Before bearing witness to the brilliant magic of Disney’s live-action Winnie the Pooh reboot, Christopher Robin, I was given goosebumps by the trailer for Disney’s live-action remake of Dumbo. If you thought Disney was going to make money with its purchase of Fox’s Marvel Cinematic Universe or UFC, consider the money to made by remaking every classic Disney, cartoon movie.
Christopher Robin wasn’t just good. It was funny and heartwarming and transported me to another time and place like the tree transported Christopher Robin to the Hundred Acre Wood.
You can’t go wrong with Pooh. I’ve maintained that The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen, and Robin retains that humor by keeping Pooh’s character, and all the characters of Hundred Acre Wood, consistently classic. All great reboots and remakes appeal to their longtime fans’ affinity for nostalgia by preserving the characters they grew up loving. I wrote about Solo doing so, and Robin is no exception.
Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore and Tigger might have shed their cartoon bodies for live-action “stuff and fluff,” but they are otherwise unchanged and equally enchanting--if not more so. I actually felt as childish watching the grown-up Christopher Robin as Ewan McGregor looked playing with his friends upon his return to Hundred Acre Wood. That feeling was mutual for much of the United Kingdom’s moviegoers over the Labor Day weekend, as Robin topped BlacKkKlansman at the U.K. box office. It was sixth despite being in its fifth week in the states.
Robin has recouped its $75 million budget and has nearly made as much on top of that as of this writing. The live-action remake of The Jungle Book made almost a billion dollars on its $175-million budget back in 2016. It stands to reason that Disney could use the same template to turn its longtime, cartoon assets into revenue generators once again, and they are. Not only did I see the trailer for the live-action Dumbo remake, but the rebooted Mary Poppins Returns also made an appearance, and while the original was a live-action film, it is indicative of Disney adding some cars to the seemingly endless train of Hollywood reboots and remakes.
In May 2019, a live-action version of Aladdin directed by Guy Ritchie will hit theaters, followed by John Favreau’s The Lion King in July and Milan in March of 2020. There is a score of reboots and remakes reportedly in the works at Disney, which should buoy its books well above water for a very long time. Imagine, a live-action reboot of The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under or, as I pitched to my sister during the trailers prior to Robin, a live-action remake of The Great Mouse Detective. Disney’s options are vast given the improved technology around visual effects, so it doesn’t have to rely on comic book movies to make its money in theaters.
Not only is Hollywood remaking and retelling the same fictional stories, but stories based in fact are also being retold because we keep repeating history. Exactly nothing has changed since Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was released in 1989 except, maybe, racial tensions becoming more tense. Black Americans are still being killed by racist cops and white supremacy groups are growing in numbers, getting mainstream support from the President of the United States and are killing way more Americans than Islamic Extremists. The Klan is back with a vengeance, and BlacKkKlansman isn't shy about sharing that fact.
BlacKkKlansman tells the true story of a black police officer in Colorado, new to the department and first of his kind, going “undercover” as a Ku Klux Klan supporter to investigate the “organization.” After cold-calling the Ku Klux Klan utilizing “white voice” not unlike black comedians Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Dave Chappelle, Ron Stallworth boasts to his precinct chief that he can speak both “the King’s English” and jive in order to infiltrate the local chapter of the Klan and determine the organization’s intentions and dangerousness while also getting an inside look at the college’s Black Student Union, who invited a Black Panther to speak in town.
The year is 1979 in Lee’s rendition of this true story, but the actual events occurred in 1972. Changing the date allowed Lee to reference then trendy blaxploitation movies and the KKK’s supposed support of President Richard Nixon’s re-election. It might look like 1979 on screen, but if you read just the script’s dialogue, you’d wonder whether it was 1979, 1989 or 2019.
Lee makes multiple references to current events throughout the film, making a comment on our time more so than a comment on the times in which it’s set. Stallworth is accused of naivety by a fellow officer when he says, “People would never elect a man like David Duke President.” Yet people elected Donald Trump, who called some white supremacists at Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally “good people.” Good people, however, don’t discriminate as to whom they are good.
Duke, satisfyingly portrayed by Topher Grace, has a gullibility and all-around lack of awareness about him that somehow makes him not only tolerable but hilariously cartoonish. Duke was obviously concerned with how the film portrayed him, afraid that he’d come off as stupid. Lee didn’t care even though Duke told the real-life Stallworth that he “always respected Spike Lee.”
Duke also delivers a line drawing from current events in one of his many phone conversations with Stallworth, saying he wants “America to achieve its greatness again,” another obvious reference to the President's popular, campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” I suspect Duke and Trump share the same idea as to what constitutes this country’s greatest greatness, and if it’s not pre-Civil War, it’s at least a time when white people didn’t have to share anything with black people except the air they breathe.
Do the Right Thing, like BlacKkKlansman, was inspired by actual events. Black kids were indeed chased out of a pizzeria in New York City. Whether the boycott of said pizzeria actually occurred and resulted in a riot destroying the pizzeria is unknown. What is known and is made abundantly clear in BlacKkKlansman, is that the hostility and contempt underlying race relations in America have persisted if not worsened since 1989 despite BlacKkKlansman taking place 10 years prior. BlacKkKlansman transcends time in that sense, but it doesn’t attempt to transcend race despite an obvious opportunity to do so.
