Monthly Archives: February 2018

“Annihilation” Movie Review

I almost don’t know what to say. I just… I… Words are escaping me now. Well, I guess structural integrity is the way to go. Here goes nothing. This trippy science-fiction horror marks the second directorial effort of Alex Garland, following his massively acclaimed debut Ex Machina in 2015. Produced on a budget of around $40 million, the film has thus far earned back over $11 million following its stateside release on February 23rd, 2018. I suspect that a large portion of its profit will come from the United States, as international audiences won’t get to see it in a conventional manner. That’s something that I’ll explain more on in a little bit. Though it’s adapted from the first part in a literary trilogy, Alex Garland has said that he approached the source material as its own story, which he took from and morphed freely. Based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a cellular biologist hired by a mysterious program called the Southern Reach. Following her thought-to-be deceased husband Kane’s sudden reappearance, she learns of a quarantined zone called The Shimmer that has been cut off from the rest of civilization. She then agrees to go out into the Shimmer with four other female experts and hopes to find new evidence of what happened to Kane and just what the heck is going on here. I loved Ex Machina, Garland’s debut feature. In an age where we’re practically surrounded by rip-offs and reboots and sequels that decades late, the screenwriter behind 28 Days Later and Sunshine created an original breath of fresh sci-fi that leaned more on speculative ideas than spectacle. And in anticipation for his new release, I read the VanderMeer novel, and can tell you two things. First, it’s one of the weirdest and boldest stories in recent fiction. Second, the film adaptation took massive liberties with the source material yet found ways to make its ideas still profound and complex. Hands down, either Annihilation will be the best movie I’ll see this year or 2018 is going to be an incredible year for cinema. It’s sad, however, that not everyone in the world will get to experience it in a traditional sense. Apparently, an executive from Paramount Pictures demanded that changes be made both to the ending and the main character, sighting it as “too intellectual” or “too complicated” for a wide audience. In response, producer Scott Rudin, who retains rights to the final cut, took Garland’s side and refused any notes or changes. As a result, while folks in the U.S. and China will get to see it in theaters, international audiences will have a chance to watch it 17 days later… premiering on Netflix. While I’m not necessarily opposed to Netflix picking up distribution rights for a film, this decision makes me really upset. No matter how large you 4K television is and even if you can watch it on the go, nothing will compare to sitting down in a dark theater and soaking it all in. The lengthy discourse I had with a handful of strangers after it finished is proof enough. Over the last few years, Natalie Portman has consistently proven to be one of my favorite actresses working today. Her performance here is a truly versatile one, bouncing between traumatized and tough-as-nails with ease. A damaged soul, some may find her character to be unlikable, but it’s honestly refreshing to watch a sci-fi movie where the female lead isn’t just a damsel in distress or a love interest. And she’s surrounded by Jennifer Jason-Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny as her teammates. You get a glimpse of each of their individual personalities and every decision they made in the Shimmer was intelligent and reasonable. Oscar Isaac also does great work as Kane, subverting the traditional idea of a traumatized soldier. He initially gives a very wooden performance, but the reasons for it become clear later on. Meanwhile, on a technical scale, this film is nothing short of astounding. The visual effects inside of The Shimmer are something to behold, rarely have on-screen visuals been so simultaneously beautiful yet also terrifying. I won’t actually describe any of them for you so that you can be as surprised as I was watching it. But Garland managed to pull off a number of creature designs from the book I thought would have been impossible to visualize. The lush green landscapes and unique animals can be noticeably CGI, but the fantastic production design and ethereal lighting make it all the more pleasant to look at. Meanwhile, the cinematography by Rob Hardy feels like something straight out of a John Carpenter film. Wonderful, steady wideshots of both the Southern Reach outpost and the landscapes inside The Shimmer feel lucid and almost dreamlike. The widescreen format and excellent lighting allows for an intense, immersive atmosphere that feels so lacking in other horror films. Composers Ban Salisbury and Geoff Barrow both provide the musical score, which perfectly fits the surreal tone of the film. In some of the more mundane scenes, it just consists of an acoustic guitar getting plucked with some accompanying percussion. But during some of the more fantastical moments, it shifts into an ambient mix of synthesizers and suppressed strings. Interestingly, this dichotomy works perfectly to explore the duality of the characters’ situation and bring out a genuine reaction from the audience. The last 15 minutes of the movie are almost dialogue-free, save for that powerful music. As a result, my jaw just dropped. However, I can appreciate that this movie is not for everyone. Like the novel, this movie is like a modern-day H.P. Lovecraft story. For those unfamiliar, H.P. Lovecraft was one of the fathers of horror fiction, creating the myth of Cthulu. In all of his stories, as well as ones that imitated them, the main theme involved ordinary characters trying (And failing) to make sense of the impossible. If you’re unable to accept that from the beginning, then you’ll just be left behind. For those with the fortitude to wait it out and really soak it all in, Annihilation is a stunning, psychedelic piece of science-fiction cinema. Whether you love it or hate it, this is a movie that is going to stick with you long after the credits start rolling. Luckily for people like me, that’s a feeling that I cherish these days with the current studio system.

