Despicable Me 3

“Despicable Me” landed in July of 2010, leading with the taste of a left-field animated treat, but reality swiftly set in: This was the start of billion-dollar franchise. Universal shrewdly bet on in-house star Steve Carell (“The Office”) to be the Mike Myers to their “Shrek,” and he’s brought home the bacon to the tune of $3 billion in box office receipts to date. (This is not to mention the ensuing merchandising and theme park ride bonanza.) The movies themselves, however – “Despicable Me 2” and spin-off “Minions” – have been little more than feature length ads, all but ignoring the needs of moviegoers over the age of seven. With the heart of the first film MIA, it’s been left to bright colors to cover over some utterly empty storytelling.

“Despicable Me 3” is the best in the series since the original. Faint praise, but welcome news all the same.

Carell’s supervillain-turned-reluctant-superhero Gru is back after ceding the spotlight in “Minions,” happily scooting the little yellow pill-shaped guys back to the background. (A little of the Minions goes a long way.) An older, wiser Gru finds himself up against a familiar kind of foe – a malicious wunderkind – only this time the wunderkind has graduated to manchild. Trey Parker, co-commander of Comedy Central’s very long-running “South Park,” voices Balthazar Bratt, a one-time child star, now an 80s-obsessed, mustachioed monster of a man. The character is a slam dunk.

Parker, one of the most experienced voice acting artists in the world on volume alone, is a joy to listen to. Although Bratt is underwritten, the character commands the screen with ease, a welcome course correction from the uninteresting bad guys that dotted “Despicable Me 2.” More importantly, Bratt comes with plenty of amusing pop culture nods for moviegoers born last century.

Carell and Parker make for a fascinating one-two punch, bobbing and weaving with their distinct but compatible comedic styles. Although their characters never quite share a meaningful moment, their energy is enough to shoulder a 90-minute film. If only the story was as engaging.

The idea of introducing a previously unmentioned twin brother for Gru is conceptually sound (the blonde-haired Dru is also voiced by Carell) but ends up a tragically missed opportunity. Gru and Dru, although separated since birth, are essentially the same character – lovably awkward, stuck uncomfortably between lives of supervillainy and superheroism – meaning Dru fails badly as a foil for his more famous twin brother. The only real difference is Gru’s newfound wife, Lucy (Kristen Wiig), and three daughters, Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Nev Scharrel), while Dru lives a life of solitary.

Beyond an obvious setup for “Despicable Me 4,” none of this is enough to make Dru’s presence worth the trouble.

The picture’s visuals are as infectious as ever, though, and in concert with two lovely, lively lead voice performances, “Despicable Me 3” threatens to recapture that old magic. Directors Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda won’t win the franchise any new fans here, but it should be enough to keep the old ones firmly on board. For now.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: June 30, 2017
Studio: Universal Pictures, Illumination Entertainment
Directors: Pierre Coffin, Kyle Balda
Screenwriters: Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio
Starring: Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Trey Parker, Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, Nev Scharrel, Steve Coogan, Jenny Slate
MPAA Rating: PG (for action and rude humor)

The House

The thing about “Saturday Night Live” alums turned movie stars is that, with few exceptions, if they’re not being funny, they’ve got nothing. SNL honcho Lorne Michaels has never been in the business of cultivating serious acting talent; instances of SNL vets headlining dramatic successes (e.g. “The Skeleton Twins”) have been few and far between. Not that Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler vehicle “The House” is dramatic in the least. It’s just not funny, stranding its stars in a comedic Bermuda Triangle where they’ve nothing to do but mug for the camera in hopes of picking up stray laughs along a narrative road to absolutely nowhere.

Andrew Jay Cohen’s film follows the story of two eccentric, bordering on sociopathic parents Scott (Ferrell) and Kate (Poehler) Johansen who see a college scholarship for their daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins) unceremoniously rescinded by a nefarious city councilman (Nick Kroll). Cohen’s screenplay does all kinds of unconvincing, unamusing backflips to justify its high concept: the only way for Scott and Kate to afford Alex’s Bucknell tuition is to start an illegal underground casino.

Jason Mantzoukas – a comedian best known from FX’s “The League” and film podcast How Did This Get Made? – co-stars as Frank, the Johansens’ gambling-addicted friend who’s going through a brutal divorce. The character should be an ideal entry point into a seedy suburban underbelly of sin; Mantzoukas’ volatile funnyman persona seems a natural for guiding the Johansens down a rabbit hole of high stakes poker and impromptu MMA fights. Instead, Frank is consistently out-weirded by Scott and Kate, with Ferrell and Poehler’s interminably obnoxious performances backing the movie into a regrettable space between bad mob movie parody and destined-for-cancellation basic cable sitcom.

