Welcome Christmas

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Every Christmas season brings with it a glut of Christmas movies; most of them awful — from How The Grinch Stole Christmas to Daddy’s Home 2, each year brings double its fair share of cinematic atrocities, and it’s all too rare that a good movie breaks through the mess — for every five of the aforementioned films, there is The Santa Clause, The Polar Express and The Man Who Invented Christmas. With the impending season all set to unleash itself, one can take refuge without hesitation in this weekend’s new release of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.

Freely adapted from the E.T.A. Hoffman tale entitled The Nutcracker and the Mouse King and the Tchaikovsky ballet, the story opens on young Clara Stuhlbaum (Mackenzie Foy, Interstellar), enjoying Christmas Eve as much as one can in her situation — her mother has passed earlier in the year, and the loss still weighs heavy on her heart, as well as that of her father (Matthew MacFayden, The Three Musketeers). In an attempt to bring her from her sadness, he gives her a gift from her mother – a Fabergé-style egg, but it is locked. Already on her way to a Christmas party held by her inventive godfather, Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman, Going in Style), she seeks his help, but to little avail. While at the party, gifts are given in an elaborate hide-and-seek manner. This leads Clara on the inexplicable discovery of the Four Realms, where brightness and darkness await in equal numbers.

Directed twofold by Lasse Halström (The Cider House Rules) and Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger) and written by first-time screenwriter Ashleigh Powell, the film is a wonderful sight to behold! Lushly photographed entirely in 65mm and 35mm film, every frame is a painting fit to be framed, and the direction given to the actors is solid, not once feeling like the hodgepodge of two conflicting visions. It truly does feel like Christmas when you see this film, and for the Disney nerds, there are more than a few welcome homages to Walt Disney’s 1940 classic, Fantasia, which itself featured selections from The Nutcracker suite! Powell’s screenplay is a strong debut, but it falters in one key aspect — the inclusion of a throwaway line naming the setting of the real world segments as London. Now really, that’s not very Hoffman or Tchaikovsky, is it? It’s so jarring, especially when Clara and her family retain their original names; it would have been better to let the setting remain ambiguous, rather than compromise the origins of the story. Still, this a strong debut from a fledgling writer that is to be commended.

As for the actors, Ms. Foy has truly shed the stain of her Twilight Saga beginnings, and is charming and bright as Clara; she doesn’t falter in her English accent and she never hams it up. Kiera Knightley (Anna Karenina) is bright and cheery as the Sugar Plum Fairy, leader of the Land of Sweets, while supporting characters of the realms include charming performances by Eugenio Derbez (How to Be a Latin Lover) as the eccentric Hawthorne, of the Land of Flowers, and the venerable Richard E. Grant (Withnail & I), who was in the last (atrocious) cinematic adaptation of this story, among a better cast and crew this time around as Shiver, the ice-laden leader of the Land of Snowflakes. The titular character of the Nutcracker (Jayden Fowora-Knight, Ready Player One), is kindly and innocently charming — as for antagonist Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren, Red 2), let’s just say I’d rather not spoil the film.

Another welcome bit of brilliance in this film is the seamless melding of selections from the Tchaikovsky ballet with a score composed by the eminent James Newton Howard (Maleficent). Mr. Howard is, in my humble opinion, one of the more underrated composers in film history, and he is in as good a form as he’s every been — maybe not as memorable as his work on Snow White and the Huntsman or Treasure Planet, but certainly pleasant. Speaking of ballet, such a segment is in this film, with none other than Misty Copeland performing! Be sure to keep in your seats for an additional performance in the end credits.

Speaking honestly, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms isn’t quite an instant classic, but it truly is an adorable bit of Christmas fluff, and one could do an awful lot worse in theaters this season. Buy your tickets, get the kiddos in the car, and watch with confidence that you’re getting a charming Christmas movie!

Rating: 3.5/5

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Magnificent Desolation

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Neil Armstrong — an American hero and a pioneer in the field of space exploration, it’s true, but does the public en masse know his struggles as well as he and his family did? The answer, and then some, is provided in First Man, the third feature film from Oscar winner Damien Chazelle. Certainly, it was an unexpected move from the director of music films Whiplash and La-La Land to do a period piece about the greatest voyage humankind ever bore witness to, but damned if it isn’t his finest, and one of the finest movies of the year.

Grounded as an Air Force test pilot and traumatized by a recent tragedy, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling, Blade Runner 2049) applies to NASA’s nascent Gemini program to get a new start for himself, his wife Janet (Claire Foy, Breathe) and their son. In doing so, Neil is tested in all manners of speaking as he tests the limits of the atmosphere, the patience of public and politicians alike and the strength of his family.

Among the cast, Gosling finally proves his mettle in my eyes as more than a handsome face and a cutesy voice, and brings realism and humanity to the legendary Armstrong. Similarly, Ms. Foy is at her career best with this film, bringing an truthful portrayal of the struggles felt by the wife of an astronaut, wondering if the man she loves will ever come home to her and holding the fort largely by herself (bringing to mind an equally stellar Sienna Miller in 2014’s American Sniper). Other notable standouts include Jason Clarke (The Chicago Code) as Edward White, a colleague of Neil’s who serves as a shoulder for him to lean on at times, and Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous) as Elliott See, an early acquaintance of Neil’s during the interview phase of the Gemini program. Finally, Corey Stoll (Ant-Man) brings all the requisite smarm and crass behavior to the utterly asinine Buzz Aldrin — the accuracy is much appreciated!

Chazelle shows real talent as a director with this film — unlike his wanton tail-riding of other, better movies (let’s face facts, La-La Land is just a modernized An American in Paris), he seems to have gone deep in ensuring authentic performances of his actors — no one is hamming it up for an Oscar — and portraying the 1960s without glamorizing or mocking it. Also, in a wise move, the lunar landing scene is entirely film in IMAX, bringing an expanded view for such a pivotal scene, and heightening the reality of the moment — if you have the good fortune of being near an IMAX Laser theater, get your tickets now! Josh Singer’s script — itself based on a chronicle of the same name by James R. Hansen —  never goes to the hysterical level of other space chronicles or period pieces. The words coming from these actors’ mouths feel natural, not at the Aaron Sorkin level of ego and hyperbole, and the events shown are certainly believable and honestly portrayed.

The film also arrives at a most apropos time, for in a day and age when public interest in our intergalactic future is at an all-time high, a film like First Man presents a reminding view to audiences; apathetic generations less concerned about contributions to history and human progress than putting band-aids on Earthbound problems — sounds to me like an additional past America, circa 2008-2016. The fact is we need to explore space continuously — even if no life exists beyond Earth, we can learn so much and further human advances in technology, medicine and countless other fields all from journeying from one habitable planet to the next. After all, why did maritime explorers look for a new world?

First Man is a brilliant, tautly-crafted film, honest in every detail, and while it almost certainly won’t win many, if any, of the awards it’s hyped to get (let’s be real, Oscars don’t do science… or honest history), it doesn’t need them. It never stoops to the overbearing caricature of space exploration and its conflicts that Apollo 13 was, nor does it bombard the viewer with fact and conjecture a la (the still very brilliant) Interstellar. No, this is a movie of its time for our time; a reminder that the future is up there, far beyond the atmosphere and, soon, the stars.

Rating: 5/5

“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

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

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