Tag Archives: Drama

“CRASH” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Lionsgate Films

There is no us against them. It is only us.

“It’s the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.”

– Detective Graham Walters, Crash.

I couldn’t sleep the night that I watched Crash. That’s because I crashed into somebody.  26 different people, in fact. In life, we are so self-consumed by the business and burdens of our lives that we never stop to think of how we might affect the lives of the people around us. So we crash into them. Sometimes it’s just a fender-bender. Sometimes it’s a straight-on collision. But it always has repercussions, whether it’s an exchange of flurried insults, or the breaking down of someone’s worth and self-esteem.

There are no characters in Crash, only faces that you remember. Those faces belong to Don Cheadle, Jennifer Esposito, Shaun Toub, Bahar Soomekh, Chris Bridges, Larenz Tate, Sandra Bullock, Brendan Fraser, Matt Dillon, Ryan Phillippe, Terrence Howard, Thandie Newton, Michael Pena, Yomi Perry, Ashlyn Sanchez, Karina Arroyave, Loretta Devine, Beverly Todd, William Fictner, Keith David, Greg Joung Paik, Nona Gaye, Bruce Kirby, Tony Danza, Kathleen York, Sylva Kelegian, and Marina Sirtis. I list all of them out only because they all matter. You’ll only recognize a few by name or from another film. But you care about all of them, no matter how small their role may seem.

To cover the full scope of Crash would be impossible. It takes place over the course of a few days in downtown L.A. and features an assortment of people that affect each other’s lives in one way or another, whether they realize it or not. I use “people” instead of “characters” because these are not fictionalized troupes that could only exist in a movie. These people feel, breathe, talk, and behave like any real person would. Even though the movie is classified as fictional, you can easily see the events happening to someone else in real life. In many cases they’ve already happened, and more than likely they’ve happened to you.

One of them already happened to writer-director Paul Haggis, who was inspired to write Crash after having his car stolen by a pair of carjackers. Playing it back in his head, he creates a path that starts with the carjackers, then it follows to the theft victims. Then it follows the locksmith at their house. Then it follows one of his customers that got his store broken into. Then it follows his daughter at her night job and et cetera, et cetera until it paints a beautifully written, tragic path between all of its subjects, creating a recurring pattern of judgement and apprehension that each person shares, that each person is guilty of.

And none of these people are innocent of prejudice. None of them are blameless for contributing to the problem. All of them are guilty of judging based on appearance, no matter if they’re White, Black, Mexican, Latino, Persian, or Chinese. It shows very vividly that there is not a difference between the perpetrators and victims of racism. There are only victims.

This perspective is so important because it humanizes everyone in the film, no matter what malice or misdeeds they commit. Imagine, if you would, if every character in this film were one race. White, Black, Mexican, Indian, Asian, whatever. Now imagine all of them throwing their same prejudice and judgements on each other even though they all look the same. The movie would look pretty silly, wouldn’t it?

Yet the movie makes complete sense, because of the stereotypes and the xenophobia we learn growing up. How sad is it that as a person, you can identify and understand why these people behave and react the way they do? How maddening is it when in one moment we get angry at a character for calling someone a criminal, a gangster, a hoodlum, or a terrorist, then we look at the mirror and realize we do the same thing? The people in the movie see each other for what they look like, but the movie never does. It only sees them as fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, family, friends, people.

I felt genuinely ashamed while watching Crash. Guilt-ridden, heartbroken, frustrated, upset, angry. That’s because I saw myself while watching it. Perhaps not at the level of a racist cop or an opportunistic district attorney, but in the small, subtle moments. When one woman wants to get the locks changed again because she doesn’t trust the Mexican locksmith “homie” over there, I quietly gasped to myself saying “Oh shoot, I do that too.” And then you see “homie” go home, quietly comforting his daughter when she hears gunshots, kissing her forehead, telling her he will protect her. That’s when you realize “homie” isn’t Mexican or gangster. He’s a father. He’s human.

We don’t want these judgements passed on to us. Yet, we pass them on to others. Why? Because that’s our nature, I suppose. We’re engineered at an early age to judge and be cautious of people based on appearance, so this security mechanism is instilled in our mindset to be wary of someone just because of what they look like. It’s saved our lives many times. It’s also ruined the lives of so many others.

Yet, through this brilliantly interwoven narrative that Haggis creates, he also demonstrates the same remedy for this problem. Kindness. Compassion. Empathy. Many times, at the hands of the people who were cruel or inhumane only a few scenes ago. There’s this genius reversal of character between where someone starts at the beginning of the film versus where they are at the end. In the movie, there is a racist cop who ends up saving the life of a black woman in a burning vehicle. There’s a spoiled housewife who’s wary of Mexicans who ends up saying her best friend is her Mexican housemaid. There’s a black man who demonstrates disregard for Asians, only to save the lives of multiple Asians by the end. A white man who saves a black man’s life, only to take another’s later on. Whether they are on one end of the spectrum or another, by the end of the film, they exist on the other end.

This is so important because it demonstrates that we’re capable of that same kindness and cruelty, whether we want to admit it or not. How many times have you been more open to someone of your race rather than another? How many times have you acted more cautious because of someone’s skin color? How many times do you say “I don’t want to be around this person” because of a generalization or an assumption you have on their character because of their appearance? We don’t want to admit that it’s about race, but what else could it be about? Whether they’re matching colors on their outfit?

