Yes, Seeing THE HATEFUL EIGHT in 70mm IS Glorious

 

When it was announced that The Hateful Eight, the newest film from auteur Quentin Tarantino, would be released for a limited run in 70mm, I thought, “that’s awesome. Wish I could see that.” I was overjoyed to learn a few weeks ago that my city, Orlando, would be a host to the roadshow at the AMC Disney Springs 24 and made plans immediately. I’m here to tell you that not only was I not disappointed, seeing The Hateful Eight in 70mm was one of the best cinematic experiences I’ve had in a year full of them.

Even going to a screening at an off-time (a Sunday morning), seeing The Hateful Eight in its roadshow presentation felt like an event. As I gave the dude at the door my ticket, I was handed a handsome 12″ souvenir program with films stills, a blurb and a poster. A lot of the other folks there to see Star Wars saw the program and were curious, I felt pretty cool. At my screening there were no previews; at the scheduled time the digital projector running previews turned off, the film projector turned on and displayed a title card with the word “OVERTURE,” we were off to the races immediately.

Roadshow presentations of epic films were fairly common in the 60’s, but a proper 70mm roadshow presentation of a new film has not taken place in decades. Certain home releases of 2001: A Space Odyssey include the overture and intermission, but that will be most filmgoers’ closest encounter to the format. With these elements in place, along with the souvenir program (and the vibe of a clearly passionate audience), my perfectly ordinary screening of the film felt like something special and unique.

But let’s stop talking about the ancillary stuff- what does seeing The Hateful Eight in 70mm actually look like? The answer is both more and less different than you might expect.

When big productions like Ben-Hur went on the road, they didn’t go to multiplexes as we picture today. They screened at big, iconic movie houses like the Cinerama Dome. The grand, single-screen movie theatre is no longer really a thing, and most multiplex auditoriums retrofitted with 70mm projectors simply can’t replicate the experience of seeing a film in a huge, ornate  auditorium with a massive screen (this isn’t The Dark Knight in IMAX, calm down). However, simply seeing a film projected on celluloid in a modern multiplex is a pleasure enough in and of itself. It feels tangible. It’s also great to see an actual human projectionist watching over your screening!

Super Panavision 70, the film’s native format, simply looks different from what you’re used to. The field of view is super-wide (imagine playing Minecraft in Quake Pro FOV), and every frame is gorgeous and beautifully framed by DP Robert Richardson. In my presentation (and I expect most), the mattes at the top and bottom of the screen were blurry, an inevitable consequence of the fact that Hateful Eight‘s aspect ratio is wider than conventional films and the adjustable curtain mattes simply don’t go that far. Were you to watch the film on a standard TV, the black bars at the top and bottom of the image would be bigger to support the more extreme height-to-width ratio. This wider aspect ratio looks uniquely stunning and presents huge western landscapes in truly breathtaking fashion, but most of the film is not composed of landscapes.

In fact, The Hateful Eight takes place mostly in one setting: a one-room haberdashery snowed in by a massive blizzard. The 70mm photography may seem suited more to expansive landscapes but brings a whole new dimension to the claustophobic cabin in which the  bulk of the film takes place. At any given moment, a good portion of the whole set is in frame and characters not directly involved in the dialogue are still very present in the one-room set. Like Ex Machina from earlier this year, The Hateful Eight would feel like a play if it weren’t so damn cinematic. The wide field-of-view provided by the vintage 65mm Panavision lenses encompasses a much broader range than traditional camera equipment, and while making landscapes most expansive makes the cottage set feel much more claustrophobic and unescapable.

Besides the technical aspects and aesthetics, how is the film? Definitely worth seeing. The Hateful Eight may not be Tarantino’s best work, but it may be his best-looking and most mature as a filmmaker. The film is peppered with the salty, politically-incorrect language and horrifying violence you’d expect from a Tarantino film but refrains from some of his most egregious excesses:

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Just too much (from Django Unchained, TWC)

The film may be Tarantino’s most aggressive film in terms of pure shock value, it’s more restrained in terms of B-movie exploitation and crudity than some of the director’s earlier works. The film feels grown-up, and the purest distillation yet of Tarantino’s love of the projected moving image. It’s clear that every frame of The Hateful Eight was crafted with love.

