Category Archives: War

“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.

“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.

“Throne of Blood” Movie Review

Aaanndd, we’re back with my New Year’s Resolution, ladies and gentlemen. Same rules from last year apply here, (Check out my Letterboxd account if you want more details) and I decided to start with something really daring. This black-and-white samurai drama was originally released in Japan on January 15th, 1957, and was a major commercial success for Toho Studios. It didn’t arrive in the United States until November of 1961, where it enjoyed similar acclaim to the filmmaker’s other works. It later found even more success when, in 2014, the Criterion Collection added it to their library and made a brand new restoration on home video. Co-written and directed by Akira Kurosawa, the film is a very loose adaptation of the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare, one of several the Japanese auteur made in his lifetime. He waited a few years to go forward with it until after Orson Welles made his own cinematic interpretation of The Bard’s story, and was only initially attached as a producer. There was something of a hurdle when the crew attempted to build the castle set on the slope of Mount Fuji and had to enlist troops at a nearby Marine Corps base to help build it from the ground up. Set in feudal Japan, the film follows a samurai warrior and commander named Taketoki Washizu, played by Toshirō Mifune. He and his close friend Miki Yoshiteru, played by Akira Kobo, encounter a spirit in a thick forest who prophesizes their respective futures and rewards. When the first part comes true, Washizu’s scheming wife Lady Asaji, played by Isuzu Yamada, urges him to murder their liege lord and take his place. The two subsequently become gradually insane and drunk with power as the consequences for their actions begin unraveling. Confession time: This is the first feature-length Akira Kurosawa film that I’ve both watched and finished all the way through! As a devoted cinephile, I understand that saying this is a downright travesty; to some, it might even be treasonous. But for whatever reason, for the longest time, I was unable to get my hands on any of his films, especially his supposed masterpiece Seven Samurai. But I was finally able to get the Criterion DVD for this particular film over the holiday season, and thought it would make a great addition to my 2019 New Year’s resolution. I have read that Throne of Blood is not as impressive as the director’s other works. But in my opinion, this is one of the best adaptations of Shakespeare’s work that I have seen in cinematic form yet. Like Kenneth Branagh, Kurosawa has a deep understanding of the story that many other directors seem to miss. By taking the barebones story of a traitorous and power-hungry noble and applying it to the world of Medieval Japan, Macbeth no longer becomes beholden to the barrier of language. What makes Throne of Blood so fascinating to watch is that it ultimately doesn’t need the extravagant poetry and monologues that Shakespeare puts in his works to get to the point or themes of the story. We still have staples such as the sorcerer, Lady Macbeth, et. al., but the new setting makes it feel so unique and memorable. In one of just 16 feature films films they worked on together, Toshirō Mifune is incredible as Washizu. It’s so easy to see why the director constantly wanted to work with him, as he full commits to playing a man slowly losing his grip on reality. This performance is especially impressive during his scenes in the last act of the movie, when his sanity just completely collapses. Opposite him is Isuzu Yamada as his wife Asaji, who’s arguably even more ruthless and cunning than he is. Her small and seemingly quiet demeanor are a perfect cover for a cutthroat and callous woman who simply wants as much power in the land as possible, no matter who suffers. Also, Akira Kobo does great work as Washizu’s former friend turned-enemy Miki, who apparently is inspired by Banquo. While he initially does have decent intentions, as soon as its clear he’s a threat to his old comrade, all bets are off. As far as technical aspects go, Throne of Blood sees Kurosawa taking full command of his voice and surroundings once more. It sees him working with many of his regular collaborators, including Asakazu Nakai for the cinematography. There are many static wide shots and sweeping landscapes used in the film, which creates an incredible use of negative space. Kurosawa also edited the film himself, provide a healthy amount of variety for shots in scenes. For example, a sudden zoom-in or a character in a room will suddenly be intercut with close-ups and the like. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention Yoshirô Muraki’s incredible production and costume design. It’s so amazing that the Castle of Spider’s Web was made from scratch as it looks so authentic and real. Not to mention that numerous extras were used to film large battle scenes and, of course, the fog. It adds such a brilliant atmosphere to the film as a whole, and frequently is used to throw audiences off from reality. Masaru Satô composed and conducted the instrumental film score, and it’s highly dynamic and unconventional. Rather than give a straightforward melody to serve as the backbone for the whole soundtrack, Satô uses sparse tracks in an attempt to capture what’s going on inside Washizu’s headspace. With the possible exception of the opening title track, nearly every single piece is cacophonous and chaotic. There’s a consistent percussive sound beating around violently, as well as high notes from wooden flutes to create something truly baffling but memorable. I think if for nothing else, this film would be a great introduction into classic Japanese cinema for more mainstream audiences. Yes, it’s black-and-white and subtitled, (With two different versions on the Criterion DVD) something that can turn some people off. But it’s surprisingly accessible in its narrative and style. Not to mention, it has one of the most jaw-dropping final scenes I’ve watched in quite some time. Throne of Blood is an extremely thematic and riveting tale of power and tragedy. Not only does it so expertly adapt one of Shakespeare’s mot revered plays while retaining its spirit, but it’s arguably the perfect launching pint for my exploration of Akira Kurosawa. I’m mighty hungry to see his other adaptations of The Bard, and the rest of his filmography in general.

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“Vice” Movie Review

I’ve read some people recently talking about how they want things to go back to when things in politics and government were simpler. But here’s a film to offer a rebuttal to anyone who thinks that they’d rather live in those times than these ones. This politically-charged biographical comedy-drama was released in theaters worldwide on Christmas Day of 2018. Although it faced some stiff competition in the holiday market, it has managed to respectably well in the specialty box office with a total intake of $41.2 million thus far. With a production budget of around $60 million, it is the emerging studio’s largest production to date, and its success (Or lack thereof) could predict their future. Written and directed by Adam McKay, the Academy Award-winning man behind The Big Short, the film was originally set up at Paramount Pictures under the original title Backseat, announced right after the 2016 presidential election. Eventually, something happened where the distribution rights were given over to Annapurna Pictures, with Brad Pitt’s Plan B and Will Ferrell (Yes, THE Will Ferrell) co-producing. At one point during production, the director suffered a heart attack, much like his central protagonist. Based on the true story, Christian Bale stars as Richard “Dick” Cheney, a Wyoming native. Over the course of over 40 years, he goes from an alcoholic lineman to the CEO of the company Halliburton and to a big political player in Washington D.C. Then, in the early 2000s, Cheney was chosen to be the running mate of Texas Governor George W. Bush, played by Sam Rockwell. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks and other convenient circumstances, Cheney uses his private persona to become arguably the most powerful and influential Vice President in the history of the United States. I’ve enjoyed Adam McKay’s work on comedies like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and The Other Guys. He’s definitely not afraid to turn some heads with some material that’s truly “out there,” whether it be very wacky or very political. And I did like his dramatic debut in The Big Short, but some part of it just didn’t quite make it that great for me. Color me mighty intrigued to hear him tackle another relevant topic, especially with an all-star cast like this one. Particularly with someone like Dick Cheney, one of the most notoriously reclusive and secretive figures in politics, as the primary subject of focus. I can definitely say that I like Vice more than The Big Short, even if it’s not always entirely successful. It’s a bit hard for me to review