“Bee Movie” but instead it’s “Ant-Man and The Wasp”

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If it wasn’t official yet, it is now: Marvel does what DCan’t, and Ant-Man and The Wasp is even more proof! True, I was skeptical of Ant-Man well before its release in 2015, but it was no disappointment in my eyes or audiences — I’d even call it the sleeper hit of its year. Still, risks are greater this time around, both in story and in real life – Marvel Studios played quite a heavy trump card with Avengers: Infinity War back in April, and some would argue that there’s no point in seeing this movie. To those some, you’re very wrong.

Taking place at the same time of the events of Infinity War, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd, The Catcher Was A Spy) is under house arrest as part of a plea deal following his “criminal acts” in Captain America: Civil War — a light sentence, sure, but nonetheless boring. Alienated by his now-ex girlfriend, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) and her father/his mentor, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), Scott is stuck doing nothing until he is given, for the lack of a better term, a vision of Hank’s long-lost wife, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer, Murder on the Orient Express) and her location in the mythical, nanoscopic Quantum Realm. Quickly, Scott is dragged back into the world of micro-heists as Ant-Man, allied with Hope as The Wasp, in the hopes of rescuing Janet and fighting off a terrifying menace known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen, Tomb Raider).

Returning director Peyton Reed continues to prove his worth as an action director with this film – masterfully commanding visual effects as he did with the first installment, from the title characters to the pioneering de-aging effects, making the dramatic moments meaningful and poignant, while keeping the comedy light-hearted and never suffocating — to think, this was the man who was initially best-known for directing Bring It On! Composer Christophe Beck also returns, and while his score makes little variation on what was heard before, it doesn’t need to be — what wasn’t broken before remains untarnished, and it’s good to have another Marvel solo movie with as recognizable a theme as Thor and Spider-Man! My only gripe with the creative/technical side of things is that it was shot in 2.39:1 — I see no reason for this ratio to exist in this day and age, especially when the preceding movie looked so good in 1.85:1 and that its new aspect ratio fits lousily on an IMAX screen and HDTVs, though in the case of IMAX showings, the image expands at select moments. Still, it feels like a step backwards, particularly after Avengers: Infinity War was filmed entirely with IMAX cameras.

As usual, the cast is superb — Paul Rudd continues to build better stuff against his previously (as I saw it) lousy CV of 90% dumb comedies. Seriously, this guy can do it all, and while Ant-Man is one of the more comedic heroes in the Marvel universe, he’s also one of the most complex – a divorced ex-con who wants to do right by himself, his daughter and his friends. Rudd understands this better than any other actor, and he should keep at this for as long as he can. Evangeline Lilly continues to be a fierce force in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and her role is as equally as complex as her male counterpart — Hope still feels betrayed by Scott’s actions in Civil War, but the playful repartee is still there among them, and she is determined in her efforts to see her mother again. This brings us to another facet of the MCU that I love, in that when they have strong ladies, they’re endearing to people of all ages without having manufactured fierceness, forced cuteness or pigeonholed into being a girl’s-only property (i.e.: Ghostbusters: Answer The Call, Frozen, Ocean’s 8). After all, the movie is titled Ant-Man and The Wasp, and the cooperative nature of the title is well-reflected therein. But, I digress.

Hank Pym is still a charming curmudgeon, skeptical of Scott and his friends as before, but tender at the right moments and every bit as brilliant as his actor, Michael Douglas. Michelle Pfeiffer, once Catwoman in Batman Returns, is still beautiful as ever and charming as Janet Van Dyne, and while I wish she had more screentime (she kind of functions akin to a MacGuffin), it’s still great to have an actress of her caliber in the Marvel fold. Also jumping the doomed DC ship is Laurence Fishburne (Hannibal) as Dr. Bill Foster, an estranged associate of Pym’s — it’s great to see that he’s written so complexly and is far more than the throwaway that Fishburne’s last comic book role, Perry White, was. Hannah John-Kamen, a relative newcomer in cinema, puts quite a feather in her cap as the elusive Ghost, another well-written character and one of the best-written villains in Marvel Studios’ history. Rest assured, she does far more than the angry Brit trope; she’s honestly one of the more tragic characters in the MCU, a fact that will be made much clearer when you see the film. Also, if you liked Luis (Michael Peña, Gangster Squad) in the first film, inane stories included, you will love this movie to the end of your days!

To be clear, the actions of Avengers: Infinity War do take a toll on Ant-Man and The Wasp, and that’s all the more reason to see the film — every Marvel Studios film, the good and the bad, is imperative to enjoying the next team-up, and we’ve got quite the film coming next May. Besides, if Infinity War depressed you, this brings some much-needed levity to the summer of Marvel.

