THE LION KING

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: A-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-
Special Effects: A

One might easily argue that a 2019 CG remake of The Lion King is both pointless and redundant, after a 1994 original animated film that at the time became the fourth-most successful movie ever; a 1997 Broadway musical version that continues to run to this day and is the highest grossing Broadway production ever; and even a 2011 re-release of the original animated film in 3D so skillfully applied it actually enhanced the experience.

I went in to this new Lion King with every expectation that it would be . . . okay. For me, that counts as a heavy dose of skepticism. As it happens, this new movie easily justifies its own existence.

And I say this as someone who would still say the original was superior, and even that the 2011 3D version is superior. It’s rare that 3D impresses me, but that one did; I gave it a solid A. That 2011 release genuinely amazed me.

I did not see the current release in 3D, which is an option. Maybe it’s fine; I can tell you it’s a great movie even without it. This is director John Favreau’s second CG treatment of a classic Disney property after The Jungle Book (2016), which I also very much enjoyed, and The Lion King is even more impressive in its environmental renderings. The Jungle Book had a live-action boy at the center of it, but the thing that makes The Lion King stand apart is that it looks very much like live action, but is technically an entirely animated film. In its own way, this movie genuinely amazed me as well.

It’s almost shocking how well it works. We’re talking about a story whose characters are all talking animals, rendered more realistically than anything you’ve ever seen out of actual live action. In traditional animation, talking animals are expected; they can easily be given more relatable, human-like emotions and expressions. This animal kingdom is sort of like watching a wildlife documentary except the animals are caught up in Shakespearean drama — literally: the story is basically Hamlet with lions. In any case, this unusual combination might cause a bit of cognitive dissonance for some.

I’ve already heard the many reasons people have for being disappointed with this movie, really none of which do I agree with. I have a theory that anyone who loved the animated feature as a child but chooses to reject this film just grew old and uptight and needs to pull the animated stick out of their ass. Really, this is like the natural evolution of animation as a genre, and it’s the perfect kind of story for it. There is very little “uncanny valley” effect here.

I will say this. The effects in this movie are stunning. That does not mean they’re guaranteed to age well. It’s still relying on computers to render the picture of human imagination, and it still has limits that date it in ways traditional animation can’t be. Animated classics remain as beautiful today as they were at their time of release, from Bambi to Sleeping Beauty to The Little Mermaid to The Lion King. Another twenty years from now, the original Lion King will look as good as it ever did; the 2019 version certainly won’t. Special effects technology will improve to the point where you can’t decipher the difference between it and live footage, in which case, what’s the point? Well, getting the animal characters to talk, I suppose.

But, we’re talking about right now, and right now The Lion King is absolutely worth the time and effort, particularly to be seen in a movie theater. The story is nearly identical to the original film — even a good majority of the shots are — but there is true magic in seeing it rendered this way. In the first half of the film, when young Simba (voiced by JD McCrary) and young Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph) are lion cubs, they are almost unbearably adorable. If you’re a cat lover at all, you will love this movie.

I do tend to insist that movies should be judged on their own merits, but that assertion works better for film adaptations of novels than for remakes. The original Lion King is still out there and still beloved, after all, with unforgettable voice work by the likes of Whoopy Goldberg, Cheech Marin, Jeremy Irons and more. In the current iteration, the only voice used again is that of James Earl Jones as Mufasa. Jeremy Irons was deliciously evil as the villain brother Scar, now voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor. The delivery now lacks a certain punch, but it’s also appropriate. In this photorealistic version of the animal kingdom, it comes with a natural subtlety that actually works better for it. Ejiofor still effectively makes the character his own.

And it must be noted that this film is not without its own fun and humor, particularly with John Oliver voicing Zazu the Puffin; a charmingly gruff Seth Rogen as Pumbaa the warthog; and Billy Eichner, so delightful as Pumbaa’s meerkate best friend that he might be the greatest highlight of the movie. The rest of the cast includes Keegan Michael-Key and Eric André as hyenas; Amy Sedaris as a guinea fowl; Elfre Woodard as Simba’s mother Sarabi; and Simba and Nala as grown lions are voiced by Donald Glover and Beyoncé. Glover and Beyoncé don’t especially stand out in their speaking parts, but they certainly serve their purpose as vital characters — and God knows, Beyoncé’s singing voice is always a welcome addition.

And yes, there’s that — not only do these animals talk, but they sing. So what? They did in The Jungle Book too, and in both cases, somehow, it works, even with these songs all being lifted directly from the original film (with one new track by Beyoncé). I did think about this: how well does 2019’s The Lion King play to people who, by some miracle, actually have never seen the original? In spite of the fact that these animals sing solely because the original exists, and this certainly would never been a musical film otherwise, I would still say it likely plays quite well to anyone coming to the story for the first time. In fact, this movie is overall so well executed, it’s entirely conceivable that anyone seeing thei version first would prefer it to the original. And there wouldn’t be anything wrong with that!

There’s a lot to say about The Lion King — clearly, as I’ve already said about 1100 words about it. This is one case where I am mystified by the mixed reviews, but entirely unsurprised by the box office success. The criticism people have is almost exclusively nitpicky, borne of people overprotective of their own childhood memories. This movie exceeded my expectations on every level, gripping me with its drama in spite of how familiar it was, and otherwise left me with a constant smile on my face.

The rightful rulers of their world.

The rightful rulers of their world.

Overall: A-

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS

Directing: C-
Acting: C+
Writing: D+
Cinematography: C-
Editing: C
Special Effects: C

When I saw Godzilla back in 2014, I had high hopes for director Gareth Edwards, who had in 2010 made a name for himself with the indie alien mystery Monsters. That film revealed a director with real potential, which made Godzilla all the more disappointing. That movie spent its first half being static and lifeless before turning into an even worse disaster movie than 2012.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters, now, overcompensates for that previous lifelessness by jumping right into the action — although I use “action” loosely here, as it would be more accurate to call this film a “mess of chaos.”

