Avengers: Infinity War (Spoiler Free) Review

The word ‘Ambitious’ isn’t quite enough to describe it. Marvel Studios Producer Kevin Feige probably couldn’t have imagined that this vast cinematic universe would become as successful as it is when Iron Man first released ten years ago. Along with a host of incredible directors and acting talent, he has carved out a collection of unique films that seamlessly blend into one cohesive story. It has all led to a film that holds no punches.

Avengers_Infinity_War_posterThanos (Josh Brolin), an intimidating force who has been pulling strings behind the scenes in several films, has finally come to the forefront. Hell bent on wiping out half of the universe to create balance, he along with his minions, are out to capture the Power, Space, Reality, Soul, Time, and Mind infinity stones. Standing in their way are Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Vision (Paul Bettany), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) and the Guardians of the Galaxy (Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Braldey Cooper, Pom Klementieff, and Vin Diesel) along with a horde of supporting characters from the MCU (Danai Gurira, Benedict Wong, Letitia Wright, Karen Gillan, Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba).

Anyone familiar with comics knows that you have to often suspend your notions of practicality to enjoy the overarching stories and their themes. Avengers: Infinity War is no different. The movie moves at a sometimes disorienting pace that will leave those who aren’t familiar with these types of films in the dust. There are so many characters, that the movie can’t help but feel complex and at times muddled. But after eighteen films of character building, Infinity War serves as a visual narrative treat to those who have been there every step of the way.

The vast collection of cast members intermingle with characters they’ve never been on screen alongside with an almost flawless chemistry. We get Thor teaming up with Rocket Raccoon and Groot, Iron Man with Dr. Strange, The Avengers with the army of Wakanda. When fan favorites arrive on the scene there’s a nostalgic sensation that is enough to make fans absolutely giddy. So even at its rare hokey moments (one character does something atypically stupid and a new character feels completely out of place), Infinity War revitalizes the same fun, awestricken feeling audiences got with the first Avengers movie.

The humor feels organic, but make no mistake, this movie raises the MCU stakes unlike any other. Thanos, off nothing more than sheer might, determination, and intimidation, manages to cement himself as one of cinema’s most daunting villains. The heart pounding climax of the film is sure to leave audiences frozen in their seats as the credits role. For a franchise whose biggest flaws have usually revolved around lack of strong antagonists and unwillingness to sacrifice major characters, the Russo Brothers (Captain America Winter Solider and Civil War) manage to create a film that serves as a middle finger to anyone who ever criticized. The result is a sometimes uneven, but overall shocking, emotional roller coaster that feels like the Empire Strikes Back of the superhero genre.

FINAL GRADE: B

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Rampage (Full Review)

I remember playing Rampage the arcade game at Chuck E’ Cheese. You could choose between a giant gorilla, lizard, or wolf and the object of the game was to destroy buildings and eat people. Yep… that sounds exactly like the type of thing that would get turned into a movie starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in 2018.

Rampage_teaser_film_posterJohnson stars as Davis Okoye, a primatologist who looks after a rare albino gorilla named George at the San Diego Zoo. When George is exposed to a dangerous chemical that alters his DNA, he becomes violent and starts to grow exponentially. Along with a mutated wolf and alligator, George goes on a rampage through Chicago. To save his primate friend, Davis teams up with a genetics expert (Naomi Harris) and a federal agent (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) to find the cure within the shady company that inadvertently created them.

It’s hard to remember a movie with more incoherent plot threads than this one. Not the inexplicable opening street race in Fate of the Furious, not even the plots to the last four Transformers movies. They all pale in comparison to this nonsensical mess. The villains, a Research Company CEO (Malin Ackerman) and her useless, dimwitted brother (Jake Lacy) are the stupidest, most annoying antagonists I can fathom. Forget the fact that a reasonable motive is never given for why they’d even be experimenting with a substance that creates massive murderous mutations, when things go haywire Ackerman’s character’s solution is to draw the three creatures to Chicago to cure them. That’s right. The villain actually thinks signaling giant monsters to a major U.S. city is a great way to get away with creating giant monsters.

