War for the Planet of the Apes – Film Review

One of the biggest surprises of 2011 was that Rise of the Planet of the Apes was actually a good movie. Director Rupert Wyatt was able to take a 40+ year old concept, update it to fit the modern environment, and overcome the stigma of Tim Burton’s terrible 2001 Planet of the Apes remake to make a truly entertaining and smart blockbuster. 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was even better, mixing the impressive mo-cap work of Rise with an even stronger and deeper story with thought-provoking themes. 2017’s War for the Planet of the Apes, once again directed by Dawn’s Matt Reeves, carries the burden of capping the trilogy on a good note. After seeing it, I can officially say that the Planet of the Apes reboot is one of the best film trilogies of all time.

War picks up two years after where Dawn ended, with the colony of highly intelligent apes at war with the small military of humans who have survived the lethal virus released in Rise. Ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) never wanted the war to begin in the first place and attempts to negotiate peace between the two sides. However, human leader Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson) and his men draw a line that Caesar can’t ignore, prompting him to seek personal vengeance on the Colonel that will determine the fate of the planet once and for all.

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From the bat, it barely needs to be stated at this point that the film is a technical masterpiece. Dawn was able to improve on the already strong visual effects of Rise, and War continues the trend. The apes have been digitally rendered so perfectly that every piece of fur on their body seems 100% real. And the motion capture performances of the cast can not be ignored. Serkis’s role as Caesar has been praised in both previous films, but he truly steps up to the plate and carries the picture on his own in War. If the Academy were ever to begin recognizing mo-cap performers as Oscar-worthy actors, now is the perfect time, as Serkis captures all of the pain, anger, desperation, fears, etc. of Caesar in his most complex appearance yet.

Great effects can only get you so far, though, so what makes the Planet of the Apes series so magnificent is its thought-provoking story and character work. Don’t go into War for the Planet of the Apes letting the title fool you. This isn’t a film filled to the brim with cool ape v. human battles. There are one or two, which are certainly awesome, but this film captures the other aspects of war: family, death, suffering, anger, desperation, confinement, oppression. You will feel for both sides. The series has brilliantly set you up to want the apes to beat the humans, but they don’t sacrifice the human motivation. McCollough isn’t without his own chilling backstory, and Harrelson is great at making you feel his desperation within his hard and cold exterior.

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Both previous Apes movies had great effects and great storytelling, so what sets this one apart is how it is able to bring its characters to new places. As previously stated, Caesar is truly front and center in this movie. Rise and Dawn showed Caesar’s great heart, strong leadership, and ability to trust, but almost made him seem too devine. Matt Reeves is smart enough to give him true, and very human, flaws in War. Something that McCullough does early on in the film unleashes a side of Caesar we haven’t seen before. At one point, a character compares him to Koba (Toby Kebbell) from the previous film, and Caesar struggles with how true this statement might be. This turns War into a character study, and Caesar becomes an even more compelling character than he already was. Other apes, such as Maurice (Karin Konoval) and Rocket (Terry Notary), Caesar’s two best friends, have bigger roles as well. We see Maurice show his fatherly side with a young human girl (Amiah Miller), and Rocket gets the chance to prove just how loyal to Caesar he really is. The apes feel more human than the actual humans at this point.

All that said, War isn’t a completely perfect movie. It suffers the main flaw of the other two: being slightly predictable and formulaic. However, where each of them, including War now, have succeeded is in how they are able to apply the familiar formula in such a unique and compelling way that you really won’t even mind it. The only other potential flaw to be found is “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn), the series’s first comic relief character. He is actually very funny, and you may appreciate him adding some lightheartedness to the admittedly grim proceedings. However, if you’re like me, you may just find that he takes you out of the moment. War for the Planet of the Apes is not to be viewed lightly. It’s a very heavy film, but one that is near perfect at capturing the horrors of war and the weaknesses of human (and ape) nature. With characters and a story that you will feel instantly invested in, flawless direction, and Western-inspired visuals that are simply jaw dropping, War manages to stick the landing so gracefully that the new Planet of the Apes trilogy can already comfortably secure its place in the upper echelons of film history.

