Hereditary (2018): Layers of Horror and History in a Beautiful Miniature

 

“Hereditary” thus far is my favorite movie of the year. This is a horror movie that does horror perfectly. It is a slow burn, keeping you horrified and scared for the characters the entire time. This film is difficult to watch in all the right ways, as horror is meant to be unsettling and to make you uncomfortable. This films does this phenomenally and gives compelling characters, powerful themes and a mystery that is never revealed until the end.

“Hereditary” was written and directed by Ari Aster. The story follows the Graham family, specifically the mother, Annie, who is a famous miniature artist who recreates moments from her past. She has a husband and 2 kids, each deals with the death of Annie’s mother in different ways as their shared trauma slowly drives them apart.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Tension and Tone – This is a film that is seeping with tension. The film is uncomfortable and creepy from the first scene, and you are left guessing where it is going to take you next. I was at the edge of my seat through most of the film, and that was because of how unsettling the tension and tone were. The movie goes through slow escalation ,and each scene adds more intensifying moments as you spend more time with the family while they fall apart.

The Cinematography – This is a beautiful film. There is symbolism in the artwork of Annie, who has created miniatures from her life experiences, and in the house they are in. Moments are captured in the miniatures that mirror or lead into horrifying events in reality. The use of shadows around the house is done really well too, as is the red light from the tree house that sits outside the home. This use of light is haunting and fits the themes where reality is becoming distorted for Annie, as she learns the truth about her mother.

When Family Falls Apart – The main drama is the family falling apart. Annie nearly killed her son and daughter when she sleepwalked (nearly set them on fire), the son hates her because of it. Her daughter also saw the grandmother as her mother as she was nursed from birth by the grandmother who sought to indoctrinate her. From the get go the only stable part of Annie’s life is her husband. After Annie’s daughter is accidentally killed in a car crash by her son things deteriorate further as she starts seeing ghosts, and more sinister forces manipulate her grief. The characters are all compelling, and the father is especially  intriguing, as he is torn between protecting and loving his son, and taking care of and loving his wife. 

Occult or Mental Illness? – One of the things I liked is that the film is ambiguous on whether it is a history of extreme mental illness that is causing the meltdown, or if it is the cult and the demon that actually exist. By the end it is implied that the demon does exist and ends up possessing the son after the grandmother, mother and daughter have all died. But, even given that fact… the demon works as metaphor, given that it is the unaddressed illness and trauma that are passed on, and in the end destroy the house. It is beautiful and terrifying and works on multiple levels.  

 This is a film that I highly recommend if you are into horror movies. The characters are compelling and you care about all of them. None of the family members are bad people, they are just so broken, and caught in things so far out of their control, that tragedy is the only realistic end the story can tell. This is my favorite movie of this genre, and I’m not a fan of the occult type horror films, however, ghost stories or monster films are more of my jam. The occult is perfect for the story this movie tells, though, and it is a masterpiece well worth your time.

Final Score: 10 / 10

Annihilation (2018): A Haunting Exploration of Inner Fears

  If you are new to the blog, I am a huge fan of sci. fi. Most of the films and shows I review are science fiction based and more often than not, they make my Top 5 of whatever year they were made if they are great. “Annihilation” never reaches the heights that the premise creates, but it is a solidly good film. I rented it from Amazon and it is worth checking out.

The film was directed and wrote Eric Garland, who was the writer and director behind one of my favorite films “Ex Machina.” It is based off a novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, which I plan on checking out.

The story follows Lena, a biologist who is brought in on a special mission when her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) returns back changed and goes into a coma. From here she works with the team to try and solve the mystery of “The Shimmer,” a reality warping anomaly that is expanding slowly upon the Earth.

The Mystery – The core mystery is what drives the story, and what kept me most involved. The characters were interesting enough that I cared about what happened to them a little (though we never got to know them fully outside of Lena). And, I love that it starts out with a mystery; someone coming home different with no memories of who they were before. “The Shimmer” is a fascinating concept and I love how everytime you feel you learn something else about it, it reveals a greater mystery. The core premise of solving “The Shimmer” kept me in the story the entire time.

The Idea of the Team – The team is made up of women, and they are awesome! We have Lena, the biologist, holding her secrets. The cruel and distant Dr. Ventress, as the leader. The empathetic Josie, the kindness of Cassie, and the hard driven Anya. Each character carries a darkness that “The Shimmer” brings out.

The Darkness We Carry – Each of our characters carries a darkness with them. There is the fact that Lena cheated on her husband, Anya cuts herself, and Ventress has become detached and uncaring. The darkness consumes each of the characters in different way the deeper they get into the “Shimmer.”

Metaphorical and Actual Cancer – The film is also a metaphor for cancer. Everything in “The Shimmer” warps and grows. Like cancer it consumes until there is nothing left. “The Shimmer” is defeated after the alien inside of it is set on fire by Lena. As it burns, the entire “Shimmer” down to its core continues to desire to spread.

Okay:

Lena – Lena is okay. I like how she is complex as a character, but Natalie Portman’s performance doesn’t bring to the next level. I didn’t care enough about any of these characters the way I cared about the protagonists in “Ex Machina.” Here there is a level of detachment from the events going on, and a good portion of that is Lena’s own detachment from the situations she is in. She still did okay, but I can’t put her as a pro, though she was the most compelling member of the team.

The Cons:

The Ending – In the end we find out Kane, who came back as a doppelganger, is the alien life form (from “The Shimmer”.) The twist is that Lena is now a doppelganger too, even though she defeated it in the end. This contradiction took away from the entire film’s theme of overcoming darkness and healing. It kept the film from being great. The film really should have ended with her being interviewed, and Kane’s mystery never being answered. .

