Tag Archives: Comedy

“THOR: RAGNAROK” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

We will, we will Ragnarok you.

Just when you thought Marvel had used all the tricks up their sleeve, they release Thor: Ragnarok, a movie that has absolutely no business being this good or memorable. Here is a picture which, by every metric, should have failed. It’s a Thor movie first of all, and it features the one Avenger so dull that a cardboard mannequin with a blonde wig is more interesting than him. His co-star is the Hulk, and that meshing of fantasy and sci-fi genres makes about as much sense as putting Harry Potter in a Batman movie. It’s the third part of a trilogy, which usually ends up being the worst in the series (See Spider-Man 3, X-Men: Apocalypse). On top of that, this film is a retro-comedy aiming for the style akin to Guardians of the Galaxy. How on Asgard could Marvel have pulled this off? Spectacularly, that’s how.

A sequel to both Thor: The Dark World and Avengers: Age of Ultron, Thor: Ragnarok follows our golden-haired hero Thor (Chris Hemsworth) propelled through the universe as he tries to prevent Ragnarok, the prophesized destruction of Asgard. He goes to Muspelheim to capture the fire demon Sultur (Clancy Brown), Midgard to find his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), the Sanctum Sanctorum to meet Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Sakaar to fight the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Asgard to face Hela, the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett). I’m telling you, this guy gets around. If he traveled anymore in the movie, he’d have to throw away his hammer and resort to montages for faster travel.

Here is a movie that, for the life of me, I don’t understand how it works. This film packs five different genres into one narrative, and that usually spells doom for any movie that tries to do that. Not here. Thor: Ragnarok is a funny comedy, a thrilling action movie, an exciting adventure, a heartfelt drama, and a groundbreaking superhero epic that hits every single note that it needs to. A movie this busy should not feel this simple, yet it flows and moves effortlessly, like how one stretches and plays with silly putty.

Where do I even start? The film’s director Taika Waititi executes his film chaotically yet masterfully, filling his characters with vibrant personalities and throwing them through action scenes resemblant of a little kid playing with his action figures. My main complaint with superhero movies (and really most action blockbusters in general) is that studios focus so much on the action and visual effects that they forget that character and personality is the driving force behind the successes of most major film franchises. For example, would the visual feats in Superman and Star Wars have felt as incredible if Clark Kent or Luke Skywalker weren’t as likeable of heroes to begin with?

Thor: Ragnarok takes cues from both of those movies as it emboldens its characters with electric personalities, playing off of their charisma and creating witty, comedic dialogue between each other. Chris Hemsworth continues to play the fratty, oblivious oaf in Thor as he always has, but here he does it with a self-awareness that makes him funny enough to pass it off as likeable. Ruffalo steals the spotlight in a mostly Hulk-dominated performance, yet rounds him out with a subtle arc that possesses its own somberness and tragedy within it. And Blanchett surprisingly offers up a menacing and diabolical performance in a franchise that is usually lacking in the villain presence, even though her motivations for fighting Thor are kind of weak in the film.

Everything else from the film is unorthodox perfection. Seriously. I haven’t seen anything like it. The comedy hits exactly the right notes with the right lines. The drama, while at times a little too brisk, strikes with the emotional chord that it needs to. The action scenes are thrilling. The visual effects, mesmerizing. The music, synthesized and catchy. Even the Easter Eggs are infectious in their appeal, with one cameo involving Tom Hiddleston’s Loki making me laugh so hard that my surrounding audience members started to look worried for me.

If I had any weakness to offer, it would be that the film’s tone is jarring compared to previous entries, with the series doing a complete 180 in genre from a Norse fantasy epic to an action-comedy so in-cheek that the “Who’s Line Is It Anyway?” troupe would wonder where their invite was. But to that I say screw consistency, this is a fantastic movie; one that flips one of Marvel’s most boring characters and somehow makes him the most interesting. Maybe I would be irritated by the change in aesthetic if they did this with Iron Man or Captain America, but that’s only because those characters already have an interesting arc and personality to them. Thor is more of a blank slate, and in realizing this, Waititi pulls out his paint cans and floods the screen with as much color and life as he can.

I haven’t had this much fun in a superhero movie since The Avengers in 2012. Yes, I’m comparing Thor: Ragnarok to The Avengers. Don’t knock it until you try it. While it doesn’t confront real-world issues and moral dilemmas like Iron Man, Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Civil War does, Thor: Ragnarok more than makes up for it with its stylish action, colorful visuals, brilliant self-awareness, and gut-busting humor so hilarious that it’s difficult not to pee your pants from laughing so much. This is a movie where Deadpool could appear in randomly halfway through the picture and it would still make complete sense.

