Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Glib, kooky chaotician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) served as the voice of reason in 1993 jewel “Jurassic Park” and then unwitting action hero in follow-up “The Lost World: Jurassic Park.” Twenty-one years later, the man in black has returned to the series, blessing “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” with a cameo that bookends the film. Malcolm is apparently too world-weary to provide any comic relief this time around, only dispensing a few reliably sage sound bites regarding the dangers of allowing dinosaur and man continuing to co-exist; advice that is inexplicably ignored by every other character in the film.

The “Jurassic” franchise hasn’t exactly been high-minded since Steven Spielberg’s gold-plated original, but it’s rarely been as hare-brained as this. Seeing protagonists Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) – both returning from 2015’s “Jurassic World” – jet off to Isla Nublar to rescue dinos from an active volcano, one previously unmentioned in the series, is classic deus ex machina, torpedoing the movie’s internal logic before it’s even begun. (In Michael Crichton’s original book, Nublar’s volcanoes were said to be extinct.)

Things don’t get any smarter once off the island – the pic’s back half takes place entirely on the mainland – but the ace up the sleeve of “Fallen Kingdom,” director J.A. Bayona, makes do throughout.

Bayona, of “The Impossible” and “A Monster Calls” fame, is a visual artist in the vein of his protégé Guillermo del Toro. Playing in the “Jurassic” sandbox affords Bayona tools he’s never had before and the effect is notable. No matter the unreality of the action on the island, it is breathtaking in its physicality and staging. The final eruption of the volcano and the ensuing destruction of the island is a tour de force of special effects work and surprising physical comedy, culminating in an uppercut of emotion.

As Claire and Owen look back at the ruins of Nublar from the back of a freighter, Bayona gives us the most impactful moment the franchise has seen in twenty-five years.

Naturally, the movie is much better when the dinos roar and the humans shut up. Claire’s transformation from former Jurassic World operations manager to bleeding heart dinosaur preservationist is curious; Owen’s willingness to return to the island in the face of certain death to save one of his trained Velociraptors, Blue, is bizarre. That both fall for empty promises of a dinosaur sanctuary from crooked businessman Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) working on behalf of John Hammond’s one-time partner Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) is the fudge on the silly sundae that is “Fallen Kingdom”

The script’s heroes certainly aren’t its writers, Colin Trevorrow (who co-wrote and directed the last installment) and Derek Connolly. But Claire and Owen are just likable enough (Pratt’s performance is improved over the last go-round), their cohorts techie Franklin Webb (Justice Smith) and animal vet Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) charming enough that the frequent inanities of the screenplay fade away until only two things remain: agreeable one-liners and genuinely stunning setpieces.

Whether it’s Claire and Owen breathlessly extracting blood from a tranquilized T-Rex, or the pic’s final showdown with the genetic horror show known as the Indoraptor, Bayona’s talent for excitement is aided by spectacular special effects. The flawless blend of computer-generated and practical dinos is a Brachiosaurus-sized step up from “Jurassic World,” lending a sense of awe to the proceedings that was MIA in Trevorrow’s film.

Less awe-inspiring: the human villains. The aforementioned Mills is a stock bad guy, a mustache away from twirling one on screen. Veteran actor Ted Levine (“The Silence Of The Lambs”) is only lightly amusing as a scummy mercenary forever at odds with our heroes, and Toby Jones (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) gets a few funny moments as an overzealous auctioneer. The latter makes the inevitability of the dinosaurs being hastily auctioned off go down a little smoother, and the fate of Levine’s character will have some moviegoers clutching their armrests.

Nevertheless, no one is checking in to “Fallen Kingdom” for Eli Mills or even the original picture’s Henry Wu (B.D. Wong). The disgraced geneticist remains a sinister background presence here, presumably lying in wait for the “Jurassic World” trilogy capper.

The dinosaurs are the thing, and they’re more than rousing enough to make us glad Malcolm’s warnings go unheeded. From a “Jaws”-inspired opening that feels as gigantic as a “Jurassic” movie must, to a gothic horror-influenced finale in a shadowy mansion, J.A. Bayona has finally, fully evinced his talents as one of today’s premier maestros of spectacle. Although “Fallen Kingdom” gets no points for logic, it checks every popcorn movie box, staying true to “Jurassic Park” in its purest form: movie magic.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: June 22, 2018
Studio: Universal Pictures, Amblin Entertainment
Director: J.A. Bayona
Screenwriters: Colin Trevorrow, Derek Connolly
Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Justice Smith, Daniella Pineda, Rafe Spall, James Cromwell, Ted Levine, Toby Jones, Isabella Sermon, Geraldine Chaplin, B.D. Wong, Jeff Goldblum
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of science-fiction violence and peril)

Incredibles 2

The veneer of infallibility raised by writer-director Brad Bird’s first four features came cascading down with 2015’s “Tomorrowland.” What was a silky smooth ride from “The Iron Giant” to “The Incredibles” followed by “Ratatouille” and “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” quickly became a sinkhole, evinced by an apathetic critical reception and a chilly box office. Fortuitously, a follow-up to 2004’s “The Incredibles” was already in the works. Would it see Bird back to his wheelhouse?

