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: A

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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

Thor: Ragnarok (Spoiler Free Review)

The Thor films have always been the weak link of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The first movie about the God of Thunder was bogged down by hokey human characters and a setting that skimped on the action. Thor: The Dark World was a somewhat forgettable romp with one of superhero cinema’s weakest villains. But one thing the Thor films have always had, is two great lead characters with a compelling arc. Leaving Earth behind for a new adventure, Thor: Ragnarok reunites Thor and Loki and hopes to give them a story that leaves a memorable mark on the MCU.

Thor_Ragnarok_posterRagnarok finds Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Prince of Asgard and God of Thunder, searching for his displaced father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) whose throne was stolen by Thor’s mischievous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). But finding their father quickly brings them into contact with Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death who proves to be too powerful for the two of them. Banished to a junk yard planet ruled by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), Thor’s only hope of stopping Hela is to ally with a disgraced former Asgardian warrior (Tessa Thompson) and defeat the Grandmaster’s greatest warrior… who just happens to be Thor’s old ally, The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).

Ragnarok is certainly the most entertaining of the Thor films. It paces well and there are tons of CGI filled action sequences that make for good ‘turn your brain off and watch’ fun. New director, Taika Waititi, also infuses this latest entry with loads of colorful imagery and brilliant costumes and set pieces to create a world that make the previous films in the trilogy feel a bit bland by comparison.

But the story itself is no more intelligent or enlightening than any other Thor movie. The plot, which has elements of an epic and dark apocalyptic core, falters thanks to the hordes of new characters who take turns being utter buffoons. The cartoonish tone does deliver some laugh out loud moments, but seemingly spends every available minute trying to make the audience laugh which gets irritating once you take the overarching plot into consideration.

Even characters that should be grittier, severely emotionally grounded, and enticing throughout are weighed down by disjointed wacky moments. Tessa Thompson’s drunken Valkyrie is introduced in a way that makes it hard to take her seriously until the film’s latter half while Blanchett’s delightfully sinister Hela is brushed aside in favor of Goldblum’s clownish Grandmaster. So even though characters like the Grandmaster are occasionally funny, their antics make light of serious stakes.

Ragnarok is certainly ‘fun’, but a movie about the Asgardian apocalypse that features the deaths of several characters in the Thor mythos, probably deserves to be taken more seriously. No one wants another dreary Batman v Superman, but there’s a such thing as a happy medium. Someone needs to tell Marvel that it’s okay to have characters who don’t make the audience chuckle.  When everyone is a comedian, the stakes don’t seem so threatening and when the jokes don’t land, the whole exercise feels corny. Things are smoothed over by nice psychedelic visuals, fine chemistry between the cast, and a few endearing moments between Hiddleston and Hemsworth whose brotherly dynamic has become the only reason to pay attention to Thor. But it’s still irksome that to make Thor appeasing to the masses, they had to turn it into Guardians of the Galaxy 3.

FINAL GRADE: C

A = Must See/Top 10 Nominee

B = Good film. Flawed, but still very entertaining

C = Not Bad, but highly flawed/Probably better off waiting for Redbox

D = Terrible Movie with a few redeeming qualities

F = I wanted to walk out/Don’t waste time or money

The Dark Tower (Full Review)

When you think of Stephen King, horror films like The Shining, Carrie, and It are the first things that come to mind. But in his decades of creating literary classics, he’s also managed to create one of the best selling fantasy series’. I’ve never read The Dark Tower but have always been vaguely familiar with some of the story elements and concepts. With King’s track record, I went into the film adaptation of his 1982 novel with modest optimism.

The_Dark_Tower_teaser_posterThe Dark Tower film tells the story of a boy named Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) who begins having visions of a parallel world. In those visions, Jake sees that a man in black (Matthew McConaughey) is kidnapping psychic children and trying to use them to destroy the dark tower that protects each world from a realm of evil monsters. Once he realizes his visions are real, Jake journeys into the parallel world and joins forces with Roland (Idris Elba), the last remaining gunslinger charged with protecting the tower.

Although the source material predates a lot of films in the genre, the fact that a film version is just being made doesn’t do The Dark Tower any favors. Several moments, like the bullied teenage main character, come off extremely cliché. The plot almost plays out like a bedtime story for children, spouting out pieces of its vast mythology and expecting the audience to catch on or not ask any deeper questions.

