Monday, December 17, 2018


Currently the #1 movie at the box office:


(Dirs. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, & Rodney Rothman, 2018) 

I keep thinking this is called INTO THE SPIDEY-VERSE because when I was a kid, my introduction to the character was on the The Electric Company, a kids show on PBS. The program featured the first live-action version of Spider-Man appearing in skits called “Spidey Super Stories.” This happened in the mid ‘70s, so yeah, I’m old.

But I’m not too old to appreciate Sony’s first feature-length animated Spider-Man movie as it’s a zippy, kinetic, and even psychedelic ride with a likable lead in the form of Shameik Moore voicing Miles Morales. Actually, maybe we should consider Morales to be the co lead, as, you know, this a Spider-Man film.

It starts off with our web-slinging hero being voiced by Chris Pine, who says through voice-over narration “let’s go over this one more time…” and we yet again get Spider-Man’s back story. In a BATMAN LEGO MOVIE way, we see that the canon of references are from all of the previous Spider-Man movies, and even include that embarrassing emo dance from SPIDER-MAN 3.

But Pine’s incarnation of the character doesn’t last long as he is killed during a fight with the Green Goblin (Jorma Taccone), and Kingpin (Leiv Schreiber). That’s right, killed. His death is witnessed my Miles, who had just been bit by a genetically modified spider so he’s got Spidey-sense too. So while the world mourns the fallen hero, Miles costumes up, and he goes through the comical motions of trying to climb walls, shoot webs, and swing through the city just like we seen time and time again.

(Spoiler!) Turns out that Spider-Man died in Miles’ dimension but is alive in another as a washed out, cynical, divorced (from Mary Jane voiced by Zoë Kravitz), schlub voiced by Jake Johnson. I know he’s always been a wise-cracking character, but Johnson’s take on Spider-Man gone to seed seems more like Deadpool than Peter Parker.

So the plot has to do with this super collider thing that can open portals to other universes that Kingpin wants to use to get his wife and kid back from some alternate world causing a giant black hole under New York.

Coming to help Miles out from the multi-verse is an array of different Spider-people: Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), a Japanese-American schoolgirl rendered in anime; Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), a hilarious hard-nosed black-and-white detective who looks like something out of the Watchmen; Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), who is actually from Miles’ universe, and, most amusing, Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), aka Peter Porker, who seems to have come from the Warner Bros. cartoon dimension.

As for the non Spider-people, there are well chosen appearances by Brian Tyree Henry, Mahershala Ali, Kathryn Hahn Luna Lauren Velez, Lily Tomlin, and maybe one of the best cameos in the whole Marvel movie franchise by Stan Lee.

The busy blend of all these different animation styles –shots can flicker from shiny, exquisitely rendered imagery to old school, hand-drawn, comic book flatness in flash after flash – wore me out in the second half. There are so many characters and plot points to keep up with, and the pacing of the action sequences came close to breaking my brain. It’s like they were trying cram every single idea that every digital artist for Sony Pictures Imageworks had into every frame.

But there’s a lot of energy and wit in Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman’s screenplay for SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, and the whole snazzy look of it is really cool despite being so damn cluttered at times. You’ll definitely get plenty of bang for your buck here.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Neither CREED II Nor RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET Suffer From Sequelitis

The top two box office champs currently playing everywhere:

CREED II (Dir. Steven Caple Jr., 2018)

his, obviously, is the follow-up to 2015’s CREED, the seventh film in the long-running ROCKY franchise, which makes this ROCKY VIII. But it’s also a direct sequel to ROCKY IV, as it features the son of that film’s villain, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), challenging Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) for the title of heavy weight champion of the world. Donnie’s father, Apollo Creed, was killed in the ring by Drago, and his son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu) is one scary, big ass dude with a permanent scowl so Donnie’s trainer, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone, of course) fears the worst and opts out.

Anyone who’s ever seen a ROCKY movie knows the formula of how in their first fight the antagonist will triumph (Viktor doesn’t win because of an illegal head shot, but his unstoppable round of punches to Donnie’s face and ribs hospitalizes him), then the film builds to a climatic rematch with a montage or two along the way. Well despite the over familiarity, the formula still works.

Jordan, who earlier this year stole BLACK PANTHER, puts in a just as confidently powerful performance as in the previous film, and shares some touching moments with the also returning Tessa Thompson as his singer girlfriend. As for the rest of the cast, Phylicia Rashad also reprises her role as Donnie’s stepmother, there’s a surprise cameo by another ROCKY IV face, and the dad from This is Us, Milo Ventimiglia, shows up as Rocky’s son (I forgot he played the part in ROCKY BALBOA).

Stallone, who co-wrote the screenplay with Juel Taylor, will doubtfully get an Oscar nomination like he did for the first CREED, but he’s played Rocky so often that it’s beyond second nature for him. His reliably sturdy turn makes Rocky’s relationship with Donnie very moving, and enhances the excitement of the fight scenes in the ring, which were beautifully shot by cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau.

CREED II may not reach the heights of its Ryan Coogler*-directed predecessor, which I had called “one hell of a legacyquel,” but it still stands with the best of the series. Just don’t ask me to rank them as I’m so not into that

* Coogler Executive Produced on this round.

(Dirs. Phil Johnston & Rich Moore, 2018) 

While Wreck-it Ralph’s first adventure was what I called a “worthwhile retro romp,” his second go round takes him out of the world of ‘80s video games and sends him and his BFF Vanellope into cyberspace. John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman are back as Ralph and Vanellope, who live behind the walls of Litwak’s Family Fun Center and hang out in various games’ landscapes when the arcade is closed.

When Vanellope complains about being bored with her game, Sugar Rush, Ralph decides to surprise her by making a new track. Things go awry when a girl unable to control the game’s vehicle breaks the wheel off of the console, and the game has to be shut down because a replacement part would be too expensive.

Learning that one is available on Ebay (or Eboy as Ralph calls it), Ralph and Vanellope speed through optical cables into the internet which is depicted as a ginormous shiny city that looks like a mixture of Wakanda and Tomorrowland. This where users in the real world are represented by avatars, and companies like Amazon, Pinterest, and Google (Ralph: “I guess we know where to go if we ever need a pair of goggles”) appear as logo-bearing skyscrapers.

