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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – Review

We come to the end of the road now.  Back in 1977, when George Lucas was completing his big gamble on a throwback to the old sci-fi serials of his youth, I’m sure that he never thought for once that his film would spark an ongoing story that has lasted over 40 years now.  He just wanted to make the kind of movie that he wanted to see on the big screen, and boy did it succeed.  I’m sure he had visions of a grander narrative, which he would later draw upon in future films, but if it was his one and only shot, he certainly made the most of it.  By the time his original trilogy capper, Return of the Jedi (1983), released into theaters, Lucas had already changed cinema forever.  Star Wars was such a monumental thing for the culture that it almost became more than a movie franchise; it became something of a religion.  Taking fandom to newer heights than ever before, Star Wars has been almost inescapable in our culture for the last 42 years.  And with that high level of fandom, you also have high standards that come with it.  George Lucas learned that the hard way when he returned to the franchise with a prequel trilogy at the turn of the century.  While the movies do have their defenders, the response to his new trilogy was decidedly negative, and that’s probably because the bar had been set too high by the original trilogy.  Though Lucas was still telling the story that he had imagined, audiences were expecting something very different; something more adventurous and less introspective.  Despite the mixed results, Lucas was content where he left the story.  Cut to 2012 and the shocking news broke that Lucas had sold off the rights to his empire to the Walt Disney Company for a whopping $4 billion.  And the even more amazing news came soon after that Disney hadn’t just bought Lucasfilm in order to play stewards to the already existing films.  They were going t carry the story even further than Lucas had gone before with a whole new trilogy, plus many more spinoffs.

Thus, we got a new trilogy that extends the story past the original six episodes made by George Lucas.  The entire enterprise launched with Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens in 2015.  Under the direction of J.J. Abrams, Awakens hit exactly the right notes for audiences; appealing to that sweet nostalgia spot in every fans heart while at the same time hinting at even bigger things to come.  It rode that goodwill to record breaking box office, with a domestic haul that still is unbeaten today; even bigger than worldwide champ Avengers: Endgame (2019).  That impressive debut even extended into the following year, carrying the spinoff film Rogue One (2016) to an impressive box office tally.  But things went differently with the film that came next.  The second film in the trilogy, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017) would turn out to be the most divisive movie in the series since the prequels.  Director and Writer Rian Johnson created a Star Wars movie that challenged many tropes and undercut all the expected plot threads that had been set up in the more nostalgia heavy Force Awakens.  To some fans, this was a welcome change, because it showed that Disney and Lucasfilm were willing to shake things up in order take Star Wars in a variety of different directions.  But, for a lot of fans, they viewed this as a betrayal, and were extremely vocal about their displeasure.  The Last Jedi unfortunately exposed a toxic element that existed within the Star Wars fandom, with some people going as far as to harass members of the cast and crew of the film, which caused some of them to leave social media all together.  As it stands, Star Wars fandom is at it’s most fracutured point, with people either loving or hating the direction that the series has gone in; with little room in between.  That is the environment that Star Wars now finds itself in as it concludes this new, sequel trilogy with what is supposed to be the final chapter in the “Skywalker Saga.”  Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker has a lot of weight on it’s shoulders, having to wrap up this long running series while at the same time dealing with a fan base that is in a broken state.  Is it the new hope that can bring balance to the force, or will it only divide the worlds even further apart?

The Rise of Skywalker jumps ahead from the events of The Last Jedi.  The rebel alliance is on it’s last legs after their last stand against the First Order.  But into the fray comes an even more sinister force.  A mysterious message is sent out into the galaxy by the long thought dead Emporer Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid).  First Order Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who sees Palpatine as a threat to his control of power, hunts down the Emporer’s location.  It soon brings him to a hidden home planet of the Sith order named Exogol, where he learns that Palpatine has been quietly building up his forces over the last several decades; creating a Star Destroyer fleet with the same power of a thousand Death Stars.  Palpatine extends his assistance to the Ren and the First Order under the single condition, that they bring the girl Rey (Daisy Ridley) to him.  Meanwhile, on a new Rebel base, Rey continues her Jedi training under the guidance of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher).  Despite her best efforts, Rey still struggles to overcome her doubts, and the link between her and Kylo Ren still remains, with him still appealing for her to join the dark side.  At the same time, the rebel forces have received information from a spy within the First Order of the deal that has been struck with Palpatine, delivered to them by Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega).  With Rey’s help, informed by her readings from the Jedi texts, they learn of a possible way to reach the hidden world of Exogol, using what is called a Sith Wayfinder.  Joined by C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), Rey, Poe and Finn take the Millennium Falcon to a variety of new worlds in search of the Wayfinder.  Along the way they receive help from new allies, including an old flame of Poe’s, Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), and the always resourceful Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams).  All the while, Ren continues to challenge Rey, pushing her to confront elements of her past that she wishes to forget, especially the ones that make her doubt who she really is.  The only question remains, can Rey find the power within herself to comabt Ren’s temptations and face Palpatine head on in order to save the Rebels and the galaxy as a whole?

In many ways, I have to respect the filmmakers and cast for undertaking the enormous burden that this movie must have been.  Facing more scrutiny than any other Star Wars production before, this movie not only had to smooth over the rift that was created by The Last Jedi, but it also has to function as both an ending for not just this new trilogy, but the entire nine movie arc that has been dubbed the Skywalker Saga; which by the way extends back 42 years now.  That is a lot of pressure no matter who you are.  The duties of this undertaking were originally going to go to director Colin Treverrow, who successfully relaunched the Jurassic Park franchise with Jurassic World (2015).  However, creative differences led to his removal from the project, which led to J. J. Abrams returning to the directors chair.  And it’s that shake-up behind the scenes that more than likely affected the outcome of this film.  The Rise of Skywalker could not have been produced at a worse time for Lucasfilm.  With The Last Jedi dividing audiences as much as it did, and the spinoff film Solo (2018) underperforming at the box office under that same cloud, it suddenly led to a lot of second guessing at Lucasfilm and parent company Disney.  Projects in the pipeline were put on hold, creative teams like Lord & Miller and Benioff & Weiss were let go, and a complete shift in priorities began to take place.  And all of that chaos is apparent in the final result of The Rise of Skywalker.  It is by far the messiest and least focused film in the new trilogy, which sadly makes it the least effective film as well.  I should note though, it’s not a terrible movie; just a disappointing one.  For a movie like this to cross into the bad movie territory, it has to completely underwhelm and feel like an insult to the audience’s sensibilities.  That’s why I have far more disdain for a movie like the recent Lion King remake, because that movie was purely just a copy and paste effort.  With Rise of Skywalker, even though there are a lot of problems with it and plenty of questionable choices, I still see the effort that was put into it by the cast and crew, which at least makes it occasionally work in spite of itself.

So, what exactly is the problem with the movie.  Well, it’s clear from the get go that the shuffling around of creative forces behind the scenes led to a story that doesn’t make much sense.  With a screenplay by Abrams and Oscar winner Chris Terrio (Argo), the movie almost feels like a course correction after The Last Jedi.  And sadly, that heel turn makes the entire trilogy look like it was made without a clear vision.  It’s a trilogy at odds with itself, and it unfortunately undermines the narrative arcs that the different characters have been going through.  Not only that, but The Rise of Skywalker leaves absolutely no time to settle itself into a cohesive whole.  It moves at a break neck speed, fitting in a trilogy’s worth of story into a short 2 1/2 hour runtime.  This is unfortunate for a trilogy that up to now was very well paced and character driven.  This is one of the rare cases where a longer, three hour run time might have given the movie a better chance.  Instead, we get force fed (no pun intended) this story, which feels very un-Star Wars.  The most glaring example of this is the way that it introduces Emporer Palpatine into the narrative.  There is no mystery shrouding his existence; no explanation given as to how he managed to survive his fate at the end of Return of the Jedi.  He’s just there now, and we have to swallow that information immediately.  It not only robs any amount of impact his character might have had on the story, but it also undermines the threat that has been built up in the previous two films with Kylo Ren and the First Order.  I am also disappointed that the movie almost seems like a dismissal of the story ideas brought forth by The Last Jedi, almost like it’s a concession to all those toxic fans that threw a tantrum because of that last movie.  I for one loved the chances that The Last Jedi took, and the fact that Rise of Skywalker just retcons it all, especially with character development, just feels insulting to all of us who passionately defended those changes.  There’s no hard lessons learned, no surprising paths take; this movie is just the parent giving the child a toy in order to make them stop crying, no matter how undeserved it is.

Now, despite my issues that I’ve stated above, I didn’t hate Rise of Skywalker; nor did I really dislike it.  I would gladly take this film over the prequel trilogy any day, with maybe the exception of the last half of Revenge of the Sith (2005).  One thing this movie definitely has over the prequels is that the performances are still top notch.  Daisy Ridley in particular owns this movie, giving Rey the right amount of complexity to see her arc through to the end.  Though there are some questionable choices made about the direction of her character throughout the movie, Ridley never lets us down in her performance and she greatly helps to carry the movie on her shoulders.  I love the fact that she has become a role model to many young fans of Star Wars, and thankfully nothing in this movie will change people’s view of her character.  She remains a badass right to the end.  The same complexity also is thankfully maintained with Kylo Ren.  Adam Driver’s performance may even be the best throughout the entire trilogy, and he thankfully also remains consistent here.  Even as his character arc takes some turns, it still is believably reached and that is all thanks to the actor.  I selected both Rey and Kylo Ren as two of the best Heroes and Villains in my decade top ten lists here and here,  and nothing in this movie diminishes that.  Unfortunately, the rest of the cast gets sidelined for most of the movie, including Poe and Finn, who are reduced to tag alongs for Rey.  One thing I do give the movie praise for is how well they dealt with closure for Leia.  With Carrie Fisher’s all too sudden passing in 2016, the movie was left without a key player in it’s final chapter, as The Last Jedi surprisingly left her alive in the end.  Utilizing unused footage of Fisher from The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams remarkably fits Leia into this story in a way that feels organic and respectful, giving this very important character a graceful sendoff that she absolutely deserves.  And even though he is awkwardly shoehorned into this trilogy, Ian McDiarmid does still own every scene he’s in, adequately chewing the scenary as he’s done many times before in this series, going all the way back to Jedi.  So, even with the story’s shortcomings, the cast in this film is by no means slouching it in their final go around in this series.

The movie, while not as eye-catching as the beautifully shot  The Last Jedi, still has moments of visual splendor.  There are plenty of breath-taking shots that still give the movie that epic grandeur that the series is known for.  Even something that feels very out of place, like the Sith Temple on Exogol, which has this H. R. Geiger influnence to it, still manages to stick distinctly in your mind.  I appreciate the fact that Disney’s Star Wars movies don’t just try to reuse the same planets over and over again, which the prequels did a lot.  They really want to show the expanse of the galaxy, and give us new worlds with every film.  There are some annoying echoes of the past (seriously, another desert planet), but the movie does go out of it’s way to show you things that you’ve never seen before in a Star Wars movie.  Even returning to a familiar location like the Death Star keeps to this philosophy, because here we see the once mighty war machine in complete ruin, decaying against the mighty ocean waves like an astonomically enormous ship wreck.  The movie is visually on par with it’s predecessors, but it again is undermined by the lack of focus in the story.  Not enough time is ever devoted to fully exploring these places.  I should also point out the very important factor of John Williams, who is scoring a Star Wars film for what is likely the very last time.  It’s an impressive achievement that the legendary composer was able to score 9 different films over 42 years, helping to maintain a continuity throughout.  Though his work here may not be the most memorable of the series, it still feels great to hear new soundscapes still come from the man who gave Star Wars it’s original epic grandiosity.  He’s really the main reason why we call Star Wars a space opera, because of the operatic quality of his music.  It’s also why even when elements of this movie disappoint on a story level, it makes it hard to say you hate the movie, because there is still a lot to love on a technical standpoint.

This year in particular was going to be a standout one for Star Wars, which is really saying something.  Not only did we get the conclusion to this trilogy, but Disney launched it’s largest theme park expansion ever with a new Star Wars based land called Galaxy’s Edge, which despite some naysayers on the internet, has been glowingly received by visitors from across the world.  In addtion, Disney lanched their much anticipated streaming platform Disney+, with the Star Wars branded series The Mandalorian as a day one launch title, which has gone on to become an instant hit with fans across the Star Wars spectrum.  So, it’s just so disappointing that Rise of Skywalker ends up being so divisive at a time when it looked like the fandom was finally starting to heal and come back together.  The Rise of Skywalker is not the worst Star Wars movie ever made, but it certainly is the most problematic.  It just seems like the movie was rushed through, without much thought into how it should tie up all the loose ends of the series we’ve been following along with for so long.  At the point where Disney and Lucasfilm saw issues beginning to form during the making of this movie, and with their long term plans as a whole, they should have stepped things back and perhaps delay The Rise of Skywalker for maybe a year in order to smooth things out.  But, sadly, it was full steam ahead and nothing was going to deter them from that deadline, and it unfortunately made the movie suffer as a result.  Though far from the worst Star Wars movie, it is by far the least successful finale to any of the trilogies.  Revenge of the Sith fixed many of the problems of it’s predecessors, and though Return of the Jedi was a disappointment in comparsion to A New Hope (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980), it still managed to maintain that high quality level of storytelling; especially in those moments with Luke, Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. For The Rise of Skywalker, everything is just a mixed bag. Initially when I left the theater, I came away with some positive feeling. There are certainly moments in the movie that made me genuinely happy. But the further away from it I get, the more the flaws become more apparent. So, my feelings on the movie are not anger or disgust. The movie is not a disaster; just a disappointment. There could have been so much more to this ending than what we got, especially given the enormous legacy behind it. Instead, we get something of a compromise, and that in of itself is a disappointment. Even still, I’m thankful for the journey it took us on, and my hope is that Star Wars leaves this saga behind and truly expands out into the far reaches of the galaxy; perhaps fulfilling its real potential. Sad to see the Skywalker saga end in the way it did, but it was a fun ride nonetheless. May the Force be with it.

Rating: 7/10

Frozen II – Review

It’s interesting to think what this era in Disney Animation will be called.  Disney’s Golden Age is often what they called the post-WWII years of the 1950’s, when the Disney company enjoyed a string of hits that included Cinderella (1950), Peter Pan (1953) and Sleeping Beauty (1959).  Then came the Renaissance, which was heralded by release of The Little Mermaid (1989), and continued on with Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994).  But what all these key eras for Disney have in common is that they all came after years of both creative and economic downturns.  That’s been Disney’s key characteristic through the years, which is their resiliency, as they seem to always find a way to put themselves back on top no matter what the storm.  Disney Animation during the 2000’s is a period of time that could be described as transitional.  After the heyday of the Renaissance, Disney’s traditional animation style was just not carrying it’s weight like it used to, which was mainly due to the rise of computer animation from their soon to be sister company, Pixar.  As CGI rose, hand drawn animation fell, and Disney’s in house studio was just able to compete.  The box office failure of costly films like Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) and Treasure Planet (2002) only hastened the decline, and after the rather mediocre premiere of the last hand drawn film in the pipeline, 2004’s Home on the Range, Disney decided to adjust to the times and end their traditional animation studio for good.  One last attempt was made to bring it back with 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, despite decent box office, it still wasn’t enough to move the needle back.  Disney still struggled at first to meet the challenge of this new CGI animated world, with forgettable films like Chicken Little (2005) and Bolt (2008) doing little to boost their stock, but two back to back successes with Tangled (2010) and Wreck-It Ralph (2012) helped to shape things for the better.  And then came the movie that changed everything and pushed Disney back on top.

