Category Archives: Sci-fi

“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.

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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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“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.

“Avengers: Endgame” Movie Review

**While this review will be completely spoiler-free, I’m going to be under the assumption that everyone reading it has already seen Infinity War. Proceed at your own discretion.**

And to think, 11 years ago, this entire saga started in a cave, with a box of scraps. It’s truly jaw-dropping to see how far it’s come since then. But I’m extremely glad to have seen it all the way through. This epic superhero film was released in theaters around the world on April 26th, 2019, a week ahead of its previously scheduled release date. Within its first couple of weeks, it has already grossed over $2.189 billion at the global box office, and is very likely to make it as the highest grossing movie of all time. It’s broken a handful of box office records and is sure on its way to shatter some more in the coming weeks. Numerous movie ticket websites such as Fandango and Atom Tickets consistently struggled to keep their servers operating, and ended up selling the most amount of pre-release tickets for a film within a few hours. Once again directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, the film was shot back-to-back with its predecessor Infinity War. This marks the 22nd overall installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and has been promised to be even more of a culmination than its predecessors. While most all of the MCU films have maintained a certain level of secrecy about the plot, the producers and marketing team for this one went extremely far out of their way to ensure nothing got out. This included filming fake scenes that were purely used for trailers, a practice which some took issue with. According to numerous sources, only one member of the principal cast was given the entire screenplay to read. Picking up 23 days after the end of Infinity War, the remaining heroes of the Avengers are still reeling from the destructive victory of Thanos. Soon, they realize that they might have a legitimate chance to undo the damage done by his snap, which ended half of all life across the known universe. So they set out on a quest to recover the Infinity Stones to hopefully bring their loved ones back. And… that’s it. That’s quite literally all I can get into here without spoiling anything else about the plot. The Russo Brothers actually sent out a joint letter on Instagram asking fans to ruin anything for the people who haven’t seen the movie and out of respect for them, I won’t say another word about the actual plot. Obviously, like so many other fans and cinephiles, I was wondering how Marvel and the Russos could possibly follow up Infinity War, a film I found highly entertaining despite feeling a little unsatisfying. This would arguably become an even bigger culmination than that film, the sum of 22 films over the past 11 years. No other film in history has had such a Herculean task to achieve, let alone take on. Would it reach the stars or crumble in our hands? The simple answer is yes, yes it can; Avengers: Endgame exceeds all expectations one could possibly hold for it. The best way I can describe it is that this feels like the series finale for a T.V. show that I’ve been watching for the last decade. It has a certain sense of finality that most superhero films don’t have, really bringing a lot of character arcs to a strong thematic close. If I were given the job of writing the screenplay, I couldn’t possibly have done a better job at wrapping it all up. Of course, Disney and Marvel still have numerous projects coming down the pipe in the coming years. But as the wrap-up to 11 years worth of stories and characters, Endgame couldn’t have been more fulfilling and awesome. The Marvel mountain will never peak this high ever again. Quite