Our lovable duo (seriously Reilly and Silverman are again extremely adorable) encounter such new characters as Alan Tudyk as the quick-to-guess search engine KnowsMore, Taraji P. Henson as Yesss, the algorithm for the fictional site BuzzzTube, Bill Hader as a pop-up ad named J.P. Spamley and most strikingly, Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman!) as Shank, the protagonist for of an online street racing game called Slaughter Race that Vanellope so wants to be a part of. Brief returning turns by Jack McBrayer as Fix-it Felix Jr., Jane Lynch as his wife, Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun, and Ed O’Neil as the arcade owner, Mr. Litwak round out the cast.

Jokes come fast and mostly land about viral videos, internet auctions, and in a central sequence, Disney princesses via cameos by Cinderella (Jennifer Hale), Aurora (Kate Higgins), Ariel (Jodi Benson), Belle (Paige O'Hara), Jasmine (Linda Larkin), Pocahontas (Irene Bedard), Mulan (Ming-Na Wen), Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), Rapunzel (Mandy Moore), and Merida (Kelly Macdonald).

With its infectious spirit, imagery that pops, big goofy nature, and zippy stylish energy, RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET is a lot of fun that has enough invention to keep it from suffering from severe sequelitis. It also has a last third that dares to go a bit dark, but pulls it off grandly. Sure, it’s a Disney family film, but folks of all ages should appreciate that it’s ultimately not just kids stuff.

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Monday, October 22, 2018

Harping On The New HALLOWEEN

Now playing everywhere:

HALLOWEEN (Dir. David Gordon Green, 2018)

If you follow film, you most likely know that the #1 movie at the box office is David Gordon Green’s new take on HALLOWEEN. Despite that it’s the 11th entry in the franchise, we’re supposed to forget all but the 1978 original and consider this to be its direct sequel. Driving home that point is that it’s mentioned early on that villain Michael Myers - you know, the homicidal maniac in the bleached Captain Kirk mask - only murdered five people in his one killing spree way back when.

Taking place 40 years later with Jamie Lee Curtis reprising her iconic role as Laurie Strode, we return to the fictional town of Haddonfield, Illinois where Myers, played by Nick Castle, is scheduled to be transferred to a maximum security prison on, wouldn’t you know it, Halloween day.

The day before Myers’ transfer, he is visited by a pair of investigative journalists (Jefferson Hall and Rhian Rees) working on a true crime podcast. Hall, best known as Hugh of the Vale in Game of Thrones, takes out Myers’ mask to try to trigger a reaction (of course we never see Myers’ face - Hall is talking to his back), but all it does is make the other crazies in the yard have fits. It’s an effective opening, but it’s pretty silly if you think about it, so let’s not.

Let’s get to Curtis’ return as Laurie, who now has long scraggly mostly grey hair and calls herself a “basket case,” who the podcasters visit next. Laurie lives in a fenced in compound where she has a basement bunker filled with guns (canned goods and other necessities too), and she spends a lot of time performing target practice on various dummies scattered around her property.

We meet Laurie’s daughter, Karen, played by the always reliable Judy Greer, and her husband Ray (Toby Huss), and their daughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), who are all worried about grandma Laurie.

Unsurprisingly, the bus taking Myers to the new facility crashes which we don’t see – I can’t remember what the cause of the crash was, but I guess it doesn’t matter – and Myers escapes.

In one effective yet extremely implausible scene, the investigative podcasters played by Hall and Rees stop at a gas station that happens to be where Myers has just murdered the attendants and the mechanic and is still on the premises. It pays off in a riveting moment involving the screaming Rees crawling under the stalls in the restroom in a futile attempt to get away from Myers, but the whole sequence appears to exist mainly for the killer to retrieve his mask from the trunk of their car.

Myers kills more folks amid oblivious trick or treaters before making it to Laurie’s compound for the film’s climax, while Will Patton as Deputy Hawkins scrambles to catch him. For some reason it’s mentioned that Patton’s Hawkins was there the night of Myers’ original Halloween killing spree but I’m not sure why as it’s not like the actor was there or the character mattered much.

While not in the same class as the ’78 original, HALLOWEEN 2018 is a silly yet solid horror thriller, well scripted by director David Gordon Green, Jeff Fradley, and Danny McBride (yes, that Danny McBride). Of course, Curtis owns the show but a shout-out should be given to Greer, who isn’t a household name but should be as she’s a terrific actress who’s been in tons of things including major franchises as JURASSIC WORLD, ANT-MAN, and PLANET OF THE APES. Greer’s Karen goes from being embarrassed by her mother to standing by her in the satisfyingly fiery finale and it’s a convincing turn.

After the first one and its 1981 sequel, I haven’t seen the rest of the nearly dozen movies that make up the HALLOWEEN franchise – I intentionally avoided the Rob Zombie remakes – so I think I was in a good place to enjoy this follow-up. Hardcore fans may have issues with it that I haven’t thought of, but it feels like a worthy addition to me.

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Thursday, October 11, 2018

FIRST MAN: The Film Babble Blog Review

Opening tonight at multiplexes from here to the stars:

(Dir. Damien Chazelle, 2018) 

Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning smash LA LA LAND, is a quietly profound adaptation of James R. Hansen’s 2005 biography of Neil Armstrong. Chazelle re-unites with his LA LA LAND lead Ryan Gosling, who brings his patently stoic presence to the part of Armstrong as we follow him on his epic journey from edgy test flights to the historic Apollo 11 mission to the moon in 1969.

Even though one knows exactly how this film will end, Josh Singer’s (SPOTLIGHT, THE POST) screenplay provides a strong sense of danger as the road to space is littered with casualties including Ed White (Jason Clarke), who was the first American to walk in space; Elliot See (Patrick Fugit), and Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham).