this film objectively because, politically, I agree with several points McKay makes in this movie. Much like his previous film, he’s got a lot to say a pivotal part of America from the early 21st Century, and he says it with a lot of fury. Vice speaks a lot on the corruption, greed, and total amorality that people like Cheney and Rumsfeld used to gain more power and run the government to their liking. At times, it becomes in danger of letting all of that anger make it become more like incoherent babble. And like The Big Short, it most definitely holds the audience’s hand throughout the movie, using a narrator named Kurt, played wonderfully by Jesse Plemons, to explain concepts like the Unitary executive theory and “enhanced interrogation techniques.” For many viewers, this will probably be an issue, especially for those who have already lived through it once. But it does manage to balance both entertainment and education fairly well, as we start to understand the plot more as we learn more little details. Particularly because the two aforementioned ideas are very much used today by the Trump administration. Christian Bale has made a career out of being a chameleon, and he once again completely disappears as Dick Cheney. Considering how little is actually known of him in the public sector, it’s impressive how much he commits to the politician. With an unrecognizable look and around 40 pounds put on, his subtle movements and sly way of talking evoke the controversial man so much. Opposite him is Amy Adams as essentially his Lady Macbeth-esque wife Lynne, who proves herself a force to be reckoned with. You can tell that she desires a certain amount of power that women would’ve never been given when she grew up. Steve Carrell also shines as Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney’s political mentor and virtual partner-in-crime. He’s so slimy and unrepentant for all of his actions, that I hated watching his scenes, which is a testament to the actor. There’s also Allision Pill as Cheney’s gay daughter Mary, Sam Rockwell as the goofball of a president Dubya, Lily Rabe as Cheney’s ambitious older daughter Liz, Justin Kirk as the VP’s eyes and ears inside the bureaucracy, and a surprisingly serious Tyler Perry as General Colin Powell. As far as technical aspects go, Vice finds Adam McKay having more formal control behind the camera than his previous effort. Greig Fraser’s cinematography can be very dynamic, often switching between handheld scenes and Steadicam motions. This seemingly tries to reflect the state of the protagonist’s place in power or life, whether he’s totally in control of the situation or completely off-balance. The editing is done by Hank Corwin, who was previously nominated for an Oscar for his work on The Big Short. There are a number of freeze frames used throughout the film, some of which create hilarious results. It also rapidly moves between numerous events or atrocities, showing off a dichotomy of images that can be either disturbing or relaxing. Nicholas Britell, who’s seemingly becoming a red-hot star in Hollywood the last few years, composed and conducted the musical score. The main orchestral suite is a suitably dramatic and suspenseful one, utilizing melded strings and piano melodies to suggest that something (Or someone) is about to shake the world as we know it. There are also a handful of tracks that use more mysterious instruments such as oboes and trumpets. Interestingly, the sound as a whole feels distinctly American, most likely an intentional decision to incapsulate such a controversial figure and what he stood for. Lastly, there’s an unexpected mid-credits scene, which has arguably garnered the most controversy. Without spoiling anything, I can definitely say that it’s a very bold and scathing coda to everything the director had put forth prior to. We could debate about whether he’s right or wrong, but it’s hard to argue that he wasn’t smug while making it. And in all seriousness, depending on your views, it could hinder the message or thesis for the entire film. In any case, Vice is a messy but undeniably ambitious portrait of American politics and its biggest players. I’m not really convinced that Adam McKay is the generational spokesperson he’s making himself out to be, but he definitely wants to educate people while also entertaining them. Plus, we also get treated to some truly excellent performances from unrecognizable turns in Christian Bale and Amy Adams. Regardless of how well the film ultimately sticks the landing, I really appreciate the effort. Nothing more, nothing less.

