Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Movie Review - "Avengers: Infinity War" (2018) *SPOILER FREE*

As bold as this statement might be, "Avengers: Infinity War" might be one of the most ambitious movies of all time, and certainly the most ambitious blockbuster. This film takes what nearly 20 other Marvel films have established and creates a bold concept to have them all collide. "Infinity War" has over 50 major characters and roles, each with their own quirks, subplots, and backstories, some of which haven't been addressed since the end of their last movie, like the Asgardians at the end of "Thor: Ragnarok" or what Captain America has been up to since "Civil War." Throw all of that into a story about a threat to the entire universe, and you've got a movie with a lot to live up to.

And yet, "Avengers: Infinity War" not only lives up to that hype, but just might have surpassed it by giving us way more than expected. What could have been just a mindless action flick featuring a bunch of famous actors and recognizable faces, the Russo brothers turn into heartwarming, brutal, funny and always entertaining flick. It packs a punch, while always keeping you emotionally invested in each of the many plots going on, whether that's through comedy or drama, like the Marvel films have always done extremely well.

But the real strength of "Infinity War" lies in its magnificent pacing, as it turns a nearly three-hour experience into something that never felt boring or repetitive. It never felt like we lingered on one plot over the other, with each getting the proper amount of screen time without it ever dragging. This film honestly moved so quickly that it felt like it was barely an hour-and-a-half, not three hours. Some will say that this movie is overwhelming and has to juggle far too many plots, but because each of these plots was so enjoyable and rich with character that I didn't mind all the back-and-forth, as it connected this universe in ways it has never been before.

I will say that "Infinity War" certainly benefits from having seen every single Marvel Cinematic Universe film, including the bad ones like "Thor: The Dark World." This one does its best to bring new viewers up to speed, but there's only so much it can do. Outside of that though, there really isn't much going against this movie. It is one of the most entertaining movies Marvel has ever come out with, while also remaining touching and human, never getting too caught up in the scope to forget about the little people.

Without writing a novel about the story of "Infinity War" and everything that's going on with its 50 main characters, the central plot revolves around a villain that has been hinted at since "The Avengers" - Thanos (Josh Brolin). He is finally putting his plan into action, collecting all six of all-powerful Infinity Stones throughout the galaxy, so that he can use their power to remake the universe how he wants it. Due to the events of previous Marvel films, two of these stones are on Earth, one with the mystical Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and one with the android Vision (Paul Bettany). After finding out about Thanos' plan, Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) is sent to Earth to warn the Avengers and other heroes of his impending invasion, while Thor (Chris Hemsworth) does the same with the Guardians of the Galaxy, resulting in every known character teaming up in one way or another to stop Thanos.

With a film of this size and magnitude, it's difficult to say who the main character is. One could say Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is, as he personally takes everything as if this is all on the weight of his shoulders, while others might say Thor goes through the most personal journey of reflection after events of "Ragnarok."

But I feel the main focus of "Infinity War" is on Thanos and how he goes about getting each of the stones, as well as the personal struggles he's had to endure throughout his tortured existence. This is very much his movie, which is unique for Marvel - one devoted to a villain. The strangest part about that is they give Thanos so much character and depth that you see where's coming from. He's not like Loki or Ultron, who just want to be powerful or evil, Thanos truly believes that what he's doing is for the greater good of the entire universe. He's sympathetic yet menacing, doing something that only he feels he can do and does so without passion or prejudice.

Let's face it though, people didn't go to "Infinity War" to see Thanos, but for their favorite heroes, and even though this is an epic with a cast of thousands, every big-name hero gets a moment to shine. Whether it's Spider-Man (Tom Holland) calling back to more "old" movies, War Machine (Don Cheadle) standing up for his teammates in the face of the government, or Drax (Dave Bautista) being the lovable gruff oaf, there's something for everyone. The equally impressive part is that the tone of each franchise is kept intact, like how the comedy and atmosphere of the Guardians of the Galaxy is maintained without losing anything. There are some heroes that don't get as much screen time as others, like Captain America and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), but they all still play a vital role to this picture.

