Friday, April 27, 2018

A Marvel Fan's Review of "Avengers: Infinity War" If It Were a DC Comics Movie

I was really excited to see the latest entry in the Cinematic Universe, especially since this is the big team event film with all my favorite, notable heroes! First of all, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the epic failures of Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, Thor, Thor: Dark World, The Incredible Hulk, and the OK-but-flawed Avengers: Age of Ultron, Doctor Strange, and Spider-Man: Homecoming. But I love these heroes and really wanna see the cinematic universe do well. With Avengers: Infinity War, while the result is enjoyable, it also could be better.

The good things about the film was that there was plenty of good chemistry between most of the cast and at least the filmmakers knew this time to feature a formidable threat in the form of the Infinity Gauntlet. That being said, Infinity War seldom delivers on any cohesive story. Now, I understand the producers plan on continuing the story in a sequel but you can't halt an entire universe of characters between now and the sequel's release, especially after the way this film ends! The film is marred by a very choppy story, a run-of-the-mill villain, some shoddy visual effects, and an overall haphazard execution. Now, before the fans of this universe complain, let me explain! 

First up, there's the aspect of the CGI. It seems every fanboy of these films is overlooking the completely differing designs of main baddie Thanos. In the first film he appeared in (The Avengers), he looks more like his comic book counterpart, and in his next two appearances, you notice a transition happening, especially with his skin coloring. But by Infinity War, he's humanized way too much and his color takes on a much lighter shade of purple. I also didn't really believe his reasoning for wanting to wipe out half of civilization. I mean, come on, his motivation as expressed is merely that he's some grumpy old man who hates people and thinks the only way to balance out life is to wipe out half of all living beings! And how he appears at the end is one of those WTF!? moments.

The MANY different-colored CGI faces of Thanos! Make up your mind!

Infinity War has too many deaths and somebody should tell the filmmakers this is supposed to have some fun in it! And even though common sense tells me there will be another film to address this issue, I'm going to ignore that and say it doesn't matter and this film should stand up on its own. For everything that Infinity War does well regarding tone and table setting for its characters, it's also forced to contend with an incredibly uneven central story. The film regularly grinds to a halt for forced exposition dumps, and while it's nowhere near as sloppy as Iron Man 3 or as aimless as Thor: The Dark World, it also feels overly stuffed with insignificant subplots to push the thin story forward in-between quippy dialogue and genuinely badass action. Even at a lean two-and-a-half hours, it still feels like Infinity War could've been shorter with some tighter writing and editing. What is laughable is not so much the quippy one-liners -- most of which don't stick -- but the film's attempt to throw in some humor, most of which didn't stick (Drax was the only funny one of the bunch). They should stick to just doing what they do: the melodramatic death and destruction -- even though I would love to see them add some actual humor; just make sure it works! I will say too that the destruction of cities was a bit much; they completely ravaged New York City! I mean, with all of those heroes and their powers, they should've kept the destruction to more of a minimum.

Remember this scene from the trailer that got you SO excited for the movie!? Yeah, that's not in the film! One of the characters isn't even in this scene!

Infinity War focuses mainly on Thanos and Gamora (Zoe Saldana). I felt the additional characters are only there so there can be more spin-off movies. They really should've tried to focus more on the heroes! For instance, why didn't Hulk appear!? Instead of featuring one of the most powerful Avengers, the writers neutered Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and made him resort to laughingly, clumsily pilot the Hulkbuster armor! Also, why and how does Spider-Man suddenly have "Spider Sense" when he didn't have it in Homecoming? And even though Doctor Strange possesses the time stone, which, in his own movie, he used to consistently go back in time in a loop to defeat the god-like entity Dormammu, overcoming his own death many, many times, he doesn't use that same power to simply rewind many, many tragic moments in this film to have a "do over!" I mean, even Thanos was able to use the stone right in this film! And maybe Ant-Man would've been a bigger help in this film than the writers thought as he could've shrunk so small, he could've shrunken and/or tampered with Thanos, the gauntlet and/or stones. And Peter Quill!? Star-Lord!?!? "When Quill learned that Thanos had killed Gamora, he was understandably devastated. As we’ve seen time and time again, Quill has never been particularly adept at dealing with his emotions in a healthy manner. It’s part of a pattern of ego-driven toxic masculinity that the MCU puts on display in many of its prominent heroes. And in that moment, Peter Quill made a choice. He made a choice not to be a hero, but to be selfish. To make himself feel better by unleashing his unbridled rage. And in doing so, he didn’t bring Gamora back. But he did kill Drax. And Mantis. And Groot. And countless others. Peter Quill didn’t pull the trigger, but he may as well have." Ugghh! Also, I didn't know this was Thanos: Infinity War; I thought it was AVENGERS: Infinity War! Most of the big names promoted in this film only had about roughly 10-15 minutes screen-time!

Overall, The visuals were just incredibly poor *cough* Thanos' chin and changing appearance *cough* and there was too much CGI. Don't get me wrong, not all films with much CGI are bad -- if the CGI is good, you can enjoy a movie; but if the effects are as bad as they are here, it just hurts. The plot wasn't bad, but it wasn't good either, and, to be honest, it's just the typical Bad-Guy-wants-to-achieve-his-own-form-of-galaxy-domination-and-gets-stopped-by-a-bunch-of-heroes storyline. Here's hoping the sequel does address many of the characters' paper-thin storylines, and gives them more screen time, as well as clearing up the downer of an ending.

*I actually did enjoy Avengers: Infinity War. I had a issues with it, and wrote a review as if those issues contributed to the entire downfall of the film's worth -- you know, like most critics do to DC films! Thanks to Nerdist for some of the contribution! Overall, the movie was good, but how it wraps up in the sequel will be the true test of its value!