Let’s Do It: My Favorite Movies #90-81

Alright. I’ve got some unusual spare time on my hands and have found a love of organizing “Favorite” lists. As with the previous ten, this is a subjective list and I can understand why some people may hate these movies. (For the most part) Now let’s get down to it with the next batch.

#90: “Henry V” (1989)

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William Shakespeare has had a long and inconsistent history of his work being adapted for the big screen. In my opinion, not only is Henry V my favorite story of his, but Kenneth Branagh had a better understanding of him than most other filmmakers. Sure, there’s a lot of theatricality thrown in there, but it still works because of his and his cast’s utter reverence for the source material, delivering the dialogue and monologues with total authority. And the historical Battle of Agincourt centerpiece is a thing to behold.

#89: “Whiplash” (2014)

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As a former member of my middle school’s jazz band, some parts of this movie seemed unrealistic or unnatural. As a feature film, however, Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is one of the most intense and anxiety-inducing movies I’ve had the pleasure of watching. The theme of an artist trying to prove his passion to people who don’t understand or respect him hits deep in my personal experience. It all culminates in one of the best and most emotionally powerful ending I’ve ever seen for a movie. Plus, J.K. Simmons is nothing short of a revelation in the foul-mouthed role of the teacher. If only my own band directors were that committed or passionate.

#88: “Deadpool” (2016)

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I knew the first time I saw Deadpool, just from the opening credits sequence, that I was in for a different kind of superhero movie. What I didn’t expect was how much and how hard the film made me laugh in the theater. A nonstop barrage of meta-humor and perfect timing from the cast- especially a career-best Ryan Reynolds -makes things enjoyable, but definitely not family-friendly. Then again, it was never meant to be.

#87: “La La Land” (2016)

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Yet another Damien Chazelle picture to make this list, this movie proved to be the perfect antidote we all really needed. I recently saw it again at a live concert where an orchestra played the beautiful music by Justin Horowitz as La La Land was playing. Plus, the film featured a realistic love story between both Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, a refresher in the midst of its wonderful tribute to a seemingly bygone era of cinema. A fantastic blueprint for a new generation of musicals, everyone involved here has done both Gene Kelly and Jacques Demy proud.

#86: “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014)

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This movie is just so much fun. Way more fun than it had to be, actually. I remember my friends and I were all concerned that maybe Marvel Studios had finally flunked it with this picture. Instead, Guardians of the Galaxy proved to be one of the biggest cinematic surprises I’ve ever had at a movie theater. It does noticeably suffer from a very weak villain and a few rushed scenarios, but Groot and Rocket Raccoon make up for that in spades.

#85: “Good Will Hunting” (1997)

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This is one of those movies that could have been a complete and utter misfire if it were put in the wrong hands. Make no mistake, director Gus Van Sant does have a heavy hand in most of his films, but he practically takes backseat to let Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s brilliant screenplay breath. That scene on the park bench is iconic and uplifting, no matter how many times you’ve seen it. Good Will Hunting almost makes me want to become a math major over in Boston. Almost.

#84: “Nightcrawler” (2014)

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It’s really a shame that this film failed to strike up much buzz on the awards circuit and seems to be in danger of being forgotten. We shouldn’t let that happen. What writer-director Dan Gilroy crafted here is a scathing indictment of the lengths that the media, particularly late-night news, go to get their ratings. Jake Gyllenhaal gives one of the best male lead performances of the last few years as a determined sociopath, completely disappearing behind his fast words and hair gel.

#83: “Braveheart” (1995)

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Let me get this out of the way really quick: I’m well aware of how historically inaccurate this movie is and am still uncomfortable over Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic comments. Setting those two (admittedly glaring) issues aside, the man gave us Braveheart, a gloriously epic tale about one of the most inspirational heroes in the world. For what it’s worth, the movie does a fine job at portraying his motivations and consequences of his action. But it’s the breathtaking battle sequences that truly sell it all. Real armies, tons of chopped limbs, rousing speeches. They may take my life, but they’ll ever take my love for this movie. At least, for now.

#82: “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962)

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This is going to sound a little nuts but Lawrence of Arabia is the film that sparked my serious interest in filmmaking. I still vividly remember sitting down in an old, musty theater and watching this masterpiece being projected on 70 mm film. So why does it rank relatively low on this top 100, you may ask? Well, to be honest, it has been a very long time since I’ve seen it and I’m not sure how well it would hold up on repeat viewings. Nevertheless, David Lean’s definitively epic historical drama is a true classic worthy of all the recognition it has gotten and will get. It’s one of the only times where I can truly say, “They don’t make them like this anymore.”

