Wonder Park

Back at the start of the year, the Lambcast devoted an episode to making Box Office predictions for the year and we currently have a draft going. The truth is there is no point in voting for the draft because the winner is determined by the outcome of actual box office returns. Why you might ask, is this the subject at the start of a review of today’s animated film? It’s simple, “Wonder Park” was one of the films I chose for my draft. Here is my dilemma however, three of my films are opening within a week of each other, and two of them on the same day. “Captain Marvel” will earn me plenty of dollars in the Box Office derby, but my two films this week are likely to be a bust. “Marvel” is going to dominate again this weekend, and after seeing both of the other films I despair. Not because they are bad films, they are simply not going to draw a crowd. “Captive State” is too slow and intellectual to pull in many folks, and I think “Wonder Park” is so much more a kids film that only the little ones will bother to come out, and their parents may chose the Captain over the Park.

This animated film from Paramount is a serviceable film for a young audience. It has some inventive visuals and a little bit of character flair going for it, but that is all. The humor is mostly coy and not the kind of slap stick that kids will flock to. There is also nothing in the humor that speaks to adults, the parents who are going to be bringing their kids. This movie turns out to be so conventional that it will hardly be remembered after being seen.

At the heart of the story is a theme of imagination being encouraged. As much as the Comic Book movie dominating the theaters now is about female empowerment, so is this. June, the little girl who is the main character, has an imagination as big as all outdoors. Along with encouragement from her mother, she has visualized an elaborate them park with rides that seem exactly the kind of thing that kids would want to do. Forget the impractical, let’s just have some fun, and no one should fault them for that. June has integrated her toys into the park as well, making her stuffed animals pivotal elements of the park. She of course suffers from the same disease that all kids do at some point in these kinds of movies, a lack of faith in what she is doing.

The key turn in June’s enthusiasm comes in the form of an unnamed illness that threatens to take her mother away from her. As is usual in these movies, Dad is supportive but ineffectual. His attempts at reassurance and encouragement are met with a severe case of seriousness and anxiety by the child.  Somehow, the whole situation gets confronted by the discovery of the real park version of her imagined plans. The creeping decay of the park is much like the story in “The Never Ending Story” As a child despairs, the fantasy world they have created is threatened. You can almost certainly predict where things are going to go from there.

I did like the neighbor kid who is June’s friend Banky. You don’t see a lot of Indian-American characters in films aimed at kids and this is a rewarding change of pace. Also, there is not a local bully, hovering over the proceedings, all the emotion turmoil is self inflicted. The story of a child creating something real out of her imagination is the kind of thing we should encourage. I was reminded of “Caine’s Arcade” and the inventiveness of children when June and Banky launch their homemade roller coaster.  But other than the underdeveloped Chimpanzombies, there is not much to hold a kids attention. There is also a big sadness hanging over the movie.  Parents taking their kids to see this, may have to reassure them on their own health.

The movie is simply not inspiring or funny enough to succeed. It is not a bad film but rather a mediocre one that I unfortunately put my hopes in. I really wish I’d been able to draft “The Secret Life of Pets 2”.

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Captive State

With a smattering of special effects and some old school style storytelling, “Captive State” manages to be a smart, compelling Science Fiction allegory that will make you remember the films of the 1970s without being old-fashioned. This film is more cerebral than is healthy for the box office, but if you are willing to think and fill in the story elements, you will come away impressed by the things that were accomplished here with solid acting, a cryptic script and an idea that has been around for a long time.

“captive State” barely touches on the manner in which our planet became an occupied state. That process is over by the time the credits have finished. This movie takes place well into the occupation and it uses some long standing ideas as the crux of the story. Aliens have come for our resources, but they need our cooperation to get them. Their solution has been to take over the political processes of the Earth and replace them with their own form of governing. They manage to convince the power elite that they will survive and everyone else is given pablum about how great everything is now that we are subjected to this domination. Although this is an alien invasion film, it is not really about the aliens. They appear in relatively few scenes and are largely a menacing off screen presence. It is the Vichy style police state that is the true enemy of humanity, and it is uncertain if an insurgency can be reignited after having been crushed once before.

There is an overwhelming sense of sadness about how compliant we humans have become. The folks who make up the deep “terror” cell of resistance, come from some of the obvious places but there are also a few surprises. Much of the story involves how they have to circumvent the surveillance that the whole population is subjected to. The police have become a tool for control and they have power that can only be described as dictatorial. John Goodman plays the head of the security police in a troublesome district. His methods are successful but he seems to be holding back on some potential problems as a way of protecting former family friends and securing a complete victory over the Chicago resistance cell at the same time. He has always been one of the best things in any movie he appears in and this is no exception. Although his name is the first lead on the promotional material, his story is secondary at times to that of Ashton Sanders as Gabriel Drummond, the younger brother of a famous resistance leader.

