Category Archives: Action

“Hold the Dark” Movie Review

If this and Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia prove anything, it’s that the Alaskan Wilderness is a scary environment to go hunting for killers. I don’t care how pretty the scenery may be, if someone (Or something*) up there is wanted in questioning, I want no part in any of it. This horror thriller was initially set to premiere out of competition at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. However, following a series of heated clashes between the distributor and festival elites, it was pulled away from its original summer release and instead premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival in mid-September to somewhat polarized reactions. Following another screening at Fantastic Fest, it was released (very briefly) in art house theaters and on the streaming service Netflix on September 28th, 2018. Directed by Jeremy Saulnier, the same man behind Blue Ruin and Green Room, his childhood friend and frequent star Macon Blair adapted the screenplay from the 2014 novel of the same name by William Giraldi. A24, the same production company that released Green Room, was initially supposed to distribute the film, before Netflix acquired worldwide rights in January of 2017. Set in December of 2004, the film opens with a young woman named Medora Slone, played by Riley Keough, whose young son is seemingly taken and murdered by wolves near a tiny Alaskan village named Keelut. She writes to Russell Core, played by Jeffrey Wright, a writer and retired naturalist who studies wolf behavior, begging him to help track down the wolves and kill them. She wants to make sure she at least has something to show her husband when he returns home, who’s currently deployed in Iraq. But while Core agrees and is out on the job, he accidentally gets drawn into a very dark mystery that the rest of the village seems to be in on. I’m a pretty big fan of Jeremy Saulnier’s two previous directorial efforts, Green Room and Blue Ruin. While the characters in both films were victims to making stupid choices, they both illustrated an exciting new filmmaker with a tight control on his voice. So getting the opportunity to see his next picture from the comfort of my dark living room in the evening made me anticipate Hold the Dark, not to mention the wonderful cast assembled. In particular, I wanted to see how he would be able to handle the bigger-scaled story compared with what he had previously written and directed. While it’s admittedly not really as great as those films, it’s still a solid thriller worth watching at least once. It’s clear in its metaphors that Saulnier has much he wants to say about human nature and our violent natural instincts. We witness numerous heinous acts committed by humans in either the village in Alaska or over in the Iraq warzone, ranging from murder to rape. In comparison, the wolves of Alaska, which are often viewed as savage and uncivilized, are oblivious to their own actions; everything that happens to them is seen as natural. Similar to his previous films, Hold The Dark doesn’t hold back on gruesome violence, but none of it ever happens unless it’s in service to the story. In fairness, Saulnier and Blair ultimately get carried away with their metaphors as the film doesn’t seem to lead anywhere totally concrete. It attempts to hint at something a little more supernatural, but rarely does something totally meaningful with it. I’ve enjoyed seeing Jeffrey Wright in a number of supporting roles over the years in both T.V. and film. And he proves here that he’s fully capable of carrying a feature-length picture as a lead character. As Russell Core, there’s a quiet aura and history of sadness and loneliness surrounding him, and we watch him trying to cling to reason and do what’s right. Riley Keough and Alexander Skarsgård also do great work as the Slone couple, who never seem quite right when they’re separated. From the very minute that these two first appear onscreen, they exude a cold, observational outlook on the remainder of their community. Julian Black Antelope and Tantoo Cardinal do superb supporting work as indigenous locals who seem to know something isn’t right with the family in question, while James Badge Dale is wonderfully subdued and grizzled as the honest cop hopelessly looking for answers. There are also tiny but effective parts by Peter McRobbie and Macon Blair himself that leave something of an impression. Meanwhile, the technical aspects of Hold the Dark reveal reasons why Saulnier is a talent worth watching out for. Magnus Nordenhof Jønck’s cinematography is quite gripping, using the bleak snowy environment to create a strong yet melancholic atmosphere. The way that it focuses on subjects and their every movements is very reminiscent of David Fincher, especially in the slow way that it reveals certain things. The editing by Julia Bloch, collaborator for the director on his previous efforts, cuts the movie in an extremely patient, slow to roll manner. Whenever violence bursts out, such as an intense shootout at a barn, it refuses to linger on gratuitous or bloody images for too long. It also focuses on certain subjects while other things are happening offscreen, as if to create a distant and observational look at the events displayed. Brooke Blair and Will Blair, Macon’s younger brothers and who have previously scored Saulnier’s last two features, have written some music for this film. It is in line with material they’ve written in the past, as it mostly consists of somber synthesizers and strings, reflecting the sad world the characters all live in. It also has a couple of tracks using the same instrumentation but instead arranged to rack up intensity. Filled with atmosphere and perhaps more metaphors than it can afford to carry, Hold the Dark is a sturdy, if unsatisfying slow-burn with a tight central mystery. Jeremy Saulnier proves that he’s able to handle a bigger budget, even if the results don’t always work. Moreover, Jeffrey Wright and Alexander Skarsgård provide some of their best work yet and show why they should be taken more seriously by studios and filmmakers. If for nothing else, this movie stands as further proof why I never want to live in Alaska.