#81: “The Revenant” (2015)

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The Revenant left me feeling cold the first time I watched it, and I don’t mean that in a figurative sense. Like seriously, as the film went on and the plot kept progressing, I really felt like I was trapped in the wintry wilderness of the Dakotas. That’s the level of power and immersion Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu pulled off with this harrowing story of Hugh Glass. Yes, Leonardo DiCaprio gives an incredible lead performance that deservedly won him his long-overdue Oscar. But the real star is Emmanuel Lubezki with his awe-inspiring cinematography, even more astounding when you consider it was all captured in natural light. I still have no idea how they pulled off the bear attack scene, one of the most grueling brawls in movies ever.

 

“The Hurt Locker” Movie Review

One of the most common adages of modern writing or storytelling is that “War is Hell.” This movie takes that concept and inverts it into something completely different and unexpected. This independently produced contemporary war thriller premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2008. However, it wasn’t distributed in American theaters until the following July. It went on to win 6 Academy Awards, including the coveted Best Picture prize. And yet, it’s the lowest grossing film ever to win the award, with a worldwide intake of $49.2 million against a $15 million budget. Directed by Katherine Bigelow, the first (And thus far, only) woman to ever win the Oscar for Best Director, the film is believed to be loosely based on screenwriter Mark Boal’s personal experiences. A former war journalist, he was embedded with several military task forces during the early stages of what seems to be a contrived, drawn-out war. Set primarily around 2003 and 2004, the film focuses on an Iraq War bomb disposal team, initially composed of Sergeant J.T. Sanborn and Specialist Owen Eldridge. Following a freak accident, a new member, Staff Sergeant William James, joins their operations in places like Baghdad and brings an incredibly reckless yet dedicated behavior to the team. The film traces the squad’s actions during their tour throughout various parts of Iraq and Afghanistan, some able to deal with the stress of combat better than others. It seems impossible these days to make a contemporary war film, let along talk about one, without the possibility of controversy. Some get accused of glorifying the United States’ wartime actions, others are called out for demonizing enemy nations, and the rest are criticized for so-called cowardice in addressing the subject matter. Films like American Sniper, Zero Dark Thirty, Thank You For Your Service, 13 Hours, 12 Strong, and just recently The 15:17 to Paris have all fallen under this controversy and some of it is justified. Now, is Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker the early 21st-century masterpiece everyone is touting it as? Probably not. However, I won’t deny that it is a great film worth watching. Interestingly enough, this movie did receive some controversy, but not the kind you would expect. Some of the most pointed critiques come from veterans of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and other embedded journalists. Many of them claim that the film is not a realistic or accurate depiction of wartime conditions. Having read them, a number of them are just technical absurdities that only they would be able to notice- such as wrong uniforms or unbelievable weapon range. But they do have a point in criticizing the team’s misbehavior as being very irrational and reckless; to the best of my knowledge, no soldier would ever make decisions like the ones in this movie. At times, it can be as frustrating as watching dumb characters in a horror movie. But I’ll admit that it didn’t detract from the sheer relentlessness of certain scenes, especially when a bomb may potentially be involved. I’ve been a fan of Jeremy Renner for a while now, but this Oscar-nominated role may be his best performance to date. As James, he’s incredibly off the hook yet brilliant when the moment calls for it, perhaps the only one who truly knows how war works. Future Avengers co-star Anthony Mackie also does great work as his level-headed superior Sgt. Sanborn. His headbutting with James is essentially the story’s backbone, with his by-the-numbers input is nearly thrown out the window on numerous occasions in favor of improvisation. Meanwhile, Brian Geraghty is arguably the most “natural” is his role as Eldridge, an insecure but well-meaning teammate. Other actors, like Ralph Fiennes as the profane leader of a British PMC group and Guy Pearce as another bomb disposal guy, do excellent work and leave nothing to complain about. On the technical side of things, it becomes clear why this one was an awards season favorite. The cinematography by Barry Ackroyd opts for a handheld style that almost imitates a documentary, similar to his work on United 93. In fact, the way it constantly moves and zooms in makes it feel incredibly immersive in a raw setting like the Middle East. Several scenes were filmed with multiple cameras at the same time, which allows for new perspectives to be found in each moment. But the editing job by Chris Innis and Bob Murawski is what truly sets the picture apart. Putting together hours of footage from Super 16 mm film is no easy task, but add the asymmetrical structure of the script and things seem almost impossible. During an early bomb sequence, the film breaks out into slow-motion and cuts constantly between the explosion itself and the impact it has on various surrounding surfaces. The musical score here is composed and conducted by both Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders. While not one of the 21st century’s best, it’s still a pretty memorable soundtrack. The tracks are largely made up of electric guitars on constant riffs and melodies. Instrumental in building all of the tension and anxiety in the film, it often sounded like a neverending crescendo. It also features some choir-like voices which help to provide a great background for the cacophony of war. But both Bigelow and Boal’s greatest accomplishment with this film is its examination of how these soldiers react differently to the Iraq War. While most war films spend their time showing us that “War is Hell,” the team behind The Hurt Locker find it to be something else: an addiction. A potent drug, even. The main character is essentially an adrenaline junky, always searching for the next bomb to defuse. That was by far the most interesting thing this film had to offer. Whenever it goes off into something else, it just feels like nothing is happening. The Hurt Locker is a marvel of technical realism and character frustration. A tense and unpredictable war thriller, I appreciated the unique approach it took to the perspective of war while being annoyed by some other decisions. Nevertheless, it’s a truly great film, if not a particularly rewatchable one.

