Category Archives: Reviews

“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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“TOY STORY 4” Review (✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Toy Story 3: The Epilogue.

Pixar is great at many things. One of the few things they’re not as good at is making sequels. The Cars franchise, for instance, was the animation studios’ first attempt at making a trilogy, and it was so lackluster that it exhausted all of the joy prevalent from the first movie. Monsters University was a fun and spiffy little prequel to Monsters Inc., but it evidently lacked the heartstrings that the first one was so good at pulling. Do we even need to get into how Pixar made us wait 14 years for a sequel to The Incredibles?

Time and time again, Pixar has demonstrated that it can do sequels, but often not as well as their originals. The only real exception to this has been the Toy Story franchise. Ever since Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear’s (Tim Allen) first adventure together 24 years ago, their characters have matured and grown, not unlike Andy himself did between the three movies. Toy Story introduced Woody, Buzz, and their need to feel affection as toys. Toy Story 2 continued their adventures as the fear of abandonment grew as quickly as Andy did. Then Toy Story 3 capped off the trilogy beautifully, showing that while all things end, there are also new beginnings that come with those endings. That’s all part of growing up.

In Toy Story 4, the toys are back yet again as they’re trying to help their new owner, Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) through kindergarten. Unfortunately, there’s not much they can do since toys are not allowed at Bonnie’s school. But in a moment of sudden inspiration, Bonnie makes herself a toy during arts and crafts using popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, and a spork and names it “Forky” (Tony Hale).  When it surprisingly comes to life, Forky is horrified at his appearance and tries to throw himself away in the garbage, since he is made out of literal trash. Now determined to help Bonnie get through kindergarten, the toys band together to protect Forky from everything for Bonnie’s sake – including the trash can.

Watching the first few frames of this movie, I was reminded of the child-like joy that Toy Story always brought me when I experienced this franchise for the first time as a kid; how it’s raggedy-dolled characters always flopped about in a clumsy fashion and how their small world became big as they explored new places and met new toys. There’s a good reason why Toy Story is widely considered to be Pixar’s flagship franchise: it’s because it demonstrates what the Academy Award-winning studio can accomplish.

Toy Story 4 is no exception to Pixar’s creativity and imagination. For instance, when Bo Peep (Annie Potts) is re-introduced after her absence from Toy Story 3, she’s given a new look and feel that’s different from her docile, delicate appearance in Toy Story 2. She’s no longer a helpless shepherd waiting to be rescued by Woody the cowboy. She’s much more fearless and versatile now, using her cane as a weapon to fend off hostile toys and using a mobile car disguised as a skunk to make her way around. Watching her in this bolder, more daring fashion reminded me of how original Pixar can be, putting a different spin on older characters and ideas to make them feel fresh and new.

The voice talent in their characters is equally exceptional, with Hanks and Allen reprising their roles and feeling as familiar and welcoming as they’ve always been. Yet there is an assortment of newer characters to also appreciate here, and all of them have the voice talent to back them up. There’s a Canadian stuntman action figure named Duke Caboom played by Keanu Reeves, and he possesses the impeccable skill of being the best crasher out of the motorcycle circuit. There’s a hilariously fluffy duo in Ducky (Keegan Michael-Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele), two stuffed animals way too sarcastic for their own good who have an unhealthy obsession for cartoon violence and mischievous shenanigans. Perhaps the funniest is Forky himself, who is going through an existential crisis questioning whether he’s a toy or trash. I practically died laughing in my seat as I watched his several attempts at throwing himself away along with Randy Newman’s aptly-named tune “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away.”

So the animation, the voice acting, and the perfectly-timed comedy is all on-par with the rest of the films from the Toy Story franchise. Where it falters is in the relevance. And to be fair, that isn’t necessarily Toy Story 4’s fault. If anything that’s the fault of Toy Story 3, since it ended on a note so powerful and profound that anything after that would feel like a redundancy.

Still, that begs the question: why did Toy Story 4 have to get made? I couldn’t give you a good reason why. The only reason I can think of is that Toy Story 3 made over a billion dollars and a sequel was bound to make more money. But that’s a profit-driven rationale, and Pixar isn’t usually known for making something that isn’t story-driven first and market-driven second. And don’t be mistaken: there’s definitely a message, and a purpose, here behind Toy Story 4.

The problem is it isn’t a necessary one. Toy Story 3 capped the trilogy off perfectly and beautifully with a message saying that while all journeys end, that doesn’t mean they’re the only ones and there are new adventures to experience out there. Toy Story 4 ends on a note similar to Toy Story 3, and since the two endings are so similar, neither of them feels like the definitive conclusion of the franchise. Even if this is the quote-unquote “last” Toy Story movie, who’s to say Pixar won’t change their mind later on? Toy Story 3 was supposed to be the last movie, and Pixar backtracked from that after it was the highest-grossing movie of 2010. Who’s to say Toy Story 4 won’t get the same treatment? Or for that matter, Toy Story 5?