Frozen (2013) was undoubtedly a phenomenon the likes that Disney hadn’t seen since The Lion King nearly 20 years prior.  Bolstered no doubt by it’s wintery setting coinciding with a holiday season release, Frozen would continue to remain atop the box office all the way into the new year, even against heavy competition like The Hobbit.  In the end, it became the highest grossing animated film of all time worldwide, as well as the first animated film to enter the billion dollar club.  But, it wasn’t the seasonal aspect itself that made the movie a hit.  Loosely based on the Hans Christen Andersen fairy tale, The Snow Queen, Frozen marked a triumphant return for Disney to the genre that had originally put them on the map.  The central characters of Anna and Elsa were immediately catapulted into the pantheon of popular Disney Princesses, and their story of unbroken sisterhood was embraced by audiences of all ages.  The same goes for all the characters as well, with the magical snowman Olaf becoming a particular favorite for small children.  And then of course there was the songs.  Written by the husband and wife duo of Robert and Kristen Lopez of Broadway fame (Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon), the songs from Frozen became instant standards, and were sung by nearly everyone and everywhere.  Even Ryan Reynolds sang a bit of “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” in Deadpool 2 (2018).  And of course there was “Let it Go,” which became one of the most omnipresent songs in recent memory.  With the success that Disney enjoyed from the release of Frozen, they managed to bring their studio back to dominance, with subsequent hits like Zootopia (2016) and Moana (2016) standing strong on it’s shoulders.  So, it makes sense that Disney would fast track a sequel to their biggest hit in decades.  Frozen II arrives this week 6 years after the original and the question remains can it recapture the magic that helped to make the original a huge success, or are we starting to see the ice begin to thaw?

Frozen II picks up not long after the events of the first movie.  Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Princess Anna (Kristen Bell) have reestablished their long dormant kingdom into a open society, and prosperity has flourished once again.  But, Elsa has been disturbed by a siren call that only she can hear and she wishes to find out where it is coming from.  She believes that it has a connection to the lullaby that her mother, Queen Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood), had sung to her and her sister before she was gone.  The lullaby spoke of an Enchanted Forest beyond the borders of their kingdom, Arendelle, and a mysterious ancient river in the far North.  Accompanied by Anna’s boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his loyal reindeer Sven, and magical snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), the sisters head north to find answers.  Once at the border, they find the Enchanted Forest blocked off by an impenetrable wall of mist.  Elsa’s snow and frost powers enable them entry past the mist wall, but leaves them no way out.  Once inside the forest, they are besieged by elemental spirits of wind, fire, earth and water, which Elsa somehow manages to tame.  This gets the attention of Northuldra tribe people, who have been stuck within the forest since the they fought against the kingdom of Arendelle, along with soldiers of the Arendellian army, led by Captain Mattias (Sterling K. Brown).  Elsa, in an attempt to broker peace between their lands, resolves to find answers and a way to break the curse that has closed of the forest from the world.  Meanwhile, Kristoff hopes to find the right time to pop the question to Anna, who is increasingly distracted with having to keep her sister safe.  But, eventually, they all end up finding that some separation will ultimately be needed in order to restore order to their kingdom.  And as they delve deeper into the mystery of their past, especially with regards to what happened to their parents long ago, they may find that the truth is harsher than fiction.

There is no doubt that Frozen II will become a box office hit right out of the gate.  It’s predecessor broke so many records, and the Disney studio has not faltered in the years since, so right out of the gate this movie is going to make a mint no matter what anyone thinks of it.  But can it sustain that, and will it deserve what it gets.  If you’ve been reading my blog since it’s first year online back in 2013, you’ll know that I reviewed the original Frozen (found here) and had something of a lukewarm response to it.  I didn’t dislike the movie by any means, but I also wasn’t as enthusiastic about it either.  It may have to do with my very high standard by which I judge Disney movies by, but I still stand by my view of Frozen.  It’s serviceable, but nowhere near an all time great.  I’ve honestly found the success it enjoyed more fascinating than the movie itself, and I am happy that it propelled this new era of Disney Animation.  But, did things improve for the sequel?  Well, I’m sad to say that not only did it not improve on the original Frozen, but it even took a step backwards for me.  I was not at all satisfied with this second go around with the world of Frozen, finding myself mostly bored and uninterested in what was going on.  There’s nothing really offensively bad about it; it’s just that the movie feels unnecessary.  I’m always of the belief that a sequel must build upon what had come before it, and that it has to justify it’s existence.  The story has to have somewhere to go, and more importantly raise the stakes.  Frozen II doesn’t do that; it just changes location and tries to fill in the gaps left by the original.  That doesn’t make for an interesting movie.  It also makes the movie feel smaller, which is definitely not what you want your sequel to be.

It all boils down to weakness in the story itself.  The original Frozen had an engaging story about persevering through isolation of one’s own making.  As stated in the film, “love can thaw the coldest heart,” and that was admittedly illustrated well through Elsa’s journey of accepting that she doesn’t have to view her powers as a curse but rather as a gift, which undoes years of heartbreak and fear that she has had to grow up with.  Though the movie was unevenly structured, it nevertheless delivered in making Elsa and Anna’s transformations satisfying throughout the course of the story, which in turn drove the narrative along.  But sadly, Frozen II moves forward with it’s most important conflict already resolved.  The characters have all gone through their major transformations, and sadly don’t grow beyond that.  It would help if there was a more fleshed out cast to give more character development to, or more world building beyond what we’ve seen so far, but no.  Frozen II decides to keep things close to home and without much in the way of external threats.  The movie seems to think that we need to know where Elsa got her powers from and where the sisters’ mother and father were headed originally.  I hate to say it, but the mystery isn’t really that interesting and the ultimate conclusion even less so.  And this is the bulk of the movie.  Also, the subtlety of the original film’s message is muddled here in clunky foreshadowing and on-the-nose symbolism.  Oh, do you think that ominous dam might have some symbolic importance for the story?  Hmmm?  There is so much in the movie that feels like a wasted opportunity.  The Northuldra people are extremely underdeveloped, and could have offered an interesting new angle for the story to take.  A lack of an antagonistic threat is also disappointing.  I know Hans was far from a classic Disney villain, but at least he served a purpose.  Instead, little is risked and even less is earned over the course of the movie.

It seems strange that a sub-par effort comes from the exact same team that made the original.  Directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck may not have reinvented the wheel with the original Frozen, but they do deserve credit for hitting the bulls-eye when it comes to delivering for a mass audience, and for reinvigorating the Disney brand.  Jennifer Lee has even ridden the success of Frozen towards earning the top job at Disney Animation, becoming the studio head after the departure of John Lasseter, which she certainly is well qualified for.  But, even people with experience under their belt can misfire.  I will say that even though the movie is lacking story-wise, it is still beautifully animated.  There was nothing within the movie that looked lackluster on the animation side, especially when it comes to the environments.  I was really struck by how good the textures looked in this movie, whether it was the foliage within the Enchanted Forest, or the tiny crystals in Elsa’s dress; it all looked beautiful.  There was also some really neat animation used on the elemental spirits, especially with a horse made entirely out of water.  I’m sure that took some expert programming to do in the software used to animate this movie.  The character animation likewise stands on solid ground, with a wide range of emotion put into the faces of Anna, Elsa, and the others.  I’m sure that the animators also had a lot of fun finding new ways to contort Olaf’s sectional body into many different shapes.  At the same time, a lot of this is also stuff we’ve seen before.  Characters are animated with care, but are ultimately the same.  I’m not seeing anything groundbreaking in this film, except maybe with the elemental characters.  The animation fulfills it’s role here, and little else.

The returning voice cast also doesn’t disappoint, and for the most part are what helps to salvage an otherwise disappointing film.  I’m still impressed with Idina Menzel’s vocal range, and I still find Elsa to be the series’ most shining light.  Kristen Bell’s Anna still grates on me a little bit, but she is thankfully a bit more mature and subdued this time around.  Josh Gad’s Olaf may be the movie’s best asset however, as he gets most of the best lines in this movie, especially with the frankness of some of his observations.  There’s a funny bit where he recounts the plot of the first movie in his own way.  Sadly, none of the new characters leave an impression.  I mentioned earlier the lack of development for the Northuldran people, who could have been a fascinating asset had their culture been explored further.  I also am confused why the character of Captain Mattias exists at all, because he adds so little to the plot, and why cast a big star like Sterling K. Brown in the part.  He does a fine job, but the character is largely inconsequential.  The songs are a mixed bag too.  Unfortunately none are as memorable as those in the previous movie, which may be a blessing to some.  As much as people got sick of “Let it Go,” it’s still undeniably a great song.  Only one song in this movie comes close to rising to that high bar called “Into the Unknown,” and no big surprise, it’s an Elsa song.  But even still, it doesn’t carry the same weight, and I think that’s mostly a byproduct of the story itself being so weightless.  Some of the songs even feel awkwardly shoehorned in, like they were written before the story itself was fully formed, and the filmmakers had to work around them.  There are some cute things about them, like Kristoff getting to do a riff on 80’s rock love ballads, but it’s more a testament to the professionalism of the Lopez’s as songwriters.  A more robust story would have maybe turned these songs into classics, as the original did with tunes like “Love is an Open Door” and “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”, but sadly this is a soundtrack that is likely going to fall way short of it’s award-winning predecessor.

Watching how Frozen II falls short of capturing of the mark set by the original Frozen makes me think very much with how they contrast against a similarly themed film series from a rival studio, and not in a good way.  Dreamworks Animation managed to create one of their most popular and critically acclaimed films with How to Train Your Dragon, which like Frozen, took inspiration from Norse culture and folklore to tell it’s story.  However, what Dragon also did was further expand it’s world in it’s subsequent sequels, with each adding new places, characters, and layers upon which they could further explore.  They also raised the stakes significantly, and dare I say, took very creative risks as well; including killing off a character or two, and maybe even showing more character flaws that deepen their characters’ stories as they go along.  Frozen II follows it’s enormously successful predecessor by playing it safe, and that’s to it’s detriment.  I wanted there to be more to the story of Elsa and Anna than just a journey into the past.  These characters don’t need to find clues toward discovering where they came from, because they already know who they are; the original movie did an effective job of showing us that.  What Frozen II needed was a more powerful test, both with Elsa’s further expanding powers and also with the family bond that ties them all together.  There is no conflict with any of them, and you all know they are going to return safely home by the end, and that’s the problem.  I’m sorry to contrast it with How to Train Your Dragon, but that series shows a much better example of how to grow your story over multiple films.  Even  by Disney sequel standards, Frozen II felt like a whole bunch of unnecessary filler.  If there are any further adventures of Anna and Elsa, which is heavily implied that there might by the end, they better have a more interesting story to tell.  Maybe a story developed by a different team next time might give the series a push in the right direction next time.  In the meanwhile, despite pretty animation and a couple nice songs, Frozen II sadly falls way short and is probably Disney’s weakest film in a long while.  Is it going to break Disney’s win streak? Not a chance, but it will never stand among the all time greats, and even though it pains me as a life long Disney fan, it’s best to forget this one and let it go.

Rating: 6/10

The Irishman – Review

Netflix has made huge in roads over the last couple years to not only be the top dog in streaming content straight to the consumer, but to also be recognized as a legitimate production studio of it’s own.  As more and more of the established Hollywood movie studio giants are pulling out of their licensing deals with Netflix in order to launch platforms of their own, Netflix has become more and more reliant on their own exclusive content to help maintain their dominance in the market.  It has been a risky and expensive plan for Netflix, with the streaming giant spending billions of dollars already just on production, but it seems to have been working so far.  Not only did Netflix meet their new subscriber expectations within the last quarter, it actually surpassed them, which is good news for their bottom line as their toughest competitions are about to launch within the next week and months ahead.  A large part of this is the fact that they have put their money behind films and television shows that otherwise would not have found a home in the theatrical market, and in turn it has sparked more interest in the home viewership of Netflix’s audience.  Filmmakers with bolder, less mainstream visions who have had their outside the box projects rejected by the mainstream studio system have found Netflix to be a more welcoming environment, as there is less pressure on this platform to submit to box office appeal.  That’s why you are seeing so many filmmakers flocking to Netflix, which has benefited the streaming giant greatly.  With Netflix benefiting from this influx of top tier talent, their focus lately has been to break through the stigma home entertainment within the industry and be fully acknowledged as a worthy platform for cinema on par with the rest of the business, especially when it comes in awards form.  And after being denied last year with Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (2018) losing out in the Best Picture race, Netflix is more determined than ever to push forward again for that elusive prize.

In walks living legend Martin Scorsese, unarguably one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.  Scorsese has been a fixture within the industry for nearly half a century, making some of the greatest movies ever made.  So, when he suddenly announces that his next feature, The Irishman, would be a Netflix exclusive production, people are going to take notice.  Scorsese has been circling Irishman for a long time, working off and on for the better part of more than a decade.  It wasn’t until Netflix stepped in that the project finally found it’s footing, and Scorsese was finally able to see this dream project to completion.  Chronicling the life of Frank Sheeran, the notorious mob hitman and bodyguard/confidant of legendary Teamsters union president Jimmy Hoffa, The Irishman bears many similarities to previous mob movies that Scorsese has had his hands on over the years; particularly Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995).  Given how Scorsese and his longtime collaborators, notably actors Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci, are all entering old age, this new film project no doubt feels like a swan song for this particular team, and I’m sure that’s what made it so appealing to Netflix.  The endeavor, however, was not going to be a quick and easy one.  Netflix reportedly spent close to $160 million dollars on this production, which is their most expensive single expenditure to date on a project; and you’ve got to remember, Netflix doesn’t rely on box office profits to earn that money back.  This is a bold risk to take for Netflix, but when the trade off is that you are the exclusive home to the last mafia movie made by the master of that genre, it may be the best possible decision in the long run.  No doubt Scorsese agreed to the deal because he knew that Netflix would allow him to make the movie that he wanted to make, without the interference that he normally would’ve received from a major studio.  The only question is, does The Irishman manage to live up to the incredible legacy of the master director’s previous work and was it worthwhile for Netflix to make a such a move in the first place.

It should be noted that though the movie features true events and real life historical figures, it is at the same time a work of speculative fiction.  The real life Frank Sheeran (played by Robert DeNiro in the film) went to his grave having never spoken out about his true involvement in the death and disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).  The movie is framed through an imagined confession from Sheeran as he addresses the audience directly from the comforts of his retirement home; telling the story his way, which he was never able to do in real life.  The movie does chronicle the things that we do know are true about Sheeran, and uses his point of view as a way of dramatizing the stuff we don’t quite know for sure in a belivable way.  We learn how he got involved with the Mafia in the first place, after a chance encounter with a well connected member named Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) puts him in their good graces.  After helping them with a few scams, Frank is given a new assignment by the local don, Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel), to take advantage of his other set of skills; cold-blooded murder.  Pretty soon, Frank earns the reputation as the most reliable hitman in the mafia.  After a while, Frank’s old friend Russell hooks up another job for him; a gig working as the bodyguard for their associate, Jimmy Hoffa, the most powerful union boss in America.  Sheeran accepts and over time he and Hoffa form a close bond.  Sheeran remains by Hoffa’s side over the course of many historical events and through some very turbulent rivalries as well, including with then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Jack Huston).  But a dispute over union leadership with another mafia connected rival named Anthony “ton Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham) suddenly puts Hoffa in conflict with the Mafia dons, who are worried that the temperamental politico will turn “rat” and sell them out to the government.  As a result, Sheeran becomes torn between the two alliances that have meant so much to him and made him who he is.  Does he betray a friend to appease the powers that put him where he is, or does he stand up against the might of the American Mafia?

The Irishman, like all Netflix productions, is intended to be available to stream exclusively on their platform.  However, in order to qualify for the Awards contention, it must screen for a minimum of three weeks in theaters within the crucial media centers of Los Angeles and New York City.  So, Netflix agreed to a limited theatrical run for The Irishman in anticipation of it’s late November release on it’s channel in order to meet that crucial awards criteria, as well as a limited nationwide roll-out.  Even still, major chains have refused to screen the film, objecting to Netflix’s small window before it’s streaming debut, so most markets will not be able to have the movie available on the big screen.  Thankfully, I live in one of those key markets that does have the movie available to watch on the big screen.  In fact, I was able to watch the movie in the first ever theater owned outright by Netflix themselves; the legendary Grauman’s Egyptian Theater in the heart of Hollywood.  Seeing any movie in a theater as legendary, and nearly 100 year old, as the Egyptian is a treat, but seeing one as exclusive as Netflix’s own Scorsese feature is even more appetizing.  And I can tell you that this is a movie that absolutely must be seen on a big screen while you still can; if you can.  Scorsese is a filmmaker at the absolute peak of his craft, and every time he steps behind the camera, you know that you’re going to see something special.  After taking on two wildly different projects in the last decade with The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and Silence (2016), it’s interesting to see him return to familiar ground with The Irishman, which feels like the continuation of his previous work.  In a strange way, The Irishman almost feels like the finale of a trilogy, working as a spiritual successor to both Goodfellas and Casino; probably because of the presence of DeNiro and Pesci.  And as far as trilogy cappers go, this is definitely Scorsese’s Return of the King, because everything we love about those other mafia movies is taken to their absolute zenith with The Irishman.