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Let’s Do It: My Favorite Movies #100-91

Yep, we’re going there now. After nearly 4 years of slamming away aimless thoughts on movies on my keyboard, I decided to go through and rank my Top 100 favorite movies of all time. Due to the comprehensive nature of the rankings, I decided to split it up into ten lists of ten over a certain period of time. I figured it was probably best to throw this list together now at the beginning of the year as I don’t feel anything has yet threatened the competition. These are the movies that I have watched the most, cherished the most, quoted the most, and recommended the most to my friends, family, and fellow cinephiles. So let’s begin, shall we?

#100: “2001: A Space Oddysey” (1968)

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It seems like utter heresy to place such a highly regarded film on the lower end of my rankings, especially from an auteur such as Stanley Kubrick. But the truth of the matter is that, even though I absolutely respect his legacy and importance as a filmmaker, I have never truly liked many of his movies. However, I would be a stone-faced liar if I didn’t say that 2001: A Space Odyssey is nothing if not a sprawling, mesmerizing epic with groundbreaking visuals that still hold up 50 years later and a sweeping story that none of us will probably ever fully decipher. That’s alright, though.

#99: “Goodfellas” (1990)

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Ah, Martin Scorsese. One of the few remaining directors in Hollywood who can include both graphic violence and heinous profanity in his movies (in ample supply) yet still actually get away with it. An expansive look into the Italian Mafia told from the perspective of one of their biggest players back in the day, it really does better with each rewatch. Especially if you haven’t seen it in a long while.

#98: “It Follows” (2015)

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I remember there was a long point in time where I just didn’t like horror movies. At all. I thought they were all just the same thing recycled: tits, blood, and jump scares. However, it’s been in more recent years, in part because of my broadened tastes as well as the rise of the indie horror movie, that I began an appreciation for the genre. You’ll certainly some more on my countdown later on that I love the most. And David Robert Mitchell’s hypnotic, original, terror-inducing It Follows is one of the finest examples in modern cinema you’ll ever find.

#97: “Zodiac” (2007)

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David Fincher certainly has a penchant for serial killers and other psychologically disturbed individuals, as highlighted in his filmography. However, nowhere in his career has he done it better than with Zodiac, which, believe it or not, is based on a true story. That fact arguably makes this film even more terrifying than if it were just a piece of fiction. I’m glad this movie is finally getting the appreciation it deserves now because it still is better than a lot of murder mystery crap that comes to us today.

#96: “Fargo” (1996)

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Leave it to the Coen Brothers to find the most hilarious bits of comedy even in the darkest of places. They’ll have another film later on this 100, but Fargo is pretty much a perfect movie. Not a single misstep in the plot, not character that feels shoehorned or left out, no line of dialogue that feels like it’s out of place. Oh, and it features a legendary Oscar-winning performance from Joel’s wife Frances McDormand. It may seem like a “nothing” movie at first glance, but it warrants rewatchability.

#95: “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003)

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I’ve always been a sucker for this franchise’s early installments, especially from a young age. Make no mistake, the Pirates of the Caribbean series got consistently worse as it just went on, but I enjoy watching the first three movies every now and again. The inaugural one, though, is essentially the template for a good Disney blockbuster. A quirky but likable lead character, inoffensive humor, great music from Hans Zimmer and Klaus Badelt and epic action sequences. Johnny Depp may have become a pin-up for domestic violence in recent years, but his performance as Jack Sparrow is so wholesome, unique and inimitable- even by the man himself later in his career.

#94: “Spirited Away” (2001)

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It wasn’t until recently, like in the past two or three years, that I truly began to appreciate anime films. I had seen some Studio Ghibli productions beforehand, like Ponyo or Howl’s Moving Castle, but it took me a while before realizing their brilliance. However, I automatically knew upon first viewing that Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away was a masterpiece, an astonishing work of the 2000’s. It’s not often that you get to watch a movie, let alone an animated one, that is so daring, original, and beautiful. Miyazaki was an absolute genius and he retired from the art too soon.