Why did I even bother seeing this movie, you might wonder? I’m wondering the same thing. I literally went to it thinking to myself, These movies are never very good, I don’t know why I keep coming back. My only defense is that I held on to the idea that I knew full well it would be dumb, but the spectacle might me fun on its own terms. Some blockbuster special effects extravaganzas do work that way.

Well, not this one. This movie has not one redeeming quality. The closest it gets is that some parts of it are merely average — the acting, for instance — rather than terrible.

Otherwise, I hardly know where to begin. I found myself thinking, Why the hell would that happen? so many times, I can’t think of any specific examples. Maybe when Godzilla bites off one of the heads of the three-headed rival “alpha predator” that was reawakened in Antarctica, then that head literally grows right back in a matter of seconds, and this is explained away by somehow figuring out that it’s the one monster that is an alien, whereas all the others are actually native to Earth? That ridiculousness is just the tip of the iceberg here.

If I were Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Ken Watanabe, Ziyi Zhang, Bradley Whitford, Charles Dance, Bradley Whitford, Thomas Middleditch, Sally Hawkins, Aisha Hinds, O’Shea Jackson Jr., or David Strathairn, I would be embarrassed to be in this movie, but apparently none of them are. I guess they’re all happy to act proud of this mess since they got a nice paycheck? Presumably they got paid up front: King of the Monsters made half in its opening weekend what the previous Godzilla did. And trust me, no word of mouth is going to save this one: you might think that earning $80 million so far is nothing to shake a stick at, except it cost $170 million to make!

What a colossal waste of money. The special effects are subpar, the lighting is almost always too dark to get a visual handle on what the hell is going on, the editing makes it impossible to get any real sense of continuity, and this is in action set piece after action set piece that make up about 80% of the movie. Director and co-writer Michael Dougherty (Krampus) never takes things down a notch long enough to allow any time for the story to breathe. On the few occasions things do slow down, it’s apparently just to insult our intelligence.

At the beginning of our “story,” such as it is, it’s been five years ago since “the attacks” on San Francisco, and for reasons no one can explain, Godzilla has been in hiding all this time. We find Kyle Chandler’s Mark Russell off somewhere studying wolves — which evidently involves taking pictures of a pack feeding on a carcass, using a long lens from behind a nearby log otherwise exposed in a massive field. This is the “foundation” for which we learn about “apex predator” behaviors later applied to Godzilla, and the three-headed monster, and how all the other long-dormant monsters frozen in time suddenly wake up and answer their calls in one way or another.

Vera Formiga’s Dr. Emma Russell has devised an audio contraption that apes these so-called apex predator commands and somehow can render them docile — if used correctly and in the right hands. All sorts of wrong hands come into play, the one exception being Mark and Emma’s daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), who of course has more brains and logic than any of the adults around her, which in this movie isn’t saying much.

We do get brief shots of other “massive unidentified terrestrial organisms” (MUTOs, they actually call them that), by the way, with three or four very quick shots and/or references to “Kong.” This is a transparent attempt at laying the foundation for the next film in this “cinematic universe,” Godzilla vs. Kong, also co-written by Dougherty and already in post-production. I’m exhausted already. At this rate, no one is going to care what Kong or Godzilla are doing by next year. I already don’t.

I’d be tempted to say that at least this time around you get to see Boston get destroyed, but . . . honestly, it hardly matters. You can barely see the city at any given time. And it’s just the same shit in a different movie, with no characters you feel any need to get emotionally invested in. This movie is supposed to be a thrill ride but I lost my patience with it within fifteen minutes and soon after became so numb to the onslaught of nonsensical carnage that it literally made me drowsy. Maybe that’s this movie’s best defense: Godzilla: King of the Monsters works if you have insomnia!

Hey, let’s have a sleepver! And watch this movie to go to sleep!

Hey, let’s have a sleepver! And watch this movie to go to sleep!

Overall: C-

POKÉMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU

Directing: B-
Acting: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B
Special Effects: B

Fairt warning right up top: I literally know nothing about Pokémon, aside from its immense global popularity, the fact that it features an array of adorable and ugly creature characters, and it was very much part of a zeitgeist-defining mobile game about four years ago, which I never played. I’ve never watched any show or any other motion picture based on the property. I didn’t even know there had been more than twenty animated feature films released before the current live action one until checking the list on Wikipedia. I do know that Pokémon Detective Pikachu is the first of them to be a live-action release, with American characters speaking English and featuring bona fide movie stars, most notably Ryan Reynolds as the voice of Pikachu.

The point is, I am about as far from an authority on anything Pokémon as I could possibly be, so I have no means of appreciating how well (or how poorly) the film reflects the world of the multimedia franchise, which, until now, I have effectively ignored. But that’s not stopping me from reviewing the movie anyway!

I guess, if you are well versed in this fictional world, and you have any interest in a critical take on it, maybe find a review by someone else who also knows it well. You’ll likely find little to no satisfaction here. That said, as I have always said, any movie should always work on its own merits. So, does Detective Pikachu work on its own merits? Generally speaking, yes it does.

I have heard it said that it doesn’t reflect the true nature of Pikachu as a character to have him voiced with a snarky personality. Well, in the end Detective Pikachu actually has a fairly clever means of simultaneously sidestepping and correcting that problem, if you really want to call it a problem. Based on what little I have seen of Pikachu in his genuinely original self and form, personally I prefer him as voiced by Ryan Reynolds. It’s kind of as though a family-friendly Deadpool found himself trapped inside the body of this little furry creature.

