Category Archives: Family

“Toy Story 4” Movie Review

Who could have predicted that an antique store could be so intimidating? I’ve only been to a couple in my lifetime, and they never seemed nearly this frightening or creepy. This computer-animated comedy was released in theaters around the world on June 21st, 2019, making it the 21st feature from Pixar Animation Studios. In its opening weekend alone, it managed to gross nearly $250 million, shattering records for an animated feature’s opening. It has gone on so far to gross over $917 million at the worldwide box office and could continue well into the $1 billion marker. Directed by Inside Out co-writer Josh Cooley, the sequel was originally announced back in 2014, much to the dismay of many fans and critics. John Lasseter, helmer of the first Toy Story movie, was originally set for the director’s chair with Rashida Jones and Will McCormack, but all parties eventually left due to creative differences. From there, the Pixar team started from scratch and the story came organically, evolving from a planned romantic comedy to a full-on adventure. It’s also worth noting that this is one of the few Pixar films without a short that plays at the beginning, and the two main stars have publicly said how difficult it was to finish recording their lines. Taking place two years after the events of the third film, we once again find Woody, voiced by Tom Hanks, trying to lead the gang to take care of their new kid Bonnie. One day in kindergarten, Bonnie uses leftover materials in the trash to create a brand new toy named Forky, voiced by Tony Hale. While on a road trip with Bonnie and her family, Forky begins to have an existential crisis, which leads him and Woody to an old antique store where they find Bo Peep, voiced by Annie Potts. Bo, who’s found solace in being nobody’s toy, agrees to help Forky get home, while Woody still has feelings for her. For all intents and purposes, this movie has no right to exist. None, at all. Toy Story 3 had already wrapped up the story in such a perfect bow back in 2010, so there was no possible way Pixar and CO. could continue it without milking it. Granted, many people had said the exact same thing about Toy Story 3 back in the day, so it could go either way. From the first trailer, I was worried that my fears had been confirmed and Pixar was officially losing their magical touch. Some sequels of theirs have proven worthwhile, but that still didn’t dissuade me from thinking that they would go down the same path as Cars 2. And thankfully, as soon as the movie started, all of my fears were unfounded because Toy Story 4 is an amazing follow-up and an even better conclusion than last time. After this installment, I’m now thoroughly convinced that the story of these sentient toys could not possibly continue any further.Andy’s tale is far done, but while Bonnie is an endearing new kid, I’m not sure that her story can carry much farther than here. If anything, this film is more about finality and moving on than getting new adventures with a younger kid. What I appreciate most about Toy Story 4 is that every single beat taken towards the finale feels natural and organic. Most of the voice cast from the previous movies return here, once again headed up by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen. Without these two, the journey of Buzz and Woody wouldn’t be nearly as involving as their vocal chemistry is so incredibly natural. Watching these two coming to terms with their age and growing irrelevance is both gripping heartbreaking, as they want to always stay attached to a kid. Returning to the series for the first time in nearly 20 years, Annie Potts hasn’t missed a beat as Bo Peep. With far more independence and agency than she’s ever had before, her story was really fascinating to see how she’s ended up after all this time. She still genuinely cares about Woody and the gang but has seen and done too much to want to go back to a life of ownership. The returning cast (Including archival recordings of Don Rickles) is joined and quite frankly outshined by the batch of newcomers. Chief among them are Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as fluffy duck and bunny toys from a sprawling carnival, Tony Hale as the existentially confused and trash-loving Forky, Christina Hendricks as the deceptive doll who runs, and Keanu Reeves as a deeply insecure Canadian stuntman of a toy. Key and Peele are easily my favorite ones, with such amazing and hilarious lines that it often feels as though they improvised most of them. And technically speaking, Toy Story 4 might be the most visually impressive Pixar film to date, which is really saying something. Even though the style has become the norm nowadays, the computer animation in this film is hands down the most stunning and jaw-dropping I’ve ever seen. Just compare the animation in this film to that of Toy Story 2 20 years ago, and see how far both the studio and the medium have come; it’s not even