If you’re a fan of Scorsese’s other mafia movies, you’ll find a lot to love with The Irishman.  The movie carries over the same dark sense of humor, the same shocking bursts of violence, and the same uncompromising portrayals of humanity found in those other films.  Scorsese is definitely in familiar territory here, but at the same time, he’s not just resting on his laurels.  He spends the movie’s very lengthy run time building up a spectacular narrative that takes us deep into this world, with a great amount of care devoted to making us care about these characters.  All the while, Scorsese digs into all the tricks he’s learned over his long career and even surprises us with a few new ones he’s picked up along the way.  One of them includes some of the most beautifully shot slow motion that I’ve ever seen used in a movie; which is a technique that he picked up recently  from Wolf of Wall Street.  I should also note just how beautifully edited this movie is; a testament to the artistry that Socrsese’s longtime collaborator, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, brings to every movie that she works with him on.  Here, she goes above and beyond and each scene movies so gracefully from one shot to the next that it shows just how amazing she is at what she does.  These two legends have made so many classic films together, and The Irishman just brings out the best in both of them.  Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, working with Scorsese for the third straight time, also delivers some beautiful shots in this movie as well, picking up the mantle left by previous Scorsese cameramen like Michael Ballhaus and Robert Richardson perfectly.  It’s his work in particular that I’m worried might lose it’s impact through streaming at home, as it demands a bigger screen to be fully appreciated.

What I’m sure most people are going to respond to the most with this movie is the all star cast, which almost reads like a list of the Martin Scorsese All-Stars.  In particular, Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci sharing the screen once again is going to be one of the most talked about stories about this film for a long time.  Though Scorsese had no problem securing the still very active DeNiro into the role of Frank Sheeran, continuing their decades long partnership, he apparently had to do a lot of coaxing in order to get Pesci to say yes.  Joe Pesci has been fully retired for several years, and was very reluctant to step back in front of a camera again.  But, eventually he agreed to the offer, probably after Scorsese promised that this was going to be their final go around together, and it’s a blessing to see Pesci back in form in this movie.  Many of the movie’s best scenes are the ones shared by DeNiro and Pesci, as you can feel their long standing, real life friendship coming through in their performances.  Pesci in particular is a revelation here, as he is far more subdued than his past characters in Scorsese’s flicks.  Some viewers may be startled at first by the movie’s usage of the de-aging CGI effect to make both Pesci and DeNiro look younger in flashback scenes, but after a while you get used to them and the actors’ performances shine through.  The movie also features a stellar ensemble cast as well.  Fans of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire will be happy to note to that many of that show’s cast, including Bobby Canavale and Stephen Graham to name a few, litter the film throughout.  But, if the movie had an MVP, it would be Al Pacino in the role of Jimmy Hoffa.  Surprisingly marking his debut in a Scorsese directed film, Pacino is fully unleashed in this movie, delivering a delightfully scene-chewing performance as the controversial figure.  If anything, Pacino will be this movie’s best shot at securing an Oscar come awards time next year.  Given the movie’s already top tier cast, it’s amazing just how much Pacino commands every scene he has in the film, and it’s any wonder why it took this long for him and Scorsese to finally cross paths.

For the most part, the movie uses it’s run time effectively.  The Irishman is long, even for a Scorsese movie, running at a staggering 209 minutes (or nearly three and a half hours).  But it doesn’t waste it’s epic length, devoting much of it’s run time to a rapid fire pace.  Even still, I would say that the movie’s one and only fault is the fact that when it enters it’s epilogue like final stretch, it does take it’s foot off the gas and slows to a crawl.  I notice that it happens pretty much after (SPOILER) Jimmy Hoffa is taken out of the picture.  While the movie doesn’t crash and burn afterwards, it is a bit disappointing that the final 30 minutes of the movie doesn’t have the same energy as the previous 3 hours.  Indeed the first 3/4 of the movie is some of the best time I have spent watching a movie in the theater this year.  The movie was this beautiful mixture of humor, shocking turns, and edge of your seat tension, so I was a little saddened to see the final stretch feel like such a slog.  It doesn’t ruin the movie, but it also feels like a missed opportunity.  More could have been made of the strained relationship between Frank Sheeran and his daughter Peggy (played by Anna Paquin), but the movie only gives it a passing glance.  Perhaps it’s comparison that I make with Goodfellas and Casino that reflects badly on this film, because those movies ended on more critical notes.  The Irishman instead ends in a more contemplative tone, which may be truer to the character of Frank Sheeran, but it feels in conflict with the rest of the movie we had seen up to that point.  Even still, the movie, for as long as it is, is still a thoroughly engaging cinematic experience that represents everything we love about Scorsese and more.

It will be interesting to see where The Irishman‘s place will fall within the legacy of Martin Scorsese as a filmmaker.  I for one believe that it stands shoulder to shoulder with his now decades old mafia classics, and indeed the trilogy analogy does feel apt.  I can see this working as a the finale of a Scorsese triple feature with Goodfellas and Casino, since they are all very similar in tone and execution.  I for one am just amazed that even into his late 70’s that Scorsese still has a movie like this in him, and that he could execute it so effectively without losing a beat.  No doubt the free reign that Netflix gave him enabled him to make this movie the way he wanted to make it, and it just shows how great a filmmaker he continues to be as he makes good on that trust.  If anything, this movie is worth seeing just as the marking of an end of an era.  We may never see Scorsese create a Mafia movie ever again, and certainly not with all these same actors.  And if this is truly the end for this kind of movie, then it’s a very fitting end.  It’s certainly a treat to see that we got one more out of these guys, and that’s something that we should both cherish and praise Netflix for making it happen.  If anything, this has been the thing that really makes Netflix deserve a place in the pantheon of top Hollywood studios.  They are granting filmmakers the chance to experiment and work on projects that appeal to them personally, and by putting it out on their platform, it gives each of those projects the best chance of finding an audience.  I don’t know how The Irishman might have performed if given a traditional release, but there’s no doubt that it’s place within the legacy of the director is going to be one of high esteem.  If it’s playing on a big screen in your area, please take advantage and see it that way first.  But if not, then please show your support when it starts streaming on Netflix starting on November 27.  Either way you watch it, this will be a movie in the collective conversation for a long time, and proof that the future of film-making will indeed by influenced by the likes of Netflix and other streaming platforms.  It may be a turbulent change, but at least great movies like The Irishman are the result of it.

Rating: 9/10

Joker – Review

The last decade has given us a huge variety of movies about superheroes.  But, what we have yet to see is a movie about a supervillain.  Some have argued that Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War (2018) fits that criteria, as it primarily focuses on it’s central antagonist, Thanos, but at the same time it’s also an Avengers movie, meaning that it essentially is an ensemble where the villain gets a huge chunk of the screen time.  What hasn’t been seen yet, however, is a movie that puts the villain front and center, telling their story from their point of view.  It’s a tricky kind of story to pull off because you can run the risk of humanizing the villain too much to where they become sympathetic in the eyes of the audience.  There are plenty of villainous characters out there whose stories are rich enough to delve deeper into, especially in the realm of comic books.  DC Comics perhaps has assembled the most robust rogues gallery that we’ve ever seen in any medium, both cinematic and literary.  It’s no surprise that in their desire to compete with their rival Marvel on the big screen and tell stories that will garner them a bigger audience, they looked to one of their most iconic characters who just also so happens to be their most notorious villain; the clown prince of crime, Joker.  Joker has certainly left his mark on the silver screen, with cinematic iterations that almost try to one up each other in their increasingly dark takes.  Jack Nicholson’s performance in Batman (1989) was a beautiful balance of menace and humor, while Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008) was so iconicly chilling that it won him a posthumous Oscar.  But as much as their versions stood out, they were only section of the grander tapestry of Batman mythos that their respective films were trying to portray.  What kind of movie do we get when a character as unfathomably evil as the Joker is pushed front and center in his own movie.

To do a movie about the Joker, setting the tone the right way has to be the most important factor.  There are so many ways to get this kind of story wrong.  Joker has evolved over time to become the most sinister and disturbing villain in the history of DC Comics; which has no doubt been helped by Nicholson and Ledger’s chilling performances.  If you take the wrong approach to a character like this, you run the risk of creating too much sympathy for the character and this can on occasion lead to an un-healthy self-reflection with the character for some in the audience.  It’s not a bad thing to be a fan of the character.  The Joker has been a popular villain for good reason, and he’s often one of the most widely cos-played characters in the entire DC canon, or for all comic books in general.  Joker fandom for many people is just good old fun, but there are those who unfortunately take things a bit too far.  The powerful imagery and personality of the Joker has sadly also been adopted by fringe segments of society who view the Joker as their patron saint.  These kinds of people can run as varied as anarchists, internet trolls, incels, the alt-right and just flat out terrorist thugs.  These groups in no way are endorsed or promoted by DC or it’s comic writers, but sadly the Joker has been turned into this political lightning rod because of real world villains using him as their inspiration.  The tragic shooting at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado in 2012 by gunman James Holmes brought nationwide attention to this problem, as Holmes tried to emulate the demented clown in his rampage.  The threat that this might happen again has brought controversy to DC’s recent attempt to dramatize an origin story for the Joker on the big screen.  Some theaters have beefed up security just in case, and the same theater in Aurora where the shooting took place has chosen not to screen it at all (which is understandable).  But, the question remains; is a Joker movie deserving of all this controversy?  Is he really that dangerous of a character, and ultimately, is a telling of his story justified in the end?

It must be noted that this is meant to be just a version of the Joker, and not any definitive take that will become canon for all time.  This is not the same Joker that Nicholson or Ledger played; it’s a Joker that exists solely for this specific kind of story.  The movie is about a down and out street performer named Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) who tries his hardest to earn a living in the hard neighborhoods of Gotham City.  Arthur suffers from a mental condition that causes him to uncontrollably laugh, which further isolates him from society, as people avoid him believing him to be a nutcase.  He lives with his ill mother Penny (Frances Conroy), who remains emotionally distant even as he dotes on her.  Arthur tries his best to cope with the hardships of life, finding solace in comedy, which leads him to pursuing a life as a comedian, a move that is encouraged by his across the hall neighbor, Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz), whom he has an attraction for.  Unfortunately, his laughing condition gets the best of him and ruins his first chance at becoming a stand-up.  At the same time, he looses his job and the mental health care he’s been receiving have been eliminated due to budget cuts.  On his way home one day, he is harassed by a group of drunken yuppie businessmen on a subway train.  They push him over the edge and he snaps, pulling a gun on them and murdering all three in cold blood.  The shocking act brings out a feeling inside Arthur, which he initially tries to repress.  At the same time, the poor people of Gotham respond to the crime favorably, because the victims were entitled employees of Wayne Enterprises, and they view Gotham’s favorite son and potential mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) and the reason the city has left them all behind.  Meanwhile, Arthur’s bungled stand-up routine becomes fodder for a late night talk show hosted by a favorite performer of his, Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) and Arthur is given an invite to appear on his show.  With all the turmoil that Arthur goes through in days after, it leads him to shed off the person he was before and adopt the clown that he now views himself as, asking to go by the name Joker instead.

One thing that will be made clear very quickly while watching the movie is that this is not your typical comic book movie.  There really is nothing left of the tropes that we associate with the likes of Batman, Justice League or any other super hero movies found in this film. Instead, this movie takes it’s narrative and visual inspiration from the career of Martin Scorsese.  Two films in particular of Scorsese seemed to have been sourced as inspiration for this flick, which are Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1983).  Both movies chronicle the dangerous mental slide of an obsessed individual on the fringes of society, and both were starring vehicles for Robert DeNiro.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that DeNiro also appears in this movie as well, since I’m sure that the filmmakers wanted to draw that parallel.  Using the Scorsese guidebook is a bold choice to go with as a basis for portraying the rise of a comic book supervillain.  And to accurately portray the Scorsese style in this movie, you look have to look no further than the guy who made The Hangover (2008)? Umm, okay.   Actually to Todd Phillip’s credit, it’s clear that he did his homework as a student of the Scorsese style, because this is a fantastic recreation of a movie from this point of time in the legendary director’s career.  The visuals in particular are stunningly close to movies like Taxi Driver and Mean Streets (1973), with soft focus cinematography and a earthy color palette.  It looks unlike any other Super Hero movie we’ve ever seen, because this genre usually doesn’t play around in this kind of style, and it makes for a perfect match with the character himself.  The visual style, from the opening scene on, puts the audience in this feeling of unease, as the movie takes on this stark realistic hue.  And it provides a perfect juxtaposition with the flamboyance that the Joker represents.  On just the technical merits alone, this movie is superb, and a worthy homage to the Scorsese style as well.

But one thing that will be following the film around for some time is it’s controversy.  By giving the Joker such a profound and captivating origin, people are worried that it’ll cause only more people to sympathize and identify with him, which is what some people believe led to that tragic theater shooting in Colorado.  But, that’s in no way what this movie does at all.  It must be made clear; the Joker portrayed in this movie is no hero, nor an anti-hero.  He is a villain, period.  And I think that’s what make the movie so effective as a cinematic experience.  I should tell you this right now; Joker is not a feel good movie in any way.  It’s intended to make you feel disturbed and horrified.  What Todd Phillips does so well with his telling of this story is to hold up a mirror to society and make us feel ashamed for the ways we contribute, whether we know it or not, to the creations of monsters like the Joker.  Arthur’s decent into villainy is in no ways looked at as a triumph, but as a tragedy, as there are so many points where one direction in the right way could have steered him away from his fate.  But, because of our proclivity to ridicule people with strange conditions, ignore the plights of people in poorer classes and with mental illness, and feed into media frenzies that elevate the profile of mass murderers and serial killers, we bear some of the responsibility for making monsters like the Joker more common than they should.  Hell, the media’s obsession with a possible incident that might occur because of this movie kind of proves that point.  And the movie rightly never lets Arthur off the hook either.  The really effective part of the movie comes in the way it increasingly makes us feel uneasy as we continue to focus on Arthur’s story.  So much of the tension in the later half comes from not knowing exactly what he might do next.  It even makes us question whether or not we should be laughing at his antics later, which is honestly something that even previous versions of the Joker never attempted to ask before.  So, for anyone worried that this movie was going to be a rallying cry for all the anti-social pariahs out there, be rest assured that it is not, but rather an indictment of this kind of individual and the society that props him up for no good reason.

At the same time, because of the unforgiving nature of the movie, it is also going to divide a lot of people as well.  The movie has received a bunch of accolades so far, including winning the coveted Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, which is often seen a precursor for an Oscar win.  But, upon it’s release, it has divided the critical community down the middle, and will probably be reflected in the general public as well.  Like I said, this is not an easy movie to watch, and it will probably test your sensibilities.  But, if there is one thing that I think will garner near universal praise from this movie, it’s Joaquin Phoenix’s performance.  Phoenix is absolutely magnetic in this role, and you cannot take your eyes off of him throughout the entire movie.  What’s especially great about his performance is that he never once makes you think of the character as a comic book creation, nor makes you recall any previous version of the Joker.  It’s an entirely original take that is all his own, and is so enormously layered in it’s complexity.  I don’t know exactly where to rank this among the others, because his Joker is not as scary as Heath Ledger’s nor as entertaining as Jack Nicholson’s, but his version is far more disturbing than the others because it’s the most human that we’ve ever seen this character.  Phoenix’s transformation is really amazing, as he lost a ton of weight to create Arthur Fleck as this emaciated, sickly individual. Even his laugh takes on this disturbing quality because Phoenix really sells the point that the laugh is physically hurting him.  As a result, he does a brilliant job of showing you the real reason why Joker is such a frightening creation, because there’s a human being behind that painted smile; a deeply broken human being.  Phoenix has made a career out of playing troubled, broken people like Johnny Cash in Walk the Line (2005) and Freddie Quell in The Master (2012).  Arthur Fleck brings those same qualities, but adds this tragic element of an un-redeemable spirit behind it.  Even if people end up finding the movie too disturbing, they’ll still come away praising the hard work that Joaquin Phoenix put into his performance.

