Blade Runner 2049 (Full Review)

Wine isn’t for everybody. While some find it to be a pleasant, and bold tasting elixir that soothes the soul, others find it bitter and unsatisfying. The original 1982 Blade Runner starring Harrison Ford and directed by Ridley Scott was a technical masterpiece and a pillar for neo-noir science fiction. It is also an acquired taste. While the film gave us striking imagery and thought provoking undertones, some just couldn’t get passed the melancholy pacing. But like a fine wine, to me the original gets better with age. And over three decades later, Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival), delivers a sequel that provokes the same sentiments.

Blade_Runner_2049_logoTo understand this sequel, it is inherently necessary to be somewhat familiar with the original film adapted from Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel. The world of Blade Runner is mostly a grim wasteland and artificial humans known as replicants are used as slave labor to keep society afloat. These replicants mostly serve their constructed purposes with obedience, but when they do go off the rails, they are hunted down and “retired” by cops nicknamed blade runners.

Blade Runner 2049 picks up 30 years after the events of the first film, when blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) was charged with retiring five replicants but ended up falling in love with one and disappearing with her. Replicants are now being made by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) to be much more subservient to the extent that replicants like Officer K (Ryan Gosling) are even being used as blade runners to hunt their own kind. When retiring a rogue replicant (Dave Bautista) leads to a shocking revelation, K is forced by his superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), to carry out a secret mission that could alter the fabric of society if he fails.

Like in the first, this film often moves at a dreary, sluggish pace that could be mind numbingly boring for some. But that isn’t something that should deter anyone who has ever sat down and enjoyed classic noir film’s like Casablanca or Taxi Driver. What the film lacks in suspense and action it makes up for in spectacular visuals and suave and swift performances. In those regards, Blade Runner 2049 actually manages to be even better than its predecessor.

The complexity that comes with the primary protagonist being a replicant himself adds tremendous tension to the plot. His interactions with members of both parties, as well as his struggles to understand his own humanity are gorgeously illustrated by his romantic relationship to an artificial intelligence named Joi (Ana De Armas) as well as his banter with Harrison Ford’s grizzly old Deckard. And just because the pacing tends to lull doesn’t mean the film isn’t void of some gripping action sequences. A climactic battle between K and Niander Wallace’s intimidating henchwoman, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), is wonderfully executed and stunningly filmed.

Aside from maintaining the sound and visual elements that made the 1982 film such a cult classic, Blade Runner 2049 manages to improve on the franchise’s lore with a more invigorating story and enthralling new characters. It is sure to bore some, but anyone with appreciation for the first will be undeniably impressed with this more than worthy successor.

FINAL GRADE: A

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IT (Full Review)

You can count on one hand the amount of horror films I’ve reviewed. That’s because, to me, the genre has become hellishly stale. Jump scares accompanied by long gaps of mediocre character building simply doesn’t interest me anymore, and rather than paste that opinion on every horror review I do, I simply just ignore them. But there’s something intriguing about scary movies where kids are the stars. Unlike the films with adults as the leads, these stories are more likely to be void of the asinine decision making that often plagues the genre. IT, a remake of the classic Stephen King novel and film, is a perfect example of how much more interesting a film can be when you’re actually latched on to the pieces involved.

It_(2017)_logoIT begins with a boy and his brother. Stuttering teen, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) makes a toy boat for his little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) that ends up floating into a gutter on a rainy day and bringing him into contact with creepy Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgard). One year later, Bill and his band of bullied friends known as the Losers Club (Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Jack Dylan Grazer, Chosen Jacobs) begin searching for Georgie and the other kids that have gone missing in their town which brings them face to face with the evil personification of fear itself.

Anyone who was captivated by the Netflix series Stranger Things will absolutely enjoy IT. The camaraderie of the teen protagonists is almost identical and the film does a sensational job of making each character necessary to the story. There’s an evident touch of heart to this film that makes its message of getting over loss and facing fears wholly relatable.