On the surface level, Toy Story 4 is a fun, energetic, and joyful little sequel that brings you back to the classic days of being in the playroom with the toys. Through that simplicity, Toy Story 4 is a rewarding experience, even if it isn’t as fulfilling as one. But it also reminds me of a depressing truth about cinematic franchises: throw enough money at it, and studios will be incentivized enough to make a sequel, even if the story doesn’t at all call for one.

I’m glad I got to see the toys one last time. I just hope it really is the last time.

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“DARK PHOENIX” Review (✫1/2)

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Goodbye Fox, hello Disney. 

Dark Phoenix represents a fatigued franchise on its last legs, a whipped dog that’s gone on for way too long that desperately needs to be put out of its misery. Well, if you need to administer euthanasia, let me be the first to volunteer. If there was ever a case to make in favor of the Disney-Fox merger, Dark Phoenix would be the main arguing point.

In this thankfully final installment of the rebooted X-Men series, Dark Phoenix follows the X-Men, now highly popular celebrity figures, as they venture out onto a space mission to save a stranded NASA crew after being struck by a solar flare. After Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Nightcrawler (Kodi-Smitt McPhee), and Quicksilver (Evan Peters) make their way to the shuttle to rescue the astronauts, Jean gets left behind and absorbs the full impact of the blast. Miraculously, she survives, though not without some monstrous side effects.

You see, the solar flare Jean absorbed was not a solar flare at all: it was an ancient entity known as the Phoenix, a powerful consciousness that contains vast cosmic abilities. Now possessed by the Phoenix force, Jean has to resist its temptations and rescue her friends from herself, before she loses control and kills everything she has ever loved.

If this plot feels like a retread, that’s because it is. Dark Phoenix was first adapted to the big screen in 2006’s The Last Stand, where Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey lashed out at everyone human and mutant alike with her psychic abilities. That film was lambasted all around, with critics disliking its heavier emphasis on action and visual effects while fans hated how flippantly the movie killed off some of its series mainstays.

I am one of the relative few that enjoyed X-Men: The Last Stand, mostly for the social-political questions it imposed and how significantly it racked up the stakes from previous installments. However, even I must admit that the Phoenix side plot took an obvious backseat to the rest of the film’s main storyline. Fox could have easily split both of the movie’s premises in half, devote more time to both subjects, and make two fantastic movies from it. Instead, they crammed both storylines into one movie and halved both of the experiences for us. Frustrating for passionate fans of the franchise, but it didn’t compromise the overall experience for me.

Here the Phoenix storyline is given the full treatment in Dark Phoenix. And after watching both movies, I now desperately want the Phoenix storyline to take a backseat.

Where do I begin? For one thing, the movie completely fails to follow through on the consistency of its own storyline. If you saw X-Men: Apocalypse, you will remember that the Phoenix force emerges from Jean at the end of the movie to defeat Apocalypse and save her friends. Yet here, it is explained to us that the Phoenix force possesses Jean after the space mission, several years after the events of Apocalypse. The really negligent part? Writer-director Simon Kinberg was responsible for writing both movies. How does he miss a Juggernaut-sized plot hole that large and fail to correct it, especially when it’s in his own screenplay?

But it’s not just Kinberg’s writing that is completely lackluster; his direction is equally as sloppy and misguided. Take for instance the X-Men’s space mission, where they’re roaming around in zero-gravity on the shuttle despite having no space suits or helmets on. What, do mutants not need oxygen to survive? Did I miss that lesson in Mutants 101? The production design itself is also surprisingly lazy, with the costumes and the makeup on Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique so clearly lacking the detail that she looks more like a cosplayer than an X-Man. And one scene between Jean Grey and James McCoy’s Professor X was downright laughable. She manipulated his legs to make him walk in what was supposed to be a terrifying demonstration of her new powers, but his posture was so clunky and awkward that I was wondering if he was auditioning to be Pinocchio for a live-action remake.

The movie’s saving grace lies in the performances, which are as poised and passionate as they have always been in the previous movies. That doesn’t change the ridiculousness of the plot they’re in, or how every line of dialogue is essentially copied and pasted from former and better movies. Mind you that other bad X-Men movies came before this one. X-Men Origins: Wolverine was just as silly and ridiculous, and X-Men: Apocalypse fumbled over its monotonous plot line too many times to count. But at least they tried to tell a coherent story. Dark Phoenix doesn’t even look like it’s making an effort to. It feels more like the writer, director and producers handed in the towel and just gave up, because Disney was going to take back ownership of its characters anyway. The X-Men deserve better treatment than that, even if they are being rebooted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The really dumb part about all this is that Fox already had the perfect ending to its franchise in Logan, which felt like the last period of the last sentence of the last page of a fantastic journey you just went on. Dark Phoenix tacks on an awkward “but” at the end of that sentence for no reason other than to add words to the page, and it ends up tainting the entire franchise because of it. When Disney inevitably reboots the X-Men for the MCU, let them use this movie as a lesson for what not to do going forward. Dark Phoenix, meanwhile, deserves to stay buried beneath its own ashes.

