Category Archives: Movies

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Movie Review

I rewatched The Force Awakens on Netflix before going to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and so I went into the theatre pumped for some storm trooper firefights, some lightsabre clashes, some new alien creatures (both cute and gruesome) and some answers to the many questions left behind by the first movie. Some answers I got, but what I realized more was that Star Wars movies don’t really service well-written stories. They love to build up their universe with a new kind of planet, or a new aspect to The Force that we didn’t know about before, but in the end they throw a bunch of cool-looking ships and characters together, with some good vs evil themes and we enjoy the heck out of them. I know I do.

A big part of this movie focuses on Rey and how she set out to find the mysteriously missing Luke Skywalker (the first movie’s main plot point was trying to get a map that showed where Luke was hiding). From battles with baddie Kylo Ren in the first movie, it became obvious that she could also wield the Force, so it makes sense that Luke would also be able to train her to become a Jedi. Meanwhile, the new Empire, now known as the First Order, is hunting down the remaining Resistance forces. Princess (I mean General) Leia, and the other Resistence are pinning all their hopes on a last-minute save by Luke (though surely that’s not a very good strategy).

So after declaring that Star Wars movies don’t need storylines, what do I think makes them fun? Well, this movie’s got all of those elements too. There are lots of space battles — one of the first scenes has pilot Poe Dameron leading a risky bombing run to take out a large “dreadnought” ship, and I was on the edge of my seat wondering if the last ship would be able to release its payload in time to save them all. There are alien planets which seem oddly familiar and Earth-like — a casino planet where Finn and newbie Rose go on a mission to seek out a “master code breaker” amongst the galactic one-percenters. I was drawn into the whole atmosphere and even the mini-story of the poor rabbit-horse creatures (along with their child jockeys) being mistreated and forced to run races for the wealthy clientele. There are new creatures, like the part-hamster, part-chicken porgs, which give the kids a chuckle for comic relief; and the crystalline foxes on the red salt planet which I thought were just cool. Then there’s the in-the-moment drama, when the Resistance forces might be sitting ducks at the mercy of the evil First Order bombardment if they don’t come up with an escape plan (and I was once again held breathless at the silent moment when it all comes to a head). Finally, there’s the internal and external struggles experienced by Rey and Kylo Ren, as they’re pulled between both good and evil. I was thrilled when Rey and Kylo Ren together faced Supreme baddie Snoke and tables turned from moment to moment. So while I may not remember all these set pieces and plot pieces a year from now, together they make for a fun-filled Star Wars movie that checks off all the boxes. (4 out of 5)

Despite my having enjoyed the movie (and I didn’t even mention an awesome Luke-Skywalker-centred climax that I loved), I also wish that these sequels could have taken Star Wars in a new direction. Much has been said about how much these new-trilogy movies resemble the original trilogy. Parallels between the new characters and the old are blatantly obvious, and the conflict between the Resistance and the First Order is so much the same as the one between the Rebellion and the Empire that both sides even use the same fighter planes as their antecedents. There was strong backlash against The Last Jedi in the fandom (even to the point of wanting it to be removed from canon and remade) because it was felt that characters (especially Luke Skywalker) had been changed too much from what they had become over the years. The changes didn’t bother me (though I did agree that Luke seemed a bit weak and forlorn at first) but they should have made more changes not to known characters, but to storylines altogether (Can we leave the Skywalker-Solo family out of the picture now?). Anyway, creativity doesn’t always bring in the ticket sales. I recognize that at the end of the day, Disney still wants to sell toy lightsabres and porg dolls, so I won’t begrudge. I enjoyed the movie thoroughly for what it is, and I look forward to more.

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Coco – Movie Review

I know that there have been a lot of animated films lately, and anyone with kids has already gone to see Coco and moved on, but I just saw it and still want to say how great I thought the movie was. Pixar’s track record has slipped a bit from the flawless hit-factory that it had been (no thanks to The Good Dinosaur or mediocre Cars sequels), but Coco reminds me that they are still top-notch when it comes to animated storytelling. This story of a young Mexican boy whose soul longs to be a musician, despite his family’s legacy of shunning music as a curse (ever since great-grandma Coco’s father left his family to pursue a musical career) is a fun, touching, adventurous spectacle.