Aesthetically there is a lot to love about the film as well. The effects and scares are done without much hokey CGI and makes the movie feel more tangible like the 80’s horror flicks of old. Skarsgard’s performance as Pennywise the Clown is also magnetic. The entity itself probably won’t scare any full grown adults who aren’t afraid of clowns, but the portrayal moves and speaks with a subtle eeriness that would be undeniably terrifying if you switched places with any of the teenagers involved.

Our desensitization to the genre, thanks to the over saturation of horror films, may make the scares relatively weak for many. If I were in my early teens watching it, the film would probably give me nightmares for life, but even as an adult the movie garners appreciation for its tactics. Sometimes instead of scaring the audience, a horror film can be worthwhile because you can feel the fear in the characters and this remake of IT manages to be an emotionally grounded and smile inducing adventure. No matter how irrational it may be, fear is incredibly encompassing and running from it only makes it stronger and this concept comes across in full force making for an entertaining journey whether it scares you or not.

FINAL GRADE: A

Ingrid Goes West (Full Review)

September isn’t exactly a month that begets movie going. It’s pretty much the month where everyone focuses on the beginning of football season. But if you’re willing to search for a gem, there is always some lower budget film with a solid cast that can catch your eye and hold your attention. For September 2017, that movie is Ingrid Goes West.

Ingrid_Goes_WestAubrey Plaza, who produced the film, stars as Ingrid, a neurotic millennial fresh out of a mental institution after pepper spraying a presumed friend who failed to invite her to her wedding. When she inherits thousands of dollars from her deceased mother, Ingrid decides to move to California for a fresh start. There she begins stalking an Instagram socialite named Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen) with a seemingly perfect life. But after entering Taylor’s circle, Taylor’s tool of a brother (Billy Magnussen) threatens to unearth Ingrid’s unhinged ways and ruin her newfound friendship.

Nearly all of the characters in this black comedy are hard to find favorable. Ingrid is despondent, creepy, and willing to go through anything to be likable no matter how self-destructive. Olsen’s Taylor and her Californian friends and family are all either insufferably shallow or grotesquely pretentious. But the performances are the driving force that help prove the film’s point. Plaza’s grounded portrayal as the mentally unstable Ingrid feels tragically real in today’s social media obsessed society that places influence on appearances.

The heart and soul of the film ends up being the surprising romance between Ingrid and her Batman obsessed land lord (O’Shea Jackson Jr.). Jackson Jr., in his first major role since Straight Outta Compton, has organic chemistry in every scene with Plaza. The two characters unexpectedly coming to love and understand one another is what pushes this film to being enjoyable and not just an uncomfortable testament to our own society’s scary narcissism.

FINAL GRADE: B

 

 

Dunkirk (Full Review)

Christopher Nolan is one of my all-time favorite directors. His methodical style might not be for everyone, but to me, he’s never made a bad movie. With that being said, I feel the opposite about war films. I usually find movies in the genre to be boring and dreary, but if anyone can make me thoroughly enjoy a war picture, it’s the man behind Memento, The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception, and the Prestige.

Dunkirk_Film_posterDunkirk takes place in 1940 in the years of World War II predating American involvement. The Germans have forced British troops to the edge of Dunkirk, France. Nolan tells the story of the heroic evacuation of those troops through the eyes of a trio of stranded soldiers (Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard), an Air Force pilot (Tom Hardy), and an old mariner (Mark Rylance) who rescues a shell shocked soldier (Cilian Murphy) while headed toward Dunkirk.

What I’ve always enjoyed about Nolan’s filmmaking is his ability to create unique ways to tell stories. Dunkirk uses nonlinear storytelling to add intrigue and keep the film steadily suspenseful. With each focal point taking place at different times (an hour, a day, and a week) before the climax, the film never feels dull even if there isn’t much dialogue.

The pacing may feel methodical to anyone who likes their movies filled with clever monologues, gun battles or explosions, but not knowing when the enemy might strike, and creating high emotional stakes for the primary characters creates the tension. And when the bombs strike and the bullets fly, it is felt. The sound is heavy and piercing, made for IMAX surround sound, to make you feel engulfed in the action. Meticulous camera angels are also used to engulf the audience in the emotions of the characters.

You might leave wondering about the significance of the film, as it doesn’t do quite enough to illustrate the historical influence of the events. But considering the story wants to feel self-contained, that isn’t much of a flaw. The biggest flaw is that the movie also seems to carry on a bit longer than it needs to, even though it’s not actually a long movie. There are also a few character resolutions that are a bit anti-climactic, but overall Dunkirk accomplishes its goal of being a brisk, cohesive, but thrilling narrative.

FINAL GRADE: B

War for the Planet of the Apes (Full Review)

The reboot of the Planet of the Apes film franchise has been one of the greatest cinematic gems of the past decade. Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes both gave us stunning visuals and brilliantly methodical storytelling while also delivering an iconic central character in Andy Serkis’ Caesar. Telling the story of Alzheimer’s testing leading to the advent of super intelligent apes and a subsequent virus that begins wiping out humanity, the preceding films have set a high bar that Director Matt Reeves hopes to maintain with this latest entry.

War_for_the_Planet_of_the_Apes_posterWar for the Planet of the Apes finds Caesar continuously attempting to protect his family and ape colony from one of the last human armies. Led by a ruthless colonel (Woody Harrelson), this human army wants to use the apes as slaves and has used fear to coax several apes into betraying their species. Old, and broken from his years of fighting against the humans, Caesar must come to terms with his own anger and guilt to win one final battle and free his kind.

As The Dark Knight Rises taught us, sometimes a good movie can feel a bit disappointing when it doesn’t live up to the heights of its predecessors. That is the case here, where poor pacing and a bit of a retread plot make War not quite as spectacular as Rise and Dawn. There are several moments that are incredibly slow and lack the tension that was so captivating in Dawn between Caesar and Toby Kebbell’s Koba. Even Woody Harrelson’s colonel lacks the conviction to make him more pertinent than Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus, despite an equally grandiose performance.

But aside from those few lulls in the narrative and the somewhat predictable conclusion, there is a lot to like about War for the Planet of the Apes. The characters, particularly the apes, are still what make these stories interesting and thought provoking. Caesar’s trusted orangutan adviser Maurice (Karin Konoval) brings endearment to the story by adopting a mute human girl (Amiah Miller). A zoo chimpanzee known as Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) brings some wholesome comic relief. As for Caesar, he is still the brilliant, strong willed revolutionary we’ve come to enjoy, but the flaws created for his character in this film actually manage to paint a more soulful picture for the weary leader.

It’s hard not to have high expectations when you’re following near perfection. And in that sense, War might leave some wanting more. But just because the filmmakers couldn’t ante up Caesar’s story arc doesn’t mean that they didn’t craft an enjoyable film, filled with the same thought provoking concepts, character driven emotion, and brilliant visuals that captured audiences in the first place.

FINAL GRADE: B

Spider-Man: Homecoming (Full Review)

If at first you don’t succeed, try try again. The Tobey Maguire Spider-Man franchise started off just fine, until Spider-Man 3 made it come to a dark, disco dancing halt. Sony Pictures then rushed a pair of needless reboots into production starring Andrew Garfield which had their moments, but crumbled in 2014 when the studio became more obsessed with setting up sequels and spin-offs than with actually delivering a fun Spider-Man story. All of this led to the landmark deal that has finally given Marvel Studios the opportunity to use their biggest A-lister. After being one of the many bright spots in Captain America: Civil War, it’s time for Tom Holland to take center stage in the iconic red and blue spandex.

Spider-Man_Homecoming_posterAfter recruiting Peter Parker (Holland) to aid in the events of Civil War, Tony ‘Iron Man’ Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) returns the super powered 15 year old back to his home in Queens, New York with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). Despite wanting the life of a full-fledged Avenger, Parker spends his Spider-Man nights catching bicycle thieves and helping old ladies cross the street while Stark’s assistant Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) keeps tabs. Peter’s daytime life consists of he and his best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon) talking about Star Wars, participating in quiz bowls, getting teased by a bully (Tony Revolori), and pining after a pretty senior (Laura Harrier). When the spurned leader of an Avengers battle clean up crew (Michael Keaton) begins selling high tech weapons to criminals in the city, Spidey sees catching him as his big chance to impress Mr. Stark and becoming a true Avenger.