Sunday, December 31, 2017

My Top Films of 2017

Here are my picks for the best films of 2017, in alphabetical order:

Atomic Blonde
Directed by David Leitch
Starring Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Eddie Marsan, John Goodman, Toby Jones, and Sofia Boutella

Based on the graphic novel "The Coldest City" by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, this wham-bam action flick stars Charlize Theron as spy Lorraine Broughton, who is assigned to find a list of double agents being smuggled into the West on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. It's a Cold War tale featuring plenty of super spy situations, plot twists & turns, and gadgets that would make both James Bond and Jason Bourne extremely jealous! If anyone is jonesing for more of the tough-as-nails Theron from Mad Max: Fury Road, you'll be happy to hear Theron is all kinds of badass in this! Atomic Blonde is a smart, sexy, action-packed hell of a good time!

Batman & Bill
Directed by Don Argott & Sheena M. Joyce

One of my all-time favorite comic documentaries, this Hulu documentary explores one of the gravest injustices of the comic book industry: the exclusion of the late Bill Finger as co-creator of Batman. For the longest time, Bob Kane was the only man attributed to creating one of the world’s most famous characters. Not many people know that while Kane did come up with the name, it was Finger who designed Batman and molded his world into what fans know today! Batman & Bill follows author Marc Tyler Nobleman and his quest to get Finger the recognition he so deserves, including the fight to have Finger’s name included whenever Batman appears in media. Any Batman-related documentary is worth watching but this is the best as it focuses on Finger, one of the best comic book writers who never got the recognition he deserved.

Blade Runner 2049
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Starring Ryan GoslingHarrison FordRobin WrightSylvia HoeksAna de ArmasMackenzie DavisJared LetoLennie James, Carla JuriDave Bautista, and Edward James Olmos

Director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, Arrival) is one of my favorite directors today, so I was excited when I heard he was directing this sequel to one of the best sci-fi films of all time! Because this was a sequel to 1982's Blade Runner, despite Villeneuve's involvement, I was skeptical of how good this film would be and if it would even come close to being as good as the first film. I was not disappointed! There are so many intricate weavings of stories going throughout this film, but it's all tied together magnificently. There is more going on here than in the original first film, and what I particularly loved was how I thought I'd had figured out the plot twist, only to find I was wrong. Also, as much as I'm a fan of Harrison Ford, I'm glad he wasn't in a majority of the film. This is completely Ryan Gosling's movie and he owns it! Blade Runner 2049 is the best sci-fi film of the year!

Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard, Barry Keoghan, Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney, Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden, Cillian Murphy, and Kenneth Branagh

Director Christopher Nolan is simply one of the best directors in contemporary cinema and his latest, Dunkirk, proves this statement true! Based on the true story of Dunkirk evacuation during World War II in May/June 1940, Dunkirk shows the viewpoint of several British soldiers trying to leave Dunkirk, France to return to England, all while under attack by the Germans, as well as civilians making their way to pick up the soldiers. There was such an urgency that any and all sea craft were drafted to travel to Dunkirk and pick up any and all British soldiers they could, thus turning common civilians into heroes. What is most noteworthy about this film is the timeline which Nolan utilizes throughout the film, picking different times and having them eventually all converge by film's end. It's an astonishing story device that is extremely difficult to pull off from a writing aspect, but Nolan pulls it off with ease and grace.

Get Out
Directed by Jordan Peele
Starring Daniel KaluuyaAllison WilliamsCatherine KeenerBradley WhitfordCaleb Landry JonesMarcus HendersonBetty GabrielLakeith StanfieldStephen Root, and LilRel Howery

Most people raved about this film and how it had a hidden message of race relations in the U.S. While there is that, on its face, Get Out is a wonderful psychological thriller with touches in the vein of 1975's The Stepford Wives and mostly 1976's Marathon Man thrown in. But, whereas Marathon addressed the violent history between Jews and Nazis, Get Out addresses the violent history between African Americans and slavery. The story follows photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) who is going to visit his girlfriend Rose Armitage's (Allison Williams) family for the weekend. Most would think her family to be Republican and/or conservative, but not so, as, more than once, it's relayed on how her family voted twice for President Barack Obama. Filmmaker Jordan Peele, best known for his comedy, masterfully weaves the story without flat-out preaching and finger-wagging; he makes a horrific thriller of which anyone can relate and fear.

The Glass Castle
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
Starring Brie LarsonWoody HarrelsonNaomi WattsElla AndersonMax GreenfieldJosh CarasSarah SnookSadie Sinkand Brigette Lundy-Paine

Based on the autobiography by Jeannette Walls, this film tells the story of Jeannette both as a young girl (Ella Anderson) and in her late 20s/early 30s (Brie Larson), as she remembers and deals with her eccentric, alcoholic father (Woody Harrelson) and artistic, free-spirited mother (Naomi Watts). The family of six (including her older sister, younger brother, and younger sister) move around a lot due to their father's inability to keep a job. Along the way, Jeannette learns creativity, love and independence, but she also learns insecurity, fear, and hunger. Cretton had already directed Larson in another gem of a film (Short Term 12), and he continues to show with this film that his skill behind the camera is well set! Larson is one of the BEST actresses working today and will go on to do such great things! I was wowed by the impressive acting of Ella Anderson, a young actress who I also see going on to have an impressive acting resume! But it is Woody Harrelson who VERY MUCH deserves an Academy Award for his work here! The complex relationship between Jeannette and her father wouldn't have affected so many and been such a touchstone of this film if it weren't for Harrelson and Larson! There are upsetting themes throughout the story but also nervously funny scenes as well (the arm-wrestling scene comes to mind!); and it all makes this film one of the best of the year!

