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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

Blade Runner 2049 – Review

Some movies are instant classics, while others become classics over time; aging like fine wine.  When Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner came to theaters 35 years ago, it did not perform well at the box office.  Released in a rather remarkable summer season that also included the likes of John Carpenter’s The Thing, Disney’s Tron, Star Trek’s The Wrath of Khan, and Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-TerrestrialBlade Runner was viewed as too slow-paced and ponderous by critics and audiences at the time.  For a time, it seemed like the movie would remain a relic of it’s time and then something remarkable happened.  It found it’s audience, and turned not just into a cult hit, but became one of the most defining cinematic milestones of late 20th century.  You can see the influence of Blade Runner in everything from anime like Ghost in the Shell (1995), to The Matrix (1999), to even the visual pop of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) with all it’s flashy neon color.  The future that we also live in has somewhat seen an influence from the movie, including how some of it’s imagined future tech like video based communication, synthetic food and artificial intelligence have become a reality in our present day.  Truth be told, the then far off future date of 2019 looks far different than the reality that we see only 2 years out, but there is quite a lot that the movie did predict right. Also of note is the philosophical legacy that the movie has left behind.  Taking it’s cue from the original story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” from futurist Philip K. Dick, Blade Runner asked many questions that still are debated today; much of which centers around the basic idea of what it means to be human.  Several decades after it’s release, Blade Runner continues to be an influential film and it’s esteem only continues to grow; with more and more people claiming it as one of the best every made.  And now, 35 years later, Hollywood has done something thought unthinkable before; they made a sequel to Blade Runner.

Blade Runner 2049 is without a doubt a gamble.  One can see rebooting a franchise after a long absence if it’s got the kind of following that could justify it.  Sometimes it works out well (Mad Max: Fury RoadTron: LegacyStar Wars: The Force Awakens), other times it does not (2016’s Ghostbusters).  But, what these successful reboots have in common was their basis in the action genre.  Blade Runner is considered by many to be a thinking man’s film.  Oh sure, there are action bits in it, but the movie takes it’s cues more from classic film noir, using mood and atmosphere to build the story.  The success of Blade Runner comes from it’s perfect execution of those noir tropes, transplanted into a sci-fi plot-line.  One of the biggest fears that fans of Blade Runner had going into this movie was the worry that it would be given the Hollywood treatment, meaning that the sequel would take out all the noir elements that made the first film great and replace it with a lot more action.  To many of them, the idea of a sequel at all seemed to be an insult, because the first film stood so well on it’s own; anything else would just spoil what was already there.  While some of those worries are justified, there was a lot of good omens leading up to the making of this movie.  Ridley Scott, who’s recent track record with sequels isn’t all that great (Alien: Covenant for example), wisely stepped aside and just assumed the role of producer this time, giving the reins over to rising star Denis Villeneuve.  The French Canadian filmmaker has been on a role recently with Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015), and Arrival (2016) all winning critical acclaim, and he couldn’t be better suited to carry the mantle for this daunting project.  Couple that with Harrison Ford making another return to an iconic role, surrounded with a prestige cast and crew, and you’ve got the makings of an A-List production.  But, is it a film worthy to carry on the legacy of such an iconic film, or is it Hollywood once again milking a product and missing the point.

It’s hard to say much about the plot of Blade Runner 2049 without getting into spoilers, so I’ll try to keep the important stuff vague.  It is important to have some knowledge of the original movie in order to understand the intricacies of the plot, but at the same time it does a pretty decent job of laying that stuff out for you while at the same time feeling distinctly it’s own thing.  The movie is set in the year 2049, 30 years after the events of the first Blade Runner.  In that time, the earth’s climate has catastrophically changed, leading to a global shift in weather patterns.  Los Angeles, the setting for this story, is now cold and frigid, and sees frequent snowfalls.  Every part of the city is shrouded in a misty haze, and it is in this urban sprawl that we find a young “blade runner” named simply K (Ryan Gosling).  He is assigned by his superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) to track down a rogue replicant named Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista).  The replicants (human-like androids with superior strength) have been used for the last several decades to colonize distant planets beyond Earth, but older generations were known to be rebellious against their masters.  The Tyrell Corporation that built them has long been defunct, with a new corporation run by enigmatic founder Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) built upon it’s foundations with a line of even more obedient replicants.  K finds Sapper’s compound and promptly “retires” him as all blade runners are ordered to do.  However, upon investigating the compound, K finds a tree with a mysterious box buried within it’s roots, along with a mysterious date carved into the tree; 6-10-21.  This finding leads him down a road towards learning about the old Tyrell replicants who held a lot more secrets than what was thought before, and K must now search for the man with the answers he needs; former blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).