Even before the first scene, I was reminded of Pixar’s technical mastery (there was a pre-movie clip with some of the creators which showed-off some of film’s wonderful visuals), but it was in the opening few sequences that their progress really became obvious. It wasn’t in the big, jaw-dropping scenes full of millions of lights and moving bits (though those are always awesome) but in the regular motion of the characters, such as main boy Miguel and his dog Dante. Human animation has always been a struggle between making the characters look and move too artificially puppet-like or too creepily realistic. In this movie, the characters all still look cartoonish (with their disproportionately large heads and hands, etc.) but their movements are amazingly life-like and the entire world they are in feels real. I was especially fascinated by a motion that occurred often in this movie: the strumming of a guitar. It is probably something that is so easily filmed using a camera in the real world, but to simulate those strumming motions and the vibration of strings in time to the music must have taken ages to get right. I know I’m geeking out a bit, but I can’t say enough about how transporting and engaging the animation really made this movie for me.

Beyond the impressive visuals, this movie also harkened back to some of the more heart-touching works in the Pixar canon, like Up or Toy Story. (Be warned that there’s a surprisingly simple yet moving scene at the end of the movie. It’s right where you expect it to be, but it’ll still getcha! Tissue, please.) Miguel (played by newcomer Anthony Gonzalez) is an exuberant, happy kid, who balances a love and respect for his family with a secret love of music, especially the music of his idol: Ernesto de la Cruz (played by Benjamin Bratt). When some magical coincidences end up sending him to the land of the dead on the Mexican Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead), he meets up with the spirits of his past relatives and the conflict between love of family and music sets up a difficult choice for Miguel again.

As usual, in these kinds of movies, a bunch of ground rules are set for the Land of the Dead, establishing that Miguel needs to be blessed by his family before sunrise in order to return to the living (subject to terms and conditions). Along the way to solving those challenges, Miguel runs into a vagabond spirit, Hector (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) who is trying to get back to the living world before he is forgotten, and fades away, forever. The ground rules are a great way to lay out the dramatic stakes (especially for kids), and it’s so much easier to understand what things mean in the language of the movie. That being said, there are a few delightful plot twists in this movie (not entirely unpredictable, but enjoyable nonetheless) which also keep things interesting. The best part of this story is that these concepts are all cast within the context of the Mexican culture and its folklore and traditions. From ofrendas (i.e. altars) where families display photos and other items to honour the dead; to alebrijes (i.e. spirit animals) which are colourful fantasy creatures carved out of wood or paper mache for the celebration of Dia de Muertos, it really brings this celebration of Mexican culture to vivid life, and ties it all back to music (which is apparently a big part of Mexican culture as well, at least according to this movie).

All in all, it’s great to see another new creation from Pixar (especially one that does not involve humanizing generally cold things like toys or bugs or fish). I look forward to them continuing on this path (even though I’m also looking forward to more sequels such as Incredibles II coming), because while they are definitely leading the way in terms of animation technology, they have also led the way in terms of creative family-friendly visual storytelling; and we need as much of both as we can get. (4.5 out of 5)

The Shape of Water – Movie Review

Writer/director Guillermo del Toro is known for his creepy creativity and imaginatively dark and gothic style, which I recently got to peek into at the “At Home With Monsters” exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario. His movies have ranged from character tales about individuals who are haunted (both emotionally by past tragedies, and actually by ghosts) to high-octane action adventures involving bizarre, monstrous creatures. Similar to the movie that put him on the map, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water falls somewhere in the middle. It’s a character-driven romance, but it’s got clearly fantastical elements to it. Essentially it’s a cross between The Beauty and the Beast and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, with a dash of E.T. thrown into the mix. I enjoyed the character drama, but I really wish there had been a few more imaginary beasties.