The Greatest Showman
Directed by Michael Gracey
Starring Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Keala Settle, Sam Humphrey, and Paul Sparks

There were many critics who panned this movie musical, but I don't know why! The Greatest Showman, loosely based on a part of circus magnate P.T. Barnum's life, harkens back to the days of the classic movie musical, all the while using more pop-like music. I loved it! Every single song on here is wonderful, featuring loud, gospel-like choruses and anthemic music. The film follows Barnum (Hugh Jackman) as he establishes his circus, populating it with oddities. What the film is actually about is the unquenchable hunger for stardom, popularity and financial success. Of course, it's not surprise that he hits rock bottom but is able to find out what's important by the end of the film. While the story is pretty routine and the acting is great, it truly is the music that is the star here. My favorites are "Never Enough," "This is Me," "Rewrite the Stars," and "From Now On"; but they're all wonderful! I should also address that I heard from reviews that director Michael Gracey's directing was dismal, but I think Gracey did a great job! Next to Wonder, The Greatest Showman is the feel-good movie of the year and the soundtrack is a must-have!

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Directed by James Gunn
Starring Chris PrattZoe SaldanaDave BautistaMichael RookerKaren GillanBradley CooperPom KlementieffKurt RussellSean GunnElizabeth Debicki, and Vin Diesel

While most may mention Marvel films such as Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, or Logan in their top films lists, my favorite -- and the only one entertaining enough to make the list -- was Guardians 2! Spider-Man was more like Iron Man Jr., not touching on any of the Spidey trademarks (no mention whatsoever of Uncle Ben, no spider sense, no real threat, no alienation from peers, M.J. completely not who she is!); Ragnarok cared more about laughs than substance; and Logan featured lazy writing -- "borrowing" its penultimate scene monologue from a classic western film -- as well as treading on territory already explored in previous Wolverine films (if it were a DC film, critics and audiences would have bashed it). And while Guardians 2 did try a bit too hard at times to get laughs only to fall flat (the carpet dragging scene coming first to mind), as well as Drax's unforgiveable, takes-it-way-too-far bullying of Mantis' looks, it nonetheless had heart, focusing on family. The cast have wonderful chemistry and, as always, Kurt Russell shines in all he does. 

Directed by Andy Muschietti
Starring Bill SkarsgardJaeden LieberherJeremy Ray TaylorSophia LillisFinn WolfhardJack Dylan GrazerChosen JacobsWyatt Oleffand Nicholas Hamilton

Based on the classic novel by Stephen King, It tells the story of seven kids who confront a legendary evil monster and eventually have to confront the same evil when they are grown-ups. Whereas the book jumps back and forth between the kids' time and their grown-up counterparts, this first installment explicitly follows just the kids. There were quite a lot of people and fans of the book as well as the 1990 made-for-TV movie that hated this version, but I thought it was well-done and aptly adapted for audiences (in the book version, the kids escape the tunnels after defeating It only by all of the 11-year-old boys having sex with fellow 11-year-old, and the only girl of the group, Beverly. Ewww!). While I liked Tim Curry's performance of Pennywise the Clown (from the 1990's TV movie) better, Bill Skarsgard's version wasn't so bad. What I loved most about this film, though, was the performance of Beverly by 15-year-old Sophia Lillis. She is a major acting powerhouse and I look forward to seeing her in more films! Next to Glass Castle's Ella Anderson, Lillis is one of the best actresses out there today! Overall, the film will only be complete once part two with the adults is tentatively released in September 2019. And I know I'll wait to purchase the Blu-ray until both films are released and inevitably put together either in one ultimate cut or at least packaged together. In the meantime, this release will suffice.

Justice League
Directed by Zack Snyder
Starring Ben AffleckGal GadotEzra MillerJason MamoaRay FisherJeremy IronsHenry CavillAmy Adams, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, Ciaran Hinds, Joe Morton, J.K. Simmons, and Amber Heard

I know I'm the slightest bit biased but, honestly, Justice League is fun, action-packed and staying true to the heroes in the DC universe! Seeing my favorite superheroes come to life and come together on screen is one of the most entertaining things I've seen in the superhero genre film in a long time! Zack Snyder's cinematography is visually captivating with most frames seeming like a piece of artwork, and the writing -- with the help of filmmaker Joss Whedon -- delivers more on the lighthearted while still keeping true to the seriousness of the situation in the plot. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) rocks her scenes and Aquaman (Jason Mamoa) proves he needs a solo film stat! Unlike the comics, Cyborg (Ray Fisher) was written to be interesting, intriguing. But it's the Flash (Ezra Miller) who steals most of the scenes he's in. And the Superman (Henry Cavill) we see here is THE Superman from the comics! He starts off somewhat "rusty" -- which he would after returning from the dead -- but it doesn't take long for him to be the inspiration the team needs. The two post-credit scenes are very much worth sticking around for; I think all comic fans in the theater let out excited gasps over the last of these scenes.

LA 92
Directed by Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin

One of the most powerful documentaries to be made, LA 92 shows through strictly archival footage (no new interviews or commentary, just archival from the time of the riots) and a wonderful, haunting music score the timeline of how the Los Angeles riots of 1992 started and how they unfolded. It starts with a quick prelude of the August 1965 L.A. riots, the 1973 election of Tom Bradley as L.A. mayor, and the 1978 promotion of Daryl Gates as L.A. chief of police. The movie then opens with the end of Operation Desert Storm in March 1991, going on to document the police brutality beating of Rodney King and the tragic, unjustified shooting death of Latasha Harlins -- as well as showcasing the complete events that transpired between the acquittal of the 4 LAPD officers in the King beating and the end of the riots (April 29 to May 4, 1992), making the riots the most destructive civil disturbance in the history of America, with 63 people killed, 2,383 people injured, more than 11,000 arrested, and estimates of material losses varying between about $800 million and $1 billion, and approximately 3,600 fires set, destroying 1,100 buildings. What's most electrifying and hypnotic about LA 92 is the raw emotion expressed from all sides as well as the bookends of the film, which show that, when it comes to race relations, things today have sadly not changed as much as they should since 1965.