But there is an overall simplicity to the story that actually feels refreshing. In a time where so many science fiction films are bloated with two hour long convoluted plots and unnecessary characters, this movie feels fairly concise. McConaughey’s villain is imposing even if his motivations are juvenile, and Idris Elba delivers his performance with the necessary dose of grizzled swagger to make him both likable and heroic.

As a person who never read the books, I fully understand that there is a better version of this story. But holding it to the standard of simply being entertaining, The Dark Tower works. The action sequences, though reaching Wanted levels of ridiculous, have a keen rhythm to them that make them fairly fun. So despite the fact that it doesn’t reinvent the wheel and never truly feels as compelling as other summer blockbusters, The Dark Tower is a fairly decent time at the movies if you are a fan of the genre.

FINAL GRADE: B

Star Trek Beyond (Full Review)

I was never a Trekky before J.J. Abrams reinvigorated the Star Trek franchise with his sensational 2009 reboot. 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, while divisive among purists, was an equally exciting adventure for me. So needless to say my expectations were set high for this third installment about the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Even with Justin Lin (Fast & Furious) taking over for Abrams in the Director’s chair there was little for me to believe that Star Trek Beyond wouldn’t be another exciting entry.

STAR-TREK-BEYOND-5Beyond follows up with the crew of the Enterprise as they are knee deep in a five year expedition across space. Ship captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) contemplates stepping down as life becomes mundane aboard the ship, while his first officer, Spock (Zachary Quinto) juggles his faltering relationship with shipmate Uhura (Zoe Saldana) along with the thought of also leaving the Enterprise to lead his home world. After a pit stop at a state of the art space colony brings them into contact with an alien (Lydia Wilson) who has lost her ship and crew, the Enterprise sets out to help her only to fall into a trap set by a mysterious villain named Krall (Idris Elba). The encounter leaves the Enterprise destroyed and its crew (Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, and the late Anton Yelchin) kidnapped or stranded on an alien world. Kirk’s only hope of rescuing his friends lies in a orphaned alien warrior named Jayla (Sofia Boutella).

The film’s biggest issue is that it struggles to live up to the heights of its predecessors thanks to a script that makes the plot feel like a one off television episode more than a third installment in a film franchise. The stakes don’t feel nearly as high as in Into Darkness and the individual characters aren’t highlighted as well as they were in the 2009 installment. Throw in a relatively goofy ending featuring a song by the Beastie Boys and Elba’s stock adversary who simply grumbles and growls for most of the movie and it all feels like a step down.

But if you’re a fan of Star Trek in general, or just a fan of Abrams’ previous movies, then there is still plenty to love in Beyond. While some characters don’t get much of anything to do (Cho and Saldana), others have phenomenal dynamics that add social context and humor. The relationship between Pegg’s Montgomery Scott (Pegg) and Jayla is an endearing one and the dynamic between Spock and Dr. McCoy (Urban) is one of the film’s biggest highlights. Also, unsurprisingly, Pine is once again sensational as Captain Kirk, a leader so witty and brave that it’d be hard not to run through a brick wall for him.

The visuals are also stunning which should come as no shock. So even though Star Trek Beyond isn’t quite a classic, it’s still time well spent. It’s hard to blame any of the pieces directly involved when the story simply isn’t pertinent enough, so there’s nothing wrong with just sitting back and enjoying this one and hoping for a little more the next time around.

FINAL GRADE: B

Finding Dory (Full Review)

Pixar is the gold standard of animated family films. Among their many classics, few movies are as beloved as 2003’s Finding Nemo. The story about a father searching for his disabled son and learning not to be overprotective was highlighted by a cast of great characters. Ironically, the most unforgettable character was the one who couldn’t remember anything. And now, 13 years later, the Disney animation goliath brings us a much anticipated sequel that follows Dory on an all new adventure.

Finding_DoryPixar proved it can follow one of its classics with an equally fantastic film with the Toy Story trilogy. But before you go thinking Finding Dory is a lock to be a great follow up, I have two words for you… Cars 2. With Dory, the Pixar filmmakers had the challenge of making a movie with just as much heart, while maintaining a similar message about cherishing family and overcoming adversity that could easily feel repetitive. They manage to succeed, with flying colors.

Finding Dory picks up one year after Finding Nemo. Blue tang fish, Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) continues to suffer from short term memory loss and now lives with her best clownfish buddy Marlon (Albert Brooks) and his son, Nemo (Hayden Rolance). One day, a series of familiar phrases triggers her memories of her long lost parents (Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy) and Dory sets out on a mission to reunite with them. The journey may seem like a retread, but a fantastic set of characters make it feel like anything but.

