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Solo: A Star Wars Story – Review

If there was ever a character from the intergalactic pantheon of personalities brought out of the mind of George Lucas that has taken on a whole life of his own beyond the movies, it would be Han Solo.  The rogue smuggler is undeniably one of the series most beloved characters, and that’s largely due to the fact that he’s one of the more relatable.  He has no special powers, he doesn’t come from royalty, he’s not destined to be the savior of all good things.  He’s a man just caught up in a situation far bigger than himself, and he uses his cunning and charisma to help him get through it all.  This helps to make him not only a standout hero in the beloved series, but also one of the most admired.  Many Star Wars fans look up to Han and use him as a role model.  You’ll find him to be a favorite in cosplaying at conventions all around the world, and his lines from the movie are often the ones most widely quoted in everyday life.  He’s also been the point for many arguments about the integrity of the franchise, as the infamous “Han shot first” debate will tell you.  But, that same passionate fandom has also made Han Solo one of the more elusive characters in the franchise, as few have been willing to tackle the character further, unless the character gets the full respect he seems to deserve.  That’s why you got nary a mention of him in the prequel trilogy, since George Lucas was not willing to open up that segment of his franchise to more scrutiny, and his inclusion in The Force Awakens (2015) had to be dealt in the most delicate of ways, and with the full participation of his original actor, Harrison Ford.  But, with the Star Wars franchise branching out beyond it’s main saga into untold stories set within the same universe, the time seems to be right now to finally delve into Han Solo’s backstory and give him a long awaited movie that’s all his own.

Though the character was the brain child of Star Wars creator George Lucas, Han Solo really didn’t become fully defined until the release of The Empire Strikes Back (1980), which was written by a fresh young writer named Lawrence Kasdan.  Kasdan is often credited for finding the soul of the character, turning him into more than just a hot shot pilot with a blaster at his side.  We see in Empire that Han believes in more than just himself, that he willingly will put himself in harms way if it means someone else lives another day and saves the world.  He even shows a romantic side, while at the same time being true to himself (“I love you.” “I know.”)  That same intuitiveness with regards to the character made Lawrence Kasdan almost a necessity when Disney relaunched the franchise with Force Awakens, as that film centered very heavily on Han Solo’s ongoing story, and ultimately his departure.  Working with J.J. Abrams on the script, Kasdan and Harrison Ford finally gave Han Solo the heroic finale that they had long wanted and George Lucas always denied them.  Of the many things that made The Force Awakens a wonderful cinematic experience, Han Solo was certainly one of the highlights and it was great seeing the iconic character back in true form once again.  But, it soon appeared that Lawrence Kasdan wasn’t done telling Han’s story.  Not long after, it was announced that Kasdan was working on a script for a Han Solo movie.  It’s fitting seeing as he already showed us how Han’s story ends, the next logical step was to show where his story began.  Unfortunately, the film experienced the most turbulent of developments in this franchise’s revival, with original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie) being fired halfway through, later replaced by Ron Howard.  This led many to believe that this would be the stumbling block for the revitalized Star Wars franchise, and potentially one of the most disastrous blockbusters in recent memory.   Are the doomsayers right, or did the movie make a death-defying escape just like it’s namesake hero.

The story takes place in the early years of the newly formed Galactic Empire.  The planet Corellia has become a factory base for all the war machines that the Empire is using to spread their power and influence across the galaxy.  On this industrial planet we meet a young thief named Han (Alden Ehrenreich), who steals a rare and expensive substance named coaxium as a means to help buy his way off the planet.  Along with his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), they make their way with the coaxium to the nearest space port, but are separated once they are discovered by imperial forces and arrested by Stormtroopers.  Han narrowly manages to escape, but his only means of getting out alive is to enlist in the Imperial army.  Several years of combat later, Han meets a band of mercenaries who intend to run off with military goods that’ll help them on their high target looting missions.  Han wants to join them but is denied and labeled a deserter by the army officials.  His sentence is to be eaten alive by the army’s trapped “beast.”  The beast turns out to be a Wookie named Chewbacca (Joonas Suotomo), who Han manages to bond with because of his understanding of the Wookie dialect.  Having a Wookie by his side gets the mercenaries to change their mind about Han and he joins their crew.  Soon, Han gets to know the team, including Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Val (Thandie Newton), and Rio Durant (Jon Favreau).  A mission to steal a whole shipment of coaxium fails and leaves Tobias in a precarious situation with his client, crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), but Han suggests stealing un-enriched coaxium right from the source on a mining planet called Kessel.  The only problem is that they need a ship fast enough to make the run quickly and underneath the suspicion of the Empire.  A smooth-talking gambler named Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) has just the ship they need called the Millennium Falcon, and the mission is a go.  But, the question arises whether or not Han is able to trust those around him, and who in the end is really his friend or his enemy.

Like I stated before, Solo: A Star Wars Story comes into theaters under a heavy amount of scrutiny.  Lucasfilm managed to steer a troubled production before with the film Rogue One (2016) and that movie ended up making half a billion domestically alone.  But considering that directors Lord and Miller were shown the door only a year out from the film’s scheduled Memorial Day Weekend 2018 release date made many people wonder if the whole Star Wars brand was a high speed train dangerously heading down a track that hadn’t been fully laid yet.  That’s the baggage that Solo makes it’s way to the big screen with and the question is, did Lucasfilm and Disney manage to save this production from disaster and make it a worthwhile addition to the franchise.  Well, the answer is yes, and no.  First of all, I can safely say that this is by no means the movie that is going to ruin Star Wars forever.  On the whole, it works very well as an action film, and the story does feel cohesive and not at all chaotic, even despite the dramatic eleventh hour change in direction.  At the same time, I do have to say that it is the weakest movie that we’ve seen from the most recent slate of Star Wars films.  It lacks the enchantment of Force Awakens, the grittiness of Rogue One, and the unpredictability of The Last Jedi (2017).  It’s the one Star Wars film that feels the most like a product of franchise building.  It’s not a terrible product, just one that feels unremarkable compared to the rest.   But then again, it could have been a whole lot worse.  Frankly, I found that the movie worked best in the moments that made you forget you were watching a Star Wars film, and instead just allowed the plot and the characters to exist on their own.  Every time the movie stopped to remind us something about Star Wars lore, or spotlight a legendary moment in the life of it’s hero Han Solo, it would rob the movie of some of it’s momentum.  Essentially, Solo is a story about the criminal underworld in the same vein as something like the works of director Guy Ritchie, and when it was in that mode, I was engaged.  But when the shifted to talk about the Empire and Rebellion, then it started to lose me.

I give a lot of credit to director Ron Howard for guiding this movie through a rough production and helping to salvage what could have been a disaster.  Lord & Miller are by no means bad directors, but it was apparent that their vision was not going to work in this franchise.  There is two much at stake for Lucasfilm and Disney to steer too far from the formula that has worked so well for the franchise so far, and the duo’s more satirical style may have been too much of a risk, especially after the fallout from Rian Johnson’s bold decisions in The Last Jedi.  So, that’s why Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy had to make the tough decision that she did, and I for one commend her for taking such a dramatic action.  Ron Howard may be seen as too safe a choice by some as a replacement, but the one thing that Howard does bring is a strong sense of professionalism to the whole thing.  His workmanship has resulted in generally good working environments on set, in which he has made both cast and crew happy to be working with him.  Though his output is inconsistent, ranging from great movies (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon) to terrible ones (The Grinch, Far and Away, all the DaVinci Code films), he still is a highly respectable filmmaker, and that’s the kind of thing you needed to calm a troubled production like this.  In many ways, I think his more restrained vision was better suited for Lawrence Kasdan’s straight-forward script (which he co-wrote with his son Jonathan), helping to bring out those things in the script that I found more appealing overall.  I think Lord & Miller might have reminded us too much that we were watching a Star Wars movie.  Howard found the story that can stand well enough on it’s own separate from it’s place in the franchise.  That being said, Ron Howard’s input isn’t terribly exciting either, and it’s more geared towards fulfilling an obligation of the story rather than surprising it’s audience.  But, like I said before, it could have been worse.

One of the movie’s saving graces surprisingly is the one thing that had most people worried going into this film, which is the casting of Alden Ehrenreich in the lead role.  When it was announced that Alden was playing the role, both fans and critics took issue.  He looks nothing like Harrison Ford, nor does he sound like him either.  Rumors of Alden having to take acting lessons and working with a dialect coach all throughout production also didn’t help and it appeared that many were expecting to blame him very much for this movie’s failure.  But, I can assure you that he not only gives a fine performance in the movie, but he manages to carry much of the film quite effectively as well.  Yes, he isn’t anywhere the same as Harrison Ford in the role, but I found that refreshing as Alden made the character more of his own, and didn’t attempt to emulate Ford’s performance too much.  Sure, he plays with the same cocky, devil-may-care attitude, but it’s perfectly in tune to what this character would have been like in this point of his life, before the events of the future would shape him further.  If Alden had tried to imitate Harrison Ford too much, I feel like his performance would have suffered, and it would have taken me right out of the movie.  Again, when the movie doesn’t remind me too much that I’m watching a part of a larger narrative, I felt more engaged, and Alden’s take on Han Solo really helped to make that possible.  He’s also supported by a very able cast.  Donald Glover’s Lando likewise manages to give his iconic character a worthwhile portrayal; full of the same sly charm that Billy Dee Williams brought to the role, but again still making it his own.  I also liked Paul Bettany’s unconventional villain in Dryden Vos.  It’s nice to see a Star Wars antagonist that’s just a common criminal for once, and not an all powerful Sith lord.  Strangely, another problem with the movie is the exact opposite of the problem I found with Rogue One.  Where that movie had weak lead characters and an incredible supporting cast, this movie has a weak supporting cast around a strong lead.  As much as Han and Lando worked well in the movie (and Chewy too), the remaining new characters all felt a little thinly drawn and uninteresting, despite capable performances from the likes of Woody Harrelson and Emilia Clarke.  I guess when it came to the one that mattered (Han) the movie did do an excellent job, but not much else stands out.

The movie is also a mixed bag in the visuals department.  Chalk this one up to the shift in direction that the movie faced.  You can tell that the movie gave up on delivering the wow factor in it’s visual presentation of the world of Star Wars.  Instead, the locales and stylings are much more basic and not intended to draw the audiences attention in the same way other movies in the franchise have.  There are moments that do stand out, like the image of a Star Destroyer passing through a narrow tunnel in a massive dust cloud or the decadent trappings of Dryden Vos’ personal space yacht.    But essentially, this is a movie more concerned with giving us a story rather building onto a world.  One thing I do appreciate is that it does bring a sense of the lived in world that made the franchise a stand out in the first place.  What made the original trilogy so memorable was that it took the glossy sheen off of the Science Fiction genre, and presented a grungier view of the intergalactic.  I love the fact that the most legendary space ship ever shown on screen, the Millennium Falcon, is first looked at as a piece of junk, showing that greatness comes not in appearance, but rather in how valuable that ship has been in life-changing situations.  A piece of junk can alter the course of history.  And I won’t lie, there is some nostalgic joy in watching Han Solo take command of the Falcon for the first time in this movie.  Apart from the reverence this movie shows in the origins of the legendary Falcon, the remainder of the movie remains fairly low key.  Perhaps the original vision for the movie called for more visual flair, but it was probably the thing that clashed too much with the story and made the whole thing feel too out of character with the franchise.  What we end up with is a compromised vision that serves a purpose, but at the same time feels safe.  It will remain to be seen if Star Wars does try something unusual in the future, but this was clearly not the movie where it was going to happen.

So, what we ended up with is an underwhelming film in the sense of it’s place within the most lucrative franchise in movie history, but still an overall decent action thriller.  I for one feel that this was the best we could have gotten out of this film considering all the chaos it went through in it’s production.  How different it could have turned out if it had a more streamlined development, we may never quite no.  Lawrence Kasdan’s mark on the character of Han Solo is still undeniable, and I love the fact that he has built this unconventional mythology around this character all on his own parallel to the world building that George Lucas was doing with the rest of this galaxy.  While George Lucas was building a mythology, Kasdan was crafting a legend, and the new movie Solo is another chapter in this saga.  I’d say that you can look at Solo, Empire, and Force Awakens as an unofficial trilogy around the legend of Han Solo, showing the key points in his life where he finds his calling, when he discovers his true devotion, and where he chooses to make his final stand.  In the end, I can say that Solo does do the character justice even if it does little else for the universe around him.  I did like Han Solo a great deal in this movie, which is a true testament to the effectiveness of Alden Ehrenreich’s performance, and if the true intention of this movie was to show that Han can carry a film all on his own,  then I say that it was a success.  But, Star Wars is at a point where the stakes have been raised and being passable isn’t going to cut it for a while.  The movie underwhelms in comparison to it’s loftier brethren, and that’s partly to blame on the last minute heel turn it had to make.  Solo is probably forever going to represent a cautionary tale for Hollywood about not getting too far ahead of oneself in pursuit of box office glory.  It will remain to be seen if Kathleen Kennedy made the right choice or not to make such a dramatic change late in the game.  For the most part, Ron Howard and company managed to turn out something okay in the end, and it is by no means a disaster, nor the worst thing to ever happen to the Star Wars brand.  For now, Solo may look disappointing, but in time, we may look at it for what it is which is a pretty good action movie with a charming hero at it’s center.  I have a good feeling about this.

Rating: 7.5/10

Deadpool 2 – Review

Well, here we are again.  After surprising the entire world with his electrifying box office returns in the early weeks of 2016, the “Merc with the Mouth” is back once again to rip apart our funny bones on the big screen.  The road to bring Deadpool to cinemas nationwide was not an easy one in the first place.  After many years of pitches and non-starters, it seemed like no one was wiling to invest in an R-rated super hero flick with a demented sense of humor.  The character himself was significantly undervalued among studio execs, who just saw him as a sideshow in a larger franchise, namely the X-Men one that was put out by Fox.  As a result, Deadpool’s first ever screen appearance came in the form of a character that in no way represented what was on the page in the much maligned film X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), and is often seen by comic book aficionados as the worst comic to screen translation ever.  But, what arose out of this adaptation disaster was a surprising champion for the beloved character.  The actor who portrayed Deadpool in the film, Ryan Reynolds, recognized that the character deserved better and he took it upon himself to fight for a movie that did justice to the source.  He worked closely with screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick for years trying to craft the movie that they wanted for the character and Reynolds spent years trying to pitch the project to Fox executives, but to no avail.  It wasn’t until leaked footage of a screen test made it online and got an enormous response from fans that Fox eventually relented and granted Reynolds and company a modest budget to work their magic with, and that they did.  Not only did the movie please fans of the comics, but it enjoyed enormous cross-over appeal, making it one of the highest grossing comic book movies ever, and easily the biggest hit of the genre that Fox had ever seen, eclipsing their own X-Men films.

Naturally, when a movie lands as well as Deadpool did, you just know that a sequel inevitably had to follow, and the filmmakers didn’t waste a second either.  This time around, they have a far more substantial budget to work with, now that Fox no longer is squeamish about R-rated super hero flicks, and seemingly unlimited free reign to do whatever they want.  The one downside to getting more of what you wanted is that it might overwhelm and undermine what worked so well before.  During the process of making the sequel, it seemed like the franchise was indicating very directly that they were about to go in a different direction.  Director Tim Miller left the project due to creative differences, and Ryan Reynolds assumed more creative control this time around, even contributing much more of his voice to the screenplay itself.  Oftentimes for franchises to survive, creative shuffling like these are mostly necessary, but sometimes too much meddling behind the scenes can mess up the formula too much and ruin the conditions that made the original such a phenomenon in the first place.  Movies like Ghostbusters (1984), Ace Ventura (1994) and The Hangover (2009) have all proved that comedies are a hard thing to franchise, and that usually the only way for movies like them to work is to exist completely in untried territory.  But, Deadpool is a child of two genres, and one is far more reliant on franchises than the other, and in general, it would be foolish on the filmmakers part not to take the opportunity while they have it.  So, in a short 2 years since the first movie made a huge splash, Deadpool 2 arrives in theaters at a time when the genre is hitting another peak, especially on the Marvel front.  Is this movie another brilliant lampoon of the super hero genre like the first movie, or does it end up like most comedy sequels and spoils the laughs by having too much of a good thing.

