Feels So Good

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Though their bank statements may differ, I have personally felt that Marvel Studios had been resting on their laurels from Phase One — for every Captain America: The Winter Soldier, there was an Avengers: Age of Ultron; for every Guardians of the Galaxy, a Thor: The Dark World. My thoughts on their other release this year, Captain America: Civil War, were less than savory (and can be found in the backlogs of this blog), and yet, in spite of my dislike for the aforementioned film, I found myself adoring Doctor Strange. Normally, I have a three-strike rule when it comes to franchises, but having the fortune of knowing a privileged duo of Marvel crewmembers, the rule need not apply, and with Strange, they are absolved!

To understand the story of this film, your reading is heavy, happen you are not familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon. Those who are well-versed need not worry, and fans of the comics are in for one hell of a treat — several, in point of fact. First among them, Benedict Cumberbatch (The Hollow Crown: Wars of the Roses) and his portrayal of Dr. Stephen Strange, a sorcerer supreme in the making, but an arrogant bastard of a neurosurgeon at first, rendered humble by the circumstances that befall him — an avenger after my own heart. As Robert Downey Jr. became Tony Stark, Cumberbatch effortlessly becomes Stephen Strange, not so much in bringing actual life experiences to the character, but insofar as his knowledge of Eastern religion and deep spirituality — Strange is something of an extension of the Cumberbatch the world knows, and that is great.

As Dr. Christine Palmer, Rachel McAdams (Spotlight) plays a worthy romantic foil to Cumberbatch, parrying every zinger and wry remark he throws, sometimes hurls, at her. She has come a long way from playing the token wispy ingenue in drivel like The Notebook and State of Play, and I look forward to seeing her again in the MCU. A further welcome addition to the cast is Benedict Wong (Marco Polo) as the aptly-named Wong, wisely rewritten from Strange’s tea-making manservant to the librarian of the Mystic Arts with vicious late fees in tow. Speaking of vicious, Mads Mikkelsen (The Three Musketeers), previously in contention to play Malekith in Thor: The Dark World, is exponentially better utilized here as the borderline satanic Kaecilius, a disciple of the Mystic Arts who took a darker path — elements of Mikkelsen’s portrayal of the title character in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal are extremely prevalent here — he oozes villainy. Tilda Swinton (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), going bald and almost androgynous as The Ancient One, possesses all the gravitas of a leader with the control of a schoolteacher. The somewhat weak link in this great cast is Chiwetel Eijofor as Baron Mordo, an aide-de-camp of sorts to The Ancient One. He doesn’t seem to do much more than exist, but when the plot takes a turn for him, he portrays hurt feelings much like a child being told that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. Props go to him, but here’s hoping there’s better meat for him to chew on next time.

That being said, standing at Cumberbatch’s side for this film’s success is director Scott Derrickson (Sinister), a man who brings his experience in horror films to the best possible use in a film of this caliber. Make no mistake, this is the trippiest and, dare I say, darkest Marvel film yet, and that is in part what makes it a success — this is no cut-and-paste job of previous efforts. What’s more, Derrickson’s horror experience means that the film moves briskly and without sacrificing story for action — this is a stellar origin story, and without him, I doubt the film would have held up. I have no control in the matter, but I hope Cumberbatch and Derrickson are signed for the next five (I hope) sequels! Another problem remedied from most Marvel films is the score, composed by Academy Award winner Michael Giacchino (The Incredibles), who takes the emotions of his Star Trek scores and merges it seamlessly with the electric grittiness of Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire.

Doctor Strange stands, in this reviewer’s eyes, among Marvel’s best — right above Thor and just under Marvel’s The Avengers. It’s spiritual without being cloying; it’s full of action without losing to the story, and it’s an origin story not bogged down by exposition. Full marks, and see it in IMAX 3D for the best viewing experience possible.

Rating: 5/5

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Guns of the Patriots

Love it or hate it, someday, your favorite film will be remade, and if it sucks, you’ll always have the original to look back on. That being said, every now and then comes a remake that, while not necessarily justified in existence, packs one hell of a punch and brings the story, in some way, into a modern context. Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) has done just that with his take on John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven, itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, but his is no copy-paste remake of either’s vision.

