Author Archives: Neil Pond

Down to Clown

Melissa McCarthy Goes Back to School

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Life of the Party
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Molly Gordon, Maya Rudolph & Luke Benward
Directed by Ben Falcone
PG-13

Ah, college.

Even if you don’t remember it fondly, Hollywood does—which is why movies keep returning to it.

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Molly Gordon

Melissa McCarthy goes back to school in Life of the Party as Deanna Miles, a newly divorced mom who’s sorry she never completed her university education. Facing an uncertain future, she enrolls at the same college as her daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon, who appeared on TV’s Animal Kingdom and provides the voice of Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Showtime’s Our Cartoon President).

Deanna’s enthusiastic plunge anew into college life lights the movie’s comedic fuse as the “fresh-mom” charms Maddie’s sorority sisters, meets her new Goth dorm mate (Saturday Night Live’s Heidi Gardner), clashes with mean girls (including former Disney star Debby Ryan) and discovers the limited beverage selection (no woodsy wines!) of noisy frat-house parties.

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Matt Walsh & Julie Bowen

After the bitter sting of divorce from her cad of a husband (Matt Walsh from TV’s Veep)—who left Deanna for a “wife upgrade” to the local realtor (Julie Bowen, the Emmy-winning star of Modern Family)—university life is a fresh start for Deanna in more ways than one. She hooks up with a hot college hunk (Luke Benward, who appeared as Lloy Danderson on the CMT series Still the King), begins “chipping away” at the archeology degree she never finished the first time, and becomes even closer to her daughter and her friends.

As the once buttoned-up Deanna learns to cut loose, she tells Maddie, “I’m down to clown!”

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Luke Benward & Jimmy O. Yang

There’s nothing really groundbreaking in Life of the Party. It’s a fairly conventional comedy, and it draws on themes that will feel a bit familiar to other movies, especially ones that have gone back to college for laughs. Imagine Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School (1986) with a gender twist and boob and vagina jokes. Will Ferrell couldn’t forget his college fraternity days in Old School (2003), and neither can we. There’s also a sly, wink-wink nod to a John Belushi scene from Animal House.

But McCarthy: She’s a force of nature, a humor hurricane. She’s got impeccable comic timing, gonzo enthusiasm and a sense of empathy to balance the hilarity of her characters. Viewers will relate to Deanna on several levels—as a wronged, wounded ex-wife, as a mom, as a woman basking in her second chance at life—and McCarthy finds the right emotional buttons, at just the right moments, to push for them all.

At her best, she creates a core of honesty that digs deeper than the laughter; we chuckle, because she makes us understand. One scene, in particular, when Deanna struggles to overcome her fear of public speaking to give a class presentation, is like watching a mini-disaster unfold; it made me think of the physical gifts of the great Carol Burnett or Lucille Ball.

McCarthy wrote the script with her husband, Ben Falcone, and Life of the Party marks the third McCarthy movie Falcone has directed. (Watch for him in a cameo, early in the film, driving Deana to her mother’s home.) They obviously click.

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Maya Rudolph plays Deanna’s best friend, Christine.

And in this case, they rounded up a great cast of other funny people to round things out. Stephen Root and Jacki Weaver are hoots as Deanna’s parents. There’s Jimmy O. Yang (from TV’s Silicon Valley) as Maddie’s boyfriend. Maya Rudolph is hilarious as Deanna’s best friend, Christine. Maddie’s sorority sisters include Gillian Jacobs (from TV’s Community) as Helen, whose former oddball fame as a the “coma girl” comes in handy; Adria Arjona (she played Dorothy Gale on Emerald City); and Jessie Ennis (from TV’s Better Call Saul). SNL alum Chris Parnell (he plays Dean Parker on TV’s Grown-ish) gets in some pun-ny lines as Deanna’s professor.

And I won’t spoil it, but there’s a big superstar cameo at the end to bring it all home, wrap it up and put a tassel on its message of positive female bonding and empowerment.

This feel-good, back-to-school comedy won’t get many extra credits, but it shows just how dependably, reliably funny Melissa McCarthy continues to be when she’s “down to clown.”

In theaters May 11, 2018

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Stoned

Marvel all-stars scramble in sprawling superhero smorgasbord 

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Avengers: Infinity War
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Josh Brolin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Pratt, Mark Ruffalo & Zoe Saldana

Directed by Anthony Russo & Joe Russo
PG-13

The superhero smorgasbord Avengers: Infinity War brings together pretty much every character, narrative thread and place from most every Marvel movie of the past 10 years.

It’s like a $300 million mega-version of one of those ratings-grabbing TV episodes, when characters from Family Guy showed up on The Simpsons, or Alf washed ashore on Gilligan’s Island, or The Six Million Dollar Man collaborated with The Bionic Woman.

This ambitious all-star game of Marvel movies revolves around the A-team coming together to fight the cosmic baddie Thanos (Josh Brolin), a super-sized, lavender-hued Titan with a plan to re-make the universe—by destroying half of it.

Thanos seeks all six Infinity Stones, magical, immensely powerful objects that, when combined, will give him the ultimate keys to the kingdom. If you’ve been watching Marvel movies over the years, you’ve probably seen an Infinity Stone or two. These far-flung hot rocks have cropped up in other flicks, and now you’ll know why: Whoever gathers all of them has the building blocks to break down creation itself, and put it back together again, any way they choose.

The superheroes know a gravely serious situation when they see it. And though they’ve had their quarrels before (see Captain America: Civil War, also directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo), they set those squabbles aside to scramble for a common cause: Keep those stones out of the hands of the warmongering Thanos.

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Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo and Benedict Wong

The gang’s all here: Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) teams with Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch); high schooler Peter Parker (Tom Holland) busts free of his classmates to swing into action as Spider-Man; scientist Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) worries about Hulk-tile dysfunction when he has some trouble summoning his raging green-guy alter ego.

Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) reunite with Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and War Machine (Don Cheadle) to join the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) in battle on the plains of Wakanda.

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Tom Holland, Downey Jr., Dave Bautista, Chris Pratt and Pom Klementieff

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) ends up in a rocketship with the Guardians of the Galaxy. The presence of the hunky God of Thunder brings out a jealous bone in “Star Lord” Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) when some of his crew—Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket the raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), the now-teenaged tree creature Groot, Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff)—seems to fall under the sway of handsome Asgardian.

Gwyneth Paltrow makes a brief appearance as Pepper Potts, the CEO of Stark Industries and now fiancé of Tony Stark. Peter Dinklage from Game of Thrones has a cameo as a giant dwarf. And there’s Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s trickster brother, and Nebula, Gamora’s cyborg sister (Karen Gillan). Elizabeth Olson is the telekinetic Scarlet Witch, who’s in love with Vision (Paul Bettany), the android Avenger.

There wasn’t enough room, however, to squeeze in Ant-Man (Paul Rudd). But he did get a shout-out (and he’ll get his own sequel in July of next year).

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Josh Brolin provides the voice and motion-capture animation for Thanos.

Even though his performance is CGI and motion-capture, Brolin brings an amazing combination of pathos, terror and gravity to Thanos, a madman with the power to destroy anything—and a willingness to lose everything. He’s a towering purple people crusher that practically steals the whole show.

It’s crowded, busy and noisy—and if you’re a Marvel fan, pretty close to heaven. If you haven’t been following the franchise storylines, at least casually, you might feel a bit lost in its speed, shuffle, smashing action scenes and the star-hopping, two and a half-hour race for the Infinity Stones, which are scattered from Earth to the far reaches of the cosmos. But the Marvel faithful will love the rush, sweep, scope, spectacle and almost operatic scale.

Although there are moments of levity and humor, there’s a lot heaviness, darkness and even heartbreak that finally crescendos in a spectacular, breathtaking finale orchestrated to leave fans gasping for more. It’s a closer that ranks among Marvel’s most enigmatic wrap-ups—and set-ups.

The film keeps returning to the notion of mortality, and it’s not a spoiler to report the widespread rumors that not all the beloved characters make it all the way through. I won’t give anything away, but Thanos does ominously intone early on that there’ll be “no resurrection this time.”

But he’s in a franchise, remember, that always seems to keep a few surprises up its comic-book sleeve—especially when you have characters with time warps, inter-dimensionality and certain other things to put into play.

And after all, the word infinity means unlimited, boundless, continuing without end. Spider-Man is set to return next summer, and if you stay through the credits, you’ll see the plug for the next new character in the Marvel line, and the movie coming March 2019. And the next Avengers movie, the fourth, is scheduled to release a little over a year from now.

So, to infinity… and beyond!

In theaters April 27, 2018

 

Pretty Funny

Amy Schumer comically confronts beauty bombardment head-on

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I Feel Pretty
Starring Amy Schumer, Michelle Williams, Rory Scovel & Tom Hooper
Directed by Abby Kohn & Marc Silverstein
PG-13

Who hasn’t wanted to be thinner or taller, look younger, banish those zits or age spots, get smoother skin or whiter teeth, have more hair or change something else about their appearance?

In Amy Schumer’s I Feel Pretty, she plays Renee, a New Yorker who’s obsessed with the “beauty” that bombards her every day on the streets, in magazines and on television.

Pretty much everyone, especially girls and young women, feels that bombardment, almost all the time. It’s created a gazillion-dollar industry of products, diets, fashion, fitness fads, plastic surgery—and a toxic tide of eating disorders, bullying, body shaming and self-loathing.

I Feel Pretty 2 (72)cRenee doesn’t feel pretty, despite all the effort she puts into her hair, her makeup and her clothes. She’s a few pounds overweight; she’s invisible to guys; babies burst in tears when she even looks at them. More than anything else, she wants to be pretty, to know what it’s like to be beautiful and have that “world” open up to her, a place she’s only imagined from the outside. She tosses a coin into a fountain and makes a wish—to be pretty.

Then Renee bumps her head in a SoulCycle spinning class, passes out and wakes up thinking she’s a total babe. When she looks in the mirror, she sees something wildly, impossibly hot-stuff gorgeous where her dumpy, doughy old self used to be.

Her wish has “magically” come true.

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Schumer (right) with Aidy Bryant and Busy Phillips

No one else sees anything outwardly different about her, though, especially not her standby BFFs (Saturday Night Live’s Aidy Bryant, and Busy Phillips, from TV’s Cougar Town) or Mason (familiar character actor Adrien Martinez), her coworker in the dingy basement office where they toil over the website of a cosmetics corporation, Lily LeClaire.

But Renee, beaming with the newfound self-confidence that accompanies her perceived self-transformation, finds a whole new world unfolding before her. She meets a charming guy, Ethan (Rory Scovel, who plays principal Geoffrey Quinn on truTV’s sitcom Those Who Can’t), and lands her “dream job” as a receptionist at the gleaming, high-rise corporate office of the cosmetics company.

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Rory Scovel (right) plays Renee’s nice-guy boyfriend.

Soon she’s become part of the Lily LeClaire inner circle, giving no-nonsense marketing advice to the firm’s top tier, including its founder (supermodel icon Lauren Hutton) and the CEO (Michelle Williams), as the high-end company prepares to roll out a line of less-expensive products for “bargain” shoppers.

Tom Hooper (from TV’s Game of Thrones and Black Sails) plays Grant LeClaire, the hunky, globetrotting playboy brother of Williams’ character, who is likewise captivated by Renee’s straight-up poise and self-assured personality.

