Booksmart

bsDirector: Olivia Wilde

Screenwriters: Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, and Sarah Haskins

Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Billie Lourd, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, and Lisa Kudrow

There was a time not long ago where we were getting a nice little onslaught of better than average coming of age films. The sweet spot maybe was 2013 – 2014; movies like Boyhood, The Spectacular Now, Mud, The Fault in Our Stars, and The Hunger Games films were all happening during this period, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe while in full swing, had not quite fully established its supreme dominance. Films like those seemed to have dropped off the mainstream in recent memory. Lady Bird certainly broke through in 2017, but other than that, it’s been a different sensibility at the movies. Fortunately, Bo Burnham’s 2018 film Eighth Grade and Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, Booksmart may be proving that the time is right to resurrect this delicate genre where the performers wear their hearts on their sleeves and we reflect on our inner-child rather than galactic super-dominance. And just so we’re clear, I loved Avengers: Endgame, but variety is the spice of life!

Booksmart documents the final days of high school for Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein), two best friends who embraced school to the fullest, lead the student council, earned every academic honor, and have been accepted to prestigious colleges. Their beliefs were that in order to reach these epic academic heights, they had to be laser-focused on studies and extra-curricular activities, leaving no room for the indulgent parts of high school.

That being said, when circumstances reveal that several of Amy and Molly’s popular and partying classmates (whom they perceived were than bright) also had received admirable post-secondary opportunities, they realized that, perhaps they missed out on the high school experience after all, leading to a mission to make up for lost time in one night by hitting parties, giving into urges, and just being kids!

The bulk of the film can be described as in the vein of other films like Can’t Hardly Wait, American Pie, and Superbad where outsiders decide they want to be insiders and awkwardly work their way in only to learn it’s not so great on the inside, but the journey is the truly valuable experience. I’m not subjugating the plot to be critical because while this is a time-tested format, the journey truly is the valuable part, and Booksmart does just enough with this to make it stand out as clever, relatable, and entertaining.

Much (all) of the credit for this film’s success should be given to the two lead performers, Dever and Feldstein. This movie is two actresses away from being middle-of-the-road. Comparable to the way Metcalf and Ronan elevated Lady Bird, these two actresses give everything to their performances and make us care about them, their friendship, and their futures. Supporting roles that are practically cameos come from Jason Sudeikis (Wilde’s husband), Will Forte, and Lisa Kudrow who all basically bolster the comedy side of things, and they do so nicely. However, this film is all-in on its two leads.

Appreciating this film does involve some true introspection. Some of the negative criticisms I have read about the film come from reviewers who clearly just missed the nuances and the point. One reviewer mentioned that Booksmart wants you to laugh at someone being vomited on, but I don’t think that scene was meant to be funny at all. Another said that “name-dropping” Malala was in poor form, but if you’ve ever met a teenager, you’d know that this is something that they would totally do, and their reasoning for it is actually quite in the spirit of who Malala is and what she represents as an activist (not that it even has to be). What I’m trying to say here is that this film attempts to breathe the air its characters breathe, and if anything, I’d say it’s not authentic enough being set in a highly affected, mostly affluent school with kids who do not really represent everyday kids. Booksmart does not want to cater to perceived expectations. It also does not want to shock or make you uncomfortable; however at times it does both of those things because that’s life. B+

Booksmart is rated R and has a running tiem of 1 hour and 45 minutes.  

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Shazam!

shazam!Director: David S. Sandberg

Screenwriters: Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke

Cast: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Adam Brody, Djimon Hounsou, and John Glover

A weird thing is happening with mainstream cinema right now. We are now fully saturated with superhero films. It is undeniable. Usually, when this level of inundation occurs in a pop culture medium, fatigue sets in, and another trend emerges. Oddly enough, seven superhero-related films had major releases in 2018, and at least ten more are slated to come out in the 2019 calendar year, demonstrating that fatigue is not setting in, and in fact with Avengers: Endgame predicted to break all box office records, we have not even reached the pinnacle of this superhero-film era.