The movie picks up more or less where the original left off.  Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) is enjoying the life of a mercenary, with his regenerative powers keeping him near indestructible.  But when tragedy hits close to home, and he loses the love of his life, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), Deadpool falls into a deep depression.  Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) of the X-Men reaches out to him, hoping to bring Deadpool out of his funk by making him a trainee for the super team.  On one particular mission, Deadpool, Colossus and Neagsonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) arrive at a shelter for troubled and orphaned youth with mutant powers, where one volitile resident named Russell (Julian Dennison) is wrecking havoc.  Deadpool recognizes that the tortured boy is lashing out at the shelter’s staff because of abuse he’s received there by them, and it causes him to loose his cool and attack the wrong people.  This results in both Deadpool and Russell being sent to a maximum security prison for mutants known as the Icebox, where collars neutralize their powers, causing Deadpool’s dormant cancer to flame up again.  Meanwhile, a cyborg enhanced mutant of the future  named Cable (Josh Brolin) travels back in time with the intent of killing someone in the past who took everything from him.  He arrives at the Icebox and pursues the boy Russell, while Deadpool tries his best to get in his way.  After making it out of prison, Deadpool sets out to free Russell himself along with help from other mutants.  Among them is Bedlam (Terry Crews), Shatterstar (Lewis Tan), Zeitgeist (Bill Skarsgard), Vanisher (secret cameo), and Domino (Zazie Beetz), whose super power of luck is something that Deadpool has a hard time of conceiving.  Together they form a new super team known as the X-Force, but the question remains if they are any match for the extra powerful Cable, and is Deadpool on a “death wish” crusade that not only will leave him jeopardized but many others as well?

When judging the merits of a comedy or a super hero flick, it usually differs significantly based on the rules that apply.  Super hero flicks tend to be more scrutinized because there are so many expectations put on them based on the source materials that they are trying to adapt.  Comedies on the other hand are judged based on how well they made us laugh.  Deadpool 2 faces critical judgment based on both due to it’s bridging of both genres and considering both angles, I say that it does the job pretty well for what it set out to do.  First and foremost, it is an entertaining ride.  I laughed out loud many times while watching the movie, most frequently at the points in the movie where Deadpool takes knowing shots at other films in the super hero genre.  But, like most of the great spoofs and parodies done on the big screen over the years, Deadpool 2 understands what genre it’s in and does it’s best to honor that tradition while at the time ripping it apart.  When Mel Brooks made Blazing Saddles (1974) he put in the work to make it look and feel like an authentic Western.  The team of Zucker/Abrahams likewise did the same with their Naked Gun movies.  Reynolds & Co. know that their movie needed to work well as a comic book adaptation before they delved into the meaty comedic potential of it all, and that’s why this and the original Deadpool succeed so well as representations of both genres.  It manages to feel like a comic book movie, but also gets to point out all the ridiculous things about the genre that you can’t help but notice after the movie makes you aware of them.  In particular, the inconsistent timelines of the X-Men franchise are a continuing running joke in the Deadpool movies, and once again Wolverine is the subject of much of Deadpool’s most savage jabs.  The best jokes are usually saved for breaking the fourth wall, but the movie is smart enough to know that it can’t just rely on the humor alone to carry the film.

One big change in the process of making this movie was to give it over to a different director.  You have to definitely give props to original director Tim Miller for shepherding the original film to the big screen with very little precedent to guarantee that it would become a big hit.  That being said, considering that he was a first time director, his style was pretty limited and was probably best suited for the small budget that they were allowed.  When Fox granted the sequel more money, Ryan Reynolds knew that they need a more visionary voice to maximize the production and give it a bigger feel, and that’s why Tim Miller parted ways with the project.  In his place, they got John Wick (2014) director David Leitch to helm the project.  Leitch proved to be an ideal choice, because his whole style of directing is to go completely over the top ridiculous with the action scenes in his movies, which is something that really put the John Wick franchise on the map.  That same absurd level of violence matches perfectly with Deadpool as well, and if there is anything in this sequel that is an improvement over the first, it’s the action set pieces.  The ones in the first movie were fine, but Deadpool 2 really makes the most of the expanded budget and gives us action moments that makes the first movie look like a trial run.  There is a car chase in particular that is a real standout in the movie, which expertly balances the eye-catching stunt work with fast-flying sight gags in a very complex sequence.  It also doesn’t try to be showy either, as the action manages to say tightly in frame without wearing out the audience’s attention.  Leitch knows when to land a hilarious moment within hard hitting action, and sometimes even uses the horrific nature of the violence to elicit a laugh, which makes his input here so valuable, because it’s exactly what the character would want his audience to see.  At the same time, it stays true to the spirit of the original, by not fixing that wasn’t broken in the first place.  Gags repeat from the first one, but they feel like pleasant reminders rather than desperate rehashes.  For the most part, Deadpool 2 succeeds at upping the ante of the franchise and bringing out the potential in the biggest possible way.

The one downside that I found with the movie is that it tended to struggle with it’s footing early on in the movie.  One thing that I had a problem with in the first Deadpool was the few times when it sunk into conventionality in between all the moments that broke away from it.  I understand that an origin story has to serve a larger plot in many ways, but the original hit it’s marks better when it got that business out of the way and finally let loose with Deadpool at his zaniest.  The sequel likewise struggles with tone early on, as it tries to push a plot into motion.  I understand that there has to be moments that helps us build sympathy for our main antihero, but these scenes usually end up becoming the weakest in the film.  In particular, the section of the film in the Icebox was a point where I was worried that the movie was going to lose me.  A Deadpool without his powers ends up turning moody and lethargic, and in the process, becomes less funny.  But, once it got past this point in the movie, which I can say is probably when Cable finally enters the picture, the movie finally found it’s footing and didn’t relent until the credits started to roll, and even continued beyond that.  But, that shaky first act is what keeps this from becoming a perfect sequel.  Overall, even despite it’s setbacks, I felt that the first Deadpool was a more balanced film, mainly due to the fact that it didn’t get sidetracked into a needlessly long period of time with the character becoming a shell of himself.  Deadpool 2 also lacks the original’s novelty, which helped it to stand out upon it’s original release.  But, even still, I was still having a good time watching the movie, as was the audience I was watching it with.  It’s just too bad that the same cliches that hamper other films in the genre also seem to manifest in a movie like this too, even despite Deadpool’s best attempts to ridicule them.

The one thing I can’t find any fault with though is the cast.  Ryan Reynolds of course proves once again that he is the best possible man for the job to bring this character to life.  His snarky delivery and boyish charm brings out the demented humor of Deadpool brilliantly throughout the entire movie, and you can’t help but love his devotion to this project as well.  For someone to devote nearly a decade of development towards getting a comic book faithfully translated to the big screen is a commendable achievement, and his commitment remains palatable as the movie unfolds.  Thankfully he has many more fresh faces to join him in the mayhem.  Chief among them is the inclusion of Josh Brolin as Cable.  This fan favorite strongman from the comics makes for a perfect straight man to counterbalance the zaniness of Deadpool, and I found him to be the much needed anchor that keeps the film from going off the rails too much.  It’s amazing that in the same summer (only three weeks apart no less), Brolin has managed to nail performances as two iconic Marvel comic book characters; the other of course being Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War.  And they are two completely different character types as well, which just shows you the incredible range that he has as an actor.  He may not look too much like the original Cable (which itself is joked about in the movie), but he gets the character’s essence right, and he’s a more than welcome inclusion in this franchise.  Also noteworthy is Zazie Beetz as Domino, whose use of luck makes for some really bad ass action moments, as well as some of the best visual gags.  Julian Dennison (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) also makes for a welcome addition, and his chemistry with Reynolds as Deadpool helps to shape much of the story’s emotional weight.  I also love the return of Colossus and Teenage Warhead as a part of Deadpool’s circle of friends.  Colossus in particular has been best served by the Deadpool franchise, because in the other X-Men movies he’s too often relegated to being a background character.  Here, he gets more of the spotlight he deserves and his boy scout style personality is wonderfully contrasted against Deadpool’s.  It’s all another sign that the best parodies are the ones that honor the things they are also trying to mock, and Deadpool 2 shows that perfectly in it’s characters.

So, as far as comedy sequels go, Deadpool 2 is a pretty solid one.  While not perfect and maybe not as tightly made as the original, it still has plenty of moments that made it entertaining enough to warrant it’s existence.  In a way, I enjoyed it in the same way that I enjoyed movies like Wayne’s World 2 (1993), or Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999), in that they may not be fresh or as consistent as their predecessors, but were still a whole lot of fun, and even had some gags that stand out among the best in their selective franchises.  I can tell you one thing, there was a moment in the post credits scene that made me laugh harder than anything I’ve seen in a long while.  The best thing I can say about Deadpool 2 as a movie is that it delivered on what it set out to do.  It didn’t try to out do itself and spoil the formula that has worked well enough for it so far.  The one thing it added was a bit more scale to the proceedings, now that Fox has loosened the purse strings a little bit.  The new direction by David Leitch really helps to make the action set pieces more visually effective while at the same time hilariously over the top.  The movie also makes me anxious to see where Reynolds & Co. go next with this franchise, especially with Fox’s Marvel properties possibly being brought into the MCU once the Fox/Disney merger goes through (if it does).  Disney CEO Bob Iger has already stated that Deadpool’s current formula will not be tampered with, because why fix something that isn’t broken, but it will be interesting to see if the “merc with the mouth” gets to cross paths with likes of the Avengers, and what kinds of mayhem may come out of those meetings.  That’s still many years away, and my hope is that Ryan Reynolds holds true to keeping the movies fun as both irreverent comedies as well as faithful adaptations of the comics.  He’s carved out a wonderful niche in both genres with these movies and the world is much better place with the regenerative degenerate as a matinee idol.

Rating: 8/10

Avengers: Infinity War – Review

When Marvel touts that their new film is 10 years in the making, they really mean it.  Sure, the actual filming of Avengers: Infinity War may not have started until only a short while ago, but the groundwork to make this movie happen has been what’s taken Marvel a decade or so to work out.  Think about the level of forethought it took to see this day come.  Back when the newly formed Marvel Studios was working on the first Iron Man all the way back in 2008, the idea of bringing a massive event story like Infinity War was probably just wishful thinking.  And yet, it was always something they held onto just in case this shared universe thing caught on.  When the first Avengers made it to the big screen, we got our first real taste of what a shared universe movie could look like, and yet there was an even bigger world yet to explore as Marvel began to put into place a plan that would make their wishes come true.  Starting with the second phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), we began to be introduced to the concept of the Infinity Stones, which would be the connecting thread that would bring the many different heroes of Marvel Comics together on the big screen.  Each stone has it’s own unique power, which plays a different role in each of the different movies they appear in.  Their introductions have allowed us the audience to generate growing anticipation, knowing that the gathering of all these stones, some with incredibly destructive powers, is leading towards something cataclysmic.  And yet, Marvel has still miraculously found a way to show the blueprints behind their plan without loosing the interests of the fans.  While we know something is coming, we are still enjoying the fact that along the way we are becoming endeared to this world and the characters that Marvel has created.

What amazes me is that Marvel started down this road without even having all their pieces in place to do so.  First of all, they began their grand scheme with their properties still scattered between different studios.  Paramount held the rights to the key group of Captain America, Thor and Iron Man; Universal held onto the Hulk; Sony was still making use of Spider-Man; and Fox remained in control of the X-Men and the Fantastic Four.  There was early cooperation between Paramount and Universal towards collaborating for an eventual Avengers movie, as evidenced by the Tony Stark cameo at the end of The Incredible Hulk (2008), but Fox and Sony were still staying clear, meaning that if the Avengers were to happen soon, it was going to be a much smaller group than Marvel would’ve liked.  Then a sudden development changed everything.  Disney, which had not even attempted to enter the Super Hero field before, suddenly bought out the entirety of Marvel, including the Studios.  Though this looked to end the march towards a cinematic universe, surprisingly Disney secured the rights away from Paramount and Universal without a struggle, and Avengers opened to record breaking box office in 2012 right on schedule.  Eventually, Disney more than made up their investment as Marvel Studios became the most valuable brand at the box office over the next decade, and the Studio became more confident that they could make their move towards an Infinity War like event.  Eventually Sony relented and allowed Spider-Man to make an appearance in the universe and Fox is about to be brought into the Disney fold with all of it’s characters, though sadly too late for this event.  Even as the pieces fell into place, it is amazing that Marvel never lost focus and even managed to improvise as more options were made available to them.  Knowing the end game without even knowing exactly who would show up indicates some major risk-taking on Marvel’s part, and now it has finally arrived; the wish-fulfillment of 10 years of unprecedented world building.  But, the question is, did Marvel make Avengers: Infinity War  worthy of 10 years of planning and hype, or was it a whole lot of build-up for nothing?

Infinity War takes it’s title and story from comic book events that Marvel published in 1991 and 92.  Though many of the elements of those comics make it into this movie, the film is not a direct adaptation, instead choosing to make this a culmination of everything up to now in the MCU.  The narrative of the film takes place on two different fronts; on Earth, and in the cosmos.  Out in space, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is sent adrift after his ship is destroyed by Thanos (Josh Brolin), who has come to collect one of the Infinity Stones that is in the possession of Thor’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston).  Later on, the Guardians of the Galaxy find Thor unconscious and floating in space.  He is revived and seeks to find a way to avenge his people and destroy Thanos for good.  With the help of Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), he sets off to the same place where his original hammer was forged in search of a weapon capable of killing the “Mad Titan” once and for all.  On Earth, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) has an encounter with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who has been warned of the coming of Thanos by another survivor of the attack; Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), aka The Hulk.  But, the warning comes too late, as Thanos’ henchmen, The Black Order, have come to collect the remaining stones on Earth, one which Strange has.  They are whisked away on the Order’s ship, but not without gaining a valuable ally; Spider-Man (Tom Holland).  On the other side of the world, the other stone bearer Vision (Paul Bettany) is kept protected by what remains of the Avengers, led by Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and War Machine (Don Cheadle).  After encountering the Order, they take Vision and his companion Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) to the one place that can keep him safe the longest; Wakanda, where King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), aka Black Panther, is readying his people for a fight.  But the question remains if all the Avengers assembled are capable of stopping someone like Thanos, even as he gathers more and more Stones, granting him God-like power.

You can tell from all I’ve explained above that this is a pretty loaded movie, and I haven’t even gone that far in depth, mainly because if I said any more, it would start getting into spoiler territory.  The biggest danger that Marvel could have faced while making this movie was to overreach themselves.  So many characters and so little time to tell your story.  How could they fit it all into a 2 1/2 hour movie?  The answer is, remarkably well.  I’m happy to say that, for the most part, the movie with all these astronomical expectations put upon it manages to stick the landing.  This is absolutely Marvel firing on all cylinders and it creates what is undeniably one of their most satisfying films yet.  I hesitate to call it their best work just yet; I’m still processing what I just saw.  But it absolutely stands shoulder to shoulder among their best films.  And I think a large part of what makes the film work so well is the capable direction of the Russo Brothers, Joe and Anthony.  The duo started their time at Marvel with the well-received sequel Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), and then continued to impress the heads at Marvel and Disney with their first real test at assembling a movie with a larger cast with the incredible Captain America: Civil War (2016).  With those films under their belt, it was clear that they were the best successors to the Avengers franchise that Marvel could find after the departure of Joss Whedon in the directors chair.  To undertake such a massive film, with an army of iconic characters all at their disposal, probably would have been overwhelming for less adept filmmakers.  What made the Russos so ideal for this film was the fact that they are not filmmakers who try too hard, and instead bring a more measured approach to their storytelling.  They are not here to satisfy every comic book fan’s fantasy; they are here to service the story that needs to be told.  And with that, they manage to fit in just enough for every character without spoiling the audience with an overload of too many awesome moments.