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“POKEMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU” Review (✫✫✫)

Pika, Pika, Clue.

There are two special achievements behind Pokemon Detective Pikachu’s success. One, it’s a good live-action Pokemon movie. Two, it’s a good live-action Detective Pikachu movie. I didn’t think either of those things were possible, let alone in the same movie. And yet Pokemon Detective Pikachu astonishes, not because it gives in to the sensationalism and redundancy of its franchise, but rather because it fills it with its own wonder, joy, and fascination to the world that it’s building. Future video game movies would be wise to take notes from Detective Pikachu, and maybe a few Pokeballs along with it.

In this adaptation to the worldwide Nintendo phenomenon, Pokemon Detective Pikachu follows Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), a former Pokemon trainer who renounced the trainer’s life after his mother died when he was a boy. Now pursuing a mostly uneventful career as an insurance agent, Tim is reluctantly pulled back into the world of Pokemon when he gets a fateful phone call: his father, a police detective named Harry, died in a car crash while working an investigation.

When Tim ventures back into his late father’s office to collect his things, he makes two shocking discoveries: his father’s partner Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds), and that he can understand him. After getting over the fact that he can understand a Pokemon, Pikachu informs Tim that he believes Harry is still alive and that he’s trying to track him down. Reinvigorated with a newfound sense of hope for his father’s survival, Tim teams up with Pikachu to solve this mystery, because he’s not just any Pikachu – he’s a detective Pikachu.

One of the first elements you notice about Detective Pikachu are its visual effects. I know, I know, good visual effects are a common compliment in today’s CGI-driven industry. Still, Detective Pikachu dazzles, not just because of its exquisite computer graphics and fast-paced action sequences, but also in the overall design and rendering of its Pokemon.

In one of the film’s earliest scenes, Tim ventures out into a grass field to catch a Cubone, which is basically a tiny dinosaur with a skull on its head. In just the first few frames, I was mesmerized at how real the Cubone felt; how it moved, behaved, and reacted with hostility like a wild animal really would as opposed to the cartoonish expressions you’ve become accustomed to from the Japanese anime. As the movie went on, I was further entranced as Tim entered Ryme City and was exposed to this vibrant, colorful world filled with Pokemon and trainers alike. The fire-breathing Charmanders and water-pumping Squirtles waddled down the streets like miniature Godzillas, while the ghastly obese Snorlax dozed off at the intersections like an oversized blue Garfield. Watching these creatures fill the screen all at once was like playing “Where’s Waldo?” with Pokemon, and it was a complete joy to watch as you eagerly waited to see which Pokemon would pop up on the screen next.

Of course no Pokemon shines brighter in the film than Pikachu himself. That’s to be expected, given the fact that he’s been the series’ flagship character ever since his debut in the first batch of games back in 1996. What I’m surprised by is how brilliantly Ryan Reynolds’ offbeat personality matches with the electric little fuzzball. Reynolds has made a name for himself as the merc with a mouth in the R-rated superhero movie Deadpool and its sequel Deadpool 2. How on Earth was this notoriously sarcastic scoundrel supposed to play one of Nintendo’s most cute and cuddly icons? By not being cute and cuddly at all, that’s how. Detective Pikachu isn’t the same as the other renditions of the Pokemon where he simply utters “Pika pika” all the time and zaps people. This private-eye, caffeine-addicted Pikachu has a personality to him, one that has no qualms with conniving detective schemes and swearing in PG limitations. Reynolds’ Pikachu reminded me of… well, me honestly. Perhaps that’s why I identified with him so much.

The rest of the film’s appeal is relatively straightforward. The plot, while mostly unspectacular, has a few hard-hitting comical and emotional beats to it that keeps the film moving and interesting. The performances by the human actors are reliably serviceable, if not as impressive as Reynolds’ natural charm. And the music by Henry Jackman is especially notable, with its beats and tunes throwing back to the classic battle themes that buzzed on your Game Boy whenever you entered into a Pokemon battle.

What ultimately sets this movie apart from other failed video game adaptations is the child-like love and affection it has for its franchise. So many video game movies fail to capture the same magic that their arcade counterparts initially possessed because movie studios are always more focused on the plot beats and not the emotional aesthetics behind them. Pokemon Detective Pikachu is a different story. It not only enjoys its simplicity: it thrives on it. It has fun with it as it delivers an exciting, funny, even heartfelt adventure that does the Pokemon legacy justice. Pokemon Detective Pikachu has got the live-action treatment down. Now if only Sonic the Hedgehog could be given the same thing.

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“AVENGERS: ENDGAME” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Avengers, assembled. 