Schumer, who rose to prominence as a standup then with her Emmy-winning comedy series Inside Amy Schumer on Comedy Central, has always walked a sharp satirical edge. Her R-rated movies, Trainwreck and Snatched, were raunchy-ride riffs on romantic relationships and motherhood.

I Feel Pretty, written and directed by Abby Kohn and Marc Silversteen (the team behind the movies Never Been Kissed and How to Be Single) has a lot to unpack, including themes of body image, self-esteem and self-confidence, dating and relationships, appearances, the messages of advertising and the importance of friends. Schumer, who’s spoken publicly about the many potshots she’s taken about her looks and her body—many of them disgustingly, disturbingly nasty—here boldly confronts them head-on.

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Michelle Williams

Emily Ratajkowski plays Mallory, a drop-dead gorgeous woman Renee meets in her spinning class, who admits some surprising insecurities of her own. Michelle Williams, a four-time Oscar winner (for Manchester By the Sea, Blue Valentine, Brokeback Mountain and My Weekend With Marilyn), steps outside her usual dramatic comfort zone with her character—who talks in a cartoonish, baby-girl squeak—and finds some delightful shades of comedic nuance as her icy-cool fashionista is warmed by Renee’s fearless, down-to-earth charm.

Depending on how you slice it, the movie gets lots of laughs as Renee goes about living her “pretty” dream-come-true life, unaware that nothing has really changed—except her attitude about herself. It’s impossible to miss, though, that more than one person thinks she’s crazy, and someone even mentions she might need “mental health” counselling. There are a lot of people walking around in the world who think they’re someone they not, or whose view of reality has been somehow altered. Is that really funny?

I Feel Pretty 8cComedy is highly subjective and sometimes it makes us uncomfortable, especially when it hits too close to home. What makes you laugh might not make someone else laugh, and vice versa. I Feel Pretty made me laugh, but it also made me a tad uncomfortable, like Ethan, when Renee—wanting to show off her “hot,” sexy bod—enters a Bangin’ Bikini Contest in a bar and does an impromptu performance on stage. Was I laughing at Renee, or at Amy Schumer?

But the main message of the movie is solid: “We are real women,” Renee tells a crowd in a climactic scene. “What a great thing to be!”

In this particular moment in time, when women and girls need all the positivity and encouragement they can get, Amy Schumer and I Feel Pretty deliver the message…pretty well.

In theaters Friday, April 20, 2018

The ‘Truth’ Hurts

The scares are lite in Lucy Hale’s would-be shudder-fest

Film Title: Blumhouse's Truth or Dare

Truth or Dare
Starring Lucy Hale, Tyler Posey & Violett Beane
Directed by Jeff Wadlow
PG-13

Scary movies make the familiar frightening. Remember how Jaws terrified people about going into the water? How Friday the 13th changed the way we looked at a hockey mask? Or what Poltergeist and The Ring did to spook-ify TV screens?

In Truth or Dare, an innocent-enough childhood game takes a deadly, demonic twist as a group of college friends on a spring-break fling in Mexico are lured into some late-night partying by a charming young stranger (Landon Liboiron, who stars on the Netflix series Frontier). Hey, he suggests, how about a friendly game of Truth or Dare?

 

That’s not exactly what these kids came to Mexico to do. “Is this a second-grade sleepover?” one of the spring breakers scoffs. They eventually come around; it is the title of the movie, after all.

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Lucy Hale

But the stranger has a horrible secret: The game is cursed, and so is he, and the only way he can survive—at least for a while longer—is to pass on the curse by bringing in more players. Major buzzkill!

The rules are simple: Tell the truth or you die. Do the dare or you die. Refuse to play and you die.

That’s the setup. This is the latest from the Blumhouse little shop of horrors, the production house that brought us five Paranormal Activity flicks; four chapters of Insidious; three Purges; two installments of Sinister and Creep; Ouija and its prequel; plus Split, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit; and Jordan Peele’s Get Out.

The Blumhouse formula is typically low-budget/high-profit; most of their movies are made on a relative shoestring and make a profit at the box office. They’re usually geared toward teens and young adults, often rated PG-13 instead of R to attract a younger crowd, and packed with attractive, young-ish actors.

Are they any good? Sometimes—Get Out was lauded as one of the best films of 2017, and nominated for four Oscars (it won for Best Original Screenplay). But does it matter? They make money. And young audiences—who’ve outgrown “family” films and animated movies—have embraced these creepshow flicks as part of their adolescent experience.

In Truth or Dare, it’s a carload of TV stars in trouble. Literally, a carload: The spring-break vehicle to Mexico includes Lucy Hale (formerly on Pretty Little Liars and now Life Sentence); Tyler Posey (from Teen Wolf and Scream: The TV Series); Violett Beane (she’s Jesse Quick on The Flash); Sophia Ali (Grey’s Anatomy, Famous in Love); Nolan Gerard Funk (Counterpart); and Sam Lerner (Geoff Schwartz on The Goldbergs).

The cast is game but the scares are lame, the dialogue is weightless and dumb and the movie’s big effect—the leering, demonic “smiles” on faces that a player sees when he or she gets a turn in the game—looks like results of extreme Botox, which I suppose is pretty scary.

Writer-director Jeff Wadlow—who also directed the superhero comedy Kick-Ass 2 (2013)—has a couple of original ideas, like how an ancient curse can coexist with the modern era of social media. But the plot is a muddled mess of a soap opera in which characters anguish over secrets (the “truths” they’ve kept hidden from each other). The fact that someone has died doesn’t seem as weighty as the idea that someone might have lied.

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Lucy Hale, Hayden Szeto, Tyler Posey & Violett Beane

And too much of Truth or Dare, too much of the time, simply reminds you of too many other, better movies in which we’re waiting to find out which teen dies next, and how. Characters remark that the game “followed” them home. Did none of these kids see It Follows? I’ll venture most of the audience has. There’s an old crone, a cryptic message, a crazy homeless man, a crumbing church mission and a police officer who advises the kids, “Don’t take any more vacations.”

