Andy Serkis To Direct ‘Venom 2’

Venom has found a new host, and it’s in none other than “Gollum” himself Andy Serkis.

After Venom became one of the biggest commercial successes last year with $856 million at the box office, Sony was no doubt very eager to start working on a sequel. With Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, and Woody Harrelson all slated to return, all the pieces seemed to line up for Venom’s next installment. There was only one problem. Since director Ruben Fleischer started working on the sequel to Zombieland: Double Tap, that meant he was unavailable to work on other projects. For the moment, Venom 2 was out a director.

Well, not anymore. The Hollywood Reporter recently broke the news that Andy Serkis, the actor most notable for his motion-capture performances in franchises including The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, would be helming the next chapter in Venom’s saga. The actor is most known for providing motion-capture for CGI characters including Gollum in Lord of the Rings, King Kong in the 2005 remake, Caesar in the Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy, Snoke in the newest Star Wars movies, and Ulysses Klaue in last year’s Black Panther.

While he’s typically known for his primate performances in playing hobbits, apes, and dark sith lords, he’s also dabbled in a few directing projects as well, with his debut being in the 2017 drama film Breathe and last year’s Netflix movie Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, where he also portrayed Baloo.

It remains to be seen whether or not he will also play a role in Venom’s sequel in addition to directing. In either case, his extensive experience with motion capture is no doubt one of his greatest assets, and a unique feature he’ll be able to lend towards Venom 2.

What do you guys think? Are you excited to see Andy Serkis bond with Venom, or do you wish the symbiote sought out another host? Whatever you think, comment below and let me know.

– David Dunn

SOURCE: The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon

Rutger Hauer Dies At Age 75

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”

Rutger Hauer has passed away, but he’ll always be remembered for the tears he left in the rain.

The 75-year-old Dutch actor, most known for his roles in movies including Wanted: Dead or Alive, The Rite, and Hobo With A Shotgun, died last week in his home in the Netherlands after suffering from what is being reported as a “short illness.” According to Hauer’s agent Steve Kenis, his funeral was held earlier today, putting the 50-year-actor to rest.

Since starting his career in a series of Dutch films that are lesser-known to the public, Hauer first got his big break in 1982’s science-fiction thriller Blade Runner, where he played the murderous yet empathetic replicant Roy Batty. He also improvised one of the most iconic death scenes in film history, where his character described the emotions and experiences he remembered and how they will be lost in time, like “tears in rain.”

From there, Hauer won a Golden Globe for his role as a Russian rebel in 1988’s Escape From Sobibor and starred in mostly smaller roles in several other movies, including Cardinal Roark in Sin City and Wayne Enterprises CEO William Earle in Batman Begins. But whatever part he played, Hauer made sure that he enjoyed doing it, stating in the 2006 documentary Blonde, Blue Eyes that he only accepted roles that he was really interested in. He was also an avid environmentalist and AIDS activist, starting an advocacy organization called the Starfish Association to spread awareness on AIDS and HIV.

Regardless of whatever he was doing, Hauer always did what he loved. May we all be as passionate and loving as he was.

R.I.P. Rutger Hauer, 1944-2019.

– David Dunn

SOURCE: Variety, Heavy.com

‘Avengers: Endgame’ Beats ‘Avatar’ For Highest-Grossing Movie of All Time

They did it. They finally did it. Avatar has officially been dethroned as the highest-grossing movie of all time by Avengers: Endgame.

Holy crow.

It’s no secret that Avatar and Avengers: Endgame have long been battling it out at the box office. Ever since Endgame dropped in theaters back in April, it was beating box office record after box office record, including being the highest opening weekend gross and being the fastest to gross one billion in a single weekend. It didn’t take long for Endgame to dethrone other $2 billion-grossing movies such as Titanic, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and even the previous installment Infinity War.

Even so, there was quite a distance between Endgame’s $2.76 billion and Avatar’s $2.789 billion box office intake. For a while, it seemed that Avatar would remain king of the box office.

Not anymore. Thanks to Kevin Feige re-releasing Endgame with new content (including a Stan Lee tribute, a deleted Hulk scene, and the opening scene to Spider-Man: Far From Home), Endgame was able to barely push ahead past Avatar and end its theatrical run with $2.79 billion, cementing its place as the highest-grossing movie of all time.

What’s especially ironic about this is that since Walt Disney bought out 20th Century Fox earlier this year, it also took ownership of several of its film properties, including Avatar. That means not only was Walt Disney essentially competing against itself: it also prevailed against itself.

With Avengers: Endgame now in the top spot as the highest-grossing movie of all time, Disney officially owns the five highest-grossing movies of all time and even owns eight of the 10 highest-grossing movies of all time as well. With those odds, it won’t be long until Disney owns Universal Pictures as well, whose pictures Jurassic World and Furious 7 are the only ones in the top 10 not owned by Disney.

Avengers assemble, indeed.

– David Dunn

SOURCE: Deadline, Entertainment Weekly

Marvel Announces Lineup for Phase 4

Although many Avengers experienced their Endgame this past summer, Marvel isn’t done with many of its heroes just yet.

In fact, a whole other lineup was just announced at San Diego Comic-Con this past weekend that will propel the Marvel Cinematic Universe well beyond 2021.

The first film slated for release is Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow, which is due for release in May 2020 despite her untimely death in Avengers: Endgame. Black Widow will take place after the events of Captain America: Civil War and before Avengers: Infinity War, and will feature Natasha going up against several Russian mercenaries including the Red Guardian, Iron Maiden, and Taskmaster. It’s an exciting lineup for a highly-anticipated solo movie that fans have been looking forward to ever since Natasha’s appearance in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Hopefully Natasha will finally have her time to shine in her own solo feature when it comes out later next year.

Next up is Marvel’s The Eternals, which follows a race of aliens who travel to Earth to defend it from their evil doppelgangers, the Deviants. Not much is known about this under-the-radar superhero team who’s lack of prominence is second only to the Guardians of the Galaxy prior to its feature film debut. Nonetheless, this superhero team-up movie has some big names associated with it, including Rick Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Salma Hayek, and Angelina Jolie. The Eternals are set to be released in November next year.

Following that is Marvel’s first Asian-led film, Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings, starring “Taken” actor Simu Liu in the titular role. There was much conversation around adapting the Marvel martial-artist Shang-Chi into the Cinematic Universe for the past several years, but many people were questioning whether he would be adapted for television similar to “Daredevil” and “The Defenders” or if he would star in his own live-action feature. But with the announcement for Legend of the Ten Rings, it seems we now have our answer. The movie will also star Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Chiu-wai, most known for Infernal Affairs fame, as the MCU’s newest Mandarin, unassociated with Ben Kingsley and Guy Pearce’s characters from Iron Man 3. It’s exciting to see an Asian-American superhero finally get the front row attention he deserves, plus fans will be looking forward to seeing how Marvel handles the malicious magician during his second go-around. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is due for release in February 2021.

After that is Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which will have Benedict Cumberbatch reprising the titular role and with Scott Derrickson returning to the director’s chair. Not much is known about this supernatural sequel as Marvel has kept the plot details heavily under wraps, but we know a few things for sure. For one thing, it will feature Elizabeth Olsen reprising her role as Wanda Maximoff, a.k.a. the Scarlet Witch, after losing her beloved Vision in Avengers: Infinity War. It will also integrate horror elements into its production, with Derrickson stating that it will be “the first scary MCU movie.” It’s highly probable that Doctor Strange will go head-to-head against Nightmare, a multi-dimensional being who haunts individuals through their dreams. Nightmare has long been a rumored villain for the Doctor Strange sequel, with “Doctor Who” actor Matt Smith and Wolverine himself Hugh Jackman rumored for the part. Regardless of however it plays out, expect Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness in theaters May 2021.

Lastly is the sequel to Taika Waititi’s wildly successful 2016 movie Thor: Ragnarok, Thor: Love and Thunder, which features the God of Thunder himself teaming up side-by-side with the newest bearer of the Thor identity Jane Foster, once again to be portrayed by Natalie Portman. No other details have been offered on the zany new Thor sequel, but I will say this much on the record: if neither Beta Ray Bill or Enchantress is in Love and Thunder, then I’m boycotting the movie. Thor: Love and Thunder is due for release in November 2021.

That’s all on the film front except for one last bombshell detail: two-time Academy Award-winner Mahershala Ali will star as the vampire hunter Blade in his own movie, taking over from Wesley Snipes after his successful trilogy of films. No details have been announced as far as the cast and crew regarding this new Blade project, as its release date wasn’t even included in Phase Four’s lineup. Regardless, fans are sure to be excited at a new Blade coming to the big screen with a talent as big as Ali associated with it.

The rest of the Phase Four reveal involved television updates, with a lot of it including information that was mostly known up until this point. Anthony Mackie’s Captain America and Sebastian Stan’s Bucky, for instance, is set to team up in “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” in August next year, despite the fact that it should actually be called “Captain America and the White Wolf.” It will also feature a return of Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo from Captain America: Civil War, who better have his iconic purple mask this time around. Olsen’s Scarlet Witch and Paul Bettany’s Vision are set to co-star in their own series together “WandaVision” that is set to take place between Avengers: Endgame and Doctor Strange’s sequel (tell me how that makes sense since Vision already died in Infinity War). Tom Hiddleston will once again portray the God of Mischief in his own miniseries “Loki” and will feature the character after he escaped from the Avengers in the past in Endgame, and Hawkeye’s miniseries will feature Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton passing the Hawkeye mantle to a new sharpshooter named Kate Bishop.

Perhaps most notable from the TV lineup is the report of an animated series called “What If…?”, which will show what would happen to some MCU characters if different scenarios played out. The series is based on the comic-book series of the same name and will premiere in mid 2021.

The biggest franchise missing from this blockbuster lineup is, obviously, the Avengers movies. Every MCU phase up until now has had at least one Avengers movie. Heck, Phase three had two of them: Infinity War and Endgame. But not only does Phase Four not have an Avengers movie: it also has the least amount of movies out of any other phase so far. Phases One and Two both had six movies included in their lineup, while Phase Four only has five. It’s intriguing, yet refreshing, to watch Marvel take a step back and really try to pace themselves with this new, unpredictable future they’re dealing with, especially after the breathtaking ending Avengers: Endgame gave us just a few months ago.

Also of note: several sequels scheduled for release are also not included in this lineup. Not Black Panther, which was the highest-grossing MCU movie before Infinity War came out. Not the Fantastic Four or X-Men, both properties of which Disney owns now since they bought out Fox several months ago. Not Captain Marvel, Hulk, Ant-Man, Wasp, or even the Guardians of the Galaxy are included in the lineup, the last of which has had perhaps the most tumultuous behind-the-scenes drama with its writer and director James Gunn fired, and re-hired, after several months of back-and-forth. The lack of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3’s inclusion in this lineup is especially strange, given that Thor was literally high-tailing it with the Guardians at the end of Avengers: Endgame. What gives? Are they saving up for something much bigger and epic in-store, or are they just trying to tamper with fan’s appetites?

Regardless of whatever happens next for the Avengers, fans can at least sit tight knowing that the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s heroes will carry on the good fight. This franchise isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

– David Dunn

SOURCES: Marvel.com, Polygon

“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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Taika Waititi Returns To Direct ‘Thor 4’

The God of Thunder isn’t done with the MCU just yet.

After the events of Avengers: Endgame, many comic-book fans are wondering what would become of Thor Odinson. After all, the last thing fans saw of him was that he joined up with the rest of the Guardians of the Galaxy as they set out in search of Gamora throughout the cosmos. Where will their adventures lead them? What would come next for the mighty Thor?

Whatever that may be, we now know at least one thing that it will lead to for sure: another sequel. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi will return to write and direct the fourth movie in Thor’s expanding saga. This will be the first time a Marvel superhero will get a fourth solo movie and the second time a tetralogy will be developed in the MCU outside of the Avengers movies.

I’m very mixed at hearing about this news. On one hand, I’m excited that Chris Hemsworth isn’t done as Thor just yet and am looking forward to seeing what new adventures are in store for the hammer-wielding thunder God. Waititi revitalized the character wonderfully years ago when he directed the stylish and retro fantasy flick Thor: Ragnarok. The sky is the limit for anything else he can do with the character and his story, and I’m eager to see those changes and creative decisions he may bring with them.

On the other hand, Thor’s story has already ended several times now, first in Thor: Ragnarok, then in Avengers: Endgame. Yeah, it was assumed he was going to appear in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, but I presumed that was going to be more of a cameo than a serious leading role all its own. It would have been perfectly fine to wrap up Thor’s story the way it did and give some sort of filler explanation as to why the character is no longer on-screen. Instead, he’s coming back for a whole new installment. If we really are going to get a fourth Thor movie, can this actually be the last one? What will Thor’s newest conquest be? Will Beta Ray Bill make an appearance? And for Pete’s sake, can we at least get Enchantress in there as the new villain???

