Category Archives: Reviews

“FIFTY SHADES OF GREY” Review (✫)

SOURCE: Universal Pictures

“Mr. Grey will see you now.” “I’m actually leaving, thanks.”

My thoughts the night that I watched Fifty Shades of Grey:

6:05 p.m.: Took my girlfriend to Olive Garden before showtime. She tells me how excited she is to watch the movie. I’m thinking how badly I want to watch The Spongebob Movie instead.

7:11 p.m.: We drive up to the movie theater, pick up our tickets, and wait in line to enter the show. There are way too many couples here for comfort, especially dressed in black.

7:26 p.m.: Opening credits roll. We catch a slight glimpse of Jamie Dornan’s backside as Christian Grey. All of the women in the audience gasp, including the one right next to me.

7:28 p.m.: We meet Anastasia Steele, portrayed by Dakota Johnson, kissing her sick roommate goodbye before leaving for the day. One: I’ve never known any roommates of any kind to ever do this. Two: Did she seriously just kiss her SICK roommate goodbye? Is she not concerned about germs? Viruses? Cooties?

7:29 p.m.: As Ana parks her car, author E.L. James’ credit comes up for writing the book that this is based on. I suddenly remember that Fifty Shades of Grey was originally written as Twilight fan-fiction. God help me.

7:31 p.m.: Jamie Dornan turns around, and we get our first full-body glimpse of him as Christian Grey. The women gasp again. I’m assuming there’s some wet seats at this point.

7:33 p.m.: Okay, so let me walk through this. This girl’s roommate, who is an experienced college journalist, gets sick, so she asks her clueless roommate to conduct this very important interview with a multi-millionaire playboy for her? Why couldn’t she get one of her journalism friends to cover this story? I wouldn’t leave an interview that important to my inexperienced roommate, let alone one as inept and clumsy as Ana.

7:46 p.m.: Ana is working at her local department store when, EGADS! She meets Mr. Grey again. What a coincidence! I never saw that one coming!

7:48 p.m.: A few thoughts I’m having during this scene. One: Why is Christian shopping at a department store all by himself? Doesn’t he have people to do that for him? And if he went specifically into the store just to give Ana his number, again, why not have your people do it for you? Two: He’s buying, I kid you not, cable ties, masking tape, and rope. The women in the auditorium gasp again. Who on Earth gets aroused by this? These women are wondering what Christian would do to their bodies, while I’m wondering where he’s hiding the actual bodies. Ana even remarks that he’s now the complete serial killer. Honey. Lock up the store and call the police.

7:49 p.m.: The quality of this dialogue confirms that this is definitely based on Twilight fan-fiction. Johnson and Dornan’s chemistry is so wooden that they feel like those two motorized figures that pop out of a cuckoo clock. I’m hoping their acting gets better as the movie goes on.

8:03 p.m.: It does not get better.

8:18 p.m.: After meeting only a couple of times and playing Ellie Goulding over a helicopter ride to Christian Grey’s apartment, we finally approach our first sex scene, where Ana reveals that she’s a virgin. Christian grabs her whilst saying number 21 from the “Most Overused Dialogue” catalog: “Where have you been all my life???” Anastasia then quotes number 26: “Waiting for you.” Somebody please kill me.

8:30 p.m.: We’re an hour into this movie and I can’t tell you how badly I want to leave. I’ve heard way too many gasps and groans in the audience for my own comfort. The guys, I presume, are as miserable as I am right now. My girlfriend, meanwhile, is grinning from ear-to-ear through the whole screening. I’m starting to question this entire relationship.

8:42 p.m.: Ana is reading off Christian’s “contract” for him, which says what she is required to do if she is to become Christian’s “submissive” (BDSM term for friends with benefits). She firmly says “no anal,” and he winces. For the first and only time in this movie, I sympathized with Christian Grey.

8:43 p.m.: And finally, an hour into this movie, we get our first objectively well-done scene. In the dark hues of red and black in the negotiation room, Christian and Anastasia converse on what they would do to each other in the bedroom. The dialogue here is hot and heavy, and the sexual tension is bubbling just enough to where you can feel it simmering under the surface. The camera closes in slowly on both of the actor’s faces, while the editing cuts smoothly back and forth between their expressions while the music builds up. Fantastic. This is the kind of film technique this movie has been desperately needing 70 minutes ago.

8:54 p.m.: Back to the plastic sex scenes. Great. Just what I needed.

8:56 p.m.: Girls are squealing in the auditorium as if Justin Bieber walked in front of the screen. I see the depressed, defeated postures of the men surrounding me. One is burying his head into his hands. Another is leaning back in his seat, apparently trying to sleep through the torture. I think I heard one of them sobbing.

9:21 p.m.: We arrive at the, err, climax of the movie, where Ana discovers what truly arouses Christian Grey. It’s him whipping her back with a flogger. She’s crying tears to the equivalent of those Hallmark romantic comedies. “This gives you pleasure?” she exasperatingly asks. Well, duh. What did you think BDSM stood for? Big, Dull, Sour Moron? Not that it isn’t fitting for Mr. Grey, but I’m just saying, know your abbreviations sweetheart.

9:28 p.m.: Ana leaves through the elevator and says goodbye to Christian as it closes. They should have edited this shot into the beginning and saved us an hour and a half of agony.

9:50 p.m.: I drive my girlfriend home, and we discuss the movie over a glass of Pinot Noir. She asked me what I thought of the movie. I laughed hollowly. “This was my own BDSM experience with all of the torture and none of the pleasure,” I quipped. She seemed surprised. She tells me she actually really liked the movie and was looking forward to its sequels.

Anyhow, that’s the story of how me and my ex-girlfriend broke up.

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“THE SHAPE OF WATER” Review (✫✫)

SOURCE: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Sleeping with the fishes.

There is an audience out there that The Shape of Water was made for. I am emphatically not a part of it. It’s one of those arthouse films that spreads itself thin with period drama, satire, science-fiction, horror, romance, and fantasy, diluting all of those aesthetics down to the point of meaninglessness, losing whatever impact they might have originally had. There’s a good movie swimming around somewhere in The Shape of Water. Unfortunately, it’s so watered down that the previews before the movie seem more interesting than this.

Taking place in Baltimore, 1962 during the Cold War, The Shape of Water follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor who communicates using sign language with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Elisa and Zelda work at an obscure government laboratory tucked away from the public eye, and the labs they clean hide some very peculiar secrets in them. One of these is an amphibious humanoid creature brought in by colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who captured the creature so that he could be studied and possibly dissected by the lab team.