In a word, sure. But “Incredibles 2” is more than a successful soft reset for Bird’s career. It’s a compelling, convivial look at how far Pixar Animation Studios has come – and how far their sequels still have to go.

The Parr family’s return is Pixar’s best non-Toy Story sequel to date, the project making the studio’s current original-versus-sequel dichotomy plainly clear. The company’s brawniest storytelling talent is toiling on the originals (see: last year’s dazzling “Coco”) while the sequels (like 2016’s inert “Finding Dory”) are only as good as the material allows – usually not very. Blessedly, the five familial superhumans that comprise The Incredibles seem like a wellspring of stories worth telling; if their second movie is any indication, they’ve only just begun.

“Incredibles 2” is set immediately after the events of its predecessor. Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter return to voice Bob (Mr. Incredible) and Helen (Elastigirl) Parr. Sarah Vowell reprises their glum teenage daughter Violet, Huck Milner steps in to voice speedy middle child Dash, and, amazingly, original Jack-Jack voice actor Eli Fucile (then a toddler, now a 16-year-old) finds unused elements of his previous performance repurposed. Composited with dialogue from a few other diaper-clad youngsters, Jack-Jack is the same hysterically funny baby boy, but for one big but not immediately noticeable change that affects the film at large.

The animation is resplendent. Look closely and the lush environs and delightfully detailed character models put to shame the rubbery, texture-challenged visuals of the last go-round. Bird and his animators have mostly stayed true to that movie’s look but upgraded it in every way imaginable. The upshot is an immaculate sensory experience that gives a shine to a comfortably routine narrative.

Fresh off their defeat of Syndrome (with the help of compatriot Frozone, voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) and a subsequent encounter with would-be supervillain the Underminer, the Parrs look to relocate – again – and settle back into family life, as mandated by the government. But a wealthy brother-sister team of business tycoons, Winston (Bob Odenkirk) and Evelyn (Catherine Keener) Deavor, lure Bob and Helen back into the world of crimefighting with the promise of making superheroes legal again.

To the chagrin of Bob, the Deavors want Elastigirl as their bellwether, leaving the self-proclaimed head of the household to actually stay home head up the household.

Helen’s madcap skirmishes with a mysterious bad guy dubbed the Screenslaver are buoyant enough, but the most fun is had at home with Bob and Jack-Jack. The baby’s increasingly beserk superpowers are good for at least a dozen big laughs, his faceoff with a mischievous raccoon providing for some truly inspired physical comedy.

The bliss of Jack-Jack and his Magic 8-Ball powers is the quintessence of “Incredibles 2” and the foundry for so many of the grins and giggles it’s sure to elicit. In fashioning a no-frills story wherein in his wonderful characters are free to play, Brad Bird has rediscovered what “Tomorrowland” was so sorely missing: simplicity. “Incredibles 2” is stealthily elementary, building on its predecessor but refreshingly unconcerned with one-upping it.

With audiences now inundated by superhero movies in a way they weren’t in 2004, this is vital. Yet never is the film so basic as to lose adult moviegoers, or so mature as to disorient kids. While not upper-echelon Pixar, the result is something of a magic trick: a bona fide for-all-ages romp. It’s also what so many sequels, a mold trending darker and darker, neglect to be: joyful.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: June 15, 2018
Studio: Disney•Pixar
Director: Brad Bird
Screenwriter: Brad Bird
Starring: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Samuel L. Jackson, Huck Milner, Eli Fucile, Brad Bird, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Jonathan Banks, Sophia Bush, Isabella Rossellini
MPAA Rating: PG (for action sequences and some brief mild language)

Ocean’s Eight

In the eleven years since the curtain fell on Steven Soderbergh’s male-dominated Ocean’s trilogy, marginal progress has been made in neutralizing Hollywood’s big-budget boys club. Paul Feig’s string of female-centric blockbusters hit a snag with the delightful but divisive “Ghostbusters,” a box office stumble that makes the mere existence of “Ocean’s Eight” and its lavish, winsome girl power a minor miracle. Even at a discount, its starry cast didn’t come cheap, nor did its backdrop (New York City’s famous Met Gala) and staging.

The good news is that the film is on par with “Ocean’s Thirteen.” That’s also the bad news, making it a useless cut-paste job that functions as little more than an “Ocean’s” greatest hits film starring women. The cast deserves better. We deserve better.

Director Gary Ross (“The Hunger Games”) is not an especially stylish director, a handicap that makes the material feel even staler than it is. Sandra Bullock stars as Debbie Ocean, the ex-con con-woman sister of the allegedly late Danny Ocean (played by George Clooney in previous films). Upon being released from prison, Debbie decides to leap back in the game immediately, but for more than a $150 million Cartier necklace.

