Category Archives: Reviews

“PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING” Review (✫1/2)

SOURCE: Universal Pictures

More like downsizing.

The biggest flaw with the first Pacific Rim was its third act, where its runtime extended so long with so much content packed together that it really could have been cut out and edited into its own separate movie. This flaw, unfortunately, carries over into its sequel Pacific Rim: Uprising, which descends into a classic case of sequelitus with all of its ideas spent. It has a stupid plot, dull characters, boring dialogue, and humor so unfunny that Adam Sandler could have done a better job at writing it. The movie’s one saving grace is its visual effects. Gee, I wonder where else we’ve seen that before?

Taking place 10 years after Raleigh Beckett, Stacker Pentecost, and the other Jaegers closed the Kaiju portal at the end of the first movie, Pacific Rim: Uprising follows Stacker’s son, Jake (John Boyega) living the good life in a post-Kaiju world. He parties, drinks, trades on the black market, swindles dangerous mob bosses, and steals any Jaeger tech that he can find.

Well like clockwork, Jake’s criminal activities leads him into the jail cell, and this time he can’t simply just bail himself out. Now faced with a potential prison sentence, his sister Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) gives him an ultimatum: come back to the Jaeger program and help train the new cadets, or rot in a cell for the next 30 years. Jake slightly prefers military service over prison. Slightly.

The problems with Pacific Rim: Uprising all starts with its writing, which is such a poorly-done retread of the first Pacific Rim that it feels more like fan fiction than it does a faithfully-produced sequel. The writer and director Steven S. DeKnight has had several television credits prior to his film debut in Uprising, including writing episodes for Warner Bros.’ “Smallville” and being the showrunner for series’ including “Spartacus” and “Daredevil”. Trust me, he’s definitively a talented storyteller. Unfortunately, all of his experience is wasted here in his first foray into film, and there is no evidence that any skill or talent exists behind his camera at all.

Case in point: the screenplay. It is essentially the exact same plot as the first Pacific Rim was, point by point. We start with a big, epic Jaeger fight, follow with an underdog hero who doesn’t believe in himself, suddenly recruited into a military operation, bonds with the girl in closest proximity to him at the base, a shocking revelation is made about the alien threat, and our heroes team up to disband of said threat.

That’s it. That’s the whole story in a nutshell, a preposterous copy-and-paste of the first Pacific Rim and adding Uprising at the end of the title. Granted, sequels don’t have to be original in every aspect of their storytelling. Shoot, even the most recent Star Wars movies are almost straight rip-offs from the original trilogy. The difference, however, lies in the extra details the filmmakers put into those movies to further their interest. Pacific Rim: Uprising’s mistake was thinking that the interest lied in its derivative plot, which of course, it doesn’t.

Look at the first Pacific Rim as evidence of this. It has the same plot, yes. Yet it succeeds so much more in being fun and entertaining to its audience. Why? It’s because Guillermo Del Toro knew which details to focus on and why. He knew that the size and scope of the Jaeger/Kaiju fights needed to be reflected in the buildings and environments around these monsters. He knew Charlie Hunnam and Idris Elba needed on-the-spot, quick-witted dialogue to make them more than the average one-dimensional movie heroes. And (most importantly), he understood the movie he was trying to make. He knew he wasn’t trying to make some seriously out-there, psuedo-dimensional experience like Inception or Gravity. He was trying to make the next explosive, Transformers-esque action fest that overjoyed the inner child in him. That was the movie he aimed for, and he succeeded spectacularly in making it.

Compare this to the desperately confused approach behind Pacific Rim: Uprising. It has no idea what it wants to be. It doesn’t know whether it wants to be a serious action movie, a silly Hollywood blockbuster, a complex science-fiction fantasy, or all three at once. All it knows for sure is that it wants to be like the first Pacific Rim, but it doesn’t know how to get there. That’s because the screenplay hasn’t earned the right to compare itself in its storytelling. The sad part is that it knows it too.

Yes, the fight scenes between the Jaegers and the Kaiju are cool. So what? The fight scenes were just as fantastic in the first Pacific Rim, and that was made over five years ago. The music’s electric jams sound fantastic, but again, there’s nothing there that you can’t find in the original already. The only thing to really set this movie apart from its predecessor is John Boyega, who brings such an oafish charm to the movie that he can make something as mundane as eating ice cream seem funny to us.