#93: “Finding Nemo” (2003)

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Back-to-back animated films on this list, but no less an achievement. Finding Nemo is simply one of Pixar’s best films, and you will definitely see more of their works on the Top 100 to come. For now, though, Andrew Stanton crafted a gorgeous ode to the troubles of parenthood cleverly disguised as an underwater road trip adventure with talking fish. Kids will be awed by the vibrant visuals and sight gags while adults will be moved by the strong, stirring look at responsibility in the vast world. In hindsight, the enormous ocean is a brilliant metaphor for the big wide world all around us.

#92: “Serenity” (2005)

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I am a huge fan of the T.V. show Firefly. Of all the one-season wonders in the history of television, nothing is more painful than the fact that Fox canceled this show for no concrete reason. So color me ecstatic when I found out that the story wrapped up in a theatrical movie written and directed by Joss Whedon. For all intents and purposes, Serenity shouldn’t even exist. But the power of fandom succeeds and whenever I feel bored and trapped at home, I think about just getting back together with some of my favorite characters ever in sci-fi. Ugh, I wish there was more of it.

#91: “The Bourne Ultimatum” (2007)

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You either love Paul Greengrass’ shaky, vérité style of action filmmaking or you don’t. Considering that The Bourne Ultimatum ended up on my list, I guess you can figure out where I stand on that argument. The over-the-shoulder angle of the action sequences can certainly be disorienting for some, but for others, like me, it provides an unnatural realism to a genre that seems reliant on ridiculousness. It also has a subtly great performance from Matt Damon and an intricate storyline to boot, bringing the trilogy to a satisfying conclusion. And it features one of the best one-on-one knife fights in movie history, which is depicted in the image above.

There’s the first list of ten. I’ll be back soon with the next batch. In the meantime, please be sure to like this post and Follow my Blog.

“Black Panther” Movie Review

Give more power to the people. Or to filmmakers. Or to filmmakers who are from a people that aren’t nearly as represented as they should be. That’s the biggest takeaway from Black Panther. This superhero/sci-fi picture hybrid, the eighteenth (!) overall in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, was released on February 16th, 2018. Produced on a budget of nearly $200 million, the film is projected to earn all of that back and break a number of other records within the first weekend alone. Several celebrities and local charities have partaken in a challenge to give disadvantaged children of color around the world a chance to see the movie, which could set a new precedent in moviegoing attendance. The first-ever major black superhero in comic books, Blade actor Wesley Snipes attempted to get an adaptation off of the ground as early as 1992, but all potential iterations ended in turnaround. John Singleton seemed poised for the director’s chair at one point, but it eventually went to Ryan Coogler of Fruitvale Station and Creed. Set after the events of Civil War, T’Challa returns to Wakanda, his home country in Africa which is isolated from the rest of the world. Following the death of his father, he is crowned the new king and also inherits the persona of the Black Panther warrior, infused with high-tech gear from an extremely rare metal called vibranium. However, his sovereignty is challenged by a new mercenary named Erik Killmonger, aided by an enemy of the state Ulysses Klaue, and must now become involved in a potential global conflict. To say that this movie was a long time coming would be an understatement. Black Panther, no relation to the political party from the early 1970’s, is an important symbol for many reasons. And the Black Panther Challenge, started by a local from Harlem, is a beautiful opportunity for expanding this movie to people that need to be represented. I remember in the weeks before watching it seeing a viral video of an economically underserved school’s ecstatic reaction to the news that they were all going to see the movie together. I was already excited for the movie because I adored Creed from 2015, but that video only amped up the excitement. And I can say positively that this is one of the best MCU movies yet, as well as one of the boldest. There was a story not too long ago that said an alt-right Facebook group planned on bombing the movie with negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Those are nothing more than a collection of fools scared that they’re moving from a majority to a minority. Indeed, there will inevitably be a crowd of folks who decry this movie for being “too political.” There is some truth to that charge; not all movies released have to tackle relevant issues. But on the flip side, there’s also the baffling belief that art wasn’t inherently political, to begin with. And a movie like this, written by, directed by, and largely starring black artists, deserves to have a message that the world can hear. Is it flawless? No. But there’s still so much to chew down on here. I feel like I don’t harp on how amazing it is that a big-budget studio film gets to have an almost all-black cast. Chadwick Boseman did a great job in Civil War, but now that he’s front and center, we get to see all his charisma and majesty in full display. With an authentic African accent and a calm demeanor, he gives us a royal figure who has to prove himself a man first, juggling all sorts of responsibilities and weight on his shoulders. The female characters were completely badass, thanks in no small part to the all-women king’s guard Dora Milaje. The Walking Dead‘s Danai Gurira shines as the general Okoye, who particularly stands out in a casino brawl where she goes to town on men in a striking red dress. Lupita N’Yongo also does great work as Nakia, a love interest who’s not just a love interest. She’s capable in a fight and extremely resourceful. The standout for the ladies is Letitia Wright as Shuri, T’Challa’s teenage sister who’s one of the smartest people in the world. But the true scene-stealer in this crowd is Coogler’s regular collaborator Michael B. Jordan as the main antagonist Erik Killmonger, who finally breaks the mold of bad Marvel villains. Though it can become clear early on what his motivations are, they’re no less impactful and sympathetic. When he finally makes his beliefs and intents be known to his adversaries, you immediately understand where he’s coming from. It’s easy to say that an MCU movie looks stunning, but the technical aspects of Black Panther are simply stellar. Mudbound nominee Rachel Morrison gives Wakanda a distinctly alien yet human feel like it belongs in the real world. She captures in every frame the beauty and vastness of Wakanda, a welcome departure from the war-torn continent we’re used to seeing. One sequence that stands tall is when our heroes take on mercenaries in a Korean casino and it’s all filmed on a single take. Though, the editing by Michael P. Shawver and Claudia Costello can admittedly get jerky and borders on cut-to-shit sometimes. However, that’s completely made up for with the outstanding production design and costumes, which are beautifully exotic. And of course, the visual effects are awesome. Ludwig Goransson composes the musical score for this film, and it’s by far Marvel’s best one. Yes, it does feature tracks of sweeping orchestral beats common in these blockbusters, which could be forgettable. But what really makes it stand out is its creative fusion with African percussion and drums along with a beautiful vocal chorus. On top of that, rapper Kendrick Lamar curates some original songs for the soundtrack. Of particular note are “All the Stars,” which plays over the end credits, and “Pray for Me” during the casino scene. In fact, it could be argued that the movie is a cinematic version of a new Kendrick Lamar album. The movie does ultimately succumb to some of Marvel’s tired template rules. Namely, the ending felt a tad cliche and the film ran for about 20 minutes longer than it should have. And while it did lean a little too heavily into the Lexa product placement, Black Panther is a socially conscious superhero adventure that shows the power and importance of representation. Ryan Coogler has crafted a new kind of superhero story with the scars of colonialism and black culture well on its mind. Here’s hoping this paves the way for more inclusion in Hollywood in the future.