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“Aquaman” Movie Review

In this movie, there’s a giant, ancient Kracken voiced by Dame Julie Andrews hanging around in the deep sea. If that doesn’t let you know what kind of movie you’re in for, then I really don’t know what will. This superhero adventure film was released in theaters worldwide on December 21st, 2018, marking the sixth official installment of the DC Extended Universe franchise. Against numerous expectations, the film has managed to gross over $978 million worldwide at the box office, against a budget of around $170 million. Much of that intake comes from overseas in places like China, beating out other films in its genre recently and easily becoming the highest-grossing entry in its franchise. It also broke pre-sale ticket records for the service Atom Tickets and also made a lot from pre-screenings seen by Amazon Prime members. Directed by James Wan, the same man behind Saw and The Conjuring, Warner Bros. had planned for a long time to bring the titular character to life. Aside from a canceled T.V. show on the W.B., the studio hired Will Beall and Kurt Johnstad to write two separate scripts on dual track but only one would be selected. Beall’s edition was ultimately chosen, with David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick attending to some rewrites. It was ultimately pushed back from its originally planned release date for the summer of 2018, but that doesn’t seem to have harmed it too much. Taking place about a year after the events of Justice League, the story follows Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry/Aquaman, a half-human half-Atlantean warrior keeping the Seven Seas as safe as possible. Heir to the throne of the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, he is reluctantly drawn into a conflict where his half-brother Orm, played by Patrick Wilson, is attempting to mount a massive invasion of the surface world. Arthur must find the courage to claim his rightful place beneath the ocean and lead his people towards peace. I still remember when I was a young child that Aquaman was considered something of a joke. A blonde man in a green-and-orange jumpsuit communicating with underwater creatures is inherently hard to take seriously for a lot of people. It wasn’t until the last few years that he was reinvented as a total badass and turned out to be one of the most powerful characters in DC Comics. I’ve always been curious to see what a feature-length movie would look like centered on the Atlantean Prince. James Wan’s horror background on great movies like the original Saw worked well, but I wasn’t sure if his sensibilities were fit for a swashbuckling high-seas adventure, as he has described it. At the end of the day, Aquaman has many problems with it, but it’s still surprisingly entertaining and diverting. My main issue with it is how the film feels too conventional for its own good a lot of the time. This is supposed to be an absolutely weird world we discover, packed with crazy monsters and whatnot. While there are certainly some designs and concepts that are really out there, the overall story structure is one we’ve seen so much and strangely doesn’t have much problem flowing through it. I’d actually respect Aquaman more if it went all-in on its balls to the wall ridiculousness, with nothing held back. It runs at 2 hours and 23 minutes, but there’s nothing in the plot to convince me that that runtime is justified. But hey, we do get to see a whole fleet of underwater humans using laser sharks to fight an army of sentient crab people. And in some ways, that’s good enough. Jason Momoa is pretty inspired casting for the titular hero, a far cry from his brutal role as Khal Drogo on Game of Thrones. He has incredible charisma and physical strength befitting of the hero, cranking out numerous cheesy one-liners like a good old action star. He uses his half-Native Hawaiian background to the fullest advantage to internalize the struggle of someone torn between two worlds. Amber Heard is mostly able to subvert the trope of being a damsel in distress as Mera, Arthur’s primary Atlantean ally. Her bright red hair and green suit reminded me heavily of Ariel from The Little Mermaid, although this time, it definitely felt like she had more control of her agency. Wan’s frequent collaborator Patrick Wilson is also noteworthy as the main villain Orm. While his motivations and craziness are pretty typical for a comic book villain like this, Wilson does a good job at containing a lot of it but can’t quite make it memorable enough. Other players include Temuera Morrison and Nicole Kidman as Arthur’s long-separated parents, Willem Dafoe as his conflicted mentor, Dolph Lundgren as the King of a vital underwater nation, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as a bitter and violent sea pirate with a major grudge out on the titular hero. Some are able to leave better impressions than others, but I can’t quite say that anyone was actually bad in their roles. Meanwhile, the technical aspects of Aquaman are pretty damn sweet to swim through. Robert Zemeckis’ longtime cinematographer handles the camerawork here, to some nice results. The camera almost always feels like it’s roving around or exploring the unique world with a certain fluidity. Although, it gets kind of cheesy as there are several shots where the actors make obvious poses. Kirk Morri’s editing job works well to move between the action scenes with enough cuts to keep it engaging without making it incomprehensible. The biggest thing propelling this film are the visual effects. Containing just under 2,300 VFX shots, the environments underwater, particularly the Kingdom of Atlantis, are actually quite beautiful and vibrant. The work done by Industrial Lights & Magic and a handful of other production companies isn’t too shabby, as there are convincing movements of characters underwater. Very few scenes take place on the surface world, so it can become a little obvious after a while. But in fairness, it is rather easy for me to see why the director was mad the film didn’t make the Best Visual Effects shortlist. Rupert Gregson-Williams composed and conducted the instrumental film score, and it’s one of the better ones from a superhero film this year. A surprising number of tracks involve synthesizers for its backbone, especially the main theme for our hero and when we first see Atlantis. It infuses pretty well with conventional instrumentations like trumpets, strings, and electric guitars to get an “out-of-this-world” feeling. Also, for some reason, the film ends with an orchestral pop ballad called “Everything I Need” by singer-songwriter Skylar Grey. It utilizes deeply booming percussion and repetitive piano chords as its main medley. But aside from Grey’s lovely vocals, it’s an entirely forgettable song that just doesn’t really fit with the rest of the soundtrack. Neither terribly awful nor remarkable enough to be superior to many other entries of its genre, Aquaman is a colorful and enjoyably diverting high-seas adventure that never fully takes advantage of its weirdness. James Wan is surely capable of a superhero epic behind the camera, and you can tell he and the cast had a fun time making it. It is refreshing since it doesn’t forcibly setup a big teaser for the next Justice League, as the DCEU is still on course correction. But there’s still something a little unsatisfying about the whole thing. Oh well.