close. Seriously, there were numerous shots and scenes throughout the film where it looked almost photoreal. Everything in the frame is filled with so much detail and so much color and personality, you’d swear they spent 10 years working on this. Even tiny little details like the fabric for Bo’s new purple cape or the fur on Forky’s clumsily built arms look so stupidly lifelike. It’s also able to capture more subtle aspects such as characters’ facial expressions and lighting beautifully. And the landscapes are all wide-ranging; the stuffy and archaic antique store is just as visually interesting as the highly colorful carnival outside. As with all three previous installments, the musical score is provided here by Randy Newman, who explores new avenues for the characters. Whereas in years past, he used more jazzy motifs for the aloof adventure, here it’s more melancholy. As the film is all about saying goodbye in many ways, the use of strings and oboes perfectly punctuates the sense of time passed with these characters. You can hear little leitmotifs of his old scores in various tracks, including a redone version of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” in the beginning. He also produces two new songs, the first one being “The Ballad of the Lonesome Cowboy” performed by country singer Chris Stapleton. The use of twangy guitars and Stapleton’s soulful voice make it a great lament for Woody’s aging. The other new song is “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away,” performed by Newman himself. With an upbeat tempo and universal lyrics that work perfectly in the context of the film, it’s an excellent way to close out the film. In a year chock full of final installments and series finales, I wasn’t expecting to be nearly as satisfied as I was here. I keep saying this over and over, but there’s literally no further avenue that they can take this story. The studio has already confirmed they’re gonna be committed to original projects for the foreseeable future and I couldn’t be happier about it. Bringing the studio’s oldest property to its natural conclusion, Toy Story 4 is a funny and poignant adventure with immense resolution to its characters. Despite the bumpy road to being made and the lingering feeling that it wasn’t necessary, Josh Cooley did the impossible here. He somehow managed to upend the seemingly perfect ending to Toy Story 3 and gives the franchise the ending it deserves. To infinity… and beyond.

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“Pokémon: Detective Pikachu” Movie Review

If I had to make a choice, I would definitely want to live the rest of my life as a Bulbasaur. They’re cute, plump, can survive for days without eating, and absorb energy from the Sun. Of all the Pokémon, (At least the ones that I’m most familiar with) they seem the most docile and carefree, which make them ideal. This urban fantasy mystery film was released in theaters around the world on May 10th, 2019, a full week after it’s premiere in Japan. Made for the budget of $150 million, it made just over $20 million on its opening day alone, the highest ever for a live-action video game adaptation. Over the course of its theatrical run it has thus far grossed over $429.4 million at the box office, snatching the top spot in its opening weekend. It also managed to get pretty good reviews and is the highest rated video game adaptation ever according to numerous sources- which is already a pretty low bar to clear. Directed by Rob Letterman, the film began development immediately after the release of the 2016 game of the same name. The filmmakers primarily desired to tell a Pokémon story that wasn’t focused on franchise star Ash Ketchum, and spent nearly a year designing all the creatures to be as accurate as possible. While Toho was always in charge of distribution in Japan, Universal Pictures initially held the worldwide rights before eventually giving reigns over to Warner Bros., making it their first theatrical involvement with the series since 2000. It’s also the first film the franchise to receive an MPAA rating higher than G. Justice Smith star as Tim Goodman, an insurance salesman and former trainer. When his veteran detective father Harry apparently dies, he goes to Ryme City to collect his things, a metropolis where humans and Pokémon live side-by-side and bans underground fights. One night, he comes across an amnesiac deerstalker-wearing Pikachu, voiced by Ryan Reynolds, who speaks. Tim is the only one who can understand him and since this Pikachu was with Harry as his partner, they decide to reopen the case and find out what really happened. No lie, when I first heard that Ryan Reynolds would be headlining this film, I legitimately thought they were joking. The Merc With a Mouth voicing one of the most iconic characters in pop culture for a family-friendly video game movie? Truth be told, I really only have a casual knowledge and history with Pokémon, so my expectations were never really high. But lo and behold, the