While there is plenty to praise about the movie, I also have to point out that it isn’t perfect as well.  Strangely enough, the biggest flaw that the movie has is that it interrupts itself in order to remind you that you are indeed watching a movie based in the DC Universe.  That’s probably a testament to how powerfully told the central narrative is that you forget that this is the same Joker that will one day become the arch-nemesis to Batman.  I almost feel like this movie could have been better if it set itself apart from it’s comic book origins and instead just told this story of an ordinary man who evolves into this notorious monster.  But, unfortunately, this movie still will occasionally drop a reminder of other things going on within the Batman mythos.  The caped crusader doesn’t appear fully formed in this movie, which is understandable considering that it’s many years before that happens.  But, there is a scene where Arthur does encounter the boy who will be Batman, Bruce Wayne (played here by young actor Dante Pereira-Olson) and his caretaker Alfred (played by Douglas Hodge).  It’s not a bad scene by any means, and it does have a chilling creep factor to it, but it doesn’t really add anything to the plot and just reads like a studio note demanding that there at least be some connecting thread to Batman in this.  The other negative that I can point to with the movie is that while the allusions to the work of Martin Scorsese are wonderfully crafted and utilized in the narrative here, it kind of works against the film as well.  It follows almost too closely to the narratives of Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, which robs the movie of any real surprise.  Sure, the film still shocks us once we get to the ultimate destination, but with those Scorsese movies well ingrained into our cultural memory, you pretty much know what to expect, and that in a way makes the finale feel a little less shocking.  Even still, it’s not a fatal flaw that derails the movie; it just keeps it from reaching it’s absolute maximum impact.  What it mainly comes down to is that the movie is at it’s absolute best when it doesn’t remind you of other movies or other versions of this story, and just let’s itself go as it’s own dark, demented tale.

Considering where DC was just a few short years ago, as they were floundering trying to find their way while also catching up to Marvel, it is great to see now that they are not only confident telling stories on the big screen their way, but also taking some brave chances as well.  This R-rated, bleak and unforgiving Joker is in a class all by itself within the genre of Comic Book movies.  I for one am amazed that DC allowed for this kind of movie to be told with one of their characters.  Sure, it’s the Joker we are talking about, but even still, we’ve never seen a portrayal like this that felt this raw and challenged it’s audience this much.  Joaquin Phoenix’s performance certainly doesn’t feel like it belongs in a Comic Book movie and that’s what makes it so great.  He didn’t go into this movie to bring the character off the page and onto the screen; he wanted to bring to life an image of monster that is all too frighteningly real.  In the end, Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix could’ve told this story without all the comic book mythos behind it, and still made a powerful movie.  But because this is about a character as iconic as the Joker, it’s going to bring a lot more attention to this movie, and that’s something that is really worthwhile in the end.  Joker transcends it’s comic origin to become a cautionary tale for it’s time.  As our world becomes ever more divided and violent, and people are more prone to violent ends to either make a point or grab attention, the Joker becomes even more potent of a symbol, and this movie intends to show just how dangerous that can be.  Joker is not some larger than life monster; he’s one of us, all too human.  The movie puts the onus on us the viewer to understand how we as a society contribute to makings of a monster like the Joker, with either our apathy towards the disenfranchised or our ignorance towards an issue.  There’s not one true reason why a Joker exists, but a whole bunch of factors, and this movie tries to help us understand how those factors manifest into something so horrible.  The movie is definitely not a fun little romp nor a rousing adventure, but it’s perhaps the hard medicine that we need right now to understand this moment in time.  And the fact that we get there with a character like the Joker is probably the most surprising joke of them all.

Rating: 8.5/10

It: Chapter Two – Review

If there was ever a shared cinematic universe that has yet to be properly exploited, it’s the one from the mind of author Stephen King.  King, the modern master of horror, has churned out novel after novel over nearly 50 years of writing and with all that has created one of the most prolific canons ever in literature.  What’s even more surprising about all of his novels is the fact that many contain a shared mythology.  Sure it’s a convoluted and bizarre mythology that loosely ties his stories together, but it’s there and it’s very much a product of his imagination.  But those ties have never really been explored too deeply on the big screen, because as much as Stephen King has a devoted fan base and a body of work worth a dozen or so franchises, King’s relationship with Hollywood has been a sometimes contentious one.  Very protective of his own work, King often oversees the adaptations of his books into film himself, ensuring that everything he values from his own writing makes it onto the screen in tact.  Because so many of his novels run on the long side, he often forgoes taking his books to the big screen in favor of creating television mini-series instead, because the longer format gives him the time he needs to include everything from the books.  This often has come with it’s own downside, as King has had to compromise the more graphic elements of his stories in order to meet television standards, but it’s a compromise he has been willing to make in order to retain his control over the adaptation.  This probably stemmed from the 1980 adaptation of The Shining by Stanley Kubrick, which King famously hated because of all the changes Kubrick had made to make it more “theatrical.”  The receptions of his television adaptations have been fairly mixed over the years, from positive (Under the Dome) to very negative (The Langoliers).  But if the was one that proved to be a standout, it was probably his 1990 miniseries of his most famous novel; IT.

For a novel with a title as simple as IT, it is remarkably monstrous in size.  Running the length of a Bible, IT is peak Stephen King, in both the best and worst ways.  For one thing, it has some of the most surreal and frightening imagery that he has ever committed to the page.  One the other hand, it is also bloated and meandering, and just plain weird for weird’s sake, showing the author at his most indulgent.  The novel is famous for a lot of things, but perhaps it’s most famous creation is the titular monster at it’s center; the demon clown who also goes by the name Pennywise.  Even the novel’s most ardent critics will admit that Pennywise is one of King’s most enduring creations.  Anyone who’s already afraid of clowns will no doubt be traumatized by the mere thought of this character, which makes the novel all the more famous, because of the often provocative covers of the novel, which continue to display the demented smile of the monster, even to this day.  Stephen King’s TV mini-series adaptation ran for two nights shortly before Thanksgiving in 1990, and it very much was a TV event.  In retrospect, it hasn’t aged very well, and does feel like a neutered version of the original novel (with good reason considering some portions).  But again, it was Pennywise that was the standout, with actor Tim Curry giving a now lauded performance.  While satisfying to Stephen King, a lot of fans of the novel felt that the mini-series left a lot to be desired and that a movie version was needed to do the book justice for real.  But how do you take the immensity of the novel IT and do it justice on the big screen.  The answer came 25 years later when director Andy Muschietti came up with the idea of taking the two time periods of the novel (when the main characters are children and adults) and splitting them into two separate movies.  The novel intertwines the time periods, and the mini-series more or less stuck with that structure too.  But Muschietti’s approach worked very well and the first film, IT (2017), which focused on the characters as children, broke box office records.  Now, this week, we are presented with the final, It: Chapter Two, and the question now is was the cinematic approach taken effective enough?

IT: Chapter Two begins right after the close of the first chapter, with a rag tag band of pre-teens who call themselves “The Losers Club,” recovering from their near death encounter with the demonic Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgard).  The all swear to each other that if Pennywise ever returned to their hometown of Derry, Maine, they would as well in order to destroy “it” once and for all; no matter what.  27 years later, after a mysterious murder is committed in Derry, with all the tell-tale signs of the Clown’s handiwork, a grown up Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) begins to call up the friends that he hasn’t seen in years, delivering them news of the day they hoped never would come.  Among them include prolific writer Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy), comedian Richie Tozier (Bill Hader), successful entrepreneur Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan), insurance risk analyst and hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransome), and deeply scarred Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain).  They meet in a Chinese restaurant back in Derry, and fondly reminisce, until they realize that one of their friends, Stanley Uris (Andy Bean) is not there with them.  They soon learn that Stanley had that same day taken his own life, and the painful memories that they had surprisingly forgotten all start flooding back.  And then, Pennywise’s mind tricks begin to manifest.  Some of them want to flee as quickly as possible, but Mike claims he has found a way to entrap Pennywise and seal him away for good.  It involves them making a sacrifice a token of their past in a ritual, so each of them sets out to find something in town they had left behind.  However, the longer they stay in Derry, the easier it becomes for Pennywise to begin playing with their minds again.  On top of that, the former bully who tormented the Losers Club as children named Henry Bowers (Teach Grant) has been broken out of an insane asylum with Pennywise’s help, tasked with killing each one of the Losers.  Whether hunted by evil living, dead, or otherwise, the Losers Club are determined to put an end to Pennywise once and for all, which becomes all the more difficult as the Clown only grows more powerful the more fear he spreads across town.

The first IT from 2017 was a surprise hit that year, breaking every conceivable record for a horror movie during it’s run, as well as setting new high water marks for the month of September and the fall movie season in general.  It benefited greatly from the book’s long standing reputation, and also from a strongly emphasized theme of nostalgia at the heart of the film.  Since the first movie depicted the story of the main characters in the past, it made sense to have it set in the past (the 1980’s to be exact) so that Chapter Two could have a contemporary setting.  Because of this, there was a lot of 80’s flavor added to the movie that gave it some extra character, not unlike the Stranger Things TV series that owes a lot of it’s inspiration to the works of Stephen King itself.  Given how well the first movie resonated with audiences, the pressure was on to follow it up strong with the inevitable Chapter Two.  And I have to say, director Andy Muschietti met the challenge and then some.  When comparing the two, I have to say that I found Chapter Two to be even better than the original.  Though I liked the first IT well enough, I thought that it was a bit uneven in tone, fluctuating wildly between moments of sincerity and moments of absurd over-the-top insanity.  IT: Chapter Two follows much more the unhinged weirdness of the latter, and it benefits greatly from that.  I think that in the time between films, Andy Muschietti realized the best way to approach the story was to really embrace the zanier aspects of King’s novel, and avoid the melodrama altogether.  The first film at times felt like a mash-up of Stand By Me (1986) and Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), which often made it feel distractingly sporadic in tone.  Here, the movie sticks with the creepiness and keeps the sentimentality to a minimum.  And it’s a formula that for the most part works.

One thing that I actually found myself really impressed with about this movie was how well paced it is.  IT: Chapter Two  remarkably has a run-time of nearly three hours, which is unheard of for a horror movie.  The first IT also ran at a bulky 2 1/2 hours, and when you combine the two, that makes for nearly 5 hours total devoted to this story.  But, given the length of King’s novel, it’s understandable.  Even so, Muschitetti manages to never make this movie feel it’s length, and he does so by constantly delivering new set pieces to drive the story along.  Every character is given their own standout segment of the movie, some more frightening than the others.  I haven’t read the novel myself to compare how much of what ended up in the movie came from the book itself, but each encounter with Pennywise in the movie is thankfully diverse and keeps revving up the tension up until the end.  I especially like a scene with James McAvoy’s Bill attempting to save a child trapped in a Hall of Mirrors maze while Pennywise is on the other side of the glass.  It’s an especially creepy scene with incredible atmosphere, which is owed a lot to the movie’s exceptional production design.  There’s very little of the movie that feels rehashed, even from the original movie, and that helps to give it an identity all it’s own.  In some ways, the movie owes just as much inspiration to the work of director Sam Raimi as it does Stephen King, as it balances the juxtaposing tones of humor and horror with a great amount of skill, something Raimi excelled at with his Evil Dead films. It works much better than the Spielbergian overtones that director Muschietti tried to incorporate into the first IT.  You’ll definitely be finding yourself laughing at this movie just as much as you’ll be clutching the armrest of your seat in anticipated terror.  Few movies can strike that balance, and I felt that Chapter Two did better than most.

The other thing that I also found really remarkable about the movie was just how well cast it was.  For one thing, this is a very strong ensemble of adult actors, with impressive bodies of work of their own.  For one thing, Jessica Chastain is one of my favorite actresses working today, and it is nice to see her here in the very crucial role of Beverly, elevating the part beyond just being the token girl of the Losers Club.  James McAvoy always delivers solid work no matter the role, and it’s especially pleasing to see comedic actor Bill Hader given such a meaty role in a big movie like this, helping to boost his stock as a film actor.  But, what is especially impressive about this cast is just how close they all look like their younger counterparts from the original IT.  You put these actors side by side with the young actors who played the same characters in the other film, and you could definitely believe that they are the same person 27 years apart.  There’s even one incredible moment in the movie when the picture dissolves from the face of James Ransone playing Eddie in the present day to the face of young Jack Dylan Grazer playing Eddie in the past, and the similarity is uncanny.  Andy Muschietti probably intended to cast for lookalikes, but you rarely see it done this well in movies.  There are moments where the movie does have to remind you that we are seeing different time periods at play, and surprisingly we revisit the past quite a bit in this movie.  You can tell at some points that some of the young actors had short window to film their scenes before their bodies changed too much; such as Finn Wolfhard (Young Richie) and Wyatt Oleff (Young Stanley) who both grew several inches between movies.  But the effect still works for the most part and the movie goes between different time periods with ease.  It also has to be said that the one constant for both films, Pennywise, still remains strong.  Bill Skarsgard looks like he’s having a blast playing this character, which is something he has in common with Tim Curry’s iconic take on the character.  It’s always hard to portray terror with the guise and personality of a clown, but he nails it and becomes both terrifying and hilarious at the same time throughout his performance.

All this being said, the movie is not without it’s faults either, which keeps it from becoming an all time great as well.  The interesting thing is that the problems with this movie come less from the crafting of the movie and instead comes from the story itself.  Even with an expanded budget and more time to devote to the material, I still think that no amount of time and money could make everything from Stephen King’s novel work on the big screen, and there are moments in Chapter Two that I still feel could have been changed or excised completely.  One is the completely unnecessary Henry Bowers plot cul-de-sac which is as pointless here as it was in the original mini-series, and I assume in the book as well.  It even culminates in an underwhelming resolution, which just made me wonder why it was even deserving of being here in the first place other than just as a way of remaining true to King’s novel.  You know, there was a reason why Kubrick took the living hedge monsters out of The Shining, because he rightly knew that it wouldn’t have worked on film, and that it would have been an unnecessary addition.  King should understand that while his books are amazing creations, not every single idea in them is golden, and that definitely becomes apparent by the film’s end.  There’s a running joke in the movie where people’s common complaint about the books that Bill writes, saying that he’s terrible at writing endings, which is a self aware nod to the often universal complaint about IT‘s almost universally hated ending.  But, even despite making a self-aware joke, even this version still can’t overcome the silliness of it’s climax, which is another example of the filmmakers perhaps adhering too closely to the source material.  At least this time around, they try a little harder to make the ending work; they do it better than the mini-series anyway.  But, yeah, it’s still the weakest part of the movie, but not enough to undermine what had come before.  And the novel is even weirder than what we see in the movie (no giant cosmic turtle in this one I’m afraid) so I commend them for trying to fix as much of the original story’s problems as they could, but even still, Stephen King’s novels unfortunately have just as many problems as they do their strengths, and that even extends into the best adaptations of his work.

For the most part, as a horror film and an adaptation of Stephen King’s writing, IT: Chapter Two is a success, hindered solely by shortcomings of the original story itself.  I thought that this movie did fix a lot of the uneven tone that undermined the first movie in the series, and I was especially impressed by how well it utilized it’s nearly three hours of run-time.  You really don’t feel those three hours at all, which is a triumph in itself.  The cast is uniformly excellent and I was impressed with how well each matched their younger counterparts from the first movie.  Bill Skarsgard definitely deserves a lot of praise for creating a memorable version of Pennywise for the big screen.  Filling Tim Curry’s big clown shoes is not easy, but I feel that Skarsgard’s Pennywise is on par with the original.  The only thing I would say Curry’s version has over his is the voice, with Tim’s natural baritone coming off a lot more sinister than Skarsgard’s squeakier tenor.  I also appreciated that the movie embraced it’s sillier tone at times, never taking itself too seriously, which allows for the zanier Stephen King elements to land more effectively as the movie goes along.  Again, the faults in the film have more to do with the fact that King wrote too much into the original story to begin with and also, in a way, had no idea how to wrap it all up in the end.  King is much better at crafting ideas than a full, perfectly constructed narrative, and that often has been something that has been a blessing and a curse for him as a novelist.  At least now, thanks to Andy Muschietti’s valiant efforts, we do have a cinematic version of it spread over two films that probably be the closest we’ll ever get to a perfect adaptation of this monumental novel.  I for one am happy to see an earnest attempt like this of bringing Stephen King’s writing to the big screen and my hope is that we see more like this in the future.  There have been many King adaptations over the years, but few actually do the books justice, or even elevate beyond what King envisioned, so with IT Chapters 1 & 2, it is pleasing to see someone take the biggest and most complicated book of them all and actually deliver something worthwhile with it.  And that’s no laughing matter.