The film’s flirtations with graphic violence are its most telling comedic poker face. A scene in which Scott, Kate, and Frank threaten to cut off a client’s finger for counting cards and then accidentally do cut off his finger is written surprisingly straight, the ostensible punchline coming when Scott’s face is met with a geyser of blood. Ten minutes of screen time spent building up to an image that’s only remotely funny because it features the unmistakable face of one Will Ferrell covered in crimson isn’t great. Insert a trio of non-comedians into the scene and it’s a pale mélange of unimaginative physical comedy. The film’s true self is revealed.

Ferrell, and to a lesser degree, Poehler, are fine actors, well above the “Saturday Night Live” veteran mean. But Daniel Day-Lewis would be hard-pressed to elevate Cohen’s terrible screenplay that rivals “Get Hard” as the worst thing Will Ferrell has ever said “yes” to. The upshot is a shell of a comedy that’s somehow less than its uninspired logline suggests, saddling not two but three gifted comedians with about five good lines and hundreds of bad ones. The house may always win when it comes to gambling, but “The House” loses big.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: June 30, 2017
Studio: New Line Cinema (Warner Bros.)
Director: Andrew Jay Cohen
Screenwriters: Andrew Jay Cohen, Brendan O’Brien
Starring: Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Jason Mantzoukas, Nick Kroll, Allison Tolman, Michaela Watkins, Ryan Simpkins, Jessie Ennis, Rob Huebel, Cedric Yarbrough, Jeremy Renner
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, sexual references, drug use, some violence and brief nudity)

Transformers: The Last Knight

When the best your $215 million summer tentpole has to offer is a brief cameo from Stanley Tucci as a drunken Merlin the wizard (notably not the character he played in the previous film in the series), you just might be doing something wrong.

After a pleasantly silly opening that attempts to link its titular transforming alien robots to the legendary King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, “Transformers: The Last Knight” plays out like a compendium of all the worst parts of Michael Bay’s now five-film toy-based franchise: Bad comedy, boring characters, unintelligible plotting, and action sequences that are preposterously hard to follow. Only this time, it all feels like it’s been cobbled together by a 12-year-old who just discovered Final Cut Pro.

Mark Wahlberg returns to headline as Cade Yeager, an inventor who’s done so little inventing over the course of two films that referring to him as an inventor is in itself wildly inventive. Yeager now walks the Earth protecting both children and innocent Transformers, the latter of whom have become personae non gratae in most countries of the world. Everyone’s favorite Transformers do figure into the story – Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), Bumblebee (Erik Aadahl), Megatron (Frank Welker), and more – but the pic’s crack team of screenwriters has forced them into various narrative nooks and crannies so that the true stars of Transformers universe can shine: the humans.

The series has wasted time on good-for-nothing human characters before, but Wahlberg’s Yeager has an interminable talent for having nothing interesting to say. Ever. Whether it’s in the presence of screen legend Anthony Hopkins slumming it as Sir Edmund Burton, a Transformers historian, or Laura Haddock (“Guardians Of The Galaxy”) as Yeager’s romantic interest Vivian Wembly, a shell of a character with a Bay-approved “hot librarian” look, Wahlberg and the film’s writers find a perfect harmony of un-charisma for their lead, sucking the life out of every one of his scenes – scenes that add up to comprise most of the picture.

As the story skitters across the screen without a lick of rhyme or reason, actor Josh Duhamel serves as the film’s unlikely connective tissue. Reprising his role from the series’ first three films, William Lennox, Army Ranger and new member of the Transformers Reaction Force, it’s telling that he, a dramatic weak link in the original film, is the stand out here. Duhamel imbues his character with the kind of screen presence that’s completely absent everywhere else, a little gray in his hair and gravel in his voice providing more gravitas than a battalion of Cade Yeagers could ever dream of.

Even Hopkins, who rarely brings less than his A-game to the big screen, has so little to do in “The Last Knight” – his character is constantly one-upped by Cogman, his sociopathic robot butler – that he feels purposefully painted out as to not interfere with the insipidness of it all. John Turturro, reprising government agent Seymour Simmons, it similarly disconnected from the rest of the film, as if he agreed to shoot his two minutes of screen time while on vacation. “Transformers” films aren’t where great actors go to die; it’s just where they go on holiday.

It’s hard to imagine even fans of the previous four movies caring about or faintly comprehending what’s going on in ‘The Last Knight” – something about the Transformers’ home planet Cybertron being used as a projectile weapon to wipe out life on Earth, with an assist from a brainwashed Optimus Prime – its big emotional beats uniformly undermined by either unwelcome punchlines or woeful plot mechanics. To wit, Bumblebee gets a grand moment toward the end of the film that is immediately overshadowed by the revelation that – Surprise! – Cade Yeager is the eponymous last knight, complete with a stupidly oversized sword and no real explanation of his relation to King Arthur.