marketing for this movie seemed absolutely tonally and stylistically perfect. It seemed like such a far cry from so many other self-serious video game movies from the past that it was so refreshing to see what this one could do. Make no mistake, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is no cinematic masterpiece, but it’s still leaps and bounds ahead of many family-friendly blockbusters today. Unlike most adaptations in the medium, it seems clear that the creators here have at least put forth some effort to honor the world of Pokémon. There’s a whole lot of clever worldbuilding in the film as we see how the various creatures fit into our society, such as Squirtles working as firefighters. Some of the best bits of humor come from little inspired moments like this or references to the franchise as a whole, such as a dejected Pikachu singing the iconic theme song. What’s holding Detective Pikachu back from actually being really good is its overreliance on a cliché mystery plot- which, if I understand, is the fault of the titular game itself. The twists and turns feel so convoluted, and certain creatures only feel like they were put in the movie as plot devices. Oh well, maybe the inevitable sequel will really get all of this down next time around. Ryan Reynolds as Pikachu was a casting choice that I never knew I needed in this day and age. His voice is absolutely perfect for the role of a confused, self-made detective who constantly is torn between two worlds. Justice Smith has been deserving of better roles lately and his turn as Tim Goodman here is… just fine. Not bad at all and you can clearly see he’s having fun with the material but he’s not quite great either. The chemistry between the two of them is palpable and highly watchable and is undoubtedly the bedrock of the whole movie. Kathryn Newton puts in a supporting role as Lucy Stevens, an aspiring and plucky reporter with a psyduck partner. She puts in some decent effort, but the character feels two-dimensional and we never really know her real motives beyond simply wanting the next scoop. Bill Nighy, Rita Ora, Suki Waterhouse, Ken Watanabe, Chris Geere, Karan Soni and Omar Chapparo round out the rest of the supporting cast in various roles. Some of them definitely fell more fleshed out than others, but for the most part are able to provide different aspects of  this unique world. And from a technical perspective, Detective Pikachu is pretty impressive and distinctive from other summer blockbusters. Cinematographer John Mathieson makes the bod decision to shoot this on traditional 35mm film as opposed to digital photography. This is surprising considering all of the CGI, but it does make the Pokémon look more believable. It also makes a lot of primary colors pop out more, such as blue and yellow, which helps develop the personality for the film. Also, Mark Sanger and James Thomas’ editing work manages to move from scene to scene in a consistent way. It manages to cut between shots in action scenes fairly often but manages to keep things clear with the conflict. And during scenes where the main duo is investigating the mystery, it melds scenes with the present with scenes from the past to create more mystery. The most impressive part is, although the mystery itself is kind of predictable, it stays committed to not giving it away. Henry Jackman, one of the industry’s most prolific yet underrated composers, is in charge of the instrumental film score. It’s a surprisingly memorable score, using multiple different instruments for appropriate tracks. This includes the use of synths and chimes to introduce us to Ryme City or even during the final showdown scene. Other times, it uses lowkey brass and strings to help undercut the mystery at the center of it all. There are even little motifs where songs from the old cartoons are worked into the score, which is probably a delight for longtime fans. In addition to appearing in the film, Rita Ora also wrote and performs an original song called “Carry On,” which plays during the end credits. The lyrics are appropriate as they speak to the main duo learning to work together as the film goes along. It has a nice upbeat pop sound to it and Ora’s voice is a beauty, but I can’t say I would pick it up on Apple Music. I know this review sounds like I’ve been too nice to this film, but the truth is I really didn’t hate it. Granted, not everyone is going to respond to it as well, and I can’t speak for longtime fans of the Pokémon franchise. There are definitely a lot of problems to be found with pacing and the story and is by no means a great movie at all. Even so, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is a solidly enjoyable diversion with fun visuals and a disappointing plot. I don’t know how, but Rob Letterman took what should be a terrible concept for a movie and somehow made it watchable. The fact of the matter is, regardless of the film’s overall quality, I need more Ryan Reynolds as Pikachu in my life. Case closed.