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“KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS” Review (✫✫✫1/2)


The kid’s a great musician AND origami artist.

Kubo and the Two Strings is not only better than most of today’s animated movies: it’s also better than most of its live-action ones. That’s because it fully believes in its vision and purpose, giving genuine, real life to these characters that we perceive as fictional and adding weight to the adventures that they go through. Kubo and the Two Strings fully believes that everything going on in this movie is real, even though none of it is real.

Or is it? When you were told stories as a child, were your first instincts to question how true any of it was? Did you ask if Arthur really did pull the sword out of the stone, if David truly beat the Goliath, or if Jack really did climb up a beanstalk? Of course you didn’t, because you didn’t need to ask. We already believed that they were real. Any validation beyond that would have taken away from our enjoyment of the amazing stories we were told.

Kubo and the Two Strings is yet another amazing story to tell, a movie about a boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson) who is on the run, protecting his mother from the clutches of his evil grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes). Kubo has two friends accompanying him on this journey: Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), who is the most dysfunctional pair of animals that have ever gone on any journey. Monkey is the type A protective companion who will stop at nothing to make sure Kubo is safe. Beetle is more laid back, relaxed, and is more prone to dreaming rather than fighting. Together, these three embark on an adventure to defeat the Moon King and free Kubo from his clutches forever.

Right off of the bat, I need to praise the visual style of this project. Filmed using stop-motion animation, Kubo and the Two Strings feels and breathes like ancient Japanese mythology, its characters talking, fighting, flipping, and moving like the origami figures Kubo loves to craft in his spare time. The fourth film to be produced by animation studio Laika, Kubo mimics the claymation style of its predecessors, including Coraline, Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls, and it stands strong alongside them.

Yet, Kubo stands out even among these films, not only being a stellar and entertaining animated film, but also an exciting and thrilling action film as well. In one sequence, Monkey is fighting one of the Moon King’s underlings on a boat made out of autumn leaves during a violent sea storm. The choreography in this fight looked incredible, with Monkey flipping around using all four of her limbs, her enemy swiping at her with her hand blades, their swords colliding and sparking during the loud crashing of waves and lightning.

I want to assert that this sequence, like every other frame of this film, was animated. Yet, it featured action on-par with most of today’s live-action films. More than the highway sequence in Deadpool, more than the titular fight in Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the action in this sequence impressed me. It impressed me with its fast-paced energy and lightning-quick reflexes of its characters. It impressed me with its use of environment and how they bounced and deflected attacks off of each other into the sail and deck. Even though this sequence was animated, it impressed me how exciting and thrilling it was compared to most of this year’s summer blockbusters.

The rest of the film does not let up on the action or the excitement. Besides it’s incredible display of visual and technical prowess, the film also has an incredible story to get wrapped up into. With a story by “Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends” animator Shannon Tindle and a screenplay by Paranorman scribe Chris Butler and Marc Haimes, Kubo and the Two Strings is confident in its lore and mythology, so much so that not only are spin-offs and sequels encouraged: I think it’s even necessary. This is a deep, complex narrative on display, and the movie demonstrates a strong understanding of its characters and how they affect each other. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a sequel to Kubo and the Two Strings in the near future, and I would welcome it with excitement and anticipation.

There is one plot twist in the movie that doesn’t fit with the overall plot and creates more problems rather than solves them. Besides that, this is a flawless movie. Like Akira and Spirited Away, this is a movie that challenges animated movies and what they can accomplish. And at the heart of it all is a brave young boy, trying to live his life without the things that he needed most.

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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 SECRET LIFE OF PETS” Review (✫)


It should stay a secret.

There were two things I liked about The Secret Life of Pets: the minions and Kevin Hart. That’s it. Those are the only two things I enjoyed from 90 minutes of annoyance and monotony. The minions were only in the short featurette before the movie started, so you can already cross them right off of the list. That leaves Hart as the only positive, who admittedly does provide the movie’s funnier and more unique moments. Everything else belongs in the kitty litter.

In what is perhaps his most boring role to date, Louis C.K. plays as Max, a Jack Russel terrier who lives happily with his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper). They play all day together, but when Katie leaves, Max lays defeatedly on the floor, waiting for her to come back home.

One day, she comes home with a surprise: another dog named Duke (Eric Stonestreet), who she says is going to be Max’s new brother. Frustrated and intimidated by this new dog, Max forms a rivalry with Duke on who will be the top dog of the house.