We’ve seen Spider-man done justice, so we never actually needed a new solo outing. While this version is younger, there isn’t really anything new brought to the character other than a high tech suit and a ton of nice, but not necessary Avengers Easter eggs. And yet, in many ways, the story that Spider-Man: Homecoming comes up with manages to be arguably the character’s most definitive one.

Pater Parker is still smart, snarky, and brave. But by making the character younger and placing him in a world where superheroes are both abundant and older, we are allowed to truly see Spider-Man’s coming of age as a likable hero. Holland’s version, more than any other, is a kid. He is naïve and inexperienced and to become the iconic hero, he must mature. Thus, this Spider-Man film feels like a true origin story even though we’re allowed to skip out on Uncle Ben dying and the inevitable radioactive spider bite.

The sensational supporting cast helps. Robert Downey Jr. portraying Tony Stark as Parker’s mentor and father figure works incredibly well, with some of the best dialogue coming between the two. Jacob Batalon injects wholesome likability into every scene he’s in as Ned. And even though her role at times seems shoe horned in, Zendaya has some fun quips as Parker’s classmate Michele. As for Michael Keaton, who plays the villainous Vulture, he gives a performance that isn’t just one of the best in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but rivals Alfred Molina’s iconic Doc Ock in 2004’s Spider-Man 2. By giving the titular hero a worthy adversary, we are able to truly explore his fears and vulnerabilities.

It’s not quite the best Spider-Man movie ever. There are a few pacing issues, the CGI often gets a bit too cartoony, and I’m not a fan of young, more attractive Aunt May. But this film nails the overall tone of one of the most popular characters in pop culture. Calling an MCU movie fun is like calling a Tim Burton movie ‘quirky’ so that aspect should go without saying. At this point, the producers of these movies have mastered making the audience laugh without getting too hokey. With their knack for exhilarating action sequences and exploring mature themes while still keeping things light, the MCU has proven that Spider-Man belongs in this franchise. So if they can keep things from falling apart (like the Iron Man sequels), they’ve finally got a version that audiences can stay behind.

FINAL GRADE: A

 

 

 

 

Baby Driver (Full Review)

Fast and the Furious can be an acquired taste, but if there’s something we can all agree on, it’s that fast cars are entertaining as hell. Edgar Wright, the man behind Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, seems to have grasped that concept pretty well and manufactured it into a sleek heist film. In this summer filled with sequels, adaptations, and reboots, Wright refreshingly injects a film with exhilarating summer action, a great cast, and some catchy tunes.

Baby_Driver_posterBaby Driver stars Ansel Elgort as Baby, a skilled getaway driver who uses music to drown out a condition leftover from an accident that killed his parents. After falling for a diner waitress named Debora (Lily James), Baby desires a life free of car chases and shootouts. But to gain his freedom, he’ll have to outsmart his blackmailing boss Doc (Kevin Spacey), and his collection of loose cannon associates Bats (Jamie Foxx), Buddy (Jon Hamm,) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez).

Everything about Baby Driver is stylish and fun. The action sequences, which the film wastes no time getting into, are ridiculously exhilarating thanks to some jaw dropping stunt work. The music is an eclectic, but fitting mix of rock n’ roll and hip hop songs blended from different eras. Perhaps the most captivating, is how Wright incorporates the music into his cinematography, often synchronizing beats with the swift movements onscreen.

But while it can be entertaining, a movie can’t be truly great off of action, music, and cinematography alone. Wright’s story is well crafted and endearing. Though the characters seem simple, the charm of Elgort and Lily James helps us buy into the starry eyed romance between Baby and Debora. Meanwhile, Foxx, Hamm, Gonzalez, and even Jon Bernthal in a small role, all do their best to steal each scene they’re in as the wickedly charismatic band of degenerate thieves. Kevin Spacey effectively makes it all come together with his slick portrayal of the group’s ring leader.