As for how he fits into the overall story, which here presents a planned “Rhyme City” where humans and Pokémon live together harmoniously and are disallowed from any kinds of battles, it should come as no surprise that it offers little in the way of depth. Why would anyone expect depth in a movie based on a video game property, anyway? No fan of Pokémon is going to care. Nor is any casual fan of fantasy-adventure movies.

And to give Detective Pikachu credit, it is fairly imaginative in its world building, with Easter eggs of all sorts peppered throughout the film’s run time, without ever everdoing it or overwhelming those of us who don’t have any familiarity with all these creatures. By and large, they’re all fun, in myriad ways specific to individual ones. There is nothing cutting edge about the special effects, but they are serviceable and do work to further the story, so far as there is one. Director Rob Letterman keeps the spectacle at a manageable level when it could otherwise easily get out of hand in a movie like this.

The human characters are on average pretty bland, starting with our hero, young Tim (Justice Smith), who learns of his estranged father’s mysterious death and heads into Rhyme City to investigate. It continues with Lucy (Kathryn Newton), the aspiring reporter Tim runs into there. One could argue the blandness stops with Ken Watanabe as Tim’s dad’s detective partner, or Bill Nighy as the mogul mastermind behind the very existence of Rhyme City — except those two in particular are phoning it in, playing parts as pat as any ever put into another movie even remotely like this.

The story arc is patently by the numbers, but the joy is in the details, and often with the many cameos of different Pokémon creatures. You don’t have to have any familiarity with this universe to find them entertaining — and, in many cases, cute.

Which brings me to the most salient point about Detective Pikachu: the title character himself, and more specifically, his design. He’s adorable! So much so that when a passing lady on the street said exactly that about him, I thought, Yes. Yes, he is. You would be hard pressed to find another character cuter than Pikachu, and Ryan Reynolds’s fun-loving banter is a natural fit. If any one thing makes this movie worth seeing at all, it’s him. And he’s in most of the scenes, thankfully — because, without him, the movie gets comparatively dull. Reynolds may not be the true essence of this creature who otherwise only squeaks “Pika pika!”, but I could watch that version of him all day. As such, whatever other imperfections Detective Pikachu might have, it does offer a pretty solid 104 minutes of fun.

Tim and Pikachu get to the bottom of their bland missio— OMG HE’S SO CUTE

Tim and Pikachu get to the bottom of their bland missio— OMG HE’S SO CUTE

Overall: B

AVENGERS: ENDGAME

Directing: C+
Acting: B
Writing: C
Cinematography: C
Editing: C-
Special Effects: B

The more I think about it, the more I find myself resenting this movie. Captain America: Endgame is on track to be the biggest global box office success of all time, and I would argue it’s the least deserving of that distinction of any film in history. The same could have been said of the previous record holder, Avatar (2009), but at least that movie had stunning, cutting edge special effects going for it.

Otherwise, when it comes to the record breakers, I guess this is just the new normal. At least Titanic (1997), corny as it was, had a certain gravitas thanks to the backdrop of genuine history. Who remembers anything about Avatar now except for its unprecedented effects? It didn’t even have any memorable lines, nothing worthy of enduring parody, no “I’ll never let go, Jack!” And what has Avengers: Endgame got? Just a bunch of people collecting paychecks. What will be remembered about this movie in another ten years? Literally nothing. (Side note: none of these “broken records” mean anything at all when adjusted for inflation, in which case Gone with the Wind still remains the most successful movie in history. And that, in context, actually makes sense.)

I would have had so much more respect for the Marvel Cinematic Universe if it had just ended with Infinity War, a bold, tragic end with half of life wiped out of the universe. But I knew even then, when I saw half of these heroes blow away into dust, there was no reason to think any of that was permanent, no reason for any true emotional investment in any of their fates. Superheroes were long established as all of them basically gods — not just Thor and Loki. Death doesn’t mean anything in this universe, even when it’s disintegration, and therefore neither does risk. Seriously what reason do we have to care?

That said, Endgame is not without its sacrifices, some of them with what at least appears to be permanence, and for that at least, I am glad. The whole plot revolves around the use of time travel to get everyone back, which is beyond predictable (and therefore hardly a spoiler), where characters point out the logical fallacies of time travel in several other movies famously based on time travel, while inventing logical fallacies all their own — not to mention self-contradictions. This might as well be a continuation of the Back to the Future franchise, which itself gets name checked.

Where I’ll give Endgame some credit, is in the sacrifices its characters actually make — none of them based on a plot device that can transparently be reversed with age-old storytelling tropes. This is where the movie actually managed to touch my emotions. Much has been said of how many times people have cried watching this movie, and I am not above admitting that I teared up myself at least twice. In fact it was exactly because of this expectation, the assertion that this film carries a surprising amount of emotional heft, that I opted to open my mind to it and actually go see it in the theatre — and I had not given Infinity War the same courtesy (hence my never having written a review of it). When I finally watched Infinity War on Netflix, I found it to be surprisingly entertaining, clever and funny, at least until that ending that was supposed to be shocking but kind of made me roll my eyes and say “Whatever!” By contrast, Endgame is comparatively overlong and disappointing.

I like a three-hour movie to earn its run time. This one clearly thinks it does just that, by asserting itself as the marker of the end of an era, the final chapter of twenty-two movies over twelve years. Endgame finds the time to callback something from probably every single one of them, some given more weight than others. Natalie Portman, with no lines, gets seen for about three seconds. Our heroes deposit themselves into the action of several of the previous movies, several of which had been terrible. The effect of retreading previous installments of the franchise very much has the effect of . . . you guessed it! Back to the Future Part II.

Sadly, that movie came out in 1989, which means a great many in Endgame’s audience is far too young to have any idea how unoriginal these Marvel movies really are. And I am not averse to superhero movies based on their very idea — I am averse to them based on recent history. I make exceptions for the exceptional: Black Panther, or even Captain Marvel. Those movies find new things to say, new ways of looking at this universe and new kinds of heroes to feature. They have a new take that is worthy of attention. Avengers: Endgame is the same shit, different movie — with an extra hour of it!