It’s hard to believe that we live in a time where it’s now possible to watch a 22-movie saga in the movie theater. It was only 11 years ago when Robert Downey Jr. told the world that he was Iron Man for the first time in 2008. Even back then, the idea of fitting six superheroes into one team-up movie in The Avengers seemed overstuffed – not to mention incredibly self-absorbed. Now we’ve gone through the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s entire journey as it grows and culminates into an emotionally-charged epic in Avengers: Endgame – one that earns every frame of its three-hour runtime.

The most impressive part of all this isn’t how many super-powered characters they’re able to fit onto the screen all at once: it’s how it’s able to retain its heart while doing so.

Taking place after the events of Avengers: Infinity War, the Avengers are left crippled, broken and devastated after Thanos did what he promised to – collect all six of the Infinity Stones and wipe out half of all life in the universe, reducing many of the Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and even Spider-Man (Tom Holland) to dust.

Humanity has tried to move on from Thanos’ fateful snap. Time and time again, the Avengers are told they need to do the same.

But none of them can forget how much they’ve lost.

Now resolved to make Thanos pay for everything he’s done, the original Avengers assemble with the likes of Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Nebula (Karen Gillan), and Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) for one last fight to protect all that they hold dear.

As Doctor Strange said in Infinity War, the Avengers are in the Endgame now.

One of the immediate things that strikes you about Avengers: Endgame is how drastically different it feels from the rest of the movies in its cinematic universe. Every movie so far, from Iron Man all the way to Black Panther, has retained some sense of euphoric joy and enthusiasm, fulfilling these superhero fantasies that never fail to make us feel like kids again. Even in Infinity War, which ended on a cripplingly devastating cliffhanger, started with a sense of scale that made our inner comic-book nerd scream in excitement.

But Avengers: Endgame does not start in a joyous tone. Indeed, it is very mournful and reflective – as somber as a funeral and twice as quiet. This makes sense, of course, considering the consequences of Infinity War carry over into Endgame. Still, I was surprised at how much this movie chose to immerse itself in the Avengers’ loss and tragedy. There isn’t even a lot of action to take in for the first two acts of this movie: it’s all just character development as these heroes suffer from the greatest defeat they’ve ever experienced in their lives. That level of penance and guilt is rare in an action movie, and even rarer still in a Marvel superhero blockbuster.

It isn’t until the third act when the movie explodes into the pure comic-book fun and madness that you’ve become accustomed to throughout this franchise. And rest assured, dear reader – I won’t spoil anything here. What I will say is that I felt fulfilled to every bone in my body and then some. There are several iconic moments from this franchise that have blown us away in the past, from the Chitauri invasion in the first Avengers movie to the titular battle between Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man in Captain America: Civil War. The climax in Avengers: Endgame blows everything else we’ve experienced out of the water and shook the entire theater to its core.

Words simply can’t do justice to what I felt as the Endgame drew near.

And in its closing moments, Avengers: Endgame brings something that is especially rare in the superhero genre: closure. While franchises as big as the Avengers are great at taking us on fun, meaningful journeys with our heroes, the thing about journeys is that they have to have an end to them. Most of these franchises are usually missing those, and I can tell you why they do: it’s because most studios would rather continue piling on the sequels and keep churning out a cheap profit, even if their stories should have probably ended a long time ago.

The special thing about Avengers Endgame is not only does it have a definitive ending for some of its characters: it’s that it relishes in providing that. It takes pride in the fact that it’s able to give some of these heroes the sendoff they deserve: the peace and resolution they’ve fought so long and hard for. It’s like seeing one of your childhood friends move away start a family and raise their own children. You’ll no doubt miss them and you’re sad to say goodbye, but you’re happy that they’ve finally reached their happy ending at the same time.

Keep in mind that Avengers: Endgame is not a perfect movie by any means, and in many ways, it’s actually seriously structurally flawed. Since the movie is built up on so much on the rest of the franchise, much of its appeal relies on nostalgia and fan service and not so much on its own setup and execution. When I say this movie is the climax of a 22-movie saga, I mean it. You would not enjoy this movie as much if you’ve only watched the other Avengers movies, or skipped out on a Thor movie here or there.

Yet, I couldn’t care less about the movie’s narrative shortcomings. Why? Because it’s so blasted fulfilling and impactful regardless. I had no idea a decade ago how much this universe would grow beyond 11 years and 22 movies – how expansive this world would become, or how much it would mean to the millions of fans who have passionately followed it all these years.

Avengers: Endgame is exactly what it purports to be – the resolution to these heroes’ journeys, the culmination of years of storytelling, and the end to this multi-year saga that we’ve all become a part of. To say it meets our gargantuan expectations is a severe understatement. It is nothing short of a cinematic epic not unlike Ben-Hur or The Lord of the Rings – one that we definitely won’t forget anytime soon.

Excelsior.

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“CAPTAIN MARVEL” Review (✫✫)

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Not so Marvelous. 

