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Dunkirk – Review

There are few directors out there that has accomplished in such a short time what Christopher Nolan has.  Plucked out of the world of independent film-making with his bold artistic statement called Memento (2000), and nurtured through a stint within DC Comics and the Batman franchise, he has now become one of the industry’s most esteemed talents, and a filmmaker to be envied.  With epic scale films like Inception (2010), the Dark Knight trilogy, and Interstellar (2014) making up his body of work, his name has now become synonymous with spectacle, something that few other filmmakers can attest to.  Even big name directors Spielberg and Scorsese will occasionally take a break and work on something minor in between their big tent-poles.  But for Chris Nolan, he continually sets his bar high, and it’s a sign of just how great a director that he is that he continually clears the high expectations that we have of him.  Not everyone will agree that he succeeds all the time, but no one can doubt that such an ambitious style is nothing but a good thing for everyone.  Not only that, but he’s also a passionate champion for the medium of film itself.  He still shoots on physical film stock, has been critical in the past of the industry’s move towards an all digital market, and specifically makes movies that you can only get the full experience of by watching on the big screen.  What really fascinates me about Nolan as a filmmaker is that he takes that same passion and bold vision, and works it into many various types of genres of film.  With Batman, we saw how his style could work within the super hero genre; with Inception, we saw him play around with heist movies and cerebral thrillers; and with Interstellar, we saw him work with the high concepts of space travel.  With his new film, we now see Nolan’s style and eye for spectacle brought into something that he surprisingly had yet to tackled up to now; the historical war film.

Dunkirk is a really interesting choice of subject for Nolan to work with, especially after some of the more out of this world projects he’s worked on in the past.  Here, Nolan is working with a real historical event, and one which you would’t expect much could be mined from for a grand spectacle.  The movie recounts the harrowing retreat of British soldiers and French civilians from the coastal town of Dunkirk, France  in the summer of 1940.  After a disastrous military miscalculation by the British army, 450,000 soldiers found themselves completely surrounded by advancing German forces.  The soldiers had no choice but to retreat, but they unfortunately were pushed back to the sea, and the British navy was unable to send any vessels out to bring their soldiers safely home, fearing that German U-boats would completely wipe them out on the way there.  Miraculously, brave British civilians crossed the narrow sea passage with their own private boats and managed to save nearly all the remaining soldiers who were left stranded.  It is considered to this day one of the greatest moments in wartime solidarity and a point of pride for the British people.  It is also considered one of the turning points in the war, because by preventing the slaughter of such a major chunk of their military force, and preserving their very much needed naval battleships, the British military opened the way to the allied invasion later on.  It’s a story deserving of a cinematic treatment, but it’s interesting that this is the one that caught the eye of a filmmaker like Nolan.  It’s somewhat unusual for him, considering that most of his movies are driven by triumph in the extraordinary, while Dunkirk is all about dread in desperation.  Still, it’s a story that Nolan clearly wants to tell, and it’s interesting to see how his style fits with this story.

The events of Dunkirk are set up with little exposition and almost with no time allowed to collect your bearings as a viewer.  Christopher Nolan immediately plants us right into the action, with a group of British infantrymen escaping gunfire in the abandoned streets of the titular town.  The group is gunned down except for a lone soldier named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), who makes it all the way to the beach.  There he finds the other half a million soldiers waiting their turn to leave for home, and all he can think about is how can he get to the front of the line.  From there, the film splinters into three separate stories from different vantage points in the conflict; on land, sea, and air.  On the land, we follow Tommy and his different attempts to find a quick route home, which brings him together with two other desperate soldiers looking for help; the silent Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and the temperamental Alex (Harry Styles).  On sea, we are introduced to Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a civilian who takes his own private vessel out to sea in the hopes of saving the stranded soldiers, accompanied by his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a young man named George (Barry Keoghan), who only wants to help out.  Along the way, they meet a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy), the only survivor of a sunken rescue ship, who may jeopardize the success of their crucial mission.  And in the air, we follow two RAF pilots, Farrier and Collins (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) as they risk precious time and fuel in order to take out every last German plane that’s trying to sink the rescue fleet out at sea.  All the while, the commanding naval officer Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and his army counterpart, Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) do what they can to keep the hopes of their soldiers up as the world seems about to collapse on them.  It’s a race against time as we see all three stories come together in an explosive way.

The bar for Christopher Nolan as a director is exceptionally high, since he’s not only responsible for some of the best and most successful films of the last decade, but his movies may also be some of the best that’s ever been made.  So, you can imagine that a lot is expected of his work here on Dunkirk.  Well, I can tell you that he not only meets those high expectations with his new film, he completely obliterates them.  Dunkirk is an absolute masterpiece, and one of the most cinematically impressive films that I have seen in a long time.  Where to begin with this one.  I don’t think that you will ever see a war epic that puts you into the thick of battle quite as well as this one did.  Imagine the opening scene from Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), only stretched out to feature length, and that’s essentially what Dunkirk is.  The entire movie is a masterwork of editing and of ratcheting up tension.  From the opening onward, you feel every twist and turn of the battle, and become completely absorbed into what is going on.    It can be confusing to some, as little time is allowed to collect your bearings into the story, but I quickly went along with it because I could see that Nolan wanted to tell his version of the story in a different way.  Dunkirk is a film experience and not a film story.  I would bet you that his script was actually nothing more than an outline for what he wanted to shoot.  The amazing thing is that there is very little discernible dialogue in the movie, often incidental, as most scenes are played out with nothing but sound and music, both exceptional on their own.  Only in the scenes on Mr. Dawson’s boat do we get any semblance of plot and character development, and even that is kept to a minimum.  We never know much more about these characters than what they are going through at the moment, and it’s still just enough to be riveting.  This is a directorial exercise on Christopher Nolan’s part to make his audience feel like they are a part of the dread of this experience and in that regard, he has triumphed with this goal.

One thing that Christopher Nolan shows us with this movie is that not every epic movie has to have an epic length to it.  The movie runs at a very brisk 107 minutes, making it the shortest film in his entire filmography.  And yet, even at that short length, it feels as massive in scale and scope as the likes of Saving Private RyanTitanic (1997), Apocalypse Now (1979) and many more epic films of this kind.  And all those movies needed a minimum of 2.5 hours to tell their epic tales.  Nolan succeeds with Dunkirk by not spoiling the recipe for his masterpiece with too many ingredients.  There’s not a scene in this movie that feels like it doesn’t need to be there, and nothing feels missing either.  It’s exactly as long as it needs to be.  I was perfectly okay with not knowing who any of these characters were, because it didn’t matter in the end.  The movie is not about who they are, or how they feel, because in the thick of war, all that becomes a moot in the grand scheme.  Everyone in this movie has one goal, and that’s to get home safe.   Whatever characters we latch onto is solely dictated by where Christopher Nolan wants to point our focus to next.  Every scene is another vignette into all the different stories that went on during that event.  What we end up with in this film is a window into what it was like to be there in those harrowing few days; seen through the perspective of some key eyewitnesses.  I like the fact that Nolan doesn’t single one out as a main character, instead making the film an ensemble effort.  Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy might be the one standout, since he’s the first important character we meet and he carries the bulk of the film’s screen-time.  He also features on most of the film’s advertisements, and though he’s quite good in the movie, don’t mistake it as it being all about him.  It’s a film about heroism in solidarity from a multitude of people and in the end that’s where Chris Nolan finds his narrative.

The movie is also an amazing showcase for film craft.  We’ve seen the wonders that Nolan can do with large format cinematography, and in Dunkirk, he outdoes himself.  This is one of the most visually stunning films I have ever seen.  Keep in mind, I watched the movie the way it was intended to be seen, and that’s in 70mm IMAX.  Christopher Nolan has made it his mission to keep physical film stock alive in our digital age, and that’s why he has this long standing relationship with IMAX.  Every film he has made from The Dark Knight (2008) on has been film for the IMAX format; with each progressive film featuring more and more scenes shot with IMAX cameras.  At this point, Nolan has crossed the threshold and has now made a movie where the majority of the scenes were shot in 70mm.  Only a handful of scenes shot on the boat were filmed using regular 35mm film stock, probably due to logistical restraints.  But, the particular emphasis on large format film-making makes the film feel massive and overwhelming.  Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, who previously worked with Nolan on Interstellar, captures some exquisite imagery here with the deep focus of the IMAX lenses.  From the wide panoramas of soldiers lining up on the beaches of Dunkirk, to the empty expanse of open water, to the sometimes haunting scenes of mass destruction, everything in this movie is eye-catching and unforgettable.  The aerial battles themselves are wonders of execution, given how dynamic they are with the kind of cameras used to film them.  I found myself in awe for most of this movie.  I was sitting fairly close to the screen, and in the end it was worth being so close, because the movie just envelopes you.  I also want to spotlight Hans Zimmer’s exceptional score for the movie.  It’s heartbeat pulse rhythm is unrelenting and perfectly orchestrates the rising tension of the movie, never stopping until almost at the very end.  His longtime collaboration with Christopher Nolan has led to some truly memorable music, and with Dunkirk, he once again shows his absolute value in making these movies memorable.

For Dunkirk, the challenge will be seeing how it will stand up over time as both a work of it’s director and as an example of it’s genre.  My worry is that Nolan may have limited himself by his own passion for large format film-making, and created a movie that will end up being diminished if viewed in the wrong way.  While I commend his loyalty to film stock and large formats, he may have also made a movie that can’t live outside of this form either.  I worry that when I revisit the film again eventually on home video, that it won’t have the same visceral impact that it had on my first viewing.  It’s a big movie and deserves the biggest of presentations to go with it.  Some people who miss out on the film in the theater might not see what the big deal is once they watch it on television.  Now, my hope is that it won’t be the case, and that all the other strong points about the movie, like it’s breakneck pace and unconventional storytelling, will still be riveting to audiences no matter what format they watch it on.  For me, what made me love the film is just the instinctual sense of knowing where to put his camera that Christopher Nolan is renowned for.  There is a sequence late in the film of a sinking ship that is so well shot from different angles that it transcends conventional film-making.  One shot in particular is mounted high above the deck of the ship and is fixed in place as the entire thing tips over.  As a result, the angle of framing is tilted to an extreme where it gives you the sense that you are sinking with the ship itself, and makes you feel the same dread that the characters are feeling too.  Overall, it’s that sense of immersion that sets Nolan’s film apart, both in the visuals and in the narrative, and it makes his vision so integral to the telling of this story.  My hope is that other viewers will see that as well and help this movie live well beyond the limitations of it’s exclusive presentation format.

Suffice to say, if Dunkirk doesn’t top my end of the year list of favorite movies, it will almost certainly be near the top.  It is already the crown jewel of a surprisingly strong summer, and as of now, the best movie I have seen so far this year.  I hesitate to anoint it as a likely winner, because there are still so many promising features on the horizon, but Christopher Nolan has clearly set the bar high yet again.  I would also say that it stands as one of the best directorial achievements of his already stellar career, which is saying something.  I still hold Inception up as my absolute favorite, but again, time will tell how well Dunkirk holds up over time.  Needless to say, I am so pleased to see the marriage of his eye for spectacle combined with a harrowing true life story that needed this kind of treatment.  The story of Dunkirk is one of survival, and when gazed through the vision of Nolan’s cinematic style, the odds feel incredibly more powerful.  I also like the fact that he reserved his own indulgences, and made sure to not spoil the movie with superfluous scenes that didn’t need to be in there.  It may bother some audiences who want a little more context to what they are watching, especially when it comes to the characters, but I didn’t mind the minimalist approach to plot and characters at all.  In a way, I like the fact that the characters are little more than our eyes into the event, because it allows us to implant more of ourselves into what’s going on.  In the end, it’s not the actors, nor the cinematography, nor the direction that makes Dunkirk exceptional.  It’s the event itself that becomes the draw, and seeing a great historical moment play out in front of us.  All those other elements are there to elevate what history has already created, and make it feel larger than life.  It’s fortunate that Nolan chose to use his talents to tell this story, because it’s a story about humanity, and how big things can happen when we all work together.  Through Nolan’s exceptional sense of scale, we see that play out in the most harrowing way possible.  That’s why Dunkirk may not only be one of the best movies of the year, or one of the best war epics ever made; but could very well be one of the best movies ever, period.  Keep setting that bar higher, Mr. Nolan.

Rating: 9.5/10

Spider-Man: Homecoming – Review

Once again I’m reviewing another entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, mainly because I find Marvel’s cinematic experiment so interesting in it’s size and scope.  With every new movie brings a new piece to the puzzle, and seeing the brand build itself through multiple franchises all bound together is a sight to which we have never seen before in Hollywood.  But, what fascinates me the most is how Marvel has managed to maintain this for so long, especially when given some of the roadblocks that have been in their way.  As many people know, this bold plan formed once Marvel created it’s own independent studio, with the intent to have more creative control over their own properties.  Before then, Marvel had been spending years licensing out their characters to other studios in order to see them make it to the big screen.  There were successes, like the Sam Raimi directed Spider-Man trilogy at Columbia Pictures, as well as Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men films at Fox.  But, there were plenty of failures as well, such as the disappointing Daredevil (2003), Fantastic Four (2005), and Ang Lee’s disastrous turn with the Hulk (2003).  This would lead Marvel to take more responsibility over their own characters, and thus, with the leadership of producer Kevin Feige, they formed their own studio.  Starting with the foundation of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008), Marvel set out to not only do a more earnest job of bringing their comics to life, but to bring everyone back into the fold under one house.  With the acquisition of Marvel by the Disney company, Marvel not only had their home, but a parent company with deep pockets to make the dream happen.  Unfortunately, some holdouts would still remain before their plan could be fully realized.

