formidable foe in upcoming entries, and Zoe Kravitz brings some levity stuck heartbroken in a brother/brother love triangle.

And then there’s Depp. While many people are outright furious over his casting, this is the least annoying he’s been in a long time. Even in the grand finale he never chews the scenery the way we’ve come to expect. Love him or hate him, he’s not horrible, but he’s also never great. And Law actually makes for a wonderful young Dumbledore. All things said, it seems like hardcore Potter fans are eating it up and that’s great. The movie is strictly made for them and they can have it!

Just because I’m obligated to sit through it so I can throw in my two cents, doesn’t mean I need to raise the pitchforks and wish Rowling throw in the towel. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald does exactly what you expect it to do: get audiences from point A to B while leaving them wanting more. Whether more is better is something we’ll have to wait to find out. In the meantime, at least Potterheads have something new to keep their appetites whet.

Movie Review: “Instant Family”

Instant Family

**** out of 5
119 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual material, language and some drug references
Paramount Pictures

Article first published at
Editor’s note: This is a guest review by David Blackmer.

Full disclosure up front: I’m a foster dad. I went into seeing Instant Family expecting to get emotional, but also knowing any elements that were remotely unrealistic were really going to bother me.

I was pleasantly surprised on both accounts. I didn’t cry non-stop, and I didn’t find glaring differences between the film and reality (although for cinematic purposes, small gaps were present, of course).

Writer/director Sean Anders made this film based on events from his own life, and his familiarity with the foster care system manifests itself throughout. Whether illustrating parental struggles (both foster and biological), unique marital issues, challenges with extended family, or the devastations the innocent children themselves face, this feature focuses on accuracy first, humor second. There are even some nods to the more complex situations in the foster world: complications with courts, LGBTQ parents, etc.

Instant Family follows Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) as they journey to the decision to adopt children through foster care, then attempt to actually be decent foster parents. They’re sometimes elated, sometimes nervous, sometimes terrified, and rarely unified — just like real parents. They welcome three children (siblings) into their lives, the rebellious teenager Lizzy (Isabela Moner), the no-looking-before-leaping middle child Juan (Gustavo Quiroz), and the temperamental toddler Lita (Julianna Gamiz). Lizzy’s story and interactions with the would-be parents becomes the focus, although the other children are certainly instrumental characters.

The movie also hosts amazing supporting performances from Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer as the social workers who represent the foster care system in all its disjointed glory. In the real world, their roles would be played by a dozen different people, but their diverse personalities (and dialogue) perfectly embody the confusing, oppositional, yet somehow functioning, world of foster care.

When I first got involved in foster care, I felt like Harry Potter discovering a reality, hidden in plain sight, but that I’d never known was there. Instant Family offers a healthy glimpse inside this reality, with a lot of laughs and — maybe — a few tears along the way.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Movie Review: “The Grinch”

The Grinch

** 1/2 out of 5
90 minutes
Rated PG for brief rude humor
Universal Pictures

Article first published at

What may be more surprising about the new adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s beloved The Grinch, is it comes from co-director Scott Mosier. That’s right, Kevin Smith’s long-time producer has made a big budget family christmas film. Does that mean Illumination allowed him to fill it with adult humor? Oh the places they could’ve gone. Instead, our beloved mean one, Mr. Grinch, is stuck in a movie that’s the same size as his heart: two sizes too small.

The story remains exactly the same. So much so it makes me question the film’s purpose.

It’s December 20 and The Grinch (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) has just awoken to find he’s run out of winter supplies. Now, he has to head out to Whoville to find sustenance so he can return to his house on the hill with loyal Max. Along the way he discovers Mayor McGerkle (voiced by Angela Lansbury) wants to see Christmas be three times bigger this year. Meanwhile, little Cindy-Lou Who (voiced by Cameron Seely) wants to meet the real Santa Claus and hatches a plan. A plan which may blow The Grinch’s own who is dressing up as Santa to steal all the presents from Whoville.