Baby Driver moves at a pace that is swift but never difficult to follow. If you aren’t hooked by the opening scene, then this simply isn’t for you. As for me, I found it to be the most exciting thrill ride of the summer and maybe of 2017.

FINAL GRADE: A

Wonder Woman (Full Review)

In baseball, when you’re losing, you don’t always need a homerun to restore the hope in your fans. Sometimes, you just need a solid base hit to get your team back into a rhythm. 2016 had two strikeouts for the DC Comics Extended Universe. Batman v Superman was the most dreary, self-indulgent superhero movie ever and Suicide Squad was a sloppy mess that had to rely on a seasoned cast to make it watchable. But now Wonder Woman is up to the plate, and after being one of the few bright spots in Batman v Superman, the most iconic superheroine in comic book history looks to get DC and Warner Bros. back in the cinematic game.

Wonder_Woman_(2017_film)Gal Gadot returns as Diana, the youngest of an island of Amazonian women created by Zeus to defend mankind from Aries, the God of War. Trained by her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright), Diana becomes the fiercest Amazonian warrior, much to the dismay of her protective mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). When a World War I spy named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes on their hidden shores, Diana embarks on a mission with him and his friends (Lucy Davis, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock) to find Aries and end the war before a German General (Danny Huston) and his chemist partner (Elena Anaya) can release a deadly gas on all of mankind.

From the beginning, when we see Diana as a starry eyed little girl, the movie has a charming tone to it that never ceases. All of the supporting protagonists are likable and the chemistry between Gadot and Chris Pine always comes off as genuine. Both Diana and Steve Trevor are wonderfully layered characters that uplift each other. Diana is portrayed as a strong but naïve fish out of water who learns the nuances of mankind from Trevor while he is a brave soldier who lacks faith until being inspired by her strong willed and unyielding nature.

Great chemistry between the cast is coupled with a strong dose of well timed humor that, unlike Suicide Squad, never feels forced. It should also come as no surprise to anyone that saw the character in Batman v Superman that the battle scenes are thrilling. So despite being over two hours, the movie paces beautifully with only the beginning feeling a tad slow.

Wonder Woman isn’t without some glaring flaws. There is an overuse of CGI which often clashes with the more tangible scenes in the film that feature well choreographed fights and gorgeous costumes and scenery. The movie also has some hokey moments and lacks a strong central antagonist (The final reveal seems a bit forced). So while it isn’t quite a homerun, Director Patty Jenkins does manage to make it DC’s first film that feels smart, fun, exciting, and endearing throughout. And that makes it a solid double off of the back wall and enough to give us faith in the studio again.

FINAL GRADE: B

Free Fire (Full Review)

There’s nothing like a movie that takes a simple concept and is able to turn it into something entertaining. Some films don’t need elaborate plots or huge set pieces to be exhilarating. With Free Fire, Director Ben Wheatley takes pages out of the Quentin Tarantino book of storytelling and delivers a hilariously kinetic film held up by a captivating cast.

imagesFree Fire takes place in the 1970’s and is almost entirely set in a Boston warehouse. Brie Larson plays Justine, a liaison helping a group of Irishman (Cilian Murphy, Michael Smiley, Sam Riley) illegally purchase assault rifles from a group of shady gun dealers (Shalto Copley, Armie Hammer, Babou Ceesay, Jack Raynor). When an altercation leads to shots being fired, the deal turns into an all out gun fight with everyone trying to make it out alive.

As I mentioned, Free Fire feels very much like a Tarantino film (think Reservoir Dogs or The Hateful Eight). Almost every line is filled with sly humor and relevancy. And every time the story seems as if it’s going to lull, a new twist sparks even more hilarious chaos. The characters, from Armie Hammer’s suave trash talking Ord to Sharlto Copley’s weaselly Vernon, are all charismatic degenerates that make you want them killed just as much as you want them to survive.