The ladies are told that the creature is a deadly and vicious animal and are warned to stay away from it. However, Elisa’s interactions with the creature prove otherwise. The little guy is curious, shy, and friendly, interacting with Elisa like how a whipped dog would interact with a child. As the two become closer and more fond of each other, Elisa resolves to break the creature out of the laboratory and set him free.

You go into movies like The Shape of Water with a few expectations in mind. 1) That it’s going to be strange and unpredictable. 2) There’s some deep messages tied into this seemingly simple narrative. 3) There are going to be sex scenes, many of which you have no desire to see whatsoever. The first two expectations are not surprising for writer-director Guillermo Del Toro, whose career is filled with both visually spectacular blockbusters and intimate fables filled with double meanings. Hellboy, for instance, was an action-adventure thrill ride about a reluctant hero overcoming his literal demonic nature, while Pacific Rim was a science-fiction robot/monster romp of epic proportions. My favorite of his movies, Pan’s Labyrinth, is a childhood fairy tale trapped inside a nightmare, paralleling a little girl’s infatuation of a fantasy world with her loss of innocence in the adult world. Del Toro is no doubt an ambitious and creative storyteller, and his filmmaking trademarks are just as consistent in The Shape of Water as they are in his other pictures.

But there are creative decisions being made here that make very little sense, and even when they do, the general response to them is nausea, disgust, or both. Take for instance, the previously mentioned sex scenes. They are constant and jarring, as if a nymphomaniac watched the theatrical cut and told Del Toro he wouldn’t release it until he edited more nudity into it. Elisa, for instance, has multiple scenes where she is seen naked masturbating in her bathtub. Strickland has one graphic sex scene with his wife where he is disturbingly obsessed with her remaining silent while he finishes ejaculating. And the creature. Good God, the creature. His sex scenes with Elisa are just weird, disorienting, and disturbing, like a fish dry-humping a child on the beach.

I know, I know, this isn’t the first time an inter-species romance is prominently featured in a movie. From Avatar to Blade Runner 2049, humans have had sex with aliens, monsters, computers, holograms, and robots in the movies. Why not throw sea creatures into the mix? It’s certainly not the most awkward sexual encounter we’ve ever watched on-screen (see Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johannsen’s sorta-sex scene in Her).

But even by cinema’s already creepy standards, The Shape of Water still manages to outdo its predecessors, mainly by the sheer brainlessness of its characters. For instance, in one scene the creature eats a cat’s head off, then flees the apartment when startled by one of the neighbors. Now I’m not a 1960’s American socialite, but if a monster just ate one of my neighbor’s cats and ran away, I would say good riddance and shut the door behind him. Yet Elisa is instead worried for the creature, and becomes further infatuated with him when she finds him later on with blood and cat fur all over his chin. I’m an animal lover, folks. Let me tell you, I’ve never had a stronger instinct to shoot at something on the movie screen in my entire life.

Other scenes make just as little sense as that one. After Elisa has sex with the creature, she gossips about it with Zelda in the laboratory, and instead of running away screaming in horror and insanity, Zelda just nods and mildly approves of this science-fiction bestiality. In another scene, Elisa floods her bathroom just to have underwater sex with the creature. Isn’t she concerned about the water bill? The weak wood foundation? The movie theater underneath her apartment that she can potentially flood? What if her landlord decided to evict her from all the property damage she caused? What if the floor caved in and she killed herself from the fall down? And since when did Del Toro think it was a good idea to randomly insert a musical number halfway through the picture?

I won’t say that the film is technically incompetent, because that couldn’t be further from the truth. The scenery and the building designs expertly convey the feel and grandeur of the 1960’s, while the bleak, grey hues of Elisa’s laboratory evoke the tensions and paranoia of international espionage during the Cold War. The music by Alexandre Desplat is elegant and simplistic, beautifully romanticizing the creature’s relationship with Elise while at other times evoking the unease and hostility of the era. The makeup and costume work, as it is in all of Del Toro’s productions, is spot-on and mesmerizing. Actor Doug Jones is essentially erased into this role as a humanoid sea creature who’s just discovering the world around him, and the way he moves and acts gives no indication that it’s just a man acting inside of a costume.

The greatest of these elements, however, is Sally Hawkins. It’s not often that a film features a mute character. In fact, the last time I can recall any character even resembling Elise was Patty Duke’s portrayal of Helen Keller in 1962’s The Miracle Worker. And yet, Hawkins completely mesmerizes in the role, physically mimicking the characteristics of a mute while remaining emotionally sensitive to her plights. Most actors have the advantage of dialogue to demonstrate their skills in a performance, yet without her voice, Hawkins’ performance is handicapped right from the outset. The fact that she’s just as compelling in her silent role regardless makes her acting all the more impressive, as she does with her wrists and hands what her lips would normally do.

The Shape of Water is a film filled with great intentions, but intentions do not equal quality. And as far as its themes of prejudice, xenophobia, and miscegenation goes, there are far superior films from the year that elaborated on these same themes, yet illustrated them so much better. Get Out. Detroit. War for the Planet of the Apes. These films illustrate the same ideas, but finds a better way to integrate them into their narrative. The Shape of Water drowns in its own preachiness. And sex scenes.

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“STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Let the past die.

In Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) tells Rey (Daisy Ridley) that there are three Jedi lessons that she needs to learn, but he only teaches her two of them. I don’t believe that was a mistake, but rather an intentional omission. That’s because Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a film about our heroes letting us down, our expectations not being met, and our resolutions failing to be reached. Such is true because such is life. How else would you explain the untimely death of our beloved princess, Carrie Fisher?

The Last Jedi picks up immediately after the events of The Force Awakens, when Rey realizes she too possess the force and needs guidance from Skywalker on how to use it. Meanwhile, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) are on the run with the rest of the resistance from the First Order, who is relentlessly hunting them after they blew up Starkiller base. While this is going on, Ben Solo a.k.a. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is in a power struggle with General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) in between Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), who commands them both. A lot of moving pieces here, a lot of things happening all at once. Just like every Star Wars movie.

Here is a film that works better aesthetically than it does literally. Spring-boarding off of the momentum that The Force Awakens started years ago, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is used mostly as a platform for nostalgia, calling out to earlier iconic moments in the series and bringing them into the fold while simultaneously challenging our ideas of these characters. Like any Star Wars movie, there were a lot of things that I loved watching play out here. Other times, I found myself frustrated and confused by some of the creative decisions being made in this film. But let’s slow down and digest one thing at a time.