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“Widows” Movie Review

Who ever said that auteur filmmakers could never make more commercial fare for big Hollywood studios? Apparently, nobody said this to Steve McQueen and I’m so glad they didn’t. This heist thriller premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, earning numerous raves from many who attended. It was then released in theaters worldwide by 20th Century Fox, and has thus far only grossed about $53 million against a budget of $42 million. This started a debate among industry experts whether the fault was the scattershot marketing campaign or the perceived lack of broad appeal towards film audiences. Directed by Steve McQueen, the same man behind 12 Years a Slave, the film is based off of the 1983 ITV miniseries of the same name by Lynda La Plante. Following the frustrating cancellation of his proposed HBO series Codes of Conduct, he instead teamed up with Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn to co-write the screenplay for what he professes is his passion project. There were also a number of apparent risks during the filmmaking process, such as the devastatingly regular amount of shootings in the city it was set and shot in. Set in modern-day Chicago, Viola Davis stars as Veronica Rawlins, a former unionizer and the stay-at-home wife of renowned career bank robber Harry Rawlins. When he and three other criminals are killed in a heist gone wrong, she is confronted by the man they stole from, Jamal Manning, played by Brian Tyree Henry. He says they stole over $2 million from his planned alderman campaign and gives her a few weeks to get it back for him, or else. Desperate and low on options, she contacts the widows of the other three men, Linda, Alice, and Belle, to pull off another heist to pay off the debt. This is a movie I’ve been looking forward to for quite a while, way before any trailer or official image dropped. 12 Years a Slave was an absolutely soul-crushing film that was completely stripped down in its approach to a topic as horrifying and disgusting as slavery. Hearing that that same director was going to be dipping his toes into the action genre, with help from the woman behind Gone Girl, was extremely exciting. Not to mention the impressive ensemble that he had assembled. I know there’s a stigma against more singular filmmakers trying to make more big-budget studio fare, with some of them being declared “sellouts” by fans. I’m happy to report, however that McQueen’s modern rendition of Widows is not only highly entertaining but also marks an important step forward in his career. As I’m sure many other reviewers are bound to talk about, what truly makes this film work is its unique mixture of timely themes and popcorn thrills. In any other director or writer’s hands, this would most likely come off as either way too preachy or bland beyond belief. But under Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn, we get to look at subjects that speak to America’s current moment and social angst. Ranging from everything including capitalism, interracial marriage, political corruption, class differences, and fidelity, the screenplay is very ambitious and often grasps what it reaches for. Think Michael Mann’s Heat by way of HBO’s The Wire. Occasionally, it does feel as though there are too many plot threads running at once, as one thing seemingly sets up another nearly every scene. But the transition between these threads is beautifully smooth and slick, offering up a portrait of Chicago that truly feels both realistic and alive. Leading the charge is Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis, and this movie stands as proof that she needs more lead roles. As Veronica, she is incredibly empathetic but has no interest in remaining a meek victim, despite all of the luxury her husband’s life has bought her. Speaking of husband, Liam Neeson is excellent in a small but vital role as Harry, a criminal with an extreme amount of detail and professionalism. Their chemistry is undeniable, and as we get glimpses of their tragic past through flashbacks, or a sequence where his ghost comforts her over the skyline, we see the complications their relationship brings in modern America. The three other widows are played by Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, and Michelle Rodriguez. They each go beyond what roles they may usually by typecast as, showcasing their stryuggle for survival in a world dominated and largely defined by men. The filmmakers also assembled an impressive ensemble cast, including Robert Duvall and Collin Farrell as the racist and powerful alderman incumbent and his reluctant son, Garret Dillahunt as Veronica’s trusted driver, Lukas Haas as a handsome man intimately involved with Debicki’s character, and Carrie Coon as another reluctant widow. My favorites are Brian Tyree Henry as Jamal Manning and Daniel Kaluuya as his brother Jatemme. A far cry from their respective roles in Atlanta and Get Out, they both portray intelligent, downright scary antagonists who are still genuinely trying to do right by their home. Kaluuya’s screen presence particularly made me tense each time because of his cold, removed demeanor. Meanwhile, on the filmmaking side of things, Widows is still a Steve McQueen movie through and through, with his regular collaborators popping up in various departments. Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is sleek and controlled, capturing the city of Chicago in a dingy yet diverse palette. Movements are extremely precise, a la David Fincher, and it often focuses on a subject’s facial expressions for an extended period of time, revealing their true state of mind. There’s an incredible tracking shot mounted from the hood of a politician’s car that goes all the way from the projects to his luxurious estate, all while we can hear him fighting with his assistant. It’s a truly remarkable set piece that shows the disparity of privilege in Chicago and serves as an amazing dichotomy to what the people in the car are discussing. As for the editing, Joe Walker knows exactly when to keep a shot going and when to cut it down. In fact, the way that a shot lingers on someone or something can have extremely important subtext for what’s going on. When there is action happening, such as the tense opening sequence or the heist itself, it refuses to cut too much, allowing us to understand what’s going on and keep us on the edge of our seats. Meanwhile, Hans Zimmer, previously working on 12 Years a Slave, composes and conducts the instrumental film score. As we’ve come to expect from the prolific composer, it’s very unusual from typical Hollywood flare, as much of the soundtrack is initially very lowkey. But when things start going down, it ramps up the intensity to new heights, thanks to heavy low strings and unique percussion. Like much of his work, it often feels like a never-ending crescendo. There’s also an original song called “The Big Unknown” by Sade that plays over the end credits, her second one for a film this year. It’s a soft, melancholy R&B ballad that perfectly sums up the unfortunate predicament that the women in the story have been put into. With her sweet voice playing against a soft piano melody and bass guitar hits, it’s a song I definitely intend to pick up soon. With a director and cast working at the tope of their game, a tense story that twists and turns, and far more on its mind than just gunplay and car chases, Widows is an immensely enjoyable ride of heist thrills packed with thematic punch. I can’t wait to see what else Steve McQueen may be able to come up with for Hollywood, and now there’s no excuse to not give Viola Davis top billing in more movies of the future. It’s genuinely the best heist movie in years.

