‘Avengers: Endgame’ Had Me Going Out of the Movie Theater Saying Wow

Avengers Endgame poster

WRITER’S NOTE: Will or will not this review have spoilers? Does it matter pointing it out at this point? Like any other movie, it would be best to keep from reading this review until you have seen this one.

Now you all know how much I hate the term “based on a true story” as it has long since lost its meaning for me, but there is also another I get seriously annoyed with, and it is this one: “it has all led up to this.” When a movie trilogy reaches its end or a television show finally arrives at its season or series finale, this phrase is often utilized as a way to get butts in the seats or eyes glued to the television in a why which will have advertisers salivating to no end. More often than not, it feels like a shameless trick to get us to watch something we otherwise wouldn’t, and we come out of it feeling angry as we have been easily duped.

But when it comes to “Avengers: Endgame,” the term “it has all led up to this” makes perfect sense. This is the 22nd film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe which started back in 2008 with “Iron Man,” but this one has a strong sense of finality as the superheroes we have followed all these years will rise and fall all at the same time. Yes, the MCU will continue on, and we have “Spider-Man” and “Black Panther” sequels to look forward to, but after this penultimate installment, things will never be the same. What results is an exhilarating motion picture which thrills even the most jaded of moviegoers, and its conclusion will leave you emotionally drained for very good reason. Yes, it really has all led up to this.

Three weeks have passed since Thanos (Josh Brolin) captured all the Infinity Stones, snapped his finger and eliminated half of all life across the universe. Those Avengers who survived the snap are, as you can expect, infinitely eager to avenge those lives who disintegrated, but their quest for justice does not go in the way you might expect. In fact, for some it comes too quickly and leaves a lot of damage in its wake.

Following this, the movie then jumps ahead five years as what is left of humanity is grappling with the things they can do in the aftermath. Some are still eager to undo what Thanos did while others have done what they can to move on. Either way, they are dealing with a clear case of survivor’s guilt, and their enthusiasm for saving the universe is not what it used to be.

Yes, these characters are blessed with super powers we would love to have o, but the filmmakers are quick to show us how they are as human as we are. They suffer from doubts, anxiety, frustration and, as this movie begins, they are overcome with despair. While they may be special or gifted, they aren’t much different from the average joe as the weight of the world lies heavily on them, and they don’t have time to balance their checkbook. (Who does anyway?)

Time travel plays a significant role in this MCU movie as a couple of the Avengers, namely Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), come up with a theory which will make it possible for them to accomplish, albeit with some limitations. Like everyone else, the Avengers have seen every time travel movie ever made and are quick to mention such classics as the “Back to the Future” trilogy, “Time After Time,” “Timecop” (was this particular Jean Claude Van Damme film ever that popular?), “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” and even “Hot Tub Time Machine.” Somehow, “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” was left off this list, and I am deeply perturbed as a result. The Enterprise crew saved humpback whales in that one for crying out loud!

I enjoyed how “Avengers: Endgame” plays on our knowledge of time travel as a plot device. Even though science renders these various time travel methods to be utterly bogus, the pluses and minuses of actually changing historical events are always prominent in our minds. Remember all that talk about the space time continuum? Whether or not the conclusion of this movie is in doubt, I spent much of it wondering how things would end up once the mission was complete. What gave me comfort was what Doc Brown said in “Back to the Future Part III” about how the future isn’t written and how it is whatever you make it.

Granted, the time travel aspect does get a bit confusing at times, especially when certain characters end up facing off against their past and present selves. It reminded me of when Austin Powers faced a similar predicament in “The Spy Who Shagged Me,” and that one was a comedy. But the movie proves to be so much fun, who cares?

Helming “Avengers: Endgame” are Anthony and Joe Russo, brothers who have been a major asset to the MCU ever since they directed “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Along with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, they have an infinitely impossible job of balancing out a story filled with far too many superheroes, most of which will not get the same amount of screen time as the biggest ones of all. The ending is bombastic, but never in an overwhelming way. And yes, it is three hours long, but it never drags nor is it in need of a top-notch editor the way “I Spit on Your Grave: Déjà vu” was. For what it’s worth, you can head straight to the bathroom once the end credits start as there are no special scenes during or after them.

I imagine a lot of people look at these “Avenger” movies as being the kind which don’t require the cast to give their best performances ever. This assertion, however, is deeply unfair as many of the actors here have inhabited these characters for close to a decade. From one movie to the next, we see these characters evolve in meaningful ways to where we have to recognize what the passing years have done to them. It does not matter how incredible they are because they age like us even if they don’t always show it.

Chief among the cast is Robert Downey Jr. whose role as Tony Stark/Iron Man helped to rejuvenate a film career which looked to be permanently undone by drug abuse. Downey has taken Tony from being a lovably arrogant playboy millionaire to a less self-centered man who becomes eager to reign in his fellow superheroes before they do damage they won’t be able to walk away from. Tony himself has some interesting developments along with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to where his hesitation to disrupt the course of events is challenged endlessly, and watching him here makes you realize how far he has come in this role.

Another actor is Chris Hemsworth who has had quite the journey as Thor. For his first two movies, he portrayed the powerful Asgardian as an unshakably pure force who could not ever be corrupted. Then came “Thor: Ragnarok,” the best “Thor” film yet, which allowed Hemsworth to take some risks with the character in ways which made him even more interesting. With “Endgame,” we get to see Thor in his Big Lebowski phase, and we can tell Hemsworth is just having a blast taking this superhero in this direction. We should applaud him for taking chances here as other actors would have been a bit too fearful to do so.

Then there is Chris Evans who took Steve Rogers and his alter-ego of Captain America from what we thought would be the average white guy and turned him into a charismatic good guy in a way we did not see coming. Evans really hits his peak here in the MCU as he finishes his run in a very moving way, with Steve Rogers getting to reclaim a part of his past he thought he lost many years before. It is not spoiling anything to say this is Evans’ last time playing this superhero, but seeing him take his curtain call here is wonderfully fulfilling.

Coming out of “Avengers: Endgame,” all I could say was, wow. It’s the perfect capper to an amazing franchise, and my hat is off to everyone at Marvel for crossing the finish line in such an unforgettable way. DC Comics and Warner Brothers can only hope to be this successful with their own cinematic universe. Not once was I worried this franchise would flame out the way “The Matrix” did with “The Matrix Revolutions.” Everyone involved hit it right out of the park with this installment, and you don’t even need record breaking box office to prove it.