First of all, the visual effects and the action are nothing short of gorgeous, with the X-Wings, TIE Fighters, lightsabers, droids, and creatures across the galaxy reaching out to you and placing you vividly in the moment, whether it involves big spectacular CGI-heavy sequences or smaller, quieter moments where we simply appreciate the breathtaking scenery. No doubt this visual prowess has director Rian Johnson’s hand in it, who years earlier directed the gritty and grounded sci-fi thriller Looper. In The Last Jedi, he takes a play from creator George Lucas’ handbook and designed the film through practical methods as opposed to computer-generated ones. The film reportedly had 125 sets created for its visual scope, with designer Neal Scalan claiming that The Last Jedi uses more practical effects than any Star Wars film to date. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if that were true. The vehicles, the costuming, the scenery, all of it evokes the sensationalism and world building that Star Wars is known for. On the visual front, The Last Jedi serves the Star Wars saga faithfully and beautifully.

And the cast, both old and new, are just as great in The Last Jedi as they’ve always been, with the best of these frontrunners being Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill. Ridley once again brings the gravitas and the force (pun intended) that she first brought to us in The Force Awakens. Here she really comes into the forefront as a hero all her own, struggling with her own doubts and perceptions of not only what’s going on with her, but with who and what she really needs in her life for personal fulfillment.

Hamill is another story altogether. He doesn’t play the Luke that you remember from the original films; hopeful, adventurous, and believing in the best of everybody. Here he plays Luke with a grimmer façade, a depressing and frail old man filled with penance and regret for the things that he’s done. Like many other passionate fans out there, I didn’t know what to expect from Luke in The Last Jedi. I certainly wasn’t expecting this. Yet, even though he’s a different character, Hamill shows that he’s still got that Skywalker blood flowing in him that he embodied in the original trilogy. It’s a different portrayal of Luke for sure, but it isn’t a bad one. Not by a long shot.

As a whole, The Last Jedi delivers on the same sci-fi blockbuster fronts that all of the best Star Wars movies delivers on. The action, the heart, the humor; all of it evokes the same feelings you had when you watched the original Star Wars movies, and the nostalgic Easter Eggs only adds to the appeal. There was one cameo in the movie that had me just grinning from ear to ear, taking me back to when I was a kid watching Yoda training Luke for the first time in The Empire Strikes Back.

Yet, the story has made some dark, drastic changes to the Star Wars saga that severely impacts how the series is going to move forward. I’m not saying they’re bad changes. I’m saying they’re hard to adjust to. Like the prequel series, Star Wars: The Last Jedi turns the original trilogy on its head and challenges the way we perceive these characters and how they should act and behave. No, The Last Jedi is not as bad as The Phantom Menace. It does, however, challenge your identity as a Star Wars fan. I’ve seen the movie twice now, and there are still three or four scenes I’m still digesting on whether I liked them or not. I know most fans would just like to go into a Star Wars movie, turn off their brain, and let the experience wash over them ethereally. The Last Jedi makes you think a little harder about it, particularly with the scenes that surprised or shocked you the most.

Ultimately, I find myself conflicted with Star Wars: The Last Jedi. As a simple viewer, I know I enjoyed what I watched. As a critic, I know I was witnessing skillful filmmaking at work here. But as a fan, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed by some of the changes that were happening to some of my favorite cinematic heroes growing up. Perhaps that’s the point. Do these characters stay the same as the years pass them by, or do they change as time and tragedy slowly cripples them? Anakin Skywalker grew up to become Darth Vader, while his son Luke grew up to become the last Jedi. We can only imagine what will happen to Rey as she too faces the future.

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“COCO” Review (✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Featuring her brave great-grandson, Miguel.

At around this same time last year, I remember a story circulating online about a daughter taking her father to see Rogue One, the most recent film in the expanding Star Wars saga. Her father, who spoke with a rich Mexican accent, noticed that one of the film’s leads Diego Luna also spoke with a thick accent. Her father asked how well the film was received. She said the film was the second highest-grossing movie of 2016, it opened up to critical acclaim, and fans of all ages loved the characters, especially Diego Luna’s Cassian. “My dad was so happy,” she wrote. “As we drove home he started telling me about other Mexican actors that he thinks should be in movies in America.”

I start my review of Coco describing this to show you how films like this can be so important to some people even before they watch the opening credits roll. Coco is a delightful film; colorful, vibrant, and joyous in celebrating Mexican culture and how meaningful it is to the people who represent it. I admittedly know very little about Día de los Muertos (indeed, I struggle to even pronounce it correctly), but I do have friends who celebrate it. When they talk about it, their eyes light up like the candles they leave out for their ancestors during la ofrenda. I can only think of one other time where their eyes might light up as much, and that is while they’re watching Coco.

Following a very large family in the small town of Santa Cecilia, Coco tells the story of the Riveras, a family whose history feels as long as Día de los Muertos itself does. A long time ago, Imelda Rivera (Alanna Ubach) and her daughter Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía) is abandoned by her husband to become a musician. Heartbroken by his unfaithfulness, Imelda bans music in her family and opens a shoemaking business, which does so well that it ends up passing from generation to generation.

Enter modern-day Santa Cecilia to Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), the youngest member of the Rivera family. A 12-year-old with dreams as big as his great-great-grandfather’s, Miguel loves music and wants to one day become a musician himself. His family, however, wants him to instead involve himself in their growing business, eventually to become a shoemaker himself. After one circumstance leads to another, Miguel finds himself in Tierra de los Muertos: the land of the dead. Now Miguel has to find a way back home to his family through the power of his guitar and his voice.

Every time I watch one of Pixar’s films, I constantly find myself impressed with what they visually do with the material set at their feet. Last year’s Finding Dory returned us to the sea, immersing us in this landscape of beautiful hues of blue and green, while the previous year’s Inside Out lit up a child’s mind like a McDonald’s Play Place. And yet, Coco remains to be the most visually splendid, lighting up the screen in warm, bright oranges, yellows, and reds as it paints an Autumn-esque vision of the land of the dead. Even in the first frame where we get a wide shot of the realm, I caught myself catching my breath as I watched Miguel doing the same thing while staring starry-eyed at his surroundings. I keep going into Pixar’s movies waiting to get disappointed by the animation. I’m still waiting.

And the music is surprisingly a standout element in the film, not just playing aimlessly in the background, but also serving as an emotional catharsis for the characters, their feelings and expressions. This makes sense since the film is based so much around Miguel’s musical ambitions. Still, I’m impressed at how well it’s done here. Of all of the biggest moments I remember from the film, all of them have something to do with singing and music. Miguel’s rendition of “Un Poco Loco.” Mama Imelda’s cover of “La Llorona.” Even the film’s lead single “Remember Me” nearly brought me to tears. All of it serves not only as a respectful homage to Mexican culture, but also as a deeper means of communication between the characters and their family. Musicals are often an overused cliché in most animated movies. Yet, Coco feels right at home in this stylistic choice.