Grade: 9/10

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Baby Driver – Film Review

Every once in awhile, an original film rises among the huge field of sequels, remakes, and adaptations that just can’t help but capture audiences through pure creativity and quality film-making. Enter Baby Driver, the latest from popular auteur director Edgar Wright. Wright, known for his quirky and irreverent comedies such as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and the Three Flavors Cornetto trilogy, has been conceptualizing and perfecting the genius idea for Baby Driver since the 1990s. The end result is a near masterpiece that manages to stand out as Wright’s crowning achievement in one of the best filmographies in recent years.

Baby Driver focuses on Baby (Ansel Elgort), an insanely good driver working as a getaway for crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey), to whom he has been indebted to since he was young. Baby is often doubted by Doc’s wide array of criminals, including Bats (Jamie Foxx), Buddy (Jon Hamm), and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), for his multiple quirks, such as always listening to headphones when he drives, but he always completes the job successfully. After wrapping up his debt, Baby hopes to set off for a new life with cute waitress Debora (Lily James), but Doc has other plans in mind, and Baby isn’t going to stand for it.

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Edgar Wright has always been an eccentric filmmaker, but he reaches a peak with Baby Driver, a film almost as quirky as its title character. It’s a genius blend of heist thriller, comedy, and, of all things, musical. Wright geniusly sets the entire film beat-by-beat to a soundtrack. The rhythm of whatever song is playing through Baby’s headphones is the rhythm for whatever is happening on the screen at the time. Cuts are smooth and perfectly timed with the soundtrack to create a unique audio-visual experience. It’s beyond masterful direction and editing work that basically secures Wright as one of the greatest filmmakers of our generation. And the soundtrack itself is enough to match Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Awesome Mixes.

Carrying all of this eccentricity on his shoulders is young Elgort. Before now, he has mostly been known for his roles in Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars, neither of which showed any indication of him being a capable action star. Yet, in Baby Driver, he holds all of the action scenes together with his steely face, fast reflexes, and complete commitment to every piece of the choreography. Baby is a shy character, so he doesn’t say too much, but Elgort’s faces say more than words could, and he perfectly sells all of the character’s quirks and makes you really care for him as his backstory is revealed. Ansel Elgort is Baby.

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The other characters aren’t quite as great, but are still more than welcome. We meet no less than six of Doc’s criminals, and they all have at least one truly entertaining scene. Coming out on top though is Jamie Foxx. Foxx’s character Bats gets his name from the fact that he is bat-shit insane. He’s disturbingly homicidal, but very quiet about it, and Foxx pulls it off spectacularly. Kevin Spacey and Lily James are great in their roles, but the characters of Doc and Debora are both a little underdeveloped. They each make pivotal decisions towards the end of the film that feel distractingly out-of-character from what we had previously seen from them, and we have no idea what it was that brought Baby and Doc together in the first place.

Speaking of the end, it’s definitely the weakest part of the film. It becomes a little too over-the-top, but goes about it in a very generic way that we’ve seen many times before (and at least once earlier this year). That said, the action scenes throughout the film are shot brilliantly and are incredibly entertaining, so you’ll probably still get a lot of enjoyment out of the end. Baby Driver pretty much hits the trifecta of what makes a good movie: well-made, emotionally engaging, and entertaining. There aren’t enough films out there like it, but that’s part of what makes it such a breath of fresh air.

Grade: 9.5/10

Spider-Man: Homecoming – Film Review

2002 introduced us to Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man, who would play the role for all three films of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, ending in 2007. Five years after that, the series was rebooted with Andrew Garfield in the role, starring in Marc Webb’s two The Amazing Spider-Man films in 2012 and 2014. The first two Raimi films were very well received, but the others all received very mixed reviews, and box office returns rapidly decreased as a result. The solution: Sony will allow Marvel to handle the character. Officially a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Spidey was reintroduced in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, portrayed by Tom Holland. The brief appearance was very well received, but with Spider-Man: Homecoming, Holland takes up the challenge of carrying a Spider-Man film on his own. And it’s safe to say that we have the best portrayal of the webslinger yet!