I mentioned that this was old fashioned story telling, well here is why I say that,,, very little is explained to us. We have to figure out what is going on as the story develops. Sometimes there are dead ends, and in other places there are moments that feel as if they are going to be important, but they are a red herring. Characters interact with one another and we don’t know their motivations or relationships, we only see their actions. That means we need to pay attention to those actions and my guess is a lot of people will not like that. There were a ton of crime films and science fiction films in the early 70s that did the same sort of thing. Nothing is spelled out in bold letters explaining what is happening or why it matters. Because the film is set in the decaying parts of Chicago after the invasion, it feel gritty like one of those movies as well. There are some action beats but most of the movie is suspense based with some mysteries deeply buried for us to wait to unravel.

This is a stand alone film that could easily be turned into a franchise but I doubt it will have the financial cache to get to that. Vera Farmiga, Kevin Dunn and Alan Ruck are seasoned veterans of movies who are small background players in this story. Kevin J. O’Conner,is another who is working in the background to make the scenario seem real. The movie though belongs to Sanders and Goodman and they have the ability to play it honestly. I thought the wrap up was sad as hell but also inspiring. I won’t say it is a total surprise but the way it plays out was not exactly what I chad come to expect. This is not really a popcorn movie despite the Sci Fi trappings. If you are interested in seeing how grown ups tell a story about the alien scenario, then this is the movie for you.

The Kid

Yesterday was a Chris Pratt film Festival for me. In the afternoon I saw the LEGO 2 Movie and in the evening I took in this slow paced western. I have to admit it is easier to like the animated film. It was light, with a lot of laughs and rapid paced action. This in turn moseys along at a very deliberate rate. It was not boring but it feels like it was much more methodical in telling the story than was necessary. That may be because the film is directed by a second time feature film director, actor Vincent D’Onofrio. The film is competently put together but it does have some flaws.

The script by Andrew Lanham is attempting to provide a backstory for the notorious Billy the Kid while also showing the last days of the Kid. Basically, a fourteen year old boy is trapped in a nightmare family scenario and it is strongly hinted at that he may be traveling the same path as William Bonney (Henry McCarty). It is a morality tale that tries to warn us off of the path of violence at the same time showing the violent nature of the men who are the heart of the story. “Pat Garret and Billy the Kid” follows the same material but was more focused on commenting on the dying western tropes. In Sam Peckinpah’s hands it was an elegy, D’Onofrio makes it more of a cautionary story.

Actor Dane DeHaan was not my favorite part of “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets“. In fact, DeHaan was terrible in that film. I thought he was much more effective in this movie. The character of Billy the Kid is all twitchy coiled danger and DeHaan’s face is a perfect canvas for those characteristics. He speaks in a low key manner and expresses the kind of swagger and confidence that the notorious outlaw is known for. Ethan Hawke is Pat Garret, a grizzled mirror of Billy’s character. They took different paths after the Lincoln county war but hey both were hired killers at one point, and Garret seems to have developed a moral backbone wheras Billy is clearly flexible when it comes to right or wrong.

Our young hero, Rio, played by first time film actor Jake Schur, the son of two of the producers of this film. As a child/adolescent performer he is competent but does occasionally have some wooden moments. Rio is caught between the two legendary gunmen and has to figure out which path is the right one to follow. Neither seems to be a pleasant future for the young man. His Uncle is pursuing he and his sister who have fled from a family tragedy. Uncle Grant is a horrid human being without an ounce of redeeming qualities. That he is played by the usually charming Chris Pratt is the casting twist that this movie offers. He was believable as a louse who is ready to ruin the rest of the family for pride and avarice. The only part that was not convincing was his beard.

Pratt, Hawke and D’Onofrio all worked together on another western, the Denzel Washington remake of “The Magnificent 7“. Perhaps that is the genesis of their working together on this movie. Westerns are few and far between these days and the fact that this trio was involved in another western just three years , suggests that it is no accident that they are all on this project. There are several moments of violence in the film, so there is action but you would not really think of this as an action movie. The director chooses to show more than is necessary in some scenes, for instance there are long takes in the wagon that is used to transport the captured prisoners back to the jurisdictions where they are to be tried. The music for the film sometimes echos the music for the Kristofferson version of the story, but the final song is not written by Bob Dylan. The movie aims for something deep but because it is so ponderous at times it simply feels oppressive. In the end I would recommend it but only for fans of older style westerns.

The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part

Five years ago, “The LEGO Movie” came out of left field and surprised the hell out of me. I was not expecting much and I’d largely been ignorant of the toys so it was a complete shock to be pulled in and transfixed as I was. Of course the bigger shock later that year was the film not only did not win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, it was not even nominated. It was a top five film on my list that year, and the “Batman LEGO Movie ” from two years ago also made my top ten. These movies are really something.

