Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Spider-Man: No Way Home – Review

With the roller coaster year that 2021 has been, leave it to Marvel to be the ones commanding the box office through all the turbulence.  If the mighty studio hadn’t already been on top of the world before with their record breaking success with the Avengers, 2021 would be a banner year for them regardless.  They started off with their big launch of their Disney+ programming all the way back in January with Wandavision, a highly acclaimed mini-series focused on the characters Scarlett Witch and The Vision.  Then came even more successful series like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki to tide us over into the summer season.  As big a deal as these shows were, the industry was far more interested in seeing how Marvel would fare at the box office.  Movie theaters were slowly coming back to life after a year long pandemic forced closure in 2020.  Though Marvel’s parent studio Disney started by hedging their bets going back into the theater market with a hybrid theatrical/streaming release, they nevertheless set out to bring their big screen pictures back to the big screen.  The pandemic delayed Black Widow (2021) was first, and even with the hybrid release it still managed to scrounge up an $80 million opening weekend.  It also saw the biggest second weekend drop of any Marvel movie, and it’s final gross end up on the low end of the MCU, but it still showed that the Marvel brand still had enough mojo to liven up the decimated pandemic box office.  This led to their next film, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) getting a theatrical only release to see if that led to a better result.  And even while the Delta variant of Covid was flaring up, Shang-Chi managed to not only succeed, but also flourish beyond opening weekend; leading to it’s current status as the box office champ of the year.  However, that didn’t help Eternals (2021), their third film, which to many underperformed.  But, it should be noted that Eternals didn’t fade quickly as many expected, and has actually accumulated a healthy box office that while low for Marvel it’s still impressive for a film in the pandemic era.  Now, at the end of a busy year for Marvel, which has included all the properties from last year as well as this one, they are bringing us the next installment of one of their marquee franchises, Spider-Man, in the hopes that it not only ends the year on a strong note for them, but also hopefully brings the box office back even more strong than before.

While Spider-Man has always been a hot property for Marvel, it’s interesting that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) hasn’t rested all their success solely on his shoulders.  If anything, in the grand narrative of the shared universe that the MCU has been, Spider-Man has thus far been a fairly secondary character.  That would’ve been unheard of before the launch of the MCU, but Marvel chose to Avengers be the driving force of their connective thread, and Spider-Man was not an original part of that team.  Since then, he has come into his own, taking more of a central role, but in the grand scheme of things, he’s still second tier to the likes of Captain America, Thor and Iron Man.  But, after the events of Avengers: Endgame (2019), several new possibilities have opened up for the character.  The best part thus far of Spider-Man’s development in the MCU is seeing how this hero we are all familiar with interacts within a world where what he does is not as extraordinary as we’ve seen before.  He exists in a world full of super heroes, so the dynamic is very different.  As a result, the MCU has been able to focus on their Spider-Man being a naïve but eager kid, much like he is in the comics.  One of the best character dynamics of the MCU that has resulted from that was the mentor/apprentice relationship that he had built up with Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man.  This became a central part of the story going into the final chapter of the Infinity Saga with Infinity War and Endgame, and with Iron Man’s departure, it has taken the Spider-Man character into a whole different path than we’ve seen before.  Of course, a Spider-Man movie where the hero has suffered a heart-breaking loss is nothing new, but when he is now expected to fill in a vacancy within that same dynamic, it has opened up a new layer of character that we haven’t really explored with Spider-Man just yet.  In fact, everything with this MCU iteration has felt fresh, especially in his own franchise of films.  In what has been dubbed the Spider-Man “Home” trilogy, we have seen the character grow on his own, through the trials of high school life in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) to the dilemmas of a post-Endgame world in Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019).  Now, the trilogy comes to a climax of it’s own with Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) and the question is, does it bring Spider-Man’s story together in a satisfying way, or is it caught in a web of it’s own problems?

One thing I definitely have to say before hand is that so much of this movie is filled with plot elements that I don’t want to spoil.  So, before I go into a plot summery, let me just state that what I’m going to write forward in this paragraph and review after is solely in line with what’s already been revealed in the movie trailers thus far.  So, spoiler free, let’s talk about what happens.  Picking up literally right where Far From Home left off, Spider-Man’s secret identity has been leaked to the public thanks to internet provocateur J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons).  Now, everyone in the world knows that Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is really Spider-Man.  This suddenly thrusts him and those close to him into the spotlight, including his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), his girlfriend M.J. Watson (Zendaya) and his best friend Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon).  Life is no longer the same for them, and it comes to a brutal head when the revelation about Spider-Man’s identity excludes him from college admittance to his desired school, which also happens to M.J. and Ned.  After this crushing disappointment, Peter seeks out help from another Avenger ally, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who he believes can turn back time in order to help erase his identity being revealed.  Since Strange no longer has the Time Stone, he can’t help Peter by reversing time, but he believes he knows another way to help him instead.  Strange begins a Forgetting Spell to erase Peter Parker’s identity from everyone’s memory, but Peter realizes that doing so will make even those close to him forget.  Unfortunately, this botches the spell, so Peter is out of luck again.  He tries to think of his next move, but that is interrupted when new enemies begin to emerge.  They are powerful foes who have faced Spider-Man before, but not the Spider-Man of this universe.  They include Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), Electro (Jamie Foxx), The Lizard (Rhys Ifans), Sandman (Thomas Hayden Church), and Norman Osborne, aka the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe).  Doctor Strange reveals that the broken spell opened up a rip in the multiverse, and if they don’t return these multiversal tresspassers back to their own universes, it could lead to a collapse of reality as we know it.  So, Spider-Man must set things right, but he soon encounters a different dilemma; is it right to send these villains back to their fate where their destiny is to die fighting Spider-Man?

There’s definitely a lot to unpack with Spider-Man: No Way Home.  Not only is it continuing the story that’s already been told thus far in the MCU Spider-Man films, but it’s also incorporating elements from previously existing Spider-Man franchises.  We are seeing pretty much every major villain Spider-Man has faced on the big screen over the last 20 years.  Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina, and Thomas Hayden Church return to play Green Goblin, Doc Ock, and Sandman respectively from the Sam Raimi directed / Tobey Maguire starring Spider-Man films of the 2000’s.  And then there are Jamie Foxx and Rhys Ifans also playing Electro and The Lizard from the short-lived Amazing Spider-Man reboot directed by Marc Webb and starring Andrew Garfield.  That’s a lot to pack into a single film, and it’s only the tip of the iceberg without going into spoilers.  Which makes me all the more amazed by how well this movie manages to bring everything together in the end.  This movie is just a remarkable achievement in logistics alone.  How they managed to pull all these multiversal things together and not loose sight of the central narrative thread is truly amazing.  There are some big revelations in this movie that I’m sure are going to be the stuff of movie legend in the years to come, but I think where the movie excels the most is in how well it stays focused on Spider-Man’s story.  This is still a movie that falls in line with the plot thread spread across the rest of the “Home” trilogy as well as with all the MCU movies that Spider-Man has been a part of, and it helps to give this movie a surprising amount of emotional weight.  In particular, I think this movie does an especially great job of fleshing out what it means to be Spider-Man.  What we’ve seen throughout the MCU movies is that the universe is far more complex than the black and white morality of good vs. evil.  We’ve seen villains like Killmonger from Black Panther and Thanos portrayed with layers of character that show they aren’t just evil for the sake of being evil.  And we’ve also seen heroes in the MCU commit some very evil acts like Iron Man creating Ultron, or Scarlet Witch holding a town captive within her fantasy world in Wandavision.  That same depth of examination is also brought beautifully into No Way Home, and it helps to re-contextualize all the Spider-Man films as a whole in a surprising way.

One of the things that is going to easily blow people away is seeing all the different characters from all the different Spider-Man films together.  But, to the movie’s credit, it doesn’t just plop these characters in for the sake of nostalgia alone.  Each and every one of them has a purpose in the story, and none are wasted.  I actually want to say, without going too much into spoilers, that the most refreshing thing about this movie is that it holds back and doesn’t try to do too much.  It would have been very tempting to just throw all the doors open of the Multiverse and bring in a whole lot more into this movie.  But, director Jon Watts and producers Kevin Feige and Amy Pascal wisely decided not to.  They give us just enough multiverse treats to satisfy what we’d hope be in this movie and don’t go overboard.  Had they done too much, it might have overwhelmed the story to a point of breaking.  There are some points where that is the case, and it’s the only flaw that the movie has.  The movie is the longest of any Spider-Man film at 2 1/2 hours, but it doesn’t feel like that at all except for a select number of scenes.  And those scenes are where the characters basically stop the movie to go through a “previously on” recap of their backstory, so that the audience that hasn’t been up to speed can be caught up.  It’s the most awkward part of the script, and I see why the filmmakers felt that they needed to include it, but I also felt like they were the only parts of the movie that started to take me out of the film.  Credit to the actors for selling that clumsy exposition as well as they can.  There’s an especially funny exchange where Electro and Sandman compare their origins like they are casually trading battle scar stories.  Apart from that nitpick, the movie surprisingly has a sound flow to it and manages the tone perfectly.  And given all the building blocks they had to work with, that’s really something remarkable.

It’s suffice to say that the movie’s biggest asset is the stellar cast, both with the central players as well as all the legacy characters carried over from other franchises.  Most importantly, it continues to put Tom Holland’s Spider-Man front and center, and helps to build upon the character development that we’ve seen with him up to now.  In many ways, this is Holland’s best performance thus far as Spider-Man.  He goes through the gamut of emotions in this movie, managing to perfectly balance the goofy playfulness of Spider-Man’s lighter moments with the hard pathos of the movie’s more tragic scenes.  And seeing him interact with all these legacy characters is also quite an interesting new avenue to take this character.  Of course, the big deal with this movie is all of these legendary characters returning to the big screen, and with all the original actors making the return as well.  Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock hasn’t appeared on screen since Spider-Man 2 (2004), which was 17 years ago.  That film is considered by many to be one of the greatest super hero films of all time, and Molina’s iconic performance was one of the reasons for that.  So not only is it a pleasure to see him in the role again, but he doesn’t waste the opportunity either, slipping right back in effortlessly.  Jamie Foxx, who was kind of shortchanged in the disastrous The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) gets to redeem himself here with a version of Electro that feels truer to the comic book and gives Foxx more to chew on as an actor.  Naturally, he’s the character most improved upon in this film.  Thomas Hayden Church and Rhys Ifans have less to do than the rest of the cast, but are no less a welcome presence in the movie as their respective characters  But if anyone steals the movie the most, it’s Willem Dafoe as Green Goblin.  Somehow, he managed to find a way to make the character even more menacing since his debut almost 20 years ago.  His performance here is really remarkable and probably the highlight of a movie already full of iconic moments.  The fights he has with Spider-Man are especially brutal and carry a lot more weight than we’ve seen from other films in the series.  In addition to the great return of the iconic villains, I’m especially happy to see that characters like M.J., Aunt May, and Ned don’t get lost in all the shuffle, and their respective actors all contribute something special to the movie as a whole.  If anyone is short-changed, it’s Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, since he actually has less screen time than the trailers would have you believe.  He’s not terribly used, but if you’re looking for a Spider-Man/Doctor Strange team-up in this movie, it ain’t there in the way you’d expect.  Still, overall, audiences are going to go wild for the cast of charcters I described here, and of course, there might be surprises as well.

Given the enormity of what the movie has to accomplish, even in an expansive 2 1/2 runtime, it’s amazing that the film flows as well as it does.  Director Jon Watts certainly deserves that credit.  His work on the Spider-Man franchise has really been the most consistent that we’ve ever seen for the character.  It probably helps that he had the guidance and support of a producer like Kevin Feige whose expertise has been to manage multiple franchise on a scale unseen before.  For the Raimi and Webb films, they often fell victim to studio interference negating the vision of the director, and resulted in films like Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 that were unfocused messes.  No Way Home feels so certain about what it is and it’s in line with the story that has been told over not just Spider-Man’s own films, but also those in the MCU as a whole.  At the same time, Watts certainly knows that this is the movie that has to go bigger than anything we’ve seen before.  Many are comparing this to Avengers: Endgame in many ways, and some of that comparison is warranted.  This movie feels like the culmination of so much of the Spider-Man mythos built up not just within the MCU but also with all Spider-Man media.  At the same time, like what I previously stated before, this movie knows when to hold back as well, giving us enough to digest while not spoiling the whole meal.  I think that’s why the movie holds together in the end when it could’ve easily fallen apart.  That’s evident in the final confrontation that takes place at the Statue of Liberty (not a spoiler because part of it is shown in the trailer).  Director Webb manages to keep the action in that scene focused and consistent, so no one in the audience is likely to be confused by what’s happening.  I also want to note the incredible themes set forth by the movie, especially that one about the gray areas of morality that have been present in the MCU.  What I like most about this movie is that it brings to the forefront what drives Spider-Man to be a hero.  And that moral is that a hero strives to help save everyone, even the worst among us.  In this movie, that will to do the right thing gets tested and I love how the movies centers it’s story around that theme.  Those immortal words written by the late great Stan Lee all those years ago, “With great power comes great responsibility,” takes on a more important meaning in this film, and that in essence, helps to elevate this movie to a far more lofty place than I think most of us would’ve ever expected.

It’s hard to say just yet where I would rank this movie among all the Spider-Man films.  I definitely think it’s the best of the “Home” trilogy of Spider-Man movies, but the bar is still high that has been set by Spider-Man 2 and the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse (2018).  It may take a few more viewings to properly place this film in the pantheon of all the Spider-Man movies.  Honestly, the thing that impresses me the most is just how they managed to pull off what they did.  I’ve been very careful to not spoil some of the movie’s biggest surprises, but let me just say that the packed house IMAX showing that I saw this movie in had some of the loudest audience cheering that I have ever witnessed.  And this was the same IMAX theater I saw Avengers: Endgame in, so that really is saying something.  All that said, there are still something flaws in the plot and mostly in the dialogue that holds this movie slightly back from that level of greatness, and I hope they become less noticeable the more times I see this movie.  This movie really had an almost impossible task, and I felt that this was the best case result we could’ve hoped for.  For one thing, I think it does a great service to the legacy of all the Spider-Man films of the past, especially with regards to the much maligned Amazing Spider-Man films.  It’s great to see the actors who played these iconic roles from the past slip right back into character and not only deliver the good once again, but also find new avenues to explore.  And I’m also really impressed with the fact that the movie isn’t afraid to take some risks as well and doesn’t just wrap up Spider-Man’s story in a nice happy resolution.  Like many of the MCU films to date, the characters carry on the scars of their ordeal, and this especially is true with the MCU’s Spider-Man, who I am definitely intrigued to see where they take him next.  Without saying what happens, I’ll tell you that I especially found the ending of this movie to be a surprise and quite a ballsy move on Marvel’s part.  It shows that they recognize the significance of Spider-Man as a character not just on his own but as a part of a larger world, and they are determined to give him a story that carries a lot of weight with it.  Suffice to say, this is going to be another blockbuster for Marvel.  I know the lingering effects of the pandemic are still making things weary for some movie-goers, but if there is any film that you’ve been willing to take the chance on, this would be the one.  It’s a movie that demands to be seen with a large audience.  It’s certainly the best in theater experience that I’ve had all year, and it’s something that I though I’d never see again after the pandemic decimated the theatrical market all of last year.  Leave it to the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man to bring some much needed life back to the box office again.  This is definitely one of the webslinger’s finest hours, and a movie whose very existence is likely going to stand as a ground-breaking moment in the super hero genre as a whole.

Rating: 8.75/10

Encanto – Review

Going all the way back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Disney has built a long canonical line of feature films that have been the backbone of their company.  Even to today, the animated film canon is central to Disney’s identity, and they have been keeping track of their total number of features for the sake of celebrating every milestone.  Here, in 2021, they have reached yet another of those, with their 60th overall animated feature.  This particular milestone is special in how it represents the amount of success that Disney has had in recent decades.  It took Disney 54 years to reach their 30th feature film (1991’s Beauty and the Beast) and only 30 years to reach their 60th; the newly released Encanto.  That accelerated pace shows just how prolific Disney has been in recent years, being propelled by the Disney Renaissance and extending now through the Digital Era.  It has been a very transitional time period for Disney animation, but of course, there is plenty more planned for the future.  Though Encanto has been planned for some time to hold up the mantle of the 60th Disney feature, it became speculative for a time if it may indeed be a theatrical release.  The 59th feature (Raya and the Last Dragon) had to settle with a hybrid theatrical and digital release last Spring, which in some ways took the wind out of it’s sales and diminished it’s ultimate box office take.  Of course, it’s the best they could do for audiences at the time because of the lingering effects of the pandemic, and Disney not wanting to stall the release any longer.  Still, depending on how things panned out, the hybrid model could have ended up becoming the new norm, or even more dire for the theatrical loving community, it would show that digital only was the preferable choice.  As the pandemic lingered on through the summer, Disney wasn’t really confident either way.  And then the unlikely blockbuster success of Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings resurrected the sleepy theatrical market and helped to confirm for Disney that theatrical first was the way to go.  Thus all of Disney’s remaining 2021 releases would be premiere first in theaters.

