Category Archives: Blockbuster

“Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw” Movie Review

I don’t care what the title for it says, this is definitely a superhero movie. It may have the words “Fast and Furious” in front of it, but that’s honestly what these series has become. This science-fiction tinged buddy action movie was released in theaters worldwide by Universal Pictures on August 2nd, 2019. After snatching the biggest Thursday preview earnings for its two stars, it has gone one to gross over $758.9 million at the worldwide box office. Much of that intake has apparently come in from overseas markets, including the second-highest opening weekend in China this year. Considering that it’s not even a mainline entry in its franchise, that’s a particularly impressive feat. Directed by David Leitch, the film was formally announced a few months after the release of Fate of the Furious, which caused the planned ninth installment to be pushed back. This caused tension with one of the franchise’s mainstay actors Tyrese Gibson, who took to Instagram to publicly complain about it all. In addition, longtime producer Neal H. Moritz sued the studio for breech of oral contract after being removed from the film’s credits. It was subsequently announced that he would no longer have any involvement with the franchise going forward. Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham both star as Luke Hobbs and Deckard Shaw, a retired D.S.S. agent and former mercenary, respectively. They are both brought on by the C.I.A. to find and take down Brixton Lore, played by Idris Elba, a cyber-genetically enhanced terrorist working for a tech cult known as Etreon. Things are further complicated when Shaw’s MI6 agent sister Hattie, played by Vanessa Kirby is framed for stealing a deadly virus that Lore is after called Snowflake. This sparks a globe-trotting showdown for Hobbs and Shaw to find a way to get rid of the virus safely, bring down Lore and his constituents, and clear their names. I won’t hesitate to admit that I only have a general familiarity with the Fast and Furious series. Before this movie, I had only watched the first two films, plus Fast Five, all the way through, just to have some idea of what this one would be like. Each one somehow managed to be more ridiculous than the last, which I suppose was part of the reason why it’s become so popular among audiences. Since they moved away from the main storyline, I figured I could jump headfirst into this spinoff without having to play catchup too much. And I’ve enjoyed David Leitch’s action work on John Wick and Deadpool 2, so seeing him directing two of the biggest action stars seemed rather enticing. And make no mistake, Hobbs and Shaw is not a masterpiece of any kind and barely feels cohesive at times, but is nonetheless entertaining and diverting. Sometimes, I go into a film hoping to be awestruck by its thematic resonance, wonderful storytelling, and acting. Other times, I go in wanting to see The Rock lassoing a helicopter with a pickup truck’s chain while on a cliffside chase. In no logical world can you allow that to pass by and still complain about the age gap between Deckard and Hattie, so suspending disbelief is pretty much mandatory here. One big bummer is that Hobbs and Shaw could have probably still worked just as well on its own without the Fast and Furious name slapped onto it. Its stars are both likable enough on their own terms to warrant a completely new IP, and this just felt like an attempt at brand recognition. But again, there’s only so much to complain about when looking at the movie as a whole. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Jason Statham have been seemingly building up to starring opposite each other for a while now. If for nothing else, their chemistry and constant bickering are what help carry the film through its bloated runtime. Johnson brings all of the muscle and testosterone typically required of his characters and gets to fire off some pretty decent one-liners. Statham, meanwhile, is his usual rugged and agile self, always confident in his next move and never sheds the opportunity to be hard on his new partner. Idris Elba once again plays the role of the villain here as Brixton Lore, as silly of an antagonist as you’d expect. He totally hams the role up, and brings a certain charm to this cyberpunk bad guy who loves big ambitions and bigger flamethrowers. You can tell he’s having an absolute blast with the character, always confident in his abilities and even gloats to the heroes “I’m black Superman!” Mission: Impossible- Fallout and The Crown alum Vanessa Kirby also shouldn’t be overlooked as Hattie, Shaw’s younger sister. She has many moments throughout where she just unleashes a flurry of attacks on unsuspecting bad guys, proving she’s in desperate need of her own franchise to lead. She proves she can more than hold her own than the established action stars at the forefront of the picture and even has some surprising moments of drama. The supporting cast is filled with the likes of Helen Mirren, Eiza González, Eddie Marsan, Cliff Curtis, and Rob Delaney in various roles. Each one feels like they’re filling archetypes rather than actual characters, but seem to be having fun with their roles. There are also a couple of unexpected appearances that are best left unspoiled here, but which mostly feel satisfying. And from a technical perspective, Hobbs and Shaw has enough flourish to match its silliness and large-scale action set pieces. Leitch’s collaborator Jonathan Sela once again handles the cinematography with varying degrees of success. While the frame sometimes seems digitally washed out in colors, it always keeps the action in focus and follows each blow with precision. The camera frequently has some great movements, such as swoops across the battlefield, as Leitch’s superb blocking skills come to light. This meets with the editing job by Christopher Rouse, a veteran of action films such as The Bourne Ultimatum. Like Leitch’s other work, there are no rapid cuts between numerous shots in various set pieces. This is a breath of fresh air in the action genre and is able to keep things interesting during these scenes. The edits are able to capture exactly what it needs to, as highlighted by a creative split-screen intro for the main duo. Although they’re in vastly different places, we get to see how they both operate in their worlds on a daily basis. That being said, it definitely could’ve been trimmed down. I can’t think of any logical reason why this movie runs at 2 hours and 16 minutes, and it just feels like it keeps going on and on. At least a half hour could be shaved right off without a single narrative beat missed and no would be the wiser. Nothing earth-shattering or even very memorable, Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw is a bloated, indulgent but undemanding romp worth at least one ride. David Leitch once again shows his tenacity for behind the scenes magic, but the story and characters still feel secondary. Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham prove why they’re deserving of more movies starring opposite one another and Vanessa Kirby gets even more of an opportunity to shine as a star. This is just not a movie that should have the “Fast and Furious” brand slapped onto it. I’m reminded of something Hobbs says early on: “I’m what you call a nice, cold can of whoop-ass.” That’s what this film ultimately is: fun, nice to watch, and harmless, but sterile and unambitious.