Of course, the question now is, where will the MCU go from here? I cannot see Marvel topping what they did here, especially with the cast taking their bow in the way the original Enterprise crew did at the end of “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” by providing their signatures. I imagine there are many more Marvel movies in our future, but the journey from here will still be fraught with expectations which may or may not be met. If this was to be the last MCU ever, it would have been perfect. All the same, superhero/comic book movies still reign supreme at the box office, so hopefully the ones coming soon to a theater near you will still be wonderfully entertaining. Whether or not they are as glorious as this one is another story.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

 

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‘WALL-E’ Remains one of Pixar’s Greatest Masterpieces

Wall E poster

WALL-E” was directed by Andrew Stanton who directed one of the very best Pixar movies, “Finding Nemo.” It takes place in the very distant future when Earth is no longer inhabitable due to uncontrollable pollution, and everyone lives in spaceships. In the midst of all this pollution and garbage is WALL-E whose name is an acronym which stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth-Class. There are many like him, but this particular load lifter has long since developed a quirky personality. While he compacts waste into squares, he also collects things like Zippo lighters, Rubik’s Cubes, and parts from similar models which he can use as replacement parts on his body if anything falls apart. He lives a very lonely life with no one to converse with except a cockroach whom he lets wander around his home aboard a broken-down construction vehicle, and he is always watching scenes from the movie musical “Hello Dolly.”

Then one day, he is visited by a large spaceship which a makes a very loud landing on the barren planet. Released from it is a probe named EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), and after some dangerous close encounters, WALL-E earns her trust and friendship. Things between them, however, gets tested when EVE’s mothership comes back, and WALL-E hangs on for dear life as the ship heads into space and towards a ship where what is left of humanity inhabits. What happens when these two board the ship will eventually change the course of everyone’s lives and the way they live.

Just when I thought Pixar couldn’t top itself, it succeeds in doing so yet again. The animation in “WALL-E” is predictably brilliant, but now it’s getting to where I can’t tell what’s animated and what’s real. The Rubik’s cube WALL-E and EVE play with looks very much like the real thing, and the attention to detail in these is almost frightening in its precision.

But the one thing that really makes Pixar movies so damn good is the stories filmmakers come up with, and the characters they create are ever so memorable. WALL-E’s design does remind me of Number 5, a.k.a. Johnny 5, from “Short Circuit,” as he is every bit as quirky as this character from the 1980’s. Pixar also takes a lot of risks by having this movie be devoid of dialogue for the first half hour. I imagine this would freak out other studios, but not Pixar. The fact there is no dialogue shows how good Stanton is in showing things without spelling them out to us.

“What are words for when no one listens anymore?”

“Do you hear me? Do you care?”

-Missing Persons

“WALL-E” is undeniably cute without having to become incredibly manipulative, and this is quite an accomplishment considering how many movies for kids can easily fall into such a trap. Pixar is the equivalent these days of what the Muppets were to me in 1980’s. Their movies appeal to both kids and adults, and it is great to see anyone in Hollywood making motion pictures which succeed in doing just that.

When “WALL-E” moves to the spaceship hovering just outside of the Milky Way galaxy, the movie becomes even more amazing on a visual level. The moment where we see WALL-E hanging on for dear life outside of the spaceship and touching the rings of Saturn is a beautiful moment in a movie full of them. The spaceship he and EVE end up on is called the Axiom, and all its passengers are obese people who sit and move all day long in chairs because being in space for so long has robbed them of their bone density. Now this is a movie which doesn’t hide from the horrors of being a coach potato.

WALL-E and EVE are machines, but you end up caring for them regardless of this fact. They make the perfect couple even if one is more advanced than the other. The heart of the movie is how they come together and of the changes they inadvertently make in the realm of humanity.

WALL-E is voiced by Ben Burtt, and he is responsible for some of the most well-known sound effects in movie history like the lightsabers from “Star Wars” as well as the sound of that gigantic boulder in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Burtt can now add this character to his great volume of work with pride. The character itself manages to convey so much through the use of sound and gestures. Whenever WALL-E tilts his mechanical eyes, he can easily go from emotion to emotion, and his voice adds to this as well.

EVE is the perfect match for WALL-E as they are an example of how the old and the more advanced can make the saying of opposites attract all the more valid. Beautiful in her sleekness and with two blue eyes to make her emotions all the more real, EVE is a brilliantly thought out character (and a little too trigger happy for her own good). The moments when these two machines connect are beautiful, and it gets you right in the heart in a way which does not feel the least bit manipulative (thank god for that).

When “WALL-E” gets on board the Axiom, it is a wonderful jab at how we humans have allowed ourselves to let technology overwhelm us to where it does all the work we should be doing ourselves. Laziness and complacency are far too easy to achieve when you have someone or something else doing everything for you. As a result, everyone on the Axiom is always in a chair. Exercise is not a priority, and being in outer space for so long has resulted in their bones almost disappearing. This is something NASA has to think about before they even think about sending astronauts to Mars. When the people of the ship rise against the technology holding them back, it’s a fantastic moment which cannot be easily forgotten.

I’m not sure what else I can say about “WALL-E” other than it’s another home run for the folks at Pixar. I look forward to whatever they do next year and the year after that. It is far and away one of the best movies of 2008, and it is now the one to beat in the summer movie season. For those attempting to do so, I wish you the best of luck because you are going to need it.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Christopher Robin’ Has Enough Childlike Wonder to Make it Worthwhile

Christopher Robin movie poster

Christopher Robin” has been compared by many to Steven Spielberg’s “Hook” even before its release. Truth be told, this comparison holds a lot of weight as both films deal with characters we were introduced to as children who have since grown up and left behind the imaginary worlds they reveled in. Both get married and become parents, and we catch up with them as they have long since become consumed by their jobs at the expense of everything else. The question is, can they rediscover the innocence and wonder they once had? We go into these movies knowing the answer will be yes, but we how long will it take? In the case of “Christopher Robin,” this man is quicker than Peter Pan to do so, and this makes the film fare better than “Hook.”

The movie starts off with young Christopher (played by Orton O’Brien) being given a going away party by his furry friends in the 100 Acre Wood as he is about to head off to boarding school. Among his friends is, of course, Winnie-the-Pooh whom he promises never to forget about once he goes away. But as the opening credits unfold, we see Christopher being molded into what society expects of him. Seeing a teacher slam her ruler on his desk quickly brought to mind the lyrics of a certain Pink Floyd song (“we don’t need no education…”). Even worse, he loses his dad much sooner than anyone should, and this forces him to grow up much quicker as he is now considered to be the man of the house. And there is the sequence of him as a soldier on the battlefield, and while it does not include any exploding limbs a la “Hacksaw Ridge” (it’s a Disney film after all), we are shown enough to be convinced Christopher has seen his share of brutal combat.