Unfortunately, through this era of pandemic related experimentation, Disney revealed itself to be playing favorites a bit with their catalog of titles.  Of the movies that did get a theatrical release instead of only digital, the Disney Animation department seemed to benefit the most, while Pixar was left off the movie screens altogether.  Pixar’s last two animated features, 2020’s Soul and 2021’s Luca both were dropped onto Disney+ instead of theaters.  It’s understandable for the movie Soul as it was premiering during the pandemic’s peak, but Luca premiered in the summer, long after movie theaters across the country had reopened and Disney had successfully implemented their hybrid release on films like Raya and the Last Dragon and Cruella (2021).  Why Luca was chosen just for digital doesn’t make much sense out of that.  Pixar is still a valuable and profitable brand, and the movie had a lot of broad appeal across all ages.  From the outside, it appears that Disney was playing favorites with their own in-house animation studio, hoping to use them to drive the return to theatrical.  Then again, Disney may have been more guarded with regards to their Pixar titles, believing that a digital release would help them avoid disappointing box office in a still unsettled market and possibly believing that the movie would find more eyes on Disney+.  What ever went on behind the scenes, it’s unfortunate that Pixar got the worst situation out of the lingering effects of the pandemic, while Disney Animation got both of their 2021 releases the theatrical releases they deserved.  Personally, I am biased, and I wanted all movies to make it to the big screen in any way they could.  Disney made their choice based on how they saw things, and sadly that meant that most audiences couldn’t see Luca the way it was intended to be seen.  2022 will be different, as Pixar has two films set for theatrical first releases (Turning Red and Lightyear), and Disney has no doubt has sided with theatrical for the long run, though any further economic disruptions could change things.  For now, we are given the new theatrical film, Encanto, Disney’s milestone 60th feature.  The question is, does it have the same kind of Disney magic as all of it’s predecessors, or did it waste it’s good fortune of a milestone release?

Encanto is set in an unnamed fictional land based largely on Columbian culture.  After escaping vicious marauders who have driven them from their homes, a family makes their way into the unknown terrains of the South American jungles.  After loosing her husband who sacrifices his life to buy them time to escape, Alma Madrigal (Maria Cecilia Botero) and her newborn triplets are left alone in the wild.  Miraculously, the candle that had lit their way through the dark becomes enchanted.  The candle creates a home around them to give them shelter, which itself comes alive.  Several years later, the Madrigal home has become a paradise and safe haven, with many other peaceful settlers creating a village around the house.  The triplets have grown up and as we learn, have all been given special gifts from the house that involve supernatural powers.  The eldest daughter Julieta (Angie Cepeda) has the ability to heal people with the food she cooks.  Pepa (Carolina  Gaitan), the younger sister, can control the weather.  Pepa’s older children Dolores (Adassa) and Camillo (Rhenzy Feliz) have the gift of enhanced hearing and shape shifting respectively.  Julieta’s three daughters, Luisa (Jessica Darrow), Isabela (Dianne Guerrero) and Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) also live in the home with the rest of the family.  Luisa and Isabela have their gifts, which are super strength and conjuring flowers in her wake respectively, but Mirabel stands out because unlike the others, she was not given a gift.  When the family gathers the town to celebrate the gift giving to Pepa’s youngest son, Antonio (Ravi-Cabot Conyers), who ends up talking to animals, Mirabel discovers something wrong with the house.  She believes that the house is beginning to crumble and the magic begins disappearing with it.  She intends to discover for herself what is happening.  The clue to the house’s fate lies in what remains of her Uncle Bruno’s room.  Uncle Bruno (John Leguizamo) left the house long ago after he discovered through his power of seeing the future that the thing Mirabel is fearing will come true, and the family has since never spoken of it.  But, Mirabel is set in finding out the truth behind Uncle Bruno’s prophecy and discover why she is at the center of it.

Encanto marks the second collaboration between Disney Animation and famed songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda.  His first project with them was the hit film Moana (2016).  Encanto hits a little closer to home for Miranda who gets to tap more into his Latino roots for the music in this film.  This also finds him a lot more involved in the production, because he’s also credited as part of the story team on this film.  This movie does indeed feel more crafted around Miranda’s contributions than anything else he has done with Disney, with the songs definitely showing his distinctive writing style.  This is both a good thing and a bad thing.  For one thing, the songs are definitely well crafted and catchy.  On the other hand, it almost feels like more focus was given to the songs than anything else in the movie.  Encanto is unfortunately a very unfocused movie that feels too lightweight to leave an impact.  I was hoping for a more rousing adventure from the likes of Disney, but the movie keeps things very low stakes throughout.  The Madrigal home is central to pretty much every aspect of this movie, and the film doesn’t even venture outside of it that much.  As a result, the movie just comes across as being very small, which is a little bit disappointing.  For a studio that once had climaxes that involved fighting dragons, or battling on the highest points of a mighty palace, or chasing after one’s true love and possibly laying their life on the line to save them, this movie’s climax hinges on a simple generational disagreement.  I see how it fits within the story thematically, but it’s still kind of anti-climatic.  The movie, as I mentioned before is best served by Lin-Manuel’s involvement, as his songs are where the movie comes alive the most.  But, in between the songs, there isn’t much story to speak of.  It’s just a simple series of events between a single family, dealing with their own internal dramas, with the only twist being that they mostly all have special powers.  And those powers are really explored as much as they should be.  It just feels like the powers are there to liven up the story and give the animators something to have fun with.

Moving from that, the movie is not an absolute failure in story.  It certainly is a lot better than Frozen II (2019).  The Lin-Manuel Miranda songs are definitely what salvages the movie for the most part.  If you are familiar with Miranda’s style, which extends from his movie contributions like this and Moana, as well as his most iconic work, the Broadway show Hamilton, then these songs will feel very familiar as well.  Miranda’s hip hop infused lyrics manage to work seamlessly with the Latin beats of the main score.  I often found myself marveling how the singers in the film manage to string together so many words in a single breath.  The songs are their own special achievement in this movie, and I’m sure that many people will find themselves humming these tunes afterwards, and replaying them on Spotify when they get home.  They may not have the sing-a-long re-playability as some of Disney’s most long lasting hit tunes like “Be Our Guests,” “Under the Sea” or “Hakuna Matata,” but no one is going to come away feeling disappointed by these songs, even if they like me find the story itself to be disappointed.  The animation in the movie also comes alive and rises to the challenge of these songs.  Directors Jared Bush and Byron Howard (Zootopia) certainly bring a playfulness to the songs, whether it’s through the creative staging or the wild character animation.  I think one of the highlights is a catchy number called “We Don’t Talk about Bruno,” a song going into the backstory of the character, which definitely felt like all the departments working to their fullest, from the vocal performances, to Lin-Manuel’s manic songwriting, to the clever creative animation, all put into this tango like showstopper.  Most of the other songs do their job well enough too.  I think that the reason why the movie may have faltered a bit in the story department is because the songs probably came first and then the story was crafted to surround them, which wasn’t as assembled with quite the same amount of care or energy.

The movie does benefit from an effective main character as well.  I like the fact that out of this family of super human beings, the movie’s plot does hinge on the two characters who don’t have any gifts; Mirabel and her Abuela Alma.  The fact that the main character has to work at a disadvantage that her extended family does not have helps to make her role in the story more interesting.  She was denied something that everyone else that she loves managed to gain, and she doesn’t understand why.  It makes her character motivations clear.  I like the fact that she is neither portrayed as purely good or distantly resentful.  She bounces back and forth between wanting to know why she was left out and having it not be the worst thing in the world for her.  It makes her more dynamic as a result, as you see the internal conflict in her guiding her through the mystery that she must unfold.  The rest of the family are a colorful bunch of characters as well, though I feel like some of them could have done with a bit more personality other than the powers that they show off.  The supporting characters that stand out the most are those in her immediate family.  Her sisters, Isabela and Luisa, in fact are the only other characters in the movie who get their own songs.  Luisa’s song “Surface Pressure” is another highlight, especially in the way it stages the song around her super strength ability.  It might have served the movie better if it trimmed the more extended family members and just focused on a more tightly knit family unit.  Not that the other characters are bad in any way, it’s just that the movie has a hard time giving all of them any amount of spotlight.  One really welcome character is Uncle Bruno, who comes into the story fairly late.  Though he has limited screen time, he does make the most of it, with John Leguizamo delivering a delightfully eccentric vocal performance.  Stephanie Beatriz also is strong as Mirabel, making her both funny but not obnoxiously quirky.  Given her already long working history with Lin-Manuel Miranda in projects like In the Heights (2021), she is clearly skilled enough as an actress and singer to take on a character like Mirabel.

Where the movie also delivers up to the high Disney standards is in the animation.  This is a visually impressive film, with animation up to the same quality of some of Disney’s most classic titles as of late.  One thing that I especially was impressed with was the visualization of the Madrigal house itself.  The house is a world in of itself, quite literally in fact, as the individual rooms for the family members open up into large spaces, like the Tardis from Doctor Who.  One of the nicest touches is that the movie turns the Madrigal house into a character itself.  The house comes alive with the floors, drawers, doors, shutters and tile roofs all moving independently and giving assistance to the characters.  It’s a home with a personality, and some of the biggest laughs in the movie comes from the clever ways that the animators found to communicate gestures through the architecture of the house.  The movie also has a colorful palette to it.  The colors pop on screen and dazzle with a wide kaleidoscope of visual splendor.  You also really get the sense of the Columbian influence of this movie, where the multicolor house stands out from the deep greens of the dense jungle that surrounds it.  I’m sure the team of animators on this film looked at how small Columbian villages come to life through their choices of color in contrast with the tropical surroundings.  It wouldn’t surprise me if they had come across quite a few buildings that looked like the Madrigal home in their research.  The movie benefits a lot from the work put it in it’s setting, but it also makes the magical gifts given to the family interesting as well.  I especially like the ideas of Pepa’s weather control being limited to a cloud flying over her head and raining entirely around her depending on her mood.  Isabela’s flower power is also beautifully realized.  Overall, while the story may be lacking, the animation is undoubtedly on par with Disney at it’s best, and in many ways also offers up a few worthwhile surprises that helps to set this movie apart within the canon.

Encanto is by no means a bad film and in many ways I think it will prove to be a hit with audiences.  It might just be my sometimes impossibly high standards with regards to Disney animation, but Encanto just felt like it lacked that special thing to put it higher on the list of great Disney film.  I want a Disney movie that has a lot more to say like Zootopia, or comes to a much more exciting climax like Aladdin (1992).  Encanto just feels like an exercise for the animators and less like a bold statement for the future of animation.  Perhaps where some of my disappointment comes from is the fact that this is a milestone film and that it generally feels a bit too small for that distinction.  All that said, there is still a lot to like with this movie.  The characters are likeable, the Lin-Manuel Miranda songs are catchy, and the animation is definitely top notch.  It’s just all put together in a way that felt like it wasn’t reaching it’s full potential.  For a milestone movie, I really think something more ambitious like Raya and the Last Dragon should have been given the pivotal milestone.  But, that’s just my opinion.  I’m sure Disney believed in this movie more and were happy to spotlight it.  It certainly shows that they are eager to continue working closely with Lin-Manuel Miranda.  Whether or not he continues to work with Disney more is uncertain, but this movie will likely be a good collaboration that both sides will be proud of.  Regardless of what I personally thought of Encanto, it is great to see Disney Animation reach this amazing milestone, and even more importantly, do so in the theatrical market.  I can definitely say that this is a movie that benefits from being shown on a big screen, and I’m sure that audiences will appreciate having that option available to them.  It is not an all time great, but Encanto is a perfectly fine piece of entertainment that will no doubt leave audiences happy and feeling as magical as the enchanted world they have been welcomed into.

Rating: 7/10

Eternals – Review

It has been a rocky road to bring Marvel’s new film Eternals to the silver screen.  One thing that it had working against it was the fact that the Eternals are not very well known outside of a dedicated fan base of comic book readers.  It would appear from the outside that making a movie based on a relatively obscure title in the Marvel canon was a foolish risk to undertake.  But, given the run of success that Marvel has had, they understandably now have the confidence to bring something like the Eternals to the big screen, and they have precedent on their side.  Only seven years ago, nobody outside comic book aficionados knew of the Guardians of the Galaxy, but James Gunn changed that forever when he released his popular 2014 film based on the series and suddenly propelled the Guardians into the Marvel A-list.  Since then, Marvel has since dug deep into their catalog to find more characters in their stable worthy of a cinematic treatment; even ones the ones that borderline on the weird and almost un-filmable.   One could say that’s where the Eternals lie, because of the incredibly dense mythology behind their story.  Still, Marvel moved forward with Eternals as a part of their Phase 4 plans, tapping indie film director Chloe Zhao with the honors of bringing the movie to reality.  But, circumstances changed pretty quickly, just as Eternals entered it’s home stretch.  Marvel had to delay the movie by a whole year after the outbreak of the Covid pandemic.  While many projects suffered setbacks because of the pandemic, Eternals oddly benefited from the delay.  While Eternals was pushed back, Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland (2020), which she filmmed after working on Eternals, made it to theaters without delay, and ended up the big winner at that year’s Academy Awards, including a historic Best Director win for Zhao.  So, not only are we getting the first Marvel movie by an Oscar winning director, it’s also one from the reigning champ; a fortuitous stroke of fortune.  But, it’s a question of whether or not her voice as a filmmaker translates well enough between a small film like Nomadland and a big film like Eternals.

So, the question for most audiences will be, what are the Eternals?  The Eternals were the brain child of one of the most celebrated comic book artists of all time; Jack Kirby.  Kirby was a unique voice in the comic book world, known for his dynamic art style that emphasized bold colors and often pyschadelic imagery.  He rose prominently through the ranks at Marvel, where he developed a strong collaboration with writer Stan Lee.  Together Kirby and Lee shaped the Golden Age of Marvel comics, developing popular storylines for the Fantastic Four, the Mighty Thor, and many others.  In those years, Kirby showed a particular interest in the cosmic side of the Marvel Universe, which led to the development of the Eternals and the Celestials as major players within the mythology of the comics.  The Celestials became the god like figures that governed the universe in which the Marvel characters exist, and the Eternals became the angelic super beings sent down to Earth to bring their master plans to fruition.  The Eternals comics were really where Jack Kirby managed to showcase his full power as an artist, because he was able to display his interest in the meta-physical properties of the universe, and also play around with the sense of scale on an epic level never seen before on the comics page.  In his later years, Kirby would cross over into Marvel’s rival DC Comics, where he helped to co-create the New Gods, another collection of cosmological super-beings that share much in common with the Eternals.  If there were ever a Mount Rushmore for comic book icons, Kirby easily would be on it.  Given his very distinctive style, it’s been rather difficult to translate his art into something that would work in the movies.  Director Taika Waititi made a valiant attempt at capturing the Jack Kirby style in Thor: Ragnarok (2017).  But, undertaking Jack Kirby’s pet project of Eternals would require delving further into the odd and meta-physical than anything Marvel has done before.  The question is, did Chloe Zhao manage to successfully bring Jack Kirby’s vision to life or was it best left for the page.

The world is still recovering from the event known as the Blip in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The Avengers managed to successfully undo the curse made by Thanos which resulted in half of life in the universe disappearing with the snap of a finger.  But, unbeknownst to humanity, the sudden return of the population has awakened another sleeping threat within the Earth itself.  The Celestials have planned for thousands of years an event called “The Emergence” to take place on Earth, and that time has now come.  To ensure that Earth was ready, the Celestials sent down 10 super-beings known as the Eternals to protect humanity from a parasitic race of alien predators known as the Deviants.  The Eternals have ensured the safety of humanity to grow and evolve without the Deviants wiping them out, but they’ve been instructed by the Prime Celestial, Arishem the Judge, to not interfere in any other human conflict.  Through the millennia and centuries after, the Eternals continue to live anonymously among the humans, waiting for the Celestials to order them home.  After the Blip, the Prime Eternal Ajak (Selma Hayek) has been told that the Emergence is imminent, and it’s time for the Eternals to reconvene, despite having grown apart over the years.  Sersei (Gemma Chan) has enjoyed a happy life in London as a science teacher, with her boyfriend Dane Whitman (Kit Harrington) by her side.  Her only other Eternal contact has been Sprite (Lia McHugh), who has been isolated primarily because she still appears as a child after thousands of years.  One night, they are suddenly attacked by a rogue Deviant, only to be saved by Ikaris (Richard Madden), who has been called to assemble the Eternals together by Ajak.  The remaining Eternals are scattered across the globe, with Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) living it up as a Bollywood star, Druig (Barry Keoghan) living in exile in the Amazon rain forest, Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) staying hidden collecting artifacts from around the world, Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) living a simple life with his husband and son, and Gilgamesh (Don Lee) helping to protect Thena (Angelina Jolie), who has suffered memory loss.  But, a mystery remains for them all, which is why the Deviants have returned and questions rise over whether or not they should stay to help save humanity from the Emergence.

Suffice to say, Eternals is not an easy pill to swallow.  Coming in with a lot of pre-studied knowledge of Jack Kirby’s dense mythology of the Eternals and their place within the larger Marvel Universe probably helps, but a lot of audiences may be left scratching their heads while watching this movie.  There is no doubt that Eternals is a gamble for Marvel, and thus far it’s been a bumpy road for them.  Critics have not been kind to the movie, making Eternals the first ever rotten scored MCU film on Rotten Tomatoes.  It will be interesting to see how that will translate into the audience response.  One of the things that people have pointed out so far is that Eternals is a very different Marvel movie, both in style and narrative.  For some, this is a detriment, because it makes the story uneven and un-moored, but for someone like me, it’s the exact kind of thing I was hoping for with Eternals.  After watching two back to back formulaic entries from Marvel that left me a bit underwhelmed (this summer’s Black Widow and Shang-Chi), I was happy to see a Marvel movie break formula and try something different, even if it is a little messy.  I found myself on the whole actually enjoying Eternals for the most part, and that’s largely due to the fact that it wasn’t going out of it’s way to hit all the right notes, and instead try to be it’s own thing.  At the same time, it’s not too much of a departure for Marvel.  It still felt like it was a part of the MCU, and even had some of the familiar tone as well.  But, what Chloe Zhao managed to do was take the already pre-established Marvel universe aesthetic and tell a whole different kind of story within it.  What I believe drew Chloe Zhao to this movie was the idea of telling a story on both a cosmic and intimate scale all at once.  This movie delves deeper into the mythology of the Marvel Universe than anything we’ve seen before; literally showing us the Gods pulling the strings of the cosmos and establishing the Universe’s creation story within that.  At the same time, it’s also a personal tale about a family of immortal beings, and the focus of the movie is less on the action taking place and more of the internal struggle that the characters are going through.