Relocating the setting to the California Territory in the late 1800s, the people of Rose Creek are at their wit’s end, as ruthless Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, Elegy) is taking their land and lives by force, and all for his own personal gain. One such a townsperson who has lost her home and her husband is Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett, Hardcore Henry). Traveling the near cities looking for help to stand up to Bogue and his men, she finds Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington, Antwone Fisher), a warrant officer who joins her cause almost on the spot. Fighting at Chisholm’s side are noted boozer Joshua Farraday (Chris Pratt, Guardians of the Galaxy), ex-Confederate sniper Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke, Sinister), assassin Billy Rocks (Byung-Hun Lee, G.I. Joe: Retaliation), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Cake), lone Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier, Lilin’s Brood) and hunter Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio, The Judge). Together, they set out to help the townspeople take back what is theirs… and settle a few personal scores.

Those who complain about this remake existing should take into account what could have been — At the project’s inception, Tom Cruise was set to star, but he dropped out over salary issues, and thus we have Fuqua’s vision, brilliantly written by Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective) and Richard Wenk (The Equalizer) and diversely cast in a day and age when many are decrying Hollywood movies for a lack of such casts. However, diversity does not solely make this cast succeed, and having the cool and collected Washington lead this team is a brilliant choice — he is the perfect successor to Yul Brynner. Pratt, channelling his inner Star-Lord is charming, but not suffocating, as the womanizing Farraday, something between Victor Mature’s Doc Holliday in My Darling Clementine with elements of Taylor Kitsch’s Gambit in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

Something the surprised me was that Hawke’s character, Robicheaux, is written as having owed his life to Chisholm, in spite of the fact that the former’s character was a Confederate — it’s good to see redemption of a villain in a big-budget film. Lee and Sensmeier are silently fierce as their respective characters (and it’s refreshing to see an American Indian play a role that matches his ethnicity), but it’s D’Onofrio who steals the show, channelling the best of Andy Devine with the solemnity of a child at prayer. These being said, a story is rarely complete without a great villain, and Sarsgaard is terrific as the lawless lord of the land. Bogue exudes all the menace of a serial killer, filling the viewer with silent fear, as if cornered by a cobra.

More important than all of this, however, is that Fuqua never feels the need to call out the fact of his cast’s diversity  — the N-bomb, or any blatant slur, is not to be found in this film (take note, Tarantino), and on the opposite side, there is no deification of any one member of the seven above the other. Further, unlike the original film, there is no romantic subplot involving one of the seven, and that’s exactly how it should be — this is a tale of frontier justice; there’s little time to smooch while bullets fly over your head.

I do have a couple of misgivings about the film — nothing that drags it down considerably, but still, Haley Bennett’s Emma, while far from being a damsel in distress, is rarely seen with a smile on her face. Granted, things go horribly for her in the first scene and she may well go down with her village, but even when the town is partaking in minor pleasantries, she is still solemn. Still, I’ve never been in such a situation, so who am I to talk? Lastly, the montage of the seven training the townsfolk in weaponry goes over too fast — it comes off as somewhat hard to believe they became good marksmen so fast.

Even so, I say praise be Antoine Fuqua, because he has done what few others could — remaking a classic is no walk in the park, but he does so with tact and poignancy, and perfect for the age we live in. After all, if we can’t defend ourselves against tyranny, what good are we?

Rating: 4.5/5

Fearless


In making Sully, legendary director Clint Eastwood has created an amazing epic about an event most would deem TV movie fare. True, the movie is the shortest of his career, running at just 95 minutes, but it is nothing short of astounding in every sense of the word, a film that is moving, suspenseful and, in presentation, the first of its kind.

Based on a true story that made international headlines in 2009, the film deals with the human psyche as well as presenting the enduring legacy of its title figure. Tom Hanks (Angels & Demons) brillaintly portrays Captain Chesley Sullenberger as a man thrust into the public eye, all for keeping people safe in a moment of extreme crisis — he is shocked and haunted by what-if scenarios in his mind, and it only gets worse when the airline companies and insurance firms butt in, trying to find some damning evidence to ruin him and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart, The Dark Knight), all while having to deal by proxy with his wife (Laura Linney, John Adams) and daughters’ stress of being daunted by the press outside their home.

