Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Captain Marvel – Review

When Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige announced the ambitious plans for the third phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe back in 2014, a few of the titles that stood out were ones that many people were hoping would change the field of Super hero movies forever, and as it turns out, they did.  Last year’s Black Panther broke new ground on so many levels, becoming the studio’s highest grossing movie to date while also breaking down so many barriers for black filmmakers, and it even became the first Super Hero film to ever be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  In addition, you also saw other risks taken by Marvel in Phase 3 that established the order within their already established franchises, like Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Thor: Ragnarok (2017).  And then came the mind-blowing conclusion of Avengers: Infinity War, which is one of the boldest moves ever taken by multi-billion dollar franchise and one that showed that the people at Marvel were not afraid to go to dark places with their movies.  Now, as the Phase 3 plans begin to wrap themselves up, and lay the foundation for what comes next, we are now being given yet another important move on the part of Marvel to break new ground in both the MCU as well as in cinema in general.  One of the many complaints that has come Marvel’s way throughout the year’s is the fact that up to now, none of their movies put the spotlight on a female super hero.  Sure, there are characters like Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Elizabeth Olson’s Scarlet Witch who are part of the Avengers team, but they’ve never had their own movie that focused just on them.  But, now Marvel hopes to rectify this by bringing to the big screen their first Super Hero movie based around not just one of their most important heroines, but perhaps on of the most powerful characters in their entire gallery of heroes; the intergalactic Captain Marvel.

Captain Marvel has one of the more complicated origins in comic book history.  Created by Stan Lee and Gene Colon back in 1967, the character’s first incarnation was actually male; an alien Kree soldier named Mar-Vell who was exiled to Earth after being branded a traitor by his home planet, and would later ally himself with the Avengers in their eventual battles against the Kree Empire.  Mar-Vell’s origins would eventually be ret-conned many times, and the identity of Captain Marvel would actually pass on to many other people over the years.  Eventually, the character of Carol Danvers was given the identity of Captain Marvel starting in 2012.  Danvers, a Chuck Yaeger-style test pilot born and raised on Planet Earth, gave the character a distinctly feminine identity while still maintaining all the previous qualities that the character had established for itself over the decades prior.  And with that, Marvel finally had an established character that could help give them the chance to finally have that long awaited film centered on a female super hero.  Unfortunately, the movie has become the unfair target of online bigotry because of it’s intention to spotlight the character’s historic significance within the MCU.  A coordinated attack on the film’s Rottentomatoes.com rating by many anti-feminist trolls tried to bring the overall score down by many false negative reviews, and it feels very reminiscent of a similar preemptive attack to undermine Black Panther’s  chances of success from last year (which of course didn’t work and actually backfired).  Actress Brie Larson has tried to stay above the noise surrounding this, though her dismissive comment about the opinions of “white male critics”, regardless of whether she’s right or not, was effectively like kicking a hornets nest, and has unfortunately cast a dark cloud of controversy over a movie that should have been judged without the taint of taking a side on the so-called “culture war.”  Despite all what is going on outside of the movie itself, we now have a film that introduces this very important character to Marvel’s incredible universe, and it’s time to see once and for all if the wait was worth it, or if it’s a whole lot to do about nothing.

For the first time since Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), the MCU has rolled back the clock to a time in the past as the setting for it’s introduction of it’s hero.  Although, this time, we are only going back 20 years, to the mid-1990’s.  Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) lives on the Kree home planet of Hala, where she lives and trains with an elite band of inter-planetary special forces.  She has no memory of her past life before her six years living with the Kree, nor how she gained her immense powers, and goes only by the name Vers.  Her commander, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) trains her to keep her powers and emotions in check, which she believes is essential to becoming a better fighter against the Kree’s mortal enemy; the shape-shifting Skrulls.  Vers’ team travels on a mission to a Skrull home base, where they are to retrieve one of their spies before an air bombardment is deployed by Kree battleships, commanded by Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace).  However, they are ambushed and Vers is captured.  The Skrulls use a machine to investigate Vers buried memories, where they discover the identity of a Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Benning), which is the same face that’s presented to Vers whenever she is communing with Supreme Intelligence, the AI commander of all Kree civilization.  After Vers escapes the Skrulls, she ends up crash-landing on the nearby planet the Kree classify as C-35, known to us as Earth.  There, she is intercepted by agents from S.H.I.E.L.D., including a still fresh on assignment Agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his new cadet Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg).  After the Kree find her and attempt to kill her, she teams up with a compliant Fury and the two set out to uncover what’s really going on regarding Dr. Lawson, her Project Pegasus, and how Vers is somehow connected to all that, with their only lead being a friend from Vers’ past life she can’t remember; Maria Lambeau (Lashana Lynch).  All the while, they are still hunted by the Skrulls, lead by their General Talos (Ben Mendelsohn).

Taking the Marvel Cinematic Universe back in time to a different era I think was a smart move on the movies part, because it frees up the story to have it’s own identity seperate from what else is going on in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  There are brief references to other elements of the universe (Guardians of the Galaxy villain Ronan making an appearance for example) but for the most part, this is a story that stands on it’s own and for the most part, it works really well.  I’ll say this, it’s not a particularly ground-breaking film in the way that Black Panther was, nor a game changer like Infinity War.  It’s an origin story first and foremost and as far as those go within the MCU, this one is extremely effective.  I especially like the fact that the movie doesn’t busy itself with having to watch Captain Marvel learn the ropes of Super Hero-dom in order to become who she was meant to be.  From the moment the movie opens, she is already an established fighter who already is aware of the limits of her incredible powers.  Instead, the movie works as an investigation into what she has lost in the process of gaining her powers, and how the things that are buried deep down inside of her is what really makes her a super hero, and not the cosmic energy that flows through her.  The movie does a very fine job of unraveling this part of her story and it helps to break the film away from other like-minded Marvel origin stories.   It also wisely avoids the fish-out-of-water trope that’s already been done before in other Marvel films, as Captain Marvel finds herself perfectly adept at carrying out her mission no matter what planet or time period she’s in.  And this really helps to make it work on it’s own as a stand alone story.  There’s no need to read up on tons of pre-established Marvel lore, or re-watch all the MCU movies to understand what’s going on.  It’s all very simple; she’s Captain Marvel, she’s immensely powerful, and it’s all about piecing together the reason why deep down this is the person she is.

The main complaint that I can lay upon the movie is that it perhaps doesn’t quite feel as revolutionary as a part of the MCU as one would like.  The aspect of having a female super hero at it’s center is historic enough, but in terms of theme, tone, and visualization, the movie doesn’t really push the medium to anything really different.  It doesn’t have the wildly bold choices of something like Ragnarok or Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), where tone took a complete u-turn in those franchises from what we’ve seen in the past.  And of course, Black Panther challenged so many cinematic norms in both it’s characterizations as well as with the visuals, all helping to bring the Kingdom of Wakanda to spectacular life.  Captain Marvel by contrast feels more generic visually and formulaic in it’s plot.  Though still engaging, the movie doesn’t offer too many surprises.  You know the plot twists before they happen, and character motivations all come together in unfortunately expected ways.  I would have like to have maybe seen a little more doubt cast in the character of Captain Marvel, especially when she grapples with the reality of her identity and how that contrasts with the lies she has been told for years.  Essentially, the movie brushes too quickly over some of that, and though I understand why the movie does some of that, it still feels like the movie lacks a bit of something that could have helped to elevate it a little further.  Also, the movie has the unfortunate timing of coming to theaters after Wonder Woman (2017), a rare case where DC has actually beaten Marvel at the movies.  Wonder Woman was such a groundbreaking film in terms of female empowerment and representation within this genre, and Captain Marvel unfortunately lacks the same kind of inspirational impact that it’s predecessor did.  Young female audiences will still no doubt appreciate Captain Marvel as a character, but her impact on the big screen feels lessened because Wonder Woman got there first.  In the end, it feels unwarranted for this movie to have carried all the controversy, because it is neither a pro-feminist battle cry that trolls claim it to be, nor a let down that reflects badly on super heroines everywhere.  The movie does it’s job of establishing her presence, and little else.

The thing that I appreciate about the movie more than anything is the great comradery that it builds between Captain Marvel and Nick Fury.  Fury is a very different character here than we’ve seen before in past Marvel films, and it’s great to see Sam Jackson finally be able to cut loose as the character.  This is a version of Nick Fury that is less cynical, more compassionate, and with both eyes intact.  Even more amazing is the sophistication that Marvel has been able to achieve with it’s de-aging visual effect, which is used through most of the movie to make Nick Fury appear twenty years younger.  Now, it helps that Jackson doesn’t look too much older today than he did back in his 90’s heydays, but the de-aging which has been used to make everyone from Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer in the Ant-Man movies to Kurt Russell in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) all look like their younger selves almost looks seamless at this point, and Captain Marvel showcases the most extensive use of it to date.  And the inclusion of Nick Fury as a part of this story is another great aspect of the movie, because it allows for us to learn more about his story just as well.  Nick Fury has always been a part of the MCU from the very beginning, since his first appearance in Iron Man (2008) a decade ago, telling Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark that he was part of a larger universe that he didn’t know about yet, which laid the groundwork for the Avengers Initiative.  Here, we see exactly what brought Nick Fury to become a part of this larger universe and the movie is just as much an origin story for him as it is for Captain Marvel.  Given that up to now, Nick Fury has been more of a connecting thread rather than the focus of attention, it’s really gratifying to see him fill a much more important and central role in one of these films finally, and giving Sam Jackson more screen time is always a good idea.

It’s also a great thing for the movie because both Jackson and Brie Larson have unbelievable chemistry on screen together.  The film basically turns into a buddy cop movie halfway through, and that made it much more entertaining.  In many ways, Nick Fury brings out the more playful side of Captain Marvel, as she grows more comfortable as she finally realizes she’s got a partner and not a fellow soldier on her side, telling her to follow orders.  Some may find Brie Larson’s performance perhaps a little distant and wooden compared to other super heroes in the MCU, but given the context of the story, I feel that her performance served the character just find.  She lacks emotion early on because she was conditioned that way when she became a Kree soldier.  Through her teamwork with Nick Fury and the discovery of her true self, she opens up as the movie goes along and it helps to leave more character development open for later on in future films.  The movie smartly focuses on these two characters and it helps to give the movie a nice humorous tone as they work off of each other.  Some of the other performance offer an interesting range, especially when perceptions of good versus evil begins to change as the movie goes along.  Ben Mendelsohn’s casting as Skrull leader Talos offers a nice little misdirection given the actor’s body of work so far on film.  I also really appreciate that the Skrulls were brought to life through prosthetic make-up and not as CGI animations, which really helps to give them more personality, especially when the actors work so hard to act through the layers of masking.  Annette Benning’s casting in multiple parts also givens the movie an elevated sense of ethereal class, and it’s great seeing her present in a movie like this.  Returning actors like Lee Pace and Djimon Hounsou from the Guardians of the Galaxy aren’t given much to do, but it’s still nice to see them return so that they can help give more continuity to the MCU, and Captain Marvel’s place in it.  A solid and engaged cast really helps to give the movie the personality it needs, and it’s especially welcome given the importance that some of the characters have with the complete Marvel story-line overall.

Captain Marvel comes to theaters amid controversy, which I hope dies a quick death so that the movie itself can stand on it’s own merits and free of petty politics that are trying to destroy it.  Is it Marvel at it’s absolute best; no, but I don’t think it really needs to be.  Captain Marvel is a starting point for something else; a cinematic beginning for a character who is going to play an important part of the future of the MCU.  Sure, it would have been nice to see Marvel attempt to exceed expectations rather than just merely meet them, but I can’t complain too much when the movie is still a fun romp with great character and interesting ideas.  The movie is absolutely worth seeing for the Captain Marvel and Nick Fury moments alone, and they make one of the most charming pairs we’ve seen from Marvel yet.  It would have been interesting to see how different the reception to this movie would’ve been had it come out before Wonder Woman; would we be talking more about how groundbreaking this movie was instead.  It’s too bad that Marvel had to take this long to finally make a movie centered around one of their most important heroines.  Regardless, she is here now and the MCU is the better for her inclusion.  My hope is that this opens the floodgates for all the other heroines in the Marvel canon to finally have their own movies.  Apparently, rumors are that a Black Widow movie is in the works, as well as a mini-series on the Disney+ app that focuses on Scarlet Witch; and those are just the already established characters.  There are literally hundreds more just waiting in the wings, and if Captain Marvel does well, hopefully it’ll convince the top brass at Marvel and Disney to invest more broadly into this market.  Some are trying to knock these kinds of stories down, but like Carol Danvers in the movie, they keep rising back up and press on undaunted, and that’s the important lesson that a movie like this offers.  There’s nothing that a movie like this has to prove other than to be a good story and an inspiration for people looking for hope, and the politics of it all doesn’t matter in the end.  It doesn’t need to be earth-shattering to get that point across.  Captain Marvel is a welcome addition to the pantheon of cinematic super heroes, and by just being true to itself as the character it’s centered on, the movie will undoubtedly stand strong for years to come.

Rating: 8/10

Alita: Battle Angel – Review

The cinematic career of filmmaker James Cameron has been a fascinating one to say the least.  He rarely outputs new films, usually just one or two a decade (especially more sparse in recent years), and yet when he does finally finish a movie, it breaks every known record imaginable at the box office.  Which is all the more remarkable considering that most of his cinematic choices are usually unconventional.  Make a sequel to a low budget action thriller with nearly quadruple the production budget and features heavy use of this new-fangled technology called CGI: welcome Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1992).  Make a movie about underwater explorers and have the entire thing actually shot under water in a massive, custom built tank; hello The Abyss (1997).  Not to mention spending a then unheard of $200 million on a romantic movie set against the backdrop of the sinking of the Titanic, as well as nearly half a billion perfecting motion capture technology to have half his cast play giant blue, cat-faced aliens.  But, despite all these uncompromising visions, James Cameron still has somehow managed to defy expectations every time, and then some.  Titanic (1997) would go on to win Best Picture at the Oscars as well as become the highest grossing film in history, only to be toppled a decade later by his very next film, Avatar (2009), which is still the worldwide box office champ.  The reason why Cameron’s films have the enormously successful run that they have is because the director always puts the most effort into everything, making sure that his movies are not released until it is ready to blow all our minds.  But, given the increasing amount of time in between all of his movies, he also runs the risk of holding onto a project for too long, to the point where it’s window of relevancy and audience interest.  Keep in mind, we are almost at the decade mark since we saw his last directorial effort with Avatar.  Most other directors in that time, like Spielberg, Scorsese and Tarantino have directed three or more features, and have boldly experimented in new things, growing their talents as filmmakers.  With Cameron tinkering so long on the same things, one worries that he’s running the risk of limiting his growth as a story-teller, leaving a lot by the wayside.

And one of those things that sadly has fallen victim to James Cameron’s long-gestating creative process is a project that he’s had in development for nearly twenty years called Alita: Battle Angel.  Based on a Japanese Manga series published between 1990-95, the dystopian cyberpunk adventure was first brought to Cameron’s attention by filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro not long after Cameron’s incredible success with Titanic.  Cameron instantly fell in love with the manga and sought to develop it into a possible future project for him to direct.  A domain name was bought as early as summer 2000 and the project was announced in active development in 2003.  However, Cameron soon realized that the technology wasn’t available to do justice to the highly stylized world and characters of the manga comic, so the project remained in limbo for many years.  Eventually, James Cameron opted to direct Avatar instead as his next project, using it as a testing ground for perfecting the motion capture technology that he hoped could eventually be used for Alita.  Of course, Avatar made a huge leap forward for the technology, and with that, the possibility for Alita to finally go into production was possible.  However, Cameron was once again side-tracked by his continued involvement in creating multiple sequels to Avatar, something which has taken up all his time these last several years.  Still, he and producing partner Jon Landau always kept this movie in their back pocket, but eventually the time came to the point where they could wait no longer, otherwise they would lose their window of opportunity  So, he had to make the tough decision to hand this pet project of his off to someone else.  In stepped Robert Rodriquez, himself a bold DIY filmmaker in the Cameron mold.  With heavily stylized, CGI enhanced films under his belt like Spy Kids (2001) and Sin City (2005), Rodriquez was more than capable of seeing Cameron’s vision to completion on the big screen, and the project finally went into production in 2016; 13 years after it was first announced.  The only question is, did nearly twenty years of development result in a movie worth all that wait, or is it an anti-climatic finish to a waste of everyone’s time.