For a lot of people, these two forces at play in the narrative may not gel together, and I would be lying if I said there was nothing with the movie.  It does feel at times that Zhao is striving a little too hard to reach for a deeper meaning within her story, while at the same time still delivering on the promised expectations of the MCU.  For some people, the disappointment may come from there not being a lot of substance behind the trippier Jack Kirby elements within the movie.  I honestly get the frustration people might feel with this movie, and there were many things that I wish Chloe had devoted more time to.  One of the biggest letdowns are the Deviants.  Conceptually and realized within the movie, these characters are about as bland of a antagonistic force as they come.  Even in the grand scheme of the movie they really don’t serve much of purpose other than being an obstacle for the characters, so why bother including them at all, as well as build them up to be this threatening element within the story.  Another complaint levied at the film is that it is too long, running 157 minutes, making it one of the longest in the whole MCU (only Infinity War and Endgame run longer) and yes, I can attest that you do feel the length of this movie much more than some of the better paced MCU films.  But, at the same the slower moments in Eternals were among my favorite.  I really appreciated that Chloe Zhao devotes a lot more time towards building an atmosphere in her movie and also allowing her characters to talk things through rather than having the movie jump quickly from plot point to plot point.  While many Marvel movies have managed to get away with that formulaic method in the past, it was really starting to feel forced thus far into Phase Four.  My favorite post Endgame stuff from the MCU so far has been the limited series on Disney+, because those too have broken out of formula.  While Eternals is a little choppier in it’s success at breaking formula compared to the Disney+ shows, I am nevertheless happy that it’s trying.  And the fact that it’s doing it’s hardest to expand the universe itself is also another enriching part of the movie experience that I had.  Eternals shows us that we really have only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the story possibilities of the MCU.

Of all the things that I believe works best in Eternals, it would be the characters themselves.  I really appreciate that most of the runtime of this movie is devoted to character development.  For the most part, the movie is really about a family coming back together and re-discovering the love that they had all left behind once they parted ways.  More so than any other Marvel movie, this is an ensemble, with no character really taking the lead and all of them instead getting a fair amount to shine individually.  The movie also jumps back and forth through time, showing us how these Eternals have managed to live among the humans for centuries.  I really love the fact that they never hid themselves, and instead became the inspiration for legends that have been passed down through various different cultures, all culminating to where they are today.  Angelina Jolie’s Thena for example became the basis for the concept of the Greek goddess of war Athena for example.  It’s a smart way of showing these characters through their humanity rather than their purpose through the story.  The plot is less motivated by the ticking time clock of the Emergence and more by the internal conflicts brought to the surface as the characters come back together.  For all the different Eternals, each actor feels appropriately cast, and I’m surprised how the lesser known actors carry just as much weight within the story as the better known ones.  Angelina Jolie and Selma Hayek both shine in their respective roles, with Hayek’s Ajak displaying graceful maternal authority and Jolie’s Thena showing both inspiring strength as well as tragic vulnerability.  Kumail Nanjiani and Brian Tyree Henry also bring a welcome comical side to the movie, but in different enough ways that help to distinguish themselves from each other.  One particular scene stealer is Barry Keoghan as Druig, a character with a shadowy disposition that could have been portrayed in a more heavy-handed sort of way, but instead he hits just the right tone.  Richard Madden, Lia McHugh, Don Lee and Lauren Ridloff all do well in their roles as well.  And while her performance is still fine, I feel like the weakest link in the cast is Sersei.  She is there to be the audience surrogate as the POV character, and that unfortunately makes her feel like too much of a blank slate with not much substance.  Still, the movie succeeds the most at making us care for the characters at the heart of the story, and that for the most part helps to make it an exceptionally moving story.

While the movie succeeds at capturing the intimate side of the characters story very well, it also does an amazing job of capturing the scope and scale of the cosmic side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  For a director of Chloe Zhao’s pedigree, she actually proves to be very adept at making a movie of this scale.  We know that she has the ability to make a beautifully shot movie, as the Oscar-winning Nomadland showed us.  But, it’s stunning to see that same style done on a massive Marvel-sized budget.  One thing that she brings to the Marvel universe that feels especially fresh is the use of natural lighting.  If there has been one complaint common throughout the MCU movies, it’s that there is a lack of diversity in the way they look, and that’s largely because they are all made the same way; with a lot of green screen and digital matteing.  A lot of the Marvel movies take their final form in post-production, and because of that assembly line approach, they more or less have that same look to them.  Eternals feels refreshingly different, with a lot more of the movie having been shot on real locations and with natural lighting.  Chloe Zhao especially likes her “golden hour” lighting, which at times gives the movie a very Terrence Malick like feel, which I am sure is intentional.  The film, surprisingly, was shot by cinematographer Ben Davis who has worked on a number of Marvel movies already, including Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Doctor Strange (2016), and Captain Marvel (2019).  This movie marks a departure for him too as a result, and it’s pleasing to see him branch out and rise to the challenge of meeting Chloe Zhao’s vision.  And while the movie does make the most out of it’s use of the natural world, including some truly epic moments captured at the Canary Islands, it also doesn’t disappoint with the more insane visual effects moments.  In particular, whenever the Celestials show up, it is awe-inspiring.  Arishem, the Prime Celestial that we see the most in this movie, is portrayed with a sense of overwhelming colossal scale unlike anything we have seen in the MCU before.  Whenever he appeared on screen, the film fills out to the full IMAX image, making his presence really feel biblical and overwhelming.  It really makes someone like me excited to see what Marvel has planned next if we are headed in this direction with the MCU.  Overall, this may be probably the most visually captivating Marvel movie we have seen yet, and it will hopefully set a new high bar for the franchise to follow in the next several phases.

Granted, this movie will not be to everyone’s taste.  I totally understand the mixed reception that people are getting from this movie so far, and they are not wrong to have those reservations.  For me, however, there was enough there in this movie to make me feel like I had a good time watching it.  The sense of scale is awe-inspiring, and it really shows that Chloe Zhao can deliver a movie on any scale and budget while still retaining her unique voice.  I also really liked the characters we are introduced to here, and I’m excited to see where the characters go as they become more involved in the overall narrative of the MCU.  I also think that this movie succeeds as a love letter to the work of Jack Kirby.  Here, we are seeing his mad imagination brought to full life, with both the Eternals and Celestials hinting at a more expansive universe yet to explore in the years ahead.  The movie also is one that takes risks, and that is something that I refreshingly want to see happen more in the MCU.  I know that the Marvel formula has worked effectively well for them and built them into a cinematic force that is unrivaled right now, but the longer it goes on unchanged, the more we are going to get bored of it.  I’m grateful that a movie like Eternals has come along that slows things down and tries to be a bit more serious while at the same time a little weirder than the average comic book movie.  It’s also a movie that prides itself on it’s diversity; showing us a cast of characters that display cultural identities from across the globe, while also covering different sexualities, disabilities, and age limitations as a part of their characters as well.  There is so much breaking of new ground with this movie that I hope continues into the future with more Eternals films as well as with all the future Marvel films.  Now, is it the best movie Marvel has made?  Of course not.  It has it’s flaws, but none of those overwhelmed my overall good experience watching this movie.  It is certainly far better than Marvel at their worst (Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World) and of the three Marvel movies I have seen thus far this year, it was definitely the best of that bunch.  I actually think this might be a movie that will alienate some people initially, but will get reassessed years later and be viewed as a very pivotal movie in the history of the MCU.  As imperfect as it is, it’s still got enough to warrant a viewing, and on the largest screen possible.  I always respect a major studio taking risks, even if it doesn’t always work out for them, and seeing something that challenged me rather than just delivering the essentials is a cinematic act worth being eternally grateful for.

Rating: 8/10

Dune (2021) – Review

Arrakis.  Dune. Desert Planet.  Ever since it’s original publication in 1965, Frank Herbert’s seminal Sci-Fi epic Dune has been a siren call to filmmakers wanting to bring the author’s vision to full cinematic life.  Despite having all the grandeur in scope of a great biblical sized adventure, Herbert’s novel was also a dense and detailed tome, where worldbuilding is intricately to the story itself, something that would take a lot more time to adapt than what’s allowed for the average film.  This led the book Dune to develop a reputation over time as being “un-filmable.”  That’s not to say that there weren’t people who tried.  One of the most famous failed attempts was from advant garde director Alejandro Jodorowsky (The Holy Mountain) whose early development of his vision of the movie was so wild and fascinating that a documentary was made about it called Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013).  In that documentary, you see what may have been the greatest movie never made, as Jodorowsky details his bold vision for a space opera based on the novel that would rival the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  Of course, it was a dream un-fulfilled, and that’s a narrative that has long followed the history of Dune on film.  Dune did eventually get a big screen adaptation by, of all people, David Lynch, who definitely leaned far more into the weirder aspects of Herbert’s novel.  I talked about that adaptation more at length here, but to sum up, it’s a movie that leaves much to be deserved, especially if you’ve read the book.  Lynch’s Dune (1984) for one thing rushes through most of the novel, and never allows for the worldbuilding to take hold.  In the end it feels more like a Lynch movie than anything else, with only the bullet points of Herbert’s story.  When Universal tried to add more backstory to make it more understandable to casual audiences, it angered David so much that he refused to attach his name to the longer cut, making it the most expensive Alan Smithee movie ever made.  For decades afterwards, Lynch’s bizarre and compromised adaptation did garner a cult following, but long time fans of the novel continued to hope for a big screen adaptation that finally lived up to what was on the page.

After being passed around from studio to studio, the rights to Frank Herbert’s Dune eventually landed at Legendary Pictures, under their partnership with Warner Brothers.  After securing the rights, the search went out for a director who was not only capable of delivering on the promise of Frank Herbert’s vision, but one who was also passionate about the project as well.  The duty of such a daunting challenge eventually went to French Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve.  Villeneuve had already made a name for himself with critically acclaimed dramas like Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2015), but more recently he’s been known for his celebrated work in Science Fiction, with movies like Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017).  The match was ideal for the up and coming director, as this has long been a dream project of his, ever since he read the novel back when he was a teenager.  Once Villeneuve was given the greenlight, work began on bringing his long gestating vision to full life.  Warner Brothers granted him a sizable amount to work with, including having an all-star cast playing all the iconic characters.  Warner Brothers were hoping this would be the start of a new lucrative franchise for them, and the film was set up with a prime Holiday 2020 release.  Then, unfortunately, the bad fortunes that seem to follow this story around, came to disrupt those plans.  The Covid-19 pandemic made it impossible for Dune to make it’s original release date like all the other films that year, and Warner Brothers made the tough decision to push the movie back to 2021.  As the pandemic waned, Dune settled into it’s new October release date, but another controversial decision followed with it.  Warner Brothers decided they were going to release their entire 2021 slate of movies day and date in theaters and on streaming through HBO Max, including Dune.  This led to friction with Denis Villeneuve who intended his film to be seen on the big screen.  With this release pattern, many like Villeneuve worry that it will minimize box office and hurt any chances of a continuation of the series in case the movie appears to be a flop.  Regardless, Warner Brothers stuck by their plan, and Dune is indeed receiving a hybrid release this week.  The only question is, does it finally live up to the promise of the novel and demand a big screen viewing, or was Warner right to hedge their bets.

Dune (2021) pretty much follows the novel down to the letter with it’s overall plot.  It is many millennia into the future.  The galaxy is ruled by the Imperium, a multi-planet galactic federation that is ruled by the Great Houses, overseen by the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV.  Two of the Great Houses, the Harkonnens and the Atreides, are sworn enemies of each other, but still swear the same allegiance to the Imperium.  Upon the decree of the Emperor, House Atreides has been granted stewardship of the desert planet Arrakis, where the Spice Mélange is harvested.  The spice is the most valuable substance in the galaxy, granting those who consume it enhanced mental and physical capabilities, as well as enabling the process of interstellar flight.  The one who holds control over the production of the spice wields great power within the Imperium, which leads many to wonder why the Emperor is suddenly changing the stewardship of the planet from one house to another.  Until now, the Harkonnen’s, led by the fearsome Baron (Stellan Skarsgard) and his nephew Rabban (Dave Bautista), had been ruling the planet and it’s native people, the Fremen, with a tyrannical iron grip.  Now, the Atreides, a benevolent and well-loved Great House, are making the move to Arrakis.  Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) brings along with him is beloved Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and their son Paul (Timothee Chalamet).  Paul Atreides has garnered a lot of interest from a powerful collective of witches known as the Bene Gesserit, of whom Jessica has also belonged.  She is teaching Paul some of her special abilities, which are forbidden for men to learn, which the Bene Gesserit leader, Reverend Mother Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling), believes could prove problematic for the Emporer.  It is thought that Paul may be the prophesized Kwisatz Haderach, an all powerful Messiah like being that can transcend time and space.  Indeed, Paul’s dreams reveal a bit of his possible future, as he continues to see a mystery girl named Chani (Zendaya) within them.  Once at Arrakis, Duke Leto’s trusted men, Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) and Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson) do their best to train young Paul for a harsh new world.  But as Paul will see, Arrakis is a perilous place full of assassins acting on the Harkonnen’s orders, as well as home to the mighty Shai-hulud, the massive, mountain sized sand worms that scour across the planet.

What I just described is basically just the set-up to the story of Dune and not the actual plot itself, which shows you just how dense of a story Frank Herbert’s narrative really is.  It’s a daunting task to fit that kind of epic story into just one film, as David Lynch learned the hard way.  With Denis Villeneuve, the task was to convince Warner Brothers that one movie alone was not possible to capture the full breadth of the story.  His plan was to divide Dune into separate halves over the span of two movies.  It’s not an unusual feat; several studios have split books up into two movies before, but they had the benefit of built in franchises like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games to allow for that.  Denis was gambling with the studio here, but it’s what was necessary to carry out his full vision.  Warner Brothers granted him his wish, but with a caveat; that he could only start off with the first half.  Instead of filming back to back like other franchises have with multi-part movies before, Villeneuve had to do with filming only Part 1 of his adaptation of Dune, with the prospect of a Part 2 dependent on the performance of the first.  That seemed like a fair compromise in a time of stable box office a couple years ago, but now seems short sighted in the wake of a global pandemic.  Now, Denis Villeneuve’s chances of completing his vision are not so certain, as Warner Brother’s HBO Max gamble almost ensures that the movie is not going to perform up to it’s potential at the box office.  And that overall is a real tragedy, because this is a movie that demands to be seen on the biggest possible screen.  It has honestly been too long since I’ve seen a movie aim this high as a visual experience on the big screen, reaching for the heights of both the natural splendor of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and the surreal head trip of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  This is the kind of epic movie that I absolutely love, one that pushes cinema to the limit, and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is a masterful demonstration of that.  I was blown away seeing this on a massive IMAX screen for the first time.  Villeneuve, whose style is growing more and more ambitious with every new film, really holds nothing back in this movie.  But, David Lynch also attempted an audacious cinematic experience with his version of Dune.  What makes Villeneuve’s version vastly better is that he manages to solidify the tone throughout the movie, and treats it with the seriousness it deserves.  And more importantly, he devotes more time to pacing the story out and letting it flow naturally.

Even when it’s only the first half of the book, Villeneuve’s Dune still runs at a meaty 2 1/2 hours.  And a lot of that extra time gives us something that the David Lynch version never allowed before, a chance to immerse ourselves in this world that Frank Herbert envisioned.  With the help of Cinematographer Greig Fraser, whose work includes films like Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and Rogue One (2016), Villeneuve creates an Arrakis that feels alive and tangible.  I found myself in awe of the way that movie captures the vistas of it’s locations.  Everything in this movie feels big, from the locations to even the machinery used by the characters.  The ships that the Atreides use to transport themselves and their forces from planet to planet are colossal structures in of themselves, towering hundreds of feet and reducing the human beings among them to mere specks within the wide shots.  And then there are the Sand Worms, which are probably the greatest creation of all from the mind of Frank Herbert.  They are not seen much in this movie, but their presence is felt throughout, much like the shark from Jaws (1975).  One of the most jaw-dropping visuals that I love from this movie is the way that we see the seas of sand dunes undulate as the Sand Worms move underneath.  And then a massive sand pit begins to start sinking and entrapping anything or anyone unfortunate to be caught up within it.  Around the center, hundreds of massive razor sharp teeth begin to rise up and engulf it’s prey, and then the gaping mouth of the beast closes in around it’s meal.  It’s a terrifying sight taken right out off the page, and is a clear example of how well Villeneuve’s own vision perfectly matches Herbert’s.  But apart from scale, I also admire how Denis also deals with simple, unspoken storytelling.  There is a scene early on where Paul walks along a lake shoreline on his home planet of Caladan and places his hand in a puddle of water.  Without words, he perfectly conveys the feeling of what is going through Paul’s mind at that moment.  He’s doing something that is mundane on his planet that will become almost impossible on Arrakis, where water is so scarce that people have created suits designed to recycle the body’s own water.  That’s a big, and valued change of approach for retelling this story.  David Lynch was forced to cram in a lot of underlying backstory through awkward internal monologues.  Here, Villeneuve says a lot more through visual storytelling, conveying emotion in his story rather than rigid adherence to a plot.

