Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Movie Review - "Aladdin" (2019)

I'm sick of these live action Disney remakes.

I understand why Disney is making so many - to capitalize on our nostalgia and fondness for the movies we grew up with. But it proves that Disney is as sophisticated as Michael Bay by appealing to the lowest common denominator and dumbing down classic movies just for the sake of making a quick buck. It certainly doesn't help that none of these live action remakes have been good so far, just cheap repackaging of movies that didn't need to be remade in the first place, since there's no way these stories could be told better than they were through animation.

Case in point, Disney's newest cash grab, "Aladdin."

This soulless remake lacks the energy and wit of the original, coming across as a film as Disney never understanding why it was beloved outside of Robin Williams as the Genie. While the original "Aladdin" isn't my favorite Disney animated movie, it was probably the one I watched the most as it always felt the most grand and magical, like I really was transported to a fantastical new world with very likable characters. And while the remake does attempt to add new elements, especially to characters like Jafar and Jasmine, something that other live-action remakes have horribly failed at, the main problem is that there's no passion behind anything, everyone only attempting to do a serviceable job instead of trying to be like the animated version.

Part of what made the animated "Aladdin" so great was because the animation and how well it complimented the unpredictable nature of the Genie and, to a lesser extent, Jafar's powers during the final act, while always making Agrabah look like a wondrous and colorful kingdom. And there's just no way that a live action remake can replicate that nearly as well. The CGI is painfully noticeable which makes this Agrabah feel like a small market with a less than stellar palace by comparison. As many people have brought up, the effects on the Genie are not great either and they get even worse as the film reaches that once wondrous climax, turning it into a shell of its former self.

However, some changes are for the better, especially when it comes to Jafar (Marwin Kenzari). In place of the maniacal, cackling villain of old, we get a more deceptive, calculating plotter who sees a lot of himself in Aladdin (Mena Massoud), offering a lot of interesting parallels between the two. This serves a rather nice role in the overall theme of how power and greed can corrupt anyone and how there is no end to that greed. However, I wouldn't call this Jafar "evil" as much as a schemer, which is a disappointment since the animated Jafar might be Disney's best villain.

Of course, there is one thing everyone is curious about - how does Will Smith's Genie stack up against Robin Williams? The answer, rather obviously is that Smith doesn't hold a candle to Williams. But then again, he never really tries to go for the same Genie as Robin Williams. Instead of a frenetic, hyper-active but well-meaning Genie like with Williams, Smith plays a self-centered, wise-cracking Genie that plays more to Smith's own strengths. Even though the CGI on him is less than convincing, he does spend many scenes as himself to really set him apart from Williams. So while Smith isn't nearly as memorable as Williams, he does enough with his role to differentiate himself from Williams. Which is probably the best praise I can give this movie.

But overall, the new "Aladdin" isn't something I'd want to watch more than once, especially since the original did everything better. It wasn't a bad experience, there are still many fun scenes in the first two-thirds where either Will Smith or Marwan Kenzari get a chance to shine, even Naomi Scott as Jasmine gives a very commanding performance, which is enough to keep the audience distracted for two hours. But there's nothing that this film excels at, never getting close to the same awe and wonder of the animated version, only feeling like a lifeless copy of a classic - which basically summarizes all of these live action Disney remakes.

Final Grade: C-

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Movie Review - "John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum" (2019)

I can't think of many films that pull off one man versus the entire world while still being a fun, entertaining ride. "John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum" not only pulls this off, but does so with the same amount neon style, class and sophisitication we've come to expect from the series. Keanu Reeves continues his wonderfully underplayed tone, never using any more words than he needs to while always using more knives and bullets than he needs to, all while acting like the most desperate man on the planet.

But of course, the highlight in this franchise has to be the action sequences, and "Chapter 3" ups the ante even more than the previous entries, especially when it comes to scale. The film takes full advantage of its premise and makes you feel like the whole world is out to get the greatest hitman on the planet. This leads to a wide range of fight scenes, including a scene with Reeves on horseback, a mostly one-shot motorcycle sequence, a vicious shootout involving dogs being amazing and several kung-fu fights that would make Jackie Chan proud.

