Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie: Good for a Giggle or Two

Movie Review: Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is as juvenile as you might expect it to be. Well, it is a movie for juveniles. But it is juvenile in a fun and upbeat way, so if your kids want to see it, you really don't have to worry. It's fun for them and you should get a few laughs out of it, too. It's full of enthusiasm and over-the-top kid pranks that kids can appreciate but are unrealistic, so don't worry that yours will get any crazy ideas. And it's great animation.

The gist of the story is that the two main characters, George and Harold, pull pranks at school because principal Mr Krupp makes school so miserable it's the only way to survive. And they pull epic pranks, mostly at the expense of Mr Krupp. Now, Mr Krupp doesn't like anything that kids like, especially arts programs, and especially the comic books the George and Harold write and draw involving a superhero named Captain Underpants. Mr Krupp's act of revenge against George and Harold is to assign them to separate school rooms, at opposite ends of the school, threatening to end their lifelong friendship. Sneaking into his office, they discover a drawer full of objects they have owned that Mr Krupp has taken from them, including a plastic hypnotizing ring, which they accidentally use to hypnotize Mr Krupp into believing he is and acting like Captain Underpants. And so the fun begins, as the belligerent Mr Krupp becomes the benign but blundering superhero of their dreams at the command of their every whim. Their only problem comes when Captain Underpants acts beyond their control to hire Professor Poopypants (I told you this was juvenile!) as the new science teacher, who then becomes the evil genius out to remove laughter from every student at school.

The only name I recognize among the voice actors is Kevin Hart as George. But everyone else delivers good performances in this entertaining ensemble cast: Thomas Middleditch as Harold, Ed Helms as Mr Krupp and Captain Underpants, and Nick Kroll as Professor Poopypants. The animation is well done, too. Nothing is done in proportion, which is usual in animation, but this is taken to extreme, which if you think about it, is appropriate for "the first epic movie". Everything technical about this kid-friendly film makes it a fun romp, and all kids, except perhaps the serially serious, will love it. And even the serially serious have a character they can appreciate: Melvin, who doesn't get any of George and Harold's jokes and pranks. Be careful of him, he becomes Professor Poopypants's accomplice!

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is based on the popular book series, but you don't really have to have read the books to enjoy the movie. Cuddle up with your little ones some cold evening and enjoy a giggle or two.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Atomic Blonde: Be Prepared to Be Blown Away

Movie Review: Atomic Blonde (2017)
Version: Library borrow

If you see Atomic Blonde, strap in -- it's going to be a wild ride. My wife said, "This is more amazing than John Wick!" I'm not sure it's more amazing, but it certainly has as much action and the plot has as many twists and turns. There are fewer changes of ammo and fewer dead bodies left by the end of the film, but Charlize Theron is deadly and packs just as powerful a punch. If you liked either or both of the John Wick movies, you'll like Atomic Blonde, too!

The Atomic Blonde is Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), a sensual but savage MI6 secret agent sent by London to cold war era Berlin to track down a list of compromised double secret agents. An asset called Spyglass (played by Eddie Marsan) has it and local MI6 agent David Percival (Played by James McAvoy) hasn't been able to secure the list yet, so London sends in their best to intervene. Overlooking the interests of MI6 is Eric Gray (played by Toby Jones) and for the CIA is Emmet Kurzfield (played by John Goodman). The Soviets and East Germans want the list, too, and there are several crossings into and out of East Berlin, aided by the underground. But there are also double crossings and crossed allegiances. This story will have your head spinning by the end.

This is a great cast, from the electrifying Theron, to the stoic Jones, to the smarmy Goodman, to the intense McAvoy. The second string is equally good, rounding out the telling of this exciting spy thriller. And set decoration should get high kudos for creating every inch a dramatic backdrop for a dangerous city under siege.

From beginning to end, this film keeps you guessing about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys -- and who will win in the end. James Bond has nothing on Atomic Blonde for action, drama, thrill, or good versus evil. My advise: See Atomic Blonde and be prepared to be blown away.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Escape from Darkness: Follow-up to Dark Charity Is Just as Riveting

Book Review: Escape from Darkness by J.L. Higgs
Version: Author provided

Escape from Darkness is another riveting read by author J.L. Higgs, book two in the United Earth Charity series, the followup to Dark Charity. If you loved book one, you will love book two. If you haven't read book one yet, it's a must read. Here's my review of it.