This is never off the mind of Armstrong’s spouse, Janet Shearon, played by The Queen’s Claire Foy, who makes the most of the standard worried wife back at home role. Foy, utilizing a convincing American accent, appears to have trouble emotionally connecting with her husband, who Gosling coldly plays except for in the scenes set in space. The point apparently being that Armstrong’s real love was the stars. This is probably why they got divorced years later (not covered in the film, of course).

Aided by cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who shot LA LA LAND, Chazelle paints an impressionistic picture of the space race era in which they show more than they tell what went down. This adds to the film’s dream-like feel at times, especially in dealing with haunting flashbacks to before Armstrong’s 2-year old daughter died, something that reminded me of the abstract approach of Denis Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL.

Since I’ve grown up on the stories of the moon mission, and seen countless re-tellings of how the men and women of NASA struggled to reach the final frontier (in other words, there’s no way this wouldn't have some of the stuff that’s in THE RIGHT STUFF), many of the aesthetics here are very familiar – having 2001-ish style strings during one sequence for instance – but the lucidity of how authentic everything comes across from the period stylings to how dead on the imagery of the moon looks made for an immersive experience all around.

Cazelle wisely decides to stick with what the astronauts – Gosling’s Armstrong, and Corey Stoll’s Buzz Aldrin – saw through cramped capsule windows, or their lunar helmets, and the effect makes you feel like you’re getting what the incredible experience really looked like.

For much of FIRST MAN, the only thing that broke up the visually poetic spell for me was Gosling’s dead eyed performance. But when his eyes light up at the view of the heavens that very few humans have seen (also when giving a speech about said experience), one can get what the film has to say about the character, the real man, and his fantastic adventure that is faithfully and beautifully recreated.

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Thursday, October 04, 2018

VENOM: A Complete Tonal Misfire With No Sense Of Fun

Opening tonight at a multiplex near everyone:

VENOM (Dir. Ruben Fleischer, 2018)

o get this straight, this isn’t a Marvel movie – it’s an “In Association With Marvel” movie. That means that it’s not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; it’s the beginning of Sony’s Marvel Universe because Sony owns Spider-man, and Venom started out as a character in the Spidey-verse.

Or something like that. Anyway, I only knew Venom from SPIDER-MAN 3, in which he was played by Topher Grace, as I’m pretty comics illiterate, so I had no real expectations for this origin story. I was just hoping for a fun sci-fi action picture, but what I got was this terrible, tortured slog – an ugly, sticky, tangled mess, much like its title character.

Tom Hardy, with a strained American accent, plays Eddie Brock, an investigative journalist with a TV show (think Anderson Cooper as played by Jeremy Renner), who loses his job after going after evil genius billionaire Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). This also ends Eddie’s engagement to his love, Anne (Michelle Williams with long straight blonde hair that doesn’t move), who immediately leaves him.

Meanwhile, there’s been these alien symbiote things that have been taking over people’s bodies wrecking havoc and Ahmed’s Drake is trying to control them in his Life Foundation lab which is built into a mountain side across the bay from San Francisco as we see in countless establishing exterior shots. Jenny Slate (SNL, OBVIOUS CHILD) plays one of Drake’s scientist assistants who decides to be a whistle blower and expose her boss’s deadly experiments with the help of Eddie, who she brings to the lab.

You know what happens then – Brock gets this thing “up his ass” (his words), and becomes embedded with powers which makes him a sweaty, always hungry, spastic, obnoxiously over-the-top jerk, who take out leagues of attackers with black, shiny shard like arms thrusting from his body. It’s not pretty.

Eddie also hears the symbiote, who hates being called a “parasite,” talk through him in a garbled, jarring voice (Hardy’s voice modified) that goads him on, puts him down (calls him “pussy” when he takes an elevator instead of jumping out a window of a high rise), and throws out one-liners, many of which fall flat.

The rest of the narrative is un-engaging, and poorly paced as it goes through the motions of a motorcycle chase through the streets, battles with a bunch of standard issue black-clad thugs, a count-down to a launch that must be thwarted, and tons of empty spectacle made up of unimpressive CGI.

VENOM is a complete tonal misfire which can be largely blamed on its dreadful, witless screenplay by Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, and Kelly Marcel which even tries to make “Have a nice life” be a burn more than once. Even at its most watchable, the whole movie just feels off. Hardy does his damnest, but just doesn’t gel with the character – either character of Eddie or Venom, and at times his hyper acting made me cringe with embarrassment for him. However, I blame the material because I’ve seen him do way better before.

Despite it being a dud, fanboys will just have to see it because you know completism, and there’s, of course, a few stingers – a mid-credits scene that has an intriguing cameo, and an extended post credits teaser for the animated SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE movie coming out this December.

Those tagged on bits are actually fun, but that so calls attention to how all the VENOM nonsense that preceded them so wasn’t.

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A STAR IS BORN: Bradley Cooper & Lady Gaga Soar In Stellar Remake

Opening tonight everywhere:

(Dir. Bradley Cooper, 2018)

I had a feeling going in, from the high amount of positive buzz, that this film was going to be good, but I really didn’t expect it to be the emotionally powerful experience that it is.

Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut is the third remake of the 1937 classic, A STAR IS BORN, but you don’t have to have seen that, or the 1954 or 1976 versions to recognize the premise: a tragic romance in which one star rises while the other one fades.

Cooper, who also co-produced, co-wrote the screenplay, and co-wrote some of the songs, plays Jackson Maine, a country rock star who we first meet shredding his guitar in front of thousands of cheering fans. Well, actually the first shot is of him taking pills and downing some liquor backstage before that moment, but I digress.

We follow the drunk Jackson after the show as he gets his driver (Greg Grunberg) to take him somewhere, anywhere that serves alcohol only to find himself at a drag bar being serenaded by Lady Gaga as Ally, the one woman they let perform at the place because, well, she’s Lady Gaga.

Jackson is immediately smitten with Ally, and so is Cooper’s cinematographer, Matthew Libatique (PI, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, BLACK SWAN) who gives Gaga gorgeous close-ups throughout the film. Jackson and Ally hit it off and have a wonderfully rambling evening together in which she punches a fan for being pushy, and they end up in a grocery store parking lot with her hand wrapped up in a frozen pea bag with tape – Jackson’s concoction, of course.