If you’re going to commit to cheesy, dumb fun, then don’t have your two leads taking things seriously. Pretty much every character other than Johnson and Harris is a buffoon. There’s the generic military general (Demetrius Grosse) who would rather get countless soldiers killed and bomb a heavily populated area than listen to literally the only two characters with knowledge on the situation. As for Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s cartoonish cowboy spiel, it would work if Johnson didn’t constantly undermine it by acting like he’s fully committed. Morgan’s character makes dumb decisions too, like bringing a violent gorilla, he plans on killing anyway, aboard a plane. Why not just shoot it after you manage to sedate it?

When Dwayne Johnson’s tough guy routine feels like the most intelligent thing in a movie, you know you have a problem. Between moronic characters and plot points that make absolutely no sense, the only thing to enjoy about Rampage is the CGI destruction in the last twenty minutes. A few scenes of bonding between Johnson and the CGI ape make for some mild endearment. But is that where we are with movies now? Is a few jokes and a tough guy all audiences need to ignore plots that don’t even try to add up? If so, then I can see why Hollywood keeps crapping out Transformers and Fast and Furious movies. And I wouldn’t be surprised if this monotonous mess turns into a franchise.

FINAL GRADE: D

A Quiet Place (Full Review)

Silence is pretty terrifying when you think about it. Who hasn’t been alone in an empty home at night and been freaked out by a noise coming from an unknown place? Director John Krasinksi (The Office) takes that concept and adds elements of horror and science fiction to create a simplistic, but eerie thriller.

A_Quiet_Place_film_posterA Quiet Place is set in a world where most of humanity has been killed off by blind alien creatures that are attracted to any sound above a whisper.  Living on a farm with his pregnant wife (Emily Blunt), deaf daughter (Millicent Simmonds), and young son (Noah Jupe), Lee Abbott (Krazinksi) must find a way to protect his family from the deadly creatures while also carrying on day to day life in virtual silence.

As you might expect, the premise of the film can make for a slow burn at times. With limited dialogue and only a hand full of characters to focus on, things can feel a bit dull between the more suspenseful moments. But when those suspenseful sequences do come, they are ‘edge of your seat’ captivating like the raptor scene from Jurassic Park on steroids. And even through the film’s more sluggish moments, Krasinksi, who also wrote the film, does a wonderful job revealing important details and building character depth without the use of heavy dialogue or flashbacks.

The runtime isn’t dragged out and dedicates itself solely to its self contained story for better and worse. You may find yourself leaving the movie with questions about the film’s universe and character pasts. But such specifics aren’t the point of Krasinksi’s story. A Quiet Place is, above all, about family, sacrifice, and survival and with some classic monster movie elements, it carves out enough of a framework to make it both entertaining and memorable.

FINAL GRADE: B

Blockers (Full Review)

Every parent wants their child to obey, but also feel comfortable enough to confide and be truthful once they’re older. Every high school kid wants nurturing parents who will still give them the freedom to venture out and learn their own lessons. This universal dichotomy is the framework for Blockers, a movie that manages to blend just enough family endearment with its raunchy blend of comedy.

Blockers_(film)Kay Cannon, writer of the Pitch Perfect movies, makes her directorial debut in this story about a trio of parents hell bent on keeping their daughters from losing their virginities after they learn of a Prom night sex pact. Lisa (Leslie Mann) is a single mother whose afraid that her daughter (Kathryn Newton) will go far away for college and make the same mistakes she did. Mitchell (John Cena) is happily married with a newborn child but is afraid his oldest daughter (Geraldine Viswanathan) is going to sleep with a student known for cooking up drugs. Then there’s Hunter (Ike Barinholtz), a down on his luck divorcee who just wants back into his daughter’s (Gideon Adlon) life.

There is a moment where multiple characters projectile vomit, a scene where John Cena’s Mitchell has beer poured down his rectum, and gratuitous sex jokes a plenty. But Blockers actually works best when it isn’t being raunchy and just feeds off of the surprisingly fluid chemistry of its lead actors. John Cena is hilarious every time he speaks, owning the role like he’s back in Wrestlemania. And while Leslie Mann has portrayed manic mother’s seemingly a million times, here her knack for playing vulnerable OCD characters brings the film’s overarching theme home better than anyone else.