The movie also gets a lot out of it’s stellar cast, all of whom surprisingly fit well within this hyper-realized world.  For one thing, Denis Villeneuve was wise to cast a youngish actor this time in the role of Paul Atreides.  David Lynch’s Dune had Kyle McLauchlan in the pivotal role, but he was already in his mid-twenties when playing the part of the teenage protagonist, and he unfortunately looked it too.  Timothee Chalamet is also on the latter side of 20, but he looks far more believably younger and you buy him as the character Paul much more.  It’s a daunting part, no matter which way you look at it, because the role of Paul requires the actor to be in the mindset of being the so-called “Super” of the story; a sometimes overused cliché that has been used in many Sci-Fi and Fantasy stories, including many that Dune influenced.  What I like about what Timothee brings to the part is the quiet pain that he feels as the character.  You feel the world-weariness of the character, as he struggles with being at the center of all these political and supernatural machinations, all the while trying his best to be a normal, level-headed young kid.  And thankfully, Timothee also accomplishes this without turning Paul into an angsty, whiny privileged teen, which could’ve happened in the wrong hands of a different actor.  He’s also matched with an incredible performance by Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica.  She delivers so much emotion through her role, and it’s nice to see a maternal character treated like a powerful force within this adaptation.  Oscar Isaac makes his Duke Leto a man worthy of admiration, and the supporting roles Gurney and Duncan are filled perfectly by the always reliable and charming Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa respectively.  There’s one underwhelming part of the cast in the movie and that’s the villainous Harkonnens themselves.  Stellan Skarsgard and Dave Bautista are still excellent in their performances, but the movie doesn’t really utilize them to the fullest.  They are just there, and fulfill their part in the story, with no real insight into their character motivations.  It makes me wonder if Denis was saving that more for Part II, instead.  In any sense, even with all the extra time, it seems like the villains were treated like an afterthought in this film, but they are still well acted and creepily designed.  I do hope we are going to get more characterizations fleshed out in the future, but even still, the cast really delivers in their roles.  Like all the best films with a stacked cast of knowable faces, the best sign of the movie’s effectiveness is in seeing how the actors start to disappear throughout the movie, and we instead only see the character they are playing.  That’s the great trick that the Lord of the Rings movies pulled, and I’m glad to see that it works just as well here too.

There’s also a lot to say about the incredible aural experience that you’ll have watching this movie, especially in a theater retrofitted with a spectacular sound system.  For one thing, Hans Zimmer’s score is up there with the legendary composer’s best work.  With worldwide influences, Zimmer’s score gives an identity to the world of Arrakis, and captures through music the incredible wildness of that world.  Equally adept at capturing the big action moments with the quieter reflective ones, Zimmer’s score has a beautiful fluidity to it that perfectly matches the visual splendor that Denis Villeneuve puts on display.  The sound editing really utilizes the dynamic sound field very well.  It’s this specifically this that you will only get to hear at it’s fullest potential within a movie theater.  Home theater set-ups won’t rattle the ribcage and get the heart pumping like the sound systems of a multi-channel theater set-up can, especially one at an IMAX theater.  The rolling thunder of the oncoming Sand Worms especially have a foreboding sound to them.  There’s also a lot of brilliant work put into the art design of the movie and the special effects.  The David Lynch movie had it’s weirdness to be sure, but there are a few places and sights in this movie that also delve into the strange and bizarre.  I especially like the H.R. Geiger inspired look of the Harkonnen home world, which I think is a deliberate nod to Jodoworsky’s unfulfilled vision, as Alejandro did in fact commission Geiger to design the Baron’s palace for his movie, years before Geiger went on to famously design the iconic creature in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1978).  If this was the case, I applaud Denis for acknowledging the legacy of Jodoworsky’s imaginative but never made version, which only lives on as a collection of development art.  Another thing that I love about this movie is that it mixes practical and digital effects really well.  Since Denis Villeneuve is like Christopher Nolan in that he tries to do as much as he can in camera before adding digital enhancement, I’m happy to see so much in this movie that looks authentic and real.  The digital effects are subtly laid in, and there is quite a lot of use of physical miniature models to help make the mighty fortresses in this story feel real.  In a Marvel and DC world that has become too accustomed to blue screen and CGI enhancement, it’s great to see a movie fall back on some tried and true old tricks to help make Arrakis and all the other worlds of Dune feel as real as possible.

Of all the movies to have released in this re-building year at the box office, this is the one that makes the most passionate case yet for returning to the movie theater.  There really is no better way to appreciate the film and it’s massive scale.  Unfortunately, because of Warner Brothers not backing down from their year long gamble on HBO Max, there is a chance that too many people will end up staying home and not get the full experience of this movie.  I understand that it’s still too unsafe for some people to venture out as the pandemic still continues to exist and that streaming the movie at the same time it’s in theaters grants people who are not ready yet the chance to not miss out.  But, Warner Brothers is putting too much on the line with this one.  It’s foolish on their part to not consider having Denis Villeneuve shoot two movies back to back, so that even if the first movie underperforms, he’ll still have the second part to complete the story.  Here, the movie ends on an abrupt note, making it far more dependent on a continuation to follow.  If Warner Brothers doesn’t invest in a sequel right after this, it’s definitely going to come across as an incomplete vision.  I guess that it would put the movie in line with other past Dune projects, like Jodoworsky’s unmade film or David Lynch’s compromise, as they both reached far and came up short.  Frank Herbert’s masterpiece is a daunting challenge, but Denis Villeneuve’s visual feast is the best attempt yet at finally bringing the story to it’s full cinematic potential.  Sadly, I think Warner Brothers is going to leave a lot of money on the table with regards to this one, all in the pursuit of pushing for more subscribers to their streaming channel.  I hope that word of mouth helps this movie find it’s audience, and helps convince the WB team that they need to complete the full vision.  It’s all going to come down to dollars and cents at this point, and it only makes it more complicated when you know that, like Arrakis,  Warner is currently going through a leadership change of it’s own (from AT&T to Discovery) which could dampen Dune’s chances even more.  All I can say is this was absolutely the best theatrical experience I have had thus far this year, and after the last year that we’ve had, it’s a feeling that I have long wished would return.  Denis Villeneuve has done a masterful job of taming Frank Herbert’s “un-filmable” novel and giving us a movie worthy of it’s legacy.  if you can, I cannot recommend more highly enough that you should see it in a theater on the biggest possible screen.  It is the kind of movie that reminds us the power that cinema can have, and it does so with a world we have yet to fully see realized in a way that captures it’s true epic potential.  The grandfather of all modern science fiction now finally has a movie worthy of it’s legacy.  Now it’s up to us to help it become a hit so that it won’t remain an unfinished masterpiece.  The spice must flow.

Rating: 9/10

No Time to Die – Review

In the long, 50-plus year run of the James Bond franchise, there are few figures that will stand as tall within the pantheon of the series as Daniel Craig.  Sean Connery no doubt still remains the gold standard, but Craig’s tenure as 007 may be the best collection of films out of the whole franchise.  His time in James Bond’s fine leather shoes is unique in the franchise because it’s the only instance where there’s been a story arc that carried over from film to film.  Before now, James Bond movies were loosely connected adventures, all adhering to a formula rather than continuity.  It worked perfectly for decades to build a series like this, because it made it easier for different actors to step into the role once their predecessor’s time was done, without having to do too much rebooting.  After Sean Connery defined the character and turned him into an icon. actors such as George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Brosnan all had their turn as James Bond.  But, after the declining quality of the movies during the final years of Brosnan’s tenure, the team at Bond’s home studio, EON Productions, decided to take things in a different direction.  They decided to redefine the character once again, delving deeper into his psyche and opting for a grittier, less campy Bond.  And this required finding a different kind of actor to play him as well.  Initially, people were unsure of Daniel Craig as the iconic spy with a license to kill.  He was shorter than previous Bonds (the first under 6 feet at 5’10”), had more rugged good looks, and he was blonde.  He didn’t exactly fit what people thought James Bond should be.  But, when he made his debut in Casino Royale (a fitting start as it was a long overdue adaptation of Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel) people soon realized that he was not only a perfect choice to play James Bond, but he was also the Bond that we sorely needed.

Daniel Craig was a 21st century spy; one whose skills in hand to hand combat were just as valuable as his ability to look dashing in a finely tailored suit.  With competition coming from the likes of Mission: Impossible and the Bourne series, James Bond needed to stand on his own and Daniel Craig fulfilled that role perfectly.  He was an accomplished fighter on screen, but could also display the same kind of charisma that we expect from 007.  And over the course of 5 films, Craig not only lived up to the role; he may have even set a new standard for the character.  Craig himself will still tell you that he is merely standing on the shoulders of those who came before him, with Connery being the especially strong foundation; but whoever takes on the role after Daniel Craig will have some very big shoes to fill.  Craig’s time in particular delved deeper into the character than ever before, and that is thanks to the fact that all his movies are connected to the same narrative thread.  Each movie builds on the one before, and for the first time, we saw Bond grow as a character.  In many ways, that makes Craig’s Bond the truest iteration of Ian Fleming’s original concept that we have ever seen.  And it’s remarkable that Craig played the character for the longest period of time of any actor: a staggering 15 years.  Following Casino Royale (2006) we got Quantum of Solace (2008), Skyfall (2012), and Spectre (2015).  Spectre in particular was a difficult film for Craig, and he began to voice his displeasure at the direction of the series; saying in one interview that he’s sooner cut his own wrists than make another Bond movie.  However, the team behind the Bond franchise managed to convince Craig to do one more film and that involved the choice of granting Daniel something that no actor in the series has been given before; a chance to say goodbye on his own terms.  With No Time to Die (2021) we get a swan song to Bond that feels more personal to the man playing the role, as Daniel Craig was more involved here on both a performance and story level.  The question is, across the 5 movies over 15 years, did Daniel Craig leave James Bond on a high note?

The movie picks up immediately after the events of Spectre.  James Bond (Daniel Craig) has retired from his position at MI-6, running away with the new love of his life Madeleine Snowe (Lea Seydoux) after putting his nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) behind bars.  However, while on their romantic honeymoon getaway, James and Madeleine are attacked by Spectre agents, who are somehow still being orchestrated by Blofeld from his prison cell.  This forces Bond to make the drastic choice to abandon Madeleine so that she won’t get hurt, because he knows that as long as Spectre is out there, they will keep hunting him, and she will always be in danger.  Five years later, Bond is contacted in Jamaica by his old CIA friend Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) to help out on a new mission.  A chemist from the MI-6 run bio-weapons laboratory in London has gone missing, and the CIA needs help from the now freelance Bond to find him before a top secret carcinogen named Heracles falls into the wrong hands.  However, as Bond is on the trail of his target, he soon discovers that someone else is on the chemist’s trail as well; a MI-6 agent named Nomi (Lashana Lynch), the new 007 that has taken Bond’s place.  Things go awry for both parties as Bond and Nomi witness the effects of the Heracles poison, as it ravages it’s way through an entire party of Spectre operatives.  As the stakes have been raised, Bond returns to London and seeks the help of MI-6 once again, including his old boss M (Ralph Fiennes), and co-workers Tanner (Rory Kinnear), Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw).  Despite some early tension with the crew that he left behind, Team Bond does work together again to decipher what Heracles is and what it’s capable of, soon realizing that it has the ability to systematically wipe out large segments of the population.  A key factor of getting to the bottom of things falls on a mystery that shrouds Bond’s old flame Madeleine, who has been visited by a mysterious figure named Lyusifer Safin (Rami Malek); the one currently pulling all the strings.  The deeper the mystery goes, the more Bond begins to realize that this mission could very well be the one that decides his fate forever.

The road to get No Time to Die released was plagued by many problems during it’s development.  Craig’s reluctance initially did cause a bit of disruption, as EON Productions were already starting to look for a possible replacement.  Once Craig was set, the movie still stalled, as there were irreconcilable creative differences that couldn’t be resolved with the film’s original director, Danny Boyle.  After Boyle’s departure, the Bond team did something they’ve never done before and hired an American filmmaker for the first time; Beasts of No Nation’s Cary Joji Fukunaga.  After all these production troubles and delays, the movie finally got rolling, and had an April 2020 release date was set.  Unfortunately, that’s when the COVID-19 pandemic started to boom and ravage the theatrical market.  No Time to Die made headlines as the first high profile film to move off the calendar to avoid the loss of the box office, becoming something of a canary in the coal mine with regards to how bad the pandemic would be.  After moving to November 2020, and then again to April 2021, the movie moved once more to October 2021 where it finally found solid ground, more than 500 days after it was originally supposed to hit theaters.  Even in all that time, parent studio MGM sought a buy out with Amazon, which is still an ongoing deal in the making.  Thankfully, after all the production woes and pandemic delays, we finally have No Time to Die playing in theaters.  The question is did the movie stick the landing and was it worth all the wait?  I can gratefully say that it is indeed.  This is the kind of era defining franchise closure that both audience and filmmakers wish for; delivering on everything that was promised from previous installments while at the same time delivering some welcome surprises along the way that makes the road to the end worth it.  It’s certainly not the end of James Bond as a character, but it’s the end of this James Bond; one whose story we have grown close to for 15 years.  And it sends Daniel Craig off on the high note he deserves as one of the all time great 007’s.

The main reason this movie works as well as it does is Daniel Craig himself.  I found his performance in this movie in particular to be the best of the series in fact.  Skyfall may have had the best story, but No Time to Die has the best development of character here with regards to James Bond.  For the first time, you really see the vulnerability of the character on display, as Bond lets his guard down a bit more here than we’ve ever seen before.  He’s still the same old Bond, but you see how the years of fighting have taken their toll on him, and how this version of the character really is striving to find something meaningful in his life other than work.  Craig plays up this aspect perfectly throughout the movie.  It’s really interesting to see how he’s evolved the character from where he started in Casino Royale (2006), which showed him as a stone-cold killer.  Here, he has come to value the relationships he’s made along the way; with those who he shares his life with.  This is something that has carried over in the larger narrative since Skyfall, as we saw in that movie the cherished relationship he had with his first M (played magnificently by Dame Judi Dench), who was a bit of a mother figure in his life.  Since her departure, we’ve watched Bond grow closer to Moneypenny and Q than we’ve ever seen before in the movies, and Bond even found a place in his life to pursue meaningful love with Madeleine.  I can only think of one other Bond movie where we saw this vulnerable side of 007 come through at that was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969); the one and only Lazenby Bond, and the only movie where James ties the knot.  It’s fitting that No Time to Die focuses a lot more on Bond’s relationships with those around him, because this essentially is a movie where Bond has to reflect back on the lives he’s touched because it really is the end of his story.  I get the feeling that this is one of the important aspects that drew Daniel Craig back into the role for one final time.  In no other iteration of the character have we been able to see a character arc grow from one that was archetypal to one that is fully-dimensional in this series, and most importantly, it allows for the actor to give the character a proper ending.

Everything related to Bond in this movie has an air of magnitude because of that effect.  Other than that, it’s another standard Bond flick.  All the essential pieces are still there in place, from the stylish opening credits (which feel like a deliberate nod to the classic Maurice Binder designed titles of the early Bonds), to the globe-trotting set-pieces, to the white-knuckle action scenes.  But, even as the movie does a great job utilizing all these elements that we expect from the franchise, it also feels a bit too overwhelming as well.  At 2 hours and 44 minutes, this is far and away the longest movie in the franchise and it does at times feel it’s length.  It probably is due to the fact that this movie is a final chapter to an ongoing narrative, and the film tries really hard to tie up all the multiple plot threads.  But you get the feeling that the movie probably could have benefited from a bit more streamlining.  What particularly becomes troublesome is that the movie has far too many characters in it.  None of the characters are bad by any means, it’s just that the fact that they have to share so much screen time, even with the extra length, none of them really leave much of an impact.  This is especially true of Moneypenny, M, and Q.  What I appreciated in Skyfall and Spectre was that these characters didn’t just stand on the sidelines, but were actively helping Bond out along the way, even getting their own moments of glory.  Sadly, they spend most of No Time to Die returning back to their old ways; mainly sitting behind desks.  The movie’s villain is also a bit on a let down.  Safin is too much of a stock villain to leave much of an impact, and that’s especially disappointing given the magnitude of this movie as Craig’s final Bond.  A more iconic villain with a deep personal connection to James Bond like Javier Bardem’s Silva from Skyfall would have been better for this finale, but instead Safin here is treated more as an afterthought.  Rami Malek still gives it his all in the part, but he can’t overcome the villain’s innate blandness as written.  It doesn’t help that the movie also has Christoph Waltz’s Blofeld returning, who steals a bit of the thunder in his brief but memorable scene.

Apart from those flaws, the movie delivers on everything else we expect from a Bond movie.  The action scenes are once again shining examples of how to film action correctly for the movies.  One thing that I love most from the Daniel Craig Bonds is that it brought back the importance of practical, in camera stunt work and effects.  After the ridiculousness of the CGI heavy final Pierce Brosnan Bond films like The World is Not Enough (1999) and Die Another Day (2002), the Craig Bonds helped to bring the series back to it’s earthbound roots, and that was because it dispensed with all the gimmickry and just made things simple again.  Sure there are moments in the series that still border-lined on the ridiculous during Craig’s time, but it was all done in a way that felt real and like it could actually happen in the real world.  In particular, the series turned James Bond into a more hands on secret agent, not afraid to get down and dirty with his adversaries.  His Q-made gadgets make a lot more sense here; no more invisible cars or exploding pens.  This carries all the way through the series and it’s great to see Cary Joji Fukunaga hold his own in directing the action sequences.  He’s following in the footsteps of some heavyweights, including series veteran Martin Campbell (who also launched Pierce Brosnan’s tenure with Goldeneye) and Oscar winner Sam Mendes.  Being the first American behind the camera in this long running series does carry some weight, and thankfully he delivers and makes this a worthy entry in the franchise.  In particular, he shows some great mastery over the big set pieces, including a spectacular opening sequence involving Bond’s iconic Aston Martin, as well as a beautifully shot chase scene in a mist shrouded Norwegian forest.  Above all, it’s great to see Daniel Craig still involve himself as much as he can given his age.  I’m certain that 15 years playing James Bond has taken it’s toll on his body and he was indeed sidelined for a brief moment while shooting this movie with an on set injury.  But, the personal involvement still shines through with the close-up fight scenes.  A great hand-held, one shot late in the movie shows you just how much Craig still threw himself into the roll, and it is inspiring to see.  As much as we’ve seen from the action scenes of this series throughout the years, No Time to  Die still proves that this is a franchise that still has many more tricks up it’s finely tailored sleeves.