The movie is set in the far of future date of 2563, where the Earth has been long devastated by a cataclysmic war with the URM (United Republics of Mars) which has left most of the world barren and unlivable.  One remaining community still lives on in the sky city of Zalem, which hangs over the vast sprawling Iron City where refugees from all over the world have gathered.  There, cyborg scientist Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds what remains of a long forgotten cyborg in the trash heap that’s grown from the refuse of Zalem.  He discovers that while the cyborg’s body has long been destroyed, it’s core remains alive and intact, so he reconstructs a new body and brings her back to life.  He gives the cyborg the name Alita (Rosa Salazar), which was the same name of his long deceased daughter.  Though Alita enjoys her new lease on life, she remembers nothing of her past, and Ido keeps her sheltered in order to protect her, which she refuses to fully obey.  After she sneaks out to spy on Ido’s late night activities, she discovers that he is a Hunter-Warrior, which is a class of highly skilled bounty hunters searching for humans and cyborgs alike with a bounty on their head.  In the middle of a skirmish against one particularly ferocious cyborg named Grewishka (Jackie Earl Haley), Alita learns that she has fighting skills known as Panzer Kunst, which makes her exceptionally strong and lethal.  She tries to become a Hunter-Warrior independent of Ido’s wishes, and she enlists the help of a scrap dealer named Hugo (Keean Johnson), whom she develops a crush on.  Hugo dreams of reaching the paradise city of Zalem, and he convinces Alita that she would excell in the dangerous sport of Motorball, which she agrees to.  However, the man in charge of the Motorball games is a ruthless businessman named Vector (Mahershala Ali) who’s been stealing all the best cybertronic equipment available in Iron City, with the help of Dr. Chiren (Jennifer Connolly), Ido’s estranged ex-wife.  Upon discovering Alita, and what she can do, Vector and Chiren plot to have her killed and harvested for her advanced hardware, especially when put under orders from the master of Zalem himself, Nova.

Though the movie is directed by Robert Rodriquez, and features some of his trademark style particularly in the action scenes, make no mistake that Alita: Battle Angel is first and foremost a James Cameron flick.  The attention to detail in the world building is very apparent and you can very clearly see the meticulous work that he put into crafting this world in even the most minute detail.  But, like most other Cameron flicks, it’s clear that almost all the work went into the details of this world and almost none into the story itself.  Let’s face it, James Cameron is director first and foremost and a writer second, and his lack of abilities as a screenwriter are even more problematic here.  Cameron co-wrote the movie with Laeta Kalogridis (2004’s Alexander and 2010’s Shutter Island), with extra material added later by Rodriquez, and all the big flaws of Cameron’s writing style seen in all his other movies are likewise found here too.  If you thought the romantic plot of Titanic was childish and cliche, you’ll find the one between Alita and Hugo even more so here.  And if you thought that the political messages in Avatar were heavy handed and clunky, then you’re going to be smacked like a hammer to the head with the ones in Alita.  Cameron’s strongest suit has never been his writing, often relying too heavily on his actors to salvage the words on the page.  And yet, he still insists on writing all his movies himself.  It becomes even more of a problem with the fact that Alita: Battle Angel is also the first time he has had to adapt a story from another source, which means he has to condense years worth of story into a short two hour length.  The one saving grace for this is that Alita is not a bloated 3 hour extravaganza like some of Cameron’s other features, but it’s clear that in order to stream-line the story, he had to cut out huge chunks in order to get it to 2 hours, and that unfortunately affects the flow of the narrative.  The movie has to deal with an immense amount of lore, and it unfortunately gets shrunken down into heavy exposition delivered consistently throughout the film.  As a result, more important stuff like character development and atmosphere building are sacrificed.  The movie builds this incredible world for us to see, but we’re never allowed to develop an emotional bond to it at all because the movie just plows through it.

Couple this with the fact that the movie unfortunately feels like it’s time has passed it by.  That’s where the way too long development of the movie has hurt it’s chances of ever succeeding.  James Cameron’s movie, had it gone into production early on, could have been ground-breaking and ahead of it’s time, because the world had yet to define a sense of what cyberpunk is as a style, which Alita could have very easily influenced.  Sure there were influential films like Blade Runner (1982) on which Battle Angel drew heavy inspiration from, as well as memorable anime like Ghost in the Shell (1987) and Akira (1988) which also helped to define cyberpunk as a sub-genre.  But, a live action Alita could have been this generation’s ultimate statement, and sadly it missed it’s window by pretty much a decade.  Much like how the John Carter (2012) movie felt too derivative of other films like Star Wars (1977) and Dune (1984), which were ironically influenced by the original Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter novels, Alita comes out in a time where movies that were influenced by the original manga have already come and left their mark and Alita only feels less original as a result.  It’s not even the first manga to get the live action treatment, as other comics like Dragon Ball, Death Note, and Ghost in the Shell have made it to the big screen, and likewise fail every time.  Alita’s timing honestly couldn’t be any worse, because the world has already at this point come to reject this style of movie all together.  That being said, Alita: Battle Angel is a much better film than those, because at least James Cameron is approaching the material with a sense of reverence, and not just using it as a cash grab.  But, had he put more urgency into the project from the beginning, and not waited patiently for the technology to catch up to his vision for how he wanted to make it, Alita could have been that breath of fresh air that might have taken cyberpunk into a whole new level of influence in cinema.

Story issues aside, the movie is lifted up immensely by it’s visuals.  Cameron’s attention to detail is exceptional, as Iron City does feel like a genuine, lived in place.  You could spend countless hours just picking out the large variety of architecture in all the buildings, which range from middle-eastern, to South-American, to inner-city America in influence; feeling very much like how a community of multi-national refugees would attempt to rebuild society in the aftermath of a broken world.  And though his impact on the story is minimal, I do have to credit Robert Rodriquez on his direction of the action scenes, which are well choreographed in the same playful way that he uses to excess in movies From Dusk Til Dawn (1996) and Machete (2010).  Of course, a lot of what people are going to be talking about with this movie is the use of motion capture used to create the cyborg effects on the characters.  This is where the movie unfortunately provides some mixed results.  It’s very clear that most of the work went into perfecting the look of Alita herself.  The thing about her appearance in the movie is that she has to look believably real despite having these giant, anime style eyes, which instantly stands her apart from all the other characters.  That almost makes it an even harder challenge than making the cyber-tronic body of hers appear authentic, because if you make the face look inauthentic, it falls into that creepy, uncanny valley territory.  Thankfully, the effect is done just well enough to not be off-putting and you only occasionally take notice of the effect throughout the movie.  I was, however, more impressed put into the work of another character named Zapan (played by Ed Skerin) whose human face appears on a completely exposed cyborg body, and the effect is incredibly effective and lifelike.  And then there is the opposite end of a character like Jackie Earle Haley’s Grewishka, who might as well be a cartoon character.  Even still, you can tell that the work was put into the visuals of this movie more than anything else, and that’s something to commend all the hard work for.

There’s also a mixed result from the movie’s cast as well.  Again, the actors have to make do with some of that clunky Cameron dialogue, and some fare better than others.  It helps that the movie includes three Oscar winners in it’s cast, and they are usually the ones that work best with the lines they are given.  I did like Christoph Waltz’s role as Dr. Ido, taking a break from his more famous villainous work in other movies to show that he can indeed play a warm, nurturing mentor type as well.  Unfortunately, Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connolly are sidelined far too often in the movie to ever really give them an ample opportunity to dig into their roles.  Mahershala perhaps fares a little better, given that he’s able to deliver so much menace with just a glance.  Connolly seems particularly wasted, as we know she is capable of far more emotional range than what she is allowed to show here.  Rosa Salazar on the other hand gets perhaps the hardest job in the entire movie as she has to carry the film, and do so underneath her CGI enhanced mask as Alita.  For the most part, she succeeds.  She does manage to make Alita likable enough to want to root for and it is impressive how well she is able to emote through all that motion capture, showing just how far that technology has come.  Though Alita is not particularly well written, she nevertheless stands out as the movie’s most successful character, and she carries the movie well enough to keep it from falling apart completely.  Unfortunately, it’s whenever the story-line with Hugo keeps butting in that the movie completely grinds to a halt.  I’m sure that young Keean Johnson is a fine actor, but he is well out of his limit in this role, becoming the movie’s weakest element overall.  You care so little about Hugo as a character, and I almost feel bad for the actor because there’s not enough natural charisma in the world to save him from his dialogue.  At least with Titanic we had future Oscar winners like Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet to elevate Cameron’s ham-fisted script.  Rosa and Keean unfortunately can’t match up, and that is why the movie falls apart as a result, since Cameron hinges so much on their expected chemistry.

Is Alita: Battle Angel a complete disaster?  I wouldn’t exactly say that.  I do have to praise the work that went into the spectacular environment of the movie’s setting and the work the CGI animators put into making the Alita model feel right.  I’m sure that an art book of all the conceptual designs made during the film’s development would be absolutely stunning to flip through, especially considering that there is roughly 15 years worth of material to sift through.  I also like how Alita falls once again into the James Cameron trope of a strong female protagonist at the center of most of his movies; descending from a line that includes Sarah Connor from The Terminator (1984), to Ripley from Aliens (1986) to Rose from Titanic.  It’s only unfortunate that this movie came out perhaps a decade too late and is not as polished as some of the director’s more successful works.  Had James Cameron not been sidetracked so much by Avatar and all it’s sequels, we could have has something truly breakthrough from the highly influential director, and something that would have really pushed his own career into interesting an unexpected directions.  Not only that, but think about the impact that Cameron’s Battle Angel could have had on both the cyberpunk genre in film, as well as the influence of anime within the film industry.  We might have been spared some of those awful anime adaptations in the last decade because Cameron would have set the bar high.  Sadly, Alita: Battle Angel comes to us as a compromised vision, feeling disjointed between the visions of two filmmakers, and containing only a fraction of what it could have been.  The world-building and visual effects are impressive, but there is no emotional attachment, and all that’s left are the glaring flaws which become more pronounced with James Cameron’s sub-par script.  But, it could have been worse, as we’ve seen from the cash-grabs made by Hollywood over the years.  Alita at least comes from the heart, as James Cameron is a true fan of what he’s adapting here.  If only he hadn’t loved it too much to the point where it’s time had passed by.

Rating: 6.5/10

Glass – Review

M. Night Shyamalan’s years in Hollywood have been interesting to follow. At the beginning, he was heralded as the next big thing; the Spielberg of his generation as some had called him.  This was in no small part due to the runaway success of his breakthrough film, The Sixth Sense (1999).  The movie became an instant classic, and is renowned more than anything for the way it perfectly executed it’s shocking twist ending.  From that, Shyamalan jumped into his next feature, the comic books inspired thriller Unbreakable (2000), which despite receiving strong reviews among critics performed only a fraction as well as it’s predecessor The Sixth Sense, despite also starring Bruce Willis.  But, he would bounce back with his next film, Signs (2002), which performed very well at the box office, but at the same time also launched the director into a stage in his career that would also be his downfall.  With Signs success, Shyamalan was forced into a position where his brand became centered around one thing, and that was the shocking twist ending.  With every movie thereafter, from The Village (2004) to Lady in the Water (2006) to The Happening (2008), he was continually having to one up what he had made before and it was increasingly undermining his abilities as storyteller.  And even when he tried to branch out into other genres like with The Last Airbender (2010) and After Earth (2013), it kept throwing him into further turmoil, as he was increasingly becoming less trustworthy in Hollywood.  But the truth is, the big problem with M. Night’s career wasn’t that he became a bad director overnight; it was that he was continually forced to live up to an unrealistic high standard which made it hard for him to fulfill his abilities as a director.  What he needed was a major reevaluation of his career and a renewed focus on what he was good at.

That’s when Blumhouse Productions stepped in and allowed M. Night to get out of his slump and start making movies that appealed to his own sensibilities, without the pressure of Hollywood’s expectations weighing on his shoulders.  With 2015’s The Visit, Shyamalan had his first critically applauded film in a decade, and that allowed him the clout to return back into the groove that he once started out in, albeit to a smaller degree.  And what he chose to do next pleased many a fan of his earlier work, especially when it became clear what he was planning.  The movie Split (2017) was a taut, tense thriller that represented the best of the director’s style; deliberate pacing, steady camera work, and unnerving performances from his cast.  But, at the film’s end, people discovered probably one of the director’s finest twists to date; that the entire movie was a secret sequel to Unbreakable.  After nearly twenty years, Shyamalan showed that he hadn’t forgotten about his underappreciated gem and clearly intended to return back to the story that apparently has meant a lot to him over the years.  And the timing couldn’t be better either.  Unbreakable has become something of a cult hit ever since it first premiered, with many proclaiming (myself included) that it’s the director’s true masterpiece.  Given the fact that Split not only won him back critically and box office success but also shared a universe with Unbreakable made many of the fans of those films rejoice, because it showed that Shyamalan had just as much affection for the story as well and was ready to bring it back in a big way.  Thus, we now are getting the third in this surprise trilogy with Glass, seeing the once proclaimed director finally reasserting himself in Hollywood the way he has always wanted to.  But, after the long wait, and many distractions along the way, did Shyamalan really return to form, or does Glass take what good will he has left and shatters it.

The movie takes place not long after the events of Split, with a multiple personality disorder patient named Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) hiding in the shadows, committing heinous murders across the city of Philadelphia.  Shifting constantly between 24 different personas, he transforms most dramatically into a creature called the  Beast, which gives him superhuman strength.  Crumb’s activities have, however, been monitored by a vigilante crime-fighter named David Dunn (Bruce Willis), who 19 years prior had discovered his own superpowers by being the only survivor of a horrific train crash, leaving the incident without a scratch.  He runs a security equipment store with his son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), who believes in his dad’s super hero abilities and has been helping him track down criminals with the same surveillance equipment they sell.  They finally track Crumb down to an abandoned factory, where he’s holding four teenage girls hostage.  Dunn manages to subdue Crumb, who’s in his Beast mode at the moment, long enough to help the girls escape, but once their battle reaches the outside, both are subdued by local law enforcement who have the means of exploiting the weaknesses of both super beings.  Following the orders of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychiatrist who specializes in patients like Dunn and Crumb, the police put both of them in custody at a local psychiatric hospital.  Dr. Staple means to convince each of them that their super powers are just delusions and that they are just as normal as any other person.  Dr. Staple even enlists the help of the lone survivor of Crumb’s attacks, Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) who somehow managed to breakthrough the many personas to bring the original person back, helping him to heal slightly.  But, all the best laid plans are put to the test as another patient quietly plots his own escape; the criminal mastermind Elijah Price, aka Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson).

I personally have always wanted a sequel to the movie Unbreakable.  It was my favorite movie from the year 2000, and I’ve always considered it the best movie that Shyamalan ever made.  It was a brilliant dissection of the mythos of comic books, made in a time when super hero movies were not considered even noteworthy, especially in the wake of failures like Batman and Robin (1997).  But, in the 19 years since it’s release, comic book super heroes have dominated the film landscape, and it has only increased the relevance of Unbreakable’s story ever since.  So, I was thrilled to see Shyamalan make a return to this story and tell a new chapter that revisits the same themes, but in a new era where comic books have far more influence.  The only question is, did his years out in the wild change him too much as a director to ever effectively make this story work again.  The answer is a complicated one.  Throughout Shyamalan’s career, he has rarely found middle ground among critics and fans.  People either love the things he does, or they hate it.  He will always be a polarizing filmmaker, and Glass more than likely will continue that.  I have mixed feelings about this movie myself, but they are not to the polar extremes that I think that most people are going to respond to this movie with.  On the one hand, I was satisfied seeing these characters return and watching them interact with each other, but on the other hand, the story is a bit of a mess.  Keep in mind, Shyamalan’s movies have resulted in much worse results in the past, so I have to take this into perspective as well.  The movie is not terrible by any means, and in fact does work for most of the film’s running time.  But, as a follow up to two of the his best films to date, this is easily the weakest in the so-called Unbreakable trilogy.  He’s managed to disappoint, but to a degree that I don’t think shreds the rest of his reputation nor shames the movies that have come before it.