Blade Runner 2049 could have gone awry in so many different ways, as many sequels to great movies do, and I’m happy to say that this one thankfully accomplishes what it needed to do.  This is a very well crafted and masterful sequel that will please any Blade Runner fan out there.  In many ways, I was stunned just how well they pulled it off.  Watching this movie almost immediately after viewing the original makes this new film feel like the second part of a larger whole, which is exactly what it needed to do.  It expands and deepens the world of the first Blade Runner, while at the same time feeling fully complimentary to it as well.  The filmmakers did a fantastic job matching the aesthetic and thematic elements of the original film.  It is not a cheap retread at all, but a fully realized expansion, and it’s every bit a dream come true for those who worship all the bold cinematic choices that the original is known for.  In many ways, it probably worked to this film’s advantage that it came so long after the original.  It needed for film-making technology to catch up to see the vision fully realized.  The original film was groundbreaking itself, with Ridley Scott firmly making a name for himself as a visual artist, but it was also grounded by the limitations of the period.  Here, visual effects have advanced to the point where the limits are boundless, but at the same time, the filmmakers here have shown great restraint, choosing not to overload on the effects but instead use them to broaden the scope of what was already there.  The movie also needed to wait for a filmmaker of Denis Villaneuve’s ilk to give to take on the project with a degree of seriousness.  The movie also benefits having the original screenwriter Hampton Fancher on board, as it’s clear that he’s been refining this story out for decades, making sure that the next chapter in this story was worth the wait.

Now, while I am awed by the degree of success that this production managed to deliver on it’s promises and the remarkable skill put into it’s creation, there is an element to it that does keep it from being an overall great movie in my eyes.  And it’s something that more or less is tied to my feelings about the original as well.  While I did enjoy this movie quite a bit, it did have one fundamental flaw, and that’s pacing.  The original movie has pacing issues as well, but it managed to balance that out a bit more with a tighter edit (although the movie is notorious for having multiple edits, so it depends on which one you prefer).  Blade Runner 2049 runs at a staggering 165 minutes, which does make it feel more epic, yes, but also more bloated as well.  There are plenty of parts of this movie that do flow very well, and some of the slower paced scenes are welcome, if only for allowing us to soak in some of the incredible atmosphere of this film.  There are, however, plenty of moments in this new movie where the pacing drags out to a crawl which left me with a feeling of impatience at times.  One scene in particular, involving a wooden horse, is so drawn out that it actually left me rolling my eyes at one moment, almost begging for the movie to finally get one with it.  It may not be a big problem to some who are more absorbed into this world, but I just felt that some of these slower paced moments could have used a tighter edit.  In the end, it keeps the movie from really soaring in my opinion.  And again, it’s something that I felt the original had a fault with as well.  Blade Runner, I acknowledge is a great movie, but not among my own personal favorites.  It’s a movie that I find myself respecting more than loving, and that likewise is how I feel about 2049.

But there is a lot about the movie that I did love, and it mainly has to do with it’s exceptional production.  This is an Audible and Visual experience the likes that you’ll never forget.  This is by far the most beautifully shot film of the year, as well as one of the most dynamic sound edits I’ve heard in a long time.  The cinematography manages to evoke the look of the original Blade Runner, keeping it within the same visual realm, but elevates it with a far more dynamic color palette and richness to the textures.  It helps that the man behind the lens is none other than Roger Deakins, who is probably the greatest working cinematographer today and one of the best of all time.  Most famous as a collaborator with Coen Brothers, Deakins has already worked well alongside Denis Villenueve before on equally brilliant work in Sicario.  Here, working with a more substantial budget, Deakins and Villenueve create some of the year’s most staggering imagery on screen, filling every frame with eye-catching wonder.  I just love the way that Deakins captures the hidden shadows of colossal structures appearing out of the hazy smog like great symmetrical monoliths holding up the sky.  He also makes his compositions feel in character with the original, helping to honor it’s legacy while at the same time pushing out it’s boundaries.  One scene in particular in a Vegas nightclub is a tour de force in visuals that represents just how much creativity Deakins and Villeneuve can find in this world they’ve become the caretakers of.  The musical score is also a bold statement onto itself.  Composed by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, the music takes it’s inspiration from the original Vangelis melodies and takes it a whole other aural experience.  This movie has a musical score that will quite literally rattle your bones.  It’s pulsating and overwhelming, but at the same time perfect for this movie.  I could even swear that one of the themes felt inspired by the sound of a revved up Formula 1 engine.  I don’t know why it sounded like that, but it’s indeed unforgettable and worthy addition to the whole experience.  It overall makes this a remarkable cinematic experience, even if the plot itself suffers from slow pacing.