Michael Bay, who remains a master of the moving image but can’t attach himself to a decent screenplay to save his life, doesn’t make movies anymore; he makes migraine auras. “Transformers: The Last Knight” is his most disheartening work to date, a motion picture so useless, so screamingly terrible that movie theaters playing it shouldn’t offer concessions, but counselors.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Bad)

Release Date: June 21, 2017
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Michael Bay
Screenwriter: Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, Ken Nolan
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Josh Duhamel, Anthony Hopkins, Laura Haddock, Jerrod Carmichael, Isabela Moner, Santiago Cabrera, Liam Garrigan, Stanley Tucci, John Turturro
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for violence and intense sequences of sci-fi action, language, and some innuendo)

Cars 3

When Disney•Pixar’s “Cars” rolled out in the summer of 2006, packs of critics wrote it off as pablum; bright, squeaky-wheeled filler aimed squarely at the elementary school set. Despite mammoth box office success, its cool critical reception was the first sign of trouble in the studio’s everything-to-everyone model of new animated classics. The movie’s truth, however, was much sunnier, especially compared to what would come next for Lightning McQueen and company. “Cars” was cute and cozy and sweetly nostalgic; its sequel would feature a Larry the Cable Guy character being knighted by the Queen of England.

The 2011 follow-up, Pixar’s first non-Toy Story sequel, was and remains its worst film to date, also having the dishonor of ushering in a wave of unnecessary follow-ups that have tainted the outfit’s once interstellar track record. But the “Cars” franchise remains a commercial juggernaut – and a property well beyond concerns of artistic preservation – which brings us, inevitably to a third film, a movie that is, for lack of a better word, fine.

In some ways, “Cars 3” is an ideal of franchise life extension, presenting a stable of reliable characters and their voice acting counterparts with a warm but sleepy story and just enough moments of silliness to keep the kiddos awake for 100 minutes. Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is now an old racecar, consistently outpaced by younger competition like Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), forced to confront the idea of life after racing by way of a return to his roots. Themes of retirement and aging might seem an odd fit for a children’s film – and they are – but there’s something uniquely universal therein, allowing screenwriters Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson, and Mike Rich to tell a classically Disney tale of mortality without getting into the guts of what it means to get old and die.

For all of Owen Wilson’s career one-noted-ness, the inimitably talented actor is perfectly suited to tell this story at this point in his career, when he faces his fiftieth birthday accompanied by a slate of unnecessary sequels (“Shanghai Dawn,” “Wedding Crashers 2”) in the pipeline.

As the story softly takes McQueen back to Radiator Springs to find himself after a devastating crash, and then to Thomasville to find the car who trained the car who trained him, the voice cast, led confidently by Wilson, consistently elevates the material. (This is, in no small part, thanks to a drastic reduction of screen time for Larry the Cable Guy’s tow truck character, Mater.) In addition to the return of series regulars Tony Shalhoub, Bonnie Hunt, Cheech Marin, and John Ratzenberger, the late Paul Newman briefly reprises his role as Lightning’s mentor Doc Hudson via flashback, recalling the homeyness of the original film while rebuffing the garishness of the second.

Two new additions to the cast are more than welcome. Chris Cooper voices Doc’s mentor Smokey, sure to leave many wondering why Cooper hasn’t done more voice acting, while stand-up comedian Cristela Alonzo plays Cruz Ramirez, Lightning’s initially unwanted trainer designated by new Rust-eze Racing Center owner Sterling (Nathan Fillion). Although initially unclear, Cruz’s place in the story eventually takes center stage and the movie is better for it, giving Alonzo a surprising but deserved time in the spotlight.

Although the “Cars” films have never been known for pushing the visual envelope, the animation here ranges from impressive to extraordinary, particularly during a demolition derby setpiece whose visuals eclipse all of Pixar’s previous work. For a decidedly cartoonish world to at times approach photorealism without breaking the illusion borders on revolutionary. It’s a shame it comes packaged with such a stock story.