Where the movie faults is in the execution of it’s larger themes.  M. Night has many talents, but one of his less reliable ones is screenwriting.  He certainly is able to effectively weave a mystery through most of his movies, which has made him an expert in subverting the audiences expectations and hiding the surprise twist in plain sight.  But it’s in the dialogue where he begins to show his limitations.  Characters in his movies speak their dialogue in this weird sort of way which really takes you out of the movie.  Essentially, they speak like their words are specifically chosen to deliver important plot information, and not spoken in a natural, real life sort of way.  This has always been a problem in Shyamalan movies and is particularly problematic here in Glass.  Not one character talks like a normal human being, and you just get the sense that Shyamalan is writing this dialogue more for himself as a way of navigating through his story rather than allowing the the story to unfold naturally.  He also relies heavily on plot conveniences which again don’t feel genuine.  Security guards are conveniently incompetent at this mental hospital.  The remedy for subduing the inmates there, like the water hoses used on Dunn and the light flashes used on Crumb have somehow been figured out, despite the fact that both men have kept their abilities secret.  It’s the kind of plot conveniences that become annoying the more you analyze them.  But the movie really goes off the rails in it’s third act when Shyamalan’s indulgent style begins to loose it’s foundation, and every new twist is delivered in the clunkiest way possible.  Where it really starts to affect the movie negatively is in undermining the effectiveness of the film’s themes.  Essentially, Shyamalan throws it in our face the parallels between this story and comic book lore, with Mr. Glass in particular stating as much with his own observations, as if Shyamalan doesn’t trust his audience to figure it out themselves.  He’s got to remember that we’ve had a decade’s worth of Marvel movies dominating pop culture as a whole, so the themes of this movie should already be familiar.  We don’t need it beaten into our heads.

But, even despite the lazy plot and the clunky dialogue, there are a lot of things that shine in the movie.  For one thing, even though his writing skills still haven’t recovered over the years, Shyamalan’s abilities as a director are greatly improving, and showing once again the creativity that really defined his early work.  I think that this is especially due to the influence of Blumhouse, which has kept his vision in check, making him work within a smaller budget.  This has allowed Shyamalan to be creative and rely more heavily on practical effects and good old fashioned camera work.  Shyamalan has always been a fan of using color theory within the narrative of his films, and it’s used quite effectively here.  The color used from scene to scene helps to reveal different moods for the characters in each moment, and even communicates to us without words what each character represents.  McAvoy’s Crumb is often shown in the widest range of bright colors, showing us the chaotic jumble of personalities that inhabit his mind.  The scenes with Mr. Glass are especially effective, because of the way that Shyamalan zaps out almost all the light within the scene, playing much of it in shadow which emphasizes the dark soul that the character represents.  Even the pastels usually associated with Dr. Staple also tell their own story, and one that indicates a little bit about what she is all about.  At the same time, Shyamalan returns to the effective, stripped back shooting style that defined much of his earlier work.  Even when the movie kicks into action mode, he places the point of view in interesting and unexpected areas; such as shown through surveillance cameras, or as creatively as inside of a police car as it’s getting flipped on it’s side.  Within Glass, we see a director learning to trust his instincts as a visual story-teller once again and that helps to compensate for the shortcomings of the script.  Shyamalan may not have remastered all of his talents, but it is a treat to see him try to challenge himself again and try out some interesting ideas.

What also helps to make the movie work for the most part are the performances.  Even when his movies have suffered terrible writing, Shyamalan can somehow manage to get his actors to make that clunky dialogue work.  Thankfully, he got his two leads from Unbreakable back with Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson.  Jackson’s return is especially worthwhile, because you can tell while watching this movie that he’s long wanted to return to this character and really explore that villainous side.  In Unbreakable, Jackson’s Elijah had to hide the person he truly was behind a facade, only to have his true evil nature revealed in the movie’s brilliant twist ending, and Sam Jackson sold that trickery so well.  In Glass, we get to see that villainous side unleashed and it’s a joy watching him take so much delight in being unapologetically evil.  Willis likewise returns to form, and balances the movie out with his more subdued and quiet performance.  Sadly, the movie doesn’t give him much to do with all it’s various plot threads, but Bruce makes the most out of what he’s given.  It’s James McAvoy who shines the most, however, in his returning role from the movie Split.  He is mesmerizing to watch in every scene as he effortlessly shifts from one persona to another, completely convincing you that he is multiple people all inhabiting one body.  He does it so brilliantly with simple changes in his facial expression or just the way he moves his body, and every moment he’s on screen you can’t take your eyes off him.  It’s also a physically demanding role for him too, and the commitment to get into shape for this role is pretty astounding.  Sarah Paulson especially deserves a lot of credit in this movie too, especially given that she’s given some of the most ridiculous dialogue in the entire movie and she delivers it with complete sincerity.  Shyamalan owes a lot to actors like her and the others for overcoming the limitations of his writing.  It’s also pleasing to see other returning cast members help to bring this trilogy full circle, especially Spencer Treat Clark who last played this role when he was still a child. Had this cast not put their best efforts into this movie, we would have has a much less effective movie overall, and given the problems already there, they are a life saver.

So, as a conclusion to this trilogy, Glass is far from the home run that we would have like to have had, and sadly is the least effective movie in the series overall.  But the fact that this trilogy even exists at all is a miracle in itself, and I’m glad that it ever made it as far as it has.  I always believed that Unbreakable was only ever going to be this one standalone thing, and I was fine with that.  But, the fact that in this super hero driven world that we live in now with regards to cinema that this long forgotten film was all of a sudden seen as a worthy inclusion to the genre as a whole, and worthy of a universe of it’s own, makes me incredibly happy.  Unbreakable is still a masterpiece of it’s genre and of film-making in general, and I love the fact that it was able to be rediscovered and appreciated once again.  Glass may not be a great movie, but it compliments Unbreakable in a way that still satisfies.  I still liked how they treated the characters of Bruce Willis’ unbreakable man and Samuel L. Jackson’s Mr. Glass.  And seeing them interact with James McAvoy’s incredible character from Split makes up the best parts of this movie.  Unfortunately, Shyamalan still needs to refine his writing skills, because they keep undermining the effectiveness of story.  Shyamalan has proven that he works best within boundaries, because it forces him to think more creatively, and these film in this trilogy prove that.  Unbreakable was a brilliant examination of what the extraordinary would look like within our ordinary world, and Split portrayed this crazy world effectively through one single character’s fractured mind.  Glass is the least restrained movie of the bunch and therefore the least effective, but it still works as a part of the whole.  For all we know, now that Shyamalan has closed the book on this trilogy he’ll be able to take more chances on things that appeal to his tastes, now that he has a renewed understanding of  where his strengths lie.  As of now, this Unbreakable trilogy is his crowning achievement as a story-teller, and despite the mixed results of Glass, it’s still a genuine treat that the legacy of M. Night Shyamalan’s best work is still going strong all these years later, and in a culture that has finally embraced the value of comic book legends that it was way ahead of the curve on.

Rating: 7/10

Aquaman – Review

Nothing says Christmas time than a superhero movie starring a guy who can talk to fish.  Sure for my pre-holiday article, it sure is strange reviewing this, but that’s the release window that Warner Brothers and DC decided to give their aquatic hero his big screen debut.  One thing is clear, Warner Brothers needs a blockbuster right now on their DC side of things, and the holiday window seems like their best bet for exposure.  Things have been pretty shaky with DC’s attempts to chase Marvel with the construction of their own cinematic universe.  Since it’s official launch with Man of Steel (2013), the DC universe has been received with mixed results.  Their movies do well enough at the box office, but their reception from fans and critics are another story.  The consensus for most people is that the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), just feels like a studio cashing in their noteworthy characters with movies that don’t quite understand what makes those characters great in the first place; at least not in the same way that Marvel treats their characters.  This was particularly clear with the failure of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), an overly grim, dramatically hollow spectacle that alienated a fanbase that had long wanted to see the two iconic characters sharing the screen finally.  Since then, DC has been soul searching, while at the same time having to fulfill their overly ambitious franchise plans that BvS was supposed to have laid the groundwork for.  Things became even more complicated with the failure of Justice League (2017) last year.  Hoping to replicate the success of Marvel’s Avengers franchise, DC found the weakness of their franchise plan resulting in their big team film making less money than a standalone Thor sequel.  Justice League was supposed to be a game changer and the dream come true for every DC Comics fan who had waited years for it.  Instead, it was just another confused product of a movie studio without a sense of direction.

But, not there were signs of hope for DC.  The same year Justice League underwhelmed, they also found huge success with their stand alone film for Wonder Woman.  Not only did the movie pull in spectacular numbers at the box office (becoming the DCEU’s highest grossing film to date), but it also won critical success as well.  As the Justice League plans have crumbled, further complicated by the fact that actors Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck both dropped out of the roles of Superman and Batman respectively, DC and Warner Brothers decided to refocus their DC Universe in a new direction.  Seeing as how well Wonder Woman performed on it’s own, the new direction of the studio became to focus on stand alone features rather that could franchise themselves, and hopefully maybe stitch together in the future.  Next year, we are getting the first of these stand alone DC films, with the Joker backstory movie from director Todd Phillips with Joaquin Phoenix starring as the Clown Prince.  After that, we will also get a Birds of Prey film, with Margot Robbie reprising her role of Harley Quinn from Suicide Squad (2016).  And then there is Ava DuVernay’s New Gods film that is currently in early development.  It’s different, but all together this could work better for DC in the long run because it allows them to put more focus in the movies themselves rather than concerning themselves with building a shared universe.  However, they still must deal with the remnants of the old DCEU.  Wonder Woman is currently getting a sequel, reuniting star Gal Gadot and director Patty Jenkins, which is the current best thing they have going.  But without a Superman or Batman, it leaves their franchises in doubt.  The Flash (currently played by Ezra Miller) has unfortunately seen his film stalled in production multiple times, and any mention of Cyborg getting his own movie has been nil up to now as well.  And this is the state that we find the final member of the Justice League, Aquaman, as he makes his debut in a standalone film.  The only question now is does this help rise the tide of DC’s fortunes, or is it another anchor that drags them down into the abyss.

A year after the events of Justice League, Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) has returned to his usual work of protecting the seas from criminals and polluters who wish to cause harm to his world.  After saving a submarine crew from a band of pirates, Arthur returns to the home of his father, Tom (Temuera Morrison) to take a break.  However he is met there by an Atlantean princess named Mera (Amber Heard), who tells him that there is trouble brewing in the undersea kingdom that Arthur is heir to.  Arthur refuses to get involved, because he feels more kinship to his home on dry land, and is angry at the people of Atlantis for having executed his mother, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), for desertion.  Arthur changes his mind after a worldwide tidal wave nearly wipes out his hometown community, no doubt caused by the advanced weaponry of the Atlantean people.  He reluctantly joins Mera and arrives at Atlantis, a prosperous megalopolis deep on the ocean floor.  There, he meets with his old trainer, Vulko (Willem Dafoe) who gives him a key to finding the lost Trident of Atlantis, a weapon that only the true king can posses.  However, before Arthur can embark on his journey, he is arrested and brought before the current king of Atlantis, his half brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson).  Orm is in the middle of consolidating his power in the hopes of becoming Oceanmaster, which will enable him to bring his forces to the surface and conquer the people on land as well, and Arthur’s claim to the throne is getting in his way.  Arthur does manage to escape with the aid of Mera, which makes her a fugitive as well, and they must work together in order to find the Trident that can restore order to the Ocean kingdoms.  But, in order to keep them from their goal, Orm makes a deal with an land based assassin with a axe to grind of his own against Arthur; the ruthless Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen).

Even before coming to the big screen, Aquaman already has had a lot of negative baggage to overcome.  Often the most ridiculed of all the DC super heroes, making the character work on the big screen without coming across as silly was certainly a chore for any filmmaker.  Warner Brothers gave the task to Director/ Producer James Wan was given the reigns to do so after he has built his own cinematic universe there at the studio within the horror genre, through his highly successful Conjuring franchise and all of it’s spinoffs.  The upside is that Wan is a fan of the character and was willing to give Aquaman a worthy cinematic treatment and not just cash in a paycheck.   But, even with Wan’s good intentions, there is still a larger issue that plagues this movie version of Aquaman.  For one thing, the movie is a bloated mess with too much CGI mayhem getting in the way of a cohesive narrative.  I was getting fairly annoyed while watching this movie because it could never just settle down and let the story find it’s rhythm.  It’s as if the movie was so concerned that we wouldn’t understand what was going on so it just stops to explain everything to us; the history of the Atlantean people, Arthur’s backstory, the internal politics, why the Atlanteans can speak underwater and have super agility in the ocean depths.  It just piles up so much that I frankly felt exhausted by the end, and this is a 2 1/2 hour movie.  Now, to be clear, this isn’t the worst we’ve seen from DC.  The movie thankfully has none of the grim, dreariness of the Zack Snyder directed features.  It is colorful and appropriately goofy at times.  But, there were points where I just wanted the movie to actually stay still and let the visuals tell the story, rather than having everything spelled out for us, and that would have made the film feel less forced than it does.

Naturally, a movie like this is going to need to be compared with the new high bar of the DCEU; Wonder Woman.  What made Wonder Woman work so well is that it established it’s world effectively within it’s opening act, and then allowed the story to breath and find itself within the second.  That’s why Wonder Woman’s journey was so fulfilling, because we were on that road to discovery alongside her as she learns more about the real state of the world, and the movie hit it’s high point in it’s No Man’s Land sequence which showed her finally making her stand as a super hero; not because it was serviceable for the story nor to get Wonder Woman where she needed to be, but because it allowed us the audience to see her do something heroic for the sake of doing what’s right.  That selflessness is what was missing in so many other DCEU movies, and sadly it is missed yet again here in Aquaman.  Now, thankfully, Arthur Curry is not a selfish jerk in his narrative, but the movie never gives him that super hero moment that Wonder Woman possessed so well in her story.  Instead, DC opted to give him a narrative that fits his namesake in the grand Arthurian tradition, with a man of royal blood finding it in himself to become a king.  This, unfortunately, does not play out in the grandest of ways as the movie hits all the cliched notes that this kind of narrative has already brought to the big screen; from Excalibur (1981) to The Lion King (1994).  Aquaman never has a save the day moment in his movie, it’s all about protecting his own hide while he goes on a treasure hunt.  The movie does have moments that shine, and I’ll give James Wan credit for some well-staged fight scenes, especially a Sicilian encounter with Black Manta, but it’s all sadly drowned out in a movie filled with too many other things going on.

The movie’s best saving grace is Jason Momoa in the lead role.  Even while I began to lose interest in his overall story, I still enjoyed him in role of Aquaman.  What makes Momoa work here is the fact that he feels so comfortable in the role.  He’s never awkward nor monotone in his performance; whenever the movie requires him to be silly, he’s charmingly silly, but when it also calls for him to be serious, he approaches it with a great sense of dignity.  More importantly, he just looks like he’s having a lot of fun playing this character.  Even simple asides, or a perturbed look, bears a great amount of character through his performance and it helps to carry much of the entertainment value of this movie even through the murkiest of moments.  Unfortunately, much of the remaining cast of is a mixed bag.  I for one did not like Amber Heard in the role of Mera.  Her performance lacks all charisma, and she particularly looks out of place throughout the movie.  The biggest problem is that she and Momoa have absolutely zero chemistry, which makes their romantic subplot feel forced and unsatisfactory.  For the most part, they just bicker and push each other along, which I know is supposed to create sparks between the two, but it never quite worked.  What worked for the likes of Bogart and Hepburn or Ford and Fisher does not work at all here.  Patrick Wilson tries his best, and is often saddled with the clunkiest of dialogue that you can really tell he’s trying to deliver with the greatest of effort, but Orm is another in DC’s long line of underwhelming heavy’s.  He’s better than Steppenwolf and Jesse Eisenberg’s lame Lex Luthor, but still pales compared to Marvel’s current rogues gallery.  I did greatly enjoy the presence of Black Manta, played ferociously by Yahya Abdul-Mateen.  He steals every scene he’s in, which were never quite enough, and the movie really comes alive whenever he shows up.  Hopefully Black Manta has a future in the DCEU’s grand scheme, because I still think there is a lot more left to uncover with this iconic villain.  I also thought that Nicole Kidman and Temuera Morrison did quite well in their brief moments of screen time and wish there was more of them as well in this packed narrative.