One of the best parts of the movie is the way it uses the character dynamics of the MCU, both established and untried.  We see the remnants of the Avengers squad come back together in unexpected ways, and witness what long separations have left on the minds of each character.   We also explore more of the mentor relationship that Tony Stark has with Peter Parker, which delves even deeper than what we saw in Spide-Man: Homecoming (2017).  I also liked the dynamics of Doctor Strange and Iron Man having to work together, given their often competing mindsets, which lead to some often hilarious back and forths between the two.  But there are two brand new character interactions that really carry the movie over the edge for me.  One is Thor meeting the Guardians of the Galaxy.  Their moments together, especially when Star Lord (Chris Pratt) tries to alpha male Thor and fails badly, are among the film’s funniest and they never fail to entertain.  Even better, Thor actually shows incredible chemistry with Rocket Raccoon as they team up to create Thor’s new weapon; one of those friendships that you never thought you’d see develop in the Marvel universe ever, but you’ll be glad it exists now.  The other major relationship that drives the film is the one between Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and her adopted father Thanos.  The movie delves much deeper into their relationship than ever before, and we learn much more about what each means to the other.  While the Thor/ Guardians relationship brings the movie it’s greatest moments of levity, the Thanos/ Gamora relationship brings the film’s more somber moments, and both balance out the story in a very complimentary way.  Sure, some of the cast are given the shorter end of the stick (Black Panther fans shouldn’t be looking for too much of a continuation of the Wakandan story just yet), but a great deal of time is given to those who matter in this story, and it’s just the right amount spread amongst all.

The movie’s biggest triumph does belong to the character of Thanos.  This is a character that has been teased for quite a long time, first seen in profile at the end of The Avengers (2012) and then briefly in person in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).  We’ve known of his coming for quite some time, which could have proved underwhelming in the end if Thanos was just your generic super baddie.  Thankfully, all that build-up allowed for Marvel to really hone in and find the character of Thanos, to make him fully rounded and in some shocking ways, a bit relatable.  Thanos is a man driven by obsession and not just blood lust.  In his mind, he is doing the right thing by bringing balance to the universe, by eliminating half it’s population one planet at a time.  He’s not a villain who stands over his victims and laughs maniacally at their pain.  He is cold, calculated precision and giving the power of the Infinity Stones to a mind like that makes him infinitely more scary.  I was fascinated by how the movie explored his mindset throughout the movie, showing that he is a monster of a different kind than anyone else we’ve met in the Marvel Universe.  To believably pull this kind of character off, it takes a capable actor to find the subtlety at it’s heart, and Marvel found the right actor in Josh Brolin.  Not only does the voice match perfectly with the character (deep and booming), but he even manages to find the little humanity that lies beneath the surface.  I also have to highly praise the animation used to bring Thanos to life.  Utilizing the same motion capture technology used on movies like The Hobbit and the Planet of the Apes series, they managed to include a remarkable amount of Brolin’s own on set performance into the final digital character that it almost feels like Thanos is really there in person.  Close-ups in particular really show off the incredible detail put into the model, and I could see Josh the actor even through the character in the tiny mannerisms that are distinctly his own.  Thanos gets his moment to shine, and the movie pulled out all the stops to make his arrival worth it.  By himself, he makes this a not to miss movie experience.

Knowing that this is Marvel’s most important movie to date, you can definitely expect that no expenses were spared in it’s making.  A reported $1 billion budget was approved by Disney to make this and it’s untitled follow-up for next year, which would even out to a record breaking $500 million per movie.  And every penny looks to have made it on screen.  Of course, paying this high price cast is one thing, but the movie also features some remarkable visuals as well.  We revisit the kingdom of Wakanda once again, sharing the same visual wonder that we experienced in Black Panther earlier this year, and it provides the setting for a climatic battle that stands on an epic scale equivalent to the likes of Lord of the Rings.  All of the space set stuff is also visually stunning, showing us worlds that we’ve yet to see in the Marvel Universe and still uniquely original compared to anything else we’ve seen in the movies.  There is one planet shown connected with one of the hidden Infinity Stones that presents this surreal quality that stood out from the rest and it left a very haunting effect on the experience.  It can get a bit overwhelming at times as we hop from one setting to another, but the Russos prove that their uncluttered approach is the right one.  They don’t try to force feed anything to us; they let each world develop into the story in a believable way that allows us to understand where we are and why we’ve moved to this place at each particular moment.  My only complaint about this is that the obligatory re-familiarizing that this movie has to undertake in order to set everything up does cause the first half of the movie to drag a slight bit.  All the meaty moments happen later on, and while the opening introductions take their time, it’s not enough to make you uneasy while you wait.  When this movie gets going it hits some big moments, and that helps to smooth out those early rough edges by the end of the film.

I would definitely say go out and watch this movie right now, but I feel that most of you are probably already doing that at this moment.  This is going to be another monster hit for a studio that has had nothing but hits for the last decade.  Marvel has set the gold standard for world-building in movies over the last 10 years, and have managed to not only bring all their characters together in one film, but also make that same film coherent and engaging as it’s own stand alone story.  No character goes un-wasted, and some get to shine brighter here than they have in any other movie before.  The Russos managed to take this seemingly impossible undertaking , and make it feel effortless by the end, purely by giving the right amount and nothing more.  This is not a movie made for fan service; this is a culmination of everything that Marvel has done in accordance with their ultimate goal.  And I do have to say, it is one of their boldest moves too.  I can’t say exactly what transpires, but this movie has one of the most shocking endings that you’ll ever find in a movie made by Marvel or anyone else.  It’s a drastic move that could only come from a company that has the confidence to see it through and not worry about how the audiences might react.  The audience I saw the movie with were left pretty stunned as the credits began to role, and I’m interested to see how this ending plays out in the rest of the world.  It’s gutsy, and I applaud Marvel for holding to their guns.  To say that it is world-changing would be an understatement.  No doubt it’s going to make us even more eager to watch the next installment.  Regardless, considering all the factors that this movie’s making had to be scrutinized under, I think that the basic fact that it flows together as well as it does is a real triumph on Marvel’s part, and perhaps the greatest indicator yet of why they stand unchallenged as the kings of Comic Book movies.

Rating: 9/10

Ready Player One – Review

When Steven Spielberg chooses his next project, it immediately turns that film into a big deal.  No other filmmaker has the kind of clout that Spielberg has amassed over his over 50 year career in Hollywood, and that kind of power allows for him to have the kind of creative freedom that most other people in Hollywood will never be able to reach.  And while there are many films that have reached cinemas worldwide under the direction of Steven Spielberg that are typical of what you would expect from the man, occasionally he likes to throw in a curveball for audiences once in a while.  Take for instance the year 2002, when in the summer we got the futuristic political thriller Minority Report from Spielberg.  The movie seemed to be right in the wheelhouse of the man that gave us Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and Saving Private Ryan (1998); a dark effects-driven sci-fi flick that had something to say.  But, only a few short months after, released just in time for the holidays (and Awards consideration), Spielberg released a second feature called Catch Me if You Can, which was wildly different in tone and content from Minority Report, and in a ways a bit of a departure for the director.  After making a big budget Sci-Fi flick, which has been the director’s specialty for decades, it’s surprising that he he would next go after a light, comedic adventure based on the true story of one of history’s greatest con artists.  Like I pointed out in my profile of Steven Spielberg from earlier this year, the man has two phases of his directing style; a serious side, and a playful side, and often it comes as a surprise which phase he jumps to next with every new feature.  The same has once again proven true with his last two features, released a mere three months apart, the serious true life The Post (2017) and the more playful Ready Player One (2018).

Ready Player One couldn’t be more of a clear example of Spielberg’s gear shifting career as a director.  After The Post, which was Spielberg again exploring serious issues in a stripped down, true life presentation (in this case the publication of the notorious Pentagon Papers by the Washington Post), Ready Player One finds him once again working with material that allows him to have a little fun.  The movie is based on the novel of the same name by Ernest Cline, who also serves as a co-writer for the screenplay adaptation with Zak Penn, and the premise itself is not just a tonal change for the director, but also quite the stylistic change as well.  Cline’s novel for one thing is heavily reliant on pop culture references as a part of it’s narrative, and many of those references are to films from the Spielberg library.  So the fact that we have a movie now that pays homage to cultural influences of our childhood made by one of the same architects of that era of pop culture is a bit of a surprising turn.  Spielberg is no stranger to throwing in some Easter eggs to past influences in his movies, but they’ve always been in references to things that influenced him and he’s never really been self reflexive and thrown in references to his own work before.  For Spielberg to undertake an adaptation of Ready Player One is certainly taking a risk of alienating segments of the audience that has come to expect certain things from him and his movies.  But, at the same time, a movie like this still makes sense for him, because he is a self-proclaimed nerd and this is story that is all about embracing the nerd in all of us.  There is a lot to unpack as to why Spielberg found it in his best interest to be the one to bring this story to the big screen, but for now, it’s time to look at whether or not he made this into a good movie or not.  We know that Spielberg can have fun making movies, but the question is did he make Ready Player One a fun ride for all of us, or was it too much of a pop culture overload to make us care or not.

The story is set 27 years in the future, in the year 2045.  Over-population and environmental degradation has led to harsh times for people, who are now huddled together in densely populated areas.  One such place is in Columbus, Ohio, called the Stacks, which are trailer homes stacked on top of one another like Jenga blocks.  In this community lives Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who spends most of his time escaping his harsh existence in the stacks by entering a Virtual Reality program called the OASIS.  The OASIS is an online generated community where everyone can enter as an avatar and interact in a virtual world that has no limits.  Wade has become an expert within this VR world through his avatar named Parzival, and he along with a group of other gamers have embarked on this harrowing search for the hidden Easter egg that are at the heart of the system.  The game’s creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance) left hidden clues as to the whereabouts of the Egg’s location upon the event of his passing, and whoever figures the clues out and passes the challenges to get to the egg will be given control over the OASIS, which is worth over a trillion dollars in value.  Wade/Parzival becomes the first to succeed at the first challenge, and he seeks out the help of his fellow gamers to figure out the next challenge.  Among them is the fearless Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), the resourceful fixer Aech (Lena Waithe), as well as the mysterious warriors Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki).  Together, they work their way through the next couple mazes, but a real world threat looms over them along the way.  Also seeking the Easter egg is Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the CEO of the fearsome IOI corporation, which has enslaved debtors who have lost everything they own within the OASIS, among them Art3mis’ family.  Assisted by an online hitman named i-R0K (T.J. Miller), Sorrento means to take control of the OASIS himself and turn a profit for his company by inundating the system with more ad space, something that Halliday never wanted for his creation, and to which the other gamers are deeply opposed to.  But with numerous resources at his disposal, Sorrento makes the road to the Easter egg as perilous as possible, and real life just as dangerous.  For Wade/Parzival, it’s not just a game anymore, but a race towards a better future.

Like I wrote before in last weeks article about Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), Spielberg is no stranger to filling a movie with multiple references to other things.  But, when a film is reliant on it so much as a part of it’s story, you run the risk of struggling to find that right balance that allows for the references to work in service to the story and not against it.  And for the most part, Spielberg actually makes it work in Ready Player One.  The references are numerous in the movie, but their placements always come with a purpose as a part of the overall narrative.  The movie never stops the momentum to point spotlight directly on the references; they are there in the background and act as a reward if you are quick enough to spot them.  That in a way is what makes Ready Player One such an enjoyable movie.  Spielberg knows that a lot of people will respond happily to seeing many of their favorite pop cultural icons briefly on screen, but he also has the good sense of not taking the focus off the story in order to make sure that every reference is pointed out.  He’s refined his story-telling skills too much over the years to ever get sloppy and pander to his audience.  He knows how to balance everything together into a neat little nostalgic package.  He definitely makes every reference count in this story, and some do in fact work exceptionally well as a part of the narrative.  If the movie has one thing working against it, it’s that it doesn’t really do anything new either.  The breakthroughs are more in the presentation of the world that it creates, but the story is still one that we’ve seen a million times before.  A rag tag group, led by the boy with all the answers, goes on a journey through a magical world trying to find a mythical treasure before an evil overlord does.  It’s not even the first time Spielberg has gone down this road before, as the exploits of Indiana Jones and the Goonies will tell you.  But you can play a familiar tune and still make it entertaining, and I was definitely entertained by watching this movie.

The movie’s greatest success without a doubt is the world of the OASIS.  You can tell that a lot of thought went into the creation of this virtual reality wonderland, and it’s something that only the magic of cinema could bring to life.  I especially like how well it recreates elements of the real world, but feels fabricated enough to feel genuinely like it’s a part of a video game; kind of like how the best video games of today are.  Spielberg does an especially good job of establishing this world effectively without having to go into too much detail.  He does that in a single shot flyover of the different worlds within the OASIS in the movie’s prologue, and it may very well be one of the most intricate things that the director has ever put together in one of his movies.  From there, we have all the information we need to know to understand what this world is and how it works, and that allows for the story to breathe a little easier having all the exposition already established.  From there, the references are laid into the narrative with maximum effectiveness, some actually given even more importance than others.  There is one section of this movie that is without a doubt the most epic love letter to the movie The Shining (1980) that you will ever see, and it is a definite highlight of the film.  I can tell you, I had a smile on my face through that entire sequence.   Sadly, the cooperation between Disney and Warner Brothers that made Roger Rabbit possible is absent here, as this WB made film is distinctly absent of references to Disney owned properties, like Marvel and Star Wars (although the Millennium Falcon is mentioned once).  But, Spielberg still makes great use of the cards he’s dealt, and many Warner and Universal properties are sprinkled effectively throughout, including a wonderfully expanded role for the Iron Giant.  And there are many blink and you’ll miss them cameos from other properties throughout the movie, and I’m sure a lot of the repeat viewing of this movie will be devoted to spotting all the ones we missed the first time around.

If there is one thing that is a bit of a mixed bag with the movie, it would be the main characters themselves.  None of the characters are bad per say, it’s just that the movie never really devotes adequate enough time amongst everything else to developing them.  This may be the fault of having too many characters in the story, and the movie could have been better served excising one or more to give more time to the ones more central to the plot.  I did like the characters of Sho and Daito, but they are essentially there to make it look like Parzival has more than one friend; otherwise they serve no other purpose.  And speaking of Wade/Parzival, he unfortunately suffers quite a bit in the narrative from a lack of development.  We never quite understand how he managed to master the intricacies of the OASIS despite his lack real world resources in the Stacks, and when his real life problems come into focus in the movie, it doesn’t really resonate because it’s so disconnected from his life in the virtual space.  As a result, he comes across as a “Mary Sue” style character, who has the answer to everything and as a result becomes somewhat of a bland protagonist.  I’ll give actor Tye Sheridan credit for trying his best to bring personality through in his performance, which does help the character stay likable enough to root for.  The same goes for Ben Mendelsohn and Olivia Cooke, whose charismatic performances carry their characters beyond the underwritten archetypes they are on the page.  The best performance, though, belongs to Mark Rylance as Halliday.  He takes this enigmatic, socially awkward nerd who built this magical world and gives him a warmth and humanity that is missing from most of the other characters in the movie, and does so in a touching and often funny way.  I will also say, Spielberg has gotten much better at getting good performances out of motion capture.  Since the movie spends most of it’s time in the digital OASIS, most of the actor’s roles have to carry through these digital avatars, and the movie succeeds at making them work.  It helps that the digital realm explains their look, but these animated overlays are light years ahead of the dead faced characters in Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin (2011).   So despite the limited development devoted to them, there is still a lot to like about the characters in this movie.

