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+

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Movie Review - "The Last Man on Earth" (1964)

If was one man left, I can't imagine a more fitting person than Vincent Price. In this production of Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend," Price tries to maintain his sanity despite the world turning into vampires. While later versions would use zombies instead of vampires, the core of Matheson's story remains as a testament to the human spirit in face of a certain demise, highlighted by a creepy yet melancholy performance from Price. The budget is small, but like "The House on Haunted Hill," the filmmakers make the most of it by highlighting the haunting writing and chilling performances.

Final Grade: B-

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Movie Review - "Bohemian Rhapsody" (2018)

Queen is one of those universal bands that everyone has not only heard of, but everyone has a favorite song of theirs. Outside of the Beatles and Journey, not many other bands have achieved that. There is a universal appeal to Queen, not just through their music, but through the life of its lead singer, Freddie Mercury. It's so intertwined with Queen that the two are practically indistinguishable, despite the fact that it shouldn't.

"Bohemian Rhapsody" takes this aspect of Queen's appeal to create a safe yet well-made version of the band's rise to success and the tragic story of Freddie Mercury. The film is headlined by a wonderful performance from Rami Malek as Mercury, as he practically disappears into the role to give a whirlwind tirade told through rock music and sexual exploration. And while the film never reaches outrageous status, this is ultimately a harmless film about a rock band with some of the biggest universal appeal the world has ever seen.

That being said, most of the better moments in "Bohemian Rhapsody" are the simple scenes between the band members and how their conflicts led to some of their best songs, especially ones like "We Will Rock You" and "Another One Bites the Dust." While Freddie is the showstopper, the film works best when it focuses on the band, trying to calm that diva within Freddie to show his true potential. The way conflict turns into success is handled well throughout this movie.

But what pushes this film down is its lack of focus. They try to cover so much of Freddie's descent into wild sex parties and the rock star lifestyle that they never bothered to ask why this happened. They're trying to say so much about Freddie and why he took this path that feels like it's saying nothing. There's no focal point for Freddie that lasts throughout the whole film, which is what was desperately needed to wrangle him in.

Because of this "Bohemian Rhapsody" is only ever a serviceable bio-pic of Freddie Mercury, led by a stunning performance from Malik, that only touches upon the band from time to time. The film is often chaotic and misguided, while only giving us the origin of some of Queen's greatest hits. The film feels like an incomplete picture of the band, while still hitting many of the right notes to hit that universal appeal of a legendary rock band.

Final Grade: C

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Hundred-Word Review - "Mid90s" (2018)

As someone whose childhood is linked to the mid-90s, I went into "Mid90s" expecting a connection to the struggles of identity at a time when kids rapidly consumed media like it was a fourth meal. But I did not connect with any of these characters or their reckless search for thrills at any cost. The film is aimed more at the skateboarding and extreme sports culture, especially in the Los Angeles area, making this a film aimed at a niche demographic. While the acting is effective for many first time actors, they can only take this underwhelming script so far.

Final Grade: C-

Friday, November 2, 2018

Hundred-Word Review - "Free Solo" (2018)

"Free Solo" is unlike any documentary I've had the pleasure of beholding. While the film details every aspect of Alex Honnold's personal life in his challenge to free solo climb El Capitan, the cinematography and nature of Alex's profession gives this film thriller-like suspense. You get to know and appreciate Alex's quirky, charming personality while the precarious and vast scope of the screen makes it feel like you're free climbing with him, like every step and placement matters. The film is wonderful at putting you in Alex's shoes and fearing that something bad might happen ever step of the way.

Final Grade: B

Thursday, November 1, 2018

15-Minute Review - "The Hate U Give" (2018)

We live in an amazing time for cinema when movies can give us whole new perspectives on lives so vastly different from our owns are readily available. Films that focus on the fears and walk of life that we might often take for granted. Films like "BlacKkKlansman," "Sorry to Bother You" and "Black Panther" have done that well this year, but another film to join those ranks is "The Hate U Give." But the difference with this film is that it's perspective is primarily for a younger audience without giving any easy answers to this troubling and complicated world.

The film is told from the perspective of a 16-year old black woman, Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), who lives in a troubled but culturally rich part of town while attending an upscale yet uppity high school, essentially stuck between two vastly different worlds. But this comes crashing down when Starr witnesses a police officer shoot her defenseless best friend, and her worlds are forced to collide in the most racially charged manner possible.

Stenberg's performance is the backbone of this movie, trying to handle the delicate situation of handling two societies when there is so much discomfort in her heart. She is just as confused and passionate as the rest of the country is with this situation, and demands that some action be taken. For a film aimed at a teenage audience, that is a poignant message, which makes this the most powerful film for the young adult audience this year.

While the film can often go a bit over-the-top with its message and keeps hammering it in many times over, "The Hate U Give" tries to tell a complete picture of this complex situation. It's not just from Starr's perspective, but delves into how outsiders react to this situation, as well as from the officer's point of view and what they're trained to do in this situation. The film doesn't do anything easy or simple, just like this real life chaos.

Final Grade: B-