I will also give credit to the world-building that James Wan put into his movie, even if it kind of overwhelms everything else.  The Kingdom of Atlantis is very creatively realized.  I love the fact that they show how the Atlantean society has evolved with the times the same way that the world above has as well, only with a ocean based twist.  One clever visual is seeing the massive structures of the kingdom built on top of the old ruins that made up the old, destroyed kingdom, much like how our modern earthbound cities have their relics of the past preserved as well.  It’s a world that also experiences traffic jams, contains sporting venues, and community structures that makes the world both foreign and familiar at the same time.  This is where the movie’s visuals do really shine, and it’s good to see DC move away from the dark grays of the Snyder films.  However, there comes a point where I felt the movie became too reliant on CGI, as every scene began to feel artificial, especially towards the end.  Even the encounter with Black Manta in Sicily looked too fake at points.  Some of the best super hero movies know when to balance their visual effects with something real to help make everything feel authentic and cohesive.  The effective first act does just that, with a great action set piece on a crippled submarine, where most of the visual treats are done purely through the excellent stunt work, especially when Momoa goes delightfully over the top.  However, by the final battle, it becomes abundantly clear that these are just actors dangling on wires in front of a green screen, and the magic begins to wear off, as does the ability to care about what is going on.  I can tell that James Wan is still on a learning curve when it comes to directing action, and for the most part he does deliver an imaginative world, but the balance is missing and it does cause one to get weary of what’s being thrown at them, and I for one stopped caring by the end.

I never outright hated what I was watching, but by the end I just didn’t care either.  Aquaman’s never really been one of the superheroes I cared one way or another about, and this movie does very little to make me any more interested.  That being said, Jason Momoa is definitely the best thing this movie and the franchise has going for it.  I do wish that in future Aquaman movies (if there are any, which is likely) that they actually draw back a little bit and not try to force too much into one movie.  A full Aquaman vs. Black Manta movie would be especially welcome, as those were the best parts of this one.  Also, put a lot more work into the character of Mera, because she gave absolutely nothing to this movie at all.  The world-building was adequate enough, but it overwhelmed whatever story they were trying to tell, and my hope is that with all the exposition out of the way, the Aquaman narrative will finally be able to dig into something meatier and more heroic.  It’s hard to tell what might happen next given the way that the DC Universe is in flux right now.  We know that Wonder Woman is going to continue pretty much unchanged, but everything else is up in the air right now, including Aquaman.  To the filmmakers credit, they took a movie that few had any hope for and managed to see it through even as the Universe it was a cog in the machine of began to fall apart.  Aquaman’s main issue is not if they managed to bring the character effectively to the big screen; they did, with a big help from Jason Momoa’s charisma.  The problem is that the movie does too much; it’s bloated, it has too many subplots that go nowhere, and all the best parts are too few and far between.  All in all, the movie is sadly a step backwards after the great leap forward that was Wonder Woman, but thankfully it’s not a step completely off the ledge.  It still improves a lot of things that were broken in the old Zack Snyder DC Universe, which on the whole is a positive.  I just wish that with a little more focus and some more grounded visuals this movie could have helped Aquaman break through the waves and rise above to become a true bright spot in the DC cinematic canon.

Rating: 6.5/10

Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse – Review

Since the turn of the century, Spider-Man has enjoyed a very strong place at the box office.  Swinging onto the screen with the Sam Raimi directed Spider-Man in 2002, the webslinger managed to generate the first ever box office weekend north of $100 million.  Two more films from the same team would follow with mixed results, though still very healthy and at the top of the class when it came to super hero franchises.  But something happened in the following decade that would shake up Spider-Man’s presence on the big screen.  After years of trying to find a permanent home for all their super hero properties, Marvel finally set up shop with their own studio after they were bought by the Walt Disney Company.  Now with deep pockets big enough to fund their plan for a shared universe, Marvel finally was able to tell stories the way they wanted to.  Only, there was still the problem of all the continuing contracts that remained at all the other studios in town.  Paramount and Universal, which held the rights to characters like Iron Man, the Hulk, and Captain America handed over their characters to Disney without issue, but the same cooperation would not be demonstrated from the other hold outs; Fox (who had the Fantastic Four and the X-Men) and Sony (who has Spider-Man).  With the upcoming merger of Disney and Fox next year, Marvel will finally have a huge chunk of their character roster back under their control, leaving Sony and Spider-Man the last remaining holdouts.  Now, to Sony’s credit, they did work out a deal with Disney that essentially boils down to a joint custody with the character.  Sony takes a minority share of profit when Spidey appears as an ensemble player in massive crossover, and a majority share whenever he has a standalone feature, with Disney taking the reverse on each.  That’s how we get Spiderman in Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018), and Iron Man in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017).  And for the most part, it’s been a mutually beneficial relationship.

However, there are some odd happenings on the Sony side where they are trying every way they can to work around the loopholes of the agreement.  As part of the deal, Marvel Studios has taken the measures of making all the future creative choices regarding the character; from the casting, to the types of stories that the character will be living through on the big screen.  This has of course been very beneficial for Spider-Man, as his storyline is now linked with the full Marvel universe, and the universally beloved casting of Tom Holland in the role has made many believe that this is best version of the character we’ve seen yet.  But, the team at Sony is showing more and more that they would like to be the ones in charge of this franchise and they are looking for ways to build a Spider-Man-esque franchise without using the character himself.  One way they have attempted to do that is by taking one of Spider-Man’s most famous foes and build a franchise around him instead.  That’s what happened this year with the creation of the movie Venom (2018), a standalone feature centered on the famous alien symbiote villain from the comics.  The movie benefited from the casting of Tom Hardy in the title role, but the film received a very polarizing reception from both fans and critics.  Still, it did well enough at the box office to warrant a sequel, but the disconnect from the rest of the Marvel Universe was palpable for most people.  Venom was more of a Sony movie than a Marvel movie, and a lot of fans were not happy to see this beloved character so cast aside, because of Sony’s refusal to play by Marvel’s rules.  That’s why you see the opening logo say “In Association with Marvel” meaning it was made with their blessing, but not their approval.  And it’s any wonder if Venom may ever cross paths with Spider-Man at all because of this, which would be a shame.  Safe to say, it’s a move that probably won’t endear Sony with comic book fans in the long run, but there is another feature coming out that may allow Sony to play in the world of Spider-Man on their own terms, and still make it worthy of the brand.  Simply, since Disney and Marvel are taking the charge with a live action Spider-Man, why not let Sony take charge with an animated one.

Thus, we have Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, a new animated film from Sony Animated Pictures.  Sony Animation has had mixed results over the years, ranging from good (Hotel Transylvania, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs), to mediocre (Peter Rabbit, Open Season), to downright awful (The Emoji Movie, Smurfs).  Spiderverse probably marks their most ambitious film to date and with good reason; they are playing with a comic book icon now.  You might think that the movie is your standard mild mannered Peter Parker saves the day story-line, but you are wrong.  This one focuses on Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a bright young student living in Brooklyn.  Miles lives under constant pressure living up to the high standards of his police officer Dad (Brian Tyree Henry), and finds solace in the counsel of his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), who indulges his more artistic tastes.  After stumbling through an underground sanctuary that belongs to his uncle, Miles finds a large Hadron collider that opens up a portal to other dimensions.  The collider is being operated by the crime boss Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who is thwarted when Spider-Man (Chris Pine) shuts the machine down.  Unfortunately it leaves Spider-Man fatally wounded, and he trusts Miles with the duty of keeping the key to Kingpin’s collider out of the villain’s hands.  Miles, who has also inherited the powers of Spider-Man, tries what he can to take up the mantle of the former hero.  But, he surprising has a run in with another Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) from one of the other dimensions; one where Spider-Man has fallen on hard times and has grown into a bit of a slob.  The older Spider-Man takes Miles under his wing and teaches him the basics.  Soon they are met by other inter-dimensional Spider-beings including Gwen Stacey aka Spider Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), anime girl Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and cartoon pig Spider-Ham (John Mulaney).  Together, they put their strengths to the test to stop the Kingpin’s plan and return everyone home safely, but that all hinges on whether Miles can find the hero within himself.

Thanks to catching a brief advance screening at my local Burbank, California theater, I was able to see this movie a week early.  And I’m very glad I did.  Quite in contrast to the compromised Venom  from a few months ago, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse is a movie made on Sony’s terms that feels more in the spirit of the character of Spider-Man.  Essentially, this is a movie that list being “In Association with Marvel” that Marvel will gladly give their approval to.  Animation really is the best way to present a separate story-line from the connected Marvel universe, and Into the Spiderverse delivers above and beyond what you would expect.  Not only do I think that this is one of the best Spider-Man films ever made (standing toe to toe with the likes of Spiderman 2 and Homecoming), but I would dare say it’s the best animated film that I have seen this year overall.  Yes, even heavy hitters like Pixar’s Incredibles 2 and Disney’s Ralph Breaks the Internet didn’t work as consistently well as this movie.  What makes Into the Spiderverse work so well is because it takes chances and carves out it’s own identity, even as a standalone animated feature.  I for one have never seen animation as stylized as seen here, taking a very comic book aesthetic to the extreme.  Even the very simple action of movement is differently realized in the movie, coming across as a hybrid between stop motion and actual real life, only animated through a computer.  It takes some getting used to but, by the end, you feel very enriched.  I just found the whole approach more interesting than all the other animated efforts this year, though I still very much liked Incredibles and Ralph too.   And the best thing is that it doesn’t try to distance itself from it’s comic book roots like so many of Sony’s other mismanaged super hero films.  It embraces it’s origins and even has a little fun with it as well.

One of the best elements of the movie is it’s sense of humor.  Much like movies such as Deadpool (2016) and The Lego Batman Movie (2017), this is a film that likes to break down the cliches of the genre while at the same time having fun with them.  This is especially personified in the older Spider-Man played by Jake Johnson.  His Peter B. Parker is the obvious cynical one and much of the film’s best jokes revolve around his ability to perform as Spider-Man, but with a slacker’s attitude.  I especially like the detail that he wears sweatpants through most of the movie.  There are some fun nods to past Spider-Man movies too, but turned on their heads as part of the film’s irreverent take on the mythos of the character.  I also really enjoyed the different Spider-Man types that we meet as well.  Nicolas Cage is especially hilarious as the moody to the point of absurdity Spider-Man Noir, and his vocal delivery had me cracking up most of the time.  Much of the humor feels very much in the same vein as a Lego Movie, and it’s not surprising given that one of the writers, Phil Lord, was also the creator of that film as well.  But, even with all the irreverence, the movie also delivers a lot of heartfelt emotion that doesn’t feel out of place.  And most of that is centered around the development of Miles Morales as a character.  Miles, a beloved version of the famed webslinger from the comic books, makes it to the big screen finally with a beautifully told coming of age story about becoming the hero he was always meant to be.  The road there is paved with a lot of humor, but when it needs to hit those emotional moments, it does not disappoint.  I especially liked how they dealt with the relationships he has with his Dad and his Uncle, and the unexpected turns that those points take.  There’s even a touching bond that he builds with the other Spider-beings that helps to enrich the story as a whole.  Even as the movie hits some wacky curves, it’s Miles story that gives the movie it’s beating heart.

The movie also benefits from a fantastic voice cast.  Shameik Moore delivers a surprisingly emotional turn as Miles, and helps to make him endearingly and also goofily charming at the same time.  He has to take the full burden of managing the wild changes in tone throughout the movie and he does so quite effectively.  Bringing perfectly tuned assistance is Jake Johnson as the middle aged Spider-Man.  His voice is perfect for this version of the character because he can go from quirky to sincere in a heartbeat.  Some of my favorite moments in the movie are from the little asides that he adds to the conversations in the movie; often pointing out the absurdity of their situations.  And a lot of his persona comes through in his performance, to the point where I could have easily seen Jake playing this same role in live action as well with the same exact result.  The same goes for Hailee Steinfeld who also brings the fan favorite Spider Gwen to the big screen for the first time.  Her role also brings a nice balance to the cast, as she is often the most proactive of the film’s heroes.  The previously mentioned Nicolas Cage is probably the funniest out of the bunch, just because his deadpan delivery is so perfect for the lines that he reads.  Also John Mulaney and Kamiko Glenn are wonderfully quirky in their own roles.  On the opposite side, Liev Schreiber delivers a wonderfully menacing turn as Kingpin, standing larger than life (literally) among the other Spider-Man baddies in the movie.  I was happy to see him play a version different than other versions of the character, like Michael Clark Duncan in 2003’s Daredevil and Vincent D’Onofrio in the Daredevil TV series, favoring a more cinematic heavy, crime boss version instead.  And his version is perfectly suited for this kind of version of Spider-Man, which is more cartoonish as a whole.

Speaking of cartoons, it’s an interesting move on Sony’s part to take the world of Spider-Man and put it in animation, given that the whole rest of Marvel is now owned by a company born out of an animation background.  Disney, curiously, has been very selective about where they cross their animated field with the Marvel properties that are now in their stable.  So far, apart from a couple cameos in Ralph Breaks the Internet, the only Marvel characters brought to life through animation have been the ones from Big Hero 6 (2014).  Sony has filled that hole quite effectively by taking the more noteworthy character of Spider-Man and bringing him into the animated medium.  But, they do so without running contrary with what Marvel is doing with Spider-Man in the Cinematic Universe.  This is very much it’s own thing, and that’s reflected in it’s visual aesthetic.  No one would confuse this with a Disney animated feature.  The texture of the visuals is really unique, and makes this film feel unlike any other movie you have ever seen.  There’s a hand-drawn quality to the characters and background that makes the movie feel very much like a comic book come to life, but at the same time, you can still tell it’s animated with the 3D capabilities that computer animation allows.  Character animation is also top notch, whether it’s in capturing the awkwardness of Miles Morales, the slouching, out of shape posture of Peter Parker, or the gracefulness of Spider Gwen.  I especially like how Peni Parker is animated in an anime style, making her really stand out among the others, and really taking advantage of the simulated hand drawn aesthetic.  Kingpin is also remarkably realized, portrayed as a bulky monster with the widest, squarest shoulders that you’ve ever seen.  Truthfully, you could never get this kind of look from Disney Animation; their in-house aesthetic is too entrenched over there.  Because Sony had less of a legacy to live up to, so they chose this opportunity to really experiment and be bold, and it worked beautifully.  If Sony keeps those Spider-Man rights in the years ahead, it might work best to have the animated medium be their best option, because it’s where they are best able to do the things that Disney can’t with the character.