Speaking of Captain Marvel, she is criminally under-utilized, brought in intermittently as a secret weapon only to get outshone by other characters with longer histories even though she is more compelling. The same thing happened with Black Panther in the last Avengers movie. A successful ensemble piece is one thing; tokenism is another.

What about the special effects in this one, then? Maybe that is worth a look? Arguably, yes — I have never seen motion capture this nuanced, particularly on the faces of Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk and Josh Brolin as Thanos. But if you take your eyes away from the astonishing detail of their facial expressions and look at their entire bodies, you’ll see that they still just look like cartoons. As usual, this is technology very much still in development, and unlike practical effects rendered with truly skilled precision, this is all going to look dated before you know it. No movie top-heavy with CGI effects in the first couple decades of this century is going to have a very long visual shelf life.

If there is anything that sets Endgame apart, it is merely its position as a marker of the end of an era. if you have been deeply invested in all these movies since the first Iron Man in 2008, then I can see how affecting Endgame can be for you. I get that, I really do. But just imagine how much more affecting it could have been as something better! Because trust me, this could have been better. Instead, with all the callbacks and cameos, we get a movie franchise that basically sees its own life flash before its eyes. And that “Marvel Cinematic Universe” life, on the whole, was not a great one.

Marching off to a destiny of oblivion.

Marching off to a destiny of oblivion.

Overall: C+

SHAZAM!

Directing: B-
Acting: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B-
Special Effects: B

Let’s get real: if you’re the type who is interested in any and all of the countless superhero/comic book movies now in existence, and you have an affinity for the lighter-hearted ones, you’re going to have a great time watching Shazam! You have no reason to read any more of this review. I mean really, why are you even here?

But, for the rest of us? Shazam! is still a pretty great time — for the last three quarters of its run time. Otherwise, it’s tonally inconsistent, has an under cooked plot, and would have benefited from greater depth.

I say all this with the full understanding that most of this movie’s fans won’t give a shit about such things. So what if I’d say I found it a worthy matinee, but feel no need to recommend anyone else rush out and see it? No one’s going to decided not to see it based on my recommendation.

I still have to pick it apart a bit anyway. Isn’t that what we’re all here for?

It could easily be said that Shazam! is one of, say, the two best DC Comics films of the modern era — the other being, of course, Wonder Woman. The two movies are of roughly the same level of quality, but for different reasons. It is, of course, easy to call them the best of recent DC output because, well, that’s a pretty low bar.

Shazam!’s biggest problem is a pretty big one: the first quarter of it unfolds in a strangely inorganic way, never quite achieving the tone of wide-eyed delight that the rest of the movie manages. This is kid of a long way to get to that point, especially when we’re introduced to 14-year-old Billy Batson (16-year-old Asher Angel) as a foster kid who, while he amuses himself with pranks involving the theft of police cars, is perpetually sullen and resentful, consumed with finding the mother who abandoned him as a small child.

So, when Billy suddenly finds himself randomly given the superpowers of an ancient order of wizards (and to say the backstory with the wizards has no meat to it is an understatement), it doesn’t naturally follow through that the grown-man superhero he becomes (played by Zachary Levi) would be more giddy about it than anything else.

That said, it is that giddiness that makes Shazam! so fun to watch, as Billy figures out through trial and error what his superpowers are, with the help of his foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer, giving the best performance in the movie). Billy has been re-homed into a large host family with a group of kids that are diverse in both age and ethnicity. One of the great running gags is the brain of a child — or teenager — inside the body of an adult. It’s kind of the superhero movie of the old Tom Hanks movie Big, where you find adults behaving like kids, but in funny and charmingly innocent ways.

This being a superhero movie, though, there must always be a supervillain, here in the form of Mark Strong playing Thaddeus, who we meet as a child in the movie’s oddly uncompelling opening sequence. He meets the wizard who is waiting for the person who is “pure of heart” who can take on his powers and guard against the demon monsters who represent the seven deadly sins (why? you got me!). He is deemed not pure enough of heart; the rejection becomes a lifelong obsession; he finds a way to become possessed by said seven “sin demons,” who represent one of the several plot points of the movie that don’t really work.

When Shazam! focuses on Billy, his delight at suddenly being superhuman, and his totally realistic 14-uear-old way of handling it, the movie works quite well, and makes for a lot of witty entertainment. Asher Angel and Zachary Levi both pair well with Jack Dylan Grazer as the foster brother, and the evolution of their familial friendship makes for good storytelling. The same cannot quite be said of the subplot of Billy’s search for his birth mother, or certainly of the ancient wizard with no particularly clear backstory, or smoky sin-demons terrorizing a Philadelphia holiday carnival. Who has a full scale carnival at Christmastime, anyway? That’s weird.

Much of the movie is well shot, though. The superhero and the supervillain can both fly, and there are some battle scenes both far above the city of Philadelphia and following them as they fly past downtown skyscrapers which are pretty cool to look at. Incidentally, this movie exists in the “DC universe,” which means the characters are aware of both Superman and Batman, the latter of who gets a couple nice references and punch lines. Apparently in the DC universe, there is no New York City, only Metropolis for Superman; Gotham City for Batman; and for Shazam . . . Philadelphia.

In short, Shazam! is not as good as it could have been or as I wanted it to be, but enough of it is uniquely entertaining to keep it from being a waste of time.

Also known as “Captain Sparkle Fingers!”

Also known as “Captain Sparkle Fingers!”

