Tag Archives: Mystery

“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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“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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“ANNABELLE” Review (✫)

Barbie is scarier than this. 

Remember how I wrote in my review for The Conjuring that the Annabelle doll was one of the creepiest elements of the movie? I take it all back. Annabelle is not creepy. Silence is creepy. Moving objects are creepy. Unexplainable sounds, noises, or occurrences are creepy. The unexpected is creepy. A rotted doll turning its head around to stare at you is not creepy, and it doesn’t get creepier as you repeat it 15 more times in a movie.

I realized this while watching Annabelle, a terrible prequel that is the complete antithesis of its predecessor. The Conjuring was masterfully orchestrated in its suspense. Annabelle is haphazardly assembled. The Conjuring knew how to exercise its elements conservatively. Annabelle throws them at the screen like a toddler with temper tantrums. The Conjuring understood the importance of silence and subtlety. Annabelle scoffs at these as it vomits out flashy effects and useless images that do nothing to intensify the plot or its stakes. If The Conjuring advanced the horror genre a few steps forward, Annabelle slowed it down to a baby crawl.

How boring is this movie? So boring that even attempting to write a synopsis for it nearly drifted me to sleep. Dear reader, I tried. I truly did. But what do you need from me? What do you need to know besides that this movie is a prequel? You already know there’s a family, a demented spirit, a doll, and too many jump scares to count. Where else have we seen this before besides in The Conjuring, The Exorcist, The Last Exorcism, The Amityville Horror, The Shining, and every other horror movie in existence, ever?

Talking about the characters is a waste of column space. Why waste talking about them, when the writers make them so plain and dull? In The Conjuring, we cared about Ed and Lorraine Warren because they were so different from the typical horror protagonists. They’re paranormal investigators, arguably the most equipped to handle demonic threats, and yet, they’re still fearful of the forces against them in that movie. The fact that they were strong characters and were still afraid made The Conjuring all the more potent in its dread. These characters, in comparison, are just lining up for the slaughter. You have the made-for-TV housewife, the ignorant father, a helpless priest, and a clueless child, all of whom you don’t care about or even feel slightly interested in. Actually, I retcon my statement: they’re all clueless, helpless, ignorant, and made-for-TV.

The pacing is as sluggish as its cast is. The score, stock and overused. In a movie like this, you would expect its only strength to lie in its visual effects, but even those are garbage. In one laughable scene, the heroine is running down the stairs from… lightning. Yes, dear reader, blue lightning. We go from dolls to demons to lightning, and it looks just as cheesy as it sounds. It looked so bad on the screen that the film’s editor might as well just have drawn blue crayon over the frames. It would have looked just as unconvincing, but at least you wouldn’t be wasting the budget. 

And then we get down to the movie’s biggest offense: poisoning the chilling nature of Annabelle. In The Conjuring, she provided the movie’s more unexpectedly scary moments. That’s because director James Wan knew how to save her, use her, conceal her, then reveal her in shocking moments that surprised you. Wan understood, more than anything else, that the doll by herself was unsettling, but with the right moment when the audience’s guard was down, she would pop out and frighten you with her mysterious and malicious nature.

Our guard is down when we watch Annabelle too, and it stays down after we see her tricks repeat over, and over, and over, and over, and over again. Director John Leonetti took a great element from The Conjuring and thought that copying and pasting it would have the same effect. It didn’t. Leonetti even worked as the cinematographer for The Conjuring. Couldn’t he see through the camera lense that it wasn’t Annabelle that made the film scary, but rather its deliberate pacing and dreary mood? Couldn’t he see that the film didn’t frighten its audiences because of one doll, but rather, because of all of the elements in the picture? Wan understood his cohesion of lighting, editing, and timing and how it delivered the movie’s biggest thrills. Leonetti, in comparison, is a one-trick phony.

Annabelle is a reaffirmation of why I hate horror movies. In good horror movies, like the original Halloween or The Conjuring, they use their premises as a springboard to build up to bigger moments of suspense and eeriness. Annabelle’s mistake was thinking that it’s flimsy premise was the suspense and eeriness. The result is a movie that is long, overbearing, tedious, tiring, and boring. I hope Annabelle stays in the glass jar that the Warrens trapped her in. Putting her in a woodchipper isn’t a bad idea either, along with this movie’s film stock.