Her ex, a crooked art dealer named Claude Becker (Richard Armitage) pinned their unlawful escapades solely on her. Like Danny was in Soderbergh’s original, Debbie’s out for blood.

Cate Blanchett co-stars as Lou, Debbie’s right hand and an utter blank of characterization. Lou’s big introduction – which marks the beginning of a laborious team-building run that drags past the pic’s thirty-minute mark – comes inside of an upscale nightclub where she’s watering down dozens of bottles of vodka. Not exactly a riveting preamble. Pop superstar Rihanna fares better as an archetypal computer hacker known as Nine Ball, while Helena Bonham Carter imbues fallen fashion designer Rose Weil with considerable ditzy charm.

The rest of the team barely registers.

Anne Hathaway gets the piece’s showiest role as an A-list actress named Daphne Kluger – Kluger is used by Debbie’s team in appropriation of the aforementioned necklace – but Hathaway is essentially playing herself. Or at least leaning hard into the public perception. Meanwhile, the great Sarah Paulson wallows away as a wafer-thin thief-turned-suburban-mom, while comedians Mindy Kaling and Awkwafina stand in for the prerequisite jeweler and street hustler characters, respectively.

It’s not that the men of Soderbergh’s films were any more well rounded, but the screenplays were decidedly faster and fresher and the director found significant style in his cast of glib ne’er-do-wells. “Eight” only traces over “Eleven,” far removed from its inspiration and novelty, further removed from Soderbergh’s filmmaking chops. In 2001, star-studded team-ups were leftover relics from a time when stars were the reason people went to movies. (See the original-original Sinatra-starring “Ocean’s 11” from 1960.) By 2001 the event movie had rendered the notion quaint, if not yet archaic like it is in 2018.

It follows that “Ocean’s Eight” is a nonstarter. Viewers unfamiliar with Soderbergh’s heist movies (including last year’s rock-solid “Logan Lucky”) might find the twists and turns stimulating. But the core of Gary Ross’ film is undeniably musty. And, blessedly, female-heavy tentpoles are becoming less and less of a novelty. If, years from now, actresses finally seize equal pay for equal work and their share of the blockbuster game, “Ocean’s Eight” will seem downright cobwebbed. Its only real trick is sealing itself inside its own tomb.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: June 8, 2018
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Gary Ross
Screenwriters: Gary Ross, Olivia Milch
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Rihanna, Helena Bonham Carter, Awkwafina, Richard Armitage, Richard Corden
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for language, drug use, and some suggestive content)

Hereditary

If the whole of “Hereditary” were as cleverly creepy as its opening shot, it might have sustained the hysterical cries of “new horror classic” from Sundance Film Festival attendees. Although there are memorable images to come, and a suffocating sense of foreboding that most horror films would kill for, writer-director Ari Aster’s feature debut is little more than a pastiche of classics. It rambles on for more than two hours, thumbing through genre touchstones like a drunk in a video store, serving up the occasional visual that sticks. Aster’s imagery is choice; his screenplay isn’t.

“Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Wicker Man” factor in heavily, with the film occasionally even evoking Neil LaBute’s infamous remake of the latter. That picture may have been lousy – loud, stupid, and woefully wrongheaded – but at least it was droll, liable to unite perplexed strangers in laughter in a darkened theater. “Hereditary” is nearly as impossible to take seriously but takes itself very seriously, breeding nothing but contempt for its characters and anyone who dares see through its arthouse veneer.

Toni Collette (“The Sixth Sense”) returns to the genre that yielded her first (and to date only) Oscar nomination, headlining as Annie Graham, a miniature artist and mother of two. Gabriel Byrne co-stars as her poker-faced husband Steve, Alex Wolff their high school aged son Peter, and Milly Shapiro their 13-year-old daughter Charlie. Annie’s eccentric mother Ellen has just died, leaving the family unsure of how to reconcile their complicated feelings toward the deceased.

The first act is in line with the film’s marketing campaign. Charlie is a vaguely disturbed child in the vein of many a horror pic, but her act of cutting the head off a dead pigeon is not the sign of modern take on “The Omen.” In fact, Charlie isn’t in much of the movie at all. Beyond foreshadowing, the character’s only purpose is to propel the increasingly bizarre story of a uniquely fucked up family into a tornado of grief.

If the screenplay is unsure of who its main subject is, Collette determinedly makes the project hers. Although a controversial denouement undercuts Annie’s importance to the narrative, Collette is more than a force of nature in the film; she’s an act of God. Her performance is expertly governed, modulated to the atmosphere and tone of each individual scene. If not for her, “Hereditary” would be up for grabs. Collette is the anchor it requires, and Annie’s journey from grieving daughter to grieving mother and beyond might well secure her second Oscar nomination.