Rating: 8/10

The Lion King (2019) – Review

Producing a remake of a movie presents a whole lot of issues with regard to audience reception, but one thing that should be on the mind of every filmmaker who attempts it is; is it worth the effort.  When embarking on a remake, you have to be aware that you are walking down an already laid out path for you, and sometimes that can inhibit your ability to be creative.  Suddenly, you are dealt with the choice of either following the original formula to the letter, or veering off into something different.  The best thing that a filmmaker can do when they produce a remake is to allow their version to stand on it’s own, separate from the original.  There are plenty of good examples out there of great movie remakes, like John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964), to the Coen Brother’s True Grit (2010), to all those many A Star is Born which seem to always come out every generation.  But to be successful, remakes need to either do one of two things; exceed expectations, or milk all the nostalgia for the original that they can get.  Sometimes movies that do the latter end up being criticized as evidence of creative bankruptcy, merely exploiting a known property purely as a cash grab.  And one studio that is facing current scrutiny in this regard is Disney.  For the past decade, starting with Tim Burton’s remake of Alice in Wonderland in 2010, Disney has been dipping into their library of animated classics and looking at potential ways to remake many of them in “live action.”  The action is understandable, given how well these movies have done at the box office, but at the same time, long time fans of the originals are complaining that the remakes being made by Disney lack anything original and it feels to them like Disney is just cashing in on their properties rather than adding anything meaningful to their brand.  It all comes back to that question of whether the remakes justify their existence or not, and sadly for many it’s only taken away from their enjoyment of the originals and not added to them.

This year in particular has raised that question even more, as Disney brought three new remakes to the big screen this year; the overall primary tentpoles of their fiscal year.  Thus far, the results have been mixed.  The first remake was of one of the Walt era classics, Dumbo (2019), with Tim Burton again returning to remake another animated film.  The movie was widely panned by critics, and barely resonated with audiences, making it a rare box office dud for the studio.  But then, on Memorial Day weekend, Disney released a remake of Aladdin, which many had worried about due to the initially off-putting transformation of actor Will Smith into the Genie via CGI.  Though not universally beloved, the movie still found it’s audience and managed to hold strong all through the summer, making nearly $1 billion in worldwide ticket sales as of this writing.  But, these were only warm ups to the remake to the undisputed king of all Disney animated classics; The Lion King.  If there ever was a movie remake that was sure to get attention, this one is it.  The original 1994 classic was a monster hit, becoming the highest grossing animated film of all time upon it’s initial release, and it still holds a strong place in the Disney legacy 25 years later.  The only thing is, how do you take a movie with an all animal cast and make it “live action.”  Well, I put “live action” in quotations because the answer that Disney found was to use animation of another kind, only this time use it to make everything look like it was in “live action.”  Pioneered in 2016 in another Disney remake of The Jungle Book, this new photo-realistic CGI animation tool allowed for actors performances to translate into realistic looking animals, which enabled Disney to retell their version of The Jungle Book, but with a level of visual authenticity that almost mirrored real life.  Now, they are taking this same technique and applying it 100% to the world of The Lion King, making everything from the creatures to the environments completely from CGI animation.  The only question is, does it do enough to stand on it’s own, or is it animated in all the wrong ways.

If you were a kid who grew up in the 1990’s, the story of The Lion King will already likely be ingrained in your memory.  The Pridelands, realm of the wild animals of the African Serengeti, is watched over by the lion king known as Mufasa (James Earl Jones, reprising his role from the original).  Him and his mate Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) have borne a new cub named Simba (JD McCrary) who will one day take Mufasa’s place as king, which is a prospect that doesn’t sit well with Mufasa’s bitter younger brother, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor).  Simba desperately wants to prove his bravery, which leads him on a dangerous excursion beyond the borders of the Pridelands, and into the Elephant Graveyard, realm of the hyenas.  His run-in with the hyenas puts him in danger, along with his best friend Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and caretaker Zazu (John Oliver).  Mufasa saves them, but the incident bruises what self-esteem Simba has.  Meanwhile, Scar has been conspiring with the Hyenas, hoping to use them as a means of eliminating his brother and the future king so that he can take the Pridelands for himself.  With the hyenas help, Scar tricks Simba into standing in the middle of the path of a wildebeest stampede.  In the attempt to save Simba, Mufasa puts his own life on the line.  Simba is saved, but Scar pushes his brother back into the stampede, killing him, out of view of a horrified Simba.  Simba believes he is responsible for his father’s death, and Scar convinces him to flee into exile.  Though the hyenas are sent to finish Simba off, they give up their pursuit once Simba is out of sight.  Simba, completely alone, eventually reaches the outer edges of the Pridelands, beyond the desert sands, and there he encounters two new friends, Timon (Billy Eichner) the meerkat and Pumbaa (Seth Rogan) the warthog.  They take Simba in and teach him the philosophy of Hakuna Matata, meaning no worries.  Years later, a grown up Simba (Donald Glover) reconnects with a grown up Nala (Beyonce), who has escaped the tyrannical rule of Scar, and she tries her hardest to convince Simba to go back and assume his rightful place as king.

Perhaps more than any other remake from Disney, this was going to be the hardest one to get right.  Not only is it a logistical challenge making this movie as close to live action as possible, but there’s also the fact that the original movie is so universally beloved and, some would say, untouchable.  Now, Disney can indeed take one of their classic films and create a remake that stands well on it’s own.   I for one thought the remake to Cinderella (2015) was exceptionally well made, and the remake to Pete’s Dragon (2016) is I dare say an improvement over the original.  There are other examples of remakes to classics that, while they come nowhere close to being as good as the original, still manage to be entertaining, like The Jungle Book and Aladdin.  And then you have the movies that fail to ever justify their purpose for existing, like Maleficent (2014), Dumbo, and Beauty and the Beast (2017).  The biggest knock against the worst of these movies is that they merely rehash the original, adding nothing new of substance and exist purely to remind you of their superior originators.  My hope was that this Lion King would rise above that, and the fact that Jon Favreau was overseeing it gave me hope, seeing as his Jungle Book remake was one of the more passable ones, and probably the most impressive visually we’ve seen.  Sadly, those hopes are dashed almost immediately from the opening seconds of the movie.  The film opens with a near shot for shot reconstruction of the “CIrcle of Life” sequence that also opened the original, and though it is impressive to look at, it quickly dons on you the viewer that you are just going to watch the same movie over again with nothing new added.  This movie was a crushing disappointment for me, as I saw what was essentially a cover band version of one of the greatest animated films ever made, devoid of all the heart that made the original so special in the first place.  Favreau, whose work I usually love, appears to have been told by the powers that be at Disney that he could not deviate one inch away from the formula of the original, and so the entire movie just feels like deja vu.

Let me get right to the absolute, biggest problem with the movie, and that’s the animation itself.  The original Lion King uses the medium to it’s fullest potential, which allows for the suspension of disbelief to be more palatable as we watch animals talking and singing and expressing very human like emotions.  The exaggeration in expressions is something that we take for granted a lot in animation, because it’s just something that has always been a part of the animated medium.  With the squashing and stretching of hand drawn characters, as well as what’s allowed in modern day computer animation, you can make even members of the animal kingdom capable of carrying heavy drama or lighthearted comedy, because it plays out so much in the extreme expressions that animated models can project.  However, when a movie goes out of it’s way to stick so closely to true life in the way that it’s characters look, it unfortunately restricts that freedom that animation can allow.  That’s what happens in this version of The Lion King, and it is painfully distracting.  Here’s the thing with creatures like lions, hyenas, birds, warthogs, and meercats; they all have expressionless faces in real life.  They can’t show a range of emotions like human beings can through facial gestures, because their bodies aren’t made for that.  Unfortunately, the animators here went too far into the direction of authenticity when it came to creating realistic looking animals, and what happened was that all the characters have dead, expressionless faces.  It especially becomes a problem in a moment like Simba mourning over the death of his father.  In the original, you felt Simba’s anguish because it was drawn so well on his face, completely with tears running down his cheeks.  In this movie, you can hear the pained vocal performance from the actor, but the animated Simba just looks like an empty, emotionless vessel.  And that’s just one distracting example out of many.

The animation not only robs the movie of it’s emotional weight because of the loss of expression on the characters’ faces, but it also robs the impact of the vocal performances as well.  Disney put together a stellar all star cast for this movie, but unless you knew who all these people were ahead of time, you wouldn’t even recognize their presence in this movie.  Donald Glover, it turns out, does not really have a distinctive voice, and he comes off a whole lot less charismatic here as Simba than he does in so many other roles where he’s present both in body and voice.  Beyonce fairs a bit better as Nala, who is the only character that’s given a bit more development in this movie, but even she suffers from the lack of emotional range given to her animated character.  And though it is pleasing to know that Disney wanted no one else to play Mufasa than the one and only James Earl Jones, it sadly squanders his presence here by just having him read the same exact lines that he read for the character 25 years ago.  You can especially hear the passage of time in his voice too, as his vocal performance doesn’t quite have the same power to it.  The one saving grace for this movie is, strangely enough, the comic relief.  Billy Eichner and Seth Rogan are perfectly cast as Timon and Pumbaa, and though their digital models are just as stiff as the others, they at least are allowed to act more exaggerated.  Their moments are also the only parts of the movie that veer off script from the original, as they rely more heavily on their improv skills to deliver the humor, and it was a breath of fresh air that helped to distract from the lack of originality elsewhere.  Even John Oliver gets in a few laughs, again using improvisation to his advantage.  The script is credited to Jeff Nathonson, but it probably should have credited the original film’s scribes (Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton) too, since about 80% of the script is exactly word for word the same, which is very distracting in the  movie and shows just how little effort was put into making this movie stand on it’s own.  If only everyone else was allowed to improvise like the comedians were, then we might have had a more interesting movie.

Essentially, it seemed like the primary concern on the part of Jon Favreau and his team was to show off what they could do with their new animation technology.  Apparently this movie was made with a special Virtual Reality process, which allowed Favreau and his crew to create a fully animated simulation that they could enter with VR headsets and shoot like a real movie, choosing shots like they would on a live set.  Sure, it’s all impressive and ground-breaking, but when you put all the effort into that and none into the story and helping differentiate your version from the previous one, well then all you’re doing in the end is just making a glorified tech demo.  And that’s essentially what happened here.  I wonder if Jon Favreau would have been better served taking this style of life-like animation and applying it to an original movie concept; one that isn’t just a remake of something else.  I will say that he used it to impressive effect in his direction of The Jungle Book, which did feature some jaw-dropping animation.  But that movie had the advantage of a real, live action kid playing Mowgli who could give the audience a reference point to compare the animation with.  With The Lion King, there is nothing to offset the expressionless faces of the animals with.  Couple this with a script that seemed too afraid to take any chances and the movie just misses the mark at every opportunity.  I will say, the environments do fair a bit better.  When you realize that every blade of grass, every rock pebble, and every drop of water was rendered through a computer in this film, it does give you pause.  We are getting closer than ever to breaking through that uncanny valley when it comes to environmental construction.  But, even with that, it still lacks the grandness of Disney’s original.  The ’94 Lion King was epic in scope, in ways few animated film have ever achieved, and it’s amazing that the same exact scenes feel less grand the more realistic they are reconstructed.  The Wildebeest Stampede for example feels far less grand in the new version.  CGI can do amazing things, and bring previously impossible things to life.  But what it can’t do is capture the majesty of the painted image through a photo-real lens.  It just reminds me of Jeff Goldblum’s line from Jurassic Park (1993), where he said, “You got all caught up in whether or not you could, you never stopped to think whether or not you should,” and that really explains the folly of trying to make a “live action” Lion King.

It’s hard to say if this is the worst of the Disney remakes.  I will say, as disappointed as I was in this film, it didn’t draw the same ire that I had for Beauty and the Beast (2017).  That film was not only inferior to the original in every way, it was also unpleasant to look at, with garish ugly designs for all the characters in that film.  The Lion King, apart from the appalling, emotionless character animation, the movie is colorful and competently crafted.  But, I will say that it feels like the laziest of the Disney remakes that we’ve seen thus far.  There was no effort at all to do anything different with this story; it is just the same exact film repeated, minus the heart and emotion of the original.  I was frankly stunned by how little this movie deviates from the original.  Entire scenes are repeated to the letter, and there are no surprises whatsoever.  Beauty and the Beast at least attempted to write some new things into it’s script to make it a little different.  They were all terrible ideas, sure, but it was at least some change.  If you’ve seen the original Lion King, and I’m sure most of you have, than you probably know every beat of the narrative, and it will all play out exactly the same way in this version.  The movie adds nothing, and in fact, it only takes things away in some bafflingly unnecessary ways.  The songs especially suffer, because they lack the flights of fantasy that you could get away with in the original.  The villain song “Be Prepared” is whittled down to just a short, half-spoken verse, which should really enrage fans who love that particular song.  It’s the very definition of a movie that exists solely to make money and play upon our nostalgic memories of the original.  You could say that about any of the other Disney remakes too, but at least some of them have justified their existence for being and stood just fine on their own.  This one will never, ever replace the original, and I pity the poor person who has this version be their first exposure to the story.  Please, just stick with the original.  25 years have not diminished the shine of that classic one bit and even this remake won’t damage it either.  Watch it again and forget this new Lion King, because it’s lion’s roar is nothing but a whimper.

Rating: 5/10

Spider-Man: Far From Home – Review

One of the most interesting aspects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that it was able to be built on the shoulders of some of the less familiar heroes from the Marvel canon; or should I untried on the silver screen.  It’s interesting that the core group of Avengers that laid the foundation for all else to follow was made up of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye, of all people.  Up until the launch of the MCU with Iron Man, only the Hulk had been tested on the big screen, and not very well I might add.  Yet, these were the characters that producer Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios were willing to bet the farm on, instead of the Marvel characters that had already had varied success before like the Fantastic Four, Wolverine and the X-Men, and most importantly Spider-Man.  The reason for Marvel Studio’s exclusion of these well known characters was pretty apparent; years of licensing out their characters to other studios created a rights issue nightmare once Marvel had established a permanent home at Disney.  To their credit, they managed to survive without these other characters and elevated the once unproven heroes into A-list names on their own, which then forced the other studios to consider playing ball, once they saw all the money that Disney and Marvel were making.  Sony stepped up first, working out a shared profits agreement with Disney that would allow for Spider-Man to participate in the Avengers crossovers, while at the same time allowing Sony to keep the rights to the character for his own standalone franchise, only with Marvel taking creative control.  This agreement has proven to be a win win for both sides, as Marvel can now include Spider-Man as a part of their universe, and Sony can benefit from the residual good fortune that his presence there brings back to his own series.

One of the things that has really mattered the most for this compromise is in how they’ve dealt with the character as part of the cinematic universe.  To work him into a continuing story-line that connects all the other films as Marvel had been doing with their universe, the makers of this new Spider-Man had to consider where he would be at in this point of his life.  So, it was decided to dispense with the backstory of the character (how he got bitten by a radioactive spider and witnessed the murder of his Uncle Ben) and just jump strait to him using his powers.  This helped to bring him smoothly into the MCU, with his debut in Captain America: Civil War (2016) winning many raves.  We didn’t need to watch him grow into Spider-Man; that story had already been told, twice.  This was Spider-Man being welcomed into the family.  What it also did was  introduce an interesting new character dynamic that most people weren’t expecting, which was the mentor/apprentice relationship between him and Tony Stark, aka Iron Man.  Since Iron Man was the one who recruited him, it makes sense that the two would form a closer bond, which became a central theme in the first solo film for this new version of the hero, called Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017).  The casting of youthful looking Tom Holland in the role also helped to reinforce this new aspect of the character, because he brought an exuberance to the character that played very well off of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man; acting very much like the eager intern wanting to impress the boss.  It worked out so well that their relationship resulted in probably the most emotional moments from both Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019).  It safe to say that even though he was late to the party, Spider-Man has become an essential and beloved part of the on-going MCU, and we are about to see what comes next in his second, stand alone feature titled Spider-Man: Far From Home.  Is it another triumph for the young hero, or does he get caught up in his own web?