If it sounds as though I’ve downplayed the acting capability of Mr. Eckhart and Ms. Linney, my apologies, for they are fantastic as well, providing a moral compass to guide Sully and keep him resolute in a time of great stress. Just as impressive is the smaller but very necessary focus on a few of the passengers aboard Flight 1549, which could easily have slowed down the film to the dreaded level of boredom most disaster films suffer from. Thankfully, the passengers focused on only help us as viewers to fear for their safety. Believe me, there are moments in this film where, even though you know how the crew and passengers end up, you cling to your seat for dear life and gasp in terror.

As I said before, Sully is the first film of its kind in that it’s filmed almost entirely with IMAX cameras — 95%, according to IMAX Corp., and the difference is staggering. If there is an IMAX theater near you, you are doing yourself a great disservice if you don’t see it in the aforementioned format. The screen fills to the complete 1.90:1 IMAX aspect ratio, and the sound was mixed for IMAX first, so you’re getting the best balance and listening experience here and here alone. However, a format doesn’t guarantee a great film, but you get one here, thanks not just to the innovative octogenarian Eastwood, but his go-to cinematographer Tom Stern (Hereafter, American Sniper) and first-time Eastwood company member Blu Murray as editor. The film, occasionally jumping from event to event, is a seamless, much less coherent, experience.

While the Hollywood intelligentsia and some of the public may not think much of Eastwood now due to his politics, I urge you to put those views of his to the side and enjoy the film as it stands — a salute to heroism under fire, and thus far, the best motion picture of the year.

Rating: 5/5

Soon You’ll See A Golden Stream Of Light

2016 has been a great year for me crying like a baby at the movies, and Disney’s remake of Pete’s Dragon is no exception! As a huge fan of the original, to the point of memorizing and frequently singing the songs from it, I was, at first, disappointed when I heard that this remake was to be a non-musical adaptation, let alone set in the present day. As the release date drew nearer, I read interviews with the cast and crew that eased my doubts, and the final trailer had me hooked. In the end, I’m so glad at how well the remake is put together, rid of winks and nods to the original (as was the director’s intention) and crafting a wholly new experience that brings to mind the best of the adventure movies of the 1980’s.

The story opens succinctly – Pete, at age 5, is the sole survivor of a car crash while his parents are going with him on a camping trip. Alone in the forest, he becomes acquainted with a huge dragon, who seeks to protect him. Six years pass, and Pete (Oakes Fegley, This Is Where I Leave You) and his dragon, whom he names Elliot, are best of friends, enjoying their lives of fun and play together. Meanwhile, in the nearby town of Millhaven, a logging crew, led by brothers Gavin (Karl Urban, Star Trek Beyond) and Jack (Wes Bentley, Interstellar), draws nearer to the protected parts of the forest, while a park ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard, Jurassic World) seeks to keep law and order between the two, and all the while, the children of the town are driven by the stories of dragons in the forest told by Mr. Meecham (Robert Redford, Jeremiah Johnson). All of these people will meet through the one thing nobody seems to believe in!

In addition to me sputtering like a faucet, 2016 is also a great year for actors, particularly children —  Oakes Fegley brings the requisite euphoric glee when around Elliot to showing great fear and wonder when taken away from him. Further, child actress Oona Laurence (Southpaw) is charming as Natalie, Jack’s daughter, instructing Pete on the ways of the world he has missed out on with warmth and kindness. While they do carry the heft of the film’s emotional weight, the adults in this film do not rest on their laurels at all, best shown by Howard and Redford, as a daughter and father looking to believe in stuff most left to childish fantasy and getting far more than they bargained for. Wes Bentley and Karl Urban also do great work in their roles, with Bentley showing a warmer side than I’ve seen from him in his previous films, while Urban, the ultimately misguided villain of the story, being mean but never truly evil, which is how it should be; his character is not a mustache-twirler.

The film is gorgeously shot in the home of Middle-Earth, New Zealand, and by no less than cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), who shows off the best of the land in a way that enhances the believability of the story and the great visual effects by the amazing artists at Weta Digita, who make Elliot’s fantastic self seem real and breathing, and only help the raw emotions you as an audience member feel throughout the course of this movie. Ultimately though, the best kudos have to be given to writer-director David Lowery and co-writer Toby Halbrooks, who could easily have plagiarized the previous film’s material and instead crafted a harrowing, beautiful experience that doesn’t leave a dry eye in the house.