In a sweet moment, Ally improvises some lines to a new song and before you know it the movie has its big signature anthem “Shallow,” which he gets her to shake off her stage fright and perform with him at his show the next night. It’s a glorious scene that trailers and T.V. spots have been right to milk.

You know how it goes from there – Ally’s star is on the ascent with a new album, image, and tour, while Jackson goes deeper down into the bottle. But as predictable as that sounds, it plays out beautifully here with every scene having thoughtful weight.

The strong supporting cast well play their needed notes too – Andrew Dice Clay proves that his performance in BLUE JASMINE was no fluke with a great turn as Ally’s limo driver/ex-crooner father , the always reliable Sam Elliot gives great gravitas as Jackson’s brother/manager, Dave Chappelle pops up to help Jackson and Ally get married while making some patently laid-back wisecracks, and the lesser known Ravi Gavron puts in a sharp appearance as Ally’s ambitious agent.

Adding greatly to the portrait of this couple’s relationship is how the film values the song-writing connection that Jackson and Ally have together. How they bond over words scribbled on notebook pages that become crowd-pleasing ballads is one of many factors that had me tear up at times.

This helps make the film’s soundtrack – a rich mixture of country and pop songs – a seriously stellar collection. Through the concert scenes, some of which were filmed at Coachella, the song performances really sold me on these characters feeling like real people caught up in the spotlight. In that vein, Gaga owns her first leading role by coming across more like a real person than any time I’ve seen her before. She is bound to get award season action a-plenty for her stunning work here.

Cooper will surely get some attention too for his touching take on the star on the way down. Jackson has a lot of charisma despite his sloppy drunkenness, and mean moments of jealousy towards Ally, and Cooper is equally skilled in bringing out both his charms and flaws.

A STAR IS BORN is one of the best remakes ever, and one of the best films of the year. It’s a joyous, romantic, funny, tragic, uplifting, poignant, heart-string-pulling, beautiful, and, what I said up-front, emotionally powerful piece of pure entertainment.

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Thursday, September 20, 2018

LOVE, GILDA Doesn’t Go Deep Enough, But Is Still Adorable

Starts today in the Triangle at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Raleigh:

LOVE GILDA (Dir. Lisa D’Apolito, 2018)

ormer actress Lisa D’Apolito’s full length feature debut is a fine primer to the life and career of comedy goddess Gilda Radner (1946-1989), who as we hear the voice of David Letterman say at the outset “was the very first chosen for the cast of Saturday Night Live.” But while it works as an overview for newcomers to Radner, folks who grew up with the woman’s work may find that it glosses over too many details to really be the thorough and essential portrait that she deserves.

Largely narrated by Radner herself via audiotapes she had recorded while writing her 1989 autobiography “It’s Always Something,” and various interviews; LOVE GILDA touchingly also features some of her many modern day disciples such as Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader, and Melissa McCarthy reading from her diaries.

As images of Radner and her notebook handwriting animatedly fill the screen, we see her go from being a chubby kid living in Detroit that loved to play act (“I’d be glued to the television, and then I’d go act out things like it in the backyard”) to becoming a stage performer in Toronto getting her first major job in a 1972 production of the religious musical 
Godspell, the cast of which included Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Dave Thomas, Martin Short, and Paul Shaffer.

After stints in the Second City improvisational troupe, and the National Lampoon Radio Hour, Radner’s big break was, of course, joining the line-up of NBC’s Saturday Night Live in 1975. 

Her popular characters such as Weekend Update commentators, the confused, elderly Emily Litella (Radner: “I was the first one to ever say bitch on television, and the censors let me do it because they said it was a nice, sweet old lady saying it”), and the obnoxious, big-haired Roseanne Roseannadanna, along with her Patti Smith-esque punk rocker Candy Slice, and her Barbara Walters parody, Baba Wawa, made her famous and won her an Emmy.

Along the way we see that Gilda dated a lot – she once complained that it was hard to watch GHOSTBUSTERS because she had dated each of its three leads – Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis. She also had an on again/off again relationship with Martin Short in the pre-SNL days (Paul Shaffer: “They were some form of power couple, but it was comedy power”). Her brief first marriage to rock guitarist G.E. Smith goes by in a blur.

Montages of clips from her SNL appearances, merge with many photos of her from the era set to a bouncy disco beat as this was the glitzy late ‘70s entertainingly enough, but when the film comes to Radner’s one woman Broadway show it doesn’t give enough context. As many SNL folks were involved, the production was seen by many to be a competitive effort towards her fellow cast members Aykroyd and John Belushi’s Blues Brothers project to the point in which Paul Shaffer had to choose sides and lost out being in THE BLUES BROTHERS movie.

But this isn’t discussed in this biodoc, nor is that the resulting record and film, GILDA LIVE, flopped. Except for HANKY PANKY, the comic thriller that she made with later husband Gene Wilder in 1982, her film career isn’t given much space either. But in a 90 minute biodoc that’s understandable as her filmography wasn’t that stellar and ended on a sad note with her second collaboration with Wilder, HAUNTED HONEYMOON being a critically lambasted dud.

The last third of the film, dealing with Radner’s fight with ovarian cancer, is unsuprisingly quite sad. If hearing her on tape begging for her health, and bemoaning the loss of her hair doesn’t get you, the video she had made of one of her chemo sessions in which she is as chipper as she can be surely will. Even in the middle of such severe circumstances, Gilda could still come alive and light up a room on camera.

As it’s filled with so many pretty pictures, loving memories, and funny footage of Radner, there’s a lot to love in LOVE, GILDA even if it doesn’t go as deep as this comedy geek would’ve liked. I don’t know if I was hoping for the intense lengthy examination that Judd Apatow did for Garry Shandling (HBO’S THE ZEN DIARIES OF GARRY SHANDLING) or what *, but what the woman contributed to pop culture certainly could stand up to that sort of scrutiny.

But the takeaway from this film is that it finds Gilda to be forever adorable, and, despite the tragedy of her death at 42, D’Apolito’s biodoc offers ample evidence that she had a blast making people laugh throughout her all too short life.

