Monday, December 10, 2018

Movie Review - "Ralph Breaks the Internet" (2018)

I've been writing these reviews for so long now that I'm starting to forget what I have and haven't looked at. I could have sworn that I wrote a review for "Wreck-It Ralph," but that came out in 2012 and I didn't start reviewing until the summer of 2013. I guess it's a little hard to believe that "Wreck-It Ralph" came out six years ago. To this day, I'm still impressed by that movie for its love and admiration for video games, its unique visual style for the vast video game worlds and Wreck's arch of redemption and purpose in a world that is quick to label him as a villain.

"Ralph Breaks the Internet" picks up right where "Wreck-It Ralph" left off, as if no time had passed at all, but some of the fundamental charm and appeal of Ralph and his verbose attitude is severely missing from this film. Instead, Disney replaces the eccentrically misguided behavior of Ralph with tons of internet jokes, in-jokes and references to social media services and Disney themselves, especially their princesses. On its own, this works fine and gets a very good laugh every once in a while, but compared to "Wreck-It Ralph" I can't help but feel like this is a step down.

As video game characters Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Venelope Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) spend their days in the same routine, Venelope eventually complains that she wants something new and exciting to happen. When Ralph grants her wish, it results in her video game breaking and the owner of the video game shop pulling the plug on her game. So when Ralph learns that he can get the part they need to fix Venelope's game through a mystical place called "eBay" they launch into the internet to save her kingdom and every character in it.

Like "Zootopia," "Ralph Breaks the Internet" seeks to create a vivid, colorful world filled with astounding feats that would make anyone want to visit it, much like a theme park. In this case, the internet is portrayed as a vast metropolis built to satiate desires both wondrous and grotesque, populated by avatars and digital creatures that thrive on being popular. And just like "Zootopia" the film doesn't go all the way to make this world feel fully fleshed out by not having all the social media platforms. While things like Twitter, Google, Amazon and eBay are brought up, others like Facebook and YouTube are not, in favor of a made-up service called BuzzTube. So it's a little strange that they can get Google and have eBay be a huge part of the movie, but they can't say YouTube.

However, "Ralph Breaks the Internet" is never lacking in charm and style, much like its predecessor. The characters are still just as likable and it is imaginative to see the inside of the internet like something out of a science fiction movie. While their motivations are different and Ralph is no longer played as the misunderstood villain, Reilly and Silverman still manage to make these characters just as likable and funny as they were in the previous film. And even if this doesn't really add anything to their characters, their wide-eyed innocence as they explore the internet and think eBay is some game that they can win makes this a fun ride nonetheless.

I can see children loving this movie to death, not just because of it has Disney, Star Wars and Marvel references while poking fun at them, but because the movie has such a childlike perspective of the internet. Ralph and Venelope act more like children in this movie than the previous one, and while that may be a step down for some, that makes their whimsical journey more about self discovery by the end. It often feels like a fantasy set in a world that today's children can understand.

Overall, "Ralph Breaks the Internet" isn't as good as "Wreck-It Ralph" but it doesn't try to be. It may have some of the same characters, but a vastly different setting and dynamic that makes our mundane world seem fantastical. It is a cute, charming family film with a good sense of humor, especially when Disney is poking fun at itself. If you have kids, they should love this movie from start to finish, and if you enjoyed "Wreck-It Ralph" then you'll like this one fine.

Final Grade: B

Movie Review - "Creed II" (2018)


"Creed" was quite possibly the biggest surprise of 2015. I had no idea going in that a story about the long-lost son of Apollo Creed being trained by an aging Rocky Balboa would be any good, but then the film blew me away with stunning performances from Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone and a gripping, emotional tale about legacy and second chances while honoring the past and looking ahead to the future. I loved every second of "Creed," and still feel that it is the greatest sports movie of the last two decades.

So naturally, "Creed II" was green-lite almost immediately, and like most sports movies, the sequel had to up the ante. But the progression here feels natural - now that Adonis Creed (Jordan) has made a name for himself in the boxing world, he has to face the son of the man that killed his father in the ring, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). It's a rather predictable storyline, but like the rest of the movie, it is played masterfully, certainly helped by Stallone returning to write the screenplay.