If you are fan of sci-fi, like me, chances are you will enjoy this film. This is a flawed and beautiful film that aspires to achieve so much, but because the characters are never quite fleshed out enough, never gets there. The ending also was a bit of a cop out and cancels out so much of what Lena went through. Even with a flawed ending, it is still worth checking out. I rented it, and it is a film that I’d say isn’t worth buying, but was worth the rent.

Final Score: 8 / 10

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) – Stupid Title in a Great Adventure

“Solo: A Star Wars Story” is a stupid title. We know the film is about Han Solo, so adding that is “A Star Wars Story” tells us nothing we don’t already know. Given that they wanted to make a Trilogy out of this film I’m not sure how they’d show they are different, but I’m good with the sequels having different titles. Beyond my gripe about this title, I really liked this movie and thought it was a great. This was a film that explores the underworld of “Star Wars” where there are thieves, pirates and gangsters and no one is to be trusted. I enjoyed this film so much that I would watch sequels as the core cast and story were compelling and I found myself entranced through this entire side adventure within the Star Wars Franchise.

The film was directed by Ron Howard, (after the original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired) and written by Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan.

The story follows the adventures of Han Solo and explores how he became the smuggler we know in “A New Hope.” I’ll get more into that later on but the core of the plot is how he gets the Millennium Falcon and his motivation for going into the smuggler life. 

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The “Star Wars” Underworld – The underworld is one of the core parts of the Star Wars films. We see Jabba and his palace in “Return of the Jedi” and get glimpses of the underworld of Coruscant in the prequels and in series like “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” tv series. I like this world… this is a world where money and power run everything and even the Empire stays out of their way. It is here, where we see characters make difficult and dark choices, as a matter of course and “Solo” does not disappoint in that regards. This film develops the underworld and we see the toll it takes on those who are forced into it or choose to become a part of it.

The Cloud Riders – This is a pirate group that is always getting in on Beckett’s jobs, as we see, he and the leader have a history with one another. I won’t spoil what happens with them, but there is more to them than meets the eye and, like everyone in this movie, they are far more complex than they first appear to be.

Tobias Beckett and his Crew – Woody Harrelson is fantastic as Beckett, a corrupt guy out for himself but, also, caring, as we see he’s married to his partner Val and clearly loves her. As well as, great rapport with his pilot, Rio, an alien with four arms and attitude. Eventually Chewie and Han join this group on a train heist job. The crew has a great dynamic and I would have watched a show about the 5 of them. Han joins them after he discovers their con and becomes part of their crew. 

Dryden Vos and the Crimson Dawn – Paul Bettany plays an amazing villain. This is a guy who reeks threat and charm as he invades peoples’ space, and does all he can to disarm them before ever having to fight them. You can tell why he became leader of the Crimson Dawn, as he flies in a huge ship to track his assets to make sure they finish their jobs. His power is far reaching, too, as Qi’ra and Han were orphans under the control of Lady Proxima, and now she is under Vos and the Crimson Dawn’s control. His organization has become one of the most powerful gangs in the galaxy. 

Lando – Donald Glover captures Lando’s charm beautifully. Young Lando is a gambler who does what he wants, and will cheat to win. This provides an interesting dynamic with Han who is idealistic and good at this point, where Lando shows the direction Han will go. Lando, of course, owns the Millennium Falcon and his co-pilot is L3, a droid who believes in equal rights for droids and has a complicated relationship with Lando.

Han and Chewbacca – Han and Chewbacca are the heart of the film, as we see that they have each others back on multiple occasions. Initially they start out distrusting each other and depending on one another for simple survival, but with each sacrifice they make for each other, they soon become partners and close friends by the end of the film.

Okay:

Qi’ra – Qi’ra is Han’s childhood friend and love interest. Amelia Clarke does a decent job in the role, but I wouldn’t call her super memorable. She plays her part in the advancement of the plot and there are some great twists with her character, but I feel more could have been done. I wanted more scenes of her with Han, so their relationship could be developed further and so that the romance would feel more real.

Fanservice – Want to learn how characters got their nicknames or names? Want to know why the Falcon looks why it does? Want to get some “A New Hope” references? Well, you will get all this, and more, in this film. It never gets as bad as “Rogue One” in the references and the original characters carry the film. So much of the fanservice wasn’t needed and I would have preferred we never had the questions answered.

The Cons:

The Cinematography – The cinematography is really dark. There were times I had trouble seeing what was going on on screen and had to depend wholly on what I heard the characters were saying, rather than what I was seeing. This was a huge detriment and what kept the film from being the perfect film of its type.

“Solo: A Star Wars Story” was a film that as far as I know, no one was asking for, but in the end I was glad it got made. Hearing about the development hell, from the firing of the first directors, to hiring an acting coach for the lead… I was ready to hate this film. I had no expectations and was really annoyed this film even existed. “Solo” has now become one of my favorite “Star Wars” films. The film takes risks by giving us a world where no one can be trusted and the status quo is loss. I would watch sequels to this film, and cared far more about the characters here than I did anyone in “Rogue One.” If you like “Star Wars” or heist films, check it out. It is well worth your time and for me it did not disappoint.

Final Score: 9.4 / 10

Deadpool 2 (2018): Deadpool Works Best in a Supporting Role

“Deadpool 2” is a fun action comedy that works in a lot of the same ways as the first film (critiquing Superhero films and pop culture), while trying to find a layer of depth in its characters which it sometimes succeeds at doing. It isn’t as good as the first film as it depends on most of the same jokes but it is still a film I’d recommend, as the new characters are fantastic and the jokes are still funny.