When we catch up with Christopher as an adult (played by Ewan McGregor), he is married to the lovely Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), father to Madeline (Bronte Carmichael), and an employee at Winslow Luggages. It is no surprise to see he has long since become consumed by work as he makes the mistake of telling his boss, “I’ll do anything for this company.” Now this is something I have long since learned never to tell any employer as they will be quick to blackmail you emotionally, and this is compounded by Christopher’s co-workers constantly living in fear of unemployment. As a result, Christopher is forced to cancel his trip into the country with his family, and they do not even try to hide their disappointment to where Evelyn flat out tells him, “I haven’t seen you laugh in years.” Christopher ends up all alone, that is, until Pooh arrives in London seeking his helps. Pooh has lost all his friends in the 100 Acre Wood, and the two go on a journey which serves to save both of them from a world without love and imagination.

“Christopher Robin” is at its best whenever McGregor and Pooh bear share the screen together. Unforgettably voiced by Jim Cummings, the “silly old bear” remains one of the most lovable creations in literature as he keeps saying he doesn’t have much of a brain, but he proves to be full of Yoda-like wisdom throughout. Instead of being animated this time out, Pooh and his friends are brought to life through CGI effects to more closely resemble the actual toys A.A. Milne owned all those years ago. But as amazing as the effects are, it is Cummings who gives Pooh his heart and soul as he professes to Christopher how “doing nothing often leads to the very best kind of something.”

When it comes to the other furry friends from the 100 Acre Wood, some get more screen time than others like Tigger and Eeyore. Those who know me best know I am a die-hard Eeyore fan, and just as with the animated “Winnie-the-Pooh,” the infinitely depressed donkey steals the show thanks in large part to the vocal talents of Brad Garrett who gives Sam Elliott a run for his money in the baritone department. Eeyore has always been a wonderful supporting character in Milne’s stories as he marches on despite his gloomy state of mind, and Garrett makes him a source of incredibly dry humor throughout. Now if only Eeyore could get his own movie…

Directing “Christopher Robin” is Marc Foster, who at first seemed like an odd choice for this material. Foster previously gave us the devastating “Monster’s Ball,” the James Bond adventure “Quantum of Solace,” the Brad Pitt zombie movie “World War Z,” and “Machine Gun Preacher” (the title says it all). Perhaps it was his film “Finding Neverland” which snagged him the job as that one was about J. M. Barrie and his relationship with a family who inspired him to create “Peter Pan.” Like J.M. Barrie, Christopher is shown here to be a lost soul who needs to regain his sense of wonder before he becomes just another corporate drone. Foster navigates Christopher’s journeys through worlds real and imagined to where we are eager to see regain his sense of wonder, and he looks to remind us of the child within ourselves who hopefully has not been obliterated by society.

Along with cinematographer Matthias Koenigswieser, Foster gives “Christopher Robin” a rather bleak look which recalls the dirty visuals Spielberg gave “Hook” as the imagined world of 100 Acre Wood proves to be vert foggy and not as inviting as it once was. It’s like “Return to Oz” in which Dorothy travels back to the magical world she left behind, only to find the yellow brick road has been ravaged to where you wonder if it will ever be put back together again. Part of me wishes the filmmakers had worked a little harder to balance out the different worlds Christopher and his friends travel in an out of as this movie looks a little bleaker than it needs to. In the process of delving into Christopher’s life in the city as an adult, it threatens to provide more muted colors than luminous ones.

The story hits all the beats you would expect it to as, like “Hook,” we have a good idea of how things will end up. We know Christopher will eventually come to see how his family is a far more precious commodity than anything else, and things are resolved in ways which are not completely satisfying. Granted, Disney would never be quick to allow Foster or anyone else to make “Christopher Robin” a tragic tale of a man who discovers too late what he had after losing everything to where he becomes a real-life Eeyore. Plus, there’s all the merchandising to think about. But for what it’s worth, the performances by McGregor, Atwell and Carmichael succeed in keeping this motion picture from becoming an exercise in shameless manipulation. The cast, whether they are acting or voicing their characters, more than rise to the occasion to where the human element of this movie is never lost.

“Christopher Robin” pales in comparison to “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” one of the more underrated films from 2017. Granted, the latter is more of a biographical film as it deals with the real life A.A. Milne and of how he inadvertently robbed his son of his childhood, but the balance between the real world and imagination felt much stronger in that one. Still, I enjoyed “Christopher Robin” for what it was, and seeing Pooh, Eeyore and Tigger brought to life through CGI made this all the worthwhile for me. When it comes down to it, the moments Christopher shares with his cuddly friends really warmed my heart. While some let the child within them die, you have to admire those who succeed in keeping that part of themselves alive as it is never easy.

While watching “Christopher Robin,” I was reminded of what Stephen Rea said in Neil Jordon’s “The Crying Game:”

“When I was a child, I thought as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

Here’s hoping we never put away those childish things away permanently, Oh, and by the way, adults carrying stuffed animals is not a sign of mental illness. Trust me, I have been proving this wrong for years.

* * * out of * * * *

Christopher Robin Eeyore poster

‘Winnie the Pooh’ Has Eeyore Stealing the Show

Winnie the Pooh 2011 movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was back in 2011 when the movie was released.

You know what? I was looking forward to this one more than “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2.” Granted, I saw the latter first, but anyone who knows me best will more than understand why I was in a hurry to watch this Disney animated film: I am a die-hard Eeyore fan! I got my first Eeyore plush toy before the start of the 5th grade, and I’ve lost track of how many I have collected since. My extraordinary niece told her friends I have over 3,000, but I beg to differ. To see him play such a pivotal part in “Winnie the Pooh” was a huge delight for me after seeing him get reduced to a mere supporting role in “Pooh’s Heffalump Movie.”

Oh yeah, I should talk about the rest of the film as well. That “silly old bear” once again headlines the proceedings as his grumbling tummy develops a mind of its own due to his endless addiction to honey. Sure enough, there are beehives nearby with a wealth of honey, but the bees are understandably protective of their export. Then there’s the case of Eeyore’s missing tail that has everyone giving him another which, to put it mildly, doesn’t exactly compare to the original. To cap it all off, this classic gang mistakenly believes Christopher Robin has been kidnapped by an evil monster known as the Backson (see the movie and you’ll understand).

For some reason, watching Pooh hurriedly pursuing the delicious and sticky substance known as honey kept reminding me of Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” with its characters becoming increasingly desperate for whatever their minds craved more than their bodies, but that’s just me. I somehow doubt the animators at Walt Disney had any intention of making a G-rated movie to remind you of one of the most seriously disturbing films ever made.

“Winnie the Pooh” brings the 100 Acre Wood back to the traditional realm of hand drawn animation which is something of a rarity these days. While the characters might have looked fantastic with computer animation a la Pixar, doing things the old-fashioned way was the right choice. The “Winnie the Pooh” films and shorts have been long since relegated to the Disney channel and direct to DVD realm, and this brought about a drop in quality its most devoted films could not ignore. But seeing Pooh and company on the big screen is a terrific reminder of why we grew up loving these characters in the first place.