I felt that the best part of "Creed" was Stallone taking on the role of mentor, his character coming full circle and finding his purpose again long after he thought his life was over. And while Stallone gets some good scenes throughout "Creed II" especially when he tries to be in Adonis' life outside of the ring to make up for how bad of a father he was to his own son, the main focus is rightfully on Adonis and his drive to fight Drago's son, as well as facing the ugly side of the boxing world.

Michael B. Jordan goes through hell in this movie, and it feels like we go through every painful step with him, as he faces both physical and psychological torment he must endure alone. Even if his journey is formulaic and predictable, Jordan's performance is so captivating that it's hard not to be invested in his struggles.

Another great part of "Creed II" is the story of Ivan Drago and his son following the events of "Rocky IV." Like a dark reflection of Adonis' story, theirs is one of redemption and dismantling the shame of their family name the only way they know how, by fighting. A lot of this is said without many words, just Lundgren and Florian Munteanu's stoic performances. While not a big part of the movie, it does serve to make the Dragos into much more sympathetic characters after how basic and underdeveloped Drago was in the past.

Still, "Creed II" follows many of the same sports clichés we've come to expect - pride getting in the way of everything else, the mentor that doesn't approve, the training montages, the mentor and fighter disagreeing so much that they don't want to see each other again, and so many more. But the best part of this movie is that these clichés never grow tiresome. We recognize these moments, but they're handled so well and acted so brilliantly that we don't mind them. Even if we can see them coming from a mile away, Adonis and Rocky are just so likable that it's hardly a problem.

Overall, "Creed II" is not quite to the same level as the first film, but it is still a worthy sequel, building off the themes and plotlines of "Creed" and the previous Rocky movies. It is predictable, but enjoyable nonetheless. If you enjoyed "Creed" then you'll have fun with this one too. Even though I'm not a fan of predictable sports movies, this one always had my attention.

Final Grade: B+

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Movie Review - "Green Book" (2018)

Certainly the most charming movie of the year, if forced and manipulative at points. What sells "Green Book" is the terrific performances of Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, both disappearing in their roles as men from different worlds, one from a violent, desperate world and the other from a confined world where identity is hard to find, with both of them find a common ground through mutual respect and admiration. The film is wholesome without sacrificing the pain and strife that comes with the time period or the racial tension, all built on the dignified roles of Ali and Mortensen.

Final Grade: B+

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Movie Review - "Boy Erased" (2018)

While more films discuss the struggles of exploring ones sexuality and coming out as gay during a time when that was not acceptable, this does not diminish the importance of "Boy Erased." The film does take the time to delve into Jared Eamons' (Lucas Hedges) transition from confused boy to homosexual man, but the main focus is on the brutal and unforgiving world that surrounds Jared, especially the Baptist society he grew up in that sees homosexuality as a disease that can be purged through relentless and unforgiving bible worship, to the point that it could be seen as torture.

The film is unflinching and unsympathetic in its portrayal of this abuse, while also showcasing the ignorance of Jared's preacher father (Russell Crowe). Yet it maintains its moral center through Nicole Kidman's performance as Jared's mother, conflicted by both sides but unable to act out without destroying someone's life. While the film can be hard to watch at times, Kidman makes the journey well worth it.

Overall, the timing for "Boy Erased" could not be more perfect. At a time when cinema is embracing the things that make us different and honoring those imperfections like a work of art, this film speaks to those who still see those same differences as a curse or weakness that must be corrected. It shows that we've entered a new world of movies and that old world of trying to change people to be something they're not will no longer be tolerated. It's a strong, powerful message that deserves to be seen.

Final Grade: B-

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Hundred-Word Review - "Widows" (2018)

"Widows" comes across like Steve McQueen trying to be like Michael Mann instead of doing his normally lavishly personal portraits. There are moments of great acting that showcase sorrow and lost, especially from Elizabeth Debicki and Viola Davis, the film has so many different characters with their own agendas that it comes across as needlessly complicated. By the time the climax arrives, most of the tension and empathy has faded. The film is at its best when these characters are grieving in their own ways while remaining confident women. That or letting Daniel Kaluuya do whatever he wants to do.
Final Grade: C+

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Movie Review - "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Gindelwald" (2018)



If you were expecting more of the same from "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald" you will be sadly disappointed, much like me. The film lacks most of the charm of the first film in this new Harry Potter franchise, or the magic of the Potter franchise in general, relying more in weak character development and far too much world building for its own good, given the limited time and scope.

