Movie Review: “Sing”

Starring
Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Seth MacFarlane, Taron Egerton, Tori Kelly, Nick Kroll, John C. Reilly
Director
Garth Jennings

Illumination Entertainment prints money. Their three most recent films (“Despicable Me 2,” “Minions” and “The Secret Life of Pets”) have raked in just under $3 billion combined, with an average budget per film of $75 million (which is roughly half what Disney and Pixar spend on their films). As business models go, it’s hard to come up with a better one. On the other hand, those Illumination films range in quality from aggressively mediocre to downright bad, and in 10 years, they’ll all be forgotten. If Pixar films are a blue chip stock, Illumination films are day trader profits; it’s all about the now, hence the emphasis on merchandising over story.

“Sing” appeared to be aiming (slightly) higher than its most recent predecessors in terms of quality, but it falls victim to the same trappings as the others, namely a script that feels as though it wasn’t touched by human hands until the third act. The first hour is a laundry list of overused tropes, including a few that are so outdated that their presence here beggars belief.

Koala bear Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) is a theater owner in desperate need of a hit. He decides that his newest show will be a singing competition, and when the grand prize amount is moved two decimal points to the right thanks to a series of events both gross and absurd, Buster is surprised to see that he has a bevy of talent to choose from at auditions (but doesn’t yet know why). The ones to make the final cut are classically trained mouse Mike (Seth MacFarlane), hausfrau pig Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), German pig Gunter (Nick Kroll), sensitive gorilla Johnny (Taron Egerton) and teen punk porcupine Ash (Scarlett Johansson. Yes, Scarlett Johannson plays a teenager). Meena (Tori Kelly), an elephant with pipes for days, went to audition but is terrified of performing in front of an audience and is bullied off stage by Mike. She goes to audition a second time, and Buster asks her to be his stage hand without ever hearing her sing. This turns out to be a very good thing for all concerned, for obvious reasons.

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Movie Review: “Captain America: Civil War”

Starring
Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Chadwick Boseman, Daniel Brühl, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Don Cheadle, Emily VanCamp
Directors
Anthony & Joe Russo

By all rights, Captain America should be the lamest, worst Avenger. He came of age decades before the topic of segregation was even entertained. Rock & roll hadn’t been invented yet. If Steve Rogers is a real person, he’s likely a racist crank, yelling at the other Avengers to get off his lawn.

Thankfully, the Cap in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is none of those things. Steve Rogers is an open-minded skeptic, for whom Japanese internment camps are still a recent event. (It is not a coincidence that the word ‘internment’ is used in a crucial scene here.) He is mistrustful of the government — and who can blame him, after the events of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” – and therefore loath to see the country he loves overstep its bounds a second time. This makes him a perfect foil for Iron Man/Tony Stark, a man whose genius is eclipsed only by his ego, and for whom reparations and accountability make sense, as long as everyone else pitches in to help him pay his bar tab.

This is the crux of “Captain America: Civil War.” The plot is more streamlined than the ’70s-era, conspiracy-minded “Winter Soldier,” but there are still some unsettling themes at play here, chief among them the concepts of freedom and safety, and the fear of compromising one for the other. The comics on which this film is based were written 10 years ago, presumably to point a finger at the George W. Bush administration for overreaching in terms of surveillance. Sadly, they’re even more prescient now.

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Movie Review: “The Jungle Book”

Starring
Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken
Director
Jon Favreau

There was much ado when Disney announced that they were going to make live-action versions of some of their most beloved animated films, but so far, the results are far better than what the naysayers were predicting. “Cinderella” was a lovely, if safe, first step, and while “The Jungle Book” doesn’t quite hit the same highs that “Cinderella” does, it’s packed with thrills, and it has the courage to go about the material in its own way. It should be noted, though, that this ‘own way’ may scare the hell out of young children.

Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a “man-cub” that was found abandoned in an Indian jungle by the panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley). Bagheera asks the wolf pack, who recently had pups, if they will take care of him, and they gladly oblige. Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a man-eating tiger, takes issue with the animals protecting Mowgli, threateningly suggesting that more than just Mowgli may die if they continue to do so. Mowgli doesn’t want harm to come to anyone in his pack, so he agrees to leave. Bagheera walks him to the nearest man village, but Shere Khan interferes, and the two are separated. Mowgli is nearly done in by Kaa the python (Scarlett Johansson), but is saved by a sloth bear named Baloo (Bill Murray). Baloo appreciates Mowgli’s ability to make “machines,” but Shere Khan will not stop until he’s had his man-cub meal. Further complicating matters, Mowgli has attracted the attention of King Louie (Christopher Walken), a giant orangutan who wants Mowgli to teach him how to make fire.

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Movie Review: “Hail, Caesar!”

Starring
Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes
Directors
Joel & Ethan Coen

For the first 20 minutes or so of “Hail, Caesar!,” it feels as though Joel and Ethan Coen are making another “Burn After Reading,” only this time their target is not political thrillers in particular, but ‘50s Hollywood in general. George Clooney’s character’s sword & sandals epic (and the movie’s namesake) is pompous beyond words, and Scarlett Johansson’s pool movie is disturbingly good at pointing out the continuity errors of those films (she’s bone-dry in every shot). Ultimately, though, “Hail, Caesar!” is not about the films at all, and once that becomes clear, the films within the film become a distraction. Amusing distractions, yes, but they’re sometimes hard to watch without thinking of things the movie could be doing instead that would make for a better overall viewing experience.

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a “fixer” for the movie studio Capitol Pictures, where his day-to-day activities include making excuses for the whereabouts of his lothario superstar Baird Whitlock (Clooney), covering up a potential scandal involving his leading lady DeeAnna Morgan (Johansson), playing nice with the press (Tilda Swinton, playing twin reporters at rival publications), and executing the orders of the studio chief (whose last name, no joke, is Skank), no matter how boneheaded they may sound. Eddie soon discovers that Baird isn’t off on a bender, but has in fact been kidnapped, and is being held for $100,000 ransom. This all happens on the same day that Eddie is supposed to make a decision whether to leave Capitol for Lockheed Martin, a job with better hours and much better pay. He has a very short period of time to find a rat in an industry filled with rats.

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Movie Review: “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

Starring
Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany
Director
Joss Whedon

Seconds into the film, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is already overdoing it. It opens with an assault on a Hydra base, and the team is kicking ass, but with the exception of a fantastic shot straight out of “Kung Fu Panda 2,” it’s underwhelming, a more elaborately choreographed and at the same time less thrilling version of the battle sequence at the end of “The Avengers.” The ‘bigger is better’ mentality is to be expected, but what isn’t expected, or appreciated, is the “Transformers”-like fixation it has with breaking stuff (as in entire cities) for no reason, and worse, there are no consequences for doing so. On top of that, writer/director Joss Whedon’s normally snappy dialogue is woefully lacking. Whedon has said that he’s walking away from the Marvel universe after this (Joe and Anthony Russo, who directed “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” are taking the reins on the next two “Avengers” movies), and after seeing “Ultron,” it makes sense; from the looks of things, this movie killed him.

Inside the aforementioned Hydra base is a gold mine of military weapons, both mechanical and human, created by Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann). He’s used Loki’s scepter to give orphaned twins Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, respectively) superhuman powers, namely (and again, respectively) super speed and all sorts of telekinetic abilities. The Avengers do not get any of Hydra’s data, but they do acquire the scepter, and in studying it, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) gets the brilliantly stupid idea to convert the scepter’s alien power source into an artificial intelligence that will work to achieve world peace, an idea he’s had for years but has never been able to perfect. This time, it works, and the new consciousness, which he had nicknamed Ultron (James Spader), has a plan for peace on Earth. Unfortunately, his plan involves the extinction of mankind.

Wanda can get people to see things, namely their worst fears. We see the nightmares of everyone she touches, except for Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who goes on to do the most damage: he terrorizes a large city, the very thing he spent years of his life in exile in order to prevent. Of all the nightmares that the audience absolutely has to see, this is the one. Instead, we get Hulk’s reaction to his visions without context, which culminates in a ridiculous street fight between Hulk and Iron Man that does tens of billions of dollars’ worth of damage (though it admittedly has a good laugh halfway through). Everything about this is wrong, and the opposite of what Whedon normally stands for as a storyteller. Just one line explaining that Stark will pay for everything, or that the Avengers are losing the people’s trust, would do. We get neither.

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