The movie technically ends on a cliffhanger, because there are still many things that we don’t know. Does John’s dad ever get the medical treatment he needs? Does Graham ever find the man who killed his brother? Does Anthony find redemption or fall back into a life of crime? Does Farhad ever manage to reopen his store? Does Tom remain in the police force?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, just like I don’t know the answers to my questions or to your questions about the future. Perhaps that’s the point. In life, we don’t know where we’re going, where we’re traveling to, or who we meet on the way. We can’t control the people that come into our lives. We can only control how we react to them. And instead of reacting with fear, maybe we can react with curiosity. Confidence. Belief in the best of people. By doing this, we begin to create an atmosphere of change.

And change doesn’t come in big steps. As Crash demonstrates, they come in small doses of change, whether they be positive or negative. If we focus on those changes being kind and compassionate as opposed to cold and fearful, we change many things at once until we change the world entire. That’s the one that I want to be a part of: one where we won’t have to crash into someone ever again.

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“MOONLIGHT” Review (✫✫✫✫)

Beautifully broken.

If you can only see one movie this year, make it Moonlight. With most movies, we go with the purposes of either being entertained or enlightened on a particular issue, sometimes both. Moonlight transcends both of those purposes. It is an urgent, important, and timely film that presses the viewer not to understand its characters by their race or sexuality, but by their personal experiences that mold them into the men that they become. Moonlight not only deserves to be seen: it is essential.

Broken up into three parts, Moonlight follows a young man growing up in an ugly urban neighborhood that doesn’t care much about the people that live in it. This man has been called many things during his childhood. Little. Black. Chiron. One of those is his name. All of them define him.

Chiron has had a hard childhood. He was bullied when he was in elementary school. He watched his mother sink into drug abuse with a new man she brought home every night. He witnessed the drug trade up close as he lived with a dealer when he ran away from home.

In high school, bullying further intensified as all the “hard” kids intimidated Chiron because of his small size. His mother’s abuse intensified. His loneliness grew. He fell in love with one of his classmates. He was assaulted on school grounds. And in experiencing the pure essence of hurt and anger, Chiron makes a great mistake that costs him much. We see him sink deeper into this despair that we call life.

Now in adulthood, the older Chiron is starkly different from his younger self. He now deals drugs himself, but he never uses them, fully remembering what it did to his mother. He worked out, got hard, built himself up so that he would never be intimidated by others again. He carries a gun on his waist, gold chains on his neck, and a chip on his shoulder everywhere he goes.

Before I praise anything else in this film, I have to praise the casting. With most movies with flashbacks, the casting isn’t paid much thought when it comes to the younger counterparts. In Batman V. Superman, for instance, the young actor Brandon Spink looks nothing like the elder Ben Affleck, from his bone structure all the way to hairstyle. In last year’s equally failed Fantastic Four, the young Evan Hannemann was chubby and round-faced, looking nothing like the slender, more robust Jamie Bell at an older age. It’s a small element but it’s a noticeable one, and most filmmakers choose to overlook it since the younger actors are in the film for less than 10 minutes.

But Moonlight is not like most movies. In this film, it is written and divided into three parts, with each act resembling a different time and age of Chiron’s life. Because of this, the casting is so crucial, to the point where if it is unbelievable even for a second, the entire film can fall apart.

But the casting in all of the roles are pitch-perfect. None of the actors falter for a second, and it’s at times hard to believe that these are actors that we are watching. Even child actor Alex Hibbert does such a good job expressing the younger Chiron’s innocence and vulnerability. He embodies everything a child is supposed to be: playful, excited, energetic, but also confused, shy, fearful, and sometimes, intimidated. The scenes where Hibbert had to react to his mother’s drug abuse were especially hard, because he just stands there frozen, petrified, unsure of how he’s supposed to react to his mother’s outbursts. It’s a simple role, but one that’s brilliantly filled. Even at such as young age, Hibbert demonstrates a talent that I hope grows as he becomes older.

The other actors are just as great in their performances. Ashton Sanders, who plays the same role in high school, physically resembles his younger and older counterparts, and appropriately identifies with the confused, awkward hormonal period all teenagers go through at his age. The most convincing performance, not surprisingly, belongs to the experienced Trevante Rhodes, who portrays the older Chiron as a broken fragment of himself, trying to piece together his childhood and understand why things happened the way they did. Any one of these actors can be nominated for an Oscar, SAG, or Golden Globe, but if it’s even one actor, it’s an unfair nomination. All three actors need to be recognized, because all three brilliantly portrayed their characters at different, chaotic, messy times in their lives.

This film is directed by Barry Jenkins, who before Moonlight hasn’t made a feature-length film in eight years. How can this guy be out of the director’s chair for so long and come back and make such as minimalist masterpiece as this?

I think it’s because he tried to relate the film on a human level as opposed to a technical one. Look at Chiron’s older self. As a man, he identifies with numerous minority communities that are, as of late, facing discrimination. The African-American community. The LGBT community. The American lower class. For one reason or another, each of these communities have been seen in a negative limelight by parts of our culture either due to current events or moral debate.

The reason why you need to see this film, even if you end up hating it, is because it forces us to think differently from what we’re used to. Chiron commits many wrongs in the film, most of which we might not agree with. But we at least understand where he is coming from and why he behaves the way he does. He might be seen in the wrong, but he is also seen as sympathetic. After all, when a kid grows up in a broken household, neglected by his family, hunted by his community, and emasculated by his peers, do you blame him for coming out a little more confused about life rather than more clear about it?

By the end of the film, we see Chiron for all that he is. Black. Gay. Drug-dealer. Felon. Flawed. We see him as all of these things and more. Yet, under the calming blue hue of the moonlight, we also see something else: that he is still beautiful regardless.

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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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“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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“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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“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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