After the airport battle in Civil War, Peter Parker (Holland) is sent back home by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) with his brand new Spidey Suit and the promise to receive a call when they need him again. That call hasn’t come for over two months, so a disappointed but hopeful Peter spends his nights trying to stop petty crimes. However, when he discovers a group of robbers with incredibly dangerous and high-tech weapons, he takes it upon himself to find out what’s going on and prove himself worthy of becoming an official Avenger. And making matters even harder for him, there’s a Homecoming dance to worry about.

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Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield were both very good in their roles, but Tom Holland is able to set himself apart by being the only one to truly capture the character that the world fell in love with in the first place. This isn’t the angry or mopey Peter Parker from the past films. This Parker is young, energetic, curious, and immature. He’s still a child and he acts like it. He messes up. He cries. He thinks selfishly. This is the Peter Parker that everyone has related to for decades and Tom Holland absolutely crushes it. A few liberties are taken with some of the Spider-Man lore itself, but the character himself is adapted as perfectly as possible.

One of the biggest contributing factors in director Jon Watts’s success in capturing a youthful Spider-Man is keeping the movie small. Peter is still in high school, and Spider-Man: Homecoming is about 40% a John Hughes style high school comedy. We see Peter dealing with a bully, going to his first party, participating in the Academic Decathlon, sitting at the losers’ table at lunch, doing nerdy things with his best friend, and trying to ask his crush to the dance. He has actual 15-year-old problems on top of his Spider-Man duties. Spider-Man is a high schooler with super powers, and this movie expresses that balance perfectly. Helping to keep those two sides together is best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), who discovers Peter’s secret early in the movie and reacts exactly how you’d expect a nerd who finds out his best friend fought Captain America to react. He’s one of the funniest characters in an already hilarious movie, and he acts as an audience surrogate, becoming someone for Peter to bounce his thoughts off of.

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But of course, this is still a superhero movie, and it doesn’t sacrifice that for the high school stuff. The action in the film is great. Fight scenes are well staged and the three major superhero set pieces are really entertaining. They’re also kept relatively small in comparison to other MCU films, which fits the “stick to the ground” theme that the film pushes. One specific area that Homecoming manages to place itself above other MCU films is its villain. Michael Keaton portrays Adrian Toomes, also known as Vulture, the ringleader of the weapons empire with his own set of high-tech mechanical wings and armor. Keaton’s performance is as fantastic as you’d suspect, but what really makes Toomes so great is his motivation. Keeping with the staying small theme, Toomes isn’t out to take over the world or kill everybody. He’s simply an everyday guy that was dealt a bad hand, and tries to deal with it in the wrong way. You will understand, sympathize with, and possibly even agree with Toomes at some points, and it makes the film so much more compelling.

On top of trying to juggle and merge two very different tones, Watts and the screenwriters were responsible for making Spider-Man fit within the rest of the MCU, and they do that gracefully as well. First of all, they know that we’ve seen the origin story twice now, so they stay away from repeating themselves and hint towards the necessary backstory professionally and naturally. Second of all, they use just the right amount of Tony Stark. It never turns into Iron Man 4, instead allowing Stark to be a supportive mentor and almost father figure to Peter. It’s a natural progression from where they started in Civil War, and all of the Stark and Avengers touches perfectly transition Spidey into the franchise without sacrificing the quality of the movie. Spider-Man: Homecoming is the best MCU film in years, and is the best we’ve ever seen the character on screen. It may be a little cliched at times, but it plays off those cliches for humor and characterization. It’s funny, entertaining, heartfelt, well-acted, and most of all, just a fun time at the movies. Welcome home, Spidey! We sure have missed you.

Grade: 9/10

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – Film Review

In 2003, Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean became an overnight sensation with its first entry The Curse of the Black Pearl. Much of this was due to Johnny Depp’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of the bumbling-yet-clever Captain Jack Sparrow. 2006 and 2007’s sequels were even more successful, but were accused of being too bloated. Despite the central story line being wrapped up, 2011 saw Sparrow return in On Stranger Tides, which put him truly front and center, and the results were not pretty. Six years later, we’re back in this world again with Dead Men Tell No Tales, and new co-directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg have attempted to bring the series back to what made it so successful in the first place. The outcome is enjoyable, but, once again, nothing special.

Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) is a young sailor who hopes to one day find the Trident of Poseidon, which can rid the ocean of all curses, so that he can free his father, Will (Orlando Bloom, returning from the original trilogy). He recruits the help of Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp), Will’s old friend and a renowned pirate currently in a rut; and Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), an ahead-of-her-time astronomer who thinks she can read the map to the Trident in the stars. However, their journey is complicated by Captain Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem), an undead Spanish sailor who seeks revenge on Jack for getting him and his crew stuck for decades in the Bermuda Triangle.

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As previously mentioned, Depp as Sparrow was once the strongest part of this series. His combination of superior wit and sheer and utter luck always made for an entertaining diversion from the complex plot around him, making him an invaluable support character. On Stranger Tides proved that the word “support” was crucial, but now they’ve pulled a complete 180 and you’ll almost wish he was front and center again. Sparrow is present throughout most of the film, but he doesn’t really do anything. There are absolutely some funny set pieces involving him, but he really has no business being with the new duo and his presence actually makes them a target for Salazar. His cleverness is gone, and, rather than seeming like he might actually be one step ahead of everyone under all the insanity, every move he makes is detrimental to the heroes. The movie just doesn’t need him.

It really wouldn’t be much better without him, though. Thwaites and Scodelario are decent with their performances, but their characters just aren’t that interesting. The script does give them backgrounds, and Carina is a great female role model, but their personalities are just boring and not very pleasant. Both characters are annoyingly stubborn, and their decisions as based on what would be the most interesting for the plot. But even more frustrating is the incredibly forced romance between them. The two have absolutely no chemistry and are completely different in every aspect beyond not knowing their fathers, but the plot seems to think they should flirt and eventually become a couple.

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Other than those two big weak spots, it’s actually a pretty entertaining film. The biggest highlight is Bardem as Captain Salazar. Salazar is an incredibly entertaining on-screen presence, and Bardem absolutely gives it his all for a wonderfully over-the-top performance. A lot of scenes involving the character are unfortunately backstory heavy, but he thankfully has a pretty interesting backstory, and the main flashback scene is one of the best in the movie. He’s also just mesmerizing to look at. Salazar’s curse has Bardem caked in makeup, and his hair is constantly waving as if he were perpetually underwater. It’s a really cool touch, and the makeup artists definitely deserve some awards love. Geoffrey Rush is also back in his role as Sparrow’s frenemy Captain Barbossa, whose allegiance is once again a mystery. The character remains one of the series’ most entertaining, and Rush is just as hammy as we’ve come to expect. And despite his character’s poor writing this time around, Depp is still great in his signature role.

Dead Men Tell No Tales is one of the most expensive films of all time, and it shows. The sets are wonderful, the effects are jaw dropping, and set pieces are consistently strong. All the prettiness can’t really hide the blandness underneath though. The action is exciting and a good portion of the humor hits, but the plot is once again a convoluted mess. The Trident of Poseidon is such a laughable McGuffin, and the overall plot arc is just a reboot of The Curse of the Black Pearl, this time on autopilot because Rønning and Sandberg just aren’t as strong as Verbinski. It’s flashy, it’s funny, it’s well-acted, it fixes some of the problems of the last film, and the Will Turner cameo will fuel nostalgia, but Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales winds up being another empty shell in the end.

Grade: 5.5/10

Life – Film Review

Alien changed the shape of sci-fi when it became a smash hit forty years ago. Countless films (including many of its sequels) have tried to replicate its winning formula, usually to little success. The latest to take a crack at it is Daniel Espinosa’s Life. Being released just two months before Alien itself returns with Alien: Covenant, Life has even more reason to try to set itself apart. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really do that, but what’s missing in originality is made up for in nearly every other way.

Six crew members aboard the International Space Station are on a return mission from Mars, having just discovered and acquired a cell that proves that there is life beyond Earth. The cell is nicknamed Calvin and grows into a small multi-tentacled creature. All seems well until Calvin is able to break from his containment and begins trying to feed on the crew members. The crew must try to destroy, or at least contain, Calvin so that he does make it back to Earth, which would possibly put an end to humanity.