literally everyone who’s ever been in an MCU film to date appears in this movie one way or another. All of them have grown immensely comfortable in their roles to the point where it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing them. Of particular note are the Original Six Avengers- Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, and Jeremy Renner. All of them have gone through incredible journeys since the first installment and getting to see them all reunited is so emotional. The end credits even include the actors’ signatures next to their names. Downey Jr. and Evans are especially amazing as Tony Stark/Iron Man and Steve Rogers/Captain America, respectively. As the defacto leaders of the team, both feel a deep shame from having failed the people they love and struggle to reconcile with the new world. And despite the faith-shattering fallout the two of them had in Civil War, they realize that their mission goes beyond any hard feelings they harbor for one another. Also noteworthy is Karen Gillan as Thanos’ cyborg daughter Nebula. In the previous films, she had never really impressed me or stood out as a character very much. But here, she’s given a full, interesting arc where we get to witness her reckon with past misdeeds and how to try and redeem herself. And at this point, there’s no real need to espouse how Avengers: Endgame is because all parties involved know exactly what they’re doing. Whether it’s lighting, sound design, art direction, or costumes, quite literally everything here works. The visual effects especially, as it took nearly 10 different companies- from Industrial Lights & Magic to Framestore -to bring the complex visuals to life. They’ve already accomplished making a fully CG character like Thanos look photorealistic, but adding more to that and keeping all of the realistic detail is unparalleled. It also has some of the best editing in the franchise done by Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt. When the mission becomes split up, we are able to cut between multiple scenes of the heroes working on their parts. This keeps the pacing aloft without having to getting muddled by exposition or constant action scenes. But when there are action scenes, they are so beautifully crafted and fluid that you can tell everything that’s happening. Without any. Rapid. Cuts. Once again reprising duties from Infinity War, Alan Silvestri provides perhaps one of the best superhero scores of the last to decades. By calling back to various themes and motifs from throughout the MCU, it feels like it’s really bringing everything full circle. The use of massive choirs, brass, and strings for new tracks is enough to induce goosebumps in any viewer. Of particular mention is the track titled “Portals,” which blends the classic Avengers theme song from the first movie with an exciting intro and outro. I’ve given the MCU heat for not having lots of memorable music, but this soundtrack truly feels like a fitting culmination to everything that’s come before in this franchise. In all seriousness, there is so much more I could write about this movie, that I WANT to write about this movie. But for now, this spoiler-free take is all that’s going to out right now. I’ll wait a little bit longer to write a spoilery review with my thoughts on various scenes or things that happened. Somehow bringing together 11 years and 22 movies worth of stories and making it all meaningful, Avengers: Endgame is an emotionally resonant journey, and one of the most satisfying feature films I have ever seen. This was the epic payoff to an unprecedented cinematic gamble that will rarely, if ever, find its equal. The Russo Brothers truly did the impossible and brought Stan Lee’s unbridled vision to life on the big screen. My only wish is that he had stayed alive long enough for it to come before his eyes like the rest of us. If this truly the endgame for most of this universe, than I am so happy to have taken this road, even through the bumpier installments. I love it, 3000.