*Radner’s last major appearance was actually on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show in 1988.

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Friday, September 07, 2018

THE WIFE: The Great Woman Behind The Not So Great Man

Opening today at an art house near me:

THE WIFE (Dir. Björn Runge, 2018) 

Oscar speculation is high for Glenn Close in her role here as the wife of a famous writer who has just won the Noble Prize for Literature. Jonathan Pryce portrays her husband, the pretentious Professor Joe Castleman, who jumps up and down with his spouse, Joan, on their bed when he gets the news via a phone call in the middle of the night.

The couple fly to Stockholm for the awards ceremony, and on the flight are approached by a sly Christian Slater as journalist Nathaniel Bone, who is determined to be Joe’s biographer. Annoyed, Joe shoes him away, and even discourages him from talking to their son, David (Max Irons) as he returns to his seat.

Amid the parties and intense adulation for Joe, one can sense that something is off about their relationship – much in the way of Close’s subtle reactions to the attention her husband is receiving. David, an aspiring writer himself, feels like his work is largely dismissed by his father, and shows his discomfort at tagging along with his parents to this event.

Bit by juicy bit, we learn through flashbacks in which we see the young Joan, played by Annie Starke, as a writing student at Smith College. Her professor Joe (Harry Lloyd) recognizes Joan’s talent, and it’s obvious that she’s the one with the gift as he leaves his marriage for her, and she helps him complete his first novel or basically fixes it as she notes that his characters are wooden and his dialogue unconvincing.

Slater’s Nathaniel suspects this, and over drinks with Joan, tests out his theory. We also learn of Joe’s affairs over their 40-year relationship, and how Joan looked the other way.

Close’s performance is stoic yet layered as Joan maneuvers through her husband’s world of critical praise as the Noble ceremonies go on, and her discomfort is palpable when she listens to Joe’s acceptance speech in which he says “Without this woman, I am nothing” and attempts to paint a picture of her as his most valued muse. This disgusts her and she leaves the building with her bemused husband following, hoping to get her to come back.

It’s a “behind every great man, there’s a woman” scenario, but the man here, portrayed by Pryce in one of his finest roles, is far from great. The premise involving the long suffering lady being the real one responsible with the work that has given her lover great acclaim has been explored before in such films as IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES, BARTON FINK, and, more recently, BIG EYES, but THE WIFE doesn’t tread over the same ground as it has its own 
elegant, thoughtful, and at times an acidic approach, one that makes for absorbing emotional drama. 

Based on Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 book of the same name, Jane Anderson’s sharp screenplay tells a tale of resentment lurking under a highly cultivated facade, and Close plays every note with poise, grace, and an inner, yet detectable, sense of what Joan has gone through in her life, and how she finally needs to confront it.

Close definitely deserves the Best Actress Oscar this time; it’s hard to believe she’s been previously nominated six times and has never won (that’s more noms without a win than any other actor). Her performance as Joan Castleman here is so masterful that it’ll be impossible for the Academy to ignore.

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Friday, August 24, 2018

Of Puppets And Puzzles

These two vastly different movies open today at multiplexes (and some art houses in PUZZLE’s case) near us all:


(Dir. Brian Henson, 2018) 

This movie, directed by a son of Jim Henson no less, about felt getting filthy, is getting savaged by critics but it’s not really that bad. It’s a premise that’s not exactly new – i.e. underneath the warm and fuzzy front is the sleazy, foul mouthed, and raunchy side of show biz * – but it has its moments largely due to its cast made up of Melissa McCarthy, puppeteer Bill Barretta, Joel McCale, Maya Rudolph, and Elizabeth Banks.

The plot revolves around the serial killings of a ‘80s TV show, The Happytime Gang, which Barretta voicing the burnt out private detective Phil Phillips is partnered with McCarthy as Detective Connie Edwards to investigate.

Now it’s a pretty standard film noir-ish scenario which isn’t very interesting on its own, but it moves along briskly aided by a bunch of crude sight gags and tossed off one-liners. 

There are good some good ideas batted about such as the bigotry that puppets face from humans but it really doesnt do much with that, and I wish the material was more inspired than jokes like the “asshole says ‘what?’” running gag that was old when it was used in WAYNE’S WORLD two decades ago, but for a throwaway comedy in these dog days of summer, I’ve seen a lot worse.

* Some folks are crying that this movie is a rip-off of Peter Jasckson’s MEET THE FEEBLES, which incidentally is on YouTube in its entirety right now. You
’re welcome.

And now for something completely different:

PUZZLE (Dir. Marc Turtletaub, 2018) 

Kelly Macdonald (TRAINSPOTTING, GOSFORD PARK, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, Boardwalk Empire, among numerous other notable credits) is superb in this story of a lonely woman finding her niche by putting together jigsaw puzzles with an eccentric Indian inventor (Irrfan Khan *).

Macdonald portrays Agnes, an awkward Connecticut housewife, with two college aged sons (Bubba Weiler and Austin Abrams), and a mechanic husband (David Denham, best known as Roy, Pam’s ex-fiancé on The Office US), who is given a 1000-piece puzzle of a world map for her birthday, and finds that she has a skill for putting it together quickly.

Agnes visits a puzzle shop in New York to buy more puzzles and sees a flier that says “Champion desperately seeking puzzle partner.” She takes home the number in one of the film’s most charming moments she texts “Hi. My name is Agnes. I think I might be good at this. Puzzles I mean.” Her nervousness is priceless here as it’s her first text ever as she was just given an iPhone by her son for her birthday.

Agnes soon meets up with Robert (Khan), who lives in a spacious apartment in the city, and they pull their puzzle-making talents together for a shot in a competition. Agnes keeps that she’s going to work on puzzles with Robert secret from her husband, telling him she’s going to help her Aunt who broke her leg a few times a week. As one might guess, a romance develops between Agnes and Robert, whose poetic philosophy regarding puzzles makes Agnes swoon (hey, it won me over too), but it’s handled with such poignant precision that nothing cringe-worthy happens.