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“THE CONJURING” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

Be afraid of what you can’t see.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“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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“CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR” Review (✫✫✫✫)

A war of humans, not heroes. 

I’m going to make a bold claim here. Captain America: Civil War is the best MCU movie to be made to date.

I know, I know, I’m probably a little overzealous when I say that. Except that I’m not. I’m fully aware of what its competition is. There are two other Marvel movies that I can compare Captain America: Civil War with. Those two are Iron Man and The Avengers. All three of them are exciting, suspenseful, nail-biting, eye-widening entertainment that are just as fun and memorable as they are emotional and meaningful. They’re not just great superhero dramas. They’re great human dramas.

But Captain America: Civil War is especially unique to even these entries. How? The biggest reason is because it isn’t formulaic. In Iron Man and The Avengers, we had our heroes, our villains, and they went at each other like rock-em sock-em robots. Granted, there’s deeper insight and perspective than just the two-dimensional hero/villain foreplay, but you can’t deny the framework that’s there. There’s a clear cut good guy and bad guy, as there is in most superhero movies.

But that black-and-white sense of morality isn’t well defined in Captain America: Civil War. In fact, there isn’t really an established sense of right and wrong in the picture, just characters whose ideals and values clash violently with each other. You can argue that there is a quote-unquote “villain” in the movie, but he’s more of a viewer than an active participant to the conflict involved. If we have to go by titles in this movie, what we have then is hero against hero, Avenger against Avenger, and friend against friend. The ensuing action is nothing else but thrilling, thought-provoking, mind-blowing, and heartbreaking.

In this sequel to both Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron, Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans) leads a new team of Avengers, consisting of Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). After an international event involving the Avengers ends in high casualties, General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) and Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) step in to introduce the Sokovia Accords, which states that the Avengers would no longer be a private organization, but instead will be employed and assigned missions by a United Nations panel.

There are two perspectives to the Accords. On one hand, the Accords would give a new level of accountability to the Avengers. They would be restricted in where they could go and what they could do, and the public casualties in turn could be lessened. Plus, the Avengers would now get paid for all of their superheroing. On the other hand, this could put a level of control and interference on the Avengers that would prevent them from doing the most good. Plus, being assigned to report to a panel leaves them vulnerable for manipulation, forcing them to do things that they wouldn’t otherwise.

Iron Man leads the side that’s for the Accords: Cap leads the side that’s against it. But regardless of both sides, there’s another player in the field whose looking to manipulate both sides to his advantage. And neither side realizes it until its too late.

The second Marvel movie to be directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo and the fourth to be written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Captain America: Civil War is a superhero movie ripe with context, a movie that asks uncomfortable questions that we would much rather remain unanswered. Just like how The Winter Soldier related its plot to today’s world of government control, survaillance, and corruption, Civil War also relates to real-world issues that appeals just as much to reality as they do to fantasy.

Take, for instance, the introduction of the Sokovia Accords. These documents, much like the connection between S.H.I.E.L.D. and H.Y.D.R.A. in The Winter Soldier, presents the theme of government interference and how those implications affect our world. Yes, the Accords would impose an element of control and responsibility over the heroes, but at what cost? This is a situation where civil liberties are being traded for security, and the question is raised on whether its a good trade or not. Juxtaposing this idea of control in between our heroes raises very important questions: questions that are startlingly resemblant of our world abundant with government surveillance and manipulation.

But the movie doesn’t suffer under its philosophical weight. This is still one of those fast-paced, funny, exciting Marvel movies that you’ve come to love. It’s just now a fast-paced, funny, exciting action movie that has deeper insight and drama than the previous entries did. The issues involved draw us deeper into the film’s conflict and to each of the outcomes that these characters face.

There are two of these characters that I haven’t mentioned yet. One of them is the rebooted Peter Parker/ Spider-Man, who is played here by Tom Holland as opposed to the recently discontinued Andrew Garfield. Holland’s appearance in the film is brief yet significant, and while he doesn’t serve a role as important as the others, his charisma, immaturity, and innocent charm makes him for a very entertaining and memorable character, one who sticks out in my mind just as much as Captain America and Iron Man. To be rebooted in just two years time is definitely too soon, and part of me wonders how well Garfield would have done if he had been given the same opportunities as Holland was. That doesn’t take away from the fact that Holland still wins us over and sticks out in our minds just as strongly as Garfield and Toby Maguire does. He makes me very excited to see what’s in store for him for his eventual return in Spider-Man: Homecoming.

