Category Archives: Reviews

“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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“HALLOWEEN (1978)” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Compass International Pictures

The shape will pursue you. 

There is a reason why Horror icon Michael Myers was credited as “The Shape” in John Carpenter’s first horror movie Halloween: it’s because he didn’t need an identity to make him terrifying. In fact, giving him one might have weakened him as an antagonist. Too often horror movie villains are fleshed out so much to the point where they are empathized with more than they are apathized. We are expected, after all, to be terrified by these horrifying figures: not understand them. But with Halloween, John Carpenter achieves an uncanny reaction through Michael Myers. He doesn’t even have to be doing much, yet the sheer sighting of him never fails to send shivers down our spine.

My first experience with Halloween wasn’t even with the movie. Sitting alone in my bedroom in my junior year of high school, I was eager to learn more about the screenwriting process and started tracking down movie scripts to read from. One of the earliest screenplays I read was John Carpenter’s Halloween, and from just the first few pages it completely haunted me.

The opening scene illustrates a six-year-old child stalking his older sister and her boyfriend around the house on an eerie Halloween evening. As the child makes his way into the kitchen, pulls out a knife, and sneaks his way up the stairs, he makes his way into his sister’s room and proceeds to stab her repeatedly, over and over again until she’s dead. When he exits the house, the most disturbing thing is not the bloody knife in his hand, but rather his young, innocent-looking stare: unfazed by the horrible act of violence he just committed against his own sister.

That boy is Michael Myers, and 15 years later, he escapes his insane asylum and returns to his hometown to wreak havoc on the same night he did several years ago.

When I first read the original screenplay for Halloween, I was entranced by the details Carpenter paid attention to in his script: the normalcy of the character’s everyday lives, the disturbingly methodical movements of this pathological child, the way he stalked his victims as an adult like a predator stalked his prey through the woods. But when I watched the movie, I found myself even more encapsulated by Carpenter’s spellbinding technique. He doesn’t just illustrate a feeling of paranoia, isolation, or unease: he places you right in the middle of it. It echoes of Hitchcock’s technique from 1960’s Psycho. In the iconic shower scene, you weren’t just seeing Marion getting stabbed in the bathtub: somehow, you could feel the blade digging into your own skin as you saw Marion’s blood drawn over, and over, and over again.

A large part of that immersion is how Carpenter chooses to frame his shots, and how cinematographer Dean Cundey tracks the action throughout the movie. In the movie’s early moments, nothing of major significance happens in the picture: some creep just throws on a janitor’s suit, puts on a Halloween mask, and stalks some people around town. But it’s not the actions that are so encapsulating, but rather how Carpenter chooses to capture that. A scene could be playing out naturally like any other moment would. For instance, a high school student and her girlfriends could be walking down the street, gossiping about rumors and romance. Not exactly anything out of the ordinary. But then when out of the corner of somebody’s eye, they spot a tall, stoic figure just slightly placed out on the edge of the frame, then a blink later… he’s gone.

This is why it was appropriate to label Michael Myers as “The Shape” in the end credits. It’s because he isn’t a character, but a point of fixation: something to divert our attention towards. When the Shape is noticed for a brief second, our focus shifts directly towards him. When he’s absent from the frame in the next take, we let our guard down. That’s why when Michael brutally murders someone in a violent, gruesome fashion later on, it shocks us so much: because we aren’t conditioned to the violence up until that point.

I would be remiss if I ended this review without mentioning this film’s eerie music, which builds up with such unease that it feels like someone is peering through your window watching you. Carpenter composed the music in three days, recorded it off of a few keys on his piano, and from it comprised one straightforward melody. But its impact on the film is electrifying. The keys shifting back and forth between notes feels like feet moving at a quick pace, while the crescendoing buildup feel like a pursuer gaining on his victim. Carpenter once said in an interview that he could play just about any note on a keyboard, but he couldn’t read or write a note. How was it, then, that he was able to write music as impeccable as this? It’s because he wasn’t writing music. He was writing a manhunt.