The Post
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Meryl StreepTom HanksBob OdenkirkSarah PaulsonBradley WhitfordBruce GreenwoodTracy LettsMatthew RhysAlison Brie, and David Cross

One of the most important and timely releases to come along is a story that I believe should be required knowledge: the lies of the government concerning the official beginning of American involvement in the Vietnam War. The film follows the country's first female newspaper publisher, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), of The Washington Post, who comes into possession of classified documents now known as "The Pentagon Papers," which detailed how the federal government, among other things, that the Presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson administration systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, revealing specifically that the U.S. had secretly enlarged the scope of its actions in the Vietnam War with the bombings of nearby Cambodia and Laos, coastal raids on North Vietnam, and Marine Corps attacks, none of which were reported in the mainstream media, as well as the advisors' and analysts' opinion that the war was unwinnable (and they sent troops anyway). These documents would inevitably lead to the revelation that the infamous 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, which fully got America involved in the Vietnam War, was partially lied about in that the second attack on American warships by the North Vietnamese on August 4, 1964, never happened. This film chronicles the fight between Graham, Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), and the President Richard Nixon administration. What is especially great is Steven Spielberg's utilization of actual Nixon White House recordings (no reenactments) to showcase just how pissed off Nixon and his staff were during this time. After hearing of Nixon's demanding to ban the Washington Post from coming to the White House, one can't help but parallel Nixon with Donald Trump's current administration, which uses very similar tactics and has similar opinions as Nixon when it comes to the press as well as the American people's right to information (or lack thereof). The Post is an absolute must-see film, showcasing the importance of the public's right to information when it comes to the government, the importance of a free press, as well as a history of our country's corrupt politics and methods which sadly didn't teach us a lesson as evidenced by the election of today's "president."

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Starring James McAvoyAnya Taylor-JoyBetty BuckleyHaley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula

Love him or hate him, M. Night Shyamalan is a masterful storyteller, and his latest film, Split, is a definite return to form, touching on the creepy themes that gave a rise to his career! In the film, three young women are kidnapped by Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a man who has dissociative identity disorder, specifically 23 diagnosed different personalities. While all of these personalities have their alarming quirks, it is the 24th personality, known as "The Beast," which is most violent and evil, and the person to whom the three women are to be sacrificed. What Shyamalan established with this film and story is a deeper delve into the mythology of his prior film, Unbreakable. In fact, there is already a sequel in the works to feature the villain from Unbreakable, Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), and McAvoy's character, all a final part of his "Eastrail 177 Trilogy," to be released in January 2019.

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
Directed by Rian Johnson
Starring Mark HamillCarrie FisherDaisy RidleyAdam DriverJohn BoyegaOscar IsaacKelly Marie TranDomhnall GleesonLaura Dern, Andy Serkis,  and Benecio Del Toro

It's difficult to write a spoiler-free review because, as a critic and fan, you want to instantly gush over the major plot twists and revelations! So, I will simply say there are a couple uses of the force that haven't been seen on the big screen, but the uses are such great, wonderful surprises, they are a welcome -- and some superfans may say long overdue -- addition to the cinematic universe! There is tragedy, loss and sacrifice; however, there is humor, caring and hope! As for the performances, they're all top notch here, particularly from Daisey RidleyAdam DriverCarrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill. Johnson finally addressed -- to me -- a long-standing issue with Fisher's Leia and it is glorious! Seeing Fisher up on screen makes your heart both soar and hurt over how wonderful she was and how much she will be missed. Hamill finally gets to delve into the more serious undertones of being the "last Jedi" and he delivers it in the masterful way that only Hamill can, proving once again that he was born to play Skywalker! Driver does well with his unspoken acting, delivering both on the yearning to be accepted and wanting to pave his own path. Ridley especially really upped her acting game, and in one pivotal scene with Driver, she delivers a rather simple line in the most heart-aching way. There were many scenes I figured out would happen but didn't know for sure if Johnson would actually go there, and, fortunately, he did! But there were also many unexpected moments and that makes for a great film! Of course, the film also saw the return of composer John Williams and his score this time around was SO much better than the Force Awakens score! This time, he does what should be done: he uses those familiar, favorite themes from the original trilogy and interweaves them with the new! Hearing themes like "Luke and Leia," "Han and Leia," "The Force theme," and others was a very welcome addition! My favorite moment of Last Jedi is one I unfortunately cannot write without spoiling the surprise, but I actually teared up throughout the entire scene! To me, this scene made the movie and I think other diehard fans will love it just the same! New actors and characters such as Laura Dern's Vice Admiral Holdo, Kelly Marie Tran's Rose Tico, and Benecio Del Toro's DJ are wonderful additions to the cast and SW universe, each given their respective moment to shine! Some are saying Del Toro wasn't used enough but I was satisfied with his screen time. Other great moments are seeing the Millennium Falcon speeding through the caverns of new planet Crait; as well as the production design and sets, which were amazing! The colors used and photography brings an artistic distinction to the saga. Overall, Last Jedi is one of the most enjoyable films of the year!

Directed by David Gordon Green
Starring Jake GyllenhaalTatiana Maslany, Miranda RichardsonClancy BrownFrankie ShawCarlos SanzLenny Clarke, Nate Richman, and Richard Lane Jr.

Seeing the poster and trailer for this film, one may think this is some simple "man-overcomes-a-great-obstacle" story, but there's a bit more to Stronger, based on the true story of Boston Marathon bombing survivor, Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal). While this story is about Bauman overcoming a tragedy, Bauman is not your usual milquetoast character featured in most of these types of films. He's got plenty of issues, but some of them were there before the bombing. This film showcases his recovery, sure, but it also showcases his personality and the frail relationships with his loud Boston family as well as his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany). Most may not be a fan of Gyllenhaal, but he really proves his acting chops in this film, giving one of the most intense powerhouse performances of the year! And while very few scenes in this film which seem as if they are pandering to a patriotic, emotional audience are featured prominently in most films like this, Stronger gives just the right amount, handling the scenes with care, perfectly showcasing that while these scenes may be somewhat melodramatic, they are nonetheless extremely human. I'm not one to like these films marketed to the overly patriotic (I tend to turn away from the machismo of films such as Lone Survivor, 12 Strong, or most Mark Wahlberg films -- the one exception being Wahlberg's Patriots Day, another Boston Marathon bombing film, which is simply fantastic!), but Stronger shines with humanity, humility, vulnerability, and strength.