“Mary Queen of Scots” Movie Review

I mean, I guess. There were a ton of other routes they could have taken with this story, but this one seemed like it was already on autopilot. This historical drama initially premiered as the closing night selection for the 2018 AFI Fest in mid-November of 2018. It was then released in U.S. theaters by Focus Features on December 7th, 2018, and has struggled to gross much more than $7.2 million at the box office against a budget of $25 million. It has also received mixed critical reviews along with numerous critiques for its apparent historical inaccuracies. The film marks the feature directorial debut of Josie Rourke, a highly prolific stage director with an extensive background in British theatre. Written by Beau Willimon, creator and longtime showrunner of the Netflix drama House of Cards, the film is loosely based on the book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy. It had originally been in production with Scarlett Johannson attached to star as far back as 2007 but soon languished in development hell. It then achingly started gearing up for commencement once more over the last, very slow 6 years. Set in Scotland circa 1569, Saoirse Ronan stars as the titular Mary Stuart, a young woman claiming to have legitimacy not only to the Scottish throne but to the whole of the United Kingdom. She challenges her cousin Queen Elizabeth I of England, played by Margot Robbie, a virgin who cannot have any children or heirs. However, their mutual steadfast refusal to marry politically or heed word from their male-dominated councils puts them into a tricky position for their respective peoples, who begin to see both Queens as unfit to rule. This is a film that feels like something right out of Miramax’s awards season playbook from the late 1990s. Take from that what you will, but to me, large budget costume dramas like these haven’t had a major hit in a long time. I can’t really say that I’m a fan of House of Cards, but I do love the two main actresses and will seek out whatever they’re in. And this is a sect of history that I’m really not that familiar with, so I was curious to see what this sort of conflict would look like for these people. Unfortunately, Mary Queen of Scots succumbs to many of the same problems historical movies have always had. When it comes down to it, this is ultimately a case of a great burgeoning director fighting against a weak screenplay. Based on the few episodes I’ve seen from House of Cards, I can tell that Beau Willimon is definitely interested in politics and their machinations. But, also like that Netflix show, it seems like he doesn’t have a clear understanding of how politics works, no matter what era. To him, it’s just a bunch of cruel and selfish people destroying anyone in their way in their quest to the top of the throne room; the lack of any further nuance or insight makes this angle and the characters one-dimensional and uninteresting. This stands in contrast to Josie Rourke’s direction, which highlights an excellent knack for staging. She does her best working with the material she’s given, and it makes me interested in what she does for the future. But there are some things in it that she simply doesn’t seem equipped to overcome, as there are a number of instances that stretch both its historical accuracy and believability. For what it’s worth, though, Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie do good work in their respective roles. Although it feels cliché and unbelievable to position Mary as an underdog, Ronan is uncompromising and fierce as the Scottish Queen. Robbie also manages to be strong-willed and determined, despite her sad circumstances with no hope of reprieve. Interestingly, there’s only one scene in the entire film where they share the screen together, but their chemistry in that one moment was dynamite and empathetic. In comparison to these two, most of the other actors fall short. Gemma Chan and Guy Pearce look a tad uncomfortable in their roles as two of Elizabeth’s advisors, while Jack Lowden and James McArdle portray Mary’s second husband and traitorous brother, respectively. They all remain confined to their archetypal roles, and in a few instances change their attitudes or traits in such a fast and unbelievable manner. The only other player here who leaves something of an impression is former Doctor Who David Tennant as John Knox, a thick-bearded Protestant cleric. Proclaiming that a woman sitting on the throne is an affront to God’s will, he is frequently seen delivering fiery sermons to the Scottish people in an effort to turn them against their Queen. He acts and speaks