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My Top 10 Comic Book Superhero Movies of All Time

In recent cinematic history, there is perhaps no genre of film as popular or lucrative as the comic book superhero adaptation. Not even the Westerns of the Golden Age of Hollywood could match the critical, let alone commercial, success of the many franchises that have begun, died, grown, and been revived in the last two decades. And with Avengers: Infinity War fast approaching theaters, I felt that now was as good a time as ever to look back on my favorites of the genre. Barring anything miraculous happening, like Aquaman or Ant-Man and the Wasp blowing me away, this list of ten will not change. However, I’d like to emphasize that all of the films on this list are based on an existing source material. I LOVE Brad Bird’s The Incredibles and am completely excited for the upcoming sequel, but that’s going to have to be some other list for another day. That being said, here are a few films that just missed the cut.

Honorable Mentions:

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Lego Batman Movie, Spider-Man, Thor: Ragnarok, Blade II, Batman

Setting aside all potential controversy and fanboy outrage, here we go:

#10: “Xmen: Days of Future Past” (2014)

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“Please… We need you to hope again.” It’s the conversation depicted in the image above, but it’s also the film’s plea for human kind’s optimism. Bryan Singer returns to the director’s chair to unite the cast of the franchise he started with the players of the First Class generation in an emotionally fulfilling time-travel epic about legacy and regret. The plot may borrow elements from the Terminator franchise, but it’s the rich characters and thrilling action sequences that set it apart. Unlike previous films that mainly deal with the mutant perspective on prejudice, this story shows the effects (or lack thereof) of worthless fighting and speciesism. Also, the kitchen scene with Quicksilver is nothing short of badass and one of my favorite superhero moments in general.

#9: “Wonder Woman” (2017)

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Yeah, it may have only come out last year, but the impact and importance of director Patty Jenkins’ female-led superhero film cannot be understated. In a genre and industry dominated by masculinity and “boys with their toys” mentality, both she and star Gal Gadot show us the power of women, a sentiment much needed in this age. Also needed in this age is its fierce rejection of any cynicism, looking hard and critically at the flaws of man while celebrating their most redeemable qualities. The DC Extended Universe has been fumbling as of late, but hopefully, the masterminds get the lesson from this film to work in more optimistic fields where their directors have total freedom.