It was a long treacherous road to this moment, but No Time to Die is finally here, and thankfully it’s on the big screen.  Surprisingly, the long haul wait might have actually been worth it in the end, because this last year has helped us to reflect on this era of James Bond and Daniel Craig’s place within it.  Looking at all the Daniel Craig Bonds together, where would I put No Time to Die you ask?  Pretty much right in the middle.  Skyfall is still the pinnacle in my opinion, with the best story, the best villain and the beautiful Roger Deakins cinematography defining it.  Casino Royale is also ahead, thanks to it’s absolutely pitch perfect tone setting for this era.  It is however much better than Spectre, which had amazing scenes (including the best opening) but a jumbled plot that couldn’t sustain itself, and better than Quantum of Solace, which was basically James Bond on auto-pilot.  Despite it’s flaws, No Time to Die performs it’s central role to perfection, and that’s to end the Daniel Craig era on a high note.  Not many James Bond actors can say that they had that; not even Sean Connery.  Here, with No Time to Die, Daniel Craig is able to say goodbye with grace and a sense of prideful accomplishment.  Here he knows that he gave his best right up to the end, and that he securely left the franchise on solid ground for the next guy once he takes over.  Whoever plays James Bond next is going to have enormous shoes to fill.  What I believe is the best new direction for the series to take with James Bond as a character is to do what I believe EON Productions has hinted at, which is have Bond played by an actor of color.  Daniel Craig’s era will definitely be defined by the five movie arc that helped to probe James Bond as a person.  A new era where James Bond is non-white could provide some very interesting new possibilities for plot-lines in the future, especially regarding having an agent of color on her majesty’s secret service given the United Kingdom’s ratter complicated history with race.  But, that’s up to the stewards of the franchise to figure out.  For now, we have an end to a magnificent era to celebrate, with Daniel Craig and company bringing things to a spectacular conclusion.  The best thing is that it helped to revitalize this franchise and modernize it for a new generation.  James Bond once again represents a high standard for action film-making, and hopefully the franchise will continue to push forward and take chances in the future.  Thank you for your service Daniel Craig; you have earned your retirement.  And if you can see No Time to Die in a theater (on the biggest possible screen) do so.  It’s good that you finally made it and we look forward to meeting again Mr. Bond… James Bond.

Rating: 8.5/10

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – Review

If you can count on one studio to push forward on it’s plans even in the midst of a global pandemic affecting worldwide box office, it would definitely be Marvel.  After a year off due to the pandemic related shutdowns, Marvel returned with a vengeance in 2021.  In addition to their big screen releases, Marvel was also making a statement in the streaming wars, with shows like WandavisionThe Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki making a statement on Disney+, with their own narratives tied in with those of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe.  But, even with that offshoot on streaming, Marvel and Disney still had big plans for their mega-franchise on the big screen, which unfortunately was dealt with increased challenges due to an ongoing pandemic.  Theaters having finally reaching a point where they could operate again at near full capacity still was not enough assurance for studios to gamble on releasing their movies over the course of the last summer.  Some still did, and the result was mixed.  Some movies prospered while others floundered, and the overall numbers are still underwater from where they had been pre-pandemic.  One of the movies that did manage to do better than others was Marvel’s Black Widow, which Disney put out in theaters in a hybrid release with Disney+ Premiere Access.  Overall, Black Widow did win the Summer of 2021 with the highest domestic box office, but even still, it was on the low end for the MCU as a whole.  Some wonder if the hybrid theatrical/ streaming release may have in some way undercut Black Widow‘s long term box office grosses.  For Disney, Marvel’s parent studio, that seems to be a theory taking hold, as they decided to take a different route with their next film in the line-up by granting it a theatrical only window of 45 days.   And that film is the bold “experiment” known as Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

Shang-Chi is certainly not one of the more well known heroes from the Marvel comics, though he has enjoyed his fair share of devoted fans.  First introduced in 1975 by creators Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin of Marvel Comics, Shang-Chi was heavily inspired by the popularity of martial arts legend Bruce Lee.  Utilizing mastery of Wushu style martial arts, he developed into one of the more noteworthy heroes within the Marvel canon who did not rely upon any supernatural power.  That’s not to say that he hasn’t at times has had to rely on help from the supernatural world within Marvel Comics, but for the most part he is a self-made, self-reliant hero.  Though his presence in the Marvel universe is noteworthy for it’s Asian representation, it hasn’t been without controversy either.  For one thing, part of Shng-Chi’s backstory is that he is the song of supervillain Fu Manchu, a character (not originally created by Marvel) who has been used in movies and comic books often as a racist trope to slander Asian people in various media.  Over time, Marvel lost the rights to use Fu Manchu as a character in their comics, and Shang-Chi’s backstory has been altered to separate itself from the racism of it’s past.  Even still, the same backstory remains of Shang-Chi having this dark past of being the son of a criminal overlord; first in the comics with a newly created character named Zheng Zu, and in this movie, it’s changed again to reintroduce an already established villain from a different franchise, namely Wenwu: The Mandarin.  It’s interesting that not only has Marvel seen Shang-Chi as a worthy addition to their MCU family, but they are even betting on his movie to perform solely on it’s own theatrically.  The question remains, is Shang-Chi a character strong enough to warrant a risky challenge at the box office at this time, or is he a sacrificial experiment to reinforce a studio’s push towards more streaming options.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings wastes no time in getting the adventures started.  We are introduced to a young Asian man living in San Francisco named Shaun (Simu Liu) who when not working Valet with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina) is out late partying  and singing karaoke.  But on one day when they are taking the bus to work, the duo of Shaun and Katy are accosted by sinister looking thugs intent of grabbing a pendant that Shaun wears everywhere he goes.  To the amazement of all those on the bus, including Katy, Shaun not only holds his own in the fight against the thugs, but he also displays almost inhuman martial arts skills.  Even still, one of the thugs named Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu) manages to steal the pendant away.  This prompts Shaun to leave town in search of the pendant.  He of course now comes clean to his friend Katy about his past and reveals that his real name is Shang-Chi.  He tells her that the men were a part of the Ten Rings terrorist organization, which is run by the Wenwu (Tony Leung) his father.  Wenwu, aka The Mandarin, is a centuries old war lord who wields the power of the mystical Ten Rings, which gives him super powers as well as eternal life.  He created the Ten Rings as a multinational ring of anarchic terrorists who among other things have toppled governments and kidnapped high profile targets (such as Tony Stark in the original Iron Man) for ransom, with Wenwu becoming increasingly powerful and wealthy along the way, as well as more ruthless.  Upon her insistence, Katy accompanies Shang-Chi to China, where he seeks out his estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), who keeps a similar pendant to his.  Both were gifts from their deceased mother Li (Fala Chen), who Wenwu believes left them keys to finding the mystical land of her origin known as Ta Lo, where Wenwu still mistakenly believes she still lives.  Upon learning of their father’s dangerous plans, Shang-Chi and Xialing set out to find Ta Lo before their father can, with Katy and her expert driving skills helping along the way.  And as we soon learn, there is more at the end of the road in Ta Lo than they initially realize, including an even more sinister force that could be unleashed by their father if he is not stopped.

The premiere of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings comes at an interesting crossroads for Marvel.  After the mixed results of Black Widow’s premiere in the Summer, Disney is now seeing Shang-Chi as testing ground for the strength of the theatrical market in the face of an ongoing pandemic crisis.  This led to a bit of controversy as current Disney CEO Bob Chapek referred Shang-Chi to an “experiment,” which is wording that the movie’s star Simu Liu took issue with.  It’s unfortunate that the studio is treating this less like an exciting  new chapter in their mega-franchise, and more like a guinea pig in their test of the current state of the theatrical market.  It’s unfortunate that this movie is releasing under these circumstances, because had it not, this would have likely been a real game-changing movie for Marvel.  For one thing, it marks a significant moment for the MCU as it introduces an Asian superhero into the Avengers line-up for the first time.  There have been Asian characters in the MCU before, but none have been the headliner like Shang-Chi, and for Marvel, they are hoping that this movie does for the Asian community what Black Panther did for black audiences.  This is reflected by the fact that the movie is top to bottom representative of the Asian community, both in front and behind the camera.  Director Destin Daniel Cretton tapped into his own Asian heritage, particularly when it comes to cinematic influences, when making this movie and it shows.  People who are familiar with Wushu martial arts films such as those by filmmaker Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) will see a lot of that same style present in Shang-Chi.  And while that style does set it apart from other Marvel movies, it’s still distinctively an MCU film, with several notable Easter eggs throughout.  I also like that the movie takes time to make a pseudo-apology for the Mandarin fake-out in Iron Man 3 (2013) which is still one of the low points of the MCU.  As a stand alone feature in the MCU, it works well enough to establish our hero and where he will fit in this world, while at the same time doing some incredible world building along the way.

Unfortunately, there are some glaring flaws with the movie as well.  For one thing, it falls into the unfortunate trap of following the Marvel formula a little too stringently.  In particular, the movie loses focus as it heads towards it’s end, a “third act”-itis that is sadly becoming more and more of a problem for more Marvel properties.  Seen likewise in other properties that succumbed to underwhelming climaxes as of late in the MCU, like Black Widow and Wandavision, Shang-Chi unfortunately breaks away from the more interesting character building that happens earlier in the film to raise the stakes higher as it enters the home stretch.  And this unfortunately drowns out what made the movie interesting in the first place with a lot of CGI-enhances mayhem thrown at us on screen.  Though this movie still remains more visually interesting than say Black Widow, which really turned generic in it’s final climax, Shang-Chi still feels a bit hollow in it’s closing minutes.  The movie works a lot better when it departs from formula rather than steering into it.  I especially found the earlier fight scenes, like the one on the bus, to be far more engaging than what essentially turns into a kaiju fight in the film’s climax.  And one of the biggest victims of the movie loosing it’s focus as it adheres to formula is Shang-Chi himself.  We really don’t get much character development from him throughout the movie as he remains so of a passive traveler through all the different points in the plot.  The only thing that saves him as a character is the natural charisma of Simu Liu, who really has to do some heavy lifting here to bring out more character than what is on the page.  Still, overall his development into a hero feels more generic than say what we’ve seen from Spider-Man, or Black Panther, and even the early Avengers.  It’s overall a problem of the movie trying to do way too many different things instead of focusing on where the real intrigue of the story lies, which is Shang-Chi’s relationship with his father.

Though the story is a bit on the weak side, the same can’t be said about the cast.  They are definitely the highlight of this movie.  Chinese-Canadian Simu Liu, who was introduced to the world on the Comic Con stage in 2019 only days after being officially cast, is immediately magnetic on screen, and though he’s let down a bit by the screenplay he’s given, he nevertheless shines through with infectious charisma that absolutely certifies him as a perfect choice for this role.  And being already proficient in martial arts before hand also lends some authenticity to the fight scenes in this movie, which requires Simu to do some incredible moves in front of the camera without the aid of visual effects.  He also has incredible chemistry with Awkwafina as Katy.  Her presence in the film is primarily to provide comic relief, but she also works well as that connection to a normal life that Shang-Chi values so much.  I really appreciate the fact that the movie does break a bit from formula and doesn’t immediately turn their relationship in the movie into a romantic one.  Shang-Chi and Katy pretty much remain platonic friends right up to the end, though it’s a relationship that is certainly stronger than just casual.  A lot of the movie’s best moments belong to the two of them together, and you really get the sense that it’s a friendship that drives Shang-Chi to be a better person overall.  Though they both make strong leads, it’s almost certainly going to be the case that the most talked about performance in this movie is Tony Leung as Wenwu.  In a very interesting reimagining of the famed Marvel supervillain, Leung commands the screen, portraying Wenwu in this quiet intensity like an Asian Michael Corleone.  Long considered one of the greatest actors of his generation, both in his native China and worldwide, Leung’s presence here is a real blessing for Marvel.  He brings a gravitas to the role that really affirms Wenwu as a top tier Marvel villain; and really helps to make up for the disappointing Mandarin fake-out in Iron Man 3.  It’s also significant that pretty much the entire cast (with only a couple exceptions) is made up of Asian actors.  Even a previously established Asian character in the MCU, Wong (played by Benedict Wong) from Doctor Strange (2016) gets to participate briefly in this movie; which is not a spoiler because he appears in the trailer.  That thorough Asian representation throughout the movie alone is pretty significant, not just for a Marvel movie, but for any studio movie.

And while I do nitpick Destin Daniel Cretton’s handling of the story itself, I do commend his staging of the fight scenes in this movie.  Working for the first time on a large scale film like this, Cretton is not a director you would first think of to take on a Wushu style martial arts epic.  Up until now, he’s been more known for small, intimate dramas like Short Term 12 (2013) or Just Mercy (2019).  But, Marvel certainly sees potential in rising talents and believed Cretton was up to the task of bringing Shang-Chi to the big screen.  In particular, Cretton shows quite a bit of creativity in staging the fight scenes in this movie.  The previously mentioned bus fight in particular is a noteworthy standout, because of it’s combination of close quarters fighting and the fact that it’s also on a moving vehicle in the middle of San Francisco traffic.  Another fight on bamboo scaffolding also presents another stand-out moment, with specific nods to the crazy stunt work of Jackie Chan being spotlighted in that scene.  And while the CGI fest that makes for a messy climax in the movie’s final act loses some of the movie’s more intimate charm, it still makes the finale showdown between Shang-Chi and Wenwu worthy of what’s come before.  Considering that both actors, Liu and Leung, are experienced in martial arts, it makes it all the more satisfying watching them fight each other on screen, especially knowing that one of them came from the John Woo school of action movies.  I especially like the way that the Ten Rings themselves come into play as part of the fight, both as a superweapon and as something more integral to the story that brings these characters together.  It’s also interesting how Destin Daniel Cretton mixes his Asian cinema influences, bringing in the grittiness of a John  Woo action film and mixing it with the ethereal fantasy of a Zhang Yimou epic, and even injecting a bit of the intimate personal drama of Wong Kar-Wai.  It’s a movie deeply entrenched in the cinematic traditions of past Asian masters, but brings a great amount of it’s own voice to the mix and likewise also manages to fit perfectly within the grander Marvel Cinematic Universe.  I have no doubt that the one thing this movie will undoubtedly accomplish is bringing more eyes to past Asian cinema, which would be an especially good outcome because many of those classics from these great Asian auteurs are due for rediscovery.

So, on it’s own, it’s a perfectly suitable introduction for a character that has really yet to emerge as an important player in the Marvel canon.  If anything, this movie will do a lot to raise Shang-Chi‘s stock as a comic book character, and more importantly, raise up an Asian presence in the ongoing narrative that is the MCU.  Already, the movie is being proclaimed as an Asian Black Panther, but I think that it’s unfair to have to stack this film up against another groundbreaking film in the Marvel universe.  Shang-Chi is piece of a grander puzzle, but it has to stand on it’s own as it’s own story.  There are quite a few things that I wish were a bit better about the movie, namely it’s unfocused screenplay, but overall it does the job of making us like it’s central hero.  Shang-Chi really had a lot of hurdles to clear, especially with the fact that he is a mostly unknown character in comparison to say Iron Man, Captain America, Spider-Man and Black Panther.  In some respects, a better comparison for Shang-Chi would be what Marvel accomplished with Guardians of the Galaxy.  Guardians also started off as a very obscure title that was elevated to new heights thanks to it’s placement in the MCU.  Now the whole world knows the team of the Guardians of the Galaxy and speaks of them in the same breath as the Avengers.  All it took was a well crafted movie that appealed to a broad audience, and the hope is that Shang-Chi can achieve the same outcome and move beyond just his own small but devoted fanbase.  It’s too early to tell if it will work, but if it does, a lot of good things will come of it.  Not only will it give Asian representation in Hollywood a big boost, but it will also help turn Shang-Chi into more than just a novelty character and instead put him in the same league as Marvel’s A-team.  Not only that, but it will also likely boost Simu Liu into another level of stardom, which he already seems to have deftly accomplished since being cast in the first place.  In addition, it will hopefully bring new eyes to a long history of Asian cinema, especially if it helps people rediscover the spectacular body of work that Tony Leung has amassed over the years.  So, even though I have some misgivings about the movie as a whole, I will certainly be extremely happy if this movie becomes a big hit for Marvel, not just for the sake of survival of the theatrical industry, but for all the good things it will do for Asian cinema in general, past and present.  In the end, that will be Shang-Chi’s most heroic accomplishment, and it’s something we should certainly be rooting for.

Rating: 7.75/10

The Suicide Squad – Review

The story of how The Suicide Squad made it to the big screen is just as wild and turbulent as what ended up in the final movie.  In the wake of Marvel’s unprecedented success over the last decade, rival DC comics sought to capitalize on their own legion of characters in the hopes that they weren’t going to fall too far behind.  Riding off the success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, parent studio Warner Brothers began the master plan for a DC Extended Universe (the DCEU), which would take each of their most famous comic book characters and have them co-exist in a shared cinematic universe much in the same way that Marvel had done, in the hopes of capitalizing on the cross-over potential.  Though ambitious in scope, the execution would end up hitting a lot of snags along the way.  The first few films by director Zack Snyder (2013’s Man of Steel and 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice) received mixed to negative reviews and only managed to break even at the box office.  As a result of the lukewarm reception, Warner began to have second thoughts about their massive investment.  Studio execs started to become more hands on, and were quickly reworking movies already in production.  Sadly, one of the movies that was put through the wringer during this period of studio interference was the first Suicide Squad (2016) directed by David Ayer.  What started off as a darker toned action thriller was quickly reworked into a more comical, crowd-pleasing romp; a la Marvel.  The end result became an unfocused mess in the editing room that completely robbed the movie of a coherent tone, and as a result, DC had yet another film savaged by critics.  Thankfully the critically acclaimed Wonder Woman (2017) was on the horizon, and Warner Brothers along with DC would once again shift gears, but the damage had already been done to their reputation and Marvel continued to outpace them to record breaking box office.  But, after finding their footing in recent years, DC has found a groove that works for them, and that includes having the confidence to tackle the Suicide Squad once again.