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The concept of a six member crew trying to fight off a dangerous extraterrestrial that picks them off one by one is lifted verbatim from Alien, but it’s not exactly the same movie. Probably the biggest change is that Life takes place in modern times, as opposed to the far future found in Alien, so the film feels a lot more grounded in reality. All of the defense mechanisms and fight tactics used against Calvin are scientifically thought out and biologically based (which might remind you of The Martian). This gives the film a chilling sense of realism, as it seems like a very realistic portrayal of how this scenario might play out if it were to happen. Past that, it’s pretty much the same.

But if it’s not very original, it needs to at least be well made. And thankfully, it is. Many viewers underestimate the importance of good characters in a movie like this, but you need to feel connected to them if you are to have any sort of reaction to what happens to them. Life takes another tip from Alien in this department and spends time early on establishing their backstories and personalities. They may not be incredibly fleshed out, but this is still a creature feature, and it’s enough to make you understand and support them. Acting is phenomenal all around. Rebecca Ferguson absolutely knocks it out of the park, while Ryan Reynolds is able to provide a bit of comic relief alongside his serious moments. Jake Gyllenhaal is incredibly overqualified for the demands of his role, but he is as excellent as you’d expect. The actors not on the poster (Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya) don’t have quite as much to do, but are still very effective in their roles.

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The film is also technically brilliant. Life takes place on a fairly small ship, but the brilliant set design makes it look both big and spectacular. Cinematography takes a hint from 2013’s Gravity. The lack of that phenomenon on the ISS is felt as the camera follows the characters around weightlessly, moving upside down and doing flips. It could potentially be dizzying for some viewers, but most will probably recognize it as an effective directing style. The visual effects are fairly impressive for the modest budget. The octopus-like Calvin is a really cool sight to behold, and even if he isn’t meant to look scary, you’ll feel a chill every time he comes on screen.

The plot runs fairly smoothly as well. Tense scenes with Calvin are interspersed with some scenes of talking in safety. These help to build your relationship with the characters and ground the film without taking you off edge. And those tense scenes really are tense. The film truly is thrilling, and Espinosa proves to be great at directing horror. So, yes, Life is very derivative from Alien and quite a few other films before it, but it manages to still be an enjoyable time by simply being well made. And it does have a few surprises up its sleeve. The film ends on a particularly grim note that will remind you of old school horror twists.

Grade: 7.5/10

The Boss Baby – Film Review

The best kids’ movies are the ones that manage to entertain children without forgetting the parents that will be watching with them. Most Pixar films, for example, have been adored because they are able to perfectly blend material for children and material for adults and make it suitable for all. DreamWorks’ latest film The Boss Baby takes that sentence and churns it out literally, both the children and adults part and the suitable part. Unfortunately, they forgot the perfectly part.

Tim Templeton (Miles Bakshi) is a seven-year-old only boy with a huge imagination who loves his life with his two parents (Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow). One day, however, his parents surprise him with a baby brother (Alec Baldwin), and Tim starts to feel all he cherished slipping away from him. Tim notices some strange behavior from the new baby, including the fact that he wears a suit, and learns that he can talk and works for a company called BabyCorp. “Boss Baby” is on a mission to learn the evil plans of their cuteness rival, PuppyCorp, and Tim must work together with him if he is to get his parents back to themselves.

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This is actually a pretty interesting concept for a film. It has tons of potential to explore the feelings of an older sibling dealing with a new baby taking over the house (in other words, becoming the boss), with a lot of opportunities for humor along the way. And for the first 30 minutes or so, it does this pretty well. But once Tim officially learns what’s going on with Boss Baby (that is his actual name, by the way), it pretty much gives that up and becomes a by-the-numbers animation. The plot is incredibly predictable and formulaic, and some of it comes off pretty forced as well. After Tim agrees to help Boss Baby, take a moment to try and predict the rest of the movie. You’ll probably be right.