Stallworth is portrayed by John David Washington, who does the character justice by conveying both the gumshoe’s greenness and opportunistic, entrepreneurial spirit despite an obvious internal struggle between the black cop walking the beat and the black man longing for and working toward justice for his black brothers and sisters being killed in the streets by racist cops.
Stallworth doesn’t let anything stop him from pursuing his passion project. He is not the easily distracted Mookie of Do the Right Thing. Stallworth is as motivated as they come, and to him, the fact he’s black doesn’t mean he can’t infiltrate the local KKK chapter. There are more than enough white officers to serve as his stand-in, but it would take the right kind of white officer to infiltrate the Klan. Sure, the Colorado Springs Police Department, like most American police departments at the time, had more than its fair share of racist cops. But a racist cop could still give himself away as a cop despite the depth of his racism.
Enter Flip Zimmerman, a Jewish detective who wasn’t raised Jewish. Zimmerman is aptly portrayed by Adam Driver, who is almost too cool when accused of being a Jew at gunpoint by a member of the local KKK chapter. The Klansman is so concerned over Zimmerman’s bloodlines that he demands he take a lie detector test, but Zimmerman’s partner comes to the rescue just in time. Or does he? Zimmerman later alludes to the fact that he’s never really given his Jewish heritage much thought until now, but that doesn’t mean he could pass a “Jew detector” test at gunpoint, even if he wasn’t raised Jewish.
Despite the engaging performances of Washington and Driver, Lee misses an opportunity to make BlacKkKlansman a little more enjoyable and, dare I say, feel-good, by focusing on growing relationships between characters at the expense of others, and that’s likely by design. Lee doesn’t make many feel-good films, but Do the Right Thing certainly does a better job developing the relationship between Mookie and Sal than BlacKkKlansman does for Ron and Flip. Washington and Driver give fine individual performances, but their time on screen together isn’t ample or dramatic enough for their characters’ relationship to grow throughout the film like Mookie and Sal’s relationship does in Do the Right Thing.
Besides length, there’s really no reason not to give Ron and Flip a few moments to convey the growth of their work relationship. Any good film requires a hero to overcome conflict and grow as a person. The same goes for the relationships between characters. They too need to grow and motivate the action and change of the characters, and the relationship between Ron and Flip leaves much to be desired.
Not once do I remember Flip irate despite the danger Ron’s created for him. He’s the one risking everything while the “Black Klansman” sits safely at the other end of a telephone making friends with the grand wizard of the KKK. In fact, the film should have been called BlacKkKlansmen, because Flip is one half of the Black Klansman and has more at risk than Ron.
At first, Stallworth is completely careless when it comes to his new partner’s life, and there’s never really a moment where Stallworth shares a realization of and appreciation for the white man taking all the risk while the black man remains safe on the other end of a telephone. Just because Zimmerman’s white doesn’t mean the Klan won’t kill him. This missed opportunity for Lee to display the dynamics influencing the relationship between Stallworth and Zimmerman is one that could have contributed to the film’s drama and the characters’ respective growths throughout the film.
But Driver seemed emotionally unavailable and barely vulnerable throughout the film, whether he was undercover or not. He had his guard up at all times, and that could be his interpretation of the character, as an undercover detective should probably have his guard up at all times. Or his lack of emotional range could be due to a lack of chemistry with Washington, which would explain Lee's limiting their relationship's screen time. Washington doesn't give Driver much to work with in Flip's most vulnerable moment, but if the scene in question is not ad-libbed, the script doesn't give Driver much to work off of either.
Driver might be a victim of pigeon-holing on a Napoleon Dynamite scale, where regardless of Driver's role in a film, he will always be Kylo Ren to some people, which isn't fair to him, but a role like that is sometimes inescapable and can be detrimental to any other performance at no fault to Driver except for being iconic. Driver's demeanor as Flip was almost as if he was inwardly lamenting his performance knowing audiences would disconnect themselves from the viewing experience at the shock of seeing a Star Wars character in a Spike Lee Joint.
For whatever reason, and I'm leaning toward creative choice, Lee focuses our attention on the relationship between Stallworth and his love interest, Patrice Dumas, a militant, student leader he meets on his first day working undercover. Her disdain for “pigs” only grows that evening when she’s harassed by one of Stallworth’s peers while he waits for her to meet him at a bar. Stallworth doesn’t let his secret profession stop him from making a rookie mistake and getting personal.
Lee’s focus on the fragile relationship between Stallworth and Dumas instead of the underdeveloped relationship between Stallworth and Zimmerman robs viewers of a relationship that could have provided them a reason for hope, which is something Lee’s films tend to struggle conveying due to subject matter and history. Black Americans’ relationships with police, or lack thereof, have been and continue to be shaped by a very warranted lack of trust. Police have been and continue to be employed to further hinder black Americans, who in 2018 still feel the financial and social effects of slavery. That doesn’t scream hope, but neither do Spike Lee Joints. Spike Lee Joints mirror reality more so than most filmmakers in history.
Lee’s choice to focus on the relationship between black man and black woman and the struggles they experience despite sharing a skin color instead of focusing on the black man and white man and the struggles they experience working together in spite of their differing skin color might indicate that Lee believes black Americans still need to unify before all Americans unify. In Do the Right Thing, Mookie and Sal’s relationship isn’t cheated like Ron and Flip’s, but Mookie still pitches for his home team regardless of who’s signing his checks.