Chief among those holdouts was of course Spider-Man.  Sony, the parent company of Columbia Pictures which held the rights to the character, refused for the longest time to let Marvel have their character back, believing that they could still profit well enough on their own with him.  As part of their original contract, they could retain sole cinematic rights to Spider-Man as long as they continued to make more movies.  Unfortunately for them, both Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire were done with the franchise and had moved on to new projects.  This left Sony in the position of strategizing a new direction for Spider-Man, not only as a means of keeping him within their fold, but also competitive with Marvel’s rising success.  Thus, we got the newly re-branded The Amazing Spider-Man series.   With Andrew Garfield now filling the iconic role, this new Spider-Man was intended to be a more grounded and dramatic take on the character’s mythos, with a bold plan to establish a multi-layered cinematic universe of it’s own.  Along with The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and it’s 2014 sequel, Sony was planning plenty of character spin-offs as well, including a Sinister Six film, centered on Spidey’s rogues gallery.  Unfortunately for them, it didn’t work out.  The Amazing Spider-Man didn’t perform as well as hoped against hard hitters like The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises that year, and the sequel proved to do even worse.  So, Sony, probably reading the signs, relented and Marvel got their golden boy back; but with conditions.  All movies made with the character from here out carry a 90-10 profit share between Disney and Sony. If Spider-Man has a cameo in another Marvel Property, like he did in Captain America: Civil War (2016), Sony gets a minority share of the profits.  And when it’s a Spider-Man franchise film with other Marvel characters in it, then the opposite applies.  So, now that he’s living under shared custody, Spider-Man now is able to have his own adventures in the Marvel Cinematic universe, and it all begins with this new film; Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Taking place right after the events of Captain America: Civil War, we find high schooler Peter Parker (Tom Holland) feeling very confident that he’s about to become an official member of the Avengers.  Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), aka Iron Man, still insists that he has a long way to go before he can prove to be a full-time member of the team, so he encourages Peter to use his power responsibly within his own community of Queens, New York.  So, Peter spends most of his after-school time stopping petty crimes and helping the less fortunate in his community.  In other words, being the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.  All the while, he pesters his contact to Tony Stark, chauffeur Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), with phone calls wondering when he can join the Avengers again.  At school, he tries to keep his identity a secret from other students, including fellow nerd Michelle (Zendaya), his school crush Liz (Laura Harrier), and the school bully Flash (Tony Revolori).  Unfortunately, Peter’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) discovers his identity by accident, and Peter desperately tries to keep his very blabber-mouth accomplice quiet on the matter; though he still finds him a rewarding ally in the end.  On one routine encounter with some bank robbers, he discovers that some highly advanced weaponry has been hitting the black market.  Through his investigation, he discovers that they are being sold by an underground organization that has been stealing artifacts left behind by the Avengers and their adversaries and creating new weapons from them.  The leader of this group, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) even has a special winged flying rig for himself and has assumed the criminal identity of the Vulture.  Along with his accomplices known as the Shockers (Bokeem Woodbine and Logan Marshall-Green), Toomes has his eye on a big prize (Tony Stark’s private collection) and it’s up to Spider-Man to stop him.  And all the while, he has to balance this with the normal life of a kid that he wants his beloved Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) to still believe he is.

For Spider-Man, it’s been a rough cinematic road.  We are now on the second reboot of the character in 10 years, and the third overall iteration in general.  This could lead to a lot of fatigue for fans who just want to see a good, basic Spider-Man story on the big screen.  Thankfully, they will find it with Spider-Man: Homecoming. This is an excellent translation of the character; probably the best we’ve ever seen.  And the fact that he finally is able to stand alongside his fellow Marvel peers is just the icing on the cake.  What I especially like about this movie is the fact that both Marvel and Sony made the right choice to not go backwards with the character again and retell his origin.  Instead, Spider-Man is already an established hero this time around, and the story focuses more on his journey of learning what kind of hero he wants to be.  My biggest fault with the Amazing Spider-Man films was that they retreaded already familiar ground and added nothing new or interesting into the mix.  Their complete lack of knowing what they wanted to be also hurt those films a lot.  With Spider-Man: Homecoming, the story has a lot more identity, and that’s of a coming of age tale for a young high schooler, who also just happens to have superpowers.  The people at Marvel said that the mid-80’s films of John Hughes were a particularly strong inspiration for the tone of this movie, and it’s a good match for the character.  Up until now, we have never seen Spider-Man depicted as a young man like he is in the comics; bearing the responsibilities of his power, while at the same time dealing with the anxieties of growing up and the social pressures of high school.  This helps to make everything in this story feel fresh and interesting, without the need of explaining everything we already know about the character again.  His origins barely even get a passing mention here.  Thus, it helps the story flow much better without that cumbersome exposition.

Another reason the movie works as well as it does is because of the character himself.  This is without a doubt the finest version of the character we have ever seen, and a large part of that is due to the casting of young Tom Holland in the role.  Both Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield were fine in their turns as Spider-Man, but what hampered their versions of the character was the fact that they were perhaps too mature for the part.  Both started playing Spidey in their late 20’s, so buying them as teenagers was a little hard to swallow.  Also, they were never allowed to play the character like a teenager, instead focusing more on the pathos of Peter Parker’s maturity rather than reveling in the energy of his youth.  Maguire got around this a little better by having the character quickly grow out of high school within the first movie.  Tom Holland’s version of Spider-Man on the other hand perfectly embraces the youthful essence of the character.  From the opening sequence, which has Peter Parker documenting the events of Civil War from his smartphone camera, we are given perfect introduction to a new Spider-Man who also just enjoys being a kid.  Holland is in his early 20’s, but still looks youthful enough to be believably still in high school, and his energy throughout the film is endlessly endearing.  He’s all parts charming, funny, awkward, and remarkably agile.  Knowing that quite a few stunts in the film were performed by Holland himself makes his performance all the more impressive.  But whether he’s in the suit or out of it, Holland’s Peter Parker nevertheless feels authentic, and truer to his comic origin than ever before.  This is largely what makes Spider-Man: Homecoming work so well, because it puts the emphasis back on the character, and less on how he functions within the story or a larger master plan.

But it’s not just Tom Holland’s endearing performance that makes this movie work.  He’s also surrounded by a strong supporting cast.  The other teenage acquaintances in Peter Parker’s life are also all well rounded.  Just like with Holland’s performance, all of them are not acting out of place for the characters they are playing; they all act like real teenagers do, with the same social awkwardness and impatience of youth that comes with that.  The influence of John Hughes movies really helps in this regard, because like with his movies, it spotlights the often disregarded misfits in high school.  Parker and his friends often find themselves falling victim to adults who don’t understand their plights as well as facing the abuse and humiliation from bullies their own age.  They are kids who have special skills, but also suffer the disappointment and inconvenience of detention and getting the courage to ask a crush out on a date.  The adults in the film are also given plenty of excellent scenes as well.  I especially like that the movie gave an extended role to a side character like Happy Hogan, and you can tell that Jon Favreau is relishing his extra screen time here.  Robert Downey Jr. of course still shines as Iron Man, but he also does a good job of not hogging the spotlight away from his young co-star.  Marisa Tomei’s stunningly beautiful and sexy Aunt May could put off some purists, but she does a fine job filling the role here.  However, it is Michael Keaton who really steals the show as the Vulture in this movie.  What a casting coup for Marvel to get a former Batman into their cinematic universe, only this time in the role of a villain.  Keaton’s performance thankfully belies little of his Dark Knight days, and instead fits perfectly within this story.  He’s devilish and intimidating in all the right ways, and helps to make what is generally a silly character in the comics into a very effective cinematic baddie.  It’s a real testament to Keaton’s abilities as a performer and he makes a great asset to this film in general.  There’s also a great running gag involving Chris Evans’ Captain America, which delivers a killer punchline by the end.

Now, while I do have a lot to praise about this film, there are some nitpicks as well that unfortunately keeps this from becoming an all-time great for Marvel.  Chief among them is the way this film is directed.  Not that director Jon Watts does a bad job here.  For most of the movie, he actually does a really good job of maintaining the right tone for the movie, and excels when delivering some of the film’s more humorous parts.  However, he still seems inexperienced when it comes to crafting an effective action set piece.  While the action moments are fine, none of them ever come off as exceptional.  As the director, it seemed like Watts went for the more basic approach of action directing; utilizing a lot of quick cuts and shaky cam footage to ratchet up the suspense.  It’s something that doesn’t ruin the movie, but doesn’t elevate it either.  One wonders what a more stylized vision would’ve done with the material, like Sam Raimi managed to do during his run.  Raimi may not have always hit a bulls-eye with his Spider-Man films, but he nevertheless aimed high with some of his set pieces.  The phenomenal train sequence from Spider-Man 2 (2004) is still a standout sequence that remains a high water mark for the series.  That’s why I hesitate to call Homecoming the best Spider-Man film, because it lacks a sequence like that, although it does enough to come close to the top.  The movie also suffers from a slow first act.  While there are plenty of enjoyable bits in the first part of this movie, the plot actually doesn’t kick into gear until very late, and it might have been to the films benefit to tighten things up in the beginning.  But, again, none of these nitpicks are deal-breakers, and the movie for the most part holds together very well.  In the end, most people won’t care as long as they are having a good time, and this film definitely delivers on that.

What I hope for the most is that this movie leads to a new era of cooperation between all Hollywood players with regards to who has the rights to use characters from Marvel’s stable of heroes and villains.  Sony learned that it would be in their better interest to play ball with Marvel rather than battle against them, and in the end, both companies with see lucrative returns because of this deal.  Captain America: Civil War’s $1.5 billion dollar gross certainly benefitted both parties, and Homecoming will hopefully do the same.  My hope is that it also serves as an example that working together is in the best interest for all involved; something that I wish the lone holdout Fox would wise up to.  It’s a shame that characters like Wolverine and the Fantastic Four are still left out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe purely out of a stubborn refusal by Fox to have things done their way.  What Spider-Man: Homecoming proves is that allowing Marvel to call the shots makes the end product feel all the more authentic, and people are now excited for the character once again because they are interested in seeing how Spider-Man interacts with the rest of Marvel’s universe.  A closed off approach no longer works in this industry, not with so many other cinematic universes being launched, and the fact that Fox is still going in that direction will only limit their potential for better profits down the road.  It makes the title of Homecoming such an appropriate one for this movie, because not only is it appropriate for the high school setting of the film, but it’s a declaration of how much Marvel appreciates the character as a part of their family.  Spider-Man is indeed home, unencumbered by how well he fits into a corporations plans for future profits, and instead allowed to exist as a crucial piece of Marvel’s ever expanding universe.  It’s also a film that just wants us to have fun, and that’s something that we’ve have seen a Spider-Man movie be in a very long time.

Rating: 8.5/10

Cars 3 – Review

You know the saying of Newton’s Law that “everything that goes up must certainly come down.”  That applies almost without question to the world of cinema as well.  The Pixar Animation studio has enjoyed one of the strongest track records that Hollywood has ever seen.  Starting with the beloved Toy Story films of the late 90’s, and continuing through to the mid 2000’s, Pixar really looked like they could do no wrong.  Everything they touched seemed to turn to gold, no matter how peculiar the premise of each story was.  It’s really remarkable that they can take oddball concepts like a rat who wants to be a gourmet chef, or a senior citizen who makes his house fly with a million balloons, or a love story between two robots in a post-apocalyptic world and turn them into beloved animated classics.  But, somehow for over a decade, the Pixar brand was one that signified quality, and unparalleled success.  And then the market changed.  In a way, Pixar has become a victim of it’s own success, because with the run that they had for so long, the pressure likewise grew for clearing the bar that they set so high for themselves.  Not only that, but the studio was also received increased pressure from their parent company Disney to produce sequels to all their big hits, in order to keep those lucrative brands going for many more years.  Because of all that pressure, Pixar has made an effort to shift gears and devote their time and money to making future adventures with their most beloved characters.  That unfortunately has led to an era of inconsistency with Pixar’s output of films.  While they sometimes still manage to deliver sequels that everyone embraces (Toy Story 3 and Finding Dory), others are also met with a level of disappointment from fans (Monsters University).  Thus, we see Newton’s law play out, as the once infallible company is now suffering through a pitfall of lowered returns on their time and effort.

No where is that more evident than with the very divisive direction that they have taken with what is now the Cars franchise.  The first Cars was a generally well liked film from both fans of Pixar and the general audience.  Set within an alternate world where humanity is replaced with sentient vehicles, who exist in a parallel society like our own, the concept was a novel one for Pixar and it helped it to stand out.  While in no way one of their all time greats, it was still a beautifully constructed feature that represented the craftsmanship of the studio at it’s best.  But what is probably most surprising about Pixar is how well it performed as a brand.  Movie grosses aside, Cars surprisingly has become the most profitable film that Pixar has ever made when it comes to merchandising.  You’d be hard pressed to visit any Toys R’ Us or toy department in any store and mall across America and not find at least one product branded around this movie.  The characters of Lightning McQueen and Mater are seen everywhere, even when there is not a movie out to cross-promote with them.  It’s because of that highly profitable exposure that Disney has pressed Pixar even harder to churn out more movies in this franchise, whether they wanted to or not.  Because of this, we now have a trilogy of movies, created over an 11 year span which is just insane for the usually meticulous studio (keep in mind, 11 years is the same number of years in between Toy Story 2 and 3).  The downside of pushing out sequels this quickly (not to mention the existence of the Planes spin-offs) is that the lack of quality control, as Pixar isn’t allowed the time to carefully craft a story as they are fond of having usually.  So, what ended up happening was that the beloved first Cars was followed up with a very lackluster sequel in Cars 2 (2011), which became the first critically panned film in the studio’s long history.  Their perfect streak was over, and what went up now was preparing to come down.  Since then, Pixar has attempted to right the ship, acknowledging the failure of Cars 2, and this year, we see them returning to the franchise to in a way make amends.  The only question is, did it work?

For those who are looking for a follow-up to the plot of Cars 2, you won’t find it here.  Cars 3 is more in line with the continuity of the first Cars, and 2 almost seems to be deliberately forgotten altogether in this film.  We find Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) at the top of his game as a multi-race champion on the professional racing circuit; enjoying the spoils of celebrity status along the way.  While still making his home-base in the small town of Radiator Springs, where his best friend Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and his girlfriend Sally (Bonnie Hunt) show him love and support continuously, Lightning continues to travel the world, facing little challenges along the way.  That is until he’s beaten in a race by a flashy new rookie race car named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), who’s been equipped with the latest technology that makes him almost impossible to catch up to on the track.  Feeling intimidated by this new arrival, Lightning pushes his body to the limit, which unfortunately causes him to crash during a race, breaking both his body and his spirit.  Seeing Jackson Storm sit on the throne that once used to be his causes Lightning to try to compete once again, but this time trained with the same high tech gadgetry that benefited Jackson.  His corporate sponsor Rusteze takes on new corporate management under a flashy, corporate car named Sterling (Nathan Fillion), who teams Lightning with a new trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who we learn is just as new to the world of racing as Lightning is to technology.  Over time, Lightning and Cruz form a bond as they both seek answers to the directions of their lives.  In a way, Lightning finds it as they take a pilgrimage to the stomping grounds of his old mentor, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, voiced through archival audio), where they encounter Doc’s old trainer, Smokey (Chris Cooper), who helps the duo train the old fashioned way.  But, is it enough to beat Jackson, and is Lightning ready to continue the life he had before, or see a different way.

So, in many ways, this film is a return to basics for the Cars franchise.  It’s less of a mindless side story that Cars 2 turned out to be, and more of a continuation of themes that the original had begun, becoming far more of a character driven story centered around Lightning McQueen.  But, does that make it any better than Cars 2.  Well, yes and no.  There is a big issue that I had with watching Cars 3, and that is the sad reality that I just didn’t care what was going on in  the story.  For the first time ever watching a movie made by Pixar, I felt absolutely nothing upon seeing it.  That’s pretty much unheard of for this studio.  This is the company that specialized in being able to draw a variety of emotions from it’s audience.  People wept openly in screenings of Up (2009) that I went to, after witnessing that now legendary opening montage.  Not only that, but Pixar’s films are almost always laugh out loud funny and edge of your seats thrilling.  Cars 3 was about as uninspiring as I’ve ever seen a Pixar movie ever get.  It’s about as involving to me as any sub-par History or Travel Channel series that I’ll put on TV as background entertainment while I’m working or cleaning up my apartment.  It just lies there, filling time that I could have better spent somewhere else.  Despite this, though, it does nothing offensive either to garner any significant hatred either.  My disappointment with the movie really is just in lamenting how pointless it all is.  Keep in mind, I hated Cars 2 as well, and it might generally be a worse movie overall.  But, it still got a feeling out of me regardless, even if that feeling was pure distaste.  Cars 3 just feels like the first Pixar movie ever made to me that doesn’t feel like a movie at all.  It’s that tedious feeling that made me really feel in the end unsure about the future of Pixar as a brand.

