Finding Dory

fdSo, I have a young daughter. If not, I would probably have skipped this one. The Pixar films just exhaust me now. [Insert Cars joke here.] I did see, and mildly enjoy, Finding Nemo. I have to admit that the premise of this one is one of the better sequel ideas ever. Take a character with zero backstory (obviously, because she has memory problems) and use the sequel to dig into that history.

The flashbacks to Baby Dory as her loving parents attempt to build a life for their memory-challenged daughter are the very definition of cuteness, with just a pinch of heartbreak. It’s impossible not to care about Dory’s quest to find them after a freak accident triggers a key memory.

Following a completely pointless action sequence wherein Dory, Nemo and Marlin escape a giant squid, we arrive at The Jewel of Morrow Bay, California, a marine life institute where Dory was born. More characters are introduced: a wily octopus, a sweet whale shark, an insecure beluga whale. As all Pixar films must do, the obstacles thrown into the hero’s path are insurmountable…until they’re not. The protagonists hurt each others’ feelings…until they apologize. And the finale is big and exciting and over-the-top.

It’s hard to argue against the merits of the highest grossing animated film of all time. (It’s raked in over a billion dollars worldwide.) But I found the story strangely convenient. Many of the characters were sheer window dressing. (I’m looking at you, Nemo.) But it’s a touching tale about family lost and regained, and in that way, I still kind of like it.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

fbawtftI’m enough of a Potterhead that I was already into this film before I saw a frame of footage. I mean, I don’t dress up with a Ravenclaw scarf when I go to the movies or anything, but I read all the books and watched all the movies. So I was already excited. Excited to see what the magical world is like on this side of the pond. To see a period version of it (the 1920s). But I was mostly excited by something that the marketing simply didn’t address.

As a Potterhead, I know that history tells us of a battle in 1945 between Albus Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald in Europe. As soon as I read that, I wanted to see a prequel film depicting that battle, happening in the heart of Germany (hopefully) during the final days of World War II. Yes, that’s my fondest wish. To see a Potterverse version of a magical WWII.

So, that’s not in this film, just so you know. But the first moments of Fantastic Beasts introduce the audience to the name Gellert Grindelwald, and I got actual tingles. Tingles!

This film, on the other hand, is about Newt Scamander, a magical zoologist who is trying, in difficult times for such things, to help preserve and protect magical creatures around the world. It’s a clever construction to put this environmental story into both a fantasy context, and in the past. If this were happening in the here and now, it would feel preachy. In the past, I can understand why most people are poo-pooing Newt’s goals.

Of course, he doesn’t endear himself to MAGUSA (a terrible acronym if I ever heard one) when his suitcase-of-holding lets several creatures loose on the streets of Manhattan. By turns his antagonist and his ally is Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), an agent of MAGUSA who wants to be by the book, in a Hermione kind of way. Pulled along for the ride are Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) who’s sort of Luna-ish, and a No-Maj (another terrible term) named Jacob (Dan Fogler) who is the Ron-ish comedy relief.

There’s also a collection of bad guys played by Samantha Morton and Colin Farrell and Ezra Miller who serve their purposes, and often drive the story, but aren’t really the heart the movie.

The heart of the movie is the foursome of Tina, Queenie, Jacob, and our central character of Newt. Played by Eddie Redmayne, Newt is perhaps the least charismatic lead character of a blockbuster film I’ve ever seen. He’s twitchy and shy. But he’s also awesome. I loved his performance because he seems so in tune with the animals he cares for that he’s sort of forgotten how to really interact with people. The most moving scene for me is when he pulls Jacob into his case and introduces him to these animals. This is where Newt is in his element. Gone is the whispery voice and the poor posture. This is where the character lives and breathes.

I loved the first series of films, but I don’t need this to be that. I like the fact that these are adults, that the story structure is a little looser, that I don’t just know where everything is going. If they want to make five of these movies, more power to them. I’ll be there, even if I don’t have that Ravenclaw scarf.

Arrival

aFirst off, I want to say that I did like this movie. It’s got a tight story, stunning cinematography and trippy sci-fi concepts. And I cried. Boy, that ending did it for me.

But, still, I’m kind of amazed at how much Arrival references other films.

For example, our hero, Louise (Amy Adams) is a scientist who is well respected in a narrow field of study, who is not in a relationship, and who has unresolved issues about a dead family member. All of these things could be said about Jodie Foster’s character in Contact, or Jennifer Connelly’s character in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Then when you add a sometimes helpful, sometimes antagonistic male character for her to play off of, the similarities increase. After the aliens make contact in the enigmatic way they do in these kinds of films, Adams is whisked away from her simple, boring life into a whirlwind of scientific activity, with pressure from all sides to MAKE CONTACT.