The surprising standout in Blockers, however, goes to MADtv alum Ike Barinholtz. He delivers funny, yet timely dialogue and physical humor while also managing to give a heavy dose of heart whenever the story focuses his way. Along with Cena, Mann, and a cast of youngsters whose characters all hold relevant narratives, this film manages to make its many outrageous scenarios believable simply because we care about the folks involved. So even though there aren’t a ton of truly side splitting moments, the hearty chuckles will come often enough to keep you entertained while the endearing tone does the rest to make Blockers memorable.

FINAL GRADE: B

Ready Player One (Full Review)

Steven Spielberg knows how to make an adventure film. For decades he has created and adapted unique worlds for the big screen that have become iconic in pop culture. So there is perhaps no one more equipped to tackle Ready Player One, a 2011 novel written by Ernest Cline that is bursting at the seams with 80’s nostalgia and nerd culture.

Ready_Player_One_(film)Ready Player One takes place in the 2040’s where most of humanity spends there time engulfed in a virtual world known as the OASIS where they can be whoever they want and gamble away their money playing games. After the creator of the OASIS (Mark Rylance) dies, he hides an Easter Egg within the game that will make the finder the wealthy sole owner of the OASIS. Living in poverty with his aunt, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) joins forces with a group of other gamers (Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki) to find the egg before the greedy head of a rival company (Ben Mendelsohn) can.

This film celebrates nerd culture like nothing else, at times for better and worse. The character arcs get a bit cheesy at times and if you’re not into gaming, the whole experience might be overwhelming.  This movie is Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for MMO players and the people who understand most of the references in Family Guy, but what makes it work well is the story it tells. Sure, the effects are breathtaking and the pop culture references are fun, but without an intriguing narrative, the film would be a bore.

Ready Player One manages to weave a likable tale with surprisingly heartfelt themes thanks in large part to Mark Rylance’s James Halliday. The brilliant, but socially awkward character uses the game as a means to teach an endearing lesson about connection and taking chances. Rylance’s quirky, loveable performance makes the overall journey one worth taking even if you aren’t a fan of video games or can name all of the characters that pop up in the background. Combined with thrilling visuals and some well timed humor, Spielberg’s latest film ends up being an absolutely blast for anyone who just enjoys a good treasure hunt.

FINAL GRADE: B

Love, Simon (Full Review)

It doesn’t matter who you are. High school is a whirlwind of angst and drama. Finding your individuality and navigating the awkward landscape of social interaction is something every American can identify with. This is why a well written teen comedy with endearing characters can be some of the most compelling cinema, and it’s why Love, Simon is one of the best films of 2018 so far.

Love,_Simon_posterSimon (Nick Robinson) is a high school senior with loving, successful parents (Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner), a little sister who is an aspiring chef (Talitha Eliana Bateman), and a loyal circle of best friends (Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, Jorge Lendeborg Jr.). He is also hiding his sexual orientation from all of them, afraid of how things might change if his peers know the truth. When an anonymous classmate posts on a blog that he too is gay and afraid to come out, Simon creates an alias and forms a romantic bond with the secret student via email. But after another, socially awkward, student (Logan Miller) stumbles upon his secret and threatens to blackmail him, Simon is forced to finally confront his frightening reality.

All great teen comedy/dramas have a main character that is charismatic and easy to route for. Love, Simon is no different. Nick Robinson’s emotionally earnest portrayal is absolutely magnetic. He brings quirky humor and tear jerking compassion that should make any person with an ounce of heart admire and gravitate toward his journey. The supporting players hold their weight as well. Each performance has depth that makes them feel real and not just characters in a story. Jennifer Garner and Jush Duhamel are specifically marvelous. The heartfelt scenes they share with their onscreen son after his inevitable coming out are nothing short of beautiful.

Love, Simon is the first major release that tackles such a pertinent subject matter and it explores its themes with sensational nuance. Robinson’s character does not exemplify many of the stereotypes associated with homosexuality which helps the film serve as education for viewers with misconceptions while also giving representation to an unfairly scrutinized community. It teaches us how to be tolerant and supportive of things we don’t identify with or understand. And even though it gets a little sappy, Love, Simon proves to be a transcendent love letter to everything that makes the genre emotionally captivating.

FINAL GRADE: A

Pacific Rim: Uprising (Full Review)

Giant robots fighting giant monsters. Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim was nothing groundbreaking or thematically nuanced, but like Jurassic World or 2007’s Transformers it was an absolutely fun and exciting ride that felt ripped right out of a 90’s cartoon. The action was everything missing from the well rounded but lacking Power Rangers movie. With a new cast of characters and a new director at the helm, Pacific Rim: Uprising looks to recreate the same excitement as its predecessor.