But nearly everything around her moves as jerkily as a Rubik’s cube. Every time Collette seems to be on the verge of shouldering the narrative to the promised land, Aster reminds us of how literally we should be taking his movie, sapping it of any larger meaning. The writer-director’s use of miniatures is stunning; two occurrences of a middle-aged white man with a creepy grin pack a punch. But there’s nothing but nihilism beneath the pic’s floorboards. The climax is funny but not intentionally; its laughs come from how earnest the film is in its absurdities.

There have been far bolder, scarier movies about cults, some of them aforementioned. Aster’s film superficially pushes the envelope, intermittently going a little further than its forbearers were willing to go. But “The Wicker Man” is thirty-five years old, and substantial, to boot. “Hereditary” is spooky in fits and starts. It is also fundamentally empty.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: June 8, 2018
Studio: A24
Director: Ari Aster
Screenwriter: Ari Aster
Starring: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, Gabriel Byrne
MPAA Rating: R (for horror violence, disturbing images, language, drug use and brief graphic nudity)

Upgrade

There’s an egalitarianism in the griminess of Leigh Whannell’s “Upgrade;” a sense of cinematic populism in its tussle with the status quo of lofty science fiction. Its meat-and-potatoes story of a broken man upgraded into a killing machine evokes a time when “RoboCop” was thinking-man’s sci-fi, decades before Christopher Nolan mounted “Interstellar” or Alex Garland penned “Ex Machina.”

But here, in 2018, Whannell’s ugly violence doesn’t work as satire; his ludicrously literal screenplay doesn’t function as anything more than John Carpenter lite. The film’s nobility begins and ends with its low budget and schlocky thrills, occasioning a dumber version of Adam Wingard’s similar, superior “The Guest.”

Although actor Logan Marshall-Green (“Prometheus”) has proven himself anything but a movie star, here he acquits himself reasonably well as Grey Trace, a mechanic living in the not-too-distant future. His own future is torn away by a group of callous thugs. A car accident triggered by a malfunctioning autopilot system leaves Grey and his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) sitting ducks in a nasty part of town; not a minute later, Grey is left paralyzed, Asha dead.

One of Grey’s clients, coincidentally a tech savant, offers to mend our grieving protagonist. To not just let him walk again, but to make history as the first recipient of STEM: an insect-sized piece of technology that, once implanted, essentially makes the beneficiary invincible.

Ultimately Grey’s thirst for revenge makes him a dangerous bedfellow for STEM. The tech soon reveals itself as a not-exactly-disembodied voice – one that only its host can hear – capable of both intelligent thought and controlling all systems of the human body. At first STEM acts with Grey’s permission, employing his body impeccably and thrillingly in service of beating bad guys to a pulp. This is where the movie thrives, finding sparks of humor in its frenetic action scenes.

But once STEM begins to turn on our hero, the pic reverts to overly grim gore pic with only a fizzy performance from Benedict Hardie as the villainous android Fisk to cling to. The violence becomes more and more extreme for its own sake, entirely bereft of subext as Whannell’s script clangs forward to its twisty conclusion.

The climax is intriguing in its potential for a sequel, but is of no real use here. It leaves us hanging, teasing a more substantial story than the one we’ve paid to see.

Leigh Whannell’s origins in the “Saw” and “Insidious” series suggest more knowing fun than is actually served up in “Upgrade.” It owes its entire self to a medley of exploitative man-or-machine thrillers, bringing precious little to the table. 2014’s divisive, underrated “RoboCop” remake knew it had to evolve from its roots. “Upgrade” is content to sink down into those roots, slouching its way through 95 minutes peppered with maybe ten minutes of pleasure.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: June 1, 2018
Studio: Blumhouse Tilt
Director: Leigh Whannell
Screenwriter: Leigh Whannell
Starring: Logan Marshall-Green, Rosco Campbell, Scott Michael Foster, Betty Gabriel, Harrison Gilbertson, Benedict Hardie
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, grisly images, and language)

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Production hitches and box office receipts do not a motion picture make. No one knows this better than seasoned “Solo: A Star Wars Story” director Ron Howard, whose racing drama “Rush” – unequivocally his best film of the past twenty years – remains one of his lowest grossing. In the case of “Solo,” Howard unenviably stepped into the middle of a 250 million dollar production following the abrupt, controversial firing of filmmakers Phil Lord and Chris Miller (“The Lego Movie”) four months into filming. Naturally the move has been an albatross around the pic’s neck, made heavier by subpar early financial returns.

Few directors could come out the other side of such an ordeal intact as a human being, let alone in possession of a breezy, refreshingly low-stakes “Star Wars” movie. Howard’s done it, wing-shredding turbulence be damned.