While I feel that overall the Spider-Man character has been better realized through the guidance of Marvel Studios under the roof of Disney, it’s here in animation that Sony has shown it’s best avenue for continuing to work with the character.  It helps that Miles Morales is the center point of this Spider-Man story-line, allowing it to not conflict in any way with the Peter Parker story line in the MCU.  Although, it’s not like Miles will never make his way into that universe as well.  Both Into the Spiderverse and Homecoming share a common character with Miles’ uncle Aaron Davis, played by Mahershala Ali in the animated film and Donald Glover in live action.  The seeds have been planted, but for those impatient to see Miles Morales in his full “Spider” glory, then this movie will easily satisfy their appetite.  This is a great animated film from top to bottom with a lot of humor, a fair bit of heart-pounding action, and a surprising amount of heart at it’s center.  The biggest triumph of all is the character of Miles Morales, and this movie will instantly endear him to long time fans and newcomers alike.  I especially love that this is a movie that knows what it wants to be, and holds to it’s own unique identity.  I have certainly never seen an animated movie that looks like this one before, and it easily is a game-changer for the Sony Animation Studio; one that they have desperately needed for some time.  There could have been a lot of opportunities for this movie to have gone wrong, and come to theaters as a cash grab, but it thankfully doesn’t.  It’s a worthy addition to the cinematic presence of Spider-Man, and one that can stand apart, thankfully, from all the rest.  Also, being the first Spider-Man film released since the passing of Spidey’s legendary creators, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, this movie respectfully honors the legacy of their work (including the expected Stan Lee cameo) with a story and aesthetic that feels very much rooted in the comic book form.  Here’s to a healthy animated future for our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

Rating: 8.75/10

Ralph Breaks the Internet – Review

The 2012 animated film, Wreck-It Ralph, holds a very interesting place within the Disney canon.  It was the first animated film to be released after Disney’s noble but ultimately short-lived attempt at reviving the traditional animated format, with The Princess and the Frog (2009) and Winnie the Pooh (2011).  It was also the first computer animated film from the company’s in-house studio to distinguish itself, after the less than popular outings of Chicken Little (2005), Meet the Robinsons (2007), and Bolt (2008).  For the first time, Disney showed that they could create an computer animated feature that could compete on the same level as their output from Pixar.  And though Wreck-it Ralph was no record setter, it did well enough to gain a following and helped to set the Disney Animation Studio located in Burbank, California on the right footing that would quickly blow-up soon after with Frozen (2013), Zootopia (2016), and Moana (2016) soon after.  And I think that the reason Wreck-it Ralph worked as well as it did was because it was an animated film from Disney that had it’s own unique identity.  You could tell from earlier CG animated flicks from Disney that they were struggling with the medium, as animators who were more comfortable with sketch drawings were suddenly forced to learn a whole new way to animate, and it often reflected in stories that never quite felt quite right in this style of animation.  Ralph, on the other hand, is tailor-made for computer animation.  It takes place in a world of video games after all, so there really was no other way to visualize that world other than through CGI.  It was a hit with both audiences and critics, and was a touchstone for the legendary cartoon maker, which now has led Disney to make another unusual step that you don’t see from them very often; making an animated sequel to one of their movies.

Now, when I say that Disney sequels are rare, I am of course ignoring the often maligned direct-to-video sequels of the 90’s and 2000’s.  It’s a recognized, canonical sequel that Disney rarely ever undertakes, and to date there have only been three previous ones; The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Fantasia 2000 (2000) and Winnie the Pooh.  This new follow-up to Wreck-it Ralph titled Ralph Breaks the Internet marks the first sequel ever for one of Disney’s computer animated features (and it won’t be the last, as Frozen 2 is scheduled for next year).  But the question is now, how do you carry on from where the last one left off.  The answer would have been simple for most animation studios; because the first movie was populated by so many famous video game icons of the past, it would make sense to continue showing even more game characters thrown into the mix that weren’t in the original.  However, the filmmakers behind this sequel decided to go in a whole different direction.  Instead of just limiting their world to just the denizens of an arcade community, they decided to broaden their scope and take a look at the whole world wide web itself.  There within they have the opportunity to take their retro-minded characters and bring them into a fast paced world that they are initially not quite ready for.  The premise also allows for a cheeky, satirical look at all things internet related, which makes you wonder if they can contain it all in one short 90 minute run time.  It’s a bold move regardless, because it shows that Disney is not just rehashing the same plot over again, which some animated sequels unfortunately tend to do. The question remains is whether Disney is able to find a story within that premise that manages to live up to the original.  It also remains to be seen if the choice of tackling the internet as the setting provides enough fodder for an entertaining adventure, or if it’s too out touch with the realities that real internet experiences have in our daily lives today.

The story picks up 6 years after the original, which is exactly the same amount of time between movie releases as well.  Wreck-it Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) continue to spend their days together as best friends, bouncing from game to game in the Litwak’s Arcade that they call home.  One day, Mr. Litwak (Ed O’Neill), the arcade owner, plugs a new device into their terminal, which turns out to be a WiFi router.  After a malfunction leaves Vanellope’s game, Sugar Rush, broken and unplugged, Ralph and her begin to believe they can find the solution to their problem by using the new device to explore the Web.  After leaving all the remaining Sugar Rush teammates behind with their close friends Fix-it Felix (Jack McBrayer) and Sgt. Calhoun (Jane Lynch) as their new caregivers, Ralph and Vanellope enter the router and find the terminal that leads to the internet itself.  Once through the portal, they find a vast open community that’s home to numerous sites like Amazon, Google, Instagram, and the place they need to go the most; Ebay.  There they find the replacement part they need for Vanellope’s game, but are unable to afford it.  Looking for ways to raise money fast leads them to an open world racing game called Slaughter Race, where they need to steal the car of the game’s most expert driver, Shank (Gal Gadot).  Though unsuccessful with their heist, they do earn the admiration of Shank, who suggests  that they should talk to a viral marketing algorithm that can help them get rich quick named Yesss (Taraji P. Henson).  Yesss sees the potential in Ralph’s clumsy behavior and immediately puts him to work making viral videos that will make money with the more likes he receives.  Meanwhile, Vanellope is put to work with spreading the link to Ralph’s videos, which leads her to of all places, the Disney website, where she has a pivotal encounter with the Princesses who convince her to look deep inside to understand what she really wants in life.  The only question is, is what she wants something that might tear her friendship with Ralph apart?

The movie certainly has a lot to pack into it’s short run time, and for the most part, it does pull it off nicely.  The movie’s greatest asset is the sense of humor, which is even more fast paced than the previous film.  A major part of the enjoyment of this movie is just in catching all the background jokes, relating to all sorts of puns related to the internet.  Some things are easy to catch, but others are pretty subtle.  There’s a moment later in the film where Ralph ends up on the lower depths of the internet, and in the dark and dusty scraps of this graveyard like area, you can see signs for Dial-Up service and AOL; a nice nod to relics of the old internet that a keen eye can get a good chuckle out of.  I would say that this is probably the most consistently funny movie in the entire Disney canon, because unlike the other movies before it, it does not add any sugar to the spice; it is wall to wall jokes unhampered by schmaltz.  And for the most part, the jokes hit their mark.  Anyone familiar with the highs and lows of navigating the internet will find a lot pointed jabs at everything great and not so great about the service.  One of my favorite funny moments in the movie is seeing how the outside world interacts with the citizens of the online world.  In the Slaughter Race section, we see the online players animated in a jumpy, glitchy way compared to every else because that’s how an online avatar would act when controlled through a joystick or controller.  The movie does keep things PG, as the darker elements of the web are wisely not mentioned or are in the carefullest of ways; though surprisingly the Dark Web does make an appearance, albeit in a sanitized version. I also liked the fact that Disney didn’t overdo it with the visit to their own website.  What could have easily turned into shameless self promotion thankfully holds together as a nice excuse for meta humor directed at itself.  And that Princess scene is likely going to become one of the most talked about moments of the year, and is made all the more impressive when you learn that most of the princesses retain their original voice actors, as do a couple Marvel and Star Wars characters as well.

The one negative I can say about the movie is that it’s pretty light on story.  The central conflict is pretty well established early on, and the movie does little to really delve much deeper throughout the rest of the story.  Basically it comes down to Ralph having too many insecurities and it’s made him into a clingy friend, which is starting to hold Vanellope back from achieving her own dreams.  The movie’s break-neck pacing and huge amount of entertaining humor can make you forget about the plot’s shortcomings through most of the movie, but after a while, you do kind of realize that about halfway through, the filmmakers pretty much ran out of story.  That inevitably leads to an underwhelming final act, in which Ralph and Vanellope head towards a final confrontation that is a very heavy handed metaphor for the status of their relationship.  While the finale does take the movie into epic territory in terms of scale, it doesn’t have the emotional heft that you found in the first movie.  At the end of the original Wreck-it Ralph, Ralph’s arc found him believing in himself to where he could live with acting as the bad guy while being a hero where it counts.  It also helped that there was a strong antagonistic presence in that movie in the form of the villainous King Candy, played by Alan Tudyk (who’s also in the sequel playing a Truman Capote-like search bar character named Knowsmore).  Sadly, this is a Disney movie without a villain, which doesn’t necessarily ruin the movie, but is still missed nonetheless.  While the humor is definitely ratcheted up, I still think that the lack of cohesive story does bring the movie a notch below the original.  And it’s surprising that even with a longer than normal runtime of 112 minutes, the movie still drops a lot of plot elements for no reason.  An entire B-plot involving Felix and Calhoun seemed to be set up and is completely forgotten about for almost the entire movie; something which I think the directors were aware of, because there is a funny joke near the end that references how their whole arc was completely left off screen.  Overall, I’ve seen movies handle their story more poorly, but the lack of it here is still something that holds the movie back from being truly amazing.

One of the movie’s greatest assets however is the visualization of the internet world.  Like I mentioned before, a big part of the movie’s humor is in the little background jokes you can find throughout the movie, and it’s a great credit to the filmmakers for putting so much effort into things that will likely go unnoticed on first viewing.  It’s also incredible watching the many different ways that they re-imagined different websites throughout the online world, making each a different skyscraper in the expansive metropolis that we see in the movie.  Some are cleverly visualized, like Twitter being represented by a large aviary housing bird-like tweets.  Even the made up online communities like Yesss’ BuzzTube website and the Slaughter Race game are presented in a visually interesting way.  I especially like all the details put into the Slaughter Race environment, which does a fairly good job of recreating the look of most post-apocalyptic online multiplayer open world games.  It even manages to throw in some ridiculous elements like sewer sharks, and still make it feel not out of place.  Even with all the tongue-in-cheek representations of real websites, the movie still does a good job of not making any of it distracting.  Compare this with a similarly themed movie from last year called The Emoji Movie, which was really pushy when it came to showing off all the different brands that they got product placements for.  When Emoji Movie stops the progress of the story just to have it’s characters play a game of Candy Crush for 5 minutes, you can easily see the cynicism on display, as the movie clearly just existed to cross promote.  Ralph Breaks the Internet thankfully refrains from shilling for all the corporate brands too heavily, and it’s all better integrated into the story itself, because seeing all the recognizable brands in the background help to give the online world a sense of authenticity.  Not seeing them there would have made the film feel a little weird, as the filmmakers would’ve been forced to make up new websites, which would have been a self-defeating chore.  Thankfully, the online world is fully realized and is integrated into the story much better than it otherwise could have been, had a more cynical approach been in place.

The movie also benefits from a well-rounded cast, both returning and brand new.  One of the things that really helped out the original was the genuine chemistry between the two leads, Ralph and Vanellope.  Their relationship was at the heart of the first film, and it does continue in the same way here as well.  Though the movie does struggle to generate story momentum through the arc of their story, it still benefits from that chemistry, and the film soars every time they share the screen together.  It helps that John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman are clearly having fun voicing these two characters.  Reilly’s performance primarily remains the same in both films and he is still really funny in the role.  I especially like how much he has fun doing his variations on famous viral videos of the past.  Sarah Silverman is actually given a more improved role in this outing, as her character has both more screen-time and more of an arc.  I like what the did with Vanellope a lot more in this film than the last, as she sees her options opened up a bit more in the online world.  Her interaction with the Disney Princesses is a particular highlight, especially in how out of place she seems initially.   The movie even gives her a princess song, written specially by famed Disney songwriter Alan Menken just for this movie, and it’s not just a hilarious parody of a classic Disney tune, but also touchingly performed with gusto by Silverman, clearly enjoying her moment.  Other new characters are briefly used, but nevertheless make an impact.  I especially liked Gal Gadot’s Shank, who stands out as a enjoyably rough but good-hearted ally for our heroes.  Taraji P. Henson is also hilariously over-the-top as Yesss, tapping into that no-nonsense executive mentality that makes her brief moments on screen worthwhile.  Getting all the Disney Princess voices together is also an impressive feat, and you can hear how much fun the actresses are having poking fun at their previous roles, especially with Princess Merida’s ultra-thick Scottish accent.  And though they are sadly sidelined for most of the movie, Jack McBrayer and Jane Lynch are still hilarious in their brief moments as Felix and Calhoun.  Overall, the cast helps to make this an enjoyable experience and one that will entertain just as well as the original.

As far as sequels go, Ralph Breaks the Internet does a lot of things right.  It stays true to the characters and also expands the world, making it bigger in scale and also broadens the humor. It unfortunately seems to run out of story halfway through, and even with a nearly 2 hour runtime, the lightweight plot does feel padded at times.  Thankfully most of the filler is entertaining enough to keep the movie afloat, but I just wish that the filmmakers had found more conflict within their narrative to justify the extra time they had.  I understand that they had some limitations; there is only so much you can explore about the internet within a PG-rated story.  You obviously can’t go into too much detail about the worst parts of the internet like the trolling, the hate speech, and the other taboo spots that thrive within there.  The closest the movie gets is when Ralph finds his way into the comments section of the BuzzTube page, and learns very quickly how toxic things can be on the internet.  I would have liked to have seen more of the de-humanizing and anti-social aspects of online activity be brought more into the story as an antagonistic threat to the characters, but what we got instead is not exactly bad either.  There is still plenty to enjoy about Ralph Breaks the Internet, especially through the movie’s sense of humor.  I like the fact that it doesn’t dwell too long on some jokes and keeps the pace up throughout the entire movie.  There are even some treats left for us through the end credits (and please wait until the very end for an especially hilarious parody).  It’s good to see that this was a sequel worthy of it’s place in the Disney canon.   While there isn’t anything in it exactly that will break the internet itself, it’s still a very enjoyable romp that will keep families entertained over these upcoming holidays.

Rating: 8/10

First Man – Review

It’s a career long struggle to be at the top of your field for most people in the film industry.  It’s even rarer to see someone reach that level before they even reach middle age.  That’s been the case with film director Damien Chazelle.  Chazelle has seen a meteoric rise in Hollywood over the last couple of years, with only three feature films to his credit.  Starting off from the critical darling Whiplash (2014), Chazelle would undertake a very ambitious project for his second feature, which was also a long time dream project of his.  The musical feature La La Land (2016) caught fire immediately upon release and instantly made the thirty-something phenom a force to be reckoned with.  Of course, the movie has now garnered the notorious reputation of having lost out the Best Picture race, even despite it’s record tying 14 nominations, and having been mistakenly named the winner at the ceremony.  But, Damien still managed to walk away from the Oscars as the youngest Best Director winner in history at the astonishingly young age of 32.  Now, certainly, coming from an already affluent family and earning a degree from Harvard helped to give him a leg up that few others have the privilege of having in the industry, but it’s still undeniable that he is an enormously skilled filmmaker who, more than anything else, has a bold sense of how to use the medium to tell some larger than life stories.  Many rising stars among filmmakers tend to fluctuate between taking on big risks or steadily working with intimate, personal stories.  Damien Chazelle, it would seem, is eager to build upon what he has already built and push even further with the medium of film.  After taking on a tumultuous character study with Whiplash and a whimsical love story with La La Land, what appears to be the next adventure for the young director to pursue is the skies itself with the space based biopic, First Man.

First Man is another in what seems to be a quasi-Renaissance of films about the cosmos.  Starting off with Alfonso Cuaron’s ground-breaking thriller, Gravity (2013), we have seen a new film nearly every year that continues to use the final frontier as it’s point of interest.  Christopher Nolan delivered his epic exploration of deep space exploration with 2014’s Interstellar.  Ridley Scott followed that with The Martian (2015), a harrowing stranded on a desert island adventure where that lonely island just happens to be the fourth rock from the sun.  These were critical hits, but more recent space themed movies, like 2016’s Passengers, 2017’s Life, and this year’s Cloverfield Paradox have all proven underwhelming by comparison.  But what set’s First Man apart from all the more recent space themed movies is that it’s not looking into the future, but rather the past.  All the other movies are speculations of what space travel will be like in the years ahead, but First Man tells the story of how we got there in the first place.  It tells the story of the monumental Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, and more importantly, sheds light on the personal story of the man in charge of the mission iteself; Astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon.  There have been many celebrated movies that have celebrated the achievements of the space race, from Phillip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983) to Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995).  There was also the delightful earthbound, behind the scenes movie of Hidden Figures (2016), which told the story of the women who figured out the math that made space travel possible.  But strangely, we have never seen a feature film about the historic mission to the moon itself, nor about Armstrong; which is partly due to the legendary figure’s insistence on privacy.  With First Man, director Damien Chazelle hopes to change that and shed light on what led to the giant leap for mankind.