Trolls ruin everything. First, they have to assault Black Panther with a plethora of negative Rotten Tomatoes reviews just because it’s Marvel’s first predominately Black superhero movie. Now the trolls attack yet again by swarming the internet forums with degrading attacks towards Captain Marvel – only this time it’s because a woman is leading the charge.

The really pathetic part is that the trolls’ extraneous hatred for this movie is completely unnecessary. There’s plenty to dislike here in Captain Marvel, and none of it has to do with her being a woman.

In this prequel to all of the 20-plus movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain Marvel follows Veers (Brie Larson), a Kree alien who has the power to harness and project solar energy. She and her Kree kind are at war with a race of shape-shifting aliens called the Skrulls, but in the midst of one of their battles, Veers is left stranded on a strange planet called “Earth.” It’s then that she starts to see flashbacks to a life she doesn’t remember.

Now Veers has to retrace her steps to learn where she really came from and become the hero she was destined to be: Captain Marvel.

Like with any other Marvel movie, Captain Marvel has mesmerizing visual effects – equal parts spectacular, breathtaking and stunning all at once. Whether its Veers taking on a horde of Skrull soldiers or flying high through the sky in an epic and explosive space fight, Captain Marvel’s fight sequences are dizzying, high-octane and exciting. It’s no secret that Marvel films are a dominating force at the box office. Captain Marvel continues to reinforce the reasons why.

The film also has an irresistible sense of style and a really nice throwback to 90’s nostalgia. There was one fight sequence in particular where No Doubt’s “Just A Girl” was playing, and the moment was so self-aware and infectious that I couldn’t help but grin from ear-to-ear.

All the same, there is much that doesn’t work with Captain Marvel. Take the film’s lead as one example. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Brie Larson. She was mesmerizing in her Oscar-winning performance for Room, and she was a spit-firing force in Trainwreck and Free Fire. But her natural charisma and charm are essentially non-existent here, her blank face looking so dull and clueless that she looks like she’s searching for the cue cards for her next line.

Part of that problem is the material she’s provided to work with. While amnesia narratives play a relevant role in other superhero movies (see the X-Men and Captain America movies), Captain Marvel’s feels forced and unnecessary – like the filmmakers needed to differentiate between the usual superhero riff-raff and tried to switch things up. I appreciate them trying something different, but the amnesia plotline just inhibits Larson’s talents as an actress. Instead of letting loose with her personality and having fun, Larson just looks confused and out of place – as if she wandered onto the wrong set and the camera just kept on rolling.

Then there’s the film’s politics. Yes, dear reader: Captain Marvel possesses a political message. And before you ask, no, it’s not about feminism, but instead about immigration. And to be fair here, I have no problem with political themes being used in a superhero movie. In fact, plenty of movies in the MCU have had political undertones in them prior to Captain Marvel. Iron Man possessed a message on international terrorism and war profiteering. The Captain America movies covered the birth, evolution, and eventually the loss of the American dream. And do we even need to cover Avengers: Infinity War and Thanos’ obsessions with overpopulation and scarcity of resources?

Time and time again, Marvel has demonstrated that it can integrate political conversations fluidly into a high-stakes action blockbuster. If you really want to get into it, Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther also carried themes about immigration – and they carried them well. But Captain Marvel feels way too forced. Instead of just focusing on being a powerful superheroine anthem for today’s female generation, it has to throw in an extra political philosophy in there just for good measure. Movies aren’t good just because they have generic messages in them. Like any other great picture, it has to be done well. And in the case of Captain Marvel, it’s distracted, unfocused, and way too on-the-nose to take seriously.

Keep in mind that I do not dislike Captain Marvel because it’s Marvel’s first prominent superheroine movie. In fact, I’m frustrated that the internet trolls have poisoned this movie’s dialogue so much to the point that whoever voices their disapproval are instantly written off as misogynists instead of those who simply have a differing opinion. The demographics do not affect a movie’s quality, and liking and disliking a film solely because of who is in the lead has always been wrong and divisive.

The movies should be allowed to succeed – and fail – based on their own merits. Captain Marvel certainly has no issues performing the latter.

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“SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE” (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Sony Pictures

Spider-People of all colors, shapes and sizes.

Anyone can be Spider-Man under the mask. In Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, not only does it feature the first big-screen incarnation of an Afro-Latino Spider-Man: it also features a middle-aged Spider-Man, a Spider-Woman, a Japanese Spider-Girl, Spider-Nicolas Cage, and even a Spider-Pig. PETA had to appreciate the representation on that last one, although I’m not sure how they felt watching the Spider-Pig eating a hot dog.