Jim Cummings once again provides the voice for Pooh and Tigger, and he captures the distinctive voices of each character perfectly. Travis Oates gets the innocent stuttering of Piglet down to perfection, and Craig Ferguson makes Owl as jolly as he is oblivious to his own pomposity. Rabbit, on the other hand, has always been the most anal of A.A. Milne’s characters, so I thank Tom Kenny for making him more likable and bearable than he typically is. As for Christopher Robin, Jack Boulter gives him a strong British accent even if he still sounds like a girl at times, much like the actor who voiced him in “Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore.”

Now back to the good part! Eeyore has been a great source of dry humor, and his brand of it is fully on display here. Watching him try on the tails others have given him should at the very least put a smile on your face even if it doesn’t on Eeyore’s. One of the movie’s most hilarious moments comes when Tigger trains him to be the second Tigger, leading to a montage I would love to say, but can’t quite get myself to believe, would put the one in “Rocky” to shame. Bud Luckey, who delighted us all with his great animated shorts on ” Sesame Street,” memorably voices Eeyore with all his gloominess and reduced expectations in life.

One great addition to this particular version of “Winnie the Pooh” is Zooey Deschanel. While she doesn’t appear in this movie, she does sing many of its songs including the classic opening track which introduces Christopher Robin’s friends. Her voice is lovely and it also has a whimsical quality which makes her contributions to this soundtrack all the more wonderful. While the songs by Robert and Kristin Anderson-Lopez aren’t as memorable as anything we have heard in “Beauty and the Beast” or “South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut,” they fit the material nicely without indulging in any cringe-inducing cheesiness.

By bringing Pooh and his friends back to basics, “Winnie the Pooh” really proves to be a wonderfully innocent and nostalgic stroll back to the stories our parents read to us at one time or another. It’s the perfect family movie to see this summer even over the more popular, and unfairly maligned, “Cars 2.” Not once does it boil things down to the lowest common denominator for any audience prepared to pay tickets to see it, and it is a rare piece of cinematic innocence in a world filled with loud explosions and seriously crappy 3D effects. While it is a mere 69 minutes long, there is more story to this than its running time suggests. For proof of this, be sure to sit through the end credits.

Now let’s get Eeyore’s name in the title of the next A.A. Milne cinematic extravaganza! Tigger and Piglet both had enough charisma to get a headliner’s status above Winnie the Pooh, so you can’t convince me Eeyore does not deserve the same respect. It’s not like Owl, Kanga or Roo could upstage him anyway. And regardless of what Tina Fey and Seth Meyers said on “Saturday Night Live,” Eeyore did not commit suicide. As to whether auto-erotic asphyxiation was involved, I have no comment.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ Provides Marvel Fans with a Much-Needed Lightweight Adventure

Ant Man and the Wasp movie poster

After the one-two punch of “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” I figured the masterminds behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe would give themselves a break for the rest of 2018. Even “Deadpool 2,” which features a Marvel Comics character  not a part of the MCU (not yet anyway), showed how dominant these comic book/superhero movies are no matter which studio puts them out. Surely, Marvel Studios and Disney would want to keep themselves from oversaturating the market, right?

Well, now we have “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” a sequel which proves to be one of the MCU’s more lightweight adventures. Whereas “Avengers: Infinity War” was the “Empire Strikes Back” of this infinitely popular franchise, this one has a simple aim which is to entertain you and leave you laughing hysterically. It could not have come at a better time as us movie buffs are still recovering from the damage Thanos wrought on our heroes, and this one is removed from his wrath as it is keen to pick up things following the events of “Captain America: Civil War.”

After helping out Captain America to where he violated the Sokovia Accords, Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) has been placed under house arrest, and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) have cut ties with him and gone into hiding. With only the occasional visit from his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) to keep to keep him company, his days are marked by loneliness and desperate attempts to keep himself entertained with various activities like drumming, karaoke and business meetings with his former cellmate and business partner Luis (Michael Pena).

As with any superhero movie, these characters have to deal with mommy and daddy issues because heaven forbid any superhero experiences a trauma-free childhood. It turns out Hope’s mother, Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) had partnered with Hank’s Ant-Man as the Wasp in the past, and she was later presumed dead after becoming trapped in the microscopic quantum realm after disabling a nuclear missile. Scott, however, receives a message from Janet who is still alive and, like Kevin Flynn in “Tron: Legacy” has long since been imprisoned in a realm which offers no easy escape. This forces him to team up with Hank and Hope, who is now the new Wasp, in an effort to rescue her, and it comes with the usual obstacles of bad guys and inescapable scientific facts.

The first thing I have to say about “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is how much I enjoyed the opening which has Scott going on a make-believe adventure with Cassie in his house as they have constructed a simple yet imaginative maze which they travel through with great enthusiasm. This scene reminded me of the wonderful imaginary worlds we created for ourselves as children, and it gets this sequel off to a terrific start as the filmmakers look to indulge in the same childlike imagination which they thankfully never outgrew.

The second thing worth pointing out is how this sequel is the first in the MCU to feature a female superhero in the movie’s title. While the DC Extended Universe can only catch up with the MCU in terms of quality and box office success, they are certainly ahead in terms of battling superhero sexism thanks to the brilliant “Wonder Woman.” It is only now Marvel is getting up to speed with the Wasp, and this is long overdue. It also helps how the Wasp is inhabited a pair of terrific actresses, Evangeline Lilly and Michelle Pfeiffer. Both provide this film with strong heroic characters who overcome their internal and external conflicts to make the world a better place for everyone including immigrants, legal and illegal.

Paul Rudd is one of the most likable dudes in the public eye right now, so it is hard to think of another actor who could inhabit Scott Lang to where we are more than willing to forgive his criminal trespasses. His wonderful sense of humor infects every scene to where he sneaks in jokes we do not see coming. Rudd also has a terrific moment where Scott’s body is inhabited by another, and it is almost as inspired as when Lilly Tomlin invaded Steve Martin’s body in “All of Me.” More power to you Mr. Rudd.

However, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is almost stolen from Rudd by Michael Pena who returns as Luis. After suffering through the cinematic misfire which was “CHiPS,” Pena gets to use his comedic talents to much better effect here as he speeds through his dialogue with crazy energy while his character gets to experience what it is like to be a superhero with great glee. He is a riot here as he is forced to confess to a wide series of events under duress, and seeing him paint a vivid, if not entirely accurate account, of things past, provides this sequel with fantastic moments.

This time, Ant-Man and his companions have not one, but two antagonists to deal with. One is Ava Starr, a.k.a. Ghost, who has the power to phase through objects which was the result of being afflicted with molecular instability. Ava is played by Hannah John-Kamen who creates a complex portrait of a person whose affliction was not of her own doing, and as someone who acts out of desperation as her life, which has been filled with more pain than pleasure, looks to be cut short. While her goals conflict with those of Ant-Man and the Wasp, Kamen makes us see how Ava can be devilish as well as a victim of circumstances, and she gives a very strong performance as a result.