The film was directed by David Leitch and written by Rhet Reese, Paul Wermick and Ryan Reynolds.

The story involves Deadpool seeking a reason to live after criminals kill his wife Vanessa as he joins the X-Men to protect Russel, a boy who will someday become the supervillain Firefirst. Things soon get complicated though as protecting Russel lands both Deadpool and Russel in prison and they find themselves pursued by the cyborg super-soldier from the future, Cable.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Lampooning of “Logan” – The main joke that drives “Deadpool 2” is making fun of “Logan.” There will be spoilers for “Logan” in this, so here it goes…. In “Logan” Wolverine is in charge of protecting a kid from outside forces, and in the end, has to choose not being selfish, sacrificing himself to save her and the next generation of X-Men. Deadpool does all of this and mocks the sacrifice of “Logan” off the bat with a music box depicting a spinning, dead Wolverine on it. This core joke works but comes off as derivative given how much Wolverine and the comics he inhabited were mocked in the first film. 

Colossus – Colossus isn’t the heart of the film like last time, but he is great as Deadpool’s unsuccessful mentor. In the end he comes through to help Deadpool when Deadpool needs him though. I never cared about this character until the “Deadpool” films, and I hope we see more of him. Nothing was done with him in the other X-Men films, but here is a true hero more often than not.

Domino – Domino is the new addition and one of my favorite parts of the film. She is a mutant whose power is luck (Which in the film she can read situations to the point of doing the near impossible). Zazie Beetz does a fantastic job and gives the character an heir of confidence as she is so much better than so many of the idiots around her. We learn her backstory but, sadly, it doesn’t payoff  as she was abused in the same school as the character Russel / Firefist but she doesn’t get any payback. It remains unaddressed, which is a shame, as it gave her a motivation to help Deadpool and join X-Force.

Cable – Josh Brolin is an amazing actor and in this film we see him give a depth of emotion to your standard Terminator-esque cyborg. Through the film we see why he is motivated to kill Russel (in the future, Russel kills his wife and baby girl), and it is only through Deadpool’s actions that he learns compassion, even deciding to stay in the current timeline once he knows his family is safe. I hope we see more of the character as there is still so much that can be done, and I like his contrast with Deadpool’s flippancy, as he is always serious.

Deadpool – Ryan Reynolds truly owns this role and even though this film repeats a lot of the same jokes (Mocking Reynolds and “Logan,” Deadpool referencing pop culture, etc.), it is still an enjoyable film because, as flippant as Deadpool is, Reynolds gives this character heart. This is a character who grows as a person and has to learn to be vulnerable and open up, as in the end, that is the only way to save Russel from becoming a monster of the future. This is the thrust of Deadpool’s arc after criminals kill his wife Vanessa, and it is touching and hilarious seeing how he gets there.

Okay:

X-Force – X-Force is a joke, as they only exist to get killed off. There is a character who is invisible until they die and are revealed, and 3 other characters, one of whom is just a normal guy who just saw the advertisement. They all die when they are attacking the prison truck to save Russel. The only members to survive are Domino and Deadpool, which is the running gag of the group… that they are that worthless as a team. I put them in the okay category because I wanted more development of the team members. This is the running theme for me on why the film wasn’t great as so many ideas were good but they weren’t developed enough to reach greatness.

Negasonic and Yukio – I like that we see the first openly LGBTQ relationship in X-Men. It is overdue and Deadpool is a great way to show it. I hate that we know nothing about Yukio and Negasonic’s relationship. We never see how they work as a couple, they just are. Given how important love and relationship was in this film, it was a missed opportunity to make something that was a good idea truly fantastic.

When Jokes Repeat – Many of the jokes in this film are repetitive… be it Deadpool’s semi-stand up routine, the mocking of “Logan,” Wolverine and Ryan Reynolds and making fun of DC. I’m not putting this as a con, but this film could have been amazing if it’d been more original in the jokes it chose to present.

The Cons:

Russel and the School – Russel is a kid who turns into a villain in X-Men’s dystopian future, a future in which he kills Cable’s wife and daughter and takes the name Firefist. Russel isn’t a good actor. He does an okay job but he just wasn’t compelling enough to be the heart of the film, which he needed to be given it was him healing from his abuse and not becoming a killer that was the core thrust of the story. The owner of the school suffers from this same problem, as he is just a corrupt religious fanatic who gets zero development, only functioning as a way to drive the plot, which at the end of the day was all Russel was too.

If you liked “Deadpool” you will probably enjoy “Deadpool 2.” This was a film that was flawed and repetitive, but introduced a lot more characters and concepts, that I hope get explored in future films be it X-Force, Domino, and Cable, along with the dystopian future that Cable came from. At the end of the day, this was a solid action comedy and I’m glad it exists to make fun of the world where superhero films own the box office.

Final Score: 8.4 / 10

Avengers: Infinity War (2018) – The Power of a Compelling Villain

“Infinity War” is easily in my Top 5 MCU films. This is a film I saw a second time before writing this review, and the only other Superhero films that have been that lucky were “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises.” As you can tell from those and this film, I enjoy my superhero films depressing or bittersweet. This is a film that hits you over the head with loss, and doesn’t stop until the end. Thanos is the villain, but also the protagonist, as his actions drive the film and force our heroes to make choices that define them before the loss comes. I’ll get into spoilers deeper into the review, but for now, this is a film I highly recommend.