First of all, I have to stress exactly why this movie is a failure, and that’s mainly due to the lazy execution of the story.  In a way, every Cars film has been derivative of some other film.  The first Cars was an exploration of the hot shot from the city learning the homespun values of the countryside motif that Hollywood has revisited many times over the years.  In particular, critics pointed to the Michael J. Fox film Doc Hollywood (1991) as a direct inspiration for the plot.  Cars 2 was a spoof of spy films from the 60’s, particularly with James Bond and Alfred Hitchcock’s “wrong man” thrillers, shifting focus away from Lightning McQueen and onto the sidekick Mater.  Cars 3 borrows it’s plot from a lot of comeback sports stories like the Rocky sequels.  Now being derivative is not a problem as long as you provide your own unique spin on it.  The first Cars did just that, making it feel fresh and not overly familiar.  Cars 2 was too dumb to ever work as a genre throwback, or a movie in general.  The extra insult of Cars 3 is that it take it’s tropes and just plays them out to the letter, diverting in no way in order to make it feel unique.  No matter what plot point the movie threw my way, I just knew how it was going to play out, because I’ve seen it all before.  The mentor/student relationship, the shenanigans that befall our hero through training, the inevitable final race showdown; it’s all too familiar.  There is even a moment where the character Cruz Ramirez reveals to Lightning her childhood dreams and how she had to abandon them, and I knew right away that this was an obvious set up for the finale.  And sure enough, the movie followed that playbook exactly.  Pixar is a studio that very often subverted expectations with it’s storytelling, or at least were able to hide the cliches well enough to make us not care about them.  Here, we can clearly see that this was a story that was not thought through with the same kind of care, and was purely slapped together to quickly role out into theaters, never once offering the audience a challenging and provocative experience.  Pixar’s storytelling was once the exception, and now, it’s fallen into mediocrity, feeling as generic as everything else that Pixar once stood proudly over.

In general, it’s the blandness that I disliked the most from this movie.  I want my Pixar movies to be something special, and this one was not in any way.  But, at the same time, it doesn’t insult the series itself like Cars 2 did.  I think still stands as Pixar’s worst film, just because of how purely it used every minute of it’s run time to be aggressively obnoxious.  It was loud, in-your-face, and thoroughly pointless.  It also made the huge mistake of relying too heavily on the talents of Larry the Cable Guy as the voice of Mater.  Mater is best used in small doses, and to it’s credit, Cars 3 does reel back the character significantly.  Mater only appears in a handful of moments, as does most of the supporting cast of the first movie.  It may not be such a big loss, but I do miss some of the character interactions that made the first Cars such an appealing narrative.  Lightning’s relationship with Sally is sadly minimized here, which was such a major part of the first film’s appeal, and that’s a waste of the talents of someone like Bonnie Hunt, who should be in this more.  The newer characters in general are a mixed bag.  I unfortunately didn’t care all that much about Cruz Ramirez.  She’s not an offensively misplaced character in this story, but her journey was so uninspiring and cliched that it just never endeared her character to me.  Jackson Storm is an even more uninteresting new player in this movie, and probably the blandest villain Pixar has ever made.  He never inspires menace or charisma; he’s just an empty shell.  Some of the secondary characters fare a little better.  I particularly liked Chris Cooper’s Smokey, who makes a great stand-in for the very much missed Doc Hudson.  There’s also a great bit with a maniacal school bus named Miss Fritter (voiced by Orange is the New Black’s Lea DeLaria) in what is probably the movie’s only stand-out scene, as Lightning and Cruz find themselves stuck in a demolition derby.  Good characters ultimately lift up lackluster material, and sadly there are just not enough of them for this movie.

One other positive that I will say for this movie is that while it doesn’t feature the usual finesse of story-telling that has defined other Pixar movies, it still manages to hold up in the visual department.  It may not be the most groundbreaking and visually resplendent Pixar movie to date, but Cars 3 still represents the fine craftsmanship that sets the studio apart.  The backgrounds in particular are really beautiful in this movie.  The filmmakers clearly know how to create a sense of atmosphere in these movies, and that becomes particularly impressive given how frequently this movie moves around in setting.  While the novelty of a car-based world has worn off from the first movie, I still like taking in the small little details that the movie puts into each of it’s environments to show the little car-based twists on familiar everyday objects.  When the movie allows itself to slow down and have us take in the scenery, it’s when the movie works at it’s best.  This includes beautiful recreations of places like a sunny day at a coastal beach, or a fog-filled day in the valleys of the Great Smokey Mountains.  You can tell that the movie benefits from the advances that Pixar has made over the years with movies like Brave (2012) and The Good Dinosaur (2015) in trying to accurately capture the feeling of experiencing the great outdoors. The first Cars was a step forward in that process, but Cars 3 looks more advanced, with regards to how the scenes are lit, exposed, and textured.  It is certainly a beautifully looking film; I just wish that this artistry was attached to a better story.  At least it shows that while their story-telling talent is suffering, it’s animation and environmental development departments are still firing on all cylinders and showing off what they can really do.

So, again, this movie does little to make me care any more for this franchise.  The damage done by Cars 2 was too severe, and Cars 3 does very little to make a u-turn for this series.  And honestly, is this really a series worth saving.  The first Cars worked fine on it’s own; it was a simple story about rediscovery set within a unique alternate world.  Unfortunately, the success of the merchandising around this film has caused Disney and Pixar to abandon their high standards in a pursuit to exploit this world for more money, and that makes every sequel and spin-off feel like a cynical cash grab.  And that’s something that I just don’t want to see a company like Pixar fall into.  They made it their mission to always put story first, and Cars 3  seems very much like the exact opposite of that.  They should’ve recognized long ago that they have explored all that they needed to explore with the first movie.  I’m not saying that sequels from Pixar are a bad thing; Finding Dory was quite good and Toy Story 3 is an outright masterpiece. But, when you go into a movie that bears the Pixar name, you should expect something that is going to movie you in some way, and Cars 3 never once did that for me.  I just sat in the theater feeling nothing, and that in itself made me feel upset in retrospect.  Is it possible that Pixar abandoned it’s high standards for a cynical cash grab.  Solid recent efforts like Inside Out and Finding Dory make me hopeful that this is just a speed bump in Pixar’s track record, just like Cars 2 was, and that they’ll be back strong with their next effort; the very promising Coco (2017) which comes out in November.    Until then, Cars 3 will unfortunately represent another down-point for the company.  I wish I never would have had to see the day when Pixar failed to illicit any emotion out of me, and now that it has passed, I hope that it never comes around again.  Everything that goes up inevitably comes down, but the best thing about gravity is that nothing is meant to stay down either.  Pixar has fallen, but it can easily come back up again.

Rating: 6/10

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – Review

It’s an interesting world we live in today where it seems like anything can be turned into a movie.  In the old days of cinema, you merely had to look to literature or the latest headlines for inspiration when crafting a property for the big screen.  Television shows making the crossover was the next phase.  Now, all media of every kind is fodder for big screen adaptations.  We’ve seen movies based off of commercials (1996’s Space Jam), toy products (2014’s The Lego Movie), and later this year, a movie based on the way we text (The Emoji Movie).  But even more shocking than the sources of inspiration is the sometimes unexpected result of those movies ending up actually being good.  The Lego Movie is a perfect example of a baffling concept of a movie actually paying off, thanks to a smart script and beautifully executed animation.  But, there has been perhaps no bigger unexpected hit made from the unlikeliest of inspirations than Walt Disney Pictures’ Pirates of the Caribbean.  Seriously, when you first heard that Disney was taking one of their theme park attractions and turning it into a full length feature, you would’ve thought they had gone crazy.  And maybe they were a little.  But, it was a crazy idea that somehow managed to manifest itself into a box office and critical hit.  It wasn’t Disney’s first attempt at creating a film themed around one of their theme park rides (The Country Bears, 2002), nor their last (The Haunted Mansion, 2003), but it would be the only one that actually succeeded.  This is largely due to the fact that it was far more earnest in it’s execution and was carried on the shoulders of a career-defining performance from Johnny Depp, who created his most popular character here; the unforgettable Captain Jack Sparrow.

When Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) first launched into theaters, it blew all our expectations away.  It was adventurous, funny, visually stunning, and just all around fun.  It also turned Johnny Depp, who up until that time was seen as more as an indie film actor, into a bankable star.   It gave co-star Orlando Bloom a much needed post-Lord of the Rings boost, and helped to introduce Keira Knightley to the world.  It also featured a deliciously evil performance from Geoffrey Rush, who created an equally iconic character in Captain Barbosa.  Naturally, with the success the film achieved, sequels were destined to follow.  And Disney took the ambitious step of shooting two Pirates films back to back.  The over half a billion dollar project resulted in Dead Man’s Chest (2006) and At World’s End (2007), and both performed even better at the box office.  But, despite being praised for some of their aspects, like the villainous Davy Jones(played by Bill Nighy) and the amazing CGI technology that brought him to life, the sequels were received critically with a mixed reaction.  Some loved the movies, while others felt they were a let down.  Despite what everyone thought, it was clear that the latter Pirates movies suffered from the problem of a bloated production.  People felt that the films lacked the tightly paced thrills of the first movie and that they had become way too long; At World’s End clocked in at nearly three hours alone.  It was enough criticism to drive Disney to reassess the series in the next installment, which resulted in On Stranger Tides (2011), which was a disastrous disappointment.  It was a dismally boring sequel that retained none of the charm of the other movies, and just felt like a pale shadow of it’s former self.  From this, Disney took a long break from the series, but now we have another return to the seas with Captain Jack and crew in Dead Men Tell No Tales.  The question now is if the extended wait helped to calm the seas and right the ship for this series, or did it leave it shipwrecked and forsaken.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales reintroduces us to Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), who we last saw in At World’s End, cursed to command the doomed ship The Flying Dutchman for all eternity.  We see Will confront his son Henry, who vows to free his father of the curse and he tells him that he has searched all legends of the sea to find that answer.  Many years later, a grown up Henry (Brenton Thwaites) believes that if he can find an ancient artifact known as Neptune’s Trident, it might be able to end the curse forever.  His search leads him into an area called the Devil’s Triangle, where he’s brought face to face with a Ghost Ship that is commanded by the haunted presence of Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem).  Salazar tells Henry to deliver a message to Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), telling him that he means to take his revenge once he is out in open waters again, acting on the grievance of losing his life thanks to the trickery of Jack who had trapped him in the triangle many years ago.  Henry finds Jack on the island of St. Martin, along with what’s left of his crew, including the ever loyal Gibbs (Kevin McNally).  Also in St. Martin, they run across a fugitive named Carina (Kaya Scodelario), who is accused of being a witch purely because of her ability to read the stars.  They soon learn that she may have the knowledge necessary to find the location of the Trident, and together they set sail out into open seas.  But, in pursuit is a British warship under the command of the tenacious Captain Scarfield (David Wenham) as well as Salazar, who has allied himself with an old adversary of Captain Jack; the fearsome Captain Hector Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush).  It’s a mad rush to reach the Trident in time, because whoever possesses the trident commands the sea itself, and with it, can break any curse it has put on anyone.

Now that the series is up to 5 films total, one has to wonder if there is any new territory left to uncover with this world and these characters.  With Dead Men Tell No Tales, Disney was far more interested in cutting the fat out of the series and returning it to it’s more modest roots.  They brought on Norwegian directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, who had previously made the acclaimed Kon-Tiki (2012).  Their more adventure oriented tastes seemed like a good fit for the series and would be a welcome change from the bloat of Gore Verbinski’s back to back sequels and Rob Marshall’s limited vision.  But, was it enough to make us care again.  Well, here’s the thing; is it really a series that needs to be saved.  My feeling is that the series had played itself out in the original trilogy. Despite all of it’s problems, At World’s End was an adequate capper to the story-line, and had a great sense of finality to it.  Everything since has felt like nothing more than a shameless cash grab.  Dead Men Tell No Tales falls into this category unfortunately, but at the same time, it is not the worst we’ve seen from this series either.  On Stranger Tides had no redeeming value whatsoever, whereas this has the benefit of some moments that do merit praise.  For the most part, it still feels like it’s not needed at all, but it does entertain periodically.  The tighter plot helps out with the pacing (at a brisk 126 minutes, this is the shortest film in the series, by a long shot).  If only the plot didn’t preoccupy itself with a lot of unnecessary world building.  For a series that is based off of a theme park attraction, they sure have crafted a complex mythology around it.  And even over five films spanning 14 years, I still don’t think the filmmakers have fully grasped all of it.  That’s perhaps the biggest flaw of this film is the fact that it doesn’t streamline the plot mechanisms in any way, and that interferes with us trying to find enjoyment in the ride itself.  A movie like this doesn’t need to explain anything or have to make sense; it can just be a big, loud adventure and we’ll be happy with that.

Trying to balance the adventure plotting with complex mythological themes along with Jack Sparrow’s often slap-sticky shenanigans creates this often uneven tone to the movie, and it spoils most of the experience overall.  By the time the movie does reach the mythical Trident, it has gone through so many shifts and turns that you’re just exhausted trying to piece it together and become numb to it all.  I honestly didn’t care what was going on by the end of this movie, which is a shame because there are some plot developments late in the movie that should’ve carried more weight than they should.  The movie feels more successful in individual scenes than as a whole.  There is an especially great scene early on involving a guillotine that I found very entertaining.  It’s a physical comedic bit that would’ve done Buster Keaton proud, and I’m sure that it gave Johnny Depp an excellent moment to dig into character for.  That and other scenes like it help to lift this movie up from the disappointment of On Stranger Tides, which had maybe only one good scene in the entire film (the mermaid scene), and even that pales in comparison to some of the moments here.  What becomes apparent, however, is that nothing in this movie really justifies it’s existence other than some neat set pieces.  Nothing feels like it adds to the lore of Pirates.  It’s just more of the same.  It’s also clear that the character of Jack Sparrow has run it’s course.  Jack really just feels like a tag-along this time around, as he adds nothing more to the plot than a previous connection to the villain.  It’s not that Jack Sparrow can no longer be entertaining, it’s just that his adventures have long stopped being interesting.

That being said, the thing that does help keep this movie afloat for most of it’s run-time is Johnny Depp’s performance.  He still commands every moment he is on screen, and I managed to never grow old of his shtick either.  Truth be told, the character has lost some of the subtlety that we saw in Curse of the Black Pearl, but even in a more clownish version of the role, Depp’s Sparrow is still a welcome sight.  Depp just feels more at home as Captain Jack and it’s a role that still brings out the best in him.  It’s certainly far better than his awful Mad Hatter seen in the Alice in Wonderland pictures.  But, his routine only works at it’s best when it has other strong performance to work off of.  That was the failure of On Stranger Tides, because he had to do double lifting after bland performances from Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane gave him nothing to work with.   Here, he has Javier Bardem as the villain, who is a marked improvement.  Bardem’s Salazar manages to be both menacing and over-the-top ridiculous at the same time.  You can tell that Bardem loves chewing the scenery here just as much as Johnny Depp, and it makes for a perfect match.  The ghost effect they put upon Bardem is really effective too, and it makes for a striking effect that really sets him apart from other Pirates adversaries.  Geoffrey Rush also makes a triumphant return as Barbosa, reaffirming my belief that he’s the best element of all five films and my favorite character in the series.  Series newcomers Brenton Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario don’t fare quite as well.  They are improvements over the young couple from On Stranger Tides, but not much better I’m afraid.  It’s clear that they are just stand-ins for the original trilogy’s Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), and sadly they fall way short of the appeal of those two.