In the end, “Cars 3” is most definitely for children, coming up surprisingly short in laughs for anyone older than ten. But between its wonderful voice performances and eye-popping animation, there isn’t too much to complain about, especially as a follow-up to Pixar’s nadir. If gratuitous sequels are the name of the game, families could do worse than “Cars 3” – a lot worse.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: June 16, 2017
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar Animation Studios
Director: Brian Fee
Screenwriter: Daniel Gerson
Starring: Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Chris Cooper, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Larry the Cable Guy, Cheech Marin, Kerry Washington, Nathan Fillion, Armie Hammer, Tony Shalhoub, John Ratzenberger
MPAA Rating: G

47 Meters Down

Dimension Films’ shark thriller “47 Meters Down” aka “In The Deep” was on the clock for an August 2016 straight-to-DVD release when the vaguely named Entertainment Studios swooped in to grant a last minute stay of execution. How last minute? Physical copies of “In The Deep” had already reached retailers. Some ten months after an unceremonious recall, the movie has reverted to its original title and received a surprisingly sturdy theatrical release. Was it worth the hubbub?

To put it floridly, a shark chomping on a discarded typewriter couldn’t have come up with something so unintelligible.

Mandy Moore (“Tangled”) stars as sad, boring person Lisa; Claire Holt (CW’s “The Vampire Diaries”) plays her slightly less boring sister Kate. Together they make one of the dumbest duos in movie history, doing everything in their power to end up as shark food. While on vacation in Mexico, the two hatch a plan to get Lisa her ex-boyfriend back. They’ll get pictures of boring Lisa doing something not boring – like swimming with 25-foot great white sharks!

Behind the safety of a cage, of course; an old, rusted cage dangling from the back of an ancient dinghy with a horrible name (“Sea Esta”), operated by a hippie gringo (Matthew Modine) who serves almost no purpose within the narrative except to force the girls to lie to about having SCUBA diving experience. Only then do we get to the really stupid stuff.

After five minutes of prime shark viewing comes an inopportune, but let’s face it, unsurprising winch failure. Lisa and Kate find themselves in a cage on the ocean floor, a bit deeper than their intended five-meter viewing point, facing limited oxygen reserves and a position just out of range of hippie Matthew Modine’s radio. What do they do? They realize that their only chance is to do nothing: remain calm, subsist on short sips of air, and pray that help reaches them.

Just kidding.

Lisa and Kate expend as much energy and oxygen as fast as possible, yammering nonstop, climbing in and out of the cage to confirm with the boat via radio that, yes, they are in mortal danger and, yes, that they need help. It does not dawn on either of them that telling long, wistful stories and the resulting laughter is not a great way to conserve oxygen, nor does it dawn on writer-director Johannes Roberts that if his characters are going to talk when they shouldn’t be talking that at least they could have something remotely compelling to say.

Almost none of this is endearingly stupid, just regular stupid, and a stupid late-movie twist serves as an overly presumptuous middle finger to audiences – presumptuous in that it assumes that anyone will still care about what they’re watching. No, we’re here for the sharks, and while the special effects are surprisingly good, there isn’t enough of them. No, in lieu of more shark-munching action, the picture’s biggest thrill is in watching the girls’ oxygen bars deplete; not because we want them to die, but because it means the movie’s ending is that much closer.

2016’s “The Shallows” wasn’t an epochal shark movie but it was an honest one, with no delusions of grandeur and no lying to its audience. “47 Meters Down” unfurls with the unearned emotionality of a truly bad movie, but without much in the way of thrills. It’s stuck in lousy movie purgatory, lodged between irritating and inept, completely unaware of its own failings. It could see the life on DVD it was originally intended for – its characters’ inanity might lend itself to background party viewing – but it deserves even less.

Even Entertainment Studios, the company best known for “America’s Court With Judge Ross,” should have known better than to get on board with such a dud.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: June 16, 2017
Studio: Entertainment Studios
Director: Johannes Roberts
Screenwriters: Johannes Roberts, Ernest Riera
Starring: Mandy Moore, Claire Holt, Matthew Modine, Chris J. Johnson, Yani Gellman, Santiago Segura
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of intense peril, bloody images, and brief strong language)

Baby Driver

Blessed be any filmmaker who hits the scene with a trio of features as potent as “Shaun Of The Dead,” “Hot Fuzz,” and “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.” Each of Edgar Wright’s first three films was and remains a unicorn of filmmaking prowess, working across multiple genres to equally emotional and kinematic effect. To early Wright adopters, this writer included, it wasn’t of a question of if the Briton would take over the world, but when. 2013’s “The World’s End” wasn’t the knighting ceremony many were pining for; merely an acceptable diversion on the way to Wright’s inevitable ubiquity. He was about to be everywhere. Marvel’s “Ant-Man” was up next.

And then it wasn’t.

Just two months after the director walked away from his longtime superhero passion project over creative differences – Wright has never seemed one for filmmaking by committee – he announced his next film: An original heist movie powered by a pulsing soundtrack. It sounded too good to be true.

In the context of Edgar Wright’s mostly mind-blowing filmography, it was.

