Category Archives: Reviews

“FORD V FERRARI” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: 20th Century Fox

Two men, a Mustang, and a wrench.

Ford v Ferrari feels like one of those epic underdog stories not unlike David and Goliath – and despite what the title suggests, Ford is not David and Ferrari is not Goliath. No, this story is about innovators versus CEOs, workers versus corporations, creators versus the companies who own creators. Five decades ago, two men, a Mustang, and a wrench beat not one, but two million-dollar corporations on the race track and in life. Yet, to this day the names we see imprinted on the side of cars are Ford and Ferrari, not Shelby and Miles.

If you ever met these men in real life, you’re prone to either love them or hate them, depending on whether you work on the creative or corporate side of the race track. Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is a 40-year-old automotive designer and former race car driver who was forced to retire early after developing an intensified heart condition. Ken Miles (Christian Bale) is a hot-headed Brit who has just as much of Shelby’s talent behind the wheel and twice the temper. If these two were parts in a car, Shelby would be the pistons and Miles would be the fuel – when you put them together, combustion is imminent.

These two men are recruited by Henry Ford II (yes, that Henry Ford, portrayed by Tracy Letts) for one purpose: to beat Ferrari at the 1966 Le Mans Grand Prix, a 24-hour race held on a wildly turbulent track in France. Any other man would think Ford was out of his wrinkly, white-haired mind. But Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles are not most men. They take the challenge head-on, and they have to get past not just Ferrari, but Ford to build one of the fastest race cars in automotive history.

Ford v Ferrari feels like one of those classic American stories you should have learned at some point in high school – a classic longshot tale, not unlike Rocky battling it out with Apollo Creed or Secretariat winning the Belmont Stakes. Yet, I have never heard of either Carroll Shelby or Ken Miles. I suspect you may not have either. That’s part of what makes their story so surprising, because they’ve contributed a big part to America’s industrial innovation. Not only did they develop the vehicle that would later become the GT40 Mustang, but they also helped unseat Ferrari as the Le Mans Grand Champions, a title they’ve held onto for nine years before Ford entered the race.

If nothing else, Ford v Ferrari illustrates a story of the everyman – the American innovator who wants to push boundaries, pave paths, and create new ways forward, but are constantly hindered by the people wanting to be stuck in the past. I was surprised to find that this film’s biggest antagonists were not Enzo Ferrari or his driver Lorenzo Bandini, but rather Henry Ford II and his scumbag senior executive Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas). Rarely do you see a face in film that is as punchable as Josh Lucas’. His character is as scuzzy and as filthy as they come, a greedy, self-centered cretin that cares only about the bottom dollar and not much for the people that helped get him there. If Jacob Marley ever saw this man in real life, he would give Ebeneezer Scrooge a pass on Christmas Eve and would send the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future on him instead.

As much as I despise his character, however, Josh Lucas serves a vital role in the conflict of Ford v Ferrari – it’s not the industry we’re fighting, but often the people who control the industry and the people within it. When Shelby and Miles are knee-deep into engineering their Mustang, they’re artists perfecting their craft. When Shelby and Miles are driving at dangerously high speeds, they’re in Heaven. When they’re arguing with a snobby auto exec on who belongs in the driver’s seat, their brakes are punched to a screeching halt.

These characters are very relatable not just because of their situation, but because so many of us have found ourselves in circumstances similar to Shelby’s and Miles’. Their conflict is not just written very well, but also portrayed very well. Christian Bale, in particular, can’t help but outshine the rest of his talented cast. He has the physique and the fighting spirit from his Oscar-winning performance of Dicky Eklund in The Fighter, but in the same sentence possesses the same introversion and comedic timing as Michael Burry in The Big Short. Whether he’s exchanging jabs with Carroll Shelby at a pit stop or sharing a sentimental moment on the road with his son, you’re invested in Miles’ story and his constant desire to go against the grain.

This film is directed by James Mangold, who has been on a winning streak as of late with some of his most recent projects. He previously directed the Academy Award-nominated Walk The Line and 3:10 To Yuma, and he more recently wrote and directed the last entry in Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine trilogy, Logan. Ford v Ferrari possesses all of the grit his previous films have with even more relevance and authenticity. It doesn’t surprise me that the film feels like an industrial western, because when Ken Miles steps out onto race track and gets in his car, it has the tension and anticipation that builds up like a lone cowboy stepping out of the saloon to take on the outlaw with a draw of his pistol.

Ford v Ferrari is an excellent film: dramatic, moving, exciting, riveting, and dripping with enthusiasm, like oil gushing from the exhaust pipe. If I had one criticism, it would be that the first act takes too much time to build up its stakes and doesn’t move as promptly as I felt it could have. But I would rather a film have too much interest in its subject rather than too little. Most men in life, like Henry Ford and Enzo Ferrari, are most interested in winning the race that’s ahead of them. Shelby and Miles are just grateful to be on the race track.

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“KNIVES OUT” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Lionsgate

Sharp in more ways than one. 

When Knives Out begins, we’re provided with the typical murder-mystery setup: Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a famed mystery writer whose popularity is probably equal only to Stephen King, is found dead inside his mansion. His throat is slit, the blood flowed out onto the floor uninterrupted, and there were no signs of intrusion or trespass into his study. The detective working the case, Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) thinks this was just a simple suicide and considers the case closed. Meanwhile, private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) suspects something more sinister had a role in Harlan Thrombey’s death: foul play.

The suspects mostly consist of Harlan’s privileged and wildly dysfunctional family. There’s Harlan’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her husband Richard (Don Johnson) and their smug and self-centered son Ransom (Chris Evans). There’s Harlan’s son Walt (Michael Shannon) who manages Harlan’s estate and his son, an alt-right online troll named Jacob (Jaeden Martell). There’s Harlan’s spoiled and greedy daughter Joni (Toni Collette) and her posh liberal arts daughter Meg (Katherine Langford). And then there’s Marta Cabrera (Ana De Armas), Harlan’s personal nurse who tended to his every need prior to his passing. All of these people were a part of Harlan’s life and loved him in one way or another. And, one of them supposedly murdered him. Blanc has eliminated no suspects, but as far as he’s concerned, all of them have something to gain from Harlan’s death.