Rating: 4.5/5

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Sabotage

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Rescued from the clutches of creative turmoil, director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13) makes a triumphant return to Lucasfilm long after his 1988 venture, Willow, and tackling a script about the Star Wars smuggler who shot first, Han Solo.

More than a simple origin story, young Han (Alden Ehrenreich, Beautiful Creatures) loses his freedom and his girlfriend, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke, Terminator Genisys), in one day. Reluctantly fighting for the Empire, Han literally stumbles upon a group of smugglers, led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson, Natural Born Killers), and believes he’s found both his true calling and a way back to his beloved. As usual, far more is at play for Han and his newfound compatriots, with villainous gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany, Avengers: Infinity War) demanding fealty for a failed mission, an uneasy alliance with Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover, Atlanta) and cloud-riding space pirates hot on their tails.

Rather infamously, the film was to be helmed by the duo of Phil Lord & Christopher Miller (The LEGO Movie, 21 Jump Street), but a massive conflict of creative differences forced a change of command. Enter Mister Howard, who brings all the best of what he learned on his fantasy efforts, like the emotional sincerity and computer effects of Cocoon, the innocent love story and its requisite conflicts from Splash and yes, even the creature and make-up effects from How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Rest assured, this is not a hodgepodge of two conflicting visions, a la Justice League; it has Howard’s signature on it, through and through.

The script, written by Lawrence Kasdan (he of Episodes V, VI and VII) and his son Jonathan (In The Land of Women), largely succeeds — the story moves at a brisk pace, stopping only when necessary, and while some characters are gone all too quick, they do get a day or two in the sun. Some parts come off a little superfluous, such as Lando’s droid companion, L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag), who is clearly intended to be the Susan B. Anthony in the group but comes off as a more mechanical Linda Sarsour — certainly a different type of droid than we’ve seen in the Star Wars universe, but really not worth revisiting. Also, there’s a lot of duplicity toward the end, a problem that also befell last year’s sleeper hit Atomic Blonde, and while I wasn’t doubtful of everyone by the end, it’s rather annoying to be throwing so many turns, not quite twists, in at the last half-hour… but hey, Han shoots first! Don’t worry, that was a declaration of fact!

In the case of returning characters, Han is well-rounded, perhaps a little bit too much of a softie, at least at first, but this is about his beginning; his transition to being a hard-ass takes time. This is well-reflected by his actor, Alden Ehrenreich, who succeeds in playing Han Solo, rather than Harrison Ford — there’s a huge difference, people, and Ehrenreich’s decision is all to the good. Lando is seemingly approached differently by Donald Glover, successfully emulating a young Billy Dee Williams, and just as smooth — plus, we finally find out exactly how Han acquired the Millennium Falcon.

Among newcomers, we begin with Emilia Clarke’s character, Qi’ra. While well-acted, she is not as well written — what would have helped, in my book, is to show the audience how she and Han first met, rather than have to guess that they are, for the lack of a better term, thick as thieves. Woody Harrelson, now freed from The Hunger Games, brings his trademark good ‘ol boy to Beckett, never going to the laughing place — his character is one that would shoot you and laugh at your corpse. Paul Bettany, in his second summer blockbuster this year, has all the right levels of creepy and intrigue as Dryden Vos, a gangster who rules with a knife at his victims’ throats. Roles played by Linda Hunt (Silverado), Jon Favreau (Swingers) and Thandie Newton (Westworld) are cut rather short; I’m guessing they took them in spite of that, knowing they would be in a Star Wars film.

As movies go, Solo: A Star Wars Story is a success — not largely, though; some parts do falter. Frankly, the thing that puzzles me most is the public’s response to the movie, complaining that parent company Disney has Marvel’d their beloved Star Wars — did you really not see this coming? Would you have complained if the movies continued beyond A New Hope? Do you really hate it when spin-offs connect to their past and future? More’s the pity if the answer’s yes, but if it’s no, go have a great time at the movies!

Rating: 4/5

The Beginning is the End is the Beginning

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SPOILERS AHEAD

What else can I say about Avengers: Infinity War that hasn’t already been said? Truly, it’s one of the year’s first triumphs, and in my loving and critical eyes, an early candidate for Best Motion Picture of the Year – pick your ceremony.