This film was directed by the Russo Brothers, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, while being produced by Kevin Feige.

The story involves the Avengers trying to stop Thanos from getting all the Infinity Stones (cosmically powerful stones born at the Big Bang, and scattered through the Universe), as when he does, he plans to wipe out half the universe.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Universe – It is the Marvel Cinematic Universe… a universe full of aliens, cultures, clashing personalities, heroes, villains and in the end consequences. There is a reason I’ve become so drawn into the comic books. What Marvel and Disney have done is to interpret so much of that beautifully on the screen, and each new film I like returning to this enjoyable and fascinating world.

The Superhero Teams – The driving action of the film is the team-ups between different heroes. Characters clash and have to work out their conflicts in order to take on Thanos to keep him from destroying half the population of the Universe. I’ll cover what I liked about the teams below.

Bruce Banner and the Secret Avengers – The film kicks off with Thanos killing Loki and knocking out the Hulk. The Hulk is saved by Heimdall and sent to Earth where Hulk retreats into Bruce Banner. From here we see Banner reunite with the Avengers, and have to depend on his brains to take on the Black Order, as Hulk is afraid to come out after losing to Thanos. It is wonderful seeing this dynamic in action, with those in Wakanda, as he fights in Tony’s Hulkbuster armor against the alien swarm. Banner has always been the outcast in the Avengers, and now that he’s back he can’t even depend on his power as the Hulk. This forces him to adapt to thinking things through as Banner, as he realizes he has deeper issues to explore with the Hulk. I can’t wait to see where his arc goes with the Hulk and the Avengers in “Avengers 4.”

Spider-Man, Doctor Strange and Iron Man – This dynamic is fun. To kick things off, Doctor Strange is the one who doesn’t care about people (he tells Tony and Peter that he will let them die before he gives Thanos the Time Stone). Spidey is full of pop culture references that annoy Tony, and Tony Stark is always trying to take control, which leads to conflict with Doctor Strange because of it. They succeed in taking out a member of the Black Order, but face deadly fallout when they reach Titan, Thanos’ homeworld, to battle the Mad Titan himself.

Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax and Mantis – 3 of this group eventually team up with Spidey, Strange, and Stark against Thanos… which happens after Gamora is kidnapped by Thanos, as she knows the destination of the Soul Stone. She has some powerful scenes with Star-Lord, and some funny scenes with Drax.

Rocket, Groot and Thor – This was my favorite team up, it happens after the Guardians of the Galaxy rescue Thor from his destroyed refugee ship. Thor’s ship was destroyed by Thanos when he picked up the Space Stone from Loki, before Thanos kills Loki. It is the death of Heimdall and Loki, and half of Asgard that have Thor full of anger and broken. This leads to Rocket stepping up to be the Captain and helping Thor through the process of healing, as they head to the legendary location of Nidavellir, so that Thor can create a god killing weapon. Groot is a teenager and full of attitude, but steps up to the plate when he contributes part of himself to making Thor’s new weapon.

The Story Arc of Thanos – Thanos is the protagonist of this film. It is desire for balance in the universe (which he believes can only come about through genocide after his planet is destroyed from running out of resources and overpopulation) that drives his desire for the Infinity Stones. Each stone costs him, as the members of the Black Order are all eventually killed by the Avengers. To get the Soul Stone he has to sacrifice the only one he ever loved (Gamora), and getting the Mind Stone out of Vision nearly costs him his life, when Thor attacks him with the God killing weapon. In the end he wins and wipes out half the universe. Where his story goes from here remains to be seen, as he achieved his goal, and as far as he knows… he is the monster who brought balance to the universe. Josh Brolin truly did a masterful job and is easily one of the best villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Okay:

The Black Order – These 4 look really cool but weren’t as effective as they could have been. I would have liked at least one of them to kill one of the good guys. They might be back now that Thanos has all the Infinity Stones, so they could get more development later on… we’ll just have to wait and see.

The Battle in Wakanda – The Battle in Wakanda is pretty generic compared to most of the other fights in the film. Most of the other fights involve use of the environment and powers to try and stop the Mad Titan, where here it is a bunch of expendable aliens against a group of superheroes and soldiers all lined up. It is like every other “big battle.” It still looked good, but the genericness of it all kept it from being a truly memorable part of the film. It was the kind of action we see in every other MCU film.

Pacing – The first time I saw this film I didn’t notice any pacing issues. The second time I watched I thought the beginning could have been cut down and happened faster, the Battle of Wakanda is too long, and Thanos needed more scenes with people. Each film develops him further, and with better pacing we could have gotten more of that, or least more exploration of his faction, the Black Order.

The team ups, the comedy, the action, the characters and their arcs… there is so much I have to recommend about this film. This is a film that could have been a gigantic mess, given how large the cast was, and all the different parts that are in play. The Russo Brothers managed to pull it off. Once again, showing why they are the ones shaping the story of the MCU. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, do it. This is a film that is well worth your time and shows just how powerful stories can be.

Final Score: 9.8 / 10

 

Ready Player One (2018): When the Film is Better Than the Book

It has been some time since I’ve watched a Steven Spielberg film. After seeing this film, I really should change that. He really is one of the best living directors today, as this is a film that could have been a cringe-worthy mess. First, I was a fan of the book, even though this film gets away from the book in some ways it still keeps the core spirit of the book. This is a film that celebrates video games and nostalgia while doing it well, even though the main characters are flat. My non-spoiler thoughts are: if you liked the book, you will probably enjoy this film too.

The film was directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline (the author of the book).