Writing about movies like Knives Out is particularly challenging, not because there’s isn’t enough to talk about, but rather because there’s too much to talk about. Knives Out is a clever, ingenious, meticulous, observant, and deliciously deceptive movie, but it’s one where the audience benefits most from knowing as little as possible about it. I would argue that even the trailers give too much away for a movie like this. Since this is the case, I’m walking on very thin glass here and I don’t want to give away the enjoyment of the film before you can experience Knives Out for yourself.

I will say this: writer-director Rian Johnson is a mastermind behind this murder-mystery. Manipulating his characters like how a maestro conducts his orchestra or how a puppeteer commands their puppets, Johnson puts his characters through one puzzling scenario after another and giggles mischievously as he waits to spill the next big secret on his unsuspecting audience. I went in expecting Knives Out to go in a certain direction, then 15 minutes in Johnson spins my expectations directly on my head and does almost a complete 180. Then he plays with my mind and emotions for the next two hours until he drops one bombshell reveal on top of another, and then another, and then another, and then another.

Films like Knives Out are truly in rare quantity these days. Johnson put a lot of thought into this screenplay, into its characters and their actions, quirks, personalities, conflicts, wants, desires, disagreements, frustrations, and insecurities and then toys with them like he’s playing with silly putty. In many ways, Knives Out is very similar to his most recent film Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which as you may remember divided the Star Wars fan base more sharply than the 2016 Presidential elections divided the nation. Both films pull you in with a sense of anticipation and expectation, then it goes in a completely different direction and just leaves you with a stunned feeling of “what just happened?”

The difference is that Star Wars is an iconic blockbuster franchise, and fans are very passionate when drastic changes are made to characters they deeply care about. Knives Out is more primed for this sort of treatment because A) It is not part of an established franchise, B) The setup is original, and C) There’s much more freedom for Johnson to do whatever he wants with this premise. Part of the joy of this movie is that you have no idea which direction it’s going to go, and figuring it out along the way is just one of its many surprises.

The cast in this film is exceptional. Nobody is wasted in their role, nobody phones it in, and everybody plays their part exactly the way they need to. Granted, with this large of an ensemble cast, that inevitably means some characters will get shelved while others will get more screen time. Still, I wouldn’t hesitate to put any of these actor’s names forward for awards season. They all played their parts to the letter, and I would argue their efforts even deserve the Outstanding Cast accolade at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. And no, I’m not talking about a nomination: I’m talking about a win.

I don’t want to talk much about the cast because again, this movie benefits most from you knowing as little about them as possible. Two names I will bring up as being among the most entertaining performances are Daniel Craig’s and Chris Evans. These guys were hilarious, quirky, sardonic, and gleefully cunning in their own unique way. Craig’s talents as an actor don’t need much elaboration, as he can flip on a dime from being a slick spy action hero in Casino Royale and Skyfall to a mentally unhinged murderer in Infamous. Here he’s playing an old-fashioned Kentucky-fried fellow that would have Foghorn Leghorn laughing his feathers off at his accent. Chris Evans is especially surprising. For a guy who is known for playing such a genuine and good-hearted spirit as Captain America in the most recent Avengers movies, here he comes off as egotistical, condescending, and very full of himself. It’s hilarious watching him tell his entire family off in a pointed, matter-of-fact fashion, especially when you’re so not used to him playing the asshole in a movie.

I can’t sing enough praise about Knives Out. Go and see it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime movie that is rarely done with this much thought, care, and attention to detail paid to it. If he wanted to, Rian Johnson could have taken the pages of his screenplay and turned them into his own mystery novel. Harlan Thrombey would be proud.

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“DOCTOR SLEEP” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

SOURCE: Warner Bros. Pictures

Redrum and redemption. 

Doctor Sleep answers a decades-long question that I thought didn’t need answering: what happened to Danny Torrence after his father tried to kill him in The Shining? We know that he survived the encounter with his mother and much post-traumatic stress to spare. But what happened to him when he grew up? Did he let the demons haunt his gentle spirit, or did he grow from the experience and learn to help others that were as afraid as he was?

In Doctor Sleep, Danny’s epilogue is intertwined with two other stories of other people who “shine” as he does. In his elder age, Danny is played by Ewan McGregor as a man who wants to leave the supernatural world behind but is inevitably pulled back into it when an elusive spirit writes messages to him on his chalkboard. His mysterious friend is Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), a brilliant and curious young teenager who dreams and shines brighter than Danny ever did. And mixed into these two’s unusual friendship is Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), a huntress who leads a troupe that feeds on the souls of children who shine – and she’s caught Abra’s scent.

Now caught up in a hidden war between psychic wolves and sheep, Danny needs to decide what he’s going to do in the midst of all of this confusion and calamity, and where his place fits in all of it.

I never asked for a sequel to The Shining. I never wanted a sequel to The Shining. Who did? With The Shining being one of the greatest horror experiences ever put on film, who on Earth would have even thought of building upon Stanley Kubrick’s insanity and innovation? What I didn’t realize, however, was that this sequel didn’t spawn from the mind of corporate Hollywood – it came from the mind of Stephen King himself. After penning The Shining in 1977, King revisited Danny’s universe when he wrote the sequel Doctor Sleep in 2013. That puts his film adaptation into a tight pinch, because King infamously didn’t like Kubrick’s 1980 adaption of The Shining. As such, whoever adapted Doctor Sleep for the big screen had a unique challenge: they had to satisfy both Stephen King fans and Stanley Kubrick fans at the same time through the same story.

The great news is that writer-director Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil) is more than up to the task. One of the most impressive aspects of Doctor Sleep is how it builds on The Shining mythos without taking away from the appeal of the original movie. The Shining was special because its premise was limited to an enclosed and claustrophobic environment inside of an abandoned hotel, and it worked so well because its characters were slowly losing their minds in lonely solitude. Doctor Sleep is not limited to the madness or the seclusion of The Shining. It is much more free, open, and intentional with its structure and world-building.

You would think that this change in setting and tone would hinder, maybe even harm Doctor Sleep as a whole. Yet, it’s nearly as effective as Kubrick’s original Shining was. Although they’re not locked away in some haunted hotel, the characters inside Doctor Sleep are so caught up in the eeriness and the mystery behind their strange abilities that it feels almost inescapable to disillusion yourself from it – almost like being trapped inside of a cage that moves with you no matter where you go. Flanagan and his cinematographer Michael Fimognari illustrate a forced perspective that feels very vivid and immediate with its tension and unease. I was surprised to find that in many moments, not only was I scared for Danny and the little girl he was protecting in Doctor Sleep – at times, I even felt scared for Rose and her crew as well. It takes a good director to invest you in the plights of the film’s protagonists, but it takes a great director to invest their audience in the film’s antagonists as well. Flanagan does both in Doctor Sleep, and the scares stay with you regardless of whether Danny or Rose experiences them.