The movie starts off showing Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) in his early career as a test pilot for rocket jets that were designed to launch into near orbit around earth.  After the tragic death of his young daughter from cancer, Neil is grounded due to questions about his mental stability.  He soon learns that the NASA program is seeking candidates for it’s Gemini program, which is intent on testing the possibilities of taking men on a mission to the moon.  Armstrong moves his family closer to the Houston command center and performs well at his interview.  He joins the Gemini team, where he quickly builds a friendship with his fellow trainees, Elliot See (Patrick Fugit) and Edward White (Jason Clarke).  Armstrong builds valuable experience along the way and is soon selected by the program’s director, Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) to pilot the Gemini 8 rocket.  Not long after getting the honor, he learns of Elliott See’s tragic accident on a test flight.  Suffering another loss in his life, Armstrong finds solace in his work, which he takes to an almost manic level of seriousness.  Neil’s self imposed seclusion puts a strain on his relationship with his two sons, Rick and Mark, as well as his patient but over-burdened wife, Janet (Claire Foy).  Neil manages to successfully conclude the docking test aboard the Gemini 8 capsule, but a malfunction nearly brings him to the brink of death and casts doubt on the future of the moon landing itself.  This coupled with the tragic Apollo 1 fire that claimed the lives of three astronauts, including Ed White, and the future of NASA becomes pretty dire.  Out of all this, Neil Armstrong is selected alongside Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Mike Collins (Lukas Haas) to command the pivotal Apollo 11 mission that’s been picked for the actual landing.  With so much at stake, both personally and historically, Armstrong must pull together in order to do the impossible.

The first challenge for a filmmaker tackling a historic event is to make a story that everyone knows the outcome to feel brand new.  We all know how the Apollo 11 mission turned out; everything went according to plan without incident and all three astronauts returned home safely and lived prosperous lives for many years after.  First Man needed to find another way to build tension for it’s retelling of the mission in order to work as a film, and it does so by chronicling the enormous struggle it took to get to the moon.  The movie isn’t so much a film about the Apollo 11 mission itself as it is a personal journey through the years long process it took for NASA to finally work out all the problems and get everything right.  In this regard, the movie succeeds spectacularly.  The most fascinating aspect of the movie is in witnessing the human cost that it took on the people in the Gemini and Apollo missions.  Lives were lost in tragic ways, which left a deep scar emotionally on those left behind.  Damien Chazelle does a great job of showing the emotional toll that keeps building on these people over time, as they watch friends and loved ones die suddenly.  And the shocking aspect of the movie is that very little time was allowed for these men and their wives to grieve, because the mission to the moon was so paramount and they all had to bury their sorrow quickly and move on.  What the movie brilliantly lays out is the fact that reaching the moon was a hard fought victory, and by the time the lander does reach the surface, you feel the full weight of what has just been accomplished.  I love how poetic the actual scene on the moon is, because it’s almost tranquil compared to the whirlwind of emotions that preceded it.  The movie finds it’s greatest success in building the tension through the human experience of what these guys went through to get to this moment, and once we finally do reach the moon, the film graciously lets us breath and enjoy the beauty.

Unfortunately, in order to do justice to the tumultuous trial and error that it took to reach the moon, the movie sacrifices something important that might have helped to elevate it just a little more.  The movie is strangely emotionally vacant when it comes to the human story, as we don’t really get a good sense of who these people are and what makes them tick.  The movie attempts it’s best shot at understanding the person that was Neil Armstrong, but I feel that by the end he remains an enigma to the viewer.  That’s not to say that Ryan Gosling gives a bad performance; quite the contrary, he gives one of his best performances yet in this movie.  I think the problem lies in the fact that Damien Chazelle is working from a script that is not his own (a first) and from a writer whose style is very different from what Chazelle likes to work with.  The script was written by Josh Singer, an Oscar winner for the movie Spotlight (2015).  What Singer is great at as a writer is detailing historical events through meticulous detail and finding a compelling story within, which he managed to do so well in a movie like Spotlight and more recently Steven Spielberg’s The Post (2017).  But, at the same time, his scripts are not character studies.  The people within his scripts fill their roles, are often very interesting, but are ultimately not what drives the story, that instead being the event itself.  Chazelle on the other hand is much more comfortable exploring the minds of his characters, often to uncomfortable points, like the tumultuous relationships he explored in Whiplash and La La Land.  First Man finds the director out of his comfort zone and I don’t quite believe he found the emotional center of this movie the way he would’ve liked to because of the scripts limitations.  The details about the mission are still brilliantly staged, but when it cuts back to Armstrong’s domestic life, the movie feels like it looses it’s way.  I wanted to understand more about what Armstrong was like as a person, and I feel that the movie didn’t quite deliver on that.  It does show flashes where Armstrong seems to still be haunted by the memory of his daughter, which might have been true, but it just comes across as a fabrication on the filmmakers part to try to find some explanation that they honestly didn’t have an answer for.

Despite the shortcomings of the film’s script and emotional weight, I still have to commend the craft that was put into it.  The movie is visually stunning, and shows that Damien Chazelle is still exploring new ways to play around with the medium.  I like the fact that he is continuing to experiment with different kinds of film stock for his movies.  After shooting La La Land in the rarely used Cinemascope 55 format, which helped to give that movie an old-fashioned Hollywood musical texture to it’s lavish visuals, he takes a whole different approach to First Man which not only affects the aesthetic of the movie, but also offers up some underlining thematics as well.  The majority of the movie is actually shot in 16 mm, a very grainy format often used by small budget movies and documentaries.  The effect really helps to sell the intimacy of the production, putting the viewer right in the center of the action, as if they were watching a documentary.  This really helps to amp up the tension in some of the more intense scenes when the astronauts are launching into space.  Damien Chazelle really captures the cramp, claustrophobic feeling of being inside one of those capsules, something which the grainy detail of the 16 mm image really enhances.  It also feels appropriate to the era, as most of the footage we have of the behind the scenes workings of NASA during the 60’s also comes in the form of 16 mm stock footage.  But, once the moment arrives when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin take their first steps on the moon, Damien Chazelle does something very bold.  The two astronauts open the hatch, and suddenly the movie shifts to stunning 70 mm IMAX.  You don’t really get the full effect unless you see the movie projected in IMAX (like I did), but it’s still an incredible effect.  Suddenly the film shifts to ultra high definition and bold colors that only IMAX can fully exploit, and it spectacularly presents the majesty of the moment.  Thematically it fits with the rest of the film itself, with grainy 16 mm signifying uncertainty before the mission and IMAX revealing the clarity of what all this was leading up to.  It shows that cinematicly, Damien Chazelle is still using his position as direction to really make some bold choices, and this movie benefits greatly from that in a visual standpoint.

Damein Chazelle has actually stated that he’s looked at the movies of Christopher Nolan as an inspiration point when it came to finding the epic scope of the film’s biggest moments, and it’s very apparent from the way he stages the crucial parts in outer space.  There are a few parallels with this and the movie Interstellar, especially the shots showing the exteriors of the spacecrafts, but First Man breaks from it’s predecessor by never venturing too far away from those crafts either.  Christopher Nolan balanced a lot of his movie out with close up shots of his spacecrafts as well as wide shots that accentuated just how insignificant they were in the great expanse of the cosmos.  First Man never goes that far, and keeps much of the visuals close to the human element as possible.  There are one or two wide shots of the moon in all it’s glory, but most of what we see is from the point of view of the astronauts.  This helps to give the movie a very valuable “you are there” experience, and we the viewer feel like we’ve been dropped into the cockpit with Neil and Buzz.  When you see the surface of the moon coming closer and closer through the port windows of the lander, you have the same amount of anticipation as the astronauts do, and that landing sequence is easily the film’s most effective moment.  I have to give a lot of praise to both the film’s visual effects unit and it’s sound design team.  The movie makes brilliant use of large scale models in it’s recreation of the rockets that launched the astronauts into space, as well as the moon itself.  It’s all shown very subtly, further enhancing the realism that the movie is intending to achieve.  And if there is an absolutely certain Oscar win in this movie’s future, it’s the sound design.  You hear every moan, clank, and bang of these spacecrafts as they go through the harrowing experience of launching past the Earth’s atmosphere and reaching the vastness of Space.  Those sounds especially reinforce the claustrophobia of every scene as well, and drives up the tension even further.  I love the fact that all the noise of the movie completely disappears once the hatch is opened on the moon and all that we hear thereafter is the actual recordings of Armstong on the moon followed by a graceful musical underscore by Oscar winner Justin Hurwitz.  For a movie that so aggressively amps up the cacophony of noises that the astronauts had to endure to reach their goal, the movie ends on a wonderfully quiet and peaceful climax.

As a chronicle of the greatest achievement of mankind in the 20th century, First Man largely succeeds.  I found myself fascinated by the steps that it took to get to that moment, and what that meant to the world as a result.  I certainly never considered the human cost that was involved before and the movie really shows how this moment in history was hard won.  I just wish that the film had balanced that with a closer look at the people themselves.  Everyone’s personalities are fixed and there are no great arcs for the people in this story; not even Neil Armstrong.  I feel that this is the one disappointing thing in what is otherwise a brilliantly staged production.  I believe that this is more a flaw of the script itself rather than anything else, because the very talented cast does their best to work as much personality as they can into these historical figures.  Corey Stoll does the best out of the bunch as his version of Buzz Aldrin comes off as obnoxious in the most humorous kind of way.  I also thought Claire Foy used her brief moments of passion as the long frustrated wife of Neil Armstong to great effect, finding the strength in what is otherwise an underwritten role.  Gosling, probably had the hardest job to undertake as Neil Armstrong was one of the least known figures of the early days of NASA.  Armstrong never sought publicity or actively argued that he should be the first.  He was the first man to walk on the moon simply because someone had to be.  The movie, as well as Gosling as an actor, seems to have had it’s arms tied as a result, because there is very little to actually mine from this man’s life.  Armstrong rarely did interviews, never wrote a memoir, and all we know about him is from the recollections of his friends and family.  As a result, the movie works best as a chronicle of his achievements, but not as an examination of his character.  For a director like Chazelle, whose work up to now has been primarily focused on intimate portraits of personal struggles, this unfortunately feels like a step backwards for the director.  But only in a storytelling sense, as he continues to impress as a visual artist, becoming even more confident working with a larger scale.  It is still great to see an ambitious film finally devoted to this moment in history, emphasizing it’s importance and how much it propelled us forward as a civilization.  And Chazelle and company do honor it with a great deal of profound respect.  For this still young director, it will be interesting how he takes the next leap forward himself in future projects.

Rating: 8/10

The Predator – Review

To be fairly honest, the Predator series has never really been my thing.  I don’t hate the movies, nor really dislike them at all.  I just don’t have the overwhelming admiration that some people have for these films.  I guess as action movies they are alright.  I’ve even found myself quoting the original 1987 film out of context many times, including the usuals like, “Get to the Choppa!!” or “Ain’t got time to bleed.”  But if you were to ask me now to complete a retrospective of all the movies in this series, it would be a short one, because this is a franchise that has largely flown under my radar.  And strangely, unlike most other franchises born out of it’s era, this has been a largely dormant series for long periods of time.  There was a sequel starring Danny Glover that premiered in 1990, shortly after the original, but after that it wasn’t until 2010 that we saw another entry into this franchise; the Adrian Brody-headlined Predators.  Sure there were the cross-over Alien vs. Predator series that launched in the early to mid 2000’s, but that’s a whole different franchise to itself.  Predator, 30 years after it’s beginning, only had 3 films total as a part of it’s own canon, which is pretty small compared to all the Star WarsDie Hards, and Jurassic Parks that we’ve seen in the same time frame.  Hell, we are up to our 9th Fast and the Furious, and that series has only been around half the time that Predator has.  One the one hand, it’s helped keep the mystique of the character fresh, because he hasn’t been diluted by dumbed down sequels for many years.  But, on the other hand, his long absences from the big screen may be due to the limitations of the character.  There’s only so much that you can get out of an alien hunter with no name or backstory.  But, like most other things with nostalgia value, the Predator has caught the eye of Hollywood once again, and the call for a reboot has brought him back to the big screen.

First thought about doing another Predator movie now is that this is just a studio grabbing after some easy cash.  And when a studio makes that choice, it usually leads to a sub-par effort that doesn’t rightly value the thing that it’s trying to exploit.  This was the worry that a lot of fans of the series were worried about going into this new reboot.  And then it was announced that the duties of bringing Predator back to the big screen would be going to writer/director Shane Black, and that suddenly made people interested once again.  The choice of hiring Black is an interesting one.  He of course is a rock star among screenwriters, having penned some of the most highly regarded action films of the last 30 years, from Lethal Weapon (1987), to The Last Boy Scout (1991), to The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), and in more recent years he has distinguished himself as a director with equally beloved films like Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2004) and The Nice Guys (2016).  But, the other interesting aspect is that Shane Black already has an established history with the franchise, as he was a part of the original 1987 film’s supporting cast.  During his fledgling early days in Hollywood as a wannabe actor, Shane managed to land the role of Hawkins in the now classic film, working opposite heavy hitters like Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura, and Carl Weathers.  But once his screenplay for Lethal Weapon sold and went into production at the same time, Shane said goodbye to acting and never looked back.  So, it’s interesting that he would make a return to a franchise that represented a very different chapter of his career.  Clearly, he doesn’t need The Predator; his career is already on solid ground.  I think he took this opportunity mostly because he saw something that he could add to it, and possibly make it his own.  Regardless, it got a lot of people excited to know that this franchise was in the hands of someone with a unique voice like Shane Black.  But, does that promise result in a worthwhile entry into this famed franchise.

The movie begins with a Predator ship crash landing in the jungles of Southern Mexico.  There, a black ops unit of American soldiers are about to eliminate a drug kingpin, and have their mission disrupted by the crash.  One of the soldiers, Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) finds the Predator’s gear, including a helmet and armband, and uses them to survive the creature’s deadly attacks.  After subduing the alien, he sends the contraband back home by mail, so that he can have evidence of his encounter that will prevent the army from declaring him insane as a way of silencing him in order to keep the incident under wraps.  The package makes it’s way to McKenna’s home, where his Autistic son Rory (Jacob Tremblay) begins to play around with it, unknowingly unlocking and decoding it’s computer systems.  Once captured and interrogated, Quinn is taken to a transport which will take him to another place for further examination (meaning the loony bin).  On the bus, he meets fellow soldiers who themselves are dealing with a variety of mental disorders; self-destructive Nebraska Williams (Trevante Rhodes), joke-telling Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key), pyromaniac Lynch (Alfie Allen), Tourettes plagued Baxley (Thomas Jane), and Christ complexed Nettles (Augusto Aguilera).  Meanwhile, on the same base that this crew is being held, the same Predator specimen is being examined by a team of scientists, including the chief commander of the investigation, Treager (Sterling K. Brown) and biologist Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn), who has found the shocking discovery that the Predator species is using different DNA from multiple species to evolve into more deadly beings.  This becomes evident once a much larger and scarier Predator arrives and kills the smaller one found earlier.  Discovering all this, Bracket enlists the help of McKenna and his outcast soldiers as they try to reach the Predator before he finds the source that brought him to their home; Quinn’s son Rory who’s been using the Predator gear as a Halloween costume.