But what makes me the most happy is that Doctor Strange's cape, which I lovingly nicknamed capey, has just as much character and charm as he did in the last film. He's still the sarcastic yet sadistic piece of clothe we all know and love!

This is the power of "Infinity War" - it's been days since I saw the film, and I'm still giddy about what happened. Little moments like the heart-to-heart between Thor and Rocket (Bradley Cooper), or Star Lord (Chris Pratt) learning the truth about "Footloose," bring a smile to my face. As much as all blockbusters try to do this, very few succeed, and "Infinity War" does this better than any other blockbuster I've seen in a long time. This makes it not only worth seeing, but worth seeing two or three times.

"Avengers: Infinity War" not only masterfully handles its herculean task of combining dozens of franchises, plotlines and characters into one coherent picture, but does so while balancing its rather dark looming atmosphere with the charismatic charm we've come to expect from Marvel. This is far more than just another summer blockbuster, but an ambitious and satisfying experience.

Final Grade: A-

Monday, April 30, 2018

Movie Review - "Ocean's 11" (1960)

I don't say this too often, but there are remakes out there that are better than the originals, even if they are few and far between. Most of the best remakes are the ones that you probably didn't even know were remakes, like Brian De Palma's "Scarface" or Martin Scorsese's "The Departed" and even "The Maltese Falcon," the film that started the film noir genre, is a remake. These retellings often take these old fashion stories further than the originals ever could or tell them in a far more captivating way. In this case, the original Rat Pack's "Ocean's 11" pales in comparison to Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's Eleven," mostly due to pacing and a lack of tension from the original.

These films do have nearly identical plots - A group of eleven highly trained professionals decide to pool their talents and cunning to simultaneously rob the biggest casinos in Las Vegas. In the original 1960 version, these men were part of the 82nd Airborne in World War II and are led by Frank Sinatra, while in the remake these men come from around the world and barely know each other while being led by George Clooney, both playing the titular Danny Ocean.

Both films boast an all-star cast for their times, with the 1960's version going all-in on singers-turned-actors like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and big name actors like Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop, while the remake of course had actors like George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon. Where they differ is how these characters interact, with the original going for a more natural and authentic feel. Their conversations are straight to the point and bare-bones, while the remake is full of wit and snappy-dialogue. Neither is inherently worse than the other, since their interactions set the tone for the rest of the film, but in a film that has to quickly set up eleven different personalities, it is nice to see some charisma.

But the biggest difference between these two films is the tension during their heists and how it is practically night-and-day. In the original film, these guys are nonchalant about everything, trying to look as cool as possible while robbing casinos. As a result, they make it look mundane and easy to rob the place that by the time the heist starts, the tension of their plan succeeding has all but faded. In the remake, they stress how impossible this task is and how they'll fail if they make one wrong move, with each scene racking up the suspense higher and higher. I don't get that these guys will fail their mission if they make one wrong move in the original, because they make it look so effortless.

Watching these two is like seeing some guy in a suit steal candy from a baby carriage like it was nothing, and then watching another guy being chased by the cops with a huge bag of money in hand, and see him steal the candy along the way.

Overall, "Ocean's 11" felt like a bore, especially compared to the Rat Pack's other big hit, "Robin and the Seven Hoods." It is your typical heist film with a slight sense of humor, but never to the point that it overwhelms the dry tone. Outside of Sinatra, Martin and Davis Jr., you don't get to know any of the other guys, to the point that side characters like the reformed mobster Duke Santos (Cesar Romero) and a drunk Shirley MacLaine have more character than half of these guys. There's nothing too special here, and I would highly recommend checking out the remake over this film any day.