Overall: B

FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD

Directing: B-
Acting: B+
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B-
Special Effects: B

I’m of two minds about director David Yates’s sequel to 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which was itself fun but inessential. The same could be said, really, of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald — perhaps just slightly less fun, and perhaps barely more essential. That is, for die-hard fans of anything in the “Potterverse,” anyway.

And therein lies the rub: How many casual fans of the Harry Potter series will even care about this? After all, in terms of U.S. domestic box office, were we to fold Fantastic Beasts into Harry Potter as part of the same franchise, the original Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them would come in dead last. To be fair, a domestic haul of $234 million is still enviable in its own right. Still, if you compare that film’s $74 million opening weekend to The Crimes of Grindelwald earning $64 million, there is no denying this endless return to the “Wizarding World” universe is yielding diminishing returns.

And now, according to reports, Fantastic Beasts is intended to be a five-film series. If all of them are released a minimum of two years apart, that’s an additional decade of films set in the same universe as the Harry Potter series — which itself took 11 years to get through, in cinema form, at least. The Fantastic Beasts films, by contrast, are original scripts as opposed to literary adaptations, albeit still written by J.K Rowling.

It may be a fair question, though, to ask if Rowling is at least slightly losing her touch, given certain convictions from the Harry Potter productions now abandoned (I still find myself distracted by British actors playing American characters, after any American actors were strictly barred from being cast in Harry Potter films), or the more recent controversy regarding the casting of an Asian woman (Claudia Kim) as Nagini, the snake creature eventually loyal to Voldemort. As far as that is concerned, I suspect many people have jumped to judgment before seeing what nuance the film actually affords the character — but then, what do I know? I’m just a white guy — and I mean that with more sincerity than flippancy.

Beyond that, it must be said that, plot-wise, The Crimes of Grindelwald is a tad overstuffed. One could make the argument that it’s unfair to make definitive judgment of a single chapter before the entire story is completed, and we still have three left to go. That said, with five films in which to tell this story, why cram so much into this one? I found it difficult to follow at times, and, although this film does have plenty of its own fun magical “beasts” and referenced in the title, they are even less relevant to the overall plot — so far, at least — than they were in the first installment. At least Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them had several extended detours focused on said creatures. In this outing, that being the exact title of the book Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, endlessly modest charm and charisma still intact) is working on, is never even mentioned.

Furthermore, action-packed though The Crimes of Grindelwald may be, once again being a casual observer of the “Wizarding World” is potentially to the audience’s detriment. Unlike the Harry Potter series, in which each story can stand alone if necessary, anyone watching The Crimes of Grindelwald without having seen its preceding installment is apt to get lost quickly. I got lost occasionally myself, and I literally watched the first film the very morning before seeing this one.

Yet, even though the casting of Johnny Depp as the title character seems a dubious choice at best, I absolutely would recommend The Crimes of Grindelwald to existing fans of this magical world. The production design details remain fantastic; the visual effects are up to standard, if far from cutting-edge; the characters are comfortably familiar. Speaking of the characters, this is one element of the script I will commend: some of them go in very different directions from what their arc in the first film may have suggested. After this many years, there is value in the ability to surprise — even if the characters themselves may disappoint. That is the nature of human imperfection, after all.

We do meet Dumbledore as a young man, at least, and Jude Law works well in the part. We meet him back in London, the exclusive setting of the previous film of 1920s New York City now giving way to several international locations — including even the French Ministry of Magic. It’s a nice broadening of scope to the story proceedings, if also allowing for a bit of an excess in complexity.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald isn’t great, but for fans of the “Wizarding World,” it’s good enough. It’s . . . fine. It effortlessly holds your attention for well over two hours, and even if it fails to prove truly exceptional, it does leave you ready still for more. It’s like a cinema version of binge-watching a streaming television show: if the credits included a box you could click that said, “Watch next episode,” you’d still think to yourself, I still want to know what happens next! —*click*. One can only hope that, in the end, the inevitable road to Voldemort is more than just puzzle pieces clicking into place, and that the whole of this series proves better than the sum of its parts.

Newt Scamander and a surprisingly drab beast, reluctantly ready for their closeup.

Newt Scamander and a surprisingly drab beast, reluctantly ready for their closeup.

Overall: B

JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM

Directing: B-
Acting: B
Writing: C-
Cinematography: A-
Editing: B+
Special Effects
: B+

The days of being in awe of the technical achievement of photorealistic CG dinosaurs are long since passed. Back in the day, with both the original Jurassic Park (1993) and its thrilling-if-dippy sequel The Lost World (1997), Steven Spielberg perfected the art of the long game, the subtle tease, the jaw-dropping reveal.

Five movies and 25 years into this franchise, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom has none of that. Its plot machinations are not just stupid, but oppressively stupid -- this script, by Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow, both of whom also worked on 2015's Jurassic World, makes the bland contrivances of Jurassic Park III (2001) look like Shakespeare.

I can't say that Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is any better or worse than its predecessor, on the whole. With its mind-numbingly preposterous story, and its many objectively thrilling action set pieces, it sort of evens out. It's both worse and better on those respective fronts.

In a sense, director J.A. Bayona understands something Colin Trevorrow kind of didn't: what audiences want from this franchise so many installments in. You could call Jurassic World a reboot, or you could call it a sequel -- one that basically ignored the previous two sequels. It was also overly enamored with direct references to and nostalgia for the very first Jurassic Park, something it could never live up to.

Fallen Kingdom doesn't even try. All this one wants to do is thrill, and once it gets its idiotically hyper-sped plot gynmastics out of the way, it does that spectacularly.

The first half could be called Jurassic Volcano. The second half Jurassic Monster House. Things start at a macro level, with the fabled Isla Nublar threatened by a long dormant volcano about to erupt -- which, naturally, it waits to do until our heroes are all there, in a grand attempt to relocate the animals. Special effects in this movie may be unable to break new ground, but they sure are put to memorable and invigorating use. It even offers up some haunting imagery, helpless animals left to suffer an extinction level event as the boat floats away. Of course none of the people drown and they all conveniently get missed by all the flying volcanic cinder debris, but, whatever.

