Tag Archives: Sequel

“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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“X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” Review (✫✫1/2)

En Sabah No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“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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“IRON MAN 2” Review (✫✫✫)

Literally, two Iron Men.

Let me stop your expectations right there. Iron Man 2 is not as good as Iron Man. It just isn’t. Granted, making anything better than Iron Man is damn near impossible. I think the only recent movie that can compete is The Dark Knight, albeit for very different reasons.

All the same, just because Iron Man 2 is not as good as Iron Man doesn’t mean it isn’t good at all. It just depends on what you’re looking for when you enter the theater, and what expectations you’re having that would affect your view of the picture.

I myself went in expecting a subpar sequel to Iron Man. I got just that. But just because it is subpar doesn’t mean it isn’t fun, and believe me: Iron Man 2 is all sorts of fun. Whether it’s in the action, the comedy, or in the performances, I was never bored, and I quite enjoyed seeing Robert Downey Jr. suit up a second time in the suit, even if it was less meaningful this time around.

Iron Man 2 picks up right after the events of the first Iron Man, where Tony went into a press conference and stupidly told everyone that he was Iron Man. I banged my head into my seat multiple times when that happened in Iron Man, and I repeated this action when Tony dropped out of a helicopter, flied around next to fireworks, and landed in a convention center, only to unmask himself in front of thousands of fans at the beginning of Iron Man 2.

I have one word for a person that would act like this in real life. The first half of that word rhymes with bass. The other half is hole.

This time around, Tony is pitted up against not one, but TWO bad guys. The first is Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian technician who holds a deep resentment against Tony considering his family’s history with the Starks. The other is Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), a wickedly genius business man who has all of Tony’s ego, but none of his charm. These two together make a terrible team that Tony needs to take down alongside his friend James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle), who suits up next to Tony as the War Machine.

…you get it? Iron Man 2? Two Iron Men? Ha ha ha.

The best thing about Iron Man 2 is also the best thing from the first Iron Man. Robert Downey Jr. once again proves how great of an actor he is both inside and outside the Iron Man armor. At this point, he is Tony Stark. It doesn’t even seem like he’s putting on a performance anymore. He’s inhabiting the character so naturally that he feels like he’s reacting more than he is acting. His mannerisms and expressions are on point, his line delivery acute, and his comedic timing perfect. Downey Jr. never falters in the film. Not even once.

And the action scenes are just as strong as they were in the first film. Well, maybe not as well. The first movie, after all, did have Tony fighting terrorists and war mongers, and carried more weight to it as it appealed more to reality than it did to fantasy.

Still, the action is fun and fast-paced. My particular favorite moment was when Tony and Rhodey team up to take on an army of Iron Man armor copycats. This scene was exciting to watch because really, this is the first time we see Tony facing a large-scale threat that aren’t fragile human beings. It was exciting and interesting to see Tony and Rhodey fighting with larger stakes in the midst. It shows that the Marvel universe knows how to grow and build upon its original elements.

So Downey Jr., the comedy, and the action is retained from the first movie. What isn’t? Well, for one thing, the tone is off. Iron Man 2 is more silly and less serious, and while it does make for a fun movie, it also makes for a less meaningful one. The movie has this strange sub-plot involving Tony’s mortality and his complicated history with his father. These are serious subjects that should have a lot of gravitas and weight to it, yet it feels removed and out of place here. We don’t care about Tony personally like we did in Iron Man. We just like watching him suit up and shooting snarky quips at his supporting cast.

I wonder, where exactly did director Jon Favreau go wrong? I think his mistake was focusing more on the plot and less on the character. The first Iron Man was a great character study, as well as an exciting action movie. That was due in part both to Robert Downey Jr.’s personification and Favreau’s understanding of the character. Then Iron Man struck a chord and was suddenly universally praised from both critics and fans alike. How on Earth was Favreau going to top that?

I think that, in the midst of production stress and unrealistic expectations, Favreau panicked and tried to force a story onto the character, rather than allowing the character to create the story himself. This is a movie that knows the notes, but it doesn’t know how to play them. It’s more interested in setup rather than payoff, and you can see that with all of the Easter eggs stuffed in the film, but with all of the underdeveloped characters in there as well.