Like the rest of the Spider-Man movies, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse features Peter Parker (Chris Pine) in the titular role. Unlike the previous movies, however, Parker is not the main star here – and he isn’t the only Spider-Man. In Into The Spider-Verse, Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is bitten by a radioactive spider and gets spider-powers all his own. While looking for the original Spider-Man to help him get acquainted with his newfound abilities, Miles stumbles upon the witty wall-crawler fighting the Green Goblin (Jorma Taccone) and the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber). In the middle of their fight, the Kingpin’s particle accelerator – a machine that can access alternate dimensions – goes off, killing Peter and splintering five different Spider-Person’s realities into Miles’ dimension.

There’s an older, chubbier Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) who is going through a mid-life crisis, there’s the rebellious rock star drummer Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), a private-eye detective from 1930’s New York (Nicolas Cage), a Japanese school girl with her own robotic Spider-suit (Kimiko Glenn), and a spider who was bitten by a radioactive pig to become Spider-Ham (John Mulaney). All of these Spider-People must help Miles realize his true potential to become the Spider-Man that he needs to be. Because if they can’t help him, he can’t get them home – and then all of their realities will be lost forever.

One of the immediate things you notice about this movie is its animation style. I’ll admit I was hesitant when I first heard about this project. Superheroes are not known for being very prominent in the animation genre outside of The Incredibles or Big Hero 6. In the case of a blockbuster name as big as Spider-Man, who has found massive live-action success with the likes of Spider-Man 2 and Homecoming, an animated movie felt like it was short-changing the character’s potential. It would be like hearing Warner Bros. announce that the Justice League sequel was going to be animated. You would, very reasonably, wonder A) Why this is happening, and B) How does this do the characters justice?

Any doubt over Into the Spider-Verse, however, was immediately dashed when I saw the first few frames of this gorgeous animated superhero epic. One of the first things you recognize about this movie is how it mimics the old pop-art design of 1990’s comic books. The entire film feels and breathes of comic book euphoria, with the cell-shaded colors popping out of the screen as if it was from a comic book panel, character monologues appearing in caption boxes above their heads, and actions flashing in those “BAM!”, “SMACK!”, and “POW!” bubbles harkening back to Adam West’s days as Batman. I was surprised to find that in the movie’s more exciting moments, the action was so quick-paced and enthralling that I felt like I was watching one of the live-action Spider-Man movies. But even in the slower moments, the art was eye-catching, colorful, and beautiful to look at. This is one of the few movies where the animation not only works well for this type of story: it actually benefits it even more so than if it were in live-action.

And the voice talent here is simply incredible. Johnson and Cage are reliable in the two main versions of Peter Parker (no surprise there). I personally found myself more impressed by the younger names involved with this production. Steinfeld, who has been picking up speed lately in big projects including Bumblebee, Pitch Perfect 3, and The Edge of Seventeen, really puts her own spin on Spider-Woman, playing equal parts sassy, spunky, yet affectionate in cinema’s first female Spider-Man. John Mulaney was pitch-perfect casting for Spider-Ham, and he gave the movie some much-needed comedy without ever feeling corny or ham-fisted (snort). And Moore outshines everybody as Miles Morales, a kid who is growing into his own but doesn’t know how to stand out from a long line of spectacular Spider-People. His story of not fitting in and trying to find his place in this already packed world is one every kid can relate to – especially in a genre as overstuffed and overpacked as the superhero genre.

All of this is to say that the beautiful animation, the spectacular fight sequences, and the voice acting would have all gone to waste if the story was lacking. Luckily, the story is the strongest aspect of Into the Spider-Verse. Phil Lord, who is most known for 21 Jump Street and Lego Movie fame, wrote the film and co-produced it with his collaborator Chris Miller, and he brings a maturity and poignancy to Miles’ story that you wouldn’t expect in a movie like this. After all, this is an animated superhero movie. It would have been easy enough for Lord to write in a bunch of action sequences, take a paycheck, and call it a day.

That’s not what happened though. The people involved with Spider-Verse cares very deeply about Spider-Man. And when I say ‘Spider-Man,’ I don’t just mean Peter Parker. I also mean Miles Morales, Gwen Stacy, Peni Parker, Peter Porker, and all the other Spider-Men after that. All of them are quirky, weird, off-the-cuff, nimble, and have witty one-liners for days. But they all carry that same burden of power and responsibility with them. All of them are Spider-Man.

I loved Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Not only is it one of the stronger Spider-Man films out there – it is also one of the best Marvel films to date and one of the best films of the year, period. If I had any criticism, it would be that some of the plot holes in the movie are a little too noticeable to ignore (like how the particle accelerator can link Peter Parker to Gwen Stacy even though they have different strands of DNA). But these are minor complaints in an otherwise brilliant movie. For nearly 20 years, we have been getting the same Spider-Man with the same alter-ego, same origin story, same costume, same villains, and same expectations. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse opens the door to new possibilities and celebrates the differences that make each of us our own unique superhero.

I’ll end my review on a critical line that Peter tutors to Miles during the movie: “What makes you different is what makes you Spider-Man.”

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“A STAR IS BORN (2018)” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: WARNER BROS. PICTURES

Baby, I was born this way. 