“The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” Movie Review

Great. First Stephen Hawking. Then Stan Lee. And now Stephen Hillenburg, the creator of SpongeBob SquarePants. 2018 is becoming the new 2016, i.e. more and more beloved celebrities are dropping dead by the end of the year. I honestly think the best way to honor Hillenburg and his legacy would be to include this into my New Year’s resolution. This animated comedy was originally released in theaters around the world on November 19th, 2004. Although it still faced tough competition from The Incredibles, it managed to gross over $140 million at the box office against an overall budget of $30 million. Aided by generally positive responses, it also saw extensive marketing from establishments like 7-Eleven and Burger King, which outfitted various locations with huge inflatable figures of the titular character. Directed by Stephen Hillenburg, he had continuously rejected offers from Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon to make a feature-length film out of the beloved cartoon he created. After accepting in 2002, he assembled his regular show writers to come up with good ideas and storyboard in ways that were faithful to the show. By most accounts, this film was intended to be the series finale, but Nickelodeon ordered more episodes and continued on anyway, without Hillenburg’s involvement for a number of years. Set in the underwater city of Bikini Bottom, the titular frycook SpongeBob SquarePants becomes seriously upset when he doesn’t get to become the manager of the newly open Krusty Krab 2. Things get further complicated when Mr. Krabs, proprietor of the Kursty Krab, is accused and frozen in place for allegedly stealing King Neptune’s crown. Given 6 days to clear his name, SpongeBob and his best friend Patrick Star set out to the infamous Shell City to find the crown, all part of Plankton’s nefarious plan to steal the formula for the delicious and popular Krabby Patty. Full disclosure before going any further: The original SpongeBob cartoon was a defining part of my childhood. All of the early episodes from the first 3 seasons and this movie make up maybe a quarter of my memories growing up. In fact, a good number of those episodes I can quote and act out from front to back, with “Band Geeks” remaining my absolute favorite one out of all of them. Even though the newer seasons afterward were never nearly as good, I still watched them because I’m that big of a fan. All of that is a very long way of saying don’t really read this review if you’re looking for some sort of cold, objective take. The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is still as fun, warm, and entertaining as an adult now as it was back when I was a kid. However, there are still parts of it that I can look at from a new perspective without getting misty-eyed or nostalgic too much. For one, the mythical hero arc that the primary story unfolds over is very traditional and well-worn. If you’re not familiar with this film and go in expecting an original, highbrow narrative with layered thematic interpretations, you’re going to severely let down. It takes everything in the manner of a fast-paced, ridiculously over-the-top comedy in the vein of the Farelly Brothers or Terry Gilliam or Abbott and Costello. If you’re a first-time viewer, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the animators (As well as fans) made or enjoyed it while high on bath salts or something. Virtually all of the cast members from the cartoon show reprise their roles here, and none of them have missed a single beat. Tom Kenny and Bill Fagerbakke are at the forefront as SpongeBob and Patrick and make one of the most lovably buffoonish buddy duos in recent memory. Their chemistry is absolutely on point, and while they may not be the brightest pair in Bikini Bottom, their everlasting enthusiasm makes their delivery of many lines priceless. “A bubble-blowing, double baby doesn’t belong out here. Man’s country!” My favorite (And most relatable) character from the show is still Squidward, and while his part here isn’t as big as I might’ve liked, his scenes leave a good impression. Rodger Bumpass as is hilariously grouchy and deadpan as ever, perhaps the one resident of town with much common sense to himself. He and Kenny also voice a couple of other roles in more subtle capacity, such as the French narrator. Scarlett Johannsson and Jeffrey Tambor are gamely as Princess Mindy and her father King Neptune. He is over-worried and loud about the most minute things while she constantly tries to help the two heroes in whatever way she can. Other new players include Alec Baldwin as a tall hitman tracking the protagonists to Shell City and David Hasselhoff as himself, playing a parody of his character from the show Baywatch. In all seriousness, growing up, I thought he was just some character made up; I swear that I’m not lying. On the filmmaking side of things, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie fully embraces its weirdness and runs a marathon with it. A higher budget gives the animators more time to smooth things out in the film. While it includes show mainstays like bubbles for scene transition, the framerate and designs for characters looks a lot smoother than it usually does in the show. However, it remains traditionally animated, refusing to let computer animation take control. This works to the film’s benefit because the underwater world is extremely vibrant and colorful everywhere the characters roam. It also uses the storyboarded cinematography to its advantage, drawing out certain scenarios for comedic effect where other cartoons may just cut