“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!

“Us” Movie Review

After watching this movie late at night, I’m officially afraid to look at myself in the mirror anymore. Not that I was a particularly big fan of doing so to begin with. This horror thriller premiered as the opening night feature for the 2019 South By Southwest Film Festival. Following incredible buzz from those who attended, Universal Pictures released the film worldwide on March 22nd, 2019. Making over $7.4 million from Thursday previews, which far outpaced that of the director’s previous film, it has thus far grossed over $247.4 million at the global box office. Already on its way to an extremely profitable run, the film had the highest-grossing opening weekend for an original film since James Cameron’s Avatar way back in 2009. Written and directed by Jordan Peele, the film is the second of five proposed “social thrillers” he wants to make, the first of which was his debut Get Out. Disappointed by audiences’ general confusion about that particular film’s genre, he went ahead and decided to make a full, straight-up horror movie, inspired heavily by the Twilight Zone episode “Mirror Image.” The director has repeatedly stated that while it was very important for him to have black actors in the starring roles, the film is not actually about race. Lupita Nyong’o stars as Adelaide Wilson, a young woman dealing with a trauma from earlier in her life. During the summer, she goes with her husband Gabe, played by Winston Duke, and their children Zora and Jason to a family beach house in Santa Cruz. One night, they are confronted by a group of evil doppelgängers named “The Tethered.” Throughout the night, they must fight to survive the Tethered and their cruel plans while getting a closer look at who they really are. That right there is about as far as I can go with the premise before getting into spoiler territory. Much like the director’s previous effort, that description just barely scratches the surface for what’s really going on in the film. That was one of the main reasons why I loved Get Out so much back in 2017, and a huge reason why I was anticipating this movie. Ever since the project was first announced last spring, I’ve been salivating to see what movie Jordan Peele would come up with next, especially after winning Best Original Screenplay. Even if it wouldn’t be great, I would still make an effort to go see it in theaters because the director already has THAT much support from me. While it may be a completely different film from Get Out, Us is just as much of an audacious, thought-provoking, and supremely entertaining genre film from the former comedian. However, your own enjoyment of the film might have to depend on expectations. If you’re expecting another round of scathing social commentary on race relations in America, then you’ll likely be disappointed. This is indeed Jordan Peele’s first swing at a horror movie, with plenty of loving tributes and subversions sprinkled in throughout. In that sense, Get Out is arguably thematically stronger and more focused in on its issue. That being said, I would actually argue that Us is a better paced film, and it still has a lot on its mind than mere suspense and kills. It isn’t just the idea of “we are our own worst enemy,” but also how classism in modern society can help create a fear of the Other. Once you strip away a person’s social standing, or lack thereof, there’s very little that separates us from each other. Lupita Nyong’o has built an amazing repertoire over the last few years, and this performance is only the next step in her career. As Adelaide, she is paranoid and mindful of all of her surroundings, always feeling like the threat is only a few paces behind. She reunites with her Black Panther co-star Winston Duke, who strays very far away from his role as M’Baku. His performance as Gabe is one of trying to consistently prove himself as the “man” of the house, attempting to impress their wealthy friends and act intimidating when the Tethered all arrive. Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex are also worth noting as the daughter and son, Zora and Jason, respectively. Both of them forego the trope of bad child acting in horror cinema by adding endearing layers to their characters, making us truly care about their survival. Other players include Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Anna Diop, Tim Heidecker, Elizabeth Moss, twins Cali and Noelle Sheldon, and Duke Nicholson. Of course, all of the actors also pull double duty with their Tethered counterparts, managing to be both creepy and physically imposing. Nyong’o is especially impressive as her doppelgänger “Red,” particularly during an unbroken monologue about her life story told through an unsettlingly raspy voice. Meanwhile, the technical aspects of Us show that Jordan Peele is only getting an even stronger grip on his own unique voice. For this outing, he chose Mike Gioulakis as the cinematographer, who also shot Glass and It Follows, and it really paid off. Like those other film’s there’s a certain fluidity and surreal nature to the camera in each scene. The lighting is on point, capturing the darkness in each character with subtlety and grace while making room for some impressive Steadicam moments. Nicholas Mounsour edits these moments together really well. Not once during the 1-hour and 56-minute runtime did a scene feel choppy or hard to follow. The precision and deliberate cut between each different scene or shot is extremely commendable. It often moves back and forth between two separate time periods, offering more context to what’s going on. Michael Abels returns to collaborate with the director to compose and conduct the instrumental film score, his second for a feature film. It’s an infinitely more impressive soundtrack than Get Out, utilizing numerous unconventional instruments to convey a sense of creepiness. The film’s opening credits are played alongside an unsettling anthem that mixes chanting in a nonsense language and unique percussion beats. Other tracks use either swaying or plucked strings to their advantage and never act as a device for a cheap jumpscare. The soundtrack also utilizes the hip-hop song “I Got 5 On It” by Luniz to great effect. Abels somehow managed to transform it from a fun, feel-good song into a genuinely terrifying melody. That’s no easy task, and for that alone, he deserves to be on a list of the most promising composers working today. With strong performances, evocative imagery, a fantastic score, and one of the most unique movie monsters in recent memory, Us is a marvel of originality and thought-provoking ideas wrapped in a fun horror movie. By taking lessons from his debut feature, Jordan Peele has already established himself as a filmmaker who has my undivided attention. I eagerly look forward to anything he’s working on in the future, and I hope that in the years to come, we’ll be talking about this film the same way we’ve been talking about The Shining and A Nightmare on Elm Street and all of the other horror classics.

