Tag Archives: Psychological

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

Yousa in big doo-doo dis time.

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

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

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

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

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 These characters are so bland, dull, and uninteresting that they could have all been replaced by droids and we wouldn’t have noticed the difference.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“SNOWDEN” Review (✫✫✫)


The persecution of the American dream. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hell in half a day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“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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“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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“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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