like a 16th Century version of Fred Phelps, which in some instances pulled me out of the movie, and in others kept me engaged. The technical aspects of Mary Queen of Scots, are very inconsistent, being great in parts but never as a whole. Ridley Scott’s frequent cinematographer John Mathieson captures both kingdoms in gloomy, washed out colors primarily. While the beautiful Scottish countryside is used for great background, both it and the almost-solely castle-set England feel a little too monochromatic. Thankfully, the controlled and focused movements and angles capture good lighting throughout the councils’ various quarrels. Chris Dickens edits the film in an intriguing way, albeit one that’s occasionally choppy or unbalanced. During verbal arguments, it frequently intercuts with other scenes to add more momentum to whatever is going on on-screen. The film runs at 2 hours and 5 minutes, but it often feels like it was originally a 3 hour-long epic cut down for commercial purposes. The best aspects of the film are undoubtedly Alexandra Byrnes’ elegant costumes, Jenny Shircore’s wide-ranging makeup and hairstyling, and James Merifield’s excellent production design. Without these 3 elements, late Medieval Great Britain would have felt far more staid and lifeless. The highly prolific and talented composer Max Richter provides the instrumental film score. In some ways, it feels similar to much of his regular work, and in other instances, it doesn’t. With his traditional backing of string instruments, there are a handful of melancholy tracks for some of the characters and their fates. There are also some rather rousing and exciting tracks using booming percussion instruments and occasionally something like subtle flutes and oboes. I can’t say that I’d necessarily pick it up on Apple Music, but it definitely fit for the context of the film. Neither remarkably awful nor astoundingly great, Mary Queen of Scots is a deeply conflicted portrait of two strong women wrestling with royalty and privilege. Again, Josie Rourke shows some considerable talent behind the camera and the two leading ladies are quite appealing in their roles. The bummer is that the supporting cast and script surrounding them just don’t really ever measure up to them.

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“Children of Men” Movie Review

My God. The things that Man will do to one another when they forget the sound of cries and laughter from children. This science-fiction drama thriller initially premiered at the 63rd Venice International Film Festival, where it won an award for achievement in cinematography. And although it debuted to the top spot in the United Kingdom, when it was released in the U.S. on Christmas Day of that year, it failed to really make a dent. The Universal Pictures production ended up only making back $70 million against a $75 million  budget. Although, it was nominated for various year-end awards, and has grown dramatically in reputation in the years since its release. Directed and co-written by Alfonso Cuarón, the film is an extremely loose adaptation of P.D. James’ novel of the same name, the first draft of which was written back in 2001. Shooting was temporarily pushed back while the director worked on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, during which he drew several influences from The Battle of Algiers as well as his own experiences living in Britain. During production, the infamous 7/7 London bombings occurred, but this apparently did not deter the cast or crew in much capacity. Set in the year 2027, humanity has been completely infertile for nearly two decades, causing most of society as we know it to collapse. The few functioning governments left create massive, harsh sanctions against immigrants or refugees of any kind, causing consistent violence. In the city of London, a bureaucrat named Theo Faron, played by Clive Owen, is approached by a militant, pro-immigrant activist group called the Fishes and is strong-armed into escorting a young refugee named Kee away from the chaos. It becomes especially important since Kee is, miraculously, the first woman to become pregnant in 18 years. As the 24th and final film in my New Year’s resolution, I wanted to tackle yet another highly regarded picture that I had never seen before. I had heard many a great chatter about this film for a long time, with some people even going so far as to say that it’s the best sci-fi movie of the 21st Century so far. And I have loved virtually every film that Alfonso Cuarón has made since Y Tu Mamá Tambien, so this felt like a completion of sorts. Plus, it was super enticing to see what his take on a near-apocalyptic future would look like. And I couldn’t have picked a better film to round out my resolution with because Children of Men is an essential, moving, and utterly captivating film to behold. I’m sure many people have said it already, but I feel one of the biggest reasons for its power is how it has- unfortunately -only become more relevant in recent years. 