Comic Book Tales Kick Off Cinematic Summer

By BILL GEIGER | May 23, 2018

That lucky old sun, rolling around heaven all day, has finally made the circuit round the seasons, and here we are looking squarely at the vaunted Memorial Day weekend, the “unofficial” beginning of LBI’s season.

With apologies, by the way, to Beasley Smith for some of those 1949 lyrics, maybe, just maybe, we’ll have some sun for this weekend. Heaven knows we need it. Several of our preseason weekends were imperiled by the rain. We don’t need any more.

So, if another summer on LBI is in the cards, it must be time – drum roll, please – for CineScene to make another grand appearance, and thus, it is. I hope you’ve all been well, and that the offseason has been a positive time with good things happening for all.

As usual, there’s a lot happening in the world of cinema. Blockbusters abound and will abound, but you knew that already. It’s summer, for gosh sakes! Kicking off the season was “Avengers: Infinity War,” and “Deadpool 2” opened last week.

This week, for those counting, is “Solo, a Star Wars Story,” and we’re not talking about Luke’s lonely childhood on Tatooine. This is Han’s backstory, but if you saw “The Force Awakens,” you know some of the endgame, so strike up the melancholy music and light some candles. But let’s talk more about this column.

Every other week we’re going to look at some films this summer, around 20 or so, and we’ll talk about them with a fairly critical eye.

I say fairly, since I really do try to be fair, unless if The Rock is starring, at which point my usually deadpan cinematic voice veers toward sarcasm. I can’t help it. That scene in “San Andreas” where he drives a center console up the face of a massive Tsunami is still my yardstick for absurd “Rockities,” my buzzword for ludicrous goings on in Rock films, which happen every fifteen minutes or so.

But hell, I can make fun of him all I want. He’s just the highest paid actor working in front of the camera these days, but he wasn’t in “Infinity War.” Now there’s a mark on his resume. Probably the only one who wasn’t.

This summer he’s starring in “Skyscraper,” coming in mid-July, where he plays a building inspector wrongly accused of the improprieties found in said skyscraper. As if that’s not bad enough, his family is trapped up on the gazillionth floor and there is a fire on some of the floors below.

Sounds like we need the Rock to fly through the air into one of the floors above the fire, frantically pumping his mega-biceps and hovering, hummingbird like, outside the window so his young daughter can open it up for him to come in and save them.

See what I mean. It’s genetic with me. I can’t write about the Rock without hyperbole entering the picture. So happily he’s only in that one film, as far as I can tell, unlike the “San Andreas” summer when it seemed like he was in every other film that came out. I’ll try to put him into some others, and predict how they might have turned out if he’d been there to save the day. Like “Infinity War.” More on that later.

About this column...this is like that moment in the Oscars when a tuxedoed dude comes out to explain how the firm of Dewey, Cheatum and Howe takes the votes of the members of the academy and tabulates who wins each category. Boring. But necessary – even essential, so you know how these things get done.

In every CineScene column we discuss three films. Some are very new, some not so new, and some even several weeks old, but worthy of a comment. We have one of those in this column. If I saw only new films for a column that runs every other week, we’d miss discussing half of the films every summer. So that’s how we roll.

We’ve already spoken about some of the new blockbusters coming to your Cineplex this summer. Sequels and remakes are the name of the game, with “…Infinity War” leading off, and “Deadpool 2” batting second, “Solo…” more of a spinoff than a sequel, batting third, and “Ocean’s 8,” a female-centric spinoff of the Ocean’s 11 franchise, batting cleanup.

We also have a “Jurassic World” sequel, subtitled “Fallen Kingdom,” where the dino island has a volcano and Chris Pratt comes back to save the day, and a “Mission Impossible” sequel, subtitled “Fallout,” (hmmm!) the filming of which nearly did Tom Cruise in. Hey, he’s 55, and his face is becoming seriously crisscrossed with worry lines. Probably worried about his films’ bottom line. He really needn’t worry.

Remember the hit animated film “The Incredibles?” Yep, a sequel is coming this summer, “Incredibles 2,” around the middle of June, starring Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter. In this one Elastigirl has all the best lines and thus is the highlighted player. “Superfly,” a remake of the 1972 film, is also a mid-June feature, while “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” debuts around the end of June, and is a sequel to 2015’s “Sicario.”

