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

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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

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

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

Perfect, A Pure Paragon

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If you are as much of a Disney fan as I (few are), then the thought of a live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast gave you cause to salivate — one that kept the songs and its composer, eight-time Oscar winner Alan Menken! I was sold, but as the days to release got closer, I found myself getting more and more cautious — suppose the end result sucked, a la Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables? I am proud and thankful to say that this adaptation, directed by Bill Condon (Dreamgirls), is nothing short of brilliant. I write this review assuming that you are familiar with the base of the story (and you had better be!), and as such, spoilers follow.

One thing viewers of the 1993 Broadway show may not be aware of is that none of the songs written for said show carry over into this film, but fear not, as Menken and lyricist Sir Tim Rice write new songs that both make up for the missing ones and craft a new experience for the viewers of the show. Speaking of the songs, the movie is filled with brilliant performances, beginning with the Harry Potter franchise’s Emma Watson, who can sing, rest assured, and in spite of her promoted desire to modernize Belle, I was, as a feminist, glad to have seen her more resolute than openly militant — we’re bordering on the political, but I’m super happy this wasn’t rewritten as “Steinem and the Beast.” Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) makes a brilliant Beast, with one hell of a set of pipes — his signature number, “Evermore,” brought tears to my eyes, but it’s Luke Evans (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) who brings his latent background in musical theatre to the forefront and aces the role of Gaston with a great voice and the right levels of smarm, condescension and cruelty — just the right type of villain! Acting as his toady is Josh Gad (Back To You) as LeFou, who gets a larger story arc in this version, which fleshes him out without totally changing him. Kevin Kline (Silverado), as Belle’s father Maurice, brings a befuddled persona to the character, reminiscent of Buster Keaton in Richard Lester’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, with an equally kind nature requisite of the character. He doesn’t get much of a song — less than two minutes — but his necessity isn’t in his singing, and you’ll find out when you see this.

The servile characters of the castle just about steal the show, with Ewan McGregor (Moulin Rouge!) and Ian McKellen (Cold Comfort Farm) leading the pack as Lumiere and Cogsworth, respectively. With great singing voices (although Sir Ian doesn’t get to show his much), they make “Be Our Guest” a showstopper even better than the original (there’s even a visual nod to Esther Williams’ swim ballet pictures!)! Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks) is adorable and kindly as Mrs. Potts, with a more knowledgeable nature than in the animated film, and alongside her is relative newcomer Nathan Mack as Chip, who is freakin’ adorkable. Here’s to your long career, boy!

Underplayed, but still appreciated, are Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Concussion) as Plumette, the featherduster and Lumiere’s flame (…groan…), Audra MacDonald (A Raisin in the Sun) as Madame de Garderobe, a soprano-cum-wardrobe, and Stanley Tucci (The Whole Shebang) as new character Maestro Cadenza, a court composer turned harpsichord. They each get their moment to shine, to be sure, but a little more couldn’t hurt. Still, not a big enough gripe to warrant a lesser grade.

Again, those fearing too much modernization in this edition need not worry — what wasn’t broke (or baroque) in the 1991 classic mercifully remains unfixed in this version. Sure, there’s the much-publicized “gay-making” of LeFou, but if it wasn’t publicized, I guarantee nobody would have even suspected it. It’s mercurial, and those of a discriminatory position needn’t fear their children’s safety — you never needed to anyway. Other plot points that warranted expansion are done brilliantly so, from the whereabouts of Belle’s mother and what happened to the Enchantress, and that speaks volumes of the talents of writers Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being A Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War), both writers I didn’t care much for prior to this, and director Bill Condon, who may have directed both parts of the Twilight saga closer, Breaking Dawn, but aside from giving him experience in visual effects work, there’s nothing resembling those two duds in this film.

Bravo to all involved in this adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, who have created something as memorable as the musical and film that preceded it. It’s a pity it wasn’t released in time for last Oscar season, but it was better they take care of the film and not rush a single thread. I will happily see it again in IMAX 3D, and I urge all readers of this to see it too!

Rating: 5/5(?!)

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

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