However, it should be noted that the story and acting are rather shallow, mostly both used as vehicles to get to the stylized action sequences. This isn't too different from the simplistic, over-the-top action of the previous entires, this one just amps it up to absurd levels while the story never goes much further than "the whole world wants John Wick's head." So if you're looking for something deeper or more complex, then this probably isn't the film for you. But if you want an all-out action movie that tries everything it can to top the last action scene, then "John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum" might be one of the most fun movies of 2019.

Final Grade: B+

Monday, May 20, 2019

Movie Review - "Long Shot" (2019)

Part of the reason we're seeing fewer romantic comedies from Hollywood is because everyone knows the formula to these increasingly predictable movies. The formula was even satirized in "Isn't It Romantic?" a film released earlier this year. And while that doesn't mean rom-coms can't be successful in this day-and-age, "Crazy Rich Asians" is proof of that, the lack of continued success the genre saw in the 90s and early 2000s proves that the formula is getting tiresome and in need of a revamp. Much like how horror films have moved further away from gore, sex and jump scares towards terrifying imagery, atmosphere and suspense, rom-coms need something to spice things up.

This is part of the reason why "Long Shot" works as well as it does. The film is very much in-tune with what both men and women want these days and is uncompromising in its honesty, despite a world where that is becoming more difficult to find. While it does fall into many of the same trappings as other rom-coms, like the bumbling fool falling for the hard-worker who doesn't have time for love, as well as the best friend that doesn't approve of their relationship and a world that can't allow these two to be together, the film is still engrained enough in the real world that you can understand why Charlize Theron and Seth Rogan would want to be together.

The film follows U.S. Secretary of State Charlotte Fields (Theron), who is making a run for President, and needs a new writer to punch up her rather dull speeches. Fields has a chance encounter with Fred Flarksy (Rogan), who recently quit his newspaper job and whom Fields babysat when they were younger, and after the two reconnect, Fields decides to hire Fred as her new writer. And as Fields makes a world tour for her newest environmental initiative, the two grow closer together, despite Field's assistants saying this would only hurt her image if she really wants to become President.

The biggest problem with "Long Shot" is the comedy. There are no laugh out loud moments, since the film often takes itself far too seriously. The running joke of "opposites attract" only works for so long here, especially when Charlize Theron continues to give it her all in the role, and Seth Rogan is his usual stoner loud-mouthed self. Despite the two having a refreshing chemistry that doesn't feel forced, the biggest laugh in the film comes when Seth Rogan puts on a funny outfit at a huge party.

But while the comedy often falls flat, "Long Shot" does everything it can to buck the cliches of rom-coms. Not only are the typical gender roles reversed, with Theron playing a no-nonsense politician and Rogan pursuing their relationship more than she does, but the film is open with its characters flaws. It makes "Long Shot" one of the more human and honest rom-coms, especially when they have to make difficult choices near the end when choosing between romance and their careers.

Overall, "Long Shot" is a serviceable rom-com that does its best to mess with societal expectations and clichés, but seems so obsessed with this that doesn't deliver on the comedy. The film gets so serious by the end that you forget you're supposed to laughing at Seth Rogan's drug use and the possibility of dating a politician. While the film can be heartwarming and progressive, the script lacks the punch it needs to be a remarkable romantic-comedy.

Final Grade: C+

Friday, May 17, 2019

Movie Review - "Pokemon: Detective Pikachu" (2019)

If there's one video game franchise that captivated my attention the most as a kid, it was certainly the Pokémon franchise. Like so many other kids in the 90s and early 2000s, I was engrossed in the vast world of these unique creatures and what it would be like to have my own Pokémon partner. I often wonder what our world would really be like if we had Pokémon instead of animals, how the world would be different, what types of technological advancements we'd have if pokeball tech could be used on a larger scale, and which Pokémon would be the most useful in this world. How fun would it be if we lived in a world where we could fly on the backs of fire dragons instead of taking airplanes or have our own personal electric mouse battery that can charge anything?