The other antagonist is Sonny Burch, a black market criminal eager to exploit Hank Pym’s technology for his own benefit. Sonny is played with great relish by Walton Goggins who has shown a flair for delivering dialogue with a special panache in Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” and “Inglorious Basterds.” Goggins brings this same flair to “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” and it is fascinating to watch his portrayal throughout. Even as Sonny fumbles about in his attempts to steal what does not belong to him, I could not take my eyes off of Goggins as he makes this villain into more than what he must have seemed like on paper.

Peyton Reed, who directed “Ant-Man,” returns to the director’s chair for this sequel, and I got the feeling he had a little more fun here. No long burdened by having to portray this superhero’s origin story or the inescapable question of how the first movie would have turned out had Edgar Wright not walked away from it, Reed gets to indulge his inner child with “Ant-Man and the Wasp” to where this sequel could almost pass for a children’s movie. Having said that, there is plenty for adults to enjoy as we watch these characters battle the bad guys and change the size of things and themselves to an amazing degree. Are there lapses in logic? Sure, but who cares?

Many in Hollywood like to talk about counterprogramming as studios are always carefully looking at when they can release the smaller indie movies in the wake of all these big budget blockbusters. In a sense, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is Marvel’s way of counterprogramming against itself as it positions this sequel as an easy going alternative to “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Black Panther.” Whereas those two were among the biggest films in the MCU, this one is more like a nice rest stop where we can enjoy ourselves for a few hours and not worry too much about the other Avengers whose fates have yet to be permanently sealed. Some may consider this a disposable Marvel movie, but after ten years, it is clear how none of them can be the least bit disposable.

And yes, there are a couple of post-credit scenes, and if you are curious to see where this Marvel movie takes place in comparison to “Avengers: Infinity War,” one will answer this question in a way which will leave you with a great deal of anxiety. This anxiety ends up increasing with the movie’s coda which adds a question mark to the proceedings in the same way “Flash Gordon” did back in 1980. Yes, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is designed to be a fun time at the multiplex, but it is in no position to leave any of these Avengers off the hook.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

‘Ratatouille’ Awakens Your Taste Buds Like Few Movies Can

Ratatouille movie poster

Ratatouille” was written and directed by Brad Bird who also directed another Pixar movie, “The Incredibles,” which was one of the few movies made which actually lived up to its name. With this “Ratatouille,” we follow the story of Remy, a rat who ends up getting separated from his family and is washed away to where he ends up in Paris. The moment where he arrives and sees Paris is a truly brilliant scene of amazing imagery, and Pixar continues to outdo themselves in terms of this. The look of Paris is astonishing, and it had me wondering how the hell they managed to put this together. The wonder of movies still exists after all these years of cynical blockbusters, and I am ever so thankful for that!

Anyway, Remy ends up sneaking into a restaurant named after a famous cook, Auguste Gusteau (voiced by Brad Garrett), who has written a book entitled “Anybody Can Cook.” From there, he befriends a new employee named Linguini (voiced by Lou Ramano) who cannot cook to save his life. Through Linguini, Remy creates a system where he can make him cook the way he wants by pulling at his hair like he is a marionette while remaining hidden inside his hat.

Along the way, he infuriates the head chef of the restaurant who is busy selling off Gusteau’s name and likeness through frozen burritos which offers him the promise of becoming very wealthy. Linguini also meets Colette, the only female chef in the restaurant who makes it clear she is here to stay. All the other rats help Remy in a way which, if the restaurant patrons realized, would have had them running out of there at a relentless pace.

“Ratatouille” is filled with wonderful vocal characterizations which did not immediately have me thinking about the people who did them. At the time this movie was release, I was not familiar with either Patton Oswalt or Lou Romano who voiced Remy and Linguini. Both are very memorable characters who stand out among many others in animated movies. Remy himself is a genius creation who just might make you think twice about rat traps and poison. I am very tempted to go out right now and get a stuffed animal version of the character, and this is in large part thanks to Oswalt’s very enthusiastic performance.

For a while, I thought that Remy’s father Django was voiced by Jason Alexander. However, it turns out Brian Dennehy voiced this character, and he is wonderful in giving Django different layers and realizations to work with. The biggest surprise for me though was learning who voiced Colette Tatou, the restaurant’s only female chef – Janeane Garofalo. I didn’t even recognize Garofalo’s voice and thought it was Elizabeth Pena doing it with a very realistic French accent! Collette does look a bit like the character Pena voiced in “The Incredibles.” All the same, Garofalo does terrific work here, and it is so nice to see her doing something other than joking about her period.

The one voice I did recognize was Peter O’Toole’s who plays perhaps the harshest restaurant critic ever to walk the face of the earth, Anton Ego (a very symbolic name actually). His character becomes quite pivotal to the movie’s climax as the restaurant is forced to come up with a spectacular dish which will keep Mr. Ego from savaging the restaurant and its staff in a review.

Pixar continues their winning streak of great movies. Even if you were disappointed by “Cars” which really wasn’t bad, it was proof how even their weakest movies put so many other Hollywood movies to shame. They are to me what the Jim Henson’s Muppets were to me when I was a kid, creators of projects which appealed simultaneously to children and adults.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Tomorrowland’ is Imaginative, But it Also Feels Incomplete

Tomorrowland movie poster

Tomorrowland” is to Brad Bird as “Interstellar” was to Christopher Nolan, an opportunity for a well-regarded filmmaker to wear their heart on their sleeve and give us a motion picture which aims to inspire and lift us up from the cynical worldview we have grown accustomed to for far too long. But whereas Nolan found success with “Interstellar,” Bird comes up short with “Tomorrowland” as his love letter to all the dreamers out there becomes undone by a thin plot lacking in narrative drive.

Britt Robertson stars as Casey Newton, a highly optimistic and tech savvy teenager who lives in Cape Canaveral, Florida and gets into trouble while trying to save a launch pad from being demolished. In the process, she comes into contact with a “T” pin which takes her to a futuristic place where imagination is infinite and possibilities for a better world are endless. When the pin suddenly loses the power to take her to that place, she seeks out Frank Walker (George Clooney), an inventor who showed a lot of promise while living in Tomorrowland but was later banished from there when his work started to frighten people off. Together, they find their way back to this wondrous place and work to save it before it is forever destroyed.

Now I love how Bird has made a movie which encourages all the dreamers out there to keep on dreaming. Despite how dark the world can seem at times, his encouragement to those who want to use their imagination to make it a better place is commendable. Many will snicker at this optimism, but their snickering will end up saying more about them than it will Bird.

Having said that, “Tomorrowland” isn’t entirely sure of what it wants to say or how to say it, and it takes forever for the movie to get to where it needs to go. By the time we do make it back to the futuristic place, the movie has devolved into a typical good versus evil plot which robs it of any uniqueness it could ever hope to have. In this kind of movie, we know good will triumph over evil, so the stakes never feel very high as a result.