The one beastie at the heart of this film is an amphibious man-creature (very similar to Black Lagoon‘s gill-man, or Abe Sapien from Hellboy — fun facts: del Toro also wrote and directed the Hellboy movies, and actor Doug Jones played both Abe and the creature in this film. This movie’s story (set in the 1950s) takes place after the creature is captured and taken to a government facility for study (aka every otherworldy creature’s worst nightmare). Eliza is a mute woman who works at the facility as a cleaning lady and she quickly connects with the creature’s pain and loneliness and starts to form a relationship with it. Other characters include Eliza’s co-worker and friend, Zelda (played by Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer); Eliza’s neighbour Giles (played by Richard Jenkins), an aging commercial artist and closeted homosexual, Strickland, the facility’s militant security chief and captor of the creature (played superbly by Michael Shannon); and Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, the scientist studying the creature. Because this is more of a character film, we get a pretty good look at each of these characters and really start to understand them and know them. That’s really the strength of this movie (more than the fantastical elements). The characters are quirky and unique and everyone gives a very good performance that drew me into their lives.

Once Eliza finds out the nasty fate in store for the creature, she sets out to liberate him and that’s when the movie kicks into high gear. As much as this is a story about how love can transcend outward differences, it’s also the classic theme of who the true monster really is. As Strickland feels driven to prevent his own failure in handling the creature, his obsession becomes maniacal as he tries to stop Eliza at all costs. These traditional fairy tale themes are given a more mature treatment in this movie, which has a grown-up sense of both sexuality and aggression/violence. Admittedly, by the end I was more sold on the good-guys vs. bad-guy theme than the romance and love theme of this movie. Eliza does mention how the creature was able to communicate with her, and she clearly felt a strong connection to his loneliness, but it just was not enough to convince me of a transcendent bond that they supposedly had. That’s why in the end, though I really liked this movie, I didn’t love it. All the style and imaginative flair that comes with del Toro’s creative touch goes a long way to making the movie special, but in the end it oversold and could not deliver on how magical it was supposed to be. (4 out of 5)

Thor: Raganarok – Movie Review

After Wonder Woman and Spider-man Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok seems to prove that we’ve hit a good patch of superhero movies at the moment. Starting out with a tongue-in-cheek, fourth-wall-breaking monologue fakeout, I was having a good time with the charming humour right from the start — which didn’t let up all the way to the (more somber) end. Chris Hemsworth is now one of my new favourite movie stars (an honour he didn’t achieve in either of the two other Thor or Avengers movies). He’s got that action-hero-charm that has made stars out of Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis, and more recently Chris Pratt, and this movie lets him work it. As a prisoner of the fire demon Surtur, he never breaks a sweat as he cracks wise while defeating Asgard’s timeless enemy and returns to the cosmic home of his god-like people. Upon arriving, he finds things a bit out of whack (and his father Odin is missing) and we are treated to a humourous play within a film (featuring some great celebrity cameos). The light-hearted tone continues as Thor returns to Earth and meets up with Doctor Strange (another cool cameo with Benedict Cumberbatch reprising his MCU role). Within a short time, this movie has already featured appearances of some of my current favourite actors (Tom Hiddleston, Cumberbatch, etc.) and soon will feature cinema-queen herself, Cate Blanchett. She plays Hela, Norse goddess of death, and sister to Thor and Loki. When she’s unwittingly released from banishment, she quickly takes action to regain control over Asgard and begins by destroying Thor’s mighty hammer Mjolnir (simply by gripping it tightly).