Does this premise sound familiar to you? An animated movie about characters that live secret lives unbeknownst to their owners, then become jealous as a new neighbor moves in and sets out to sabotage their stay? Where have we seen this before? Where could we have possibly gotten this oh-so-original idea from?

Oh. That’s right. It’s the same plot as Toy Story. How creative.

Right out of the gate, the most detrimental element of this movie is its half-effort of a premise. It is utterly, disappointingly dull. Every single note of The Secret Life of Pets is corny, obvious, and exaggerated, with not one single piece of it sticking with you. All of the jokes, the emotions, the so-called “twists”, none of it is surprising and every bit of it is mind-numbingly, sickeningly predictable.

That’s to be expected with most animated movies though, right? Our culture is so saturated with feel-good emotions and brightly-colored characters that surely their stories are also familiar to us by now. It sometimes seems like they can write themselves. Zootopia was a cute and fun movie, but its twists were too obvious for its own good. So was Big Hero 6’s as it essentially repeated the superhero action formula, but in animation. Even Illumination’s own Despicable Me is so on-the-nose that you knew Gru couldn’t stay a bad guy. Most movies nowadays are predictable, and animated movies are definitely no exception.

All the same, while most animated movies are predictable, that doesn’t automatically mean that they are bad. I can forgive familiarity. What I can’t forgive is mediocrity. I can’t forgive something that feels so bland and tasteless, so ignorant to its own production that it forgets to be funny, touching, or even remotely relevant while copying someone else’s idea. This movie is so by-the-books that it becomes incessantly boring to watch. There is not a shred of integrity to it, nothing to make you care about its characters or the stupidly cartoonish situations happening to them.

Well, that’s not entirely true. There’s one redeeming character in Snowball, a hilarious white rabbit voiced by Kevin Hart. He’s wacky and over-the-top in every sense of the word, a violent little cretin that blurts out long-winded rants against humanity like a radical activist or a disillusioned rebel leader. Out of all of the characters, casting Hart as this bunny gone bananas is sheer genius. His accentuated, ecstatic voice perfectly matches the crazy nature of Snowball, easily making him the most fun character out of the movie.

All the same, one fun character doesn’t replace 15 boring ones. Can I stress how much I don’t care about these characters? I don’t care about Max. I don’t care about Duke. I don’t care about the pets. I don’t care about their voice actors. I don’t care about the less-than-paper-thin plot that they’re forced through. I don’t care about the recycled animation, the unfunny humor, the artificial optimism, the relentless cheese, and the completely random music number inserted awkwardly halfway through the movie. Do you understand what I’m saying? I. Don’t. Care.

This is from Illumination Entertainment and director Chris Renaud, who up until now have both had pretty steady careers. The first two Despicable Me movies were good, whole-hearted fun, while The Lorax was well-intentioned and meaningful, albeit a little heavy-handed. Later this year, they’re releasing Sing, a musical comedy about animals participating in a singing competition. Hopefully they will knock it out of the park and sell out the theater. The Secret Life of Pets deserves to be booed off of the stage.

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“FINDING DORY” Review (✫✫✫✫)

Just keep swimming.

There is absolutely no reason why a movie called Finding Dory should be this good. Absolutely no reason. The last time Pixar attempted a sequel/spinoff, we got Cars 2, a cheeky and unnecessary addition to the Pixar universe. Finding Dory is equally unnecessary, but the good news is that it knows that. So instead of trying to follow up from its first film, it chooses to focuses on telling its own story rather than trying to expand upon another one. What we get is something truly rare: an animated sequel that is every bit as good as its predecessor. Considering that’s Finding Nemo, I think this is the best possible movie you could have gotten from Finding Dory.

Years before Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) met Marlin (Albert Brooks), Dory was just a baby fish happily playing with her parents. Just as forgetful and funny as her older self is, Dory was trained by her parents to say 10 words to any new fish she meets: “Hi, I’m Dory, and I have short-term memory loss.” (Or “reromry”, as she likes to pronounce it). Happy and comforted around her parents, baby Dory is afraid what might happen if she was ever separated from them, or worse, if she even forgot them.

Fast forward many years later, after the events of Finding Nemo. Dory suddenly remembers her parents and her life before meeting Marlin and Nemo (Hayden Rolence). Now determined to find her parents and be reunited again after all these years, Dory, Marlin, and Nemo embark on yet another journey across the ocean to find Dory’s family.