One thing that DC did benefit from was a costly mistake on the part of Marvel’s parent company Disney.  In the midst of the rising disruption that came from the #MeToo movement in the late 2010’s, Disney was quick to avoid any controversy that came their way.  After a twitter spat between left-leaning filmmaker James Gunn and right-wing provocateur Mike Cernovich, the latter dug up old tweets from the former where he made several gross and inappropriate jokes.  Despite Gunn’s justified assertion that these old tweets do not reflect the person that he is now, Disney was quick to action and immediately fired Gunn from all his upcoming projects at Marvel.  This rash action suddenly left a glaring vacancy in Marvel’s upcoming plans, because James Gunn was the creative mind behind one of their most celebrated franchises; the Guardians of the Galaxy.  Disney in retrospect has acknowledged that this was a major blunder on their part because they not only lost a premiere talent with Gunn, but they also disrupted the trust they had garnered with their most successful brand, who were not pleased with the move.  Despite what Disney did, the creative community had James Gunn’s back, with all the Guardians’ cast fully backing him publicly, and many film directors refusing to fill his shoes in the Guardians franchise.  But, someone was going to end up capitalizing on Disney’s misstep, and that was DC.  Within weeks, Warner Brothers snatched up James Gunn and offered him a project under their tent.  Given Gunn’s fascination with outsiders, he naturally was drawn to the Suicide Squad run of comics, and as a result, DC had the genius mind they needed to make a reboot work.  And Gunn gets to have his cake and eat it too, because Disney would reverse course months later, allowing Gunn to return to the Guardians’ franchise after his DC obligation.  So congratulations Cernovich, your petty, short lived twitter victory just allowed James Gunn to get two multi-million dollar deals at two major studios instead of one, which will make him more money than you will ever see in your lifetime as a lonely internet troll.  But, back on point, did Gunn’s jump from Marvel to DC translate over well, or did something get lost in between?

The movie itself is both a sequel and a reboot of sorts.  The events of David Ayer’s Suicide Squad did still take place, and some of the past team members have returned.  This includes Captain Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnamann), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), who have been assembled again by Intelligence Commander Amanda Waller (Viola Davis).  They are joined by a band of newcomers to the Suicide Squad team, which includes a couple of sharpshooting mercenaries called Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and Peacemaker (John Cena), with immediate friction formed between the two.   Then there is the manic depressive Polka Dot Man (David Dasmalchin ) whose super powers are pretty self-explanatory.  There is Ratcatcher II (Daniela Melchoir), who has carried on the mantle from her father (Taika Waititi) who had the power to command rats.  And we also have the half-man/ half-shark Nanaue, aka King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone).  Rounding out the team are Savant (director Gunn regular Michael Rooker), TDK (Nathan Fillion), Javelin (Flula Borg), Mongal (Mayling Ng), Blackguard (Pete Davidson), and Weasel (Sean Gunn), who is exactly what his name states.  They are all tasked with going to the enemy-infused island nation of Corto Maltese, which is in the midst of a bloody coup, and infiltrating a heavily fortified citadel called Jotenheim, where Amanda Waller wants them to destroy all traces of a secret program known only as Project Starfish.  In order to break in to the facility without alerting the Corto Maltese army, they must first find the lead scientist named Gaius Grieves, aka The Thinker (Peter Capaldi).  Of course, plans go awry and team members are lost or scatter to different parts of the island.  Unfortunately, because of the explosive devices that Ms. Waller has installed in each of their heads, the Suicide Squad must still carry out the mission against the odds.  As they go deeper into the island, and uncover more of it’s mystery, things grow increasingly more complex and allegiances challenged, especially when the truth of Project Starfish comes out and begins to wreck havoc on the island.  And that’s when things begin to really get weird.

It’s quite easy to see why James Gunn jumped at the opportunity to reimagine the Suicide Squad under his unique vision.  Much like the Guardians of the Galaxy, the members of the Suicide Squad are a bunch of outsiders that skirt the fine line between criminal and hero.  They are all inherently flawed from the outset, and yet through Gunn’s story-telling, we grow to love them as they prove their worth through using their eccentric tricks to take on a greater evil.  Also, James Gunn loves his irreverent humor, and DC was allowing him something that he couldn’t get away with at Marvel; the freedom of an R-rating.  Now he could get away with all the gore, violence and profanity that the Disney company would never allow in their PG-13 franchise.  Gunn is, after all, from the school of Troma Productions, a schlock film micro-budget studio where he originally cut his teeth as an amateur filmmaker.  Much of what he learned from his time at Troma has followed him through every film he has made, including the Guardians franchise.  He has even paid tribute to his mentor, Troma chief Lloyd Kaufman, by giving him cameos in his many films.  And while there are elements of Gunn’s Troma past in the Guardians franchise, The Suicide Squad is actually a far more representative film of Gunn’s lineage as a filmmaker.  And that is the main appeal of The Suicide Squad; it is James Gunn unfiltered.  Here, he is taking the kind of gory, demented mayhem that defined his earlier work and ramps it up with a more substantial budget afforded to him by Warner Brothers and DC.  This isn’t a movie deeply interwoven into the lore of DC’s expanded universe plans; this is just a director letting loose and having fun, and taking us all along for the ride.  If you were expecting something more akin to what he did with the Guardians of the Galaxy, you may be a little disappointed as well as a little horrified.  But that’s a good thing in the end, because James Gunn isn’t franchise building here.  He’s just giving us a delirious romp without compromise and showing us the Suicide Squad movie that we should have had in the first place.

One of the best aspects of James Gunn’s Suicide Squad is that he keeps things pretty simple.  For James Gunn, it’s not the plot itself that matters, but what the characters do along the way that moves the movie along.  It’s a pretty straight-forward plot, which Gunn then injects his hilarious character interactions with.  We know that eventually this band of rogue villains will have to end up saving the day, but the way they get there is often paved with hilarious bickering and character side-steps that throw the audience into unexpected places.  One of the biggest laughs in the movie involves how Polka Dot Man deals with his past trauma.  I won’t spoil what happens, but it is one of the most hilarious running sight gags in the movie, and exactly the kind of thing an oddball like James Gunn would come up with.  At times, the non-sequiturs do build up to a point where it does make the movie lag in the middle.  I would say that it’s less focused and on pace as his Guardians of the Galaxy movies, but at the same time, he’s working in an entirely different mode here, and it’s a bit unfair to compare with his other famous franchise.  Even still, the movie has a great first act and an absolutely amazing climax, but the middle part does slow things down a bit, like Gunn suddenly realized he needed to stretch things out a bit more.  But, even in it’s weaker moments, the movie still remains consistently funny, with some truly inspired ideas.  These include a fight sequence involving Harley Quinn that explodes with animated flower petals, as well as a hilariously staged ambush of a rebel base by Bloodsport and Peacemaker, with the two trying to one up the other with every kill.  And every moment that involves King Shark is a delight, even when it does grind the movie to a halt like a scene with him at an aquarium.  There are faults, but James Gunn just fills the movie with so many creative ideas, that you hardly think about them for long.

Of course, one of the things that you’d expect would deliver in a movie like this is the cast, and they do not disappoint.  Showing once again his deft command of an ensemble, James Gunn gets a lot of great performances out of faces both old and new to the franchise.  What is interesting is that he doesn’t use them all in the way you’d expect, which again is a major plus for the movie.  Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn for example is actually more of a supporting character this time around instead of a more centered focus that she fulfilled in the original Suicide Squad.  She is still a presence and appears throughout the whole movie with a good amount of screen-time, but Harley’s overall contribution to the plot amounts to pretty much a B Plot comparatively.  Even still, Margot Robbie is still in top form as the fan favorite villain, and she certainly looks like she’s having fun in every scene.  More character arcs are given to the other members, particularly Bloodpsort.  Idris Elba does a great job of balancing the heavier side of his character development with the comical Gunn asides.  And the normally brooding dramatic actor does not falter at all in carrying the wild tonal changes of the movie.  John Cena also delivers some hilarious one liners in the movie, with no hint of self-awareness which makes it funnier, though his performance can be a bit one note.  Of special note are Daniela Melchoir and David Dastmalchain as their respective characters.  Dastmalchain in particular finds some surprisingly deep pathos in what many people consider to be the lamest villain in the DC comics, and turns him into a really fascinating character overall.  And Melchoir gives her Ratcatcher so much warmth and heart that really endears her within this movie, especially in how she befriends King Shark.  King Shark likewise delights in this movie, functioning pretty much as the Groot of this DC comics film.  Also, bravo to James Gunn for bringing back Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller, easily my favorite carry-over from the original Suicide Squad.  There is no one more perfect for that role, and Viola does not disappoint.  It’s also amazing how well she is able to work this character into the new tone of this franchise.  Like all the best comic book movies, a lot is dependent on how well these characters are cast, and James Gunn gave his actors a wealth of riches here.

It’s also interesting to see what James Gunn does differently here in regards to how the movie looks compared to what he’s done before.  In addition to carrying over his Troma refined sensibilities, Gunn has also drawn inspiration from another segment of cinema history.  There is a clear influence of exploitation war films in the DNA of this movie, even down to the way the entire movie looks.  There is a graininess to the picture that kind of gives the movie a grindhouse 16mm feel, even though Gunn actually shot the movie with digital Red cameras.  Judging by the promotional material of this movie, films like The Dirty Dozen (1967) were a clear inspiration, and it’s a style that perfectly fits this story.  This movie does involve guerilla combat in a hostile land, so it makes sense that it would emulate one of the grittiest war movies of all time.  Even when the movie expands in scope towards it’s finale, it still feels within character with what we’ve seen before.  Gunn carried over much of the same crew that he worked with on the two Guardians movies, and it’s really neat to see them work in a wildly different style as well.  The color palette is far more earthy and subdued than Guardians and that really helps to distinguish this as a bold new direction for this team, showcasing that they are capable of doing a whole variety of different kinds of movies.  I also want to point out the excellent music in this movie.  James Gunn of course famously injected many classic rock tunes into the soundtrack of Guardians of the Galaxy, which became a part of that series’ identity.  He includes a few here too (including a great introduction scene underscored by Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”), but not as much as you’d think.  Instead, a beautifully composed score by John Murphy, which also has some Dirty Dozen echoes, carries most of the movie.  It’s a great way to distinguish this from Gunn’s more mix-tape infused Guardians movies, and show that he’s not a one trick pony.  He can make a straight-forward action flick without turning it into a jukebox.  More importantly, the music is there to support the movie, and not actively work as a part of it, like how Guardians made it’s hero’s love of classic rock a major part of his character.  It’s a movie heavy on style, but never wasted and it overall works to give The Suicide Squad a delightful sense of character that stands on it’s own.

Though the way we ended up getting this movie involved a lot of backstage drama, I am in the end grateful that we now have someone as talented as James Gunn having contributed to both Marvel and DC.  I especially love the fact that this whole episode just shows how much filmmakers should be valued in this business.  The reason why the original Suicide Squad  fell short was not because David Ayer failed to deliver, but because he had the opportunity to do things his own way taken away from him and given to uninspired studio execs who were only caring about their bottom line.  The same thing ended up happening all over DC in those earlier days, with Zack Snyder’s mangled Justice League (2017) being perhaps the most notorious example.  Since then, Warner Brothers has somewhat learned it’s lesson and allowed filmmakers to have a bit more creative freedom over the final product.  This even included a significant investment by the studio to allow Zack Snyder to finish his vision of Justice League with his now infamous “Snyder Cut,” and David Ayer is now trying to argue for the same opportunity to finish his original vision of Suicide Squad.  Luckily for James Gunn, he entered into an atmosphere of creative freedom at Warner Brothers that wasn’t there before and has been able to capitalize on that with this far more engaging take on the Suicide Squad series.  It’s not a perfect movie, and I dare say I still prefer his Guardians movies, but this is still an exceptional work that showcases that he’s not just a one franchise filmmaker.  He can be trusted to bring the best out of any kind of franchise, and that is definitely going to help his stock within the industry.  In the long run, he has ultimately shown that creative vision matters, and that perhaps studio interference is never a good thing for the movies in general.  I am definitely excited to see what he’ll take from this experience when he returns to Marvel to make Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.  Hopefully this unusual experience has only sharpened his skills further, and that there is going to be even more great things to come in that beloved Marvel series.  Until then, The Suicide Squad shows that he is still an amazing creative force no matter where he is working, and it’s worth seeing, especially on the biggest possible screen you can find.  You can’t keep a creative mind down for long, especially one as dementedly off the wall that James Gunn holds inside his head.

Rating: 8.5/10

Black Widow – Review

It is pretty remarkable to look back and see where Marvel had managed to get to in 2019.  It was closing out the Phase Three era with the conclusion of it’s Infinity Stone storyline that had crossed over nearly two dozen films over 10 years.  With the double whammy releases of Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), Marvel Studios claimed the crown as the ultimate kings of the box office.  But they weren’t done yet.  Even as Endgame put a nice button on all the events that had led up to it, Marvel was still setting the stage for what was going to come next.  On the horizon was Phase Four, which looked to be even more ambitious than what Marvel had done before, expanding their cinematic universe even further (and even into a multiverse).  The ambitious plan not only called for continued stories on the big screen, but also mini-series releases streaming on Disney+, the platform of Marvel’s parent company.  Given how huge a year Marvel had in 2019, with an extra assist from Captain Marvel (2019) and Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019), it only looked like the next year was going to be even grander.  Cue global pandemic.  The Covid-19 virus outbreak ground everything to a halt, including Marvel’s plans for the year 2020.  Every planned release in that year had to be pushed back, including the ones that were done and in the can.  For the first time since 2009, we had a year without anything new from Marvel Studios.  After a decade long run of dominance, this was an unusual sight.  But, as the pandemic has thankfully waned, those delayed projects are also finally making their way to audiences, although done in a way that none of the team at Marvel likely intended.  Instead of relying on cinemas, which are still recovering, Marvel launched Phase Four instead on Disney+ with Wandavision, and continued through the Spring and Summer with The Falcon and Winter Soldier and Loki series; none of which were supposed to lead the charge originally.  Instead, that distinction was originally intended for a movie that finally gives the spotlight to one of the founding members of the Avengers: Black Widow (2021).

Black Widow’s history in the MCU goes almost all the way back to it’s very beginning.  She made her first appearance in Iron Man 2 (2010) played by Scarlett Johansson, who would continue on through the next ten years, playing the character in several crossover events during that time.  Though not given much to do in her first outing, Black Widow’s presence grew over time in the MCU, eventually becoming one of the six original Avengers.  And though Scarlett Johansson brought a great amount of strength to her performance, there has been an unfortunate aspect to Black Widow’s place within the MCU.  She essentially was there in the beginning to be eye candy for the male centric audiences that Super Hero movies originally catered to, especially when you take notice of the skin tight costumes she used to wear and the provocative hero stances she would pose in the movies.  Not only that, but there was an element of tokenism with her placement in the team.  But, thanks to Scarlett’s influence over the character, she was able to rise above these controversial aspects of the character, and helped to make Black Widow not only a standout in the Avengers team, but also an essential member who takes on leadership, even over those more physically powerful than her.  And in turn, Black Widow became a positive role model for young girls who over the last ten years have become the most rapidly growing segment of comic book fandom.  Not only that, women were now pushing to tell their own stories their own way within the genre.  She was the trendsetter in proving that these movies were not just for teenage boys anymore; they were for everyone.  So, over time, demand grew higher for Black Widow to get a movie of her own, which Marvel eventually agreed to.  Despite the long wait that resulted from the 2020 pandemic, we are now finally able to see Black Widow take to the big screen in her own story.  The only question is, is it a story worth telling or is it one that doesn’t do justice to a character we’ve grown to love over the last 10 years.

There are some small spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn’t seen Captain America: Civil War (2016) or Avengers: Infinity War, as this story takes place in between the two.  Following the events of Civil War, which saw the break-up of the Avengers and leading the likes of Captain America, The Falcon, and Ant-Man to become fugitives of the law, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) aka Black Widow, also finds herself on the run, after she helped the others escape by attacking Black Panther.  Now a fugitive herself, she is having to escape General Ross (William Hurt) and his forces, who are in hot pursuit.  With the help of her tech engineer Mason (O-T Fagbenle), she manages to find a safe haven off the grid, but the peace and quiet doesn’t last long.  After receiving a mysterious package from an unknown sender, she is immediately attacked by a masked assassin known as Taskmaster, who has the special ability to mimic any fight move against an opponent.  After evading Taskmaster, Natasha follows some clues to that leads her to another safe house in Budapest.  There she meets up with the one who sent the package, Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), another Widow assassin who shares a history with Natasha, as they were pretend sisters in a sleeper cell family cover set up by the Russians 30 years ago in rural America.  Yelena thought she could trust Natasha with the package, which contains vials of a mysterious red liquid, because of her Avengers connections, but Taskmaster and other Widow agents have caught up to them.  After nearly escaping, Yelena tells Natasha that the Red Room where both of them received their training is still operational, and under the stewardship of notorious Russian criminal Dreykov (Ray Winstone), who Natasha thought she had already assassinated years ago in a mission that granted her a place in S.H.I.E.L.D.  They resolve to take Dreykov and the Red Room down, and to do that, they need the help of the two people who pretended to be their parents all those year ago; Alexei (David Harbour) who was Red Guardian (Russia’s answer to Captain America), and Melina (Rachel Weisz) who is still Dreykov’s chemical expert.  With the “family” back together, will they be able to take down the mighty machine that is the Red Room, as well as their ultimate weapon, the Taskmaster.