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“The Lion King” Movie Review

Okay, yes, I am writing a review for this movie because of the impending “live-action” remake next month. However, it also turns out that this movie is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month. This beloved animated musical was originally released in theaters on June 15th, 1994, to overwhelming success. In its initial run, it managed to gross over $766 million at the worldwide box office, making it the most successful film of that year. It was later re-released in 3D in 2011, which brought its total intake to around $968 million. In addition, it remains the best-selling film of all time on home video and the highest-grossing film made from traditional animation. Co-directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, the story was first conceived in 1988 while Jeffrey Katzenberg and Roy E. Disney were in Europe promoting Oliver and Company. With no less than 17 people credited for the story, original director and producer George Scribner and Thomas Schumacher left the project after constantly clashing visions with Disney. Their departure led to the story being greatly rewritten and reimagined as a musical. Although William Shakespeare’s Hamlet was a big inspiration for the story, it’s also worth noting that this was the first animated film under the Mouse House to be an entirely original property with no pre-existing source material. The classic story follows a young lion named Simba, voiced by Matthew Broderick, who’s destined to rule as King of the Pride Lands in Africa. After his father Mufasa is murdered by Simba’s paternal uncle Scar, he is manipulated and shamed into thinking that the death was his fault and runs away. Years later, Simba is all grownup, living with meerkat Timon and warthog Pumbaa, voiced by Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella, and is completely divorced from any sort of responsibility. But when he gets word of the horrible conditions under Scar’s tyranny, he must rise up to the challenge and reclaim his rightful place as King. This is a film that has been ingratiated into the minds of so many childhoods over the last two-and-a-half decades. If you grew up in the late 1990’s or early 2000’s, there is virtually no way that this movie wasn’t involved in your life. It’s very hard for me to remember a time in my early childhood when it wasn’t around; it just seemed like the movie was always being played in the house. All of that nostalgia initially had me a little hesitant to review the movie now as a fully grown adult. I was worried that it would cloud my judgement on seeing the film purely for its own merits; or worse, that it wouldn’t hold up as well as I remember it. And yet, even without any childhood bias, I can still confidently say that The Lion King is still the peak of the so-called Disney Renaissance. For those who don’t know, the Disney Renaissance was a period of time in which Walt Disney Animation Studios churned out one high-quality movie after another. Other films released during this time included Aladdin, Tarzan, Mulan, and The Little Mermaid, all of which allowed the studio to further establish its worldwide brand. And even since its conclusion, fans such as myself have constantly debated over which one was the best of the all. For me, as you may or not have figured out, it’s no competition; this film contains everything those other films had and more. Memorable musical numbers, awesome characters, fantastic animation, a great sense of humor and heart. If there’s a certain criteria you have for a capital “G” Great animated feature, The Lion King probably has all of it. Matthew Broderick may be best known for Ferris Bueller in the titular movie, but there’s a lot to like about him as Simba. While probably not the most nuanced or complex protagonist in the studio’s arsenal, his struggle to step up and take on a tremendous task is something nearly all viewers can relate to. Also, James Earl Jones is fantastic as Mufasa, Simba’s wise and stern father. A completely different father figure from his turn as Darth Vader, his deep voice resonates with audiences of any age with many sage monologues filled with wisdom. Jeremy Irons also impresses as the voice of Scar, hands down one of the best animated villains ever, Disney or otherwise. His regal voice is one that is built for chewing the scenery and the way his character’s movements are animated makes it seem like he’s acting it out in the recording booth. And of course, we have Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella as Timon and Pumbaa, Simba’s laidback mentors. The comedic timing and slight immaturity in their voices sounds completely naturalistic in their hands, and their timeless number, “Hakuna Matata,” is one for the ages. Moira Kelly, Robert Guillaume, Madge Sinclair, Whoopi Goldberg, and Rowan Atkinson all provide their voices for various supporting roles. It’s quite hard to point out a real weak link in the cast here, as they all contribute something memorable. It’ll be interesting how the new version changes these characters, if at all. And as with most other films of its period, The Lion King still stands as a technical marvel in the genre. Like some of its peers, there are a handful of shots that seem to blend traditional animation with then-burgeoning CGI. And despite being released in 1994, this mixture is not obvious; quite the opposite. It makes for some truly cinematic shots in iconic scenes, such as the heart-stopping stampede scene relatively early on in the film. And even when it’s just purely traditional animation, it’s absolutely gorgeous. The use of colors like orange, yellow, and red is ingenious in creating the atmosphere for the Pride Lands. It helps to deepen the character of the setting and define the characters’ personalities. Every time I watch it, the visuals always pop out, right from the opening shot of the sunrise on the horizon. Hans Zimmer won an Oscar for a reason because his original score here is a true classic of cinema. The soundtrack is just as epic and exciting as the story, utilizing a wide range of instruments and vocals for different tracks. Whether it’s an exciting bit where characters are being chased by the hyenas or a moment where Simba realizes his destiny, Zimmer knows what to do. It goes from being filled with rapid percussion and strings to haunting vocals in an instant and somehow still feels organic. In addition, musician Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice composed several original songs together, many of which have earned a spot in the annals of Disney history. Whether it’s the attention-grabbing, nostalgia-inducing opening number “The Circle of Life” or the Oscar-winning ballad “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?,” those two really know how to play it right. But who are we kidding? The best one is obviously the villain song, “Be Prepared,” in which Scar lavishly talks about his planned coup for the throne. There’s honestly WAY more that I could say about this film. About how it essentially defined a whole generation, how nearly every family had it playing in the house at some point growing up, and son on and so forth. But I have a feeling that everyone reading this already knows that and so, I’m gonna leave it off here. The Lion King remains the undisputed chief of traditional animation and the king of Disney proper. Even with a lean runtime of 88 minutes, there’s so much packed into this film that’s literally impossible to not fall in love with every viewing. I have limited expectations for Jon Favreau’s reimagining next month, but we’ll always have the original. If you ask me, this film was, is, and probably always will be the absolute pinnacle of animated cinema.