The stakes are as high as they’ve ever been in this film; Thanos (Josh Brolin, True Grit) has brought planets to their knees in the name of finding the Infinity Stones, and we open with his massacre of the Asgardian survivors (last seen in Thor: Ragnarok). Thor (Chris Hemsworth, Rush) is left for dead, but Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, Begin Again) manages to escape. Sheer luck lands him in the New York sanctum in front of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, Parade’s End) and Wong (Benedict Wong, Marco Polo). With all hell about to break loose, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., The Judge) is called in to help, but his won’t be enough – scattered, The Avengers must reteam after their Civil War and ally with the Guardians of the Galaxy to fight a war that will determine the fate of existence.

The heroes of this equation are at their best – Spider-Man (Tom Holland, The Lost City of Z) continues to prove his worth as an Avenger and is no longer the annoying Jamie Bell clone he once was in Captain America: Civil War. What’s more, Stark is well-written this time around (and it only took two writers!), and is once again a character I care about. Returning to the films is, at last, Captain America (Chris Evans, Puncture), now bearded, pissed off and ready for round two with an alien menace. Unexpected standouts include Vision (Paul Bettany, A Knight’s Tale) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, Kodachrome), the star-crossed lovers of the MCU, facing their hardest test yet – remember, Vision holds the Mind Stone in his head. The lynchpins, however, to this film are Star-Lord (Chris Pratt, The Magnificent Seven) and Gamora (Zoë Saldana, Star Trek Beyond), who hold the key to survival or death of all they love — Saldana especially is at her best as Thanos’ adopted warprize, seeking vengeance and then some.

Again, this is the ballsiest film in the history of comic book movies; more daring than Watchmen or even The Avengers, if for nothing more than this is a saddening film. True, there are jokes in this film, but not in the Justice League sense; they bring some levity to the film, but by and large, this is a David and Goliath story where Goliath wins — mercilessly. The emotion is sold to the audience by both the sincerity of its heroes as well as its villain — Brolin is at the top of his game as the sadistic titan, obsessed with balancing life in the universe through xenocide. He brings to a 2D drawing the drive and mania of a terrorist mastermind sight unseen since the late Heath Ledger’s Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight — exuding menace and filling the IMAX screen the movie was designed for, but all you can do is wonder what his next move will be.

Speaking of, if you live within the vicinity of an IMAX theater, cough up the $20 and see it in the way it was shot — this is the first major motion picture to be filmed entirely in IMAX; to see it in a lesser format is a waste of money. All this innovative story and tech is thanks to three people — Kevin Feige, erstwhile producer and president of Marvel Studios, and Joe & Anthony Russo, directors and favorite sons of Cleveland, Ohio. These men dare to dream big for characters they so love and aren’t afraid to both let us have fun and make us cry. Grounded in fantastic realism, we believe in the morals of these heroes, and when they fall, we mourn for them, but heroes rise again — they always get the last word, and you haven’t heard the last of The Avengers yet.

Rating: 5/5

It’s So Bad

I’m not even quoting The Wizard with the above title; Steven Spielberg’s latest truly is a SpielBurger (sue me), and ten times as cheesy! How could such an accomplished director rip a story like a Ready Player One to shreds and think it worth watching?

Barely resembling the novel on which it is based, this movie is, to quote Bill S. Preston Esq. and “Ted” Theodore Logan, “bogus.” All the film noir-y elements and sense of mystery found in Ernest Cline’s text are gone in favor of explosions and brain-numbing spectacle. Further, nearly all the novel’s 80’s-centric references are eschewed in favor of modernisms — I never wanted to see Tracer from Overwatch or even the eponymous Iron Giant, who is from the year 1999! It is true that the screenplay was co-written by Cline, but he bears second credit to Zak Penn (late of The Incredible Hulk and The Avengers), who destroys the poignancy with the writer’s equivalent of an impact drill.

But you may be thinking that the actors will carry this film. Actors? PAH! The only real talent in this film is the wasted Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) as a cut-and-dry villain and Mark Rylance (Dunkirk) serving again as Spielberg’s muse the way Christopher Lloyd was to Robert Zemeckis. Virtually (heh heh) everyone else is cast on how pretty they are — what is this, an ABC pilot?!

This isn’t Spielberg’s technological Gulliver’s Travels — it’s not even tantamount to TRON: Legacy! What it is is the ungodly fusion of Wreck-It Ralph and Spy Kids 3D: Game Over! One of the daftest adaptations this side of The Dark Tower! Read the book and skip this… or rather, fast-forward.