For its first thirty minutes or so, “Baby Driver” is the car chase rhapsody Wright fans have waited three years for; alternating shots of nitrous to the heart and gasoline fumes to the olfactory bulb. Ansel Elgort’s title character, truly named Baby, is an idyllic vessel through which to deliver automotive-based thrills: A softly charming young man on the Autism spectrum who can drive. Similarities to Ryan Gosling’s character in Nicolas Winding-Refn’s “Drive” abound, but Baby is his own brand of cool customer.

More buoyant than brooding, this “Mozart in a go-kart” is Atlanta’s – if not the United States’ – premier getaway driver, arranging his powerslides to the steady stream of tunes flowing from his iPod. His ceaseless soundtracking (there are only a few minutes of the film without music) also helps to drown out the ringing in his ears (tinnitus) that stems from a childhood tragedy. If there were ever a movie criminal to root for, it’s Baby, even more so when he threatens to break out of his shell with a dance-y sidewalk saunter. Due credit to Elgort (“The Fault In Our Stars”), who’s terrific.

Kevin Spacey plays the boisterous and brutal Doc, a local kingpin who repeatedly blackmails Baby into service. Thugs cycle in and out of Doc’s four-person crew, but Baby is the constant, a one-man rhythm section keeping his bank-robbing band in time. Of the toughs that appear and reappear, only Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Bats (Jamie Foxx) are give anything to do. Each is his own kind of loose cannon, archetypal thieves caught off guard by Baby’s superhuman talents and unassuming appeal. The great Jon Bernthal (“Fury”) is sadly frittered away as a bank robber who barely figures into the movie.

Initially there’s an arc, albeit a familiar one, to Baby’s story: Reluctant bad boy meets a cute waitress named Debora (Lily James) and pledges a better life for the both of them, planning to get out after the proverbial “one last score.” Count Baby’s kindly father figure Joseph (CJ Jones) in as a benefactor of Baby’s new leaf. It’s a dusty old story, but it’s fine for the purposes of Wright’s high concept – until the story stops at the hour mark and the movie keeps going. And going.

There’s scarcely a beat in the second half of the film worth remembering, drowned out by meaningless gunfire and another listless big screen turn from Jon Hamm, great television star, vexing movie star. What began as a romp comes up decidedly short in the car chase department with Wright insisting on a dreadfully traditional denouement that might have turned his overly familiar narrative on its head. Instead, it comes off like an afterthought pinned on an afterthought, italicizing the narrative unimagination that permeates the back half of the film.

But Wright on his worst day is more talented than 99% of filmmakers at their best, and portions of “Baby Driver” demand to be seen in the biggest and loudest theater possible. If there’s value in seeing Edgar Wright the director lap Edgar Wright the writer, it’s in seeing substance so wondrously sacrificed for his most accessible film to date, one that won’t deliver him to the promised land of household-name status but should inch him ever closer. Shame about the price, though: put up against his earlier work, it wilts.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: June 28, 2017
Studio: TriStar Pictures (Sony)
Director: Edgar Wright
Screenwriter: Edgar Wright
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal, Eiza Gonzales
MPAA Rating: R (for violence and language throughout)

The Book Of Henry

At first blush, Focus Features’ “The Book Of Henry” has the look of another link in a long, rusted chain of precocious kid tearjerkers, built on a chassis of empty feel-good-isms and tatty platitudes. At second blush, it is not that at all. The film is essentially genre-less, attempting a decidedly bold maneuver from family drama to revenge thriller all in the course of 105 minutes. With no interest in confining itself to the expectations of any one genre, it’s liable to leave many (most?) moviegoers out in the cold. But as an exercise in unconventionality? As that, “The Book Of Henry” is a total success: a shrewd, often startling showcase for both its cast and the obscenely undervalued talents of director Colin Trevorrow (“Jurassic World”).

Knowing Trevorrow’s lightning-fast ascendance from indie filmmaker to studio hitmaker is crucial to understanding his third feature. “Jurassic World,” in addition to being a Brachiosaurus-sized hit, was so much savvier than it got credit for, baking an astounding sum of self-reflexivity into a $150 million monster movie. It walked the stupid-smart balance beam so cleanly that many viewers missed its self-commentary altogether. The film’s lone animatronic dino was a dying Apatosaurus. This was no coincidence. Trevorrow’s debut, “Safety Not Guaranteed,” was a different beast altogether: An incisive time travel comedy featuring career best work from the entirety of the cast. It shot out of nowhere to land as one of the biggest charmers of summer 2012.

Trevorrow has proven himself malleable, to say the least.