It’s a real shame because Bird gets things off to a fantastic start with the movie’s prologue which introduces us to Frank Waller when he was a young boy who gets invited into the magical world of Tomorrowland, and our imaginations are quickly aroused by what we see. Watching Frank discover a place that exceeded his wildest dreams had me thinking about when I was a child and where my imagination often took me, and it was a time where anything seemed possible. Now while we find ourselves trading fantasy for reality as we get older, I like to think I have not lost any childlike innocence after all these years and watching this part of “Tomorrowland” made me realize I have not.

But after the prologue is over, “Tomorrowland quickly becomes a film unsure of what tone it wants to set, and it devolves into a typical story of an optimistic teenager trying to get a broken-down adult to reignite their potential before everything goes to hell. Furthermore, we are introduced to a number of evil robots who aim to take Casey out with extreme prejudice, but it feels like they belong in a different movie. In the process of trying to balance out the darker elements with the lighter ones, “Tomorrowland” becomes a total mess.

I felt sorry for Clooney as he is forced to play a character who has long since become embittered about the sour lemons life has handed him. As a result, he gives one of his weakest performances to date as he is forced to take Frank Walker from a state of disbelief to one of true belief in a very unbelievable way. Clooney remains one of the most dependable actors working in movies, and if he can’t make a character like this work on the big screen then no one can.

“Tomorrowland” also has a scene with Clooney and other actors travelling to another dimension in a rocket, and this is bound to bring back bad memories “Batman & Robin” which had the Oscar-winning actor in a similar situation. I guess some bad movie memories can never be permanently erased.

Robertson makes for an appealing heroine as Casey, and she is one of the reasons why “Tomorrowland” works to a certain extent. Even as the movie suffers through its various flaws, she keeps us engaged as we root for her character to triumph over those who are far too quick to crush the wonder she has about life. Without her, this movie could have been worse.

When we do get to the end of “Tomorrowland,” the whole venture ends up feeling incomplete as the writers appear to be uncertain as to how to tie everything up. You could say the ending gives hope to all the dreamers out there, but it frustrates more than anything else as “Tomorrowland” feels like it ended sooner than it should have. Judging from this movie’s opening box office weekend, the odds of it getting a sequel are pretty bad.

It really sucks to give a movie like this a bad review. “Tomorrowland” has its heart in the right place and has some wonderful images, but its story seems stuck in stasis and lacks the imagination to really inspire us. Bird remains a gifted filmmaker and has directed a number of highly entertaining movies like “The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” and “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.” “Tomorrowland” marks his first directorial misfire, but I have no doubt he will be back on top before we know it. It’s just a shame he made a movie about wide-eyed optimism which was constructed in a half-hearted way.

I would also like to add this movie’s commercial failure made Disney cancel a third “Tron” movie. Blasphemy!

* * out of * * * *

‘The Avengers’ Was Well Worth The Wait

The Avengers movie poster

So now we finally have “The Avengers,” a movie which has been hinted at over the past few years in “Iron Man,” “Iron Man 2,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has made cameo appearances here and there to remind these superheroes there is this way they can all come and work together, and for a bit it seemed too good to be true. But low and behold, Joss Whedon has given us a summer blockbuster which was worth the wait and focuses on character as much as it does on spectacle.

“The Avengers” starts off with S.H.I.E.L.D. experimenting on a powerful energy source known as the Tesseract when Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s brother and nemesis, appears out of nowhere and steals it. His plan is to use it to subjugate Earth and its inhabitants because he feels they wanted to be lorded over more than they realize. From there it’s up to these various superheroes to join forces and defeat Loki and his army before it’s too late.

This movie does take its sweet time getting started, and it almost seems unnecessary considering how well acquainted we have become with all these superheroes through their individual movies. Still, meeting up with them again feels good as we are curious to see what they have been up to since their last set of adventures. Captain America/Steve Rogers is still trying to acclimate to present day life after being frozen for decades, Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk spends his time in a foreign country helping its people while trying to control his anger, and Tony Stark/Iron Man is busy completing a new skyscraper along with the love of his life, Pepper Potts. Others make their entrance at unexpected times and play more of a role here than they did in previous movies.

What makes “The Avengers” work so well is that Whedon never lets the iconography of these characters speak for them more than the actors do. While these few have amazing superpowers we all dream of having, they are seen as freaks who are not part of society as a whole. Being so alienated from the common man and woman, their relationship with themselves and those around them is dysfunctional to say the least.

Seeing these characters interact with one another gives this film its best moments. While they may have a lot in common, their ideas of protecting humanity differ quite significantly. Captain America is as old fashioned as they come, and his methods and beliefs have the more cynical people snickering behind his back. As for Thor, he’s from another planet which has all those around him wondering what the hell he’s talking about.

And then Tony Stark comes into this ruckus like John Bender in “The Breakfast Club,” gleefully and playfully chiding all those around him (he calls Thor “Point Break”). Robert Downey Jr. inhabits this character like few others could, and he makes Stark a likable character even while he’s being an arrogant bastard much of the time. In many ways, Downey is the most prominent presence among these Avengers even while others in the team are nowhere as selfish as Stark.

The actors in “The Avengers” confirm what we already knew in the past, that they were exceptionally well cast. Each one brings a depth of humanity to their characters in a way that keeps them from becoming mere caricatures of what we grew up reading about. Special kudos goes out to Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth who make their roles as Captain America and Thor count for all they are worth. What could have been made inadvertently laughable has been rendered largely charismatic by these two thespians, and we cheer them on as they fight the good fight against Loki and his army.

It’s also nice to see Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner get more screen time here as Black Widow and Hawkeye than they did in previous films. Renner had one of those blink and you missed it cameos in “Thor” while Johansson’s role in “Iron Man 2” was in a movie which had more characters than it had any right to deal with. In “The Avengers,” the two of them are given more room to grow, and each invests their character with real emotions which makes us root for them throughout.

But the one actor who stands out above everyone else in “The Avengers” (literally and figuratively speaking) is Mark Ruffalo who is the latest actor to portray Dr. Bruce Banner, better known by his alter ego of the Hulk. Marvel has had the hardest time translating this particular comic book character to the big screen despite memorable performances from Eric Bana and Edward Norton. But like those two actors, Ruffalo finds his own interpretation of this famous character, and he succeeds in making this role his own. Unlike the moody Bruce Banners of the past, Ruffalo gives us one who yearns to fit in with everyone else regardless of the angry state he gets in from time to time. In the process, Ruffalo gives us a Hulk worth cheering for as he dominates each action scene he’s in thanks in part to vocal help from the original Hulk, Lou Ferrigno. As a result, I see a future for the actor as this character in a way I couldn’t before. Seeing him slam Loki all over the place as if he were a wet rag had the audience clapping loudly.