Table 19
Directed by Jeffrey Blitz
Starring Anna Kendrick, Lisa Kudrow, Craig RobinsonJune SquibbTony RevoloriStephen MerchantWyatt Russell, and Margo Martindale

Advertised somewhat as a romantic comedy, this film co-written by the spectacular brother team Mark and Jay Duplass has more going on than one would think! Eloise (Anna Kendrick) is invited to her former best friend's wedding as a kindness. When she unexpectedly decides to attend, she is placed at a table of guests who were reluctantly invited and who the hosts were hoping wouldn't attend. Other outcasts at the "Island of Misfit Toys" table include diner entrepreneurs Jerry and Bina Kepp (Craig Robinson and Lisa Kudrow), the bride's former nanny Jo Flanagan (June Squibb), the bride's uncle Walter Thimble (Stephen Merchant), and desperate-for-love Renzo Eckberg (Tony Revolori). The story is charming even if the story could have been slightly longer so as to get to better know the characters, but it's a fun film, nonetheless!

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Directed by Luc Besson
Starring Dane DeHaanCara Delevingne, Clive OwenRihannaEthan HawkeHerbie Hancock, and John Goodman

Most panned this sci-fi epic from director Luc Besson (Leon the Professional, The Fifth Element, Lucy) but I thought it was wildly imaginative. Based on the French sci-fi comic book Valerian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres, the film follows Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner, Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne), two opposites who work well together, working for a special police division which preserves peace through the galaxy. The two have an unspoken romantic tension between them and they are tasked to go on a mission to retrieve a device which can replicate anything it eats. This is just the start of a major epic sci-fi, special effects extravaganza that I found refreshing, inventive and extremely entertaining. I've never seen a film like it, and that's saying a lot in a time full of film remakes, reboots, and sequels. The only thing I wasn't crazy about was the chemistry between DeHaan and Delevingne; it wasn't all that great. Nonetheless, Valerian is a good time!

The Vietnam War
Directed by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick

Master documentarian Ken Burns (The Civil War, The Roosevelts, Prohibition, The Central Park Five, and Baseball) returns with another amazing piece of work -- this one being his best to date! The 10-part documentary, with each installment running about 2 hours long (clocking in at an extensive 20 hours!), focuses on the lead-up to, the life of, and the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Wisely avoiding politicos, talking heads and famous actor/activists, Burns and company interview soldiers on both sides (the U.S., the South Vietnamese, and the North Vietnamese), the family members of those who served, and everyday people who lived in and were immersed through the era of 1961 to 1975, The Vietnam War is an unflinching, objective, honest look into one of the most infamous wars in American history, telling most of the brutal truth which some still feel incapable of confronting today. The film features original music from that era (i.e., Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Donovan, etc.), as well as two separate scores (one featuring Yo-Yo Ma, and the other by Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross). This documentary is VERY essential and well worth the time invested.

War for the Planet of the Apes
Directed by Matt Reeves
Starring Andy SerkisWoody Harrelson, Steve ZahnAmiah MillerTy OlssonJudy Greer, and Karin Konoval

I was skeptical when learning of the reboot of The Planet of the Apes films, especially after that dreadful Tim Burton/Mark Wahlberg 2001 version! But I have to eat crow now and admit this series has been one of the best film sagas in Hollywood of late! Rise of the Planet of the Apes was OK but Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was wonderful! In this installment, we find out that the human population has been decimated by a mutation of the Simian Flu virus and the last human survivors have divided into factions to try and survive (think of the present season of The Walking Dead). The most violent is lead by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), who not only believes should be destroyed but also that any humans showing signs of the Simian Flu should be terminated. Andy Serkis, who portrays the ape Caesar, should get an award -- possibly an Oscar nomination -- for his performance. And Harrelson, with another riveting performance here (the other being The Glass Castle), proves he is easily one of Hollywood's greatest actors!

Wind River
Directed by Taylor Sheridan
Starring Jeremy RennerElizabeth Olsen, Graham GreeneGil BirminghamKelsey AsbilleJulia Jones, and Jon Bernthal

One of THE BEST cop procedural mystery thrillers I've seen in a very long time! The story is reminiscent of a great American novel, but it is all written by filmmaker Taylor Sheridan. The plot involves U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), who finds the dead body of a young woman he knows in the frozen wild lands of Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. The investigation is soon turned over to rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), and the two team up to try and find out what events lead to the woman's death. The story has a wonderful cast of complex characters, with tense, nailbiting moments, as you're left guessing who's the culprit. By the movie's end, there is justice but it doesn't feel like it's enough -- which makes it all extremely realistic. Overall, the story is a captivating thriller with solid performances and I would easily recommend it to anyone searching for a truly good film.

Directed by Stephen Chbosky
Starring Jacob TremblayJulia Roberts, Owen WilsonIzabela VidovicMandy PatinkinNoah JupeNadji Jeter, and Millie Davis 

The ultimate feel-good film of the year! Based on the bestselling book by R.J. Palacio, Wonder is about fifth-grader August "Auggie" Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), who was born with a facial deformity equated with Treacher Collins Syndrome and has had 27 different surgeries to correct his face, but the surgeries have left scars and deformity. Due to this, Auggie has been homeschooled by his mother until he reaches fifth grade and his parents begrudgingly decide they want Auggie to experience the real world. So, they enroll him in a private middle school, and Auggie surrenders to attending. The film follows Auggie as he is ostracized by his peers but soon finds a friend in Jack Will (Noah Jupe). What follows is a roller coaster ride of emotion, with the viewer seeing the perspective of each of the people in Auggie's life. There are plenty of heartbreaking moments but also many happy ones. What I liked most about Wonder was the realistic portrayal of Auggie's feelings when he's bullied. As someone who was picked on quite a bit at a young age, I could relate. But what is best about this film is in a time of horrid politics, administration, and division, Wonder is a story that instills hope and unity.

