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

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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

Oh, What A Girl Can Do!

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Nostalgia comes in great waves today, with all manner of films revisiting classic themes — from Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 to War for the Planet of the Apes, Hollywood is, more accurately, in a nostalgic monsoon, but in the case of this week’s new release, Atomic Blonde, we have said nostalgia tailored for an R-rated audience. This movie belongs to the 80’s kids and their parents, but with the modern sensibility of a commanding female lead who owns the show.

Based on the comic book The Coldest City, the story is set in November 1989, days before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road) plays MI6 Agent Lorraine Broughton, a super-spy at the top of her line, sent on an extraction mission to East Berlin. With the help of ridiculously rogue agent David Percival (James McAvoy, Split), she must locate a stolen list of active operatives in the Secret Service, or it’s game over for the free world.

Let’s not mince words — this film is an audio/visual feast, showing wanton violence with an almost poetic look to it, and yet the action is surprisingly grounded, given director David Leitch’s background with the John Wick movies. The sound is not as invasive as I thought it would be — while bullets fly above your head, you can still hear the dialogue clearly, all set to a litany of 80’s pop songs for much of its soundtrack. All that being said, the script isn’t much to write home about — too many curveballs are thrown into the works; even the viewer begins to doubt what is true or not. There are at least three twist endings, one of which you see coming miles away, so that’s no good.

Despite the handicap of the script, the acting is brilliant — If you expected hammy acting amidst a violent script, you’ll be proven wrong, but anyone expecting a cold-blooded feminist blockbuster tailored for the “reSister” of today will get something wholly other — Theron plays Lorraine more as a femme Timothy Dalton-era James Bond — one who would snap your neck like a twig for Queen and Country, all while wearing a coy smile on her face. She owns the screen on which the movie plays, but in any lesser situation, the requisite male lead would be mere eye candy. Thankfully, such is not the case here — co-star McAvoy brings the perturbing filth one usually sees in the movies he makes across the pond to a mass-market American release, and he owns his character with disgusting pleasure. Notable supporting cast members include John Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane), bringing a shot of humor into the film as a bumbling CIA agent, James Faulkner (Downton Abbey) as C, Lorraine’s superior and head of MI6, and Sofia Boutella (The Mummy) in a role that, if I told you, would spoil the movie.

Atomic Blonde is not very good, but it’s no sin to see it — it’s a fun film that, while it won’t quite scratch the itch of those begging for a female 007, is a symphonic example of an action film, embodying the best of Guy Hamilton and Robert Rodriguez, set to the tunes of liberation. That is what we came to see, is it not?

Rating: 3/5

What I’ve Done

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I’m going to try and keep this review as brief as possible.

On average, I adored the Transformers movies thus far — I saw the first installment in  high school, and every movie gave me cause to joyously regress to that fat, pimply kid and enjoy the candy corn that was the best toy movie franchise ever made. Sadly, there comes a point when a boy must mature into a man; for me, that moment came hours ago, when I saw Transformers: The Last Knight.

Filmed almost entirely in IMAX 3D, Michael Bay’s swansong to his time in the toy department makes use of the immersive format like nothing I’ve seen before, but if only more time was spent in the much-publicized writers’ room. Rest assured it’s not the ghastly hodgepodge that the second film, Revenge of the Fallen, was, but boy oh boy, is it uninspired. Then again, what could one expect of a group of writers headed by Akiva Goldsman, whose brainchildren include Batman & RobinWinter’s Tale and The Da Vinci Code? Speaking of uninspired, most of the human actors present in this film are somewhere between giving it their all and collecting a paycheck — Marky-Mark patently wants out, Isabela Moner is charming but sparsely seen, Anthony Hopkins and Laura Haddock are having too much fun, and Josh Duhamel… next.

The biggest offenders in this film are the sound editors and mixers — if this film had a middle name, it would be “bombastic.” Even for an IMAX-optimized movie, it’s deafness-inducing, and the last thing I want after seeing a movie is to be fitted with hearing aids — no Oscar nods for any of y’all.

Though The Last Knight is meh than meets the eye, I still hold a tiny glimmer of hope for the four-friggin-teen Transformers movies and spin-offs in development, so here’s hoping the Bayhem has met its end at the hands of coherence.