Even then though, his performance is plagued by the mediocre cast members surrounding him. Scott Eastwood fills out the generic stiff-necked soldier cliché to a “T”, and he demonstrates little personality outside of pure smugness. Newcomer Cailee Spaeny plays the movie’s second underdog, and she overacts so much that she fits better inside of a Disney Channel movie. And Charlie Day? God-awful. His character does such a forced 360 turn from his personality in the first movie that I couldn’t take him seriously or urgently. He felt more like a parody of a mad scientist than an actual mad scientist (and if you didn’t like him in the first movie to begin with, wait until you see him here).

All in all, Pacific Rim: Uprising is a haphazard, unnecessary sequel; one that would have added value to the franchise if it were never made at all. The first Pacific Rim was an epic love-letter to Japanese Anime and monster movies, a rock-em-sock-em creature feature that was loads of fun. Pacific Rim: Uprising is just clueless. At the end of the movie, the big baddie Kaiju monster grows three secondary brains to fight our movie’s heroes. Perhaps it would have helped if Steven DeKnight grew a few extra brains himself.

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“THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Fox Searchlight Pictures

A lone woman trapped out in redneck country.

Here’s an uncomfortable question to ask: in the cases of rape and sexual assault, who suffers more? The victims, or their families? We often focus so much attention on the victims that go through these unforgivable tragedies, as we rightfully should. But do we ever think as much about the father who raised her? The mother who gave birth to her? The brother that grew up with her? What regrets are they experiencing? What battles are they facing outside of the courthouses and police stations? Not to mention that’s for the cases where the victims survived. What about those who didn’t?

I know that’s probably as uncomfortable reading for you as it is typing for me, but it needs to be said. Silence on these issues marginalizes these victims to the point of forgetting them, and the one thing that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri definitely isn’t is silent. Like its loudmouthed protagonist, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is fearless, outspoken, confrontational, aggressive, and uncompromising in its truth. It needs to be seen solely on the basis of understanding what a sixth of American families are going through right now.

In Three Billboards, one of those families belongs to Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), and her family is a broken one to say the least. Her son is estranged from her, while her abusive husband divorced her so he could be with some girl that is 30 years younger than him. Her daughter is also no longer with them, and without getting into the grisly details, she was sexually assaulted and killed over a year ago.

Frustrated by the local police’s lack of progress in the investigation, Mildred takes her own initiative and rents out three billboards saying “RAPED WHILE DYING. ONE YEAR, NO ARRESTS. HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” Needless to say, Police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his loyal protégé Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) are a little less than amused at her antics. This spurs them and the town to protest her signage displays, pitting one lone woman against an entire town of rednecks.

While watching the film, I was reminded of a small town in Athens, Texas where my family occasionally travels out to on a piece of property that we own. You will notice that most of the people there are more, shall we say, blunt than city folks are. They don’t beat around the bush. They speak their mind, and rarely do they stray from coarse, unfiltered honesty. Profanity is a second language to them. Drinking, chewing tobacco, and spitting to the side of the road is common practice. And calling someone a bastard is a sign of affection.

I paint this picture to show you that writer-director Martin McDonagh was inspired by these same experiences while writing Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and he uses these same people as a current to demonstrate serious institutionalized problems that go on within our justice system. Three Billboards hits on multiple issues all at once. Police brutality. Institutionalized racism. Homophobia. Free speech. And, of course, rape culture. You would think that the film would be overloaded talking about all of these topics at once, and would feel less like a story and more like a university studies lecture.

Not so. The conversations and the concerns these characters share feel genuine and believable, as if they are real people talking to each other and not just actors reciting a screenplay for the camera. I think this is because McDonagh centralizes the conversations around one key topic: the three billboards. McDonagh once saw similar billboards over 15 years ago while traveling in between Georgia and Alabama. Taking that image in his mind and backtracking the narrative, he creates a dialogue about the nature of peaceful protesting, and whether those protests should be tolerated regardless of the communities’ reaction to them.

I was reminded of another recent protest while watching Three Billboards: the NFL kneeling controversy. In both cases, the issues are the same: X problem is going on within local law enforcement, so I’m going to do Y until the issue is addressed. Yet, in both of these cases, the protestor is the one that is being blamed for the issues, not the entity that person is protesting. Here’s a litmus test for you: are you more offended by a billboard calling out your best friend by name, or are you more offended by the dead teenager that was killed under his watch?