The worst thing that can be said about the original Halloween is the endless string of copycats that it inspired in the slasher genre. Several films have followed the same formula of the lone killer stalking the rebellious teenagers. Nightmare on Elm Street. Friday the 13th. Even the later Halloween sequels lost their edge. And yet, the original remains invigorating. Why? Because it understands the environment that it’s inhibiting. John Carpenter’s Halloween is an elaborate, masterful, and bloody game of cat-and-mouse: and we are the mouse.

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“VENOM” Review (✫✫1/2)

SOURCE: SONY PICTURES

Like a turd in the wind.

There is a moment in Venom where the titular multi-tentacled anti-hero is threatening a burglar inside a convenience store. He tells him he’s going to eat both of his arms, both of his legs, and then eat his face right off of his head. “You will be this armless, legless, faceless thing, won’t you?” he narrates to the petrified thief. “Rolling down the street: like a turd in the wind.”

Why am I opening my review talking about turds? Because as awkward and misplaced as that line sounds, it is perhaps the most accurate description of this entire movie. Venom is violent, creepy, edgy, seethingly disturbing, and just when it begins to build up into something interesting… it takes a wrong turn and nosedives into the pavement. It’s already been demonstrated countless times before, but if you need further proof as to why great comic book supervillains make for terrible superhero movies, look no further than Venom.

Based on the Marvel comic supervillain of the same name, Venom follows Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), an investigative journalist who has a nasty habit of following people who do not want to be followed. After accusing a high-profile tech CEO of purposefully murdering test subjects at an alarming rate, Brock loses his job and is abandoned by his fiancee Ann Weying (Michelle Williams). Now without a job, a career, and a love life, Brock just sits alone in his apartment, drowning himself in pity and alcohol.

One day, Brock unknowingly comes into contact with a gooey substance that reveals itself as a life form: a symbiote that physically and mentally bonds itself with Eddie. Granting Eddie super-strength, speed, agility, and a menacingly toothy grin, the symbiote creates a new life form that is neither Eddie Brock or the symbiote. Together, they are reborn as the man-eating monster known as Venom.

You might remember that this is not Venom’s first live-action outing for the big screen. You might be better off forgetting it. His first attempt at the spotlight was in 2007’s Spider-Man 3, where he was played by “That 70’s Show” actor Topher Grace. He was rightfully and relentlessly mocked for his insipid, whiny, pathetic portrayal of an otherwise terrifying character. If I come out of the theater and I am annoyed by Eric Forman instead of shaken by Eddie Brock, you know there’s a serious problem here.

The best thing I can say about this new Venom movie is that it does an excellent job rebooting the character, washing your memory of his God-awful debut a decade earlier and updating him with a sicker, more menacing design. A large part of that is in thanks to Tom Hardy, who switches between playing the two different characters here in mesmerizing contrast. When he portrays Eddie Brock, he molds him as a sort of vulnerable, pitiful character: a failing journalist who is drunk for half of the day and down on his luck for the other half. But besides playing the exasperated and horrified Eddie Brock, Hardy also voices the Venom symbiote possessing his body, and the way he expresses Venom’s menacing, snake-like delivery is just downright chilling to listen to.

This in combination with the efforts from the visual effects team makes for an ominous, visceral presence in this 10-foot CGI creature. One of the best things about this movie is when the Venom symbiote breaks out into his full form, taking complete control over Brock’s body and just starts running over any enemy in his path. When the movie breaks out into full-blown creature-feature action, that’s when the film is at its best, with Venom’s tentacles flailing about, making giant spider-like leaps, and chomping off bad guy’s heads like they’re the stem of a Tootsie pop. Many fans were reasonably concerned what Venom was going to look like in this movie with his last big-screen appearance still in our memory. I want this on the record: Venom looks and feels vicious, and he rightfully earns the title of lethal protector.