Another unexpected element to the movie is its emotion. While it would have been too easy to simply plop its audience halfway into the movie and dive right into the blockbuster horror, Flanagan takes the time to build up Danny’s backstory and elaborate how he came to this point in his life in the first place. That means for about the first hour of the film, Danny isn’t fighting spirits or soul hunters but is simply facing his life as it is, alcoholism, addiction, nymphomania, recovery and all. You might think that this sounds boring or uneventful for a Stephen King movie, but these personal moments were actually very meaningful and significant. One of the most touching moments early in the film was when it showed how Danny got his titular nickname “Doctor Sleep,” and why. I appreciate this movie being able to slow down and thoroughly give its characters the development they deserve, and McGregor likewise does a great job in portraying Danny’s sense of vulnerability, grief, and eventual redemption. It’s too easy to write in a generic one-note horror movie hero and call it a day. Doctor Sleep shows Danny as something much more significant than merely the film’s protagonist – it shows him as a person.

I have one and only one complaint with the film, and that is its third act. While most of the movie pulls you in with its intrigue, wonder, and grotesqueness, the third act slows down to a screeching halt and loses much of the film’s sense of identity. This is especially ironic because the third act has the strongest connection to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Strange, that this movie’s most culturally recognizable element also possessed the story’s weakest crux. The film worked much better when it was exploring its own premise and ideas, not revisiting older ones when they were done first, better, and more hauntingly.

Still, Doctor Sleep is a mysterious, eerie, and memorable entry into the Stephen King mythos, and one that has earned the right to call itself the sequel to The Shining. I’m glad Danny turned out okay after the horrifying events of The Shining, and I’m even more happy that I found it out through a movie that is nearly every bit as captivating and enigmatic as its predecessor is. The film may be called Doctor Sleep, but I guarantee you sleeping will be the last thing you do in this movie.

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“US” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Universal Pictures

“The only me is me. Are you sure the only you is you?”

We live in a nation where there are two Americas. One is the proud land of the free and home of the brave, the glorious place of opportunity and prosperity where anything is possible if you’re just willing to work hard enough. The other is a cold and pestilent land riddled by corporate greed, income inequality, racism, police brutality, white supremacy, and unregulated capitalism. Which side you see and experience depends largely on the tax bracket you belong to. But either way, it doesn’t make either side any less valid – only more fractured.

In Us, writer-director Jordan Peele observes this social-political divide through a harrowing horror-thriller experience that seeks to inform and entertain at the same time. In this creative, chilling, and deeply unsettling psychological thriller, Lupita Nyong’o plays Adelaide Wilson, a loyal wife and mother to two beautiful children. Her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and her children Zora (Shahadi Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) travel to their Lake House in Santa Cruz where they meet up with Gabe’s affluent friends, Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty Tyler (Elisabeth Moss).

But while they are there, Adelaide remembers a disturbing childhood memory where she came face-to-face with herself inside of a hall of mirrors. She still doesn’t know whether she came across an actual doppelganger of herself or if she was merely staring at her reflection. That question is soon answered for her when her family is hunted by, well, themselves later that night. The duplicate family calls themselves “the Tethered,” and they are almost exact copies of themselves save for a few ghastly differences. Her children are chased by disturbed, twisted distortions of their younger selves. Her husband is attacked by a scarred, huskier version of himself. And Adelaide is taunted by her mirrored self that is nothing but psychotic and bloodthirsty. Now on the run from their doppelgangers, Adelaide and her family needs to survive from this horrifying episode so they can find out where the Tethered came from and why they are after them.

This twisted and mindbending premise comes from the dizzying and creative mind of Jordan Peele, who won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay from Get Out earlier last year and co-produced Spike Lee’s smart and satirical black comedy BlacKkKlansman. With Peele reaching such large success in such a short amount of time, all eyes were on Peele’s sophomore effort to see how well his craft would match up against his directorial debut.

I’ll be the one to tell you firsthand that Us is not as good as Get Out: it’s even better. While Get Out smartly and ingeniously balanced between its commentary, scares, and comedy all at once, Us blends all of its elements together masterfully – like it’s mixing a deliciously chilling milkshake as opposed to a stacked ice cream sundae. Get Out was brilliant in how it inserted relevant social issues into its edgy and haunting plot and made you think about all of the implications stacked one on top of the other. Us is much more subtle in its message and its telling, and it’s all the more effective because of that.

One of the immediate issues I thought about while watching this movie was income inequality. In one monologue early in the film, one of the Tethered compared its life to the original and illustrated how every time the original ate, the Tethered starved, every time the original drank, the Tethered was dry of thirst, and every time the original felt happy and fulfilled, the Tethered felt sadness and grief. I at first thought this was just my own interpretation of it, but as the movie went on it kept making small nudges towards the Tethered’s marginalization and their struggle towards being seen and heard. Imagine, for instance, if you were persecuted and suffering in ways that would make you feel inhuman, maybe even animalistic? Imagine the pain, the anger, the hate you might feel from such an ordeal. Then look at the Tethered’s actions through that filter. Do they still seem like mindless, boorish beasts to you, or can you suddenly see intention behind their hollow, dead eyes?

The beautiful thing about this premise is that it doesn’t have to just apply to income inequality – it can apply to any social issue, whether its healthcare, gun control, immigration, racism, or religion. It isn’t specific to any issue because there is no difference for the persecuted beyond their suffering. Who you see in their seat depends largely on where you come from and what life experiences you’ve had along the way.

I have to praise the talented and diverse cast in this movie, because so much rests on their portrayals of not just one character, but two. Lupita Nyong’o obviously deserves the most credit since she pioneers this movie through her portrayals of both Adelaide and her splintered doppelganger. She masterfully portrays the frightfulness and horror of one character while simultaneously expressing the bloodlust and psychopathy of another. She easily expresses the most range out of any other actor in the film, and I would argue she’s even earned Oscar consideration for her passioned performances in this film.