Why might that be? Well, for starters, unlike many movie fads, the superhero genre has proven to be quite versatile. These films have broad reach and audience appeal from absurd to intense, to adult-themed, to even awards-caliber social commentary. But even more than that, the most successful of them have wit, charm, and charisma that carries them and allows them to massively engage in the original purpose of cinema: Escapist entertainment. Shazam!, the latest offering from the DC Extended Universe, is the latest of superhero fare and represents everything that works for the genre as well as the finest achievement so far in the DCEU.

Shazam! is like Big meets Home Alone, so allow that to sink in before you proceed. It also knows it is like Big meets Home Alone and lets you know it knows. That being said, it is not stale nor does it lean on preconception. The gist is that in an alternative dimension, a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) is tasked with restraining the seven deadly sins’ influence on Earth. With his powers growing weak, he must find a new champion who is pure of heart to replace him before his powers fade, and the sins are released from their captivity. His search spans many years, once nearly selecting a young boy named Thaddeus Sivana (Ethan Pugiotto), but finding his heart to not be worthy. This dismissal by the wizard sparks a maniacal 45-year pursuit. As an adult, Sivana (now played by Mark Strong) seeks to discover the wizard’s hidden realm and take the power for himself. The good news is that the wizard finds his new champion in a foster kid named Billy Batson (Asher Angel), charging him with the power to transform into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) simply by calling the name Shazam and with the ultimate goal of protecting Earth from the seven sins. Unfortunately, the wizard is not able to fend off Sivana, and he is able to transform into the sins’ vessel and harness their power, which he plans to yield maliciously, of course.

Now the table is set for a battle of good and evil between Shazam! and Sivana, who wants Shazam’s power for himself. Nothing really to write home about. However, the conflict is not the magic of Shazam!. Few, if any, superhero films so far have succeeded in capturing the cultural identity that comic books represent to the generations who grew up with them. Shazam, however is an exception. The true accomplishment of Shazam is how effortlessly and flawlessly it showcases the majesty, hopefulness, and glee that this style of fantasy has on our imagination. Much of this is accomplished through the chemistry between Billy/Shazam and his foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). Their scenes together make the movie, and fortunately, about 80% of the movie is focused on their exploits together, navigating the tricky world of becoming a superhero. Levi has been on my radar for years, having been a big fan of the NBC series Chuck, and even though he has been consistently working since that show went off the air, he still had not found that break-out role that showcased his talents. That is no longer the case. Zachary Levi has a tremendous amount of fun in this role, and his performance elevates the movie to being truly enjoyable whenever he’s on the screen.

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I mentioned that about 80% of the movie is focused on our heroes, but unfortunately, that means that the other 20% is focused on our villain. For some reason, the DCEU is still struggling with the whole villain thing. Mark Strong does his best with what he’s given to play Dr. Sivana. While menacing, evil and fixated on chaos, the old tropes of daddy-issues fueling an absurd quest for power for the sake of aimless revenge is tired and uninspired. Sivana sits somewhere between General Zod and Steppenwolf in the DCEU villain hierarchy.

Shazam! does manage to avoid one common pitfall of new superhero movies, and that’s delivering an origin story that is not dull, mediocre, and contrived. Writers Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke were able to access the source material in such a way that everything feels fresh about the journey to becoming Shazam. Shazam! shows us (as well as DC) that we all do in fact have a fun and inspired superhero inside of us. B+

Shazam! is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 12 minutes. There are two post-film sequences; one mid-credits, and the other post-credits. The first is plot-based, but the second is just played for laughs.