Wonder Woman
Directed by Patty Jenkins
Starring Gal GadotChris Pine, Connie NielsenRobin WrightDanny HustonDavid ThewlisSaid Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock, Elena Anaya, and Lucy Davis

I can honestly, unabashedly admit that when I first watched this film, with my wife and daughters, I teared up a bit. I looked over to my two young daughters and saw their reactions as they watched a live woman superhero take on bad soldiers and villains; seeing their attentiveness to what was going on filled me with the magic of comics and seeing the effect that superheroes have on all of us, how they add to the best of us. I was a bit skeptical when I first heard of Gal Gadot's casting but she has proven time and time again that she is the right fit. Gadot herself is a bit of a wonder woman in real life (read her personal background), and director Patty Jenkins (Monster) has accomplished what no other directors had been able to: bring THE ultimate female superhero to life on the big screen! Taking place during World War I, the story tells the tale of Diana, who is born on the island of Themyscira, in the presence of her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and the other Amazons who solely live there. One day, their peace is upended by the surprising arrival of American pilot and spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), whom Diana saves. The Amazons soon learn of World War I and are convinced it is their longtime enemy Ares, the God of War, behind mankind's bloodlust for war. Diana leaves her home and travels to London with Trevor to help in the war effort and find and confront Ares. The story, pacing, acting, action are all on point here and it's a solid entry in the superhero genre! 


The most disappointing film of 2017, for me, was a film I thought would be good but was one big flop! And here it is:

The Circle
Directed by James Ponsoldt
Starring Emma WatsonTom Hanks, Ellar ColtraneGlenne HeadleyBill PaxtonKaren GillanJohn BoyegaPatton OswaltNate CorddryJudy Reyes, and Ellen Wong

The cast is stellar, the story is based on a novel by Dave Eggers, and the direction was under a promising director. Nevertheless, The Circle just fell completely flat! The premise is interesting, especially given the timely relation to Facebook and other social media sites which gather too much information willingly from the public and have proven to hand it over to the government. At times, though, this story didn't know if it wanted to be Enemy of the State or Edtv. It's a shame that this film is both Bill Paxton's and Glenne Headley's last, due to their untimely deaths. What's especially tragic and crappy about this film is the ending. It could've been a good film -- and I was hoping so much for it to be great -- but the murky ending felt too inconclusive and it simply was a waste of all talents combined. 

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Movie Review of "Star Wars: The Last Jedi"

It's been two years since the sequel to Return of the Jedi graced theaters, and now one of my favorite directors, Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper) has taken the reins of nearly every director's dream film. After loving The Force Awakens and Rogue One, I wasn't sure the saga could be improved upon, but The Last Jedi exceeded all expectations! Last Jedi works on so many levels: writing, acting, directing, pacing, music, action, emotion! It's as if Johnson completely geeked out on all things you'd like to see in a new Star Wars film and threw it in there!

It's difficult to write a spoiler-free review because, as a critic and fan, you want to instantly gush over the major plot twists and revelations! So, I will simply say there are a couple uses of the force that haven't been seen on the big screen, but the uses are such great, wonderful surprises, they are a welcome -- and some superfans may say long overdue -- addition to the cinematic universe! Of course, there are plenty of humorous moments spattered throughout the film -- the BB-8, newly introduced porgs, and Jedi temple caretakers are particularly for the kids -- but there are also many serious moments -- moments that underline the "Wars" in Star Wars. There is tragedy, loss and sacrifice; however, there is humor, caring and hope! As for the performances, they're all top notch here, particularly from Daisey Ridley, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill. Johnson finally addressed -- to me -- a long-standing issue with Fisher's Leia and it is glorious! Seeing Fisher up on screen makes your heart both soar and hurt over how wonderful she was and how much she will be missed. Hamill finally gets to delve into the more serious undertones of being the "last Jedi" and he delivers it in the masterful way that only Hamill can, proving once again that he was born to play Skywalker! Driver does well with his unspoken acting, delivering both on the yearning to be accepted and wanting to pave his own path. Ridley especially really upped her acting game, and in one pivotal scene with Driver, she delivers a rather simple line in the most heart-aching way.

There were many scenes I figured out would happen but didn't know for sure if Johnson would actually go there, and, fortunately, he did! But there were also many unexpected moments and that makes for a great film! Of course, the film also saw the return of composer John Williams and his score this time around was SO much better than the Force Awakens score! This time, he does what should be done: he uses those familiar, favorite themes from the original trilogy and interweaves them with the new! Hearing themes like "Luke and Leia," "Han and Leia," "The Force theme," and others was a very welcome addition!

My favorite moment of Last Jedi is one I unfortunately cannot write without spoiling the surprise, but I actually teared up throughout the entire scene! To me, this scene made the movie and I think other diehard fans will love it just the same! New actors and characters such as Laura Dern's Vice Admiral Holdo, Kelly Marie Tran's Rose Tico, and Benecio Del Toro's DJ are wonderful additions to the cast and SW universe, each given their respective moment to shine! Some are saying Del Toro wasn't used enough but I was satisfied with his screen time. Other great moments are seeing the Millennium Falcon speeding through the caverns of new planet Crait; as well as the production design and sets, which were amazing! The colors used and photography brings an artistic distinction to the saga.

The only ever-so-slightly negative criticism I have of the film is the little side plot between Tran's Rose, John Boyega's Finn and Oscar Isaac's Poe, but those characters had to have something to do while Rey met with Luke! While, at first, the side mission felt a little perfunctory, it soon reveals some social class issues very relatable to the real world, as well as drive the overall saga toward episode 9!