The story takes place in the dystopian future of 2045. The world has fallen apart and everyone lives in the Oasis, a virtual reality world created by Halliday where you can be anyone and do anything. Wade Watts is the main protagonist who is trying to find the 3 Easter Eggs that Halliday put in the game as a way of passing on ownership after his death. From here Watts and his friends must find the keys and beat the game before the evil corporation, Innovative Online Industries (IOI), lead by Nolan Sorrento.

The Pros:

The Dystopian Reality – The dystopian reality of the world outside of the Oasis is a tragic place. You have debt slaves to IOI, cars and houses stacked on each other in the Stacks, a militarized police force and drones everywhere. I wanted to learn more about this world and spend more time there as the human connections we see are made primarily in the Oasis. For me, one of my favorite parts was seeing the characters outside of the game working together, having to depend on their brains rather than how awesome they were in the game. I wanted more of this and to hear more of their stories.

The Oasis – The Oasis is really cool. This is a VR world where you can make yourself into any avatar you want. You can also build robots, tanks, cars, etc. It is a huge modding community where you can do PVP (Player versus Player) and PVE (Player versus Enemies [AI]) combat. It is the endless possibilities of imagination and gaming combined. I really hope we can make something like it, someday.

i-R0K the Mercenary – i-R0K is the mercenary Sorrento, and his evil corporation IOI, uses to hunt our heroes. He is a funny guy, as he is only in it for the loot. He’s a huge threat, and also, very human as he talks about how bad his back is and needing physical therapy. He has more character than our heroes, and I would watch a movie just about him.

The Tone – The tone is one of wonder and imagination intermixed with sorrow and desperation. Spielberg owns the tone, and it pervades the film giving weight to everything that happens and the actions our characters take.

Okay:

Flat Heroes – Wade is an orphan who lives in the stacks who comes off as a bit one-dimensional, as he only lives for the game and has no real defining character traits. Samantha is the love interest who thinks she’s ugly because she has a birthmark on her face, and her dad is enslaved by IOI. The Japanese Brothers are an older and younger brother duo. The younger brother is an 11 year old who doesn’t like people thinking he’s young, as he fears they’d mock him in the Oasis. Helen is an African-American woman who plays a troll-like, tough character, called Aech. These characters aren’t bad… it’s just that there isn’t more to them beyond the descriptions I gave. They are all heroes who do the right thing, always, and have no inner conflict or aims. This was a missed opportunity. They are this way in the book, but we do get into Wade’s head which makes him more compelling. These characters work within the story, but they really deserved much better development.

Idealization versus Reality – Oasis is a giant gaming community, so where are or what happened to all the toxic trolls? The racists? The sexists? As far as we know there isn’t a moderator who kicks players out, so how did this reality become perfect? This is where the stories fantasy element really came out. The film could have critiqued itself, or shown us how to get to the ideal reality the Oasis community seems to be.

The Cons:

The Villain and Predictability – Sorrento is a cliched. corrupt businessman. one-dimensional villain. He’s just greedy and selfish, having no greater depth. He was that way in the book too, which is a shame as he knows Halliday and it could have been Halliday who brought out his worst self. He’s entertaining, but there is nothing there. He is flatter than our heroes, and their presentations aren’t great.

Overdependence on Nostalgia – The Oasis is full of references, and it is fine up to a degree, but in a game you’d expect more original content. Why is everyone so focused on creating things that already exist rather than things that don’t exist. Some moments of nostalgia are cool, like the T.Rex  and King Kong in the race at the beginning, but the old arcade game at the end felt unneeded and could have been adapted into a better trial.

This was a film that missed opportunities to critique the culture of gaming, and nostalgia found in the modern world (they could have shown how we got past toxic troll culture, etc.). The flatness of the heroes and  the villain didn’t help the film… but the world, the world carried it for me. This is a good film that could have been great if it had dared to observe and critique itself. Once more, if you loved the book or love Spielberg, you will enjoy this film.

Final Score: 8.3 / 10

 

Isle of Dogs (2018): Overlong Beginning Leads to a Good End

Wes Anderson is one of my Top 3 favorite directors (the other two being Stanley Kubrick and John Carpenter). How does this film stand up compared to his other works? It is good, I loved the visuals and characters, but it doesn’t have the depth as some of his other works and it never reaches greatness, even though it is really good. The location and characters are wonderful with some beautiful homages to Kurosawa, and the main cast is wonderfully quirky with the main character arc being solid. So for my non-spoiler thoughts, this definitely gets a strong recommend.

The film was directed by Wes Anderson, who also wrote and was one of the producers of the film. With the other producers being Scott Rudin, Steven Rales and Jeremy Dawson.

The story follows Atari (Koyu Rankin) a young Japanese boy and ward of the new authoritarian Mayor. He travels to the Isle of Dogs to find his dog Spots (Liev Schrieber) on the Island after all dogs are exiled there due to the Dog Flu. Five dogs help on his quest, with Chief (Bryan Cranston) being the stray who hates humans but must learn to trust Atari for them all to survive the quest. As the quest unfolds a conspiracy is revealed on the Isle of Dogs and Megasaki City.

The Pros:

The Animation and Visuals – The film is done in highly detailed, beautiful stop motion animation. Wes Anderson’s use of symmetry is on full display, as each character and their emotions stand out like drum beats on the screen. You can tell that Kurosawa inspired Wes Anderson, and the making of the film. Both directors are good at using wide open spaces to tell stories of travel, and color to express life and death. We get all of that in this film.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack, like the visuals, takes a lot of inspiration from Akira Kurosawa, from the quiet openings with stark drums, and the emphasis on percussion. Alexandre Desplat captures the world so starkly, bringing the characters and scenes to life.