Overall, I enjoyed Iron Man 2 and I had fun with it, but it was not as worthwhile an experience as Iron Man was. Isn’t that to be expected though? Sequels are a dominant force in today’s industry, and most of them are not only disappointment to their predecessors, but are just bad movies overall. Be grateful that we’ve got a few laughs and thrills and can enjoy Iron Man 2 for what it is.

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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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“10 CLOVERFIELD LANE” Review (✫✫✫)

You’re not safe inside. You’re not safe outside either.

Whether you love him or hate him, you gotta admit one thing about J.J. Abrams: he knows how to sell a film.

Take 10 Cloverfield Lane as a testament to his skill. When the trailer dropped out of nowhere back in January, nobody knew anything about the plot, characters, or premise of this movie. That’s rare in today’s industry, especially with all of the casting and production announcements circulating daily on today’s news platforms. The fact that 10 Cloverfield Lane’s producers, director, writers, and actors were able to keep it a secret up until now is genuinely surprising, and I think it will pay off for them. It’s built up anticipation for the movie in ways no major blockbuster can do, and it will equally fulfill it’s audience in ways only this movie can supply.

In their excitement, some fans speculated that this movie is a sequel to Cloverfield, a risky yet innovative 2008 monster thriller also produced by Abrams. You would be wrong. 10 Cloverfield Lane is about as related to Cloverfield as Star Wars is related to Star Trek. Same genre, different execution. Much different.

This time around, 10 Cloverfield Lane ditches the nauseating shaky cam from Cloverfield and chooses instead to focus on a few survivors in a bomb shelter as opposed to a collapsing New York City. These survivors consist of Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), and Howard (John Goodman), the last of whom built the shelter in the first place. These three are forced into the shelter after a chemical attack cripples the U.S..

Or so Michelle is told.

Before coming to the shelter, Michelle got into a devastating car crash that left her injured and unconscious. She wakes up chained to a small bed on the floor next to Howard, who doesn’t quite seem all there if you know what I mean. Michelle is left with a difficult decision. Does she choose to trust her instincts, or this man that’s telling her that the world has ended?

The special thing about 10 Cloverfield Lane is that it focuses on its setting and performances to provide suspense instead of an overflow of visual effects. This is not an aesthetic Abrams is unfamiliar with. Ever since producing Cloverfield, he’s mostly understood that it is not spectacle that provides thrills, but rather, perspective. And whether it’s through the eyes of a producer, or through the lense of directing Mission Impossible III or Super 8, he’s always been a filmmaker that’s understood the value of perspective.

Take, for instance, Michelle’s perspective in the movie. Through her eyes, she’s just a prisoner who woke up in someone’s basement chained up to a mattress on the floor. The man who says he saved her life isn’t entirely a friendly guy. He’s old, unsettling, awkward, unreasonable, and demanding, running his bomb shelter like a warden runs a prison. Michelle is understandably terrified with him, but then she’s told that there’s been an attack on the world outside. Now what do you do? Do you try to escape and possibly face death, or do you believe this stranger and confide in the safety of his shelter?

Such psychological dilemmas is what compels the film forward, and director Dan Trachtenberg handles this cast skillfully in the small space that they are confined in. Winstead and Goodman bounce off of each other perfectly in the film, like a cat and mouse locked together in the same cage. Winstead, who’s played the survivors role in quite a few films (Live Free Or Die Hard, The Thing prequel), displays her trauma and distress here effectively without overacting or reaching for an emotion. Goodman is just downright chilling. He’s a man who seems like he has good intentions, but has a dark side to him that he demonstrates with disturbing normalcy. Their dynamic together felt eerily resemblant of Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter from 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, which also featured a chilling relationship formed more out of necessity rather than comfort.

All of this builds to a well-paced, tense, and uncomfortable film driven almost entirely through performance, which is a very special thing in today’s industry. My biggest regret is that given the talent and the uniqueness involved with this production, it has to undercut its own success by throwing a CGI action spectacle in the third act of the film. While I won’t spoil it by saying what exactly happens, I will say it’s a severe shift in genre by the time the third act rolls around. We go from a tensely-wrought suspense-thriller to what is typically considered a Hollywood blockbuster. In making that transition, the film loses a part of its spirit and what makes it special from other thriller films.