Surprisingly, while the Hela storyline is the cause of the titular Ragnarok (the end of the world), it’s not the focus of a big part of the movie, putting it on the backburner for most of the middle half of the movie. Instead, in the course of trying to stop Hela, Thor and Loki get catapulted to some previously-unknown junk world called Sakaar. On Sakaar, Thor becomes a contestant in the gladiatorial games run by the Grandmaster (played by Jeff Goldblum in a trademark, weaselly peformance). Of course, by a huge galactic coincidence, anyone who’s seen the movie trailer knows who Thor faces in the arena as the Grandmaster’s current champion. Seeing the Hulk, Thor is surprisingly happy, stating that it’s OK because “He’s a friend from work”, right before getting slammed into the wall. As I mentioned, the humour is one of the best parts of this movie, and thankfully that is not the best joke in the film (far from it). The rest of the story has the characters working to escape from the planet in order to return to Asgard and end Hela’s reign of terror and possible destruction of everything. Sounds pretty packed, eh?

The other wonderful aspect about this movie was the fast-paced action. From scene to scene, it toggled between well-shot, space-action (similar to either of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies — in fact, this would have made a great Guardians 3); and some slower-paced funny dialogue and interaction between characters. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves making this movie and that enthusiasm comes through. New Zealander director Taika Waititi is a breath of fresh air for the Marvel cinematic universe, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

With a high degree of Australia/New Zealand content in the cast and production roster, it’s certainly the crown jewel to have Blanchett playing Hela. The role is a walk in the park for her, but it’s great how she revels in Hela’s superiority complex and bitter resentment of everyone who wronged her even a little bit. Frankly, I think Blanchett needs to play more of these deliciously villainous roles. I only wish that more of the plot had involved her. As a movie villain, she didn’t really get to stretch her wings much beyond snarling a lot and tossing her endlessly conjured blades everywhere, like magicians’ scarves.

After the disaster that was Thor: The Dark World, it’s nice to see that all it took for the franchise to hit its groove was to loosen things up a bit. Let’s hope that we’re on a roll. (4 out of 5)

Spider-man: Homecoming – Movie Review

After so many incarnations, it’s hard to believe that another reboot of the Spider-man story could be fun and fresh, but I really enjoyed Homecoming, and a lot of the credit goes to this younger version of the web-slinging hero, and the exuberant performance by rising star Tom Holland. While I had already raved about the previous Spider-man, played by Andrew Garfield, having a more character-driven story — dealing with his relationship with girlfriend Gwen (played by Emma Stone), this time around the character is portrayed even younger (he’s only 15) and there is a lot of teenage energy and fun to it. It’s great to see Spider-man’s alter-ego Peter Parker going through challenges of high school (though he’s super-smart, so the academics are no struggle) and teen melodrama (at one point, his hi-tech talking suit tries to give him advice on girls). This movie has a non-stop sense of humour throughout the movie that is driven mostly by Holland’s aw-shucks kind of innocence (along with his hilarious nerd side-kick Ned). (They are such classic movie teens that I almost felt like I was watching an 80s movie!).

However, one of the things that reminded me that we are very much in the twenty-teens, was how Robert Downey Jr. made a few guest appearances as Tony Stark/Iron Man from the Avengers. If you didn’t realize, the “homecoming” is bringing Spider-man back into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, after many years of being isolated from the other characters by virtue of intellectual property rights. Downey’s presence reminded that even though this is a Spider-man movie, it’s part of that other pop-culture juggernaut. Interestingly enough, while the character needs a place among all the various cinematic super-heroes, Peter Parker is also trying to find his place as a hero. Having come off the thrill of teaming up with the Avengers in the events of the Captain America: Civil War movie, now he wants to prove himself worthy to be a grown-up super-hero: one of the big boys.

One of the best decisions made for this movie was that they didn’t go back and replay Spider-man’s origin story again (there’s a bit of mention that he was bit by a spider, but that’s it). This allowed a bit more time to spend with Peter Parker’s life — we even get to know his friends and classmates (he’s part of the academic decathlon team, which actually plays a meaningful role in this movie) and there was time to develop the villain’s story as well. This made the pieces fit together really well, and I felt like we got a good understanding of the characters — which is something lacking from the movies where producers want to cram a lot of characters onto the screen and give us a lot of explosions and crashes. This movie was even able to make an interesting bad guy out of the Vulture, a staple of Spider-man’s rogues gallery, but not generally very cool. With Michael Keaton in the role, he’s got a few really good speeches and does some moustache twirling, gradually becoming a true nemesis to the young Spider-man.