Captain Marvel (2019)

CaptainDirectors: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

Screenwriters: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, and Geneva Robertson-Dworet

Cast: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Annette Bening, and Lashana Lynch

Ever since that cryptic page sent by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in the post-credit scene from Avengers: Infinity War, people have been saying…”Who’s Captain Marvel?” That is an epic question in itself. Those familiar with the Marvel Comics origin of Captain Marvel know it is a strange one. The first Captain Marvel dates back to 1939 as a fictional comic book superhero from the now defunct Whiz Comics. Whiz and Captain Marvel were put on the back burner after DC Comics sued the publisher over Captain Marvel’s similarity to Superman in the 1950s. Marvel Comics eventually developed a trademark on their own character named Captain Marvel in the 1960s with the caveat that in order to retain the trademark, they’d need to publish a Captain Marvel title at least once every two years, leading to DC eventually rename their iteration Shazam, a character that is also getting the cinematic treatment this year. But that’s not all! Marvel’s Captain Marvel went through 6 different versions before finally arriving as the Carol Danvers version that we have now!

Ok, so now that we have that out of the way, who’s Captain Marvel and what is this movie all about? Captain Marvel is centered around Carol Danvers (played by Brie Larson), a U.S. Air Force pilot who through a series of events is recruited to an elite team of alien warriors called the Kree on the planet of Hala. Danvers develops superpowers under the tutelage of her mentor and commander, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). With the Kree, Danvers (known as Vers to her Kree comrades), helps fight in an ongoing war against a group of alien shapeshifters known as the Skrulls. The tricky bit is somewhere along the line, Vers (Danvers) has forgotten any and all of her life on Earth save for some disturbing nightmares featuring a woman (Annete Bening) she recognizes but cannot place. During a botched rescue operation, the Skrull commander, Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) capture Vers and tortures her for answers about the Kree as they make way to Earth with the plan to find a scientist who may be the key to helping them develop a quantum drive that would give them the edge in the battle against the Kree. Vers manages to escape only to crash land in Los Angeles. It is here that we discover that it is the 1990s, and Vers’s spectacle of an entrance draws the attention of (much younger) S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Nick Fury (Jackson) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Now it’s a race against time as Vers teams up with S.H.I.E.L.D. to stop the Skrulls from obtaining the quantum drive. Another battle – one of identity – also ensues as Vers’s sudden appearance on Earth begins to uproot some repressed memories of her previous life on Earth, some of which may affect the future of the universe! So the stakes are high.

Captain Marvel is a very fun movie, and much credit for its success goes to Larson, who really carves out a character here that could fall flat with the wrong performer in the role. She is charismatic and all-in on this performance, which is no surprise given she’s an Oscar winner for her work in the intensely gripping film Room. Captain Marvel certainly is a pivot from Room, but Larson’s versatility shows here that she’s a bankable and playful actress who will elevate a film. Her chemistry with Jackson, Mendelsohn, and Danvers’s best friend Maria Rambeau (played by Lashana Lynch) is contagious, helping the audience feel much more connected to the film’s events.

In addition to the performances, the action and story are on point as well. I think there were some heightened expectations that this film would provide more clues and explanations associated with the fateful climax of Avengers: Infinity War, but Captain Marvel is an origin story film and it takes place well before Thanos started outfitting that gauntlet with infinity stones. That being said, Captain Marvel is not without some nuance in providing a few answers to some questions within the MCU. Several of which can be attributed to the scene-stealing break-out star of the film, Goose. I’ll say no more. If there’s one other scene-stealer of note worth mentioning, it’s the late, great Stan Lee. 2019 will mark the last year of Stan Lee Marvel film cameos. Captain Marvel, Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home all feature appearances by the comic legend, and this one from Captain Marvel is a real gem.

Finally, for some reason, there’s an unfair amount of pressure on this movie due to its milestone status of being the first MCU film with a woman in the lead. This kind of treatment is the ignorant equivalent of saying, “Wait, women can be superheroes too?” The subversive and powerful impact of Black Panther is not part of the mission with Captain Marvel, nor should it be. Of course art is reflective, and so releasing a giant film like this will be part of a cultural conversation, but it really should only be a positive one. If the movie was not good, it should not be used as some kind of barometer test for a larger gender-based agenda. Fortunately the movie is good, and Captain Marvel is cool, so girls and women will be proud and inspired by that. No need to harp on it or heap tons of pressure on it. Ok, end of moderate politically correct rant.