There’s plenty more to discuss about the film proper, but for now it’s safe to say you’d be doing a disservice to yourself to see the new film from Quentin Tarantino in any other than its desired 70mm format. Even at an odd time, I felt a connection to the film and the format that felt different and special, and I hope to see it in 7mm again before the run ends. It’s the most delicious film-school porn and I can’t get enough.

First Impressions of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

THE SPOILERS ARE STRONG WITH THIS ONE.  IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS YET, DO NOT READ THIS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

It’s here. The hype train has reached the station and Star Wars: The Force Awakens is now in theaters. Because it’s a Star Wars movie, the opening week is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our discussion and we’re going to be living with this film for a long time. We still talk about the prequels, after all.

We would all see The Force Awakens even if it was terrible, but fortunately, it’s good! In fact, it’s really good. Episode VII is, remarkably, the first non-sucky Star Wars movie to be released in 32 years (or longer, depending on who you ask). Considering the series’ place in pop culture, that is not to be taken lightly. One of the few big criticisms that can be leveled at the movie is that it plays it too safe and banks on sure-bet imagery and moments from the original trilogy, but we’ve seen what happens when big creative risks are taken with Star Wars, and I’ll take this thank you very much.

YO! SPOILERS! LAST CHANCE TO EXIT! YOU WILL GET WET!

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So yes, let’s get this out of the way. The plot of The Force Awakens hews pretty closely to A New Hope. This approach to crafting the story places certain limitations on where the plot can go and prevents the film from being truly surprising. It may not be the most creatively daring experience, but it’s a great popcorn romp. The three new lead characters, played ably by Oscar Isaac, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, reflect many of the traits of the original trilogy’s leading trio but not in the obvious ways you might expect. Each character is an amalgam of things we’ve seen before, for example Rey has shades of Luke and most closely follows his arc but has all the feisty energy that made Leia such a forward-thinking character. Finn has some of Han’s reluctance, A New Hope Luke’s pluckiness, and some droid-like dopiness thrown in for good measure. Poe Dameron has Solo’s acerbic wit and lazy confidence, but also Luke’s wholesome earnestness for the cause of the light side.

It deserves a moments’ notice to say the cast of The Force Awakens is spot-on across the board, both new and old. Harrison Ford falls back into the role of Han Solo more comfortably I allowed myself to hope for. John Boyega is wonderfully dippy. Adam Driver continues his streak of making every scene he’s in, no matter the role, a lot weirder. As Rey, newcomer Daisy Ridley hits it out of the park and with the help of a snappy script helps create an exciting new kind of female action hero for our ever-more-progressive times (and who is sure to be a role model for millions of kids of both genders going forward).

The Force Awakens occupies a unique place in pop culture; there’s never really been a release like this one. As such, the film is just as meta as you would expect. Everything you could reasonably expect to see as a Star Wars fan is in there, from the ships to the characters to the production design. It’s even got a cantina scene! And a Death Star! The overtly referential nature of the whole affair looks a bit tired on paper, but for whatever reason none of the similarities really bothered me in the theater, and became less worrisome on subsequent viewings. The film is simply good enough to make up for it.

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It helps that The Force Awakens is compulsively rewatchable. It’s dense and packed to the gills with fun throwaway details, but ditches a lot of the prequels’ visual clutter. Star Wars has always been more than just a movie franchise, with the films dictating big plot events to be expanded upon in other media like books and games. The Force Awakens is the first look into a big new storytelling universe we’ll be living with, presumably, for the rest of our lives. There will always be new details to mine. Beyond the interests of Star Wars fandom, the film is rewatchable because it’s so damn fun. It’s easily the funniest Star Wars movie, and it’s also the tightest. Cut at the breakneck pace for which J. J. Abrams is known, the film zooms along too fast for any cringeworthy moments (“HEY!!! THAT’S MINE!!!!!!”) to really stick. It just keeps coming, and every scene has something new and crazy to look at.