Between this and The Jungle Book, Disney is on a roll with its live-action ventures! I look forward to what Lowery and Halbrooks bring to their upcoming remake of Peter Pan, also at the House of Mouse. Until then, see this movie and you will leave feeling happy to be alive!

Rating: 5/5

Boldly Go

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The tribute is only… logical!

If space is the final frontier, may it go on forever! Under the unexpected hands of the Fast & Furious series’ Justin Lin, the rebooted Star Trek films have hit a series high in this year’s 50th Anniversary Extravaganza — Star Trek Beyond. The film’s predecessor, Star Trek Into Darkness, represented a disappointment for many fans, myself included — from a white Khan to a cop-out ending, Into Darkness was a misstep on almost every front. That is not the case with this film!

With three years into the Enterprise‘s five-year mission, not all is well aboard. Her captain, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), is burdened with doubts about his ability to lead the crew and live up to his late father’s reputation — how’s that for a birthday present? — while Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto, American Horror Story: Asylum) is doubled down with the death of an old friend and a break-up with his girlfriend/crewmate Nyota Uhura (Zoë Saldana, Guardians of the Galaxy), and the rest of the ship’s compatriots aren’t faring much better. On arrival to a starbase to resupply, the crew is tasked with a mission on a distant and uncharted planet, where old dangers and new allies await.

The production history behind Star Trek Beyond is a fairly tumultuous one — once set to be written and directed by Roberto Orci (co-writer of the previous installments), his  departure warranted both a new director and, in Paramount’s eyes, a new script, this time from Scotty himself, Simon Pegg (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), and relative newcomer Doug Jung. Their script channels the best the series has to offer, and still offer a film that may well be remembered as a classic. In point of fact, I was reminded more than once of two classic films — The Great Escape and Stalag 17 — that no doubt played a great hand in the writing of this film, as a prison camp setting with a motorcycle chase scene is no doubt cut from the same cloth!

My only gripe with the story is the villain, a dark and creepy one (what else?) called Krall. Played by the one and only Idris Elba (The Jungle Book), we never seem to know his motivation or the full circumstances of his being a villain. He seems something of a mashup between Star Trek‘s Nero and Star Trek: Insurrection‘s Ru’afo — make of that what you will — but we know littler about Krall than we do the aforementioned two.

Still, the decision to hire Pegg and Jung paid off brilliantly, as bringing new blood to this film only helps it shed the ghosts of its predecessor while bringing a fresh eye to the franchise in the form of director Justin Lin. Those fearing the “car chase” mentality of the Fast & Furious films need not worry — if anything, Lin brings his knowledge of a series’ cast and the feeling of family it implies, both during and after a take. Sign him for more, Paramount!

Speaking of family, a new addition to the crew in this film is a welcome one in the form of the mysterious hunter Jaylah (Sofia Boutella, Kingsman: The Secret Service), who takes a shine to engineering and, of course, to Scotty! Ms. Boutella brings some much-loved mirth and ingenuity to the film, and I do hope we see more of her in coming sequels! The remaining crew, most notably Bones (Karl Urban, Dredd) and Ensign Chekov (Anton Yelchin, Green Room), are given much greater material than they had in Into Darkness, and redeem the beloved nature of their characters. On that note, be prepared to cry buckets in regard to a couple of tributes to their respective crewmembers.

I was reminded by a friend recently about how Gene Roddenberry was a visionary ahead of his time, and on the 50th Anniversary of his series’ genesis, I feel he’d be proud of this tribute, both to his work and his belief in the endurance of the human race. I can’t wait for more Trek following Beyond, but if producer J.J. Abrams is anyone to go by (and he is), it truly will go where no one has gone before!

Rating: 4.5/5

Dial Tone

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Seriously, what’s the final title?

I am seriously at complete odds with what I just saw-who in their right mind okayed the script for this new version of Ghostbusters? Before saying anything further, I am a feminist and this movie is like a flat, heated bottle of Diet Coke that has gone out of date by about five years. Let the idea of that simmer on your tongue for a second or twelve. It isn’t appetizing, is it?

The all-lady cast of Ghostbusters (or is it Ghostbusters: Answer The Call? Set the title straight, Sony!) is not the problem with this reboot, either in decision or performance. Rather, I reiterate, it is the lousy script, whose writers seem wholly uninterested with making a feminist blockbuster, or making a good movie at all, and instead focus on laying groundwork for a sequel and spinoffs.