“Ad Astra” Movie Review

Of all the depictions of mankind’s future in the stars on the silver screen, this one might be one of the most grounded in plausibility. There’s no telling what exactly the future holds for us and to see this particular sort of portrait is fascinating. This large-scaled science-fiction drama premiere in the Official Competition at the 76th Venice International Film Festival. Aglow with positive reviews from critics, it was released in theaters by Disney under the 20th Century Fox banner on September 20th, 2019. From its opening weekend, it has thus far grossed over $120.1 million against an estimated budget of around $87 million. The studio is reportedly watching its performance closely for future analysis, though the star and director don’t seem to care as much. Directed by James Gray, the filmmaker spent the better part of a decade working on the project with co-writer Ethan Gross. His stated goal was to create the most realistic depiction of space in the history of film, especially of how hostile it is to humans. While many comparisons have obviously been made to the film Apocalypse Now and its novel inspiration Heart of Darkness, it’s also believed to stem from Gray’s complicated experience as a father. Originally scheduled to be ready in time for this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the film was repeatedly pushed back to accommodate time for the complex visual effects and for new distributor Disney to figure out the marketing campaign. Set in the near future, Brad Pitt produces and stars as Major Roy McBride, a space engineer and astronaut. After a series of power surges through the Solar System cause the deaths of thousands, the higher ups at Space Command believe it to be the work of his father H. Clifford McBride, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Clifford had disappeared 16 years prior on the Lima Project, a deep space mission that was meant to find signs of intelligent life in the farthest reaches of the Solar System. Believed to have lost his mind and hiding out near Neptune, Roy is assigned to go out and try and communicate with him, unraveling dark secrets about the mission in the process. I had been looking forward to this movie from the minute it had been announced a couple years back. I’m a fan of James Gray because I think he brings a certain classical touch to popular genres, like he did with The Lost City of Z and We Own the Night. Not to mention, this might be the biggest-scale project Brad Pitt has ever been a part of, which is really saying something. Hearing tale that this was more akin to Apocalypse Now in space rather than something like The Martian was extremely enticing. And plus, I will always support original big budget sci-fi movies in theaters because they’re becoming increasingly rare and in need of more attention. Such is the case with Ad Astra because it is simply one of the best films of the year and one hell of a breath of fresh air for science-fiction. While its yesteryear influences do feel clear in some respects, this film feels so adept to modern times. Some people have said that this is a feature-length advertisement for the proposed “Space Force,” but it’s far more abstract than that. Many people still cling to the idea that space really is the final frontier and while it may hold the future to someone like Elon Musk, to everyone else it’s simply a vast, cold, and empty void. What makes Ad Astra so amazing is that it addresses this hostility but keeps the hope of interpersonal connections at the forefront of its mind. Part of the reason Roy and Clifford love space so much is because it gives them an opportunity to get away from their loved ones, to isolate and become one with the universe. But it becomes clear that they’re both missing out on what’s right in front of them the entire time, and that sort of humanism is both beautiful and sorely lacking in the genre as a whole. I honestly didn’t think that Brad Pitt could top Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but he has proven me wrong once again. As Roy McBride, he’s so incredibly reserved and collected for much of the film always internalizing his own emotions and fears about everything. And he goes about this mission, long