Rating: 2/5

Drink Up, Me Hearties, Yo Ho!

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HERE THERE BE SPOILERS

Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is something of a brilliant fluke that printed lots of money and occasional awards in its heyday, but let’s not mince words — the sequels thus far, made with the potential of being a seafaring Star Wars saga, were land-locked crap. With the much-publicized “final film” that was released last week, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, I was hoping with bated breath for one last hurrah to make amends for the sequels that sucked. Having seen it, patience is clearly a virtue!

In this film, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, Alice Through The Looking-Glass) is a battered ol’ drunkie, with little to sustain him but the next rum bottle that touches his lips. Fate (read: sheer dumb luck) brings him into contact with Henry Turner (Brenton Twaites, Maleficent), the son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) and Elizabeth Swann (Kiera Knightley, The Imitation Game), and he brings with him a threat from the ghostly Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men) and a desire to free his father from unending servitude. Teaming up with Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario, The Maze Runner), a young astronomer accused of witchcraft, and Jack’s resident frenemy, Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech), they seek the Trident of Poseidon, an artifact capable of freeing anyone from a curse of the sea.

In all seriousness, this is not the best Pirates movie in the series — it does, however, have the luxury of being the best one since the immaculate original. Depp, as always, blends into character as if no years have passed, with all the wit and twit we love about Captain Jack, and yet this is not just his movie — just about everyone gets a chance to shine, with Thwaites finally beginning to prove his mettle as an actor beyond a pretty face and a haircut, and Bardem embodying all the creepy he had in Skyfall with a bit of a dark comedic edge to it. At times, Rush seems to be fulfilling a contract, but he brings all the necessary “arrr” to the role he created in 2002. Scodelario isn’t as bright in her role as I hoped she’d be, but she’s clearly having a good time making a costume drama in the company of great people. Speaking of, Sir Paul McCartney (A Hard Day’s Night), a Beatle in the flesh, appears as Jack’s uncle and namesake — try not to miss him!

Fresh eyes arrive to the series in the form of seasoned action directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Kon Tiki), giving a stronger sense of action choreography and an ability to see the beauty in locations, something they exhibited as producers on Netflix’s Marco Polo, but the real beauty of this movie is in its having a new writer — Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me If You Can). In addition to bringing a fresh eye, relatively unbound to the conventions of the previous sequels, and while there are rehashed lines and some plot holes, he seems to know exactly what the fans want, and in the end, he gives it to us — not only are Henry and Carina lovers by the end, Will and Elizabeth, longstanding mainstays of the series, are finally, definitively reunited in an ending that, while it should have been that of the third film, is warranted, welcome and warmed my greasy little heart to 450ºF! Bravo!

In its last-ditch effort for a return to form, this final Pirates largely succeeds. The script is definitely riddled with clichés; the acting ranges from nominal to yuckin’-it-up, but in the end, the franchise has met a graceful end and its fans, myself included, have finally gotten the happy ending that we deserved! So do yourself a favor and board a ship for a joyous voyage in 3D at your earliest convenience!

Rating: 3.5/5

I’d Like To Do It Again

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I grew up on stuff that meant nothing to my generation — from vintage comedies to Victrola records, my house was in 1950 while 1997 happened in the outside world. As a direct result, I was alienated from most of my class, but I did acquire a, dare I say, more refined sense of humor compared to my contemporaries. That being said, not enough comedies in theaters today make me laugh — I tend to groan throughout (Superbad) or take the story dead seriously (Tropic Thunder), so I rarely see them in theaters. In point of fact, the last one I saw as such was 2012’s Hit & Run, and I guffawed all the way through. Almost five years later, I found myself seeing Going In Style, and loving it from head to toe!