Rating: 0/5

I Just Can’t Wait To Be King

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Fascinating — this is the word that goes over and over in my mind just thinking about the latest Marvel Studios film, Black Panther. It truly is a blockbuster with no equal and allows its hero to hold his own with the rest of the Avengers. Last seen in Captain America: Civil War, Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, 42) of the hidden nation of Wakanda had returned home to save the life of Bucky Barnes, the comerade-in-arms of Captain America. Now, following the death of his father (John Kani, Endgame), T’Challa is crowned King and must contend with forces of all kinds — among them, the desires of his beloved, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years A Slave), the hopes of his mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett, What’s Love Got To Do With It), and sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright, Ready Player One), and the threat of Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station), a lost soul who desires to bring T’Challa’s secretive kingdom out into the open and destroy all who oppose.

Helmed and co-authored by career rocketeer Ryan Coogler (Creed), who continues to accelerate his success to new heights, his vision of Wakanda is a hopeful one, equal parts Cloud City in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back and the eponymous continent in Atlantis: The Lost Empire — it’s a technological oasis on a comparably barren globe, but not without its problems, which get the audience thinking. For example, is isolationism the safest way to national prosperity? Do the sins of our fathers fall to us to atone? Like Captain America: The Winter Soldier before it, Black Panther dares to talk politics, but does so unobtrusively, and it’s all the more welcome in this reviewer’s eyes. Not to forget, Wakanda is lushly designed by a teeming horde of visual effects artists and gorgeously photographed by current Oscar nominee Rachel Morrison (Mudbound), who films with little in sight that is tangible and still helps to sell the finished designs — further, if the option is available near you, see this movie in IMAX (preferably IMAX 3D), as over an hour of the film expands to fill the IMAX screen and your eyes with gorgeous effects and scenery! Other impressive touches include the crafting of a Wakandan language, spoken and written, for the film and tribal songs composed by Grammy winner Kendrick Lamar — it’s these extensive tweaks that really help sell the realism of the film!

Coogler’s vision is furthered by his cast, old and new; Boseman brings the conviction he brought to T’Challa in Civil War and gives to it the strength of a leader and the warmth he didn’t have in the preceding film. Nyong’o is in top form as T’Challa’s ambitious girlfriend — a fighter who breaks with Wakandan tradition and still mantains loyalty to her king. while Bassett is in far better comic book form and fare than she was in the atrocious Green Lantern. Unexpected returns come in the form of villainous Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers), back from Avengers: Age of Ultron, completely debaucherous and embracing the perverted nature of his villainous character, while Martin Freeman (Sherlock) returns as his Civil War character, CIA Agent Everett Ross, expanded from his previous appearance and far more likeable this time as T’Challa’s ally. The MVPs of the film, however, are undoubtedly Jordan and Wright — Jordan brings raw hatred (practically unseen to moviegoers in his career) to Killmonger with a subdued nature akin to a rattlesnake; he exudes menace and fills the screen, which is what most villains should do. Wright, however, is bright and fierce as Shuri, the inventive kid sister of T’Challa who doesn’t back down from a fight and could certainly best Tony Stark at a game of chess! She also has the luxury of some of the film’s funniest moments, none of which suffocate the aforementioned qualities.

It’s truly a shame that DC had to strike the diversity quota first with last year’s meh-tastic Wonder Woman, but Marvel strikes better with Black Panther, and while I don’t think it will get the Best Picture nod that myself and fellow nerds are clamoring for, it is still one of their finest and, again, their most fascinating.

Rating: 5/5

Tale As Old As Time

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SOME SPOILERS AHEAD

At the core of the human condition, love is something we truly cannot do without; it guides us in relationships of all kinds and permeates our popular culture — movies, books, music and video games all guided by love, the one thing human beings crave the most. Without love, we feel lonely and powerless, and it is such a theme that guides one of last year’s greatest motion pictures, The Shape of Water.

In part the brainchild of legendary director Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), we are quickly introduced to Baltimore, Maryland in the early years of the Cold War, and with it, the life of Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins, Made In Dagenham), a mute woman whose friends she can count on one hand — her co-tenant, Giles (Richard Jenkins, The Cabin in the Woods) and her supervisor at work, Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures). Her job entails janitorial work at a government facility, but one day, a creature known only as “The Asset” (Doug Jones, Hellboy II: The Golden Army) is brought in for, in the loosest sense of the word, examination, by a corrupt federal official (Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road). On another day, The Asset’s containment area is left unattended, and contact is made between him and Eliza. Neither able to speak as humans do, they become fast friends, but as the proverbial noose begins to tighten on The Asset’s life, Eliza resolves to help him escape — however, there is far more at play than saving the life of a friend.