Also anticipating July is “The Hustle,” a female version, hence remake, of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” the Steve Martin and Michael Caine film from 1988. This one stars Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson. Another “Purge” film comes our way for the July 4th holiday, this one called “The First Purge,” a kind of origins story, I guess. It also describes a way to clear your stomach of its contents, an involuntary reaction one gets from watching these “Purge” films.

Just after July 4th, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” are back, sequel-wise, or maybe it’s just Ant-Man. The Wasp was just a hint at the end of the first film. At any rate they’re back, and the action takes them through their paces in the post-Infinity Wars world. In mid-July, “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation” debuts, the popular animated film starring Dracula and other monsters from his hotel.

Toward the end of July, we get two more sequels including the stupefying “Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again” a film in which everybody dances around to ABBA songs. The more I think about it, the more I like that subtitle. There’s a world-weariness to it, kind of how you’d feel after all the cringing you’d do watching that dross. July’s ending also brings us “Equalizer 2,” a sequel to Denzel Washington’s original take on the old television show starring Edward Woodward.

In August, we finally have a month with no sequels, spinoffs, or remakes. Some highlights, to round out this preview of the Summer of 2018, are “Christopher Robin,” director Marc Foster’s CGI/live-action film about an all-grown-up Christopher Robin, looking for his lost youth, and rediscovering the little yellow bear. Ewan McGregor plays Robin.

Another in August is “Mile 22, starring Marky Mark Wahlberg as an elite special forces soldier who must help get a dangerous target out of the country fast. The Rock could certainly help here, although Wahlberg has been pretty good in this special operations soldier thing in the past. Besides, word on the street says that the Rock’s freakishly large biceps are CGI effects. Maybe, maybe not.

Speaking of special operations, the last of the August films worth noting is “The Spy Who Dumped Me,” no kidding, an action/comedy from director Susanna Fogel which has Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon as friends who have a problem. After one of them gets dumped, the ex, who was a spy unbeknownst to them, shows up with assassins on his tail. Both women get involved, which accounts for the comedy part of the film. Count on McKinnon for much of that.

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And now, having dispensed with this summer’s coming attractions, we’ll discuss three films, two of which have come from several weeks ago, and one which is about a week old. Of the older films, one is decidedly more momentous, having sprung from the fertile drawing boards of Marvel Comics. The other, though, is perhaps as striking, itself drawn from a novel of the same name. We shall discuss that one first.

Beginning with the strains of Van Halen’s “Jump,” “Ready Player One” musically targets the 1980s as the golden age of video games, marking the era as the time when more and more young people brought themselves deeply into the spell of these electronic games.

But the action of “Ready Player One” actually takes place in the dystopian near future, the year 2045, in a place called “The Stacks,” layers upon layers of trailer homes and R.V.s piled upon one another, where the marginal and the poor live. Global warming and overpopulation, along with widespread economic crises, have caused pervasive social unrest, and the poor and marginalized are left with nothing to do, and nowhere to live.

The only thing that they all do, millions and millions of people, poor and not, is play an immersive video game called OASIS.

This virtual reality game was created by the brilliant and eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and his partner, Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), and it allows the players to enter the game as avatars, which could be a different gender or race than the player is in real life. So the players spend their days in the alternate reality, living a life very different from who they really are. It’s how they escape.

Halliday, on his deathbed, put an Easter Egg in the virtual reality of OASIS, actually five of them, and if found, the winner would get Halliday’s fortune. Enter Wade Watts (Ty Sheridan), an orphan living with his aunt (Susan Lynch), who as the avatar Parzival spends his days in OASIS, and with some friends hopes to acquire Halliday’s fortune.

Thus the setup of “Ready Player One,” a standard video-game flick with higher aspirations, both socially and politically, and with the support of the pedigree coming from the film’s director, Stephen Spielberg. It’s basically a story of the haves fighting the have nots, of the rich vs. the poor. There is plenty of video game banter and lots of game sequences laden with CGI effects, but it’s a social class story and the villain is a rich game owner named Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).

For about the film’s first hour and forty-five minutes (it runs a whopping two hours and twenty minutes) the film works, but towards the end it gets a little sketchy. The 1980s-themed film world, which Halliday totally brought into and used as a way for the players to find to find his Easter Eggs, is fun, but the 2045 world the players live in when they’re not immersed in OASIS is ruthless and defeating. The police are brutal, and more often than not target the poor.

Spielberg tries to mesh the worlds together toward the end, and visually that is difficult to do. I have not read Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One,” the book from which Spielberg adapted the film, but perhaps in the imaginative world of words the worlds could better merge. In the visual world of film, they do not.