The visuals are also a mixed bag.  At some points, the movie does have some visual splendor to it.  One scene in particular, involving a run away bank (trust me, it makes sense in the film), has a great epic scale to it, and it did impress me that directors Ronning and Sandberg accomplished it with little to no CGI.  But, later on the film does tend to favor style over substance, and it turns into one messy visual effects extravaganza by the end.   The showdown at the Trident’s resting place might as well had been a cartoon, because it’s so clearly a green screened environment that looks too artificial to every be believable.  One thing that I lament being lost over the years in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies is the sense of time and place.  Sure, these are special effects extravaganzas, but they are period pieces as well.  The first Pirates did an exceptional job of placing you in a different time period, allowing the movie to take it’s time and soak up moments that let us enjoy the beautifully detailed scenery.  I remember the blacksmith shop fight scene being a perfect example of that; where it was clear that period detail mattered as part of the story.  In Dead Man Tell No Tales, we get very little of that.  In fact, Ronning and Sandberg have almost stripped the movie down a little too much, making even the period details feel inauthentic.  The period sets look a tad too clean in this movie, like it’s clear that they were just built only days prior, and don’t feel lived in at all; much like a brand new production set would.  I prefer a period film to have a real, lived in feel, which previous Pirates films have done so well.  Here, the movie reveals itself as very basic and unwilling to fully commit, and it’s the thing that holds it back from feeling like a return to form for the series.

So, sad to say, but this is yet another indicator that the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise no longer has any wind in it’s sails. Truth be told, few of us ever thought more than one of these movies, let alone five.  Somehow, Disney managed to turn their park attraction into a viable franchise, which in turn has become of their most valued titles in recent memory.  Jack Sparrow is now one of Disney’s most popular characters, both in and out of the parks.  Johnny Depp still values the character himself, often appearing in costume at charity events and children’s hospitals, or even just to please the everyday fan unexpectedly (like he did in the actual ride at Disneyland earlier this year).  But, all good things must come to an end, and I think this franchise has overstayed it’s welcome a little too long.  Truth be told, it could have been worse, like On Stranger Tides which still stands as the worst in the series.  But Dead Men Tell No Tales does not make the case for continued adventures with Jack and crew.  Disney seems to think that there might be (an end credit sequence keeps the door open just a crack), but I’m not holding my breath in anticipation.  Honestly, let the series end on this little uptick.  It’s not a saving grace, but it didn’t dig the hole any deeper.  That’s the best that I can say for it.  If you liked all the previous Pirates films before, you’ll probably enjoy this as well. There are a number of serviceable scenes that do harken back to the series’ heyday, and a couple nice surprises as well (including a particularly unexpected cameo from a musical legend), but overall Jack Sparrow’s best days are behind him. Whether or not there is more on the horizon is likely to fall on the wishes of Johnny Depp, and I would suggest to him that it’s better to weigh anchor now before the series really starts to fall into irrelevance.  The only options that would be worth exploring now would be to take the world of Pirates and reinvent it through different mediums.  Maybe an animated film or series; I mean it’s Disney after all.  For now, Dead Men Tell No Tales proves that it’s best for there to be no more tales to tell.  Enjoy what we already have, take it easy, and drink up me hearties, yo ho.  Savvy.

Rating:  6/10

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – Review

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the gift that keeps on giving to both fans and to Disney, the company responsible for making them.  Marvel’s track record has been the envy of the industry, with seemingly everything they touch turning into gold.  What I find most pleasing about all this is the fact that Marvel is not just succeeding on the backs of their most notable characters, but they are amazingly diving deep into their extensive catalog and giving the lesser known characters in their library the spotlight.  Who would’ve imagined a decade ago that characters like The Vision, or the Falcon, or even Rocket Raccoon would make it to the big screen and become popular in their own right.  Not only that, but long gestating films for some of Marvel’s more popular characters who had yet been given their own movies are now finally coming to us with great regularity; such as last year’s Doctor Strange (2016) and next year’s Black Panther (2018).  It seems like no subject or character in the MCU is unworthy of a cinematic treatment, because their brand is so strong right now that every ship they have is rising with this enormous tide.  That’s not to say that everything in the MCU has been flawless.  A few missteps have happened along the way, like Edgar Wright’s controversial departure from Ant-Man (2015), the disappointing plot twist of Iron Man 3 (2013), and from what I hear the entire first season of the Iron Fist Netflix series (I can’t judge yet, because I have yet to watch it).  But, for the most part, Marvel’s formula has worked amazingly well, and has managed to successfully launch new franchises into cinemas from some unlikely places.  And that is true no more so than in one of their crowning achievements to date; Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).

When it was first announced that Marvel was turning their Guardians of the Galaxy comic book series into a film, it left quite a few people surprised.  Sure, Guardians had a fan-base, but it was a minor title in the Marvel catalog compared to say the likes of Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Captain America.  Not only that, but the one tasked with adapting the comic was a young writer/director named James Gunn, who had only directed two films before, and neither of which were huge in scale on the level that we’d expect from Marvel.  And yet, Marvel seemed pretty confident with their project, and when it premiered in the late summer of 2014, we finally saw why.  Guardians of the Galaxy was a transcendent hit, proving that even a more obscure title like itself could click with audiences when given an inspired and confident treatment.  James Gunn showed remarkable talent as a storyteller, making the movie feel both unique and fresh, even when given the requirements to stay close to the source material.  Even more impressive is the fact that Guardians is regarded by many to be Marvel’s best film to date, even exceeding the reputation of their beloved Avengers franchise.  That’s quite an achievement for a comic title that few people had even known about beforehand.  Now, people who had never read the comic are familiar with the likes of Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket Raccoon, and of course, Groot.  It’s the broad appeal cross-over hit that Marvel was always hoping for, and one that would open the flood gates for so much more.  Which put’s enormous pressure on following that up with an inevitable sequel.  Luckily, James Gunn and crew are back with their ambitious follow-up; the appropriately named Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Picking up directly after the events of the first film, we find the Guardians working as mercenaries for hire.  After defending a high value target from a monstrous creature’s attack, the Guardians are rewarded by a genetically engineered super race called the Sovereign.  Unfortunately, Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) deceptively stole some of the Sovereign’s sacred treasure, which causes the Sovereign’s leader, High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) to launch a warship attack on the Guardians.  The Guardians manage to miraculously escape once the Sovereign’s ships are destroyed by a mysterious being who calls them to a nearby planet.  There, he introduces himself as Ego (Kurt Russell) and reveals that he is in fact the father of Guardian member Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) aka Star-Lord.  Ego asks for Peter to accompany him to his home planet, which he reluctantly does along with Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax (Dave Bautista) by his side.  They leave Rocket behind to fix their broken ship, along with their prisoner Nebula (Karen Gillan), Gamora’s disgruntled sister, and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), who’s slowly regenerating after sacrificing his adult form in the last film.  When they reach Ego’s planet, they soon learn that Ego is not only the man they see before them, but the planet itself, having been made from the same particles.  While on this living planet, Star-Lord learns more about his past, but Gamora and Drax begin to grow suspicious, especially when Ego’s only companion Mantis (Pom Klementieff) begins to worry for them.  Meanwhile, the Sovereign calls upon Star-Lord’s former employer Yondu (Michael Rooker) to hunt him down, which becomes more problematic when his own crew rises up in mutiny against him, because he still holds a soft spot for the kid he once raised up. With alliances coming into conflict, and Peter Quill becoming more aware of his destiny, everything begins to culminate into one cosmic adventure.

The first Guardians was not only a high water mark set by Marvel, but it could also be argued that it’s one of the best films of the last decade.  I for one put it at #2 on my list of the top films of 2014; only bested that year by Birdman, and believe me it was a tough choice between the two.  Which makes the bar extremely high for a sequel to clear, let alone match.  I tried to tamper my expectations somewhat, and would have accepted anything from this same team, just as long as it was entertaining.  Thankfully, it was more than just that.  I’m pleased to say that Vol. 2 is remarkably just as good as the first film, and even manages to improve upon it in many ways.  Everything that made the first movie great can be found here intact; the hilarious banter between characters, the often jaw-droppingly beautiful visuals, the often explosive action sequences, the subtle but always exciting Easter eggs to other Marvel entities, and of course the killer retro soundtrack.  Thus far, Marvel has done a fairly good job of making their sequels work as perfect continuations of what’s been done before, allowing the extra time spent with these characters work as a way of exploring new territory.  What is interesting here is that Vol. 2 does expand on this universe in some ways, but also reigns a lot of stuff back in.  Unlike the first Guardians, which devoted a lot of time towards establishing larger Marvel Universe elements like Thanos and the Infinity Stones, this Guardians actually leaves a lot of that out, staying more focused on the characters and their continuing stories.  This is a far more standalone story for the Guardians characters, and that’s somewhat refreshing from Marvel, given their whole leadup these last few years towards the inevitable Infinity War.  For the most part, this helps Vol. 2 feel freer than it’s predecessor, acting more as it’s own thing than part of a larger whole.

It’s hard for me to find any flaws to speak about in this film, since it gets so much right that any flaws feel really insignificant when looked at together with everything else.  If I were to maybe single anything out, it’s that some story-lines outshine others, and that’s largely due to some of those other plot-lines just feeling generic compared to the more creative ones.  For instance, the interaction between Star-Lord and Ego, while still entertaining for the most part, feels a tad too familiar, because it’s a plot thread that we’ve seen perhaps too many times in other movies.  To the movie’s credit, it still plays around with this plot element in a way that does make it feel unique, including probably the funniest spin I’ve seen on a game of catch in any movie.  The extended final climactic showdown also kinda feels a little bloated, but again, it is flavored with enough creative bits that you’ll end up not feeling bored at any time.  And that’s the biggest strength from this film, is it’s incredible sense of balance.  Any time you start to think that the movie is going to lose it’s footing, it manages to surprise you with an unexpected treat.  That’s a great testament to James Gunn’s abilities as a writer and director.  There is so much creativity thrown into every scene of this movie, with physical and verbal gags hitting their mark frequently.  One sticking point with some viewers is that some of the jokes and visual references might fly by too quickly, especially for those unfamiliar with the comics and their lore.  I’m sure that quite a few people are going to wonder why Sylvester Stallone is in this movie, and who he’s playing (classic Guardian character Stakar Ogord) for those who are wondering.  But, few, if any of these more confusing and weaker elements ever ruin the enjoyment of watching this film, which remains a consistent delight.

Of course, the strongest element of the film is the thing that also made the first movie great, and that’s the flawless cast that’s been assembled.  The returning cast is just as solid as ever, and are given even more time to flesh out their characters more fully.  I’m still amazed at how these movies manage to evenly divide time between all of their disparate characters, and never once make it feel like any of them got short-ended.  In fact, many of the supporting characters are even given an upgrade; in particular, Michael Rooker’s Yondu, who honestly is the film’s standout.  Yondu was a great character in the first movie, but here he plays a far more integral role that really endears him to the audience and brings him to his full potential.  Rooker’s performance is so good here, and it could even be the best work of his already stellar career.  He also delivers probably one of the funniest line deliveries I have ever heard (one regarding a famous British nanny), and it left me in stitches after hearing it.  The other returning cast are also exceptional, including Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana taking their career boosting roles to the next level.  The vocal work of Bradley Cooper as Rocket is also still top notch, and it still amazes me that Vin Diesel is able to get so much emotion out of a character who only speaks in three words.  Baby Groot, by the way, is as adorable as you’d expect, and even gets to feature in the opening credits dancing to an ELO song.  Of the new characters, Kurt Russell really shines as Ego, which is not an easy character to adapt to the screen.  How do you play a living planet?  Well, Russell found a way and it’s just by playing a version of himself; charming and quirky, but hiding many secrets underneath.  Pom Klementieff is also wonderfully sweet and innocent as Mantis, someone who disarms with her inner beauty, while repulsing with her outward appearance; something which Drax hilariously keeps discussing throughout the movie.   Guardians is defined by it’s great characters, and this sequel proves that more equals more with regards to it’s story.

One other thing that I love about this franchise is the incredible visuals that are on display.  James Gunn has shown that he’s just as adept at creating a visual feast as he is at writing a clever humorous bit.  The first Guardians wowed with it’s impressive space ship battles and this sequel gives us that as well.  But, it also delivers some really impressive elements that we have yet to see before.  The visuals of Ego’s planet, for example, are stunning; filling every space with Technicolor splendor.  DC and Warner Bros. should take note; not everything needs to be washed out and drab to make an action scene feel exciting.  Guardians of the Galaxy uses color and light as an essential tool of it’s world building, and it’s something that really sets it apart from the rest of the field.  There is one sequence in particular, with Yondu taking out his mutinous crew with his whistle controlled arrow, that is one of the most beautiful action scenes that I’ve watched in a while.  As the floating arrow moves through the ship, it leaves a neon trail of light behind it, creating a striking ribbon of destruction in it’s wake.  It’s one of my favorite moments in the entire movie, and one that I’m happy that the filmmakers devoted a good amount of time to.  The film also uses it’s CGI very responsibly, supporting the storytelling instead of just showing off.  With a film that’s no where near earthbound, it’s pretty much a necessity to use visual effects to make it come alive, but in lesser hands, this movie could have become more style than substance.  Thankfully, visual effects are abundant, but restrained here; only aiming for extravagance when needed.  And there’s some impressive effects work here too, like Ego’s manipulation of the planet late in the film, a hilarious over-the-top and surreal portal traveling sequence, and the fore-mentioned arrow scene.  Also, the animation used to create Rocket and Groot is still impressive, getting great expressiveness out of the two.  Like it’s predecessor, Vol. 2 is unparalleled in it’s visual splendor.

In total, there is little reason for you to not go out immediately and watch this movie.  If you loved the first Guardians, you are going to love Vol. 2 as well.  It’s amazing to think that this once obscure collection of comics is now the Crown Jewel of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.  Not only that, but it managed to maintain that same level of quality over two separate movies; hopefully with a third one on the way in the post Infinity War phase of the MCU.  I expected a sequel from this same team to be good, but I didn’t expect it to be as great as this one.  It will take me time to consider which Guardians I like more, because they honestly are really on par with each other.  I think the original has the benefit of novelty, but Vol. 2  does take smaller elements from the first film and expands on them in spectacular ways.  For one thing, it’s great to see characters like Yondu get more development this time around, as well as exploring new territory with some of the more central characters too.  Both die hard comic fans and casual viewers are going to cherish this film as well.  I know people who have never read a Guardians comic book who now consider the original their favorite superhero movie, which just shows you the transcendent appeal that Marvel has tapped into with these movies.  Just like our actual universe itself, the MCU is inexplicably speeding up in it’s expansion when it should be slowing down, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a prime example of it’s forward momentum.  It’s stellar cast, incomparable vision, and complete confidence in it’s own identity has made it the envy of the entire superhero genre and a franchise that stands strong on it’s own.  There’s little doubt that this will stand as one of the best sequels ever, and for right now, it is this summer’s must see hit.  I doubt very few of you need any coaxing from me to go see this movie, but I can tell you that personally it has been incredibly rewarding going ’round the galaxy once again with these Guardians.