The Pack – The Pack is wonderful. Goldblum’s Duke is a gossip and hears things, Murray’s Boss is kind of oblivious and likes wearing trinkets, Norton’s Rex is the default second-in-command and sometimes leader, Balaban’s King is the washed up ex-celebrity dog who goes through bouts of depression, and Chief is their tough battle-worn leader.

Chief’s Arc – The main arc of the movie belongs to the stray, Chief, who goes from hating humans to becoming Atari’s new bodyguard. His story is believable too, with a dog he likes (Nutmeg) first suggesting he give the kid a chance, and ending with the Atari caring for him as he goes from covered in black soot, to looking just like Spots. He was my favorite character, and I loved how as standoffish as he initially was. There were reasons behind it, just like his transformation made sense due to Atari’s compassion. By the end, he’s the main connector between humanity and the dogs.

Atari and the Mayor – The Mayor is a distant relative of Atari, and for some reason really hates the dogs (it is implied that his ancestors did, and of course they loved cats). In the end Atari’s love for the dogs changes his heart. He does what he can in the end to stop the dogs from being destroyed due to that last minute change of heart. I liked Mayor Kobayashi in the end, he was a great antagonist and had a level of complexity to him.

Okay: The Foreign Exchange Student / The Student Arc – Tracy Walker leads her class in saving the dogs on the Island. My issue with this was that we never get what brought her to Japan, so it gives a bit of a white savior vibe to her interactions, especially since the other students are never given words. I’m still putting her at okay as Tracy was a compelling character, the downside is she could have been anyone, and I would have preferred she’d have been Japanese like Atari.

What About the Cats? – I’m putting this as okay as the film could have become overcrowded if we had the cats speaking. I also wanted to know the cats motivations. It implies they are the leaders of Japan, but it never does anything with it. The cats never have a voice, and it takes away from the overall point. They weren’t even needed, since the focus was on the dogs.

The Cons:

The Japanese are Only Given a Voice Through Limited Translation – This ties into Tracy and the students. Most Japanese never get the chance to speak, or be understood, as they are filtered through translation. This wasn’t needed at all. I think it was meant for us to focus fully on the story of the dogs, but the story of humanity and the dogs is interconnected, so both should have their voices fully heard.

Pacing – The pacing is the biggest issue, about 20 minutes in I was exhausted (I walked from Ready Player One to the awesome indie theatre, Salem Cinema, for this double feature). This may have been a contributing factor to how slow it felt, and why it took me out of the film early on. It is slow, even though the payoff later is fantastic.

This was a film that I really enjoyed, and captures so much of why Wes Anderson is one of my favorite directors. From the characters and their detachment, to the fight against the stronger enemy (Atari against the government), and the quirky characters (mostly the dogs)… If you are a fan of Wes Anderson, you will love this film. If you aren’t a fan, or haven’t heard of him… I’d still recommend it. This is an original story that may take a while to reel you in, but once there you’ll be hooked.

Final Score: 8.8 / 10

Pacific Rim Uprising (2018): The Great Old With the Bland New

I’m a fan of the “Pacific Rim” universe. I also think the last film was perfect for what it was, and didn’t need a sequel. Now that a sequel has been made… I enjoyed it. But, this is a very flawed film brought down by child actors that can’t act; contrasted with some beautiful action, expansion of the “Pacific Rim” universe in intriguing ways and solid leads. I wouldn’t call it good, but if you are looking for an escape, my thoughts are, it is worth checking out.

This was a film that had a lot of people involved in its creation, with Steven S. DeKnight directing the film and being one of the 4 writers. Guillermo del Toro and John Boyega were producers, along with 5 other people. On paper, this looks like a film designed by committee.

The story picks up 10 years after the end of the first film. Jake Pentecost (Stacker Pentecost’s son, played by John Boyega) is living as a scavenger until he is picked up, and forced back into being a Jaeger Ranger. He must train new recruits as the world prepares for the return of Kaiju. All is not as it appears to be, though, as a new drone program is implemented, and a mysterious Jaeger arrives. The new Jaeger starts attacking people rather than protecting them.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Universe – I love this universe. Since middle school I’ve been a fan of monsters and mechs. The world del Toro realized is so rich in character and mythology. The mythology this time around doesn’t disappoint. We get solid world building, as we learn more about the Kaiju, The Precursors, and how humanity has changed after the Battle of the Breach that ended the first film.

The Jaegers and Kaiju – The Jaegers and Kaiju look great, as always, and the introduction of drones, which are later shown to be Jaeger/Kaiju hybrids, are a treat that add a lot the action. These two things, along with del Toro, are what drew me to the first film, and it was the mechs and monsters that kept my interest through the times where this film fell short. As both their creative designs and action scenes brought to life the world when the characters weren’t up to it.

Jake Pentecost and Nate Lambert – The main character drama is between Jake Pentecost and Nate Lambert. Jake is the party boy who becomes responsible after facing his trauma. Nate is the one who has to trust Jake, once again, if they are going win. Boyega’s charisma continues to make his character intriguing, even if the script doesn’t always help. Nate Lambert is a battle hardened veteran who was shaped by the war in such a way, he has trouble connecting to people. It gives him a level of mystery, as if he is holding onto some past trauma, which gives him a way to relate to Jake. It is their core relationship that kept the film going for me, as each of them grew over the course of the film, and it was a genuine challenge for them learning to trust one another.