PUZZLE is a quiet, lovely film with a gentle, thoughtful screenplay by Oren Moverman (JESUS’ SON, I’M NOT THERE, LOVE AND MERCY). Macdonald, who should really be a household name, puts is a highly affecting performance in service of an ultimately uplifting story in which all the pieces fit together perfectly (the movie is called PUZZLE so, of course, I’m gonna work in a line like that).

So the bottom line on these two new movies is that unless you’re looking for cheap laughs, skip the filthy puppets and seek out PUZZLE. I bet you’ll be glad you did.

* Khan is also an actor who should be a household name - he's done many films for Bollywood, Britain, and Hollywood including roles in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, THE DARJEELING LIMITED, LIFE OF PI, and JURASSIC WORLD. A film that I highly recommend of his is THE LUNCHBOX (read my review).

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My Last Night At The Rialto

Last night was my final shift working at the Rialto Theatre in Raleigh.

A little back story: I first started working at the Colony Theater, owned by Ambassador Entertainment, in late 2009. I had previously worked at the Varsity Theater in Chapel Hill throughout most of the 2000’s, but quit when I got married and moved to Raleigh earlier that year.

It must also be noted that the Varsity was closing down then, which I wrote about in this blog post: My Last Night At The Varsity Theater & THE HANGOVER (June 4, 2009).

The Varsity later re-opened later that year which I also blogged about: The Historic Varsity Theater In Chapel Hill NC Is Reopening! (October 26, 2009) and Visiting The New Varsity Theater On The Verge Of Its Reopening (November 23, 2009).

So I began working at the Colony Theater in December, 2009, and also started working at their sister theater, the Rialto, shortly after. Sometimes I worked at both theaters on the same day; many Fridays I worked matinees at the Colony, then went to work the evening shift at the Rialto.

Sadly, the Colony closed in late 2015. The empty space and blank marquee still remains.

After that, I continued to work at the Rialto, but am leaving now to pursue other opportunities (more on those in future blog posts). I will miss the Rialto greatly as I’ve worked with great people there, and seen many great movies via their first run roster of indies, foreign films, documentaries, and the revival series Monday at the Movies and Cinema Inc.

This last summer has been a great one for the theater as they’ve shown three superlative docs: RBG (about iconic Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg), WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (about iconic children’s TV show host Fred Rogers), THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS (read my review here), and Spike Lee’s excellent BLACKKKLANSMAN (read my review here).

BLACKKKLANSMAN is the movie that was playing on my last night at the 76-year old movie palace, so I highly appreciated that my final shift was in service of a great film (my last movie at the Varsity nearly a decade ago – THE HANGOVER – wasn’t so great a film to leave on).

Heres a pic of the audience waiting to see Lees latest on my last night:

I’ll still visit the Rialto and my friends there, and I’ll still post pictures of its great marquee on this blog. It’s such a grand venue; a real historic part of Raleigh that I hope will be around a long time.

In weeks to come, I’ll update you dear readers (I’m betting there’s more than one of you) with my new adventures and continue spreading Film Babble Blog goodness as I’m still going to be involved heavily with the world of movies.

Farewell Rialto! Thanks so much for all the movie memories!

More later…

Friday, August 10, 2018

BLACKKKLANSMAN: An Instant Classic That's One Of Spike Lee's Best Films

Opening today at an art house near me:

BLACKKKLANSMAN (Dir. Spike Lee, 2018) 

Believe the hype – Spike Lee’s newest joint is an instant classic and among his best films including DO THE RIGHT THING, MALCOLM X, 25TH HOUR, and INSIDE MAN.

It’s been quite a while since he’s made a truly relevant movie, but this true story adaptation of former police detective Ron Stallworth’s 2014 book about infiltrating the Klu Klux Klan in the ‘70s may be his most relevant movie ever.

Stallworth, sharply portrayed by John David Washington (son of Denzel), was the first black police officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department, and we follow his rise in the ranks to the Intelligence Unit. Stallworth’s first assignment is to go undercover to observe the crowd reaction to a speech by ex-Black Panther member Stokely Carmichael, who had just changed his name to Kwame Ture.

At the event Stallworth has a meet cute with student activist Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), and asks Ture (Corey Hawkins) if he really thinks a race war is coming. “Arm yourself, brother, ‘cause the revolution is comin,’” Ture strongly stresses.

Stallworth comes upon an ad for the KKK in the newspaper, and calls the number on a classic black rotary phone that gets some dramatic close-ups to find himself talking to a recruiter saying that he hates blacks, Jews, Mexicans, Irish, Italians, and Chinese, “but my mouth to God’s ears, I really hate those black rats, and anyone else really that doesn’t have pure white Aryan blood running through their veins.”

This hate speech gets him invited to meet with members of the local charter, but, of course, he can’t go himself so he gets a fellow cop, Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to go in his place and use his name (Stallworth used his real name when calling them because he didn’t know at the time that there would be an investigation).

Zimmerman or Stallworth #2 meets with some scary redneck types played by Ryan Eggold, Paul Walter Hauser, and Jasper Pääkkönen, who suspects that their new recruit might be Jewish, and even tries to get him to take a lie detector test.

There are a number of likewise close scrapes where the detectives’ covers almost get blown including one riveting segment in which Washington’s Stallworth is assigned to be security for KKK Grand Wizard David Duke played with polished smarm by Topher Grace.

While the love interest was fabricated – the character Harrier plays is fictitious – what went down is reportedly accurate in this excellent film that’s part tense thriller, part powerful drama, and part history lesson. Being a Spike Lee Joint it has its fair share of well placed humor, but it’s too serious minded to get very silly.

It’s striking but not surprising that much of the rhetoric used by Duke and the other Klansmen is largely identical to the racist utterings of our current commander-in-chief, and his slogans such as “America first,” and “Make America Great Again” are also spouted. There’s even a moment where Stallworth is confounded by the idea that someone with this bigoted ideology could someday be elected President.

Lee arranged for this film to be released on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the tragic Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a counter protester, Heather Heyer, was killed. The movie ends as a tribute to Heyer, and we’re left with the horrifying thought that this shit is still happening with the flames being fanned by the asshole in the highest office in the land.