Perhaps more specifically: And stay out of haunted church missions!

At one point, the ever-dwindling pool of players figures a way to beat the game is to “always choose truth.” That seems like a pretty good tack—until it’s not. The game, it turns out, isn’t as clear-cut as they thought, and the movie gets impossibly tangled in its own knot of changing rules.

Truth or dare: I dare you to seek out really good, original scary movies. Director-star John Krasinski’s The Quiet Place is still in theaters, and it’s a new classic. Check out Get Out and It Follows if you haven’t seen them already.

And the truth: This movie scores low in scares and it retreads too much ground already covered by other horror flicks. But hey, in the true spirit of the Friday the 13th, this unpretentious, bottom-feeding boo! ride reminds us that nothing—including the games of our childhood—is safe from being plundered and yanked into a place of nightmares.

So, who’s up for a little game…of Truth or Dare?

In theaters Friday, April 13, 2018

Let’s Play

Spielberg’s spectacular ode to pop culture’s glorious past

READY PLAYER ONE

Ready Player One
Starring Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cook, Mark Rylance & Ben Mendelsohn
Directed by Steven Spielberg
PG-13

On your mark, get set, geek out!

The race is on, from the opening scene, in director Steven Spielberg’s deliriously dazzling cinema sonnet to pop culture and everyone who loves it.

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Wade (Tye Sheridan) lives in The Stacks.

Based on the award-winning 2011 sci-fi novel by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One is about a teenager, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), living in a bleak pile of mobile homes—“The Stacks”—in Columbus, Ohio, in 2045. Like most everyone else in the dystopian times, Wade spends his days strapped to a virtual-reality headset and escaping—as his avatar, Parzival—into the sprawling game called Oasis, a dream-like theme park for the senses where anything is possible.

In Oasis, you can be anything or anyone, do anything, go anywhere. As Wade points out, you can climb Mt. Everest with Batman, ski the pyramids, or race the virtual streets of Manhattan in the DeLorean from Back to the Future while dodging King Kong and the T.rex from Jurassic Park.

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Mark Rylance

The Oasis is great fun, but Wade’s in it for more: He’s looking for the three Easter-egg clues left behind by the game’s late, great creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), a gamer guru who promised that whoever finds them all will win it all—the trillion-dollar rights to his Oasis kingdom.

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Olivia Cooke

He’s joined by a dashing, pixie-like female gamer, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke, who starred in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), who has her own reason for wanting to win the game.  Lena Waithe, who played Denise on TV’s Master of None, provides the voice of Aech, pronounced “H,” a hulking, gentle-giant warrior avatar and Parzival’s best friend in Oasis.

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Ben Mendelsohn

But a scheming corporate weasel, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), wants control of the Oasis, too—to take it over, charge people to play and turn it into a massive income stream with virtual advertising. And he’ll do anything to get it. When it looks like Wade/Parzival is making headway finding the eggs, Sorrento calls in his army and his orc-like hit-man, I-R0K (comedian T.J. Miller, who gets some of the movie’s best laugh lines) to stop him.

The movie is a spectacular, geek-centric explosion of fanboy references to classic films, videogames, music and props, mostly from the late 1970s and ’80s. There’s the Iron Giant… and the creature from Alien… I spy a Devo hat! Hey, isn’t that the space pod from 2001: A Space Odyssey? And the winged Winnebago Chieftain camper from Spaceballs? Didn’t I just see Tomb Raider’s Laura Croft at the bar? And Harley Quinn and The Joker? And there’s the devil doll Chucky!

Tunes from Joan Jett, Van Halen, Blondie, the Bee Gees and Tears for Fears cue up at just the right moments to synch with something happening onscreen; Atari gets a particular shout-out; and an iconic 1980s horror movie becomes the sprawling, surprising extended centerpiece for one of the Easter egg clues.

There are so many things jam-packed on screen, so many times, there’s no way you can absorb everything, especially in one viewing. And if you didn’t watch a lot of movies, and play a lot of videogames—like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Joust and Gundam—in the 1980s, well, just sit back and let it all wash over you anyway, and bask in its roaring river of nearly nonstop pop nostalgia.

Ready Player One is a thrilling treasure hunt, a sensational salute to our not-so-distant pop-culture past and a potent proclamation about the boundless power of imagination—from a director who, not coincidentally, has himself been responsible for creating some of the most stirring movie moments of all time during the past 40 years.

Although it spends most of its time in the Oasis, with its characters’ avatars, Spielberg brings the story—and the message—home when they all meet and interact and get to know each other in the real world. As a director, he’s always known the heart of any story is with characters we care about, who care about each other, who laugh and love and hurt and hug.

Reality may be a pain and drag sometimes, Rylance’s character, Oasis creator Mark Halliday says, “but it’s the only place to get a decent meal.”

That may be true, but the effusive escapism of Ready Player One is the perfect snack—a bountiful, overflowing buffet of just about everything a movie lover would ever want, served up by a superstar director who loves movies just as much as we do.

In theaters March 30, 2018

 

Rim Shot

Giant robots and deep-sea beasts pummel our planet…again 

Film Title:  Pacific Rim Uprising

Pacific Rim Uprising
Starring John Boyega, Cailee Spaeny, Scott Eastwood, Tian Jing & Charlie Day
Directed by Steven S. DeKnight
PG-13

Ah, spring—birds singing, flowers blooming, and gigantic robots beating the snot out of behemoths that crawl from the sea to destroy the planet.

If you want to wax nostalgic, you can think back on when the shark from Jaws was the scariest thing you could imagine popping up out of the brine to take a bite.