Newt and the Kaiju – The main antagonist is Newt, who is being controlled by The Precursors, that also control the Kaiju. We discover he kept the Kaiju brain at the end of the last film, and it has corrupted him. Charlie Day hams the hell out of it, and is enjoyable to watch in his madness. He nearly wins on multiple occasions, and I can’t wait to see where they take his story.

Dr. Hermann and Liwen Shao – The two support characters who really drive the story are Dr. Hermann (he was around in the first film too), and Liwen Shao, owner of the drone program. Together they are able to save the world from the Kaiju, as each of their skills complement the surviving Jaegers and help them defeat the Giant Kaiju in its final assault on Tokyo. Which felt like a brilliant salute to all the mech and monster films that made this genre possible.

The Cons:

The New Recruits – These kids can’t act. I didn’t care about their story, each line of dialogue felt forced, and fake. These kids made the film feel like an episode of Power Rangers. If I had to describe them…it’d be difficult. We are shown how each of them are (the nervous one, the angry one, the inventor), but there isn’t enough there for them to be compelling. They brought the film down, and even making one of them a main character, in the inventor Amara, wasn’t enough to make me care about their story. 

The Death of Mako Mori – Mako Mori deserved better. She is killed by a rogue Jaeger, and it ends up being anti-climatic. She already existed primarily to give us plot (a disservice to the character), and even her great scenes with Boyega can’t change the fact that her death wasn’t dying in a fight against the monsters…it was in a copter crash. She never got that “moment of awesome” Stacker got, and there was so much more development she could have received with the re-establishing her relationship with Jake. Besides the child actors this was the worst part of the film.

Love Interest Woman – There is a woman named Jewel. Both Jake and Nate have a crush on her. She is an object in a contrived love triangle object. I couldn’t tell you her personality, her aims, or what she wants. She exists purely as “love interest girl” and is the worst part of the script. She wasn’t needed.

In the end, what holds up this film and keeps it from sucking are: the old characters and those tied to the old characters from the first film, Newt and Hermann were wonderful, Pentecost and Lambert had a great relationship, and Liwen Shao (the new character) shakes the story up in ways that only enrich this universe. I loved her character arc, and hope that she is a major part if they make a third film. This is a film that largely exists because of success in the international box office, specifically China. In the end I’m glad it was made.

Final Score: 7.7 / 10

Black Panther (2018): Seeking Justice in a Broken World

       “Black Panther” is easily one of my Top 5 favorite MCU films. This is a film that expands on the lore of the MCU, has great characters with amazing arcs, some of the best action and villains in any Marvel film. It also explores deeper themes of resistance and sovereignty adding up to a movie that is well worth your time.

The film was directed by Ryan Coogler who co-wrote it with Joe Robert Cole and produced by Kevin Feige.

The story involves T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), after “Captain America: Civil War,” as he takes the mantle as King of Wakanda but suddenly finds his world transformed as an enemy from Wakanda’s past upsets the status quo they’ve known for so long. This forces him and his allies to confront the past and what the choices they make will mean for Wakanda’s future.

SPOILERS Ahead

The Pros:

Wakanda – Wakanda is such a cool country. This is a Afro-Futuristic nation with advanced technology, hidden by a cloaking device that intermixes ancient tradition with tech. Wakandans are ruled by the King and a Tribal Council whose upholding of tradition drives the primary conflict in the shaping of Wakanda’s future. Each tribe differs in ideology, whether it is defending the King, the Border or trade. This world is rich and fully realized, each tribe is distinct and I wanted to know more about their histories in the foundation and development of Wakanda.

The Characters – The characters are definitely one of the most enjoyable parts of this great film, with Boseman once again killing it as T’Challa. Whitiker is fantastic as the Tribal Shaman whose history is intertwined with Wakanda’s past sins. The other minor characters, like the tribal leader W’Kabi, also have intriguing performances as well. In many cases it is these characters prideful choices that drive the conflict that T’Challa must untangle. Below, I’m going to explore some of my favorite characters of the film, as it was who they were that drew me into the story the most.

Okoye – Okoye, played by Danai Gurira, is Wakanda’s General and she owns this role. Not only does she one of the major focuses is some breathtaking actions scenes every action scenes, we see how important her role is for her as at one point following tradition has her on the opposite side of some of our heroes. She serves the Crown and Wakanda, and that is a complicated dance when T’Challa is believed dead and the sociopath Killmonger is now King of Wakanda. I can’t wait to see more of her in future films.

Shuri – Shuri is the Princess of Wakanda and T’Challa’s sister. She is one of the most intelligent characters in the MCU, as she is the inventor of the advanced technology of Wakanda, she is very much the Tony Stark of Wakanda.  Like Stark, she doesn’t care about tradition and is far more invested in the relationships around her and the beauty of discovery and invention. She has some great scenes, and like Okoye, she was one of the main reasons to see this film. 

Ulysses Klaue – Andy Serkis has a lot of fun as the weapons merchant who is almost Joker-like in how little he cares about anything. This is a guy who is selfish, and racist, and every reason why Wakanda is isolationist. He is an insane character and his chaotic and manipulative nature leads to some explosive conflict in the first act of the film. It is also great to see Serkis in anything. 

Killmonger – Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger might be one of Marvel’s most complicated villains. This is a boy who grew up homeless in Oakland when T’Challa’s father kills his father, who was connected to the royal family through blood. He is driven by revenge from this moment on, but also by a desire to help the oppressed, driven by all he has lost. Killmonger is also a complete sociopath (his body is covered in self-inflicted scars for every person he has killed), but that doesn’t stop him from being complex. You can see where he is coming from, even if his way of going about it is all wrong.