As always, the biggest problems come in with the third act, which just has to catapult our heroes through pompous over-the-top action sequences that do nothing to raise the stakes or make characters’ actions feel more urgent. Yet, I was surprised to find conveniences in Coco’s third act that I would normally expect to find in another animated studio’s films, say, DreamWorks. The climax involves a series of coincidences that feel silly and removed, misplaced in a movie filled with such phenomenal visual and emotional ambition. I won’t give away what happens out of respect to my readers, but I will pose some rhetorical questions to you, such as:

If you’re surrounded by two alebrije that can fly, doesn’t it make the threat of falling seem less ominous?

If you’re a skeleton that can separate your bones, shouldn’t it be pretty easy to, oh, I don’t know, break away from an attacker?

And if you’re caught in the middle of a stage and are being chased by the bad guy’s goons, wouldn’t your first instinct be to GET OFF THE STAGE instead of breaking out into song and dance like you’re Selena Quintanilla?

The first two acts matched the storytelling and technical expertise that Pixar is well-known for. The third act takes it a drastic step back to being nearly generic. A shame of course, but not surprising. After all, many American audiences prefer pointlessly action-packed climaxes as opposed to more emotionally grounded and meaningful ones. Do these problems speak more to the filmmaker’s flaws or to us as viewers?

Still, for all of its contrivances, Coco remains to be emotionally and visually special: certainly one of the most unique films of the year, and one that does the Día de los Muertos culture justice. Pixar is all about inspiring their audiences with the stories they tell and the characters they create. Here is a wonderful Mexican fable where our young hero learns just how important our family history is and how our ignorance to it can lead to bigger problems. We could all learn a thing or two from Miguel, as well as his sweet Great-Grand-Mama Coco.

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“JUSTICE LEAGUE” Review (✫✫)

SOURCE: Warner Bros. Pictures

Unite the Super Friends!

Before I review Justice League, I want to pay my respects to director Zack Snyder and his daughter Autumn who committed suicide in March earlier this year, coercing Snyder to step away from production so he and his wife could grieve in privacy. No parent should ever have to endure that, especially when they’re trying to make a film that is supposed to compete with Marvel’s The Avengers. So as I plunge ahead, please realize that my job as a film critic is to review movies, not people. I am judging Justice League based on its own merits as a film, not Zack Snyder as a filmmaker and especially not as a person.

After the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) during the events of Batman V. Superman, Justice League follows Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) picking up the broken pieces of their world as they try to assemble a team of meta-humans to protect the Earth in Superman’s absence. These meta-humans include Arthur Curry the Aquaman (Jason Mamoa), Barry Allen a.k.a. the Flash (Ezra Miller), and Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), a cyborg trapped inside a metallic body. Together these superhero misfits form the Justice League, protecting the world from criminals, aliens, and Gods of death alike.

Right out of the gate, reviewing Justice League is a challenge because it feels like we’re watching two different movies at once here. In a way, we are. When Snyder had to exit the production in May, The Avengers director Joss Whedon was brought in to help with re-shoots and post-production, reportedly re-writing some scenes to add his signature humor to the film. Since this is the case, it is impossible to view the film and fairly critique the right director, because we have no way of knowing for sure which scenes in the final cut belong to Snyder or Whedon.

Regardless, Justice League is a mess, from the writing all the way to the visual effects, only offering brief relief in the form of spot-on humor, fun characterizations, and dizzying action spectacles. When I spoke to one of my closest friends about the film earlier this week, he described it to me as “a beautiful disaster.” Yeah, that sounds about right.

The good news is that Justice League is a substantial improvement over it’s predecessor Batman V. Superman, a gaudy and unbearably stupid film that not even the most passionate comic book fan could defend. This is in large part because of the film’s casting, which is impeccable from the film’s most central roles to those less in the spotlight. Affleck continues to inhabit the double persona of Bruce Wayne and Batman well enough, while Gadot once again shines as the super-powered Wonder Woman that fans have come to know and love.

Yet, the newcomers are just as good as the veterans are, with many of them keeping up with Affleck and Gadot in both acting ability and presence. Mamoa brings a rugged bad boy persona to Aquaman, effectively breaking him away from his silly comic book origins. Fisher inhabits the tortured soul of Victor Stone brilliantly, with his portrayal coming off like the robotic Frankenstein’s monster of the group. And yet, the best of these new leaguers is definitely Ezra Miller’s Flash, who comes off as so excitable and happy that he doesn’t feel as much like a superhero as he does a superfan meeting all of his favorite comic book heroes at once. Be honest: if you were in a room with Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Cyborg, wouldn’t your smile be as wide as Miller’s is?

These actors are great in their roles individually, and they really come together to make the Justice League work and feel believable as one entity. Unfortunately, the film’s greater failures have nothing to do with the actors, but with the screenplay they’ve been provided. Case in point: the film’s villain Steppenwolf, played here by “Game of Thrones” actor Ciaran Hinds. I’ve never been so bored by a villain in my entire life at the movies. He’s so stock and unappealing. He has no personality, no compelling motivation against our movie’s heroes, and nothing interesting to set him apart from previous movie villains. Say what you will about Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor or Cara Delevigne’s Enchantress: at least they were interested in their parts and played them up as best they could. But at no point does Steppenwolf rise the stakes the way he needs to nor does he even feel like a legitimate threat to our heroes. He feels more like a video game boss you have to beat at the end of the level to win the game. He looks like one too with how much gray-scaled CGI he has plastered all over his body.

Speaking of CGI, the effects are God-awful and among the worst visuals I’ve seen in any DC movie to date. Yes, I’m saying this is worse than the Kryptonian zombie in Batman V. Superman and the Mummy monsters in Suicide Squad. Everything is so underdeveloped in the picture, from the flying parademons that attack our heroes, to the Atlanteans that Steppenwolf fights in Atlantis, to even Superman himself. When Henry Cavill was asked to come back to the set for re-shoots, Cavill reportedly had a mustache that he couldn’t shave due to his role in Mission Impossible 6, so the visual effects team resorted to digitally removing his mustache in post-production. They would have been better off if they left it in. Cavill’s distorted, bloated face looks so strange and artificial, looking more like one of the Kardashians than he does the man of steel. And yes, I know this was the best solution the studio could come up with despite its production issues and re-shoots. That doesn’t change how ridiculous it looks on screen, or the fact that he looks better in an Edvard Munch painting than he does in a Justice League movie.

All in all, Justice League is your simple, by-the-books superhero team-up movie that has some great acting and action, however technically incompetent it may be. It has everything necessary to satisfy the hardcore DC fan. Everyone else? Not so much.