Lee knows that this story doesn’t need any flashy stylistic touches so he mostly plays it straight via cinematographer Chayse Irvin
s solid camerawork, but he does include some titled angle split screens, and he busts out one of his trademarked moves – the dolly shot - towards the end and it kills. He also employs his trusty longtime collaborator Terence Blanchard to provide the films often stirring score.

BLACKKKLANSMAN is a vital, piercing piece of work that is one of the best films of the year. With hope it will get some awards season action, especially since Lee really deserves to get something more than that Honorary Oscar he got a few years back.

But more importantly this movie deserves big audiences and to be in the national conversation. I know he doesn’t want to call it a comeback, but, dammit, I’m really glad that Lee has returned with the goods.

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Friday, August 03, 2018

A Tale Of Triplets With Tons Of Twists And Turns

Now playing at an art house near me:

(Dir. Tim Wardle, 2018) 

It’s been a great summer for documentaries. On the heels of the excellent Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Fred Rogers docs, comes this terrific tale of triplets that were separated at birth in 1961, had no idea of the others’ existence, and, by chance, found each other when they were 19 in 1980.

It started when Robert Shafran, on his first day at Sullivan County College in upstate New York was warmly greeted by many fellow students who he had never seen before who called him Eddy. Eddy Galland had attended the school the previous year. One of Eddy’s friends, Michael Domnitz, deduced that they were brothers, and they contacted Eddy and arranged a meeting.

The story of the re-united brothers makes national headlines, and a third twin, Queens College student David Gellman, sees their picture in the newspaper and gets in touch with them. The trio become fast friends, they make the talk show rounds (clips of them on Donahue and being interviewed by Tom Brokaw are prominently featured), have a cameo in a Madonna movie (DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN), and even open a New York restaurant together named Triplets.

But after the feel good montage of the brothers partying it up in the Big Apple set to Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine” (of course) fades, things get a bit dark. Turns out that none of the respective adoptive parents knew that their children had siblings, and we learn that the triplets were part of a psychological experiment in which they were filmed, monitored, and documented under the guise of a child development study.

This revelation causes another pair of twins to find one another – two sisters who were both film students when they met among other similarities.

Shafran and Gellman appear in newly filmed interviews conducted by director Wardle alongside family members, friends, and New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright, whose research provides insights into the case, despite the study on the brothers having never been published, and the files are sealed until 2066.

It may be a spoiler to tell what happened to the third brother, Galland, even if it’s well reported online, so I’ll just cease my description of the narrative right here in case you want to go in unspoiled.

The endlessly fascinating THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS that takes one on a highly emotional ride. It’s a well constructed work via Michael Harte’s fluid editing, and how its subjects guide the viewer through the testimonials without narration.

Containing more twists and turns than most thrillers, this is a must see documentary that deserves big audiences.

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Monday, July 30, 2018

DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT: The Film Babble Blog Review

(Dir. Gus Van Sant, 2018) 

Once again, Joaquin Phoenix puts in an outstanding performance in a film very few people are likely to see.

This touching, and funny adaptation of the memoir of controversial cartoonist John Callahan is only playing at a handful of theaters in my area (the Triangle in N.C.) so it’ll probably come and go under most moviegoers’ noses and that’s a shame.

Callahan (1951-2010) was a Portland, Oregon-based hippy who became a quadriplegic after a drunken automobile accident in 1972. We learn about his life via an array of different threads including Phoenix’s Callahan as the speaker at a college event, giving a confessional at a AA meeting, and showing his ink-drawn cartoons to a group of kids who come to his aid when he falls out of his wheelchair in the street.

The film flashes back to the 21-year old Callahan’s last day when he could walk before the accident in Los Angeles, in which he parties hard with a mustached, side-burned Jack Black as Dexter, a guy he had just met at a party.

They leave that party to head to what Dexter says is a better party, stopping at a bar along the way to get even more wasted. The drunk duo drive around aimlessly, ride a rollercoaster at an amusement park, puke, and pass out – well, Callahan passes out while Dexter at the wheel of Callahan’s Volkswagen Bug smashes into a light pole at 90 mph.

Callahan comes to and is told by a doctor that he’s possibly paralyzed for life, and he goes through the various stages of his physical recovery in which a blonde, short-haired Rooney Mara with a Swedish accent shows up for some reason – she might be his massage therapist, I dunno - to tell him he’s very good looking.

Then we’ve got a slimmed-down Jonah Hill with long blonde hair who’s great as Callahan’s sponsor, Donnie, who lives in a lavish mansion he inherited where he holds support group meetings. In a few of the movie’s best scenes, Callahan gets to know his fellow recovering alcoholics like Beth Ditto as the outspoken Reba, Mark Webber as the angry Mike, and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon as the acerbic Corky (another indie rock icon, Sleater Kinney and Portandia’s Carrie Brownstein appears as Callahan’s case worker).

But despite Donnie and the group, Callahan still drinks, but around the film’s halfway mark he has an epiphany where he has a vision of his mother (Mireille Enos) that had abandoned him when he was a kid and this inspires him to change his ways.

Callahan starts to scribble crude cartoons with edgy captions, and, as he later tells his audience at the aforementioned speaking engagement, he realized that he “should’ve been a cartoonist, a gag man, all along.” Throughout the narrative, Callahan’s black and white cartoons, one of which the title of the film comes from, get a bit of the animation treatment, but it doesn’t come off as too gimmicky. 

Rooney, now a flight attendant, pops up again for some romance with Phoenix’s Callahan, but the rest of the film mostly concerns his getting recognition for his cartoons when they are published by such notable outlets as the New Yorker, Penthouse, and Playboy, and many newspapers. Some folks don’t take too kindly to the taboo teasing nature of his work, so they are many complaint letters and people telling him off in public but he develops a thick skin and perseveres.