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“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.

“Shazam!” Movie Review

Alright, not going to lie here: After watching both this and last year’s Instant Family, I’m seriously considering adopting foster children. I had never even thought about it before, but now I would love to give it a try someday. I’m being totally serious. This superhero comedy film was released in theaters around the world by Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema on April 5th, 2019. Made on a production budget of around $80 million, the film has managed to gross over $361.5 million at the worldwide box office. This partially came from a $3.3 million total made from advanced screenings setting up by Fandango two weeks earlier. It has also received some of the best reviews in the franchise and a sequel is already in the early stages of development at the studio. Directed by David F. Sandberg, maker of the horror films Lights Out and Annabelle Creation, the project had initially been in and out of development hell since the early 2000s. After many stops and starts throughout the decade, Warner Bros. finally put it on its release slate in 2014 with Dwayne Johnson attached as the potential villain Black Adam. He eventually departed the project for a future solo film, and remained credited as an executive producer. This also marks the seventh overall installment in the constantly evolving DC Extended Universe. The story follows a young orphan named Billy Batson, played by Asher Angel, who’s been in and out of foster homes for most of his life. After moving into a group home that includes disabled comic book nerd brother Freddy Freeman, played by Jack Dylan Grazer, he later is visited by a mysterious wizard named Shazam. This wizard is looking for someone who is pure of heart to take his place and transfers his immense powers over to Billy, who transforms into an adult played by Zachary Levi. Quickly becoming an internet sensation, his powers and exploits gain the attention of Mark Strong’s Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, who’s been tracking the wizard’s powers for decades. I’ll be honest here, for the longest time I didn’t actually think this movie was going to happen. Sure, there was the persistent news that The Rock was playing the main villain, but that is about as consistently supporting as saying Channing Tatum’s Gambit movie is actually going to happen now. In any case, the film is here in theaters now, and it’s here to stay for at least a little while. The trailers for this movie were very funny and lighthearted, but there was still a skepticism within me about it. Although I haven’t seen Sandberg’s debut Lights Out, I was legitimately creeped out by the short film that inspired it. And while horror directors in the past have adapted well to the superhero genre, such as James Wan or Scott Derrickson, since he only had two other movies under his belt, I wasn’t entirely sure if it would stick the landing. Shazam! is far and away one of the best films in the DCEU and perhaps one of the most fun entries in the genre as a whole. Like some of the best superhero movies, this one is primarily concerned about what it means to be a hero, rather than just big action spectacle. Billy is not pure of heart, so he has to learn how to use his powers responsibly and for the betterment of others. Since he’s only 14 years old, this is hard for him to realize, especially when Freddie helps him become a YouTube star and they initially use the powers for whatever they want. I was actually surprised by how much Shazam! had to say about masculinity and what it means to be a “man.” This is something that Dr. Sivana constantly struggles with understanding because of his very harsh upbringing, and also leads to some pretty terrifying imagery. The film occasionally strains with balancing this delicate tone, but for the most part it’s done pretty well. I can’t think of a living actor better fit to play the adult Shazam than Zachary Levi. As a big fan of his work on the show Chuck, his boyish charm and bumbling charisma make him perfect for the titular role. It star Jack Dylan Grazer is equally perfect as his foster brother Freddie Freeman, a massive comic book aficionado. It’s clear that while he sees the potential good that this can bring about, he also wants an opportunity to do something worthwhile and prove he’s not just a sad kid in crutches. The two of them have incredible chemistry together throughout the film, making for one of the most watchable duos in superhero movies recently. Mark Strong, consistently typecast as villains, is noticeable as the big baddy Dr. Thaddeus Sivana. He’s given a rather disturbing and dark prologue at the beginning, which sets up all of the confusion and obsession his character has to deal with in the story. I had partially expected him to be an intentionally over-the-top villain, but his backstory and characterization surprised me. Meanwhile, Billy’s foster family is filled with both new and familiar talent. Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans are warm and empathetic as the parents, Grace Fulton is caring yet conflicted as the college-bound older sister, Faithe Herman is extremely effusive and lovable as the youngest of the bunch, Ian Chen is honestly hilarious as the residential tech wizard, and Jovan Armand is shy and reserved as the middle child. Each one feels alive and brings a different aspect of the family to like. The technical aspects of Shazam! show that it’s a film which Sandberg has total fun working within. Maxim Alexandre, known mostly for shooting horror movies, handles the cinematography with a rather balanced aesthetic. Whether it’s highlighting the vibrant, popout colors of the titular hero’s suit or the more nightmarish look of the villain’s henchmen, the personality is always definite. It goes surprisingly well with Michel Aller’s editing, which manages to keep both the pacing and tone consistent throughout the 132 minute-long runtime. There’s one particularly amusing “training montage” set to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” where Freddie takes videos of Billy testing his powers. The way it moves between first-person shots is quite funny and engaging. Benjamin Wallifisch, one of Warner Bros. and Hans Zimmer’s most promising proteges, provides the instrumental score. Much like the rest of the film, it feels like an appropriate throwback back to an era of blockbusters that weren’t afraid of their source material. With jovial bells and percussion, there’s a certain childlike wonder to the main theme. It also helps that horns and strings manage to come in and out of the melodies that makes it sound like a classic. The best way I can describe it is if John Williams decided to compose for his long-awaited Superman follow-up. Shazam! is a colorful and light-hearted dose of old-fashioned superhero fun. Despite his horror background, David F. Sandberg proves that he’s quite capable of making the genre his own. Not to mention the pitch perfect casting of Zachary Levi and Jack Dylan Grazer which makes the connection feel extremely tangible.

“Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” Movie Review

Alright, I’m going to be completely honest with everybody reading this review. It is May the 4th, and this is not really the Star Wars movie I want to be talking about right now. However, I promised the review for a while and it’s appropriate for the 20th anniversary, so let’s do this. This epic space opera was originally released in theaters worldwide on May 16th, 1999, almost 16 years to the day from the premiere of Return of the Jedi. Widely anticipated from fans and the general public, the film managed to gross over $924.3 million at the global box office. This made it the highest grossing film in the Star Wars saga and the second-highest grossing film of all time at that point. It was also rereleased in 3D in 2012, bringing its total to over $1 billion. Despite this, it had an incredibly mixed reception, with fans and critics saying it was either just fine or a hot pile of garbage. Written and directed by George Lucas, the director had long expressed no interest in continuing the Star Wars saga as he felt it would fade out, even cancelling a planned sequel trilogy. However, after seeing the franchise’s sustained popularity through the Expanded Universe comic books and novels, he decided to move forward. He apparently adapted the screenplay from a 15-page outline he wrote way back in 1976, and took advantage of the then-burgeoning innovations of CGI. It’s also been confirmed that he tried to hand the reigns over to Ron Howard, Robert Zemeckis, and Steven Spielberg, all of whom insisted he be the one to helm it. Set 32 years before the events of A New Hope, Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor star as master Qui-Gon Jinn and apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi, two Jedi Knights sent to try and end a dispute between the Trade Federation and the Galactic Republic. Barely escaping an attempt on their lives, they soon abscond with Queen Amidala just as the Federation launches a full-scale invasion of the planet Naboo. While on the run and trying to make it home, they come across a nine-year-old boy named Anakin Skywalker, played by Jake Lloyd, who has unusually strong powers with the Force. They ultimately decide to take him and a misfit alien named Jar Jar Binks on a quest to prove that the Trade Federation’s actions are completely illegal and under the influence of the Sith Lord Darth Sidious. This is one of those films that’s hard for me to review fairly because it’s such a divisive film among fans and critics. I myself have had conflicted feelings over it for many years. I used to really like it and defend it to death as a kid, along with the other two prequels Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Now that I’m older, I can definitely understand why so many fans felt burned by it when it was originally released. But is it the intergalactic