Yet I don’t blame Joss Whedon for what we see on the screen here. I don’t blame writer Chris Terrio either, as he wrote the film as best he could despite the limited criteria he had to work with. I don’t even blame Zack Snyder for this film, who very understandably was going through a lot during production. No, if anything I blame DC Films and Warner Bros. Pictures for their gross mishandling on the production side of these movies. It took Marvel five well-focused movies before they released The Avengers in 2012. Didn’t DC realize long ago that they couldn’t release Justice League with two good movies, one passable one, and one catastrophic one? Justice League gets two stars out of four. Autumn Snyder gets four.

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“THOR: RAGNAROK” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

We will, we will Ragnarok you.

Just when you thought Marvel had used all the tricks up their sleeve, they release Thor: Ragnarok, a movie that has absolutely no business being this good or memorable. Here is a picture which, by every metric, should have failed. It’s a Thor movie first of all, and it features the one Avenger so dull that a cardboard mannequin with a blonde wig is more interesting than him. His co-star is the Hulk, and that meshing of fantasy and sci-fi genres makes about as much sense as putting Harry Potter in a Batman movie. It’s the third part of a trilogy, which usually ends up being the worst in the series (See Spider-Man 3, X-Men: Apocalypse). On top of that, this film is a retro-comedy aiming for the style akin to Guardians of the Galaxy. How on Asgard could Marvel have pulled this off? Spectacularly, that’s how.

A sequel to both Thor: The Dark World and Avengers: Age of Ultron, Thor: Ragnarok follows our golden-haired hero Thor (Chris Hemsworth) propelled through the universe as he tries to prevent Ragnarok, the prophesized destruction of Asgard. He goes to Muspelheim to capture the fire demon Sultur (Clancy Brown), Midgard to find his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), the Sanctum Sanctorum to meet Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Sakaar to fight the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Asgard to face Hela, the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett). I’m telling you, this guy gets around. If he traveled anymore in the movie, he’d have to throw away his hammer and resort to montages for faster travel.

Here is a movie that, for the life of me, I don’t understand how it works. This film packs five different genres into one narrative, and that usually spells doom for any movie that tries to do that. Not here. Thor: Ragnarok is a funny comedy, a thrilling action movie, an exciting adventure, a heartfelt drama, and a groundbreaking superhero epic that hits every single note that it needs to. A movie this busy should not feel this simple, yet it flows and moves effortlessly, like how one stretches and plays with silly putty.

Where do I even start? The film’s director Taika Waititi executes his film chaotically yet masterfully, filling his characters with vibrant personalities and throwing them through action scenes resemblant of a little kid playing with his action figures. My main complaint with superhero movies (and really most action blockbusters in general) is that studios focus so much on the action and visual effects that they forget that character and personality is the driving force behind the successes of most major film franchises. For example, would the visual feats in Superman and Star Wars have felt as incredible if Clark Kent or Luke Skywalker weren’t as likeable of heroes to begin with?

Thor: Ragnarok takes cues from both of those movies as it emboldens its characters with electric personalities, playing off of their charisma and creating witty, comedic dialogue between each other. Chris Hemsworth continues to play the fratty, oblivious oaf in Thor as he always has, but here he does it with a self-awareness that makes him funny enough to pass it off as likeable. Ruffalo steals the spotlight in a mostly Hulk-dominated performance, yet rounds him out with a subtle arc that possesses its own somberness and tragedy within it. And Blanchett surprisingly offers up a menacing and diabolical performance in a franchise that is usually lacking in the villain presence, even though her motivations for fighting Thor are kind of weak in the film.

Everything else from the film is unorthodox perfection. Seriously. I haven’t seen anything like it. The comedy hits exactly the right notes with the right lines. The drama, while at times a little too brisk, strikes with the emotional chord that it needs to. The action scenes are thrilling. The visual effects, mesmerizing. The music, synthesized and catchy. Even the Easter Eggs are infectious in their appeal, with one cameo involving Tom Hiddleston’s Loki making me laugh so hard that my surrounding audience members started to look worried for me.

If I had any weakness to offer, it would be that the film’s tone is jarring compared to previous entries, with the series doing a complete 180 in genre from a Norse fantasy epic to an action-comedy so in-cheek that the “Who’s Line Is It Anyway?” troupe would wonder where their invite was. But to that I say screw consistency, this is a fantastic movie; one that flips one of Marvel’s most boring characters and somehow makes him the most interesting. Maybe I would be irritated by the change in aesthetic if they did this with Iron Man or Captain America, but that’s only because those characters already have an interesting arc and personality to them. Thor is more of a blank slate, and in realizing this, Waititi pulls out his paint cans and floods the screen with as much color and life as he can.

I haven’t had this much fun in a superhero movie since The Avengers in 2012. Yes, I’m comparing Thor: Ragnarok to The Avengers. Don’t knock it until you try it. While it doesn’t confront real-world issues and moral dilemmas like Iron Man, Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Civil War does, Thor: Ragnarok more than makes up for it with its stylish action, colorful visuals, brilliant self-awareness, and gut-busting humor so hilarious that it’s difficult not to pee your pants from laughing so much. This is a movie where Deadpool could appear in randomly halfway through the picture and it would still make complete sense.

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“THOR: THE DARK WORLD” Review (✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Et tu, Loki?

Thor: The Dark World is another Thor movie, and how much you’re going to like it depends just on how you react to hearing that. I quite liked the first Thor, although the town scenes meandered a bit too much for my liking. Beyond that, it was a fun, standard superhero fanfare that watched and clapped its hands whenever Thor whacked something with his hammer. Thor: The Dark World has all of the elements that made the first Thor successful, just more of it.

After Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) embarrassing defeat at the hands of the world’s mightiest heroes in The Avengers, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) brings him back to Asgard to stand trial against his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). While this is going on, the ancient dark elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), who has spent centuries trapped in suspended animation, is suddenly set free and assembles his army to reclaim the Aether, a powerful artifact that can eat away and disintegrate entire worlds. Now with the fate of the nine realms in the balance, Thor needs to team up with Sif (Jaimie Alexander), the Warriors Three, and even Loki to defeat Malekith and free the universe from his madness.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Malekith is a terrible villain. Don’t get me wrong, Eccleston is a fantastic actor, and he brings a sense of conviction and ruthlessness to his role unlike anything we’ve seen from him when he played the ninth doctor in BBC’s “Doctor Who” series. But the villain himself is completely flat and uninteresting. He has no personal stake in Thor or anybody else’s story. He’s just a giant, ugly-looking grey Yoda ripoff that has the typical “I WILL DESTROY THE UNIVERSE” shtick. He doesn’t have Obadiah Stane’s deceitful snide, the Red Skull’s malicious presence, or even Loki’s sickly narcissistic charm. No, he’s just your typical big baddie with zero personality or interest, and he inhabits the film like Marvel needed to fit the bill just so they could green light the production. In an age where supervillains have the potential to be the best or most memorable element in a superhero film, Malekith is just flimsy and forgettable. He offers nothing significant to set him apart from the rest of the Marvel crew.