There is one thing that you have to consider when going to see this movie, however, and that’s what to expect from the experience.  If you are looking for Spielberg to delve deep and find some grander meaning in this narrative, then you might come away disappointed.  More than any film he has made before, Ready Player One feels more like a fun romp than a mythical tale.  There is a distinct absence of the Spielbergian touch that defines many of his other movies, which is often associated with sentimentality.  For the most part, you don’t really miss that aspect of Spielberg’s style, because it wouldn’t fit the context of this story.   But there’s something about the Spielberg touch that could have connected us better with the characters and their stories, especially when the movie takes us into the real world.  One thinks about the sense of awe that we felt seeing the dinosaurs for the first time in Jurassic Park (1993), or the emotion we felt when E.T. came back to life.  Ready Player One never loses it’s comedic, irreverent edge and while that is consistent with the rules of it’s own narrative, it’s kinda out of line with the works of Steven Spielberg.  The story is involving, but it is not moving in the same way that the other ones I mentioned are.  Perhaps Spielberg knew that to put too much of himself into this movie might be seen as too self-serving, so he left much of the story development to the writers, while he made sure that the world of the OASIS would stand on it’s own.  It’s a formula that serves the movie well, but I could’t help but feel that something was missing and it may be that thing that makes Spielberg so distinct, whether it might have been detrimental to the story or not.  That being said, some of the Spielberg magic does come through, especially in the emotional ending which has the director’s fingerprints all over it, and as a result becomes one of the movie’s most effective scenes.  Restraining everything else might have shackled the movie in some ways, but when Spielberg was given the chance to do what he’s best at, he did not waste the opportunity.

For me, judging a movie should come down to whether or not I enjoyed my experience, and for Ready Player One, I certainly did.  It is definitely a nostalgia heavy experience, and I for one am grateful that the movie managed to balance that all together in a package that is both pleasing to the eye and intriguing to follow.  It’s just nice to see Spielberg let loose and play around in a sandbox once in a while, reminding us all once again that he too is a nerd at heart who also likes to play with his toys.  The story and characters may be a little too basic at times, and some of the Spielberg touch is absent which makes the movie not as emotionally resonant as some of the director’s most famous works, but at the same time it doesn’t take away from the fun factor of this movie.  For me, it was just neat to see another film that expertly combined so many pop culture references into a movie that gives them a purpose.  The more streamlined Roger Rabbit has more resonance, but Ready Player One does have the same element of fun to it.  It was certainly neat to see how one person who has crafted the memories of our childhood looks back on that era himself and finds entertaining new avenues to play around with them.  The fact that he name drops and borrows references from the works of Robert Zemekis and Stanley Kubrick, both of whom were and are good friends with Spielberg, makes this an especially mind blowing experience.  All the references that we find dream worthy have a whole different meaning to him, because he was there when most of these references began.  He was in the writers room when Zemekis was crafting the final draft of Back to the Future, and now 30 years later, the DeLorean time machine makes a key appearance in Spielberg’s own film.  That’s what makes Spielberg’s involvement in Ready Player One so special.  In a way, this is Spielberg’s gift to the fans that have made all these references possible over the years, and he intended this movie to be a thank you to all the fans who have encouraged him to continue building more nostalgic memories over the years.  Despite it’s flaws, the most important thing is that Spielberg made an entertaining movie, and one that celebrates the joys of pop culture, and that’s one thing that all us self-proclaimed nerds should be thankful for.

Rating: 8/10

A Wrinkle in Time – Review

Every now and then, a movie arrives at a time where it is seen to be a statement for it’s time.  And I don’t mean just in the content of the film itself, but also for what it represents as a milestone of a production.  Sometimes a movie breaks new ground in technology or addresses a taboo social issue that has long been overlooked.  But one thing that especially stands out over time in Hollywood is the advancements made in representation.  Over the years, Hollywood has recognized it’s shortcomings when it comes to representing all groups within society, whether it be based around race, ethnicity, creed, or sexuality, and in several instances you will see the industry try to reach out with movies that address those communities directly.  But, the difference between who makes the movies and who those movies are directed towards have been a sticking point for many, as Hollywood has remained a predominantly white, male-centered industry for the longest time, at least when it comes to the work behind the camera.  That has led to some people making that lack of diversity an issue and worth holding Hollywood accountable for that.  In recent years, we have seen some studios address that issue by not only seeking out talent in all fields that represent a more diverse society, but also in taking a chance by giving them big budget, tent-pole films to work on.  And, the results have proven that diversity is indeed a positive for the industry.  Last year, Wonder Woman became a landmark by becoming the highest grossing movie ever directed by a woman, and about a female superhero no less.  This year, the Afro-centric Black Panther from Ryan Coogler is shattering box office records, left and right, again obliterating the preconceived notions that films by white males are all that make money.  The trend continues now with Disney’s adaptation of the young adult novel, A Wrinkle in Time, with rising African-American director Ava DuVernay getting her first shot at making a statement with a  big Hollywood film.

DuVernay made a name for herself with the critically acclaimed biopic of Martin Luther King Jr., Selma (2014) and then she received an Oscar nomination for her documentary, 13th, a year later.  Some believed that her lack of a directing nomination for Selma was one of the more egregious snubs by the Academy in recent years, which was part of the fuel for the “Oscars So White” campaign that changed both the way the Academy votes and increased the diversity within it’s membership.  She herself became the first black woman ever accepted into the Academy’s director’s branch, which quite the honor in it’s own way.  But, all this helped to keep her a hot new name in the industry, leading some to believe that she was indeed ready to undertake bigger and more prestigious projects.  Eventually, Ava took an offer from Disney to direct an ambitious adaptation of a literary classic that they have long held the rights to.  Written in 1962 by author Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time is the first of a series of science fantasy novels that have ever since become a essential reading for young adult fans for several generations.  Though many have tried, few have ever gotten a film adaptation off the ground, leading many to believe that the trippy, existential tome is un-filmmable.  Disney has held onto the rights for the longest time, and even assembled a small scale TV-movie based on the book, which fell way short of capturing the essence of the novel.  But with a hungry and interested filmmaker like Ava Duvernay ready to give it her own shot, Disney felt confident in not just giving her the reigns, but also attaching a sizable budget to it, which itself is groundbreaking, because that’s never been done before for a woman of color in the director’s chair.  The only question now is, did Ava Duvernay deliver on that potential and make A Wrinkle in Time both work as a milestone and a work of art, or was it perhaps too much wishful thinking?

A Wrinkle in Time follows the story of a young mixed race girl named Meg Murray (Storm Reid) who struggles in school despite her demonstrated intelligence.  The disappearance of her astro-physicist father, Mr. Murray (Chris Pine) has hit her hard, and she has withdrawn from the world as a result, losing friends and alienating herself amongst others.  She receives support from her intelligent but strange little brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), as well as her molecular scientist mother Mrs. Murray (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), but nothing seems to pull her out of her gloom.  Then, one night, she is visited by a strange, unusually dressed individual named Ms. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) who tells Meg that she has information as to the whereabouts of her missing father.  It turns out that his experiments with molecular manipulation opened up a Tesseract, which is a fold within the space-time continuum.  Now he is lost somewhere in another dimension and it’s up to Meg to use her intelligence to find him.  Assisted by a curious young man from her school named Calvin (Levi Miller),  Meg meets Mrs. Whatsit again along with her two equally powerful fellow mystical beings; the wise words obsessed Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and the all-knowing Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey).  Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace all pass through the time “wrinkle” and end up on another planet where it is believed that Meg’s father has ventured through.  While they take in the glorious and fascinating sights of this new world, the trio become aware of a dark presence that loom on the horizon.  The mystical “witches” tell them that this dark cloud is evil in it’s purest form, known simply as the IT,  and it’s spreading  darkness across the galaxy, infesting minds and turning people against each other.  Though they are advised to stay away, Meg is compelled to face the darkness, believing that her father lies trapped within it’s grasp.  But, does she have enough within herself to face the darkness of the IT and find her father before it’s too late.

It’s very clear that adapting A Wrinkle in Time to the big screen was not going to be an easy undertaking.  It is a very cerebral, high concept story that requires a lot to be drawn from the interpretations of the reader as they image the worlds that author L’Engle describes in her writing.  To bring that to life on the big screen requires an imaginative mind bold enough to do justice to L’Engle’s vision.  Ava DuVernay is nothing but fearless as a director, and she deserves a lot of credit for being bold enough to want to see these visions brought to life.  But, the story has often been called un-filmmable for a good reason, and this movie is evidence of that.  I’m sorry to say but this adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time is a colossal mess as a movie.  To clarify, I haven’t read the book so I don’t know how the movie actually stacks up, but what I saw just based off the film’s plot, I saw it as meandering, uncoordinated, and quite frankly underwhelming given talent involved.  Believe me, I want to see Ava DuVernay succeed as a big, studio filmmaker, but this isn’t the movie that is going to establish her as that type of director just yet.  It’s clear almost from the very beginning of the movie that her grasp on the reigns of this film is not strong enough, and the movie struggles to find an identity as a result.  In particular, the pacing of the movie never gives the movie a chance to define it’s own logic.  It’s clear that they were trying to force through a lot of the content from the book into the movie’s relatively short 105 minute run-time, and it makes the whole thing very exposition heavy.  There’s a rule to film-making where it’s said that it’s better to show, not tell in order to deliver key information to the audience, as film is a visual medium that allows images to carry more power.  This movie seems to break that rule constantly, as characters (particularly the witches) seem to exist solely to explain what is going on and what things are, making it seem like the movie doesn’t trust it’s audience to figure things out on their own.  It goes on like this throughout the movie, and I found myself becoming very frustrated with it as a result.

This is more of a problem with the uninspired screenplay more than anything else.  Written by Frozen (2013) scribe Jennifer Lee, the screenplay seems to be too married to the content of the original novel.  There is a lot of information delivered and it seems like the script wanted to make sure that everything was spelled out for us.  Because of this, scenes merely exist to reveal new information for our characters, rather than allowing us to absorb the atmosphere of the story.  Adapting a novel is tricky, because you don’t want to change too much in fear of angering die hard fans of the original book.  But, if you try to include too much of what’s on the page, then your film feels constrained because it feels like too much is being funneled through a very narrow passage.  That’s what the movie felt like to me, because it was all moving forward without rhyme or reason and nothing was connecting.  The lack of wonder is especially problematic, because the eye-catching worlds visited should leave an impression, both on the characters and on us, but no time is given to set things up, so it’s all sort of just casually presented without a sense of the magical.  There’s a colony of sentient flowers who communicate through colors; that’s an interesting idea.  Are they going to impact the story at all?  Nope, they are just a side-show on the way to the next elaborate visual effect.  Reese Witherspoon’s Mrs. Whatsit can transform into a giant floating leaf of cabbage.  Okay, why?  What’s more, we get a trite love-conquers-all resolution to the story, and it seems like the script forgot to connect the idea of how the fantastical journey opens up a new understanding of the inner working’s of the universe itself.  The story is called A Wrinkle in Time, because it uses the manipulation of the laws of physics and time as a starting off point into the realm of fantasy.  The universe is strange and wonderful, but it is grounded by the fact that science can provide a solution to every unexplained phenomenon.  The movie treats it like an afterthought, minimizing the impact of the fascinating scientific possibilities and merely just uses each sight as a showcase for the film’s lavish production values.  It’s pretty, yes, but hollow, and a better more streamlined screenplay could have helped us appreciate all the scientific questions and imaginative what-if speculations that the original story had.

As a director, Ava DuVernay knows how to find emotion in a story, but she’s also still a filmmaker trying to refine her style.  This is only her third narrative film as a director, and that lack of experience is apparent when watching this movie.  That being said, I do give her a lot of credit for actually trying.  The best thing I can say about this movie is that it’s clear that Ava was invested in making this the best that it could be.  She wasn’t just trying to collect a paycheck, she really was pushing herself as an artist, trying to flex her muscles in areas of storytelling that were completely new to her.  In a way, she triumphs in that department, because the movie is quite visually stunning in some parts.  There are some compositions that I found very effective, and it showed me that in spite of the convoluted way that the story was being told, Ava at least was trying to give it some resonance visually.  The film does feel generic in the first half, with the movie looking more akin to a big budget TV pilot than anything else.  But, it’s at the point when the characters arrive at the home planet of the IT that Ava really begins to get creative, and the sequences in this section of the film show her experimenting more and getting better results.  I especially like the creepy sequence in a suburban setting with children bouncing balls in perfect, eerie unison.  It’s in this sequence where we see what the movie could have been had it been given more leeway to define it’s own identity.  Though Ava DuVernay has the skills to craft an emotionally resonant film, the high demands of such an expensive and elaborate production may have hindered her creative juices, and caused the movie to feel far more generic than it should have been.  I hope that Ava takes some key lessons from this experience and understands what it takes to deliver more emotion out of a larger scale film the next time she’s given this opportunity, which I hope happens.  It may not have come together as well as we all hoped, but I don’t put the blame on her shoulders.

Another mixed bag for this film is the cast itself.  There are some very good performances here, as well as some not so good ones, and some frankly insufferable ones too.  I do have to praise Storm Reid’s performance as Meg Murray.  The role of the problematic protagonist of this story had to be a tricky one for her to pull off, because if she put too much emotion into the character, she would have seemed to be inauthentic and unlikable, and too little emotion would have made her shallow and boring.  She finds the right balance, allowing us to at least find sympathy in the character of Meg and hope for her to find a happy resolution to her story.  Chris Pine is also quite good here as Mr. Murray.  He believably conveys the persona of a man who has long been disconnected from the reality that he has known, as well as the remorse he feels for leaving that normalcy behind, especially when confronted with how it has negatively affected his children.  But these are pretty much the only worthwhile performances in the movie.  The witches, sadly, leave such a minor impression, when they should have really been the movie’s highlight.  Oprah does little more than stand around and appear regal, while Reese Witherspoon tries desperately to act whimsical and fails badly.  Mindy Kailing is the more subtle and effective of the three, but she too leaves little impression.  Part of the problem is the fact that the script just doesn’t give these characters any context.  They appear magically, provide guidance, and then disappear when their job is complete.  We don’t know where they come from nor what their agenda is.  They are just fantastical for the sake of it, and in the end, it makes them less magical.  Levi Miller’s Calvin contributes absolutely nothing to the story other than to provide Meg with companionship and a potential love interest; ironically, becoming a reversal of the trope used in movies of this type where this character was typically a woman alongside a male hero, just there to look pretty and contribute nothing else.  I guess that’s progressive in a way, but it would be better to ditch the trope completely.  The most insufferable character though is Charles Wallace.  This is the worst kind of precocious child character that you’ll find in any movie; speaking lines that are way out the range of a child (intelligent or not) and with little sense of subtlety as well.  I’m sure that the little boy playing him is charming and likable in person, but that doesn’t come across at all in the film, and the movie becomes painful to watch because of this sometimes.  It’s another unfortunate result of a movie that delivers too little in return given what it had the potential for.

I want to see Hollywood take more chances with directors that come from all varieties of backgrounds.  We are already seeing this happen in a big way with Black Panther, and that success is already opening many doors that were once closed before.  Ava DuVernay has the potential to become part of that new movement too, given her passion for directing and telling bold, interesting stories.  Unfortunately, A Wrinkle in Time is just not that movie that makes the best case for her.  Believe me, I wanted to come away from this movie having loved it.  Ava seems like such a fascinating person with and the right kind of mind to take on a story as complex as this.  But, the movie meanders through a half-baked plot that never allows the story to flourish the way it’s supposed to.  I don’t know exactly how readers of the original novel are going to react to this film, but as a novice to this story, I found myself frustrated with the way it never once made me care about what was going on.  A story like A Wrinkle in Time could have been something really special and important for our time; providing a perfect criss-crossing of fantasy and science that could inspire a whole new generation of film-goers who are perhaps a bit deprived of both in movies today.  I could see this as a film that could have lived up to fantastical cinematic journeys like The Wizard of Oz (1939), Labyrinth (1986) and The Neverending Story (1987).  Instead, it became just another over-produced blunder that favors production design and visual effects over a compelling story, which is happening to too many fantasy films these days as studios play things perhaps too safe.  At least Ava DuVernay salvages a bit of the movie by putting some effort and passion into it.  But, at a time when movements like the one she represents needs a bold, statement that’s also successful, A Wrinkle in Time ends up leaving us, to use a phrase from the movie, “frankly underwhelmed.”