The other character is T’Challa, a.k.a. the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). If there is a neutral side in this conflict, it is in T’Challa, although at one point he does fight on Iron Man’s team. He’s so great because unlike Iron Man or Cap, his perspective is the most human out of the other players. He is the citizen Cap and Iron Man are fighting to protect. He is the one that faces the most casualty out of any of the other players. This natural perspective into the film is so important, because it demonstrates an investment that isn’t coming from another superhero: it’s coming from the victim of both sides of the conflict. That pain and confusion is so important to understand Captain America: Civil War not just as a Marvel movie, but as a complex drama on its own two legs.

The performances, the action, the visual effects, and the direction all accumulate masterfully, and the Russo brothers demonstrate a better understanding of their characters than they did in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. What we have left, then, is an unchallenged masterpiece, a moral dilemma packaged as a superhero blockbuster that excites us just as much as it challenges us. Iron Man and The Avengers both challenged themselves morally and ethically, but not so much to the point where it’s entire plot was founded around it. There was still a right or wrong in those movies. There isn’t in Captain America: Civil War, and that makes it just as compelling as it is entertaining. The one downside to this film’s success: now the Russo brothers have to follow this up with Avengers: Infinity War. I don’t know how they’re going to do it. I would personally guess that they can’t do it. But I’ve been wrong before.

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“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” Review (✫✫✫)


Patriotism replaced with fast-paced spy action and conspiracy.

In his review for the Toronto Sun, writer Jim Slotek says that “Captain America: The Winter Soldier is actually a Jason Bourne film masquerading as a superhero movie.” Right there is your first problem. Captain America is not Jason Bourne. He does not need to be Jason Bourne. Captain America is Captain America. He has his own arc, history, complexions, motivations, and conflicts that make him a fascinating character in his own right. He is as noble as he is heroic, and in just the two appearances he’s had in the MCU so far, he’s already cemented himself as an icon and staple in this expanding universe.

Tonally, there’s a severe shift in between The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier. Captain America: The First Avenger was exciting, old-fashioned, comic-book fun, and had the look, feel, and nostalgia of those 1940’s pulp magazines. The Winter Soldier, in comparison, feels like a dark, gritty espionage thriller, and our hero wears a red, white, and blue costume instead of the atypical black motorcycle jacket and jeans. This time around, Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans) isn’t fighting Nazi-clad super soldiers or aliens from outer space. This time, Cap is after the Winter Soldier, a expert assassin who has a metal arm and has been operating for decades under the world’s nose. When one of Cap’s closest friends gets caught in the crossfire, Cap goes on the hunt for the Winter Soldier, along with an underlying conspiracy that he’s quickly unraveling.

The script is easily the best thing about Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Screenwriters Marcus Freely and Warren McAllen, who also penned the first Captain America movie as well as Thor: The Dark World, have made an incredibly thoughtful and politically-driven film, a story that, if put into book format, would arguably be more compelling than the movie is. Without giving too much away, Cap gets stuck into a position that pits him both against his own country and against his enemies, making him question himself and the ideals that he’s been fighting for all along. Is America the same country he knew during World War II? Is there any more life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the American dream? Is the American dream even alive any more? All of these questions are what drives the story and its characters forward, and sets up a very hard-hitting, close-to-home conflict with our favorite Captain. This is a movie that has severe repercussions towards the future of the MCU, and the twists are so hard-hitting that they surprised me, even with the ones that I was expecting.

The plot is sound and strong for the purposes of the film. But the problem doesn’t exist in the screenplay, it exists in how it’s handled. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, whose last film credit before this was 2006’s You, Me and Dupree, didn’t see a superhero story in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. They saw a political thriller, and they decided to live up to that in every way that they could.