28-year-old Alden Ehrenreich (“Hail, Caesar!”) stars as Han Solo, the actor only seven years younger than the 35-year-old Harrison Ford that originated the character. This meager age difference combined with Ehrenreich’s fetching performance – one that’s decidedly not an impression of Ford – directs that we disconnect from George Lucas’ original trilogy and take the project at face value. Unburdened by the inordinate bleakness of Gareth Edwards’ “Rogue One” and the brooding of Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi,” “Solo” can’t help but feel vital in its lightness. And it’s Ehrenreich effortlessly piloting the ship.

The story is better experienced than explained; suffice it to say there’s much heisting and planet-hopping, all built on the blocks of how Han Solo became the sarcastic sourpuss audiences first met in 1977. Ehrenreich’s take is necessarily more playful, more youthful, matched by similarly green versions of characters we’ve known for decades. We see how our protagonist met both Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo stepping in for Peter Mayhew) and fellow space scoundrel Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover doing his best Billy Dee Williams), along with Han’s introduction to the ship that will inevitably be his: the Millennium Falcon.

There’s little drama in any of these moments, but they do hit the right notes of refracted nostalgia; feel-good breadcrumbs far superior to the non-stop pop culture banalities of Steven Spielberg’s recent, dreadful “Ready Player One.” Lest anyone question the necessity of finding out the perfectly mundane backstory of Han’s surname, no “Star Wars” film has been strictly necessary since at least “Return Of The Jedi” – except “Solo” is the first to embrace that station.

Woody Harrelson is typically delightful as Tobias Beckett, the professional thief who teaches our hero the ways of space piracy. Meanwhile Thandie Newton and Phoebe Waller-Bridge shine in limited roles as Beckett’s (human) squeeze and a feisty droid, respectively.

Less impressive: Emilia Clarke (“Terminator Genisys”) as Han’s former flame-turned-criminal Qi’ra, forced into servitude under Crimson Dawn gang boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). Clarke has been much celebrated for her starring role on HBO’s “Game Of Thrones” but continues to flounder in big screen blockbusters. Her Qi’ra never finds the balance of warmth and cruelty inherent in the character, the actor splitting the difference to shrug-worthy effect.

But the screenplay doesn’t rely too heavily on any one character. Lawrence Kasdan (writing his fourth “Star Wars” picture) and son Jonathan Kasdan are uncommonly tuned into the perils of spin-offs and have come up with something much more “Frasier” than “The Michael Richards Show.” Unconcerned with anything but replicating the serial feel of George Lucas’ original movie, their freewheeling script allows the film to feel like a ride instead of an obligation. Howard gets it too, happily unburdened by the expectation of mind-blowing revelations and the deaths of classic characters.

The movie simply gets to be; the first of Disney’s “Star Wars” films afforded the luxury of simply exploring this galaxy far, far away.

From witnessing Han’s famous Kessel Run (aided by some fabulous low light photography from cinematographer Bradford Young) to glimpsing new corners of droid-dom, “Solo” is the kind of glossy, undemanding romp the franchise has been aching for. Too long has the Skywalker saga shouldered impossible, life-changing expectations. Bring on the escapism.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: May 25, 2018
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures, Lucasfilm
Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriter: Lawrence Kasdan, Jonathan Kasdan
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Joonas Suotamo, Paul Bettany, Jon Favreau
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi action/violence)

Deadpool 2

“Can beauty come out of ashes?” wails seminal songstress Celine Dion in a new original song over the 007-inspired opening titles of “Deadpool 2.” In the case of the follow-up to 2016’s dismal R-rated megahit, the answer is a pretty hearty “yes.”

Tim Miller’s original film torturously imagined Fabian Nicieza and Rob Liefield’s comic book antihero Wade Wilson (aka Deadpool) as Dane Cook in red leather. Wanton bloodshed congealed with Ryan Reynolds’ smug title performance to form an amoral morass destined to be the all-time favorite movie of Juggalos everywhere.

Enter stuntman-turned-director David Leitch (“John Wick,” “Atomic Blonde”). He and returning writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Reynolds, too, gets a co-writing credit this time around) imbue the sequel with actual heart – and fewer lame one-liners. Better yet, the action carries some much-needed weight and the screenplay is even intermittently clever. Although never laugh-a-minute, the pic lands enough jokes to satisfy even the most jaundiced Deadpool skeptic, improving on its predecessor in every way imaginable.

Wade Wilson may be an ugly son of a bitch, but his fiancée Vansessa (Morena Baccarin) has learned to love him that way. When an assassin’s bullet interrupts their pre-marital bliss, our immortal protagonist ironically loses his will to live – and then finds it again in the form of a tubby teenage mutant named Russell Collins (Julian Dennison, “Hunt For The Wilderpeople”).

Russell, self-dubbed Firefist in accordance with his as yet untamed powers, is on a path to self-destruction. In him Wade sees a chance for redemption; if not for himself, for a kid like him – an outcast who’s been abused by the system. The upshot to Deadpool giving a damn is us giving a damn, making everything hit so much harder than in the original film – laughs, violence, and melodrama all.