Pacific Rim Rising is the sequel to Pacific Rim, which in 2013 introduced the idea of humans in super-sized robot suits fighting invading creatures from interdimensional cracks, or breaches, at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. It mixed elements of classic creature-feature flicks like Godzilla with war-movie gung-ho, modern CGI marvels and bigger-is-better robotic wallop.

The original Pacific Rim was directed by Guillermo del Toro, who would go on to win the 2018 Oscar for another kind of creature feature, the moving, masterful Cold War-era fairy tale The Shape of Water. Del Toro remains attached to the sequel, but as a producer, turning over the director’s reins to Steven S. DeKnight, a former showrunner for the Netflix superhero series Daredevil and Starz’s racy Spartacus: Blood and Sand.

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Boyega & Eastwood

The plot picks up a decade after the previous movie ended, in which humanity was victorious in defeating the monsters (Kaiju) by towering robots (Jaegars) operated with pairs of psychically linked pilots. We meet Jake Pentecost (John Boyega, Finn from Star Wars), a roguish lad who’ll come to play a big part in the story, especially when he crosses paths with teenage robot-building orphan Amara (newcomer Cailee Spaeny) and reunites with Pan Pacific Defense Force pilot Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood, Clint’s son).

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Tian Jing

Familiar faces from the original flick include Charlie Day, Burn Gorman and Rinko Kikucki, who all return to their roles. Day provides some nuanced comedic touches as the now-head of research and development for a corporation—headed by Liwen Shao (Chinese actress Tian Jing, who appeared in Kong: Skull Island)—that has developed technology threatening to make human robot pilots obsolete. The ever-versatile Gorman is Dr. Hermann Gottleib, who makes a discovery (as scientists do in movies like this) in the “brain” of a rampaging rouge Jaegar that kicks the plot into overdrive.

Japanese actress Kikucki, who plays Mako Mori, Jake’s adopted sister, is part of an international cast obviously meant to enhance the resonance of the Pacific Rim franchise all around the real Pacific Rim, and everywhere else; the original movie was a respectable hit in the United States, but an even bigger, $309 million smash worldwide.

The movie is clearly angling also for ever-younger audiences with its subplot about youthful cadet pilots, anchored by Spaney’s character, the spunky Amara. Anyone who watched the Disney Channel’s series Jesse and its spinoff Burn’d will recognize Karan Brar as cadet Suresh, who muses about following his father’s cosmetic-surgery footsteps and becoming a “boob” doctor after completing his stint in the PPDF. Rising Ukrainian star Ivanna Sakhno gets a moment as sulky Russian pilot-in-training Viktoria; you’ll see more of her in August in the Kate McKinnon/Mila Kunis comedy The Spy Who Dumped Me.

Even the royal robot rumbles have a certain juvenile, Top Gun-ish ’tude, especially when the kids climb into the cockpits. The heavy-metal CGI smash-ups turn metropolitan streets into back-alley brawls. Robots as tall as skyscrapers fight with massive weapons that include laser whips, fiery chainsaws, buzzing switchblade-like sabers and “gravity slings.” One bot pauses to give the double “finger” to a vanquished foe. There are clash-of-the-titans face-offs in Siberia, Shanghai, Seattle and Tokyo, leading to Mt. Fuji, where an explosive battle is followed by…a playful snowball fight.

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It’s impossible not to notice how much the pilots, operating the robots, look like virtual-reality gamers, shouting commands, jumping around, running in place, swatting and grabbing at holographic shapes and doing all sorts of things to make their bots “respond” on a mega scale. Maybe an audience that grew up on gaming can relate. But I couldn’t help but think how silly it must have felt for the actors—because it sure looks ridiculous, knowing there were no holograms, no robots, no battles, no nothing, during the filming.

That’s the magic of the movies, I suppose. But I harken to the words of Charlie Day’s character, watching one of the metal-mashing, city-crunching melees. “OK—giant robots again?,” he says. “I’m not impressed.” After seeing robots the size of rocketships in Pacific Rim, and then again in five (five!!!) Transformer movies, I have to agree. It’s not so new, or novel, anymore. I’m a bit weary of watching Hollywood make our planet a big ol’ punching bag.

All the clashing and bashing of colossus bots and leviathan beasts gave me a Pacific Rim-size headache. And the shark in Jaws scared me a whole lot more, and it only gnawed up a boat.

In theaters March 23, 2018

 

Tomb Time

Alicia Vikander breaks free & cuts loose in headline role of action flick 

TR-TRL-097 (72)Tomb Raider
Starring Alicia Vikander, Walter Goggins & Dominic West
Directed by Roar Uthaug
PG-13

Oscar-winning Swedish actress Alicia Vikander breaks free of her art-house, period-drama corset—and films like The Danish Girl, The Light Between Oceans, Tulip Fever and Anna Karenina—to cut loose and headline her first all-out action flick, a franchise reboot built on a foundation of wildly popular videogames and a pair of previous films.

Vikander’s role as archeologist, treasure hunter and “tomb raider” Lara Croft in the new movie follows Angelina Jolie’s portrayal of the character in 2001 and 2003, both of which followed the home-videogame released in 1996.

Now, 15 years after the last film, the new Tomb Raider is obviously meant primarily for new audiences—it’s a start-over origin story of the character, based loosely on the videogame’s own 2013 reboot, about how she came into her particular skillset.

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Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West) with young Lara (Maisy De Freitas)

We meet Lara seven years after the disappearance of her wealthy aristocratic father, London’s Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), whose pursuit of “proof that the supernatural is real” took him to the ends of the Earth. Lara refuses to acknowledge that he might be dead, or take over his vast estate—choosing to live off her own meager wages as a spunky bicycle-delivery messenger.