But equally deserving in recognition is her on-screen family – or should I say, families? Winston Duke was great in both last year’s Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, and here he does just as great a job as both a loving family man and a barbaric giant. Shahadi Joseph portrays just as much duality as her on-screen mother does and shows a lot of promise for her future career. The young Evan Alex is especially surprising. He’s both a curious and charming little prankster in one beat and a savage little pyromaniac in another. It’s amazing to watch these actors express such a vivid contrast between both of their characters, especially given how young some of them are.

Us is a brilliant, haunting, and harrowing horror experience that says a lot about the current state of our political culture while at the same time not playing specifically to either side of the fence. It’s a thought-provoking, contemplative cinematic experiment that keeps you thinking for hours on end after you’ve left the theater, and it makes you think about what monsters you might have created without even knowing it. I suspect the movie’s themes will hit home hard for some moviegoers while others will have the message fly over their heads. That doesn’t mean Jordan Peele is any less masterful in writing, directing, and releasing this cinematic masterpiece. It does, however, point to the divides some people in this country experience. We would benefit much from learning more about those who differ most from us. Perhaps we could start with the Tethered?

 

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“JOKER” Review (✫✫✫✫)

Don’t cry. Just laugh. 

The scariest thing to admit is that we have monsters living inside of ourselves. Part of the reason why Joker has amassed as much controversy as it has is because people don’t want to admit that at some level, they sympathize with a madman and a serial killer. But the thing that some people need to remember is that before they became murderers, killers, and psychopaths, these monsters were people just like you and me, and they were hurt in very profound and personal ways that would drive anyone towards insanity. Any person, through the right circumstances, can be capable of cruelty. It’s just a matter of where and how you apply the pressure.

In Joker, writer-director Todd Phillips (The Hangover trilogy) plunges headfirst into this dark and depressing place through a gritty imagining of the origin story behind Batman’s greatest enemy. Before he became the Joker, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) was a clown, an aspiring comedian, and a son to a loving mother whom he lives with and takes care of. Arthur’s life is by no means a happy one. He regularly has to fend off attacks from criminals who try to intimidate him in the streets, he has chronic depression and several self-esteem issues, and he struggles with a neurological condition that forces him to laugh whenever he’s anxious.

But even though Arthur doesn’t have a fulfilled life, he does have a normal one for the most part. That is, until something starts to unravel inside of his splintered mind. He starts seeing people and things that aren’t actually there. He starts to become more impulsive, irrational, and erratic. And he begins to find humor in situations that would sicken and repulse any other human being. This mental and emotional decay keeps gnawing away at him until there is nothing left of Arthur Fleck. All that’s left is the Joker.

Before this movie’s release, one commentator remarked that in 1989, you created the Joker by throwing him into a vat of acid. In 2019, you created the Joker by throwing him into society. That is essentially how Todd Phillips approaches the character in this film. In fact, for more than half of the movie’s runtime, Phillips doesn’t even allude to the Joker persona or what he ends up meaning to the Batman mythos. For the most part, Joker is a social observation on mankind’s flaws and how they whittle away at our moral integrity. While I was watching, I was surprised to find that the movie doesn’t play as much like a comic book flick as it does a psychological tragedy. The fact that it just happens to feature a comic book character is just the icing on the cake.

I was reminded by another movie while watching Arthur Fleck’s descent into madness, and that was Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver. Both movies feel a lot like they are about the same person. Both feature mostly whole people who are going through serious trials and tribulations. Both characters are pieces of a broken world and are trying to make sense of it all. Both start going through a moral and mental decay that wears at the people they once were. And both start committing violent and deranged acts that fit in with their twisted senses of justification.

The movie is, in and of itself, a condemnation of the Joker’s villainy. It has to be, otherwise it threatens to embody the same evil that the Joker himself does. What’s fascinating is that the movie doesn’t just focus on the Joker, but rather all of the elements that help contribute to who he eventually becomes. The movie touches on several issues such as wealth inequality, mental health, infidelity, gun control, entertainment, anarchy, and so many other themes that you would least expect in a comic book movie like this. You wouldn’t think that these serious topics would fit into a movie about the Joker, yet they fit perfectly like pieces into a messy and chaotic puzzle. It’s very easy to simply write Joker off as psychotic and blame all of his cruelty on craziness. It’s much harder to take a deeper look at what turned Arthur Fleck into a murderer and address some of those contributors that had a hand in creating the Joker in the first place.

Since the movie is at its core a character observation, so much of the movie rests on Joaquin Phoenix’s scrawny shoulders as both Arthur Fleck and the Joker. He never buckles under the pressure. Not once. He plays both sides to the character in a beautiful and mesmerizing fashion, playing a meek and cowardly fellow in one beat and then a deranged and psychotic killer clown in another. He embodies the nuances of both characters perfectly and never breaks character in the movie’s 122-minute run time. If Joaquin isn’t at least nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars next year, the ceremony deserves to be boycotted.

You need to be warned that this is not a Batman movie by any means and is not meant for the regular superhero moviegoing public. This movie is equally inappropriate for any children younger than 18, as there is a lot of profanity, blood, gore, and disturbing images. Likewise, there’s also a larger conversation to be had about how movies like Joker humanizes deplorable human beings and gives insight to the horrible actions they carry out.

My argument is that these figures were already humanized through their situations and struggles – the movie’s challenge is showing us that without veering into preachiness or self-absorption. We already know that everything Joker does in the movie is reprehensible and wrong, just like we did for the Italian mobsters in The Godfather, or the gangsters in Goodfellas, or the hitmen in Pulp Fiction. The scary part is not caring when we cross that line – when we intentionally blur it or sometimes erase it altogether because we’ve lost any sense of moral integrity. In those moments, you can’t cry anymore because you’ve run out of tears to shed. All you can do is laugh.

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“IT CHAPTER TWO” Review (✫✫✫)

Why, Pennywise! What big teeth you have!

It Chapter Two opens on a scene of horror, not from the titular clown mind you, but rather from the prey he’s supposed to be hunting. It’s 2016 in Derry, Maine, and a gay couple just left the local carnival to go home. But on their way, they are attacked in the street by a gang of homophobic teenagers who beat them, taunt them, and then throw one of them over the bridge and into the river despite knowing that he can’t swim. It’s a harrowing, disturbing, and unsettling scene, especially since it’s something that doesn’t have to come from a horror movie. For many, it’s a reality they have to face every day they wake up. That’s scarier than any clown could ever be.