Mookie’s boss isn’t responsible for the death of Radio Raheem, but Sal’s already short and shrinking temper in the summer and pizza oven heat, and his growing defensiveness and displeasure with race-related questions posed as if he’s on trial for being racist because of the pictures of Italian-Americans he hangs in the pizzeria, escalate the incident to violence before white cops ever get their murdering hands on Raheem.
An argument over music and its volume in Do the Right Thing and the resulting response by police sounds eerily similar to recent smartphone videos taken of police brutalizing a minority amongst a crowd of minorities pleading for the police to stop. Again, not much has changed in 30 years except the number and quality of video cameras and camera operators and an increased means to share videos. The police beatings of minorities are just in high-definition and available to view from multiple angles almost immediately upon the completion of "principle photography." Lee's shot-for-shot videography of the riot in Do the Right Thing could probably be reproduced using smartphones, invoking an even more emotional response given the lifelike intimacy provided by the participants' cameras.
The riot really begins when Mookie throws a trash can through the window of his employer’s storefront near the end of Do the Right Thing. But he does it because it’s the right thing to do—not because he's taking the side of his people over that of his provider—but because he gives his people and his provider exactly what they need: closure.
Mookie dispersing the crowd with a sentimental soliloquy apologizing for his employer and fellow employees works better on stage than on screen and wouldn’t likely work at all in reality. Would heartfelt words of a pizza delivery boy be enough to soothe you and disperse a riot after your community lost a friend, brother, son and neighbor because the pizza delivery boy’s employer couldn’t stand his “jungle” music? I thought not.
Mookie gave his community exactly what it needed to get over its collective grief in a healthy manner. While looting and destruction of property are crimes, both are a lot healthier than murder or assault of those perceived to be responsible for the tragic death of Radio Raheem. Mookie might have actually saved Sal’s life, but that, like the reasoning behind Mookie’s throwing of the trash can, is not immediately evident to viewers given the emotion-evoking destruction of the pizzeria.
Like BlacKkKlansman, there was an obvious need for the end of Do the Right Thing to offer viewers a semblance of hope. Mookie coming back to Sal’s destroyed pizzeria the next day to collect his $250 salary and the two of them negotiating a settlement isn’t hope enough apparently. So Lee drops lines from both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. to reinforce the dangerousness of duality—the idea that contrasting concepts cannot both be correct simultaneously. But two different concepts can be true at the same time. Nonviolence is a good approach until someone attacks you, which is the message Lee sent at the end of Do the Right Thing.
Lee has often echoed the words of Malcolm X and King, Jr. in his work, and BlacKkKlansman is no exception. Stallworth represents the teachings of King, Jr., and Dumas practices the teachings of X, putting them at odds as to which path is most likely to award “all the power to all the people.” In the end, of course, they realize the same things viewers of Do the Right Thing did: two contrasting concepts can be true at the same time, and if there’s to be hope for black Americans to ever overcome the persisting socioeconomic disadvantage resulting from slavery, it’s going to require both nonviolent and violent acts by a unified, black people.
The black community's dismissal of the Asian grocer across the street from Sal's pleading with them that he too is "black" like them so the rioters don't loot and destroy his shop is a great example of the message Lee sends in both Do the Right Thing and BlacKkKlansman. Black Americans can't climb out of the socioeconomic disadvantage resulting from slavery as a group inside another larger group of minorities. No other American minority started with the disadvantage black Americans did, so Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Irish-Americans, etc. can't relate and, therefore, can't help black Americans overcome their socioeconomic disadvantage. And judging from Lee's apparent choices in BlacKkKlansman, Lee doesn't think white Americans can help either. It's something that has to be done solely by black Americans solely for black Americans.
So almost 30 years after people first saw a race riot explode on the big screen in a Spike Lee Joint, another Spike Lee Joint now shows people exactly how little has changed when it comes to race relations in America. If there’s one obvious changes between Lee’s films spanning almost 30 years, it’s that Do the Right Thing has a more hopeful ending than BlacKkKlansman, which tells me Spike thinks the future is more bleak for black Americans than it was in 1989. If you're looking for a hopeful, uplifting movie this week, see the relatively inconsequential Crazy Rich Asians. I haven't seen it, but I can tell you it will be an almost complete disconnect from reality that won't require your brain to enjoy. Romantic comedies are, by design, an escape.
Spike Lee Joints, however, mirror reality and are meant to make you uncomfortable with their unrivaled realness and borderline neorealism, making you aware of things previously foreign and challenging your beliefs of what you thought it was like to be black in America, because if you're not black, you only know what you see, hear and read. And no one provides as accurate and unabridged imagery of black lives in America as Spike Lee. If you're looking for a thought-provoking, uncomfortable, cultural commentary of American race relations then and now, this Spike Lee Joint is educational and entertaining enough to be worth the price of admission.
The first 14 minutes and 25 seconds of Deadpool might be the best beginning to a movie I’ve ever seen in a movie theater. It has everything every blockbuster film should have to draw you in and put you on the edge of your seat. It introduces you to an interesting character, it entices you with either drama or comedy, and culminates in a climactic scene that sets the scene for the hero’s journey through the movie’s plot.