Del Toro is one of Hollywood’s most active creative minds — the man has a full 18 (?!) projects in development. His dream project is said to be a new take on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, so one would not be too wrong in construing this as his Creature from the Black Lagoon, but I prefer to see it as equal parts Beauty and the Beast and Children of a Lesser God. Eliza and The Asset, for instance, are two rejects of a purportedly perfect world, who find each other under extraordinary circumstances and become friends where others would mock or scream, respectively, and this is also thanks to Ms. Hawkins and Mr. Jones, who perform with no discernible dialogue between each other and make the blossoming romance between them believable — not since WALL•E has there been such a palpable emotion between two characters who have little to say!

Mr. Shannon is not in as fine a form — he brings a little too much of his General Zod self from Man of Steel to this film; one with less knowledge of movies may assume he walked straight from that film’s set to this one, and he’s written far too vulgarly for my taste. To clarify, I didn’t expect him to be nice in any way, but I didn’t go to see him twirl his mustache so openly — also, I really never wanted to see him naked at any point in a movie. This movie does that and more… yiuch. My only other complaint about the film is in its “rah-rah, kill the red menace” portrayal of military characters — one of them even defiantly says “see these stars on my shoulder?”. I’m sure there were people like that in the ranks back then, but certainly not all were that way. It borders on Kubrickian parody, and in our day and age when servicemen and servicewomen are suffering in a litany of ways (not just PTSD), a little more respect would have been nice.

The last of the supporting players, Ms. Spencer and Mr. Jenkins, are in better form than I’ve ever seen them. Spencer is, yet again, playing hired help, but with a certain vigor and brightness to it that isn’t seen much anymore in such roles (but never stooping to caricature), and her purpose expands when she assists in the escape of The Asset. Jenkins, whom I normally regard as the most milquetoast Oscar nominee in history, is charming and kindly as Giles, an out-of-work painter with as few friends as Eliza (maybe less) and with little purpose to fulfill him until the rescue needs to take place.

Returning from Del Toro’s Crimson Peak is Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen, who brings a style of camera work that aptly resembles American films made in the Cold War era, bringing to mind Rear Window and The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming! and evoking the feel of an America that no longer exists. A newcomer to Del Toro’s fold, renowned composer Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel) brings an ethereal sound akin to his work on Philomena but with all the strength and gravitas of his work on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.

Let’s not mince words, I was pushing for All The Money In The World to receive a Best Picture nomination, and I still regard it as the best of 2017’s offerings, but The Shape of Water proves a beautiful movie in a year that also gave us Dunkirk and Darkest Hour. Despite a few minor handicaps along the way, this is still a warm sight to behold and should be seen before it leaves theaters.

Rating: 4/5

Every Little Piece

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Money — it corrupts everyone, from womb to tomb, in some form or another — someone who lives in the lap of luxury, the breadwinner who lives from paycheck to paycheck or the destitute who dream of their next dollar bill. Such is the motivation behind All The Money In The World, a surefire awards season contender and, in my opinion, the best motion picture of the year.

Based on the true-life chronicle of the 1973 kidnapping of John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer, Lean On Pete), his mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn) is issued an incredible ransom for her son’s life, and attempts numerous times to bring her former father-in-law, John Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer, Nicholas Nickleby) — famed oil tycoon and grandfather of the kidnapped — to pay the ransom and save her son. Her cries for mercy unheard, the elder Getty’s head of security, Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg, The Fighter) volunteers his service to help find her son, the two fighting against the time to save her son and the tight fists of her avaricious relation.

A thousandfold of kudos are in order for director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, The Martian) and Christopher Plummer — after the film wrapped with Kevin Spacey portraying Getty, he was found to be a sexual predator, and in an unprecedented move, Scott replaced him, with a little over a month left until release, with Plummer, his first choice for the role (Plummer was initially refused as Sony’s studio suits demanded a “big name.” Pah!) assuming command. Reshoots took place over the week of American Thanksgiving in a litany of locations, and the film was, by and large, refinished on time, and was able to screen for Golden Globes consideration! There are few in filmmaking today as principled and daring as Scott to reshoot a movie on moral grounds, and that alone has earned him another Oscar nod for Best Director, but the film’s tautly-engineered sense of dread and fear is what gives it the winning marks in my eyes — the scene where the kidnapped Getty is subjected to the removal of his right ear is what one would expect from the creator of the Alien franchise, and the disbelief and raw terror of his mother is something well-felt by the audience. Only a handful of directors can do that, and most of them are already dead! Scott is quickly proving himself the new Alfred Hitchcock without a shred of imitative behavior, and more power to him!