Rating: 6/10

Black Panther – Review

The road towards a fully integrated Cinematic Universe hasn’t been an easy one for Marvel.  First of all, they began an ambitious plan to bring all their characters together on screen without even their biggest guns at their disposal; those being Spider-Man and the X-Men (at least not right away).  To put the weight of their plan onto the shoulders of the likes of Iron Man, Thor and Captain America was a risky move to take, but it paid off spectacularly.  Now the face of Marvel comics centers around the team known as the Avengers, and it’s a body of characters that is growing bigger with every new turn and also more diverse.  The great thing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that it has brought attention to characters from the comics that otherwise wouldn’t have been given the spotlight otherwise.  It has brought interest into the deep and varied Marvel catalog from people who for the most part are unfamiliar with the original comics, just because of how integrated they are to the continuing Marvel narrative.  And this has helped to make once obscure characters like The Vision, Hawkeye, the Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange become household names on their own.  Somehow, Marvel has tapped into something remarkable here and it has helped their brand achieve astronomical success, ensuring that no matter what character they bring to the screen, they will still yield the same results.  Carefully planning to make this all work is also necessary, and Marvel has chosen it’s progression of projects wisely.  As we approach the end of Phase 3 in the MCU, the studio seems now more confident than ever with granting the spotlight to characters who have long been overlooked before, and with a character like Black Panther finally making it to the big screen, the spotlight carries even more importance than before.

Black Panther is poised to be not just another blockbuster added to Marvel’s collection, but also a groundbreaking film in it’s own right.  Here we have a super hero film that features an African superhero, a predominantly black cast, is written and directed by an African American, and is set almost entirely within the African continent.  No other big studio movie has ever given this much of a focus to an Afrocentric perspective and that alone is groundbreaking.  It of course is not the first movie to center around a black super hero (1998’s Blade) nor is it the first super hero movie to be made by a black director (2005’s Fantastic Four, directed by Tim Story).  Black Panther does however place more focus than any super hero movie before on it’s central character’s cultural significance, both as a symbol and as a role model.  Director Ryan Coogler, who has seen a meteoric rise in Hollywood following his success with Fruitvale Station (2013) and Creed (2015), has made a concerted effort with his adaptation here to tie Black Panther’s story together with his place not just in comic book history but within all of black history itself.  This has led to some more ill-informed critics out there to criticize this movie before it’s release, saying that it is merely propaganda for a “black power” movement.  Before I get into the movie, I really need to point out how bogus a critique this is.  When Marvel legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created Black Panther in the 1960’s, they didn’t do so to push some kind of “black” agenda; they created him because he an interesting character with a fascinating story.  The same appeal of the character is what drove Disney and Marvel to green-light a movie adaptation as well.  Really the only ones pushing any kind of agenda are the blowhards trying to capitalize on a popular movie to further their own toxic opinions.  Black Panther is a difference making movie to be sure, but does that translate into an excellent movie in general, or one that is not worthy of the frenzy around it?

The movie follows soon after the events of Captain America: Civil War (2016), where Black Panther made his debut into the MCU.  Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) descends from a long line of monarchs who rule the isolated African nation of Wakanda, and is also bestowed the powers of the Black Panther, which gives him superhuman strength and agility, further enhanced by his super high-tech armor.  After the death of his father T’Chaka (John Cani) from Civil War, T’Challa returns to Wakanda, which is a super advanced technological society that hides it’s true nature from the rest of the world.  There he is crowned the new king through an ancient ritual, conducted by the high priest Zuri (Forest Whitaker), which grants him the full mantle of the Black Panther powers.  He is also granted new advanced armor by his gadget making sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright). Upon becoming king, he undertakes his first duty by bringing to justice a longtime enemy of his kingdom, the outlaw smuggler Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) who has been stealing the nation’s most valuable resource, Vibranium, for decades.  Teamed up with his government’s most valuable spy, and a former girlfriend, named Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and his most trusted general Okoye (The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira) they track Klaue down to a casino in South Korea where he is about to make a black market sale.  The buyer it turns out is an old acquaintance of T’Challa from the Civil War events, CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), who is seeking to deal with Klaue his own way.  They capture their target, but argue over what to do with him, and Klaue is broken free by his accomplices.  However, one of those accomplices, a mercenary named Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) has his own agenda and betrays Klaue as a way of getting passage into Wakanda.  Once there, he proclaims his own royal ancestry, being the son of T’Challa’s murdered uncle N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), giving him a claim to the throne himself.  With the balance of Wakanda’s future in their hands, T’Challa and Erik battle out for the right of kingship and their victories could end up making Wakanda either an isolated but peaceful nation, or an imperialist world power.

It is quite striking when watching the movie to see just much more political it is than the average Marvel film.  That’s not to say that it is agenda driven, like so many critics have proclaimed, but it doesn’t tip toe around many hard-hitting issues like so many other films of this genre usually do.  The movie refreshingly takes into perspective real world issues, like racial inequality and the evils of imperialism and manages to work them into the grander Marvel Cinematic Universe without ever feeling out of place.  I applaud Marvel for allowing such topics to be risen within their narrative, because in many ways it helps to bring a greater importance to Black Panther’s role as a part of this universe and also help to give a much bigger spotlight to these issues than they otherwise would have had.  The movie also manages to avoid being preachy as well, delivering it’s messages in a way that services the story rather than distracts from them.  Director Ryan Coogler knows what genre he is working within, and he still delivers all the expected thrills you would expect from a Marvel film in addition to never ignoring the larger points.  The effectiveness of how well he touches upon the politics within this movie, both with the internal dynamics of Wakandan society and with those of the real world, is where Coogler’s greatest strengths as a filmmaker come out here.  Black Panther is probably the most richly plotted movie in the MCU, because of the fact that so many of the characters’ motivations have real world implications.  This is especially seen in the dynamic between T’Challa, a noble spirit who has lived his whole life in a bubble, and Erik Killmonger, who has seen nothing but prejudice and hardship his whole life.  It not only makes for an intriguing debate, but a captivating story-line as well.  It’s not the first time that politics have found it’s way into a Super Hero movie, and especially not the first with the MCU, as the Captain America movies have already demonstrated.  But, with Black Panther, the politics feel more integrated than ever into the narrative because here we see that the larger issues not only are a matter of a difference in opinion, but are also tied directly into the identity of ever character within the story.

One of the things that especially makes the movie worthwhile is the characters.  This is perhaps one of the greatest ensembles ever assembled for a super hero film ever; on par with the likes of The Avengers (2012) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).  Nearly every character is given plenty to do and some are outright scene-stealers as a result.  What especially special about this is the fact that most of the cast are of either African nationality or of African descent.  Despite their places of origin, some African-American like Chadwick Boseman or Danai Guira, or African-British like Letitia Wright and Daniel Kaluuya, or native African like Lupita Nyong’o, they all do an excellent job of portraying the identity of being part of the rich Wakandan heritage, and making the fictional African nation feel so alive with personality.  I love all the different perspectives that they bring to the story as well, and how they bounce off of each other.  Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia and Danai Gurira’s Okoye offer an interesting contrast in views that help to inform T’Challa’s inner struggle, as the former makes the case for a more open society while the other argues for tradition which has kept them safe.  In particular, I probably enjoyed the character of Okoye the most because of how much her stoic personality contrasted with everyone else, making her a very fun character to watch.  Letitia Wright’s Shuri will probably be a fan favorite because of her often hilarious upbeat attitude, which sometimes leads her to making some off-the-wall mischief.  It’s also neat to see Andy Serkis perform for once without of motion capture animation, and he is clearly relishing it with his scenery chewing performance.  He even gets to share a scene with his Hobbit co-star Martin Freeman, which led to some people jokingly referring to the pair as the “Tolkein white guys” of this movie.  The finest performance though goes to Michael B. Jordan who creates one of the most fascinating Marvel villains ever with Killmonger.  More than any film before, we understand the motivations behind his evil intentions, and it underlines the themes of identity even more within the narrative.  Jordan also does an incredible job of balancing the pathos behind the character with the intimidation that he projects, making him a far more rounded character in general.

If the movie does have a weakness though, I sadly have to say it’s the character of T’Challa himself.  This isn’t to say that the character is all together bad, or that Chadwick Boseman gives a bad performance.  Far from it.  It’s just that the narrative spends so much time giving attention to other aspects of the story, including it’s message and all the supporting character’s plot lines, that it leaves little room left for character development for it’s central hero.  There seems to be big chunks of this movie where T’Challa seems either forgotten or inconsequential to what is going on in the plot, and that sadly causes the movie to lag every time it returns attention back to the character.  In a way, T’Challa is the one victim within his own movie because of it’s placement within the Marvel universe.  Had the movie stood on it’s own, things might have been different for the character, but the reason why he remain so uninteresting within the narrative of this film is because he has already gone through his growth as a character in another movie.  T’Challa had a far more substantive character arc in the events of Captain America: Civil War, where he grew from a person driven by vengeance to eventually becoming someone motivated by mercy.  It’s a character progression that defines the person he is and fits very well into the story of his nation as well.  Unfortunately, because that story line has already been mined somewhere else, it leaves nothing left for the movie with him at the center.  Instead, T’Challa more or less stays the same throughout the narrative, changing very little and only moving towards a conclusion that he was already heading in the first place.  At one point in the movie, T’Challa even disappears for a good chunk of time, making it apparent that even Ryan Coogler found little use for him for a period of time.  Still, Chadwick Boseman’s performance is as solid as ever, carrying over the same charisma he displayed for the character in Civil War.  The positive thing is that he now gets to headline his own movie, and his talents as an actor are used well here, making this a movie that will propel him even further into stardom, which is well deserved.

What I do have to say about the film, apart from the characters and the well delivered political subtext, is just how much it triumphs at world building.  Wakanda is an important location within the Marvel comics mythos, and after a couple teases in prior Marvel films, we finally get to see it in all it’s glory.  A lot of praise must go to the imaginative design team behind this film, because they created a truly awe-inspiring place with Wakanda.  As established within the film, Wakanda has been a community that grew out of ancient African culture but was propelled by it’s access to the valuable resource of Vibranium metal (the same material that Captain America’s shield is made out of).  Because of the valuable properties of their metal, Wakandans hid their true nature from the rest of the world in the hopes that it would prevent bloodshed from arising over possession of the resource.  As a result, their culture grew into a super-advanced society while still maintaining it’s traditional African identity.  What results is this beautifully Africanized metropolis that seems out of this world while at the same time earthbound.  I love the way that the movie mixes supernatural elements like electromagnetic hover crafts and laser projected shields and combines them with traditional African iconography.  These include brilliant ideas like Okoye’s super spear which can take out a moving vehicle, or the majesty of T’Challa’s palace which is modeled after West African mud huts but on the scale of a Dubai skyscraper.  And also, armor-plated rhinos; need I say more.  The costumes alone, done by Ruth E. Carter are eye-catchingly beautiful.  Ryan Coogler and his team brilliantly capture the identity of the Wakandan nation and make it as breathtaking as any world we’ve encountered in the Marvel universe so far.  Doing so is crucial, as Wakanda apparently has a major role to play in the Marvel Universe going forward.  In that regard, the movie has done it’s job brilliantly, because I am ever so eager to see more of Wakanda after this film.

With regards to it’s place within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther certainly stands as a triumph.  I’ll have to think a little longer about where I would place it in my own personal ranking, but it certainly belongs in the upper half, even despite some of it’s shortcomings.  I feel that it kind of unfortunately suffers some road blocks because of how little development it leaves for it’s main character, but it’s nothing that robs too much of the entertainment value for the movie as a whole.  It’s still a very fun movie to watch with all the typical Marvel style action you’ve come to expect.  And like most other Marvel movies, it’s the characters that carry the most weight for the film.  Here we have a whole host of new personalities that’ll add extra flavor to the Marvel cinematic canon, and it makes me extra excited to see where all of them will show up in future Marvel projects.  The movie also has the added benefit of being a super hero movie that’s told from the perspective of the culture that it represents.  It’s true that a super hero movie needn’t have to be exclusively manufactured nor marketed towards a select segment of the population, but for Black Panther, I feel that it was essential that it had to be told from a distinctively black point of view.  I applaud Disney and Marvel for recognizing this and for seeking out someone like Ryan Coogler to do the job.  Coogler was the ideal choice to bring Black Panther’s story to the big screen, because he has the right sensibilities to inject his own point of view into the story-line, while still maintaining the sense that he’s creating a movie intended to be a part of the super hero genre and a part of a larger cinematic universe.  That’s why the movie works as a cultural touchstone for the black community as well as an exciting warm-up for this summer’s Infinity War.  With all that, it may stand as Marvel’s most breakthrough and culturally relevant film to date, which alone is quite an achievement.   And more than anything else, it’s just a rousing fun watch for anyone, regardless of race and culture, and that’s all anyone can want.  All hail the king, and Wakanda forever!

Rating: 8.25/10

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Review

It’s pretty remarkable that we live in a culture where several generations of film-goers can share a common connection with the same film franchise no matter what their age.  When the first Star Wars made it to the big screen in 1977, it was certainly a product of it’s time to be sure, but it resonated so well that it would go on to redefine the cinematic experience as a whole for years afterwards.  The enduring legacy continued through two equally beloved sequels, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) and the Star Wars trilogy as it was known then would go on to influence a generation raised watching it and absorbing it’s wonder.  As a result, Star Wars became more than just a movie, but a cultural touchstone, as fans defined their lives around their love of the movies; in some cases to extreme degrees.  It was also a game-changer for Hollywood, as a generation of future filmmakers took inspiration and built their own majestic adventures in the spirit of Star Wars.  Upon seeing how extensive the impact of the first trilogy was on the culture, the man behind it, George Lucas, believed that he had the opportunity now to expand his universe further.  Thus, we got what is now known as the “prequel trilogy,” telling the story of what led up to the events of the original three films.  The reception to the prequels, however, were mixed, as the maturing fan-base of the original trilogy held the series in sacred regard, and considered George Lucas’ additions to be superfluous and demeaning.  Even still, the movies were still financially successful, and what they did more than anything was to keep the Star Wars franchise still fresh in people’s minds, especially to younger viewers who were coming to the franchise with fresh eyes.  Good or bad, two generations of fans exist for this continuing series, and it continues to fuel the growth of the extended universe that Lucas has created, which leads us now to the current generation of Star Wars fandom.

After the prequels, the future of Star Wars was cast in doubt, because it seemed that George Lucas himself had put it behind him finally and was content to leave the story complete as it was.  But in 2012, a remarkable deal was struck which allowed George Lucas’ production company, Lucasfilm, to be purchased by Disney for a substantial $4 billion.  For the first time ever, the Star Wars brand was freed up from the grasp of it’s creator and was now allowed to flourish on it’s own.  Disney of course wasted no time and immediately put the franchise to work, announcing that work was going to begin on a brand new trilogy, this time looking forward instead of backward by continuing the story-line told in the original trilogy.  The first film in this new era was given to blockbuster filmmaker J.J. Abrams, who had already garnered success for relaunching the dormant Star Trek film franchise.  Though the job would be daunting, given all the expectations put upon it, J.J. managed to deliver a very satisfying addition to the Star Wars series with The Force Awakens.  Not only did it work as a stand alone film, it managed to tie the whole series together in a more complete way, allowing fans of both the grittier original trilogy and the glossier prequels to appreciate it together.  It was nostalgic for the past, but held new promise for the future.  And alongside the successful spinoff hit, Rogue One (2016), Star Wars is once again in a position where they are not just the biggest franchise in Hollywood today, but also one of the most influential.  And that legacy finds itself with a new chapter in this year’s newest entry, Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.  Is it a movie worthy of the legacy that it’s built upon, or is it a road block that could minimize the bright future that’s ahead for the series.