It’s hard to talk about some aspects of the movie without discussing spoilers from Infinity War and Endgame.  I’ll assume that enough time has passed to talk about the ending of Infinity War here, and the fact that this movie exists at all should tell you a little bit about what happened at the finale of Endgame.  Still, I’ll keep things slightly vague and warn you now; some spoilers ahead.  Okay, so unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last year, the MCU concluded the events of Infinity War with the villain Thanos wiping out half of all life in the universe.  This event was undone during Endgame, but five years had passed for those who were left behind.  Just as quickly as all the victims were wiped from existence, they magically reappeared again in the same place in an occurrence that people now refer to as “The Blip.”  Peter Parker (Tom Holland) was one of those blipped, as was his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), MJ (Zendaya) the girl he has a crush on, Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) a school bully, and Peter’s Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), all of whom are having to readjust in a society that has aged 5 years without them.  Having helped the Avengers defeat Thanos, and saying heartfelt goodbyes to fallen comrades in the process, Peter just wants to put the Spider-Man to rest for a while and enjoy a vacation away with his friends.  His school takes a class trip to Europe, where Spider-Man is not well known and never needed, so Peter finally feels free of the burden.  That is until the director of S.H.I.E.L.D, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) calls upon Spider-Man for help.  Fury introduces Peter to a new superhero named Quentin Beck, who goes by the persona Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal).  Mysterio warns them that ancient beings called the Elementals have destroyed his home and are intent on wrecking havoc in Europe as well.  Peter now must make a choice; does he put his vacation R&R on hold to save the day once again, or does he leave the Super Hero responsibility behind?  In addition, can he also fully trust this Mysterio character as well?

It’s pretty clear that the expectations for Spider-Man: Far From Home are pretty high.  Not only was Spider-Man: Homecoming heralded as one of the best Spider-Man movies to date, but in between these franchise films we’ve even been treated to one of the best animated films in years centered on the character with the Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse (2018).  Not to mention, we’re also coming off the high of both Infinity War and Endgame, which Spider-Man also played a crucial part in.  So, a lot is to be expected now.  Kevin Feige even stated that Far From Home is actually the official close of Phase 3, acting as sort of a feature length epilogue to Endgame.  The only question is, does it live up to all that?  Yeah, in a way.  I did enjoy this movie quite a bit, but I wonder if I might have enjoyed it better had it not come with all this baggage attached to it.  If the grandiosity of Endgame had not preceded it, this movie might have resonated a little more, but instead it merely just serves it’s purpose and nothing more.  My expectations were met, but were never really exceeded.  I don’t want to sound negative, because the movie is not a disappointment by any means.  As a sequel, it does work as a great companion piece to Spider-Man: Homecoming.  But, as a part of the MCU, especially in presenting a post-Avengers level event, it is par for the course.  This won’t count as one of the all time great Marvel movies, but if you’re looking for just a fun romp with your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, than this is more than satisfying.  It might be that the expectations for the character have almost outgrown what he is capable of delivering now, since so much has gone right for the character as of late.  The last thing you’d expect at this point right now for Spider-Man is go less epic and grandiose and more intimate and farcical, but that’s exactly what we get, and in a way, it kind of makes sense given everything else we’ve seen.

Far From Home plays it’s story a little closer to the core of Spider-Man’s character; having him struggle with identity in this new unfamiliar world that he’s been absent from for so long.  One of the movie’s surprising aspects is in how it deals with the aftermath of Endgame.  It surprisingly takes a humorous spin on the horrific event early on, but at the same time, it never forgets that the world has changed in the absence of these core characters.  In particular, the movie gets at it’s most interesting when Peter struggles with how his coming to terms with the aftermath is far more profound than with everyone else.  It makes him a little more careless, selfish, and emotionally distant than we’ve seen him be before, and that is an interesting exploration to take with the character.  This is Spider-Man completely un-moored, left uncertain about his future and it makes him in a more cynical state than before.  I’d say that the only fault that the movie has is that it sometimes looses that focus on this aspect of the story, choosing to conveniently drop it whenever the story needs it to.  We start with Peter clearly wanting to distance himself from Spider-Man for while as he begins his trip abroad, choosing to leave the suit at home (though Aunt May has other plans), however the moment the Elementals make their first attack in the city of Venice, Peter doesn’t hesitate to step in.  I guess Peter’s inclination is to always help out even when he doesn’t want to, but I think it would have been more interesting to see how not acting the hero would have impacted his character.  Things get more interesting in the second half of the movie once Mysterio and Spider-Man’s relationship takes center stage, and I quite liked how the movie built that up as the central conflict of the story.  It will be interesting to see how opinions on this movie may differ depending on how people view this interpretation of Mysterio.  I will say that the character is faithfully adapted from the comic, and that could be a blessing or a curse depending on how familiar you are with the source material.  For me, it became the thing that fueled the movie to it’s high points and I ended up enjoying the character quite a bit.

One thing that this movie certainly does is reinforce the fact that Tom Holland is probably the best actor to have ever filled the role of Spider-Man.  Tobey Maguire certainly did a fantastic job as well in his trilogy, and Andrew Garfield gave it his best shot in movies that unfortunately were sub-par, but Holland just captures every aspect of the character to perfection.  He has probably come the closest to embodying exactly what Stan Lee and Steve Ditko imagined in their minds when they first conceived the character.  And, as I stated before, what I liked best in Tom’s performance here was how well he portrays the emotional toll that the Infinity War Saga has put on this character.  There’s a wonderful scene between him and Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan (another great holdover from past Marvel Phases), where Peter reaches his breaking point, to which Happy helps to console him and lift him back up for the next fight.  It just shows how much range he’s managed to bring to this character, perfectly balancing the film’s more light-hearted moments with it’s heavier dramatic ones; something that he’s demonstrated several times already in the MCU.  The introduction of Mysterio into this series is an interesting choice, and I’m happy that Marvel is choosing to spotlight the villains in the Spider-Man rogues gallery that we haven’t seen yet; as opposed to just revisiting that Green Goblin well once again.  Jake Gyllenhaal is a surprising choice for the character, but when you see both sides of the character revealed, it makes perfect sense why he was cast.  He had to portray the character as relatable, and yet at the same time, duplicitous and self-indulgent, which is very true to the character’s origins in the comic.  I also love how much Marvel embraces the original character designs from the comics and that we get Mysterio brought to life in all his dome-headed glory.  The returning cast all bring a lot of fun energy to the movie, and I especially like the fact that MJ is more fleshed out in this film which is very much needed knowing how important her character will be in future Spider-Man story-lines.  The movie also gives us a couple surprise appearances from key figures in both the world of Spider-Man and Marvel in the end credits scenes, but I don’t want to spoil those other than to say seeing these characters brought a lot of joy to me and the audience in the theater.

One other great thing about Spider-Man: Far From Home is how well it looks.  The movie was shot mostly on location in many authentic European locales, and the film makes great use of them all.  Even in between the action scenes, the movie shows off the beauty of Venice, Prague, Berlin, and London with a travelogue like sensibility.  The whole movie is colorful, probably more than we’ve ever seen from any other Spider-Man movie to date, and it uses it’s widescreen canvas very well.  The film also takes some interesting flights into fantasy whenever we see Mysterio’s illusions come fully to life.  There’s one confrontation between him and Spider-Man where the illusions become so bizarre and out there that it’s like a nightmare come to life, which itself is very close to how these scenes play out in the comic books.  Those scenes in particular are something that I’ve never seen before in any Spider-Man movie, and it helped to set this movie apart from others in the MCU.  It explains why they chose a character like Mysterio for this chapter in Spider-Man’s story, because it’s a threat that he hasn’t learned to deal with yet.  This is a visually inventive film, and it shows that director Jon Watts and his team are really finding their voice as a part of the MCU, and more importantly, putting their own stamp on the character of Spider-Man.  More than anything, this has been the most confident approach to the character that we’ve seen yet, not bound to a director’s own personal style like the Sam Raimi films, nor desperately trying to follow a trend like the grittier Amazing Spider-Man movies.  Far From Home and Homecoming take their cues from the comic pages themselves, embracing both the absurd and the profound straight from  the page and putting it there on screen.

In the larger sense, I’d say that Far From Home matches it’s predecessor as a cinematic follow-up.  In the grand scheme of the MCU, it might come off as a little small, especially when it’s the follow-up to Endgame, which is an epic on a biblical scale.   But, it has it’s heart in the right place and doesn’t disappoint when it comes to the character himself.  I love the fact that the movie does explore the toll that the previous film’s events have taken on Peter Parker’s well-being, and how that is challenged by his encounter with Mysterio.  I love how faithful the movie is to the character of Mysterio himself, not being afraid to portray the more outlandish parts of the character as well as going all in on the costume as well.  In addition, we get our first ever look into what Marvel has planned for it’s future, which they’ve been pretty mum about up to this point.  The movie closes with a pretty shocking revelation in it’s mid credits scene, and it will be interesting to see where they take the character of Spider-Man from there.  Given that the actors are growing older with each new film, I’m happy to see that one of themes of the film was about maturing, and learning to rely upon ones self when that’s all you can do.  Future Spider-Man films will need to further explore that continuing maturity, and leave the high school setting behind.  I think that’s been the best thing about these more recent Spider-Man films; that they’ve explored the experience of growing up and finding your own path as an adult.  That’s what Peter Parker’s story ultimately has to be about, not just what challenges he must face with each new villain.  It’s all about that immortal line penned by Stan Lee all those years ago on the comic page, “With great power comes great responsibility.”  Spider-Man’s story explores that idea more than any other Marvel superhero, because as we’ve seen in this version, he’s still a child trying to find the right way to use his powers for good, and it’s through the friends and foes that he meets that he grows into the hero that we all need.  Far From Home retains that idea, and gives the audience a fun time in the process.  Hopefully we be swinging around again soon with this friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

Rating: 8/10

Toy Story 4 – Review

Pixar, in it’s 30 year history, has transformed the face of animation in a way that few have.  Because of their seemingly unflappable track record of success, the animation industry completely adopted CGI as the standard, ending decades of hand drawn dominance as part of the art-form.  And despite challenges from other studios like Dreamworks and Illumination, Pixar remains on top both in terms of box office and accolades.  And through the years, they have assembled one of the most beloved libraries of films, with the likes of Monsters Inc. (2001), The Incredbiles (2004), and Cars (2006) all spawning successful franchises on their own in addition to one-offs like Up (2009), Inside Out (2015) and Coco (2017).  But, if there ever was a crown jewel in the entire Pixar canon, it would be the movie series which laid the foundation for everything that followed; Toy Story.  The original 1995 classic is without a doubt one of the most important animated films ever made.  It not only proved that computer animation could work at feature length, but it also showed that it could tell an emotional story as well.  In no time, the characters of Woody and Buzz Lightyear became household names, and Pixar was firmly put on the map.  But even more remarkable than making that splash the first time, Pixar wowed audiences again by making a sequel that not only matched it’s predecessor, but to some, it even surpassed it.  Toy Story 2 (1999) proved that the first movie wasn’t a fluke and showed that there was plenty more story to mine with these toys.  Because of that, Pixar flourished, but that didn’t stop them from revisiting the characters yet again.  Toy Story 3 (2010) picked it up again after an over 10 year gap, and again, Pixar remarkably delivered another emotional adventure that did not disappoint.  It’s almost like Pixar could do no wrong with their cornerstone franchise, and altogether it made Toy Story one of the most beloved trilogies of all time.  So, with something as perfectly packaged as the Toy Story trilogy, you would think that they would leave it be and stay content with where they left these beloved characters at the end.  But, it would seem that Pixar had more up their sleeve.

Making it’s way to theaters after another nearly decade long gap, we have Toy Story 4, a movie that both excites and worries a lot of fans at the same time.  Toy Story 4 is coming out in an interesting time for Pixar, as they are facing a bit more scrutiny now than they have before.  When the movie was first announced at the 2015 D23 Expo, then Disney Animation studio head John Lasseter was attached to direct the feature, marking his return to the series that he served as director for in it’s first two outings.  Then, two years later at the following D23 Expo, Lasseter made the shocking announcement that he was no longer acting as the film’s director, handing that duty to first timer Josh Cooley instead.  In the years since, we now have come to know why this change happened, as Lasseter was forced to resign his position at Disney and Pixar due to personal misconduct claims by employees at both companies.  His positions at Pixar and Disney are now filled by Pete Doctor and Jennifer Lee respectively, and Toy Story 4 will be the last screen credit he will ever receive from the company that he built.  It’s safe to say that out of all the Toy Story films, 4 had the rockiest development of all.  Much of John Lasseter’s original was scrapped, and new director Cooley had to pretty much start from scratch, which is daunting given the pedigree of this franchise.  The original script, written by Rashida Jones and Will McCormack was completely overhauled by another newcomer, Stephany Folsom, along with Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton.  And all the revision required for an extra year of development, resulting in the first delayed release in Pixar’s history, with the more steadily produced Incredibles 2 taking it’s original 2018 slot.  Apart from all the backstage drama, Pixar is also being more heavily scrutinized for it’s heavier reliance on sequels during the last decade, as opposed to more original material.  In fact, Toy Story 4 marks the 4th year in a row we’ve has a Pixar sequel released to theaters, making some worry that the studio is running out of originality.  And there are others who believed that 3′s ending was so perfect that anything beyond it will spoil the story, and be seen as just a cash grab by the studio.  So, the question is, does Toy Story 4 justify it’s existence and pull off a victory despite all the trouble, or does it sully the Toy Story name permanently.

Unlike the time jump made between Toy Story’s 2 and 3, where we saw the toys say goodbye to their original owner Andy as he headed off to college, 4 picks things up only a short time later as new owner Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) is still the young child that we last saw her as.  The ageless toys remain together as a family and enjoy their playtimes, though sadly, Bonnie is beginning to play favorites.  Woody (Tom Hanks) once the favorite toy of Andy, is being left in the closet more by Bonnie, who prefers playing with Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) Jesse (Joan Cusack) and the other toys.  Woody isn’t bitter about it, but he wants to find some way back into Bonnie’s attention.  One day, he sneaks into her backpack as Bonnie prepares for her first day of Kindergarten.  Though shy at first, Bonnie soon finds happiness when she builds a new toy from scraps of litter.  She lovingly names him Forky (Tony Hale), and seeing how Forky makes Bonnie feel better at school, Woody takes it upon himself to protect the new toy from harm.  That’s easier said than done, as Forky continually tries to throw himself back into the garbage, seeing himself not as a toy at all, but rather the trash he’s made out of.  During a road trip, Forky jumps out of the family camper, and Woody chases after him, telling the others to wait for them.  When they arrive at the town that Bonnie’s family is staying, they pass by an antique store where Woody notices something familiar; the lamp base that his long lost love, Bo Peep (Annie Potts) once stood on.  Hoping to see Bo one more time, Woody delays his return to Bonnie to search through the antique store, with Forky in tow.  They instead find a squad of ventriloquist dummies working under the orders of Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) a talking doll with a broken voice box.  She desires to take Woody’s box as a replacement, which Woody is not okay with.  Bo Peep does eventually come to the rescue, and she agrees to help Woody, along with help from carnival toys Bunny (Jordan Peele), Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and daredevil action figure Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves).  The only question is, can Woody and Forky return before Bonnie’s family leaves town.

Of all the Toy Story films, this one probably had the most daunting task to accomplish.  The films in the series are not only beloved, but they also cohesively hold together as a complete narrative.  It’s a story about what happens to toys once they stop being played with; something that was established in the first movie with Woody’s jealousy over being upstaged by Buzz Lightyear, and reaffirmed in Toy Story 2, with Woody coming to terms with the idea that one day Andy will outgrow him.  With Toy Story 3, we saw that scenario play out as Andy became an young adult and was ready to give away his toys to someone else.  And in a great resolution to Woody’s arc, we see the lovable sheriff doll put that final choice up to Andy, showing that he’s ready to let go and let the boy he watch grow up live his life on his own.  The story could have ended right there, and it would have been perfect, but Pixar seemed to think that there was more to explore with these characters, to the worry of fans who felt that this was starting to be overkill.  Well, I’m happy to say that there’s nothing to worry, because not only does Toy Story 4 live up to the lofty standards of this series, it even resolves the story in an even better way than we would have hoped for.  If you look at the entire series as a whole as the story of Woody, this fourth chapter does make sense as the concluding chapter, because it addresses the one lingering issue that we had yet to explore with his story; the loss of Bo Peep in his life.  One thing that seemed to survive from the John Lasseter version of the film was the idea that this was going to be first and foremost a love story, and indeed that is something that really had yet to be explored in this series.  We had explored the bond of friendship between Woody and Buzz, and Woody’s companionship with Andy, but the romantic angle was never explored completely.  Bo Peep was just there as a love interest in the first two movies, and completely absent in the third, as Buzz and Jesse’s courtship took it’s place.  Returning Bo Peep to the storyline finally gives Woody’s own story closure, as he finally begins to understand what he’s been missing in his life now that Andy is gone and Bonnie (through no ill intent) has seemed to forgotten him.