Rating: 9/10

Beauty and the Beast (2017) – Review

The “tale as old as time” is a story that will seemingly always be around in our culture.  Beauty and the Beast has seen numerous incarnations over the years ever since it’s first literary introduction and was likely just as prolific a narrative even before then.  The story and message behind it are universal to every nation and culture, and that’s the idea that love transcends beauty and that a person should never be judged by their physical appearance alone.  It’s the narrative basis behind every opposites attract story we’ve ever seen, as well as a definitive example of a redemption story-line arc that we also find very common in our pop culture.  But the story itself remains popular in it’s purest form through pretty much every type of media.  We all enjoy seeing the beautiful Belle find the pure soul buried down inside the twisted form of the Beast and help him find his humanity once again, ultimately allowing him to return to his natural form.  With it’s fairy tale elements and universal appeal, this story has naturally been a beloved one for filmmakers.  Jean Cocteau made his famous French production, and it’s become one of the most influential movies ever made.  But perhaps the best known version today is the 1991 animated feature from Disney.  Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was groundbreaking in itself, capturing the essence of the original fairy tale, while at the same time giving it a modern sensibility, with particular regard to the depiction of a more independent and free thinking heroine in Belle.  The movie would go on to be a high water mark in animation and would also go down in history as the first animated feature to receive a nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  Since it’s release, the animated Beauty and the Beast has left it’s mark on the classic story, and has gone on to influence many more adaptations, including this most recent one that takes it’s cues directly from this version.

Disney is in an interesting spot right now.  After many years of producing successful animated features, they’ve built up an impressive library that stands on it’s own.  But, while they still continue to release new animation every year, they have in recent years discovered that there is a nostalgia market that they can capitalize upon through the power of aura surrounding their “Disney Vault” of classics.  This has sometimes been a sword with two ends for Disney, because while they do make a lot of money exploiting their classics of the past, they also run the risk of cheapening their brand over time.  You definitely saw this a lot in the decade long era of Direct-to-Video sequels that the studio was putting out; a practice that, while profitable, ultimately cheapened the Disney name.  Now, Disney is mining the vaults once again, only this time they are taking their animated classics and giving them lavish live action make-overs.  This too has resulted in mixed results.  On the one hand, some good adaptations have resulted like 2015’s Cinderella and 2016’s Pete’s Dragon.  On the other hand, you also get misfires like Maleficent (2014) and Alice in Wonderland (2010).  The big risk with these types of productions is that they need to create an identity all their own in order to justify their existence; otherwise, all it’s going to make us think about is that we’d rather be watching the original animated classic instead.  The stakes are even higher when it’s an adaptation of one of Disney’s most beloved properties, which is the pressure that is put on this new adaptation of Beauty and the Beast.  Let’s face it, this new adaptation has some mighty shoes to fill, so the question is it a beauty in the making or is it forever doomed to be a Beast?

The story is familiar to everyone who’s seen the original movie, but it also does surprisingly deviate at times for both good and bad reasons.  We are introduced to Belle (Emma Watson), who is ridiculed by the villagers of the small provincial town she calls home because of her independent spirit and her refusal to conform to their outdated ways.  Her days in the village are made even harder by the sexual advances made by her overbearing admirer Gaston (Luke Evans), who has just returned from battle.  He is accompanied by his companion LeFou (Josh Gad), who has his own latent desires towards his brawny friend.  Belle’s creative spirit is still supported by her artistically inclined father Maurice (Kevin Kline), who promises to bring her back a rose every time he leaves town.  On one such trip, he finds himself lost in the woods, where one area seems to be perpetually snowbound.  Within, he finds a massive castle where he finds shelter.  Upon entering, Maurice finds that it is enchanted, with the household objects coming alive and talking to him.  He tries to escape, but remembers that he still needs to find a rose for Belle, to which he finds one in the castle’s gardens.  Once he picks one, he immediately is nabbed by the castle’s master; a hideous looking Beast (Dan Stevens).  Upon learning of her missing father, Belle sets out to find him.  Upon reaching the castle, she finds Maurice held captive and pleads with the Beast that she’ll take his place.  Now a captive, Belle adjusts to life in this crumbling castle, and acquaints herself with the enchanted staff, including the candelabra Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), the mantle clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellan) and the tea pot Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson).  And from them, she learns of the curse put on the castle, and how it’s all tied to a singular wilting rose that when it loses it’s final petal, it will doom them to this state for all time.

Throughout this movie, there are plenty of nice throwbacks to the original story as well as some welcome references to Cocteau’s classic.  However, the majority of the film is a retread of the Disney animated feature, and there lies much of the problem with this movie.  It lacks an identity that helps it to stand on it’s own.  It’s a problem that Disney has had to struggle with when adapting all of stories from their own library.  What I have found from watching many of these live action adaptations is that the best among them are the ones that go out of their way to be their own thing.  What made Cinderella work as well as it did was the fact that it used only a few scant things from the Disney original (like character names and a scant famous phrase here and there) and mix them in with a largely original take on the same story, hence making it stand more solidly on it’s own.  Pete’s Dragon made an even more remarkable transformation, overhauling the style completely and turning a goofy, saccharine 70’s musical into a tear-jerking, emotional indie drama, and in turn, making it work even better.  Also, despite some story nitpicks that I had about it, last year’s Jungle Book remake by Jon Favreau still managed to successfully carve out it’s own identity.  The worst kinds of these movies are the ones that purposely mine the nostalgia elements of these beloved movies, but offer up nothing better in return.  Sadly, Beauty and the Beast is one of these films.  In fact, I dare say it may be the worst one of these movies to date; yep, even more pathetic than the much maligned Alice in Wonderland.  I was really shocked by how badly this movie missed the mark.  The adaptation is terrible, the production is a mess, the performances by the cast are mixed at best, and overall all it made me feel was a complete sense of disappointment all the way through.

It’s not a good sign when you’re watching a movie, and all you can think about are the things that could’ve been done better with it.  The movie comes to us from director Bill Condon, whose career as a filmmaker has been a mixed one.  For one thing, he was the Oscar-winning mind behind the critically acclaimed Gods and Monsters (1998).  On the other hand, he is also the guy you can blame for bringing the universally loathed final two Twilight movies to the big screen.  One thing that I noticed about Bill Condon as a director is that he’s at his best when he makes a small, reserved dramatic film, like with Gods and Monsters, Kinsey (2004), or Mr. Holmes (2015).  But, give him a broader subject and a more lavish budget to work with, and he somehow completely mismanages it.  That’s the case that sadly happens with Beauty and the Beast.  The movie is a very shoddily directed, with some moments feeling completely disjointed.  There’s a scene where Maurice is lost in the woods and confronted by wolves, and like the worst kinds of action movies, the editing is so frantic and jumbled that I couldn’t get a handling on where the action was taking place and what was happening to the character.  The story itself also suffers quite a bit.  Remember the nice bit of flow that the original animated film had from scene to scene.  Well this movie clumsily force feeds you plot contrivances and unnecessary character business that makes the whole experience feel inconsistent.  Another major issue is the padding done to the story.  I understand that part of justifying the production of this movie was because it no longer needed to be bound by the limitations of the animated medium, including it’s shorter run-time, but what is added to this movie to bring it to 2 hours offers nothing of substance.  There’s even a horribly contrived new magical item, apart from the rose and the enchanted mirror, introduced into this version that, quite frankly, breaks the plot entirely.  Without giving it away, I seriously question it’s existence.  If it has this kind of power, wouldn’t it have been useful to use later in the plot?  Nope, it’s entirely forgotten by the end.

But, the most upsetting part of the movie is how poorly it deals with the iconic characters that were so beloved in the animated feature.  In particular, this movie does a real disservice to the supporting cast of enchanted objects.  Disney did an amazing job taking the nameless inanimate objects that inhabit the Beast’s castle from the original story, and turned them into clearly defined personalities that stood out on their own in the animated feature.  In this film, the same characters are pale imitations of their animated predecessors, and I think that’s largely due to the awkward transition they made from expressive hand-drawn animation to rigid CGI animation.  The new designs of the characters, quite frankly, are pretty ugly and it distracts from any kind of character development that they have.  Couple this with a screenplay that cares little about setting these characters apart and you’ve got a portrayal that really does insult the memory of these beloved characters.  What’s worse is that it wastes an amazing cast, made up of heavy hitters like Ian McKellan and Emma Thompson.  There is such a thing as a movie being overproduced, and the needlessly garish CGI enhancements put on these characters and the rest of the movie in general is proof of that.  The movie has production value to it, but it’s so aggressively thrown at you that you just don’t care by the end.  I was particularly disappointed by the staging of all the iconic musical numbers, because they are so poorly blocked and overly saturated with unnecessary flourish.  It’s amazing to think that the animated feature is the one that takes the subtler approach.  Disney thought that perhaps by throwing away all limitations they could make this film feel even grander, but sadly all it does is spotlight the artificiality of it all even more.  Animation is of course all artificial, but it’s one that remains consistent within it’s world and gives the imitation of life a much more bigger sense of reality.  Belle’s triumphant mountaintop moment, for example, feels so much more powerful when it’s all animated, and not filmed against a green-screen; quite poorly I might add.

Despite all my complaining up to now, I can’t say that everything in this movie is bad.  However, the good stuff that is here can be counted on one hand.  I will say that like most other classic adaptations of this story, the film’s most successful execution is of the Beast.  Actor Dan Stevens does do a pretty credible job taking on this difficult role and gives the character a surprising amount of charisma.  It’s even more remarkable that he stands out at all, particularly when he has to act through a CGI crafted mask to make him look like beastly.  I’m not a fan of the redesign, because it’s too closer to human-like than previous Beasts, and really pale in comparison to the iconic animated version which was such an amazing design.  But, the delivery that Stevens gives helps to make the design shortcomings feel less important.  I also thought that there were some surprisingly good performances from unexpected roles as well.  Kevin Kline gives easily the film’s best performance as Maurice, and that’s only because he’s the only subtle one in the entire cast.  Luke Evans and Josh Gad are also surprisingly effective as the villains, Gaston and LeFou.  There is actually better chemistry between these two than there is between Belle and the Beast in this movie.  It’s almost like the actors are coming from a different movie entirely, where their character histories are more clearly defined.  It helps you to buy them as the characters, even when you realize that they are a little uncharacteristically cast; especially Evans, who’s not quite a big enough actor to portray the man as “large as a barge.”  The controversial addition of a gay subtext to the character of LeFou is also not a big deal, and barely is important at all in the story.  My only complaint is why didn’t Disney just create a gay character from scratch instead of retroactively changing an already established one to be gay, let alone a villainous one?  Still, they are solid standouts in an otherwise mixed cast.  Emma Watson perhaps represents the movie’s mixed results more than anything.  She looks the part, yes, and does have her moments; but, you can tell that a lack of serious musical training has left her at a disadvantage and despite her trying her best, you can sense the struggle in her performance more than any other in the movie.

This movie made me think a lot of the recent Ghostbusters reboot, and how that movie also failed at carving out it’s own identity while also trying to milk the nostalgia that it was built upon.  Like it, you have a movie that has all the hallmarks of a beloved classic, along with talent that can bring a lot of new things to the material, and yet, it just falls flat on it’s face.  Believe me, I didn’t want to see this movie fail as badly as it does, just like I didn’t want to see a lackluster Ghostbusters.  But, the sad result is that these movies just come across as shameless cash-grabs in the end.  Disney has proven other times that they can make the formula work, as they have with Cinderella and Jungle Book.  I think this one hurts so bad because it’s an adaptation of such a beloved classic.  With the others, you could see a foundation where something fresh could be built upon and even improved in some cases.  With Beauty and the Beast, it seems that the animated film just sets too high a bar to cross.  Not that I don’t think it could ever be done.  With better direction, staging, and a more subtler approach, I think a live action remake could’ve worked.  Disney already proved that they could take the same film and bring it to the Broadway stage with all the charm and wonder intact.  That’s another thing that puzzled me while watching this; the hit Broadway musical successfully expanded the story with new musical numbers, and yet none of that was used here, instead opting for newer songs written just for this movie, none of which are memorable in any way.  Why couldn’t the Broadway show have served as a suitable basis for an expanded film production?  Whatever the case, I’m sad to say that this film adaptation is one of the bigger disappointments in recent Disney history.  The best thing I can say at this point is that it does make me appreciate the original animated feature even more.  Unfortunately, this trend of mining the Disney Vault is not going to end soon, with Jon Favreau’s adaptation of The Lion King and Tim Burton’s Dumbo coming up in the years ahead.  My best hope is that each of these adaptation at least makes an attempt to be it’s own thing and not a pale imitation of the movies that came before them.  In the case of this one, there is sadly no handsome prince underneath the skin of this monstrous beast.

Rating: 4/10

Logan – Review

In the pre-Cinematic Universe era of superhero hero movies, you would often see a lot of turn over in the casting of all you favorite superheroes.  The 1990’s for instance saw no less than three different Batmans.  It was a time when brand recognition mattered more than the casting of the characters.  Why keep the same actor when it’s the character that’s the big draw?  Nowadays, there is a whole lot more care put into the casting of superhero movies, with the persona of the actor sometimes becoming a deciding factor in their selection.  You can definitely see that in the current slate of Marvel films.  Can you imagine anyone other than roguish Robert Downey Jr. as the wisecracking Iron Man, or charming Chris Evans as the naively pure-souled Captain America, or even suave, dapper Benedict Cumberbatch as the mysterious Doctor Strange.  Yes, the casting of these characters matter today, and audiences are more keenly aware now than ever when someone is out of place.  Just look at some of the worst casting choices for these kinds of films, like Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, or Topher Grace as Venom, or more recently, Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor.  It’s a good thing in today’s film industry that so much more effort is placed on the construction of these characters to match more closely their print counterparts in order to meet the expectations of fans.  You could argue that the beginning of this era started all the way back in 2000 with Bryan Singer’s X-Men, where they not only took the characters more seriously, but even managed to collect top tier talent to portray them.  The cast of X-Men, with some minor exceptions, is largely praised for capturing faithfully the essence of their respective characters, and chief of all of the most highly praised casting choices for those films would be it’s breakout star Hugh Jackman as the iconic Wolverine.