Are there plot holes and inconsistencies to be found in “The Avengers?” Probably, but with a movie like this you don’t really find yourself thinking too much about that. What sucks for Thor is he never gets to meet up with his earthbound love Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) who is sent off to some remote place where she’ll be safe. When “Thor” ended, the portal between his world and Earth was forever destroyed it seem. It’s never made clear how it somehow got fixed to where Thor could travel back, but anyway. You’d figure he would at least spend some time with Dr. Foster, but some superheroes can only be so lucky I guess. At least you can give Thor some credit for looking her up. Dr. Banner never looks up his old girlfriend who was been played in past movies by Jennifer Connelly and Liv Tyler. What gives Hulk? You smash things but did you also smash what’s left of your emotional connections? Oh well…

The big problem with big budget blockbusters like “The Avengers” is they can easily get overwhelmed by the special effects to where the human element is completely lost. But none of this is ever lost on Whedon who has given us such great entertainment over the years with “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly” and “Cabin in The Woods” which he co-wrote. Here he gives a satisfying blockbuster which works on us emotionally as much as it thrills us. This could have easily been a major disappointment, and the fact it is not makes the film a huge success.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2012 not long after “The Avengers” was released.

‘Inside Out’ is One of Pixar’s Best Films

Inside Out

Inside Out” is far and away one of the very best movies Pixar has ever made. A story of a girl experiencing conflicting emotions and an ever-growing shyness after she moves with her family from Minnesota to San Francisco, it is bound to have you experiencing a wealth of emotions such as happiness and sadness. Honestly, these animated characters feel more human and real than others you find in the typical Hollywood blockbuster. If you say you came out of this movie unmoved, you are nothing but a flat-out liar. Yes, “Inside Out” is that good.

We are introduced to Riley right out of the womb as she is born to very loving parents. At the same time, we are also introduced to the emotions which occupy her mind: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). All of them take their turns at the controls of Riley’s mind, but Joy has the most influence as she is determined to keep Riley as happy no matter what. In the end, who wants to be unhappy, you know?

But then things change dramatically for Riley when her family moves from one side of America to the other and to a place which ruins pizza (watch the movie and you’ll see what I mean). While she tries to put on a brave face as the new girl in town, she finds her heart quickly breaking as she misses her old life and friends. This leads to her having an embarrassing moment in class and a hard time making friends and, as a result, Joy feels increasingly threatened as the more negative emotions begin to have increased influence over this pre-teen girl who has yet to discover the horrors of turning 13. Yes, this movie takes place before she hits puberty. Imagine what the sequel will be like!

“Inside Out” affected me deeply as I completed related to what Riley went through. When I was her age, my family moved me and from a town I felt very settled in to one which made me feel like an alien from another world. Being the new kid was no fun at all, and Riley’s emotional state should be completely understandable to those who have been through the exact same situation. In some ways she is lucky because she lives in the age of social media where she can talk with her friends via computer or Skype. I would have loved to have had this when I was her age.

This movie was directed by Pete Docter who helmed two of my favorite Pixar movies, “Monsters Inc.” and “Up,” and it was influenced by two things in his life; when his family moved to Denmark where he had trouble adapting to his new surroundings, and of the shyness his daughter began experiencing as she got older. For an animated movie, the characters like Riley and her parents feel wonderfully complex in a way you don’t necessarily expect. This isn’t the first Pixar movie to give us characters like these, but it is worth noting here.

I also liked how Riley is not portrayed as your stereotypical pre-teen girl. She is big into hockey in a way girls are more than we ever bother to realize, and she doesn’t obsess over the usual things we have been conditioned to believe girls obsess over like dresses and potential boyfriends. Docter has us see her as being like any other individual to where her gender is more or less beside the point. The feelings Riley experiences are universal, and they will quickly remind audience members of the ones they experienced when they were her tender age.

Now while I may be making “Inside Out” sound like an animated remake of “Pump up the Volume,” I assure you it is also very, very funny. This is in large part thanks to the cast which was perfectly chosen. Amy Poehler has always been one of my favorite “Saturday Night Live” stars, and it’s hard to think of another actress who could have voiced Joy better than she does. Her gleeful and spirited banter infects the character fully, and she also humanizes Joy to where she realizes why Riley can’t be happy all the time.

Phyllis Smith turns Sadness into a wonderfully funny character regardless of her infinitely depressed disposition. Bill Hader is absolutely priceless as Fear, Mindy Kaling makes Disgust more fun than she has any right to be, and who else could have done a better voicing Anger than the combustible comedian who is Lewis Black? Black steals every scene he has here as Anger, understandably, has difficulty keeping his cool. And let’s not forget Kyle MacLachlan and Diane Lane who voice Riley’s father and mother and make them into the most loving parents Riley could ever hope to have.

As “Inside Out” probes the memory banks and emotional centers of young Riley’s mind, it proves to be absolutely boundless in its imagination and visual effects. I keep waiting to see what surprises Docter had in store for us as we keep getting introduced to new characters like Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind is fabulous) and other memory centers which are presented to us as if they were giant theme parks.

The filmmakers clearly did a lot of research on the human mind. This leads to many unforgettable moments like when certain parts of Riley’s mind such as Imagination Land crumbles and falls into the Memory Dump where memories are forever forgotten. On one hand it is an amazing piece of animation, but on the other it is a reminder of the things we lose in our lives as we get older. We may want to get some of these things back, but a lot of times we cannot.

But perhaps the most important thing we can get out of watching “Inside Out” is not the fact we can’t be happy all the time, but that Joy and Sadness need to coexist with one another. You can’t have pleasure without having pain, and this is made abundantly clear in one of the movie’s closing scenes which is beautiful and will have at least one tear trickling down your cheek.

Many have said Pixar has lost its footing in the past few years with an overreliance on sequels, but I have yet to see a movie of theirs which I have not liked. “Inside Out,” however, reminds you of how amazing they can be when they focus on giving you a great story more than anything else. It’s a movie for anybody and everybody, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ Defies Easy Expectations

Star Wars The Last Jedi movie poster

With “Star Wars” movies now becoming a yearly tradition, I wonder if they will begin to feel less like an event and resemble a typical episode of the “Law & Order” franchise. You know a version of the show is always on television in one form or another, but are you as excited to watch an episode as you were when you first discovered it? Perhaps this is an unfair comparison, but considering where Disney is taking this franchise, it is beginning to feel like it no longer takes place in a galaxy all that far away.

I bring this up because I couldn’t stop thinking about this during the opening crawl of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Each new “Star Wars” motion picture feels like a major event to where it should be declared a national holiday, but since it’s becoming a regular thing now since Disney bought Lucasfilm, will the franchise still feel this special with each future installment? Well, hopefully this remains the case as “The Last Jedi” proves to be a rousing piece of entertainment which stays true to the franchise’s ideals, and it even has a number of surprises up its sleeve to where I eagerly await the next episode set to come out in 2019.