I have to give a lot of praise to Josh Cooley.  Taking on the role of director for an animated feature is tough enough, but he got saddled with the job of shepherding the centerpiece franchise of the entire studio during a very turbulent transition period.  The fact that he not only created a cohesive, emotionally satisfying film but also one that follows in the footsteps of some of the greatest animated films of all time and does the justice to the franchise as a whole is kind of miraculous.  He deftly manages to not only keep the series consistent both visually and narratively, but he even found new avenues to explore that you never thought would be possible.  I think that where the movie succeeds the most is in it’s focus.  The movie never makes the mistake of trying to jam in a bunch of call backs to previous films.  They are there if you think about them, but for the most part, completely relies upon it’s own new ideas to carry the narrative.  I was frankly astonished how little I was thinking about the other movies as the story went along, showing that I didn’t even need to have a refresher before coming into this film; it stands that well on it’s own.  The movie doesn’t necessarily have as challenging themes as Toy Story 2 and had, which dealt with heavy subjects like abandonment, personal identity, and even finding solace in the face of certain death, but at this point it doesn’t need to.  In the end, the story does what it need to which is to make us love these characters all over again and wish for them to live happily ever after.  I will say, without spoiling anything, that the movie’s biggest emotional punch comes in it’s final moments.  If you thought 3 ended on a tear-jerking farewell, just wait until you see how this movie ends.  I didn’t think that it was possible for this movie to get to that emotional high again, but somehow they did.  It would be a classic finale to any animated feature, but the fact that it comes from a series that already has legendary final acts to begin with is really saying something.

When you get down to it, the thing that makes all four of the Toy Story films the amazing films that they are has always been the strength of it’s characters.  Woody again takes center stage again, and Tom Hanks has never failed in all his years voicing the character.  There’s so much heart in his performance, and it’s remarkable hearing him find even more layers to explore once again.  What’s especially special about is Annie Potts returning to play Bo Peep.  She fianlly gets to let loose as the character, portraying a very independent Bo who has had to fend for herself for so many years.  This is a welcome change for a character that, I have to say, was somewhat underdeveloped in the past.  You can really tell in Annie’s performance that she is relishing this new, more confident version of the character, and it’s a very welcome change for the long running series.  Though there isn’t much left to do with the character, the movie even manages to find a minor, amusing arc for Buzz Lightyear, as he let’s his “inner voice” guide his way.  With the growing cast of characters over four films, it’s understandable that some of them are going to be pushed into the background, Jesse probably being the most noticeable, though she gets a beautiful little moment at the film’s end.  Characters like Hamm and Rex barely get any lines, and Mr. Potato Head is mostly silent, given that his voice Don Rickles passed away while the film was still in it’s early stages (he is given a wonderful memorial in the end credits).  Even still, I never felt that there was anything lacking in the character development.  I don’t think there’s even a single appearance of the Little Green Men at all, and I didn’t even notice their absence until long after the movie was over.  That’s how well the movie uses it’s characters.  The new characters all get plenty of due time.  Christina Hendricks Gabby Gabby is not quite as sinister an antagonist as past villains in the series like Sid and Lotso Huggins Bear, but she does have an effective presence that helps to drive the story along.  The scene-stealers though are definitely Tony Hale’s Forky and Keanu Reeve’s Duke Caboom, both among the most hilarious characters we’ve seen in the series to date.  More is the merrier with the cast of Toy Story 4 and it’s wonderful to see the best thing about this series get even better with more time.

It’s also fascinating to see just how much this series has grown visually.  Consider the fact that the first Toy Story was made during the infancy of computer animation.  The medium has grown by leaps and bounds since then in everything from texture replication, to environmental elements, to character design.  And even still, even with all the advancements made over the last 24 years, Toy Story still feels like it shares the same world as it’s primitive predecessor.  Yeah, it’s unfair to compare the two, but it really does show how resilient that original Toy Story still is.  The only thing that really doesn’t hold up well from the original film is the character designs of the humans, which look pretty jenky today,  but the toy designs have remarkably remained unchanged.  Thankfully, the team at Pixar never thought to fix something that wasn’t broken, and Woody, Buzz, and Bo Peep remain true to form, only supported now with more advanced technology to bring them to life.  One thing that feels more stunning than ever is the environmental design in the film.  Toy Story for the most part has been an interior based story-line, but for Toy Story 4, Pixar has opened up the world and allowed it’s characters to explore it like never before.  The antique shop itself is a remarkable work of art of interior design, with nearly every inch of the screen filled with unique wall to wall detail.  Add to this a subtle layer of dust and cobwebs and you’ve got an environment that feels alive unlike anything we’ve seen from the series before.  There’s also remarkable use of a nearby fairground, which takes on a special aura after dark, providing a stunning visual element for the film in it’s final moments.  In this movie, you can see every lesson learned by Pixar put to good use, and it’s fascinating to see how this compares with where the Toy Story franchise started.  It’s the best looking movie in the series to date, and it’s something that the filmmakers definitely wanted to show off, given that this is the first widescreen Toy Story, taking full advantage of the 2.40:1 aspect ratio.  All the while, you can still watch all the movies together and still feel like you’ve returned to this familiar and welcome world.

It’ll take some time for me to decide where I can rank this movie with the rest of the series, because frankly, they are all pretty much equal in quality.  It doesn’t quite have as deep of a story line thematically as the other Toy Story’s, but it’s far better at exploring more personal character situations than we’ve seen before from this series.  3 certainly had the best villain of the series, and you have to credit the original for laying the groundwork to begin with.  Regardless of where it’s going to fall in the long run, it’s still an enormously satisfying movie to watch, and absolutely lives up to the high standards of this series.  But, given the worries that people have had about the movie before and the fact that this one resolves in such a satisfying and definitive way, I really think that at this point Pixar should absolutely close the book finally on this series.  They got lucky with finding that one ounce of story left to tell, but now there really is nothing left to do.  This should absolutely be the final chapter for this story, and it’s a beautiful one too.  Anything more, and it will definitely be Pixar grabbing cash.  Maybe they can spin off something like a true Buzz Lightyear adventure set in space, but that’s about it.  No more.  I am grateful that even after 4 movies this series has never stumbled.  24 years later, and a whole new generation now has a Toy Story to call it’s own.  I’m especially happy to see new directors and writers answering the call and delivering something worthwhile, even amongst the turmoil and with all that pressure.  Also seeing a character like Bo Peep finally getting her due spotlight was pleasing, as well as plenty dispersed attention to every character we’ve grown to love over the years.  It’s the things like this that has made Pixar the beloved brand that it’s become since the original Toy Story, and it’s pleasing to see that even after all this time, that creative spark continues to shine.  Let’s hope that the many artists and animators at Pixar manages to keep that spirit going strong; to infinity, and beyond.

Rating: 9/10

Dark Phoenix – Review

It can’t be underestimated the impact that has been left by the X-Men characters in the super hero genre of film.  The powerful team of mutant beings that have long been a favorite of comic book fans across the world finally made their way to the big screen for the first time in 2000 to wide critical praise.  The Bryan Singer directed film came at a crucial time for the genre, which had fallen on hard times largely due to the failure of DC’s Batman and Robin (1997), which turned the genre into a laughing stock.  Not only did X-Men bring back respectability to the genre, but it also gave it greater purpose than just entertainment.  For the first time, we saw a super hero film tackle heavy issues like social prejudice and personal identity in a serious fashion, while at the same time never loosing track of it’s comic book roots.  In many ways, this was the movie that laid the groundwork for the super hero genre to mature into a leading force within Hollywood as both a dynamic box office powerhouse, but also as a platform for dramatic social commentary.  Without the X-Men, we probably wouldn’t have seen the mature takes on other super hero mythos that have come to define the genre like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, or Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), or even the Oscar worthy themes of Black Panther (2018).  In addition, the movie also did a number of other things.  It made an A-list star out of Hugh Jackman, and turned his character Wolverine into an instant icon.   It was also Marvel Comic’s first serious foray into film-making, which has created massive dividends to this day for the brand.  But, what is most remarkable about the X-Men movie is that it ended up spawning a franchise that has remarkably remained unbroken for nearly twenty years; more or less.  Sure the timelines are ludicrously held together, but the narrative of the series that started with the 2000 film has managed to continue on up to today, which is an enviable run for any franchise, especially in the super hero genre.  But, as it happens with all things, this too has come to an end.

For the majority of it’s time on the big screen, the X-Men franchise has been under the banner of 20th Century Fox, and not by Marvel itself.  Marvel, in it’s earliest days in Hollywood, licensed their characters out to multiple studios, hoping to fast track their brand presence in the industry at a time when it was mostly the characters from their competitor, DC Comics, that dominated the box office.  Multiple studios over time had their hands on at least one Marvel character, but no singular studio had them all.  For Fox, they came into possession of the X-Men, as well as the Fantastic Four and Deadpool.  Out of these, the X-Men looked to be the most viable choice to build a strong franchise around, and Fox for a time did very well with the characters.  The franchise spawned two successful sequels, but as the genre began to change during the mid-2000’s, the franchise began to show signs of fatigue.  At the same time, Marvel, which had began to take more charge with how their characters were portrayed on screen, launched their own studio and soon after were bought by Disney, who were intent on consolidating all the Marvel characters back under one roof.  Many studios relinquished their control over the characters, like Paramount and Universal, but Fox was less compliant.  As Marvel Studios began to rise, the X-Men franchise began a bit of a Renaissance as they successfully relaunched the franchise with X-Men: First Class (2011).  Followed up with acclaimed films like X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) and Deadpool (2016) and Fox believed they could form a cinematic universe with their own X-Men characters that they still owned the rights to.  However, the disappointing returns for X-Men: Apocalypse (2017) dampened those expectations, and soon after, Disney ended up buying Fox completely in a landmark acquisition, further spelling out the end of the line for the X-Men franchise.  Only one movie was left over in development that could give closure to this long running franchise, and the question remains; does Dark Phoenix send off these X-Men with a bang or a whimper?

The movie carries over the consistent gimmick of the past three X-Men movies, in that it jumps ahead ten years to use another decade as it’s setting.  First Class started of in the psychedelic 60’s, then Days of Future Past jumped to the turbulent 70’s, and Apocalypse brought us up to the colorful 80’s.  Dark Phoenix now sets the story in the early 90’s, with the X-Men firmly established as a beloved crime fighting force, using their powers for a good purpose.  Led by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), the headmaster at a special school for mutant children, the X-Men are sent on a special mission to space to save a stranded crew of astronauts who were attacked in orbit by an unknown, alien force.  The recovery team, led by team leaders Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank “Beast” McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), take the X-Men’s jet to orbit and have the teleportation powered Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) bring the astronauts safely out of the damaged ship.  Meanwhile, telekinetic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) tries to buy time, using her powers to hold the ship together, but while the astronauts are saved, it ends up being too late for her.  The mysterious cloud that attacked the ship suddenly rushes to her and absorbs itself completely into her body.  Worried that she’s been killed the other X-Men retrieve her from space, and to their surprise, she is not only alive but seemingly unharmed.  Back on earth, Jean starts to experience strange changes to her body.  Her powers are enhanced and uncontrollable, turning her into a menace wherever she goes.  She leaves the X-Men, seeking refuge with former X-Men foe Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who also casts her out when her new powers begin to wreck havoc.  Xavier and Jean’s boyfriend Scott Summers aka Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) hope to find and comfort the troubled Jean, but things are complicated once an alien race of shape-shifters, led by the power hungry Vuk (Jessica Chastain) have their eye on gaining Jean’s Phoenix force for themselves.

If you have been following the X-Men franchise up to this point, you are probably already familiar with the Phoenix Force story-line, as it also provided the plot inspiration for the problematic X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), the not so loved third film in the series.  Last Stand was rightly condemned for it’s mishandling of the beloved story-line from the comics, both in straying too far from the actual origins of Jean Grey’s transformation and for mishandling all the careful character development that had gone into establishing the X-Men over the last two films.  Knowing fully well that fans were upset with how this was handled before, Fox planted the seeds for a do-over in their relaunch of the X-Men franchise with their new cast, especially with the obvious hints shown in the movie X-Men: Apocalypse.  However, with the off-set turmoil going on behind the scenes, with director Bryan Singer no longer acceptable to helm the picture because of his alleged sexual misconduct and the upcoming Disney/Fox merger further complicating matters, Dark Phoenix’s road to the big screen was very troubled.  Delayed multiple times, this film has finally made it to theaters, and the off screen problems are very apparent.  Not only did Fox not get the Phoenix saga right the second time around, they somehow made it even worse.  I’m sorry to say that this is not the ideal closing chapter for this long-running series, and in fact, it may be one of the worst super hero movies ever made period.  This is nearly Fant4stic (2015) bad, and is worse in some ways to that rightfully malinged cinematic travesty.  While Fant4stic was a horribly made movie for a franchise that never was going to exist at all anyway, Dark Phoenix is sadly built upon a franchise that has created some of the best super hero movies of all time.  It’s tragic in a way that a franchise like this, which did a lot of stuff right up to now, especially with the characters, fails so badly at the end, with no way of redeeming itself, now that this is the end of the line for good.

Here’s where the problem lies.  Because original helmer Bryan Singer is out of the question, and standby director Brett Ratner who took over for The Last Stand is finding himself in a near similar situation, Fox left the entire project into to the hands of series writer Simon Kinberg.  Kinberg is a fine screenwriter, having penned most of the films in the series, as well as acting as a producer for the franchise as a whole.  It’s clear that he loves the characters, but he also sadly lacks any cinematic vision.  This movie is clearly directed by someone who doesn’t feel comfortable behind the camera, and that becomes apparent in the pacing, the blocking of shots, and most sad of all, in the performances of the actors.  I watched this movie just absolutely baffled at how amateurish it felt.  I know that much of the blame for movies like these fall on the director, but at the same time, I feel bad for Kinberg, because he only acted as director because nobody else would step up.  And to me, it became less of a cinematic exercise over time and more of a studio mandate, as Fox was forcing more and more out of this franchise just so they could hold onto the rights and spite Marvel.  Those circumstances don’t always translate into a cohesive film, and that’s apparent with Dark Phoenix.  The strange thing is that Kinberg, who has set up the arrival of the Phoenix Force in previous movies, completely disposes of it, instead taking his cue from the comic books, which in this version of the story, makes no sense.  In the cinematic timeline for Dark Phoenix, which remember is still connected to The Last Stand, it should’ve been shown that the Phoenix Force was always a part of Jean Grey this whole time, fueling her telekinetic powers.  But even despite that already having been established before in Last Stand, the movie dismisses this right away and explains that the Phoenix came from outer space, which yes is closer to the comic, but is completely contradictory to what’s been established up to now in the films.  Maybe Kinberg was told to change course, but if not, this is yet another example of the movie just becoming careless about what it wants to be.

Kinberg’s severe lack of experience in the director’s chair is most apparent when it comes to the actors performances.  The thing that will stand out to most people who watch the movie is just how out of it the actors are in this movie.  Their performances feel emotionless and inconsistent, like their just reading off their line for the camera, which is pretty much exactly what’s going on onscreen.  An experienced director’s job includes helping the actors find their right head space, in order to make them feel the moment they are in and think like the character they are portraying.  The right kind of director can do this with just about anybody, no matter what their experience is, and the great thing about the super hero genre is that the choice of performer and the quality of their performance has helped to bring these super heroes triumphantly off the page.  In Dark Phoenix, you have this incredibly talented cast of performers who are just lost, because they are clearly just not being directed, leaving them to rely upon their own instincts, which are sadly not all aligned together.  It’s also apparent that some of them are already checked out, having moved on to bigger and better things and are just here as an obligation as part of their contract.  Jennifer Lawrence clearly wanted to have this over and done with quickly, which is apparent based on the reduced make-up job done to turn her into Mystique.  I don’t blame any of the bad performances here on the actors, because I’ve seen them all do better in other films as these characters; some of which were powerfully delivered.  But, when they have nothing to work with, you can see just how much that hurts the actors’ abilities to perform.  Sophie Turner, who has to do much of the heavy lifting of this movie, is sadly reduced to repeating the same character beats throughout the movie as Jean Grey, mainly just being reduced to “I’m scared.  I can’t control it.”  Jessica Chastain is especially wasted, playing one of the blandest villainesses in recent memory, which is profoundly disappointing for an actress of her talent and prestige.  James McAvoy’s image obsessed Charles Xavier is especially out of character, and more than anything represents how these characters became less important as individuals and more as functions of a plot.