When Bryan Singer cast the then unknown Aussie actor to play the metal clawed man-beast, I don’t think either he nor Jackman knew just how much of an impact that decision would leave on the character.  Hugh Jackman would prove to be the absolute perfect choice for the part, less physically (he never once has worn the iconic costume) and more in terms of personality. He’s gruff in all the right ways, but still manages to remain charming and assertive.  In time, Wolverine became the face of the franchise and it turned Jackman into a household name around the world.  The first X-Men was successful enough, but the franchise outdid itself with the follow-up X2: X-Men United (2002).  Then came X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), a huge mis-managed failure of a sequel.  In the aftermath, the series had to rethink it’s strategy, and one idea was to begin a series of origin films centered on each of the most iconic X-Men characters.  They again relied on their star to carry this franchise into it’s next phase, but unfortunately, the result was X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), one of the worst superhero films ever made.  After this, X-Men went through another revamp, choosing instead to look into the past and see the formation of the team in X-Men: First Class (2011).  This put the franchise back on solid footing, but even still, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine was kept as a common thread through everything.  With a great cameo in First Class and a key lead role in Days of Future Past (2014), Jackman’s presence gave this disjointed franchise stability it normally wouldn’t have.  In addition, a separate but interconnected Wolverine franchise emerged from the rubble of Origins and actually gave us a far superior sequel in The Wolverine (2013).  But, everything must come to an end, and Hugh Jackman now sees his after 17 years playing the same character over 9 movies, a feat that’s remarkable no matter how you look at it.  And that leads us to the release of his franchise swan song: Logan.

Logan, taken from Wolverine’s actual name, is a loose adaptation of the Old Man Logan Marvel comic event series that focused on Wolverine’s latter years.  The movie only uses bits of that comic’s story-line, along with bits of the “X-23” story-line as well, but it is largely it’s own original take on the material.  Set 10 years into the future, America has nearly wiped out mutantkind through medication and reproductive experimentation.  Only a handful of mutants remain, living discreetly either hiding their identity or living across the border, waiting for their time to come.  We find Logan (Hugh Jackman), working as a limo driver in borderland Texas.  He makes his home in an abandoned mill, where he looks after an increasingly senile and unstable 90 year old Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), alongside Charles’ care-giver Caliban (Stephen Merchant).  We find out that Charles’ telepathic powers are unstable and are capable of causing serious mental harm to anyone in the vicinity if he doesn’t take his medication.  One day, Logan is visited by a desperate Mexican lady (Elizabeth Rodriguez) who begs him to help her transport a girl she claims to be her daughter named Laura (Dafne Keen) across America to the Canadian Border.  Logan is reluctant, but once the woman is found killed, Logan is forced to look after Laura.  Soon, a shadowy group called the Reavers come to Logan’s compound looking for the girl, including their slimy leader Pierce (Boyd Holbrook).  While being attacked, Laura reveals not only a  mutant, but that she has the same abilities as Wolverine, including adamantium claws.  Stuck together, Logan, Charles, and Laura take to the road, hoping to reach the border before the Reavers can catch up to them.

Logan is largely meant to bring closure to the character of Wolverine, and in many ways it does bring the character (at least Hugh Jackman’s version) to a fitting end.  No other actor has come close to being as prolific as Jackman’s Wolverine, though some of Marvel Studios’ iterations are coming close.  You have to give him credit though for being really the first actor of this generation to not only portray the character on the big screen, but to also champion him like never before.  Since Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Wolverine, we’ve seen a lot more actors carry the mantle of their selective heroes with pride and want to portray them for longer periods of time.  So, it’s fitting that Fox and Marvel allowed for Jackman to call the shots on his final chapter, including finally having the freedom to make this an “R-rated” adventure.  There’s no tip-toeing around the blood and gore in this Wolverine film.  When Wolverine cuts into somebody with his claws, it’s in full Peckinpaw-ish detail, complete with gallons of spilled blood.  Also, the movie gets to throw far more f-bombs our way.  It’s not Wolverine’s first time dropping the mother of all swear words in one of these movies, nor is it Charles Xavier’s, but the frequency has definitely increased.  All of these are great and all for the direction of the franchise, but does it translate into a solid movie.  Well, I have to say yes and no to that.  The creative freedom to finally be as gratuitous as the filmmakers want with the violence helps to make the fight scenes more viscerally interesting than ever before, but I felt that the story itself was severely lacking in many areas.  Plot threads are established but never fully realized; character motivations don’t make sense all the time; and there is generally awkward pacing throughout the movie.  None of this is Origins or Last Stand bad, nor are they as disappointing as last year’s lackluster X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), but they prevent this movie from being as good as it could’ve been as a result too.

My chief problem with this movie is the overall conflict.  The basic essential plot point of Logan and his companions getting from point A to B is effective enough, but the danger around them is at times unfocused, unexplained, and just flat out mediocre at times.  The villains in particular are this movie’s weakest aspect.  The Reavers, I hear, are some very interesting bad guys in the comic books, but in this movie, they are no different than any black-ops bands of mercenaries that you see in any other action thriller.  They are mainly there to be lambs to the slaughter for Logan and Laura for most of the movie, which does lead to some admittedly cool looking death scenes.  Boyd Holbrook’s Pierce is also disappointing as the antagonist, because he never shows any depth in character.  He’s just a smarmy asshole whose only purpose in the story is to hunt down our heroes.  We learn nothing about who he is or why we’re supposed to find him interesting.  He’s a far cry from far more interesting villains in this series like Magneto and General Stryker.  In some ways, I feel like the filmmakers themselves realized how weak the villain was in this, so they introduced some new 11th-hour villains late into the movie to liven things up, like a corrupt scientist played by Richard E. Grant, and even he adds completely nothing to the mix.  There’s also the addition of a “creature” meant to rival Wolverine late in the film that I felt was is completely unnecessary, is never fully explained, and by the end just leaves you confused as to why it was created.  The movie also suffers from a story that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be.  It works best when it just stays to the “on-the-run” story-line, but there are unnecessary plot deviations that ruin the momentum and go nowhere.  Charles Xavier for instance mentions a troubled incident in his past that caused him to retreat from the world, but it’s only given the briefest of mentions and almost seems to have been forgotten by the filmmakers, making it infuriatingly pointless.  It’s lackluster elements like this that spoil what could’ve otherwise been a great movie.

Where the film does excel is in the interactions between it’s leads.  Despite the film’s lackluster story, it does have a great heart at it’s center and that’s the bittersweet final days of it’s hero.  Jackman, as always, is exceptional as Wolverine here.  The great thing about this movie is that we get to see a lot more vulnerability from him here than we have before.  This is a version of Wolverine that is on his last legs; not able to heal as quickly as he has before, broken down from the heartache of seeing his species wiped out, and knowing that his long days are finally about to be numbered.  Jackman balances this with the things that he’s been best at in this series this whole time, which are brutal take-downs of his enemies.  You can tell that Jackman knows this is his final chance to bring real emotion out of this character that he’s played for so long, and he really does excel in the film’s more emotional moments.  This is the closest we’ve seen to actual introspective acting from this actor in this series; more embodying the heart and sole of Wolverine, rather than just looking the part.  The movie is also at it’s best when he gets to work off his co-stars.  Partick Stewart is also saying goodbye to his longtime role as Charles Xavier, and it is a touching performance; perhaps the best in the entire film.  Like Hugh Jackman, Stewart gets an honorable farewell here too.  However, the movie does belong to the scene-stealing Dafne Keen as Laura.  Portrayed with incredible intensity for a girl her age, she commands every moment she’s on screen, and does so in a mostly mute role.  She also manages to hold her own against her more experienced co-stars and helps to make them even better as a result.  Of all the new characters introduced in this film, she is easily the best one, and the movie’s one true triumph.  Her character helps to keep this from being an out right disappointment of a movie, and apart from seeing Jackman and Stewart say goodbye to their characters, she is definitely the main reason to watch this movie.

The movie doesn’t disappont with it’s visuals.  After the excessive use of bland CGI in X-Men: Apocalypse and the flat out terrible use of effects in Origins, it’s nice to see director James Mangold keep things simple for this film.  The fight scenes are mostly easy to follow and they get the most out of the extra bit of gore that this movie is allowed to have.  Not only do Logan and Laura get to cut into their enemies, they slice them to shreds, like a weed trimmer to a bush.   This is the most visceral we’ve ever seen the violence in any of the X-Men movies, or any superhero movie for that matter.  Even R-Rated Deadpool (2016) didn’t get away with this much. At the same though, the fight scenes here aren’t completely original either.  We don’t get any standout fight scenes like the bullet train sequence in The Wolverine.  All the ones in this movie are mostly interchangeable, except for maybe the excellent opening sequence or the one where Laura first shows her true abilities.  The final showdown in particular is a let down, mainly because of the choice of adversary that I’ve already discussed earlier.  In the end, it’s nice that Mangold and Jackman got the ability to really test the limits of gratuitous violence this time around, and they do make good use of it in the film.  If only all that freedom resulted in more interesting fight scenes.  Apart from that, the movie does have a nice melancholy tone to it, using the wide open spaces of the American prairie-lands to underline the isolation that these characters are experiencing.  At times, this is a very beautiful movie to look at.  The film excels during the quiet moments of reflection, when we the audience are allowed to soak in the atmosphere, and see the performers really shine through as the characters.  None of the more raucous moments are bad in any way, but more creativity could’ve been given to them in order to make this a more balanced movie overall.

Logan is by no means a bad film.  It does feature some passionate performances from a talented cast, and enables them to finally portray the characters the way they’ve always wanted to.  However, this is far from the best we’ve seen in this series.  I for one far more enjoyed the first two X-Men movies, as well as First Class and Days of Future Past.  Even it’s predecessor The Wolverine felt more consistent as a narrative and movie experience.  But, it is no where near as terrible as Origins or Last Stand, and it does hold up better than the boringly inconsistent Apocalypse.  What works best in this movie are the actors, because you can tell that they are trying their best to leave their iconic roles on a high note.  It’s the story that ultimately lets the film down, with a narrative that never really coalesces into a coherent plot, and is undermined by a underwhelming central threat.  I think another screenplay polish would have worked out some of the film’s shortcomings, taking out some of the more pointless character motivation and actually giving the heroes a real threat to go up against.  That said, if you are a fan of the X-Men franchise, then you’ll probably find this to be a worthwhile sit through.  Jackman and Stewart both conclude their iconic roles in a fitting fashion, reminding us all why we fell in love with their performances in the first place.  It’s really quite an achievement on Hugh Jackman’s part to have stuck with this demanding role for two decades, especially considering that Wolverine is a character that doesn’t age.  The question is, how will Wolverine survive without Hugh Jackman.  My hope is that Fox eventually relents and gives the rights to the characters over to Marvel Studios and Disney.  We probably will never get anything as bloody as this again, but a reboot by Marvel might finally help this character return to his roots; including possibly having him finally wear his iconic head gear.  Nevertheless,  Hugh Jackman will be hard to replace, and this movie works as a fitting, if underwhelming, love letter from an actor to the character that made him into a star.

Rating: 7/10

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – Review

A year ago, the whole world was deeply anticipating the long awaited return of the Star Wars franchise to the big screen with the release of the seventh film in the saga; The Force Awakens.  This was the first film in a new era for the series; unencumbered by it’s complete control under it’s creator George Lucas.  With the Disney company taking the reins, the Star Wars series was ready for the change it desperately needed.  And that change came in record-shattering fashion with The Force Awakens.  Though the story behind it wasn’t as fresh as people liked (basically it was a rehash of A New Hope for most people), the spirit behind it felt authentic, and it pleased a whole legion of fans young and old.  I for one included it on my best of the year list for 2015, more than anything just for the sheer entertainment value.  And while continuing the main saga of the Star Wars franchise is a pleasing mission to see realized in cinemas today, what Disney also had planned for this property actually is the thing that gives me the most excitement about the future.  What we are going to see from Disney and Star Wars is an endless series of standalone features dedicated to expanding the storyline outside of the main saga.  In other words, the sky is the limit to what can be turned into a feature with the Star Wars universe as it’s backdrop.  Primarily, we will be seeing backstories fleshed out, explore subplots in full length treatments, and experience other worlds that had until now been unseen.  Already Disney has been gearing up an origin story for one of Star Wars most beloved heroes, Hans Solo, which should be in theaters in 2018.  There are also standalone features rumored to feature Boba Fett and Obi-wan Kenobi in the near future.  But, this ambitious plan for an expanded universe must have a solid beginning, and this year, we have that foundation set by the first ever Star Wars StoryRogue One.

The idea to make this the first in the expanded universe tales seems like a sound one.  It’s taking a subplot from the original trilogy, about the Rebel spies who stole the Death Star plans from the Empire, and finally showing us how it was done and by whom.  If there is one thing that the Star Wars universe hasn’t devoted a lot of time to, it would be the lives and trial of the many people who make up the resistance.  Oh sure, we know about Leia and Han and of course Luke Skywalker, but what about all those nameless heroes who fight alongside them.  Rogue One finally lets us hear their story and learn about the sacrifices and hardships they face in the shadow of the evil Galactic Empire.  The movie also gives us another interesting side story to explore which is the creation of the ultimate weapon; the dreaded Death Star.  The Death Star of course is one of the most iconic pieces of the Star Wars universe, so seeing it again brought to life on the big screen is another thing that I’m sure will please fans.  Also, and more importantly, this movie’s strong sense of nostalgia is going to make it appealing to fans.  It takes place in the same time period as the original trilogy, and borrow strongly from that era’s visual aesthetic.  Because of that, many are hoping that this will be the first true Star Wars movie since the originals, and not the glossy retread that was The Force Awakens, or the garishly over-produced betrayals that were the prequels.  But, straying into the open world of an expanded universe can have it’s own troubling consequences if the stories are not strong enough to support the legacy behind them.  So, does Rogue One fall short of it’s astounding pedigree, or is it a hopeful indicator of the great things to come in the Star Wars universe.

Rogue One’s narrative begins in-between Episodes III and IV of the main saga; Revenge of the Sith (2005) and A New Hope (1977) to be specific.  In fact, it leads right up to the beginning of IV, in a very effective way.  The story introduces us to Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of a leading engineer for the Imperial Forces named Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who as we learn is the chief architect of the Death Star.  Jyn has spent years living as an outlaw trying to reconnect with her father and her misdeeds against both the Empire and the Resistence forces eventually gets her caught by a band of rebels led by Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his re-programmed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk).  They bring her before the Resistence leaders, including Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) and Senator Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits), who enlist her to help them retrieve a message from an Imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed) who had just defected and is in the custody of a rogue Rebel warlord named Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker); a former acquaintance of Jyn’s.  They find Saw’s base on the Imperial occupied planet of Jedah, a once holy center for the Jedi Order.  There they encounter Imperial Stormtroopers all around, but are assisted by two resourceful rogue warriors; the sharpshooting Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and the blind daredevil monk Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen).  But, while this small band tries their best to discreetly complete their mission, final preparations are being made on the Death Star, with it’s overseeing Commading Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) eager to test out it’s planet destroying power.  Krennic’s ambitions drive him to even more drastic methods than many of the other Imperial commanders; which makes him especially threatening to the Rebels, and a nuisance to some of his superiors in the Imperial force including Grand Moff Tarkin (Guy Henry) and Darth Vader himself (voiced again by James Earl Jones).