When it comes to filmmaking, art typically imitates reality. But every once in a while in genuinely special cases, reality imitates art. In A Star Is Born, I’m not sure which is imitating which, and I sincerely mean that as a compliment. The story follows an up-and-coming singer, portrayed here by pop artist Lady Gaga, who falls in love, is forced out of her comfort zone, starts performing live, hits the big time, fulfills all of her dreams, and ends up with… nothing. Even though she’s now a big-time singer, celebrity, and star, she ends the film feeling just as broken, helpless, and human as she did when the movie began. I can’t help but feel Lady Gaga is channeling some of her real-life experiences as she portrays her character. Perhaps she’s channeling every star’s experiences?

The singer’s name is Ally, and in A Star Is Born she meets a famous country artist named Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) who is battling his own demons. The first shot we open on is him popping pills into his mouth before going on stage and playing to a crowd of loud, passionate fans. Later on, he jumps into his car, downs a bottle of vodka, and seems disappointed when he notices that it’s empty. He ventures his way into a nearby drag bar, where a passerby tells him that this might not be the place for him. “Does it serve alcohol?” Jackson remarks. “It’s my kinda place.”

It’s at this drag bar where Jackson meets Ally – and just like Jackson, our introduction to Ally sweeps us off of our feet. It was only a few minutes earlier when we saw her frustratingly taking out the trash at her second job as a waitress. To see her on stage now, singing “La Vie En Rose” in front of several cross-dressing attendants, was nothing short of breathtaking. I was reminded of when Edith Piaf sang the song herself in 1946 and found myself completely caught up in the moment. Judging from Jackson’s reactions, I can only reason that he was as starstruck by Ally’s performance as I was.

From there, their relationship grows, and so does our admiration for both of them. One of my biggest concerns going into this movie was how it might sensationalize the experience of stardom. So often do films hold celebrity figures high as larger-than-life superstars, forgetting that there’s a person behind the performance on stage. I haven’t seen the previous adaptations of A Star Is Born, but from my experiences watching other musicals such as Fame and Rock of Ages, I’m used to musicals patronizing the audience instead of simply being honest with them.

Thankfully, A Star Is Born doesn’t sanitize or exaggerate the celebrity experience. It actually does quite the opposite. One of the greatest things about this movie is that when Ally hits the big time and becomes a high-profile superstar, her personality doesn’t suddenly change into this vain, egotistical social maniac. In fact, she’s still very much the same awkward, uncomfortable, and innocently sweet girl she started as in the movie. The only difference now is that she’s singing in front of large crowds with colorful costumes, makeup, hairdos, and backup dancers instead of jeans and a T-shirt. It’s nice to see that type of humanism in a character, knowing that there’s still a person behind all of the bright lights, cameras, and photo shoots.

In that, Lady Gaga steals the show as Ally. I’ll admit I’ve never been the biggest fan of her. Her public antics such as the infamous meat dress have always screamed as attention-seeking to me, and her music video “Judas” was just straight-up reprehensible. Still, you can’t deny the talent Gaga possesses as an artist, and here I’m completely entranced by both her singing and acting abilities. Whenever she sings, she completely transports you to a different place – like you just woke up right in the middle of a concert experience. And yet she doesn’t hesitate in the more emotional moments either, expressing genuine affection, pride, vulnerability, and hurt in the moments where it really cuts you the deepest.

Oddly enough though, I don’t give her all the credit for her performance. I give half of it to her co-star and director Bradley Cooper. Cooper makes his writer and director debut with A Star Is Born, and after watching it, I’m desperately waiting for his follow-up. Not only does he guide Gaga through the emotional range she needs in order to make her character feel believable, but he’s just as impeccable in his own portrayal as Jackson Maine as well. This is a damaged, broken man we’re watching – a person who loves singing his life story to millions of adoring fans, but his story is one of guilt, pain, and regret. You sincerely pity this man and his situation, and you pray that he can lift himself out of it with the help of his love and partner in life. I applaud Cooper’s work here not just in his own performance, but for enhancing Gaga’s as well. If Lady Gaga is the center of the show, Cooper is the man behind it.

I thought long and hard about this movie, whether I found it to merely another entertaining musical drama or something deeper. I eventually found it to be especially profound when I realized just how human the movie felt. Its characters are not larger-than-life clichés, caricatures or satires, and it doesn’t aim for the empty sensationalism that can be entertaining for only so long. Out in the real world, another Ally and Jackson Maine are walking through life together. Their dreams are real. Their problems are real. And their love for each other is real. Yes, they hit some ugly, dark, and tragic patches along the way. But they grow stronger, and shine brighter, because of it.