Of course, this encounter inevitably ends with the murderous Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) eating somebody. Thought to be dead, Pennywise has reawakened after he was defeated by the Loser’s Club 27 years ago. The now older Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) is the first to discover Pennywise’s return and reaches out to the rest of the Loser’s Club. His first call is to Bill Denborough (James McAvoy), a famous writer whose brother Georgie was eaten by the vicious clown 27 years ago. There’s Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain), who now works as a fashion designer with her abusive husband. There’s Ben Hapscomb (Jay Ryan), a famed architect who lost a ton of weight and replaced it all with raw muscle. There’s Eddie Richmond (James Ransom), a hypochondriac and risk assessor from New York. And then there’s Richie Tozier (Bill Hader), the smart-aleck of the group that grew up to become a standup comedian.

Mike reunites all of the Losers together for one reason: because they swore that if Pennywise ever returned, so would they and finish him off for good. So the Losers Club reunite to find Pennywise, kill him, and end his reign of terror against Derry once and for all.

If you liked It Chapter One, chances are you will like It Chapter Two just as well. Even with Chapter Two being an obvious two-parter, there are still several elements from the first movie that are replicated faithfully in the sequel here. Take Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise as one example. He was an eerie, hair-raising presence in It Chapter One, and he’s just as creepy, haunting, and darkly comedic here as he was in the first movie. I’ve watched his performances back-to-back in Chapter One and Two and compared them both side-by-side, and the thing that keeps impressing me is how much he’s able to build on the character despite how little we know about him. From his maniacal laughter to his side-eyed stare to his drooling, creepy smile, Skarsgard lines up all of the qualities that make Pennywise a wacky, haunting, and unsettling figure. He surmises all of Stephen King’s appeal into one charmingly twisted character.

But its not just Skarsgard that works so well in this movie: much of the newer cast keeps up with him just as much. James McAvoy does a fantastic job as the stuttering Bill and performs brilliantly under the pressure in expressing his paranoia, grief, anger, guilt, and frustration. Jessica Chastain is just as phenomenal in playing Beverly, and she does a wonderful job in portraying the character’s psychological trauma while at the same time being the glue that holds the Loser’s Club together. Bill Hader is particularly my favorite as Richie. I spent half of the film’s runtime laughing, and most of the time it was because of Hader’s snappy quips and one-liners (especially when it had to do with Eddie’s mom).

What surprises me the most about this movie is how much it relies on flashback sequences to tell its story. It Chapter Two is two hours and 50 minutes long, and probably about a quarter of that time is used in flashback sequences. That means that much of its runtime flips between James McAvoy and Jaeden Martell, Jessica Chasten and Sophia Lillis, Bill Hader and Finn Wolfhard, etc. Mind you, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The younger cast members, after all, were great in the first film and are just as reliable here. Still, I wasn’t expecting them to be featured so prominently in Chapter Two. I would have rathered the movie focus more on the adults rather than their younger counterparts. It would have given the new cast more space to build on and more opportunity to dive into the background of their older selves.

The rest of the movie carries out its typical horror movie routine. Pennywise pops out in a few jump scares, there are some heartfelt drama and lighthearted comedy to break up the action, and a giant CGI monster appears for the Loser’s Club to fight at the end of the movie. Granted, it doesn’t look nearly as terrible as the original monster did in the 1990’s television miniseries starring Tim Curry. Still, why do these movies have to end with a generic movie monster battle in the first place? Because it was in the book? Because it was required in Stephen King’s contract? Or because Bill Skarsgard got tired near the end of filming and told the animators to digitally edit him in so he could go home early?

Of course, I have to answer the inevitable question: which movie is better? It Chapter One or Two? My preference is It Chapter One, not only because it was such a lightning bolt of horror entertainment, but because it was a tightly-knit and brilliantly woven story that carried through fluidly without much confusion or interruption. There was a clear beginning, middle, and end to Chapter One, and we were easily able to immerse ourselves in the Loser’s Club’s plight and their terror of Pennywise. Chapter Two is a little more broken up and convoluted in its narrative, and the scares don’t land quite as hard as they did in Chapter One.

Still, It Chapter Two is a thrilling movie and a reliable sequel to one of the most unique and original horror experiences of our time. Movie fans are sure to be pleased by this duology, and Stephen King fans even more so. Just please, please stick to the book’s ending and don’t bring Pennywise back for another sequel. Otherwise, he’ll take the form of my greatest fear as It Chapter Three.

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“ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE:

Movies, murder, and Manson.

Long before Quentin Tarantino became a household name thanks to the likes of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, Tarantino was just an ecstatic, side-eyed cinephile whose entire upbringing was brought up thanks to the movies. At 14 he wrote a parody screenplay to Burt Reynolds’ 1977 hit Smokey and the Bandit called Captain Peachfuzz and the Anchovy Bandit. At 15 he dropped out of high school and worked as an usher for an adult movie theater called Pussycat Theatre. Then in his 20’s, he worked for five years at a video store before going to work as a production assistant for Dolph Lundgren’s workout videos. It wouldn’t be long after until he wrote his first full-length screenplay for Robert Rodriguez’s 1996 film From Dusk Till Dawn. At nearly every corner, movies have come to define Tarantino and a part of his life. If he were any more into movies, he’d be a cinema projector and have film reels flowing through his veins.

I feel his unorthodox upbringing fuels, at least partly, his fascination behind Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, a movie that feels equally as crazy and side-wined as Tarantino’s life has been, but in many ways, also serves as a personal and heartfelt homage to the movies. Oh, and Charles Manson and his murderous cult are involved in this movie as well. If movies, murder, and the Manson family tied into one storyline doesn’t describe a Quentin Tarantino movie, then nothing ever will.

In this devilishly wacky and zany dark comedy, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt play a big-time TV star and his stunt double, both of which are looking for work in the dog-eat-dog world of 1960’s Hollywood. Their adventures into relevance take them everywhere in Hollywood to meet several famous celebrities, including Steve McQueen, Bruce Lee, Wayne Maunder, James Stacy, and Jay Sebring. All while this is going on, famed film director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his actress wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) move in next door to them, all while a strange man stalks them throughout the neighborhood.