Take, for instance, the choreography and the motion of the action in the film. It is straight up Jason Bourne. In Captain America: The First Avenger, the action was unique, creative, and dynamic, with Cap flipping around with his shield and beating up HYDRA soldiers in classic, swashbuckling fashion, making it fun and refreshing escapism from all of the action fanfares we’ve gotten throughout the years. Here, the action feels like a retread. We’ve seen this sort of lightning-quick, fast-paced fighting in virtually every action thriller, from James Bond all the way to Mission Impossible. Why should The Winter Soldier feel any more special?

The thing that makes Captain America unique, especially in The First Avenger, is his patriotic loyalty and his unwavering sense of justice. He looks out for the little guy. He cares about such things as self-respect and manners. He won’t throw a punch unless he has to. At heart, he is this small, skimpy, honest, good-hearted kid from Brooklyn, and this is the kid that Dr. Erskine saw in the first Captain America. Here, he’s in full hero mode as he kicks, punches, tackles, slams, and throws shields at all of the bad guys, and brings everything down all around him, including buildings, bridges, and S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarriers.

Tell me, where is the patriotism? Where is the nobility? Where is the sense of joy and adventure in this movie? In its two hour runtime, we don’t get a strong sense of these things that make Captain America who he is. What we get instead is quickly-edited action, punctuated in between moments of heavy exposition and backstory, which always feels like its building up to something big, but never really pays off.

I say this again: Captain America is not an action hero! He is not Jason Bourne, or Ethan Hunt, or James Bond, or John McClane. He is Steve Rogers, and he builds this identity of Captain America to protect those who can’t protect themselves. But The Winter Soldier does not focus on the theme of protection, unlike The First Avenger. Instead, it chooses to focus on distrust and political paranoia. In doing that, it takes away something very important from Captain America: his sense of character.

As it stands, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a good movie and not a great one. It’s serviceable in what it needs to do, and not much else. Instead of likening to Cap’s sense of bravery and heroism, we instead look to his aggression and fighting. In doing that, we lose a part of him that we wish we had back. In this day and age, dry, drab, joyless action movies are Hollywood’s currency, and all of the world is buying. The deeper we sink into this culture of entertainment and violence, the more we need our favorite Captain to stand above it. 

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“IRON MAN 3” Review (✫✫✫1/2)


Tony Stark facing fire and PTSD.

Take a breath before you yell at me about my star rating, Marvelites. Yes, I know you’re upset. I know Iron Man 3 changed one of your favorite characters. I get it. I would be upset too, if that happened to one of my favorite comic book heroes. But you have to understand that this is a movie and not a comic book. It’s not trying to accomplish the same thing. It’s playing by different rules. And since it’s a different ballgame, we need to judge it fairly, on its own terms as a movie and not as a Marvel property.

If you’re able to do that, you will find that Iron Man 3 is quite excellent. It is a grand extravaganza of smart writing, great acting, witty comedy, and explosive action that’s all bow-tied together into one climactic and exciting superhero blockbuster. You couldn’t possibly get a better follow-up to The Avengers than this.

Set a few months after the events of The Avengers, Tony Stark, once portrayed by Robert Downey Jr., is struggling with post-traumatic anxiety attacks after fending off the alien invasion of New York with his other fellow heroes in The Avengers. While recovering, Tony is faced with a new threat: the Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley) the heinous terrorist leader of the Ten Rings army, who wages a one-man war against the United States of America. When one of Tony’s friends becomes injured in the crossfire, Tony vows to find the Mandarin, fight him, and bring him to justice for his malevolent crimes.

The first of the Iron Man trilogy not directed by filmmaker/actor Jon Favreau — who also portrays Tony’s driver Happy Hogan — Iron Man 3 is instead helmed by writer/director Shane Black, who is most known for directing Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and writing the first two Lethal Weapon movies. Seeing him at work here is a blessing to the superhero industry. His wit, sarcasm, and charisma come off of the pages as fluently as Stark’s highly entertaining ego does. Black provides great dialogue for Tony, and often the delivery of the lines result in wild hilarity and laughter. Take, for example, one scene where a small, blond child with glasses comes up to Stark in a restaurant asking for his autograph.

“I liked you in A Christmas Story, by the way,” Stark quipped.

Blacks writing was the best thing that could have happened to Iron Man 3. The writing feels so fluid and natural that Stark might as well be writing the script for himself.

