Tag Archives: Thriller

“A QUIET PLACE” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

SOURCE: Paramount Pictures

Shhhhhhhh.

Eli Roth once said if you don’t want to be scared in a horror movie, you don’t close your eyes; you close your ears. That’s because the scariest things in most movies are often not seen, but rather heard. That’s why we’re terrified of the shadowy corridors when we hear the Xenomorph’s snake-like hiss echoing off of the chambers in Alien. That’s why we shutter at Freddy Kruger when we hear his maniacal laugh and his claws scratching against the walls in Nightmare on Elm Street. And in Jaws, we’re never scared of the monstrous shark chasing Chief Brody and his friends, mostly because we rarely even see the creature. But every time we hear John Williams’ iconic theme building up beneath the water, it never fails to send shivers down our spine.

Environmental sound can often be used to build thrills in most horror pictures effectively. The ingeniousness behind A Quiet Place is that its sound is not an accompaniment to the film’s tension and unease. Instead, it is the film’s tension and unease. Too many times in other horror movies do we hear an orchestra of loud noises, screaming, and stomach-churning sounds as the movie’s victims react helplessly to the on-screen calamities. But in A Quiet Place, the scariest part of it is not the expression of sound: it is the inhibition of it.

Written, directed, and starring John Krasinski, a.k.a. Jim Halpert from “The Office,” A Quiet Place occurs in the not-too-distant future where aliens have taken over the planet and are hunting the remaining humans who have survived. The key to staying alive? Silence. With the aliens being blind, they use their hypersensitive eardrums to listen to any sound and strike their prey where they hear them. With Krasinski on the run with his family (portrayed by his real-life spouse Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, and Noah Jupe), he has to protect his family and find a way to fend off these monsters for good.

One of the immediate things you recognize about A Quiet Place is how expertly Krasinski manipulates sound to pull out the biggest reactions from viewers. In one of the earliest scenes, Krasinski and his family are rummaging around an abandoned convenience store for supplies. Even though we don’t understand the movie’s premise yet, we can read the family’s precise and careful movements and understand that they’re anxious in avoiding something.

The kids are tip-toeing around the aisles like they’re playing hide-and-seek. The mother is carefully picking through pill bottles like she’s trying to avoid the tripwire of a bomb. And when one kid nearly drops a toy onto the floor, the entire family is on-edge and tense from the child’s mishap.

Nothing has even happened yet, but the framing and the movements here are so meticulous that it’s easy to tell that something is wrong with this family. When the full threat is revealed later on and we witness the consequences of noisiness, we understand what’s a stake here and we are concerned about the family’s well-being. From then on, our attention to the film is unwavering and riveting.

This is what makes Krasinski’s work as a director here truly outstanding: he pulls the most significant reactions out of you from the most minuscule implications. Good directors do that, utilizing smaller details to build upon an escalating sense of dread and paranoia. Ben Affleck did that while directing his political thriller Argo in 2012, and Fede Alverez did the same thing in 2016’s Don’t Breathe. Now John Krasinski is following their lead, and he’s pulled off the tension of effect here masterfully.

The key lies in the editing. Not only does film editor Christopher Tellefsen expertly track between all of the different characters perspectives at once, but sound designers Erik Aadahl and Brandon Jones are impeccable with editing and mixing the sound and making it immediately relevant to their viewers. This makes sense, of course, given how much of the film’s premise is based on sound manipulation. Still, I’m impressed with their attention to detail here. Some sound levels, like the rolling of dice on a carpet, are increased to bring attention to the family’s sense of caution, while others like the creatures’ echolocation are brought down to emphasize their limits on tracking prey. One deaf character in the picture even has sound cut entirely during scenes where it’s showing her perspective. Small things like that subtly lend towards the film’s subversion, and the sound team’s work on this film is definitely deserving of an Oscar nomination. If they’re snubbed this year, it will be the first time I will be outraged over a sound category at the Oscars.

A Quiet Place is a masterful exercise in horror cinema, an expert example of subverting the genre and proving that things don’t have to be constantly blowing up to be exciting. In that, I have to give due praise not just to Krasinski, not just to the cast and crew, but to Michael Bay as well (yes, that Michael Bay). His production company Platinum Dunes produced this feature, and I’m grateful that they saw the value in Krasinski’s vision here and was confident enough to bring it to life in the theater. It shows that even Bay understands the value of subtlety and its importance to cinema. Hopefully Bay will take the lessons he learned on this production into the next project that he works on in the near future. Imagine this film if Optimus Prime were in it.

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“THE INCREDIBLE HULK” Review (✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Universal Studios

Hulk smash puny critic! 