There’s a strange dynamic to this movie that might make or break one’s viewing experience.  For one thing, it feels like both a Predator movie and a Shane Black movie.  Neither deters from the other, and in some cases it actually helps the other out and makes it work better than it otherwise would have.  But, at the same time, this movie does feel like two movies mashed into one, and that is why it suffers from some rather drastic tonal shifts.  You do have some neat looking action sequences that feel right at home in the Predator franchise, including some rather grisly and often hilariously over the top slaughters.  And the movie also maintains the Shane Black trademarks that we’ve all come to love over the years; the quippy dialogue, the ridiculed masculinity, the strangely empowered young child, and of course the holiday setting (only this time he has swapped out Christmas for Halloween).  Black’s affinity for comedic situations stemming from testosterone fueled showboating also feels strangely in character with the Predator series, and the movie is definitely at it’s best when it exploits this aspect.  But, when Shane Black does indulge his own tastes, it does undermine any attempt on the movie’s part to build any tension.  There isn’t a whole lot of plot here, and what there is of it comes across as fairly convoluted.  In many ways, I liked this movie better when it was working as a Black comedy (excuse the pun), and less so as another entry in this franchise.  In many ways, it seems that Shane is just piggy-backing on an already established franchise to deliver some of his ideas for situations that he otherwise couldn’t fit into any other film.  At the same time, he still isn’t undermining the lore of this series; why would he since he was there right at it’s inception.  A more hack job could have been done with this movie and Shane Black is a better filmmaker than that, but even still it’s a movie that feels more disjointed than his usual efforts.

I almost wonder if he is much better at delivering his own original ideas to fruition than being handed over already established material.  That seems to be the case, because his only other disappointment as a filmmaker was the lackluster Iron Man 3 (2013), which neither showcased his trademark style very well and disrupted the very solid foundation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a bunch of unnecessary plot twists.  The Predator is a better movie than Iron Man 3, but it does share many of the same issues.  One is the lack of a cohesive tone, and two is because Shane Black’s ideas tend to run contrary to what the movies actually need.  One area where I found this to be problematic is in how the movie deals with some of it’s more serious issues.  In particular, it’s with how the movie deals with mental health problems.  Each of the soldiers that make up the supporting cast have a condition that should be discussed with seriously, and for the most part are, but there are points where Shane Black does play their conditions off for laughs.  This could prove problematic for the movie in the long run, because there are many veterans out there whose mental problems are no laughing matter, and though this movie doesn’t ridicule them, it nevertheless makes light of something that is very serious.  The movie does treat the Autism of Jacob Tremblay’s Rory with a bit more seriousness, and it’s to the still very young actor’s credit that he portrays his character’s affliction in a realistic way.  But seeing how his character’s issues are worked into the plot of the story also creates some head-scratching after a while.  Also, Shane Black is a master of great many things, but none of them are excellence in world-building.  If you’re looking for a movie that builds upon the lore of the Predator universe, you’ll probably be disappointed, as this movie is kept pretty earthbound for the most part.  Not a huge problem for this movie in particular, but it’s pretty clear that Shane Black is just making his own kind of movie where the Predator just happens to be a part of it.

The movie’s greatest asset in the long run are the characters.  This has always been Shane Black’s greatest strength as a writer and director, because he specializes in quirky, memorable characterizations that often transcend the stories of the movies themselves.  I particularly like the interactions between the collection of misfits that help out our hero.  Despite the problematic uses of each soldiers ailments, the actors still manage to make them endearing throughout the movie; something you wouldn’t expect in a Predator movie.  I think it’s because Black likes to find the humanity in even the biggest of outsiders, and he quickly finds ways to break through the rough exterior of each to find the decent person underneath.  I especially liked the performance of Trevante Rhodes, who we last saw in a breakout performance in the Oscar-winning Moonlight (2016).  He takes what could have turned into a shallow, stereotypical character and makes him deeply layered, with a great deal of quiet subtlety.  Boyd Holbrook also does decently in a role that typically comes off as wooden in most other action films; the straight man protagonist.  His interactions with the aforementioned Jacob Tremblay are extremely effecting, and you see a genuine bond between the two actors that makes the father/son relationship feel real.  Olivia Munn also does the best she can with probably the trickiest role in the film.  Credit to Shane Black for not pushing the female presence to the side in this otherwise testosterone filled movie.  Also, I really enjoyed Sterling K. Brown’s more antagonistic role, as his often lackadaisical attitude to the situation runs contrary to what you’d expect from this type of character.  All in all, the one character that gets the short end here is the Predator itself, which has been typical of the series thus far anyway.  At least with every other character being rich in personality, it makes up for there being little interest in the Predator.

The film is also a mixed bag when it comes to the action scenes.  The thing with Shane Black as a director is that his strengths have always been in the dialogue and characters.  When a movie emphasizes those things, like The Nice Guys, you don’t need the action set pieces to be spectacular.  But, when working with a bigger budget like Iron Man or The Predator, Shane’s limited vision becomes more apparent.  The visual effects are not particularly ground-breaking, especially when it comes to the Predator himself.  No new territory is explored, particularly when it comes to the Predator himself.  The CGI in fact robs the movie of some of the effectiveness of the character, as we’ve moved away from a man in a suit to a digitally rendered model that is larger and has an biotechnological exo-skeleton.  The effect just isn’t the same because we as an audience can tell that he’s a special effect.  There is still a traditional Predator present early on, but he’s dealt with early and the last, weaker half of the movie contains the digital character through the remainder of the film.  Like everything else, the titular Predator is the weakest part of the movie.  Shane Black does make up for it with some of the over-the-top violence however.  There are some hilariously unexpected kills committed in this movie.  One character, who I won’t spoil, even manages to blow up a drunk frat boy on the balcony of his house through a freak accident, which got quite the laugh from the audience I saw.  And that’s mainly where the movie’s action works best; when it’s intended to get a laugh.  This can be a very funny movie at times, and I liked how creative it would be at times with the violence.  Even still, for a Predator movie, this may not exactly be what you were hoping for.

The movie as a whole isn’t an insult to what has come before, but it’s not exactly the series in it’s prime either.  Shane Black was dealt with the unenviable task of bringing new life into this long dormant franchise, and while it may not be among his best work, he still managed to make it entertaining.  In many ways, this works much better as a Shane Black movie than as a Predator movie.  It’s got all the filmmaker’s trademarks, and it’s interesting to see them utilized in a film like this.  I really liked the way he wrote the human characters in this movie, but it might have worked better if they were in a story that wasn’t already tied to a pre-existing franchise.  Still, it’s interesting that Fox gave this franchise over to him, given how it represents a part of his own early career.  I think that Shane wanted more than anything to see what he himself could do with this franchise, and it’s clear that he does have an affection for the original movie and the series as a whole.  It’s just sad that none of what he brought to the table made the Predator himself any more interesting.  The Predator is just the same old monster, which was quite a breakthrough creation back in the 80’s, but now seems quaint compared to all the monsters we’ve seen on the big screen since in things like Star WarsThe Lord of the Rings, and all the MCU films to date.  Perhaps that was the purpose of bringing in Shane Black to breathe some personality into a series that has long outlived the originality of it’s fairly flimsy premise.  Whether or not this leads to a future of more Predator films is hard to say, but Shane gave it his best shot.  The Predator is neither a great action thriller, nor is it a waste of time.  You may end up enjoying yourself watching this movie, but more because of the comedy rather than the action set pieces.  As a character, I think the Predator is played out and should probably be put to rest.  But, it is good to see Shane Black still delivering something worthwhile with his characters and comedy in what is otherwise a very underwhelming reboot.

Rating: 7/10

Mission Impossible: Fallout – Review

The movie career of Tom Cruise has been an interesting one to witness over the last 30 plus years.  Going from heartthrob, to matinee idol, to action movie star, he has carved out an unusual trajectory as he’s evolved as an actor.  Recent years has seen him grow more comfortable in the action movie genre, showcasing his physicality more than anything else.  Sometimes his choices in action roles range from the excellent like Edge of Tomorrow (2014), to the just okay like Jack Reacher (2012), to the just plain awful like The Mummy (2017).  While many of these films are varied in both style and success, there is clearly one series over the years that has turned into his proudest effort: the Mission Impossible series.  The Brian DePalma directed original in fact began this new phase of Cruise’s career, and it has been clear ever since then that Cruise has had an appetite for the genre ever since.  It’s almost like every movie he makes now in between new installments in the series are merely just warm-ups for what he has next for us in this series.  It’s interesting to see the Mission Impossible movies also evolve along with his career as well.  After the original, the series struggled to find it’s footing, shifting styles dramatically with new directors behind the scenes.  John Woo brought a lot of style but little substance to Mission Impossible 2 (2000), and J.J. Abrams couldn’t find either style nor substance in what was his first feature film with Mission Impossible III (2006).  But then after a long break, Cruise and company found new direction for the series by focusing on the things that made the movies fun in the first place, the insanely over-the-top stunts.  The first three movies in a way undermined the stunt work by adding too much visual flair to them, either through unnecessary CGI, or through indulgent directorial touches (especially with Woo’s film direction).

Strangely enough, it was a director from the world of animation that helped to bring more of a reality into these movies.  Director Brad Bird of Incredibles fame appealed to Tom Cruise’s appetite for more authenticity in the action scenes, and with the fourth film in the series, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011), we finally got an idea of what these movies could actually deliver.  Instead of making the central mystery the focus of the film, the Mission Impossible series was now all about pushing the envelope when it comes to the death defying acts that the main hero (Cruise’s Ethan Hunt) must go through in order to save the day.  This was especially proven through the now iconic sequence where Cruise scales the outside of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai; the world’s tallest building.  Instead of relying on the safety of movie magic to recreate the needed location for the sequence, Cruise and Bird insisted on shooting at the actual tower, with the film’s star literally hanging off the outside of the building.  Sure, safety lines prevented him from falling to his death, but he was still doing an extremely dangerous stunt that even seasoned professionals would have balked at.  Cruise’s insurance even refused to let it happen, and he responded by dropping their account and finding a new one.  Despite all that, the sequence made it to the screen and looked incredible (especially in IMAX) and has since become the high water mark for the series since; and for all action films for that matter.  Every Mission Impossible since has been in a “how do we top that” mode ever since and it’s finally given the series the identity it’s always needed.  This is now a series defined by big moments, often involving Cruise doing his own death defying stunts, some of which could potentially kill him for real.  The follow-up, Rogue Nation (2015), put Cruise on the outside of a real plane taking off into the air.  And now, we have the sixth film in the series, Mission Impossible: Fallout, which aims to set the bar even higher.  But, does Cruise and company still have anything more left to prove with this series?

The movie picks up not long after the events of Rogue Nation.  Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is briefed about a new mission to eradicate what’s left of the terrorist organization, The Syndicate, after the capture of their leader Solomon Lane (Sean Harris).  The most radical of these remnants have renamed themselves the Apostles, and are being directed by a new leader named John Lark.  Though little is known about Lark, it is believed that he and the Apostles are intent on acquiring stolen plutonium in order to create a bomb that will kill millions and as they put it, “with a great suffering create a lasting peace.”  An attempt by Ethan and his closest associates, Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) to extract the plutonium from some black market sellers goes array, and the cargo ends up in the wrong hands.  The failed mission leads to an intervention by the CIA to take over the more secretive IMF agencies actions, with whom Ethan gets his marching orders from.  CIA director Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett) assigns her own agent, August Walker (Henry Cavill), to accompany Hunt on the next leg of his mission in order to assure that no further mistakes are made.  Arriving in Paris, via a harrowing Halo Jump, the pair of agents find the plutonium again in the possession of another black market seller, the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby) who needs their help in a secret extraction mission as a sign of good faith in their deal.  That mission it turns out involves breaking Solomon Lane out of prison.  Though not keen on seeing his enemy freed from captivity, Hunt plays along in the hope that it will get him closer to finding the plutonium.  Things are made even more complicated once an old acquaintance, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) has orders from MI-6 to take Lane out first.  As dangers keep building up, and alliances begin to be questioned and true motives are revealed, it soon becomes apparent to Ethan Hunt just how Impossible this Mission is, and that it might be the one that he ultimately can’t win in the end.

Like I said before, the series has gone through a stunning transformation over the years, and in many ways has really been hitting it’s stride much better now than it did when it first began.  The bar was set pretty high by Ghost Protocol, and while Rogue Nation was pretty entertaining overall, it still lacked the overall WOW factor of it’s predecessor.  Thankfully, Fallout is an even better effort, coming pretty close to being the best we’ve seen from the series so far.  I still consider Ghost Protocol the best in the series, but Fallout is a very close second.  The reason why I enjoyed this new entry so much is largely due to the fact that it retains much of the best things about this series so far, and executes them to their best potential.  What I love about these last couple Mission Impossible movies is that they have grown to embrace the silliness of the plots and gimmicks of the series and have found fun ways of using them in some often exciting and hilarious ways.  The gimmick with the masks returns (something carried over from the original TV series) and the way it’s used in this movie leads to some of the film’s best surprises.  I won’t spoil what happens, but there are some especially enjoyable reveals with those masks in this movie, including one hilarious cameo appearance.  I also love the fact that while the action set pieces are incredibly complex in their execution, they also allow for there to be some vulnerability in the characters as well.  Cruise’s Ethan Hunt isn’t bulletproof in this film, and the action scenes even allow him to get beat up once and a while, sometimes in a way that gets a laugh out of the audience.  That endearing aspect has been what has helped the series find it’s character since Ghost Protocol and up to Fallout; that ability to not take itself too seriously and having a main hero who doesn’t always succeed in the cleanest of ways.

I will say that the one thing that keeps the movie from rising to the top of the franchise is it’s unfortunately bloated running time.  The movie is nearly 2 1/2 hours long; the longest Mission Impossible film made so far.   For the most part, the movie keeps our attention through all that running time, but there are points where it does lag, particularly at the beginning.  Ghost Protocol still stands on top because it was better paced than any of the other films in the series.  It was also the movie that laid out it’s plot better than any other movie; never once getting caught up in the minutia and confusing the audience with it’s twists and turns.  Fallout mostly steers clear of that too, but by devoting more time to clear out the plot details, it also makes the spaces in between the action set pieces feel too long.  It helps that the action scenes are so well done that you don’t mind too much overall as you watch the movie, but the pacing issues are still noticeable.   The movie also makes the mistake of not exactly having a complex mystery at it’s center.  It’s pretty obvious from the beginning who the real villain of the movie is, and when the big reveal happens, it lacks the surprise that the filmmakers seemed to think that the moment was going to have.  You can also predictably figure out how the plot will wrap itself up, even down to the final climatic moment.  But, the movie kind of pokes fun at these moments too, which is also refreshing.  There is a moment during a climatic countdown where the characters actually do make you aware of the common cliche you’ll find in scenes like it, and in a way sort of subvert the moment and make it feel like a fresh spin as a result.  Despite these flaws, the movies still manages to keep you on the edge of your seat through most of it’s run time, and though the plot can be predictable, the small variations are not and they genuinely lead to some worthwhile surprises.

Now let’s talk about what really makes these Mission Impossible movies special, and that’s the incredible stunts.  The series has recently garnered the reputation of having the most insane on location stunts that we’ve ever seen executed on the big screen, and even more amazing, with it’s headlining star doing much of the work himself.  Like the aforementioned Burj Khalifa sequence and the plane takeoff from Rogue NationFallout has “Wow” factor moments as well, some of which come very close to being among the best we’ve ever seen.  Much of the entertainment value of this movie is just in watching how far Ethan Hunt (and by extension, Tom Cruise) pushes himself to win the day and save the world, and some of it really gets into mind-boggling territory.  Perhaps the most notable sequence of this movie will be the helicopter chase sequence, which Tom Cruise actually prepared himself for by learning how to pilot a chopper solo, just so he could get those authentic shots of him from the point of view of the cockpit as he’s flying it.   And that’s not even the most insane part of that stunt.  There’s a point where Cruise is actually climbing up to the bottom of the chopper via a cargo lift cable and attempts to climb aboard while it’s in midair.  The close-ups of this scene show you without a doubt that it’s as authentic as possible and Tom Cruise is genuinely underneath a flying helicopter, with only the support wires removed digitally in post-production.  It was so intense that I nearly felt a pit in my stomach watching this sequence, knowing just how death-defying it must have been in order to get that shot.  It’s insane, but it does put you right in the middle of the action, which makes it all the more enjoyable, and lengths ahead of most other action sequences found in the genre.  I honestly think that this movie makes a solid argument for there to be an Academy Award category for stunt-work, because the ones in this movie are deserving of some recognition.