As you can tell, this is a heavily packed film with quite a lot of characters and plot threads.  In fact, it may be the most ensemble heavy Star Wars film we’ve ever seen.  So, is that a good thing or a bad thing?  How does this stack up against the other Star Wars.  Well, judging this movie is challenging, mainly because it is part of this legendary legacy.  The Star Wars grading curve is a peculiar one, mainly because the high points of the series are almost insurmountable, and we all know by watching the prequels how low the series can get as well.  My rating of the movie is like this; if it weren’t for the fact that this was another Star Wars movie, I would say that Rogue One is one of the greatest sci-fi adventure movies ever made.  But, because it is a Star Wars , it inevitably has to be judged with the other movies in the series, and that unfortunately brings an unfortunate burden on the film as a whole.  It doesn’t quite have the same kind of flawless spirit that Star Wars  had at it’s height with A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back  (1980), or even the nostalgic heart that elevated The Force Awakens, but at the same time it is still an enormously enjoyable adventure in it’s own right.  The best way to judge this movie is to look at it as a war film instead as a part the Star Wars narrative, and in that regard, it is an exceptional piece of work.  The movie does an excellent job of giving a face to the Rebellion fighters, showing them as more than just screen filler standing around the franchises’ main stars.  They are all vulnerable beings fighting for something they believe in and are willing to accept the cost of even their lives.  There are no Jedis in this movie and only one character wields a lightsaber late in the film (in a truly spectacular moment).  This is instead a battle fought through wits, determination, and blasters and in a way that’s the refreshing thing about this movie that sets it apart from it’s predecessors.

If the film has a major flaw in it, it would probably be with the characters.   None of the cast of characters in this movie are terrible per say, it’s just that very few of them are memorable.  This is one thing that made The Force Awakens a better film; it endeared us to the new characters of Rey and Finn and Kylo Ren with a lot more focus than there was on the story.  Here, characterizations are minimal, mainly because there is so little time to fit all of them in.  The one’s who suffer the most are the two leads; Jyn and Cassian.  The actors playing them do a fine job, but the characters are so underdeveloped that they come off as a little boring.  Jyn in particular is the biggest disappointment as a character, especially considering Star Wars history with strong heroines from Princess Leia to Rey.  The supporting players fare a little better.  I particularly liked the droid K-2SO.  He’s got all the resourcefulness of C-3PO, but with none of the cowardice, and he’s even got a sly sense of humor as well.  Some other great characters are Baze and Chirrut, the two exiled guards of a Jedi temple.  Chirrut is the one character in the movie that mentions the concept of the Force, and he in turn becomes the movie’s spiritual center.  It’s especially fun to see Donnie Yen’s martial arts skills put to good work with the character, especially knowing that the character is also supposed to be blind.  And Jiang’s Baze is just a great bad ass with a really big gun.  I also want to spotlight Ben Mendelsohn as the villain Krennic.  What could have easily turned into a whiny, unlikable villain instead becomes a richly textured character through Mendelsohn intimidating performance.  He even holds his own in scenes with Darth Vader, which is no easy task.

But while the cast of characters is a mixed bag, the visual presentation is beyond exceptional.  This is a spectacular looking film.  The epic scale is on par with Star Wars at it’s very best, and maybe even a little more.  Thankfully Disney and Director Gareth Edwards did not treat this side story any less important than the films in the main Star Wars saga.  In fact, the scale of production feels even greater here than it did in The Force Awakens.  In this movie, we are treated to incredible locals that we’ve surprisingly have yet to see in a Star Wars flick.  A tropical beach becomes a battleground for example, complete with all the classic Star Wars machinery that we’ve come to love over the years, including the mighty Imperial Walkers.  But, the visual give a lot more to the story than to show off, which is something that plagued most of the prequels.  I also commend the filmmakers for trying their hardest to recreate the texture and feel of classic Star Wars.  The movie has a definite lived in feel like the original films, with all the dirt and crime intact.  Some locals from the original trilogy even make a return appearance like the Yavin 4 moonbase of the Rebellion and of course the Death Star itself.  Speaking of the Death Star, this movie allows us to experience something that even the original trilogy was never able to show before, and that’s the true destructive force of it’s power.  In the original Star Wars, we saw the destruction of Alderaan from a wide shot, mainly because that was the only way 1970’s visual effects could portray a planet’s destruction on screen.  Here, we see the Death Star’s power demonstrated from the surface of the planet itself, and it is chilling.  I don’t think we’ve ever seen this kind of apocalyptic imagery shown in a Star Wars film before, and it really helps to elevate the true menace of the Death Star more than ever.

And that’s another thing that I like about this movie is that it does a great job of adding more lore to the Star Wars universe as a whole.  It actually helps to fill in some of the gaps in the overall Star Wars narrative and set things in motion in a very effective way.  Some of the classic characters are also used very well, although there is one distracting element about them that I have to point out.  Some characters who have aged too much over the years or whose actors have deceased since the original film’s release are digitally recreated in a very distracting way.  The CGI used for their faces are not the worst that I’ve seen, but it still falls into that uncanny valley where it just doesn’t look right and it takes you right out of the movie every time it happens.  Think of the de-aging effects they used on Jeff Bridges in Tron Legacy (2010), and you’ll get the idea.  It might of been better if they used make-up effects to do the same thing, or even cast someone who looks exactly like the original, like what they did for the character Mon Mothma.  Darth Vader fares much better as a revitalized character in this film.  He’s not in the movie a whole lot, but the few moments he has are spectacular.  You really get the sense of how much he was neutered as a character in the prequels, and this movie finally allows him to be the frightening force of nature that the original trilogy had made him to be.  Also, hearing James Earl Jones voice once again with the character is a true delight.  It all helps to make this film feel like it rightfully stands with the main saga, and best of all, by filling in the gaps in the story, it actually enhances the original film itself.

So, Rogue One may not live up to the stellar heights of the series at it’s very best, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a lot of fun to watch either.  What it lacks in characterizations it makes up for with thrilling action.  Some of the action moments here are among the best that I’ve seen in the series as a whole, including the final battle at the end which may even exceed the dogfight in space from Return of the Jedi (1983).  I commend this movie for it’s sense of scale, and for not pulling any punches either.  This is a dark and sometimes brutal film, and it really gives you a sense of the amount of sacrifice that the Rebels in the Star Wars universe go through in order to stop the Empire.  I think that this is the movie’s greatest contribution to the Star Wars lore; that it gives a face to the faceless rebels that we’ve only seen on the periphery of the main saga before.  These are not special people with special powers; they are merely survivors fighting against the odds and with only their skills and wits to help see them through.  That in itself makes Rogue One a triumph.  It may be rough around the edges and lacks the steady entertainment factor that elevated The Force Awakens, but it still is one hell of a ride, and it especially gives us a lot to look forward to in the future for this series.  Indeed, I’m happy this movie works as well as it does, because it shows us that any story outside of the main saga can hold it’s own on the big screen.  It makes me eager to see the planned Han Solo origin story, and especially excited to watch next year’s continuation of the saga with Episode VIII.   As for now, the force is still strong with Rogue One and it’s absolutely worth the journey to that galaxy far, far away once again for all audiences.

Rating: 8.5/10

Moana – Review

moana

Disney’s success in the film medium has come from a lot of factors, but one of the chief ones is their ability to fully reinvent themselves, even while still having a foothold in the past.  When you look over the whole of their film library, primarily among their animated canon, you see a lot of highs and lows in their history, with the high points standing out as the defining elements of their studio character.  While varied degrees of success have come their way, their primary expertise has always been fairy tales and legends.  It would make sense, since that’s how the Disney company started out in features, with the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937.  Since then, any era of advancement in the Disney company usually is marked by the release of another fairy tale classic, like Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959) in the Golden Era of the 50’s, or The Little Mermaid (1989) and Beauty and the Beast (1991) in the Disney Renaissance, or even in the Digital Era with Frozen (2013).  Each of these successful fairy tale features also built up a lucrative brand for the company dedicated to the Disney Princesses.  The Princess line has allowed itself to be flexible, so that it could include characters outside of fairy tales to fall under the same branding, especially if they are representative of other cultures.  That’s why you see Pocahontas included as a Disney Princess as well as Mulan, despite the fact that neither are royalty in their selective films.  Even Pixar’s Merida from Brave (2012) gets lumped in.  Whatever the reasoning behind each one’s inclusion, Disney’s Princess brand is a powerful one and they are eager to keep it growing, and with the release of their new film Moana, they have added a rather unique newcomer to their club.

Moana tells an original story derived from various legends told in various Pacific Island cultures.  It’s not the first time the company has chosen a setting like this for a movie, or used Oceanic people for their main characters.  However, that earlier film was Lilo & Stitch (2002), a contemporary story about native Hawaiians encountering a rambunctious alien creature.  It was a movie respectful of Pacific Island culture and people, but it only looked briefly into the cultural heritage of it’s characters and instead firmly put them in a modern, homogenized setting.  Moana, on the other hand, puts the culture and legends of it’s setting front and center.  And one thing that is reassuring about Disney’s track record with depicting other world cultures is that they do their research thoroughly in order to capture some authenticity with their depiction.  Sure, Disney does soften cultural traits in order to suit their corporate image (a process dubbed Disney-fication), but they do make their best effort to try to give each cultural group or race a fair place in their overall community.  Moana allows for the many cultures of the Pacific Islands to have their story presented to the world in the spirited Disney way, and the project comes from some top tier talent at the company.  The directors are long time veterans John Musker and Ron Clements, a successful duo at Disney for over 30 years whose credits include hits like The Little MermaidAladdin (1992), Treasure Planet (2002) and The Princess and the Frog (2009).  Moana marks their first CGI feature, as well as their first in the Cinemascope format.  In addition to their legendary directors, Disney also tapped songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda to pen several new songs for the film, coming off recently from his mega hit Broadway show, Hamilton.  With strong names like these attached, you would expect that there are high hopes surrounding Moana.  But, is it another Disney classic, or not?

Moana sets itself on no specific island found in the Pacific Ocean, but instead portrays a portrait of traditional Islander life in a more classical age.  We meet Moana (voiced by Auli’l Cravalho) who is being prepped by her father, Chief Tui (voiced by Temuera Morrison), to be the next chieftain of their island village.  At the same time, Moana’s free-spirited grandmother Tala (voiced by Rachel House) indulges the girl’s desires to see what is beyond her island and gives her the knowledge of the histories and legends of her people.  Moana learns from her granny that many years ago, the Goddess of creation named Te Fiti had her heart stolen by a Demi God named Maui (voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson).  Upon escaping the island home of Te Fiti, Maui encountered a demon formed out of lava named Te Ka, who fiercly attacks him and causes Maui to drop both the Heart of Te Fiti and his magical fish hook, the source of all his power.  Without her heart, Te Fiti drains the life out of Islands throughout the ocean, and the web of decay has now reached Moana’s Island, causing the crops to die.  Despite her father’s stern warnings, Moana sets off alone to find Maui and force him return the heart stone to it’s rightful place.  By her side is the rooster Hei Hei (voiced by Alan Tudyk), and the ocean itself, which has a mind of it’s own, helping Moana along the way after it has chosen her specifically for the task.  Once Maui is found, the two set off on the journey which includes encounters with the Kakamora (coconut bodied pirates) and a gluttonous giant crab named Tamatoa (voiced by Flight of the Conchord’s Jemaine Clement).  Though she has the ocean as her ally, Moana still has to learn to navigate across the vastness of it, and it’s a quest that will test every ounce of her being, as well as show her exactly the person she needs to be.

Moana is a very pleasurable adventure from Disney, and feels right at home with all of their other animated features.  It is beautiful to behold, and is entertaining from beginning to end.  The only thing that I would say that keeps it from achieving all time classic status as a Disney feature is the fact that the movie more or less is a tad too familiar.  It’s not poorly told, nor does it do anything out of line that sours a good narrative; it’s just that I feel that it could have been just a little better if it took some more unexpected routes in the story.  I think this movie has the disadvantage of following in the wake of Zootopia, Disney’s early Spring release, which was a much more risk-taking film, making it one of the studio’s best efforts in years.  Moana by comparison just plays to more of what you would expect from Disney, and while that’s acceptable, it’s not really revolutionary either.  And, it seems to me that the filmmakers knew that going in too.  There are several jabs at Disney Princess cliches thrown at us within the movie, and they can be quite refreshing.  A particularly funny one comes from Maui halfway through where he points out how Princesses always carry around an animal sidekick with them.  But, even though the movie pokes fun at the cliches, it only reinforces your awareness that they are there, and the movie isn’t daring enough to try to avoid them.  But, even still, this movie is a thoroughly enjoyable experience.  I would even say among the Princess focused films, it’s the best we’ve seen from Disney since the Renaissance; yes even better than Frozen (which was just okay to me).  Cliched or no, you are not going to come away from this movie feeling like it’s a waste of your time.

Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is it’s characters.  In particular, Moana herself.  She is one of the best written and performed heroines to be found in the whole Disney canon, and it’s her journey that makes the whole film worthwhile.  While the journey itself can sometimes be cliched, the growth of Moana’s character is not.  I love the fact that the story foregoes the necessity of making her gender a factor in this story.  Moana is not trying to prove her worth as a girl in society nor is she trying to prove herself as a leader.  Those things are already established for her at the start.  She’s already taking her place as the ruler of her people before her journey begins.  Her growth as a character is more of a personal one of enlightenment, allowing her to discover the person she really is  and help her lose all self doubt that could prevent her from becoming a better leader.  This personal journey is what makes Moana far more interesting than the usual Disney Princess, who tend to not have internal conflicts define their characters.  Auli’l Cravalho does a fantastic job of voicing the character, capturing the spunkiness of youth, but also the depth of a girl burdened by the responsibility that she holds for her people as well as for herself.  Like most other culturally based films in the Disney canon, I applaud them for filling the voice roles with actors representative of those cultures, and Moana is no different.  Multiple Pacific Island ethnicities are represented in the cast, including Cravalho who is Polynesian, Dwayne Johnson who is half-Samoan, and both Temuera Morrison and Jemaine Clement who have New Zealander Maori ancestry.  It all brings a nice authenticity to the voices of these characters.  And the cast is universally strong throughout the movie.  Dwayne Johnson’s on-screen charisma translates surprisingly well into the character of Maui too.  And I especially loved the tender quirkiness of Rachel House as Moana’s grandmother.  Overall, each helps to make this another great addition of characters to the ever growing Disney family.

One thing that I’m sure a lot of people are going to take away from this film more than anything is the music.  Disney of course has left a huge mark on the classic Hollywood musical tradition, and Moana hopes to add it’s own contribution to the great Disney Songbook.  In order to capture the sounds of the Pacific Islander cultures, it seems unusual that they would select a Puerto Rican-American for the job, but it’s understandable when that person is the award-winning Lin-Manuel Miranda.  After completing one of the biggest Broadway blockbusters in recent memory with Hamilton, the timing couldn’t be much better for Disney to have new songs written for their film by this superstar.  And the songs he has co-written with Samoan musician Opetaia Foa’i have that nice mix of contemporary pop and authentic Oceanic cultural influence.  Thankfully, none of the songs here are going to be omnipresent earworms like Frozen’s “Let it Go,” but a few still stand out as catchy and memorable.  I think the real standout is “We Know the Way,” an epic centerpiece song about the history of the Oceanic wayfinders who founded so many of the cultures on the Islands of the Pacific, including Moana’s own.  It’s a song that evokes the same grandeur of a melody like The Lion King’s “Circle of Life,” and more than any other becomes the theme of the movie itself.  I also have a soft spot for the song “Shiny,” which is sung by Jemaine Clement’s Tamatoa.  It would have been a waste to not take advantage of combining the voice of the Flight of the Conchords with the writer of Hamilton, and thankfully Disney did not miss this opportunity.  It’s a great, gaudy tune that sounds like something Tim Curry would’ve performed in his Rocky Horror heyday, and it’s probably my favorite Disney Villain song in quite a long time.  Surprisingly enough, they managed to get Dwayne Johnson to sing in the movie, and while he’s a bit out of his league, I still give him credit for at least trying.  He’s more brave than I would’ve been.  Accompanied by a beautiful epic score by Mark Mancina, Moana‘s music does the Disney Songbook proud.