Buffoons like Sorrento seem to survive and even win despite their shortcomings, but Wade Watts does find his center at the film’s end, and the Sorrentos of the world get what’s coming to them. That’s a good thing, it just took really long to get there.

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In other film news, Melissa McCarthy stars as Deanna, a newly divorced mother of a college-aged daughter in the film “Life of the Party,” which just as easily could have been called “Death of the Comedy.” This film, like many trying for broad comedy (pardon the pun), misses the mark so badly that some of the jokes elicit a cringe rather than a laugh. It’s the life of the party, all right.

No sooner do Deanna and Dan (Matt Walsh) drop off daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) at her college for the beginning of the semester, Dan drops the bombshell on their way home (not even out of eyeshot of the university) that he’s leaving for another woman, so Deanna’s world is knocked off its axis. She finally decides, after a few weeks, that she’d like to go back to the university to finish her degree, which she left abruptly to marry Dan and have Maddie.

The problem, of course, is that it would be the same college that Maddie is attending. Naturally the college is so small that Deanna winds up spending most of her time with Maddie, even though she’s majoring in archaeology. Mother and daughter wind up pledging the sorority too. It makes you so proud to see them both succeed.

Maddie has a few things to say about Deanna coming to the same college at the beginning, but of course she comes around to support her mom, even when they both attend a frat party, and Deanna winds up picking up a guy there. All this stuff is a little weird, I know, but as the film progresses it manages to up the weirdness factor by several degrees, and the cringe factor is not far behind.

There are a few funny scenes, although they go on for too long and wind up eliciting a cringe. One funny thing has Deanna being petrified to give an oral report. The scenes where she has to do this are noteworthy at the beginning, and then they deflate and go on and on.

Rodney Dangerfield made the same film back in 1987 called “Back to School.” While it was a bit goofy, it was novel and funny, even though the gender of the protagonist is changed. Melissa McCarthy is a funny person, you have to only remember as far back as last fall with her Sean Spicer imitation, but in films she’s better either as a sidekick or with a sidekick. I’m not so sure she has the stature for leading lady.

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Our final film is “Avengers: Infinity War,” an all-star extravaganza the likes of which we haven’t seen in a long time. It stars most of the Marvel Universe gallery, and has so many players that it took TWO directors to helm this bad boy, brothers Joe and Anthony Russo. I’ve seen all of the Marvel films except “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” and apparently they were all kind of a set up for this film.

As explained by someone, I can’t remember who, there were six stones present at the beginning of the universe, or maybe it was one stone which broke into six parts, but each stone wielded a different power. There was a purple Power stone, a blue Space stone, a red Reality stone, an orange Soul stone, a green Time stone, and a yellow Mind stone. The Guardians of the Galaxy and the other Avengers protected these stones, and as long as they were in the right (i.e. Avengers) hands, all was well.

But an evil force in the universe, in the person of Thanos (Josh Brolin), a creature who looks a little like Josh Brolin might look if he were eight feet tall and was carved out of a massive block of granite, has a hankering for these rocks since he had a special metallic glove created to hold all six stones. Besides the obvious fashion appeal, having these stones would make him the most powerful creature in the universe. Whenever you say that you have to have a sound effect of an echo chamber.

Literally anyone could have played Thanos, you didn’t need a star with the power of Josh Brolin to do it, because he’s hard to see in that getup he wears, but in one crucial scene, where he confronts his daughter about the Soul stone, he has to emote and act a bit, so I guess paying Brolin’s salary was worth it. Trying to find time for all the Avengers to fight Thanos probably accounts for the film’s massive two hours and thirty-minute running time. But on several worlds and in different movie sets, Thanos was an all-star.

My favorite character was Thor. I think Chris Hemsworth imbues him with the right mixture of irony and power, and several of his scenes had me laughing out loud. I think it’s difficult for characters and the story to maneuver with so many important players. With so many, some will get left out, others will have only a small amount of screen time, and still others will be only outlines. All three things happen in “Avengers: Infinity War.”

I don’t think it’s giving anything away to say that the film sets itself up for a sequel. Bruce Banner can’t get his inner Hulk up. He fights Thanos at the beginning and Thanos schools him. Ever since then Bruce has been one tenth of the Hulk. So we’ll have to see what happens to the Hulk. Thanos, which I thought sounded like the Greek word for death (thanatos), kind of proved true with the film’s ending. There has to be some kind of a conclusion to this film – far too many things are left unsaid.


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