The Force Awakens is not perfect. Most of the  film’s bigger issues stem from the 30-year sequel gap and a lack of definition about the current state of the story universe.  The Starkiller planet destruction scene is the one big moment that really falls flat, we don’t have enough information to know what the stakes are; at least we knew Alderaan had some political importance and we understood Leia’s personal stake. I know nothing about the Hosnian system. I don’t even know if I spelled that right. Really, once the current political landscape of the Star Wars universe is laid out in the opening crawl it’s not brought up in detail again and that was probably the right decision for the movie. This is the biggest movie event ever, it was only going to be so dorky. Also, in a somewhat disappointing footnote John Williams’ score works effectively in the context of the movie, but lacks the next “Imperial March” or “Duel of the Fates.” Rey’s new theme is as close as the score comes to a memorable new idea, but it took several viewings and listening to the soundtrack to really get it. The new trilogy’s musical motifs are currently a little foggy, and that was unexpected.

After seeing The Force Awakens (several times), I’m more excited than ever for the future of Star Wars. Was Episode VII a little basic in its plotting? Maybe. Does it get a bit too on-the-nose with its references to the lore? You could argue that. Did I openly weep when the Star Wars logo appeared on screen? I tried to keep it together.

Little gripes don’t really matter. The fact is, we’re going to get a Star Wars movie every year until the end of time. The next one can be weird, this one just had to be good. And it is. It’s way better that just good. There truly has been an awakening.

Fall 2015 Review Blow-Out (Part 3)

Welcome back, folks! Our review round-up continues with three films that all have their own problems.

SPECTRE

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Daniel Craig in Spectre (Columbia/MGM)

Spectre is this year’s Star Trek into Darkness. I haven’t found a better way of putting it. Both films are sequels to massively successful franchise films that fail artistically by giving fans what they think they want, and clumsily calling back to the series’ past. Into Darkness aped Wrath of Khan in an irritatingly obvious way, and Spectre‘s third act is a soup of Connery- and Moore-era tropes somehow designed to act as a coda on Craig’s entire run. It’s unconvincing and ruins what is otherwise a fairly enjoyable mid-range Bond pic.

Spectre peaks early. In fact, it peaks in its first sequence, designed to look like a minutes-long unbroken take as the camera slinkily follows Bond through a Dia de los Muertos parade, in a building, up an elevator and out to a roof. It’s great, but it’s a red herring and the proceeding two hours don’t contain a moment that comes close to matching the excitement of the first two minutes in terms of either storytelling or technical bravado.

Much of the team from the previous Craig 007 outings, including director Sam Mendes, cinematographer Roger Deakins and several members of the Skyfall writing team, return for this installment. Much of the cast returns as well, and turn in typically fine work. Individuals aren’t the problem with Spectre, it’s the weak script. More so than any previous Craig outing, the script pulls heavily from elements of Bond’s history and the parallels are mind-numbingly obvious. Dave Bautista’s evil henchman, Mr. Hinx, is clearly meant to be a stand-in for Oddjob from Goldfinger. The big bad, Christoph Waltz’s (SPOILER ALERT I guess but really) Blofeld is ripped directly from previous installments. What this does to the admittedly muddy Bond continuity is left unaddressed. This stuff would be fine if it was handled with a bit more care, but all of the callbacks are handled with the subtlety of a chainsaw. Bond viewers are smarter than Spectre gives them credit for. The pattern of every other Bond film being good persists; Spectre is a misfire.

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 2

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Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (Lionsgate)

The deck was stacked against this one from the beginning. The Hunger Games film series has excelled partly because the films are faithful to the books while taking out some of the stupidest YA crap, and this approach worked in the previous three installments. However, Mockingjay Part 2 had a problem this approach can’t solve: the end of the Hunger Games book series is a huge letdown.