dumpster fire that a lot of people have continually proclaimed it as? While Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace may be extremely disappointing and subpar compared to the rest of the saga, there are still a handful of things I like about it. I think George Lucas is a very creative person, with tons of different ideas that he wants to get out on the canvas. He wants to make a film about the political and economic machinations behind a galactic civil war? That is perfectly fine by me. What’s so bothersome about The Phantom Menace is that it never really weaves all of these ideas into the story in a compelling or organic way. Sure, we get to see that slavery exists in the Outer Rim and the lightsaber battles are glorious, but it doesn’t really matter when the direction and characterization are so choppy that it feels like they might have been sleepwalking. And I’m not even going to dive into the problematic nature of “midichlorians” and how that alters the Force. The performances, across the board, are an incredibly mixed bag. The impressive ensemble, including everyone from Samuel L. Jackson to Ian McDiarmid, try their hardest with the material given and are occasionally able to power through the wooden dialogue. Liam Neeson and Natalie Portman, as Quin-Gon Jinn and Padmé, seem particularly stiff and uncomfortable, not quite able to make out what to do with their characters. Ray Park and Ewan McGregor are by far the best of the bunch as Darth Maul and young Obi-Wan Kenobi, respectively. McGregor’s interpretation as a somewhat hotheaded Padawan is a neat foil for his later role in the franchise, and while Maul has few lines of dialogue, he left an impression as one of the coolest villains in the saga. Now we come to Ahmed Best and Jake Lloyd. I have no problems with these two personally, and the career-hurting hate they received is wholly unfair. But it’s hard for me to deny that Jar Jar Binks is an annoying character, even though Best is clearly have the most fun out of any of the cast members. And Lloyd does some decent work as young Anakin, setting the groundwork for the character’s tragic arc to come. But because the characterization is all over the place, there isn’t much of an angle that he gets from it. Even when it comes to the technical aspects, The Phantom Menace is still a hit-or-miss. David Tattersall’s cinematography is usually quite flat and uninteresting, opting for dull camera angles and zooms. Occasionally it starts to pick up when something exciting happens, but the film is so focused on expository dialogue that they’re few and far between. It also has a weird and confusing color palette, being bright and gorgeous one moment and absolutely dull the next. For better and worse, it goes hand-hand-hand for the editing by Paul Martin Smith and Ben Burtt. Using classic screen-swipes for transitions, the disparity between what’s convincing practical effects and obvious CGI is too often. While some of the effects still look fine and were probably fantastic for their day, others just have me scratching my head. But it does shine during the pod-racings sequence and the lightsaber duels, which are now much more elegant and choreographed. As is tradition, the musical score is provided here by franchise veteran John Williams. He brings a number of brand new themes to appreciate here, particularly “Duel of the Fates,” which plays during one of the most exciting lightsaber battles in the series. Using a full choir that sings in Sanskrit and backed by a full orchestra, the 4-minute track is beautiful and majestic all the same. Of course, the rest of the soundtrack utilizes Williams’ signature brass horn line, but also incorporates strings in a rather unique way. If for not the sake of continuity, this film is worth watching for Williams’ iconic score, which makes it at least FEEL like a Star Wars movie. I would definitely recommend watching the 2008 CG cartoon Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Not only is it a great series on its own but it also retroactively improves the prequel trilogy and provides even more context to what happens. In that, I can definitely appreciate what they’re going for here even more now and can see its potential. Unfortunately, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is still a frustrating mishmash of confusing lore and uncertain characterization. I have no doubt that George Lucas tried his hardest to make this film great, and you can definitely see little moments that hint at it. But I truly feel like it would have been a lot better if he had handed the helming duties over to another director. And yet, it’s still not the worst film in the saga; that title still belongs to the Christmas Special and Attack of the Clones. Whether we like it or not, this movie introduced a whole new sect of the universe to explore and devour. And it’s definitely an interesting sect, but the execution of it all is still extremely underwhelming, even watching it now as an adult. May the 4th Be With You, fellow geeks!

