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Surprisingly Good to Startlingly Bad—This Week’s Movies Have It All

George Wolf George Wolf Surprisingly Good to Startlingly Bad—This Week’s Movies Have It AllPhoto still from "Hellboy," via IMDb.
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What do we have for you this week? Sequels, reboots, reworkings of classics, fan fiction, and one really stellar and genuinely original film open this weekend. Not all of them are bad, but only one is really good.

Missing Link

by George Wolf

Like its titular character, Missing Link is a bit of a mixed breed. An animated family adventure, its humor is more dry than zany, with a stellar voice cast and an often sophisticated air to its snappy dialog that is centered around a lonely Sasquatch.

And it looks freaking gorgeous.

Hugh Jackman brings charming life to Sir Lionel Frost, an ambitious, self-centered 1800s explorer on the trail of any big discovery that can get him admitted to the prestigious adventurer’s club led by the aggressively pompous Lord Piggot-Dunceb (Stephen Fry).

A hot tip leads Frost to a face-to-face with the fabled missing link between man and monkey who, as it turns out, provided that hot tip.

See, “Mr. Link” (an endearing Zach Galifianakis) is lonely, and figures Sir Lionel is just the guide savvy enough to lead him to his people, the equally urban-legendary Yeti tribe of Shangri-La.

So our heroes set off across the globe, enlisting the help of Frost’s old paramour Adelina (Zoe Saldana) while they try to outwit Stenk (a perfectly villainous Timothy Olyphant), the assassin sent to stop them.

This is the latest animation wonder from Laika studios, and the follow-up to 2016’s amazing Kubo and the Two Strings. Even if Mr. Link’s adventure wasn’t as engaging as it is, the film would be worthy on visuals alone, as you’ve barely digested one “wow” moment when another is there to blow your hair back.

From the texture of Frost’s gloves to the ripples in a puddle, from a slow dissolve into a binocular lens to a wide, eye-popping set piece on an ice bridge and beyond, Missing Link serves up a hearty feast of cutting-edge stop motion technology.

And while the pace may leave the youngest viewers a tad restless, writer/director Chris Butler (Laika’s ParaNorman) crafts a heartwarming, witty and intelligent tale anchored in the layered relationship of Frost and Link.

Jackman and Galifianakis make them a wonderfully odd couple, and play off the indelible supporters around them (including a gloriously droll Emma Thompson) to keep all the globe-trotting character driven, leaving just enough room for the messages about inclusion and progress to be subtly effective.

The result is a film that’s confident but unassuming, fun without being silly, and satisfying from nearly every angle.

Grade: A-

Hellboy

by Hope Madden

It has been 15 years since Guillermo del Toro and Ron Perlman first brought Mike Mignola’s cat loving, iron fisted, soft hearted son of Satan to the big screen. You’ve got to feel for any filmmaker tasked with following in del Toro’s steps, especially when the film in question is a monster movie brimming with innocence and wonder. That is really his wheelhouse.

But Neil Marshall is no slouch. His first film out the gate back in 2002, Dog Soldiers, offered a wickedly funny war movie with werewolves. This gem he followed in 2005 with what may be contemporary horror’s scariest monster movie, The Descent.

Since then? Nothing to write home about. But that means he’s due for a comeback, eh? And Hellboy’s ready for a reboot. Right?

No to both.

The first difference you’ll note, maybe 15 words into the film with the first of many f-bombs, is that Neil Marshall’s Hellboy is rated R.

It’s also a horror movie, make no mistake. Hellboy is lousy with limb severing, blood gushing, intestine spilling action.

Also, it’s just lousy.

Hellboy (Stranger Things’s David Harbour, who does an admirable job) struggles against a prophesy and a lifetime in the shadows to decide his destiny for himself. Milla Jovovich is a witch. There is a boar monster, a scrappy teen medium, a were-cheetah and some seriously sketchy CGI.

Yikes, this movie looks bad.

There are those who will complain about Marshall’s gleeful gorefest, but not me. Demons ripping the flesh from the faces of innocents? Others may be hiding their eyes from the carnage, but what they’re mercifully missing is digital animation on par with Disney’s The Haunted Mansion (the 2003 film or the amusement park ride, take your pick).

Aside from two creepy images — one of Jovovich’s Blood Queen in flowing red robes beneath a shadowy, skeletal tree; the second a quick sideways glance into Baba Yaga’s pantry — Marshall’s vision is weak.

His storytelling is not much stronger. Working from a script by Andrew Cosby, the film opens with exposition, repeats that exact exposition midway through Act 2, and halts at least three additional times for one character to stand still and articulate a big block of story for us.

Often that character is dead and attached to the mouth of a young girl via a long, gurgly, worm-like body, which probably the most laughable element of the film.

Probably.

Grade: D+

Little

by Hope Madden

Based on a concept by 14-year-old executive producer and star Marsai Martin (Black-ish), the comeuppance comedy Little flips the script on the Tom Hanks Eighties adventure in manhood, Big.

We open with Martin as Jordan Sanders at 13, a science nerd who takes a chance at the talent show to win over the Windsor Middle School student body. When she fails, she pins her dreams on one day being an adult who bullies everyone else before they can bully her.