If the film has a flaw, it is in those occasional dry spots where characters seem to be firing back in forth with no rhyme or reason. But that’s almost part of the fun. The only characters that seem to remain calm are too busy trying aimlessly to keep their moronic allies alive. As a result, Free Fire never feels too long or uninteresting. It plays out like a giant game of Russian roulette and by the time the climax rolls around, you’ll be glad you watched it all unfold.

FINAL GRADE: A

Logan (Full Review)

I remember watching the very first X-Men film on opening day back in July of 2000. Even though several changes had been made to the source material, I came out of the theater thoroughly pleased. One of the biggest reasons for the success of that film, and why the franchise is still chugging along 17 years later, is because of Hugh Jackman. Sure, he isn’t 5’3″ like his comic book counterpart, but Jackman has embodied the scraggly persona of The Wolverine so much so that it’s hard to imagine anyone else ever playing the role. But all good things must come to an end, and after 9 films, it’s time for Jackman to wear the claws and muttonchops for the last time.

cuaiczwueaaid_w-jpg-largeLogan takes place in 2029. Most mutants have died off and the hero once known as the Wolverine is now a sickly old man who has been reduced to being a limo driver. Along with an albino mutant named Caliban (Stephen Merchant), Logan spends his days tending to former X-Men leader, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) who is now a senile 90-year old man prone to dangerous seizures. Logan’s depressing life is thrown back into chaos when he becomes caught in the crossfire of a bounty hunting cyborg (Boyd Holbrook) searching for a young mutant girl (Dafne Keen) with similar powers to Logan’s.

For starters, this is NOT your children’s X-Men movie. Hell, this isn’t even your teenager’s X-Men movie. Filled with extreme violence, profanity in every other sentence, and even one scene of brief nudity, Logan has more in common with Deadpool than it does with any of Jackman and Stewart’s past films in the franchise. But that should only matter to anyone bold enough to ignore the ‘R’ rating. Like Deadpool, this film isn’t made for wholesome family fun. If the other X-Men films are comic books, this is a full on gritty, western graphic novel.

Logan feels like a story that has matured with audiences who grew up with the franchise and the Wolverine character. We’ve seen Wolverine deal with searching for his past and learning to be part of a team. But we’ve never seen the character experience having to outlive all of his closest friends. In that sense, Logan provides a story that makes the character feel more tangible than ever before and raises the question of what becomes of heroes when they’re down to their last leg?

The action sequences are gory, intense entertainment. But the family dynamic is undoubtedly the best part of Logan. Seeing the character being forced into a parental role brings a wonderful sense of heart to the film and the chemistry between Jackman and Dafne Keen is absolutely beautiful from start to finish. An even better dynamic perhaps, is the one shared between Jackman and Stewart’s Charles Xavier.

Professor X and Wolverine are the two most iconic characters in the franchise, so it’s fitting that they should share this last ride. This older, broken Charles Xavier is something we’ve never seen before. He has a potty mouth and has little to no control over his powers, and yet it never feels like he isn’t the same man that started the X-Men. The constant desire to nurture and teach is still there and more importantly to this film, the need to love, cherish and want the best for a friend, and pupil is what makes the dynamic between Charles and Logan incredibly emotional this time around.

Though darker and a bit more emotional than past X-Men films, there is still a healthy dose of effective humor throughout. Most of it comes from the sheer organic chemistry between the cast.  Even Boyd Holbrook’s antagonist, who is more bark than bite, manages to bring enough slick, Texas southern charm to make him an enjoyable character (He could’ve been great in the role of a certain Cajun mutant… but I digress).

Things do start to drag in the last act so the film could’ve probably shaved off about 15 minutes here and there. And try not to give yourself a headache by thinking about where this film fits in with the timeline of the others. Personally, I’ll take compelling stories and characters over continuity any day so consider these to be minor flaws. In the end, this isn’t just one of the best X-Men films. What Director James Mangold and Hugh Jackman have created is a bold, deeply earnest sendoff to an iconic character that is nothing short of a masterpiece.

FINAL GRADE: A