away. Gregory Narholz composes the instrumental film score, which is appropriate and highly reminiscent of the music from the show. Bendy guitar songs and woodwinds contribute to the huge personality found in Bikini Bottom. There are also a number of songs written specifically for the film, such “The Goofy Goober Song” (And a rock cover of it) and “Now That We’re Men.” They’re all delightful enough, but there are contributions from very weird artists, a deliberate choice by Hillenburg. The most memorable one among them is “Ocean Man” by the band Ween, which plays during the end credits. It’s surprisingly well-fitting for the story, and indeed feels like it was meant of be the end of the series. What I’m concerned about now is that now that he’s gone, what’s Nickelodeon going to do next? I’ve heard whispers that they might take the show off syndication or use the upcoming third movie as the real series finale. Whatever comes up, I agree with several other fans that it all should’ve probably just ended here. The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is a gleefully zany and over-the-top comedy with nothing held back. Filled to the brim with beloved characters and callbacks to the show without ever trying to pander to any audience, this is certainly better than a lot of cartoon continuations in cinematic form. Say what you want about the recent seasons, there’s no denying the memories and devoted fans that Stephen Hillenburg created. I was overcome with nostalgia and sadness during the entirety of writing this review. Thank you for giving us the show about who lives in the pineapple under the sea, and may you rest in peace with all of the other titans we lost this month. If anyone needs me, I’ll probably be jellyfishing in my backyard for a little while.

“Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” Movie Review

When I was younger, I legitimately wanted to become either a pirate or a superhero when I grew up. I didn’t care if it meant I would end up with a noose at my neck, this movie just made it look so cool. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, this historical fantasy adventure film was released around the world on July 9th, 2003, following a buzzy premiere at the Disneyland Resort. Against many odds, it went on to gross over $654 million at the worldwide box office, along with a number of positive reviews from critics and general audiences- many of whom were shocked at its quality. It went on to stay at the top of overseas markets for 7 weeks in a row and spawned one of Disney’s most popular and lucrative franchises in recent years. Directed by Gore Verbinski, the film was originally based off of the titular theme park ride in Disneyland. Screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot took inspiration from pirate films made during the Golden Age of Hollywood, and constantly clashed heads with then-CEO Michael Eisner, who questioned whether the film would be better off in theaters or direct-to home video. Despite a relatively quick shooting schedule, the complicated motion capture technology and conflict between Verbinski and Industrial Lights and Magic led to grueling 18-hour days in post-production. It is also notable for being Disney’s first film production ever to receive a PG-13 rating. Orlando Bloom stars as Will Turner, a blacksmith and skilled swordsman with a huge heart of gold. Following a massive ceremony, his betrothed childhood love Elizabeth Swan, played by Keira Knightley, is kidnapped by a band of pirates with a mysterious condition. Without many options and virtually no help from the British Navy, he relies on the help of a free-spirited, hard-drinking, disgraced pirate named Captain Jack Sparrow, played by Johnny Depp. The two set off on the Seven Seas searching for the infamous ship The Black Pearl, all the while steering clear of the pursuing British Armada and dreading the ship’s haunted captain, Hector Barbossa. With this month in my New Year’s resolution, I just decided to go ahead and revisit a couple of movies I adored when I was younger, rather than something I had never seen before. (Trust me, I have plans for that in December) It’s always a fun process because then I can watch the film with new, older eyes that can help me appreciate aspects I had never really noticed before. Make no mistake, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise got consistently worse as it went on, but the first 3 movies were extremely entertaining for what they were. And no matter what, The Curse of the Pearl remains the best of them all, launching a mighty career for its star and redefining what its studio could do. But for all intents and purposes, this film should not have any right to work nearly as well as it does. A PG-13-rated adventure based off of a fairly popular theme park ride from the same studio that gave us Mary Poppins and Pinnochio? Taken at face value, that whole idea just sounds like a Hollywood recipe for disaster, and many people in the industry were extremely pessimistic on its chances. And now, it has become one of the most iconic and defining film franchises of the early 21st Century. If you look at the landscape of blockbuster movies in the years since its release, especially those produced by Disney, the structure has become something of a template- for better or for worse. In all honesty, Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom aren’t very memorable in their roles. Both are meant to be odes to characters in an Errol Flynn epic, but aren’t really able to break out of those molds. For what it’s worth, though, they are able to adapt to the comedic timing and wit found throughout. Geoffrey Rush is