#8: “Iron Man” (2008)

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Here it is, folks. The film that started it all. The movie that defied everyone’s negative expectations and started an unprecedented, impossibly successful new model for franchise filmmaking. It was only in the early 2000’s that Marvel Entertainment managed to assemble the rights to many of their major characters, and realized that they had a great opportunity on their hands. Jon Favreau’s partially-improvised Iron Man was the first one in that plan, and they couldn’t have picked a better running start. Robert Downey Jr. IS Tony Stark/Iron Man with his sarcastic wit and beautiful ability to read lines at a fast pace. Endlessly rewatchable, especially because many of the effects are practical.

#7: “Batman Begins” (2005)

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Spoiler Alert: This may not be the last time you see a movie starring the Caped Crusader on this list. Following the atrocity of Batman & Robin, it’s truly a wonder that Christopher Nolan got to make this movie the way that he did. Not only did it revive and change the landscape of superhero movies, but cinema in general. From Christian Bale’s throat cancer-laden interpretation of the titular crime fighter to the seedy underbelly of Gotham City, this felt both realistic and right. For the first time, I actually cared about both Bruce Wayne and Batman. The 2000’s saw a lot of gritty reboots of beloved or lighthearted franchises, but Batman Begins stood head and shoulders above the rest of them.

#6: “Spider-Man 2” (2004)

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In contrast to the previous film, how about we move and look at a movie filled with innocence and earnestness? While Sam Raimi’s first foray into everyone’s Friendly Neighborhood Web-Slinger was a joyous ride, the sequel ramped up both the stakes and the emotional involvement. By wisely putting character development at the heart of the narrative rather than action spectacle, Toby Maguire is given a chance to flex his muscles as Peter Parker AND Spider-Man. Spider-Man 2 also gave us a great villain in Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus, who borders on misunderstood tragedy. And its message couldn’t be more uplifting: There’s a hero in all of us.

#5: “Deadpool” (2016)

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Now we’ve come into the first R-rated entry in the superhero genre, and my goodness does it earn it. We all knew that Ryan Reynolds was a good choice for the titular role of the Merc with a Mouth, even if that mouth was sewn shut the first time around. But one reel of leaked test footage later, and both 20th Century Fox and Tim Miller gave us a raunchy, self-deprecating round of profane glory. Deadpool may lean heavily into dick jokes, but in a genre where most movies are seemingly following the same template over and over again, it’s both refreshing and hilarious to see some filmmakers push the boundaries with their knowledge of the source material.

#4: “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014)

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I am Groot. This movie, if for nothing else, is proof positive that audiences will watch literally anything if you slap the word MARVEL in front of it. By taking a Z-list comic book team whom very few people were familiar with and turning it into an action buddy sci-fi comedy, James Gunn lifted everyone’s fears that this would be the MCU’s first big bomb. Chris Pratt and Dave Bautista basically cemented their names with this movie, full of vibrant colors and a killer soundtrack. Who knew a CGI raccoon and a talking tree would make me laugh? Guardians of the Galaxy, apparently.

#3: “Logan” (2017)

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Shh. Do you hear that? That soft, wordless sound? That’s me crying my eyes out in the theater during Logan. Less a superhero movie and more a like a sober, powerful examination of the violent legacy of an iconic character, director James Mangold foregoes the need to save the world or get the girl at the end. He presents Logan, formally Wolverine, as an old, bitter, tired mutant who’s seen enough of the world to want to drink himself to death. Both Hugh Jackman and Sir Patrick Stewart are honestly Oscar-worthy in their performances as two lost souls sticking together as an obligation rather than a wish. A hard-R, intimately human portrayal of nobility in a terrible world.

#2: “The Avengers” (2012)

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Sneaking out of school to catch The Avengers on opening day is one of the most fun experiences I had at a movie theater. What Joss Whedon managed here should have, by all accounts, been a complete and utter disaster. But not only did he manage to cap off Marvel’s 5-year plan, he did it in an extremely satisfying and entertaining way. All of the characters were juggled around in relevant ways while Tom Hiddleston gives us the best Marvel villain by an ocean length with Loki. In terms of pure and unadulterated fun, The Avengers may be my favorite movie on this list. And yet, it’s still not the best…

#1: “The Dark Knight” (2008)

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Honestly, what else were you expecting to top this list? Don’t let anyone convince you that director Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is just a “comic book superhero movie.” That would a gross simplification of what actually amounts to a gritty, complex, unpredictable crime epic that deconstructs the mythology of vigilantism. Where should a hero draw a line in the sand? They either die a hero or live long enough to see themselves become a villain. Speaking of villains, Heath Ledger genuinely gives one of the best performances in cinematic history as The Joker. It’s not just because of his death everyone thinks he’s good; he’s really THAT good. The Dark Knight isn’t just the best superhero movie ever made, not just one of the greatest sequels ever made, but one of the greatest films of all time.