The humor is also only half successful. The comedic potential for babies acting like adults is huge. That’s why Stewie Griffin is such a popular character. And you can’t get much better than Alec Baldwin for this role. There are actually some really funny jokes in here, most of them using this comedic hook. But a lot of them are also really repetitive, and the amount of juvenile jokes is just ridiculous. No one should ever be subjected to that much baby butt. Boss Baby himself can get a little tiring as well. His shtick never lets up, and that will definitely start to grate on some viewers.

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One area where The Boss Baby truly succeeds is in animation. It’s not photo-realistic or anything as impressive as the most recent Pixar films, but it’s reminiscent of an old cartoon, which makes the complete zaniness feel a little more comfortable. Every once in awhile, the film will show us a scene out of Tim’s imagination, and the almost 2D animation is so colorful and looks absolutely gorgeous. These scenes are some of the best in the film. They look great, they add to Tim’s character, and they’ll feel nostalgic for adults.

That said, the large focus on Tim’s imagination can throw you off a bit. Sometimes you’ll start to wonder if this is all real or if he’s imagining the whole thing. There’s enough evidence to believe that it’s real though, so it just comes off as clumsy work on the part of director Tom McGrath and screenwriter Michael McCullers. In the end, The Boss Baby is just an okay film. It starts off with a lot of potential, but throws it away in favor of generic animation fare. But it’s often funny, looks good, and is pretty clever with its increasingly ridiculous world building. Your kids will probably enjoy it, so it’s a respectable distraction.

Grade: 6/10

xXx: Return of Xander Cage – Film Review

Return? Who’s Xander Cage? Is that a porno? These are all questions that I’ve actually heard in regards to xXx: Return of Xander Cage. If you’re uninitiated, xXx was a 2002 movie starring Vin Diesel as an extreme athlete who is recruited by the NSA to stop Russian terrorists, and it was every bit as ridiculous as it sounds. It did fairly well at the box office, so three years later, it was followed by a spin-off/sequel called xXx: State of the Union, which replaced Diesel with Ice Cube, and it flopped both critically and commercially. Now twelve years after the sequel (a full fifteen after the original), Columbia figured “Ah, what the hell?” and brought Diesel back for a more direct sequel to the first film. And it’s even more ridiculous than before.

Extreme athlete-turned spy Xander Cage (Diesel) is thought dead to the world, but is actually spending time skiing through jungles and stealing cable for townspeople in the Dominican Republic. After NSA Agent Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) is mysteriously killed, Cage is brought out of retirement to help by Agent Jane Marke (Toni Collette). It turns out that a device called Pandora’s Box, which allows access to everything, is in the hands of a group of criminals (featuring Donnie Yen, Deepika Padukone, and Tony Jaa), and Cage must put together a team (Ruby Rose, Kris Wu) to retrieve it.

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Before going into xXx, you should be aware of what kind of movie it is. This is the kind of movie where the characters speak exclusively in corny puns. This is the kind of movie where any mention of plot points will make you think “Oh yeah, that’s a thing”. This is the kind of movie where characters are introduced with needlessly informative title cards. This is the kind of movie where more than one person fakes their death. This is the kind of movie where people are hit by falling satellites, and a device exists that can easily cause this to happen. This is the kind of movie where Vin Diesel rides across the ocean on a motorcycle. This is the kind of movie where the main character follows an orgy with a one-liner. If any of this deters you, turn around now.

Still here? Don’t get too thrilled yet, because Return of Xander Cage still has quite a few problems. To start out with the pros, it thankfully understands its own ridiculousness. It doesn’t spend too much time on plot, and Pandora’s Box seems like a satirical stab at the concept of MacGuffins. The previously mentioned character intro cards are also actually pretty inspired and sometimes quite funny. And the set pieces, including all of the ridiculous extreme stunts, are mostly really entertaining. Vin Diesel knows what type of movie this is, and much like in his far more successful Fast & Furious franchise, he’s game for pretty much anything.