Deadpool 2’s first 15 minutes aren’t as good as Deadpool’s, which is to be expected. While the opening credits of Deadpool 2 are just as hilarious as those for Deadpool, the first 15 minutes of Deadpool 2 just can’t measure up to its predecessor. You can only introduce the Deadpool character once, and Deadpool does it as well as any film has, including Batman, the opening to which serves as source for a joke in Deadpool 2. Thankfully, Deadpool 2 doesn’t attempt to outdo the first 15 minutes of Deadpool, opting instead to use drama to set the stage for the sequel.
The first 15 minutes aside, the rest of Deadpool 2 is not only more entertaining than Avengers: Infinity War, but it’s better than Deadpool, too.
Back when Super Troopers 2 was released, I wrote about how a select few sequels achieve the critical acclaim of their predecessors. Much of that is due to the precedent set by the original film, as is the case with the first 15 minutes of Deadpool. Despite the wild success of The Godfather, ask any Italian or most film professors which is the better film, The Godfather or The Godfather: Part II, and Part II, will come out ahead. Ask any Star Wars fan which Star Wars is best, and most will tell you The Empire Strikes Back is better than its predecessor, A New Hope. Empire’s Rotten Tomatoes rating is even higher than A New Hope’s. The same is true of Deadpool 2’s Rotten Tomatoes rating. It’s rating is one percentage point higher than Deadpool’s as of this writing.
If you liked that Deadpool brought attention to the fact you’re watching a movie and used it as comic relief, you’ll love Deadpool 2. The sequel ups the ante in this regard, blending reality and fiction in a sort of Gonzo journalistic attempt at filmmaking. The “whose balls did I have to fondle to get my very own movie” moments are many more and even funnier than the original’s. Instead of suspending reality for audiences, Deadpool and Deadpool 2 use reality as the butt of many of the films’ jokes, and it works wonderfully, even providing laughs through its casting of characters. (Hint: stay seated after the sneak-peak trailer following the end credits for outtakes during filming of Deadpool 2.)
If you liked the relationships formed between Deadpool and Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead in Deadpool, you’ll love how those relationships grow and the new relationships Deadpool forms with Josh Brolin’s Cable (who is just as good in this as he was in Avengers: Infinity War), Zazie Beetz’s Domino, who is equally fantastic in her role, and Negasonic Teenage Warhead’s girlfriend, Yukio.
Finally, if you thought you laughed a lot when you saw Deadpool, you’ll laugh even more often and harder and longer when you see Deadpool 2. It is without doubt the funniest comic book movie ever made, overtaking its predecessor, of course. I laughed more during Deadpool 2 than I did during Super Troopers 2 and think you will, too.
Josh Brolin, who portrays Thanos, the villain in Avengers: Infinity War and the character with the most screentime, is listed 27th in the credits for the film -- just ahead of Chris Pratt, the star of the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. In all, the stars and co-stars of seven film franchises are represented in Avengers: Infinity War.
The result of so many superstars sharing one screen is a two-and-a-half-hour-long movie and a billion-dollar budget for Marvel Studios, 80 percent of which has already been recouped. Regardless of the film’s box office success, we know The Avengers franchise can’t last forever and are reminded of that throughout Infinity War.
Spoiler alert: Infinity War writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely abandoned the Hollywood ending for this one, probably at the request of Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige, who hinted that Infinity Wars would bring the first 22-movie arc to a “finality.” While that doesn’t mean there won’t be more Avengers movies after next year’s, different characters could be wearing the costumes.
Spoiler alert: Many of the Avengers “die” in Infinity War. I put that in quotes because now that The Avengers has borrowed a tactic from X-Men: First Class that originated in Superman, no one is ever really dead. Knowing the Avengers can now turn back time, the deaths, at least at the end of the film (wink), didn’t invoke much of an emotion in me. But the ending was shocking nonetheless.
Spoiler alert: I for one appreciate a film that ends with the villain winning, like The Joker did in The Dark Knight. Thanos beats the Avengers like The Joker did Batman, which will result in Avengers 4, the untitled sequel to Infinity War set to release next year, likely making more money than Infinity War. That was the case when a similarly solemn ending in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers resulted in an even better box office return for Return of the King.
Since all the Avengers actors and actresses have signed contracts for two Avengers films, this one and the next one, there’s no way of telling who actually died in Infinity War. That’s the point of those vague contracts, but we do know a few Marvel heroes will survive to make more sequels.
Pratt and his fellow Guardians are the only Marvel characters with a movie on Marvel’s schedule after the next Avengers film, set to release in 2019. Chris Hemsworth, of the Thor franchise, is expected to return given both the box office success and critical praise of Thor: Ragnarok. Plus, he hasn’t exactly taken Hollywood by storm with his roles outside the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Benedict Cumberbatch will likely get his own sequel thanks to the $670 million Doctor Strange made worldwide.
Spoiler alert: “It was the only way” are Strange’s “last” words to Tony Stark after giving Thanos the Time Infinity Stone to spare Stark’s life. That tells me Thanos winning the first battle and Stark surviving that battle are both necessary for the Avengers to eventually overcome Thanos. I’m also certain the Avengers will go back in time to resurrect the “dead” Avengers with the help of Captain Marvel, according to the short preview revealed at the end of Infinity War’s credits.
If Captain Marvel, set to release March 9, 2019, is even close to as good and successful as DC’s Wonder Woman, it will help Marvel fans get over the inevitable end of the Avengers as we know them. Rumors are that Chris Evans of the Captain America franchise will play the character for the final time in the next Avengers film. Robert Downey Jr. is also under contract for just one more film and has to be getting prohibitively expensive. He made $50 million for Infinity War. Scarlett Johansson was the next-best paid Avenger at $10 million and is expected to get her own Black Widow spinoff. And we know Ant-man and the Wasp is on the way.