The possibilities of Pokémon and their practical uses seem endless.

This is the strength of "Pokémon: Detective Pikachu" and it delivers on this in utterly grand fashion. Rather than focusing on the elaborate fight scenes of the anime and its spin-off movies, "Detective Pikachu" delves into a bustling metropolis where humans and Pokémon live and work together, some Pokémon serving in roles that humans would normally do even more efficiently than we can (like Machamp as a security guard, or Ludicolo as a bartender), while others work alongside their partners. The world building is some of the best in any fantasy since "The Lord of the Rings," capitalizing on the imagery and imagination of the Pokémon series to great effect.

This is also helped by some stellar CGI on the Pokémon, giving nearly every pocket monster enough realism while also sticking close enough to its original design to play on our nostalgia. This is especially convincing for Pokémon such as Bulbasaur, Squritle, Jigglypuff, and just about any Pokémon the general public would recognize.

This is especially true for the mascot of the franchise, Pikachu, who never stops being adorable, though this is very quickly offset when you hear him talk like Deadpool. Admittedly, Ryan Reynolds brings the same wit and enthusiasm we've come to love from him, and it does lead the funniest lines in the movie. It's just a little off-putting to see such a beloved and cute character making wise-cracks and some borderline adult jokes.

With that being said, this is all "Detective Pikachu" has going for it.

Beyond the world building, impressive CGI and Ryan Reynolds trying to be a kid-friendly Deadpool, "Detective Pikachu" is about as run-of-the-mill as you can get. The mystery and detective work lacks any sort of tension or suspense and seems to be an after-thought, even though the title implies otherwise. The film plays everything as safe as possible and never really takes any chances with its unique premise, instead telling a very generic mystery about a son (Justice Smith) trying to find his missing estranged father with the help of a plucky sidekick (Reynolds).

I wouldn't mind this as much if the characters were as quirky as Pikachu or were as engrossed in the Pokémon world as the viewer, but Justice Smith plays his role with the same amount of boredom and disinterest as his role in "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom." Despite living in a world filled with fantastical creatures that want to work with humans and exploring a metropolis that exemplifies that sentiment, Smith couldn't care less. He often looks lost and confused, like he wants to be somewhere else, which makes so many great moments of realization fall flat.

We've seen this type of story so many times in the past, and these characters offer nothing new to that story. It is only because of the world of Pokémon that we put up this generic Hollywood mystery.

For this reason, I find it a little difficult to recommend "Pokémon: Detective Pikachu." The story is flat and predictable, and the human leads do nothing to make that more interesting. And yet, the world building is superb, making you care more about what's going on in the background than the leads, just to catch a glimpse of some new practical use for a fan favorite Pokémon, like Squirtle being used by the fire department. It is rather charming at times and does make you forget about the bland story, which certainly makes this passable.

Final Grade: C+

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Movie Review - "The Hunt for Red October" (1990)

"The Hunt for Red October" felt like the beginning of a theme park attraction, rather than an actual movie. There's a lot of buildup, political and ethical boundaries crossed and a big leap in technology that could make for a visual spectacale if you were on the vehicle in question. But the characters are so underdevloped and played to their simplest function, even for Sean Connery's Russian captain and Alec Baldwin's energetic Jack Ryan, that they could have been anybody. Even the suspense of the silent submarine duels doesn't start reaching its tipping point until halfway through the third act, far too late to make up for the slow buildup. If I were actually in the center of the action on a theme park ride, stuck on a doomed submarine with little chance to escape aside from an expert captain, then this would be amazing. But as a movie that continually cuts around and plays with perspective like its going out of style, "The Hunt for Red October" is just a simple, sometimes effective, submarine thriller.