The film sands off some of the ending’s roughest edges, but the fundamental flaws remain. To end a huge series like this on such a dour note may have seemed bold if it was the film’s decision to make, but in reality it’s just playing the book’s shitty hand. If you read the book and disliked it like most people did, the movie won’t make you feel any better. The ending is problematic, but instead of feeling edgy and challenging it feels needlessly grim. A disappointment, but perhaps an inevitable one.

Because the Hunger Games film franchise hews so close to its source material, really assessing it means we have to look closer at its cinematic elements, and set the tricky story elements aside. All four installments, this one included, are well-made and competently constructed. Mockingjay Part 2 is solid but not artistically distinctive, director Francis Lawrence has shepherded the final films to their release ably but not with the intent to distinguish himself as an auteur. David Yates had a similarly long run directing all of the Harry Potter films from Order of the Phoenix on, but those four films all managed to be uniquely distinct from one another. The Hunger Games films share a unified artistic approach that is in its own way unique, but as the relative box-office disappointment of Part 2 indicates, we’re all a bit tired and ready for this journey to end, for now.

THE GOOD DINOSAUR

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The Good Dinosaur (Disney•Pixar)

Let’s just get this out of the way now: The Good Dinosaur is second-tier Pixar. It’s not going to lead you to emotional places you haven’t been before, and feels more like a kid’s movie than Pixar’s usual four-quadrant fare. That being said, it’s pretty weird and dark for a movie aimed at children and had several moments which genuinely shocked me.

The publicity for The Good Dinosaur leaves out the single most interesting element of the film, and that’s how deeply strange the whole thing is. Dinosaur seesaws wildly between different tones and genres as the story progresses, even becoming a take on  John Ford westerns for about half an hour. There are some gnarly and violent moments that come out of nowhere; the movie does not mess with the fact that these characters are all, at the end of the day, wild animals. Some of the dinosaur characters the protagonist, apatosaurus Arlo, encounters are clearly damaged and feel legitimately dangerous. The film also includes a drug-trip sequence that looks like it came from experience.

It has to be said that The Good Dinosaur looks gorgeous. Every Pixar film has some big technological leap forward (Monsters, Inc. nailed fur, Incredibles figured out hair, etc.), but Good Dinosaur feels like it has maybe ten. Except for the dinosaurs, which look bizarrely cartoonish compared to their surroundings, everything in the frame is rendered in jaw-dropping photorealistic detail. Computer-generated water has never looked so good.

The Good Dinosaur suffered a famously arduous production process, the film’s release was delayed 18 months and the original director was replaced. The film is odd and disjointed enough that I don’t think it’s a stretch to say what we see on screen is not the original intent of the project. It may not be one of Pixar’s masterpieces, but The Good Dinosaur is an interesting oddity that’s worth seeing.

Thanks for reading and watch this space, there might just be a part 4 to this review round-up before Star Wars comes out. Once December 18 hits, you won’t care about anything else and neither will I. In the meantime, here are links to PART 1 and PART 2 of this piece.

Fall 2015 Review Blow-Out (Part 2)

Welcome back, folks. Today we bring you more of the pulse-pounding, edge-of-your-seat short-form film criticism you’ve come to expect.

STEVE JOBS

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Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs (Universal)

Aaron Sorkin is a unique presence in Hollywood, one of the few screenwriters (along with Charlie Kaufman) to truly distinguish himself as an auteur. Steve Jobs continues many of the trends we’ve come to expect out of a Sorkin joint, like the biting, fast-and-furious dialogue, a prototypically Sorkin-esque white male protagonist and some troublesome depictions of women. It’s a fascinating watch, not the least of which for its problems.

Steve Jobs literally follows a three-act structure: the film takes place backstage before three of Jobs’ pre-iPod product launches. This framework is clever, and whether it works for you might come down to personal taste. The structure draws attention to itself and defines the picture in a way a more traditional plot would not. Steve Jobs is a “biopic” only in the broadest sense of the word; Sorkin’s screenplay, an adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography, takes broad thematic strokes from Jobs’ life to create an emotional portrait that bears little resemblance to the real events as they took place.