The actors at Scott’s command are in as fine a form as I’ve ever seen them — Christopher Plummer had reportedly already memorized the script — like a stage play — before being asked to replace his predecessor! At 88, there’s no one else like Plummer in the actor’s craft today, working at a pace that would tire out a thirty year-old and still bringing out a performance that brings us closer to avaricious darkness than his previous villainous roles ever could; this performance will be remembered regardless of the Oscars — but another win couldn’t hurt, right?

Now the elder Plummer may be the target of attention, but equally brilliant work is present among his co-stars; Michelle Williams, as I said previously, makes her emotions and words palpable to the audience’s senses and never stoops to a cacophonous show of tears and anger. Mr. Wahlberg gives his finest to his role as well, offering a light in a dark, terrifying world that we are offered, and the balls to stand up to his corrupt employer. Charlie Plummer, unrelated to Christopher, is central to the stakes of the film, and a lesser actor would make us yearn for his execution — and yet, despite his lavish lifestyle portrayed early in the film, we see in his eyes a lost child who just wants to go home to his family. We can certainly all relate to that; we’ve all been in tough situations as children and as adults that make us yearn for the gentle embrace of a loving parent, and Plummer shows that exceptionally well.

All The Money In The World is a paragon in suspense and drama in its delivery and, in its making, an example for Hollywood, the city of smiling cobras, in morality. Watch it in a theatre soon, and watch for it when the nominations are announced on January 23rd!

Rating: 5/5

We Could Be Immortals

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Star Wars: those two words coupled together bring back a litany of memories for people of all nations. An international phenomenon, successfully resurrected in 2015 thanks to Walt Disney Pictures and maverick producer Kathleen Kennedy, the public has had nothing but home runs since Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, and this Christmas season, with the continuing adaption, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, there is endurance in the winning streak.

Picking up immediately after the events of The Force Awakens, the Resistance has been hurled into a hurricane, with the sinister First Order riding their tails – destruction is damn near imminent, General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, Fanboys) is indispose, Commander Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, Robin Hood) is grounded, and Rey (Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express)’s attempts to recruit Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker) prove even less than fruitless. Alliances will strengthen and break, leaders will stand proud and be struck down, and those who fight the tides of war must soon duel with fate.

Written and directed by, until now, one of my least favorite directors, Rian Johnson (Looper, The Brothers Bloom), The Last Jedi is an inspired work, bucking the trend of sequels who go full The Dark Knight and throw away all mirth and enjoyment — this is very much in vein with my favorite movie in the Original Trilogy, Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, which had a lot at stake for these beloved characters but didn’t feel a need to accentuate darkness (remember, darkness is what brought the Jedi to ruin — twice — which is something audiences know, and if they don’t, should remember). Bravo, Rian — I misjudged you; I look forward to the next trilogy you are actively working on!

The stars (no pun intended) of this film are terrific, both the new and the old — returning from The Force Awakens, we have Finn (John Boyega, Detroit), who has gone full Rebel and fights with deep conviction — his blatant honesty is what makes him beloved. Poe Dameron is as wry and spry as ever, and if one were to put his actor, Oscar Isaac, in with a group of fighter pilots, one might never know the difference! His arc is something marvelous as well; he goes from loyal servant to leader in a pinch — not on a dime, mind, but it is truly great.

Daisy Ridley proves her worth to the acting industry yet again as Rey, the girl strong with the Force but with no past that she knows. She will endure long after her tenure in this franchise is over! Inversely, Adam Driver gives us another masterful performance as Kylo Ren, the lonely son under the command of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, Black Panther) — Driver’s training in his past career as a marine clearly helps him understand the hatred and pain in evil, and that only helps his characterization of Kylo, one that is equal in compassion as it is in duplicity.

New star Kelly Marie Tran (Adam Ruins Everything) is charming and resilient as Rose Tico, a Resistance soldier with more than one personal stake in bringing the First Order down — if she isn’t a household name now, she will be momentarily! Further notable additions include Laura Dern (October Sky) giving a powerful, purple-haired performance as Vice Admiral Holdo, Leia’s second-in-command akin to Gregory Peck’s Colonel Frank Savage in Twelve O’Clock High, and Benicio Del Toro (Guardians of the Galaxy) once cast as Darth Maul in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, now playing a hacker of the ominous name “DJ.”

But of the old standbys, credit is due to Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, the siblings of the Force who deliver immortal performances that we have never truly seen from them before — Hamill’s Luke Skywalker is a lost soul who has practically forgotten the good he once instilled in the galaxy, and both the actor and character have never been better. In the case of the late, great Miss Fisher, she has given the world a beautiful performance that will endure forever and will hopefully earn her a posthumous Oscar.