Growing old in roles isn’t often allowed in Hollywood, unless you’re Sylvester Stallone, who has done it with Rocky and Rambo. Women are almost never allowed to grow old in roles, with Renée Zellweger’s Bridget Jones not much of an exception since the character was supposed to be “old” from the start. Sigourney Weaver’s run in the Alien franchise might be the longest Hollywood’s allowed a woman to grow old in a role, and Weaver aged so gracefully there wasn’t much reason to take her off the screen.
The point is Infinity War serves as a warning to those who thought Downey Jr. would play Iron Man long after his famous facial hair turned gray. The film’s ending encapsulates how it feels when things end -- film franchises and life alike. It’s depressing, but you’ll find reason for hope if you just sit patiently through the credits, consisting of mostly digital artists’ names printed so small and moving so fast you can’t read them. The same goes for life -- patience is rewarded, and no matter how bad it gets, there is always hope.
Spielberg's new film, Ready Player One, is based on the once loved, now often ridiculed or outright disliked novel of the same name written by Ernest Cline. The novel is unread by me but I understand the premise. And I’ve seen the movie now which probably means all the good parts of the book have been spoiled for me.
The novel, from what I understand, is a nostalgic, geek lore Easter egg hunt oft criticized for being fun but not exactly a writing masterpiece, but whatever. The reader was bombarded with nostalgic, nerdy, geek references from the 80’s. And that nostalgic weight carried RPO on to the NYT best seller list for a long time.
And now Steven Spielberg, the man directly responsible for much of our actual 80’s pop culture and nostalgic geeky moments has his new movie! So what is it about?
“In the year 2045, people can escape their harsh reality in the OASIS, an immersive virtual world where you can go anywhere, do anything, be anyone-the only limits are your own imagination. OASIS creator James Halliday left his immense fortune and control of the Oasis to the winner of a contest designed to find a worthy heir. When unlikely hero Wade Watts conquers the first challenge of the reality-bending treasure hunt, he and his friends-known as the High Five-are hurled into a fantastical universe of discovery and danger to save the OASIS and their world.”
Okay. Fair enough. Dystopian world - bad. Super cool VR world - good! That premise seems Spielberg enough. And, for the most part the movie is charming, nostalgic, good fun. With only a single swear word (one delightfully placed F bomb) the movie is standard Spielbergian Hollywood family entertainment and kids of all ages will probably dig it. RPO has at least two beautiful action sequences and one perfectly recreated set piece from a beloved horror film (which I suspect will go down as the one truly great scene of the film).
Anyway. I like RPO. To get that out of the way. I was hoping to love it, I was worried I was going to hate it but - no, I like it. That being said, despite all its stunning technical charm, the movie is a little shallow and the characters are poorly drawn and one dimensional.
Right now let’s focus on the good in RPO. Remember the scene in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King where Legolas kills the Oliphant? Well, the technology was there to … well … make it look like a CGI Legolas awkwardly bouncing around on a giant moving elephant and finally sliding down its trunk. Despite my dislike of the scene, the CGI isn’t quite capable of pulling that off perfectly. Things don’t look entirely real. It kind of gets the job done. I guess. We get what was going on. The oliphant looks good but the motion of Legolas is just - bizarre and not based in real world physics.
Well, those days are gone! The CGI is now there and the work in RPO is stunning. Movement and motion of all CGI (and / or motion captured) characters are flawless. RPO effortlessly blends realistic looking monsters and creatures with virtual looking avatar figures and their realistic looking weapons, vehicle and gear.
The scavenger hunt / investigation portions of the film are as entertaining as the action. Nothing slows the pace of the film. The moments of humor all work and we easily understand the motivations off the lead protagonists, (Ty Sheridan and Olivia Cooke) and the story’s main antagonist (Ben Mendelsohn). If you are looking for beautiful looking family friendly action - RPO is your movie.
But it’s not exactly a sophisticated think piece - and it doesn’t have to be! But RPO is a bit hollow at its core for me to love it. Casting is a slight issue. Ty Sheridan plays lead Wade / Parzival. Sheridan was a fairly accomplished child actor and has turned into a totally adequate teen actor. He will not fuck your scene up. Nor will he take a poorly drawn character and breath true life into it. And Wade, as a character is … you know. Fine. Except for that one thing (which I’ll get to later).
Which is the polar opposite of wunderkind Olivia Cooke who wowed me a couple of weeks ago in Thoroughbreds. Watching that film I kept thinking, “Who the F is this incredible actress and where did she come from?” From many things it turns out, but most famously from Bates Motel. Cooke is great and watching the film I couldn’t help but wonder how fantastic a lead she would have been if they switched the genders of Wade / Samantha. (Imagine the nerd rage). Sadly, Cooke’s character, Samantha / Art3mis is a little underdrawn and mainly acts as a prize for Wade to win.
Of the additional three supporting cast - Aech gets the most virtual time with Daito and Sho rounding out the High Five (as they call themselves). But once we meet them in the real world they just kind of stand around. One of them drives a van. Not exactly the stuff of supporting cast legends.
But if you were to say, “But the story is about Wade! He is the only one that has to be a fully realized character!”