Part of the excitement surrounding the release of Black Widow is the fact that we had to wait so long for it to happen.  In addition to the tragic consequences of what the pandemic did to the theatrical industry, it was also just strange not having anything from Marvel for over a year after they had been so omnipresent in the years before.  There were several worries over that time that Marvel was going to just end up skipping theaters overall and release Black Widow on streaming, which would’ve been a devastating blow for the theaters.  But, thankfully Marvel and Disney remained resolute in giving Black Widow the big screen treatment, though they did have to compromise with a hybrid Disney+ Premiere Access release as well.  After multiple date shifts, we now are able to see the movie that we’ve long been waiting for.  But after a year of delays, how does the movie play today after all that has gone down.  To be honest, I think the delay may have actually favored Black Widow in the long run, because had it come out in the summer of 2020 right on the heels of what we got from Avengers: Endgame, I think audiences might have been a little underwhelmed by this movie.  Black Widow is a serviceable movie, but not a big game-changer like many of the more recent Marvel movies we’ve been seeing.  It’s giving us more or less a Marvel version of a Jason Bourne movie.  It does fit with the character of Black Widow, but there’s not a whole lot beyond that as something that fits within a larger Marvel narrative.  Essentially, we are just seeing a stand alone side story focused on Black Widow  and nothing more.  It might be satisfying to many, and there is plenty within the movie that does satsify long time fans; but anyone expecting huge earth-shattering twists and turns should probably look elsewhere.  It’s hard to say how that would’ve played out in 2020 with Endgame so fresh in people’s minds.  With a little extra distance from that monumental achievement, a more standard film like Black Widow plays a little bit better, and removed from it’s original intention of launching Phase Four also helps the movie out as well.  It’s a movie that in many ways feels like an obligation, but even still, it works on it’s own merits.

The one nagging aspect of the movie is the question of whether it was a story that needed to be told.  It’s kind of strange watching this movie after having seen Endgame because (spoilers), Natasha ends up sacrificing her life to see the mission to it’s end.  Knowing that, it takes away some of the drama surrounding her character in this movie.  We know she’s going to live by the end of this story so that she could be a part of Infinity War and Endgame, and we also know that beyond that she no longer will be a part of the cinematic universe due to her death in Endgame.  So, Black Widow is a story very much out of place in the continuing Marvel storyline.  It’s like Marvel intended this story to be made way back in Phase Three, but the train had already left the station and they couldn’t make any more room for Black Widow’s story, so this movie is a make-up for having missed the stop before.  Honestly, I wish there was more to this movie, because a character like Black Widow and her actress Scarlett Johansson deserves a better sendoff than just a basic spy thriller.  She’s one of the original Avengers; a character that has done so much to increase female representation in Comic Book movies.  The movie Black Widow just assumes that audiences will accept it’s awkward placement in the timeline, which I’m sure that many will, but a character like her should have been given a more monumental sendoff.  Still, Marvel isn’t delivering a bad movie by any means.  There is still plenty to enjoy in the movie, with the usual slick balance between action, comedy, and suspense that Marvel has excelled at.  As a swan song, it falls short, but as an action packed spy thriller, it is definitely better than most.  You just have to go in with tempered expectations, because this movie is just going to deliver enough to warrant your time, but not enough to place it within the all time greatness of Marvel at it’s peak.

One troubling thing you’ll notice while watching the movie is that Black Widow is the least interesting character in the movie.  True, most of her character development has been spread out over the ten years that she was a part of the Avengers team, but even still, it’s a shame that she doesn’t command an even greater presence in her own movie.  The more meaty character development here belongs to the members of her “family,” which really belies the true intention of this movie; it’s here to pass the baton to the next generation.  It’s very clear that Florence Pugh’s Yelena is being set up as Scarlett Johansson’s successor in the Black Widow role in future Marvel projects.  And in that regard, the movie does do a very good job establishing her.  Yelena is great character, which Pugh plays to perfection.  She’s tough, funny, and more than holds her own in any conflict.  Her future is going to be pretty bright in the MCU, and I’m happy that she makes the obvious changing of the guard aspect of this movie feel earned.  David Harbour’s Alexei is also a great addition, as he provides a lot of the comic relief in this movie, as well as a genuine bit of charming vulnerability that makes his a character worth rooting for.  I especially love his fixation on how he stacks up against Captain America, with him at one point asking Natasha straight up, “Does he talk about me much?” much to her annoyance.  Rachel Weisz has much less of a presence in the movie, but she does use it well.  Indeed the best part of the movie is seeing this dysfunctional faux family come together and work off each other.  It does offer a little insight into Natasha’s character as well, and why protecting family is important to her.  Being an orphan who had her childhood stolen from her, she would do anything to protect any semblance of family that she had, and in time, she managed to become a part of two families of her own choosing; the one in this film and the Avengers.  Sadly the biggest letdown in the cast are the villains.  Ray Winstone is a great actor but here he is just a stock villain, which is disappointing after a string of strong Marvel baddies like Thanos, Killmonger, and Hela just to name a few.  And though Taskmaster looks pretty badass, there isn’t a whole lot beyond that, and the mystery of who is behind the mask is easily pieced together.  It’s a mixed bag, but thankfully the best characters in the movie are going to be the ones that have a future in the long run with Marvel.

As far as the action goes, the movie lacks the grandiosity of Marvel’s more out-there projects, but that’s kind of the point.  Black Widow is a much more grounded film, taking it’s visual cues from the likes of the previously mentioned Jason Bourne movies, as well as some James Bond and a little sprinkling of Mission: Impossible.  Director Cate Shortland proves to be perfectly capable of making these big set pieces work, but what I find she does best with are the more intimate action beats in the movie.  My favorite fight is actually one between Natasha and Yelena early in the movie.  It’s a scene that shows you don’t have to rely upon a bunch of CGI tech wizardry to pull a suspenseful scene off.  Sometimes you just need two really skilled stunt women throwing each other against the walls.  There’s also a really solid car chase through the streets of Budapest that rivals any that I’ve seen in other spy thrillers.  It’s at the point where CGI becomes ever more present that I think Shortland begins to lose her grasp of the action, and unfortunately that’s what makes up the final act of the movie.  The finale is honestly one of the messiest and least affecting that I have ever seen from Marvel, and it’s one of the main reasons why it knocked the movie down a peg for me with regards to other Marvel films.  Marvel, especially in recent years, has done a stellar job with building their movies up to satisfying resolutions, especially in the last two Avengers flicks.  But the finale to Black Widow is just loud and dumb, and so far removed from the grounded reality that made the rest of the movie work as well as it did.  It makes it even less effective when the movie just wraps everything up in a pat resolution, like the writers realized they needed to quickly wrap things up, and the audience is left wondering, “was that it?”  Overall, it is pleasing to see this kind of genre made through the guidance of women behind the camera just as much as in front of it.  Shortland, despite her lack of long term experience with action thrillers, does actually deliver some tense scenes that are on par with the genre.  But, given the way the movie ends, the whole thing turns out to be a mixed bag.

So, fair warning, don’t go into this movie expecting another Avengers level event.  It’s a perfectly serviceable movie in the Marvel canon, but nothing truly spectacular.  Like I mentioned before, the delay may have done the movie a service, because the pressure to follow up on Endgame was taken off of it’s shoulders.  Because of Marvel’s stellar track record, I think it’s at the point where we have to judge these movies on a curve compared to other Hollywood movies, much like what we do with Pixar now.  Compared to other spy thrillers out there, Black Widow is certainly a cut above, and especially groundbreaking in the fact that it shows this genre through a female perspective.  But, as a Marvel movie, I’m sorry to say that it actually falls into the bottom half.  It’s not bad by any means, but it falls short of the high bar that Marvel has set for itself.  It’s especially disappointing in the fact that it is the last we’ll ever see of Natasha Romanoff in the MCU.  What Scarlett Johansson has brought to the character over the last ten years should not be understated.  She transformed a sexist old trope into a genuine positive role model that has transformed the Marvel fandom for the better and opened the door for so many more female super heroes in her wake.  Marvel should have honestly given us a little more to digest than a “look what she was doing after Civil War” storyline.  I would’ve liked to have seen more of her backstory with regards to how she left the Red Room and joined S.H.I.E.L.D.  There’s so much to be mined there like what made her turn and how did she befriend Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).  They could have also done a soul-searching story about how she learned to cope with the tragedy that took place at the end of Infinity War.  Overall, I feel like there were better stories to tell than the one we got in this movie.  Natasha deserved better.  Even still, as a set-up for the future Black Widow adventures for Yelena, it does the job well enough.  Of course, there’s a not to be missed end credits scene that does indeed set up the next chapter.  Despite it’s disappointing elements, it is satisfying to see Marvel return to the cinemas once again after such a trying period.  And with exciting things on the horizon like Oscar-winner Chloe Zhao’s Eternals and sequels to Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, and Thor in the near future, along with all the Disney+ projects upcoming, Marvel is going to do just fine regardless how this movie performs.  As of now, it should be noted that despite it’s shortcomings, Black Widow magnificently sends off Scarlett Johansson’s decade long legacy as Natasha Romanoff with a movie that firmly establishes all the great changes she brought to the character that made her an icon for a generation.  It was perhaps a little too late, but better now than never and hopefully it’s the start of greater things down the road for Black Widow in the MCU.

Rating: 7.5/10

Luca – Review

It’s been a rough pandemic year for the Pixar Animation studios.  The Emeryville, California based animation giant has set a high bar for the industry over the past quarter century, and 2020 was set to be a big year for them.  They had two highly anticipated animated features lined up that were set to continue their hot streak at the box office.  The first of the two, Onward, made it to cinemas in early March of 2020.  And then the whole world came crashing down.  Movie theaters were shut for an indeterminable amount of time, which would end up being over a year in the end, and every movie playing immediately before the shut down suddenly had their box office returns cut short.  Onward, the last major studio film released before the shutdown, wound up with the lowest box office totals of any Pixar movie to date, but it was clear that it was not the films fault.  Like everything else in the 14 months that followed, Hollywood had to gauge a whole new way to measure success under the new pandemic affected conditions.  Would Onward had performed better if the pandemic hadn’t gotten in the way?  We’ll never know.  However, once the pandemic hit, parent company Disney made the controversial decision to accelerate Onward’s  streaming debut on Disney+, foregoing the usual 3 month exclusive theatrical window, just so that people who missed out on seeing it in the theater would have a chance to watch it at home.  Though the movie theaters were worried that this would change the dynamic of the exhibition market, they at the same time had little say in the matter.  Onward made it’s debut and for all accounts it performed well enough for Disney to do the same with a couple other films waiting in the wings.  Frozen II (2019) and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) saw their streaming premieres also accelerated, though they benefitted from full box office performances beforehand.  And movies that Disney didn’t mind skipping theaters all together with (Artemis Fowl and The One and Only Ivan) were also brought directly to Disney+.  But the question remained, what was Disney going to do with the other highly anticipated Pixar animated film for the year 2020; that being the Pete Doctor-directed Soul.

Soul was undoubtedly the more ambitious of the two 2020 movies, dealing with heavier themes than Onward and with a more ethereal canvas of design and concept.  It’s also clear having seen it that Soul was a movie made for the big screen, with it’s widescreen presentation and ambitious scale.  But, with the pandemic shutdowns extending well beyond what anyone thought was possible, Disney and Pixar needed to make a hard choice.  Do they continue to keep pushing Soul back on the calendar, or do they skip theaters all together.  Soul did move a couple times off it’s original June 2020 release date.  It first landed in late August, and then again moving to Thanksgiving weekend.  With theaters still closed all the way to the holidays, Pixar ultimately made the tough choice to put Soul out exclusively on Disney+, without a premium fee to offset lost box office.  It was determined that Disney would benefit with the extra boost in subscriptions by having a Pixar title premiere on their platform, and given the previous success over the year with other premieres, and the fact that any more delays would work against other movies in the pipeline, the tough choice had to be made.  It must had been hard especially for Pixar head Pete Doctor, since Soul was his own baby.  But, despite missing out in theaters, Soul still found it’s audience, and led to Doctor winning a record third Oscar for Best Animated Feature.  But, the precedent set by putting Soul out on streaming led to Disney feeling more comfortable with the model, and it was announced soon after that the next Pixar movie in line, Luca, would also be skipping a theatrical release in favor of streaming.  This left a lot of people at Pixar rightfully upset, especially by the fact that it was not getting the hybrid streaming/theatrical release that Disney’s own Raya and the Last Dragon received.  And with movie theaters finally reopening, and showing signs of a quick recovery, it seemed like Disney was making a shortsighted choice, robbing a movie that would play magnificently on the big screen a chance to prove itself.  But, as it stands, Luca is making it’s debut this weekend in living rooms across the world rather than the cinema, and now we can determine for ourselves whether or not Disney’s choice was a sound one or the wrong one.

Luca takes place on the picturesque Italian Riviera, near and within a small little fishing village called Portorusso.  Unbeknownst to the fishermen who sail the coastline of the their village, there is a whole other community beneath the waves; one made entirely of sea monsters.  In this community, we find Luca Paguro (Jacob Tremblay), a timid young sea monster who is afraid of what lies beyond the water’s surface.  However, curiosity leads him to discover a bunch of artifacts from the human world, which he discovers are being collected by another young sea monster named Alberto Scorfano (Jack Dylan Grazer).  To Luca’s surprise and amazement, he watches Alberto carefreeingly leaving the ocean and walking on land.  Alberto forces Luca up with him and the newcomer soon discovers that his scale-ly skin transforms on land to human like skin when it’s dry.  Alberto helps Luca learn more about the human world and the two form a friendship, though it’s kept secret from Luca’s protective mother Daniela (Maya Rudolph) and father Lorenzo (Jim Gaffigan).  When Luca’s parents learn of his deception and threaten to send him to live with his deep sea Uncle Ugo (Sacha Baron Cohen), Luca runs away and convinces Alberto that they should pursue their shared dream; riding across the world on a Vespa scooter.  They make their way to Portorusso, in the hopes of getting a Vespa of their own.  There they meet a young human girl named  Giulia (Emma Berman), who is obsessed with winning the Portorusso Cup challenge, especially if it means besting the town bully, Ercole Visconti (Servio Raimondo).  Giulia takes the two in with the hopes of helping them train as a team.  At Giulia’s home, they meet her father Massimo, a one-armed fisherman and cook who’s got his eye on slaying the rumored sea monsters in the area, as does his suspecting cat Machiavelli, whose got his keen eye on the two outsiders.  Meanwhile Daniela and Lorenzo search the town for their lost son.  For Luca and Alberto, the challenge becomes whether or not they can keep their secret safe and achieve their dream in the human world, and more crucially, can they keep themselves dry in a town where water is literally all around them.

Regardless of how it makes it’s way to the audience, there is no doubt that the bar is always high when it comes to Pixar.  They are one of the standard bearers in Animation, in a class that is only matched with sister studio Disney and few others; possibly smaller players like Laika and Studio Ghibli.  Especially coming off the heals of a beloved movie like Soul, there is a lot of expectations about what Pixar can bring to the table next with a movie like Luca.  So it is with great relief that Pixar not only clears the high bar with Luca, it does so in spectacular fashion.  Luca is an all around triumph from beginning to end.  The movie was directed by Enrico Casarosa, a long time story artist at Pixar making his directorial debut.  Luca clearly is a love letter to the director’s native homeland, where he spent his childhood growing up in the coastal city of Genoa on Italy’s majestic Portofino coastline.  Though not the first time that Pixar has infused such a cultural presence into one of their stories (see also 2012’s Brave and 2017’s Coco), Luca takes on an especially personal touch, with so much attention to detail put into the world of this story.  The movie is set in a particular time and place, that being Italy in the late 50’s and early 60’s, which I’m sure is a very intentional choice on Casarosa’s part.  The movie is heavily inspired by Italian New Wave cinema, and in particular, the movies of Federico Fellini.  You can feel the influence of Fellini throughout the movie, from the colorful characters to the lush coastal setting, to even the music choices.  Casarosa even throws in some charming Easter eggs for cinephiles out there, like movie posters for Roman Holiday (1953) and La Starda (1953) plastered on the walls.  Other cinematic influences are plentiful as well, like Machiavelli the Cat who I swear is designed exactly to be nod to the animation style of Hayao Miyazaki.  Suffice to say, the movie is a feast for the senses in the best way that Pixar knows how to do.

But on top of that, it also features a wonderful story built upon an intriguing concept.  Essentially, it’s a story about breaking free of barriers, both internal and external.  Luca begins his journey unaware of the larger world around, and the potential for adventures that he may have.  One of the crucial things that he picks up with his experiences with Alberto is to push against those inhibitions that cause him to be fearful of the world.  In a funny explanation, Alberto calls that inner voice that tells Luca “no” about everything Bruno, and he instructs Luca to repeat to himself, “Silencio Bruno” as a way of moving past his fears.  Over time, “Silencio Bruno” becomes a mantra for the two boys and it enables them to grow bolder over the course of the movie.  It’s a very uplifting element to the story, and as we see, Luca is far more brave than he ever thought he would be, which enables him to move beyond the limits that others have forced upon him.  Though Enrico Casarossa insists it was never intended this in his original story, and perhaps it might be my own self reading too much into the movie as well, but I sensed a subtle queer subtext in Luca’s story.  Trust me, the friendship between Luca and Alberto is strictly platonic, but there is something very familiar in how both of the boys overcome societies barriers in order to find acceptance for who they really are, especially in a town that views them first and foremost as monsters.  It’s also a story about Luca discovery his true self by finding friends who encourage his adventurous side, and help him to break free from a sheltered life where he might not have known what he was really capable of.  To many LGBTQ people in the audience, this will ring true with many coming out journeys that each of them have had.  Though it wasn’t intended to be the message, I still think Pixar wouldn’t dismiss such a reading either, as Disney has at times leaned into the many different queer readings of their own films like The Little Mermaid (1989) or Frozen (2013), without ever discouraging it.  It’s not quite a PG-rated  Call Me By Your Name (2017), but I think there might be something worthwhile there that many queer people, especially the youngest one, will find uplifting in Luca’s story.