For those looking to spend money on a brighter, shinier, version of The Grinch, this film’s for you. For the rest of us, the original 1966 classic will certainly do. At least it’s better than Ron Howard’s 2000 disaster. It’s visually appealing and Cumberbatch seems born to voice The Grinch, it’s just too bad the character is surrounded by the exact same story. A giant Christmas tree in town square is hardly enough to warrant a new remake. But Illumination knows how to keep things light enough to bring in the bucks, and on that note alone, they’re going to have good luck.

If you have to go see The Grinch I suppose you could do worse, considering the alternative is The Nutcracker, maybe families are cursed.

Movie Review: “Overlord”


**** 1/2 out of 5
109 minutes
Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing images, language, and brief sexual content
Paramount Pictures

Article first published at

A funny thing happened on the way to the release of Overlord. When Netflix surprised everyone with their Super Bowl spot for The Cloverfield Paradox with the full film live as soon as the game was over, producer J.J. Abrams had previously announced that a fourth Cloverfield was in the can and called Overlord.

When we finally started getting trailers and TV spots, the film was still called Overlord, and Abrams reversed course saying it was not part of the Cloverfield world. As excited as I was, I couldn’t help but play Abrams’s mystery box game. I was perfectly willing to accept Overlord on its own terms — even if it was not a Cloverfield entry. And it’s a good thing, because spoiler: Overlord is not.

On the eve of D-Day, a group of paratroopers wind up stranded on their way to destroy a German radio tower suspiciously located on top of a church. Now, Cpl. Ford (Wyatt Russell), Pvt. Boyce (Jovan Adepo), Tibbet (John Magaro), Dawson (Jacob Anderson), Chase (Iain De Caestecker), and French villager Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), are up to their elbows in Nazis and super soldiers with sinister experiments taking place below “The Church” by doctors Wafner (Pilou Asbaek) and Schmidt (Erich Redman).

For those looking for a badass Nazi zombie movie look no further. Those looking for a rollicking war-set action flick, director Julius Avery — along with screenwriters Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith — deliver on all fronts as well. There’s been a lot of hype surrounding the film since its premiere at Fantastic Fest in September, and it holds up. Overlord is the best kind of horror film genre fans love — full of exploding heads, severed limbs, and top notch action to boot!

The cast provide characters we can root for instead of just waiting for them to get picked off one by one. Cinematographers Laurie Rose and Fabian Wagner make sure the action is expertly staged and captured including an amazing version of a halo jump that feels right out of Paramount’s last big action feast, Mission: Impossible – Fallout. Jed Kurzel provides an effectively creepy score, and the special effects crew pour on the gore without it becoming too over the top.

Halloween may have been last week, but let’s face it, anytime is a great time for a fantastic horror/action hybrid. Overlord lives up to its own hype, and keeps the Abrams train chugging along. With Overlord, Get Out, and A Quiet Place, it’s a good time to be a horror fan and it’s nice to see new directors bringing a breath of fresh air to a genre that relies on dead bodies.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Movie Review: “Bohemian Rhapsody”

Bohemian Rhapsody

**** out of 5
134 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, suggestive material, drug content and language
20th Century Fox

Article first published at

Not every film can manage to escape the clutches of its troubled production history. Lucky for Bohemian Rhapsody, it has the power of Queen behind it. By now, everyone knows director Bryan Singer was fired by Fox after on-set squabbles with star Rami Malek over the Freddie Mercury/Queen biopic, for constant tardiness, and deserting the production at one point. But the saving grace of Dexter Fletcher — director of the delightful Eddie the Eagle and whose own Elton John biopic, Rocketman, hits theaters next year — keeps Bohemian Rhapsody from floundering and rises to show Queen still has the power to rock us.

In 1970, Farrokh Bulsara — Freddie Mercury (Malek) to you and me — is a college student working as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport, dealing with at home daddy issues, and stalking the local band Smile. We see the collaboration get off to a rocky start when Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) need a new singer. Freddie shows off his range and joins the band with the addition of John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) cementing them as Queen. A 10-year whirlwind including their contract with EMI, feuding with Ray Foster (Mike Myers), their U.S. tour, and Freddie’s burgeoning sexuality, all leads up to Freddie delivering the news of having AIDS, and their triumphant 1985 Live Aid performance.