repressed feelings about his father and life begin to bubble to the surface, especially because he thinks that Space Command is hiding something. Ruth Negga is memorable as well as Helen Lantos, a human native to Mars that encounters Roy on his journey. Although she’s only there for a brief period of time, she proves to be vital in his task as she apparently harbors a unique connection with his family. Her ability to empathize with Roy on his struggles makes her rare among the other companions he finds on his mission, and she’s one of the few people to get through to him emotionally and psychologically. Donald Sutherland also gets a rare chance to shine as Colonel Pruitt, Roy’s first and most consistent companion on his journey. He provides much insight into Clifford’s character as he tries to reason that he is not the man Roy remembers him being. Even after The Hunger Games series, it’s nice to see the 84-year-old actor put in some genuine work in a genre film like this. The supporting cast features a host of different individuals who have varying impacts on Roy’s mission or personal life. These include John Ortiz and John Finn as high-ranking officials in Space Command, Donny Keshawarz as an assuming ship captain moving straight from the Moon to Mars, Liv Tyler as his estranged Earth-bound wife Eve, and Tommy Lee Jones as his mysterious father Clifford. Each one leaves a pretty good impression and while Jones certainly isn’t the star of the film, he has a powerful monologue late in the film where it becomes apparent the Lima Project has become all-encompassing. And from just a look at the technical aspects, Ad Astra is such a prestigious and polished film. Shot by Interstellar and Dunkirk DP Hoyte Van Hoytema, the cinematography is about as incredible as you’d expect from him. Beginning with a glorious pan shot to Earth, the transition between CGI and practical sets is nearly flawless. The realistic lighting and careful shots help to establish the unique atmosphere and futuristic world. These include Mars, which is engulfed in an orange-red haze, and the Moon, where everything is wide open and spread out. The editing job is a collaborative effort between John Axelrad and Lee Haugen, and it moves from scene to scene effortlessly. There’s an almost weightless quality to the pacing of this film, as each moment is cut together very smoothly and elegantly. It often switches from wide-angle or medium shots to Roy’s P.O.V. to help us get inside his headspace, whether it’s on the collapsing space antenna or when his escort is attacked by moon pirates. And what’s even better is that these scenes are almost entirely devoid of sound, which makes their impact even more sudden. Classically trained composer Max Richter gives us the instrumental score here, and it’s quite possibly my favorite of his for a feature film. The main track, while lacking a conventional melody, is a sweeping and memorable one filled with high and low strings. Other tracks throughout use a very similar method, and even throw in some old-school electronic sounds for good measure. It’s at once very melancholy and also hopeful, using the composer’s trademark minimalism to capture the emotional effects space has one person. The soundtrack also uses songs from various other composers to great effect, such as newcomer Lorne Balfe. The most notable one, though, is Nils Frahm, whose song “Says” plays near the climax of the film. The synth-heavy piece perfectly plays up the tension as everything our protagonist has worked towards comes to a stirring head. Bolstered by excellent thematic ideas and one of the best uses of voice-over in recent memory, Ad Astra has stunning cosmic visuals to match its deeply humanistic story. Quite possibly James Gray’s finest picture yet, and certainly one of his most accessible, this is the kind of science-fiction movie that studios don’t really make anymore. It features one of Brad Pitt’s greatest performances and a curious message about how maintaining interpersonal relationships is more important than finding any other form of life in the universe. And in a world that’s becoming increasingly distant and disconnected, that is the sort of oddly comforting optimism that should be appreciated more.