John Wayne once said, “courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway,” and for the Star Wars fans eager to see it, they had much to be scared of — the continuing story of characters they so loved could easily go awry, but I assure you, it hasn’t. This stands neck and neck with the series’ best, and I encourage all to enjoy it as I have!

4.5/5

The Bad In Every Man

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It’s been a banner year for spectacle films, with Dunkirk delivering on the war picture, Beauty and the Beast an unquestionable musical smash hit, Thor: Ragnarok undoubtedly the best blockbuster of the year, and a litany of independent critical darlings peppered throughout. Often overlooked in trade papers and festival buzz was the resurrection of the whodunnit mystery, in the form of Murder on the Orient Express. A paragon in Agatha Christie’s repertoire and another daring project from Kenneth Branagh (he of 1993’s full-text version of Hamlet), the film is simply amazing, but like its famous detective, we must go further into the who, what, when, where and why.

After an impressive case in Jerusalem, and now in Istanbul, renowned private detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) seeks a holiday away from the crime scene. Already travelling back home, he is persuaded by a close friend of his, Mr. Bouc (Tom Bateman, Da Vinci’s Demons) to travel with him by rail on the Orient Express — first class, all expenses paid! Quickly, the lush scenery and amenities do not justify the means when duplicitous passenger Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp, Black Mass) is found dead in his cabin, and so, for the greater good, Poirot must discern a killer from a motley crew of passengers-cum-suspects — among them, governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi), Doctor Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr., Red Tails), automotive dealer Biniamino Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, The Magnificent Seven) missionary Pílar Estravados (Penelope Cruz, Volver), Professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project), widow Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer, Dark Shadows) and the butler (Derek Jacobi, Anonymous) and bookkeeper (Josh Gad, Beauty and the Beast) of the recently deceased.

Star-studded this may be, but this film does not get lost in starpower like so many ensemble pieces do over the years — everyone gets their moment in the spotlight, and not one suffocates the other, not even Poirot himself! This is also firmly grounded as a murder mystery, first and foremost, and you will be shocked with how things play out — I’ve never read the book on which this is based, but by all accounts, there are numerous differences between the book, Sidney Lumet’s adaptation and Branagh’s, and that has drawn much ire and anger from critics and authors alike; I regard that as a great thing, because in a day and age when anyone can look up spoilers from classic novels via a smartphone, turning one such novel on its end only helps to surprise filmgoers and book-lovers. Rest assured, this film has a twist, and it is the most daring I’ve seen in a long, long time.

Branagh’s regular cinematographer, Haris Zambarloukis (Cinderella), returns for this film, and masterfully shoots it — on 70MM film, no less! Using the last four Panavision-made 70MM film cameras, the film’s native 8K image shines, even on a digital screen as I saw it. Despite the bulk of 70MM cameras and close quarters of a train cabin set, Zambarloukis manages to impress a wide viewing area, making the viewer feel that terror can come from anywhere, not unlike a horror film. My only gripe with said cinematography is that 20th Century Fox, the film’s distributor, opted for a Los Angeles/New York-only 70MM release, which I feel was stupid, given the amount of money Dunkirk made exclusively from said film showings. Still, it’s been a great year for movies photographed on film, and here’s looking to more!

Another returning Branagh regular is composer Patrick Doyle (Thor), bringing the requisite suspense and awe to a mystery picture, but also great moments of humility and drama at the appropriate times. He also co-composed an end credits song, with Branagh providing the lyrics (as they did on Cinderella), that is sung by co-star Michelle Pfeiffer, who carries the ballad with grace and heart.

In a cover story for Entertainment Weekly, the producers of Murder on the Orient Express spoke of sequels based on other Poirot mysteries if the film did well. The film has already outdone expectations at the box office — third place is nothing to sneeze at for a film like this — and I only hope that Kenneth Branagh and Company will be able to top the absolute perfection they have done with this film. As Poirot says, “there is good, and there is bad… and then, there is you.” We’ll see you at the Oscars, Monsieur.

Rating: 5/5

Thunderstruck

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Not many people would care to say it, but Marvel Studios’ 2011 effort at bringing Thor to the screen was a big friggin’ gamble, after the earthen adventures of the first two Iron Man films and The Incredible Hulk. Its final result, however, was masterfully helmed by Sir Kenneth Branagh was nothing short of amazing — thus, the God of Thunder quickly became my favorite Avenger. The second outing is well chronicled in the backlogs of this blog and was, I regard, the first big misstep from the House of Feige. Still, I held out hope for the third outing, but worries beset me when I heard the newly-announced director, Taiki Waititi (What We Do In The Shadows) said he was “going to take the second Thor movie and add more jokes.” Jokes, I regard, were what killed Thor: The Dark World, but having seen Waititi’s effort, I feel nothing but giddiness and contentment with what I saw!