In Escape from Darkness, Ginny (Virginia) and Richie (Richard), now married, run the United Earth Charity. There are two parts to the charity: One part that does good deeds around the world, another part that runs interference for the charity when it runs into corruption -- the security side. The two don't always communicate well because, well, they're busy. Ginny has hired a new employee, Corey, who it seems has some dark secrets buried deep inside her subconscious about her past that concern the child slave camp where Ginny was held against her will in book one. Everyone on the staff wants to help her solve the mysteries of her past, including investigator James, who also develops a very close relationship with her. And complicating things are Corey's past boyfriend, who left when he found unexplained ugly scars on her body, and a co-worker, who was always thinking more of herself, both who suddenly want to help, too. Meanwhile, Gramps who raised Corey doesn't seem to remember her anymore and these crazy dreams about this young girl caught in a nightmare won't go away. Just as unsettling, someone strange is following her. And Ginny and Richie are trying to put an end to the slavery camps and help Corey. And there's this nettlesome corruption to work around. All blend into one amazing tale of mystery and drama and courage. You won't want to put it down.

Did I tell you there's a love story tucked into the middle of the story?

J.L. Higgs is a wonderful storyteller, creating vivid settings with great characters and amazing plot twists to develop story lines you can't second guess right up to the end. And that has you glued to the pages from beginning to finish. Escape from Darkness is one of those engrossing tales.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Fault in Our Stars: Young Love in Tragedy Played with Perfection

Movie Review: The Fault in Our Stars (2014)
Version: Library borrow

Through the coming attractions previews on a couple of older movies, our family ran into some movies we had missed in the past. A seriously great film we picked up at the library is The Fault in Our Stars, the story of two teenagers who meet at a cancer support group, which leads to hanging out more together. What becomes a close friendship based on a shared life-and-death experience leads to a love-lost-to-death relationship, but not in a way you expect as you make your way through the story.

Hazel is undergoing continued cancer treatments with little hope for recovery, Augustus has lost a leg to cancer but is full of enthusiasm for life, always lifting her spirits. She has "wasted" her special wish earlier in life to go to Disney World, so he uses his to take her to Amsterdam to meet their favorite author, where they finally fall helplessly in love. Fouling their experience, they find their author isn't what he purports to be. Finally returning home, everything turns for the worse. But is their hope?

Hazel is played with perfection by Shailene Woodley, sometimes bright and hopeful, sometimes full of despair. Augustus is played with eloquence by Ansel Elgort, philosophical and brave and the supportive partner. Willem Dafoe plays an acerbic and acidic author darkened in his outlook on life by experiences he refuses to share.

This is really a story about star-crossed lovers whose crossing is destined too soon to pass in the night, but it's also about the passionate love of life and the unfairness of conditions beyond your control. It depends almost entirely upon the quality of the lead actors to pull off the story, and they do it with excellence. There is real chemistry between Woodley and Elgort, and thus you feel a passionate connection between Hazel and Augustus, for whom you yearn for a long life together. Yet The Fault in Our Stars is actually a tragedy, and so, like Romeo and Juliet, it is a love story that will not be.

The Fault in Our Stars will always be one of my favorite movies because it's the first time my daughter -- usually an animation and action film fan -- actually asked to see a romance film. Is she growing up a bit? Watching it with her, it was sort of like my first dance with her, seeing the young lady in her blossom just a little. (Don't tell her I said that!)

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Dark Charity: A Riveting Read from Page One

Book Review: Dark Charity (Book 1) by J.L. Higgs
Version: Author supplied

Dark Charity (United Earth Charity Book 1) is a riveting read from the first page. Once I started, I didn't want to put it down.

There are a host of interesting characters, from the main protagonist, Virginia, to the main antagonist, her uncle Anthony. Add in Anthony's partner in crimes, Virginia's overlooker Jess, a couple of bungling bad guys, a mysterious homeless guy who turns out to be a secret agent, and Virginia's stumbling block-turned-love interest, and you have the makings of a very interesting story.

I would call Dark Charity a combination spy novel/thriller/romance. Virginia is a wealthy teenager who finds herself under the control of her evil uncle and legal guardian Anthony, who is scheming to cash in on her inheritance. His idea is to marry her off to steal a family royal title and the family estate left by her parents, who mysteriously died when she was younger and left in the care of the mansion staff where she lives seemingly carefree. But more recently Virginia has been receiving a lot of death threats and she runs away with the aid of the charity organization her parents had set up, hoping to get away from the danger and her fears. Enter a hero, who protects her and with whom she falls madly in love. Yet, things aren't as they seem, and she must run away again, leading to more dangers and amazing twists and turns right up to the end.