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But that’s pretty much all that it has going for it. First of all, a lot of the jokes are simply unforgivable. The scriptwriters seem to be trying so hard to be funny, and so much of the movie just isn’t. The full plot can be predicted by the time the main mission starts, so there’s nothing surprising or suspenseful. And the characters are pretty awful. Xander Cage is honestly pretty annoying, which is not a good trait for your main character. All he does is pull off some cool stunts, try to make witty one-liners, and brag about himself. Nina Dobrev’s Becky, a nerdy IT girl with a huge crush on Cage, is chuckle-worthy at times, but her shtick gets old very quickly. Everyone else either gives it their all but gives terrible performance, or is a good actor that you can tell is doing something beneath them.

The most unforgivable thing about this movie, though, is that so much strong action talent is gathered from around the world, and they don’t get to show off. Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa certainly come to the plate, but director DJ Caruso shoots the action scenes so poorly. He uses countless cuts and shaky cam, the two biggest sins of an action movie, and it’s just annoying to watch. Frankly, xXx: Return of Xander Cage just really isn’t worth it. It can be amusing at times, but if you want fun, mindless action, the Fast & Furious franchise pulls it off so much better and actually has a heart. This is the kind of movie you let stay on in the background or use as a distraction on a flight (which is exactly how I watched it).

Grade: 4.5/10

Beauty and the Beast – Film Review

Over the last few years, Disney has started a new pseudo-franchise for itself: live-action classics. So far, we’ve seen Alice in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and Pete’s Dragon reworked and sent to the big screen as live action and CGI spectacles. Box office receipts have been great, so now it’s time to take a shot at the heavy hitters, and 1991’s Beauty and the Beast is up first. As one of Disney’s most beloved films ever, this remake has a lot to live up to, and even though it’s a guaranteed financial success, fans will be ready to rip it to shreds if it fails to capture the magic of the original. That ends up not being an issue though, because 2017’s Beauty and the Beast is basically the same movie as before.

Belle (Emma Watson) is a beautiful and intelligent girl living in a small French town with her loving but eccentric father, Maurice (Kevin Kline). She dreams of something more in her life, and she is going to get it when Maurice is imprisoned in an old castle beyond the woods. Belle offers to take her father’s place and discovers that her captor is a beast (Dan Stevens), and all of his servants are living household items. The curse that has been placed on them will be lifted if the Beast can get someone to love him before the last petal of an enchanted rose falls, and Belle seems to be the prime candidate. Meanwhile, the self-centered Gaston (Luke Evans) will do whatever it takes to get Belle to marry him.

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As the plot goes, this is a nearly beat-for-beat remake. Many lines are the same, all of your favorite songs are here, and the characters and settings essentially look the same. The remakes for Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and Pete’s Dragon succeeded because they were able to take rather simplistic films, smooth out the rough parts, and add more compelling plot details. Beauty and the Beast never really needed to do that, which has the adverse effect of making it feel less fresh than those films. There are a few new additions, including more fleshed out backstories for Belle and the Beast, a few new songs, and one or two new characters, but nothing heightens the experience the way that the new additions of the other films did.

With little new to bring to the table, Beauty and the Beast aims to tug on your nostalgia strings, and at that, it succeeds brilliantly. As previously mentioned, all of your favorite songs and characters are here, and it’s hard not to smile when you see them brought to life. “Be Our Guest” is as much of a spectacle as you could hope for, and Belle and Beast’s waltz, complete with the familiar stunning yellow dress and blue suit, is lovely. Alan Menken’s iconic score is back as well, and it’s just as great as ever, and the production design is breathtaking. As a treat for fans, Beauty and the Beast is definitely a success.

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A huge part of its success can be found in its casting. After playing Hermione Granger in Harry Potter, Emma Watson is a perfect choice for Belle on paper, and she mostly works well. Her singing voice is heavily autotuned, and she’s never really been an Oscar-caliber actress, but she dedicates herself well to the role and looks the part. Dan Stevens adds a lot of humanity to the Beast, and Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellan, and Emma Thompson are perfect fits for the roles of Lumiere, Cogsworth, and Mrs. Potts, masterfully capturing their respective personalities through voice work. Luke Evans steals the show though. He may not have the bulking physical appearance of Gaston, but he hits it out of the park with a funny and charming performance. Props to Kevin Kline and Josh Gad (as Gaston’s sidekick LeFou) as well.