After establishing that Lara’s got some serious chops down at the gym as a kickboxer, and that she can outfox all her biker-boy coworkers in a street race, the movie really gets down to business. She solves a puzzle and discovers clues that start her on her father’s trail, tracking his last known voyage—to an uncharted island in the “Devil’s Sea” off the coast of Japan, where he was searching for the long-lost tomb of a Himiko, a legendary sorceress known as the Death Queen.

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Walter Goggins

Himiko, he believed, had a magical power that he feared would be the downfall of mankind if it fell into the wrong hands…you know how it is in these movies. In this movie, those hands belong to Walter Goggins, who plays Mathias Vogel, the stone-cold psycho prospector who’s spent the past seven years (coincidence?) trying to blast apart the island to find the tomb, and what he thinks is its treasure, with his platoon of beefcake palookas and a slave army of shanghaied fisherman.

Daniel Wu plays Lu Ren, the drunken boat captain Lara hires to bring her to the island; familiar class-act British character actors Kristin Scott Thomas and Derek Jacobi appear as corporate functionaries wanting to convince Lara to take over her father’s estate; Nick Frost provides some chuckles in his (uncredited) cameo as a pawnbroker.

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Kristin Scott Thomas

But this is Vikander’s movie, all the way. Much has been touted about her physical transformation to play Croft, which required a regime of intensely disciplined weight training, cardio and a high-protein diet that eliminated sugar. She’s more sculpted than ever, that’s for sure. But if you’re a gamer, or if you’re keeping tabs on all the Tomb Raider movies, you’ll probably notice that Vikander’s Lara is cut from a bit of different cloth.

She’s smaller, leaner, scrappier and far less sexualized than the “voluptuous” videogame character—which had a hyperbolic bust and a super-skimpy costume to appeal to mostly male players. And when Angelina Jolie played Lara, she was sultry, cocky and improbably self-assured, practically invincible and all but invulnerable.

Vikander’s Lara is much more grounded, grittier and altogether human. She takes a lot of lumps and thumps, and even gets impaled in the gut by a piece of metal, and the movie makes sure we feel her pain. She’s like a scuffed-up Wonder Woman, a fiercely focused female role model who’s not squeamish about getting down and dirty—and doing what it takes to do the right thing.

DSCF4660.dngAnd, a refreshing note in these troubled times, she does it all without ever firing a gun of any kind. (Firearms, at least according to the movie’s postscript scene, will come later.)

Norwegian director Roar Uthaug (what a name for an action flick!) doesn’t skimp on digital effects, especially one boffo scene in a rusted-out hull of an airplane dangling over a waterfall. It’s mostly standardized, action-movie stuff throughout, however, with stale echoes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the movie that launched a thousand knockoffs, especially when things finally move into the booby-trapped tomb. (Goggins’ villain also has a whiff of crazy Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now.)

The movie does tend to drag a bit at times and bog down with Lara’s daddy issues. But Vikander is the spark plug that always brings it back to life and keeps it moving—running, kicking, punching, picking off villains with a bow and arrow, grappling in mud and muck, leaping into the jungle with a worn-out parachute, plunging into a raging river, and solving ancient puzzles to prevent catastrophes. She takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’. In this island-chase, treasure-hunt, action-pulp cheese, Vikander’s a pretty cool cat.

“She’s not a freakin’ superhero,” Lara says of one of her early kickboxing opponents. Neither is this version of Lara Croft 2018, a tomb raider-to-be who relies on her wits, her wile and what she’s made of herself to slice through a B-movie obstacle course, with a hint of more adventures to come.

In theaters March 16, 2018

Time Warped

20-foot Oprah towers over crowded, big-hearted hot mess 

nullA Wrinkle in Time
Starring Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon & Mindy Kaling
Directed by Ava DuVernay
PG

The book on which Disney’s new $100 million A Wrinkle in Time is based was a challenging cosmic stew of quantum physics, religion, mysticism, sci-fi fantasy, dystopian gloom and young-adult angst. Though Madeline L’Engle’s 1962 novel went on to become a childhood classic, it vexed efforts to make it into a movie; many Hollywood insiders thought it was “un-filmable.”  Stanley Kubrick, the genius director of 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, turned it down; a 2003 TV movie was a flop.

Now director Ava DuVernay may have found some secret sauce—Oprah, super-sized.

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Reese Witherspoon and Storm Reid

Lady O plays one of the tale’s three mysterious celestial beings—Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which—alongside Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling. The three “misses” guide the movie’s young heroine, Meg (an impressive Storm Reid, 14, who made her debut in 12 Years a Slave), on a weird, wild, truly trippy trip across the universe to find her scientist father (Wonder Woman’s Chris Pine), who’s mysteriously disappeared.

When Oprah makes her first appearance as Mrs. Which, she’s bathed in heavenly backlight, dressed in shimmering silver, and 20 feet tall.

Big O is in the house—the House of Mouse!

The gentle giantess, dressed in a succession of getups that look like stylists for Beyoncé and RuPaul’s Drag Race had a royal collaboration, is clearly the big cosmic cheese. She towers over Whatsit (Witherspoon) and Who (Kaling), laying down pearls of wisdom, as they lead Meg, her friend Calvin (Levi Miller, who played Peter in 2015’s Pan) and Meg’s precocious younger brother, Charles Wallace (Derec McCabe) traveling via tesseracts, or folds in the fabric of time and space.

As Meg’s father announced before his disappearance, time-warping tesseracts allow you to zip around the universe, powered by your mind. “Ninety-one billion light years traveled, just like that!” he said. His fellow scientists scoff, the way fellow scientists always do in these kind of movies. (Didn’t they see Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar, or Loki in The Avengers? How come characters in movies, like this one, listen to Bon Jovi, keep up with Broadway plays and quote Gandhi, but don’t seem to be aware that there’s this thing called “film”?)