Pixar’s ability to create memorable characters is often what sets their films apart. Well… that and flawless animation. Finding Dory is a magnificent follow up to a beloved classic mainly because of its large cast of new characters, each one hilarious and unique. There’s a near sighted whale shark (Kaitlin Olson), a beluga whale that thinks it’s sick (Ty Burrell), and a pair of lazy and bossy sea lions (Idris Elba and Dominic West). But perhaps no character is as critical to the movies fun and charisma as Hank (Ed O’Neil), a temperamental octopus trying to prevent being released from a safe and secure Marine hospital.

Sure, Ellen DeGeneres is once again endearing as Dory and Marlon and Nemo provide several laughs and valuable lessons, but without the new faces, the movie would feel like a good, but relatively unnecessary sequel. But these new characters make this heartwarming story about Dory overcoming her shortcomings and finding her family feel fresh and the missing piece we didn’t even realize we needed. I’ve always said, every movie doesn’t need a sequel, but sometimes… when the right people are behind it…. some movies most certainly do. And in the case of Finding Dory, despite being a bit more over the top than the original, it’s the sequel adults and kids have been waiting for.

FINAL GRADE: A+

Disney’s The Jungle Book (Full Review)

It seems as if we are now in full swing remake mode as Disney is now updating their animated classics with the live action treatment on a yearly basis. Last year’s Cinderella proved that, while redundant, this can still be a relatively pleasant experience for old and new audiences. With Beauty and the Beast on tap for next year, we’d better get used to seeing our childhood films recreated.
220px-The_Jungle_Book_(2016)The latest Disney classic to get the reboot treatment is the 1967 adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. The story itself has seemingly been done to death over the past century, but the Disney animated version is hard to forget. The catchy songs and solid voice cast helped ingrain it in our minds, giving this new film some lofty expectations to live up to. Luckily, the film has a strong director at the helm (Jon Favreau) and a wonderful team of CGI artists to help make this new version just as memorable.

For anyone who’s been living under a rock, The Jungle Book tells the story of talking animals and Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a human boy found as a baby in the jungle by a panther named Bagheera (Ben Kinglsey) who entrusts him to a family of wolves. After a vicious tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba) threatens to kill the outsider, Bagheera and Mowgli’s wolf parents (Giancarlo Esposito and Lupita Nyong’o) decide it best to return Mowgli to a nearby village where he can be with other humans. On their journey, they encounter an easy going bear named Baloo (Bill Murray), a hypnotizing snake named Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), and sly monkey king, Louie (Christopher Walken), who wants the boy to teach him how to create fire.

While the story won’t feel new to anyone who isn’t in grade school, the film manages to feel refreshing from start to finish. This is due in part to a well crafted script that manages to make slight adjustments to make the story match the realness of its imagery. And the imagery is stunning, but this should be no surprise as Disney is known to spare no expense for their films. The animals are animated to look as real as possible, and the jungle scenery is breathtaking.

But the number one reason that this new version of The Jungle Book is an absolute triumph that now has me excited and eager for more animation remakes, is due to the awesome cast. Giancarlo Esposito, Lupita Nyong’o and Ben Kinglsey all bring a beautiful nobility to their roles as Mowgli’s guardians while Scarlett Johansson is fittingly hypnotic in limited screen time. Neel Sethi is perhaps the weakest link as Mowgli, but that is mainly due to the fact that he’s a child actor. Considering the fact that he’s essentially the only non-CGI character in the movie, he actually does a remarkable job as well.

There are two actors who unsurprisingly steal the show. Bill Murray manages to bring even more charm and charisma to the character of Baloo than we saw in the iconic 1967 animated version. As for Shere Khan, the best movies have the best villains, and Idris Elba owns every second the character is in. From the moment the imposing tiger enters the film, he brings an intimidating, yet captivating aura that makes you absolutely love him.

Yes, Hollywood needs to take chances on original ideas more. Pretty much every blockbuster is a sequel or a remake. But if Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book is any indication of the quality Disney is putting into these live action updates, then by all means keep them coming. Pretty much the only flaw to this movie is the shoe horned songs in the second half that turn the movie back into a musical all of a sudden. But even they work for nostalgia’s sake. I originally cringed at the idea of seeing my childhood favorites recreated, but after watching this movie, I honestly say bring on a CGI recreation of The Lion King next.