And that’s what this fine film, one of Gus Van Sant’s most personal works, is about – persevering. It could have been a cheesy inspirational biodoc – Robin Williams was originally slated to play Callahan and it could’ve been another PATCH ADAMS - but with Phoenix’s invested performance, its excellent cast, and its sincere, unpretentious approach via Van Sant
s very thoughtful screenplay, DONT WORRY, HE WONT GET FAR ON FOOT is a strong drama dealing with addiction and overcoming disabilities while finding oneself in the process. The laughs that come through Callahan's cartoons are the icing on the cake.

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Thursday, July 26, 2018

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT Is The Best Yet In The Long Running Series

Opening tonight at a multiplex near us all:
(Dir. Christopher McQuarrie, 2018)

These movies are getting better and better. It’s true, the sixth installment of the 22-year old series based on an over 50-year old TV show is the best one yet.

It starts with a stellar pre-opening credits sequence largely set in Berlin in which Ethan Hunt (a 56-year old Tom Cruise, looking like he’s 40), and his returning IMF (Impossible Missions Force) crew made of Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) attempt to retrieve three plutonium cores from a terrorist group called the Apostles (an offshoot of the Syndicate from the previous M:I film, ROGUE NATION).

They fail to get the plutonium, but were able to capture weapons expert Soloman Lane (Sean Harris, reprising his role from RN), and, joined by Henry Cavill as a CIA operative, travel to Paris to again try to capture the plutonium from the Apostles.

Of course, right away, we (or I) suspect Cavill’s character to be John Lark, the leader of the Apostles as his identity is unknown, but he tells CIA Director Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett) that he thinks Hunt has turned and he is Lark. Now, this is quite a leap for us to buy that the protagonist of a six entry series has now become the bad guy, but it’s a plot point that works and leads to something the franchise does best – a satisfying fake-out.

IMF Director Alan Hunley (the also returning from RN) Alec Baldwin, gets out of the office and into the field with the team for the Paris mission which involves Hunt in a killer motorcycle and car chase around the Arc de Triomphe.

The action moves to London where a rooftop foot chase (always got to have one of those), in which Hunt is shown a picture of his wife (Michelle Monaghan) and told that her life is threatened.

Then we move on to Kashmir (globetrotting!) where Hunt and his team, along with the also returning Rebecca Ferguson as former MI6 agent Isla Faust, try to de-activate the bombs before they kill billions of people. This involves an incredible helicopter chase in which Hunt fights to get the detonator from the bad guys.

Sure, there are contrivances – the goons always being bad shots in the shoot-outs, and a 15-minute countdown taking a lot longer than 15 minutes among them – but the stakes feel real, and the rush of the spectacle after spectacle is constantly exhilarating.

For sure the best sequel of our current sequel cluttered climate, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT is a cleverly constructed action thriller with a great gritty look, a sharp screenplay, lots of well placed humor, and a bunch of mesmerizing moments that make it more engaging and entertaining than any other action thriller in recent memory. 

Writer/Director McQuarrie, the only director who has made two M:I movies, is getting to be a old hand at making movies with Cruise (he previously directed the actor in JACK REACHER and MI:RN, and wrote the screenplays for VALKRIE, EDGE OF TOMORROW, and THE MUMMY), and this time he really pulls out the stops. 

Cruise, again doing many of his own stunts, once more excels as Hunt, who while mostly confident shows believable fear and worry when in the middle of all the effectively dangerous feeling activity. You could say he puts in a performance that's fearlessly fearful.

I’m not sure when Cruise will be considered too old to be doing these movies (he’s almost the age Roger Moore was in his last 007 adventure, A VIEW TO A KILL *), but it doesn’t seem like it’ll be anytime soon.

*Moore was 57, and later said that he was four hundred years too old for the part.

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Friday, July 06, 2018

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: As Fun As It Is Forgettable

Now playing at every multiplex from here to the quantum realm:


(Dir. Payrton, Reed) 

It’s getting harder and harder to write reviews of these Marvel movies. I feel like I’m writing the same thing over and over whether I like or dislike whatever newest one or not.

I note where the newest falls in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), i.e. the subject here, the sequel to 2015’s ANT-MAN is the 20th film in the franchise, and it comes in the second half of Phase Three of the series.

I run through the cast and premise, i.e. Paul Rudd returns as Scott Land/Ant-Man, but shares equal billing with the also returning Evangeline Lilly as Hope van Dyne / Wasp, (who gets to kick a lot of ass), as they try to rescue her mother, Janet van Dyne / the first Wasp (Michele Pfeifer) from being trapped in the quantum realm with the help of a tunnel built by Hope’s father, Hank Pym/the first Ant-Man (Michael Douglas, also back). Lawrence Fishburne, as an old colleague of Pym’s who may not be on the up and up, and Hannah John-Kamen as Ava Starr / Ghost, who can phase through walls ‘n whatnot, round out the busy cast.

I identify the MacGuffin: a laboratory building, encasing a quantum tunnel (Ant-Man: “Do you guys just put the word ‘quantum’ in front of everything?) that can be shrunk down to the portable size of a 12-pack box of beer. Hank and Hope want it so they can save Janet; and Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), a slimy black market dealer wants it because he sees its potential for profit, so it gets thrown around a lot.

I refer to the obligatory tropes: action sequence settings, Stan Lee cameo, tell folks to stay for the end credits stingers, etc.

Sure, many folks will say I’m writing the same review repeatedly because they’re making the same movie repeatedly, but, despite the familiar formulas, I can’t completely agree. This year’s previous Marvel movies, BLACK PANTHER and AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR had their inspired, and worthwhile moments, but, yeah, I can concur that there’s a lot of predictable Marvel material here.

I enjoyed quite a bit of ANT-MAN’s second adventure (or third if you count his part in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR). Rudd charms his way through it – a scene where Pfeiffer’s Janet takes over his body and talks through him is cute – and there a lot of laughs along the way, many provided by Michael Peña (also from the first one), who now runs a security service named EX-CON, and the effects are flawless.

There’s a lot of fun in watching Rudd shrink (a bit where he masquerades as a kid at his daughter’s elementary school made me giggle), and get huge in the climatic chase sequence through the streets of San Francisco, but I doubt those parts will really stick in my memory.

So there it is, even with its fair share of laughs and thrills, ANT-MAN AND THE WASP is as fun as it is forgettable.

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