Also vital is the moderate but important expansion of Deadpool’s world, both as it relates to the X-Men and his ragtag assembly of wannabe heroes he names X-Force. The returning Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) and Colossus (Stefan Kapičić) still represent the majority of the X-Men’s screen time (the latter once again steals all of his scenes), but there’s a great visual gag involving a few other fan favorites. And X-Force’s big mid-film introduction lives up to its comedic promise. And then some.

Zazie Beetz (FX’s “Atlanta) is radiant as X-Force’s Domino, Deadpool’s de facto second-in-command. As luck would have it, her superpower, which is met with hilarious incredulity from Wade, is luck. It makes for several uniquely thrilling moments in a spectacular setpiece in which she and Deadpool fight for control of a prisoner convoy (containing Russell) with the film’s big bad.

That villain, Cable, sees actor Josh Brolin return to the role of comic book movie antagonist less than a month after knocking out of the park in Marvel’s “Avengers: Infinity War” as genocidal E.T. Thanos. Cable isn’t quite as impressive – a flesh-and-blood time traveler can’t help but fall a little flat in comparison to a towering purple alien – but it’s a mind-blowing double act all the same.

Brolin only seems to get more charismatic with age, making his cool and collected Cable – whose arc here is as strange as the character’s comic book history might suggest – an ideal foil for this movie’s take on its title character. Moreover, his steely, unyielding screen presence grounds some of the pic’s dumbest scenes, like a gag about Deadpool’s regenerating legs that goes on minutes too long. Brolin’s deadpan reaction saves it.

Fans of the first movie should have no trouble tuning into all the positive adjustments, and its detractors just might find themselves having a surprisingly good time. Disgraced comedian T.J. Miller’s return as Wade’s best friend Weasel is an unwelcome one, and the pop culture references are too much at times, but not enough to sully all the effort that plainly went into making a harder, better, faster, stronger “Deadpool” movie. Chimichangas all around.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: May 18, 2018
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: David Leitch
Screenwriter: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, Ryan Reynolds
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Zazie Beetz, Josh Brolin, Julian Dennison, Morena Baccarin, Brianna Hildebrand, Stefan Kapičić, Karan Soni
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence and language throughout, sexual references and brief drug material)

Life Of The Party

After the anti-comedic horrors of “Tammy” and “The Boss,” Melissa McCarthy and husband Ben Falcone team up for a third big screen collaboration, “Life Of The Party.” It’s a step in the right direction, if only a baby step.

McCarthy co-writes and stars; Falcone co-writes and directs. The occasional giggles they elicit from their warmed over “middle-aged mom and recent divorcee goes back to college” premise are negated by their inability to follow William Faulkner’s famous advice and kill their darlings. Scene after scene overstays its welcome, strewn with dead air and failed jokes, the telltale sign of a creative team unwilling to put their film through the merciless edit it requires.

Audiences are left holding the bag: a subpar 105-minute comedy that could have been a solid 80-minute one.

McCarthy leads as Deanna Miles, inhabiting the same dorky Midwestern stereotype she played in Seth Gordon’s “Identity Thief” and Paul Feig’s “Spy.” As Deanna and her husband Dan (Matt Walsh) drop their daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) off at college, Dan goes full empty nest syndrome and instantly asks for a divorce. He’s seeing a local realtor (Julie Bowen) and evidently has been for some time.

Crestfallen, Deanna decides to rebuff her station as housewife and return to school to finally get her degree – the same school her daughter attends.

Nothing that follows is as funny as the similar “Arrested Development” season 4 subplot that sees Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) move into the dorm room of his son George Michael (Michael Cera). But a likable supporting cast headlined by Gillian Jacobs (TV’s “Community”) provides little shots of fun to Deanna’s journey from forty-something loser to campus legend. PG-13 hijinks arrive in the form of predictable sequences like 80s-themed frat parties and embarrassing classroom moments, each good for a chuckle or two.

“Saturday Night Live” vet Maya Rudolph is reliably amusing as Deanna’s best adult friend, Christine, keeping as many scenes as she can from dying on the vine.

Despite Rudolph’s best efforts, the movie is wildly undisciplined, its aim akin to a drunk pinging between carnival games. There are scattered hits, oodles of misses, and a vague sense of regret when it all crawls across the finish line. The feeling is enhanced by a puzzling climax that features an appearance by one-time pop superstar Christina Aguilera, a cameo that instantly dates the movie at least a decade.

McCarthy still has a string of bona fide delights to her name (her four collaborations with Paul Feig have all been winners), and she’s increasingly flexing her not insignificant dramatic muscles (see: Ted Melfi’s “St. Vincent”). And yet, it all seems to fall apart when she and Falcone work together. “Life Of The Party” has more laughs than “Tammy” and “The Boss” combined, but it’s still a red mark on a frustratingly spotty filmography.