Speaking of Stark, it’s impressing at how well Robert Downey Jr. inhabits Tony Stark yet again. He always seems to just disappear into this role, and he always portrays Stark in a crass, crude, witty, yet concerned and somewhat heroic fashion. There is such fascination with his character that he keeps watchers interested even when there isn’t something blowing up on the screen. In this case even more so, since Tony is facing the added complexion of PTSD and panic attacks in the film. This humanized the character in a different way than the previous Iron Man movies did, as we see him less as this larger-than-life egotistical figure, but more as this shallow, frightened, and troubled young man. It brought to mind the experiences of war-torn veterans after coming home from a long battle. And yes, I know they’re different scenarios. They still invite the same reaction, which is sympathy.

And then there is the action. Boy, is there the action. Similarly to how The Avengers kept building its suspense by repeatedly raising the stakes of the threat, Iron Man 3 also builds excitement and anticipation through every explosion, every punch, every rocket, every bullet and every armor piece Stark puts on. In one of the most exciting moments of the picture, Tony assembles an armada of all of his robot suits, remotely-controlled by his A.I. companion. J.A.R.V.I.S. I thought two things when I saw this: 1) Why didn’t he bring these suits out during The Avengers? 2) Since J.A.R.V.I.S. can control his own suits, is there really a need for Tony to be Iron Man? I suspended both plot holes for the sake of enjoying the moment. Seeing robot suits and bad guys firing at each other in brilliant, mid-air acrobatic stunts was so much fun that it was easy to throw disbelief out the window. There are a few films that can do that, where they not only encourage you to suspend your criticisms, but they also succeed in doing that. Iron Man 3 succeeded in its task, and I found myself smiling a lot throughout the movie, even in the face of its flaws.

And then, of course, there’s the plot twist. How can I so easily accept it, whereas I know other comic book fans won’t be able to? I think it’s because Black saw a deeper story at play than the comic book’s mythos, and that is a story of conspiracy of deceit. Say it’s unfaithful. Say it’s inaccurate to the comics. You’re right in both statements. But you can’t deny that Iron Man 3 is a deftly intelligent story, a compelling drama, a quirky comedy, and an explosive action fest. Iron Man 3 is more than a great sequel. Iron Man 3 is great entertainment.

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“THE DARK KNIGHT” Review (✫✫✫✫)

Two madmen at war with each other and themselves.

Editor’s note: I was originally going to hold off on publishing this review due to an upcoming in-depth article I’m working on. However, upon learning that today would have been Heath Ledger’s 37th birthday, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to honor the late actor’s magnificent work. So, without further adieu, here is my review for the magnificent superhero epic that is ‘The Dark Knight.’

The Dark Knight is a moral dilemma about two madmen trying to make sense out of their own worlds. One hides his madness with a mask. The other demonstrates it proudly with a crooked smile and a demented laugh. We define one as “good” and the other as “bad”, but really, what’s the real difference between these two? They are both traumatized by tragedies they’ve experienced at very young ages, and one was clearly more devastating than the other. Just switch around Bruce Wayne’s childhood with that of the Joker’s for a second. Is it really that far-fetched to think that they could have grown up to become the other person?

It’s difficult to draw such similar parallels between a film’s protagonist and antagonist, especially in a superhero movie where everything is supposed to be so cut and dry. But Christopher Nolan orchestrates his characters masterfully here in The Dark Knight, a film that feels more like a Shakespearean tragedy than it does as a superhero blockbuster. It isn’t a film that is driven by big-budget fights and special effects, although those technical elements definitely don’t suffer in the movie all the same. This is a movie driven by character’s ambitions, desires, loss, and pain. Rarely does a film reach into such dark depths and have such outstanding payoff.

This movie is, of course, the sequel to Nolan’s highly praised 2005 prequel Batman Begins, which too succeeds in showing Bruce Wayne not as a comic book icon, but as a human being, reliably portrayed by Christian Bale with his own complexions and regrets. The Dark Knight continues Bruce’s story, but takes focus off of Batman and puts a larger focus on Gotham, the city Bruce is sworn to protect. In doing that, Nolan inadvertently creates another character in the Batman story, and you only need to look at its citizens to see what the character is like. It’s manipulative, murderous, deceitful, selfish, and crooked, with the only evidence of decency in only a handful of citizens wanting to do the right thing.