The movie also has a stellar cast, who for the most part do a fine job.  It’s neat to see Harrison Ford once again step into another one of his iconic roles so many years later and not miss a beat.  Only a short time after revisiting Han Solo, we find him returning to Rick Deckard with the same amount of passion and care put into the performance.  Deckard is a much trickier character to pull of, given the complexities that he’s got to encapsulate, but Ford does an incredible job not just returning to what he’s done before, but also finding new shades to his persona that give so many more layers to the character.  He doesn’t show up until very late into the movie, but it works to the benefit of the film because it makes his appearance all the more important when it happens; and plus, it’s not really Deckard’s story this time.  Ryan Gosling instead carries much of the weight of this film, and he does so quite admirably.  Some might find him a little dry, but I liked the restraint in his performance, which feels spiritually in line with what Harrison Ford brought to his role in the original film.  Much of the supporting cast does a great job as well.  My own particular favorite among the newcomers was actress Sylvia Hoeks as one of the Wallace Corporation’s more deadly replicant models, going by the ironic name of Luv.  There is also a nice tender performance from actress Ana de Armas who plays K’s artificial intelligence “girlfriend” Joi, who appears to him as a hologram.  It’s a tricky kind of role, but one that she brings a surprising amount of emotion into.  The only weak link in the cast would be Jared Leto’s Wallace, who while not terrible, is also not really fleshed out that well.  It’s a problem when he needs to act as your film’s antagonist, and I’m sorry he does not hold nearly half the menace nor the presence of Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty from the original Blade Runner.  Apart from this, it is a well rounded cast that helps to elevate the movie as a whole.

So, much like the original Blade Runner2049 is a movie that I can recognize as a great cinematic achievement, while at the same time feel a tiny bit underwhelmed.  Don’t get me wrong, it deserve every amount of praise that is going to come it’s way, and fans of the original are absolutely going to be satisfied by this one as well.  In that respect, this movie is an unequivocal triumph, because it took the daunting task of following up a widely regarded masterpiece with a bigger and louder sequel, and did so with in the best possible way.  It honors the original, while at the same time building upon it and expanding it into new horizons.  I can see why this movie is already being proclaimed as one of the year’s best.  The pacing problems were just too hard to forgive for me, and it keeps it from becoming a masterpiece in my eyes. I have the same reservations about the original as well, but feel that it holds up better because there were so much else about it that works.  I feel that Blade Runner 2049 should have been given another edit to tighten things up and remove some of the more bloated, unnecessarily drawn out moments.  Hell, more edits didn’t hurt the original in the long run, as Ridley Scott was better able to refine his masterpiece and find the version that both satisfied him artistically and appealed to audiences.  But, as it stands, the movie is still one of this year’s most impressive cinematic achievements, and one that will be deserving of it’s expected fan-base.  Few sequels, especially ones made so long after the original, ever come close to retaining the same level of quality as their predecessor, so the fact that this one was able to come so close is a bit of a Hollywood miracle in this day and age.  Keep in mind, I was born mere weeks after Blade Runner premiered originally in 1982, so this was a sequel that took my entire lifetime to become a reality and the fact that it turned out this good is a testament to the astounding hard work and seriousness that the filmmakers undertook in it’s making.