The film opens with several king-sized bangs, as Thor (Chris Hemsworth, In the Heart of the Sea) claims the life of a gigantic monster and finds a new threat awaiting him, in the bloodlusting form of Hela (Cate Blanchett, Cinderella), the Goddess of death. Destroying his prized hammer, Mjölnir, Thor barely escapes to distant planet Sakaar, where the Contest of Champions awaits, an old friend lies captive, and old wounds look ready to burst.

Hemsworth is in better comedic form than I have ever seen him! While I stand by my comment that dedicated comedies are not for him, this is a superhero film in the hands of a sharp, talented comedic director, and that same talent only helps our hero. Tom Hiddleston (I Saw The Light) is in equally fine form, returning easily to the black wig as Loki and never once stooping to the suffocating caricature he was in The Dark World. Finally returning to the MCU is Mark Ruffalo (Begin Again) as Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk — the latter of whom now talks! There is no better heir to the legacies of Lou Ferrigno and Bill Bixby than Ruffalo, bringing the brawn and brain in both sides of his character! A surprising return comes in the form of Heimdall (Idris Elba, Star Trek Beyond), the Asgardian gatekeeper who has a lot to deal with this time — his return is surprising given his well-publicized disdain with the franchise, but is all the more welcome, as he’s integral to this story and the franchise’s future.

Newcomers to the franchise also shine — Tessa Thompson (Creed) does her first accent role as Valkyrie, the last of an elite Asgardian platoon, and she is fierce as can be, with a smoothness comparable to crystal rum! That being said, lots of female roles in blockbusters these days like to emulate Star Wars‘ Rey, but apart from being a scavenger, the same can’t be said of Valkyrie — she’s got a vocabulary like an acid-soaked whip and fighting skills to match, no matter how smashed she gets! Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) is in fine, debaucherous form as The Grandmaster, he who pulls the strings in the Contest of Champions. You really want to smack him in this, because he’s a perverted jerk, but then you want to kiss him, because he’s Jeff Goldblum! Karl Urban (Pete’s Dragon) provides a comedic edge to his work as Skurge, an executioner under our villain’s payroll, and almost makes us root for said boss! Finally, Cate Blanchett — she takes another grand, villainous turn that most would be chewing the scenery in, but she manages to bring a level of humanity to such a horrid creature, one that suggests an abandoned child whose mind has filled with thoughts of vengeance. Bravo, Blanchett. Here’s hoping you make Dame by next Christmas!

The crew behind Ragnarok are integral to the films’ success — the film is brightly colored and peppered with detail, evoking memories of Mad Max: Fury Road, truly looking like a comic book without falling into the self-parody that Ang Lee’s Hulk did; see it in IMAX or IMAX 3D! The music is something else, too! Legendary composer and former Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh brings a score together that suggests the best of Patrick Doyle’s work and also Daft Punk’s score for TRON: Legacy (sidenote: fellow TRONiacs will surely appreciate the gladiatorial battle midway through the film!)

To clarify Waititi’s earlier statement, he did add more jokes, but the juvenile nature of said gags is toned down immensely — while there is one truly juvenile joke in the film, which you will surely recognize, the suddenness of its appearance actually makes it funny! The Dark World was inundated with them, so what could have remained the superhero equivalent of a Three Stooges comedy becomes that of a Marx Brothers satire, and it’s all the better. Waititi brings a comedic flair to the film reminiscent of James Gunn’s efforts in Guardians of the Galaxy, and as such, he’s not afraid to go serious when the need arises, and rest assured, there is as much at stake as there is in one of those films — one of the best examples of that is in Thor’s continued attempts at bringing Hulk back into the form of Bruce Banner, which starts off as a lighthearted gag, but evolves into genuine pathos by the time Banner becomes himself again. Also, Waititi isn’t afraid to linger with story elements — one of my biggest complaints with The Dark World was its glossing over the story in favor of naked actors, but though jokes may run deep in Ragnarok‘s DNA, it is still a film, and most great films have a narrative to follow with characters you care about! Here’s hoping Waititi is signed for more Marvel Studios ventures!

Let me reiterate, Thor is one of my favorite movies — I saw it five times in the theater! — and, until now, my favorite film in the Marvel Studios pantheon, as it has been gleefully upended by Thor: Ragnarok, one of the greatest trilogy-makers since Toy Story 3. Lusciously photographed, brilliantly scored and joyously written without a shred of fear in taking its time, this has all the makings of a classic.

Rating: 5/5