Could Meg’s dad have “tessered” to some faraway place, and now be unable to return? Or maybe he’s being held there against his will? The buzz around Meg’s school says he’s a deadbeat, skirt-chasing dad who probably ran off to Mexico.

Just like in the book, there’s a lot going on here, both onscreen and off.

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Storm Reid as Meg

This is the first Disney flick with a young heroine “of color” in the lead role, and the first mega-budget movie to be directed by a black woman. Those are two biggies, especially coming directly on the heels of The Black Panther, with its almost all-black cast, its black director and its nearly all-black crew, and with such a powerful, timely resonance to African-America audiences.

It’s also notable that, in this movie version of L’Engle’s story, DuVernay has quite intentionally created a blended, “colorblind” family, cast a white teen (Miller) as Meg’s tagalong friend, and hired lead actors of varying ethnic backgrounds.

And of course, there’s 20-foot Oprah, and what she represents in America as a self-made black billionaire, media mogul, philanthropist, and a living symbol of survival and success. She radiates empowerment—even when, later in the film, her character “shrinks” down to regular size.

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Zach Galifianakis

The movie itself is packed—with themes and characters and goings-on. Zach Galifianakis plays the cave-dwelling Happy Medium; Michael Peña gets a few moments as a creepy character we meet on a beach; as Meg’s mom, Gugu Mbatha-Raw sits at home while her kids are out flitting around the galaxy.

Director DuVernay—whose previous films include the MLK biopic Selma and the Oscar-nominated documentary 13th—tries to work much of the book onto the screen, especially its messages about light overcoming darkness; unbreakable family ties; how imagination and knowledge are good things; that ordinary kids can do extraordinary things; and that it’s OK to be yourself, whether you’re a geek, a girl or a nerd—especially if you’re a geek, a girl or a nerd.

But sometimes it’s a frantic, crowded, confusing, unwieldly fit. Witherspoon morphs into a flying creature that looks like a big cabbage leaf grafted onto the back on an Avatar banshee; Mrs. Who spouts quotes from history, philosophy, literature and pop culture—Buddha, OutKast, Shakespeare, Churchill. Are Whatsit, Who and Which angels, goddesses, sorceresses, fairy godmothers, crazy cat ladies on acid or some kind of all-knowing space fashionistas? There’s a monstrous tornado, Stepford kids and Stepford moms, a spidery space nebula of pure evil, sand sandwiches, cruel classmates, gossipy teachers and talking flowers. An intense scene toward the end takes a bizarre, psycho-freakout turn toward demonic possession, which may truly frighten the intended audience of kids.

“Become one with the universe,” Winfrey’s character tells Meg. This big-hearted, bloated movie’s a crinkled, jammed, over-crammed hot mess, but Big O remains above it all, two stories tall, magisterial and wrinkle-proof. Stanley Kubrick opted out of directing A Wrinkle in Time decades ago. But now Ava DuVernay’s version is a new-age space odyssey of another kind, and hopefully it will find a young audience eager to embrace its timeless, unifying message.

In theaters March 9, 2018

Game On

Subversively sly, well-cast crime caper is comedically well-played 

GN Poster (72)Game Night
Starring Jason Bateman & Rachel McAdams
Directed by John Frances Dailey & Jonathan Goldstein
R

Some people take their games seriously.

Like Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams), a couple who met at bar trivia night, got married and now convene regularly with friends for highly competitive weekend evenings of charades, Pictionary, Jenga and other parlor classics.

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Kyle Chandler

It’s all fun and games until Max’s rich, older, cooler brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler) roars up in his bright red Stingray hot rod and gets an idea to take the next game night to an “epic” new level at his suburban palace across town.

For Brooks’ game night, he ups the ante considerably with a faux kidnapping, “bad guys” who’ve been hired to fake-abscond with one of the players, and a manhunt. The other players will have to figure out where the abductee has been taken, and the winner will get a big prize: the Stingray.

But something goes terribly wrong—the bad guys who show up really are bad guys, they really do kidnap someone (Brooks), and game night gets really, really serious.

And really, really funny.

Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein have honed their comedy craft considerably since their previous collaborative effort, Vacation (2015), a lamely misfired relaunch of the National Lampoon franchise property—although they did provide the snappy script for last year’s zippy Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Game Night is a subversively sly, hot-wired action-suspense comedy caper with a screwball scaffolding of Rube Goldberg-ish surprises—for the characters, as well as the audience—until the very end. Screenwriter Mark Perez’s clever, zinger-filled script is full of smart, sharp, rat-a-tat pop-cultural riffs and the kind of connective-tissue dialogue that makes characters feel like real people instead of merely props. And the ensemble cast is first-rate.

GN-FP-0069Max and Annie’s game night regulars include Kevin (Lamorne Morris, from TV’s New Girl) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury, who starred on the TV series Pitch), a fellow married couple with an escalating mini-tiff about what celebrity she might have slept with when their relationship was in its formative stages. (Could it have been Denzel Washington?) Billy Magnussen (from TV’s Get Shorty) is a dim-bulb charmer as the gleefully imbecilic Ryan, who always brings a different bimbo to game night—only this time, he’s met his match with his brainy British coworker, Sarah (Sharon Horgan, from TV’s Catastrophe).

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Jesse Plemons

And Jesse Plemons (who appeared in a Black Mirror episode alongside Magnussen in December, and costarred with Chandler in TV’s Friday Night Lights) is a show-stealer as Max and Annie’s next-door-neighbor, Gary, a super-uptight state trooper who would do anything to be a part of their game nights.

Bateman is as dependable as always, an even-keeled Everyman plunged into wildly unreasonable circumstances. McAdams shows formidable gung-ho comedic chops. They’re a terrific team, and the movie interweaves a subplot about their uphill struggle to get pregnant and have kids, and how Max’s stress (very likely brought on by his constant inferiority complex around his brother, Brooks) could be a factor.