Well, there it is. Do you agree with my picks? What’s your favorite superhero movie of all time? Please leave your thoughts in the comments, and if you’re interested to see more content like this, be sure to like this Post and Follow my Blog.

“The Princess Bride” Movie Review

What better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day this year than by rejoicing in one of my favorite romance movies of all time? Seriously, is there any other way to go about it? For cinephiles like this one, certainly not. Rob Reiner’s fantasy rom-com initially saw a release on September 25th, 1987, where it received positive responses from audiences. However, the film was surprisingly dry at the box office, only managing to bring in about $30 million against a $16 million budget. Fortunately, thanks to the rise of the Internet and the expansion of the home media market, the film has found an enormous cult following around the world, including from this reviewer here. Adapted from the William Goldman novel of the same name, who also wrote the screenplay, the film is a rarity in the art in how much it cuts off. Goldman apparently wrote the treatment as one for his relatives and cut out various longer sequences, such as war room discussions. Frankly, that’s a miracle. The movie creatively uses a sick-in-bed preteen boy as the framing device for the entire story, which his grandfather reads in a storybook. In a fictional medieval country of Florin, a farm boy named Westley is willing to do anything to win the hand of the girl of his dreams, Buttercup. Since she’s engaged to marry the sadistic Prince Humperdinck, there’s only so much time to get her back from a forced bond. He recruits the help of various colorful characters, including Inigo Montoya and Fezzik, to go on this perilous adventure to rescue true love. I’m going to be completely honest with everyone here: there’s almost no real point in me writing a full-length review for The Princess Bride. I’m serious, it’s extremely hard, second only Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz in terms of movies that are hard to review objectively. If I were to do that, it would ultimately turn into a long-winded, misty-eyed essay rife with nostalgia on why it’s so foundational to the memories of my childhood. However, I’m under obligation from my New Year’s Resolution to actually go through with this, so why not? One thing I would like to focus on in this “review” is how the film blends a variety of genres together. A sweeping romance story? Check. Swashbuckling adventure epic? Check. Hilarious and self-referential comedy with memorable jokes? Double Check. And yet what Rob Reiner does is that he brings all of these seemingly disparate genres together so effortlessly in a way that still works out for the story. Interestingly, the end result turns out to be something of a loving satire of them all, producing possibly one of the best Frankenstein scripts ever written. And the most impressive part? The movie only runs at 98 minutes, yet everything packed into it feels so like it’s so natural or flows so well. The entire cast is perfect with their deadpan delivery of idiosyncratic lines of dialogue. Mandy Patinkin and Cary Elwes are especially terrific as Inigo Montoya and Westley/Dread Pirate Roberts, respectively. Patinkin shares a story of his longing for revenge early on and constantly tells how he plans to introduce himself to his future victim: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Lines like that, as well as Wallace Shawn’s delivery of “Inconceivable!” have become permanently ingrained into pop culture status. For me, though the best performer is the late wrestler Andre the Giant as the huge muscle man Fezzik. He uses surprisingly great comedic timing blended well with physical humor to great avail. Though he’s definitely not the brightest of the bunch, you can’t help but love the big guy as he tumbles through the land. On the technical side of things, Reiner does enough stuff that’s interesting to warrant your attention. The various locations in obscure parts of England and Ireland make for beautiful backdrops in the story, such as the Cliffs of Insanity or the Fire Swamp. The camerawork by Adrian Biddle is simplistic and uses many instances of sweeping pans, which is appropriate for the sweeping tale of true love. All of the gorgeous costumes and outstanding production design are brought to life in glorious colors. I shudder to imagine how much time was spent to build that many sets and seams, especially with the complete lack of CGI or even blue screen. The editing job by Robert Leighton also deserves some commentary, as it breathlessly moves between the layers of the story. It goes from the boy in his bed to the kingdom of Florin, over to the green countryside, and back to the sick boy and his grandfather. This was perhaps the most important aspect to keep the film from collapsing in on itself. Meanwhile, Mark Knopfler of the Dire Straits gives us a musical score worthy of a classical romance. The composition is actually quite simple, mostly consisting of plucked guitar strings or mushy strings. This ironically stands in direct contrast to the satirical nature of the film but works all the better for it. Knopfler also wrote an original theme song called “Storybook Love,” which plays over the ending credits. It sounds just like any love ballad you’ve heard from the 80’s but is no less appropriate for the story. It truly is a storybook romance. Timeless, warm-hearted, comforting, sweet, and endlessly appealing, The Princess Bride is a wondrous adventure that leaves the rest of the genre all behind. This really was Rob Reiner in his peak, and I’m so glad that this movie has found appreciation over the years. If you saw me quote this movie word for word, you’d more than likely be scared. If your desire is for me to keep reviewing movies, to that I say “As you wish.”

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