The comparatively few animals saved from the island are taken to the estate of one Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), an old business partner of John Hammond. Lest things get any less than totally ridiculous, a dino auction is staged. Can you guess whether things go wrong? Well, here's the cool part: it's where the macro turns into the micro, and we get dinosaurs loose inside a giant mansion. It becomes a bit of a haunted house movie, except instead of ghosts it's actual monsters.

Granted, one of them is a creature genetically cross bred between a Tyrannosaurus rex and a velociraptor -- one of the many things in this movie that make you think, Really? I mean, if we can actually grow a human ear on a rat, then, why not? Granted, I don't think a rat has ever been given a blood transfusion with human blood. And in this movie a velociraptor gets a blood transfusion with T-rex blood. While strapped to a gourney in the back of a truck.

Oh, just go with it! In the last movie we got a trained velociratpor, after all -- as if! -- and "Blue" returns this time around, offering one of several more callbacks to the original Jurassic Park -- they're just much more subtle this time around. There are also parallels to The Lost World: Jurassic Park (at least this one has greater logic in full titling), what with poachers on an island of free-range dinosaurs, and dinosaurs being transferred to a residential setting.

I think the advantage Fallen Kingdom has over its predecessor is its innate inability to disappoint. No one is coming to this movie expecting brilliance, or any of the provocative ideas given serious consideration upon this franchise's inception. At best we get a cameo by Jeff Goldblum as "chaotician" Ian Malcolm -- now in his third one of these movies -- offering the same basic concepts as rehashed platitudes to a Senate committee hearing. (Boring. Bring on the dinosaurs!)

No one with a working brain could in good conscience call Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom a "good movie." They could quite accurately, however, call it a hell of a lot of fun. I had a blast. Honestly, its ending is the freshest thing about it, ironically as a means of finally arriving at the inevitable with these movies. And, miracle of miracles, it makes me excited for the next one, as it ushers us into a new environment that finally lives up to the title Jurassic World.

A few things go bump in the night.

A few things go bump in the night.

Overall: B

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY

Directing: B
Acting: B
+
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B
Special Effects
: B

Solo is fine. And, yes, it’s fun – but I’m going to start off with a chief complaint: even this exact same movie would be a more thrilling experience without oversaturation of the market with Star Wars movies. This has been my beef with the relentless movie release schedule since the very announcement that we’d be getting one of these movies every year for the foreseeable future: audience, if not quite tiring of the movies, are progressively going to lose their enthusiasm for them.

That’s certainly what’s happening already: as usual, I went to see the film on opening night. Remember, way back in 2015, opening night of The Force Awakens, theatre lobbies were packed with fans in line for sold-out screenings hours before showtime? Last night at my theatre’s first showing of the film, the lobby was empty. Granted, trailers had already begun so everyone was inside – but three years ago, under the same circumstances, the lobby would have been full of fans still waiting for subsequent screenings. Hell, even the friend I went with, who scoffed at my complaints about over-saturation in the beginning because he’s such a lifelong die-hard Star Wars fan, commented on how even his excitement level isn’t the same with this movie. I felt so vindicated!

The point is, even when the movies are good – as this one is – a movie every year is just too much. It robs audiences of the thrill of anticipation, which has always been half the fun of Star Wars. As of 2015, we were getting one prequel series basically once every other decade. I’m not saying it should be required to spend fifteen years whetting the appetite, but even the first two trilogies released each of their films once every three years – that alone intensified expectations. Now, we we’ve had four Star Wars movies in not quite three and a half years. The primary “Episodes VII-IX” trilogy episodes are coming every two years instead of the previously-standard three, and each off year is getting filled with these “A Star Wars Story” stand-alone films. It’s hard not to look at this cynically: is there any necessity to it other than a cash-grab? Ironically, this oversaturation clearly affects each individual film’s box office take. They remain successful, of course – Solo is still expected to top Memorial Day Weekend – so presumably a profit strategy clearly taken out of the Marvel playbook is a better play for studios. Is it better for audiences?

Solo is neither the Star Wars movie fans were clamoring for, nor the Star Wars movie they need. But! Once you open up to it, there really is no resisting it. Complain all you want about The Lego Movie directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller being replaced by Ron Howard due to “creative differences,” even after such production conflicts, to be honest, Howard’s populist approach works for it. Solo is much more light and breezy compared to either the current trilogy installments (whose increasingly morally ambiguous tones and themes take the series in a direction that’s exciting in its own right) or 2016’s Rogue One. It’s also true that both Rogue One and Solo effectively qualify as just more prequels, with both of them offering Easter eggs and puzzle pieces to connect themselves to the original trilogy. Solo doesn’t end with a direct lead-in to the original Star Wars like Rogue One did (and, mercifully, doesn’t feature any original cast members digitally de-aged), but it has plenty about it that directly connects itself to 1977’s A New Hope in particular. A lot of lines are spoken that are familiar from other films, and if you’re not paying attention you might miss Han saying “I’ve got a good feeling about this!”

If nothing else, Solo should please the fanboys who were stupidly irate about The Last Jedi, even though anyone with half a brain can see that installment eventually earning a respect in a similar vein to The Empire Strikes Back. In any case, Solo doesn’t much bother itself with taking risks, or taking the Star Wars universe into uncomfortably unfamiliar territory. It’s also much less dark than Star Wars movies have been in some time. To me, that makes it broadly less compelling – but it also makes it, at least superficially and on its own terms, more entertaining. It’s got less thinking, more action. And it has some great action sequences, including when Han first meets Chewbacca (with Peter Mayhew finally retiring from the role after six Star Wars movies, previous body double Joonas Suatomo now steps into the role full time). It should be noted, though, that it doesn't get particularly cutting edge with its special effects, which used to be the hallmark of this franchise.