Thankfully, Hiddleston offers more than enough personality and interest as Loki to make up for Malekith’s lackluster inclusion. One of the things about Hiddleston that constantly impresses me is how well he inhabits the cunning and madness of Loki whenever he’s in character. He has a jesting, flamboyant flair to him, yet a sinister undertone that’s always seething beneath like a snake’s venom through his teeth. Unlike Malekith, Loki has a grounded investment in the story, has personal ties and a history with the film’s hero, and plenty of deep layers that reveal themselves the more you pull back on them. There’s an incredibly interesting arc to his character, an almost Shakespearean tragedy that tells of a man infatuated with himself and his riches, but only inflicts himself the further he draws away from his family and friends. The dynamic that he shares with Hemsworth as his brother easily takes precedence as the most memorable moments from the movie. He could have a film entirely dedicated to himself and not lose one bit of interest or investment in it. He’s that good.

The rest of the film is your typical Asgardian action-adventure. Characters fly and fight each other in incredible visual spectacle, the costumes on both the Asgardians and the elves have an edge and detail to them that evokes the feel of ancient Roman garb and armor, and the set design of Asgard and its surrounding worlds continues to shine in spectacularly vivid detail, as if it’s an image ripped straight from our dreams as opposed to the frames on celluloid. The film’s director Alan Taylor demonstrates a keen eye on the design and visual appearance of Asgard and the nine realms, and so he should. He’s directed seven episodes from the highly-praised “Game of Thrones” television series, another show that had highly-stylistic violence and an acute sense of detail to its scenery and costumes. Thor: The Dark World is a fitting follow-up for him. Asgard continues to astound and amaze, the action is just as exciting and gripping, and Taylor continues to expand upon this infinite universe that Thor is constantly exploring.

So which film is better? Thor, or The Dark World? I can’t really say for certain. They both play to their strengths, yet also demonstrate ignorance to the flaws perpetrated by their plots. I guess for me, it depends on how much you want to see Thor’s character arc fleshed out versus watching Thor bash bad guy’s brains in with a magical metal hammer. I vote hammer. Thor: The Dark World is ambitious, gladiatorial-style fun that pits our super-powered fantasy heroes against each other and watches what chaos ensues. I halfway expect Thor to turn around and yell “Are you not entertained?!” to the audience after playing whack-an-elf with Malekith. I’d pay a ticket price just to see that on its own.

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“THOR” Review (✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Paramount Pictures

If he be worthy…

This is it. This is the make-it or break-it for the Marvel Cinematic Universe: the deal-breaker. Up until now, Marvel has had strong material to work with for its cinematic universe, with the combined powers of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and Edward Norton’s Hulk filling the comic-book shoes well so far. But now we’re going into uncharted territory with Norse mythology. How are you supposed to make Norse Gods and legends work well with science-fiction, technology, and secret spy organizations without making it feel silly or on-the-nose?

The answer is you don’t: you amalgamate it and integrate it into their shared science-fiction universe to make it feel fluid and believable. Whatever silly experience you’re expecting to get out of a movie called Thor, you’re safe to throw your doubts out of the window now. Thor is exciting, fun, and fast-paced, whizzing with energy and incredible action and effects. And most impressively, it is epic, much like the Norse legends themselves are. I was not expecting a movie about the Norse God of Thunder to throw me off my feet this much. But then again, I didn’t know what to expect with a movie called Thor to begin with. Perhaps that helped me further appreciate it in the long run.

In this adaptation of both the Marvel comic and the Norse legend, Thor tells the story of the brash and arrogant God of Thunder, played here by Chris Hemsworth, who made his debut as James Kirk’s father in 2009’s Star Trek reboot. In this iteration, Thor is not a superhero like your regular Marvel folk, but instead the prince of Asgard, a fantastical world far removed from time and space. His father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is the king of Asgard, while the God of Mischief Loki (Tom Hiddleston) supports Thor as his brother.

One day, the Frost Giants of Jotunheim sneak their way into Asgard and kill a few soldiers in an act of aggression against the kingdom. After they are swiftly wiped out by Asgard’s security forces, Thor ventures into Jotunheim to declare war with the Frost Giants against his father’s wishes. After narrowly escaping Jotunheim with their lives intact, Odin strips Thor of his powers, takes away his hammer Mjolnir, and banishes him from Asgard as his punishment. Now trapped on Earth (or “Midgard” as he refers to it) without any way of getting back home, Thor has to find a way to regain his powers and once again become the God of Thunder that he was born to be.

My biggest concern going into this movie was how they were going to fit Norse mythology into a universe filled with Iron Men and Gamma-radiated monsters and make it feel believable. Out of all of Stan Lee’s notable creations, Thor is hands down the most plagiarized and the most preposterous. Nothing about him is interesting. A Norse God has superpowers and family issues? Please. Iron Man, the Hulk, and Spider-Man all have the same things, yet are infinitely more interesting because of the very personal problems they experience. Tony Stark and his ego and alcoholism. Bruce Banner and his anger issues. Peter Parker and his sense of guilt and responsibility. Many superheroes are popularized not just because of the powers they have or the costumes they wear, but because they have complex drama and personalities coupled with their action-filled comic book panels. Thor has always felt the least interesting or compelling, and that’s partially because of the wildly fantastical setting that he inhabits.

And yet, Thor works surprisingly well, mostly because of the convictions held by its writers and director. Screenwriters Ashley Miller and Zack Stenz, who also penned X-Men: First Class earlier this summer, demonstrates a clear understanding of Thor’s mythology and how it ties in to the nuance and appeal of the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yes it’s technically a fantasy film, but it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like another superhero action romp where characters zip, zoom, and fly into each other as the screen explodes into an exciting, color-filled visual effects spectacle. Part of that is because the film smartly blurs the lines between fantasy and science-fiction, blending both of the genre’s characteristics to make the film flow into one believable narrative. As one character observes in the film, “Magic is just science we don’t understand yet.” That quote comes from author Arthur C. Clarke.