Fair enough. But do we really need yet another tent pole Hollywood blockbuster featuring a white male lead who is backed up by his super hot white trophy prize girl friend with a couple of people of color in the background who don’t get to do much other than stand around and be people of color? Steven Spielberg virtually has the clout to do anything he wants in regards to his film. Perhaps he could have pushed a little on this point.
The other main issue I have is the lack of real world empathy our lead, Wade, seems to have. There is a brutal tragic event in the film (which I will not spoil) that should leave Wade, at the very least - affected!
But no. Not so much. The very next scene Wade is ready to Game On!
It seems to me that there is a great movie somewhere in RPO or maybe it’s all there on the cutting room floor. But instead of delivering that, Spielberg delivered the safest movie possible.
And it’s a very fine safe movie. There are things I like. I honestly believe that most folks who see it will enjoy it. The visual spectacle is such an eye feast that I might actually see it again. Perhaps I will warm up to the supporting cast a bit more. Perhaps not.
Ready Player One is fun, energetic and totally Spielberg. I just wish it had been a little more, I don’t know - wiser.
Seeing a lot more bad movies is to be expected when you become a MoviePass member. You’ll see more movies when you’ve got an annual membership to see as many movies you want, even if you only need to see one movie per month to make the membership worth the price. And most movies are bad these days. Gringo is one of those movies.
Having seen the trailer and read the synopsis, I had reason to hope Gringo wouldn’t suck. It’s a relatively original idea: dirty, pharmaceutical CEO doing off-the-books business with dirtier drug dealer needs the business with the drug dealer to stop in order to facilitate a merger. Conveniently, the business conducted with the drug dealer occurs in Mexico -- the kidnapping capital of the world -- and the CEO already has a patsy in mind, but his patsy doesn’t act as the CEO expects.
Despite quality casting, I didn’t laugh out loud once during Gringo. Charlize Theron (A Million Ways to Die in the West) produced the picture and plays the CEO’s business associate. The CEO is portrayed by Joel Edgerton (The Great Gatsby, Black Mass), brother of director Nash Edgerton. Edgerton was good for a few laughs, but Theron was easily funniest, and it wasn’t because of the dialogue written for her by Anthony Tambakis (who wrote Warrior and Jane Got a Gun, both featuring Edgerton) and Matthew Stone (Life, an actually funny film starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence).
Why Theron was willing to put up money for this heap of garbage is beyond me, but maybe it was a good script before David Oyelowo was attached. Oyelowo plays the patsy and wasn’t funny nor realistic. Spoiler alert: he’s clueless about his wife’s cheating on him with his CEO and “friend,” who treats him like a subordinate. What’s unrealistic about Oyelowo’s performance is that his character is too clueless to exist in real life.
But Jason Bateman is never clueless and always funny, and Game Night is another relatively original idea: a group of friends gather for their weekly game night expecting to solve a staged kidnapping and end up attempting to solve an actual kidnapping. Sure, it has its roots in The Man Who Knew Too Little, a brilliant picture starring Bill Murray, who thinks he’s portraying a spy in the “Theatre of Life” while actually thwarting an act of international terrorism. Game Night isn’t as entertaining as The Man Who Knew Too Little, but we can’t expect Bateman to channel Bill Murray. Like Theron, Bateman put up money for Game Night to be produced.
Game Night is also casted well, with Rachel McAdams (Wedding Crashers, Mean Girls) playing Bateman’s wife and Kyle Chandler (Super 8) his “cooler,” older brother. The screen is stolen, though, by Jesse Plemons (Paul, The Post), portraying the perfectly awkward neighbor, who loves his dog a little too much and wants nothing more than to be included in the group’s game nights after his wife has left him.
I laughed out loud throughout Game Night, and while it wasn’t The Man Who Knew Too Little, or even Horrible Bosses, the jokes are at least written and delivered well. Mark Perez (Accepted) wrote a quality script and Rich Delia (Dallas Buyers Club, The Help) put together a better cast than Carmen Cuba (The Martian) did for Gringo. if you’re looking for laughs, see Game Night, not Gringo.
If you need more reasons to avoid Gringo and see Game Night, Gringo has received a 39-percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes while Game Night sits at 82 percent as of this writing.
It’s Elon Musk’s recurring nightmare that artificial intelligence becomes self-aware and destroys mankind. Blade Runner 2049 is the visual representation of that nightmare’s roots taking hold.
Blade Runner 2049 is a fantastic film worth seeing in theaters despite the underwhelming box office revenue in the United States thus far. The suspenseful science-fiction film that spawned this sequel didn’t do well at the box office either, so expecting this one would is a mistake of the producers. But the movie is no mistake. In fact, it was born because it was “wanted” -- or rather, needed.
I could tell you how the set design alone is an accomplishment never realized in the history of cinema, or that Ryan Gosling gives a performance reminiscent of Drive. I could tell you that computer-generated imagery has never been so vivid and felt so real. But Blade Runner 2049’s subject matter is more relevant than ever before, with bio-engineered human beings quickly becoming a reality, as evidenced in the latest edition of Mother Jones.
Replicants are bio-engineered to be exactly like humans in every way, except they’re stronger (and smarter) and allegedly unable to reproduce (that’s what they said in Jurassic Park, too), making them ideal slaves for building infrastructure on other worlds awaiting human colonization. That is until they run, as slaves are apt to do, despite an attempt by humanity to control the slaves through vivid, fabricated memories. This is all closer to science-fact than science-fiction given the vast advancement of research in genetics and artificial intelligence.