There’s been a lot of complaints Bohemian Rhapsody tries to downplay Freddie’s homosexuality, but that makes me wonder if they even saw the movie. It’s addressed extremely early in the movie and is never glossed over. It may be downplayed in a sense to keep the film PG-13, but with Singer, Fletcher, Malek, and screenwriter Anthony McCarten focusing on the band every bit as much as Freddie himself it makes sense. They want to show the solidarity of the group as a family and that’s where the film shines brightest. Even if it also means the film turns into exactly what Walk Hard was spoofing so well.

The entire cast bring to life one of the best ensembles and it probably helps they had both May and Taylor hired on as creative consultants. There was a lot of fun to be had through their years of stardom and it shows on screen. Even if you have issues with the film, the final 20 minutes — which is nothing but Live Aid — you should still walk out happy. They also use the music to add extra subtext to some of Queen’s most popular songs. Malek proves he’s much more than Mr. Robot and gives a stunning performance. He is reason enough to see the film.

There’s no telling how much of a difference the film would be if Singer hadn’t gone AWOL and dismissed, but Fletcher keeps the film moving at a brisk pace. And it was probably not the worst idea to bring in a fellow Brit as he infused a cheeky sense of humor. There’s quite a few moments of inside jokes — the funniest being a Wayne’s World reference — which could have felt out of place. When you’re making film about one of the world’s biggest bands, they fit right in. This may not wind up being a Best Picture contender, but with Malek as Freddie Mercury and the Queen anthems, Bohemian Rhapsody should still rock you.

Movie Review: “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms”

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

** 1/2 out of 5
99 minutes
Rated PG for some mild peril
Walt Disney Pictures

Article first published at

It’s been a rough year for Disney’s live-action films. First there was the disappointing mess A Wrinkle in Time, to the less-than-enchanting Christopher Robin. Now the holiday season sees The Nutcracker and the Four Realms released to try and infuse some Christmas magic. Unfortunately, this adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short story, doesn’t have enough Disney magic to become an annual favorite. With two directors (Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston) visions’ clearly at odds, it’s a good showcase for Mackenzie Foy. But never feels as overindulgent as it thinks it is and falls flat in the finale when it should be kicking into high gear.

It’s Christmas Even and Clara (Foy) is mourning the loss of her mother. Her father presents Clara and her siblings with their mother’s final gifts leaving Clara bewildered by a locked, egg-shaped box. The box was crafted by her godfather, Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), who helps lead her to a parallel world to find the key. Here, she meets the Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley), Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez), and Shiver (Richard E. Grant) — the rulers of the Land of Sweets, Flowers, and Snowflakes — who task Clara with saving their realms from Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), the ruler of the Land of Amusement, who wants to conquer them all.

Johnston is best known for providing mostly entertaining action: The Rocketeer, Jumanji, Jurassic Park III, The Wolfman, Captain America: The First Avenger. Hallstrom for manipulative adult dramas: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, The Shipping News, a couple of Nicholas Sparks adaptations, The Hundred-Foot Journey, and A Dog’s Purpose. Whomever thought these two would be a good fit together, needs a career reassignment.

Having already been adapted numerous times, it would take something truly magical for The Nutcracker and the Four Realms to stand out — something not even the Mouse House can do apparently. The cast do what they can with Ashleigh Powell’s screenplay — Foy and Jayden Fowora-Knight as Phillip, a guard she befriends along the way, make an enjoyable pair — but the rest are left to act like they’ve walked out of a cartoon. And not in the enjoyable Amy Adams as Giselle in Enchanted kind of way.

Crammed with with bloated CGI and an ending that comes out of nowhere, this Nutcracker will please only the youngest audience members. Considering that’s who it’s clearly made for, I guess we shouldn’t be asking for too much more. As for the rest of us — and wiser parents — they should skip this altogether and head out to catch a live performance to see why the stage production of Nutcracker continues to be the holiday tradition it is.