It starts out innocently enough — Columbia University professor Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig, The Martian) is dragged back into a past she’d rather forget when a book she co-wrote on the paranormal resurfaces online, thanks to her estranged childhood friend, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids). Tracking her down leads her to a haunted house nearby, where a spontaneous experiment conducted by Abby leads to the both of them stumbling upon the discovery of a malevolent ghost. Caught on camera professing her findings, one thing leads to another, and Erin is fired days short of receiving tenure, and more or less forced to join forces, as it were, with her girlhood chum and her partner in scientific experimentation, Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon, Saturday Night Live). Together, and with new recruit Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones, The Company We Keep), they set out to rid New York City of a rising threat.

It sounds better than it actually is — this is boring. So damn boring, and boy, does it show. While the new ladies in the jumpsuits are damn good with this lousy script (particularly Ms. McKinnon, a knockout!), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), as the receptionist, is as dead as a doornail/knob/knocker. He reads every single line in the style of the lead in a middle school play. Between this and the reboot of Vacation, he should never do a dedicated comedy again — his taste is ass. Renowned English actor Charles Dance (Game of Thrones) is in two scenes in the opening and is gone for the rest of the picture — why cast an actor of his caliber if you won’t use him to his fullest? The same applies to actors Michael Kenneth Williams (RoboCop) and Andy Garcia (The Ocean’s Eleven Trilogy), both in dry, one note roles. Even though no one made them take these blasé parts, why couldn’t they have been better utilized? The kingpin insult committed by this film is the use of the original Ghostbusters actors (sans Harold Ramis, God rest his soul) in pathetic wink-and-nod cameos. Bill Murray’s is the best-written of the bunch, but that’s not saying much, while Sigourney Weaver’s is insultingly relegated to the end credits scenes. So much for a feminist blockbuster.

Further, the script – it’s as if Sony got pitched an all-female Ghostbusters and gave writers Kate Dippold and Paul Feig (the latter of whom is also the director) final cut and no script doctor. Riddled with a bland villain, broken PG-13 sexual epithets and lousy gender and ethnicity jokes, this film offends more than it inspires, and its ending is the worst finale to a summer movie since Spider-Man 3Almost as bad as the script are the visual effects. While other films make you believe in ghosts, this film gives you no reason to — Slimer and his ghoulish crew look like they belong in a PlayStation 2 full-motion video cutscene. These paltry effects are utter hogwash, and while I didn’t see the film in the director’s intended format of IMAX 3D, I shouldn’t have to shell out extra cash just to get a better experience, not that an added dimension could save this film.

The final insult is that Sony intends to make a shared universe of Ghostbusters films, as evidenced well before its post-credits scene by a logo for a subsidiary company they’ve set up – “Ghost Corps, A Columbia Pictures Company.” Really, Sony? Filching the multi-film universe shtick is pathetic in and of itself, but to do so with Ghostbusters signifies the first of many nails in the proverbial coffin.

Under the circumstances, the crew behind this Ghostbusters had a lot to work under — salvaging what could have been Ghostbusters III, balancing the expectations of new fans with the disappointment/rampant sexism of old fans and filling the pocketbooks of studio suits, but the fact is that they weren’t forced to make this film and, in the end, it still sucks. It isn’t one of the worst films I’ve seen, but it is, hand to heart, the biggest disappointment of the year.

Rating: 1/5

I Can See Clearly Now

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Oh Alice, dear, where have you been?

I rarely go see a sequel to a film I hated, let alone one I hated on a cellular level, but Alice Through The Looking Glass is a horse of a different color in that it greatly improves on the previous film and still keeps much of the same creative team intact.

Continuing where the 2010 pseudo-remake left off, Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska, Crimsom Peak), now Captain of her late father’s trading vessel, the Wonder, has returned to London at the turn of the century from a three-year voyage across China and finds her benefactor dead (and his funding in the hands of her ex-fiancee), her home and her ship under the threat of repossession and her mother less proud of her than before. All seems hopeless before the reappearance of Absolem (Alan Rickman, Galaxy Quest) — a butterfly friend of hers from Wonderland, who leads her through the proverbial looking glass back into the world of the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp, Black Mass), who is not at all well. To help him, she must gain the assistance of Time (Sacha Baron Cohen, The Brothers Grimsby) himself and, together with the White Queen (Anne Hathaway, Interstellar) and her subjects, face her old nemesis, the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech) once again.