The film picks up right after the events of The Force Awakens.  The Rebellion, led by General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher) is still rejoicing it’s spectacular victory over the First Order; an evil military remnant of the Galactic Empire.  Leia’s most trusted Starfleet captain, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), continues to make riskier attacks against what remains of the First Order’s fleet, but the costs are piling up and the Rebellion’s numbers are dwindling.  After learning that the First Order now has developed technology that can track them through light speed, the Rebellion suddenly finds themselves on the run.  At the same time, Poe finds himself at odds with Leia and the new resistance leader, Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern).  With the help of his friend Finn (John Boyega) as well as a plucky engineer named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), the trio devise a plan to secretly gain access to the First Order’s flagship and dismantle their tracking signal.  Meanwhile, many star systems away, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has finally met up with the long missing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).  Rey hopes that the Jedi master will help her to focus the powers that are awakening within her and train her in the Jedi arts.  But, Luke has vowed to put an end to his Jedi ways and refuses to become her teacher.  Rey only gains his trust after demonstrating some of the raw strength that she wields, but in doing so, she further terrifies the aging Jedi.  He recognizes her power as being too similar to those of his nephew Ben Solo, who had turned to the dark side and became Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).  As Rey gains more skills, she starts to gain a psychic connection with Kylo Ren, who is currently under the influence of the First Order’s Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).  Is their bond the key to balance within the force, or is there a darker scheme at work, and is it time for Luke Skywalker to wield the lightsaber for one last battle?

When judging The Last Jedi, you have to take account of where it falls within the series as a whole.  For many people, the high-point of the series is The Empire Strikes Back, the second film ever made and the fifth chronologically.  Since then, everything has been trying to clear that high bar and few if any have ever come close.  The prequels represent to many the low points, as it’s clear that George Lucas lost focus on the story and became too self involved in the world building of it all.  For The Last Jedi, it’s following in the footsteps of a generally beloved reboot for the series in The Force Awakens, which opened the door for many opportunities, while at the same time following safe and familiar ground.  Last Jedi certainly has the benefit of being the second film in a trilogy, something it shares in common with Empire,  but that’s also a negative, as it has more expectations placed upon it because of that aspect.  But, just judging it on it’s own, how does it fare?  I would say that it meets most of it’s expectations, but never really exceeds them.  I did have a good time watching the movie, and it had some truly spectacular moments.  What it also had was an uneven story, that unfortunately falls into meandering subplots and lulls in the pacing.  As a result, I found it to be somewhat of a step backwards after the more briskly paced and pleasantly surprising Force Awakens.  But, that being said, this is by no means a bad movie at all.  It is light years better than the prequels, I can tell you that, and at some point features moments that I would characterize as among the best in the series.  The film was written and directed by Rian Johnson, who has made a name for himself with critically acclaimed thrillers like Brick (2005) and Looper (2012), and he certainly shows great skill here with this material, giving it the right epic feel, along with some of the unexpected twists that takes the universe into uncharted territory.  At the same time, while offering some new ideas into the mix, Johnson unfortunately throws a little too much in, not allowing stuff to stick with the audience quite as well as it should.

Of course, this shouldn’t be compared at all with Empire Strikes Back, and for the most part Last Jedi does manage to steer clear of direct comparative elements that naturally would reflect badly upon it.  But, one thing that I did think it lacked in comparison to Empire is the balance it has with playing out multiple story-lines.  In Empire, you had two solid plot-lines, one with Luke being trained by Yoda and the other focused on Han Solo and Leia’s growing relationship, threaded perfectly together towards an unforgettable finish.  Here, not all the plot-lines thread together as neatly.  There is this lackluster side quest taken by Finn and Rose to a Casino resort planet, which adds nothing to the story and in some ways feels very out of place in a Star Wars movie.  Because of this, I felt that the movie lagged in the middle as I just didn’t care at all what was happening in this sequence.  Essentially, it’s just used as an excuse to bring a new wild card character into the mix, a code-breaker named DJ (played by Benicio Del Toro) who unfortunately is given too little screen time to make an impact.  If you’re going to get someone of Del Toro’s caliber to be a part of the cast, you should use him to the fullest potential, and sadly this movie does not.  And you would think that with a lengthy running time of 2 /12 hours (the longest in the series) that more time would be devoted to giving every new thing it’s due, and sadly it does not.  But, whenever the movie would find it’s focus, particularly in the latter half, it would really grab a hold of the audience and overall, more scenes work than don’t.  I especially loved every moment focused on Luke and Rey.  That’s where the movie finds it’s soul, and some of the most profound moments ever seen in the Star Wars franchise can be found in their story-line.  The movie also does a fantastic job of upending your expectations.  Without giving anything away, there are a few surprises late in the film that not only takes the story in a whole new direction, but even shakes up the future of the universe as a whole.  In many ways, the movie’s greatest strength is the way that it subverts the tropes that you’ve come to know about Star Wars and makes you see that anything is really possible with this franchise.

One thing that the movie does carry over well from The Force Awakens is the renewed emphasis on the characters in the series.  Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, and even the little droid BB-8 all continue to grab our attention and keep us invested in their ongoing adventures.  The Last Jedi also thankfully gives more screen time and development to the character of Poe Dameron, as we see him develop more as a player in this whole thing.  We see that he indeed has some flaws, as his brash and impatient attitude has sometimes put the Rebellion in even more danger, and towards the end of the movie, we see him learn more from his mistakes and see that sometimes caution is the better strategy.  Every returning actor is still excellent, with both Daisy Ridley and John Boyega still as charming as ever in their respective roles.  Adam Driver once again demonstrates his acting chops and makes Kylo Ren one of the Star Wars series’ most fascinating villains.  The newer characters sadly leave less of an impression, but the best new addition is Kelly Marie Tran as Rose, who adds a new dimension to the story as one of the rebellion’s most ardent believers.  One thing that will be notable about this movie, however, is that it marks the final screen performance of Carrie Fisher in the role that made her a star.  Her tragic passing after finishing her scenes for this film is something that will cast a somber tone while watching her final performance her, and I can definitely say that it is a fantastic farewell to a great character and an even better actress.  But, the film more than anything belongs to Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker.  The veteran actor steps back into the role with remarkable finesse, and it will take you right back to your childhood seeing him wield that lightsaber once again.  Not only that, but he even brings more dimensions to his iconic character and shows us that there is still more to learn about this Jedi Master.  His chemistry with Daisy Ridley’s Rey is also phenomenal and their moments are easily the highlights.  And I have to say, without spoiling anything, the finale features some of the most bad ass Luke Skywalker moments this series has ever seen, and that’s saying something.

Also of note are the visuals in this movie.  This may very well be the most beautifully shot film in the entire series.  The original trilogy’s DP, Gilbert Taylor, was no slouch, but his skills were also limited by the budget, which gave the films a more grounded and grittier look, which actually worked to it’s advantage.  Here, The Last Jedi was shot by frequent Rian Johnson collaborator Steve Yedlin, who brings a remarkable eye for scale and beautiful sense for color and light to the mix.  There are some stunning visual moments that both he and Rian Johnson create, much of which are unique in the franchise to date.  There is a beautiful moment where Rey begins to take her first lesson in feeling the Force around her, and the scene turns into a montage of images, creating a visual representation of Rey’s sensory experience.  It’s something that you haven’t seen before in a Star Wars film, and it’s done really well.  The movie also makes great use of it’s locations as well.  While the aforementioned Casino planet is a little bland, the crystal planet of Crait more than makes up for it.  Serving as the battleground for the climatic finale, this planet features some truly memorable visuals, including the way that the barren white salt flats of the surface gives way to blood red dirt underneath once it’s been turned over or disturbed.  This leads to a mix of color that really captures the eye, and makes this not just look like an epic adventure, but also a work of art as well.  At some points, I feel like Rian Johnson took inspiration from classic Westerns when creating his epic finale, because there are moment near the end that feel like they’ve come right out of a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western, in a very positive way.  All of this help to make the movie feel satisfying by the end, because while you can find fault in the story, you can’t help but be in awe of the artistry in it’s production, which in many cases represents some of the best we’ve ever seen before in this series.

As a whole, where would I rank this movie as a part of the series.  For me, the original film and Empire Strikes Back are still the pinnacle of the series, as they represent the fullest expression of what George Lucas intended with his grand vision.  Sure, they were compromised by their limitations, but the earnestness with which they were made are still unmatched even to this day.  After them, I would put The Force Awakens as the third best in the series, as I found that film to have the best balance to it’s story that we’ve seen outside of the original series, even if it was overly familiar ground they were retreading.  The prequels of course round out the bottom.  The Last Jedi I would say falls into the flawed but still satisfying category that Return of the Jedi finds itself within.  I can’t overlook the fact that it takes some unnecessary detours in the story that do nothing but pad the running time, but at the same time, I was still pleased with what I saw.  The film has some great moments, especially those with Luke Skywalker, and it finishes very strong by the end.  I even give the movie praise for subverting our expectations with regards to where we thought the movie was going to go.  Some of those fan theories that have been circling the web for years are suddenly going to be stopped cold by this movie, and in a way, I’m kind of happy this movie did that.  You can’t help but admire a film franchise that’s willing to take some chances and not be married to tired tropes that it had helped to make itself.  If there is anything that this movie proves, is that anything is possible in this universe, and that more than anything is a promising aspect for the future of the Star Wars brand.  I honestly have no idea where this trilogy is headed next, because this movie broke so many rules, and left so many things up in the air.  When J.J. Abrams returns to make the trilogy capping Episode IX, it will be interesting to see what he does with the new direction that Rian Johnson has set for this world.  In the end, The Last Jedi needed to set itself apart as an entry in this franchise and that it does.   It’s not as pretty as some of the best we’ve seen in this series, but it is a welcome game-changer that in a way is exactly what this series needed to keep this franchise interesting for this generation and those that will continue to follow.

Rating: 8.25/10

Coco – Review

Pixar Animation Studios has made a name for themselves in Hollywood for a variety of reasons.  They have an incredible track record at the box office; their characters are known the world over; and they are always pushing the envelope in the field of animation, making them an undisputed leader, alongside their partner company Disney.  But, one other thing that usually defines their movies are the ways they put interesting spins on unusual concepts and mine them into universal stories that anyone can enjoy.  From them, we have witnessed stories of what toys do when they’re not being played with, the working lives of monsters, and the suburban dramas of a family of superheros.  They have also given us an innocent romance between two robots, showed us that even a rat could be a gourmet chef, and even told us the story of the emotions within the mind of a twelve year old girl.  Pixar, on top of it’s groundbreaking animation, is also rightly celebrated for it’s creativity, and for it’s devotion towards trying new things.  However, they also work in an industry that demands continuing results, and in some ways, Pixar has fallen victim to it’s own success.  Because their movies do so well, the demand for sequels has been overwhelming for them, and despite their desire to move forward with newer ideas, they are still obliging to those demands and have made a number of sequels, especially in the last few years.  While some of their continuing franchises are still celebrated (Toy Story for example), there are quite a few who aren’t.  And you can tell which sequels are given the least amount of care within the studio.  This past summer’s Cars 3 may be the least inspired Pixar movie to date, and it is disheartening to see a studio that made such a big deal in the past about the importance of story care so little about what narrative they were telling in their own movie.  Still, whenever Pixar does have the opportunity to do something new, they relish it, especially if it’s a concept that’s ripe for the Pixar treatment.  And after seeing stories of toys, bugs, robots, rats, and even emotions, Pixar again shines it’s light on an unexpected subject; the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos.

Coco, the studio’s 19th feature, uses the holiday as the starting off point for it’s new epic adventure.  This isn’t the first time that Pixar has tackled a singular national culture in one of their movies.  Unfortunately their first experience with this ended up with the disappointing Brave (2012), which merely used it’s Scottish setting as window dressing for a rather banal story.  With Coco, the focus is placed much much more heavily on the culture of it’s setting, and the importance that it holds on the lives of everyone within it’s story.  This is a movie that is steeped heavily within Mexican culture; celebrating the art, the music, the traditions, and most importantly the people of this culturally rich nation.  It’s a movie that identifies heavily with the setting of it’s tale, and yet still manages to touch universal themes that will resonate to people of every culture, especially with regards to the importance of family in one’s life.  This is probably why the filmmakers chose Dia de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”) as the source of inspiration for this story, because of it’s association with all of the above.  It is a uniquely Mexican holiday, and one that emphasizes the importance of family and personal identity.  But, it’s not just those themes that Pixar was interested.  They also saw the potential in exploring the idea of the world that the “Dead” live within; the one that they visit from on this certain holiday.  They also found inspiration in the iconography of the festivities, including marigold flower petals and candy colored skeletons, all of which is given a very fanciful treatment by the Pixar team.  But, like I’ve said before, it can be tricky basing your entire movie around a certain cultural tradition, and Pixar has managed to fail in that arena before.  So, does Coco show Pixar at their most inspired, or is it another shallow attempt to use colorful cultural inspirations to mask it’s narrative shortcomings.

The story of Coco is centered around a passionate and restless youth named Miguel (voiced by newcomer Anthony Gonzalez).  He is the youngest child in a family of shoemakers who have had their trade passed down through several generations.  His grandmother, Abuelita (Renee Victor) makes the family live by the strict rule of no music, based on the past past history of their family matriarch, Mama Imelda (Alanna Ubach), being abandoned by a musician who wanted to pursue his dreams of stardom.  Miguel disobeys his Abuelita by practicing his music in secret, sharing his talent only with his great grandmother, Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia).  On the eve of the night of Dia de los Muertos, Miguel hopes to enter the talent contest at the village’s festival, but his guitar is discovered by the family and is smashed by his Abuelita as punishment.  Heartbroken, Miguel ventures to the tomb of his idol, famed musical legend Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), in the hopes that he can use his famous guitar that remains on display there.  After strumming one note, Miguel suddenly finds something amiss.  He is invisible to those around him, except to his dog Dante, and all around him are skeletons walking among the living.  He soon realizes that he’s crossed into the realm of the dead after encountering relatives from his past that have passed on.  They take Miguel with them and enter the Land of the Dead, where Miguel must get the blessing of his great, great grandmother Mama Imelda to return home.  However, when her conditions includes a promise to never play music again, Miguel runs off.  His only chance of returning home must come from the man that he now believes to be his great, great grandfather, the legendary Ernesto, who unfortunately is unreachable.  However, when Miguel meets a wayward outsider named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) who promises he can sneak Miguel into Ernesto’s compound, his adventure heads into new and even riskier territory, in both a race against time and death itself.

Given that this is Pixar, the expectations on Coco are pretty high, especially when they are tackling something original.  Despite it’s place within the whole legacy of Pixar Studios, does the movie stand well enough on it’s own?  I can safely say yes to that.  Coco is an endlessly charming feature that is both heartwarming in it’s narrative, as well a visually stunning piece of animation art.  The movie is especially a welcome palette cleanser to get that sour taste of Cars 3 out of our memories.  This is both a welcome return to form for the studio, as well as a unique change of pace for them.  While you can still see the same traditional Pixar calling cards throughout the movie (stylized worlds, Pizza Planet truck cameo, John  Ratzenberger, etc.), it also feels very different from their other features.  While most other Pixar movies center around their main characters changing the course of their future, Coco is all about healing the scars of the past.  This is a movie that makes family the primary issue, and how knowing where you come from and who has made up your family tree factors into the person that you are and what course you will take in your life.  For the main character Miguel, his journey doesn’t come down to him living out his dream but instead finding out why his life matters in the grander scheme of things.  It’s ultimately a movie about not losing the things that matter, something that is tied integrally to the festivities of the Dia de los Muertos.  In Mexican tradition, the holiday is all about remembrance, and passing memories along through generations, so that those who have left us can never be forgotten.  The movie’s greatest strength is the effectiveness with which it conveys that tradition, to the point where remembering loved ones is a key point to the plot.  And, in the best way that Pixar knows how, they take the simple ideas behind the tradition and elevate it into grandiose spectacle.