excellent and having a wonderful time as Captain Hector Barbossa, a pirate with a bitterness and love of apples. He chews the scenery as we gradually learn what’s going on with him and his crew on the titular ship, something that’s both slightly tragic and absurd. And yeah, you’ve got a supporting cast of Jack Davenport, Jonathan Pryce, Kevin McNally, Lee Arenberg, and Mackenzie Cook, but they all completely pale in comparison to Johnny Depp’s star-making performance as Captain Jack Sparrow. This is the second time this year where I find myself praising Depp in spite of his deeply troubling public issues, but it would be a lie to say that I wasn’t entranced by his iconic turn. Inspired in part by Keith Richards, (Who makes a delightful cameo in the third movie) he completely loses himself as a stumbling, alcoholic, yet unexpectedly cunning pirate who’s not devoid of a moral compass. His unusual movement and speech make for some very funny moments throughout the film. The first film also earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, a very impressive feat considering everything else. Elsewhere, the technical side of The Curse of the Black Pearl show a surprisingly sufficient film with tons of bite. Shot by Dariusz Wolski, loves to use a number of sweeping wides and tracking shots during action scenes, really bringing out a sense of grand adventure in the viewer. It also helps that the film used real sail ships, costumes and weapons, meaning a lot of things were actually captured in-camera. The editing is a triple-job done by Craig Wood, Stephen Rivkin, and Arthur Schmidt, all of whom do good work on bringing the whole thing together. They cut together the action scenes and visual effects in gloriously satisfying manners, never skimping on any good details. It also knows how to drag out a good shot for comedic effect, as there are a lot of physical gags found in the movie. However, they could’ve definitely trimmed some fat off, as its runtime of 2 hours and 23 minutes feels bloated. Klaus Badelt, with a bit of help from Hans Zimmer, composes and conducts the instrumental film score. It remains one of the most memorable scores of any feature film in the last 20 years, with an iconic sound on par with any adventure flick you’ve seen from the 20th Century. The famous main theme, “He’s a Pirate,” serves as the backbone for the entire soundtrack, a booming anthem of brass, percussion, and orchestral strings. Other tracks are equally foreboding and jovial, trading something as dynamic as cello jigs for percussive, choral suspense. It’s a soundtrack I have listened to for many years, and will continue to do so. With memorable characters, impressive set pieces, and an immortal soundtrack, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is a fun adventure with loads of swashbuckling charm and personality. You’d be hard-pressed to find a film in recent memory that defied more expectations than this one. Yes, it’s very indulgent and a little too long, but it still delivers after multiple rewatches and never loses sight of what it is.

“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” Movie Review

I never ever imagined that I would start to grow tired of Rowling’s Wizarding World, but here we are in 2018. God damn it. This fantasy film from director David Yates marks the 10th overall cinematic installment of the Harry Potter Universe. Released worldwide on November 16th, 2018, the film has thus far grossed over $440 million at the box office, primarily from international markets. Domestically, it has earned less money than its predecessor, having the worst opening weekend for a Harry Potter movie, which could temper the franchise’s future for the studio. It also doesn’t help that this became the first film in the series to receive mostly negative reviews from both critics and fans. Once again written by J.K. Rowling, author of the insanely popular and beloved Harry Potter books, the second installment in the Fantastic Beasts saga is meant to set up at least three more films that are being planned. The project courted some (admittedly well-earned) controversy during its casting and marketing phase, mainly around the main antagonist and two of the side characters. Taking place about a year after the events from last time, we once again follow the magical zoologist Newt Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne. While he’s away finding and studying various magical creatures, the infamous dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, played by Johnny Depp, breaks out of prison and goes on a crusade encouraging wizards, particularly “pure bloods,” to rise up against non-magic humans. Scamander receives orders from Hogwarts professor Albus Dumbledore, played by Jude Law, to track down someone who is of great interest to Grindewald in Paris. While I’ve cooled a bit on the first one since seeing it in theaters, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was a film I found to be quite enjoyable and fun. I liked the way that it expanded the Wizarding World into an American context, something I had always been curious about as a huge Harry Potter fan. As more news came out about the inevitable sequel, some things deterred my excitement while others heightened it. Sadly, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is easily the worst film in the whole saga thus far and the first bad film to come out of it. There are so many elements to this film that I’m still conflicted about. Whether it’s just a casting choice or a particular story path, I was left cold, disappointed, intrigued, and tortured at every turn. Is it okay to watch an alleged spousal abuser in a movie