Ad Astra - Poster Gallery

“Spider-Man: Far From Home” Movie Review

*This review, while steering clear of plot details for Far From Home, will discuss spoilers from Avengers: Endgame. Proceed with caution.*

No lie, this movie brought back some pretty fond memories of class trips I took back in high school. Granted, none of them ever had any giant monsters wreaking havoc all across the city, but still. Can’t beat the fun. This coming-of-age superhero comedy was released in theaters on July 2nd, 2019, officially making it the 23rd theatrical entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After breaking records for a Tuesday night opening, it has gone on to predictably gross over $860 million at the worldwide box office. This makes it the third-most successful film centered on the central character and could well be on its way to the $1 billion-dollar marker. It’s also seen major overseas profits from both China and South Korea, all the while receiving typically positive reviews. Directed by Jon Watts, this is the second film under Marvel’s collaboration with Sony Pictures for creative control over the titular character. This marks the official end to Phase Three of the MCU, acting sort of like an epilogue to Avengers: Endgame. Because of Endgame being released before this one, Marvel and Columbia worked together to withhold most marketing material, one teaser trailer notwithstanding, until after its release. This also marks the first in a new multi-film agreement between Sony and IMAX Corporations to have the studio’s films released in IMAX theaters. Taking place not too long after the events of Endgame, Tom Holland returns as Peter Parker, a New York City high school student moonlighting as the superhero Spider-Man. While out on a two-week summer field trip to Europe with his classmates, including his love interest MJ, played by Zendaya, a series of monsters known as the Elementals begin terrorizing the world. Peter is then recruited by Nick Fury to stop these phenomena and teams him up with alternate-reality soldier Quentin Beck, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. As Beck gains the nickname “Mysterio” from the awed public, Spider-Man must decide where his loyalties lie. I really liked how Marvel integrated Peter Parker into the MCU with Captain America: Civil War and Spider-Man: Homecoming. Even though we’ve seen no less than FOUR theatrical iterations of the friendly neighborhood web-crawler this century, three of which have been live-action, the focused approach to the hero’s nerdy high school life has felt genuinely novel and fun. Plus, Tom Holland was virtually perfect as the character in nearly every single way so seeing him continue as the character was almost a no-brainer. Seeing this being an adventure where the web-slinger leaves Queens behind sounded like an opportune moment for him to stretch out of his comfort zone. Especially because this both follows up on Endgame and serves as the official closer to Phase 3 of the MCU. And on the whole, Spider-Man: Far From Home is satisfying on both ends and opens up some really interesting avenues for the franchise’s future. What’s really interesting is seeing how not only Peter reacts but how the people around him react to a post-Iron Man world. Peter lost a mentor and father figure, even if Stark could never admit to being one, while his guardian Happy Hogan, played by Jon Favreau, lost a good friend, and everyone else lost a real hero. Without a proper role model to look up to anymore, Peter is forced to become his own hero and figure out what’s best for him and the people he loves. Far From Home also has some interesting arguments about the power of perspective and manipulation of truth. In a world filled with sensationalist news sources that frequently exaggerate what’s really happening, it’s hard to decide what’s real and what’s not. Granted, this isn’t some grandstanding thesis on modern fallacy, but that little commentary about people believing whatever they want to believe was welcome. Tom Holland continues to prove why he’s more than perfectly suited to play the titular character here. With a genuine kid-like earnestness and a quick wit, it’s interesting to see him grow on his own without any real adult supervision. His sense of wonder at seeing so many different things that teens his age normally wouldn’t see sells it, and can often lead to some pretty funny avenues. Jacob Batalon and Zendaya also return as Ned and MJ, Peter’s best friend and love interest respectively. They both provide an interesting foil for Peter, reminding both us and himself of what he has to lose on this trip. Each one presents a different worry for him, but both are equally great and funny. Jon Favreau also returns as Happy Hogan, Tony Stark’s former bodyguard and best friend. In the character’s most substantial turn to date, we get to see how he’s dealing with Iron Man’s departure. He also gets to have a bit of a romantic fling with Aunt May which creates some humorous tension between him and Spider-Man. The supporting roster is equally impressive, if not always as memorable. Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smoulders, Maris Tomei, Tony Revolori, Angourie Rice, and Martin Starr all reprise their roles from Homecoming or otherwise, respectively. Each one brings a certain level of humor or humanity to this world that is so different after Endgame. And Jake Gyllenhaal definitely should not be overlooked for his role as Quentin Beck A.K.A. Mysterio. As the audience gradually learns more and more about him, it’s hard not to get caught up in the things that he’s saying. One particular scene in a bar about two-thirds through the film really showcases the actor’s talents and the unique way he inhabits what’s arguably one of the web-slingers most underrated adversaries in the comics. And as one could expect from any MCU entry at this point, the technical aspects for Far From Home are unsurprisingly astounding. Since much of the behind the scenes magic is done by Marvel’s own in-house talent, such as cinematography and editing, there isn’t a whole lot of room for artistic distinction. But for what it’s worth, both come hand-hand-hand for various scenes. Beginning with a little news montage explaining what’s happened at Peter’s high school since Thano’s Snap, (Nicknamed the Blip) we’re immediately put back into the world of Midtown High. The use of exotic European locations keeps things interesting as the story progresses throughout the trip. The special effects used for the Elementals is mostly convincing, using different forms of matter for each creature such as fire and water. Even as the MCU becomes increasingly cosmic, it’s refreshing whenever they stay relatively grounded on Earth. Costumes are also great, as the new stealth suit for Spidey is both visually appealing and practical. Mysterio’s costume is also extremely accurate to the comics. Like last time with Spidey, the instrumental film score is composed and conducted by Michael Giacchino. He proves once again to be more than capable for the task, providing a mixture of instruments and styles. With a heroic, orchestral remix of the classic Spider-Man theme song, the love and respect for the character’s history is fully established. It also uses staccatos from wind and electronic instruments and dynamic percussion for the more exciting action scenes but always remains memorable. Spider-Man: Far From Home is another step in the right direction for the web-slinger, and a fitting coda to the Infinity Saga. By actually stepping out of the character’s comfort zone, director Jon Watts is able to find new ground for him to explore, and to exciting results. And not only does it prove that Tom Holland is pitch perfect as Peter Parker, but it also sets up many riveting avenues for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to follow in the future. If this movie proves anything, it’s that Sony and Disney need to set aside whatever bullshit they’re dealing with and come back to a reasonable agreement.