Yet the film works on a dramatic level as well, with Hemsworth and Hiddleston’s chemistry feeling like actors interacting in a stage play, not as two superheroes flying into their own battles. There’s a very distinctive reason why: it’s because they’re being directed by actor Kenneth Branagh, who has made a career for himself as the “Shakespeare guy” in Hollywood (seriously, look at his filmography. He’s helmed adaptations of Shakespeare’s Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, and Hamlet, and that doesn’t even include his stage credits). Approaching Thor like he would with any Shakespearean drama, Branagh lets the actors loose and allows them to have fun with their roles, with them being equally over-the-top, boisterous, dramatic, accentuated, and theatrical all at once. Oh, these characters definitely would not be believable as human beings. But as Norse Gods of ancient legend? They’re impeccable.

Hemsworth and Hiddleston serve their roles enthusiastically, and they work so well together that they could be just as entertaining by themselves without the help of added effects. The action and the visuals are dazzling and spectacular, making you feel like you really are in Asgard, Jotunheim, or Midgard watching Thor whack every enemy marching towards him. And the music by Patrick Doyle is beautiful and uplifting, evoking a sense of grandeur and adventure that feels appropriate for an epic like this.

If there is any weakness to the film it is its second act, which takes the momentum the first act builds up to and brings it to a screeching halt. In the second act, Thor loses his powers and is navigating Earth like a clueless goof that acts like he suddenly forgot how to behave and interact like a normal human. My problem with these scenes is that at the beginning and end of the film, we’re experiencing the action in Asgard, and it overwhelms you with incredible visual scope and spectacle. Then we’re transported to Earth with Thor and suddenly everything becomes so… dull. The visuals take an obvious step back and it looks and feels more like a SyFy channel television movie than it does as a Marvel production. Thor is thrusted through comedic slapstick moments, making him look pretty stupid in the wake of all of the lightning-fueled action he was performing earlier. These scenes feel disjointed, jarring, and removed from the rest of the picture, almost as if it’s another movie we’re watching entirely. I have no problem with taking away Thor’s powers for the sake of added drama or conflict. I do mind the stylistic changes that do not blend well with the rest of the picture.

Still, Thor is loads of fun, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. Marvel is starting to develop a knack for making their underappreciated heroes shine in the spotlight. Remember years ago when we thought Robert Downey Jr. was going to be a bust in Iron Man? Now we have Chris Hemsworth stepping into the shoes of Thor, and he’ll be joining up with the rest of the Avengers next year with a metal man, a giant green ogre, and a red-white-and-blue boy scout. Thor is the God of Thunder. He’ll fit right in.

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“THE INCREDIBLE HULK” Review (✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Universal Studios

Hulk smash puny critic! 

Bruce Banner is not a hero. One would be wrong for mistaking him as one. He is not proud or triumphant, he doesn’t wear a cape, and he doesn’t “save the day” as someone like Superman or Batman would. No, Bruce is a timid, shallow, and fearful young fellow, one that grips with a double-persona in him that’s angry, destructive, and vengeful all at once. His story is not one of happiness or hopefulness. It is in essence a tragedy, not unlike that of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, except in this case Mr. Hyde is a giant, green raging monster that says “Hulk smash!” every time he punches something.

In this second go-around at adapting one of comic book’s most recognizable characters, The Incredible Hulk retells Banner’s transformation into Marvel’s not-so-jolly green giant, with Fight Club actor Edward Norton taking the part over from Erica Bana this time around. In this iteration of the Hulk, Bruce is on the run from General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) and the U.S. military, who wants to take Banner’s gamma-radiated blood and weaponize it for their own uses. Desperate for a cure for his angry, green, muscle-infused transformation, Banner enlists in the help of his lover Betty (Liv Tyler) and Dr. Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson) to search for a cure, finally freeing himself from the monster within that is the incredible Hulk.

Since this is the second live-action adaptation of the Hulk in less than five years, it’s only fair to assume the comparison’s viewers are going to make from this version to Ang Lee’s Hulk released in 2003. As this is the case, you should know that I wasn’t a fan of that version. I did like a lot of things about it: the nuanced, quietly disturbed performances of Eric Bana and Nick Nolte, the creative comic book panel-esque transitions between shots, and the exploration of disturbed psychology developed from childhood trauma. There were a lot of creative elements in that film, and Lee deserves credit for at least branching out and trying new things in the superhero genre.

The key issue with that film was the pacing. The run time dragged out grudgingly, many shots didn’t pertain to what was going on in its scenes, and the movie just simply wasn’t fun. It was interesting for sure, but it lacked the suspense and excitement needed for a movie like Hulk to work. Observe, for instance, if Spider-Man or X-Men dragged out at the exasperating pace as Hulk did. Those movies would get boring pretty quickly, wouldn’t they?

I start my review by reliving the previous’ strengths and failures because The Incredible Hulk embodies the exact opposite of those. Hulk was an insightful, if meandering drama that had moments of superhero action in it. The Incredible Hulk is a full-blooded gamma-radiated monster-thriller that enthusiastically smashes through as much property damage as it can cause. It isn’t dramatic, insightful, or even significantly moving, and neither is it required to be. Part of a movie’s success is by playing to its strengths and weaknesses, and The Incredible Hulk demonstrates a sound understanding of both.

The crucial element to this is director Louis Leterrier, who helmed the first two Transporter movies before The Incredible Hulk. Framing it as an homage to the Bill Bixby 1978 television series, Leterrier plays the film’s elements to his advantage, pulling out thrills and excitement in the slightest of methods. Take, for instance, an early chase scene involving Banner, Ross, and a squad of military soldiers. Despite how it’s essentially another generic movie chase, the sequence was surprisingly thrilling, and that’s because of all of the elements in play here. The editing from Apocalypto’s John Wright was quick-paced and attentive, cutting briskly between each character’s perspective while at the same time not losing focus on the action. The music by Craig Armstrong is suspenseful and riveting, building up to a thematic opera that evokes the same sensation of those classic 1980’s monster movies. And the cinematography by Peter Menzies Jr. perfectly captures Bruce’s paranoia in this scene, with his biggest concern being not evading the soldiers or getting out unscathed, but rather not becoming so tense to the point where he transforms and causes harm to the people around him.

Leterrier uses these elements to turn seemingly simple moments into extraordinary ones, heightening tension and escalating excitement. Imagine what happens when Bruce breaks out into anger and goes Hulk destructive on everything in his path? While the smaller moments work surprisingly well, the film’s real value comes in its visual spectacle, where Hulk rams into soldiers, lifts and crushes cars, leaps and climbs tall structures, roars like a wild animal, and angrily smashes into as many objects as he can. In most action movies, the protagonist is usually in the more vulnerable position and has to face impossible odds stacked against him. I find it interesting that in this context the role is reversed and that Hulk’s enemies are the ones at a disadvantage against this giant, ruthless behemoth. It develops an interesting catharsis for the character, or at least, as much as it can possess in the midst of mindless superhero monster action violence.