Rating: 8/10

Kingsman: The Golden Circle – Review

Hollywood’s love affair with spy thrillers goes back all the way to it’s early days.  Pioneered largely by filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, espionage and undercover mysteries have given the genre fertile ground to mine for many years.  With the onset of World War II, the spy thriller also became an important part of conveying the work being done to gain an intelligence advantage against the enemy to a broad audience.  After the war years, spy movies entered a new phase.  As the Cold War changed the spy game once again, and turned it more covert and mysterious, the idea of the spy took on more mythic qualities and we began to see the emergence of the “super spy” archetype.  No character better exemplified this than James Bond.  In his 50-plus years of existence, Bond has become cinema’s most famous spy; an international man of mystery, who wears the finest clothes, drives the fanciest cars, sleeps with the most beautiful women, and has a licence to kill.  And while most of the Bond films hold up as great escapist entertainment, some of the movies do slip into the absurd once and a while, and that opens the image of the “super spy” up to ridicule.  The genre was most famously lampooned by Mike Myers in his Austin Powers trilogy.  With Austin Powers, we saw the genre reexamined through the eyes of generation raised on the myth of the “super spy,” but living in a post-Cold War era, and recognizing the absurdities within.  But, with the recent resurgence of the Bond franchise and intelligence gathering becoming more of a priority in a “cyber spy world” the genre needed something to reflect the absurd conventions that have built it up, while at the same time standing on it’s own as an action film.

Thus we got Kingsman: The Secret Service.  Based on the comic book series “The Secret Service” by Mark Millar, Kingsman was refreshing departure for the spy genre, mixing the hard edge action of James Bond with the silly, over-the-top absurdness of Austin Powers, with a little John Woo thrown in for good measure.  What resulted was one of the best action films of recent memory.  Kingsman even managed to stand out in a banner year for spy films in 2015, which also saw the big screen debut of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. from Guy Ritchie, as well as new entries from genre mainstays like Mission: Impossible (Rogue Nation) and even James Bond (Spectre).  Directed by Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass), the film perfectly mixed all the ingredients of the genre together that stood well on it’s own as both an action thriller and as a comedy.  Not only did it deliver some incredibly well choreographed action set pieces, but managed to be laugh out loud hilarious as well.  There was something just so perfect about seeing Bond-esque fight scenes performed by what essentially look like stereotypes of stuffy upper-class British aristocrats.   They are her majesty’s secret service looking always ready to meet her majesty.  And the very archetypal Britishness of the whole thing helped to make the film feel unique and fresh.  It was also very self aware of audience expectations and managed flip a lot of genre conventions on it’s head.  For one thing, who would have ever expected seeing Oscar-winner Colin Firth in a finely tailored suit slaughtering a whole bunch of redneck thugs in a church with samurai like skills.  There was a whole lot to love about Kingman: The Secret Service and it promised us a whole new world worth delving into in an expanded franchise.  We didn’t have to wait long as Kingsman: The Golden Circle presents the next chapter in the Kingsman saga.  But, is it a mission worth taking or did it self destruct on it’s own?

Kingsman: The Golden Circle picks up not long after the events of The Secret Service.  Eggsy (Taron Egerton) has settled into his new role as one of the elite Kingsman, taking over the designated title of Galahad from his deceased mentor Harry Hart (Colin Firth), who was shot in the head in the previous film.  While maintaining his new career as an expertly trained spy, Eggsy is also engaged in a loving relationship with Princess Tilde (Hanna Alstrom) of Norway, who would like to see her boyfriend make an even deeper commitment to their love life.  While Eggsy is away meeting his girlfriend’s parents, the King and Queen, the Kingsman organization falls prey to a coordinated attack which destroys the entire organization and leaves all members dead, except for Eggsy and the Kingsman’s skilled quartermaster and technician, Merlin (Mark Strong).  With nowhere to turn, Eggsy and Merlin seek out their doomsday scenario options, which leads them to a whiskey distillery in Kentucky.  There, they discover a secret organization of spies not unlike their own, made up of cowboy styled super agents known as the Statesman.  The are welcomed in Statesman Tequila (Channing Tatum) who introduces them to their resident technician Ginger (Halle Berry), as well as their superior Champagne (Jeff Bridges), or Champ for short.  Eggsy and Merlin learn from them that their organization was destroyed by a drug syndicate called the Golden Circle, which is run by a nostalgia obsessed kingpin named Poppy (Julianne Moore).  Not only that, but Poppy has concocted a master plan to poison the world’s population by lacing her drug supplies with a lethal disease and demanding a ransom for an antidote.  Eggsy teams up with another Stateman agent, Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) to get to the bottom of Poppy’s organization and find the antidote before it’s not too late.  And to complicate things even more, Eggsy finds another surprise in the Statesman’s lair; an alive but amnesiac Harry Hart.