How does the Manson family murders tie into this story about Hollywood hijinks and high-profile celebrities? I’m not telling you. Part of the joy of Tarantino’s screenplays is that they play against the audiences’ expectations. That’s one of his greatest strengths as a writer – the unpredictability of his stories. Who could have expected, after all, that John Travolta would die halfway through Pulp Fiction, only to be revived through a flashback much later? Who also could have expected that both Leonardo DiCaprio and Christoph Waltz would be killed by the end of the second act in Django Unchained and that Django would have to spend the rest of the movie fighting a racist black man? And who also could have predicted that Inglorious Basterd’s ending would include riddling Adolf Hitler’s smarmy head full of bullet holes?

Time and time again, Tarantino has proved how he can flip expectations on the audience’s heads and deliver some of the most quirky, unusual, and shocking stories ever put on film. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is no exception. It has all of the cleverness and wit of a Tarantino screenplay, but with twice as much satire and self-awareness. How do you think this movie will play out? Now do a complete 180 and go the exact opposite direction of what you’re expecting. That is Once Upon A Time In Hollywood in a nutshell, and it’s ingenious because of it.

But it isn’t just Tarantino’s writing skills that are on full display here: it’s also his expert craftsmanship and direction. Most of his movies feature gratuitous blood and gore as a common trademark of his, with it most of the time aimed towards his male character’s genitalia. And like clockwork, this movie also features a variety of violence that has Tarantino’s stamp of approval. What’s curious is that it isn’t a prominent feature throughout the film. In fact, the gory violence is mostly absent until the third act, where Tarantino finally lets loose in his typical nutty fashion. Most of the movie even serves as a staunch critique of violence in mainstream media, how it wears at the mind and desensitizes its audience to macabre bloodshed and sickening imagery. Tarantino’s own filmography is a prime example of this, as his movies have gotten progressively more violent ever since he released Reservoir Dogs in 1992. Does that make him a hypocrite, then, to critique and examine violence and its cultural impact while celebrating and relishing in it at the same time? Possibly, but this movie doesn’t examine cultural violence like it’s an issue to solve but rather as an inevitable quality of entertainment. I appreciate Tarantino’s introspection into observing that issue, even if he isn’t exactly exempt from it.

I would be remiss if I did not mention Leonardo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt. Obviously, they are both incredibly talented and charismatic actors that have developed their own style and likeness similar to Quentin Tarantino. Perhaps that’s why they work so well together in this movie. Pitt succeeds in being the sly, slick, Cool Hand Luke-type character that remains level-headed and calm through all circumstances, even when they’re extraneous or unusual. DiCaprio, meanwhile, is an especially ecstatic character. It’s funny to watch him hyperventilate over the smallest of inconveniences, or damn near tear up when he’s told he should star in a spaghetti western. I like that about DiCaprio, how he can switch from such challenging roles such as Hugh Grant in The Revenant to more comedic and clumsy roles such as Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. It really demonstrates his range as an actor and shows how well he can take on an assortment of characters, no matter how different they may be.

I feel like Once Upon A Hollywood may end up being incredibly divisive, both towards the passionate fans of Tarantino’s work and those who can’t stand him and his wacky, off-beat style. To me, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood embodies Tarantino’s strongest traits as a writer and a director without veering too far into being excessive or self-indulgent. Dare I say it’s my favorite Tarantino film? I’m not sure if I’m quite there yet, but it’s definitely in my top two alongside Pulp Fiction. However you may feel about Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, I can only speak for myself and how I feel about it. On that note, I will say that by the end of the movie, I was shocked, revolted, and incredibly disturbed by what I saw. I was also rolling in my seat dying of laughter. That might say more about me than it does Quentin Tarantino, but hey, that’s the movies for you.

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“THE LION KING (2019)” Review (✫✫1/2)

The circle of (CGI) life. 

Let this be a lesson to Disney and any other media conglomerates in the future: just because something worked well the first time doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to work every time after. Sure, when Jon Favreau directed the live-action Jungle Book remake in 2016, it garnered critical acclaim, grossed over $966 million at the box office, and even won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, with many viewers claiming that it was even better than the original. With The Jungle Book’s success in mind, Disney thought they could probably give The Lion King the same treatment and get the same result two times over.

Ah, but here’s the thing: The Jungle Book is consistently considered to be solidly mid-tier in terms of the old-timey Disney animated movies. It’s enjoyable enough, but it pales in comparison to the likes of Bambi, Pinocchio, and Beauty and the Beast. The Lion King, meanwhile, embodies everything great about Disney, from its colorful characters and animation to its vibrant and lively music all the way to its serious and dramatic storyline. The Lion King is widely considered to be Walt Disney’s greatest animated movie of all time – and rightfully so.

Much of the storyline is the same between both adaptations. In both movies, Simba (Donald Glover) is the son of the “Lion King” Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and the prince of the Pride Lands, the kingdom which his father oversees. As prince, Simba is destined to one day grow up, take his father’s place, and become the king over the Pride Lands and the animals who reside there.

However, there is another pining for Mufasa’s throne. Mufasa’s younger brother, a dirty, rugged, and unruly lion named Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was the first in line for the throne before Simba was born. Now consumed with jealousy and greed for the throne, Scar hatches a scheme to take away the throne from both Simba and Mufasa – and neither will like what he has planned for either of them.

Since this movie revisits so many of the plot beats from the first Lion King, this movie is more of a shot-for-shot re-skin to the original than a remake in its own right. As such, the visual effects are crucial in making this movie work, since so much of its appeal relies heavily on how it looks compared to its animated counterpart. So here’s the million-dollar question: how good does The Lion King look?

The short answer is pretty freaking fantastic. Like The Jungle Book, The Lion King uses photorealistic techniques to bring these CGI animals to life, behaving and moving on-screen as if you’re peering through the glass of an exotic zoo. Every time Mufasa let out a loud, ear-piercing roar, Zazu (John Oliver) spread out his petite little wings to fly, or Rafiki (John Kani) trotted along in the trees, bushes, and savannah, it felt like real animals were in front of you making these movements. The Jungle Book was revolutionary for its time by impressively digitally recreating animals and their behaviors, and The Lion King succeeds in executing many of the same techniques to give its animals a genuine, natural feel to them. If you compare the original Lion King with the remake side-by-side and ask which one looks more realistic, it isn’t even a competition: the remake wins.

But with its realistic computer graphics comes an unexpected consequence: now because the animals look so realistic, the animals can’t express as much as they could in the original. Neither could they in The Jungle Book remake, but that movie had one key element to it that The Lion King does not have: Neel Sethi. With him being one of the few human actors in The Jungle Book, he was able to play his emotions off of the animals and demonstrate genuine expressions of joy, intimidation, grief, sadness, anger, happiness, and excitement. Sure, the animals’ faces were mostly stoic and one-note, but then again they weren’t required to demonstrate expression: Neel was. He pulled off a decent enough job to where we could appreciate the rest of the technical craft behind The Jungle Book’s wild characters.