FINAL GRADE: A

Disney’s Zootopia (Full Review)

There are a multitude of animated family films that come out each year. Most of the time, these films are filled with whimsical characters and goofy slapstick that are more than enough to entertain young children for an hour and a half. But at least two or three times a year, the producers of these family films like to bless us with a movie than transcends the simple entertainment factor of the genre to deliver stories that are both enjoyable for all ages as well as thought provoking. Zootopia, Disney’s newest animated feature, is one of those films.

ZootopiaZootopia takes place in a world where anthropomorphic animals live the lives of everyday humans. Small-town bunny, Judy Hopper (Ginnifer Goodwin) has dreams of being the world’s first bunny cop and refuses to let her size, her supportive but fearful parents, or her grumpy bison police chief (Idris Elba) stand in her way. When animals start disappearing in the big city of Zootopia, Judy takes it upon herself to crack the case. But to do so, she’ll need the help of  street hustling fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman).
The film’s animation is absolutely gorgeous, which should be no surprise for a Disney film. But the different environments, from the frozen tundra to the rainforests, are especially breathtaking in 3D. The film also manages to successfully strike the comedy chord. Goodwin and Bateman have phenomenal chemistry as Judy and Nick, while Nate Torrence is clumsily lovable as Zootopia Police desk attendant, Clawhauser.
But flawless animation coupled with sight gags and some clever, well timed movie references aren’t the reason Zootopia is an absolute must see. Instead, it is undoubtedly the timely references to racial prejudices. Throughout the film, the story manages to infuse this message within its comedic kid-like tone. There is no mention of black, white, asian, or hispanic. Instead, animals of Zootopia must learn to overcome their pre-conceived notions of smaller animals. But the lions and rhinos of Zootopia aren’t the only animals with prejudices to overcome. Tiny critters like Judy have to learn that being a fox doesn’t make someone sly or mischievous, and being a predator doesn’t make an animal vicious and cruel.
This important message is incredibly vital for all children as they navigate a constantly changing world. What better way than in a thrilling family mystery that manages to make audiences laugh as well as keep them guessing. Disney has hit the high mark too many times to count, but with Zootopia, they’ve managed to create an incredibly fun masterpiece that should stand the test of time as both entertainment and culturally relevant.
FINAL GRADE: A 

Don’t Worry, I’m Back…

No_Good_Deed_2014_movie_posterLet’s just call this the start of Movie Review, Season 2. Summer Movie Season is over. Football, moving to a new place, and the simple fact that there haven’t been many movies worth reviewing have all kept me away (For the record, I saw As Above, So Below and When The Game Stands Tall during my hiatus). But it’s time to get back in the swing of things. No Good Deed, the newest home invasion thriller, and the first movie to have a respectable box office gross since Ninja Turtles, is a solid place to pick things back up.

Idris Elba stars as a narcissistic murderer who escapes from custody (if you can call a short, out of shape white guy and an elderly black man police security) and proceeds to stalk his ex-girlfriend. After killing her for not replying to his prison letters and trying to move on, he drives off into a storm and his vehicle eventually plunges off of the road. That’s where wife and mother of two, Taraji P. Henson comes in. Henson plays good Samaritan and invites him in to wait out the storm while his fictitious tow truck is on the way. You don’t even need to watch the trailer to figure out where things go from there.

But despite what the promos may portray, this movie is only about half home invasion thriller. The other half is filled with seemingly one happy coincidence after another along with people being dumb. For instance, Henson’s character just happens to be a former lawyer who specialized in prosecuting murderers and rapists, but she is more gullible than her man-hungry, real estate dealing, bff (Leslie Bibb). Then there’s Henson’s dull husband (Henry Simmons) who is just a neglectful, unlikable, a-hole. As for every police officer in the film, they seem to be operating on a level beyond stupid.

Then again, most of the movies like this contain the same plot holes and weak characters. In that sense, No Good Deed is essentially your run of the mill thriller. Elba is effectively charming and creepy. Henson does her best frightened mother with the perfect dose of moxy. There are a few minor twists, but nothing jaw dropping. In the end, if you saw the trailer, you get the gist. This movie is meant for Red Box on a boring night, but with the shallow slate of films out, I wouldn’t blame anyone for seeing it in theaters to kill a few hours.

FINAL GRADE: C+

SN: Maze Runner, A Walk Among The Tombstones, This is Where I Leave You reviews coming soon.