Now, Dark Charity (United Earth Charity Book 1) is written by J.L. Higgs, who lives in Australia. She is a fine writer with great storytelling skills. I hear Book 2 is coming soon, and if you like Book 1, I'm betting you will like the sequel.

Monday, November 06, 2017

The Mummy: A Mess of Mixed Metaphors

Movie Review: The Mummy (2017)
Version: Library borrow

I would call 2017's The Mummy a mess of mixed metaphors: basically, Egyptian archaeology gone awry meets zombie apocalypse meets hokey Dr. Jekyl/Mr. Hyde. How can you mix all three in a movie and think it's going to turn out well?

This more recent remake of a remake of the original pits Indiana Jones wannabe Nick Morton (played by Tom Cruise) and his sidekick Chris Vail (played by Jake Johnson) against an evil ancient Egyptian queen, Ahmanet (played by Sofia Boutella), who was long ago buried under the sands of Mesopotamia and erased from history, only to be unleashed in modern day Iraq by Morton and Vail. Ahmanet decides Morton is her ideal male to be turned into an eternal god and unleashes all the undead to help her capture him. Meanwhile, archaeologist Jenny Halsey (played by Annabelle Wallis) comes on the scene and brings the sarcophagus and, thus, chaos to England, where she teams up with the dual personality Dr Jekyl/Mr. Hyde (played by Russell Crowe) to try to squelch Ahmanet and save Vail.

The Mummy, true to form with most Tom Cruise films, is full of action and special effects, so it has that going for it. In fact, there's quite a thrilling plane ride at the beginning of the film. But it's the silly constant onslaught of zombies that detracts from the narrative. And then there's the Dr. Jekyl character, who twice has to save himself from turning into the zany Mr. Hyde with a complicated chemical injection, which is a total and unnecessary distraction. Crowe is actually quite good in the role, it's just not important to the story line. Why not add Dr. Frankenstein and his monster while you're at it?

And then there's Tom Cruise portraying himself as the perfect figure for Ahmanet to kill to turn into the eternal god as her forever mate. He looks nothing like the original guy she was going to sacrifice for the role in the beginning of the movie. He's not even Egyptian! So that was totally bogus.

All these things combined soured the movie for me. Just too much silliness and thoughtlessness went into making this film. If I were grading this film I'd give it a C. If I were rating it, I would give it a 3 out of 5. If I were asked by a friend if it was worth seeing, I'd say, "Miss it."

Friday, November 03, 2017

Spy: A Seriously Funny Spoof of Spy Capers

Movie Review: Spy (2015)
Version: Library borrow

Melissa McCarthy is a real comedic treasure, and no where is it more apparent than in Spy, a 2015 spoof of James Bond and other spy capers. Capers actually spells out this story line quite well.

McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a desk-bound CIA analyst who supports the on-site capers of master spy Bradley Fine (played by Jude Law). But when Fine is shot dead, Cooper takes on the assignment of hunting down his nemesis Rayna Boyanov (played by Rose Byrne), who possesses a nuclear bomb and intends to sell it to the highest bidder. In the mix is Fine's CIA competitor spy Rick Ford (played by Jason Statham, who usually plays a villain), a bungler who refuses to accept Cooper as an equal in the field but can't ever quite keep up with her. Allison Janney is excellent as Elaine Crocker, the director of the CIA, who must decide whether to send Cooper into the field.

If you watch this film, make yourself sit through the first half, which is slow as most of the jokes are embarrassingly immature visual prat-fall type humor. Then about half way through the movie someone woke up and the actual fun begins. The jokes become genuinely funny and McCarthy is really on her game. Seriously (how ironic, right?), make yourself sit through the first half to get to the funny material. It's like drinking the melt water at the top of the iced beverage to get to the good stuff below. You will be glad you did. The chase scene is hilarious, beginning with McCarthy's hijacking of a motor bike. The comedic genius goes on from there, one funny scene after another. You will be glad you sat through the first half to get here.

If you're a Melissa McCarthy fan, this is a perfect vehicle for you. It's a gem!