Pacificrim2-posterUprising takes place 10 years after the original film, when pilots of giant robots called Jaegers fought to close an interdimensional gateway that led colossal monsters known as Kaiju into our world. Jake Pentacost (John Boyega), son of deceased Pacific Rim General Stacker Pentacost (Idris Elba) spends his days recovering old Jaeger parts and selling them to the highest bidder. His thieving lifestyle brings him into contact with a young, orphaned girl (Cailee Spainey) who has built her own tiny fighting robot. When rogue Jaegers threaten to reopen the Kaiju portal, Jake is forced to reunite with an old rival (Scott Eastwood) and lead a band of young recruits into war against this mysterious new threat.

In many ways, Pacific Rim: Uprising is what 2017’s disastrous Transformers: The Last Knight wanted to be, with a more concise narrative and more likable leads. John Boyega, of Star Wars fame, is the perfect centerpiece for this sequel. He delivers boyish charm and more comedic timing than anyone in the previous film. The intensity he brings in the climax makes him feel like a worthy successor to Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentacost despite the fact that the latter is only shown in photos. And even though her subplot with the other young recruits falls flat, Cailey Spainey is a welcomed addition thanks to a feisty performance and endearing sibling-like chemistry with Boyega.

The rest of the supporting characters are just as awkwardly generic, especially Scott Eastwood, but once the Jaeger’s mount up and the action takes center stage most of the blandness of the script washes away. There’s just something about the synchronized style of robot piloting that these films implement that feels imaginative and inherently cool. The reveal of the film’s villain, though awkward, is also a pleasantly surprising twist that keeps the plot from being too predictable.

Uprising is a tonal replica of the previous film for better and worse. If you found the characters cartoonish and the dialogue cliché on the first go round, then this film will be just as unsatisfying. But if you’re like me, and the high-stakes action of Pacific Rim had you on the edge of your seat, then this sequel will absolutely deliver more times than it doesn’t. In many ways, it actually ups the ante with more interesting characters and even more jaw dropping CGI sequences that boast new and interesting designs for both the Jaegers and their adversaries.

FINAL GRADE: B

Tomb Raider – 2018 (Full Review)

Let’s be honest. Video game movies are usually terrible. Not just bad… terrible. So terrible that even the best ones aren’t particularly memorable. Angelina Jolie’s 2001 and 2003 turn as beloved video game heroine Lara Croft didn’t do much to curb that notion. But in true Hollywood remake fashion, here we are again with another attempt at making Tomb Raider work for the big screen.

Tomb_Raider_(2018_film)This reboot reimagines Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) as a rebellious delivery girl whose father (Dominic West) disappeared while searching for mystical relics that could prove the existence of an afterlife. When she finally decides to accept her father’s inheritance and take ownership of his multimillion dollar company, Lara stumbles upon clues to his whereabouts. With the help of a drunken ship captain (Daniel Wu), Lara ventures to a treacherous, uncharted island where she encounters a secret organization that is using slave labor to uncover an ancient tomb.

I can count on one hand how many video game movies are watchable, and if you can name more than that then you will absolutely enjoy this reboot of Tomb Raider. The movie starts out slow. There are hokey jokes that don’t land and plot elements that don’t make an ounce of sense, but the adventurous tone and action sequences are right on the money.  Alicia Vikander brings some true grit and earnest heart to the lead role that makes her feel like a much more believable character than Angelina Jolie’s more cartoonish take.

The action is intense and the stakes are felt thanks to Vikander’s performance. Every other character will come off as forgettable, although Walton Goggins makes for a relatively intimidating villain. Truthfully, a Tomb Raider movie need only have a captivating Lara Croft and, more importantly, an enthralling motivation, for her to work. Recreating Lara as a brave and tough young woman grinding her way through perils to reconnect with her long lost father is enough to make this reboot worthwhile even for the casual moviegoer. Just don’t be that poor soul expecting something emotionally groundbreaking or overtly intelligent from a video game movie.