Heath Ledger’s Joker, of course, sees the sick nature of Gotham and imposes his own version of justice upon the city. From a different perspective, could the Joker be considered the hero of the story? Both Batman and the Joker are vigilantes in their own ways. The difference is who they see as the main poison to Gotham.

Like any other superhero, Batman sees the criminals and mob bosses as the biggest culprits to Gotham’s decay. The Joker, however, sees it differently. He sees the city’s politicians, judges, police officers, and commissioners as the real criminals. Technically, neither is wrong. All of these people are responsible for the state that Gotham is in, and Batman and Joker are just picking two different sides to the same coin. Our instinct tells us to root for Batman, mostly because we are the everyday regular citizen he’s fighting to protect. But the Joker has been hurt day-in and day-out by regular citizens. So has Batman. His parents were killed by a citizen of Gotham. The Joker forces citizens to kill each other in The Dark Knight. In witnessing all of this murder and corruption taking place, you can’t help but ask yourself one question: are we even worth saving?

This gloomy idea of morality has been explored by Christopher Nolan before. Indeed, his career has been defined by character’s questioning ethics in 2000’s Memento and 2006’s The Prestige. Look at those films and how eerily similar they are to The Dark Knight. Look at the parallels not just in character and theme, but in tone and aesthetic. Look at how closely they are shot. Look at how tightly the action is edited together, yet coherent enough to understand everything we need to. Look at the character’s conflicts that test them and, in some cases, even break them. Look at their state of mind and security, and how quickly they decay in the midst of crippling loss, paranoia, and distrust.

This is why The Dark Knight is almost universally seen as the best comic book movie of all time: because it is not a comic book movie. Nolan didn’t film it like a comic book movie. He didn’t want to make a comic book movie, or at least, in the conventional sense. Everything involved with this movie, from the writing to the framing to the visual effects to the acting, was constructed with the idea that Nolan and Warner Bros. were making something much more than a comic book movie. They were making a crime film, a psychological drama, and a visual poem in disguise as a superhero blockbuster.

Just to clarify, I’m not knocking the superhero genre. Some of the greatest movies of all time spawned out of that genre, and if done right, it can be the best out of any of the other film genres. Christopher Reeve’s Superman and Superman II humanized a superhero that was anything but human. Spider-Man made an ordinary character extraordinary. X2 embedded a message of prejudice into an action-fueled sci-fi thriller.

Great superhero movies have come before The Dark Knight, and many more will come after. But what makes The Dark Knight unique is not its status as a quote-unquote “superhero” movie. It is its mirroring psychology that makes you question what is truly right or wrong. Superhero movies don’t normally do that. They normally provide our hero and our villain and have them go at each other in fun, comic-booky fashion. But that wasn’t enough for The Dark Knight. It needed to ask why they were going after each other, and what was at stake if they didn’t do so? This is one of the rare action movies that questions if our hero is actually doing the right thing, and if he’s fighting this labeled villainy in the right way.

In these characterizations, the performances are key, and Bale and Ledger alike to brilliant work in not just bringing their characters to life, but their beliefs as well. Ledger has received all the acclaim and the Academy Award for best supporting actor as the Joker, and he’s right to. He’s delivered a downright chilling portrayal of a mentally disturbed madman: a brilliant finish to a long and successful career up until his death in 2008. Yet, I don’t think many people notice Bale’s nuanced performance as a man struggling to know and do the right thing. That’s genuinely a shame, because the movie is a success due to their acting together, not just one performance over the other. Again, they treat their characters not as superheros and supervillains, but as competing complexions, battling each other not for the sake of justice, but for the sake of proving their own personally defined morality. At the end of the day, isn’t the battle of morality more powerful than any physical battle can ever be?

The film builds up to it’s highly-anticipated climax in classic Nolan fashion. The final battle, however, is not between our hero and villain, but instead between the two sides of Gotham. One side has been convicted by the law. The other has been convicted by God. And in their convictions, both sides are forced to make a choice. I won’t spoil what happens, but I will say this: they make the right one.

Batman and Joker are not two different people. They are two sides to the same coin. We too exist on a coin and have the equal potential of being either Batman or the Joker. It’s only a matter of what we choose to be.

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