One thing that I definitely can say about this movie is that it is probably one of the lushest and most extravagant films ever made by Pixar from a visual standpoint.  The Land of the Dead itself is a wonder to behold, with a sense of scale that raises the bar for Pixar.  There is this beautiful mix of styles that spans across the many years of Mexican cultural history.  You see the influence of Mayan and Aztec art and architecture, combined with post-colonial classicism, and then finally the art deco modernity of the 20th century, all literally stacked on top of one another in the fanciful realm of the afterlife.  Within it, you see the richness of Mexican culture that has spanned centuries and has been influential to so many.  Cultural touchstones are even spotlighted, with even famed artist Frida Kahlo making a memorable appearance at one point.   The movie also does a fine job of portraying a contemporary view of modern day Mexico in the living world scenes as well.  Miguel’s community has a beautiful tranquility to it that I’m sure many real Mexican people will tell you is closer to the real thing than most other images of their country that makes it into the media these days, especially compared to those that mean to misrepresent their country.  Even with the heavy cultural influence, the movie still feels like a Pixar film, especially with their attention to detail.  That extends even into the designs of the characters.  Considering that this movie deals with many characters that are dead, it’s a good thing that Pixar resisted the temptation to venture into any macabre territory, which itself would have been insulting to the tradition itself.  What they do instead is to give the skeletal characters ornamental touches similar to the candy skulls you see made specifically for the holiday.  The colorful touches also add variety to the characters’ designs, with some of the designs accentuating the individual’s personalities in some fashions.   It all adds to a lushness in the film’s design that makes this a feast for the eyes with every frame.

And while the movie stands among the greatest of Pixar’s films in terms of visuals, there is unfortunately one other aspect of the movie that sadly keeps it from reaching the pinnacle of the studio’s best.  While the story is imaginative and leads to some wonderful moments throughout, it is also far too predictable most of the time.  Maybe it’s because I’ve watched pretty much every Pixar film to date, along with hundreds of other animated films, that I am far too familiar with the playbook that these movie draw from for their narratives, and sure enough, Coco follows them to a “t”.  There is a second act plot twist that I sniffed out way in advance, and by the time it was revealed, I felt less surprised by it.  By being predictable to a fault, I felt that the movie undermined the impact of it’s story.  Sure, it plays those moments far better than other movies do, but at the same time for a movie as visually inspired as this one, it should have taken less conventional roots to get there.  I would say that Coco is better in it’s individual moments than it does as a narrative.  It probably doesn’t help that this conventional story follows in the tradition of a studio that continually told stories that nobody else was doing.  This is the same studio that had an old man and a boy scout traveling to South America in a flying, balloon suspended house.  That’s a story that you had no idea which way it was going to play out.  Here, you know how Miguel’s story is going to end, because you’ve seen it done in so many other films.  Traveling to another realm to learn a truth about the kind of person he is.  You could just as well call this land Oz or Phantasia, because the journey is roughly the same.  The movie even trots out overplayed tropes like the betrayal of a friendship and a hidden antagonist revealed late in the story.  Now, Coco doesn’t misuse these tropes horribly, but by being too recognizable, you can’t help but be taken out of the movie by seeing the mechanics behind which this story is built.

At the same time, the movie makes up for these story shortcomings by being so imagnative in all other aspects.  The movie plays familiar notes, but oftentimes they are played so perfectly that you can’t help but love them.  It helps when the movie has a great heart at it’s center in the character Miguel.  He is one of the most endearing main characters you will ever see in a Pixar movie; full of life and passion, he is a character who is instantly worth embracing.  He’s also well-rounded, with a good many flaws that prevent him from being bland as well.  Newcomer Anthony Gonzalez manages to find that fine line between precocious and grounded in his vocal performance, and he easily holds his own against more veteran talents like Benjamin Bratt and Gael Garcia Bernal.  It should also be noted that another way this movie is set apart from it’s predecessors is in it being the first fully fledged musical from Pixar.  While the animation giant has included original songs in their films before (some Oscar-winning), they have never actually been as integral to the story as the ones here.  Here, the music is a part of the story and it’s the characters themselves that carry the tunes.  It may not be a musical in the classic Disney sense, but it certainly falls more in that category than anything Pixar has made up to now.  The songs themselves were written by Robert and Kristen Lopez, the same people you can blame for those inescapable ear worms from the movie Frozen (2013), and their work here is just as strong.  The primary number, “Remember Me” in particular has a special part to play in the movie’s plot, and I’m sure that it will turn into a classic all it’s own.  The song also plays a part in the other thing that Pixar films are famous for, which is the ability to make their audiences cry.  There’s a climatic moment that I won’t spoil for you, but suffice to say, the screening I went to had some people openly weeping.  You can say that Pixar has done it’s job as intended when it makes it’s audience do that, but fear not, it’s a moment of joyful weeping. There’s no traumatic sadness like the openings of Up (2009) and Finding Nemo (2003), nor the somber feelings of Jesse’s story in Toy Story 2 (1999).  It’s the kind of emotional release of unimaginable love that ultimately becomes this movie’s greatest triumph.

So, the movie has narrative shortcomings that keep it from becoming an all time great, but individual moments within stand among the greatest that Pixar has ever committed to film.  Apart from that, I credit directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina for immersing their film so heavily within the culture of Mexico and for not compromising that vision either.  This is movie that embraces everything about the culture and imbues it with a grandeur that grabs your attention through every moment.  The movie also remains truthful and respectful to the traditions and cultural touchstones that it portrays, giving audiences unfamiliar with the intricacies of Mexican cultural traditions a great and entertaining primer towards wanting to learn more.  The movie is already being embraced by audiences in Mexico itself, where it saw it’s premiere first before anywhere else in the world.  It’s already broken box office records south of the border, and that resounding support should extend northward as well.  I myself was still enchanted by the movie, despite not being surprised by the directions it took.  Maybe Pixar’s bar has just been set far too high by past masterpieces for even this very well-crafted feature to clear.  I would still easily put it in the upper half of the Pixar canon.  The characters are delightful, the music is exceptional, and the visuals are awe-inspiring.  And it gives me confidence that Pixar is still trying their hardest to do interesting things with their movies.  The subject of Dia de los Muertos is perfectly explored in this movie, especially with regards to it’s themes about family.  My hope is that this movie inspires many people to look deeper into their own family histories, and discover all the fascinating stories that lie within them.  That’s ultimately where Coco leaves the greatest impact, and it’s one that sets a great standard of it’s own within the legacy of Pixar.

Rating: 8.5/10

Justice League – Review

A decade or more ago, movies such as Justice League would have seemed like an impossible dream.  All the hurdles it takes to make one super hero movie a reality; why would anyone want to undertake a movie with a whole team of superheroes?  But, over at Marvel Studios, they not only have found a way to make it work, they’ve done it multiple time now, with spectacular results.  Spending years of development through standalone franchise for each character, Marvel has managed to work out the formula for making very satisfying films that include all of their best heroes sharing the spotlight together.  And naturally, when one studio has found a gold mine of an idea, the rest all will follow in their footsteps.  The only problem is, Marvel’s formula doesn’t work for all things.  In the past couple years, we’ve seen several studios face-plant themselves after spending and wasting millions of dollars to establish their own “cinematic universes.”  Universal’s “Dark Universe” centered around it’s collection of monsters has been dead on arrival from Day 1, while Fox’s desperate attempts to keep their Marvel licenses in house has resulted in a jumbled mess.  The only real threat to Marvel’s dominance with regards to cinematic universes has been it’s long time competitor in the publishing world; DC Comics.  Like Marvel, they have their own collection of iconic superheroes, all deserving of their own long overdue cinematic treatment.  With the overwhelming success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy under their belts, DC parent company Warner Brothers felt confident that they had the means to create a cinematic universe of their own, and they set out to do just that.  But, again, when playing catch up to someone who’s clearly in the lead, you run the risk of one or many missteps along the way, and DC has not been immune to that.

They first launched their bold new plan with a revamped telling of the origins of one of their most beloved characters, Superman, in Man of Steel (2013).  Right from the beginning, things were off to a rocky start, as this new Superman film was criticized for souring the character and his story with a needlessly somber and dreary tone, as well as going overkill with some of the violence in the action scenes.  Much of the criticism was laid on director Zack Snyder, who many believed didn’t understand the character of Superman, and was just exploiting his story as a means to show off his very flashy style of film-making.  While it did have some fans (I kind of thought it was okay too, as you can read in my review here), Man of Steel was still universally seen as a step backward for DC, and a rocky start for their cinematic universe plans.  Things did not improve with the follow up film, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which was the first feature intended to show their extended universe.  There was no denying it that time, BvS was an indefensible disaster, and the clearest sign yet that DC’s cinematic plans were close to derailing.  Like I discussed in my review here,  Snyder’s indulgences as a director were undermining the development of the characters, and it turned what should have been an amazing experience into a chore to sit through.  It seemed that things might have been looking up with their next project, Suicide Squad, given that film’s more irreverent and humorous tone, but even that movie ended up being bogged down by terrible editing and incomprehensible story.  But finally, this last summer, we got Wonder Woman, which was a breath of fresh air for DC’s films.  Centered around DC’s iconic heroine, Wonder Woman was focused and engaging, and it managed to finally be faithful to the essence of the character.  It was also an empowerment tale for women at a time when we really needed it, which made it’s success all the more rewarding.  Now, despite the rocky road up to this point, DC is finally letting us see all our favorite heroes together in the long awaited Justice League.  But, has DC finally figured their formula out, or are things still an under-cooked mess.

The film is starts out in the aftermath of the events proceding Batman v. Superman.  Superman (Henry Cavill) is dead and buried, and the world is still mourning his loss.  His allies, Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), try to deal with the grief of losing their friend in their own way, while at the same time searching around the globe for other super beings that may be able to help them.  While looking through the notes left behind by the now incarcerated Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), they have learned the identities of three possible individuals that could join their team.  One is the Atlantean warrior known as Aquaman (Jason Momoa), who spend most of his days either drinking or saving stranded fisherman out in stormy waters.  Another is amateur physicist Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) who has managed to harness the power of super speed through his experiments, helping him to take on the identity of the Flash.  Proving to be elusive, though, is a recluse named Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), who has lost most of his body in a lab experiment and has been miraculously been brought back to life through robotic enhancements, making him the Cyborg.  Batman and Wonder Woman manage to track down and persuade them all to help out, thanks to the assistance of their non-powerful friends and associates, including Alfred the Butler (Jeremy Irons), Lois Lane (Amy Adams), and Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons).  Meanwhile, danger returns to earth as a super-powerful alien being known as Steppenwolf (voiced by Cirian Hinds) returns from his exile, seeking to reclaim three powerful weapons kept guarded on Earth known as the Mother Boxes.  When combined together, the Mother Boxes can transform a planet into the same make-up of Steppenwolf’s home planet, which is a hell-scape for the rest of us.  After defeating both the Atlanteans and Amazonians who have safeguarded the boxes for thousands of years, Steppenwolf proves to be quite unstoppable, until the Justice League finally stands in his way.  But, is he too much for them as well, and do they come to the realization that they need just one more element to make their team complete; the still deceased Superman.

In the wake of Wonder Woman’s success and Batman v. Superman’s failure, you would think that DC has learned a few lessons as they’ve continued to push forward with their bold cinematic universe.  And in many ways, they have, but there are still several lingering issues.  Zack Snyder, up to now, has been the caretaker of this franchise, and his indulgences have done the series no favors.  Likewise, there has been a distinct lack of identity to the universe as a whole.  Up to this point, it seems that everything you can say about the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) is that they are trailing distantly behind Marvel cinematicly, and all their attempts to catch up make them look like amateurs by comparison.  The problem is that you can see the mechanics behind what DC is doing far more prominently, because up to now, they seemed to have been more driven by the potential for box office riches more than what was right for the characters.  But, again, Wonder Woman finally turned things in the right direction, making us all hope that DC had learned it’s lesson and were giving us the movies we deserve rather than the ones that they needed.  But, how does Justice League size up given the pressure that’s been put on it.  Well, it’s complicated.  I will say that it is light years better than Batman v. Superman, mainly because this movie is not bogged down by an unfocused story.  Justice League actually has a plot-line that makes sense, and the characters are actually portrayed much better here; actually becoming closer to their comic book identities than we’ve seen before.  But at the same time, the movie still feels hollow when compared to what Marvel has been doing this last decade.  Especially when compared to something like Marvel’s first big team-up, The Avengers (2012), Justice League is remarkably small in scope.  It’s a movie that is disappointing when considering the legacy behind it and the expectations we all expect of it, and yet it still shows some signs of improvement over the heap of failures that this studio has been responsible for up to now.    I guess your takeaway from the film will depend on your feelings towards DC’s cinematic universe up to this point, and for me, my feelings were that I was unimpressed but still entertained all at the same time.

Much of the things that keeps this movie buoyant are the characters themselves.  I have to commend the casting department at Warner Brothers for getting the right people for these iconic roles (at least for the ones that matter).  Ben Affleck is, I think, one of the better Batmans we have seen on the big screen, and up to now has been unfortunately saddled with material that doesn’t bring out his full potential in the role.  Still, he makes the most of it, and he’s served better here than he was in BvS.  Gal Gadot once again proves that she absolutely owns the role of Wonder Woman here, and she is easily one of the film’s greatest elements.  I give the writers and the director credit for not making her a token girl in this team as well.  She is an equal partner in the Justice League, given just as much respect as a member of this elite squad as anyone else.  She also has great chemistry with Ben Affleck in their few scenes together, showing a welcome comradry between heroes that has been sorely missing thus far in the DCEU.   The best new edition to the pantheon of heroes is Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, a thrill-seeking macho man who brings an extra bit of lighthearted fun to the mix.  Ezra Miller’s Flash is at times a little obnoxious with his constant “funny” quips, but he’s serviceable enough as the character and brings plenty of personality to the role.  Ray Fisher’s Cyborg is unfortunately the one disappointing addition to the cast.  The character in the comics is a lot more carefree and engaging, but this Cyborg is brooding and emotionally distant.  Still, the cast is solid throughout, and they more than anything, improve upon the material given to them.  The movie is still awkwardly written, but the one thing it does get right is the sense of teamwork between all the characters.  The movie doesn’t exploit their suspicions towards each other and have them but heads for no reason, like past films have done.  Instead, the Justice League comes together seeing the bigger threat in front of them, and use their best qualities to not only win the day, but also to gain each other’s trust, and that is something so refreshing to see in a super hero movie from DC.  If there is something to praise this movie for, it’s for getting the theme of teamwork through adversity right.

Everything else about the movie is a mixed bag.  One thing that you’ll notice while watching the movie is a noticeable hodgepodge of tones and styles of storytelling thrown together.  The film went through a late, eleventh hour re-construction, which saw the departure of Zack Snyder from the directing chair, and replaced with Joss Whedon, the man who brought the Avengers together over at Marvel.  Snyder still gets sole directing credit, but the Whedon additions are still very evident, and in some cases welcome.  The  movie contains far more humorous and light-hearted scenes than anything that we saw in BvS.  That is refreshing, but the movie still suffers from Zack Snyder’s annoyingly self-indulgent directing.  There are several scenes that still showcase his penchant for explosive and loud mayhem on screen, as well as his pretentious use of slow-mo to accentuate the action.  But, there is one thing that Snyder’s direction does service to the movie and that’s a sense of scale, which in a way is kind of undermined by Whedon’s more restrained style.  Snyder has a more operatic mind while Whedon has a more televised serial mind, and those two style don’t mix together well.  Still, I thought that Whedon’s additions brought more value to the film than anything it took away.  Something that Whedon clearly brought over with him from Marvel was the sense of knowing how to make the characters more relatable, and that’s accomplished through some very welcome moments of the heroes socializing and bonding through their shared experience.  If that’s the direction that DC is headed, than it’s a welcome one.  Apart from that, I will say that Snyder’s direction here is not as infuriatingly in your face as it was before.  The only problem is that by holding back a little, the movie unfortunately feels smaller, which is not the feeling you want to have while watching the Justice League movie you been waiting a whole lifetime for.  That’s the unfortunate result of an all too late course correction for the studio.