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“HALLOWEEN (2018)” Review (✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Universal Pictures

40 years later…

The biggest issue with 2018’s Halloween is its title. This is the 11th Halloween movie, the fifth reboot, the fourth to feature Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee-Curtis), and the third sequel; but it’s also the third movie to be called merely Halloween. What, was it too good for a subtitle? I know you have one good film and nine awful ones Mike, but don’t try to re-write them out of existence. They still happened, and we still had to go through them. Even if you were fortunate enough that people forgot the rest of your franchise, what good does it do? Now you have three movies in the series all named Halloween. When this movie is released for home video, the studio would be wise to retitle all of the Halloween movies as Halloween: The Original, Halloween: The Reboot, and Halloween: The Sequel, just to save the audience from some much unneeded confusion.

Taking place 40 years after the events of the original Halloween (not to be confused with H20, which took place 20 years after the original before it was written out of continuity), this new Halloween features an elder Laurie Strode, still haunted by that night where Michael Myers (Nick Castle) hunted her and her friends several decades ago. Even though Michael is now behind bars, Laurie hasn’t stopped preparing for the worst that might happen. She trained her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) from birth to defend herself. She’s fitted her house with gadgets, security cameras, and traps around nearly ever corner. Not to mention that she has a weapon stockpile so big that the NRA would wet their pants.

Her paranoia is later validated when Michael breaks out during a prison transfer. Now on the loose during the one night of the year where Michael returns to wreak havoc again and again, Laurie needs to find her loved ones, keep them close, and protect them from the monster that wants her and her family dead.

With this being the 11th film out of a long and exhaustive franchise, you would expect things in Halloween to feel tired and overused. In a way, you wouldn’t be wrong. The nine films before Halloween 11 were all the same hack-and-slash nonsense that became so redundant that another knife swipe felt like another jab at our sanity. The Rob Zombie movies were especially the worst, with the gore, violence, and sex ticked up so much that it felt more like a metal head’s music than it did an authentic horror experience. Year after year, Halloween has done Michael Myers wrong so many times. Going into this movie, I was expecting it to be done wrong yet again for the ninth time.

The best thing I can say about Halloween 11 is that it is perhaps the best attempt yet at adapting what made Halloween so great in the first place. One of the things most of these movies miss is the act of subtlety. In the original Halloween, John Carpenter sent chills down our spine not through gruesome kills or bloody violence, but through slight-of-hand and anticipation. The thing that was so startling about the original Halloween was Michael Myers’ sudden, unexpected appearances: slightly standing out of frame, following a kid around a playground, his ominous figure eerily following oblivious teenagers throughout their bleak houses. Sure, when he murdered someone it was startling, but it wasn’t the scariest thing out of the movie: the terrifying part was not knowing when he was going to strike, or how.

Halloween 11 understands that subtlety and exercises it similarly, placing Michael in natural, believable environments where he can freely move in and out, killing anyone across his path. One of my favorite sequences in the movie was watching Michael just roaming in the neighborhood all while kids are trick-or-treating down the block. As the camera follows him down a driveway, past a backyard, into somebody’s kitchen, and out of frame when we hear someone’s exasperated gasps in between violent “thuds,” it’s incredibly unsettling to watch as Michael flourishes in his element. It brought me much joy to see Michael as I once knew him: as the methodical, pathological, emotionally-detached killer that was just seeking to murder as many people as he possibly could. Is director David Gordon Green copying Carpenter’s artistry in the 11th Halloween? Yes, but at least he’s copying him well.

I also like how Jamie Lee Curtis updates her portrayal of Laurie Strode here. While she was great in the original Halloween and did an excellent job in portraying Laurie’s innocence and terror, the rest of her filmography felt like a retread where she didn’t face much growth as a character. But with Halloween 11, she demonstrates a strength and conviction that feels like it grew from all of the years of post-traumatic stress that she faced in the wake of her friends being murdered by this unfeeling cretin. Seeing her scared, jumpy, and petrified from the startling image of Michael Myers, yet adamant in her mission to be free from him Michael is nothing short of inspiring. It was great watching that growth in her character and seeing her mature from the scared, helpless kid that she was 40 years ago.

As always, one of the dumbest things about these horror movies is the “pure evil” cliche, where its villain is so supernaturally evil that he has become the physical embodiment of it. Whatever happened to letting these characters just be murderous psychopaths and leave it at that?

Also, there is a character here who Laurie dubs as “the new Loomis,” who for lack of a better word is just… creepy. Whereas Loomis in the original movie had a sound understanding of Michael Myers and was appropriately disturbed by his being, this new Loomis is awkward, unsettling, and just feels out of place. It feels like he should be locked up in the ward right alongside Michael Myers.

These are all minor problems in the face of an otherwise solid horror movie. The majority of today’s horror pictures revert to an onslaught of violence and gore that results only in shock value and cheap thrills. Halloween is the breath of fresh air that understands buildup, not shock, is what amounts to the best scares in a horror movie. As this series continues to tack on more unnecessary sequels as it’s highly successful box office numbers seem to suggest, the sequels will do well to remember that sometimes less is more. We all have our demons. Imagine if yours was Michael Myers.

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