While each “Star Wars” film typically takes place several years after the last one, “The Last Jedi” begins where “The Force Awakens” concluded. Rey (Daisy Ridley) comes to meet the legendary Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who has long since exiled himself on the planet Ahch-To (gesundheit), a much nicer destination than Dagobah. Meanwhile, the Resistance finds itself feeling the First Order after the latter obliterates their main base. From there, the rebels are on the run, but they can only get so far before they realize the First Order has tracked their whereabouts and to where they are trapped with little hope of escape. It is up to the daring and dashing Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) to save the day with the help of friends both old and new.

Revealing more about a “Star Wars” film just as it is released tends to result in actions which will prove to be infinitely painful to say the least, so this will be a spoiler-free review. What I can tell you is while this episode deals with the subjects of hope and the need to discover more than what can be found on the surface, the key subject writer and director Rian Johnson deals with here is failure. All the characters are dealing with failure in one way or another, and it comes to haunt every action they take. The characters we grew up with are dealing with failings they cannot escape, and the ones we were introduced to in “The Force Awakens” are now discovering the irreversible consequences of their actions.

Johnson previously wrote and directed “The Brothers Bloom” and “Brick,” but his best known film before helming “The Last Jedi” was “Looper,” a sci-fi time travel motion picture which was ingenious as it was thrilling. Having seen it, I went into this “Star Wars” extravaganza with the confidence he could pull it off, and he did. Even though “The Last Jedi” threatens to overstay its welcome at two hours and 32 minutes, making it the longest “Star Wars” movie to date, you cannot punish Johnson for his ambition as he covers a lot of ground while leaving us salivating for more.

When it came to the prequels, you had to forgive the actors because they were being directed by a man, George Lucas, who is a master storyteller but deeply deficient when it came to dealing with the human element. But Johnson, like J.J. Abrams before him, knows how to elicit strong performances from his cast, and each actor is more than up to the challenge.

Watching Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher was deeply fascinating as their adventures in the original “Star Wars” trilogy remain forever burned into my consciousness, and it still feels like I first watched those movies just yesterday. Their youthful exuberance in fighting the dark side was contagious as I wanted to fight alongside them, and I know I’m not the only who feels this way. When we catch up with their characters of Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa in “The Last Jedi,” the years of endless battles and devastating defeats show in their faces as we wonder how much of a fight they have left in them considering what they have been through. While they are heroes, both have grown weary in the face of an enemy which is every bit as imposing as the Galactic Empire, and their confidence in their abilities is shakier than ever before.

It’s especially poignant to watch Fisher here as this was her last movie before she passed away, and knowing this will be the final time we will see her as Leia is a real heartbreaker. Even as Leia’s accent changes yet again, Fisher imbues the former princess with a dignity and humility which will not be easily shattered in the face of defeat. Even as the odds get worse for the Resistance, Fisher makes Leia stand tall, and she makes clear to the audience that this sci-fi icon will not go down without a fight.

After watching Hamill’s brief appearance in “The Force Awakens,” I came into this film wondering where he would take the great Luke Skywalker. Well, he’s no Yoda here as a devastating failure has led him to believe the Jedi should end and has robbed almost completely robbed him of his sense of humor. Whether or not this is the Luke Skywalker you hoped to see in “The Last Jedi,” Hamill dares to take this character in another direction, but despite defying expectations, the actor makes Luke the powerful Jedi we always wanted him to be.

It’s also great to see “The Force Awakens” veterans Oscar Isaac and John Boyega back as Poe Dameron and Finn as their charismatic energy lends itself nicely to the special effects extravaganza which could have, but does not, overwhelm their talents. Watching Isaac here also serves as a reminder that covering him in pounds of makeup like Bryan Singer did in “X-Men: Apocalypse” is completely unnecessary and just takes away from him. Domhnall Gleeson still makes General Hux into more of a twisted tightwad than we previously saw, and Andy Serkis mesmerizes as Supreme Leader Snoke while continuing to shroud the character in mystery.

Among the newcomers to this franchise are Laura Dern as Resistance Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, Benicio Del Toro as the codebreaker DJ, and Kelly Marie Tran comes into play as Rose Tico, a maintenance worker who becomes a key player in the Resistance. While it is great to see Dern and Del Toro here, let alone in any other movie they appear in, their characters are a bit underwritten to where their talents can only go so far with the material given to them. Tran, however, makes Rose Tico into a terrific character I am very eager to see in the next “Star Wars” episode. As for the Porgs, they are delightful little creatures who do not overstay their welcome, and they serve as a reason why Chewbacca might consider becoming a vegetarian in the future.

But the performances which really held my attention more than any others came from Daisy Ridley as Rey and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. Both bring a raw intensity to their characters which left me on edge as their passions could lead them either in the right direction, or instead down a road which offers no hope of return. The connection Rey and Kylo share throughout “The Last Jedi” is one which grows stronger in each scene, and it makes me wonder if they could possibly survive without one another in Episode IX. Both actors bring a natural energy which Natalie Portman should have been allowed to bring in the prequels, and they remain as compelling as ever.

Many complained “The Force Awakens” hewed too closely to the plot of “A New Hope” to where it became an exercise in nostalgia more than anything else. So it’s only natural filmgoers are coming to “The Last Jedi” expecting something close to “The Empire Strikes Back.” However, Johnson and company have succeeded in giving us a “Star Wars” episode which surprises us more often than not. While many may be sitting in a movie theater crying out, “I knew that was going to happen,” I think they need to realize not everything is going to go the way they expect. It reminded me of the next to last episode of “The Sopranos’” second season as it left me in shock and wondering what could possibly happen next. While we feel we know and understand the formula of the average “Star Wars” movie, this one upends it to where we can only guess what will happen in the future.

“The Last Jedi” also shows us there is more to failure than we see at first, and this is an important lesson to take in as we often let failure keep us from moving forward in life. It also shows us how hope can be tested more than ever before to where we grasp onto any last piece of it. In “The Shawshank Redemption,” Morgan Freeman talked about how “hope is a dangerous thing” and that “hope can drive a man insane,” but our heroic characters still cling onto hope as nothing else will do, and surrender is not even a part of the equation.

While the continuing onslaught of “Star Wars” movies threatens to make this franchise feel a lot less special, none of my worries detracted from my enjoyment of “The Last Jedi.” It proves to be as entertaining as any other “Star Wars” movie currently out there in circulation, and yes, I include the prequels. This film also makes me look forward to Rian Johnson’s continued contributions to the franchise which look to be many, and I eagerly await the next episode as I am not sure what to expect from it. I just hope I don’t go into a future “Star Wars” movie saying to myself, “I got a bad feeling about this.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *