Tag Archives: Adaptation

Appreciating The Boy Who Lived

I have now committed what I consider a major sin as a film critic for this year: I will not be reviewing Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. At least, not in a timely matter to where it will make a molecule of a difference in whether you will see it or not. I suspect that for the most part, Fantastic Beasts will perform very well at the box office this week. It’s written by J.K. Rowling herself, it’s directed by Potter loyalist David Yates, and it has a solid cast to boast proudly about, including the Oscar-winning Eddie Redmayne as the lead. I highly doubt that longtime Rowling fans will overlook this new venture into the Harry Potter universe, and I expect it to get a large turnout at the box office. Whether it deserves that turnout will be another matter decided once I have time to collect myself after Thanksgiving break.

I am a more recent fan when it comes to the Harry Potter franchise. My biggest appreciation of Harry Potter comes from the movies themselves, as I am one of the few that have not ventured far into the book series (I only read the first two. I lost interest after Chamber of Secrets).

Hardcore Potter fans criticize me frequently for watching the movies before reading the books, and maybe they’re slightly warranted in their frustration since they are more knowledgeable of the franchise than I am. After all, when Stephen Sommers changed the ending to Mark Twain’s endearing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I was livid. I can only imagine how Potter fans reacted when entire clops of characters were missing in multiple films altogether.

My defense is that by watching the movies before reading the books, it allows me to view those films through a different, vital scope that most don’t even think about: the eyes of a viewer as opposed to a reader. When watching adaptations, the job of a critic is to watch and judge the movie fairly on its own merit, not through the pages of the book that it was based upon. You can’t judge a movie through the same criteria as a book. That would be like judging a fish on its ability to fly.

Because of this, I rarely read the books before the movie comes out, and I actually make it a point to avoid reading them if I can. I’ve done this with numerous adaptations, from Lord of the Rings all the way to The Fault In Our Stars. I’ve always tried to watch the movie first, judge it on its own storytelling, then read the book and go back and see if my view has developed any further. It is not the movie’s job to adapt events, but rather emotions. If they invoke the same aesthetic and feel that the book did, I consider the film a successful adaptation.

I held Harry Potter to this same standard, ever since The Sorcerer’s Stone came out over 15 years ago. While my opinions of those films may differ slightly from fans of the books, we can all agree that Harry Potter is nonetheless astounding. Whether you’ve read the books or not, all of the elements are in there and retained. There is a boy who was orphaned after his parents died when he was just a baby. That same orphan was forced to live with a cruel aunt and uncle who spoiled their own son while neglecting their nephew. That boy gets swept up into a world full of wizards, witchcraft, and sorcery, and he learns about the true value of life, love, and appreciating the things that we’ve lost.

No matter what stance you have on the books, this much is intact in the film series: who Harry is, what are his desires, why he goes on this epic quest, and who he grows into as his journey comes to a close. This is why Harry Potter is one of the greatest film franchises of all time, as well as one of the greatest film adaptations. If both fans and non-fans can see, feel, and experience the same things in the movies, then the movie succeeded in adapting its source material. And Harry Potter definitely did that very well.

Another thing that impresses me with Harry Potter is the fact that this is a movie series, as opposed to a trilogy. Most movie studios do not have the gumption or the ambition to pursue book-to-film adaptations past three movies. Heck, Miramax films wanted to shrink The Lord of the Rings down from three movies to two, then to one. With Warner Bros. venturing to adapt all seven books as opposed to combining or omitting a few, Harry Potter went on to become the second highest grossing film franchise of all time, grossing over $7 billion at the box office.

(Although, I silently suspect Warner Bros. allowed the series expansion for more than just monetary reasons. With how large of a fan base Harry Potter had at the time, Warner Bros. might not have survived the backlash if they decided to mess with the official canon.)

Being a fan of film as opposed to a fan of Harry Potter has allowed me to appreciate its success without bias. It allowed me to go on Harry’s journey with him with fresh eyes, watching him grow from a boy to a man to a hero, facing all of his fears and overcoming them with the help of his friends. Fans of the books will voice that they went on it first, to which I fairly give them credit for doing so. But the point is I did go on that journey with him, and it is in no way less or more amazing because I haven’t read the books.

To which I now say that I am excited to see Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them for different reasons. This is an original narrative crafted from the mind of Rowling herself. There’s no concerns with being faithful to the book, or with taking narrative liberties, or with making changes fans won’t appreciate. The movie’s creativity doesn’t stop where the book does, mostly because there is no book to base it on. It excites me to see what new ideas and characters Rowling comes up with, and it excites me even further knowing that for once, myself and Harry Potter fans will be experiencing the exact same thing. This is new territory for all of us.

All of that excitement and anticipation will be paid off… soon. For now, I’m going to appreciate the boy who lived, knowing that I got to live right alongside him, as well as so many other muggles out there.

– David Dunn

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“DEEPWATER HORIZON” Review (✫✫✫✫)


Unexpected emergencies. Unexpected heroes.

The first thing that surprised me about Deepwater Horizon was realizing that it was rated PG-13. The violence in this movie is graphic and vivid, with its source material translating so well to the big screen that I question how different it really is from its actual events. Through every explosion, every flame set ablaze, every bone that is crushed, and every life that is taken, this is a film that seeks to honor its real-life subjects by showing us exactly what they went through. It is not for the average viewer, and it is definitely not for children. I would say younger than 17 is pushing it. 

In this adaptation of the 2010 BP oil spill directed by Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, Lone Survivor), Deepwater Horizon follows the oil-drilling crew in their final hours before the notable disaster. Mark Wahlberg plays Mike Williams, who has a family waiting for him at home. Gina Rodriguez plays Andrea, who has her boyfriend and a broken mustang back at shore. Kurt Russell is the hardened captain of the crew Jimmy Harrell. Dylan O’Brien plays Caleb, an oil driller who’s just trying to do his best job on-site. And then there’s John Malkovich, who plays the asshole that got everyone into this mess. 

The standout element of this picture, by far, is Berg’s treatment on this delicate topic. You might remember that I wasn’t very fond of his last film Lone Survivor, which I found to be too generic and predictable to do its source material justice. Here though, there’s nothing generic or predictable, not even in the opening shots. During an early breakfast conversation between Mike and his daughter, she innocently described to him her classroom speech about his job, explaining how her daddy “fights the dinosaurs” underneath the earth. While serving as sweet softener dialogue between these characters, it also doubles as exposition about his job, how he does it, what they do on a day-to-day basis, and what perils come with the occupation.

As she’s speaking, the coke she’s using to demonstrate suddenly bursts and floods the whole table. I’m thinking what would have happened if that coke was a few thousand feet bigger and was carrying oil instead of soda. 

This much is how Berg improves upon his technique from Lone Survivor to Deepwater Horizon. In Lone Survivor, our heroes were thrown into grisly escapades of war violence, with nothing building up beforehand to help us connect with these characters. Here, Berg connects us to the crewmembers’ humanity before ominously foreshadowing to their dreary fate. These are not normal movie characters. These are fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters, all of whom are real people outside of the movie theater. They all have someone waiting for them at home, wrecked and nervous for their safety and survival. For the most part in war movies, our heroes more or less made the conscious decision to go fight for their country, regardless of who was waiting for them at home.

Deepwater Horizon’s heroes are different. None of these characters made the conscious decision to plant themselves square in the middle of danger. Nobody in the film was expecting the disaster to occur when it did or with how greatly it devastated them. This is a disaster picture first and foremost, and you’re frantically navigating the action with the film’s survivors as they look for a way past the spewing oil, the collapsing metal frames, the wild fires, and the empty sea gallows looming beneath them. This is a movie that completely understands what the real-life crewmembers were up against, and they bring you every detail of that disaster with nerve-wrecking alertness and urgency.

I have no qualms for this movie. At least, nothing that I can fairly hold against it. If you wanted to be picky, I suppose you could say that the editing was choppy and sometimes made the action hard to follow. But when you see the events unfold on screen, when the metal frames tip over and the rig catches on fire, you’re very quick to forgive the film for its tightly-edited action. After all, Deepwater’s residents barely had any time to process everything themselves. Why should we?

This is a masterful picture, guided delicately through its facts and events with its survivors and victims in mind. In its simplest state, Deepwater Horizon is a unique and riveting action film that perfectly captures the details of its real-life disaster. Through a more complex scope, it is a celebration of life, a commemoration for bravery, and a quiet mourning for the lives lost. 

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“STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE” Review (✫)

Yousa in big doo-doo dis time.

Never again. Don’t ever let this happen to Star Wars ever again. When Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was announced, George Lucas’ fan base exploded with excitement, preparing themselves to witness the beginning of Anakin Skywalker’s story before he became Darth Vader. Oh, are they going to be disappointed. This movie is every bit as stupid as the title sounds and then some.

Dating back 32 years before the events of the original Star Wars, The Phantom Menace finds the elder Ben Kenobi as the young padawan understudy Obi Wan (Ewan McGregor), serving under his master Qui Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson). They are assigned by the jedi order to defend Queen Amidala of Naboo (Natalie Portman) from the vicious Trade Federation, a group of long-necked, bulgy-eyed aliens that are so bloated and ugly that a Jim Henson puppet would be mortified.

The Jedi meet an assortment of characters along their journey. A younger, more polished R2-D2 sits aboard a Naboo space ship. A C-3PO without any outer plating (or as he likes to call it, being “naked”) wobbles around in a tiny Tatooine hut. A clumsy, idiotic gungan named Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) bumbles and falls everywhere like a ragdoll. And, of course, a young boy named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) wanders around the dusty sands of Tatooine, illustrated here as a messiah-like figure to the force and the galaxy.

When I watched Star Wars many years ago as a small boy in Brownsville, TX, the thing I fell most in love with was its characters. The adventurous bounty hunters and princesses, the wise jedi, the noisy droids, the sinister sith, all of them enchanted me with their uniqueness and peculiarity. So many sci-fi epics rely too much on special effects to provide their spectacle. With Star Wars, the humans, aliens, and droids were the spectacle, and the groundbreaking visual effects complimented their presence without taking away focus from the story.

The characters were the best thing to come out of the original Star Wars trilogy. They’re the worst thing here. Oh my God, are they the worst thing. These characters are so bland, dull, and uninteresting that they could have all been replaced by droids and we wouldn’t have noticed the difference.

Take Liam Neeson as one victim, err, example. Here we have a fine actor, demonstrating his finesse in performances for movies including Darkman, Michael Collins, and Schindler’s List, the last of which earned him an Oscar nomination. In all of those movies, he has demonstrated an ability to express fear, anger, disappointment, courage, heroism, and earnest in both big, showy scenes and small, personal ones. Yet here, his ability as an actor is almost completely erased, being asked to throw on robes and swing around a lightsaber in the place of a performance. We have nothing from his character to make us remember or even care about him. He has one, cold-hard emotion throughout the film, and that emotion is serious. There is nothing else about him to make him either fun or fascinating, not in comparison with the charisma and calmness we got from Alec Guinness in the original series.

But Neeson is not the worst part of the movie. Indeed, he is only one victim among an entire assembly line of failures. Portman is plastic and looks like she doesn’t know why she’s on the set. McGregor is functional, but doesn’t demonstrate much purpose beyond linking this movie together with the original. I’ll cut Jake Lloyd some slack since he’s only a child actor at 10 years old, but I will say he did nothing to service his role and make me believe he’s supposed to become the most feared force in the galaxy. That’s not as much his fault as it is others though. I’ll come back around to that in a bit.

The biggest catastrophe in this movie is Jar Jar Binks, and he’s so damaging to the picture that I have to dedicate two paragraphs to his stupidity. He’s supposed to serve as the comedic relief, but believe me when I say there’s nothing comedic about this cretin. He bumbles and trips everywhere like a drunken idiot, speaking in nonsensical English so distorted that it would make Yoda want to take grammar lessons. “Ooey mooey”, “mesa” and “yousa” are not beyond his flawed vocabulary, and his voice is so whiny and high-pitched that it makes me want to strangle him by his flappy ears.

Compare Jar Jar to 3PO, a successful attempt at comedic relief in the series. 3PO is funny because he tries to be serious and fails. Jar Jar tries to be funny and comes off as annoying. If 3PO tripped and fell on himself as often as Jar Jar did, he would dent up his entire body plating and probably damage his processing core. Maybe that’s what happened to Jar Jar: he fell on his head so many times that he forgot how to use it.

Despite my hatred of all of these characters, I don’t blame the actors for their representation. I blame writer-director-creator George Lucas, who arguably had the most involvement in this film as opposed to the previous ones. How could he have misfired with this film so badly? 20 years ago, he gave cinema some of its most cherished characters, and now, he’s given cinema some of its most hated. With the imagination and the ambition he’s committed to the sci-fi genre for years now, I cannot explain how badly he’s written and directed this cast except for sheer lapse of judgement. There’s no other reason to explain how dull and uninteresting these characters are, or how moronic and insipid Jar Jar is.

What of the visual effects? The cinematography? The editing? The score? Read my previous reviews. You know what I think of them. A potentially good movie can be produced poorly, but likewise, a bad movie can also be produced wonderfully. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is some of the best-looking garbage you’ll ever see. To quote one of Jar Jar’s companions in the movie: “Yousa in big doo-doo dis time.” In English, that means you’re in deep… well, you know.

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“SNOWDEN” Review (✫✫✫)


The persecution of the American dream. 

Before you will have read this review, the government will have read it first. That is a fact that each of us must face and understand, although we shouldn’t necessarily accept it, even though many will tell us that we should. It’s been three years since Edward Snowden has leaked classified information about the NSA spying on its own citizens, and they still haven’t apologized or confronted the issue up front. To me that is an admission of guilt, and the movie Snowden is their sentencing.

Taking place years before the NSA leak, Snowden, portrayed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is an American just wanting to do his best to support his country. He’s worked in numerous jobs with the government before, including the Special Forces and C.I.A. But when Snowden is employed by the NSA, he makes a devastating discovery: the government is surveilling all of its citizens, everywhere, 24/7.

How bad is it? Imagine Uncle Sam looking over your shoulder every second of every day, and you’ve got a pretty accurate idea of the government’s hold on you. Your phone. Your iPad. Your MAC computer. Even if any of these things are off, their cameras and audio software can still pick up everything you’re saying or doing. And that’s not to mention the NSA’s access to your internet, social media, emails, private messages, and video chats, along with every other surveillance tool at their disposal.

This is where the film finds its emotional core, caught square in the middle of political paranoia, distrust, and dread. Our hero is caught in that same place as well, navigating the morality and technicality of this reality trapped, like a mouse running lost through a maze. The end result feels exactly how it sounds: thrilling, revealing, and disturbing.

I’m going to get your biggest concern right out of the way. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is absolutely mesmerizing as Edward Snowden. Like the best method performances, Gordon-Levitt focuses on the slight mannerisms and habits of the real-life figure and mimics them to near exact precision. This is an actor who has taken on a variety of roles in action films, including Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, and Looper. There is no indication in the film that this is the same actor minus appearances. He embodies everything he needs to about Snowden: his social awkwardness, his physicality, his stammering, his idle movements. Everything that he did made me feel like he was a second Edward Snowden. My only complaint is that his voice is a little low-pitched compared to Snowden’s, but for an otherwise flawless performance, this is one flaw I’m willing to forgive.

The screenplay is also very well composed, giving vital insight into this man’s perspective that perhaps we didn’t know how to feel about before. Writer/director Oliver Stone isn’t unfamiliar with controversial subject matter. From confronting the U.S.’s treatment of veterans in Born on the Fourth of July, to conspiracy theories in JFK, to violent escapades in Natural Born Killers, Stone is experienced with telling a wide variety of stories and how they affect modern society. Snowden seems like a perfect fit for him. Stone confronts the facts headfirst, not shying away from any of the details, no matter how disturbing they may be to us. The resulting message does everything a film is supposed to do: it thrills us while at the same time informing us.

All the same though, there were some moments that just did not work with this picture. I’m talking about scenes and elements that sharply collided with the movie’s tone and took you out of the experience rather than further immersing you. The first thing I’m going to mention is the score by Craig Armstrong, which is an unusual thing to mention because in a movie about Edward Snowden, you would think your first complaint wouldn’t be about the music. In one early scene during Snowden’s special forces days, the score was so soupy and melodramatic you would think they were trying to emulate Saving Private Ryan. Kinda off-tone for a movie about government surveillance and whistleblowers, don’t you think? His score does eventually come back to the sharp rhythms and ominous tones that are appropriate for a subject like this, but even then, the soupy melodies repeat two or three more times in the picture. The inconsistencies in this score take us out of the moment of tension that we’re supposed to be feeling and throws us into a state of perplexity, as if we’re not sure what sort of movie we’re supposed to be watching here.

But then in other scenes of the movie, you can’t fairly place blame on the music. Some scenes were just plain directed badly. In the omnipotent climax of the film, the highlight moment of the picture, the one where Snowden commits the act that we all know he’s inevitably heading towards, he finishes doing what he does, then he… smiles? His life has just been ruined, he’s now officially going to be hunted by the government as a fugitive, he has to run away from his home, his family, his friends, everything he has ever known to live in a country all by himself. And in this moment of self-sacrifice and legal martyrdom, he chooses to smile with the sun brightly illuminating his face, his hair blowing carefree in the wind? That’s not on-the-nose, cheesy, silly, and plain corny in any way, Stone. There’s no way to excuse a scene like that. It demanded a reshoot.

I fully believe everything I saw in Snowden. I don’t doubt a single frame in it. I believe it is real and it scares me. That’s a good thing though, because its supposed to scare you. The things you’re watching are things that have happened to you, and you should not be okay with them. You may not know the full story, but this is your opportunity to know.

Snowden may be the most important film you see this year, even if it isn’t necessarily the most well made.

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“13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

Hell in half a day.

Here are the facts. On Sept. 11, 2012, the same day as another infamous tragedy, a U.S. compound in Benghazi was attacked. Four Americans were murdered that day, one of them being ambassador Chris Stevens. The rest of the on-site personnel fought for their lives for over 13 nightmarish hours against an enemy as cruel as they were relentless. This much is indisputable.

In the aftermath of the Benghazi attacks, there were accusers from all sides looking for someone to blame. The Republicans blamed the Democrats for being ignorant to the threat in the middle east. The Democrats wrote off the Republican’s criticisms as embellishing the truth. In their accusations against the other party, both forgot about the party that mattered the most: the American survivors. They didn’t care about left-wing or right-wing democracy. They cared about one more gasp of breath, the next plane that was flying out, how soon they could see their families again, maybe even hearing their voices one last time. You can talk politics about the situation all you want, but you cannot deny the 13 hours when someone’s family members were stuck in that hellhole.

I myself do not care about two party politics. They distract from the larger issues at hand, such as the growing anti-American sentiment in the middle east or getting our own citizens back home to us. Michael Bay apparently shares my emotions as he brings us 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, an exhilarating and heart-racing look at the soldiers fighting on the front lines, not the politicians making speeches from behind them.

In this adaptation of the real-life tragedy, 13 Hours follows the Global Response Staff (GRS), a team of ex-military operatives assigned to protect a U.S. compound based in Libya. Keep in mind, this is not an official embassy. Technically speaking, the U.S. isn’t even supposed to be in Libya. But legalities haven’t stopped the U.S. from operating outside the law before, and it’s not very likely to start now.

There are six men assigned to the GRS task force. One of them is Jack Silva (John Krasinski), a father of three with another one on the way. The rest of the team members aren’t so different from Jack. In one pivotal scene before the aforementioned events take place, all of the soldiers are on phones and videochats, talking to their wives, sons, and daughters back home, all whom are eagerly waiting to see each of them again. In this very important moment, we see these soldiers not as killers, but as human beings.

And of course, you already know what happens from there.

The best thing about this movie by far is the action. That’s so unusual for me to say, because most of the time, the action is the most overused part of any movie. Here though, the firefights are so exemplary, chaotic and explosive all at once, throwing our heroes through nearly impossible stakes that keep building as the movie goes on. The one thing Michael Bay is excellent at directing is action, and the firefights get so intense and on-edge that you question if our heroes can make it out multiple times.

But that’s not all Michael Bay does well here. Surprisingly, he exercises excellent restraint in slower-paced moments as well. In one early scene, Jack and fellow team member Tyrone Woods (James Dale) are at a standstill with a Libyan militia. I think I counted eight men training their guns against the two of them in their car. Woods tells them that a drone is flying over, and if anything happens to them, it’ll launch an airstrike against him and his men. After a narrow escape, Jack asks if they really had a drone on this assignment. Woods scoffs. “What do you think?”

I didn’t notice any obvious political motives from the film. I don’t care about them if they are in there. As a film critic, I’m not looking for those. What I am looking for is emotion, pacing, timing, things that help build the mood of the scene and help further implicate the ideas the movie is expressing. The best movies combine entertainment with relevance, and 13 Hours does that stunningly well. Think of a movie blending the paranoia of Zero Dark Thirty with the violence and grit from Black Hawk Down, and you get 13 Hours.

I’ve been very critical of Michael Bay in the past, and I think rightfully so. His Transformers movies have long plagued Hollywood with its stupid writing and absent-minded, overblown action sequences, while Pain and Gain was as offensive to its real-life subjects as it was to its movie theater attendants. With 13 Hours, however, Michael Bay finds himself in the zone, expressing his own style while at the same time spreading awareness on real-life issues. Thank God for those six men that found themselves fighting for their lives in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012. Without them, those 13 hours could have gone a lot worse.

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“SUICIDE SQUAD” Review (✫✫✫)

Worst. Heroes. Ever.

If you do not like superhero movies, do not watch Suicide Squad. I’m warning you now. It’s a haphazard, off-the-wall, ridiculous superhero/villain exercise that is psychotic and gleeful in every way imaginable. I highly doubt that your chess club or church study group would enjoy seeing this movie. To enjoy it is possible, but it has to be from a fan of the material.

I myself am a fan superhero movies, but only when they are confident and competent with their vision and purpose. DC’s earlier Man of Steel was one of those movies, and while many spoke out against the controversial changes to the character, the movie at least understood those changes and how importantly they played into the greater mythos of Superman. The more recent Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, comparatively, was neither confident or competent, hopping around everywhere, having no clear focus or clarity, and was more interested in setting up its future installments rather than developing its current story or characters. If you are looking for the potential of superhero movies, you need look no further than DC’s own successes and failures. 

And yet, Suicide Squad doesn’t fall anywhere between being masterful or disastrous. It finds solid middle ground between action and absurdity as its villains fight, shoot, punch, breathe, feel, emote, joke, and laugh maniacally at each other’s antics. The movie fulfills every insane requirement that you expect it to have and then some.

Following up after the events of Batman V. Superman, Suicide Squad shows government official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) playing a dangerous gamble with national security. After seeing the world’s most important hero bite the dust, Waller wants to assemble a task force to protect the world from supernatural threats. This team would consist of imprisoned supervillains Waller would have under her control. If they succeed in doing what she says, they get time off from their prison sentences. If they rebel, a microchip in their neck explodes, killing them in a heartbeat.

These villains are no joke. Floyd Lawton, a.k.a. Deadshot (Will Smith) is a master assassin who hits his target with every pull of the trigger. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is a mad woman who is insanely in love with her fellow baddie the Joker (Jared Leto), whom she affectionately refers to as “Puddin'”. There’s the heathen thief Digger Harkins, a.k.a. Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), the reptilian-looking beast Waylon Jones, a.k.a. Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and the repenting Chato Santana, a.k.a. El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), who can emit flames from his body. These villains-turned-sorta-heroes are forced together to do greater good, whether they like it or not.

Suicide Squad reminded me of another superhero film I watched earlier this year, one that also had a simple, straightforward plot, was unorthodox in nature, and featured a character that frequently crossed the line. I’m referring to Deadpool, which like Suicide Squad, took joy in its characters and frequently mocked genre cliches in its fellow superhero movies. They’re not quote-unquote “good guys”, and that allows them to break the mold of the typical action movie. It lets them be much more loose and flexible in their morality, and by that definition, it also lets them be more fun.

The differences with Deadpool and Suicide Squad, of course, lie with its parodist style. Deadpool called out superhero conventions with the middle finger and a dirty mouth. Suicide Squad inhabits these conventions while at the same time not playing to their nature. You can argue back and forth which is the better film, but there is one thing you cannot argue: the divisive nature of its fans.

Oh, to say this movie got mixed feedback is a strong understatement. Suicide Squad is currently at 26 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, 40 out of 100 on Metacritic. “A clotted and delirious film” is what Peter Bradshaw wrote for The Guardian. “Clumsy and disrupted” is what Ignatiy Vishnevetsky wrote for The A.V. Club. Perhaps the worst criticism comes from Kyle Smith from The New York Post: “What promised to be a Super Bowl of villainy turned out more like toddler playtime.”

I get that these movies aren’t necessarily geared towards critics, but at the same time, I also understand who these movies are trying to appeal to. Critics don’t bring box office numbers. Fans do. And they don’t care about a film’s direction, artistry, uniqueness, genre conventions, cliches, or anything else that critics are normally concerned about. They care about how fun it is and how faithful the movie interprets their favorite comic book characters.

With that criteria in mind, Suicide Squad is all sorts of fun and faithful, with the chemistry of its actors colliding into each other like the most dysfunctional supervillains you’ve never seen. The best thing about this movie is easily its cast, who inhabit their roles so fluidly that you take their villainy at face value without judgement or questioning. Margot Robbie in particular stands out as Harley Quinn, who has an enthusiastic wackiness and infectious personality to her that you can’t help but fall in love with. She’s a fun yet tragic character, the squad member who easily has the most life to her twisted laugh and dark humor. Robbie does a lot more than merely portray Harley Quinn: she is Harley Quinn, just as much as Hugh Jackman is Wolverine, Ryan Reynolds is Deadpool, dare I say it, as Heath Ledger is the Joker.

But she’s not the only one that impressed me so much. The entire cast have their moments, and whether it was major or minor scenes, they inhabited the nuances of their characters with skill and brilliance. Smith, who normally gets stuck in a routine of portraying the stock action hero, switches it up a little bit here by bringing his “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” personality to lighten the movie’s mood, and the tone is surprisingly fitting. Jai Courtney, who to date has never impressed me from A Good Day To Die Hard to I, Frankenstein, fully embodies his role as this dirty, loud-mouthed, unappealing mass of redneck. Even Karen Fukuhara, who makes her debut as sword-wielding warrior Katana, provides a performance so versatile that she could be powerful and intimidating in some scenes, yet fragile and intimate in much smaller moments. This was a great debut for her talents, and I eagerly wait to see what her next role is after this.

Sadly, my least favorite character is the one that I was most eager to see: Jared Leto’s Joker, who plays a smaller role in the movie than people may expect. The problem is not Leto’s performance, who throws every bit of his energy and effort into this role. It’s how the character is written. If you take away the green hair, the makeup, the tattoos, and the grilled teeth, what you would have left is not the Joker. You would have a stock movie gangster that is obsessed with guns, knives, torture, slick cars, and violence, with no demeanor of his resembling that of a clown or a twisted comedian. The Joker we have in this movie is not the anarchist you’ve come to know him for. He’s a mob boss, and that is an absolute waste on the character’s potential. The Joker is a much more interesting villain than that, and Leto deserves so much better than just portraying Scarface with makeup on. If this Joker is going to reappear in future DC installments, they will need to rewrite the character in order to make him more accurate to his origins.

I can easily name a few other flaws from the movie. A few character’s motivations make no sense. The editing in the first act was choppy and erratic. And the action, while fun and stylish, was at times long and overbearing. None of this changes the odd-baldish chemistry the actors share, the unique spin the movie itself has on the superhero genre, the compelling dichotomy between the characters, or the fact that this is one of the most exciting movies I’ve had the pleasure to sit through this summer. Many more critics will no doubt discount this movie as supervillain trash, but this movie was not made for them. This movie was made for me. And I will say without batting an eye that Suicide Squad is sickeningly entertaining.

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“STAR TREK BEYOND” Review (✫✫1/2)

A little short of beyond, actually. 

A wash of sadness came over me as I sat down to watch Star Trek Beyond. This was the last time I was going to see Anton Yelchin and Leonard Nimoy on the big screen, who both tragically passed away earlier this year due to unfortunate circumstance. With both becoming Star Trek staples of their own generations, I knew Star Trek would never be the same with the both of them gone. My sadness grew as I kept watching Star Trek Beyond and realized their final appearances were wasted on a mediocre movie. Surely they deserved a better final outing than this.

The third film in the newly rebooted Star Trek universe, Beyond follows the U.S.S. Enterprise as it traverses on its five-year voyage through space. The crew, while going through amazing and exhilarating adventures, grow restless of their time in space. Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) isn’t sure if he wants to be a captain anymore. Spock (Zachary Quinto) isn’t sure if he still wants to be in Starfleet. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) doesn’t know if she wants to keep seeing Spock. Bones (Karl Urban) is still a sarcastic sourpuss.

One day, while investigating a distress call, the Enterprise is attacked by a swarm of vicious new aliens. Crash-landing on a strange planet, the Enterprise crew needs to navigate their way back to each other to team up against this mysterious new threat.

The first of the Star Trek reboots not to be directed by J.J. Abrams, Star Trek Beyond is instead steered by Justin Lin, who is most known for the more recent Fast & Furious movies. Watching this movie, and more specifically the action sequences, you kind of get the sense that Lin is pulling inspiration from those movies and shooting it into the veins of Star Trek’s science-fiction. The result is one that strangely works, a Star Trek movie that is an entertaining and unconventional spin on the action genre. In one of my favorite scenes from the movie, Kirk is fighting the villain in a field where gravity is pulling from three different directions. Seeing them fighting, flying, flipping around, with only a few glass frames to support their footing was one of the more exciting sequences not just from this film, but from the previous two as well.

All the same, some sequences were just too silly to fully accept and be entertained by. In one instance, Kirk is driving towards an enemy base using a motorcycle he lifted from a carrier. I’m not bothered by the fact that he’s using a motorcycle. I’m bothered that when he’s using it, dust isn’t coming out from behind the motorcycle, or that it isn’t even shaking from the rocky terrain he’s driving on. The CGI looks so ridiculous in this scene that it feels like he’s riding on a hovercraft than on a rugged vehicle.

In another scene, the Enterprise crew kills an entire armada of aliens by… playing the Beastie Boys? I’m not making this up. They literally pushed play on a stereo and blew up thousands of aliens. If that just sounds ridiculous, imagine what it looks like seeing it on screen.

The cast is fine in their roles and the movie retains its sense of visual style from the previous two movies. The problems come in with this movie’s scripting, which compared to Abrams’ earlier entries, is just a half-hearted effort at making a relevant Star Trek movie. I’m not a simpleton. I wasn’t expecting this to outdo the impact of the first Star Trek, and it didn’t. That one is in a class of its own, standing out both as a reboot and as its own exciting story.

What I do expect a movie to have is intelligence, or maybe more importantly, integrity. For years, Star Trek has pushed science-fiction writing to the limits in what it could achieve narratively. It asked questions, probed situations, presented problems, and provided answers for our Enterprise crew and their many quests across the galaxy. To its fans, Star Trek is more than science-fiction. It is science-philosophy.

You will find no thought-provoking ideas in Star Trek Beyond, and that’s fine. These movies are not automatically required to be outstanding. Even so, can you at least pretend to have some excitement at directing a Star Trek movie? There is not a cell of this movie that you can’t find in its previous movies. Even the villain is so insipid that he made Jesse Eisenberg look more interesting in Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. What excuse does this movie have to be so stock?

Heath Ledger got The Dark Knight. Paul Walker got Furious 7. Yelcin and Nimoy, unfortunately, have to settle with Star Trek Beyond, a recycled action movie that fails to even be consistent. If we didn’t deserve a better movie, then at the very least, they did.

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“GHOSTBUSTERS (2016)” Review (✫✫)


Who’re you gonna call? Not these ladies.

The best thing about this new Ghostbusters is the music, with its catchy, funky beats taking you back to the nostalgia and joy of the original 1976 film. The rest of the movie was neither nostalgic or joyful, not even with the cameos. If the fun, wacky, off-beat energies of the ghosts accurately reflect the value of the original Ghostbusters, then let the ghost traps reflect the value of its reboot: soul-sucking.

Yes, this is a reboot. What’s more, its a reboot that recasts the entire team in the opposite sex. Instead of Bill Murray, we have Kristen Wiig. Instead of Harold Ramis, we have Melissa McCarthy. Instead of Dan Aykroyd, we have Kate McKinnon. Instead of Ernie Hudson, we have Leslie Jones. And instead of Sigourney Weaver, we have Chris Hemsworth as the office secretary, who is so clumsy and brainless that you almost completely forget he is both Thor and Captain Kirk.

Side-rant: why do these Ghostbusters even need a secretary? Their business is so slow that they could easily get one of themselves to take calls and requests. Hemsworth’s character can’t even operate a phone properly. There is absolutely no reason why he belongs in this movie, except maybe to contrast genders of the original cast. If that is the only reason, then that is a stupid reason to have a meaningless character in the script. There are, however, much bigger problems to address than just a character’s write-in.

The most crucial element of this movie is unfortunately its most weakest one: it’s not funny. The actors have no chemistry with each other. Their personalities are either flat, dull, or over-the-top, never once culminating to be either believable or appealing. The lines, situations, and setups they go through are about as funny as Saturday morning slapstick. Nothing comedic ever lands in this movie, and everything is about as funny as Wiig and McCarthy’s social awkwardness will allow.

But this isn’t a surprise to anyone, right? Ever since the trailer dropped a few months ago, fans have spewed hatred for a reboot that was as unnecessary as it was unfunny. It went on to become the most disliked trailer of all time on YouTube, and it isn’t hard to see why. With cliche lines as bad as “That’s gonna leave a mark” or “It’s up to us!”, you wonder if much effort was even needed to write this haphazard of a movie.

Granted, the movie isn’t as bad as the trailer makes it look, but it almost doesn’t matter. You never get another first impression, and unfortunately, this movie failed on its first, second, and third impressions.

Compare this to the original lineup, who mostly relied on clever, on-the-spot dialogue for their comedic delivery. Now THOSE guys had personality. Those guys clashed with each other, threw fits of disagreement, hilariously struggled against paranormal entities, and spat witty remarks at each other. They were electric with enthusiasm, and this carried over into their comedy and made it all the more funnier. These ladies, in comparison, are phoning it in, and for a Ghostbusters reboot, they did the one thing I never thought they would do: they bored me.

And before you comment about my negativity, know that I’m not making these criticisms because these new Ghostbusters are all women. I like the fact that they recast the Ghostbusters as females. I would like it even more if they were any good in their roles. Comedies live and die by the chemistry of their actors, and in this case, Bill Murray’s attitude, Harold Ramis’ nerdiness, and Aykroyd’s cowardice is replaced with Wiig’s whiny voice, McCarthy’s plainess, and McKinnon’s over-the-top, unbelievable amount of crazy. None of these ladies really ever take presence on screen and make us feel like these are characters we can laugh at and relate to, something the original Ghostbutsters did excellently.

I liked two actors from this movie, and they’re the ones that have earned this review’s two stars: Leslie Jones and Chris Hemsworth. Yes, I know both of their roles are obviously stereotyped. They at least have the courage to be enthusiastic about their roles, and they were the ones that gave me the few laughs this movie had to offer. Jones is sassy and has attitude in the right ways, unlike the cartoon character cut-out that McKinnon plays. Jones is actually reacting to these ghosts and the paranomal in a way that you would expect a New York MTA to react: to go bannanas and run screaming, yelling, and flail her arms wildly in every which way she can. She had the best lines and moments in the movie, and she was easily my favorite Ghostbuster.

Hemsworth, clumsy and idiotic as he is, was also cute and charming as this innocent little idiot, doing an effective job in the movie as both a supporting character and as a villain. No, I’m not elaborating on that sentence any further. In Ghostbusters, Hemsworth achieved a difficult task: he made me completely forget that he’s the hammer-wielding superhero Thor, and for two hours, made me earnestly believe that he was this whole-hearted fool who couldn’t even put glasses on properly. Again, are these the best characters we could have had in a movie like this? No, but its what we have to work with.

I can appreciate the enthusiasm. I can appreciate the desire to be progressive, and I can appreciate that the cast at least seemed to be enjoying themselves. But they’re not the ones watching the movie here. We are. And when Melissa McCarthy has the gall to say in one scene “We’re the Ghostbusters!”, I’m very tempted to grab a copy of the original movie, jump onto the movie screen, and say to them “No, you’re not.”

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“THE CONJURING” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

Be afraid of what you can’t see.

The Conjuring is a revelation in horror cinema: a genuinely creepy and disturbing movie, infesting every nerve of your body with consistent tension, anxiety, and unease. In a long failing genre that mistakes horror for sick images and macabre violence, at last we find a movie that gets it. True horror does not come from the gruesome things we see on the screen: it comes from the things that we don’t see, the things that we suspect are hiding in dark corners, quietly leaning over our shoulders.

The fact that The Conjuring is based on two real-life paranormal investigators, Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) makes the film’s events all the more unnerving to watch, and it makes you question how much of it is fiction. In the film, the Warrens are investigating the Perrons, a family that recently moved out to a house in Rhode Island where they think they will be able to peacefully raise their five children. It doesn’t even take a day for unexplainable occurrences to start happening in the house. The clocks always stop at exactly 3:07 in the morning. Picture frames fall to the floor all at once. Strange clapping can be heard in the house every now and then. And after a while, the Perron’s youngest daughter Christine (Joey King) persists that she sees a malevolent spirit late at night. The Warrens commit to the case to find out what is causing the occurrences and help the family before it is too late.

The Conjuring reaffirms an idea I’ve believed in for a long time now: ghosts by themselves are not scary. Neither are poltergeists, demons, monsters, psychotic murderers, serial killers, or supernatural entities. None of these things are scary on their own. What makes them truly scary is the environment around them, the sounds of feet shuffling, the crunching of leaves as they are being stepped on, the chairs creaking, the wind blowing out of nowhere, the chill running down your spine that you can’t explain where it came from. True fear comes from knowing that the threat is near, and yet, not being able to see or sense them.

Director James Wan plays on the senses brilliantly in The Conjuring. He doesn’t evoke sensationalism. He evokes moods, tones, feelings, paranoia, confusion, hopelessness, distrust, and dread. Because he relies on these things instead of the usually cheap jump scares, the picture lasts longer and leaves a heavier impact on you than most other horror pictures do.

Compare one of this film’s creepier antagonists, a small ceramic Annabelle doll, to most of today’s horror icons, such as Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers. Maybe once they were scary, but nowadays they’re just big, brainless buffoons that groan at their victims, swinging sharp objects around, their brutish bodies invulnerable to every hazard imaginable. That’s not scary, that’s overkill. How are you supposed to get invested into a story where its main threats are indestructible? How are you supposed to be surprised or shocked when you can see them lumbering 50 miles away? In the Friday the 13th and Halloween movies, you don’t go to get scared: you go to watch teenagers get hacked to death, with no suspense or investment to supplement their bloody deaths.

Annabelle, however, is a different story. She’s not scary because of one specific instance: she’s scary because she represents something much larger than herself, which is the obvious risks of the Warrens’ career choice. In one moment, the Warren’s professional life crosses over into their personal life, and the threat that entities like Annabelle poses to the Warrens is truly frightening. It made me really think, if this story were true, and malicious spirits like Annabelle are really out there, what defense would we have against them? What would we do if our families were haunted by them? We would be truly helpless, just like one of Annabelle’s victims.

Some might argue that the pace is too slow or deliberate in this picture. I guess I would agree with you, if James Wan hadn’t made Insidious before this, which truly was a slow, deliberate picture that didn’t have half of the thrills as The Conjuring does. Most horror pictures take their genre for granted, thinking that they will be successful just by following conventions. Not The Conjuring. It cherishes its horror, lingers on it, and smartly builds up to unexpected moments, surprising you in the most profound of ways. Like a poltergeist, The Conjuring possesses you, and no incantation can lift the spell it has on you.

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“X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” Review (✫✫1/2)

En Sabah No.

The biggest problem X-Men: Apocalypse faces is one it isn’t even responsible for. X-Men: Days of Future Past was and will always be one of the most definitive superhero experiences at the movies. Asking for follow-up to that is unreasonable, let alone damn near impossible, and to its credit, X-Men Apocalypse tries. It tries too hard, but at least it tries.

Taking place ten years after the events of Days of Future Past, Apocalypse shows an ancient threat that reawakens deep within the pyramids of Egypt. The first known mutant to ever historically exist, En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac) awakens to a world ran amuck in chaos and disorder. Political corruption. Poverty. War. Violence. En Sabah Nur sees all that’s wrong with the world and decides that, in order to save it, it must be destroyed and rebuilt.

Back in Westchester, at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) awakens from a horrible nightmare. Witnessing horrible visions of the end of the world, Jean is convinced that these visions are real and that they will come to pass. Her professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) thinks these are just dreams. Yet, as one thing happens after another, he begins to think there is something devestating going on that even the X-Men might not be able to stop.

The third movie for the newly rebooted X-Men universe, X-Men: Apocalypse boasts a lot of the strengths that its predecessors have. For one thing, the performances are superb, and the actors exemplify their characters down to the molecule. McAvoy is earnest and well-intentioned as Xavier, while Jennifer Lawrence is motivated and sharp-shooting as Mystique. The actor I noticed most, however, was Michael Fassbender, once again adopting the role of Magneto. Every time I watch him, I am reminded of this character’s tragic history and how other people’s cruelty has driven him towards violence and extremism. Without giving too much away, there is one moment where Magneto sustain a crippling loss that comes to define his character the most throughout the picture. These moments remind us that Magneto is not a villain, but rather a tragic hero who fell through grace, and Fassbender is brilliant in capturing both the character’s regret, penance, and guilt throughout the movie.

The action is also incredibly polished, especially for an X-Men film. En Sabah Nur himself is the most omnipotent, wiping enemies away with a dash of his hand or the white glow of his eyes. Havok (Lucas Till) reappears alongside his brother Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) for the first time, and their red energies run amuck obliterating anything in their path. The most fun X-Man to make a return, however, is Evan Peters as the speedster mutant Peter Maximoff. You remember his signature scene at the Pentagon in X-Men: Days of Future Past. His scene in this movie blows that one out of the water. I won’t give much away, but saving over 30 people at superspeed is much more impressive than taking out six security guards in a kitchen. This sequence was funny, exciting, and most importantly, entertaining. His scenes were easily my favorite from the film.

The action and the characters culminate together fluidly, similar to the other X-Men films. The differences lie in its story, or more specifically, in its lack of focus. There are about five different stories packed into one in X-Men: Apocalypse, and most of them are unnecessary. You have so many unraveled narratives trying to weave together into one that quickly falls apart once the plot starts picking up speed. 

Take, for instance, the plight of Magneto. His story is pure tragedy. His hearbreak, his pain, his loss, it echoes of Magneto’s earlier history and builds into a climactic moment between himself and his transgressors. The scene should have been a moment of suspense and satisfaction, but then all of a sudden, En Sabah Nur appears on the scene and completely disjoints the narrative.

The whole film is like that, building up to big moments and then suddenly switching to other ones. There’s Xavier’s arc, then there’s Mystique’s, then Magneto’s, then Jean’s, and then Cyclops’. The most dissapointing to me is Peter. His story has to deal with his true parentage, but it never even leads anywhere. Screenwriter Simon Kinberg and director Bryan Singer build all of this effort up for nothing. No conclusion. No resolution. No payoff. That’s because they don’t have a focus, and the picture ends up losing our interest, despite all of its spectacular action.

X2 and X-Men: Days of Future Past remain to be the best entries of the franchise, while X-Men Origins: Wolverine is the unoquivocal worst. This movie falls in the middle ground. Like its predecessors, X-Men: Apocalypse has great action pieces and performances, but it collapses under the weight of its narrative while simultaneously lacking in depth and development. As Jean Grey observes after seeing Return of the Jedi, “At least we can all agree that the third one is always the worst.” You read my mind, sister.

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