Final Grade: C

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Movie Review - "Isle of Dogs" (2018)

Wes Anderson, more than any other filmmaker right now, is fully dedicated to his style and injects that into every frame of his movies. All you need to do is look at one still from his movies and you can tell it's a Wes Anderson production. From the framing of a shot to the camera movement that always puts the action in the center of the shot, to the strange almost pale or autumn color scheme, to the unique deadpan humor where every line is delivered like it's their last words, Anderson takes his identity and puts that at the center of the stage. He is not just an artist, but an modern-day auteur.

Sometimes this works out well, like in "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "The Grand Budapest Hotel," while other times it comes across as forced, like in "Moonrise Kingdom." But the best example of Anderson's creative genius has to be when he tried his hand at animation with "Fantastic Mr. Fox," where he treated every little detail, including the backgrounds and outfits his animated characters wear, like a work of art while still keeping it within his typical style. The film takes the limitless imagination of animation and gives Anderson free control to create an new world as if it were his canvas.

So imagine my joy when I find out that Wes Anderson was doing another stop-motion animation film, "Isle of Dogs," only this time it would be an original idea, and it would be a celebration of Japanese culture and Akira Kurosawa films.

"Isle of Dogs" delivers on so many levels, giving the audience everything they have come to expect from Wes Anderson in his typical deadpan style, while feeling like a strange mix of a Kurosawa picture and a Rankin/Bass holiday special, like if "Seven Samurai" met "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer." The film has a surprising amount of heartfelt moments that make these characters far more than just cute animals, and story with a wonderful lore that feels like something out of "Kubo and the Two Strings."

The film opens with the long and violent history between cats and dogs, and the people who sided with each animal. One family that tried to eradicate dogs altogether was the Kobayashi clan, almost succeeding until a boy samurai stepped in and put an end to their reign. Cut forward to a dystopian future in Japan where Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) has declared that the latest epidemic of dog flu has reached the point where it could start spreading to humans. For the safety of the country and the world, the mayor declares that all dogs in Japan must be relocated to a far-off garbage island.

After the order is sent out, the remaining dogs on Trash Island do what they can to survive, including a group of alpha dogs - Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum) and their leader Chief (Bryan Cranston). Though things change on the island when a small plane crash lands a small boy (Koyu Rankin) emerges to look for his lost dog Spots. Despite the ever vigilant eye of the Japanese government, the boy and these alpha dogs set out across Trash Island to find his dog so they can once again been seen as "good boys."

"Isle of Dogs" is built upon Wes Anderson's interpretation of the Japanese culture, including their style of Noh theatre, classic Japanese water paintings reimagined with dogs and cats beings the emphasis, and haikus that make no sense. Some might say this is disrespectful, but it comes across as Anderson honoring this ancient culture and their traditions while still giving it his own unique spin, like he did with European cultures in "The Grand Budapest Hotel." This gives the film an even more memorable and unique flavor than we're used to from Anderson.

Most of the humor comes from the deadpan things dogs would say if we could understand them. The film opens up by saying that, while the humans will switch between speaking English and Japanese, all dog barks and growls are translated into English. This leads to most of the dogs talking about rumors they've heard, their favorite foods, and their love for "masters." All of this comes without sacrificing the dry humor of Bill Murray, the crazy ramblings of Jeff Goldblum or the intensity of Bryan Cranston. Basically, Anderson has these actors playing themselves as dogs.

"Isle of Dogs" is the most creative and fulfilling Wes Anderson film to date. The film takes so many different stories related to animation, ancient history and Kurosawa while always feeling like an Anderson picture. For the first time, it feels like he is unrestricted and can use every film trick he's developed over the years to its fullest potential.

Final Grade: A-

Movie Review - "A Quiet Place" (2018)

"A Quiet Place" is one of those rare films where words cannot do the film justice, much like sound throughout the film. It is entirely a visual spectacle that uses the film medium to its fullest potential by creating a Hitchcock-like tale of suspense that weaponizes sound, and must be seen to be believed. This is one film based less on logic and thought and more on emotion and calculations, making it more of a sensation for the eyes and heart, and not so much for your brain.