Flash forward 25 years. Jordan (now Regina Hall) is a monster boss, terrorizing the developers at her tech firm and making life especially miserable for her assistant, April (Insecure‘s Issa Rae). Can some carbs and a little magic return Jordan to her adolescent form so she can unlearn the lesson that sent her life in the wrong direction?

It’s a slight story, penned from Martin’s idea by director Tina Gordon and co-writer Tracy Oliver (Girls Trip). The two choose not to represent bullying as anything other than a fact of life to be tolerated, but they do layer in some silly fun and spots of surprising humor, mainly thanks to the strength of the two leads.

Rae charms throughout the film. Her smile and energy shine, and she offers natural chemistry with both adult and teen versions of her boss. Rae brings a reluctant but earnest sense of compassion to the role, and her comic timing is spot on.

Martin is the film’s real star. She carries scenes with a clever knack for portraying an adult brain inside a child’s form. The physical performance amuses, but it’s really the way she delivers sly lines with a saucy look or toss of the head that brings a chuckle.

It would be tough for this film to be more predictable, but several side characters—a social services agent (Rachel Dracht) and dreamy 7th grade teacher (Justin Hartley) work wonders with their odd characters and limited screen time.

The plotting is pretty sloppy and at no point does the comedy draw more than a chuckle, but Little is an amusing if forgettable waste of time. Martin is someone to remember, though.

Grade: B-

After

by George Wolf

According to my crack research staff (i.e. the twentysomething woman who was nice enough to talk with me after the show), Anna Todd’s After source novels began as fan fiction for the band One Direction.

That actually makes some sense, as Fifty Shades began as Twilight fan fiction, After‘s playbook is Fifty Shades lite (Fifteen Shades?) and I guess this is what we do now.

The smoldering Hardin (Hero Fiennes Tiffin – Harry Potter’s Tom Riddle) is a college student who’s “complicated, be careful!” Incoming freshman Tessa (Josephine Langford, showing moments of potential) isn’t careful, and in an instant is trading in her high school boyfriend and Mennonite-ready frocks for Hardin and one of his multiple Ramones t-shirts.

We’ve all seen this before, and so has Todd, whose story (adapted by Susan McMartin) checks off all the obligatory boxes for what is less a cohesive narrative and more a series of daydreams connected by desperately sensitive pop songs not by the Ramones.

Director Jenny Gage, whose All This Panic mined genuine young adult emotion, is powerless to shape this material into anything more than plug-and-play emptiness.

So after the slo-mo bad boy glances, the disbelief in love, the emotional moment in the rain, the ex who assures her what she did to him was fine, the assurances that someone finally sees her specialness and more, we get to the voiceover essay reading.

Of course we do, and when that essay tells us how deeply one character’s life has been changed by the other, it means nothing unless we’ve been shown some reason, any reason, to believe it.

Grade: D

Master Z: Ip Man Legacy

by Matt Weiner

Master Z picks up right where Ip Man 3 left off. Cheung Tin Chi (Max Zhang), still emotionally beaten down after losing his fight to Ip Man, contents himself with living a quiet life with his young son. He has traded in Wing Chun and his martial arts school for a grocery store and what passes for domestic bliss.

This being a martial arts movie, Cheung’s serenity doesn’t last long. He quickly finds himself up against feuding gangsters, local police and their bullying colonial counterparts. When tensions escalate, Cheung’s store goes up in flames, and he and his son move in with sympathetic bar owner Fu (Xing Yu) and his sister Julia (Yan Liu).

For its simple setup, if anything Master Z suffers from too much world-building. The franchise spinoff lacks the compelling history of characters like Ip Man and Bruce Lee, which wouldn’t have to be a problem if the script didn’t insist on so much rote backstory and twists and turns that don’t really go anywhere.

Thankfully, Master Z comes alive during the fight scenes. Director Yuen Woo-ping, who also worked on fight choreography for Ip Man 3, confidently cycles through tense, simmering send-ups to slapstick to death-defying brawls. Each fight has its own emotional character, and taken together they serve as a refreshing reminder that fast-paced action can still be intelligible. It’s amazing what directors can do with choreography when they don’t need to compensate for poor fighting skills or excessive CGI.

Another highlight is Dave Bautista as Owen Davidson, a foreign businessman whose dealings are less savory than the restaurant fronting them. Despite his hero status in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Bautista has managed to keep an air of unpolished menace to his characters. (That’s not a dig against certain other comically large wrestlers-turned-actors, but it does allow Bautista to carve out an interesting corner for himself even if he continues down a path of big-budget stardom.)

Action royalty Michelle Yeoh and Tony Jaa round out the cast — Yeoh impeccably so as a sharp crime boss, and Jaa all too briefly as one of her hired guns. But for all its machinations, Master Z at least continues the franchise’s deftness at homing in on a message and beating it into you. Master Z is about as family-centric of an action movie as you can get when the subject matter includes limb removals, drug overdoses and the legacy of colonial corruption.

Cheung finds the redemption that eluded him as he goes from everyman to superman for the sake of his son. His story might no longer be the stuff of legends, but Master Z suggests that such a life is equally worthy of celebration. Or, at the very least, a worthy spinoff.

Grade: B-

Also opening in Columbus:

Ash is Purest White (NR)
Chitralahari (NR)
Faith, Hope & Love (PG)
Mia and the White Lion (PG)
Rottentail (NR)
Transit (NR)

Read more from George and crew at MADDWOLF and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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