FINAL GRADE: B

A Wrinkle in Time (Full Review)

A Wrinkle in Time, published in 1962 by author Madeleine L’Engle, is one of the most beloved children’s novels ever written.  Who better to adapt this sci-fi fantasy for the big screen than Disney? The studio has decades of successful films that have dazzled young and old audiences. Tabbing Ava DuVernay (Selma) to direct an impressive cast of well-known actors and fresh faces, this adaptation had the ingredients to be something exciting and fun.

AWrinkleInTimeTeaserNewcomer Storm Reid plays 13-year-old Meg Murry, a feisty middle school loner who lives with her scientist mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her genius kid brother Charles Wallace Murry (Deric McCabe). Her father (Chris Pine) has been missing for four years, disappearing after working on a device known as the tesseract that could theoretically transport people through time and space. One day, Charles Wallace introduces her to three strange witches (Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, and Reese Witherspoon), who recruit Meg and her smitten classmate Calvin (Levi Miller) on a mission to rescue her father from darkness that is spreading throughout the universe.

Let’s start with what this film does well. Visually, the movie is absolutely stunning and works beautifully with 3D technology. From the costumes to the environments, this adaptation brings L’Engle’s fictional worlds to life like no other. The movie also strikes the right cord for any wide-eyed youngster, especially young girls who can relate to Meg’s journey to find her identity and embrace her own individuality.

But it’s hard for adults watching the film to not feel bored. The story feels almost too simplistic, with events happening so quickly that the entirety of the film could be explained in a few brief sentences. The first planet visited in the film seems to only be there to look pretty and there are only two real perilous moments, making it hard to fully categorize the movie as an adventure.

Not helping matters is the lightweight performances and cheesy dialogue. Zach Galifianakis is the perfect brand of quirky in a brief appearance and Reese Witherspoon brings wit to her role as snarky Mrs. Whatsit. But Mindy Kaling leaves a lot to be desired as the constantly quoting Mrs. Who. She recites her lines so awkwardly bland that it leaves her character void of any charm. Storm Reid is admirable in the lead role, but her younger counterparts don’t seem ready for such large screentime. As for Oprah, she basically plays herself, while the dialogue from Mbatha-Raw and many of the teachers in the movie comes off as wooden and unrealistic.

If you are the parent to young girls, by all means bring them out to enjoy this film. Several bad movies I saw as a kid were some of my favorites, so younger viewers likely won’t be bothered by the film’s flaws. But if I were to recruit someone like Maya Angelou to write a children’s story, I’d expect some nuance to her tale that would make it enlightening for people of all ages. With such an impressive cast, and such an intelligent director, it just feels like this product is shallow and rushed.  Comparing it to book adaptations like The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, this version of A Wrinkle in Time may be nice and wholesome, but it skimps on intrigue and is relatively forgettable as a narrative.

FINAL GRADE: C

 

Red Sparrow (Full Review)

A Russian girl is sent to an underground military program that trains her to be a sexy, seductive spy. No, this isn’t an ‘R’ rated version of the Black Widow movie Marvel should’ve made a long time ago. It is an adaptation of a novel written by Jason Matthews with director Francis Lawrence (Hunger Games: Catching Fire) at the helm.

Red_SparrowJennifer Lawrence plays Dominika, a star ballerina who is forced to give up her life of dancing when she suffers a gruesome injury. In danger of losing health coverage for her ill mother (Joely Richardson), Dominika is coxed by her government head uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) to enter the aforementioned spy program. As a sparrow, she is tasked with seducing an American CIA agent (Joel Edgerton) who is protecting the identity of a mole within the Russian government.

If you can get past her boorish Russian accent, Lawrence does a fair job. She holds her own in all of the brutal action sequences and certainly doesn’t skimp on the sexiness of the role. But Red Sparrow falls into some of the same listless doldrums that plagued 2016’s Atomic Blonde. The film, which carries on about a half hour too long, seems to take the scenic route in getting to its focal point and as such, it can easily make you lose interest.

The chemistry between Lawrence and Edgerton’s Nate Nash never feels genuine, which at times makes it hard to understand either character’s motivations in certain scenes. Throw in a needless subplot about extracting information from a U.S. chief of staff (Mary Louise-Parker), and the movie never quite satisfies as a spy thriller. It is certainly worth a watch if you’re into the genre, but years from now there won’t be much to remember this story by.

FINAL GRADE: C