Monday, August 6, 2018

Christopher Robin
Star Rating: 2.5/4

            It is easy to become attached to Christopher Robin and the events that unfold within it. His friends in the Hundred Acre Wood were introduced in the mid-1920s so everyone alive today has been exposed to them at some point. As an audience, we can care for Robin enough to overshadow the formulaic story. It works the way anyone would expect which might have been intentional as a way to make us all feel like kids again. However, it is worth seeing on a personal level.

            Beloved Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) is to leave his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood to attend boarding school. Through a lovely montage reminiscent of Up (2009), we discover that he is left his parents’ house after their passing, became a soldier in World War II and eventually settled down into a normal life with his wife, Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and their daughter, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). Robin now works for a luggage company and has long forgotten about his old animal friends. If it wasn’t for this montage, no one would feel so shocked at his gradual loss of innocence. Re-enter Winnie the Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings).

As anyone could guess, Pooh is innocence personified. Somehow, he manages to enter the real world and finds Robin. Pooh is silly as always but he functions like Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump (1994) being wisdom blowing in the wind like a feather. Though it is a bit much due to his rather excessive chatter, it is shown to be useful later on. Personally, I have always been intrigued by voice acting. How can one person be more than one voice for another? Cummings has been playing this character for decades and it is nearly impossible to picture anyone else playing him. The sweet and soft whisper he lends Pooh amplifies the idea of what he is supposed to represent.

So, how does this movie work if it’s not animated like many of Pooh’s adventures have been in the past? Well, it’s not Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) where live-action and animation are half-and-half. The idea is to mix real actors with visual effects. They take the toys of the characters and use the computers to make them move. Fortunately, it is entirely authentic. These instances are not uncommon in this century of movies but it makes Christopher Robin more appealing to the public. It is a brilliant idea for this picture.

Yes, the main idea is to rejuvenate our inner child and Ewan McGregor definitely helps convey this. As the movie progresses, it’s easy to see how much fun he’s having. He should have had fun playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequel trilogy (1999-2005) but he was honestly miscast. McGregor lacked delivery playing Kenobi but brings out the best in himself here with Robin. He is the heart of this film and that is what he provides.

While on the topic of being miscast though, Mark Gatiss, who plays Robin’s boss, may seem that way at first. He portrays his role as somewhat psychotic but towards the end, we become accustomed to it as more time is spent on Christopher Robin. To go back to my interest in voice acting, I am so used to Peter Cullen playing Eeyore that I was reluctant to accept Brad Garrett portraying him, but he did well. Also, I am glad Cummings returned to voice Tigger. The wonderful thing about Tigger is how Cummings plays him with such enthusiasm and joy so the filmmakers made a good call replacing Chris O’Dowd with the man who must play him every time. [Oh bother. I let my childhood bias get in the way of this review. Forgive me.]

On a serious note, the main issue with Christopher Robin is how it unfolds so easily. It is quite predictable. Whatever people thinks happens will certainly happen. I could have expected more to be unraveled if Robin’s family spent more time with Pooh and his friends which would lead to them coming together to help Robin find his joy again. We have a sweet tale of friendship, yes, but there aren’t any stakes for him. He doesn’t risk it all. There’s no crisis. It may be a mid-life crisis but no crisis within it.

Christopher Robin as a whole is flawed. The script knows its characters but it doesn’t entirely know how to be enthralling. Regardless, kids will want to see it as will the kids at heart. Adults may enjoy it but as Pooh says, “it’s always a sunny day when Christopher Robin comes to play.” The sun will shine and smiles will be formed.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Star Rating: 3.5/4

            Fallout, the latest installment in the Mission: Impossible franchise, continues the story presented in the last chapter, Rogue Nation (2015), the way it should. Auteur Christopher McQuarrie’s strategy to bring the best out of the saga is to raise the stakes on both a personal and emotional level and he does. Even though the main point of this film is to just provide some form of escapism for people, it still takes its characters in a new direction. Action movies can do this but this picture uses its clever plot to create an end result that will take one’s breath away.

            Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) captured anarchy-based terrorist Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) two years ago but Lane’s followers, known as the Apostles, remain at large. With his teammates Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames), they intercept a deal regarding plutonium that would allow the Apostles to cause massive destruction around the world. After a shootout, Ethan manages to save his team but fails in retrieving the plutonium. Millions of lives are now at risk and the team must obtain it before the Apostles can use it while being placed under supervision of CIA Agent August Walker (Henry Cavill) to prevent anything getting out of hand.

The best way to escalate anything in a saga is to hit the protagonist right in the heart. Solomon Lane is a villain as cunning as the Joker from The Dark Knight (2008) but knows his enemy’s next decision before they even consider the options. He knows where to attack Ethan. He knows how to exploit the weakness of someone who is considered untouchable. His goal is to always be one step ahead but so is Ethan’s. McQuarrie, who also returns as screenwriter, successfully constructs a labyrinth-like dilemma for Ethan’s team that no one know who will outsmart who. It’s breathtaking.

McQuarrie has worked with Cruise for quite some time now on various projects. They work well together. He can be considered a good asset for the series as we learn what Ethan’s weakness is: his dedication to protecting the innocent. I considered Rogue Nation, McQuarrie’s first time as a director for this franchise, the best one but now that there is more at risk for Ethan in Fallout, it now as a rival. Everything feels big, especially when we get the large overview shots of landscapes and cities. Ethan usually stands in the middle of it all. The look by Rob Hardy is beautiful but it’s more than that. Much more.