The first time I watched Finding Nemo, I was completely entranced by everything about it. The characters, story, animation, colors, and environments immediately swept me from my theater seat and plunged me 100 feet in the ocean to witness this story about a father and his son. At originally hearing about Finding Dory, all I felt was concern. Minus the Toy Story franchise, Pixar hadn’t handled its sequels as well as its first entries. I was really worried they were about to turn Finding Nemo into a cash-grabber, something that Finding Nemo is worth much more than.

Turns out I had no reason to be worried. Finding Dory is not only a smart homage to its origins, but also a funny, unique, and emotional roller coaster of a film that stands very well on its own two feet (well, fins). The screenplay, co-written by director Andrew Stanton, displays a fine understanding of everyone’s favorite forgetful fish. So fine, in fact, that this movie truly stands on its own, needing almost no support from its previous entry.

Watch the first scenes of Finding Dory closely. Like Finding Nemo, they pull you into the character’s reality and establish an almost immediate connection with your subject. In Finding Nemo, we watched as Marlin lost his wife and most of his children in one of the most tragic openings ever. In Finding Dory, we witness the opposite as a child loses her parents, although not in the same way. The same feeling is established in both cases: a deepened sense of loss, confusion, and grief. You look at baby Dory swimming around aimlessly in the ocean, and you can’t help but feel a deep sense of sympathy for this poor baby fish, alone and with no sense of direction or security.

This sympathy lasts throughout the entire movie, and that’s because Stanton has a clear understanding of Dory and how to get us to care about her. We don’t see Dory as a supporting character in Finding Dory, and we shouldn’t either. This is truly her story, and she appropriately takes center stage as we’re wrapped into her journey and emotions.

I have absolutely no gripes with this film. No criticisms. No recommendations to improve it any further from where it already is now. If we had to compare, then Finding Nemo is clearly superior, but that’s only because we’ve had more time to appreciate it. If Finding Nemo never happened, Finding Dory not only makes sense without it: it stands on its own and functions as its own entry. That’s because Stanton knows how to masterfully guide his audience without manipulating them, and we get caught up into Dory’s story not because we have to, but because we want to.

What we have left is an unchallenged successor to Finding Nemo: a movie that replicates the same appeal of characters, animation, wonder, and amazement as we’re completely engrossed into this story, not once feeling like it’s artificial or incomplete. When Pixar prepares to make the third entry, I officially now want it to be titled Finding Marlin. I trust Pixar enough that they’ll take it in the right direction.

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“FINDING NEMO” Review (✫✫✫✫)

Fish are friends, not food.

Reviewing a film like Finding Nemo is an impossible task, because it isn’t meant to be reviewed. It’s meant to be experienced. Like Pixar’s other masterpieces, Finding Nemo finds joy and adventure in seemingly ordinary environments. Toy Story found theirs in a toy box, and A Bug’s Life found theirs in an anthill. Now Finding Nemo plunges into the ocean to tell us a story about family, fatherhood, and friendship. The resulting film is nothing short of Pixar’s best: iconic, entertaining, and meaningful.

After viewing what is perhaps the most heartbreaking opening I’ve ever seen in an animated movie, we are introduced to the film’s key characters. Marlin (Albert Brooks), a deep-sea clownfish, is the single father of Nemo (Alexander Gould), his son who suffers from a short, defective fin. He’s very protective of his son: so much so, that he will hide him away in his anemone, away from the rest of the ocean.

One day, Marlon goes through any parent’s worst nightmare: he sees his son kidnapped by human divers swimming out in the ocean. Now accompanied only by a short-minded regal tang named Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), they set off across the ocean to save Marlin’s son.

The first thing you notice in any Pixar movie is its animation. Vibrant, elegant, and beaming with life, the one thing you can always appreciate about their films is the vivid details of their animation. With Finding Nemo, however, I’d argue that it is the most refined out of Pixar’s other films. This is the fifth film Pixar has produced now, and the fifth time that they’ve captured me with their ambient motions, intricate details, and complex characters. The colors are bright and saturated, reaching out to you in all of its eye-catching graphics and details. The fish feel fresh and alive, briskly swimming through the ocean as if they were real animals. The ocean itself breathes with just as much life as the fish do. Its plants flow in synchronization with the ocean streams, its currents moving like breaths in the ocean. This is easily Pixar’s most visually pleasing film yet, not just because of the colors and motions, but because of how real entire environments feel. This isn’t just an animated ocean: it is the ocean. That’s how authentic it feels and moves.

But the animation isn’t the only beautiful thing about Finding Nemo. Its story is equally breathtaking; simple and straightforward, yet creative and complex. On the surface, we have this father-son dynamic going on in between Marlin and Nemo, which serves as the emotional focal point of the film. In deeper insight, this is a movie about environment conservation and the effect our race is having on fish life.