 

“The Wizard of Oz” Movie Review

So this August officially marks the 80th (Yes, EIGHTIETH) anniversary of this classic movie. If that still isn’t enough reason for me to review it now, than I honestly don’t know what is. This musical fantasy film was originally released in theaters by MGM on August 25th, 1939. Budgeted at $2.8 million, the studio’s most expensive produciton at the time, it failed to make a real profit and only garnered around $3.01 million at the box office at the time, likely due to Gone With the Wind being released at the same time. However, the film became a massive success on home video and television re-runs starting in 1956, becoming an annual tradition on CBS. According to the Library of Congress, it is actually the most watched motion picture in film history. In addition, it was one of the first 25 films to be inducted into the National Film Registry, one of the few films included on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, and is considered one of the most influential films in history. Directed by Victor Fleming, (Who also helmed Gone With the Wind) the film is (quite loosely) adapted from L. Frank Baum’s wildly popular novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, whose rights had been in Samuel Goldwyn’s possession for some time. Throughout pre-production and production, numerous writers, actors, and even directors were swapped as the script constantly changed, including an early attempt to pander to young audiences. Producer Melvin LeRoy consistently toyed with the runtime and content of the picture, including almost cutting “Over the Rainbow” and abandoning a stencil-printed transition from sepia-tone to color. It’s also the source of an infamous urban legend regarding the alleged on-set suicide of a Munchkin actor, which multiple people have denied is true. The iconic story follows Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale, a poor farm girl from Kansas living a dreary, seemingly unhappy life. After a major tornado strikes, she and her dog Toto leave their home to realize that they have been transported to Munchkinland, one of several provinces in the magical Land of Oz. However, she immediately draws the ire of the Wicked Witch of the West, played by Margaret Hamilton, who vows revenge on Dorothy for killing her sister with the falling house. Picking up ruby slippers off of the Wicked Witch of the East’s body, she sets off on the Yellow Brick Road to Emerald City, where the mysterious and all-powerful Oz can potentially send her home- and along the way she meets a brainless Scarecrow, a heartless Tin Man, and a Cowardly Lion. Do I really need to emphasize how important this film is to both the medium and American pop culture as a whole? All of the aforementioned honors above should already be enough to convince anyone of its significance, but the fact that it’s turned 80 years old is just remarkable. One couldn’t throw a stone very far without seeing its influence to this very day, both for better and for worse. Even though most people have already seen it in their childhood, there is a bit of worry that it won’t quite hold up watching it all grown up. Whether it turned out to hold some fairly offensive imagery or subtext or simply because of its old age, that’s always a concern for films like this. And while that fear seems true initially, The Wizard of Oz is still as magical and joyous and fun as you remember it being. Sure, the dialogue and its delivery is cheesy, some of the effects are dated, the songs are clearly written with younger audiences in mind, and a number of other things have noticeably aged. But measure it up against most other family films from the era, and it still holds up remarkably well because of its universality. The idea of home and belonging somewhere is something anyone can relate to. Granted, The Wizard of Oz removes a lot of the darker elements from L Frank Baum’s novel, but that arguably makes it more accessible. It’s not everyday that a film from 80 years ago can still be just as meaningful to kids of this era as it was to children of the time when it was released. I can only hope films of today will have a similar impact decades from now. Judy Garland is a silver screen legend who had a deeply tragic life and, for better and worse, this is the role she will always be remembered for. Her performance as Dorothy is iconic as ever, portraying an innocence and childlike wonder that’s desperate to see more of the world. She’s kind and courteous but never afraid to stand up for herself or the people she cares about, and has such a golden singing voice. She is joined by Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr as the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, respectively. Their own songs are memorable in their own way, providing individual motivations and dance numbers. All of them have their own little traits that make them impossible to forget, and each has a reason to getting to the titular Wizard of Oz. Speaking of which, Frank Morgan is also memorable as the Wizard himself, even if he’s not in the movie much. He initially appears as a very intimidating figure but later turns out to be a lot more human and understanding. And while Billie Burke, Charles Grapewin, and Clara Blandick leave impressions as well, Margaret Hamilton is easily the most iconic as the Wicked Witch of the West. Covered in green makeup and carrying a terrifying screeching voice, she absolutely chews the scenery every time she’s on-screen. Her utter commitment to the role ensures her place among the most iconic movie villains of all time. And technically speaking, The Wizard of Oz had many innovations that are still impressive today. The Academy Award-nominated cinematography by Harold Rosson is still just as stunning as it was back then. Utilizing a lot of long-takes, we get the full scope of the unique fantasy world presented to us. And considering it was 1939, many of the in-camera special effects still hold up pretty well. The editing by Blanche Sewell is almost on the level of the camera work. The transitions between scenes is masterful and clean, keeping the pacing aloof for the whole 101 minute-long runtime. And while it does include the aforementioned “oners” quite often, it also includes enough cuts in each scene to keep things interesting. The first 20-30 minutes of the film are in a sepia-toned, black-and-white world. However, when we are transported to Munchkinland, we become immersed in the bright delights of Technicolor, one of the first features to be done is such a way. The shot transitioning from inside Dorothy’s house into Munchkinland is one of the greatest shots in the history of film. And the songs; oh Lord, the songs in this film. Harold Arlen and Edgar “Yip” Harburg are responsible for the soundtrack, easily ranking among the best in the industry. Ranging from “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead” to “We’re Off to See the Wizard” to “If I Only Had a Brain,” each one is instantly recognizable, even if you’ve never seen the movie itself. Many of them have reprisals throughout, ensuring a sing-along with families for generations. But the clear winner is “Over the Rainbow,” sung by none other than Garland herself. Somber yet hopeful, the composition combined with her amazing voice make it a truly timeless song. It’s also sadly prescient for the singer-actress’ tumultuous life off-screen and the  With endlessly memorable songs, iconic imagery, immortal characters, and quotable lines, The Wizard of Oz is an unquestionable watershed moment for cinema in every conceivable way. Even with its troubled production, Victor Fleming and MGM managed to completely change the game of moviemaking forever. It’s nearly impossible to imagine American pop culture today without this film; its influence and reach can be seen everywhere. There may exist another film as influential as this to come, but it’s probably far away from here, laying somewhere over the rainbow.