It’s become all too easy to forget that McCarthy was rightfully nominated for an Oscar for her breakout performance in Feig’s “Bridesmaids.” How time flies.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: May 11, 2018
Studio: New Line Cinema (Warner Bros.)
Director: Ben Falcone
Screenwriters: Ben Falcone, Melissa McCarthy
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Gillian Jacobs, Maya Rudolph, Julie Bowen, Matt Walsh, Molly Gordon, Stephen Root, Jacki Weaver, Luke Benward, Heidi Gardner
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sexual material, drug content and partying)

Avengers: Infinity War

Megalomaniacal billionaire, Norse god, magical wizard, gigantic green man-shaped wrecking ball, African king, ageless World War II super soldier, space cowboy, omnipotent android, reformed Russian special agent, talking raccoon, and more take on a malevolent purple alien in a fight over the last tick of the intergalactic doomsday clock. This is “Avengers: Infinity War,” reading absurdly but playing credibly, living up to its decade-long build-up, a pipe dream actualized.

Anthony and Joe Russo’s film – the nineteenth in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – will be hard-pressed to win converts, its flurry of clockwork-precise moving parts fated to spin newbies’ heads. But anyone even casually invested in the series will find that the enormously poised “Infinity War” delivers and delivers and delivers, confidently and steadily winding its way to an eerily hushed conclusion that shrewdly sets up next year’s follow-up.

Top billing is dutifully ceded to Robert Downey Jr., the actor whose “Iron Man” began this ever-expanding saga on May 2, 2008. In the wake of 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War” (effectively the Russo brothers’ practice run for this go-round), Stark and Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) aren’t on speaking terms. This is indicative of how fractured the Avengers have really become, at once to keep the fabled Infinity Stones separated – out of the massive hands of the aforementioned Thanos (Josh Brolin) – and because of sweeping personality clashes.

After an ominous opening sequence in which the villain chillingly lays claim to the conflict’s moral high ground, Bruce Banner aka Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) crash lands in New York City and quickly joins forces with Stark, Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to fend off a threat from two of Thanos’ lackeys in pursuit of the Time Stone. Meanwhile, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany), possessor of the Mind Stone, are attacked in Scotland, only just saved by War Machine (Don Cheadle), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson).

That’s not to mention nearly half of the film’s players, each fastidiously given screen time that feels prudent rather than perfunctory. To wit, Chadwick Boseman’s King T’Challa aka Black Panther doesn’t get nearly the burn that the success of his recent solo film might suggest (“Infinity War” was near the finish line when “Black Panther” took over the box office in February). But the Russos and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely put the right amount of faith in audiences to fill in the blanks. Neither T’Challa nor Captain America get a lot to do here, but their presence is massive, their importance to the narrative effortlessly inferred.

This is a true rarity in a blockbuster series: character baggage that feels like a luxury instead of a burden.

Arguably the most compelling corner of the film is its crossover between the MCU’s brightest spot to date, the Guardians of the Galaxy (Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord, Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, Dave Bautista’s Drax, Pom Klementieff’s Mantis, Bradley Cooper’s Rocket, and Vin Diesel’s Groot), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth). Considering Thanos’ connection to the Guardians (Gamora is his adopted daughter), swaths of “Infinity War” function like “Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2.5,” and the movie is all the better for it. The visuals and screenplay have been tailored to the Guardians pic’s pops of color and unflinching irreverence in the face of certain death and destruction.

The result is so much more narratively and visually engaging than either of Joss Whedon’s “Avengers” films that it renders them obsolete; growing pains of a franchise that hadn’t cracked the code of giving twenty-plus characters their due in the same picture.

“Infinity War” cracks it, largely due to Josh Brolin’s spectacular motion-capture performance as the Mad Titan. Thanos ends up, incredibly, the heart and soul of the film, his genocidal intentions brilliantly juxtaposed with his desire for peace and sustenance in a galaxy desperately short on both. Even scarier in a villain than insanity: lucidity. His assuredness is terrifying, putting the fear of God into anyone that crosses his path. Moreover, his genuine love for Gamora, movingly realized in a flashback, gives him as much depth as all other MCU villains combined.

The character and his movie – and it’s very much Thanos’ movie – lay waste to last year’s culmination of the DC Extended Universe, “Justice League,” and its similarly computer-generated baddie. On the surface, Brolin and the effects wizards behind Thanos haven’t created the most convincing CGI character to date, but he’s so fully realized that he starts to appear more photorealistic with each passing minute.

The whole of “Infinity War” proves nothing but absolutely ignominy for the folks involved in Warner Bros.’ DCEU, Patty Jenkins’ rock-solid “Wonder Woman” excepted. The Russos’ juggling of seemingly incongruent characters and worlds feels miraculous, where “Justice League” couldn’t find a lick of intrigue in some of the most ubiquitous superheroes in history. Dave Bautista’s Drax alone gets more laughs here than the entirety of “Justice League,” a film famously “punched up” in an ill-fated attempt avoid the humorlessness of its predecessor “Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice.”