Like most films on the Disney release slate, I had been following Looking Glass since it was announced, but it really took my eye when the studio announced that James Bobin, director of 2011’s The Muppets was signed to direct — if anyone could save the sequel, it would be the man who, temporarily, revived Jim Henson’s brainchildren. Sure enough, he does, making the jump from puppets to CG quite nicely, even if some visual effects (i.e.: the destruction of Time’s castle) are milked for amazement a bit too much. The performances are sound, with Depp and Hathaway slipping effortlessly back into their respective roles, but the true stars of the film are Wasikowsa’s Alice and Lindsay Duncan as Helen Kingsleigh, Alice’s mother. Having found her voice in the previous film, Alice has found her place as a strong woman, completely disregarding the norms of the year she lives in, and Wasikowska plays that brilliantly (perhaps having played a contrary sort in Crimson Peak helped!), while Duncan’s Helen, no longer in mourning for her husband, seems to gradually learn from her daughter’s adventurous spirit and is now a character worth rooting for!

For what little time the late, beloved Alan Rickman has in the film, it is still nice to hear his dulcet tones one last time in a new release. Bonham Carter seems bored with the Red Queen, and, forgive me if this is uncouth, peeved to be working alongside her ex-husband again, even with him as producer? Cohen, however, brings to this his finest feature film role in nearly a decade — his protrayal of the mysterious Time parts Ludwig Von Drake and John Cleese circa Fawlty Towers. He’s worth the price of admission alone! Also, keep an eye out for small roles portrayed by Rhys Ifans (Anonymous), Richard Armitage (The Hobbit Trilogy), Andrew Scott (Spectre) and Ed Speelers (Downton Abbey). It’s a real treat to see them, even for a moment!

The script, once again written by Linda Woolverton, is much more coherent, but does seem to borrow from other fairy-tale properties — the plot point of the Hatter dying due to Alice not believing him reminded me all too much of Peter Pan (I distincly remember she even says to Hatter, ‘I’ll always believe in you.’ Hmm.). Also, the aforementioned mother-daughter relationship is a little reminiscent of Woolverton’s own Maleficent, which I loved, but pangs of fear of familiarity ran through my mind for a bit. These fears were more or less unfounded, but the ending did seem a bit similar in tone. Nevertheless, the film is greatly satisfying and empowering without being suffocating. While the film’s dismal box-office gross so far probably won’t grant it a sequel, it’s good enough where it ends here.

I was surprisingly satisfied with Alice Through The Looking Glass, leaving the theater feeling warm and fuzzy inside, and if you’re one of the many who saw the first film, please do yourself a favor and see this one, even if you’re not that interested — it’s very much worth it!

 

Rating: 3.5/5

The War of Iron Aggression

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SLIGHT SPOILERS WITHIN

Captain America: Civil War is an excellent palate-cleanser for Avengers: Age of Ultron. That being said, I have too many questions after seeing it:

 

Why is the Sandman Ex Machina (i.e.: this is your [family member]’s real killer) re-used from Spider-Man 3?

 

Why does this new Peter Parker look like Jamie Bell’s stand-in?

 

How did the Marvel brass not know that Alfre Woodard was already cast as a different character in their own series, Luke Cage?

 

What happened to most of Elizabeth Olsen’s Eastern European accent?

 

Why cast Daniel Brühl as your villain if you’re barely going to use him?

 

Was the creative team that ashamed of The Incredible Hulk that William Hurt is barely even acknowledged?

 

Why is so little of this actually compelling?

 

Anthony and Joe Russo give good direction, but the end result is befuddled. Further, the script falls like a CEO who’s lost everything. Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely write very well for Captain America and his team, but they failed Iron Man miserably — one photograph of a dead college kid shouldn’t have been enough to change his politics. The character has seen death countless times over eight years, both his own and the Avengers’ fault, and this only hits him now? I hope the hiatus from now until Avengers: Infinity War – Part 1 clears the minds of all involved.

 

Rating: 2/5

A (Bare) Necessity for Anyone

It’s as gorgeous as it seems!