In that, McDonagh forms an important conversation that needs to be had: should the victims of these circumstances be silent in their suffering, or should their additional scrutiny be even more of a reason to speak out? Political commentators note all the time that in some sexual assault cases, victims were “asking for it” with what they were wearing or how they were acting. I’m pretty sure Mildred’s daughter Angela wasn’t asking to be killed. Just an educated guess on my part.

But the movie isn’t all doom-and-gloom with dread and weariness. There are brief moments of humanity and humor that shines through the bleak shades of the film, and most of that is thanks to Frances McDormand. She’s such a spitfire of a woman in this movie, a firecracker full of attitude that refuses to take any more B.S. that she doesn’t deserve. I’m telling you, this woman has been through the ringer. She’s faced the abuse and abandonment of her ex-husband, the frustration and anger of her son, and the violation and murder of her daughter. I don’t blame her one bit for being a little off the cuff, and that’s exactly what she is here: a loose cannon ready to throw hands with anyone who approaches her with hostility. She makes you outwardly laugh in moments where she spits deep-cutting jabs, while at other times your jaw drops saying out loud to yourself “I can’t believe she just did that.”

And yet, her character isn’t devoid of sympathy or understanding. She’s actually a very kind-hearted and considerate human being, who very understandably has a hard shell for the people who have abused her kindness in the past. She is not afraid to get confrontational, and she is especially not afraid to get physical. In one moment of the picture, she makes fun of a midget for wanting to sleep with her. In another, she kicks a teenager in the groin and punches another one in her genitals. Yet, in more surprising moments, she expresses genuine care and concern for people she was mocking mere moments ago, sympathetic to their pain in moments where they weren’t sympathetic towards hers.

In fact, describing Mildred Hayes best describes the rest of the movie: a thick skin with a soft heart.

I find no faults in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, only actions and conversations that will make you uncomfortable at watching. They’re supposed to. There are people like Mildred and Angela Hayes all over the world today facing the same anger, sadness, frustration, disappointment, and lack of closure from what they’ve experienced. All they’re left with is the pain, and they’re given nothing to compensate for it. McDonagh had two choices in portraying that loss: either show it in its rawest, most honest form, or don’t show it at all. McDonagh chose the former. If you don’t want to experience that for yourself, that’s totally fair. You can always leave the movie theater. Mildred Hayes can’t leave her life.

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“BLACK PANTHER” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Long live the king.

Black Panther represents a watershed moment for African-American superheroes and Hollywood: a chance to really redefine what an action hero means to people and how they’re represented in mass media. It has all of the elements that makes any Marvel film a great one. It has passionate performances from its talented cast members. Smart character development that makes our heroes’ choices meaningful and consequential. Not to mention its spectacular action sequences that pretty much guarantees it an Oscar nomination year-in-and-year-out. But what makes Black Panther particularly special is the significance of its diversity; its emboldening of marginalized communities by giving them a platform to say what they’ve been trying to say all of these years. It’s one thing to be simply entertained by a superhero movie. It’s another thing entirely to be impacted by the experience and take it with you long after you’ve left the movie theater. Or in this case, Wakanda.

Taking place after the character’s debut in Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther now finds T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) as King of Wakanda, a hidden African nation housing the Earth’s largest deposit of a rare metal called Vibranium. After losing his father T’Chaka (John Kani) and sparing his killer at the end of Civil War, T’Challa believes that the worst is behind him and he can now focus solely on governing his people.

He is sorely mistaken.

For one thing, M’Baku (Winston Duke) and the Jabari tribe are in strong opposition to T’Challa’s rule, and he’s committed to challenging him for the throne at all costs. Weapons smuggler Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) rears his ugly head once again, as he has an violent history with Wakanda for constantly stealing plots of Vibranium from them. And a shady assassin who goes by “Killmonger” (Michael B. Jordan) has an eerie obsession with the Black Panther and a hidden agenda he has regarding Wakanda and its people.