I feel like "A Quiet Place" is one film that will be looked back on years from now, admired for its unique imagination and how it made everyone terrified every second of the movie by making us fear the noises of our every day lives. It is a brave, bold and nerve-wracking movie from start to finish and saying anything else about it would be a disservice to the visual experience.

Final Grade: A-

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Movie Review - "Blockers" (2018)

"Blockers" took me by surprise in more ways in than one. Based off of the promotional material alone, this one looked like just another run-of-the-mill raunchy R-rated comedy in the same vein as films like "The Hangover." While the idea that a group of parents going to drastic lengths to make sure their children don't have sex on prom night is unique, it can also come across as insincere and insensitive if it isn't done properly, especially when one of your lead actors is pro wrestler John Cena.

Luckily, "Blockers" has far more maturity and complexity to it than your typical raunchy comedy. It's not just that the filmmakers give a believable reason why these parents would act like this, but that you sympathize with these parents because of how much they put onto their children, and how their kids are as much a reflection of themselves as anything else. Combine this with a sense of humor built upon debauchery and teen drama, and you've got a memorable, well-meaning comedy where it's the adults that are coming of age.

Julie (Kathryn Newton), Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) and Sam (Gideon Adlon) have been best friends since the first day of school, but the same cannot be said of their parents, Lisa (Leslie Mann), Mitchell (John Cena) and Hunter (Ike Barinholtz), who all seem to dislike each other for one reason or another. Lisa is a single mother who might be spending a little too much time with her daughter Julie, Mitchell acts more like a coach than a father to Kayla, and Hunter has been absent in Sam's life since he and her mother got a divorce. It isn't until the three girls head out for prom night that these three parents find something they don't like - seeing text messages that say their daughters agree to all have sex before the night is done. Without even giving it a second thought, they decide to band together an stop their daughters from making the worst mistake of their lives.

The comedy in "Blockers" is really hit-or-miss, sometimes nailing a big joke and other times falling very flat on the delivery, especially any time the girls try to talk or act hip. Their delivery can be awkward, especially when Kathryn Newton has to stand up against her clingy mother. However, they nail most scenes involving Leslie Mann and Ike Barinholtz as the father trying way too hard to impress everyone around him with his "wit and charm." John Cena does fine the jokes he's given, but his problem is that he seems restrained for most of the film when it feels like this is an athletic character that is always giving it everything he has. This makes the comedy of "Blockers" feel uneven but unpredictable.

Although the funniest thing in hindsight is that the parents are so committed to stopping their kids from having sex, but they're blind to everything else their children are doing on prom night.

That being said, the true power of "Blockers" lies in its heart. There is a lot of these parents simply sitting down and reflecting on their lives, both before being a parent and how that attitude carried over. In particular, Lisa practically puts every part of her life into raising her child so that she doesn't end up like her - alone, filled with regrets and letting her mistakes dominate her life. She sees this act by her daughter as a sign that her life is a failure.

The two other parents have just as many moments like this, especially Hunter and how he pinned his ego on being a great dad to a daughter that doesn't want him in her life. These moments are done without pandering to the audience or coming across as ham-fisted, only scenes of flawed individuals who wear their emotions on their sleeves breaking down in the heat of the moment.

Overall, "Blockers" proves to be far more than just your standard R-rated comedy through its rather complex characters and the way they interact with each other throughout their strange journey. While the comedy is a mixed affair and the acting ranged from good to mediocre, the screenplay is solid delivers at just the right moments. If you're looking for the funniest film of the year, this isn't going to be it. But if you're searching for a different type of comedy with a great message about parenting and growing up, then "Blockers" will not disappoint.