“Hellboy” Movie Review

Just because I voluntarily skipped out on something in theaters doesn’t mean I’m not gonna eventually come around to it. And sometimes, it’s not always fun going that route anyway. This violent superhero fantasy adventure film was released internationally by Lionsgate on April 12th, 2019. Although it grossed over $46.1 million at the worldwide box office, the film was budgeted at $50 million, making it a bomb for the studio. Some industry experts chalked it up to the film’s uneven marketing campaign, others blamed it on the general lack of public interest in the source material. But it was most likely because it tanked heavily with both critics and audiences, killing numerous hopes for a brand new franchise. Directed by Neil Marshall, the reboot began development when both Guillermo del Toro and star Ron Perlman walked away from a possible third film. Mike Mignola, the creator of the comic book series the film is based on, has said that he had virtually nothing to do with production beyond writing very early drafts. Before the film even began production, a controversy arose involving a clear case of whitewashing, an issue that was quickly resolved yet still hung over the film. In addition, it was reported that Marshall consistently clashed on-set with producers Lawrence Gordon and Lloyd Levin, who allegedly wanted to control every aspect of production. David Harbour stars as Hellboy, a demon who’s been brought up on Earth by human paranormal investigators. One day, they come upon a prophecy dictating that the world will end soon from Blood Queen Vivian Nimue, played by Milla Jovovich. Teaming up with a psychic medium and a cynical M11 agent, Hellboy must move swiftly to prevent the end of the world. Although I wasn’t crazy about it like other film fans, I really enjoyed Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy adaptation back in 2004. Despite some pacing issues, it took itself seriously *just* enough to still have fun with itself. I was bummed out that we never got a proper third installment because the universe and lore here is genuinely interesting. I was cautiously optimistic about this new iteration because while I love the cast, it really went through the behind-the-scenes wringer. It was especially intriguing because of the R-rating, which del Toro had consistently fought for and lost. But that doesn’t really matter because Hellboy is somehow both generic AND convoluted and one of the worst blockbusters in recent memory. I don’t really blame Marshall for this trainwreck because he likely had some really cool ideas of his own to bring to the table. But that didn’t seem to matter to the studio, who probably wanted to adapt one of the few comic book properties that still doesn’t have DC or Marvel plastered in front of it. I confess to not being super familiar with the source material, but this approach just felt wrong in so many ways. Perhaps the biggest offense with the new Hellboy is its complete lack of personal identity among the crowded superhero genre. Sure, the R-rating allows it to be bloodier and more profane than most entries, but that’s definitely not to its credit. On the contrary, the swap of a personality with tons of gore and swearing make it feel like it has the maturity of a 14-year-old deciding to mix Mad Max and Ghost Rider in a melting pot; only this isn’t NEARLY as awesome as that combo sounds. Among the sea of blood-soaked feces, David Harbour is legitimately a good choice for the titular character. His gruff voice and attitude are perfectly suited for the character, an otherworldy badass who’s familiarity with human culture makes for some admittedly funny interactions. While the fighting choreography for the film is highly questionable, his immense physique makes him incredibly formidable. Opposite him for a decent chunk of the runtime, Milla Jovovich just isn’t that great as Vivian Nimue the Blood Queen. It’s not necessarily her fault because the script paints her as a highly generic villain without enough menace to give stakes. For me, Ian McShane is typically the kind of actor who can steal the show even in bad movies. But here, as Trevor Bruttenholm, he struggles to bring Hellboy’s adoptive father to life, saying many clunky lines with all the profanity of Al Swearingen but with none of the spirit. Sadly, none of the other supporting players are able to elevate much higher than these main three. Not Sasha Lane as a young and feisty psychic medium, not Daniel Dae Kim as a rugged and cynical M11 agent, (A role which was initially whitewashed very early on) not Stephen Graham as a bitter boar-like fairy wanting revenge on Hellboy, and not even Brian Gleeson as the very withered wizard Merlin can bring any real fun or nuance to their characters. Every one of them is stuck in a rut, seemingly unable or maybe unwilling to find any decent angle to work from. Even from just a purely technical perspective, Hellboy is far from impressive or even passable. The camera work by Lorenzo Senatore, cinematographer of Risen and Megan Leavey, uses weird frames to create the canvas. The colors often feel saturated, particularly the color red for blood, but that doesn’t really make it look unique or interesting. In fact, a number of shots are downright ugly and feel like a first-year intern trying to adapt a graphic novel with no clue of what they’re doing. It also doesn’t help that the CGI is mostly bad and unconvincing. Meanwhile, the editing job by Martin Bernfeld isn’t a whole lot better, as the action scenes are so choppy that they lack tension or pacing. Some moments feel like they were meant to be longer takes but were watered down at the last minute. During the dramatic moments, it’s even weirder. Often times, when a character is delivering an expository monologue or we see a seriously deformed Nimue lecturing her minions, it constantly cuts between different shots, and never in an organic way. The film opens with a prologue explaining the villain’s backstory, but the oddly muted colors and unnatural transitions are likely to throw people off. In many ways, this opening really sets the scene for the rest of the film to come. It’s only really the titular character’s impressive makeup by Joel Harlow that stands out in below-the-line departments. Harbour is literally red from head to toe and, unlike the rest of the film, it doesn’t look like cheap CG. His shaved horns are particularly cool, creating a unique contrast between his demonic origins and his more human persona. Plus, his piercing red eyes and massive stone-clad right hand make him at least look intimidating. But that’s all just the one character’s look in a film littered with problems on several levels. Lacking any clear direction or memorable moments, Hellboy is an unmitigated mess of bad writing piss-poor action scenes. It’s not really Neil Marshall or Mike Mignola’s fault here, as neither one really had much control over the project to begin with. If not for David Harbour’s compelling performance or the convincing makeup he wears for the entirety of the film, there would be almost nothing worth salvaging here. In the end, this is another prime example of what happens when studio executives interfere; they only have themselves to blame.