The movie’s characters are also uniformly excellent.  Luca is an especially endearing lead, as his curiosity to discover new things is delightfully entertaining.  Jacob Tremblay brings an especially exuberant vocal performance to the character, bringing out all the different angles of the character in a joyful, heartwarming way.  He deftly manages to capture Luca’s timidness perfectly early one and as he grows more bolder, we feel that growth within the character  through that performance.  His vocal work is also equally matched by Jack Dylan Grazer’s Alberto, where he perfectly embodies that identity of that kind of older “bad influence” kid that we all know.  Like Jacob, Jack also perfectly finds that fully fleshed out character inside, managing to make the character hilarious but also vulnerable when he needs to be.  Emma Berman’s Giulia rounds out the trio with a wonderfully exuberant performance as well.  I especially like how she slips into Italian frequently whenever she grows frustrated, like she’s using it as a substitute for cursing.  Her tomboyish personality really works well off of the personalities of Luca and Alberto, especially with the fact that the two often don’t know how to respond around her sometimes  unexpected personality quirks.  The always reliable Maya Rudolph is perfect here in the role of the mother, and Jim Gaffigan is hilariously subdued in his role as the father.  We also get a quick but hilariously demented cameo from Sacha Baron Cohen as Luca’s bottom feeding Uncle.  If the movie has a weak link, it’s the villainous Ercole, who in many ways is just an afterthought in the story, as the filmmakers believed that the movie needed a more definable antagonist.  He’s serviceable, but not much else; a far cry from some of Pixar’s more memorable baddies like Syndrome from The Incredibles (2004) and Lotso from Toy Story 3 (2010).  I also want to specially point out the cat Machiavelli, who is a straight-up scene stealer in Luca.  Some of the biggest laughs I had were the glaring stares he gives to Luca and Alberto in the movie.  Overall, another beautiful cast of characters to add to the growing Pixar family.

It should also be said that this is one of the most absolutely beautiful movies that Pixar has ever made, and that’s saying a lot.  The real life influence of the Italian coastal setting was no doubt instrumental in creating the world of this film.  It evokes a definitive time and place, but also imbues it with a storybook like feel.  That is also true with the designs of the characters as well.  These character models are far more stylized that what we see with most Pixar characters.  The character’s features are fare less contoured and more rounded out, with Luca’s head almost taking on a tomato-like shape.  It perfectly mixes with the different designs that Luca and Alberto go through as they transform between sea creature and human, allowing the audience to never get confused about who they are seeing on screen at any time.  I also like that the quirky character designs extend to the humans as well, like they are pulled out of a story book as well.  The way that everyone is animated is also more cartoonish and stylized than the average Pixar movie, which more often tries to go for realism in their character movement.  Even so, this movie is still unmistakably Pixar to it’s very core.  You’ll especially find it in how they still manage to convey deep emotion, even through the exaggerated character models.  Though it doesn’t quite tug on the heartstrings as hard as say Up (2009) or Coco (2017), there are still some beautifully emotional moments in this movie, especially in the closing moments.  It may not be a tear-jerker, but it will make you feel especially warm inside as you see the characters find their place in the larger world, and in some cases, find that they must leave something behind.  It pretty much delivers everything that you want from a Pixar movie, but it does so in a way you don’t quite expect.  I wouldn’t be surprised if more Pixar movies in the future adopt a more stylized look like what we see in Luca, because this movie certainly showed that the studio can still deliver no matter how much one of their movies breaks the mold.

I certainly feel like Luca stands as one of the better Pixar movies overall.  It may not be in the top flight, but it is certainly not far behind and many lightyears beyond what most other studios are making.  It just really saddens me that most people are not going to be enjoying this movie on a big screen, which it should honestly be playing on right now.  Living in Los Angeles, I fortunately managed to see it the right way as one, and only one, theater in town has this playing on a big screen; that being the historic El Capitan on Hollywood Boulevard (owned and operated by Disney, of course).  Seeing the movie that way probably helped me to appreciate the movie even more, and it is absolutely worth the effort if you live near Hollywood and there are still tickets available for it’s lone, single week engagement.  For anyone else, please watch this movie on the largest television that you have.  Watching it on anything smaller or handheld will really rob you of the majesty of this beautiful film.  It’s just too bad that a worthy animated movie like Luca is being relegated to streaming while a mediocre film like Dreamworks’ Spirit Untamed is getting a wide theatrical release.  Yeah, sure, Spirit’s lackluster box office is not something to instill confidence on a box office that is still in recovery mode.  But had Luca been given a shot, it might have ignited the box office in ways that other movies have failed to.  This may end up being a tale of a missed opportunity on Pixar’s part, and I hope that this is not the preferred mode of release for all Pixar movies moving forward.  It was a hard pill to swallow for Soul too, but the conditions were understandable.  It makes less sense now as times are changing, and Disney has already proven success with movies already released through their hybrid model like Raya and Cruella (2021).  In any case, Luca should not be missed.  It’s another triumphant original for the legendary studio, with a heartwarming story, which may also resonate with subtly with LGBTQ audiences who recognize a coming out story when they see one, even if it’s young sea monsters leaving the ocean instead of a closet.  Regardless of it’s intended message, it’s a beautifully constructed crowd pleaser that everyone should see.  And given that it’s about venturing outside of the comforts of a sheltered life, it’s a story that gives us more hope in a post pandemic world.  Without a doubt, a certifiable win for Pixar and a movie that deserves more than the circumstances it’s been given.  Silencio Bruno!!!

Rating: 9/10

In the Heights – Review

It’s amazing to think how much the stage musical has had in forming the soundtrack of our culture over the last century.  You may be listening to or singing a song that is omnipresent in our everyday lives, and not even know that it had it’s beginnings on Broadway.  For many years, musical theater was the premiere form of entertainment until cinema came along.  After the advent of the talking picture, musicals found a new venue, and it wasn’t long before Hollywood began pooling in talent who normally would be writing music for the stage.  But, Broadway didn’t dissipate in the face of this change.  Instead, it evolved and became even more ambitious over the years.  And after a while, Hollywood began to take notice and spent millions to bring these blockbuster musicals to the big screen.  These lavish musicals brought out the best in Hollywood, as it turned out to be a good way to promote these new technological advancements like stereo sound and widescreen.  Through the 50’s and 60’s, it became a symbiotic relationship between these two coastal powers; Broadway would produce a certified hit on the stage and then Hollywood would bring it further to the masses on the big screen.  And it propelled the people who made these musicals for the stage into household names: Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner & Lowe, Stephen Sondheim, Tim Rice, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and many more.  Though the musical is resilient, it nevertheless has gone through many changes in order to survive the varying shifts in the culture.  Sometimes that even includes compromising between art and commerce, such as favoring something with a built in audience over something experimental for investment.  This has been the case when we see musicals brought to the stage that are either based on an already established franchise or are delivered by a major studio like Disney or Universal instead of an independent theater troupe.  But still, each generation does see a gamechanger rise out of the industry and pushes the artform to a whole different level.  And that man of the moment for the Broadway musical today happens to be a multi-talented performer named Lin-Manuel Miranda.

New York City native Miranda was raised in the shadow of Broadway all of his life and he’s certainly brought a lot of his own upbringing into his work.  The son of Puerto Rican Americans who emigrated from one island to another, he was raised in a culturally diverse setting that exposed him to a variety of sounds that he would over time fuse together in very interesting ways.  He was schooled in the melodies of the latin beat, hip hop, rap, and yes of course, Broadway show tunes.  And being the unashamed nerd that he is proud to proclaim he is, he even cites stuff like Star Wars and Saturday morning cartoons as inspirations for his art.  And all of it has made him one of the most exciting and innovate voices in the world of theater in a generation.  Thus far, he has written and starred only two musicals for the Broadway stage, but both have been blockbuster hits, making him two for two for Best Musical at the Tony Awards.  The latter of the two, Hamilton, in particular has been the show that has turned him into a household name.  It’s ingenious mix of music styles (with a strong emphasis on hip hop) infused into a story about the American Revolution, and in particular it’s central figure of founding father Alexander Hamilton, just blew everyone away when it first premiered on Broadway in 2015.  And even six years after it’s premiere, it is still a high in demand show, with post-Covid return dates already selling out fast.  Miranda, of course, has not slowed down since.  He immediately launched into a successful transition into Hollywood, gaining a strong collaborative relationship with Disney, writing new songs and even appearing on screen in stuff like Mary Poppins Returns (2018).  And just this year, he’s got a whole bunch of new projects lined up, including his directorial debut, Tick, Tick…Boom (2021) for Netflix, as well as musical scores for two animated films, Vivo for Sony Animation and Encanto for Disney.  But, what is eagerly anticipated right now is a big screen adaptation of the first musical that put him on the map, long before Hamilton.  It’s the semi-autobiographical In the Heights, and people are eager to see if Lin-Manuel Miranda can successfully bring something he made for the stage to the big screen without it loosing any of it’s original charm.

Like Miranda’s own life story, In the Heights is a story about the people who live in the closely knit neighborhood of Washington Heights.  The Heights as they call them sits at the very northern tip of the Island of Manhattan, across the Harlem River from the Bronx, and it has always been a traditionally immigrant neighborhood in New York City.  In the few square blocks of the Heights, you’ll find people who have emmigrated from or are descendents of people from all over Latin America; Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans, Mexicans, etc., all hoping to achieve a piece of the American dream.  But despite all the differences between them, the community acts like a family, all looking out for each other.  At it’s heart is Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) a bodega merchant whose store is a hub of activity for the neighborhood.  His clientele, and extended quasi-family, includes his friend Benny (Corey Hawkins), a dispatcher for a local cab company; Mr. Rosario (Jimmy Smitts), Benny’s boss and father of Benny’s crush, Nina (Leslie Grace), who has returned home from attending college at Stanford; the salon girls Daniela, Carla and Cuca (Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beritz, and Dascha Polanco) who work with Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who Usnavi has a crush on; and finally, “Abuela” Claudia (Olga Merediz) the neighborhood’s adopted matriarch.  Though each of them are there for each other, the characters also have their dreams of moving beyond their hard-knock lives in a neighborhood that is increasingly starting to price them out through gentrification.  For Usnavi, he is right on the verge of making his dream come true.  He’s secured a lease on the old bar that his father used to run in the Dominican Republic in the hopes of revitalizing it and upholding the legacy his family had to put on hold in order to live in America.  Within a matter of days, he’s moving out of the neighborhood and leaving the Heights behind.  But a confluence of events with the people he loves and lives around makes him start to question his future.  By the end, he must decide if El Suenito (or “Little Dream”) is more important to him than what he leaves behind in the Heights itself.

When watching In the Heights, you can definitely see the beginnings of what Lin-Manuel Miranda would later build upon in Hamilton.  His mix of traditional Broadway and hip hop is a style that is uniquely him, and it’s definitely a major part of the musical make-up of In the Heights.  The movie version of this releasing this year is certainly a wealth of riches for any Miranda fan out there, but it is interesting that it wasn’t originally set to release so close to everything else he has in the pipeline.  This was one of those 2020 exiles that had to be pushed back because of the pandemic, and surprisingly in it’s place, we got an unexpected Lin-Manuel placeholder in the middle of that summer season.  Disney+ pushed ahead a planned release of a filmed version of the Hamilton musical on stage to give everyone something exciting to watch while we were all stuck at home.  This was both a blessing and a negative for the uprooted Heights, because one the accessibility of Hamilton now increased awareness of Lin-Manuel’s artistry and made that musical even more popular, but at the same time, it was raising the bar higher for a movie that was supposed to be seen first.  Now that it is finally making it to theaters, in a hybrid release with HBO Max, does In the Heights hold up well to the hype.  I’d say so, though I do feel like it falls short of all-time greatness.  As an exercise in adapting a stage musical for the big screen, I’d say that it does it’s job spectacularly well.  Director Jon M. Chu, who cut his teeth making music videos and dance movies like Step Up (2006) certainly knows how to stage a musical number and with a lot of panache.  You can see inspirations from Busby Berkeley to Jerome Robbins throughout each show stopping musical number, which all works to the movie’s favor as it tries to translate what worked on the stage into something that will work on the screen (which is not as easy as it sounds).  What’s more important is that it compliments Miranda’s music perfectly, matching the energy of the melodies with the flourish of the visuals.  Even if there are things that the movie may fall short on, it at the very least remains entertaining.  And there are plenty of moments throughout where the movie really does soar and takes your breath away.

Unfortunately, the musical moments may be a little too good in this movie, because it ends up minimizing everything else in between.  Whenever the movie goes into dramatic, dialogue driven mode, it does kind of deflate, and you are just hoping that another musical number will bring it back to roaring life.  The non-musical moments are not necessarily bad; they have some genuinely nice moments of humanity strung about.  But, it becomes very clear that most of the effort in this movie went into the musical numbers.  The in between moments don’t have a visual bombast that the musical numbers do.  They are just filmed like a standard movie.  It probably derives from the fact that much of the movie is shot on location, which is a plus, but it also means that it takes on a basic feel whenever the music isn’t filling the scene.  It’s hard to know what they could have done better.  Musicals of the past benefitted from the stylized, closed environments of the movie studios, like Mary Poppins (1964) and My Fair Lady (1964), or an amazingly picturesque place like Salzburg, Austria in The Sound of Music (1965).  For In the Heights, whenever it’s not out in the streets, the movie is in the interior of someone’s rundown apartment, and it’s hard to bring visual excitement to that.  Not that it can’t be done, but when you see the effort put into the musical moments in this movie, those interior scenes really do come off as an afterthought.  It doesn’t ruin the movie as a whole, but it does seem to hold things back a bit. Overall, the movie is lively, but uneven.  At least the heavy duty work is performed by the musical numbers, and they do carry the movie.  Two numbers in particular, “96,000” and “Patience and Faith” may be some of the best musical sequences ever put to film. It’s in those musical numbers where you feel both Chu and Miranda really trying to match their cinematic predecessors and for the most part the movie does emulate the best of the movie musical. I really think that’s what most people are going to take away from this movie in the end, and they’ll be largely pleased by it.

It’s interesting how the movie chose to cast it’s characters as well. Lin-Manuel originated the role of Usnavi on Broadway, something he would later do as well when he played Alexander Hamilton at the center of his own musical, but for this movie, the part went to Hamilton alum Anthony Ramos. Clearly Ramos was someone who Miranda could trust in the role, and Ramos doesn’t disappoint. In fact he brings a little bit more to role than Lin-Manuel likely could’ve on film. Miranda is admittedly an okay singer, with his strength found more in rap. You can forgive him for being a little subpar in something since he excels in so many other fields. Ramos on the other hand not only carries every tune, he is accomplished at rapping and dancing as well. He may not spit fire with as much precision as Miranda, but he keeps up with the man’s complex beats pretty well. The movie’s ensemble is also perfectly suited in their roles as well. It even makes good use of Jimmy Smits, whose a bit of a novice to musicals. The general great chemistry with the entire cast particularly sells the idea of this community as a family, and you’ll find yourself hoping for all of them to find their happy endings. A special mention should go to Olga Merediz, whose Abuela Claudia is the musical’s beating heart. Her performance is absolutely going to knock people out in the theaters, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she is shortlisted for a nomination at next year’s Oscars. Like the best Broadway musicals, it’s the strength of the ensemble that separates the great from the mediocre, and In the Heights has an excellent ensemble that does the musical justice. And those missing Lin-Manuel in the lead will be happy to know that he’s still present in the movie, playing the smaller role of Piraguero, who has his own pleasant story arc in the movie.

I also want to point out the incredible way that the neighborhood of Washington Heights becomes a character within the movie itself. Lin-Manuel, from the outset wanted to tell the story of his childhood home, and help the world discover this little slice of a New York that most people didn’t know that much about. Like I stated earlier, shooting this movie on location in the real Heights gives it this authenticity that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible on a studio lot. What is especially impressive is that the real locations are worked beautifully into the lavish musical numbers, and each helps to make the Heights feel like this special, magical place. The title number in the opening puts a chorus line of dancers in a busy intersection, “96,000” sets an epic dance routine in a community pool, and “Patience and Faith” in a subway car. You really do see an image of the world this neighborhood creates for itself that sprung from the childhood imagination of Lin-Manuel Miranda. And it does for on location shooting the same same kind of cinematic flourish that we saw in musicals like The Sound of Music and La La Land (2016). I’ve never seen the actual Washington Heights, and I’m sure that it’s probably not 100% like it is in this movie, but you can tell this is a story from someone who wants to give back to the place that reared him up, and it’s presented with a great amount of love. It pleases me that the effort to bring that to the big screen brought the filming right into the neighborhood itself, which I’m sure was a boon to the local economy. And in that respect, it does exactly what the best musicals always do, which is transport the audience into its own unique world.

The strengths of the musical, In the Heights, do outweigh the faults, but the shortcomings do bring the musical down a bit from all time heights. It is a long movie (2 1/2 hours) which is on par with most stage productions, but quite a lot for a cinematic experience. And the deflated dramatic moments do make you feel that length. At least when the musical numbers kick into gear the movie doesn’t disappoint. What I especially appreciate is the fact that director Chu was thinking about what would look best on the big screen when staging his musical numbers. Oftentimes, this is something that sinks most musical adaptations for the big screen, as the directors tend to think that you just shoot what worked on the stage. These are two different mediums entirely, and making musicals work for the big screen requires a different visual perspective. It’s something that other adaptations like The Phantom of the Opera (2004) and Les Miserables forgot and took for granted, and ultimately both of those musicals failed to live up to their stage bound counterparts. In the Heights thankfully understands what it’s supposed to be, and it even does a few things different to help it stand on it’s own. As a musical experience, it is interesting to see finally the musical that put Lin-Manuel Miranda on the map. It’s ambitious, but also a humble start, and something that he certainly would build upon when he moved on to his mammoth sophomore effort; the industry redefining Hamilton. I almost wish I had seen this one first last summer, so that I didn’t have Hamilton to judge it by. It’s a little unfair, considering Heights existed in a pre-Hamilton world and was never judged based on this before. Who knows, I may have been a little more forgiving of this movie. In any case, I’m happy this movie is finally out now, and it is very much well worth seeing, especially on a big screen. As Broadway and Hollywood begin to rebuild themselves in a post-COVID world together, it’s hopefully musicals like In the Heights that helps audiences remember what makes musicals so special in the world in the first place.

Rating: 8/10