If you had doubts of Jon Favreau’s directorial capability post-Iron Man 2, or are not a fan of Disney remaking their animated films in live-action, you can put those doubts and dislikes to eternal rest — the new adaptation of The Jungle Book is one of the finest films of this young year, and it would truly make Walt Disney and Rudyard Kipling proud. You may think you know this story already, but rest assured, there are numerous differences about, most of which shall remain unspoiled in this review.

Firstly, Favreau’s Jungle Book is one of the most gorgeous films I’ve seen so far this year. Almost entirely computer-animated, this film shines with the brightest polish I’ve seen. It begs to be experienced on the largest screen near you, preferably in 3D. Further, the 3D conversion for this film is luscious; the gap between films shot in the format versus those converted has truly been bridged — I will be buying the Blu-ray 3D edition if it is made available.

All the major actors in the picture shine — Neel Sethi is a talent unlike any other, and his portrayal of Mowgli radiates with charm and bravery. I guarantee you that the film industry hasn’t seen this good of a child actor since Freddie Highmore in Finding Neverland! As for the voice actors, Bill Murray (Groundhog Day) brings the requisite warmth and brightness to Baloo, while the stern schoolmaster teachings of Bagheera are well-controlled by Ben Kingsley (Ghandi). Somewhat underutilized are Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation) as Shere Khan and Scarlett Johansson (Avengers: Age of Ultron) as Kaa — Elba has the glorious position of being the film’s central antagonist,and he’s marvelously controlled in a role most would be twirling their mustaches in, yet I somehow wonder if he couldn’t have twirled a little bit — sometimes, he sounds a tad disinterested. Johansson makes a great Kaa — there were times I reeled back in my seat for fear of being eaten — but is only in one scene and, unlike the 1967 original, does not have a second appearance. Still, what time she has is terrifyingly grand. However, it’s Christopher Walken (Sleepy Hollow) who truly shines as the fire-desiring King Louie. Try to imagine less Louis Prima and more Idi Amin by way of Atlantic City, and you’ll be as frightened as I was!

Finally, the screenplay, written by Justin Marks, is golden. While allusions to the previous film were inevitable (i.e.: Baloo and King Louie singing their signature songs), the additional material seen here, both from Kipling’s books and those written specifically for this film, craft a new narrative that, I daresay, blows the original Disney take out of the water, and it is equally thanks to Marks as it is to Favreau that we have this lovingly-crafted box-office success — if this is Justin Marks’ apology for having written Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, then he’s forgiven a thousandfold in my eyes!

Truly, the 1967 adaptation of The Jungle Book is not among my favorites, but within the first half hour of this year’s adaptation, I was in tears, which is something that cannot also be said of Stephen Sommers’ 1994 version (which owes more to Edgar Rice Burroughs than Rudyard Kipling). If you go to see this brilliant new take on an enduring classic, you will leave the theater cheering!

Rating: 4.5/5

Unbirth of a Nation

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…or, “Bloodlust in the Dust.”

I didn’t stay past the Intermission for the 70mm Edition of The Hateful Eight, and with good reason, too. I went primarily out of curiosity, to see what all the hubbub was regarding a 70mm presentation and if the film was a definite awards contender.

To cut to the chase, Quentin Tarantino has proven himself to be far less than a film director — he’s this generation’s far more racist D.W. Griffith. The script is soused with the N-bomb, and just because Samuel L. Jackson’s character allows it doesn’t make it any better, nor does its use make Tarantino a grittier, “realistic” auteur. At one point, Jackson’s character takes great delight in telling a Confederate general of the vulgar way he killed his son (and forced him to perform fellatio), all while the Christmas carol “Silent Night” plays on an out-of-tune piano in the background. It may seem satisfying to some, seeing a post-civil war black man enacting vengeance, but the fact is that racism is racism any way it is performed; I don’t care who got hurt first, and also, you must surely admit that playing “Silent Night” while the audience bears witness to murder and oral sex is tasteless as can be.

Tarantino doesn’t even make use of the 70mm format. By his own admission, he was inspired to shoot the film in 70mm when he saw the chariot race in Ben-Hur, but there is no sequence tantamount in majesty to that; there isn’t a single added benefit to seeing it in its roadshow release beyond the fact that you get to use the bathroom after two hours.

From a director who decries cops as murderers, I think Tarantino should take a good look in the mirror, because with a film like this under his belt, he is bad as the men and women he vilifies. Skip it.