An even bigger problem arises from the film’s peculiar adherence to the convoluted rules of the franchise.  I still don’t know why the movies continue to leap ahead in time, just so that it can represent another decade.  The rule worked out for First Class and Days of Future Past, which were narratively very much tied to the years that they were set.  But, with Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix, you begin to encounter more problems.  One, those movies don’t really need the time period to give flavor to the story they’re telling.  Dark Phoenix in fact treats it’s setting as so inconsequential that you wouldn’t even realize it’s set in the 90’s unless you were told.  Second, the leap forwards run into the problem of having actors who look too young to play the same parts.  Remember, 10 years have passed between Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix, and yet all the actors look about the same age.  Jennifer Lawrence and Nicolas Hoult haven’t even turned 30 yet as of this writing, and yet their characters should be pushing 50 in the timeline of this movie; yet they still look like they haven’t aged a day.  At least McAvoy’s Charles Xavier has gone bald over the course of the movies.  It all makes the decade changing motif feel like it’s working against the progression of these characters; especially when characters like Jean, Cyclops, and Nightcrawler should all be in their mid-20’s at this point, and yet are still acting like teenagers.  And third, skipping 10 years at a time also robs the story of significant character development.  What has exactly been going on over 10 years, because the movie still treats these characters like nothing has changed since Apocalypse.  I would think that some major things would have happened to these characters during that time, but none of it is ever addressed.  So for all the things that Dark Phoenix sought to do differently in the story-line, namely the origin of the Phoenix Force, why did they still feel like they needed to jump ahead in time like the previous films had.  It’s another baffling choice that ultimately contributes to the laundry list of problems that this movie has.

The one good thing that I can say about this movie is that they wisely left Wolverine out of it.  Hugh Jackman thankfully got to hang up the claws in the far superior Logan (2017), leaving the character he played for over 17 years on a graceful note.  Sadly, for the actors involved here, some of whom have played these roles for the last 8 years, this is a less than ideal exit.  Dark Phoenix is a depressing end to a franchise that, while not always perfect, still managed to leave a positive impact on the genre as a whole.  For the most part, it’s most disappointing in the way that it once again squanders the opportunity to do the Phoenix Saga story-line once again, making it feel small and inconsequential.  But what I hated most about it was the amateurish way that it was constructed, failing in almost every department of film-making.  The camera work is uninspired, the musical score (surprisingly from the usually reliable Hans Zimmer) is a dreary bore, the visual effects are incomprehensible, and the actors performances are lazy and completely out of character.  The movie isn’t even bad in an entertaining way; it’s just a sad waste of very talented people.  Dark Phoenix, more than anything shows why this version of the series needed to come to an end.  It just became a tool of the ever defiant Fox studio to deny rival Disney a chance to take ownership of these once powerful franchise characters; a tact that also resulted in the disastrous Fant4stic.  Now that Disney and Fox have merged into one, Marvel Studios now has creative control once again of the X-Men, and no one doubts that we’ll see these characters once again.  The sad part is that the failure of Dark Phoenix all but ensures that none of the same team will carry over into the future X-Men movies, which is a shame because some of these actors have been quite good in the roles.  But, just like the ancient legend of the Phoenix bird, it has to die in order to be reborn, and that is what ultimately has to happen to this version of the X-Men.  The original X-Men deserved better closure than what we got with Dark Phoenix, but their legacy as a part of the super hero genre will always be remembered, especially when it was at it’s height.  And hopefully, what ends up being reborn after this will be the best we’ve seen yet.

Rating: 3.5/10

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum – Review

The action movie genre goes through peaks and valleys quite constantly every few years.  Often times, audiences are treated to a whole bunch of movies that are standard generic fare that grows tiresome after a while.  And then you have those new fresh take features that act like a breath of fresh air and completely change the game, and sometimes end up changing the genre as a whole as a result.  Think of something like Die Hard (1988), which completely revolutionized the action movie genre, which up to that time in the 80’s had been dominated by muscle-bound types like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.  In their place we got Bruce Willis, who looks more like the average man and was also portrayed as vulnerable as less bulletproof as his predecessors.  Audiences gravitated to this new type of action hero, because he was more grounded, funny, and relatable, and this example helped to set the standard for years to come.  Of course, as tastes have changed among audiences, so have the ideal of the action movie hero.  Today, we have in a way returned to the larger than life trope of heroes, with Super Heroes of course now dominating worldwide box office.   But, not every hero wears a cape, and some of the most successful action movie stars have been the ones who have shown an incredible ability to transition perfectly based on the changing ideals of the time.  Strangely, whenever the action movie suddenly shifts gears, actor Keanu Reeves always seems to be there at the right time when it does.  He made his own debut into the action genre with his own take on the Die Hard formula with Speed (1995), and then a few short years later, he made a huge impact by appearing in the groundbreaking sci-fi action flick, The Matrix (1999).  Keanu, to everyone’s surprise, has found his niche in the action movie genre, and continues to remain a popular fixture there, which he has further solidified with his recent involvement in the John Wick series.

Up until the first John Wick in 2014, Keanu Reeves was in a bit of a box office slump, struggling to find that follow up after the end of the Matrix trilogy.  His salvation, however, didn’t come from a golden opportunity that fell into his lap, but rather it came from a collaborative venture from two of his friends from the Matrix set who had a daring movie idea they wanted to pitch as a possible starring vehicle for Mr. Reeves.  That movie would of course be John Wick, which is a story about the world’s greatest assassin, with a legendary history, who tries to get out of the business only to be forced back in once a few thug do the unthinkable; they kill the puppy that his deceased wife gifted to him.  The movie was the brainchild of David Leitch (who was a stunt coordinator on The Matrix films) and Chad Stahelski (who was Keanu’s stunt double for many years, including on The Matrix), and their idea was to do an action thriller with the complex fight choreography of The Matrix, but with only minimal CGI manipulation.  It was essentially supposed to be a showcase for pure, physical stunt work on a level we haven’t seen before, and they clearly had no one else in mind for the role other than Keanu Reeves.  It should be noted that Keanu is 54 years old as of this writing, and even though he’s in good physical shape for someone of that age, it’s still a risky thing to ask someone in those advanced years to do the heavy stunt work required without a double that a movie like John Wick requires.  But, remarkably enough, Keanu managed to pull it off and Wick became his first breakthrough hit in years.  It proved so effective that it’s since spawned two sequels, and has introduced something that you would have never expected in a movie series like this; world building.  Chapter 2 (2017) revealed to audiences a whole underworld that Mr. Wick is a part of, and the layers go even deeper in the recent Chapter 3.  The only question is, have the filmmakers strayed too far away from the formula that the series is starting to fall apart, or did they manage to build an even more fascinating mythos that further illuminates the legend of John Wick; the boogeyman you call to kill the boogeyman.

The subtitle of John Wick: Chapter 3 is Parabellum, which is Latin for “Prepare for War.”  And that’s exactly where the movie picks up in it’s opening minutes.  The film picks up immediately after the events of Chapter 2, with John Wick on the run, trying to beat the clock before all hell breaks loose.  At the end of the last movie, John Wick (Keanu Reeve) broke a cardinal law in the underworld society that he serves; he shed blood within the walls of the Continental Hotel of New York City, which is a protected neutral safe haven where absolutely no killing must take place.  Because he committed this taboo, by shooting the film’s villain in cold blood while he was under the protection of the Continental, Wick must be labeled Excommunicado by the governing body of this assassin society known only as the High Table.  Now, John Wick is fair game for all the undercover assassins all over the world, with an enormous bounty placed on his head.  The Continental’s manager, Winston (Ian McShane), who considers John a friend, gives him a one hour head start before dropping the hammer, and then John is on his own.  He does, however, have a couple cards still to play.  One is to call upon the help of a figure from his past, a person known as The Director (Angelica Huston) who can grant him passage, and the other is to call in his one final favor with a former colleague named Sofia (Halle Berry) who runs the Continental in Casablanca, Morocco.  With Sofia’s help, John gets his audience with someone connected with the High Table, who he hopes can lift his Excommunicado, for a price of course.  Meanwhile, the High Table has sent an Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) to clean up the mess John Wick has left behind, and that includes removing Winston from his position of power at the Continental, as well as punishing the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), the leader of an army of underworld spies dressed as homeless transients, who also sold the bullets to John Wick that he used to kill his target at the Continental.  And so, John and his associates prepare for an inevitable confrontation with the ultimate power in their world, and because this is John Wick we’re talking about, a lot of bodies are about to hit the floor.

The first two John Wick movies are prime examples of how to perfectly balance action with dark comedy as well as an incredible eye for style and precision for the stunt work.  It’s clear that the filmmakers put effort into making every set piece in their movies feel fresh and free from repetition.  But, it’s also interesting how over the course of three movies that they’ve managed to add new layers to this narrative; almost creating a world that exists on it’s own, tied by it’s own set of rules.  The first John Wick gave no indication of what was to come next, as it was just a straightforward action flick where John goes to war with a Russian mafia boss (played by the late Michael Nyqvist).  Chapter 2 is where the world building really started to manifest, showing a whole network that operates behind the scenes, governing the world in which John Wick lives and operates.  It really helps to have seen the first two movies before watching Chapter 3, because they all blend together, and if like me you already have done the homework beforehand, this will be an enormously enjoyable sit.  The movie wastes no time in ramping up the mayhem, as it goes from one action set piece right into another.  The first 20 minutes or so of this movie, where the Excommunicado goes into effect, are some of the most insane and hilariously violent action scenes that I have ever seen.  Remember, John Wick killed a man in Chapter 2 with nothing but a pencil, just showing how lethal he could be.  There’s no pencil deaths in this movie, but John makes use of weapons just as ridiculous.  And by continuing the momentum carried over from the other movies, Chapter 3 manages to retain the sense of character that the movie clearly knows it has.  The filmmakers know exactly what the audience wants and it sees no reason not to deliver on that promise.  In a sense, the answer that the film gives you is that more is better, and with this film, we get everything we’ve seen before, just more so.

I do have to say that the opening act of this movie is almost too good, in a way that it kind of takes away from the rest of the movie.  By immediately plunging the audience right in the middle of the mayhem, you’ve primed them for an expectation of all the crazy things that might happen next.  However, once the movie gets into it’s second act, when John makes his way to Morocco, the movie begins to deflate a little bit, slowing down in order to progress the plot ahead.  None of it is bad per-say, it’s just that the opening came on so strong that it’s hard to come back from that and not have the movie feel uneven.  Chapter 2 had a similar problem where things also dipped a little in the second act, but in both cases, they never ruin the experience as a whole.  But, given that this is the longest John Wick movie to date, you do feel the run-time a bit more due to this lull in the middle.  Thankfully, things ramp up again towards the end, with more satisfying action providing a satisfying climax for this movie.  The only other nitpick that I have with this movie is that by expanding the world building over the course of these movies, it almost kind of takes away from John Wick’s own personal story.  We don’t see much character building for John this time around, as he remains the same all the way throughout.  It’s something that’s been steadily lost over time in these movies, as the first film gave us the best window so far into the psyche of the character.  The first John Wick showed a whole lot more of the cloud of pain and anquish that defined his character, which manifested because of the loss of his wife and his puppy.  As he states constantly, it was more than just about the puppy, but we see less of that understanding as this series goes along.  Even still, everything else has been uniformly consistent in this series, including it’s sense of humor and it’s focus on trying to one-up itself at every turn.

It cannot be understated how crucial Keanu Reeves is to the success of these movies.  John Wick is, in my opinion, the greatest character that he’s ever played, and that’s largely because it’s the only character that has best played to his strengths.  Keanu is an actor of extremes, meaning that he only works best when taken to the opposite ends of performance.  His best work is found in him playing the part either very broadly (like Ted from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) or very stoically (like with John Wick or Neo from The Matrix).  He never works well in between, which is probably why he never worked out well in other genres like romance or historical drama.  With John Wick, you get the combination of all his talents; stoicism and humor, all rolled into one.  He’s a man of few words, but even still those few words can be hilariously delivered and oftentimes pretty badass.  It’s also astounding how much he throws himself physically into the roll too.  Of course the movie gives him stunt doubles for the most dangerous moments, but for most of the movie’s run time, you can see that it is clearly him on screen, since most of the fights have to done in camera and with little editing in between.  It’s almost like Keanu is trying to compete with Tom Cruise in the category of 50-plus year old actors still doing the majority of their own stunts on screen, and he’s doing an admirable job of it.  The stunt team as well should be commended.  Just like with the Mission Impossible series, John Wick is turning stunts into an art-form, and it really reinforces the case that there should be an Oscar category for stunts.  The casting for these movies is also getting more and more impressive, with heavy hitters like Angelica Huston and Halle Berry joining the fray.  Returning cast like Ian McShane and Laurence Fishburne (who also followed him here from the Matrix series) are also great to see again, especially with the latter really chewing the scenery in his brief scenes.  But the real scene-stealer is an actor named Mark Dacascos, who plays a ninja named Zero, sent to kill John Wick by the Adjudicator.  His character is not only an interesting foil for John Wick, but it’s later revealed that he’s also a fan, which makes for a real interesting character interaction.  A great movie character is only as strong as the ones he shares the screen with, and this film gives you plenty to enjoy.

The one thing that I will say this movie improves over it’s predecessors is it’s visuals.  This is a gorgeous looking movie, with some often stunning cinematography.  The opening scenes of this movie, which take place at night and in the rain feels especially inspired by the look of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), with this beautiful neon glow casting itself over the action.  The movie also makes incredible use of it’s locations as well.  It’s clear that over the years, the filmmakers have been given more substantial budgets to work with, and that is apparent on screen.  When John Wick goes to Morocco, the movie actually shoots on location in Morocco.  We see him walking on the sand dunes like he’s Lawrence of Arabia, and it’s clear that there was no green screen involved.  I also have to praise the production design of this movie as well.  We see a lot more of the Continental Hotel this time around, and the architecture of the place has it’s own character that really stands out.  It’s here where we see the underground society start to take shape fully, as it seems to retain an old-fashioned aesthetic that exists alongside our modern amenities.  The Continental also has it’s modern touch too, with a stunning room made of glass becoming a central setting for the film’s climax.  It’s amazing to see the filmmakers refining and improving on their craft over the course of these movies, as the visuals are becoming bolder and more ambitious.  The first John Wick, though still visually inventive, was constrained by it’s smaller budget.  Thankfully, these guys do not waste the extra resources they’ve been allowed to use, as Chapter 3 represents their boldest artistic statement yet.  It’ll be interesting to see how much more refined they continue to get in the future, because with this movie, they have set the bar even higher.

It’s pretty amazing that we are here celebrating an action movie series with the name of John Wick.  It’s such a bland sounding name that you would think it’d be impossible to find anyone with that name intimidating.  But, as these movies have shown, it’s not the name itself that makes the man a legend, but rather the man and what he does that brings legend to a name.  That’s true in all things really; we’ve managed to make a movie star out of someone named Benedict Cumberbatch after all.  John Wick is a action hero that stands shoulder to shoulder with the John McLanes and Rambos of the world, and maybe even puts them to shame.  It’s also just incredible how resilient Keanu Reeves is as an action movie star.  Just when you thought he was done, he managed find a way back to the top, and with John Wick, he may have just found his peak as a performer.  The one thing I will say is that you must watch this movie with an audience.  Just like with Avengers: Endgame, part of the entertainment is just in experiencing the audience reactions while watching this movie.  The audience I saw it with were wincing, laughing and cheering all throughout the movie, and it felt very good to join along with them.  I had a smile on my face throughout most of the movie, and I laughed out loud more than once.  John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is not an absolutely perfect film, but it is an enormously satisfying bit of escapist entertainment.  Anyone who has been eagerly anticipating the next chapter of this series will not be disappointed.  The only question is how many more foolish assassins will have to die before the message becomes clear; don’t mess with John Wick, or his dog.

Rating: 8/10