Final Grade: C+

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Movie Review - "Avengers: Endgame" (2019)


I feel there is a lot to love about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Depending on who you ask, the reasons why these 21 movies and nearly a dozen different franchises have stuck in our minds for so long will vary. Whether it's the ever-expanding universe, the colorful cast of characters these filmmakers and actors have lovingly crafted, the way these films balance comedy and drama so effortlessly, or the grand sense of continuity, it's difficult to not find something to love about these movies. They are the ultimate crowd pleaser and the shining definition of smart, entertaining blockbusters.

Yet somehow, Marvel has found a way to outdo themselves for their latest outing, "Avengers: Endgame." While it may seem like a sequel to the last Avengers movie, "Infinity War," "Endgame" is more so a culmination of all 21 of these movies, bringing everything these entire cinematic universe has been building up to a climax that stands on its own and as an homage to everything that came before it. And Marvel wraps it all up so tightly that you'd swear it was Christmas morning and this was the present we found under the tree, all tied up in a big bow with all the love and respect these movies truly deserve.

Admittedly, I'm writing this review a few weeks after I've seen the movie. Had I talked about "Endgame" immediately after seeing it, I would have said this was the single greatest MCU movie, the perfect conclusion to the most developed film universe ever created. But after reflecting on some of the details in the narrative, the pacing and the three-hour length making the film a little too self-indulgent, it has knocked down "Endgame" from the best to one of the better ones, especially since "Infinity War" had the more coherent and focused story.

One of the greatest things "Endgame" had going was its total unpredictability. Nearly all of the major plot threads leftover from "Infinity War" are wrapped up within the first fifteen minutes, leading to the first big surprise of the movie - a five-year time skip. From this point, all of our surviving heroes have been allowed to grow and change in ways we never thought possible, like Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and the Hulk merging into one being, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) hiding from his failures and grief behind alcohol and junk food, and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) finally settling down and having a life away from being Iron Man.

Now that "Endgame" is no longer bound by the contrivances of following in the footsteps of "Infinity War," it can do anything it wants with these heroes in a world where they failed and the whole universe knows it. How they handle with that grief and tragedy is what makes this movie so fascinating.

Of course, things get even stranger when Ant Man (Paul Rudd) returns and explains that he has the figured out the key to time travel, which he instantly tells the Avengers about and they formulate a "time heist" that could make everything right again. This leads to the homage to so many previous Marvel movies, as time is played with loosely while the time travel is played for laughs, as is time travel movie logic. Again, "Endgame" plays with our expectations and turns what could have been a tragic, desperate fight to stop the evil Thanos into a funny, tongue in cheek heist film that isn't afraid to use time travel.

What makes the unpredictability work so well though is how lively and energetic all of these characters are. Like so many MCU movies before, these heroes are so delightfully eccentric that you don't need to have much of a story to keep our interest, as proven with some of the better scenes in "The Avengers" and "Age of Ultron." But like with "Civil War" and "Infinity War," the Russo brothers do a wonderful job of showing how all the ego and pride, especially for characters like Iron Man and Thor, leads to these statues of virtue making mistakes. The Russo's have been wonderful at showing these heroes at their most fragile, tragic moments of personal weakness, just to show that they're all no different from any of us. That despite their powers, accomplishments and heroic behavior, they are only human.

"Endgame" continues these Russo themes, not only with how these characters cope with after five years of this vastly empty world, but by how they grieve as well. Characters like Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Captain America (Chris Evans) haven't moved on, as if they wish they could have done more to stop what Thanos did. All of this is communicated through the acting of Evans, Johansson, and even Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye.

But without giving too much else away, "Avengers: Endgame" is the best ending to over ten years of cinematic development that we could have asked for. Even though Marvel is far from done, we could not have asked for a better capstone, a film that lovingly looks back to what has come before it, never losing sight of its importance. It is fun, tragic, heartwarming, pretty goofy, but always a sprawling epic and highly entertaining. Despite some narrative hiccups and a few too many pats on the back, this is one of the most entertaining cinematic experiences I've had in a while and one no one should miss out on.

Final Grade: A