In addition to that, some shots look CGI but according to featurettes, they are not. Looking at the action sequences, I can say this: Tom Cruise is insane. He does every stunt on his own because he feels a stunt double would ruin the effect of the scene. He’s right. We can admire any actor who does something crazy. Though I shake my head in disbelief with the fact that he did some of the stunts, he earns respect for his commitment to the craft. In the end, it truly is exciting to watch.

All that aside, the hard truth about Fallout is this: it’s just an action movie. There are no reflections on government or politics here. If there was any inclusion of it into the carefully constructed web already in place and if it was done right, McQuarrie would deserve another Oscar. However, many argue that films need to be all about character in order to be a real film. Fortunately, it is. Ethan and his team remain those people can become attached to and worry about. Although most of that can be from the stunts, the race-against-the-clock motif seen throughout the franchise and other action pictures comes into play the way it is expected and the way it needs to be.

This series became memorable after Ghost Protocol (2011). It was a good film because it just was. With Rogue Nation, there was more to fight for. In Fallout, the same can be said. The difference now is how the villain challenges the hero at every opportunity and does that in more complex manners. Yes, the goal is to just give people a thrill but to that I say: mission accomplished.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Ant-Man and the Wasp
Star Rating: 3/4

            The point of Ant-Man and the Wasp is to shrink the stakes. Most of the movie feels banal when compared to other entries of this genre but it does present something new in terms of narrative, for the most part.

            It has been two years since audiences last saw Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) and that was in Civil War (2016). Since then, he has been under house arrest for aiding and abetting with the rogue heroes, at the time. While taking a bath, he has a vision of his accidental trip to another dimension where he encountered Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer). In a panicked state, he calls his mentor and van Dyne’s husband, physicist Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) of his belief. Pym and his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lily), long thought Janet to be deceased so they kidnap Scott to help rescue Janet and reunite their family.

            That’s their side of the story. They also have to watch out for Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) who wants to steal Pym’s technology for black market purposes. Next, there’s a being known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) who wants Pym’s tech for her own purposes. Oh, and they have to bring Lang back every now and then so he can be let off house arrest without any problem, as he has three days left on his sentence.

One flaw of this picture is how overstuffed it feels at times. This makes it lose some of the freshness seen in the first Ant-Man three years ago. Some of the characters seen there have been reduced to mere cameos here and Scott’s crew doesn’t get much screen time. However, I can say that those three do help big time in a humorous fashion near the end we would expect from them. In addition to that, Luis (Michael Pena) does tell one of his stories. Even though it’s only one, the moment he did, I thought to myself, “Thank you God!”

Other characters take a step in the right direction and reflect on Stan Lee’s most iconic saying: with great power comes great responsibility. Lee, an executive producer of this film, created Ant-Man and that saying applies to all of his creations. For Lang, he feels remorse for his past actions and seeks atonement as does Pym. Pym believes the blame for his wife’s death is on him and will do what he can to give his daughter a sense of family stability again. Rudd and Douglas do shine once again. The former makes a delightful protagonist while I can say I deeply enjoyed seeing Douglas be more than the man behind the scenes.

Now, this review must discuss the role of Hope following in her mother’s footsteps and becoming the Wasp. Hope is an empty soul due to the loss of her mother and past estrangement with her father. She also serves as Lang’s love interest which she tries not to reciprocate. Hope and Lang did date at one point but his departure marked her becoming who she was again when people first met her in the movies. As the Wasp, she is definitely someone people shouldn’t mess with but I wish she had a little more screen time. It would have been better to see her have as much as Lang did since they team up here.

To complete this look at characters, the villains go back to the idea of small stakes. Ghost is revealed to want Pym’s technology to save herself from death. As for her mentor, who will not be revealed here for prevention of spoilers, he knows he is doing something wrong but doesn’t want to go too far with it. Deep down, he’s a genuine sweetheart and doesn’t want anyone to get hurt. This is how Ant-Man and the Wasp feels new within the superhero genre. There are no bad guys wanting to conquer the world or anything for that matter. It presents a nice equilibrium that is becoming more evident with Marvel pictures.

Speaking of small, I definitely like where director Peyton Reed went with this sequel. He understands the scale and conveys it in every way possible. Whether it’s through the exciting action sequences or through character ambitions, he did it. Many of the scenes are funny while also able to develop intensity as it goes on but at the core of this whole product is family. As several know, I am a total sucker for those movies but there are several moments in the van Dyne circle tender enough to warm hearts. Credits must also go to the adorable Abby Ryder-Fortson for playing Lang’s 10-year-old daughter, Cassie, for acting as the confidant and conscience. Without these bonds, this movie would not have worked.

On a final note, let me say this: there have been so many superhero movies recently that Ant-Man and the Wasp doesn’t feel too special. Sure, we have good characters and a reasonable route for the narrative to go, but I feel numb now. I felt the same way with Solo in terms of movies with extensive use of visual effects. If this genre wants to have more value, the Marvel Cinematic Universe should end soon. However, Ant-Man and the Wasp is enjoyable overall. The character will be seen again soon but I actually will be looking forward to his next appearance.