Since the film takes place in three segments that play out in close to real-time, Steve Jobs is required to compress a ton of character development into a few (admittedly lengthy) sequences. As a result, the film bears an electric sense of urgency and momentum. This has the unfortunate side effect of creating some moments, especially in the final act, that don’t feel truly “earned.” Jobs is a complex and not particularly likable character, so to give the character a broad emotional arc in such a short timeframe feels forced and disingenuous. Jobs becomes a victim of its own cleverness in its final scenes, but despite some stumbles is an insatiably watchable drama that didn’t deserve the box-office drubbing it received.

Oh yeah, and it was directed by Danny Boyle. For what that’s worth.

ROOM

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Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larsen in Room (A24)

Go see Room if it’s playing in your area, and keep an eye out for its expansion as we get deeper into awards season. Since most people have not gotten the chance to see it, and the film is VERY spoil-able, I’m keeping my thoughts restricted mostly to the first act. In addition, I would heavily dissuade you from watching the trailer for this reason.

Brie Larsen is an actress we’ll be seeing a lot more of in the coming years, with any luck. She’s turned in consistently excellent performances in both dramatic (Short Term 12) and comedic (Trainwreck) roles and her performance in Room may be her most powerful yet. As the film begins Larsen’s character, referred to only as “Ma,” is locked in a cramped one-room living space with her son Jack, played with at times startling vulnerability and intensity by Jacob Tremblay. Jack has never been outside. A world has been constructed for him, of proper nouns and imagined friendships. He lives in Room. He sits on Chair, sleeps in Bed, etc. He watches TV, but those things aren’t real. As Jack reaches his fifth birthday, Ma’s desperation at her situation increases.

I’ll go no further, because if you’re not familiar with the source novel by Emma Donoghue (who also penned the screenplay) grappling with what happens to Ma and Jack, and the emotional wreckage that must inevitably be cleaned up, is part of what makes this story so harrowing and effective, perhaps in spite of Room’s somewhat workmanlike visual style. Considering the amount of screen time the audience spends in Room, the environment and layout of the space are not laid out in a particularly compelling way. I never truly got a feel for the geography and spatial relationships of Room like I expected to. Much of Room is a bottle movie, and those are hard to make. Regardless of some film school-y nitpicks, Room is a compelling and important commentary on grief, abuse and recovery and should be seen.

BURNT

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Bradley Cooper in Burnt (The Weinstein Company)

Watch Ratatouille or Chef (or both!). Skip Burnt. Next.

THE PEANUTS MOVIE

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The Peanuts Movie (20th Century Fox)

2015 has brought us some high-quality family films (Paddington, Inside Out, Shaun the Sheep Movie) and I’m pleased to say The Peanuts Movie is another home run. Just like Charles Schultz’s long-running comic strip, it’s earnest, uncomplicated and delightfully melancholy. With active participation of the Schultz estate, Peanuts has a spirit that feels timeless, and plants itself in 2015 only in its non-diegetic, i.e. technical , elements. The Peanuts Movie is planted firmly out of time, in a post-WWII suburban neighborhood at a time when nobody has a cell phone, and Charlie Brown still has to check a book out of the library.

The visuals, while clearly CG, possess a certain tangible weight and texture that mimics stop-motion. In a fascinating compromise between traditional 3D animation and the strip’s iconic style, the characters are rendered close to flat and are displayed only straight-on, in profile or at at about a 45° angle. The animation is slightly rough around the edges which gives the film an unexpectedly handmade feel.

Translated from simple drawings in small boxes on newsprint to the big screen in 3-D, The Peanuts have somehow lost none of their charm. In several sequences Schultz’s line drawings are used directly and the voices of Snoopy and Woodstock come courtesy of archival audio of the late actor Bill Melendez, who voiced the characters in several classic Charlie Brown specials. Aside from the 3D, the only thing that really dates the film is a gaudy pop song or two. The Peanuts Movie doesn’t break any new narrative ground or illuminate anything new about the characters, but it’s a really nice way to spend 85 minutes.