There’s another unintended consequence as a result of Waititi coming back to helm Thor 4: now his attention is diverted away from the live-action Akira remake. For those of you that don’t know, Waititi was slated to direct the live-action remake to Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, which tells the story of two warring bicycle gang members after one of them gets uncontrollable telekinetic abilities. Seeing his work on the visually dazzling and emotionally enriching Thor: Ragnarok made me excited at the possibilities of what he could do with a live-action Akira at his fingertips. But since he’s coming back for Thor, that means Akira will inevitably get delayed… again. Can we seriously just throw Christopher Nolan onto the project and call it a day guys?

What do you true believers out there think? Are you excited to hear that Thor is coming back to the big screen, or do you wish that his story ended with the rest of the Avengers in Endgame? Whatever you think, comment below, let me know.

– David Dunn

SOURCE: The Hollywood Reporter, Gizmodo

‘Captain Marvel’ Actress To Take Over As 007

In one swift motion, Metro Goldwyn-Mayer just made a casting decision that is sure to piss off both racists and misogynists alike. Brilliant.

The most recent installment of the 007 series, Bond 25, is due for release in April of next year. Once again starring Daniel Craig in the titular role and directed by Cary Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation), the 25th film in the franchise follows James Bond post-retirement who’s called back to service after a potential global crisis hits MI6’s desk. The film features a star-studded cast, including Blade Runner 2049’s Ana de Armas, The Hunger Games’ Jeffrey Wright, and even Bohemian Rhapsody’s Rami Malek as the franchise’s newest Bond villain.

However, none of these names come close to the biggest casting shocker of them all: Lashana Lynch has officially been cast as the newest 007.

Who? You would be forgiven for not immediately recognizing her. Her most notable role up until now was as Carol Danvers’ best friend Maria Rambeau in Marvel Studios’ first heroine outing, Captain Marvel. Now The Daily Mail confirms that she has been cast as the newest MI6 agent in the upcoming film and has taken over Bond’s codename after his retirement.

There are so many aspects to this casting news to be excited about, but let’s start with the biggest one of all: the casting array for 007 has just exploded into a vastly wider margin. Years ago, there were massive debates on whether 007 could be a woman or an actor of a different race. Indeed, people damn near went up in flames when they learned that Idris Elba might be the newest James Bond. Now we live in a world where both of those casting decisions are absolute possibilities. From here on forward, anything is possible for 007. In the future, he could be a man or a woman. He could be white or black. He could even be gay or straight. Such potential would not have even been conceivable 10 years ago. Now they are. It opens the franchise up to so many realms of possibilities. Who knows where the series could go from here?

It also confirms an intriguing fan theory about James Bond – that 007 is just a code-name and not specific to Bond himself. So for the purists out there who were worried about how this would muck up the franchise continuity (such as myself), there’s no need to be concerned anymore. Now that 007 is confirmed to be merely a cover identity instead of a person, what could happen next? Will Lynch’s 007 go on to be featured in her own spinoff? Maybe star in future sequels? What if other installments brought back Sean Connery, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Brosnan for cameo appearances? The possibilities are endless.

I would be remiss if I did not mention Lynch herself. How do I think she’ll handle the role of 007? Quite honestly, I don’t know. I haven’t seen enough from her to make that judgment call. I did like her quite a bit in Captain Marvel, but who’s to say that she’ll handle this role just as well? After all, this is 007 we’re talking about here. That’s not just any walk in the park, especially since she’ll be featured right alongside Daniel Craig’s Bond himself.

That being said, other actors and actresses have taken over bigger roles in even lesser prominence and absolutely crushed the part they were playing. Tessa Thompson was essentially a no-name actress before she was cast opposite both Apollo Creed’s son and Thor in Creed and Thor: Ragnarok. Tom Holland was literally a child actor in the disaster flick The Impossible before he was cast in one of the biggest franchises of the decade as the MCU’s Peter Parker and Spider-Man. Those actors killed it in their respective roles. Who’s to say Lynch doesn’t have it just as much in her?

At the moment, there’s too little to tell in too soon of a time. We’ll have to wait for the first trailer to come out and see how good Lynch really is in this new role she inhabits.

In the meantime, let’s be grateful that strides of diversity are being made in Hollywood and mainstream blockbuster franchises. I eagerly await the narcissistic rage-tweeting of the closeted white nationalists out there who are utterly enraged at this casting decision. At the very least, let’s enjoy their frustration at knowing the new 007 is a black woman.

– David Dunn

SOURCE: The Daily Mail, Buzzfeed

“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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