Final Grade: B

Monday, April 16, 2018

Movie Review - "Captain Blood" (1935)

Whether you know it or not, most of the lore and well-accepted facts about pirates in film came from Michael Curtiz's "Captain Blood." The film is also responsible for launching the career of Errol Flynn, one of the first leading men in Hollywood that was often suave and heroic, but always charismatic, something we see a lot of in todays movies, especially from actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Dwayne Johnson. So basically, everything we love about pirates and blockbusters nowadays started with "Captain Blood."

Set in 17th century England, the film chronicles the rather unpredictable life of Peter Blood (Flynn), an Irish doctor, who performed his duties during the Monmouth rebellion and was convicted of treason when he helped a rebel heal. Rather than being put to death, Blood and the surviving rebels are instead sent by boat to the West Indies where they are sold as slaves to the local Englishmen. Eventually, Blood organizes as a way to get off their little island the only way that makes sense to him - by becoming pirates.

Most of the mythos about pirates that we all know and love today can be traced back to the joy Errol Flynn and his crew of brothers in arms feel as they loot, fight, drink and sail on the high seas. They immediately set up a code of honor among fellow pirates, splitting all of their earnings amongst each other and giving extra gold to those who lost a limb for the sake of the crew. But at the same time, they all show such delight when torturing others, especially Colonel Bishop (Lionel Atwill), who had bought most of them as slaves. This is a pirate life built on the highs and lows they all share together.

Watching "Captain Blood" shows me why I believe we enjoy pirate movies as much as we do, and it is in much the same vein as gangster movies - we're enraptured by their lust for more power, more wealth, in an attempt to satisfy their insatiable greed. Then again, what are pirates but gangsters of the sea? Except rather than fighting with guns and wise cracks, they fight with swords and witty remarks.

But what makes this film stand out is because of Errol Flynn's performance, easily able to bounce between dramatic moments of loss and heartbreak and moments of pure joy as he falls in love with the pirate lifestyle, all while feeling like the same caring selfless person he was at the beginning of the movie. Flynn gives this performance his all, always glowing with a radiating energy in his quieter moments with Olivia de Havilland that shows a vulnerable man who wants so much more out of the world. Flynn takes what could have been a simple swash-buckling role and turns it into a flawed man with a large sense of honor that is angry at the world.

Overall, "Captain Blood" is a great time and one of the best action pieces out of the 1930s. It sets the standard by which all other pirate movies are graded on, and still remains a charming Errol Flynn movie. If you're curious to see where pirates in Hollywood started from, or want to see the evolution of action stars throughout the decades, then this one is right up your alley.

Final Grade: B+

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Movie Review - "A Man Escaped" (1956)

"A Man Escaped" is, above all else, an experience in claustrophobia. Set in a Nazi prison for members of the French Resistance, the film follows Fontaine (Francois Leterrier) as he does everything in his power to escape his German captors with the very few tools he has. There is hardly a word of dialogue and it is mostly set in one jail cell, yet this film does so much with so very little by making the mundane and trivial feel so monumental and important.

The strength in "A Man Escaped" lies in its uncertainty and strength in the littlest of details. Small things that we take for granted, like the sound of footsteps coming down the hallway, the passing of a note between prison members, the way the wood breaks off the prison door, are all of far more importance and tension than any of the characters or story. The entire film is made up of these details. This is by no means a classical drama, bragging about its big moments with tons of characterization, instead opting out for a more human and scintillating tale of survival.

The films' director, Robert Bresson, is a revolutionary director of French cinema, always making minimalistic films that have less of a story and more of a single narrative focus. Bresson also never hired any professional actors, instead usually casting those who had little to no acting experience, because then their reactions and emotions are genuine instead of feeling forced. Bresson was also captured by the Nazis when he was part of the French Resistance, so this film plays with his own fears and struggles while he attempted to escape twice.

Overall, there is no other film like "A Man Escaped" that feels so focused and concise while always being so gripping. Unconventional, while remaining relatable and honest in its depiction of prison escapes. It is not just an achievement in French cinema, but one of the best claustrophobic thrillers ever made.

Final Grade: B