as long as he’s relegated to the role of a villain? How much control should J.K. Rowling still be give over the movies at this point? These are just a handful of questions to wrestle with through the 2 hours and 14 minutes it takes to get through the journey, which seems more interested in setting up future movies than finishing its own narrative. Eddie Redmayne returns as Newt Scamander, whose continued relevance to this series is starting to come into question. He nails the socially awkward aspects of his character really well, always soft-spoken but never hesitant to stand up for what he believes. His forgettable side characters come back for another outing but they’re overshadowed by new arrivals, such as Jude Law as a young Albus Dumbledore. He has all the charisma and subtle intellect we’ve come to know and love from this character, whose dialogue sounds incredibly natural during his scenes. You get the feeling that there’s a lost, deeply tragic connection he has with the antagonist, which conflicts with his desire to stop his radical uprising. Meanwhile, Johnny Depp’s performance as Gellert Grindelwald has me conflicted in ways that are hard to describe. What he did to his ex-wife in real life is completely inexcusable and the fact that he isn’t recast is infuriating. Plus, with all of the Tim Burton-esque roles the actor has been taking on in recent years, you get the feeling that this part could have gone to anyone and no one would have been the wiser. Yet, it’s hard for me not to say that he was good as the main villain, who operates more as a political terrorist or cult leader than a world-class dictator. “We only want freedom. Freedom to be ourselves,” he says to his followers early on, and indeed he spends much of the film acting like a magical version of David Duke. His rugged charisma is a strong seducer of lost souls. And as far as the technical aspects go, The Crimes of Grindelwald seems like it was practically filmed while the cast and crew were sleepwalking. Being set in France, there are a handful of production workers behind the scenes, which is somewhat appreciated. Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography looks washed out and lacking in colorful distinction between the heavy CGI and the really cool sets. The vast majority of the film uses roving shots in scenes as if to keep the momentum up, especially when something exciting might be happening. The editing done by Mark Day, who has cut together the last 6 Harry Potter films, is very drab. It doesn’t feel like enough of an oomph is given to the dramatic scenes while it drags out shots for more comedic moments. James Newton Howard returns to provide the musical score for this film, and it’s very similar to last time. You can hear little ghostly bits of the classic franchise themes by John Williams in certain tracks, especially when relating someone like Dumbledore. Some of the quieter, more warmhearted moments are given appropriate sounds, such as soft woodwinds and brass. However, it’s the more dramatic stuff where it comes into form, especially in the back half. More ominous hits of percussion, vocal chorus, and sustained string melodies make up the background for the conflict. All in all, perhaps the kindest thing one could really say about this film is that it proves the Wizarding World is indeed filled with different stories and tales worthy of the cinematic treatment. It’s a bummer, too, because the story J.K. Rowling is trying to tell here is undeniably worth being told, a part of wizard history I had always wanted to see visually. Sadly, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is an underwhelming, needlessly convoluted exercise in stretching out a franchise longer than it should be. As a longtime and devoted fan of the saga, both in book and movie form, I was left disenchanted by the final product. Some good performances and music, and a handful of interesting ideas presented in the film save it from awfulness. I do want to see how the rest of this story unfolds and can honestly see where Rowling and Yates are going with it. It’s just the manner in which they’re telling it is both problematic and greatly disappointing.

“The Avengers” Movie Review

Oh boy. We now live in a world where Stan Lee, the creative man behind countless iconic superheroes in Marvel Comics, is gone. He died at the age of 95. I was originally going to write a straightforward obituary, but I instead decided that it was more cathartic for me to review a film inspired by the comic book pages he created. I could have easily chosen any of the MCU installments or beyond that, but this one seemed the most fitting. This ensemble superhero action film was released on May 4th, 2012, to incredibly high anticipation from industry insiders, fans, and critics. It broke numerous box office records at the time, including the highest-grossing opening weekend to that point, and the third highest-grossing film of all time. It also helps that critical reviewers and general audiences ate it up like a healthy breakfast. Written and directed by Joss Whedon, the crossover film was a cinematic event many years in the making, with ideas planned as early as 2003. Following the huge and unexpected success of Iron Man in 2008, as well as Disney’s acquisition of Marvel Studios in 2010, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was moving ever closer to its first culmination. Interestingly, the original cut was rated R, forcing Whedon to whittle down the film even further because of one trivial scene. The film is set in the aftermath of the trickster god Loki, played by Tom Hiddleston, being given another chance by an otherworldly army called