Watch this space for another crop of reviews in the coming days, and find Part 1 of this piece here.

 

Fall 2015 Review Blow-Out (Part 1)

Hello friends! It’s been a while. Here’s what I’ve been watching in theaters this Fall, it’s a lot so this will be coming to you in three parts this week.

BLACK MASS

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Johnny Depp in Black Mass (Warner Bros.)

Black Mass walks like a prestige picture and barks like a prestige picture, but comes off more like pandering awards fodder. Johnny Depp anchors the picture as infamous real-life Boston gangster Whitey Bulger and his performance is electric at times, but unfortunately Depp is the only thing the film has going for it. The film lacks a substantial narrative line to cling to, and feels more like a series of scenes than a complete story. Black Mass employs a framing device of various interviews with the characters surrounding Bulger, but the movie doesn’t stick with any of them long enough to form a meaningful connection. With the exception of a few scenes, the film never feels dangerous and unpredictable like a good gangster movie should. Black Mass feels like a film so concerned with hitting certain real-life moments it forgets to be entertaining.

SICARIO

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Benicio del Toro and Emily Blunt in Sicario (Lionsgate)

After only a few films, Denis Villeneuve is setting himself apart as one of most unique and challenging directors working in mainstream cinema today. His latest thriller, Sicario, is possibly his most digestible work to date but it’s still darker and morally murkier than most of what you’ll see in a multiplex. The film sports great performances from Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro, and was shot by the faultless Roger Deakins.

Sicario explores the increasingly well-trodden ground of the war on drug cartels along the Mexican border replete with all the violence, male posturing and general ugliness you would expect. The presence of Emily Blunt’s character, and her role in the narrative, broaches the dynamic of a woman in a male-dominated environment in a sensitive and unique way.

We’ll keep it spoiler-free here, but Sicario boasts a fascinating third-act twist that sidelines a major character. On the surface this decision may seem crass or mysogynistic, but it ties into the grey, ambiguous nature of the film perfectly. Villeneuve is gaining for ending his films in memorable ways, and Sicario is no exception. Not the easiest sit, but highly recommended.

THE INTERN

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Anne hathaway and Robert DeNiro in The Intern (Warner Bros.)

The Intern, the new film from Nancy Meyers (Something’s Gotta Give, It’s Complicated) ended up being one of the fall’s sleeper hits, making almost $75 million domestically off of a $35 million budget. The Intern is simple and predictable, but functions effectively at its real purpose: to spend two fun hours with some likable people. Anne Hathaway plays a young, hurried and harried startup CEO who, through movie logic, is paired up with a “senior” intern played by Robert DeNiro. The story plays out almost exactly as you’d expect and hits all the requisite beats of this kind of comedy, but keeps afloat thanks to solid performances all around and a light tone that never gets too bogged down in angst. The Intern is the sort of mid-budget film made for adults that Hollywood doesn’t make enough of anymore, and for that it’s commendable.

THE MARTIAN

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Matt Damon in The Martian (20th Century Fox)

The Martian is the perfect example of Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking at its most competent. It’s not the best picture of the year or even the best sci-fi film of the year(*cough* Ex Machina *cough*), but it’s a rare example of a big mainstream film that gets very little wrong and doesn’t condescend to its audience.

Matt Damon’s character spends the majority of the film in isolation on Mars, but he’s supported by an able Earth-bound ensemble cast that mostly plays to type (featuring Jeff Daniels as Jeff Daniels) but does it well. The film maintains a fairly light tone considering the subject matter, and has an optimistic streak that feels almost old-fashioned.

Ridley Scott has always been more of a journeyman than an auteur, and much of The Martian’ s success can be tributed to screenwriter Drew Goddard’s smart and economical adaptation of the Andy Weir novel. The screenplay (necessarily) excises a lot of the deeper science from the book, but it doesn’t feel dumbed-down. Even without many big action set pieces, it’s a rollicking, fun popcorn flick that deserves to be seen on the big screen.

That’s all for now, check back later this weekend for more thrilling criticism.