So the Eddie Brock and Venom characters are fleshed out very well in this movie. What isn’t done as well? Essentially everything else.

For one thing, Michelle Williams does nothing for this movie. Her character could literally have been portrayed by Megan Fox, and she would carry the same emotional relevance throughout the movie. That goes double for Riz Ahmed, who plays the movie’s villain named Riot. His character is essentially a gray-scaled clone of Venom, which doesn’t do any favors for the movie’s final battle where black and gray goo basically just splashes against each other over and over again.

The real problem here lies in how the characters are written. They aren’t organic. They don’t feel like they belong here. And unlike Eddie Brock and his venomous alter-ego, their roles don’t have any real impact on the story as a whole. Ann Weying is here because every superhero apparently needs a love interest, and this story wouldn’t be complete without some complicated romantic feelings involved. Riot feels especially shortchanged. Instead of being the relentless, unhinged force he’s supposed to be, he just feels flat and artificial: like a final boss in a video game instead of a mortal enemy for our hero. That lack of effort into fleshing out these characterizations makes for dull, uninspired portrayals, which is especially unfair given the talent and caliber of these two actors. If you don’t believe me, look at Williams’ work in My Week With Marilyn and Ahmed’s work in Nightcrawler. Then look at their performances here and tell me they were given ample material to work with.

All in all, Venom is not the worst movie in the world, but it isn’t really a good one either. It’s just sort of there flailing in the whirlwind of superhero mania that hops from one franchise to another. I am curious as to how the series will progress from here, as Sony has relentlessly teased that they wanted to launch their own cinematic universe from this movie. I at least have more hope for the Venom cinematic universe than I do for, say, the DC Extended Universe. But on its own two tentacles, Venom is ugly, messy, and something I’d much rather forget about: like a turd in the wind.

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“A QUIET PLACE” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

SOURCE: Paramount Pictures

Shhhhhhhh.

Eli Roth once said if you don’t want to be scared in a horror movie, you don’t close your eyes; you close your ears. That’s because the scariest things in most movies are often not seen, but rather heard. That’s why we’re terrified of the shadowy corridors when we hear the Xenomorph’s snake-like hiss echoing off of the chambers in Alien. That’s why we shutter at Freddy Kruger when we hear his maniacal laugh and his claws scratching against the walls in Nightmare on Elm Street. And in Jaws, we’re never scared of the monstrous shark chasing Chief Brody and his friends, mostly because we rarely even see the creature. But every time we hear John Williams’ iconic theme building up beneath the water, it never fails to send shivers down our spine.

Environmental sound can often be used to build thrills in most horror pictures effectively. The ingeniousness behind A Quiet Place is that its sound is not an accompaniment to the film’s tension and unease. Instead, it is the film’s tension and unease. Too many times in other horror movies do we hear an orchestra of loud noises, screaming, and stomach-churning sounds as the movie’s victims react helplessly to the on-screen calamities. But in A Quiet Place, the scariest part of it is not the expression of sound: it is the inhibition of it.

Written, directed, and starring John Krasinski, a.k.a. Jim Halpert from “The Office,” A Quiet Place occurs in the not-too-distant future where aliens have taken over the planet and are hunting the remaining humans who have survived. The key to staying alive? Silence. With the aliens being blind, they use their hypersensitive eardrums to listen to any sound and strike their prey where they hear them. With Krasinski on the run with his family (portrayed by his real-life spouse Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, and Noah Jupe), he has to protect his family and find a way to fend off these monsters for good.

One of the immediate things you recognize about A Quiet Place is how expertly Krasinski manipulates sound to pull out the biggest reactions from viewers. In one of the earliest scenes, Krasinski and his family are rummaging around an abandoned convenience store for supplies. Even though we don’t understand the movie’s premise yet, we can read the family’s precise and careful movements and understand that they’re anxious in avoiding something.