If there is a flaw in the film, it’s the challenge of balancing the Earth story with the Kree story. Jude Law’s Yon-Rogg is somewhat squandered and lost in the sauce once Vers leaves Hala. There’s an obvious desire to tap into some of that Guardians of the Galaxy space opera cache, but it doesn’t quite work. The movie really soars with its Earth storyline, and when it soars it is a blast! A-

Captain Marvel is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 4 minutes.

2019 Oscar Prediction Ballot

nohost.jpgIt’s nearly Oscars Week! That’s right, next Sunday, February 24th at 8:00 PM EST, there will be a 91st Academy Awards and it will be bonkers. There is no host, and the controversial decision to hand out several awards during commercial breaks has raised even more eyebrows. Nonetheless, this is always an exciting time for The People’s Critic, and as always, I welcome you to join in on the fun by filling out an official People’s Critic Oscar Predictions ballot (use this link if on mobile). I have made my predictions, so now it’s your turn.

The ballot below contains the nominees for all 24 categories! On Oscar night, feel free to review the Summary of responses page for live updates on how your picks are doing, as well as view the live analytics (available only after you’ve submitted a response) for each category throughout the week!

Also, to make your Oscar night as lavish as possible, feel free to grab a copy of this blank Oscar ballot for your Oscar party, and if you’re looking for a feast sure to be a favourite, please enjoy our carefully curated 2019 Oscar dinner menu (printable version). Good luck and enjoy!

Creed II

Creed_II_posterDirector: Steven Caple Jr.

Screenwriters: Che Hodari Coker, Sylvester Stallone, and Juel Taylor

Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Dolph Lundgren, Florian Munteau, and Brigitte Nielsen

I’ve said before that great sports movies are more about life, passion, talent, and determination, and less about “the game.” This statement applies to the 2015 film Creed and even more so with its sequel, Creed II. However, that does not necessarily make it better.

Creed II opens with Adonis “Donny” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) “riding high now” achieving the level of World Heavyweight Champion, beating Danny “The Stuntman” Wheeler (Andre Ward) for the title, and propelling him to the highest echelon of the sport. This accomplishment coupled with Creed’s mentor and trainer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) in his corner, attracts the attention of disgraced former World Heavyweight contender Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Drago, whose loss to Balboa 33 years earlier resulted in a life of ignominy back in Russia and abandonment by his wife has been training his son Viktor (Florian Munteau) and sees an opportunity to regain his glory by pitting Viktor against Adonis for the title. Viktor, it goes without saying, is a threat in every sense. He’s enormous, fast, and has been conditioned for years by his father to crush any opponent. Ivan, of course, notoriously murdered Adonis’s father Apollo in the ring, and so any fight billed as Creed v. Drago sells itself in its sensationalism. The problem is, Rocky senses that this fight is happening for all the wrong reasons and if Adonis wants to go through with it, he’ll have to do it without him.

creed_iiDrago

So there it is, the setup for the film is Rocky IV, revisited. And the similarities do not end there. Creed II is very aware of itself, and this works both to the film’s advantage and disadvantage. Director Steven Caple Jr. makes subtle and overt references to just about every other film in the franchise in this film, which is at times rather endearing and at other times a bit too familiar. An example of the latter comes in the form of the conditioning montage. Rocky IV’s cross-cutting training sequence is pretty iconic, depicting Ivan Drago training conventionally (and juicing up with some roids) while Rocky trains in the Siberian wilderness, carrying logs in the snow and pulling sleds. An identical scene is present in Creed II, which is a tad too “on the nose.” On the other hand, some call-backs are crafted with just the right amount of nuance, like the way Caple Jr. takes the conflict of excess versus grit, flamboyantly displayed in Rocky IV, and tones it down to something more palatable for Creed II.