One other thing that I love about this film, as well as the two that has preceded it, is the way it has rounded out the cast.  The series has become less of a one man show, and has managed to fit in wide variety of supporting players who help to balance out the series.  Simon Pegg has especially become a welcome comedic relief, working very well off of Tom Cruise’s intensity as Ethan Hunt, and even finding ways to help Cruise find the humor in his own character as well.  I especially love the banter between the two of them, especially when Ethan vents his frustration when Pegg’s Benji’s advice doesn’t end up being that helpful.  Ving Rhames, the only other actor besides Cruise who has appeared in all 6 films, is given much more screen-time this time around, and it’s a great to see him far more involved in this plot.  His longtime partnership with the character also brings out some of the movie’s most tender moments, and it becomes especially apparent in this film that Ving’s Luther is the one who brings the heart and soul into this adventure.  I also like that Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa makes a return to the series, as she proved to be quite the resourceful ally to Ethan in Rogue Nation, and very much his equal in both intelligence and skill.  While Henry Cavill’s Walker is a bit on the underdeveloped side as a character, the actor still makes the most of his time in this role.  I like the physicality he brings to the character, carrying a whole different swagger to the profession than what Ethan has, and watching it play off between the two characters is a lot of fun.  And it has to be said that Tom Cruise keeps returning to the character of Ethan Hunt for a reason.  Not only does playing him allow for Cruise to fulfill his adrenaline junkie appetite, but Hunt is also just a fun character to be in general.  Intelligent, persistent, but also clumsy and vulnerable at times, Ethan Hunt is just an ideal action hero.  He can wow you with his physicality, but can also make you laugh when he takes an unfortunate knock to the head.  I suspect that Cruise likes this character so much, because he allows him to have the most fun while performing; even when it’s during one of those crazy stunts.  And when the lead star looks like he’s having a good time, as well as the rest of the cast, that will in turn make the audience feel like they’re having a good time.

I honestly don’t know how much mojo this series has left, especially with regards to it’s leading man.  Tom Cruise is inching closer to 60 years in age, and though he has held up better than many others in his age range,time will eventually take it’s toll.  The fact that this series has gone on for over twenty years on the big screen and is only getting better is something kind of miraculous in today’s age in Hollywood.  A large part of it’s success is clearly in embracing it’s wilder aspects and choosing to focus more on taking the series to new heights (both literally and figuratively) with regards to the action set pieces.  This one in particular really was trying to push the envelope and show us things we’ve never seen before.  I’m still amazed by that helicopter sequence in this movie, and I hope that the eventual home video release gives us plenty of behind the scenes footage to show off just how exactly they were able to make it happen.  I will say that if there was ever a movie worth watching on the biggest screen possible, this is the one.  I was fortunate to have seen this on a very large IMAX screen, which featured select scenes shot with IMAX film stock specifically for this kind of presentation; the helicopter sequence being one.  If you are lucky enough to be near an IMAX theater too, I would recommend paying the little extra for the ticket price, because that impressiveness that IMAX brings is well worth it.    You’ve got to give producer and star Tom Cruise and director Christopher McQuarrie a lot of credit for turning this action franchise into an event level experience that rivals most others within it’s genre.  The fact that their goal is to top each previous film that came before with even more mind-blowing set pieces is really worth celebrating.  And the passion that Cruise puts into these movies, even to the point of literally breaking bone, is something you’ll rarely see any movie star do nowadays, which is both worrying and admirable at the same time.  Though not the best in the series, Mission Impossible: Fallout is still one of this summer’s best films and near the top of it’s already esteemed franchise.  It’s a mission worth taking, should you choose to accept it.

Rating: 8.75/10

Ant-Man and the Wasp – Review

Expectations are running high for Marvel Studios right now.  Even after ten years in the game, they have remarkably hit a new level of success just this year, with Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War both breaking every conceivable record in the books at the box office.  And with that box office success comes the added pressure to follow up each film with something even bigger than the last.  This hasn’t always panned out completely, with many of the Phase 2 films in the MCU struggling to match expectations, but in Phase 3, it has certainly been the case.  And this has been partly due to a different strategy on Marvel’s part, which is to try out different flavors with each new film they make.  The result has been a wonderful mix of movies that take place within the same universe, but feel uniquely characterized by the stories they tell and the heroes they focus on.  They also have helped Marvel branch out into different genres that are perfectly matched for each character, and help to add to the different flavors that characterize the MCU.  Captain America’s movies have taken on the flavor of political conspiracy thrillers; Thor’s have fully embraced their campiness and are now fully in tune with 80’s era fantasy epics; Doctor Strange has brought in a Matrix –like cerebral flavor to the universe; and Spider-Man even managed to fit in a bright high school comedy in the style of John Hughes into the mix.  Overall, every character gets their own distinct style of movie to tell their story, and it helps their own separate franchises breathe on their own, un-tethered to each other.  Even the big crossovers like the Avengers movies feel like their own series apart from the rest, taking on a colossal epic feel on their own.  But in this particular year, after Black Panther delivered some sobering political messages to it’s audience and Infinity War left us with a bleak cliffhanger that shook our senses, the one thing Marvel needs to give us now is a light, silly comedy.  Enter Ant-Man and the Wasp.

Ant-Man as a movie perhaps has had the most interesting backstory of all the films Marvel has made.  It was in development for years under the direction of Edgar Wright, who was an avowed fan of the comic book character.  But, Wright’s distinctive style clashed too heavily with the very stringent standards that Marvel Studios was imposing on their filmmakers as they were building up their universe, and Marvel’s Creative Director Kevin Feige had to make the difficult choice to take Edgar off his dream project.  Ironically, Edgar Wright’s style might have gone through better in Phase 3, where Marvel has been more welcoming to unique voices.  So, after Wright’s departure, the remainder of the film had to be completed with Peyton Reed in the director’s chair, with Ant-Man himself, Paul Rudd, and his writing partner Adam McKay making further adjustments to Wright’s script.  With all this compromising and sudden shift in vision behind the movie, it was thought at the time that this was going to be Marvel’s first stumbling block as well as their first flop.  But surprisingly, that not what happened at all.  Though the movie did feel disjointed due to it’s troubled production, it nevertheless managed to stick the landing and work as a passable entry in the MCU.  It also found an audience and continued Marvel’s winning streak.  The main reason the film succeeded was largely due to the ideal casting of Paul Rudd as the titular character.  His charming performance captured the humor and charisma needed for the part, and it made him an instant favorite in the MCU, which was a blessing for Marvel since needed him to be a worthy addition to their world before he made another appearance in Captain America: Civil War (2016).  The other positive of the movie’s success was that it granted Ant-Man a sequel, one that this time could be unburdened by production woes.  The only question is, did fewer problems translate into a better movie overall?

Ant-Man and the Wasp takes place in the months after the events of Civil War, where Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is confined to house arrest due to his illegal partnership with Team Captain America in violation of the Sakovia Accords.  Because of their affiliation with Scott, both Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) are on the lamb, conducting their experiments in secrecy.  But, during one of Scott’s uneventful days at home, he receives a strange vision, where he imagines himself in the body of Hope’s long lost mother, Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), who was known herself as another size-changing superhero known as the Wasp.  Scott reaches out to his estranged colleagues, who manage to sneak him out of his house arrest in order to learn more about his vision.  They believe that Janet is sending a message to them through Scott because he managed to escape from the sub-atomic quantum realm, where Janet has been stuck for the last 30 years.  They have been attempting to build a bridge into the quantum realm within their secret lab, but still lack the necessary parts needed to complete the project, so they enlist Scott’s help to get what they need.  They encounter a local mob boss named Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), who has the equipment they need, and Hope manages to subdue his henchmen thanks to her new abilities as the new Wasp.  However, their success is short-lived as the equipment is stolen by a mysterious assailant with molecular-phasing powers known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen).  To get back what she stole from them, the team must seek help from another estranged former colleague of Hank’s, Dr. Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne).  But even with all the help they can get, including from Scott’s loyal friend and associate Luis (Michael Pena), Ghost proves to be a tougher adversary than they thought.  Is it possible for them to finish their bridge, or is the original Wasp forever left to be a prisoner within the Quantum Realm.

The one thing that will be apparent when watching this film is that it is far more tightly scripted this time around.  After the production woes of the original Ant-Man, Marvel this time had the benefit of being able to know where they are going with this franchise and commit to one style of story-telling.  You definitely don’t get the feeling that it’s two movies smashed together into one this time around.  But, the question remains is it a better movie than the original?  Sort of.  I’ll admit, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the original Ant-Man, but I didn’t hate it either.  It was a perfectly competent film on it’s own.  But, because this is Marvel, the bar has been set pretty high and Ant-Man just clearing that bar sadly makes it one of the lesser movies in the MCU overall.  With the help of a better focused production, Ant-Man and the Wasp does work a bit better, but it’s not without it’s faults too.  The unfortunate thing is that it follows in the footsteps of Infinity War, which makes this lighter comedic film feel, for lack a better term, small by comparison.  It’s not a huge step backward, but I feel that Ant-Man just pales in comparison coming so soon after Infinity War has shaken the world.  Even when put up against Black Panther, it kind of lacks something, because it feels like a retreat back to the safe and predictable that characterized much of Marvel’s Phase 2, and not the game-changer that Panther proved to be.  That being said, I was not left unfulfilled watching this movie either.  Set apart from it’s place in the MCU, this would easily be one of the most entertaining super hero movies we’ve seen in recent years.  It’s consistently funny and never boring, and even has some genuine touching moments as well.  From a pure experience point, it’s a mixed bag, but one that doesn’t spoil the entire universe that it an essential part of.

The greatest asset that the movie has is the strength of it’s humor, which is carried a long way by it’s charming cast.  Paul Rudd especially continues to carry much of the weight of this franchise and remains the main reason to watch the film.  He once again proves why he was the perfect choice for the role, with enviable comedic timing and endless charm.  You get a sense that he has fun as this character while playing him on screen, and the movie uses this as a benefit.  His performance is also balanced well with a fine supporting cast.  Michael Douglas continues to be a lovable curmudgeon as Hank Pym, whose sternness is wonderfully balanced off of Rudd’s quirks.  Evangeline Lilly especially benefits from her expanded role in this movie, taking on the Wasp persona effectively and giving her a deserved place among the ever growing roster of Marvel’s big screen superheroes.  What I also enjoy is the wonderful chemistry that each of them have together, helping us to believe that they really are a family unit in addition to being a crime fighting team.  Also, despite a very minor role in the movie as a whole, Michelle Pfeiffer makes the most of her time, imbuing Janet Van Dyne with a fine sense of grace that makes her a welcome addition to this series.  I also love the fact that a year after Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) managed to bring a former Batman into the MCU, this time as the villainous Vulture, we now have a Catwoman crossing over as well.  The one weak point in the movie’s cast is the lack of a strong antagonist, which I fault more with the lack of a strong rogues gallery for the character of Ant-Man in general than the faults of the cast here.  Ghost, while still an interesting character overall, is not enough of a threat to drive the story into epic territory.  And though Walton Goggins’ performance as the mob boss fits within the silliness of the overall experience, his character is also sadly one-dimensional.  Even still, the cast helps to make the movie an overall enjoyable experience.

One thing that I will say is definitely improved upon from the first film is the staging of the action sequences.  The first movie, while still innovative in it’s execution of the size changing gimmick as a part of the action set-pieces, still had an unfortunate lack of overall effectiveness as they usually all felt the same.  Here, much more creativity was put into the uses of the size-changing gimmick, as a whole variety of options are put to use this time.  We have the neat idea of small everyday objects like a salt shaker and Pez dispensers being turned into weapons once grown to immense size utilized throughout the movie, as well as a fun little wild card of Scott having to deal with a malfunctioning suit, which either makes him grow to the size of a room or shrink to the size of a toddler at random moments.  All this helps to make the action sequences feel fresh and unpredictable.  The movie especially hits a high point once it introduces the concept of a size-changing car chase to the mix.  Thanks to the ability to shrink their vehicle and all the passengers within, Team Ant-Man has an incredible mode of transportation that makes this a car chase like nothing you’ve seen before.  I especially love the new spin it puts on flipping a car on it’s side.  Also, thanks to the movie’s San Francisco setting, it draws comparisons to other chase sequences from movies like Bullit (1968) and What’s Up Doc? (1972), honoring the legacy of those scenes.  Hot Wheels fans will also appreciate how well that brand is incorporated into the movie.  This is where the movie really finds it’s character over the first movie and helps to turn it’s unique gimmick into something that can continually surprise and entertain it’s audience.  And in addition, it shows more clearly that this franchise has found an angle that makes it feel unlike anything else in the MCU.

One of the things that was a sticking point for Edgar Wright when he was in the middle of producing his version of the original movie was the way that Marvel was trying to force world-building elements into every one of their films.  The biggest problem with that was how it would sometimes add unnecessary padding into otherwise tightly scripted stories.  This became clear when Wright was forced to add a scene where Ant-Man breaks into the Avengers compound halfway through the movie, leading to an encounter with Anthony Mackie’s Falcon.  This is where the friction started that ultimately led to Wright’s departure, and it’s clear in the original movie that Marvel was perhaps trying too hard to connect the universe together in each film, something that was improved upon in latter movies. The sequel, apart from a brief reference to the events of Civil War, doesn’t attempt to force any other connection to the rest of the MCU in this movie, which in turn helps it to breathe a little easier and carve out it’s own identity.  At the same time, it does work in concepts from the comics that will play a larger role in the MCU later, but does so in a way where you’re not being made aware that it’s setting future events up and in turn feels solely like a it’s a part of this one story.  This is particularly the case with the Quantum Realm which the characters are trying to reach.  In the comics, the subatomic Quantum Realm is a source for many powers in the MCU, and is visited by the likes of Doctor Strange and Captain Marvel, who we have yet to meet but is coming soon.  The movie could have gone into length detailing the true meaning of this realm for the audience, but it wisely instead focuses on it as a destination where they must go, find the original Wasp, and return home safely from; and that’s it.  It’s nice to see that Marvel has learned it’s lesson and focused on what is more essential for the stories rather than what’s essential for their universe.  In time, we will learn the finer details, but in the meantime, we can enjoy the journeys that each character takes, which in the end is far more fun.  Marvel has a rich universe to draw from, but it’s good to see now that they realize we don’t have to be spoiled all at once by seeing every part of it piled up on top of one another.  We have the Avengers movies to do that, and Ant-Man is the fulfilling snack between meals.

Ant-Man and the Wasp, as a sequel to it’s own predecessor, is definitely an improvement, but at the same time, it still falls into the category of the lesser Marvel films.  That’s a downside of Marvel’s unparalleled success, that even charming little diversions won’t come anywhere close to the top of what they’ve accomplished up to now.  Even still, I am happy that the movie still exists within this universe.  This time around, the filmmakers have really figured out what an Ant-Man movie should look and feel like.  I’ve heard this movie be described as a much needed palette cleanser after the shocking cliffhanger ending of Infinity War, and that’s a fair take to have.  These movies are definitely Marvel at it’s silliest, not afraid to wear the dumb aspects of the genre as a whole with a sense of pride and find clever ways to poke fun at it all.  I especially appreciate the fact that we are no longer at a point where Marvel has to keep reminding us that this is a shared universe that these characters exist within.  Ant-Man gets his own story to tell, without having to ride the coattails of Captain America, Iron Man, or the other Avengers.  It’s also creatively more freeing to filmmakers who want to give their own spin on these different story-lines without having to shoehorn in references to other films.  That’s why Marvel’s Phase 3 has been a huge success thanks to unique voices like Taika Watiti and Ryan Coogler being brought into the mix.  Sadly, the timing was just not ideal for Edgar Wright, and my hope is that someday he might find a return to the MCU and be able to bring his voice to the mix.  Even still, despite not feeling like Marvel firing on all cylinders, Ant-Man and the Wasp is still a fine sequel that improves upon a lot of it’s predecessor’s problems.  It still features a charming and funny hero at it’s center and gives a new budding hero her long overdue debut.  Despite feeling small in Marvel’s universe, this is still big entertainment in an already stacked summer of blockbuster movies.

Rating: 7.5/10