The Lion King does not have a human actor to anchor the film’s drama or emotions. What we’re left with, then, is an entire reliance on the animals and their limited facial expressions. That’s a problem because they don’t express much of anything throughout the film, despite the voice cast obviously giving it their all. It’s very awkward to watch Mufasa suddenly snap from angry to happy while playing with Simba in the Pride Lands without his facial cues to clue us in on his mood. A few accentuations to his facial animations would have helped with that. Would it be inaccurate to the real-life physiology? Yes, but at least we wouldn’t be as removed from the character personally.

I mentioned the voice actors. Some of them deliver brilliant vocal performances, such as Donald Glover and Beyonce as the elder Simba and Nala respectively. The minute Glover pops out and sings his heart out with “Hakuna Matata,” or when they harmonize during “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?”, it immediately fills you with chills and goosebumps at how beautiful they sound together. Anytime they shared dialogue or a musical number, I was immediately hooked and wanted to hear more from them (even if “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” was annoyingly sung in the DAYTIME).

Other voice performances lack the raw and visceral punch that Glover and Beyonce bring. For instance, Chiwetel Ejiofor voices Scar, and his performance was so meek and wimpy that he sounds more like Jafar from Aladdin than he does Scar. Hugh Jackman was rumored to play Scar early on while casting was still under consideration, and I can’t tell you how much better it would have been if I heard Wolverine’s snarly voice seething between Scar’s teeth. The hyenas, played by Florence Kasumba, Keegan-Michael Key, and Eric Andre are fine but lack the wacky personalities of Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings. Seth Rogan is especially cringe-worthy as Pumbaa. He’s funny enough whenever he’s just bantering with Billy Eichner’s Timon, but have him start singing “Hakuna Matata” and your ears are guaranteed to start bleeding within minutes.

Overall, The Lion King is an enjoyable, albeit inconsistent, remake. I did enjoy seeing my favorite Lion King characters up on the big screen once again, and I did like seeing the new visual style applied to some of them. But the larger film as a whole does not work as well as the animated movie did, but what else did you expect? Some movies were not made to be interchangeable with live-action. Yeah, you could technically adapt movies such as The Incredibles, Up, and Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse into live-action. But with all of the bright colors, beautiful animation, and vivid visual style, why would you ever want to?

I know three things for certain. 1) The Oscar-worthy visual effects helps this movie as much as it hurts it. 2) Donald Glover and Beyonce are hands-down the best things that could have happened to this picture. 3) Seth Rogan should never attempt to sing again in his career, ever. And for the love of God, please sing “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?” in the evening next time.

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“THE LION KING (1994)” Review (✫✫✫✫)

A powerful tale of grief, resolution, and Hamlet.

As a child, there were several moments from Walt Disney’s classic movies that stick with you as you matured from a small cub into a fully grown adult all your own. In Pinocchio, that was when Pinocchio sacrificed himself to save his father Gepetto, turning himself from a puppet into a real boy. In Dumbo, it was that somber moment when Mrs. Jumbo extended her trunk out from the cage and cradled her disturbed baby Dumbo to sleep out in the gloomy circus grounds. And in Bambi, it was when Bambi witnessed his mother tragically shot and killed by a hunter in the cold, snowy forest.

Time and time again, Disney has demonstrated an impeccable ability to deliver fun and colorful adventures, but not so detached from reality to where its cute and cuddly creatures didn’t have their own problems and issues of mortality to deal with. These images stay with us because in most cases, what their child-like characters go through could have been us.

This is one among many reasons why The Lion King is such a success, and arguably Disney’s greatest animated feature to date. When I was younger, I remembered all of the kid-friendly elements that appealed to me so much through my bright-eyed, adolescent mind. I remembered the memorable kingdom animals that bantered and bickered about amusingly, the brilliantly sweeping animation that captured the vibrant and luscious landscape of the African Savannah, and the wonderful musical numbers beautifully written by Hans Zimmer and Elton John. All of these captured my mind and imagination in my young age, but after re-watching it through older eyes, I had a greater appreciation on the maturity and the themes the movie was trying to explore, a beautiful homily on life not being about where you came from, but where you’re going: a “circle of life,” so to speak.

The Lion King tells the story of Simba (Matthew Broderick), a young lion cub who is the prince of the Pride Lands. His father Mufasa (James Earl Jones) is the king of the Pride Lands and the ruler of all the animals who reside there. But he won’t be king forever. As he points out to the young Simba, there will be one day where the sun sets on his time and a new king will have to rise in his place. That king, Mufasa says, is none other than his own son Simba.

But it wasn’t always that way. Long before Simba was born, his uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons) was supposed to be next in line for the throne. Selfish, twisted, and devilishly conniving, Scar is jealous that he will one day be forced to give up the throne in place of his little twerpy lion cub nephew who hasn’t even grown out his full mane yet. As Simba grows older, he will have to struggle for the throne against his uncle Scar, and accept his destiny as the King of the Pride Lands.

We’re barely into talking about The Lion King, and already it feels like we’re referring to an epic dramatic blockbuster more than an animated kids’ movie. In a way, we are. The story was co-written by Linda Woolverton, who was most known for penning Disney’s 1991 release Beauty And The Beast prior to The Lion King. In many ways, they’re very similar stories with shared meanings and messages behind them. Both of these films deal with characters stricken with emotional grief, guilt, and anguish. Both of these films deal with masculine protagonists secluding themselves away from the rest of the world, resolved to their suffering and their need to be closed off from it. But they also deal with how those characters come to face their grief and sorrow, resolve it, and commit themselves to a better tomorrow despite their past tragedies.

How is this different from other Disney epics that follows this same plot line, such as Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi? It doesn’t, I guess. But The Lion King feels more immersed in its emotions: in the highs and lows of its characters, in the joys and the sorrows, in the fun and upbeat moments where animals are singing and dancing together in the jungle, and in the slower and darker moments where characters have to come to terms to who they are and who they are going to be going forward.