“Henry” stars the always brilliant Naomi Watts (“Birdman”) as Susan Carpenter, a single mother of two boys: Henry (Jaden Lieberher), an 11-year-old polymath, and his younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay). Henry is an outright genius, capable of filling the household void left by his father and then some, assisting his mother in tasks like managing her stock portfolio and his brother in creating the kinds of Rube Goldberg contraptions that most children can only dream of. At times Henry is the perfect child: Whip-smart, empathetic, and fiercely independent. Conversely, he can be moody and paranoid, traits his mother sees emerge in him in a big way in regards to the girl next door.

Henry swears up and down that Christina (Maddie Ziegler) is being abused by her stepfather, Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris). Susan sees Henry’s accusation as none of their business, resigned to her mercurial family life like a garden walled off from the world. She loves her children, tolerates her job as a waitress, and softly enables the alcoholism of her best friend and co-worker Sheila (Sarah Silverman). The Sicklemans’ problems belong to no one but the Sicklemans, she thinks. And maybe the police. But for one nagging problem: Glenn Sickleman is the police commissioner.

Without teasing out too many of the movie’s various curls, Henry faces a serious illness and requests his mother’s assistance in stopping Glenn. The film’s trailers have hinted at a violent comeuppance for Glenn; whether that is or isn’t the case is best left up to the film itself. Nevertheless, Trevorrow makes an admittedly unlikely premise as plausible as possible – there aren’t many things some moms wouldn’t do for their children – all while turning in a couple visually of striking sequences that double as sly commentaries on the perks and pitfalls of age. Elements of Gregg Hurtwitz’s screenplay could certainly be qualified as dubious, but Trevorrow is a born storyteller and sells it to the best of his significant ability.

Above all, the cast is magnificent. Watts makes magic of one of her most muscular starring roles to date, at once sweet and steely-eyed. Lieberher channels more of the mature-for-his-age gravitas he lent “St. Vincent” and “Midnight Special.” And Tremblay, best known for “Room,” is as lovable as ever, tasked with a surprising amount of screen time and some weighty emotional beats that he hits like a pro.

Trevorrow directs his actors beautifully, navigating each performer through every little hill and gulley of the story, no matter how far a few of them might stretch the boundaries of believability. In the hands of just about anyone else, the actors might have been marooned on an island of insurmountable tonal issues; Gregg Hurtwitz’s screenplay might have come off as a firecracker of bad taste. But Trevorrow makes it cohere, painting an unusual story into something by turns heartfelt and thrilling. It all makes for a pretty strong bit of summer escapism – something its director just might know a little bit about.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: June 16, 2017
Studio: Focus Features
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Screenwriter: Gregg Hurwitz
Starring: Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, Jacob Tremblay, Sarah Silverman, Lee Pace, Maddie Ziegler, Dean Norris
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements and brief strong language)

It Comes At Night

Here comes “It Comes At Night,” a poorly titled, poorly marketed, very good film that deserves your consideration – with a few caveats. Kudos to A24 for standing behind such a meditative, morose work; for securing writer-director Trey Edward Shults’ second feature a wide release at a time of year when multiplexes are spilling over with immoderacy. The opposite of kudos, however, for billing it as a monster movie (it scarcely qualifies as horror), scaling new heights of marketing ineptitude in the process. Par exemplar: the teaser trailer includes the film’s final shot.

But what the film is is more than enough to make up for what it isn’t. Shults has hewn a small post-apocalyptic survival thriller that walks a neat line between acting showcase and experiential drama. The cast, toplined by Joel Edgerton (“Loving”) and Carmen Ejogo (“Selma”), finds and sustains a sweet spot of authenticity where it hardly registers that there’s acting going on. They play a couple named Paul and Sarah, survivalists by necessity and parents of a quietly charming teen named Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Holed up in a wooded cabin, the three make do in a barren landscape where an unidentified, highly contagious sickness has wiped out a large swath of the populace.

The pic’s opening sees the trio bid adieu to a sick family member, their hearts breaking in real time as they muster the land version of a viking’s funeral. The sequence sets a deeply somber but appropriate tone for what follows: life in a world where fear and confusion and emotional devastation are the new normal.

When an unidentified man breaks into the family’s compound in search of supplies, Shults begins to masterfully ratchet up the tension, nearly suffocating characters and moviegoers both with paranoia. Paul has no idea if he can trust this man, eventually identified as Will (Christopher Abbott), who claims to be in desperate need of water for his family. As it turns out, at least part of his story checks out, and the introduction of his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and child lends a whole new dimension to the story. To Travis’ story in particular.

Kevin Harrison Jr. is an epiphany here, adroitly imbuing Travis with a blend of normal teenage problems and the minutiae of personal issues that might accompany an apocalypse. His central performance combined with Shults’ incredibly well considered screenplay puts us in Travis’ corner early on. We never leave it, hanging on every word and glance and frustration he lives through. The rest of the cast is very good. Harrison is great.