It was slightly difficult to see Alden Ehrenreich as a guy who eventually became the older Han Solo we were first introduced to, based only on the trailers. But Solo (which offers an amusingly random origin to that last name) as a full movie makes it pretty easy. Everything this movie shows us offers an insight into what Han Solo would eventually become. And, as always, it features great actors in a supporting cast: top-billed Woody Harrelson as Beckett, the smuggler with whom Han joins forces; Thandie Newton as Val, Beckett’s partner; Game of Thrones’s Emilia Clarke as Han’s childhood flame, Qi’ra; Paul Bettany as Dryden Vos, Qui’ra’s villainous boss; Jon Favreau voices the four-armed monkey creature Rio Durant; and of course, arguably the MVP of the cast, Donald Glover is Lando Calrissian, impressively weaved into the narrative of Han’s back story. Phoebe Waller-Bridge must also be mentioned as the voice of Lando’s beloved social justice warrior droid L3, providing a good majority of the best comedic lines of the film’s first half.

It could be argued that most of what we see in Solo is just a rehash of the same sorts of things we’ve seen in other Star Wars movies, but whatever. It’s still fun to see new characters in different roles, even if they’re doing basically the same things. At least we’re not seeing another Death Star getting blown up yet again. This is becoming a very familiar universe, even when we visit new locations within it. There remains an element of comfort in being there, though, so even if the thrill of anticipation is seeing clearly diminishing returns, we keep coming back, so far not quite disappointed in it.

It'll be fine, Solo. It's fine.

It'll be fine, Solo. It's fine.

Overall: B

ISLE OF DOGS

Directing: B+
Acting: B
Writing: A-
Cinematography: A-
Editing: B+
Animation: A-
Production Design
: A-

Isle of Dogs is only Wes Anderson's second foray into stop-motion animation, but he turns out to be uniquely suited to the form. Plenty of his live-action films seem like they might as well be animated, with their static shots of stunningly detailed, colorful tableaus. This gives a strangely static tone to many of his films, as though the characters live in a world just off from the real one.

That's not so much of an issue with animation, as was the case with Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). What makes Isle of Dogs the superior of the two films is a sentimentality that's missing from many of Anderson's other films. Rather than being witty and clever just for its own sake, this film gets to the heart of the bond between people and their pets. And rather than being multiple species who all wear clothes, these are dogs who actually act more like dogs than people -- sure, they talk, but it's still more realistic and thus more relatable.

The plot is surprisingly complex, set in Japan twenty years in the future, a corrupt mayor declaring all the dogs in the city of Megasaki infected by a canine virus a public menace and exiling them on the island of the title. The first of these dogs is one named Spots, his master being the mayor's distant nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin), whose parents died in a terrible bullet train accident. Months after all the dogs have been exiled, Atari flies a small plane to the island in search of Spots, and a group of dirty alpha dogs helps him search for him.

To be honest, fun as it looked, the trailer for Isle of Dogs gave me slight pause. The voice cast features a couple dozen famous talents, most of them American. How was Wes Anderson going to handle this, having the story set in Japan? This seemed potentially problematic. In the end, he comes up with some clever devices, while retaining several Japanese actors actually delivering lines in their own native language -- in fact, Atari has many lines, and Koyu Rankin delivers nearly all of them in Japanese.

Many of the Japanese lines are delivered neither with subtitles or translations; no such efforts are made when it makes no difference to understanding the story. That said, very occasionally, subtitles are used. Most of the many television news reports featured are handled by a character who is herself an interpreter, played by Frances McDormand. So what of audiences who actually speak Japanese, then? This film is clearly made for American audiences first and foremost, which alone makes the use of Japan as basically a complex prop itself problematic, but as someone fluent only in English, I cannot speak for such people. You might do well to read this Vulture piece featuring the perspectives of several Japanese speakers, a fascinating read indeed, on the whole pretty positive in response to the movie but also offering many totally fair criticisms.

Really, Isle of Dogs could just have easily been set in any American city in the future, without using Japanese language and styles as a gimmick -- or perhaps it even still could, if set largely in a given city's International District, using, say, the bilingual child of Japanese immigrants. I mean, I quite enjoyed it all, to be honest. But it must be acknowledged that I speak from the perspective of a white guy with limited understanding of Japanese culture.

Now, dogs -- that's a different story, even though -- confession time! -- I am much more of a cat person, and would be delighted by a film of this sort featuring cats as the main characters. As it happens, cats do feature in this story, just none of them being given any lines. They don't talk. They are just grumpy looking props for all the villainous city leaders attempting to eradicate all dogs. To be fair, even as props the cats are put to good use and are nearly always amusing in their own right.

But the essence of Isle of Dogs gets down to my favorite exchange of dialogue in the movie: Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson) asks Chief (Bryan Cranston), "Will you help him then, the little pilot?" When Chief responds, "Why should I?", Nutmeg replies, "Because he's a twelve-year-old boy. Dogs love those." All the dogs speak English, by the way; the opening titles offer the explanation that "all barks" are translated. In any case, it's this kind of sentiment that informs the story, and makes it likely that any dog-loving twelve-year-old would likely love this movie. Ironically, the film is rated PG-13 due mostly to some surprisingly graphic elements, such as the somewhat striking scene depicting a complete human liver transplant. (It makes sense when you watch the movie.)