The performances, while serviceable, are nothing spectacular enough to be memorable. The story is uninspired and feels stock compared to other action thrillers (seriously, read the script and tell me how much it reminds you of Jason Bourne). And while the final fight in the movie is climactic and exciting, the movie’s villain is just a mirror match to the Hulk and has no personal investment beyond that.

Still, how much you end up liking The Incredible Hulk depends on what you’re looking for in a Hulk movie to begin with. For me, I’m looking for action, and lots of it. The Incredible Hulk has that in spades. While not narratively impressive, The Incredible Hulk has enough dynamic action, awe-inspiring spectacle, and reckless destruction that makes you root for the big, angry green giant regardless. At the very least, let’s agree that this version of the Hulk is better than Ang Lee’s variation. I reiterate: the catchphrase is “Hulk Smash,” not “Hulk Talk You To Death.”

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“BLADE RUNNER 2049” Review (✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Warner Bros. Pictures

Nothing has changed.

Blade Runner 2049 shares the same strength and weakness as its predecessor, and that is it’s complexion. Throughout both films, there is an exploration on the human condition and what it means to be considered alive. They both observe authoritarian societies and the effects it has on those lower on the food chain. They both contort ideas such as memory and artificial intelligence and how they affect our views of personal identity. Blade Runner finds its niche in its concepts, and so too does 2049 best represent itself under the original’s banner, even though it eventually does get drowned out beneath all of its complexity.

Taking place 30 years after the events of the first film, Blade Runner 2049 picks up in a dystopian future where not much has changed. Androids known as Replicants continue to try and blend in with the rest of society, bounty hunters known as Blade Runners continue to hunt them, and they both continue to live in the same dimly-lit, smoke-filled streets and rainy gallows. Except in this future, newer replicant models are allowed to coexist in human society, under the condition that they become Blade Runners themselves to hunt down and “retire” the older models.

LAPD officer K (Ryan Gosling) is one of those newer replicants, hunting down his brethren under the badge of a Blade Runner. While out on an assignment one day, he uncovers a trail leading him to former Blade Runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who made a discovery of his own years ago when he fled Los Angeles with his lover Rachel. As K and Deckard piece events together, they come to a conclusion that will shake the foundation of human and replicant kind for ages to come.

The best thing that can be said about Blade Runner 2049 is that it is an authentic sequel to its predecessor. In Hollywood, most sequels like to cash in on the success of their first entries without offering their own creative input for the provided material (See the Jurassic Park and Alien franchises). 2049 does not fall for this trend. Unlike Jurassic World and Alien: Covenant, which wallow in the clichés of their genres, Blade Runner 2049 fills its frames with its own life and ideas, expanding beyond the questions the original imposed and giving us a wider scope to think about. This makes sense, since screenwriter Hampton Fancher co-wrote the original Blade Runner in addition to its sequel. In 2049, he continues to elaborate on many of its familiar themes, from the existence of artificial intelligence to the barriers between different cultures. However, he also elaborates on many other concepts beyond it, such as internalized racism, love versus joy, and integrated species. This is a film that can easily stand on its own as an original feature, even though its building onto the first’s narrative does make it a stronger film overall.

And as this is a Blade Runner sequel, so too does it make sense that the visual effects would be just as mesmerizing as they were in the original. Even more than the original actually, especially because of how much technology has improved since 1982. The tall, ominous buildings. The sleek, dark vehicles. The bright holographic ads that light up the murky night sky. Everything oozes of detail and assimilation, and even the smaller examples of digital editing do not fail to astound us.

There is one computer construct in the movie portrayed by Ana de Armas, and all of her scenes stand out the most to me. In one of her first appearances, her holographic figure walks out into the rain for the first time, and even though the drops pass through her transparent figure, flickers still pixelate off of her body as if the droplets were falling onto flesh. There’s another scene where her body is mimicking the movements of another human being underlying her, and the way the two bodies moved together were so eerie and interesting that it reminded me of Alicia Vikander’s character Ava in 2015’s Ex Machina. But the image that sticks out the most to me is when an oversized pink variation of her bends down and speaks to her regular-sized lover on a bridge. Was this a metaphor for how small man’s ambition can be to that of an A.I.’s? In any case, cinematographer Roger Deakins captures every scene beautifully, encompassing both the depravity and desolation of a future ruined by mankind’s own misunderstandings.

Two performers that I have to give recognition to are Gosling and Sylvia Hoeks, who play the film’s protagonist and antagonist respectively. Gosling, whose appeal ranges depending on what role he’s given, offers a very thought-provoking performance here as a hero split between the two different worlds of man and machine. I’m not going to give much of his plot details away, but his arc challenges him, his identity, and the convictions he’s held closely to his heart for a long time now. Just to throw a separate example out there to compare the emotions that he’s displaying, imagine if you lived your whole life believing that God was real, only to find out that the Bible was written by only one author and none of the events depicted in it have ever happened. How would that change you? How would that shatter you as a person? Who would you be now after discovering that?

Gosling services that part brilliantly, and Hoeks serves as the antithesis: a woman who knows what she is, what the implications of her culture are and how they would change should one little piece be added to the constantly-shifting puzzle. In the film, I know she symbolizes at least one social idea for sure. I don’t know if she’s supposed to symbolize others beyond that one. All I know is that as a villain she’s cold, calculated, merciless, violent, and terrifying. I would not want to be in the same interrogation room with this woman.

My main concern with Blade Runner 2049 is how overstuffed it is. The film is two hours and 44 minutes long, and it has earned every bit of its screen time with all of the content that is in it. I’m just afraid that it may be too much. It’s been a week since I’ve seen the film now, and I’m still struggling to wrap my head around every character, every arc, every idea, every theme, every point iterated on, every plot twist the film takes you through, and all of the implications that the movie ends on. I know I liked what I saw in Blade Runner 2049. I just don’t know if I understand it. This is a film that definitely requires second viewings, even though the appreciation of it might not improve with each viewing.

Still, viewers such as myself asked for a faithful sequel in Blade Runner 2049. It undoubtedly fulfilled its promises, and it most impressively did it without the help of Phillip K. Dick’s characters. When I finished the original Blade Runner in 1982, I thought endlessly about the relationship between Deckard and the replicants, of the society that mankind created, and the many ways it mirrored our current world. I asked myself the same questions after watching 2049 as I did with the original Blade Runner. How sad is it that we’ve been given all this time to learn, to change, and to grow from where we were, and yet here we are 30 years later, making the same mistakes now as we did back then.

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