The slow gait of the screenplay is only a hindrance so far as the pic’s lack of traditional jump scares. Its leisurely pace and general smallness is liable to be amplified in the minds of those waiting for big scares. (There are only a handful, and they’re mostly of the psychological variety.) In actuality, the film is a remarkably tight 90 minutes, wasting not one of them. If anything, it feels like there are a couple of scenes missing; scenes that would have been enthralling to see but for budget constraints or betrayal of the movie’s small scope.

Trey Edward Shults has made a very effective little thriller destined for a healthy life on streaming services, free of the expectations of big screen horror. The film is horrifying but far more in its implications that what’s on screen, a low buzz of existential terror eventually brought to a howl by an exceptionally talented cast. It might be a dirge of a film, but it’s a beautiful, textured dirge that hangs in the air long after its last note has been played. Recommended.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: June 9, 2017
Studio: A24
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Screenwriter: Trey Edward Shults
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Kevin Harrison Jr., Riley Keough, Christopher Abbott
MPAA Rating: R (for violence, disturbing images, and language)

The Mummy

Tom Cruise, the reliable blockbuster horse that he is, has once again done the impossible. He’s followed up his worst film (“Jack Reacher: Never Go Back”) with… his worst film.

Oops.

The A-lister’s new nadir, “The Mummy,” went into production with every hope of being a backboard-shattering slam dunk, a crowd-pleasing horror romp to set off Universal’s new monster series “Dark Universe.” Instead, it’s the would-be franchise’s second false start (after 2014’s “Dracula Untold”); an opening firework gone rogue, loop-de-looping back on the whole batch before the show’s even begun. With a little help from director Alex Kurtzman – okay, a lot of help – the entire thing’s already up in flames.

Cruise plays blowhard treasure hunter Nick Morton, the kind of stock action movie lead that speaks in clichés and thrives on rubbery facial expressions. “Where’s your sense of adventure?” he drolly asks partner Chris Vail (Jake Johnson) just before getting him killed. But Chris’ ignominiously early death isn’t the worst thing to come from Nick’s recklessness. No, it’s Chris’ terrible, no-good presence as a spirit haunting Nick with klutzy one-liners that really grates. Johnson, gifted comic actor that he is, deserves so much better.

On Nick’s preordained journey from poacher to martyr, he accidentally uncovers the 12th century tomb of the evil Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), subsequently unleashing one very angry demigod into the ether. With Ahmanet on the warpath, Nick and archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) find themselves running to and then from the title character, guided by a rote undercurrent of romance. Once Russell Crowe’s Dr. Henry Jekyll gets involved, the rickety narrative breaks down entirely, relying on endless flashbacks (Nick is possessed by Ahmanet for no reason in particular) and weary action beats punctuated by subpar special effects.

Brendan Fraser’s three-film “Mummy” run now seems absolutely vital by comparison, its modest thrills given new life by Alex Kurtzman’s abomination. The “Star Trek” scribe-turned-director and the six writers with either a screenplay or “story by” credit can’t manage a single thrill, guilty or otherwise, suppressing the title character’s legacy in favor of dour visuals and childish plotting. Even the reviled Hugh Jackman-starrer “Van Helsing” had a great deal more fun to offer than this reboot, having the good sense to dial up some much-needed campiness. But the folks involved in “The Mummy” 2017 seem to think “Van Helsing” was too much fun, maintaining the general inanity and jettisoning everything else.

The silver lining here is that there is no silver lining, meaning the project’s overwhelming ineptitude might be enough to stop the “Dark Universe” dead in its tracks. The way in which the picture teases other Universal Monsters is so cynical that it borders insulting – Look, a vampire skull in a jar! – dovetailing with the studio’s recent announcement of the series’ propagation. Their proud declaration of future films before anyone had seen “The Mummy” arrogantly assumed an audience of undemanding zombies ready to fork over $15 for each chapter of an ill-conceived movie star monster mash.

Credit where credit is due. Kurtzman’s film is its own kind of black magic: an absolutely putrid movie without any of the fun normally associated with putrid movies. It’s bad to the bone, signaling nothing less than the roughest waters ahead for all involved. A dark universe, indeed.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Bad)

Release Date: June 9, 2017
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Alex Kurtzman
Screenwriter: Dylan Kussman, David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Tom Cruise, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance, Russell Crowe
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for violence, action and scary images, and for some suggestive content and partial nudity)

Wonder Woman

In the seventy-six years it’s taken DC Comics’ Wonder Woman to get her own live-action theatrical film, American institutions like Steel and Howard The Duck and goddamn Timecop have occupied silver screens in her stead. “Steel who?” you might ask. Indeed. There have been outliers like “Elektra” (bad), “Catwoman” (worse), and “Tank Girl” – even Tank Girl got a movie before Wonder Woman – but most Hollywood executives would have seemingly prioritized pissing themselves in public over greenlighting a female-driven superhero movie.