The aliens’ ships are simple, featureless crafts that simply hover above the ground in locations around the globe. (Independence Day, anyone?) Once every 18 hours, the ship in Montana opens up and our intrepid band can use some crazy artificial gravity to walk up to a conversation room. (This stuff felt a lot like the space scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

Unlike TDTESS, wherein the alien just knows English, or Contact, where they’re simply dealing with a transmission, Louise is in a room with (freaky looking) aliens on the other side of the glass. (Reminiscent of the finale of The Abyss.) Half the movie is her efforts to understand their language–and get them to understand English–to the point where she can ask the simplest of questions: “Why are you here?”

I won’t spoil the answer to that question. Astonishingly, it was an idea I’d never run across.

With some great supporting performances by Jeremy Renner, Forrest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg and Tzi Ma (Tzi Ma!) this is definitely a film worth spending some time with.

 

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

pnsnsOkay, so, first off, this is a hard R comedy. If you’re not down with nudity (female and male) and non-stop foul language, hop off this train immediately. Secondly, this is kind of a hybrid review of the soundtrack (to which I was exposed first) and the film (which I watched later).

Popstar is structured like a documentary, and does a nice job maintaining that storytelling device throughout. The story is about Conner, a performer who seems to be Justin Timberlake if he had the emotional maturity of Justin Bieber. Played by Andy Samberg, it’s yet another loveable doofus who doesn’t quite understand his own doofishness.

Conner’s solo career is exploding. He broke away from The Style Boyz, a band made up of him and two childhood friends, Owen (Jorma Taccone) and Lawrence (Akiva Schaffer). When “Kid Conner” became “Conner4Real”, Owen became a yes-man in Conner’s posse, and Lawrence retreated from celebrity to be a farmer. The through-line of the film is Conner realizing that he needs to reconnect with these old friends. They are each the best versions of themselves when they’re together.

What’s fantastic about this film is that the music is really what ties everything together, and the music is great. The punchiest songs, featured in the film’s trailer and in a Samberg appearance on SNL before the film came out, are the ones seemingly written by Conner4Real. They are politically tone-deaf and represent the crassest version of American exceptionalism. Here’s a sample lyric from one of my favorites, “Mona Lisa”, a hilarious riff on how Leonardo’s masterpiece is overrated: “I am an American man, this is my native land where no one lies about paintings. But that’s not the case in France.” In a similar vein, it’s hard not to love the song “Finest Girl”, which cleverly deconstructs the various uses of the F-word in popular culture: “This girl requested intercourse to bring her to climax With the clinical efficiency of the assassination of Bin Laden”

The connection of story and character to the songs goes throughout the soundtrack and film. The solo projects of Conner’s one-time collaborators, “Owen’s Song” and “Things in my Jeep” are ridiculous (and ridiculously funny) in different ways. It becomes clear that when they get together again, the result will be phenomenal. This is the song “Incredible Thoughts”, complete with vocals from Michael Bolton.

What’s nice about these songs from The Lonely Island (the band name of Samberg, Taccone and Schaffer) is that they eschew their normal format, wherein there is some sort of confusion or drama within the song, as if it was recorded live with no edit. Here, the songs are fully formed. There is the small problem that in the universe of the film, some songs are “great” and others are “terrible”, despite the fact that, to me, the listener in the real world, they are all equally strange and equally enjoyable. But that’s a minor quibble.

Toss in some great supporting performances (Tim Meadows, in particular, shines) and a ton of musician cameos (props to Seal), and this film works remarkably well.

Doctor Strange

dsI didn’t hate Green Lantern. I’ll get that out of the way first. “Wait a minute, Russell,” you say. “Isn’t this a Doctor Strange review?” Oh, yeah, it is. But the point I’m making is that even though I thought Green Lantern was some trippy fun, I didn’t see it as enough of a classic that it would make anyone really angry that they remade it this quickly.

Doctor Strange isn’t a remake of Green Lantern!” you shout with fanboy rage.

Oh, isn’t it?

Let’s see. A super arrogant dude is at the top of his game (brain surgeon/fighter pilot). He has a “strong” female “colleague” with whom he has a romantic history (Rachel McAdams/Blake Lively). I put “strong” and “colleague” in quotes because the woman in question is in the same profession as the hero, but is clearly just there as scenery. Shame. So, there’s an accident (car wreck/plane crash) after which it seems that the hero will not be able to do the one thing that makes his life worth living.

Meanwhile, a guy (played by an actor with a Scandinavian name) starts messing with powers beyond his control, and he turns pretty evil, which is represented on screen by horrifying physical changes (Mads Mikkelsen/Peter Sarsgaard).

Our hero, seemingly because of FATE, becomes a recruit of a secret organization of protectors that do hand-wavy things and make glowing stuff out of thin air that they use to hit each other. He’s also gifted with a ring that’s crucial to his powers. After an attack throws the protectors into disarray, the hero, his powers barely understood and not really under control, is tasked with saving the Earth from a planet-eating cloud with a face. He has to use his smarts and come up with something clever, or else humanity is destroyed.