In many ways, Kingsman: The Golden Circle delivers on everything that a sequel should do.  It stays true to what it’s predecessor has set up and continues to expand on the world that it’s built up.  But, at the same time, The Golden Circle also falls into the same pitfalls that a lot of other sequels do after the success of their beloved predecessor.  The big problem that befalls this film is that it feels more bloated.  The first Kingsman was a swift, fast-paced adventure that managed to balance the action and the laughs perfectly.  Golden Circle runs for nearly two and a half hours, and unfortunately this longer run time leads to a lot of padding, which spoils some of the momentum.  I get the feeling that Matthew Vaughn and his co-writing partner Jane Goldman perhaps had too short a turnaround between features, which led to a script that featured a lot of neat ideas but not enough focus to make them all work.  The first film may have had an absurd premise, but it at least kept it focused and cohesive to a point where you could stay engaged.  Here, plot points meander from scene to scene, seeming to only be there as a way to glue action set pieces together.  That’s not to say that the movie is an unwatchable mess.  Vaughn and Goldman still manage to entertain with a lot of clever bits throughout.  But, when compared to the first feature, the pieces here feel more undercooked.  My take is that the movie could have used a fair bit of editing to smooth out the more unnecessary bloat that hampers the movie; like maybe 20 minutes or so.  That way you have less time wasted on Eggsy awkwardly trying to balance his professional and love life (a plot point that goes nowhere) and more time devoted to learning more about the underdeveloped Statesman.  The common misconception with sequalizing a new popular film is thinking that more is better, and that filling a movie with more stuff makes it feel more epic.  It’s a level of excess that ended up diminishing the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise as well as Transformers, and sadly Kingsman has fallen down that same hole.

What bothered me most about The Golden Circle’s lack of focus is that it doesn’t devote the right amount of time to building up the plot and characters.  It almost seems that Vaughn and Goldman spend way too much time building up to punchlines that are not worth the effort.  The reason why the humor worked so well in the first movie was because it was so punchy and unexpected.  With the sequel, we already know what to expect, but the writers seem too concerned with making things connect that they lost the ability to just let things flow.  The movie does have some laugh out loud moments, but they diminish the longer that the movie hangs onto them.  There is a cameo by a legendary pop star that starts off funny when we first see him, but as the movie goes on, the cameo turns into a full on supporting role, and by then the novelty has worn off.  There’s also the unfortunate aspect of the underwhelming threat that the Kingsman and Statesman face.  Julianne Moore’s Poppy is unfortunately a very disappointing antagonist.  While she is a great actress, she looks lost in this feature and I think that it’s due to the fact that like most things in the film, her character was not very fleshed out.  She’s made up of ideas that could be turned menacing, but end up just being gimmicky.  The first film’s villain, played by Samuel L. Jackson, was a perfect blend of how to make character that was both threatening and absurd.  Here, Julianne Moore only has the one note to play, and try as she might, it still just remains one note.  While I understand that Vaughn and Goldman want to delve deeper into story-lines carried over from the first film, particularly with Eggsy and Harry, it undermines their attempts to expand their world, especially with the Statesman, who sadly are not given the full development that they are due.