But to read about “Avengers: Infinity War” is a far cry from experiencing it. Its unwavering rhythm, pleasurably chaotic setpieces, and killer villain beg to be seen on the biggest screen you can find. (It is, not coincidentally, the first feature film shot entirely with IMAX cameras.) While the phrase “for the fans” has taken on a connotation of turgid triviality, “Infinity War” actually is for the fans, mounting a two-part culmination of what was a risky, borderline nutty undertaking when it began.

Instead, its deliberate pacing and memorable performances allow its dozens of characters to draw fresh breath from both past and present. If not the crowning jewel of the MCU, it’s a huge victory for all involved – an impossibly coherent, soulful take on an entire galaxy’s worth of superheroes.

That’ll do, Russo brothers.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: April 27, 2018
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures, Marvel Studios
Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Screenwriters: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Josh Brolin, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Holland, Anthony Mackie, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Chadwick Boseman, Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, Pom Klementieff, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sebastian Stan, Don Cheadle, Letitia Wright, Danai Gurira, Benedict Wong, Tom Hiddleston, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, language and some crude references)

You Were Never Really Here

In 2011, writer-director Lynne Ramsay drew a spirit-breaking sketch of a mother (Tilda Swinton) suffering in the wake of a son’s atrocities. Mirroring the psyche of a parent whose child committed a school massacre, “We Need To Talk About Kevin” doled out its psychological flagellations in fragments, walking us down innumerable dimly lit pathways in fits and starts.

Ramsay’s follow-up, Joaquin Phoenix-starrer “You Were Never Really Here,” is every bit as bleak – a horror show in its own right – but incredibly finds its infernal power in an entirely different trajectory.

Based on Jonathan Ames’ novel of the same name, the NYC-set pic tells the tale of a haggard PTSD-suffering veteran and former law enforcement officer named Joe (Phoenix) whose middle age has found him a new vocation. He’s become a contract killer, a veritable ghost, hired to break up child sex trafficking rings and brutalize those responsible. Although handy with a gun, his weapon of choice is a 16 oz. ball pein hammer, a darkly theatrical gesture that evinces his station as a magician of wet work.

As Joe amusingly pops jelly beans like pills (and soon enough, vice versa) in the office of his handler, Ramsay delineates her approach: this is a surprisingly straightforward film whose subject matter calls for nothing but a blunt force telling. Beautiful arthouse flourishes abound, but not for a moment does the 90-minute film fuck around.

Phoenix finds the right tilt on the material as always, splendidly underplaying a man for whom murder is meditation. Joe is never so good, never so at ease as when he’s bludgeoning someone, the act clearing his mind of so many ghastly memories. While Ramsay’s direction and script go straight for the jugular, Phoenix gives one of his warmer performances to date, an appropriately far cry from his career-defining turn as a different kind of disturbed veteran in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master.”

As writer-director and star shepherd us into the gloaming, Joe’s professional life and personal life (he lives with and cares for his frail mother, played by Judith Roberts) set off on a collision course. A senator’s 13-year-old daughter named Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) has gone missing, and Joe is called on to rescue her. There are real thrills in both his methodology and the resulting explosions of violence, but the pic’s most compelling element is the parallelism between him and Nina; both of them unfairly corrupted, anesthetized to the moment, bonded by the sheer weight of their existence.

The machinations of the third act are less plausible than what came before, relieving some air from the movie’s balloon. But Ramsay conjures up a few hauntingly surreal visuals to keep us guessing as to what’s true and what isn’t. A sequence where Joe disposes of bodies in a lake is almost baptismal, providing the year-in-film’s most indelible imagery to date. The scene is further brought to life by a particularly stirring musical cue.

Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood follows his unforgettable “Phantom Thread” score with another stunner, swallowing us up like the cityscape-turned-hellscape enveloping Joe and Nina. It’s at once as ornate and immediate as anything the musician has done, functioning indispensably as the movie’s emotional framework. While Joe and Nina become increasingly cold and dispassionate out of pure survival instinct, Greenwood’s work expertly makes us feel on their behalf.

With a healthy dose of gallows humor, Ramsay wraps up her film with the kind of jolt that might be expected but not prepared for. It’s final: Joe and Nina’s only hope for the future is in each other, in this life or the next. Lynne Ramsay seems to know this kind of tragic figure better than most, transposing their suffering into something at once horrific and poetic. Such is the duality of human existence, wrapped up here in a celluloid bow.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: April 6, 2018 (Limited)
Studio: Amazon Studios
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Screenwriter: Lynne Ramsay
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts, Ekaterina Samsonov, John Doman, Alex Manettev, Dante Pereira-Olsen, Alessandro Nivola
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, disturbing and grisly images, language, and brief nudity)

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