Overall, Last Jedi is one of the most enjoyable films of the year! I enjoyed it more than Force Awakens and my ranking would be as follows:

1) Empire Strikes Back

2) The Last Jedi

3) Rogue One

4) New Hope

5) Force Awakens

6) Return of the Jedi & Revenge of the Sith (tie)

7) Attack of the Clones

8) Phantom Menace

I will be seeing this film MANY times over the holiday break and I urge everyone who even remotely likes Star Wars to see this film as soon as possible!

In loving memory of Carrie Fisher. May the Force be with you ... Always.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

My Favorite TV Shows of 2015

Daredevil (Netflix)

Starting off its run of Marvel series, Netflix picked my favorite Marvel hero, Daredevil. Lawyer by day, vigilante by night, blind lawyer Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) uses his uncanny abilities -- to see using soundwaves -- to fight crime and bring justice to his neighborhood of Hell's Kitchen. This adaptation follows closely to Brian Michael Bendis' epic run on the comic -- the dark, grittier, more realistic tone -- as opposed to the current, flashier, swashbuckling, rollicking adventure which is currently being headed by Mark Waid. Netflix and the producers didn't waste any time throwing audiences into the major threat of Wilson Fisk a.k.a. Kingpin (Vincent D'Onofrio), Daredevil's main antagonist. What I love about Daredevil's comic as well as the series is he's not all flash and bang like Marvel's other major films. This series is more steeped in real day-to-day living and seems all the more realistic. But it's not all serious drama. Murdock's best friend and law partner, Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) is there to add some needed comedic support and their secretary Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) is there to bring in some light. I was extremely happy to hear the series got picked up for a second season and that there will be appearances by legendary Daredevil characters Elektra and The Punisher! 2016 is shaping up to be a great year in television!

The Flash (The CW)

Hands down, the BEST superhero adaptation on television! What started off as somewhat of a spinoff of The CW's preceding superhero series, Arrow, has now surpassed it to become one of the most entertaining series on TV! The show follows pretty closely to Flash comic book lore, and, even better, all of the characters are here! Unlike ABC's boring Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Flash delves deep into its universe full of heroes, villains, and -- even better -- introduced the concept of DC Comics' infinite earths this season! The first season was flawless as far as network television series go, with the acting, writing and production were all pulled off so brilliantly. I especially loved that the villain the producers used to initiate the series was one of the Flash's most deadly -- and one of the most underrated in comics -- the Reverse Flash! Now, in the current second season, not only does Flash have to fend off a bevy of his usual rogues gallery: Captain Cold (portrayed so damn well by Wentworth Miller), Heatwave, Weather Wizard, Golden Glider, Trickster (a nice Easter egg from the 1990 The Flash series, with Mark Hamill reprising his role!), Gorilla Grodd, King Shark and many more, but his main adversary is Zoom, another deadly foe. Lead actor Grant Gustin does a great job with portraying Barry Allen, capturing Allen's humor and unrelenting hope while also showcasing Allen's frustration of being a new hero. The dramatic moments on the show are even touching without getting pretentious and the show is a fun watch. This show is probably the one I look most forward to from week to week! I love the inclusion of Earth-2 characters (Jay Garrick!) and am looking forward to the emergence of Wally West! If there is one primetime network superhero series to devote your time to, The Flash beats all the rest.

Fresh Off the Boat (ABC)

Based on the book by Eddie Huang, who is currently a successful restauranteur, Fresh Off the Boat takes a beat from its successful predecessor, The Goldbergs (also on my list here), and takes place in the mid-1990s. The show is about the Huang family, who move from Washington, D.C. to Orlando, Florida, so patriarch Louis (Randall Park) can run his own successful steakhouse restaurant. Along for the ride are his wife, Jessica (Constance Wu); his oldest son, a laidback, yearning-to-be-cool rap fanatic, Eddie (Hudson Yang), the one who wrote the book upon which the series is based; his middle son, the nice, amicable "ladies man who respects the ladies," Emery (Forrest Wheeler); his youngest son, the super-smart, super-sweet Evan (Ian Chen); and Louis' mother, Grandma (Lucille Soong). The entire cast is funny, working off their character's own respective eccentricities, but it is Constance Wu's "tiger mom" Jessica who steals the show. I honestly don't know why Wu was neither nominated nor won an Emmy for best comedic actress, but she should've been given both this past award season! From the 90s fashion and rap music to the references to all of the pop culture of the time, Fresh Off the Boat is a hilarious series that isn't going off air anytime soon!

The Goldbergs (ABC)

If you grew up in the 1980s (whether as a teenager or kid), then The Goldbergs is essential viewing! Currently in its third season, The Goldbergs has taken what started as a show primarily about the youngest member of the family, Adam (Sean Giambrone), and has expanded its storylines to focus on the rest of the hilarious family members. The other two kids, Barry (Troy Gentile) and Erica (Hayley Orrantia) provide plenty of laughs, but it's the kids' (s)mother, Beverly (Wendi McLendon-Covey), who steals the show! Just like Fresh Off the Boat's Constance Wu, McLendon-Covey should have been nominated and won (over Wu) for best comedic actress in a series. The show continues to up its family love factor while still maintaining the comedic, shouting dialogue its known for. Plus, every 80s fad, toy, music, movie, and fashion is covered -- some even getting their own episode devoted to them (i.e., The Goonies episode, the Risky Business episode, the Ferris Bueller episode, etc.). While the show is still no Wonder Years (although there was a moment in the season two episode, "The Lost Boy," that comes close), it still has a heart all its own ... and it's funnier than a lot of other shows on TV right now.