the Chitauri. When he comes down to Earth, he sets out to steal the Tesseract, a cube containing astral power, and manages to brainwash a number of humans into doing his bidding. Desperate, S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, quickly assembles a group of superpowered individuals- The Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and a resurrected Captain America -to stop Loki and prevent the Chitauri’s invasion of Earth. Can you honestly imagine what it was like for someone like me, a lifelong comic book fan, to see a superhero team like the Avengers get together onscreen for the first time? It was already a miracle that the previous MCU films had (For the most part) been as great and entertaining as they were. But the idea of seeing so many beloved comic book superheroes on-screen together for one movie event for the first time ever was likely to be either lightning in a bottle or career-ending for all involved. Thankfully, The Avengers so brilliantly brought Stan Lee’s creations to life that it set an entirely new standard for the genre. Joss Whedon really was the perfect writer and director to bring this project about. As a big fan of both Firefly and it’s big-screen continuation Serenity, his ability to juggle multiple characters in an ensemble at once and still make them all relevant is no small feat. Not to mention the brilliantly written dialogue, which sounds natural and fluid in each character’s mouth. He also shows a willingness to compromise with producer and franchise architect Kevin Feige, and it’s clear that the two of them have a deep love for the rich source material. I remember sneaking out of school on opening day to see this movie and seeing all of my comic book idols realized in such a resonant manner was so amazing, as I’m sure it was to many other fans. Speaking of ensembles, the original core team of titular heroes are all perfect in their now-iconic roles. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, and Jeremy Renner all do splendid work as Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, The Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye, respectively. Ruffalo and Evans are particularly well-matched for their characters in this outing. One is a brilliant mind struggling to control his inner rage for the sake of others, the other is a soldier of yesteryear confused and disillusioned by the modern world. Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg, and Colbie Smoulders are great in their supporting roles as eager members of S.H.I.E.L.D. while now-deceased people like Powers Boothe, Harry Dean Stanton and, of course, Stan Lee make memorable one-note cameo appearances. Meanwhile, Tom Hiddleston is a joyful bit of character acting as Loki, the main antagonist. It’s clear that the man is having a blast playing this character, which in turn makes him a blast to watch on-screen, in spite of his actions. Yet, there’s a certain element of tragedy to the trickster god, who feels completely homeless and devoid of a welcoming family. It makes his alliance with the Chitauri- who are connected to another major MCU villain -even more understandable and even desperate. As a piece of technical filmmaking, alone, The Avengers is a major achievement that- for better or worse -set a precedent for other MCU films to follow. Whedon uses a lot of his regular collaborators, including Seamus McGarvey as the cinematographer, which was his first foray into digital camerawork. For the most part, he’s able to transition really well, capturing the action and its subjects in a large aspect ratio. This comes for both steady shots in massive set pieces and more shaky, handheld work for ground level action in the streets of New York City. It goes well with the editing job by Lisa Lassek and Jeffrey Ford, who cut the camera in ways that don’t feel too choppy or overlong. For some of the more comedic moments, it knows exactly how long to linger on a person or when to put in a pause. Two shots that stand out are the famous spider-cam rotation around the team as they form a circle and a fantastic shot designed to look like a “oner” that traces the group’s actions throughout the battle. Alan Silvestri, who would go on to write music for other superhero blockbusters, is responsible for composing and conducting the instrumental film score. With some supervision by Danny Elfman and help from the London Symphony Orchestra, he successfully manages to create an old-school sound of action movie soundtracks. The main theme serves as the backbone for the entire soundtrack and it’s, thankfully, a memorable one. With consistent strings, a heroic brass melody, and buoyant percussion sounds. If not for the Marvel logo, you could be forgiven for thinking that this was a lost John Williams score written for a Steven Spielberg picture that was never released. And that’s all there really is to it, honestly. It’s pretty tragic that these circumstances are what made me finally review it in the first place, but still. Without that man’s immortal contributions to literature (I will fight Bill Maher on that) and media, this film wouldn’t exist in the first place. Always aware of what it is and running with it, The Avengers is a glorious epitome of all the ingredients of a great blockbuster. If there were any film of the decade to serve as a definitive example of how the industry has changed, this certainly would be it. Stan Lee’s creation has inspired a generation of fans who never felt like they fit in anywhere- including me. Nobody lives forever but the characters and stories he crafted will endure for an eternity. Rest in peace. Or as the man himself would say, Excelsior.