Not everything translates perfectly though. Rather than showing the whimsicality of the animated film, director Bill Condon sets a strangely gloomy atmosphere that detracts from the fun a bit. And the CGI is not up to snuff. Beast looks as fake as he is, and some of the servant characters look pretty creepy in live action form. Aside from that though, Beauty and the Beast is a nice tribute for fans of the 1991 masterpiece. It doesn’t do much to build off of the original, but it never really needed to, and the additions they did make are inoffensive and mostly all welcome. Acting is great all around, and the actors do pretty well with the songs as well. It’s not the masterpiece that the original was, but it makes for a good two hours that will entertain your kids and bring you back to your own childhood.

Grade: 7/10

Wonder Woman – Film Review

The DC Extended Universe has not been off to a great start. While box office performance has been pretty strong for the most part, critical and fan reception have been mostly poor to mixed. After the consecutive disappointments of Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad, many people took the “three strikes, you’re out” mentality. They gave up too soon though. Sifting through the rubble is the character considered by most to be the best part of BvS: Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman is the first live action film to star the famous heroine and the first truly significant female-led superhero film. With these huge milestones setting heavy expectations, and with the responsibility of saving a franchise hanging on for life, it had a lot to meet up to. And it succeeds wonderfully!

Diana (Gal Gadot) was modeled from clay by the Amazonian Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and brought to life by Zeus. She has spent her life on the hidden island Themyscira training in battle to eventually defeat Ares, the God of War, and discovers that she has abilities way beyond the other Amazons. When an American spy named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his plane on the island and informs the Amazons of World War I, Diana decides to act. She and Steve travel to London with hopes of finding Ares, defeating him, and ridding humanity of war forever.

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Right off the bat, Wonder Woman has something that none of the other three DCEU films have had, and that’s focus. The plot of the film is very straightforward, with one major conflict and clearly defined characters. Unlike the other films, no attempts are made at franchise-building. There is no expositional dump scene helping to set the viewer up for Justice League. A scene from Batman v Superman is used as a framework for setting up the flashback to Wonder Woman’s origin, but that’s the only connection to the other films. This singular focus allows director Patty Jenkins to concentrate on making it the best it can be, rather than worrying about setting up future films.

The straightforward plot also allows the film to develop its characters into people that the audience cares about. The previous films struggled to create compelling characters, but Wonder Woman takes its time giving Diana and Steve personalities and allowing them to have conversations that strengthen them as characters. Gal Gadot and Chris Pine are perfect for the parts and they commit to them wonderfully. Both characters have to face new worlds with customs that they aren’t familiar with, and it’s truly fascinating to watch them grow closer together as they learn. The dialogue is also laugh-out-loud hilarious, and there are some very emotional moments throughout, especially towards the end.

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Patty Jenkins is great at setting up these characters and making them compelling, but not everything is perfect. She makes some great directorial choices, such as a muted conversation near the end of the movie and a great color palette, but there are some very poor choices too. The action scenes, especially an emotionally charged set piece at around the halfway mark, are staged wonderfully and Gadot pulls them off perfectly, but Jenkins has an obsession with slow motion shots that can become very annoying. There’s multiple in every battle. And the end kind of falls apart when a pretty poignant point is basically thrown out in favor of another subpar CGI showdown. It’s definitely better and more emotionally charged that the last few films, but the franchise still needs work in that department.

Wonder Woman is exactly the movie that the DCEU needed. It isn’t perfect. An over-reliance on slo-mo and a weak third act dampen the experience, the plot is fairly formulaic and predictable, and it falls victim to PVS (Poor Villain Syndrome). But it succeeds in how it utilizes that formula. It stays focused on its goal and allows the characters to truly become characters. It also sends a very empowering message to young girls. But best of all, it really is a fun movie. It will have you laughing, crying, thinking, and cheering, and you’ll want to return to this world as soon as possible. Wonder Woman is not flawless, but it’s a giant leap forward for the franchise and makes its future look a whole lot brighter.

Grade: 7.5/10

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