The kids are tip-toeing around the aisles like they’re playing hide-and-seek. The mother is carefully picking through pill bottles like she’s trying to avoid the tripwire of a bomb. And when one kid nearly drops a toy onto the floor, the entire family is on-edge and tense from the child’s mishap.

Nothing has even happened yet, but the framing and the movements here are so meticulous that it’s easy to tell that something is wrong with this family. When the full threat is revealed later on and we witness the consequences of noisiness, we understand what’s a stake here and we are concerned about the family’s well-being. From then on, our attention to the film is unwavering and riveting.

This is what makes Krasinski’s work as a director here truly outstanding: he pulls the most significant reactions out of you from the most minuscule implications. Good directors do that, utilizing smaller details to build upon an escalating sense of dread and paranoia. Ben Affleck did that while directing his political thriller Argo in 2012, and Fede Alverez did the same thing in 2016’s Don’t Breathe. Now John Krasinski is following their lead, and he’s pulled off the tension of effect here masterfully.

The key lies in the editing. Not only does film editor Christopher Tellefsen expertly track between all of the different characters perspectives at once, but sound designers Erik Aadahl and Brandon Jones are impeccable with editing and mixing the sound and making it immediately relevant to their viewers. This makes sense, of course, given how much of the film’s premise is based on sound manipulation. Still, I’m impressed with their attention to detail here. Some sound levels, like the rolling of dice on a carpet, are increased to bring attention to the family’s sense of caution, while others like the creatures’ echolocation are brought down to emphasize their limits on tracking prey. One deaf character in the picture even has sound cut entirely during scenes where it’s showing her perspective. Small things like that subtly lend towards the film’s subversion, and the sound team’s work on this film is definitely deserving of an Oscar nomination. If they’re snubbed this year, it will be the first time I will be outraged over a sound category at the Oscars.

A Quiet Place is a masterful exercise in horror cinema, an expert example of subverting the genre and proving that things don’t have to be constantly blowing up to be exciting. In that, I have to give due praise not just to Krasinski, not just to the cast and crew, but to Michael Bay as well (yes, that Michael Bay). His production company Platinum Dunes produced this feature, and I’m grateful that they saw the value in Krasinski’s vision here and was confident enough to bring it to life in the theater. It shows that even Bay understands the value of subtlety and its importance to cinema. Hopefully Bay will take the lessons he learned on this production into the next project that he works on in the near future. Imagine this film if Optimus Prime were in it.

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“CHRISTOPHER ROBIN” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

And a bear of very big heart.

There is a moment in Christopher Robin where Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings) tells his old friend “They say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing everyday.” Now obviously Pooh misquoted the phrase, but in his own silly way he got the meaning behind it exactly right. We often imagine our dreams as euphoric, illusive fantasies: a lifelong goal that is impossible to reach. That’s what the elder Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) thinks after all, as he tirelessly works through the weekdays and weekends away from his family. Pooh Bear, meanwhile, is content with believing that happiness comes naturally: like the blustery winds, naptime, and hunny.

There was a time where Christopher Robin believed this too, as we all do when we were as young and naive as he was. But then the most heartbreaking thing happens to Christopher Robin: he grows up. He goes to boarding school. He goes to war. Get’s a job. Falls in love. Marries. Has a child. And he’s eventually thrusted into a business where he is forced to choose profits over people. It’s a sad, dreary existence, and it is a reality every child has to face as they grow out of adolescence and into adulthood.

Watching the opening slides of Christopher Robin, I caught myself crying as the montages flipped through Christopher Robin’s life like the pages in a children’s book. But not because he left behind his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood; because he left his old self behind.

When I was growing up like Christopher Robin did, my exposure to the world’s harsh realities changed me and made me different from the naïve, simple-minded, carefree child that I once was. You learn things about society you wish you never knew. You learn about history, war, violence, and death. You learn about the political forces that are pulling at the planet like a malicious game of tug-of-war. You learn about third world countries where people are dying of starvation and thirst, where parents abandon their children and people mourn for the loved ones they’ve lost. You learn all of these things and it drains you to the point where you are no longer the same happy, lovable kid you used to be. Now you’re just another sour-faced, grouchy old adult, and you carry the world’s problems on your shoulder just like every other person does.