Image result for hellboy 2019 poster

“John Wick: Chapter 3- Parabellum” Movie Review

All of those kills and chases and mayhem-inducing stunts- all of it for a damn puppy. But hey, you certainly won’t find me complaining here. This action-thriller film was released in theaters by Summit Entertainment worldwide on May 17th, 2019. Made for the budget of $75 million, the film managed to earn back the entire theatrical run of its predecessor within the first 10 days of release alone. It has managed to gross over $318.3 million at the worldwide box office, easily making it the highest-earning installment in the series so far. This comes alongside a number of excellent responses from both audiences and critics alike. In addition, another sequel, supposedly the final one in the series, has already been set for release in May 2021. Once again directed by Chad Stahelski, the screenplay was written by franchise regular Derek Kolstad along with help from Chris Collins, Mark Adams, and Shay Hatten. According to several members of the production, there were so many sequences of the film that were quite hard to film in extended takes like they wanted. The subtitle takes its name from a famous Latin military saying in 4th-century Rome: Si vis pacem, para bellum, which roughly translate to, “If you want peace, prepare for war.” Picking up less than one hour after the end of Chapter 2, Keanu Reeves reprises his role as the titular assassin who’s wanted by pretty much everyone. With a $14 million open contract on his head, he is cutoff from all support in the underworld, including the Continental Hotel. Using the resources at his disposal, John has to find a way to kick, slice, and shoot his way out of New York City in an attempt to clear his name. The first two films in the John Wick series were far more entertaining and engaging that I had anticipated from them. From first glance, it just looks like Reeves trying really hard to cling onto his glory days as an action hero. But they turned out to be very fun and violent, with some really awesome and creative worldbuilding to boot. I was extremely curious to see how they would be able to continue that momentum into the third installment, if at all. Would they be able to keep up with the breakneck speed of Wick’s kills and still reveal more about the world surrounding him? The short answer is yes: I daresay that John Wick: Chapter 3- Parabellum is my favorite of the series yet. As with the previous two installments, easily the best aspect of this film isn’t the big choreographed action scenes or the excellent filmmaking techniques used to capture them. No, what has continued to make this franchise separate from others in the market is its consistently fascinating worldbuilding, with a whole organized world of assassins to sink you teeth into. The more we learn about different aspects of these sort of societies, the more we get an idea of who John Wick was or is. Parabellum gives us even more hints about his past, including being part of a Russian crime syndicate fronted as an intense ballet company. It helps to make what should otherwise be a very boring and uninteresting protagonist into a mysterious and dangerous force. All the guns and bullets in the world can’t stop this man from dolling out violent revenge on the people who killed his puppy. Keanu Reeves is a better actor than most people give him credit for, and I still maintain that this is one of his best roles. Even in a year full of memorable roles, (Including a hilariously self-deprecating cameo in the rom-com Always Be My Maybe) he’ll still be remembered as the assassin who could lodge an axe into a person’s head from afar. It becomes quite clear that while he’s receiving all of this attention from other members of the underworld, he just wants to be left alone and internalizes a lot of his own suffering. Ian McShane and Lance Reddick return as Winston and Charon, respectively, the manager and concierge of the Continental Hotel. They both deliver their lines with Shakespearean authority, aware of both the danger John poses to their establishment and how ruthless the High Table can be. Halle Berry leaves a big impression as Sofia, a German Shephard-owning assassin and one of Wick’s few remaining friends. Although she’s externally angry towards John for bringing trouble to her, it’s also clear that she has a hidden respect for him from a favor years prior. I really hope to see more of her character in the future, especially with her efficiency in the field of battle. Other players include Asia Kate Dillion as a cold and calculating Adjudicator for the High Table, Mark Dacascos as the arrogant leader of a group of ninjas after Wick, Laurence Fishbourne as a loud-mouthed underground crime lord, Anjelica Huston as the head of a Russian syndicate that John once belonged to, and Saïd Taghmaoui as the one man who might be able to help John out of his bind. Asia Kate Dillon may be my favorite among them, an antagonist who is more concerned with hard results than personal vendetta. Like Berry, I hope to see their role expanded upon in the next one because every time they appeared in a scene, it felt like it had far more weight. And as with the previous installments, Parabellum‘s technical prowess helps distinguish it from other films in the genre. Shot by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Dan Lausten, the cinematography creates an immersive and slick world to look at. The contrast between light and harsh shadows allows for stark images on the screen, which helps increase the tension. While a number of action scenes do take place during the nighttime, it’s always easy to tell what’s going on. Nearly all of the big set pieces are captured in long-shots, allowing all of the beautiful choreography to be seen in all its glory. Meanwhile, the editing by Evan Schiff matches up to the camera work exquisitely. There are enough cuts in action scenes to keep things interesting without making things hard to follow. And the more dramatic or expository moments are cut together in a way that the audience wants to follow whatever the characters are saying. It also moves between scenes of John’s personal quest, and the people of the underworld he’s interacted with throughout the film being admonished by the Adjudicator. Finding a delicate balance between the gritty and the slick, John Wick: Chapter 3- Parabellum is a highly entertaining and wonderfully staged ballet of action and death. It’s quite clear that Chad Stahelski has grown comfortable and confident with this franchise and has found his groove very nicely. If he wants to spend the rest of his career making extensively choreographed action movies like this, then I will be perfectly content. Bottom line: this is the year of Keanu Reeves and I’m absolutely here for it.