According to Rowan Jacobsen’s article for Mother Jones, “Scientists have already identified a handful of rare gene variants that seem to be upgrades of the standard version most of us possess.” For instance, “A variant of the LRP5 gene results in ultradense, nearly unbreakable bones” -- a sort of super strength that’s on display during a fight in the opening minutes of the movie.
Choosing your child’s genes is one thing, but the real fear comes with the ability to mass produce slaves, upon which, in some form, privileged humanity has and will rely for survival. That day is fast approaching and could very well be realized by 2049.
“Last year, a team of scientists in Japan took the skin cells of mice, transformed those cells into eggs, fertilized them, and implanted the resulting embryos, which resulted in the birth of 26 healthy pups...It shouldn’t be much more difficult to do the same thing with humans.” Male skin cells could be used to create embryos just as easily as female skin cells, so same-sex couples could have children that share both parents’ genes, with the parents picking the genes of their preference.
The Matrix touches on this idea that humans can be “grown,” and in vitro fertilization was already 22 years old at that time. Within the next few decades, human reproduction could not only be achieved without sex, but without both sexes. Stanford biochemist Henry Greely calles it Easy PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis) in his book The End of Sex.
Jacobsen reveals that “Easy PGD will be far cheaper than IVF is today,” and “prices of gene printing have already plummeted. The cost of printing a base pair of genes has plunged from $600 in 1980 to a fraction of a cent and is continuing to drop...the cost of synthesizing genes had dropped to 4 cents per pair of DNA letters and was continuing to halve every two years.” When the benefit outweighs the cost, you can be sure someone will attempt to profit.
Artificial intelligence might be a bit further behind genetic reproduction research, but creating a human-like mind that can learn and replicate feelings isn’t inconceivable. Despite Musk’s fears of AI, the Autopilot feature in his Tesla vehicles is already turning machines into taxi drivers -- giving machines the keys to the most dangerous tool on the planet. One AI unit even predicted the result of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. Another, designed by Google, learned and beat Go -- a game more complex than chess.
So we have a means for slave-making already in the works. Surely the first avenue investigated will be the creation of sex slaves, a la Ex Machina. Regardless of the avenue investigated, the result will be the same. Replicants will question the definition of humanity because of the inhumane actions of humans creating self-aware, stronger, smarter beings to act as slaves. Replicants will begin to see themselves as an upgrade -- an evolved race -- and when the first replicant is born rather than built, their beliefs will be substantiated.
Back when I sat on the edge of my theater seat with clenched fists for almost two hours during Life, I tweeted immediately after that the film was the Alien of a new generation. I Tweeted that because like the original Alien film, the beauty of Life is that you don’t see much of the alien. It’s thrilling because the alien is growing quickly, and you don’t know what to expect the next time you see it. Neither do the characters, which better allows their fear to infect you.
GCN’s resident movie critic, Charles Karel Bouley, called Life an Alien “ripoff,” and I agree wholeheartedly. But I appreciate that the makers of Life utilized the successes of Alien and those suspenseful thrillers before it. But what I appreciate most about Life is that it’s at least a partially original story, with motivated plot and character arcs and an original, twisted ending that utilizes parallel editing pretty well. Life is an Alien movie with a new alien, just as Alien was Jaws with a new shark, and Jaws the Psycho with a new psycho.
It’s just too bad Alien: Covenant did its best to ruin Life’s opening weekend and gross earnings. Life has made just under $80 million worldwide, while Covenant moved up its release date, forcing Life into a crowded month and weekend. Logan and Get Out were both R-rated films still pulling strong numbers, and that’s two too many. Covenant did $4.2 million in Thursday night preview screenings at about 3,000 locations. As of this writing, Life is currently rated five points lower than Covenant on the Tomatometer and audience score.
So there’s another Alien movie. That’s six if you don’t count Alien vs. Predator. But you can tell Covenant is not a true Alien movie by simply comparing the trailers. Remember the Alien trailer? Well, I guess I don’t either. It was before my time, but I do remember watching effective trailers in film school, including that of Alien. It’s an effective trailer because the alien is never revealed. They start with the suspense right out of the gate and leave you wanting -- no -- needing to go to the theater to see that damn alien!
Covenant attempts to build suspense with its trailer but throws it all down the drain with the last shot. Sure they wait until the very end of the trailer to reveal the alien, but I’d argue they never needed that final shot of the alien. Almost everyone knows what the alien looks like by now, but the revelation used to be reserved for those who paid for a movie ticket. Now Hollywood just puts the revelation on the poster like a brand, but the art of making a great trailer has gone by the wayside as well.
Karel said Covenant doesn’t offer us anything new regarding suspense, “but it goes back to the same cinematography, the same type score, the same lighting that the original did oh so many years ago. BUT that had things we had not seen before.”
So Life can’t be an Alien ripoff with a mostly original story, villain and ending, and things we haven’t seen, but we can remake the same damn movie over and over as long as it shares part of the name of the original film? I might be in the minority, but I’d rather see someone attempt a film that’s even partially original than see the same film with the same shots and same music I saw 20 years ago with better computer graphics. Speaking of exactly the same...