Of course it is easy to get caught up in the familiarity of Creed II, but there is plenty of unique material here as well. Michael B. Jordan continues to put out great and memorable performances, and man is this guy jacked! Creed II is also one of the more dramatic films in the eight Rocky-franchise films. While Creed was very character driven, it was still mostly a redemption story for its pair of protagonists. With Creed II, we get a chance to explore some generational themes that open the story up a bit, especially in regard to Adonis and Bianca’s (Tessa Thompson) relationship.

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Still the obvious focal point of this film is the return of Drago, and while there’s plenty here to enjoy and experience, Creed II is missing that signature moment that we want, and perhaps we have to fault Caple Jr. for that. The fight sequences and the drama overall is missing the sting, choreography and ambition that Ryan Coogler was able to achieve in the previous film. The technical brilliance of Creed no doubt is what caught the eye of Disney executives, leading them to hand him Black Panther, which as we all know became the biggest comic book superhero movie ever and highest grossing movie from a Black director ever. In that regard, congrats to Caple Jr. for stepping up in the first place! Still, Creed II does “throw in the towel” so to speak when it comes to giving us any surprises or something lastingly memorable. Overall, this is a decent entry into the franchise that while not a standout, will keep things fresh enough to make us want to see more. B

Creed II is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 10 minutes.  

First Man

FirstDirector: Damien Chazelle

Screenwriter: Josh Singer

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, and Corey Stoll

How do you follow up a movie that won Best Picture at the Academy Awards (for five seconds), and then lost it. What kind of film do you make after having your hopes dashed at the last possible second, just short of experiencing the glory of a mission accomplished? You make a movie about the first god damned guy who went to the god damned moon and stood on the Moonlight itself, that’s what you do! Did Damien Chazelle make a movie about Ryan Gosling standing on a vacant non-musical moon to lament La La Land losing Best Picture to Moonlight? Of course not. There was no love lost between them, and Moonlight was the better film. But if he did, that’s poetry right there, a pure, uncut, mass media movie battle. Your move Barry Jenkins. I’m looking forward to your movie about a jazz drummer who doesn’t need an abusive music teacher to self-realize.

Anyway, First Man is Damien Chazelle’s follow up to La La Land, and it is a departure for him compared to his previous work, and mostly a good one. First Man is the story of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), the astronaut who became the first man to walk on the moon. However, a word of warning follows. If you are looking for another story of American ingenuity that results in a heroic and feel-good sense of accomplishment, look elsewhere. Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer chose to adapt James Hansen’s authorized biography of the life of Neil Armstrong, which – spoiler alert – is not all moonwalking and giant leaps. Armstrong’s life encompassed some of the highest highs as well as some of the lowest lows imaginable, and Chazelle and Gosling bring these emotions to life with vigor.

This tense balance of highs and lows is apparent right from the start when the film opens on Armstrong as a young aeronautics engineer for the NACA, piloting a North American X-15 right into the edge of outer space, and then promptly back down to earth. It’s an intense and disoriented sequence of film.

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Soon Armstrong’s ambitions bring him to the NASA Astronaut program forcing him to uproot his wife Janet (Claire Foy) and family from California to Texas to join Project Gemini as part of the team of astronauts pivotal in putting the United States in the lead during the Space Race against the Soviets.

First Man, however, develops as a human drama rather than simply a biopic. Yes, the journey to the moon is central to the movie, but it is not essential to its impact. Objectively, this film could be about any person stifled by tragedy, loss, and cultural boundaries, who loses himself in the process. The journey to the moon is but an instrument to reveal his catharsis. Speaking of “instruments,” while First Man clearly lacks the musician aspect that has been front-and-center in Chazelle’s previous films La La Land and Whiplash, it is not without music in its core. The editing, orchestration, arrangement and choreography of surroundings is quite rhythmic. This element adds to the immersive quality of the film that continues to be a signature of this young director (although I was hoping that signature would also include another J.K. Simmons cameo).