It makes sense that the film feels as thematic and operatic as it does. After all, directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff have stated several times in numerous interviews how they were inspired by several epic folklore stories while making The Lion King, including Williams Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the tale of Joseph from the Holy Bible. Does it sound a little heavy-handed to describe such historic works in comparison to an animated kids movie about jungle animals and lion cubs? Definitely, but it works beautifully in context here. It kind of falls in line with Disney’s earlier work: his movies weren’t just about puppets, giant-eared baby elephants, and bright-eyed fawns. They were about growing up and learning from their experiences in the past.

The brightly-colored and vivid animation is arguably the best Disney has ever helped produce. The first moment the sun rises in the east of the Savannah at the beginning of the film, it’s so warm and bright that it makes you feel like the sun is actually rising from the screen and shining its bright ray onto you. The cast is equally impeccable, with Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, Jim Cummings and several others offering their voice talents in this sprawling, fun, and visually dynamic family epic.

But arguably the greatest of all of the production elements here is the music, which is co-written by both Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer and Grammy Award-winning pop star Elton John. Normally you wouldn’t expect the composer behind Rain Man, Driving Miss Daisy, and True Romance to be a match made in Heaven with “Rocket Man” himself. Yet, their collaboration together is absolutely breathtaking, with their several music numbers including “Hakuna Matata,” “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?”, and “Circle of Life” breathing vibrancy and heart into this already emotionally stirring animated epic. It is no less influential to Lion King’s success than John Williams is to Star Wars or Randy Newman is to Toy Story.

There will no doubt be much discussion over which of Disney’s several successes will go on to be revered as his best, among them including the recently released Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast. I waste no breath in saying The Lion King is hands-down my favorite. It’s an emotionally mature animated epic that will leave the adults with several beats to reflect over, all while not short-changing on the fun moments and musical numbers that will delight the kiddos. Pity, that the Academy Awards wouldn’t introduce the Oscar for Best Animated Feature until several years later when Shrek would win the first inaugural award in 2002. The Lion King would have won for sure.

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“SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME” (✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Sony Pictures

Your friendly international Spider-Man.

How are we still getting more Spider-Man movies? More to the point, how is it that we aren’t even tired of them yet? You would think that after a second reboot, six live-action movies, an Academy Award-winning animated feature, and appearing in three different team-up movies that people would become exhausted from everyone’s favorite web-slinger by the time his third sequel came around. But if anything, Spider-Man: Far From Home shows there’s still a few tricks up his webbed sleeves, as well as a few other surprises that will keep Spidey fans guessing for what’s next for the amazing wall-crawler.

By the time Spider-Man: Far From Home swings around, the young and bright-minded Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has already been through way more than your average teenager has been. He defeated his first super villain the Vulture (Michael Keaton) and threw him behind bars. He went to space and fought a mad intergalactic titan alongside Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), a sorcerer, and a ragtag group of galaxy guardians. Then he disintegrated into thin air, only to be restored to his former self just in time to watch his friend and mentor die right before his very eyes.

At this point, Peter has been through way more in two years than I have in my entire high school career. He’s incredibly exhausted from living the superhero life, and he has just the perfect escape from it all: a summer trip to Europe just for himself and his classmates at Midtown High.

Unfortunately, superhero shenanigans follow him even all the way to Italy. After arriving in Europe, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) recruits Peter to fight against the Elementals, a powerful group of multi-dimensional entities that embody the four elements. Now with the world teetering on the brink of destruction yet again, Peter needs to team up with a new mystical superhero named Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) to defeat the Elementals and save the world once more.

One of the most special things about Tom Holland’s Spider-Man is how he manages to keep Peter Parker feeling fresh and new, despite the fact that his story has been adapted onto film a whopping 11 times now. That’s because at the heart of it all, Tom portrays Peter not as a larger-than-life superhero, but as a kid hesitantly thrusted into a position of power and responsibility. Tobey Maguire possessed a similar sense of humility in Sam Rami’s Spider-Man movies. In both franchises, both actors approach their characters not as comic-book heroes, but as people filled with their own wants, desires, doubts, and aspirations.

That personable aspect was something Holland was missing in his first solo entry Spider-Man: Homecoming, trading out serious drama and character development for snappy quips, gadgets, and gizmos. The Spider-Man in Far From Home, meanwhile, has grown up. He’s become swamped from the hero’s life, and in being caught up in all of the hysteria and politics of superhero mania, he just wants one summer off to feel like a kid again.

His desire for a normal life is a relatable one, and a motive that Holland’s Peter Parker shares with Maguire’s Spider-Man. If I had to compare Spider-Man: Far From Home to its predecessor in one word, it would be “more.” It’s everything you love about Spider-Man: Homecoming, just more of it. More high-stakes superhero action and fight sequences. More dazzling visual effects and CGI. More of the personable, charming, and adorable likability of Tom Holland’s Peter Parker. More awkward high school romance, more funny and on-the-spot quips and one-liners. Whatever you’re looking for, Spider-Man: Far From Home has more of it.

If I had any qualms with Far From Home, it would be perhaps that it doesn’t go far enough with its premise. Spider-Man has had four successful film franchises now, all of them great for very different reasons. Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man focused on the human aspect and the emotional burden he carried on his skimpy shoulders. Andrew Garfield was a snappy and sarcastic teenager that perfectly captured the rebellious aspect of the character. Into The Spider-Verse was a brilliant exploration of the Spider-mythos itself and showed how anybody could become a great Spider-Man. And Holland’s Spider-Man is a great exploration into Peter’s youth and his coming-of-age story.

But the thing that the other movies have one leg up on Holland’s Peter is that they had the confidence to explore their ideas and portrayals of Spider-Man more deeply. The MCU’s Spider-Man, meanwhile, still seems too reliant on the larger cinematic universe and its implications towards this Spider-Man. Can we please just like and appreciate this Spider-Man for the hero he is and not in comparison to Tony or Cap? Spider-Man has always been a stand-up superhero because he’s the little guy standing side-by-side next to the bigger guys. Far From Home is more than content in being in the Avengers’ shadows, and meanwhile I just want Holland’s Spider-Man to step out and create his own.

Regardless of where you stand on the Spider-spectrum, Spider-Man: Far From Home is a clever, exciting, and visually-dazzling Spider-Man movie that pushes the wall-crawler in all-new, head-spinning directions that you may not have been expecting. Fans who are thinking that Spidey’s days are numbered after the epic events of Avengers: Endgame are sorely mistaken. I think everyone’s favorite web-head is just getting started.

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