I say all this to emphasize that Christopher Robin experiences these same things and changes too as a result of them, just like any other human being would. To me, watching Christopher Robin grow up was one of the most painful things to experience in the theater. I had always imagined Christopher Robin as one of those staple, never-aging characters: like Micky Mouse, Bugs Bunny, or Superman. Seeing him brought down to my level struggling with the same issues and nightmares as I did was an emotional shock that I was not ready for. It really put into perspective how Christopher Robin changed from his old days in the Hundred Acre Wood, and what’s really at stake for himself during his journey.

Speaking of the Hundred Acre Wood, Pooh and his friends are among the best things that stand out in this picture. I was absolutely overjoyed every time I saw Pooh on the screen with his tummy rumbling, or Eeyore pouting again, or Tigger bouncing, or Piglet going “Oh, D-d-d-d-dear!” The graphics and animation is convincing as the visual effects team brings these stuffed animals to life. Their movements and interactions are so believable that they felt like a kid was moving them, playing pretend with them in their bedroom.

The voice work, however, easily stands out the most in bringing these characters to life. No surprise there as Jim Cummings has voiced both Pooh Bear and Tigger for well over 30 years now. I’m more impressed with the performances that aren’t as notable as Cummings and McGregor are. For instance, did you know that Brad Garrett voiced Eeyore in this movie? Who would have known that Raymond’s passive-aggressive older brother in “Everybody Loves Raymond” would make the best sourpuss out of the entire Hundred Acre Wood?

The film is directed by Marc Forster, whose career has motioned him to tackle numerous productions, all starkly different from each other. The 2001 drama Monster’s Ball was a big hit for Halle Berry and won her an Oscar for best actress. The 2006 meta-comedy Stranger Than Fiction took a guy’s life and literally put it on the page of a book. And don’t get me started on his action repertoire, which ranges from James Bond’s Quantum of Solace to Machine Gun Preacher and World War Z.

Perhaps the movie that shares the most similarities to Christopher Robin is 2004’s Finding Neverland, which tells the story of writer J.M. Barrie and his relationship with a family who served as the primary inspiration for his play Peter Pan. In many ways, Finding Neverland and Christopher Robin are essentially the same film. Both are centered on adults who have lost their way and are seeking to regain something they lost in their childhood. Both find themselves again through the young at heart and the imagination these kids inspire them. And they both learn that even though their bodies grow older, their ambition does not and their dreams extend beyond what you learn in boarding school or the work force.

It’s true, I grew up with Winnie the Pooh and have many fond memories of playing with Pooh and his friends in my room, just as I’m sure Christopher Robin did in his own room. But I don’t believe my personal experiences impacted my infatuation with this picture. Many films about Winnie the Pooh have been theatrically released before, and none of them were as profound or thoughtful as this one. Even Pooh’s last cinematic outing in 2011 was just an anthology of random, unrelated stories bow-tied together, despite how charming and lighthearted they were regardless. Christopher Robin is different. Yes it possesses the fun, the silliness, and the joy that Pooh and his friends brought us when we were younger. But it also possess the adult perspective as well, how our experiences impact the person we were and molds us into the person we become.

The magic in Christopher Robin is that Pooh finds happiness in simple, every day things; as if the things that bring us the most joy are not extraordinary, but rather quite ordinary albeit special to ourselves. I find it refreshing that in Pooh’s and Robin’s last exchange, they don’t say anything incredibly profound or philosophical, but are rather simply talking through life’s greatest mysteries as two friends going through it together. The moment from the film that touched me the most was when Christopher Robin confesses to Winnie the Pooh how lost he truly was. “Good thing I found you,” Pooh replies in his own simple-minded way. Silly old bear.