A remake of the 1979 film of the same name, Going In Style showcases the lives of three friends in their sunset years — Joe (Michael Caine, The Italian Job), Willie (Morgan Freeman, The Shawshank Redemption) and Albert (Alan Arkin, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming!) — robbed of their pensions and near broke. With no other way to live and expenses needing to be paid, Joe gets the idea to rob a bank — the same bank that managed the liquidation of their pensions. It does sound extremely dumb in synopsis form, and while the trailers paint a better picture than my words, they don’t do it enough justice — this is a very cute, touching film that happens to have some of the best laugh-out-loud moments I’ve ever seen (and the best ones are actually kept from the trailer! Bravo!)! Caine, Freeman and Arkin have never been funnier, and they’re joined by a grand cast of co-stars — among them, Ann-Margret (Bye Bye Birdie), Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future), Matt Dillon (Over The Edge), Siobhan Fallon Hogan (Holes) and Joey King (Oz: The Great and Powerful), each one getting a moment or two in the spotlight that make them indispensable to this film. No one present in this film is an unnecessary addition, which is something I can’t say about most movies in history.

Still, when the movie gets sentimental, it never stoops to sappy, Mitch Albom-y levels. It’s a movie made for the generation who grew up on the Billy Wilder compendium of comedies; movies that weren’t afraid to fiddle with your heartstrings as they tickled your funnybone, and that is made all the more impressive by its 42-year old director, Zach Braff. Known as the man behind romantic dramedies such as Garden State and The Last Kiss. Braff’s direction is a loving one, kind and courteous to the audiences watching this film with no real alternatives in a day and age of uninspired drivel like Trainwreck and Neighbors. There is no other movie this year like Going In Style — it’s a trip down Memory Lane that never takes its foot off the gas. True, it does slow down a bit in its third act, and that’s a bit of a pity, but on average, it’s a rollicking, fun ride through the pitfalls of old age.

Let’s be clear, Going In Style is not Oscar bait, despite advertisements billing its leads as “Academy Award Winners,” but it’s not made for the Hollywood elite, nor the moviegoer expecting to see The Hangover on Ensure; it’s a comedy that isn’t afraid to be poignant and adorable. You just don’t get movies like that anymore, and kudos to Zach Braff and all affiliated — this is a love letter from our generation to the past.

4.5/5

I Am Satisfied With This Film

And the best part is that he's not cloying or annoying in any way!

And the best part is that he’s not cloying or annoying in any way!

This review is Spoiler-Free, proud-to-be!

Up until Big Hero 6, I hated all animated films made post-2010 (i.e.: Tangled, Toy Story 3). Given how Pixar has turned to milking toy money from their “art” (see also: Cars 2Brave, Monsters University, and so on), Walt Disney Animation Studios hadn’t fared much better in my eyes — Wreck-It Ralph was nothing more than a commercial for both GameStop and Nestle, and Frozen pushed the agendas of both radical feminism and toy moneymaking over a story for everyone.

My hopes for Big Hero 6 were beneath contempt when I went to see it today, and for the first act, my hopes were met. It’s not unlike Oz, The Great and Powerful, where the first act is stagnant with exposition, full of needless wordplay and references to preexisting material, and there is little care given by the creative team to like the characters you see — at least for an adult; as children, it’s a given that you love everything you see in a theater. That being said, like Oz, the film kicks into high gear in the second act, when the motives of the characters change under the presence of a threat and a chance to stop it, and it only gets better from there — if you wanted a Disney movie with the panache and wit of Wreck-It Ralph, but also the heart and soul of Meet the Robinsons, this is the one.

I must also give kudos to the film’s directors for not casting celebrities as these delightful characters — too many animated films today are riddled with big names (i.e.: Epic, The Book of Life) just to get cash from adults who would otherwise not see the film. The real star of this cast is T.J. Miller, whom I found insufferable as a token comic relief character in Transformers: Age of Extinction (and, in said film, was glad to see him get bumped off in the first half hour!), but is hilarious without chewing the scenery and unpredictably warm in this film! The weak link in the cast is not so much about performance as it is about sound — relative newcomer Ryan Potter voices Hiro, the lead in our story, and while I believe his character’s convictions and motive, I don’t believe that he sounds like a fourteen-year old kid. His voice is just too deep, and I wish that someone with a more youthful voice could have been chosen instead… or, at the very least, some computer alterations would have helped.

Big Hero 6 is not the best animated film of the year; that award belongs to The LEGO Movie. That being said, this is not a film to be missed, particularly in 3D, and it represents a return to form for Walt Disney Animation Studios. After all, if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it!