The story of director Patty Jenkins isn’t so different. Since her 2003 Oscar-winning breakthrough “Monster,” Jenkins’ filmography includes seven episodes of television and exactly zero feature films. She has yet to join the ranks of Sofia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow, the only two women in America regularly tasked with even moderately budgeted studio films. Women still don’t get to direct big movies, an ever-smoking gun in the case against Tinseltown’s habitually hollow brand of progressivism.

As such, without accounting for a single frame of the movie, DC’s big screen union between Jenkins and Wonder Woman (aka Diana Prince) is momentous – a nearly unprecedented piece of movie history. Reason enough to buy a ticket.

If only the finished product were as revelatory.

Make no mistake, the picture flies high above last year’s introduction of its title character, gliding over a bar at ground level. Zack Snyder’s curdled “Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice” announced Diana Prince as a personality-free superhuman with a garish theme song, a character only good for flirting with Bruce Wayne and then dropping in on him at the precise moment his alter-ego requires her skillset. All a Wonder Woman solo adventure needed to be to distinguish itself from such unholiness: an above average superhero origin story, anchored by an affable, broad performance from its lead. Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” is this exactly.

Allan Heinberg’s screenplay kicks off with Diana’s salad days as a young Amazonian princess, an approach that blissfully affords Gadot a take on the character that’s more Tom Hanks in “Big” or Jennifer Garner in “13 Going On 30” than robotic badass. A battle-ready but childlike Amazonian transplanted into rough-and-tumble World War I-era Europe allows the movie the kind of genre-busting ingredients rarely associated with comic book adaptations. The result is a pretty ripping World War I yarn until it’s not, eventually weighed down by a loud, obnoxious finale that flies in the face of everything that preceded it.

Act one sees Diana, having famously been sculpted from clay by Zeus himself, grow into her magical powers on the idyllic Amazonian island of Themyscira. Her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and her aunt – and general rabble-rouser – Antiope (Robin Wright) are at odds over the girl’s fate. Hippolyta forbids her daughter from a life of combat; Antiope encourages it, training the girl in secret. One day, when Diana is grown, an Allied pilot and spy named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) spills over into the Amazons’ peaceful existence and World War I with him. The two are soon off to London; Steve on a mission to gather a crew and stop the proliferation of chemical warfare by an evil German general (Danny Huston) and a mad scientist helpfully nicknamed Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya), Diana determined to literally cut the war off at its source – the Greek god of war, Ares.

Gadot and Pine’s chemistry ignites almost immediately and remains lit without ever resorting to romantic tropes, his world-weariness bouncing neatly off her boundless innocence. Supported by a stable of capable actors (David Thewlis, Lucy Davis, Ewen Bremner, Saïd Taghmaoui), Gadot and Pine make the most of playing the platonic ideals of heroes – albeit very different kinds of heroes – mining their characters for the kinds of small but meaningful moments that most superhero movies would kill for. If the story around them is familiar (there are loud echoes of “Captain America: The First Avenger”), their rapport is fresh, their combined charm seemingly a bottomless well.

When the duo’s dynamism comes together with a handful incredible action beats, the movie absolutely sings, as if excoriating the very idea that it took this long for a “Wonder Woman” movie to get made. A warfront action sequence is as rousing as anything in superhero movie history.

And yet, just when Diana has the poignant epiphany that she can’t singlehandedly end a war, the picture morphs into the dunderheaded CGI slugfest that it had previously so powerfully rebuffed. It’s not enough to retroactively torpedo what came before, but it’s still a drag. An expensive, eye-popping drag.

DC and Warner Bros. might be tempted to follow Marvel’s lead and immediately send Diana back to the present day for her next solo film. They mustn’t. The period setting, the unhurried growth of its title character, and Pine’s Steve Trevor are all essential to the success of “Wonder Woman,” and shoehorning the character back into the world of “Batman V Superman” is a fiasco waiting to happen. Leave modern day Diana Prince to the upcoming “Justice League.” Embrace the idea of growing an ageless wonder as she fights evil in any given time period. And return Patty Jenkins. Anything less would be a disservice to fans – and to the pretty good, absolutely historic film where it’s all just begun.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: June 2, 2017
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Patty Jenkins
Screenwriter: Allan Heinberg
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, David Thewlis, Danny Huston, Elena Anaya, Ewen Bremner, Lucy Davis, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Said Taghmaoui, Eugene Braverock
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of violence and action, and some suggestive content)

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