The novelty may have worn off a little with this second part, but the story telling is as strong as the first film. Like the original movie, there is a theme to the events shown during the story. Unlike the first film however, there is not the same kind of surprise. We know that the LEGO Universe exists in the real world and the plotlines here are not very hard to dig at to get to the moral. The screenwriters don’t cover it up, hell you know it is coming before they do, but that doesn’t keep it from resonating with us at the end of the film.

The pop culture references in the movie give us plenty of chances to laugh at movies we have seen before. From Mad Max to Jurassic Park to Guardians of the Galaxy, they are all here to some degree. The opening section where the Lego world has been turned into a dystopian nightmare complete with creative vehicles that would fit on Fury Road, is the most elaborate parody in the story, but it is also fun that Chris Pratt gets to spoof himself as action hero in two other franchises as well. The visuals are really inventive as is the work of the directors, who keep everything flowing and funny simultaneously.

“Everything is Awesome” gets recycled in the film pretty effectively with a twist that might be a little too obvious, but there are two or three more musical spots that work even better. In particular, “Gotham City Guys” should have you laughing out loud. It’s a great mix of visual bits and the lyrics will crack you up. Also, “Not Evil” plays as an insincere denial of intent because of the context, but at the end of the movie it really fits in well with the theme that the story supports.  Will Farrell has one nearly static scene and then is only heard from again as an off camera voice. Instead Maya Rudolph steps in as the human adult that hovers over the events in the story. In my mind, that is an improvement.

The voice cast is back for the most part, but the big names have only a line or two. My favorite addition to the cast has to be John McClane himself, who shows up a couple of times including a scenario that was just perfect. The novelty has probably worn off of the franchise but the inventiveness and humor have not. Once again we have an adult parody film, posing as a kids movie and both sections of the audience will be satisfied.

Captain Marvel

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is shifting gears to the next phase, and that means new heroes and another universe. I know nothing about the comic books of the new Marvel character who carries the brand as her moniker, but I can say the movie has been worked pretty effectively into the current MCU sequences and it looks like things will run smoothly after our Avengers are decimated with the departures of some of the long time characters and actors.

It does however take a while for the new central figure to grip our interest. The opening half hour of this movie is a collection of flashback, flash forwards and partially revealed narrative that is confusing at times. The screenwriters are deliberately creating a sucker punch that is not that difficult to see coming, given the rest of the history of Marvel. The science fiction elements will draw heavily on the same kinds of imagery and story lines we got in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films, but without the initial charm of a clearly sympathetic figure. From the beginning of the story, Carol Danvers who is also Vers on the Kree homeworld of Hala, is a bit of a cipher. If people remember their Marvel history, they will be shaking their heads because the Nova force that was portrayed in the Guardians film was the heroic Federation that stood against the Kree Empire who were apparently villains. This movie gives us a shift in perspective but not necessarily a fair one. Never the less it was a creative method to get our human air force pilot into superhero mode.

It really takes her return to Earth to start the enjoyable part of the movie. When Vers ends up on what the Kree refer to as C-55, she begins to recover some of the memories that lead her to become a member of the star force and a subject to the Supreme Intelligence. Earth in 1995 lives in most of the viewers distant memories and it seem like it would be easy to get that familiar vibe back. This was the main weak part of the production. Other than some soundtrack tunes and a couple of anachronistic computer references, Blockbuster video has to do all the heavy lifting to get us to imagine it is twenty four years ago. The two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who encounter her are well known in the MCU. Nick Fury is the real co-star with Carol Danvers and this was where there was finally some life injected into the comic action. We need more of the kind of by-play that Samuel Jackson had with other Marvel heroes to make this feel like the same universe and to have some fun. As Danvers and Fury become allies, the story starts to make more sense and the process of revealing narrative becomes a lot simpler to follow.

Much has been made of the feminine hero angle for this movie. I will gladly let others pontificate on the patriarchy, bechdel test, and third wave feminism. I see the movie as empowering to all kids who struggle to find their place in the world. When Vers starts to break her molded persona and assert her humanity, it is how through a series of flashbacks to her as a girl and woman at different stages of her life. It will certainly play as a scene of female empowerment, and that’s great, but more importantly, it is an assertion of individuality that needs to be acknowledged, regardless of the gender of the hero. At the end of the film, there is a scene where carol matches her mentor played by Jude Law, and the line that Brie Larson spouts will certainly resonate with all the homogametic audience members.

The story does feel like it is plugging in to the Avengers Infinity War series in some pretty obvious ways, and of course the mid-credit sequence will flick on the switch for those anticipating next months concluding chapter. As a stand alone film, Captain Marvel is solid and entertaining. It may not be as impactful  as the first “Ironman”  or as exciting as “The Avengers”, but it has plenty to offer fans of the superhero genre and it is clearly going to be a big success. It is not a placeholder in the MCU, it is an important step forward so that the direction of the films can shift to new realms, quantum or otherwise.