Isolationism and its Consequences – The main idea explored is isolationism and the consequences of it is the main theme of the movie. T’Challa’s father commits a grave sin to keep Wakanda hidden from the rest of the world and it is up to T’Challa to face the consequences of his father’s sins. As Killmonger reminds T’Challa there are Africans both on the continent and in the world that Wakanda left behind. Wakanda let great evils like slavery, apartheid and countless other atrocities take place, when they could have done something to fight it. The primary conflict within Wakanda is to become an Empire to help oppressed groups (Killmonger’s vision), or stay hidden and protect Wakandan technology from those who would use it for ill (T’Challa’s father’s vision). T’Challa’s arc is finding that balance between perspectives and owning the mistakes of the past…and it is beautifully executed.

Okay:

Final Fight -The final fight is fine but compared to the rest of the film comes off as weak, especially in regards to the relationship between Okoye and W’Kabi. The emotional setup earlier in the film does not add up to the payoff during this fight, and so much more could have been done with some of the locations.

Okoye and W’Kabi – These two are star-crossed lovers who are on opposite sides and leaders of their tribes. I wanted more with both of them as they are both great actors, but we never got to see them in love, it is only ever given to us through exposition. Fully fleshing out their relationship could have given us the perfect film. 

This is a film that had the Marvel problem only in that Act 3 was still a battle, and there were some plot holes that I wish had been expanded upon. Regardless, this is a film that is deserving of all the hype and praise it has been receiving. It really is that good and I can’t wait to see what else they do with T’Challa and the Wakandans in later films. This film has social awareness you don’t always get in action films and at the core it seeks justice in a broken world.

Final Score: 9.7 / 10 One of my favorite films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

If you noticed something different about this review it is because I am now working with an editor! He is friend Brandon Cabusas and you can find him on instagram @brandoncabusas. If you need editing work, you should check him out.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2018): A New Studio’s Decent Introduction to the Studio Stage

With Hayao Miyazaki retiring soon and with it…I doubt his studio will ever be as strong. Hell, his son’s film “From Up on Poppy Hill” nearly put me to sleep and I’m afraid to see “Tales of Earthsea” given how much I love that series and the bad things I’ve heard about it. So lets put Ghibli’s future on hold. Who will take up the banner? Well Studio Ponoc throws their hat in the ring with this film as it captures many similar themes, from coming of age, nature v. science and other Miyazaki-esque themes. How did it do? If you like anime films I’d recommend it. It isn’t great but it is a solidly enjoyable outing. The film was released in 2017 in Japan but 2018 in the States so I’m counting it as my first 2018 film review.

The film was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi who also co-wrote the film with Riko Sakaguchi and produced by Yoshiaki Nishimura.

The story involves Mary, a young girl in England about to start school who stumbles upon a Witch’s Flower which transports her to a magical school where she soon finds herself in over her head as Witch Madame Mumblechook and Doctor Dee seek the flower to their own ends.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is really neat. I like that the Magic School / World lives above ours so it is hard to access, and the fact that it seem to imply anyone can access it and be changed by it. This also leads to a con though, the logic of this world is never answered…which I’ll bring up later.

The Animation – The animation is beautiful and very Ghibli-esque. It is open and gives characters a range of expression while also being fluid and full of compelling color, while remaining bright like a fairy tale. If they make more films with this aesthetic I may check out what they simply to see the animation and if they can take what great thing they have and make it better.

The Flashback – A mysterious witch is running away with the flower while being attacked by summoned water dolphin beings. The threat is high the entire time and we see her fall and her broom and the flowers become overgrown by the world below. This is an amazing setup and I wanted to know what happened.

Doctor Dee –  I saw the English dub because that was what released in theatres and Jim Broadbent is the one who voiced this mad scientist. He is really interesting as he sees unethical experiments as for the greater good and is seeking immortality. He also used to be tall but has now become short and uses machines to walk. His obsession has completely transforms him, but that didn’t change his love for Madame Mumblechook, the Headmistress of the school.

Great Aunt Charlotte – This is the character the movie should have been about. She is the witch at the beginning and we see that she’s settled down but still held onto a single flower. How did her life change after her escape? So much time has passed…but she was a witch so does her magic leave after she leaves the school? None of these questions are really answered. I wanted her story. She is way more compelling than our protagonists.

Okay: Mary and Peter – Mary and Peter are okay. Mary is clumsy and wants to help and doesn’t thing she is good at anything and Peter is a bully who ends up becoming more when he finds that Mary is friends with his cats. Mary saves Peter after becoming a witch and must stop Mumblechook and Dee…okay. This is all fine but none of them are all that complicated and I was far more invested in the side characters than our leads.

Madame Mumblechook – Madame Mumblechook is also okay, we don’t really see why the Witch’s Flower corrupted her motivation as Doctor Dee is the one doing mad scientist experiments and she is in charge of the school. We don’t really get her change beyond possibly her love for Dee? Which is a shame as Dee was driven by mad science, so he had more going on.

The Cons: World Development – Do Witch’s only get magic from the flower? Do you keep your magic if you stay at the school? How does the Witch World interact with ours? What is the difference between magic and science in this universe? This was a world of potential but it failed to fully explore the fascinating premise it started with.

I wish Studio Ponoc success, and given this is their first film they’ve released I hope they can continue releasing films of at least this quality and better. For any fans of the themes in Miyazaki and Ghibli films, check this one out. It has a lot of untapped potential but what they do explore is a lot of fun and the animation is simply beautiful. Here is to the future and hoping that Studio Ponoc will only grow from here.

Final Score: 7.8 / 10