One thing that does carry the film, however, is the cast itself.  Taron Egerton remains the heart of the series, and he still is enjoyable to watch as the film’s charismatic lead.  He even more so is in command of his persona here, and it’s a joy watching him go from sincere, to comical, to fiercely intimidating with great ease.  It’s also a pleasure to see Colin Firth brought back into the fold and his resurrection in the film makes some sense (though is a tad convoluted).  Firth in particular was born to play this kind of role; suave and sophisticated, but with lethal killer instincts.  Before Kingsman, Firth was seen as the quintessential British every-man in Hollywood, excelling in roles ranging from Love, Actually (2003), to A Single Man (2009), to The King’s Speech (2010).  Kingsman flipped his already established persona on it’s head, and showed that he was equally adept as an action movie star, without loosing any of his sophisticated appeal.  He’s still endlessly entertaining here, and while his presence is kind of unnecessary, since his “death” scene in the first film was such a pivotal motivating factor (which is sadly now diminished), he still manages to remain a hero worth rooting for.  The Statesman are sadly given too little time to leave an impact, but they still are welcome additions to the franchise.  Jeff Bridges is more or less just playing a version of himself, and that for the most part fits his character well.  Channing Tatum uses his brief screen-time effectively, as does Halle Berry, giving a nice reserved performance here.  The standout of the Statesman, however, is Pedro Pascal as Whiskey.  The former Game of Thrones star steals every scene he is in as the lasso twirling hotshot Statesman, and embodies the fullest aspect of what Matthew Vaughn imagined for the State-side band of super spies.  Even if he is portrayed as a stereotypical cowboy, he still has enough charisma to carry it through and as a result he is certainly the highlight of the film’s newcomers.  My hope is that if there is ever another chapter given to this franchise, that more emphasis will be given to this second team, and not have them relegated to a sideshow of the franchise’s larger plot.

The other good thing that I’ll say about the film is that while the writing suffers from a lack of focus, Matthew Vaughn’s direction still is just as sharp as ever.  Vaughn continues to show his skill behind the camera with well-executed sight gags and kinetically charged action set pieces. In fact, it’s when the movie ends up getting to the action bits that it finally comes alive.  There’s a spectacular car chase with a taxi at the beginning that showcases some flashy camera and stunt-work that immediately plunges us right back into the Kingsman’s world.  There’s another outstanding action scene with a cable suspended sky cabin, which involves one of the most ridiculous and thrilling escape attempts seen in this series to date.  There is unfortunately nothing in this film that quite lives up to the now iconic church massacre from the first movie, where Firth’s Harry takes out an entire congregation of right-wing extremists all by himself.  Still, the movie does remain expertly crafted, with action scenes that still are above the average in the industry.  There are some very clever visual touches thrown into the movie too.  The Statesman’s headquarter’s is a wonderful mix of the rugged and the state-of-the-art mixed together.  The villain’s lair is also a nice reworking of a genre cliche.  The movie takes the idea of a secret fortress built into a remote hollowed out mountain (popularly conceived through James Bond’s arch-nemesis Blofeld) and adds a retro-50’s kitsch to it, complete with a deco-infused diner as it’s centerpiece.  It doesn’t make much sense why it looks like that, but then of course that’s part of the Kingsman’s appeal.  It’s a series built upon flipping genre conventions on it’s head, while still indulging in the things that make the genre work in the first place.  And while a lot of it was done better in the first movie, the series as a whole continues to stand out as a unique blend of the thrilling and the absurd thanks to Matthew Vaughn’s own assured vision.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is still far more clever and thrilling than most other action films today, but I’m sure that most people like myself will come away with a slight bit of disappointment after seeing it.  The plot is too unfocused to ever remain engaging, and most of the clever ideas end up getting diminished in a movie that takes too long to deliver the goods.  Perhaps part of the problem is that the expectations were too high based on the success of it’s beloved predecessor, but I think the problem lies more in the fact that we got this movie before it could be ready.  I think another draft of the script could have smoothed out some of the pacing and helped to make this movie flow a lot better, but Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman weren’t given the time necessary for pulling that off, and instead we find them here quickly trying to scramble together something that could pass for a sequel.  Some good things have come out of it, like the reintroduction of Colin Firth back into the series, and the establishing of the Statesman organization, but I just wish that more time wasn’t wasted on gags and plot threads that go nowhere.  If there is to be any more of these films, they need to have a more menacing threat for one thing, and not a villain that comes across as more gimmicky than anything else.  It’s a disappointing sequel, but not one that crushes the franchise as a whole.  There could be plenty of more worthwhile adventures still waiting for this franchise and hopefully they learn from the mistakes here as they go forward.  Until then, if Kingsman: The Secret Service feels like a loving homage to the best of James Bond, absurdity and all, The Golden Circle feels like one of the lesser Bond movies; works fine as part of the hole and important as a continuation of the franchise, but something you’ll probably never revisit again in the same way.  It’s the Kingsman’s equivalent of Quantum of Solace (2008); fun, but hard to love.

Rating: 7/10

Dunkirk – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 9.5/10

Spider-Man: Homecoming – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 8.5/10

Cars 3 – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 6/10