So is it all just characters talking, or high-school drama? Of course not. There is plenty of action (at some of America’s very well-known tourist attractions, no less) and as I mentioned, the humour is non-stop. I think this is the funniest super-hero movie ever — even more than Deadpool (which had a much darker undertone). There’s a moment of decision at the end of the movie that sets the direction for any sequels. Though it goes exactly as I expected, it also made me wonder what could possibly be in store for subsequent films. I guess I’ve been so programmed by the other blockbuster super-hero movie events that I almost can’t imagine what a down-to-earth, friendly, neighbourhood hero movie might be like — so I’m really looking forward to finding out. Much to my surprise, this third version of cinematic Spider-man seems to be the perfect one (as long as they keep Tom Holland) to take the character forward. 4.5 out of 5

Wonder Woman – Movie Review

After the mess that was Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I was worried about this movie. Wonder Woman has never been one of my favourite super-heroes, though I did watch her 70s TV series (despite its cheesiness). Like most fans, I’m surprised it’s taken so long for her to get her own movie adaptation. In contrast to Spider-man — who’s going onto his 3rd cinematic reboot — the origin story of Diana, princess of the Amazons on the island of Themyscira, seems fresh by comparison. This version begins with her childhood living on “paradise island” surrounded by warrior women but isolated from the rest of the world. Flashing forward to an actual war story, the focus shifts to the WWI events which brought Diana to the outside world in order to fight evil. Wonder Woman’s basic backstory can seem a little old-fashioned but it’s counteracted by humour and a bunch of Pretty Woman-inspired scenes (or given the Greco-Roman context, maybe Pygmalion is a better reference). Captain Steve Trevor (played by Star Trek‘s Chris Pine) tries to help Diana the Amazon fit into Edwardian England, and ends up creating an interesting metaphor for this movie, which itself tries to help a god-like super-hero blend into a relatively earth-bound conflict between warring nations and war-time politics. It’s not only because Diana (played by Gal Gadot) is so gorgeous that she continues to stand out.

Starting out in Themyscira, the scenes are wonderfully enjoyable. The locations (shot along Italy’s Amalfi Coast) are breathtaking, and the magically beautiful weather doesn’t hurt. Early scenes of little girl Diana watching the other Amazon warriors training for battle are also great fun. The Amazon fight scenes are really good: a combination of slow motion camera work and graceful movements (spins and legwork) make the fighting feel like dancing. The scenes reminded me a lot of those from 300, and even though director Zack Snyder also worked on this movie, this time he was only a writer/story guy. Again, there’s a bit of disconnection between the Diana’s quasi-mythological backstory (looks like they’ve been using the same decorator in Themyscira’s throne room  as Thor‘s Asgard) and early 20th century London, but I was enjoying the story so much that I didn’t really mind.

When the WWI story kicks into gear, it’s largely Steve Trevor’s adventure (or at least him and his ragtag band, which easily adopts the beautiful Diana into its ranks). I wasn’t quite sure what to make of his character. Chris Pine is really good at being the hero with a bashful sense of humour, but I was confused by the presence of an American in the WWI British air force (or intelligence corps). Anyway, the actual war story part of the story is not that well thought out or complex, but at least there’s a villain who is not only a German general (boo!) but a ruthless killer, working with a mad-scientist poison-maker. He might also be the current incarnation of the Amazons’ nemesis, the war god Ares. The setup is very simplistic (as comic book stories traditionally are) — I mean, the first bad general that she meets is the enemy that the Amazons were born to fight? Seems too easy.

I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining, because I really enjoyed this movie, but it’s mostly because of the charm of the actors/characters, the nicely choreographed action scenes, the fun fish-out-of-water humour, and the adventuresome spirit of the film. I also liked how the movie dealt with a number of themes, including the strength and independence of women; and whether human nature or cosmic forces are truly accountable for the evil in the world. Any disjointed pieces of story came nicely glued together. Wonder Woman is a great palate-cleanser after the loud, over-the-top, confusing, and shallow super-hero movies that we’ve been seeing recently (4 out of 5).