The trailer for Life is almost an exact replica of the Alien trailer and is equally suspenseful. You never see the alien in its grown form -- only the faces of its victims -- which is plenty. The trailer doesn’t give too much away, and neither does the poster. The last time I was that excited to see a film (besides 2017’s Get Out for obvious reasons) was Dark Knight Rises five years earlier (and that’s because I’m a Batman freak). I just had to see that alien! And I am in no way comparing Life to either Get Out or Dark Knight Rises. I’m merely commenting that the feeling of excitement I had going into the film was piqued thanks to the trailer and movie poster. I was sold, and the people responsible for creating those marketing materials should get mad props.
As a fan of film and not necessarily of the Alien franchise, I appreciated what Ridley Scott did with the Alien prequel, Prometheus. He made it like the first Alien movie. The Xenomorph in Alien had just four minutes of screen time and didn’t appear until an hour into the film. That’s how you build suspense. The only horror or thriller villain to win an Academy Award spent 20 minutes onscreen. That’s all the role required thanks to Anthony Hopkins.
The Prometheus trailer never reveals the alien and neither does the poster. If you had never seen an Alien film you could have gone to the theater not even realizing you were going to see an Alien film. Then, after the most gruesome, on-screen c-section ever, that newborn alien just sits in that locked room. You almost forget about it while waiting for the big payoff -- the fight with the “engineer.” And when those doors open, the alien does not disappoint. It’s suspenseful more than it’s scary, and suspense is better.
But moviegoers have made things easier on filmmakers these days by turning out in droves for horror flicks and action movies that aren’t nearly as dedicated to cinematic and thematic quality as thrillers and dramas. I mean, a handheld-shot, horror movie made nearly $250 million. And while Covenant looks to be on its way to good payday, it’s also surrounded with the likes of a fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, a third animated movie about talking Cars, a sequel to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and a remake of The Mummy with Tom Cruise (which I find to be incredibly disturbing).
My point is the standards of moviegoers have fallen tremendously, likely due to the lack of originality and variety available at movie theaters these days. Hollywood is getting away with it and will continue to do so until people stop paying exorbitant amounts of money to see bad films.
“Ridley knows how to terrorize us...but when Scott discovers that we can be terrorized again with less, instead of more, and when the writers can innovate instead of capitalize, the next great horror film will be made,” Karel said.
I would venture to say horror isn’t a genre that lends itself to originality, and if writers want to innovate, they wouldn’t write horror or action. They’d write suspenseful thrillers, which require new monsters and new stories like Life has given us. I so hope there's a sequel called After Life and a sequel to the sequel called Life After Life. Given the ending of Life, I'd say the future of the franchise is brighter than the box office numbers indicate.
I have no problem with the Alien franchise continuing. It’s a fantastic story and now a fantastic pre-story. But if you’re going to make an Alien movie, make an Alien movie -- trailer, poster and all. Leave some wiggle room for the imagination to fantasize prior to throwing the alien in our face. That’s what made Alien so great, and while Life and Prometheus are contrived by design, at least they stayed true to the inspiration. If Alien: Covenant stays true to its inspiration, it’ll be contrived from the sci-fi, action movie Aliens, which, by design, means it can’t be as cinematically or thematically entertaining as Life or any of its predecessors.
Editor’s Note: An update will follow with my review of Alien: Covenant.
Editor's Note: I finally watched Alien: Covenant, and since it's been almost four months since this was originally published, you are right to assume that I didn't see it in a theater. I'm glad I didn't, because the latest Alien movie isn't even worth renting. While I'll appreciate the franchise continuing tradition and making a woman the film's strongest character, that's about the only thing I like about it besides Daniel McBride's performance. Michael Fassbender returns as David and also plays Walter -- an updated version of David. But Walter is duller, too, and for good reason. The humans don't want him to create anything for fear of what he's capable. This doesn't allow Fassbender to carry the screen like he did with David in Prometheus, but the film does do a good job illustrating the potential hazards of artificial intelligence, leaving you wondering for how long you'll be atop the food chain -- and not because of the aliens.
The plot is oh so predictable from beginning to end. Upon introductions of the Covenant crew, I knew exactly who would live and who would die. But even their deaths weren't especially entertaining or creative, with one crew member slipping on blood and injuring her leg to make things easy for the newborn alien. The biggest problem I had with the film was how almost everyone panics (and unrealistically at that) the moment something goes wrong. It might be just a colonizing mission, but they're in outer freaking space. If this crew had any training whatsoever, most didn't show it. And whether or not you're aware aliens exist, you must assume aliens exist, and have a plan in case you make contact. Apparently, NASA doesn't have a protocol for dealing with aliens, either, but that's because they're not even close to getting far enough from Earth to find any. Covenant, however, is en route to a planet that could sustain human life, and therefore other life, and the crew awakes seven years from their destination. I'm sorry, but anyone who boards a spaceship and falls asleep for a decade while roaming outer space and awakes with the assumption they're still the only intelligent life in the vicinity is either incredibly vain or incredibly stupid, or both. Alien: Covenant is equally as stupid. The entire film exists because Prometheus was so good and revived the franchise. They certainly didn't need Ridley Scott to make and sell this garbage. Prometheus did that. Life, however, is a fresh take on the alien story and far more entertaining than Covenant. It might not be as introspective and thought-provoking, but Life is more suspenseful, offers believable performances, and has a much better ending because I didn't see it coming when the movie started. The only thing I was wrong about is Covenant wasn't as scary as Life.