What I enjoyed the most about "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" was how relaxed and fun the whole adventure felt. The magical creatures were all inventive and felt wholly unique from our world, while still taking the time to explore what makes them so special and how to befriend them. To add to this, we had the best character in the history of the Potter series - Jacob Kowalski, the muggle with a heart of gold and takes everything the magical world throws at him in stride. In a way, the audience is Jacob in the first film.

But those elements are severely downplayed in "Crimes of Gindelwald" and it only hurts the movie. While it has a few of the same magical creatures from the first film, they hardly get any screen time and don't do much outside of being pretty CGI eye-candy (CGI-candy?). There's only one new magical beast, and while it is given a bit of development, it hardly makes up for the lack of other magical animals. Jacob, on the other hand, returns but gets very little to do. He isn't even given much to react to, since he spends most of his time in a normal house.

What "Crimes of Grindelwald" offers instead of this is a confusing story with far too many characters for its own good, each of them trying to become fully fleshed out characters, with erratic pacing that will give most people emotional whiplash near the end of the movie as it speeds towards a nonsensical climax between its group of rouge wizards and witches fighting the evil Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) as he tries to take command of the magical world so that they can rule over both the magic and non-magic world.

The film speeds along far too quickly for anything to either connect with the audience or make sense, as many plot points are dropped in rapid succession. It is also never clear who is working for which side near the end of the movie, especially characters like Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) and Thesus Scamander (Callum Turner), brother and arch-rival of the main character Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne).

All of this turns what could have been a relaxed and fun fantasy adventure into an overly dark and complicated drama that it really didn't need to be. There are far too many twists and turns, when the story works best when it just builds off the simple imagery of magic in our world. There is little fun to be had with "Crimes of Grindelwald," which is the biggest strike against it.

The performances are the only thing working for the movie, especially from actors like Alison Sudol as Queenie Goldstein and William Nadylam as Yusuf Kama, both being far more emotionally gripping than I would have expected. But beyond this, "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald" has no magic to speak of, focusing on the wrong things and going far too much in the direction of dark and complex in this mystical, fantastical world.

Final Grade: D+

Friday, November 16, 2018

Movie Review - "Overlord" (2018)

"Overlord" is the type of movie that anti-Nazi filmmakers in the 1940s wish they could have made about World War II, though were limited due to the film codes at the time. This movie is over-the-top gory insanity while showing the scummiest we've seen Nazis in cinema in a long time, showcasing a brand of pure evil that is perfect for a B-movie with an A-movie budget. It is horrific in all the best ways without ever losing the feel of a brutal World War II film.

The film follows a small group of surviving American soldiers on the eve of D-Day. Their mission - to take out a Nazi radio tower so the Allied Forces can communicate with each other properly in the upcoming battle. After a brutal airstrike, only four soldiers make it to the ground and quickly learn the base is crawling with thousands of Nazi troops. Though after the Americans do some digging and infiltrating, they learn something unnatural and terrifying is going on inside the nearby church as Nazi scientists try to make the "thousand-year army" come to life.

"Overlord"'s strength lies in its unpredictability, much like "Bad Times at the El Royale." Because of the mixed genres of action, horror and war, you never know if an action sequence is lurking around the corner or if it's an experiment gone horribly wrong. The film delivers on all of these fronts, but is at it's best when emulating classic WWII films with strong characterization and pitch-perfect pacing to rake up the tension as the Nazis draw closer and closer.

The other strength is that most of the cast are unknowns, while still giving emotionally-gripping performances. You get attached to them as people rather than as stars trying to play soldiers, which makes their performances even more convincing. The only star you might recognize is Kurt Russell's son, Wyatt, which will drive you crazy as you try to figure out if this guy might be related to Kurt. Beyond that, casting unknown actors as your leads in a war-time horror flick works well here.

The effects are hit-and-miss, sometimes going over-the-top goofy and otherwise selling the terror that comes with Nazi experiments gone wrong. I can say that the effects are so good at one point that I seriously considered leaving the theater because they were so gross and disgusting. There are loads of practical effects here as well, especially during the battle sequences.

Overall, "Overlord" is a treat for those who want a little bit of everything. While the plot is nothing special, the pacing and performances sell every tense moment, while still delivering those B-movie thrills and chills. The film takes itself just seriously enough to make the dramatic moments stand out, but with just enough flair to make it fun for the audience.

Final Grade: B+