Bruce Banner is not a hero. One would be wrong for mistaking him as one. He is not proud or triumphant, he doesn’t wear a cape, and he doesn’t “save the day” as someone like Superman or Batman would. No, Bruce is a timid, shallow, and fearful young fellow, one that grips with a double-persona in him that’s angry, destructive, and vengeful all at once. His story is not one of happiness or hopefulness. It is in essence a tragedy, not unlike that of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, except in this case Mr. Hyde is a giant, green raging monster that says “Hulk smash!” every time he punches something.

In this second go-around at adapting one of comic book’s most recognizable characters, The Incredible Hulk retells Banner’s transformation into Marvel’s not-so-jolly green giant, with Fight Club actor Edward Norton taking the part over from Erica Bana this time around. In this iteration of the Hulk, Bruce is on the run from General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) and the U.S. military, who wants to take Banner’s gamma-radiated blood and weaponize it for their own uses. Desperate for a cure for his angry, green, muscle-infused transformation, Banner enlists in the help of his lover Betty (Liv Tyler) and Dr. Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson) to search for a cure, finally freeing himself from the monster within that is the incredible Hulk.

Since this is the second live-action adaptation of the Hulk in less than five years, it’s only fair to assume the comparison’s viewers are going to make from this version to Ang Lee’s Hulk released in 2003. As this is the case, you should know that I wasn’t a fan of that version. I did like a lot of things about it: the nuanced, quietly disturbed performances of Eric Bana and Nick Nolte, the creative comic book panel-esque transitions between shots, and the exploration of disturbed psychology developed from childhood trauma. There were a lot of creative elements in that film, and Lee deserves credit for at least branching out and trying new things in the superhero genre.

The key issue with that film was the pacing. The run time dragged out grudgingly, many shots didn’t pertain to what was going on in its scenes, and the movie just simply wasn’t fun. It was interesting for sure, but it lacked the suspense and excitement needed for a movie like Hulk to work. Observe, for instance, if Spider-Man or X-Men dragged out at the exasperating pace as Hulk did. Those movies would get boring pretty quickly, wouldn’t they?

I start my review by reliving the previous’ strengths and failures because The Incredible Hulk embodies the exact opposite of those. Hulk was an insightful, if meandering drama that had moments of superhero action in it. The Incredible Hulk is a full-blooded gamma-radiated monster-thriller that enthusiastically smashes through as much property damage as it can cause. It isn’t dramatic, insightful, or even significantly moving, and neither is it required to be. Part of a movie’s success is by playing to its strengths and weaknesses, and The Incredible Hulk demonstrates a sound understanding of both.

The crucial element to this is director Louis Leterrier, who helmed the first two Transporter movies before The Incredible Hulk. Framing it as an homage to the Bill Bixby 1978 television series, Leterrier plays the film’s elements to his advantage, pulling out thrills and excitement in the slightest of methods. Take, for instance, an early chase scene involving Banner, Ross, and a squad of military soldiers. Despite how it’s essentially another generic movie chase, the sequence was surprisingly thrilling, and that’s because of all of the elements in play here. The editing from Apocalypto’s John Wright was quick-paced and attentive, cutting briskly between each character’s perspective while at the same time not losing focus on the action. The music by Craig Armstrong is suspenseful and riveting, building up to a thematic opera that evokes the same sensation of those classic 1980’s monster movies. And the cinematography by Peter Menzies Jr. perfectly captures Bruce’s paranoia in this scene, with his biggest concern being not evading the soldiers or getting out unscathed, but rather not becoming so tense to the point where he transforms and causes harm to the people around him.

Leterrier uses these elements to turn seemingly simple moments into extraordinary ones, heightening tension and escalating excitement. Imagine what happens when Bruce breaks out into anger and goes Hulk destructive on everything in his path? While the smaller moments work surprisingly well, the film’s real value comes in its visual spectacle, where Hulk rams into soldiers, lifts and crushes cars, leaps and climbs tall structures, roars like a wild animal, and angrily smashes into as many objects as he can. In most action movies, the protagonist is usually in the more vulnerable position and has to face impossible odds stacked against him. I find it interesting that in this context the role is reversed and that Hulk’s enemies are the ones at a disadvantage against this giant, ruthless behemoth. It develops an interesting catharsis for the character, or at least, as much as it can possess in the midst of mindless superhero monster action violence.

The performances, while serviceable, are nothing spectacular enough to be memorable. The story is uninspired and feels stock compared to other action thrillers (seriously, read the script and tell me how much it reminds you of Jason Bourne). And while the final fight in the movie is climactic and exciting, the movie’s villain is just a mirror match to the Hulk and has no personal investment beyond that.