“But it’s science-fiction,” you might argue with me. Yes, but did it need to be? Damien Chazelle made an incredible, heart-racing thriller in 2014’s Whiplash, and that was a film about the sharp rivalry of two passion-fueled musicians. Chazelle also worked on the script for 10 Cloverfield Lane, and I’m convinced that Howard’s uneasy presence originated from Chazelle’s ideas. The studio should have followed in his lead. The creepiest scenes in this movie remains to be from the tension between the characters and for what they can or can’t do to each other: not some supernatural force that threatens these people from outside the shelter. A quick rewrite of the ending and a few reshoots could have shifted this picture from a good movie to a great one.

All in all, 10 Cloverfield Lane is an effectively creepy film that you just wish would follow through on its intentions. The movie draws a line between fearing what is reality and what is fiction, and at looking at that line, isn’t it reality that seems more scary to us? That’s the thought that stuck with me when I left the theater. Well, bomb shelter.

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“STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS” Review (✫✫✫✫)

J.J. Abrams: the spiritual successor to George Lucas.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a sheer blast of nostalgia, meaningful and joyous from it’s opening scroll credits to when John William’s score crescendos in the last shot. We’ve seen an updated Star Wars for a modern audience before, and that was in the lopsided and disappointing prequel trilogy. Now we have The Force Awakens, and it’s so good that it’s eligible to compete with the original.

It’s 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi. A new sith named Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has arisen and is bent on taking over the galaxy. His pursuits lead him towards a troup of misfits who have become acquainted almost by sheer chance. A scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) lived on the desolate planet of Jakku before she got entangled into this conflict. Finn (John Boyega) was a Stormtrooper who defected for reasons unbeknown to us. BB-8 is a spherical droid who wants to get away from Kylo Ren for reasons also unknown. What is known is that these three figures have something that Kylo Ren wants, and he won’t stop at nothing until he has fulfilled his destiny.

It’s hard to talk about this movie without giving away any spoilers. One thing I will say without giving too much away is that the story is exemplary, and is reminiscent of the adventure and intrigue that made Star Wars iconic in the first place. The screenplay, written by Toy Story 3 scribe Michael Ardnt and polished up by Star Trek director J.J. Abrams and The Empire Strikes Back writer Lawrence Kasdan, is an active synergy of the old and new, incorporating elements that we are familiar with while at the same time introducing original content all their own. This is not just a strong Star Wars story. It’s a strong story, period.

For me, that was my biggest concern going into the theater, and the biggest relief coming out of it. This was the first Star Wars movie where its key subjects would not be featured. Yes, we have references to the older films, but we don’t have Darth Vader. We don’t have Yoda. We don’t have Obi-Wan. We don’t have any of the key figures that linked the whole series together, minus R2 and C-3PO. How would the movie hold up on its own?

Very well, as it turns out, and the new cast members do a great job servicing their roles and making them memorable on their own. Driver is menacing and malicious as Kylo Ren, an egotistical and maniacal presence that reflects both the chilling imposition of Darth Vader and the deepening paranoia of Episode III’s Anakin Skywalker. Boyega is both humorous and likable as Finn, a reformed spirit who is just trying to find new meaning and purpose in his life. Out of the entire cast, however, I am most impressed with newcomer Daisy Ridley. This is the first time she has acted in a feature film, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell that based off of her performance. She is both heartbreaking and intriguing as Rey, equal parts fascinating, sympathetic, and compelling as this character whom is a complete mystery to us. Even by the end of the film, we still don’t understand everything about her, and that’s the point. We’re not supposed to understand her history; we’re supposed to understand her. Ridley did an amazing job at bringing this character to life, and out of anyone else from the cast, she made me most excited for her journey in the future installments.

Do I need to go into the film’s visual and sound effects? They were the groundbreaking features of the very first movies, and they’re stronger than ever in this motion picture. Part of that is because Abrams takes a note out of George Lucas’ old playbook, reverting to practical effects and detailed costuming to bring authenticity to this universe. He still uses CGI, but he doesn’t rely on it. He only uses it when he absolutely has to, when X-wings are firing at TIE Fighters or when lightsabers are clashing against each other. Everything else is created through elaborate art direction and set design, while the CGI is used to compliment the visuals rather than serve as them. The result is the most visually authentic out of any of the films yet.

I have one gripe, and one gripe alone, and that is that there are plot elements that eerily mimic the storyline of one of the original films. I won’t spoil it by saying which one. I will say that even in the face of that criticism, The Force Awakens still manages to make itself unique and special in a series that is already unique and special by itself. We said goodbye to this universe a long time ago. Rejoice as we are once again reunited with the galaxy from far, far away.

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