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“MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT” Review (✫✫✫✫)

CREIDT: Paramount Pictures

Good intentions don’t belong in the espionage business.

How many film franchises can you name that have six entries in them? I myself can recall six of them: Star Wars, Star Trek, Superman, X-Men, Lord of the Rings, and Fast & Furious. I can name you several movies from these series’, each of them consequentially getting worse the more they go on. Few of their sixth installments compare to the originals, and none of them are the best in their franchises. I can only name one film that is not only superior to the original, but is also the best entry in their franchise. That film is Mission Impossible: Fallout. 

Picking up a few years after the events of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Fallout finds Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) on the pursuit of an evil organization called “The Apostles”, trying to stop them from stealing plutonium and starting a nuclear war (as if Ethan would be doing anything else?). This new venture finds Ethan re-teaming up with some old friends including Luther (Ving Rhames), Benji (Simon Pegg), and Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), as well as some new faces including CIA director Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett) and Agent Walker (Henry Cavill).

What do you need to know about Mission Impossible: Fallout? Well for one thing, it’s just like every other Mission Impossible movie out there. Tom Cruise’s sickeningly good-looking mug? Check. Supporting cast that serves as the comedic relief? Check. Evil super villain? Check. A pretty-looking love interest? Check. Shocking plot twists? Check. Ridiculously over-the-top superhuman stunts that only Tom Cruise can seemingly pull off? Triple check. If it’s been in another Mission Impossible movie, it’s definitely here in Fallout.

And yet, Fallout is infinitely more exhilarating than its peers are. Yes, dear reader: even more so than the first Mission Impossible or Ghost Protocol. Why is that? Well like with any great action movie, the key is in its execution, and Fallout is executed here masterfully.

While the plot is relatively straightforward and similar to its predecessors, the stunts and spectacles are pulled off with a conviction that makes them feel urgent and enthralling. I’ve seen all of the Mission Impossible movies, each of them with breathtaking visual feats, from the vault scene in the first movie to scaling the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Ghost Protocol. In each of these movies, the sensational spy action punctuates a picture filled with espionage and intrigue, all while not losing its energy in the process. Fallout is unique to its peers because its excitement and intrigue lasts throughout the picture, barely slowing down for us to even catch our breaths. From the opening firefight to the last spectacular struggle on a cliff edge, Fallout is a movie that racks up the tension with every passing minute: like a time bomb clicking downward.

Then there’s Tom Cruise himself, who seems incapable of slowing down even for a second in both the movies and real life. He’s been a part of this series for well over 20 years now. How does he retain the enthusiasm to not only keep coming back to the same role, but to keep eclipsing his last physical feat film after film after film? I think it’s because like his character Ethan Hunt, he’s unable to leave the past behind and always feels like there’s something left unfinished. With most franchises, some actors will return to recurring roles just to get another paycheck or another press tour. I feel like Cruise is one of those actors that is motivated to keep outdoing himself with each role that he accepts. The stunts he pulls off in this film are so ridiculous that he even injured himself during one of the shoots late last year. The guy is 56 years old, as old as both of my parents. Yet he seems more enthusiastic for this franchise now than he did when he was in his 30’s when he first started.

The film is written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who seems to be sharpening his technique in a crowd full of writers-turned-filmmakers. His first collaboration with Cruise in 2012’s Jack Reacher was fun albeit straightforward, while the last Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation seemed way too preposterous to be taken seriously, even by IMF’s standards. Fallout is a reckoning for both McQuarrie and the Mission Impossible franchise. It not only brings together the greatest elements from all of the Mission Impossible films, but it makes you forget that it’s even part of a franchise and immerses you masterfully in the tension of the moment.

Fallout is the sixth movie in the Mission Impossible franchise, but it’s so hot-blooded and exciting that it feels like it’s the first in a breakthrough: a rebirth, if you will. There was one moment in the picture when Benji asks Ethan how close they were to failing the mission. Ethan laughs: “The usual.”

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