Still, how much you end up liking The Incredible Hulk depends on what you’re looking for in a Hulk movie to begin with. For me, I’m looking for action, and lots of it. The Incredible Hulk has that in spades. While not narratively impressive, The Incredible Hulk has enough dynamic action, awe-inspiring spectacle, and reckless destruction that makes you root for the big, angry green giant regardless. At the very least, let’s agree that this version of the Hulk is better than Ang Lee’s variation. I reiterate: the catchphrase is “Hulk Smash,” not “Hulk Talk You To Death.”

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“DEEPWATER HORIZON” Review (✫✫✫✫)


Unexpected emergencies. Unexpected heroes.

The first thing that surprised me about Deepwater Horizon was realizing that it was rated PG-13. The violence in this movie is graphic and vivid, with its source material translating so well to the big screen that I question how different it really is from its actual events. Through every explosion, every flame set ablaze, every bone that is crushed, and every life that is taken, this is a film that seeks to honor its real-life subjects by showing us exactly what they went through. It is not for the average viewer, and it is definitely not for children. I would say younger than 17 is pushing it. 

In this adaptation of the 2010 BP oil spill directed by Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, Lone Survivor), Deepwater Horizon follows the oil-drilling crew in their final hours before the notable disaster. Mark Wahlberg plays Mike Williams, who has a family waiting for him at home. Gina Rodriguez plays Andrea, who has her boyfriend and a broken mustang back at shore. Kurt Russell is the hardened captain of the crew Jimmy Harrell. Dylan O’Brien plays Caleb, an oil driller who’s just trying to do his best job on-site. And then there’s John Malkovich, who plays the asshole that got everyone into this mess. 

The standout element of this picture, by far, is Berg’s treatment on this delicate topic. You might remember that I wasn’t very fond of his last film Lone Survivor, which I found to be too generic and predictable to do its source material justice. Here though, there’s nothing generic or predictable, not even in the opening shots. During an early breakfast conversation between Mike and his daughter, she innocently described to him her classroom speech about his job, explaining how her daddy “fights the dinosaurs” underneath the earth. While serving as sweet softener dialogue between these characters, it also doubles as exposition about his job, how he does it, what they do on a day-to-day basis, and what perils come with the occupation.

As she’s speaking, the coke she’s using to demonstrate suddenly bursts and floods the whole table. I’m thinking what would have happened if that coke was a few thousand feet bigger and was carrying oil instead of soda. 

This much is how Berg improves upon his technique from Lone Survivor to Deepwater Horizon. In Lone Survivor, our heroes were thrown into grisly escapades of war violence, with nothing building up beforehand to help us connect with these characters. Here, Berg connects us to the crewmembers’ humanity before ominously foreshadowing to their dreary fate. These are not normal movie characters. These are fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters, all of whom are real people outside of the movie theater. They all have someone waiting for them at home, wrecked and nervous for their safety and survival. For the most part in war movies, our heroes more or less made the conscious decision to go fight for their country, regardless of who was waiting for them at home.

Deepwater Horizon’s heroes are different. None of these characters made the conscious decision to plant themselves square in the middle of danger. Nobody in the film was expecting the disaster to occur when it did or with how greatly it devastated them. This is a disaster picture first and foremost, and you’re frantically navigating the action with the film’s survivors as they look for a way past the spewing oil, the collapsing metal frames, the wild fires, and the empty sea gallows looming beneath them. This is a movie that completely understands what the real-life crewmembers were up against, and they bring you every detail of that disaster with nerve-wrecking alertness and urgency.

I have no qualms for this movie. At least, nothing that I can fairly hold against it. If you wanted to be picky, I suppose you could say that the editing was choppy and sometimes made the action hard to follow. But when you see the events unfold on screen, when the metal frames tip over and the rig catches on fire, you’re very quick to forgive the film for its tightly-edited action. After all, Deepwater’s residents barely had any time to process everything themselves. Why should we?

This is a masterful picture, guided delicately through its facts and events with its survivors and victims in mind. In its simplest state, Deepwater Horizon is a unique and riveting action film that perfectly captures the details of its real-life disaster. Through a more complex scope, it is a celebration of life, a commemoration for bravery, and a quiet mourning for the lives lost. 

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“SNOWDEN” Review (✫✫✫)


The persecution of the American dream. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“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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“THE CONJURING” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

Be afraid of what you can’t see.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“THE NICE GUYS” Review (✫✫)

Not so nice. 

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

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

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

Holly: Dad, there are whores here and stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

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“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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