Alien: Covenant – Movie Review

One thing that disappointed me about the prequel Prometheus was that it started to open up the Aliens mythology (with the Engineers, and a Lovecraftean backstory), but in the end the story was reduced to another space crew finding a primitive version of the Alien xenomorph, and being slaughtered. I was hoping that Alien: Covenant (the sequel to the prequel) would make more of that story, but sadly it didn’t really. Once again, a space crew ends up on a planet where the monster awaits them, and they fight for their lives. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that it’s not thrilling and well-made, or that I don’t enjoy another trip to space-horror town, but let’s make this story broader, no?

Covenant is definitely a follow-up to Prometheus as it opens on a flashback for the android David, from the first movie, talking to his creator, Weyland. That scene has a thematic connection to the rest of the movie, dealing with the idea of creation and creators. That theme was also a big part of Prometheus. In this movie, our intrepid space crew is awakened from cryo-sleep when a freak space storm-type event causes major damage to the ship, which is also carrying thousands of colonists to a new home. Their caretaker is another android, named Walter (also played by Michael Fassbender, but this time with an American accent — Hmmm.) When the crew stabilize things a bit and start making repairs, they also discover a nearly ideal planet that they didn’t notice before, one that is perfect for their colony and would save them another 7 years of their cryo-sleep journey — Hmmm. Too good to be true? Maybe in a horror movie, eh? So a predictably stupid decisions is made for the crew to go down to the planet and check it out. Unfortunately, they stupid decisions just keep coming when they decide that the primordial jungle is so balmy that they don’t need any helmets — even the Prometheus crew wore helmets, until they decided not to and let the alien spores get into their bodies. And so on.

Michael Fassbender really steals the show in the dual role of Walter and David. Not only does he have a great story-telling voice, he’s got that stolid calmness, that inscrutable creepiness, and that trusted strength, all of which he can subtly switch around. They’ve also come a long way with their showing dual roles side-by-side on screen. I’m not quite sure how they do it, but the scenes between the two androids are seamless. As enjoyable as Fassbender’s performance was, I don’t quite know why they chose to make David the centre of the story. Once the space crew meet up with him, he’s like some kind of creepy, Gothic host welcoming them to his Transylvanian castle (Mwa-ha-ha-ha!). Going back to my earlier comments about how the movie could have really expanded the world of these films, getting into world of the Engineers, or even find ways to expand on the xenomorphs and how they mutate, I think that’s where the interesting stuff is. Maybe someone can even come up with some real biological ground rules for these creatures rather than just having them change or become whatever is needed to cause more carnage for the crew. Instead the story all seems focused on a few human/android characters every time, and how they foolishly fall prey to these alien creatures.

If you’re a pop culture nerd like myself, you could argue the cautionary tale of a very similar movie franchise, Pitch Black and Chronicles of Riddick, which did try to parlay a story with killer alien monsters into an entire attempt at world-building and complex mythology. That attempt failed and led to Riddick, the last sequel, going back to the formula of a planet full of bloodthirsty creatures. However, I think that if we’re going to get a whole bunch more of these Alien sequels (or pre-sequels), we need to do more than just rehash the same formula over and over. Perhaps Ridley Scott just felt that the first Alien movie was so archetypal that he’s been continually trying to retell that story from different angles.

Anyway, Covenant was definitely well made for space-horror: the visuals and special effects are gory and great. We’ve gotten to the point where we don’t even question the CGI. In the back of our minds, these creatures basically exist. Again, the potential for a much more epic and interesting story universe is still out there, as they haven’t explored much more of it here. The movie plot itself held the possibility of many twists, but in the end fell back on a bit too many cliches to be surprising. If you’re new to the genre, you may prefer to watch the original Alien, but if you’re a fan of the series, you’ll certainly get more of what you’ve come to love (4 out of 5).