Take Nemo’s plight as the most pure example of this. After being kidnapped, Nemo is dropped into a dentist’s fish tank with a collection of other fish, all of whom are terrified of the dentist’s reckless niece. It is in this tank where you see very simply that fish are not viewed as living creatures to these humans, but rather as objects, property, gifts. Seeing how poorly the fish are treated in this movie reflects a very sad truth under its layers of fun and humor, and it makes me ponder on how much of a threat we truly pose on the environments of the real clownfish, regal tangs, sharks, sea turtles, and the rest of the fish in the ocean.

None of this takes away from the fact that this is at heart a kids movie: a fun, colorful, and unique one at that. Yet this is a rare picture even among children’s films, an animated movie parents can enjoy just as much as their kids do. Perhaps that is because the main character is a parent himself, and it is easy to relate to his joy, his fears, and his solace as a father, and as someone who cares for something much bigger than himself. Animated films nowadays are like the ocean: vast, wide, never-ending, and impossible to predict. Finding Nemo is the pearl you find in it: small, hard to find, yet immensely valuable, just like its small-finned star.

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“THE NICE GUYS” Review (✫✫)

Not so nice. 

The fundamental mistake that Shane Black made with The Nice Guys was thinking that the frosting could count for the cake. The Nice Guys wants so badly to be the next buddy-cop film: the next Lethal Weapon or Rush Hour. In order to be that, however, it needs a story that is coherent and believable, neither of which are adjectives that can describe the plot for Nice Guys. If Shane Black wanted a more thorough crime-comedy thriller, he should have focused just as much on the story’s larger consequences as he did on character’s conversations.

Taking place in 1977 Los Angeles, The Nice Guys opens up on porn star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) getting killed in a car crash, where we get to see the features bare all (I’m talking about the actress, not the car). A few days later, enforcer Jackson Healy (Russel Crowe) and private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling) cross paths. March is looking for Misty’s porn-acting colleague, Amelia (Margaret Qualley), while Healy was hired to get March off of her trail. When their cases supposably line up in interest, these two wannabe detectives need to team up to find Amelia and save her from whatever threat is pursuing her.

Positives first. The dialogue is the best of the year so far. Seriously. Like Shane Black’s other credits, including Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and Iron Man 3, The Nice Guys is a fast-paced film driven by witty, electric dialogue between its characters. Like any great comedy, the dialogue is key to this film’s comedic moments, and thanks to some great one-liner delivery from its leads, the jokes punch you in the laughing gut very hard. Take the following scene as an example, where March takes his daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) to the last place that she should be going to: a Los Angeles night party.

Holly: Dad, there are whores here and stuff.

March: Don’t say “and stuff.” Just say, “Dad, there are whores here.”

Another moment I appreciated was one where March shows an ad to a friend featuring the two of their likenesses on it. “I made your head small because I know you’re sensitive about how big it is,” March quipped.

The dialogue and the interactions surrounding the characters are timely and humorous, believable in every second not just because of Crowe and Gosling, but also because of Rice, who displays a surprising amount of maturity for an actress at 14 years old. The problem, however, doesn’t lie in the dialogue or delivery. It lies in the screenplay, which throws our heroes through situations and conspiracies so unbelievable that convincing us about the existence of aliens is an easier task. There’s so many unraveled strings, so many stretched out threads that never really weave together fluidly for one larger story. In fact, Black tries to tie in a ridiculous underlying theme about climate change that is so forced into the narrative that it makes PETA look like a passive organization.

Then there’s the whole issue regarding the film’s promiscuous premise. I’ve been vocal about explicit content being featured uselessly in motion pictures before. The Nice Guys is no exception. Tell me, why exactly is this film focused so much on the porn industry? Why is it so intent on showing us clips of two people in the middle of intercourse, scantily clad woman flaunting their bare breasts to attending patrons, or when most horrifyingly, a bloody, beaten, and nude woman flies out of a car before she dies? What do any of these things accomplish? What do any of these things add to the plot that isn’t already there? Couldn’t you have replaced all of these porn stars with supermodels and essentially have the same structure? What reason was there to be so sex obsessed?   

The Nice Guys is not a bad picture: just a misguided one. Black has written his dialogue skillfully, and it’s one of those rare films where the characters are more fun than the action is. The areas it’s lacking in are in its flow, clarity, and basic decency, adding too many elements that distract us from the larger picture rather than entertain us by what’s already going on. If Black made his story simpler, he would have had a better movie, and stuff.   

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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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