“Captain Marvel” Movie Review

Hands down, this film features one of the greatest fictional cats ever put to film. However the rest of the film turns out, I’m just really happy that I got to fall in love with a cat on-screen for the first time ever. This sci-fi superhero adventure was released in theaters around the world on March 8th, 2019. Despite being the 21st overall installment in the rapidly expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, it has grossed over $990.6 million at the worldwide box office, including a massive haul from overseas markets. This makes it the fastest and highest grossing film led by a female actress and the second-highest global debut for a superhero film yet. And while it has received mostly positive responses from critics and audiences, it initially suffered an attempted pre-release review bomb on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb from male users. This forced both websites to change their policies for the future. Co-written and co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, makers of Half Nelson and Mississippi Grind, Marvel Studios had been trying for many years to get a female-fronted superhero movie off the ground, with multiple characters tossed around as possibilities. Nicole Perlman and Meg LaFauve were initially hired to write the screenplay, but producer Kevin Feige eventually brought on Geneva Robertson-Dworet to overhaul it as it started to take definite form in 2017. In addition, this is the first prequel in the franchise, and two principle actors had their faces digitally de-aged by nearly two and a half decades. Set in 1995, Brie Larson stars as Vers, an extremely powerful member of an elite intergalactic team called Starforce working for the Kree Empire. In the midst of their ongoing war with shapeshifting aliens called the Skrulls, Vers accidentally gets separated and lands on Earth. There, she begins to realize that she might have had a past life as an Air Force pilot named Carol Danvers, and quickly becomes acquainted with low-level S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury, played once again by Samuel L. Jackson. Soon, they discover that the Skrull are planning to potentially blend in with and take over the planet and try to find them before it’s too late. Watching and anticipating this film, I couldn’t help but feel reminded of last year’s Black Panther. After spending over 10 years and nearly two dozen superhero films starring a white guy named Chris, Marvel finally passed the baton to a demographic that is sorely overlooked in the genre. Also like Black Panther, this was the unfair victim of pre-release bashing by extremely fragile people (Re: men) who felt threatened by something like this. Although I haven’t yet seen Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s acclaimed indie Half Nelson, I did enjoy their Southern gambling movie Mississippi Grind. And the stellar casting and 1990’s setting made it sound even more intriguing, even if the some of the marketing material wasn’t very impressive. Overall, Captain Marvel doesn’t rank quite as highly with the other MCU films for me, but it’s still undeniably entertaining and a great step forward for inclusion. Something I appreciate about the latest slew of films in this franchise is how thematically ambitious they’ve gotten. I’ve seen this film in theaters twice now and both times, I noticed different things in the story that resonated. No, it’s not the ’90s references, (Which, thankfully, avoid nostalgia porn) but how it explores the day-to-day sexism that women have to deal with. Whether it’s some random guy asking her to smile or her own superiors saying she’s too emotional for the job, there’s a certain connection to the real world that was previously missing in the MCU. Even though the story itself is a familiar origin story we’ve seen dozens of times over, its the specificity given to the characters that counts. Following an Oscar win and numerous impressive roles in various films, Brie Larson is perfectly cast as Carol Danvers/Vers/Captain Marvel. It’s previously been stated that she is the most powerful character in the MCU, and it’s easy to see why. She’s incredibly headstrong and fierce with both her powers and mind, frequently torn between following orders and doing what’s right. The digital de-aging for Samuel L. Jackson is no joke, as he looks uncanny to his appearance in films from the same decade it’s set in. While he is more idealistic in this era, he still is able to see the bigger picture and is willing to bend rules to get the job done. On the more cosmic end of things, Jude Law knocks it out of the park as Yon-Rogg while Ben Mendelsohn is great as the Skrull general Talos. Both eschew typical elements of the tough mentor and villain archetypes, respectively, bringing something a little unexpected to the film. Other roles are taken up by Gemma Chan, Annette Bening, Lashana Lynch, Rune Temte, Algenis Pérez Soto, a de-aged Clark Gregg, and both Djimon Hounsou and Lee Pace reprising their roles from Guardians of the Galaxy. Some fair better than others, (Bening feels particularly disinterested) but Lynch particularly impresses as Maria Rambeau, Danvers’ best friend in the Air Force. I’m not sure if she’ll return for future installments but I hope she does because she was so compassionate yet badass. And even though this is their first studio blockbuster, Captain Marvel shows that Boden and Fleck are still able to retain a somewhat personal touch behind the camera. This is the 4th MCU film to be shot by Ben Davis, who’s been more into the cosmic sensibilities of the franchise. The cinematography is very clean and slick with a wide-ranging color palette that encompasses the diverse creatures and worlds that the story visits. Elliot Graham and Debbie Berman also edit the film’s action scenes rather nice. Although it gets in danger of being too choppy, for the most part it keeps everything comprehensive and easy to follow. There is a musical score that goes along with the film that’s composed by Pinar Toprak, the first woman to compose for the franchise. Like many of the recent Marvel films, this score is actually memorable and noteworthy in many different tracks. The main theme is distinctive in its fusion of classic “hero” music and more contemporary riffs with other instruments. One of the most noteworthy instruments is the synthesizer, which plays chaotic melodies over numerous tracks and creates a real sci-fi atmosphere. The soundtrack also licenses a number of female-centric songs from the 1990’s many of which are played appropriately with their respective scenes. The best one used is “Just a Girl” by the ska-punk band No Doubt, which plays at a pivotal point in the climax. The second time I watched it, I could hear a woman in my theater softly singing along to it, which made it even more of a joy. Utilizing its setting to its advantage, Captain Marvel is an enjoyable intergalactic romp with an extremely powerful lead character. They have more work to do on their handling of action scenes, but Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have successfully transitioned over to studio blockbuster territory with this movie. While it may not be as involving or fresh as other entries in the MCU, it still manages to keep you entertained for 2 hours and has great setup for Brie Larson’s future with the series.