Honestly, if there's any element of Isle of Dogs not deserving of praise, it's the persistently stoic delivery of the voice acting, typical of all Wes Anderson movies. Actor performances are never his strong suit, even with such an incredible roster of voice talent, here including Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum as the rest of the alpha dogs; Liev Schreiber as Spots; Harvey Keitel as Gondo, the leader of dogs from the island's pre-existing animal testing facility knocked out by natural disasters; F. Murray Abraham as Jupiter, the island's most-respected elder statesman dog; Tilda Swinton as Oracle, Jupiter's prophetic sidekick (the subject of a great running gag); Yoko Ono as one of the city's assistant scientists; Ken Watanabe as the Head Surgeon; and Greta Gerwig as the arguably unnecessary foreign exchange student who is American and therefore provides a lot of context via her lines delivered in English. It's fun to recognize all these people's voices, for sure (and especially the "Y" and the "O" tied around the assistant scientist's braids), but to a person, the delivery is the same: nearly always soft-spoken; almost monotone; just short of wooden. Possibly the one exception is Jeff Goldblum, who is incapable of speaking in anything but his specific Goldblum voice.

It's the animation that gives them all personality, and this movie's incredible animation must be acknowledged. This part is indeed on the same level as Fantastic Mr. Fox, with an attention to detail that is truly a sight to behold, itself reason alone to see the film, particularly on the big screen. Combined with cinematography made all the more impressive when it's stop-motion, production design on the level of excellence all Wes Anderson films are known for, and the nearly universal relatability of kids who love their dogs unconditionally, Ilse of Dogs (say that out loud) transcends all the reasons it gives to nitpick. Most people watching aren't going to bother with the nitpicking, and will easily surrender to its ample charms.

Atari and the alpha dogs in search of Spots.

Atari and the alpha dogs in search of Spots.

Overall: B+

READY PLAYER ONE

Directing: C+
Acting: B
Writing: C-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B-
Special Effects
: B-

In the long run, trafficking in nostalgia is a fool's errand. That is, if you want your product -- your work, your art, whatever -- to be remembered beyond its initial run. Then again, a strong case could be made that it's naive to make such a statement: if the product makes a ton of money as soon as it's unleashed on the public, does it matter? With Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg is clearly just cashing a check.

Spielberg is objectively one of the greatest directors of the twentieth century. In the 21st century, his record is a little spottier: one would be hard pressed to come up with a great movie he's made in twenty years; it's been a decade since his output was excellent (Munich); about the same time since he offered something both of a genre and tapped into the zeitgeist of its time (War of the Worlds). Those were both films which, for varying reasons, people are likely still to be talking about ten or twenty years from now.

Ready Player One is undeniably entertaining, but unfortunately -- especially given it's directed by Spielberg -- easily forgotten. It's one pop culture reference after another, a constant parade of reminders of other, superior works. Also, no less then three times during this movie, I was taken out of it to think to myself, Okay, that was dumb.

The plot is beyond preposterous, and lacks the absorbing world-building of, say, Minority Report (2002), Spielberg's last memorable science fiction film -- some elements of which are now a bit dated, but it holds up surprisingly well after sixteen years. In 2034, no one is going to be saying the same of Ready Player One. The visual effects look dated even now -- clearly a deliberate decision, to make us feel like we are watching the interior design of a VR video game. The problem there is that it looks like virtual reality in 2018. Surely in the year 2045 -- only nine years before the setting of Minority Report, incidentally -- virtual reality will be hardly distinguishable from the sight of reality.

Sometimes, in Ready Player One, it actually is, such as when our young hero, Wade (Tye Sheridan) visits the recorded memories/messenger of the designer of the "Oasis" (Mark Rylance), or as in what is possibly the movie's most thrilling sequence, and the players find themselves in the Overlook Hotel from The Shining. This is one of the few moments when Ready Player One transcends the pitfalls of trafficking in nostalgia, even without any sight of Jack Nicholson or Shelley Duvall. (There are other delights, and I won't spoil them.)

If all of Ready Player One were like that sequence, when it suddenly becomes smarter than it has any right to be, it could have come within spitting distance of a classic, even as it still relies on a cascade of pop culture references, mostly from the eighties. The game designer, you see, was obsessed with eighties pop culture; he packs the "Oasis" with such references, which makes his obsessive players obsess over those same details as they attempt to find the "easter eggs" needed to obtain three keys that will give them full control of the Oasis universe in the wake of his passing.

Occasionally we get non-eighties references, such as The Iron Giant (released in 1999) or even King Kong, who shows up in an admittedly very cool car race sequence near the beginning of the film. That's a lot of fun to watch.

The time spent inside the Oasis quickly gets tedious, though, and not nearly enough is shown of the real-world environment of 2045 -- "The Stacks," stacked trailer homes in booming Columbus, Ohio, of all places. There are some well-timed sight gags as the visuals switch between the interior of the Oasis and the players in the real world with their gear on, but that's about as far as it goes.

Instead, what we get is a sensory-overload movie-turned-video game, which we as the audience aren't even actually playing; we just watch the characters play it. True, countless people do exactly that on YouTube, and maybe I'm just becoming a geezer who doesn't understand contemporary youth. This doesn't change the fact that Ready Player One is even less nutritious than popcorn entertainment -- it's cotton candy for the eyeballs. When, in another decade or two, movie buffs are still talking about the lasting impact of Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark (ironically, Spielberg references are peppered in the novel of the same name, which Spielberg scrubbed from his own movie adaptation), they will not be talking about Ready Player One.

This movie will surely make plenty of money. But we're talking about a guy who has not once, not twice, but three times made the highest-grossing movie of all time, in 1975, 1982 and 1993. Ready Player One is far from the same league, and its director is better than this. It offers a lot of fun in the moment -- sure, okay, whatever. It doesn't have to be Schindler's List. But it still could have stood some substance to call its own, instead of borrowing it from countless other properties and weakening it to nothing of consequence in the process.

Tye Sheridan reaches out and touches no one.

Tye Sheridan reaches out and touches no one.

Overall: C+