“How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” Movie Review

This franchise has become a lot more than jut one where a skinny guy leans how to fly a dragon. This has become a full-on friendship saga, and I’m here for it. This computer-animated fantasy adventure was released worldwide on February 22nd, 2019, after nearly three years of constant delays. Before that, audiences in Australia got to see it starting on January 3rd, and had already grossed over $181 million at the worldwide box office and should pull in even more numbers from domestic markets. Produced on a budget of $129 million, it has gone on to gross more than $440.5 million and garnered some of the best reviews for any film released so far this year. It also currently holds the record for one of the highest-grossing advanced screenings of all time. Written and directed by Dean DeBlois, the same man behind the previous installment, this is the latest in the series based (Albeit, very loosely) on the book series of the same name by Cressida Cowell. The director had always planned on making a trilogy of films, and scrapped a very well-developed plotline about halfway through production to rework everything. And after running out their contract with 20th Century Fox, this is the first film from Dreamworks Animation Studios to be distributed by Universal Pictures. All parties involved have repeatedly vowed that this stands as the definitive conclusion not just to the film trilogy, but to the entire franchise as a whole. Set one year after the events of the second movie, we once again follow Jay Baruchel as Hiccup, the young leader of a small Viking village called Berk. Having completely integrated humans with dragons into their population, Hiccup and his trusted Night Fury dragon Toothless work with several other warriors in the village to rescue dragons from rival clans. This draws the attention of Grimmel the Grisly, voiced by F. Murray Abraham, an infamous dragon hunter set on capturing or killing Toothless and a newly discovered female “Light Fury.” With little time and a massive armada on their tail, Hiccup decides to lead the citizens of Berk to a legendary Hidden World, said to be the true home of the dragons. I’m a huge fan of both the first and second How to Train Your Dragon films from 2010 and 2014, respectively. Although Dreamworks itself can honestly be hit-or-miss most of the time, these were two of the best, most epic animated films of the decade. In fact, they were both superior in quality to some of Pixar’s latest outings, which is a damn near impossible task to accomplish for the company. And although I paid no attention to the smaller shows that spawned out of it, I had long been hungry for the concluding chapter of the trilogy to hit theaters. It’s constant delays had started to make me a little worried that it may not be able to properly wrap up the entire franchise. Especially because the trailers I had seen for it weren’t all that enticing, a common problem for Dreamworks. Would Universal fundamentally change how they made their film? Well, I’m extremely happy to say that How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is not only a satisfying conclusion to the animated saga, but it’s also a great movie in general. And perhaps the best compliment I can give this film is that it really feels like a finale to a franchise. Each installment in the saga has improved upon the last one, and the same goes here for the third film. Much like the Toy Story films, this series has gradually grown up with its audience as the years have gone by, becoming a darker and more mature tale. However, unlike the Toy Story films, How to Train Your Dragon has the wisdom to know when its narrative should end and how to make it feel justified. Witnessing Hiccup and Toothless’ friendship together come to a head is a highly emotional journey as the lessons they’ve learned from past adventures come into play. And it’s incredibly wonderous to see that the filmmakers managed both to make the ending here worthwhile and keep it as entertaining. I cannot express to my readers enough how stupidly rare it is for trilogy cappers in cinema to actually be satisfying. I haven’t really been a fan of Jay Baruchel as an actor, but his voice role as Hiccup continues to impress me. Having grown from a yuppy wimp in the first film into a capable leader in this one, he consistently struggles with how to balance his desire for pacifism and the need to protect his people. By his side this entire franchise is America Ferrera as Astrid, Hiccup’s beautiful and headstrong girlfriend. She has full control over her own agency and isn’t afraid to tell Hiccup when she thinks he’s wrong on something. F. Murray Abraham also does impressive work as the villain Grimmel the Grisly, an utterly ruthless dragon hunter. While he isn’t given much of a backstory or motivation, his voice and look give a menacing presence that resonates every time he’s in a scene. The rest of the voice cast is filled out by returning players, none of whom have lost a beat. These include Cate Blanchett, Kit Harrington, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig, and even Gerard Butler. While not all of them have as rewarding of an arc, they still contribute something unique to the experience. Meanwhile from a technical standpoint, Dreamworks has never had a better looking film than How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. While the two previous installments in the series were very well-animated and had fantastic art direction, the imagery in this film is so awe-inspiring and beautiful that it makes others look shabby by comparison. There is so much subtle detail in every animation, whether it be sand on a beach or flora and fauna in a cave, that feels alive. Moreover, the film is made in an extremely cinematic style in aspects such as camerawork and lighting. You’d swear that Roger Deakins himself shot this film with how controlled it is. We get a lot of swooping shots and glorious pans that reveal the true scope of this imaginative world. In addition, John Powell returns to compose and conduct the instrumental film score, and it’s just as amazing as the last couple times. It incorporates leitmotifs from the previous films in various parts, and always feels full of personality. A wide range of different instruments are brought together to create a gorgeous and epic sound, such as vocal chorus and strings. It also undercuts with woodwinds and percussion to give the feeling of one last grand adventure. Bringing together all of the elements from previous films that made them so amazing while amplifying it to eleven, How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is an epic and emotionally fulfilling end to a truly awesome saga. After 9 years, it has become one of the rare third installments of a trilogy that is the best of the bunch, thanks in no small part to its astound animation and story. This has become the pinnacle of the Dreamworks brand and what they’re capable of doing in film.