GN-FP-0027Game Night manages the tricky mix of broad comedy with shoot-outs and rollicking action sequences that—as even the characters admit—would fit easily into a Liam Neeson flick. There are many hilarious bits throughout, including a high-stakes “keep-away” toss match with a highly prized Febergé egg that spans several rooms and levels of a mansion; a little, fluffy white dog making a big, bloody mess; and Annie improvising as a back-alley medic for Max with a bottle of cheap wine, a squeak toy, her iPhone and a sewing kit.

The characters start out as competitors, but as the game becomes something more than a game, their competition turns to cooperation. That’s the message of Game Night when it’s all over and everyone comes out a winner—despite the bullet holes, knife wounds and slightly higher body count than you’d find in a typical round of Never Have I Ever.

Well played, everyone!

In theaters Friday, Feb. 23, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cool Cat

Sensational Black Panther is right-on, right now & at just the right time

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Chadwick Boseman with Lupita Nyong’o (left) and Letitia Wright

Black Panther
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Letitia Wright, Michael B. Jordan, Martin Freeman & Danai Gurira
Directed by Ryan Coogler
PG-13

Chadwick Boseman has made history come alive in the movies by playing trailblazing black soul singer James Brown, pioneering black baseball legend Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall, who would become the first African-American justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

He makes history in another way now as Black Panther, the first major black superhero.

In director Ryan Coogler’s sensational new, sure-to-be-blockbuster origin story for the Marvel character first introduced in the comics in 1966, and appearing briefly onscreen in Captain America: Civil War, Boseman stars as T’Challa, the ruler of the fictional, isolated African nation of Wakanda, a little country with a big secret: The rest of the world thinks it’s a dirt-poor Third World scrap of nothing, but it’s actually the most technologically advanced spot on the planet.

Thanks to the extremely rare meteoric ore vibranium, found only in Wakanda, T’Challa’s nation has bullet-proof armor, hi-tech weaponry, flying vehicles and space-age science and medicine. (Vibranium is also the stuff that was used to make Captain America’s shield, FYI.) And, no surprise, there are certain people on the outside who’ll do anything to get inside to get what they’ve got.

Crowned king after the death of his father, T’Challa prefers Wakanda’s low profile and wants to keep his country and its mega-mineral under wraps; he has sworn to protect his people and his nation’s potent resource. Others around him, like his friend and ally W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya, who starred in Get Out), disagree: Why not share the wealth—and use Wakanda’s knowledge and power to help and endow the rest of the world?

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Danai Gurira (right) plays the fierce—and fiercely loyal—leader of Wakanda’s all-female legion of palace guards.

The ensemble cast is outstanding, and the screenplay (by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole) gives everyone a spotlight. Oscar-winning Lupita Nyong’o plays Nakia, a Wakandian “war dog” spy who mixes revolution with romance as she tugs on T’Challa’s heartstrings. Okoye (Danai Gurira from The Walking Dead) is the fierce general of the palace’s all-female special-forces squad. Angela Bassett plays Romonda, T’Challa’s mother, who reminds the king of the tradition and ritual that anchor their nation’s advances in science and technology.

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Letitia Wright

Newcomer Letitia Wright nearly steals the show as T’Challa’s sassy little sister, Shuri, a tech-savvy gadget guru in charge making Black Panther’s amazing body-armor sheath, plus virtual-reality cars, Wakanda’s sonic-powered air trains and just about everything else. The scene in which she shows her big brother the new gizmos she’s crafted for his upcoming dangerous assignment abroad is a hoot that recalls gadget master Q schooling James Bond—and even makes a wry, wink-wink reference to those classic spy flicks.

Andy Serkis (best-known as the motion-capture actor who played Caesar in the Planet of the Apes franchise and Gollum in Lord of the Rings) is a ruthless international arms dealer who threatens to blow Wakanda’s cover. Michael B. Jordan (who worked with director Conger in Creed and Fruitville Station) plays a mercenary fighter who becomes a challenger to T’Challa’s throne—and a link to secrets in the royal family’s past.

The Wakanda family tree has another couple of branches with T’Challa’s uncles, Zuri (Forest Whitaker) and N’Jobu (This Is Us star Sterling K. Brown, who costarred with Boseman in Marshall). Martin Freeman provides humor as a CIA agent who suddenly finds himself in a whole new world, in more ways than one, when he’s transported to Wakanda.

nullWith a—mostly—all-black cast and a black superhero surrounded by black, super-empowered, kick-ass women, Black Panther is a right-on movie at the right time. It gets down with super-timely real-world issues—global politics, refugees, wealth distribution, white colonization, black subjugation, the ethical obligations of powerful nations—and makes the impossible-to-miss point that “Third World” places deemed (by a head of state or anyone else) under-developed, undesirable or worse  may actually hold unfathomable treasures.

It’s got action—a knockout fight scene in a Hong Kong casino, hand-to-hand battles on the precipice of a massive waterfall, and a sprawling, CGI brawl on a Wakanda plain, with crashing airships, clashing armies and charging, armor-plated rhinos. It’s got a smashing design, full of color and spectacle, a mix of vibrant African culture and mythos intermeshed with brainy, comic-book sci-fi—like Tarzan meets Star Trek. And it’s fully engaged with the Marvel universe, ready to plug-and-play. Boseman’s Black Panther will appear next, along with Captain America, Spider-Man, Ant-Man, Thor and characters from Guardians of the Galaxy, in Avengers: Infinity War, in May.

But for now, sit back, soak it up and watch it shine: In the red, white and blue hue-niverse of American superhero colors, black is the new beautiful.

In theaters Feb. 16, 2018