Gotham (FOX)

FOX's prequel series, Gotham, which delves into the world of Gotham City back when Bruce Wayne/Batman was a kid and James Gordon was a new hire detective to the GCPD, started out a bit slow in its first season. However, halfway through that season and with the beginning of season two, it has upped its game tremendously. When subtitling the second season "Rise of the Villains," introducing Batman's major villains and some new ones, how can it not make good television!? The series perfectly captures the world of Gotham, a city which seems to be stuck in the past with its noir fashion and architecture, but has the contemporary technology. Especially impressive to the show is Robin Lord Taylor's portrayal of The Penguin. He takes a laughable comic book character and turns him into one of the most formidable of villains, making him both repulsive and sympathetic to audiences. What has been most cool to watch this current season has been the emergence of The Riddler and other various villains. DC Comics' television division has dominated the TV universe -- a feat Marvel Comics has yet to do -- masterfully balancing its use of the classic characters of Batman's world while also keeping the style more like a noir cop procedural. With the way the show's mid-season finale ended, I can't wait to see what the new year brings!

Grandfathered (FOX)

On paper, this series' premise seems somewhat ... played-out. And maybe it is. But, to me, there's something that just seems to work. John Stamos portrays Jimmy Martino, a successful womanizing restauranteur who finds out one random day that he's a father of a twenty-something son, Gerald (Josh Peck), who has a toddler daughter, making Jimmy an awestruck grandfather. There is no grand story arc to the show, just a man trying to retrofit his life to now include his new family -- including Gerald's mom, Sara (Paget Brewster), the only woman Jimmy's ever loved. Each week is a new experience for Jimmy and family but it's fun to watch and has a lot of heart.

Jessica Jones (Netflix)

The CW's The Flash may be the best comic book adaptation on TV -- especially network primetime -- but a very close second (almost a tie!) is Netflix's second installment of its Marvel Comics Defenders broadcasting, Jessica Jones! Taken from the very underrated, almost unknown Marvel comic, Jones stars Krysten Ritter as the titular character. I have to admit I was very wary of the casting of Ritter as the tough-as-nails private investigator since she is mostly known for the goofy female sidekick roles in most films and shows. But she has more than won me over with her portrayal of Jones! What I love most about the character is she is a formidable superhero with impressive powers, but chooses not to use them like her famous counterparts, The Avengers. In the comic, she used to be with The Avengers for a time and some of the big names even make appearances from time to time. But what her comic -- and story -- are truly about is her place in a noir detective world which just so happens to have run-ins with superheroes and villains from time to time. To me, Netflix's Marvel series are the only good television Marvel is putting out. Their decision to make the main protagonist Kilgrave a.k.a. The Purple Man is genius! Kilgrave is a major villain in Daredevil's comic book world and I've always believed him to be one of the most dangerous villains. Think about it. A man who can make anyone do anything just by speaking it? The shame of it all is that, in the comic, he's treated like somewhat of a joke. But the Netflix series took the true essence of that concept and ran with it in all the right directions, making his true power the kind of fear which is equal to that of a rapist! David Tennant's portrayal further exemplifies the actor's ease at making an evil character almost relatable. I also enjoyed the inclusion of Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), who most don't know goes on to be Hellcat. While The Flash is bathed in light and hope, Jessica Jones explores more of the seedy underbelly, which is a testament to Marvel's Marvel Knights/MAX imprint run of comics (Daredevil, Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Punisher), which was a hit during its heyday in the early 2000s. The best thing about this series, though, is the cast, which is composed mostly of women -- strong, smart, confident. I can only hope that Netflix picks up another season like they did with its other hit, Daredevil!

Orange is the New Black (Netflix)

Netflix had a banner year with its programming and is quickly becoming a wonderful alternative to network television. Case in point is my final pick: Orange is the New Black, based on the book, which aired its third season this year. What made this season so much more impressive and enjoyable for me was the fact that the writers used most of its 13 episodes to move away from the show's protagonist, Piper (Taylor Schilling) -- my least favorite character in the show -- and instead explore the lives of the ensemble cast of inmates and how they landed in prison. The actresses who portray the inmates are all so well diversified and complex, plus the writers are damn good at their jobs, that you start to feel a comradeship with these women. This season you begin to root for them and every dramatic turn brings you all the more willingly into their world, with the end of the season delivering a satisfying emotional payoff. I'm not sure where the show will go from after the end of this past season, but if it's anything like season three, then audiences are in for more fascinating, emotional storytelling!

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)

By far one of the funniest shows with the sickest sense of humor, Netflix's comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt follows a former cult follower, Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper), who is rescued along with her three other sister wives of cult leader Richard Wayne Gary Wayne. Upon her rescue, she decides to take her court settlement money and move to New York City to see what she's missed over the year since she's been in an underground shelter since the age of 14 and was told the outside world had suffered an apocalypse with her, her "sisters," and Wayne as the only remaining survivors. This may sound like some intense, gritty drama, but it's anything but. With SNL alumni Tina Fey as creator and producer, the show has too many jokes and dirty humor to take it too seriously. The series follows Schmidt as she tries to begin a life for herself with the help of her roommate, Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), her landlady Lillian (Carol Kane), and her employer who she nannies for, Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski). This show does not disappoint when it comes to laughs. And if you aren't singing the theme song by the end of the first episode, I'll have to highly question your taste in music! UnBREAKable! They alive, damnit!

The Walking Dead (AMC)

Every year, AMC's crown jewel series just gets better and better! In season five, I lost one of my favorite characters, then our favorite band of survivors has discovered a new secure community. If you're asking, Shouldn't they just stay away from communities after what happened with the Governor's people, the hospital, and Terminus?, then you won't be surprised by Rick and company's wariness when they come to Alexandria. They come the closest to dying -- not from zombies -- but from basic needs, and it rocks each one of their personal worlds. So much so that Rick (Andrew Lincoln) slowly begins to become similar to one of the cold, heartless scavengers he's encountered in past seasons. The way the fifth season came to its finale was so well-executed, also bringing back fan favorite Morgan (Lennie James). When season six came on the new threat came in the form of the mysterious attackers known as the Wolves. The Walking Dead continues to lead the way in terms of writing, acting and production! If you don't watch the show simply because "it has zombies in it," then you're truly missing out on one of the best dramas currently on TV, as well as ever!
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