“Lagaan” Movie Review

Although I’ve reviewed a handful of foreign-language films before, it occurs to me that I’ve never reviewed a Bollywood movie. So what better way to resolve that checkbox than making it a part of my New Year’s resolution? This epic musical sports drama was originally released in theaters around the world on June 15th, 2001. However, per a promise, the producers arranged to have it premiere first in the ancient village of Bhuj where it was shot. Although it was produced on the then-unprecedented budget 250 million rupees, (Roughly $5.32 million in U.S. dollars) it managed to gross over 3 times that amount. It went on to become one of the highest-grossing films in the country at the time, and scored massive critical acclaim across the world. It also managed to become the third Indian film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Written and directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, the film was partially inspired by the 157 film Naya Daur starring Dilip Kumar. The filmmaker had an extremely difficult time finding funding for the project, so much so that the main star started his own production company just to get it off the ground. While Gowariker and Sanjay Daima came up with the overall story and English dialogue, the dialogues in Hindi and its various dialects were handled by K.P. Saxena. With a grueling schedule that included a year of pre-planning and 6 months of filming, the cast and crew have continually stated that it was one of the most physically challenging films they’ve ever done. Set in the small Indian town of Champaner in 1893, Aamir Khan stars as Bhuvan, a young man devoted to helping his poor village thrive. With the local British cantonment putting their boot further under the neck of the Raj, the cruel leader Captain Andrew Russell, played by Paul Blackthorne, orders the citizens to pay double the tax. However, he makes a deal with Bhuvan to cancel all taxes for the next 3 years if they win a game of cricket against him and his British soldiers. Bhuvan takes up the challenge and with help from Russell’s sister Elizabeth, played by Rachel Shelley, brings along 10 other men to learn the game within the course of 3 months. For years, I had heard raves about the Bollywood film industry, but never had the chance to watch one of its offspring. It wasn’t until a few years ago during a class that I finally managed to watch one; it was this movie. Since then, I’ve watched a handful of others in the genre, albeit more modern ones such as Queen and Dangal. But after discovering that this film, along with other films by Aamir Khan, were available in their entirety on Netflix, I decided to give it another go. Would it hold up on second viewing? And thankfully, as has been the pattern with my New Year’s resolution, Lagaan is still a wonderful movie and actually improves the second time. Don’t let the intimidating runtime of 3 hours and 43 minutes steer you away, though. This is rather typical of big Indian movies, often setting their stories against a massively epic canvas. I actually argue that this is one of the best primers for getting into Tollywood or Bollywood films, as it has all of the essential ingredients the genre has to offer. It really is a huge, old-school crowd-pleaser and it’s honestly refreshing that it does not care what its audience thinks of it. In that, some people might be quick to dismiss Lagaan (or Once Upon a Time in India in some territories) as being too predictable and easy-going, and they would be partially right. And yet, the film has such a strong and engrossing way of immersing you into its world that it’s almost impossible to escape from its orbit. Aamir Khan is one of India’s biggest movie stars (If not their biggest) for good reason; he’s perfect in the lead role. As Bhuvan, he exudes empathy and concern for the people in his village, recognizing both the oppression dealt out by the British regime and their own personal tensions. Opposite him, Gracy Singh is a true talent as Gauri, his longtime love. Not as thankless a role as it may sound, her singing and dancing skills are incredible, especially when she sings a melody about her seemingly unrequited love for the hero. Paul Blackthorne is also delightfully villainous as Captain Russell, without a doubt the main antagonist of the picture. Arrogant and stubborn to a fault, he has no problem making the villagers’ lives a living hell- or for that matter, infuriating his superior officers. The rest of the cast is rounded out by an impressive ensemble of actors with varying roles. There’s Rachel Kelley as Russell’s kindhearted and unassuming sister, Kulbhushan Kharbanda as the seemingly powerless Raja of the region, Yashpal Sharma as a woodcutter jealous of Bhuvan’s heroism, and Raghubir Yadav, Rajesh Vivek, Akhilendra Mishra, Pradeep Rawat, and Aditya Lakhia as some of Bhuvan’s cricket teammates. While these men have many differences and doubts, (Lakhia plays an “untouchable”) the chemistry the hold is key to making the audience care about them. On the technical side of things, Lagaan has so many techniques worthy of the best epics in cinema. Anil Mehta’s sweeping cinematography is a thing to behold, capturing everyone and everything in every frame with perfection. The sweeping shots and predominant colors of yellow and brown help craft a look of a piece of history long forgotten. During musical numbers, like many Hollywood and Bollywood classics, the camera often moves flawlessly between different characters during the song. Meanwhile, Ballu Saluja’s editing job is able to keep the momentum consistently going for the mammoth runtime. His graceful scene transitions and patient cuts make sure nothing is too rushed or drawn-out. The climactic yet somewhat unorthodox showdown between the soldiers and the villagers is cut together in such an elegant and captivating manner that it’s hard to lose attention. And not to mention, his editing manages to do something remarkable: It made me sweat my palms during a cricket match, something that has never happened before. That, alone, is a noteworthy accomplishment. A.R. Rahman, one of the industry’s most celebrated composers, provides the instrumental film score here, which in my opinion is one of the most underrated ones in cinema. For all of the flare, there’s actually only two instrumental tracks on the soundtracks, but they both leave a huge impression. Crescendos aplenty can be heard in percussion and horns especially, and span various different musical styles. There are also six original songs that are a joy to listen to, with extravagant choreography and lyrics by Javed Akhtar. My personal favorite is actually the very first one, “Ghanan Ghanan,” performed by all of the villagers. Concerning their plight of a serious drought, it’s quite hard to get the central melody out of your head. It manages to perfectly illustrate what the movie is all about: unwavering optimism in the face of great trial and adversity. With an incredible soundtrack, characters worth rooting for, and palpable stakes in the rather simple plot, Lagaan is a sweeping musical triumph of epic proportions. Not only is it arguably the most accessible Bollywood movie for Western audiences, but it’s also officially my favorite sports movie of all time. The wonderful costumes, fantastic musical numbers, solid cast, and impeccable finale really help to put it over the top. Please do yourself a favor and seek this gem out on Netflix. And while you’re at it, go ahead and watch any other Bollywood movies in its catalogue.