Is that not enough? Really? Watch the post-credits teasers for the two films and tell me they aren’t exactly the same.

Now, I don’t have a problem with any of that. I know there’s cross-pollination in films. And since there’s also cross-pollination in comic books, then this is the result of a double dose of that.

This film looks amazing, and does a pretty good job introducing magic to the MCU, not to mention also adding a new arrogant, quippy dude (played by Benedict Cumberbatch, in case you didn’t know). Thankfully, he doesn’t feel like a Tony Stark knock-off. He has a different kind of arrogance, I guess. The origin stuff is a little long-winded, but the action sequences that follow very easily make up for that. The connections to the rest of the MCU films are handled deftly (and in a couple of cases, subtly).

This doesn’t rise to the level of any of the Captain America films, but it’s definitely a worthy entry.

Timeless

tSo, here’s the premise. There’s a time machine. A bad guy steals it and goes into the past to do mysteriously bad things. The government (which just found out about the whole time travel thing fifteen seconds after us viewers) are taking initiative and putting together a team to go back in another time machine to stop the bad guy. The team includes a historian (who knows way too much about history) and a military dude (who is way too calm about everything) and a techie to drive the machine (who is way too black to not have bad things happen to him in the past).

The cast is engaging enough, and the past is well realized. In this episode, they go back to the 30’s and experience an alternate version of the Hindenburg disaster. I was equally intrigued and annoyed by the ominous statements of the bad guy, implying that he has knowledge of the future. I get that they’re setting up a multi-episode (maybe even series-long) mystery to pull in the new viewers. But it’s so obvious and so cliche nowadays. I’ll definitely watch some more episodes, but if they don’t show that they have some tricks up their sleeves, it’ll be a second- or third-tier recording on my DVR.

All in all, a decent show. Of course, it has some of the drawbacks that most time travel stories have. They want actions in the past to change things, but they don’t want them to change things much. I don’t want to give away any last minute twists, but when the historian returns from her jaunt and goes home, things are dramatically different… except she lives in the exact same house. What-the-what? (Even Back to the Future got that much right.)

Even more perplexing, when the bad guy went into the past, his actions should have propagated through time to impact our heroes. How can the historian remember the “original” timeline? She wasn’t “protected” by some technology. The instant the bad guy exited 2016, everything would be different, and whatever the bad guy did would be the actual history, as far as our heroes know. (They wouldn’t know the history as it was altered again by the heroes, of course. They would know history as if the bad guy went unthwarted.)

Time travel is super tricky in even the contained environment of a movie or a book. Making it work in a TV show is a challenge. 12 Monkeys seems to understand how to do it. I have less faith in Timeless.

Deepwater Horizon

dhThis is an entirely serviceable, non-threatening, genuinely emotional and relatively exciting disaster movie. It tells the story of the blowout and subsequent destruction of the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform back in 2010. We follow three main characters.

Mark Wahlberg plays Mike, the head repair guy on the rig. He’s our everyman entry point into the story. He’s a regular joe, hanging out with the roughnecks on the crew, but adept at management. (His speech rattling off what’s wrong on the rig is hilarious.)

Kurt Russell is Captain Jimmy, the leader of this team, and the local representative of TransOcean, the drilling company. He’s gruff and loveable.

Gina Rodriguez is Andrea, the navigator of the Deepwater Horizon. (Which is actually a free-floating ship! I didn’t know that.) She’s strong but feminine. You know. Exactly what you hope a woman would be in this scenario.

The foil for all this working-class, low-key heroism is, of course, the “suit” from BP, John Malkovich as Vidrine. Vidrine is pushing, pushing too hard to get the drilling done so they can start making money from the well. He comes off a lot like that douchebag from Titanic, always pressing to go faster.

The back and forth between the suits and the working folk is well done, but I wish it had been a little less black and white. None of the BP guys are portrayed as anything but black hats. None of the TransOcean guys is anything but a white hat. I’m fine with most of the fault landing on the BP side (which is my understanding of what really happened) but couldn’t there be more shades in there?

When the heavy mud hits the fan, there is exactly the kind of chaos you expect. The sound design in particular sent chills up my spine. Every time some large piece of metal slammed into some other large piece of metal I couldn’t help but imagine the kind of damage that could do to human flesh. Sure, there’s a little bit of gore, but nothing too dramatic. The possibilities, though, were enough to give me chills.

When, during the finale, the entire rig was consumed in fire, I started to think, “Well, that’s Hollywood for you, making this out to be way more dramatic than it really was.” Then I saw the real footage over the credits. Dang, Hollywood, you really dialed it back didn’t you? The reality was much crazier. So that’s a bonus, I guess.

By the time all was said and done, I couldn’t help but compare this not to another disaster film, but to Captain Phillips. Director Peter Berg seems to be positioning himself as the next Paul Greengrass. That’s a good goal. But he may have a ways to go.