Where the movie suffers the most though is in the visual effects department.  This movie has, without a doubt, some of the worst CGI I have ever seen in a movie with this sizable a budget.  It’s almost like the movie ran out of time and money and just had to make due with what they had, which is a sad statement for DC’s organizational skills.  I understand the shake-up at the top, with Zack Snyder withdrawing suddenly and Joss Whedon coming in at the last minute, but given the build-up for several years that we’ve had for this movie, Warner Bros. and DC should have not had to cut corners here.  There are elements like Aquaman’s swimming under water and Batman’s wall crawling, tank-like vessel that look like they’ve come out of a video came, and feel very out of place in this live action film.  And then, we come to the film’s weakest point of all; the villain Steppenwolf.  We’ve seen bland antagonists before in both the DC and Marvel cinematic universes, but Steppenwolf may be the weakest of all.  This character leaves the minimalist of impressions on the audience, and is a complete waste of actor Cirian Hinds’ talent.  The talented Irish actor could have done something with the role, but he is relegated to just a vocal performance as the character is needlessly portrayed entirely through CGI.  And it’s some of the weakest, characterless animation that I’ve ever seen.  The animation is Jar Jar Binks level bad, which is unacceptable now in 2017.  Considering that only a few weeks prior we saw stellar work done on the character of the Hulk in Thor: Ragnarok, where so much detail was put into his personality and texture, and it just shows how much further ahead Marvel is by comparison.  Even with her brief screen time, Cate Blanchett left more of an impression as the villain Hela in the same film than Steppenwolf leaves here in Justice League.  It’s with a remarkably pathetic villain and the shoddy visual effects, (not to mention Zack Snyder’s typical washed out color palette) that we see the places that DC definitely needs to improve upon if they ever hope to be competitive in the future.

On the whole, especially compared to where they were a year ago, things are looking up for DC Comics on the big screen.  The best thing I can saw about Justice League is that it does a passable job of bringing the legendary super hero team together on screen for the first time.  But, after the huge leap forward that was Wonder Woman, this movie feels like a step backwards for DC.  But not a big one.  It manages to avoid some of the worst pitfalls that sank it’s predecessors, and offers a lot of welcome changes that hopefully take fruit over there.  The things that hold the movie back are mostly holdovers from the Zack Snyder era of the DCEU, which seems to finally be coming to an end.  He never was a great fit for this, and the cinematic universe will be better served under new guidance, whether it be with Joss Whedon or someone else.  The unfortunate thing is that the whole shake-up that the cinematic universe has suffered in the last year has unfortunately diminished the much anticipated team-up that we were all waiting for with Justice League.  The Justice League is iconic in the world of comic literature, and is even credited as the inspiration for Marvel’s Avengers.  The fact that the first incarnation of the Justice League on the big screen is not one the greatest cinematic experiences of all time and just ends up being barely passable is itself a very disappointing result.  But, my hope is that DC takes this lesson and continues to improve the League in the years ahead, helping it to live up to it’s full potential.  Wonder Woman certainly showed that good things can still come from this, and Justice League is still entertaining enough to rise above the rest.  It’s not a home run, and barely a base hit, but any comic book fan (especially those who love DC comics) will be entertained by this.  The best thing I can say is that it’s great to see the heroes of DC finally assembled together and working as a team.  One hopes that the same kind of teamwork continues to make the DCEU competitive with Marvel again, because friendly competition will only make both universes that much better.

Rating: 7/10

Thor: Ragnarok – Review

Since it’s start in 2008 with the release of Iron Man, Marvel Studio’s bold Cinematic Universe plan has had to endure many years of cinematic scrutiny in order to get where to the place they are at right now.  Devoting multiple films from multiple franchise all towards a singular goal ahead in the form of the the sweeping Infinity War saga is a remarkable example of one studio’s incredible discipline and commitment to doing something never done before on the big screen. And yet, to undertake such a goal, they have had to weather changing tastes in the market, as well as competition from like-minded producers, and also the very high risk of audience fatigue the further they go along with their plan.  But, Marvel has managed to weather the storms and has moved towards their larger ambitions with very little interference.  Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (the MCU) not only is still going strong 10 years after it’s launch, they seem to also show no signs of slowing down.  While there have been some hiccups (mostly on the television side), the great majority of their film output has been both financially and critically successful.  Even when it looked like the bottom was going to fall out from under them, such as with the troubled production of Ant-Man (2015), they still managed to do just fine.  And the reason for this enduring success is mainly due to Marvel’s very special ability to refocus their larger plans to a changing market.  While all their plans are still working toward the same goal, their tactics have managed to allow them to fix things internally that didn’t work well the first time and improve them for every next chapter.  You can especially see this in the way that they have changed their franchises tonally over the years, with some growing darker and grittier while others grow lighter and sillier, all suiting the needs of their natural progression.  And no where have we seen that more than within the franchise of the god of thunder himself, Thor.

Of all the Marvel properties to make it to the big screen, Thor may have been the trickiest one.  For one thing, he’s the only character within the Marvel universe whose origins don’t come from the comics themselves.  He is of course a figure out of Norse mythology, dating back centuries.  To do a film about Thor means that you have to take into account his background in legend and importance to Nordic culture.  At the same time, Marvel has taken the mythic figure and worked him into several decades of their own ongoing stories.  There’s the legend of myth and the comic book superhero, and both have to merge together into one character that audiences can identify with and root for.  Despite the challenges, Marvel managed to find a way to make Thor not only a viable on-screen character, but also make him a vital part of their Cinematic Universe.  A large part of their success with the character certainly has to do with the excellent casting of Australian actor Chris Hemsworth in the role, as he’s done a fantastic job of finding the humanity and soul underneath the myth.  The franchise also benefited from an assured foundation built upon the direction of the first film by Kenneth Branagh.  Branagh brought his Shakespearean sensibilities into the Marvel comic adaptation and managed to bridge both myth and comic legend together in a beautiful operatic package with his 2011 film.  In particular, he found the driving force for the drama in the dynamic relationship between Thor and his deceitful brother Loki, which has been a factor that has shaped much of the MCU so far.  But, there have been many critics that have found the Thor franchise to be the most staid of the MCU, because of it’s at times melodramatic tone.  This was especially the case surrounding the serviceable, but unremarkable sequel Thor: The Dark World (2013).  If any Marvel franchise needed to change with the times, Thor certainly look like the one.  Thus we have a third entry in the series that seems to shake up the Thor franchise completely called Thor: Ragnarok.  But is it a change in the franchise for the better or is it too much of a heel turn that spoils what came before?

Where the movie begins makes more sense if you’re familiar with the MCU as a whole.  We first find Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in the underworld battling a demon known as Surtur, who reveals that he is destined to destroy Thor’s home world, Asgard, in a cataclysmic event known as Ragnarok.  Thor bests the demon and returns home, only to find his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in charge under the guise of their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins).  Thor demands that Loki reveal where he’s hiding their father, which leads them back to Earth where they find him in Norway.  Odin, it turns out, is dying and with his last moments he reveals to his sons that they have a sister named Hela (Cate Blanchett), whom Odin has hidden away for fear of her dark ambitions and ruthlessness.  After Odin perishes, the self-proclaimed Goddess of Death emerges from her prison and promptly chases after her brothers.  Thor and Loki end up getting sidetracked as they fall out of the Bifrost portal, leaving Hela uncontested as she returns to savagely reclaim her throne in Asgard.  On Asgard, Hela enlists the help of a disgruntled former warrior of Odin’s army named Skurge (Karl Urban), and with him by her side, she lays waste to all who stands in her way, with only the loyal gatekeeper, Heimdall (Idris Elba) left to save who’s left.  Thor meanwhile ends up in a trash heap of a planet known as Sakaar, which is ruled by a gladiatorial games loving overlord named the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum).  Thor is trapped and taken in shackles to the Grandmaster’s palace by a strong-willed warrior named Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), where the Grandmaster chooses him as the next challenger for his beloved champion.  When Thor enters the arena, he discovers that the Champion that he is about to face is none other than the long missing Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who is undefeated in the arena.  After finding his “friend from work,” Thor seeks to find a way out of Sakaar and back home to defeat Hela, which proves to be a bigger test than he realizes.

The first thing that you will realize upon watching this movie is how much of a tonal whiplash it will be compared to the previous Thor movies.  Thor: Ragnarok dispenses with the somber and operatic tones of the first two movies and instead embraces the weird and campy side of the character and his world.  More than any of the previous Thor movies, Ragnarok is the comic book part of Thor’s legend come to life.  We no longer see here an attempt to take the mythology of the character any more seriously, and instead bring him fully into what Marvel has turned him into.  The movie is also, without a doubt, way more of a comedy than the last two films, both of which used their comedic bits sparingly.  And, for the most part, it’s a complete makeover for the franchise that not only works, but was pretty much essential.  Like I was saying before, Marvel has survived through the years by adapting their stories and characters while still working towards the same goal, and Ragnarok is the perfect example of how to do that right.  They recognized that Thor’s story was being somewhat limited by it’s more somber tone, so they looked at what did work with the character and put a whole lot more emphasis on it.  When you look at the best moments with Thor, from both his franchise and the Avengers movies, you can see that his strengths were in his goofy, misplaced machismo, which often led to hilarious moments of humility for the mythic hero.  Here, the movie plays up his mischievous side a lot more, allowing us to enjoy a lot more of the things we love about the character.  The movie is also unafraid to be a lot more self-aware in it’s campiness, which is something that was definitely influenced greatly by director Taika Waititi, whose other films What We Do in the Shadows (2014) and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) also had that side of campy fun.  And yet, with all the tonal changes, the movie still manages to feel like a natural progression of what has come before, and that’s largely thanks to the fact that the film’s whole theme is centered around change, and how the old way of doing things will no longer work, leading for new directions and possibilities to open up.

There were funny moments in the previous films, but they were sporadically placed throughout and were more or less tied to Thor’s often “fish out of water” placement in the story.  But, after several years of this, it’s clear that Thor is no longer an outsider type of character, but instead a man of two worlds, comfortable in both.  So, with that in mind, director Waititi knew that the source of humor in his movie no longer needed to be centered around his main character, but instead around the world itself.  In this movie, it’s clear that Waititi wants to lampoon everything about Thor (his character, his story) while at the same time maintaining a sense of appreciation that honors the character’s legacy.  That’s why this movie has such a playful sense of humor to it, with no opportunity to make a joke wasted.  There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, especially those involving Thor and Hulk together, and it is a refreshing change of pace for the series overall.  However, the one negative that I can say about the wall-to-wall humorous tone is that it exists in detriment to the overall narrative.  While I was having a great time watching the movie and laughing at it’s most hilarious moments, I could still feel while watching it that there was something lacking in the plot itself.  In particular, I feel that the comedy in the film undermined the menacing aspect of the villain Hela in the film.  The thing is, Hela could have become one of Marvel’s all time greatest villains, and she certainly feels like it at times in the movie, with Cate Blanchett delivering a magnificent performance.  But, she is barely in the movie at all, disappearing for large stretches of screen-time.  I can see that Waititi wanted to maximize his comedic and action-filled moments, but by doing so, this iconic comic villain unfortunately gets diminished.  I wanted to know more about her apart from some rushed exposition and for her to truly let her wrath go wild.  But, while the movie mostly lands it’s laughs, I felt that it still left some things off the table that could have solidified it as one of Marvel’s greats.

There is still plenty to appreciate though.  The cast in particular are all uniformly excellent here.  Both Marvel and Taika Waititi made the wise choice to ground this movie firmly within Thor’s world, allowing more free range for all the actors to embrace their more campy instincts.  Hemsworth, as always, perfectly embodies the character of Thor, and this movie allows him more than ever to show his range; especially his knack for comedy.  This is a very relaxed version of Thor, laying far more into his charisma than into his ability to look strong while fighting.  You can also see the maturity that has seeped into his performance, as he clearly shows the way that living on earth among mortals has left an impact on him.  Tom Hiddleston likewise shows new layers for Loki here, showing how his character has gone through a transformation over the years, going from power hungry to uncertain and aimless under different circumstances.  And, I also have to point out that this is by far the best Hulk that we’ve seen in any movie to date, with the green guy getting a lot more character development than we’ve seen before.  We even see a playful side to him, which is especially uncharacteristic based on all his other appearances, yet still very much welcome.  The newest editions to the cast are also welcome.  Cate Blanchett makes the most of her sadly all too brief screen-time, clearly relishing the part she’s playing.  Tessa Thompson also makes Valkyrie a well-developed and interesting heroine; something that I have to say was severely lacking in this series up to now.  However, my absolute favorite character in the movie is the Grandmaster, with Jeff Goldblum owning every second of screen-time that he has.  It’s a perfect match of actor and character and the movie came to life every time he appears.  It’s clear that the Waititi intentionally had Goldblum just play himself throughout the movie, making the actor’s distinct personality be what defines the character, and it totally works.  If anything, the movie is worth seeing just for this character alone (and stay to the end of the credits to see even more of him).

Another great thing about this movie, in addition to the changed tone, is the visual aesthetic.  Kenneth Branagh’s original Thor had a bold look of it’s own, but it was grounded far more in the realm of fantasy and folklore, with Asgard looking as ornate and grandiose as something that you would see in any Lord of the Rings film.  Ragnarok owes a fair share of it’s visual style to the fantasy and sci-fi films of the 1980’s.  You can really feel the finger prints of movies like Flash Gordan (1980) and Masters of the Universe (1987) all over this movie.  I’ve heard other people call this movie a Heavy Metal album cover come to life, which is a comparison that’s not without merit, given the heavy Frank Frazetta feel of it all.  But, the movie’s visuals have a more comic book basis, especially in the moments on Sakaar, and that’s from the artwork of Marvel’s own Jack Kirby.  Kirby’s colorful style, which defined the publisher for many years, with it’s bold color schemes and dramatic compositions are clearly an inspiration for the colorful world of Sakaar, which is by far the most comic book-ish world that we’ve ever seen in any superhero film to date.  It’s remarkable to think that it’s taken Marvel this long to actually find a way to put Kirby’s distinctive style somewhere into the MCU, so thank goodness this film finally allowed the opportunity to happen.  The movie’s film score, provided by Mark Motherbaugh of Devo fame, also is a wonderful throwback to an 80’s style, using a heavy dose of synth rock to the orchestral music.  Clearly the movie knows that this is a heavy metal rock album come to life, so why not sound like it.  At the same time, it still feels within character of the franchise, as it fits the Nordic god of thunder quite well, both in the commanding way and the tongue-in-cheek way.  Led Zepplin’s “Immigrant Song” which was used to sell the movie in the trailers also makes an appearance in the film’s score, once again, fitting well with Thor’s character.  Both sonically and visually, this is a pleasing experience and without a doubt gives this franchise more of an identity than we’ve ever seen before; one that I hope they continue to use well into the future.

So, as far as Marvel Cinematic Universe movies go, this is an admirable change of pace for a character that needed it, that unfortunately falls short of the stellar heights that the studio has reached in the past.  But, as an entry within it’s own franchise, I can safely say that Thor: Ragnarok is the best Thor movie to date.  It finally feels like the franchise has found it’s identity, and they did so by fully embracing it’s cheesier elements.  I really appreciated the fact that it found the humor within it’s over-the-top world and is not afraid to drawing attention to it’s sillier aspects.  The first two films served their purposes in establishing the character, but this movie allows Thor, the comic book super hero, to finally emerge and be what he was always meant to be.  He’s no longer shackled by the legacy of his past, but is now instead a warrior whose story is yet to be fully written, and that’s a promising future for this character.  I just wish that this tonal change didn’t undermine some of the things in the story that still needed to be grounded, like the villainous Hela, who could have been given a more definitive role in this film and the MCU as a whole.  Still, the movie works for the most part, especially as a change of course for the franchise moving forward.  It’s interesting that it’s take the exact opposite direction as the Captain America franchise, as that one started off sillier and more colorful with The First Avenger (2011) and has since gone darker with The Winter Soldier (2014) and Civil War (2016).  But, like with Captain, Thor’s transition as a character is well reflected in the direction of the franchise and I’m glad to see both embracing the right tones as they have gone along.  Both represent the incredible ability of Marvel to make the right changes while at the same time not losing their focus on the big picture.  It’s going to be interesting to see how everything ties together by the time we get to Infinity War next year.  Ragnarok, in it’s literal translation, means the end of all things, but as we see with this new Thor movie, an end leads to new beginnings and that’s what I hope ends up being the ultimate result of this film.  Thor’s story has ended one chapter, and is about to enter a whole new, and much crazier, next phase, one that I hope will be worth the ride.

Rating: 8.25/10