Black Panther achieves so much on so many levels that it’s hard to pick where exactly to start. I’ll begin with the writer and director Ryan Coogler, who has achieved ground-breaking strides here both visually and aesthetically for this film. Coogler, who gained attention in his earlier years for helming the biographical picture Fruitvale Station and the Rocky spinoff Creed, creates a technically immaculate world in Wakanda, a highly-advanced society that feels removed and secluded from the rest of the world, but also possesses its own breath and heartbeat in the same sentence. The costumes and makeup evoke the feel and tribalism of the ancient Congo tribes from Africa, a culture which at least partially helped inspire the “Black Panther” comic books, while the production design evokes an Afro-futuristic setting that feels like its evolved years beyond any Western civilization could have in a hundred years. And the action? Spectacular. Whether Black Panther is fighting without his armor in a Wakandan waterfall, or pursuing Klaue through one speeding car to another, the action is fast-paced, enthralling, and engaging. I haven’t felt this excited in a superhero film since The Dark Knight in 2007. Yes, I am saying this with The Avengers and Captain America: Civil War in mind as well.

But it’s not just the production itself that’s so impressive: it’s also the story that Coogler crafts here, a humble fable about a king wanting to do the right thing, but is haunted by the sins of his ancestor’s past. One of my concerns going into this movie was how Coogler was going to handle the race element of the picture. Was he going to ignore it altogether and focus solely on the superhero aspect? Or was he going to put so heavy an emphasis on it that the movie became a social statement instead of an action blockbuster? The answer is neither. Like Iron Man, The Dark Knight, and Captain America: Civil War, there are heavy themes underlying the film’s subtext, but it is not what compels the film itself forward. What makes this film a great one is that it is a character drama first, and a social allegory second. The themes of institutional racism and prejudice is as a consequence of the character’s actions throughout the film. It is not the action itself. In making its point humbly, it allows the message to be seen at its most transparently, while at the same time not distracting from all of the superhero spectacle going on.

It would be a crime if I did not mention the film’s outstanding cast. They are the best of any MCU movie so far, hands down. Everyone is so spectacular in their roles, so humane and believable in their interaction with each other that I could dedicate an entire article to talking about each performer individually. I would easily campaign for the film to receive a Screen Actor’s Guild Outstanding Cast nomination, if the SAG Awards didn’t play so much to their bases to begin with.

Boseman, of course, kills it as T’Challa. He was great in Civil War a few years ago, and he’s just as great as he is now. Yet interestingly enough, my favorite characters from the movie are its antagonists, which serve as a sort of remedy to the villain problem Marvel has been facing for a long time now. Duke, for instance, succeeds in playing a dryly charismatic bear in M’Baku, and he’s so boorish that I would love to just give the guy a big hug, were it not that he could crush me in one muscle reflex. Serkis is so wild and over-the-top as Klaue, yet that just makes him all the more fun and fascinating of a character to watch. We usually have the most fun in Marvel movies seeing the heroes and villains duke it out over highly-rendered green screen action sequences. I find it interesting that Serkis was just as fun to watch ranting in an interrogation room as much as he was firing his arm cannon at his enemies.

The best of these performers, however, is Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger. Part of what makes his performance so mesmerizing is that you don’t really expect a villainous performance out of the guy to begin with. He was one of the super-powered teenagers in Chronicle, Oscar Grant III in Fruitvale Station, and Apollo Creed’s son Adonis in Creed. He’s not really known for playing cruel or malicious characters. Yet, that’s exactly what makes his performance as Killmonger so compelling. It’s the fact that he’s coming from a very human place with it, and his motivations against the Panther make sense and are relatable on a personal level. He is easily one of my favorite villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He would have been number one, if Tom Hiddleston’s Loki didn’t occupy my top spot.

Black Panther is a surprising masterpiece. It’s a stylish action movie, an important social commentary, and a theatrical character drama that hits all of the right notes that it needs to all at once. I’ve given four-star reviews for multiple MCU movies in the past, including Iron Man, The Avengers, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, and Thor: Ragnarok. I would recommend all of these movies solely based on how fun they were alone. Black Panther is the first to be truly profound outside of its Blockbuster value. It is the bridge where art meets entertainment.

No, Black Panther is not the first black superhero to be adapted to the big screen. That title belongs to Todd McFarlane’s Spawn in 1997. Like the Wakandan king himself, however, it seems destined to become the most significant from a long line of predecessors. And rightfully so.

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“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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