First Man is a moody film full of emotion and grit. Ryan Gosling gives another brooding yet powerful performance worthy of the man he plays. Additionally, Claire Foy, an actress I admit I’m rather unfamiliar with, is the source of most of the film’s real impact. Her scenes transcend the “poor astronaut’s wife” tropes aspiring to something far more revealing. Her ability to emote anxiety, stress, and struggle under the guise of composure is remarkable. The rest of the cast is serviceable, with recognizable faces playing many of the familiar figures you’ve seen before including Ed White (Jason Clarke), Jim Lovell (Pablo Schreiber), Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), but this film is very much a character piece examining Neil and Janet.

Once one understands that this film will not hit the notes you most likely were expecting, First Man works very well. Its disarming use of camera to focus on the human element of the action, and not the detached traditional view of things that we are used to is both uncomfortable and powerful. Overall, a poignant and dramatic exploration of a major historic event without the all too common escapist quality generally associated with this type of entertainment. A-

First Man is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes.

The Meg

MEGDirector: Jon Turtletaub

Screenwriters: Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber, and Erich Hoeber

Cast: Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Rainn Wilson, Cliff Curtis, and Masi Oka

When a movie nails expectations, even expectations that are modest and purposefully withdrawn, does that mean it’s good? This is the question we must ask ourselves when describing The Meg, the latest crazy summer shark movie.

The Meg follows a Naval marine biologist played by Jason Statham (just go with it) named Jonas Taylor. After a mishap during a top secret exploratory mission in the Mariana Trench, Taylor is disgraced having abandoned half his crew and aborting his mission due to his sighting of a 70-foot long shark-like creature that no one else saw. Believing he was crazy or that the decompression sickness had made him delusional, Taylor is dishonorably discharged from his Naval position and from the project.

Five years later a submersible and crew are lost in the same area of the Trench where Taylor believed he saw the massive sea monster. The Naval research group privately funded by billionaire, Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson) has yielded some results, discovering a completely new ecosystem below the originally perceived base of the Mariana Trench. This ecosystem is protected by a cloud of gasses allowing the temperature below the cloud to support abundant sea life. Believed to be the only person on earth with the experience and training at such a depth, Taylor is hesitantly recruited back to assist with the search and rescue for the lost submersible. Reluctantly, Taylor agrees in the hopes to regain his honor and prove that the creature exists. Guess what? It does.

The Meg proceeds like every monster movie, only this one is in the ocean. The Meg (short for Megalodon) escapes the depths via a plume of warmer temperature water created by the Naval submersibles penetrating the gas cloud. Now, free to roam the Pacific, Taylor and his crew must attempt to capture the beast before it can cause catastrophic consequences to mankind. The film is actually a lot of fun. Taylor’s team includes all the archetypes we love to see mix it up: the fallen hero, the corporate businessman, the misinformed expert, and the strong-headed scientist, and a Terrier named Pippin.

The Meg is mostly brain candy. It’s like a Michael Bay movie before he totally lost his mind. The performances are weak, the premise is silly, and the story is predictable, but that’s what I thought it would be, and that’s kind of what I wanted it to be. So is it good. The short answer is, yes. The silly premise is not unlike most films in the genre, which is serviceable that some event allows this merging of worlds. It’s nearly 2 hours, but it’s a pretty tight 113 minutes. Most importantly, nearly all of the $130 million dollar budget appears to have been used on the shark, and it works. There are a nice pile of quality visuals presented here. The film has a clear intention of devouring Chinese box offices as well setting an outstanding and highly anticipated scene where the Meg terrorizes a busy beach of swimmers in China instead of San Diego as it happens in the book (yes this is an adaptation of a novel!).meg+banner

My overall point, is I’m a sucker for shark movies, and I like the popcorn element of this one more than many in recent years. I also like Jason Statham in this film, who is underrated in his ability to mix humor and action. He’s done this marvelously in films like Snatch and Spy, but here he does it in a movie that does not begin with the letter “S.” Hopefully this review has successfully communicated the esoteric appeal of this film, but if you fit the niche, dive in! B+

The Meg is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 53 minutes.