“Outlaw King” Movie Review

I have some bad news for anyone who wants to watch this movie because they heard Chris Pine shows his full-frontal genitalia; it’s a very quick shot, practically blink-and-you’ll-miss-it. Most people will stay for the movie itself. This epic historical action drama premiered as the opening night feature for the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. After a mixed-to negative reception from critics and industry insiders, two weeks later the director announced he was shaving nearly 23 minutes off the picture. It was then released in a condensed format in select theaters and on the streaming service Netflix on November 9th, 2018, finished on a budget of $120 million. Directed and co-written by David Mackenzie, who also helmed the 2016 neo-Western Hell of High Water, the film was a passion project of his that took over five years to develop. Initially undertaken with extensive research and a couple of playwrights by his side, the completed screenplay was credited to as many as five different writers. He was apparently dismayed by the reaction at TIFF, but felt relieved when the distributor gave him a chance to fix his errors. Set in Scotland in 1304, Chris Pine stars as Robert the Bruce, a well-regarded man with a legitimate claim to his country’s throne. Following the near-crushing defeat of their Rebellion a few years prior led by William Wallace, the remaining Scottish nobility reluctantly swear fealty to King Edward I of England, played by Stephen Dillane, in order to keep their lands intact. Civil unrest and terrible circumstances force Robert to be crowned King of Scotland, triggering an all-out guerilla war against the much larger English army. I absolutely adored Mackenzie’s previous directorial effort, Hell or High Water, released back in 2016. Although I haven’t yet seen any of his other works, that one was such a smart, understated, and beautifully simple character piece with incredible performances out its three main leads. Hearing the director was developing a Medieval epic with one of those leads returning (Pine) for Netflix was enticing, especially after hearing about its emphasis on historical accuracy. Because while I really love Braveheart, it’s really hard for me to overlook the laughable inaccuracies shown throughout. And honestly, even after all of the critical hullabaloo that this film has been through, I found Outlaw King to be a surprisingly entertaining and engaging film. Now, I’m not saying that it’s an amazing movie by any means. While I’ve heard that the cut on Netflix is a major improvement over its TIFF screening, the pacing felt a bit uneven. Even though its runtime now only clocks in right at 2 hours and 1 minute, it feels like it drags in some of the more dramatic moments, as it’s clearly meant to be more of an action-oriented film. Plus, it still feels as though most of the supporting characters from either side of the conflict weren’t fleshed out enough to bring the stakes up higher. Chris Pine does a surprisingly good job as Robert the Bruce, a proud man left with an intensely unhappy country to tend to. His Scottish accent was a bit dodgy at first, but it seemed like he got more into it as it went along. Despite the brutal violence he and his followers commit, he still shows a tenderness towards his people and his family. Game of Thrones alum Stephen Dillane plays King Edward I, and he seems quite comfortable in the role. Channeling bits of Stannis Baratheon, he does a great job internalizing his frustration with trying to control Scotland consistently and is unafraid to kill hundreds to get to Robert. Despite this, he’s not completely heartless and would much rather negotiate peace, telling Robert early on, “You had the courage to stand up to me, and the wisdom to step down.” And while other actors do great such as Aaron Johnson as the unpredictable Black Douglas, Billy Howle as the deranged Prince of Wales, Tony Curran as a feisty loyalist to Robert, and more, the only one who really leaves an impression is Florence Pugh as Elizabeth de Burgh, the Bruce’s English wife. Her journey from meek observer to staunch supporting of Scottish independence is a tad jarring at first, but she never loses sight of her strength and compassion. She does her best making decisions based on SHE wants- not her powerful parents, not her outlaw husband, no one. I’m genuinely eager to see her in more films, and her slate this upcoming year will hopefully satisfy that palette. Meanwhile, the technical aspects of Outlaw King make it pretty clear where that massive budget went to. Shot by Barry Ackroyd, a regular Ken Loach and Paul Greengrass collaborator, he surprisingly restrains his documentarian, cinéma vérité style in favor of something more controlled. The film opens with a stunning, 8 minute-long take that follows the Scottish nobility at their surrender to King Edward I with amazing fluidity. Even during the impressively staged action scenes, the camera remains steady and focused on its subjects. There are also, of course, obligatory swooping shots, which reveal the gorgeous landscape of Scotland. It goes nicely with the editing by Jake Roberts, who cuts each scene together without losing sight of what’s important. It doesn’t particularly feel choppy, despite the near-last-minute trimming of the film, and allows the audience to see the action, especially the glorious, muddy final battle, in full form. Bringing home the historical accuracy is the fantastic sets and the costume designs by Jane Petrie. With rough chainmail, dirty armor patches, and nary a kilt or drop of blue face paint in sight, it feels incredibly lived-in and realistic. The musical score is composed by Tony Doogan and Lucie Treacher, and it’s more or less what I expected to hear. There are a number of tracks filled with sorrowful strings and ghostly hymnal choirs, almost prophesizing the death toll this war will take on Scotland. While it’s great to listen to, it’s not very memorable. There is an original song called “Land O the Leal” by Grey Dogs that plays over the end credits. Featuring the fair voice of Kathryn Joseph, it’s a melancholy piano ballad lamenting on the bloodied homeland of Robert the Bruce. It’s a nice song, but hardly one worth listening to more than a few times. Well-meaning but often misguided in its vision, Outlaw King is a flawed epic celebrating both spectacle and a truly noble man. Maybe I’m a bit fickle and old, but I’d be lying to you if I said that I wasn’t entertained throughout this movie. David Mackenzie gets to show off his Scottish pride with great commitment while Chris Pine plays a classical Medieval hero and Florence Pugh emerges as a talent to watch. Hopefully, it will find a new appreciation and audience, in spite of what happened behind the scenes.