But apart from the cast and the music, the movie also has the benefit of looking absolutely gorgeous as well.  It’s a good thing this movie is being released in the wintertime, because audiences will feel like they’ve taken a refreshing summer vacation to the South Pacific after watching this film.  The movie puts so much rich detail into every shot of the movie, from the lush greens of Moana’s island, to the bright blues of the sun-drenched skies.  Character details are also pleasing to the eye.  I’m sure that many people are going to have fun examining all the different designs of Maui’s tattoos which cover his whole body, and which come to life through traditional hand drawn animation.  And while the recreation of life on the islands is richly detailed in itself, the movie also indulges in some eye-poppingly imaginative magical sights as well.  The Kakamoura pirates for example are a great, inspired creation; being both adorable and intimidating at the same time.  I also feel that their scene owes a lot of inspiration to George Miller’s Mad Max series; you’ll see why.  Also, the location of Tamatoa’s lair in Lalotai, the realm of monsters, gives the movie a nice surreal experience, where the production designers and animators clearly had a lot of fun coming up with a lot of out there visual ideas.  Apart from the visual design, the animation of the characters is also phenomenal, and shows just how comfortable Disney has gotten with the CGI medium.  Moana herself is elegantly designed, and full-figured which is a nice departure from the Barbie doll look of past Disney princesses.  There’s also some spectacular animation done on the demon Te Ka, making her feel like she’s authentically made out of molten lava.  Audiences will also be stunned by the beautiful way that the Ocean itself is brought to life, especially in an awe-inspiring introduction scene early in the movie, where a baby Moana walks among  ocean walls that have parted for her.  It’s a visual tour de force that lives up to the high Disney standard.

So, is Moana worth checking out this Thanksgiving weekend?  For any Disney fan or animation fan out there, it is absolutely worth seeing, and for the casual viewer, it will certainly be one of the best options out there too.  I do have minor misgivings about the overall story, but maybe it’s just my abnormally high standards with regards to Disney Animation.  It’s definitely on the higher end of the Disney canon, but just a hair short of being one of the all-time masterpieces.  Oddly enough, I think that Zootopia may have been the better Disney effort of the year, despite it’s less epic presentation.  It has to do more with how well the sum of every part works for each movie, and Zootopia just hit the mark more than Moana.  But, that’s not to say that Moana is a disappointment.  I had a good time watching the movie and was absorbed into the rich setting of it’s narrative.  It is spectacularly animated and full of rich characters.  I love the main heroes of Moana and Maui, both of whom will become favorite Disney characters for many fans young and old for years to come.  The songs in particular are what I consider the movie’s triumph; supportive of the story, but not overwhelming either.  I’ve had both “We Know the Way,” and “Shiny” stuck in my head for days now, so that’s a good indicator of how much an impression they’ll leave behind.  They also live up to the high standards of both Disney’s reputation and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s.  Anyone who is a fan of Hamilton owes it to themselves to hear Miranda’s work here as well.  This is also another strong addition to the legendary work of Musker and Clements, who have solidified their reputation as the Disney Studio’s most heralded film-making duo.  Hopefully it’s not their last collaboration, but if it is, then it’s a strong way to go out.  Despite feeling at times a tad too familiar, Moana is still a worthwhile animated feature and you’ll be well served finding your way to your local theater to see it.

Rating: 8/10

 

Doctor Strange – Review

doctor-strange

The fall movie season is well under way, but so far, the last few weeks have been pretty bare.  With only Clint Eastwood’s Sully being the one breakout hit since summer, movie audiences have been craving something big from Hollywood.  With Snowden, The Birth of a Nation, Inferno, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and The Girl on the Train all receiving tepid to outright terrible receptions, you have to wonder if it’s even worth it to release anything in the first couple months of Fall anymore.  At this point last year, we had already seen The Martian and Hotel Transylvania 2 hit big numbers, so you would think that now is a point this year that Hollywood is beginning to see some problems.  Thankfully, the second half of the Fall season is here and what better way to kick it off than a new film from the ever reliable Marvel Studios.  Marvel returns to the fall season for the first time since Thor: The Dark World (2013) with yet another film that seems like a big gamble for the studio.  After showcasing dynamic earthbound heroes with Captain America and Iron Man, as well as celestial heroes with Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel now brings us a different kind of flavor to their many interesting worlds, and that’s the realm of the mystical with their new movie, Doctor Strange.  Doctor Strange finally brings to the big screen a long time fan favorite in the comic book world and helps to place him within the larger Marvel stable that keeps growing larger every year.

Created by Steve Ditko in the 1960’s, Strange was definitely a product of his era.  Strange’s mastery of magic and the manipulation of the physical and metaphysical worlds fit well with the psychedelia of the time and made him an instant hit among comic book readers.  But, in the years since, Doctor Strange has been a hard character to sell to the public.  Because of his background in mystical arts, he didn’t quite fit in as a superhero worth investing in on the big screen, like say Superman or Batman, who better fit the action hero mold.  But fans of the comics long championed the character, and he has enjoyed a long history of popularity on the page, becoming a key member of Marvel’s Avengers line in the process.  With the creation of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (MCU) in the last decade, it finally seemed like the right time to give Strange his time in the sun, but it would have to wait until Marvel’s Phase 3 to actually happen.  But, it’s here and now fans of the comics and casual viewers as well now have the opportunity to see if Doctor Strange is able to work on the big screen as well as his fellow heroes and if he’s another jewel in Marvel’s cinematic crown, or a serious misstep.  It all comes down to whether the character works off of the page and that largely is up to how well the character is cast and if the movie manages to convey the trippier aspects of his mystical realm; neither of which is an easy thing to pull off.  So, is Doctor Strange one more hit for the MCU or have they tampered with powers out of their control and fallen into a metaphysical spiral of their own making.

The movie introduces us to Doctor Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) a talented and successful surgeon from New York City, renowned for his steady hands that makes him exceptionally skilled with complex surgeries.  A car accident one night leaves him severely scarred and unable to use his hands the same way as before.  Seeing his livelihood disappearing before him, he seeks more experimental and unorthodox treatments to help restore his abilities and his search eventually brings him to a temple in Nepal where he has heard of miraculous healings being made.  There he meets a mysterious and powerful woman named The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who persuades the cynical Strange that the answers he seeks are not in traditional science, but in the art of the mystical.  Strange trains at the temple and learns how to use trans-dimensional magic to conjure up weapons for combat, open portals across great distances at will, and even manipulate the physical world around him.  He’s also given guidance by the loyal monk Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the resourceful librarian Wong (Benedict Wong).  But, as his training goes on, he discovers that dark zealots of the same mystical arts are seeking to destroy the Ancient One’s protective temples, hoping to open up a gate to a dark realm where they’ll find immortality.  Led by the sinister Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), the zealots seek to destroy the Sanctums; sanctuaries built in great cities around the world to protect it from encroachment of the Dark Realm and it’s master Dormammu.  Strange soon learns that he is charged with protecting this realm and many others from total annihilation, and with powerful artifacts like the Cloak of Levitation and the time altering Eye of Agamotto, he soon learns that he just might have what it takes to become the Sorcerer Supreme.

The success of this film is by no means a certainty.  After many easy to comprehend heroes like Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, and Spider-Man, turning a Sorcerer who practices magic into a viable inclusion to this pantheon seems a little, well strange.  Luckily, Marvel has built up enough confidence through all of their big screen adaptations to try everything they can and thankfully it works spectacularly well here.  Doctor Strange is yet another solid effort by Marvel Studios, extending their winning streak even further.  What could have easily been a mismanaged translation from the page to the screen instead feels right in line with the rest of Marvel’s body of work.  And really, the biggest strength of the film is how well it introduces it’s concepts to the viewer.  Strange feels very fresh in the comic book genre of movies, because we have yet to see this kind of hero specifically carry his own film.  Instead of following the traditional urban action thrillers of the Avengers crew, or the space based adventures of the Guardians of the Galaxy, we learn about magic spells and inter-dimensional travel and the different possibilities found within the universe itself, and we watch as our hero goes from ordinary to extraordinary in ways we’d never expect.  It’s more complex a world than what we’re used to in comic book movies, and yet, the movie never bogs itself down in the details.  Instead, it builds it’s world carefully, revealing itself through the eyes of Strange, as he goes from amateur to expert.  And while we’ve seen much of this hero-building before, it’s never been presented in this kind of fashion, with mysticism at the forefront.  It indeed shows that magic has it’s rightful place within the MCU, along with mutant powers, super suits, and mythological Gods.

Speaking of which, if this movie has a like-minded companion in the collection of Marvel films, it would be the equally fanciful Thor.  And like Thor, a large part of what helps to make the more mystical elements of the film more digestible for the casual viewer is the relatable-ness and likability of the characters.  The casting of Chris Hemsworth as Thor helped to make his film a success, because of how well he was a match for the character, and Benedict Cumberbatch is exactly the same in the role of Steven Strange.  In some ways, the casting seems unusual for Marvel.  Before, they seemed more intent on casting unknowns or unexpected choices in their roles, helping the actors get the boost they need for their careers and cementing their image as the character.  With Cumberbatch, he’s already had a successful career, both in popular franchises and elsewhere, so joining Marvel’s stable was not really anything he needed.  Also, gaining such a familiar face might hurt the chances of him effectively leaving an impression on the character for years to come.  And yet, I can think of no one who could have played the part better.  His performance is what really grounds this movie, making him incredibly magnetic and yet sympathetic throughout.  He starts off as a smartass (much like Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark), but it never feels out of character, and it helps to humanize him too.  I also have to commend the make-up and costume departments for doing such a great job of recreating the iconic look of the character, even with such a distinctive face as Cumberbatch’s behind it all.  The other cast members such as Ejiofor, Swinton, and Mikkelsen are also great in the movie, and continue Marvel’s solid run of great casting choices.  The only one that gets short ended is Rachel McAdams as the, I guess love interest Christine.  She may have been pushed to the side for story purposes, and hopefully it’s something that is rectified in future sequels.  Also, the Cloak of Levitation itself becomes a character in the movie, and it amazes me how well Marvel can find personality in even a piece of clothing like it.

If the movie has any flaw, it would be in the story itself, which is more a less a bi-product of the unfortunate fact that this is yet another origin film.  We all know the routine by now; our hero is broken (either physically or mentally) and finds themselves at a crossroads, until they are suddenly granted new powers that enable them to extraordinary things, but are soon confronted by evil forces that challenge their strength and help our hero to learn that they must use their powers responsibly and for the good of the world.  I’ve just described for you pretty much the plot of 90% of all the Super hero origin films that have ever existed, and Doctor Strange is no different.  While it does do a fine job presenting the formula, it doesn’t add anything new to it either, and that unfortunately makes it feel all too familiar.  I could anticipate plot points in this movie before they even happened, like Strange’s crisis of faith towards the end of the second act, or the breakthrough moment he reaches at the end of the first.  The only subversion of the formula comes from the final act, when Strange is called upon to save the day.  I anticipated that he was going to win in the end, I just didn’t know how, and the way the movie resolved was blessfully surprising.  That’s not to say that you won’t be engaged in the story either.  The film is well paced and offers up plenty of clever plot threads here and there; the best coming from some of the clever action sequences.  But, because it plays it more safe with the formula, it becomes less interesting in the long run and prevents this from being one of Marvel’s absolute best, like the rule-breaking Guardians of the Galaxy.  But, it’s a flaw that doesn’t ruin the movie entirely and you’ll still enjoy it for the most part.  My hope is that with the origin out of the way, they can take more chances in the sequel.

One thing that I will praise highly of the film is the amazing visuals.  This may just well be the most visually impressive Marvel film to date, and that is saying something.  The magical spells are neat to look at enough, but it’s whenever the sorcerers begin to alter the physical realm around them, and turn the world itself on it’s head, that the movie really leave you with a sense of wonderment.  Think the movie Inception (2010), but done on a much more spectacular level.  The movie establishes the idea of a Mirror dimension, where the sorcerers can manipulate world physically without repercussion to the actual world, and that enables them to break the laws of physics in all sorts of ways.  There is a spectacular sequence halfway through the movie when Doctor Strange and Mordo are on the run from Kaecilius in the Mirror dimension, and the dark wizard hunts them down by warping the city of New York all around them, making skyscrapers bend and twist in all sorts of unnatural ways, creating a colossal kaleidoscope of the cityscape.  It’s a sequence that utilizes visual effects better than anything else I’ve seen this year, and really in a long while.  If this movie doesn’t walk away with an Oscar for it’s visual effects next year, I don’t know what will.  And yet, with all the trippy visuals on display, the movie never loses sight of the action.  There’s no Michael Bay level of chaos on display here; the action is as easy to follow as anything else, even with all the eye candy on display.  This is some of the best film-making I have seen from Marvel, and it shows that they still have some new tricks up their sleeve.  A lot of credit goes to director Scott Derrickson for managing such a complex presentation without losing focus on the characters and the story.  Believe me, a less assured director would have turned this into a complete mess.  Doctor Strange thankfully is neither a mess nor a failure.

So, it’s safe to say that Marvel has yet another solid effort to their credit, and Doctor Strange has earned a rightful place alongside his more well known peers on the big screen.  While the story feels a little too overly familiar, the movie does open up so many wonderful possibilities for the future.  An inevitable sequel will help solve some of the first film’s shortcomings, and I honestly can’t wait until Strange plays a larger part in the MCU going forward (by the way, stay during the credits for some extra scenes that tie into that).  It’s especially good to see someone of Benedict Cumberbatch’s talent and charisma within the role (and how well that could play out in the future with the character) and the amazing sense of scale that the filmmakers put into the film.  Visually, this is Marvel at it’s best, even if the plot itself is them on auto-pilot.  I also can’t ignore the complaints that this movie has garnered for the perceived white-washing of the character of the Ancient One.  While it’s a serious issue in Hollywood in general, I don’t think that this movie intentionally tried to change the character for that purpose.  While it’s an excuse that might not please every, the movie does address why the Ancient One is who she is, and it’s an explanation that, at least made sense to me.  Also, Tilda Swinton is such a great actress in the role, that it really doesn’t make you care too hard in the end.  I may not see the controversy in the same way, but it’s there nonetheless.  Hopefully, people will accept the choice for what it is and this controversy will not affect the movie in the long run.  Overall, it’s another great Marvel film, and a blockbuster that Hollywood desperately needs to get this Fall season back on the right foot.  It may not be perfect, but it does enough good stuff amazingly well, that it will leave your movie going experience quite magical in the end.

Rating: 8/10