2027 is not that far away anymore and while there has yet to be an infertility pandemic, more and more countries are closing off their borders and turning to fear-mongering as their next generations are seemingly ignored or forgotten. Through context, we learn of the decadence that the remains of humanity have turned to in a child-less world, one where there’s seemingly no hope for the future. What makes Children of Men so terrifying is how much Cuarón grounds the story in reality, creating a plausible scenario where the last hope of our species is surrounded by a bleak world. I’ve liked Clive Owen in various projects over the years, but his turn as Theo Faron is easily the best performance of his career. Having apparently been heavily involved in early writing, he completely owns this character as a cynical man who’s lost nearly all faith in his fellow man. But when the time comes, he truly steps up to the plate in complete selflessness to protect what’s really important. Julianne Moore and Michael Caine do respectable work as Faron’s ex-wife/the leader of the Fishes and his drug dealing friend, respectively. Although they’re not in the movie for very long, each leaves a lasting impact as they relish roles unusual for their careers and we really feel a past history they had with Theo. There are also a number of unexpectedly strong supporting players such as Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlie Hunnam, Danny Huston, Peter Mullan, Oana Pellea, and Pam Farris. Then, there’s Kee, played by Claire Hope-Ashitey. Although her character doesn’t exist in the original novel, she stands as the embodiment of the recent single-origin hypothesis- that all human life began on Africa. It’s a beautiful allegory and she carries many of her scenes with all of the confusion and strength and weight of a young mother-to-be. We immediately grow to care about her, and not just because she potentially has the key to human survival, but that others seek to take advantage of this. Meanwhile, the filmmaking aspects of Children of Men show Alfonso Cuarón being in complete control of his craft once more. With his regular collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematography helps to make an utterly bleak future look quite gorgeous. There are a number of extremely impressive long takes, such as a mounted perspective of an attack on the group in a car or a shaky camera following Theo through a violent war-torn city. The use of natural lighting is especially effective as we get to gradually see details of this world come into focus through the sunlight or by other ways. Cuarón also edits the film like many of his other works, this time in collaboration with longtime friend Alex Rodríguez. There are thankfully a number of good cuts to go around, as some of the one-take scenes begin to get exhausting after a little bit. It also manages to help capture certain parts of the action from different angles and perspectives, which keeps things consistently interesting. There is a instrumental film score, albeit a minimal one, composed and conducted by the late John Tavener. It’s not a traditional score, as the few tracks written feel extremely fluid with one another. The most predominant track is “Fragments of a Prayer,” which uses both dynamic vocals and ethereal strings to create a spiritual atmosphere. Some of the others use full-scale choirs and even flutes and unique percussion instruments. Many of these elements come together for a scene near the end that creates a true sense of emotional beauty. My jaw dropped and my heart stopped as it went on, a momentary pause in a fictional world so devoid of any hope. I can’t really write about it here because it’s so hard to describe in its power, despite its apparent simplicity, but all I can say is that I was left stunned. Frighteningly relevant today, but never succumbing to its bleakness, Children of Men is a hauntingly stark vision of human nature in dystopia. It celebrates some of our best qualities while simultaneously condemning the ones that make us worse off. Alfonso Cuarón is a true master of finding incredible subtext within even the simplest of stories, painting a sci-fi world in a way that feels like it could become a reality. Let’s hope that it never does.