Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Movie Review - "Onward" (2020)

You can always rely on Pixar to deliver an imaginative, colorful and beautiful picture that has enough there to entertain both kids and adults. Their latest film, "Onward" is no exception.

While the film isn’t groundbreaking in the slightest or even close to one of Pixar’s best films, that doesn’t stop "Onward" from giving us one of the more creative metaphorical worlds it has ever presented. It delivers on everything it sets out to do good laughs, excellent morals, a wonderful ending and a sense of wonder about the world that only a Studio Ghibli film can match.

In the case of "Onward," the film is about a mystical world filled with every sort of mythical creature, goblins, manticores, dragons, centaurs, pixies and so many others, as well as the ability to use magic. However, magic doesn’t come easy in this world and can only be used properly by skilled sorcerers. Non-sorcerers decided to make life easier for themselves by creating something that is much easier to use technology. As their society started using more tech like cars and phones instead of spells and staffs, the citizens got used to the ease of it until magic became a legend, a product of a long forgotten era.

From there, the film takes place in what can only be described as modern times, where the mythical creatures act no different than we do, if only a little disinterested and feeling like something is missing. We see a family of elves who exemplify this, mostly a pair of brothers, the socially awkward Ian (Tom Holland), and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) who is obsessed with the mythical past and treats everything like a Dungeons and Dragons adventure. On Ian’s 16 birthday though, their mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives him a present from his deceased father a wizard’s staff with a spell that will bring the father back to life for 24 hours. But when the spell doesn’t work exactly how it’s supposed to, Ian and Barley have to go on a quest throughout their world to fix it if they want to have a chance to see their father one last time.

What makes "Onward" work so well is its world building, making magic and spells that are so unique but also so hilarious in the hands of novices like Ian and Barley. A lot of the magic is based off of emotions or mental states, like focus and honesty, leading to a lot of visually comedic situations when Ian can’t stay on task and ends up being the same awkward self that we’ve come to love from Holland’s performance as Peter Parker. On top of that, so many of the magical creatures are handled well, put into modern situations that I would have never expected. Some of the best ones include pixies being a tough biker gang who threatens anyone who makes fun of their size, except that it takes about a dozen pixies to operate one regular sized motorcycle. Another great one is the manticore (voiced by Octavia Spencer), who is supposed to hand out dangerous quests to adventurers, and has turned her tavern into a Chuck-E-Cheese style restaurant to pay the bills, getting so caught up in the machinations of society that she forgets her true calling.

This terrific world building is balanced by the bond between Ian and Barley. On the surface, Ian appears to be your standard dorky teenager and Barley is your deadbeat brother stuck in the past. But actually, both brothers actively work to make the other a better person…or elf. Barley is always pushing Ian to do things he isn’t prepared for, giving one of the best lines in the movie that no one is ever fully prepared for anything so it’s better to just take the leap and trust in yourself. While Ian keeps Barley grounded in reality, never letting his fantasies get the better of him, but still engrossed in the amazement of magic and exploration.

Together their adventure is one, not just to discover more about their world, but also to learn about the magic they have within themselves and how wondrous they can be on their own. Holland and Pratt both turn in great performances to make it seem like these two really did grow up together, with Barley acting like the father Ian never had and Ian being Barley’s anchor. It all culminates in one of the best endings and morals in any Pixar film, where the journey of these two brothers is finally given a purpose.

Overall, "Onward" isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel or go places Pixar has never gone before, but it still delivers a solid ride that hits every proper emotional note while still creating a massive and entertaining world. It is exactly what you’d expect from Pixar, giving us something that everyone can enjoy, while still offering one of the better endings they’ve ever done. And for Pixar to still have so much to offer after all this time is magical in its own right.

Final Grade: B+

Movie Review - "The Invisible Man" (2020)

One thing I learned early on while writing film reviews is to embrace your own ethnic and gender backgrounds and what makes you you. If you’re a mostly conservative reviewer and you watch a film with a mostly liberal agenda, that gives you a unique perspective when it comes to the views of that film. Personally, I give a film like "The Accountant" more praise than others because it is one of the few films to have an autistic main character and addresses what it really feels like to have autism, something I have to deal with every day.

I bring this because I had a similar reaction to "The Invisible Man" as I did with "Get Out" delving into fears and bigotry that I can’t comprehend. As a white male, there’s a hidden subtext in both of those films that makes the terror that the main characters feel like something many people have gone through, but is something I’ve never experienced. In the case of "Get Out," it was about the fear of racism unhinged by modern society and what privileged individuals might do to others who look different than them. With "The Invisible Man," it is the fear of women speaking up against men having too much control over the world without any accountability, and dreading that others refuse to see or acknowledge what that could mean, like that worry is invisible to everyone else.

These fears that reflect real life worries make both movies more powerful in their subtlety, message and endearing performances. Even if I don’t fully understand how devastating these fears can be to some, both films make it clear that they’re as real as you and me and need to be addressed.

But of course, the other common point between "Get Out" and "The Invisible Man" is that, even if you remove all of that, you still have a gripping, atmospheric thriller that never lets up.

"The Invisible Man" is a modern remake of a classic Universal horror film, though the original 1933 version is far more comedy than horror. This version dives headfirst into what an invisible person could really do in today’s society, detailing the life of Cecilia Kass (Elizabeth Moss) as she leaves her abusive and controlling husband Adrian. She’s been planning this for some time, but Adrian has always been so manipulative that she fears what he would do to her if she left. But while she’s hiding at a friend-of-a-friend’s house, Cecilia learns that Adrian not only killed himself but left her five million dollars as he was one of the world leaders in optic technology, on the condition that she not commit any crimes and prove that she’s mentally stable. Just when everything seems great though, a bunch of strange things start happening around her friend’s house, including a missing knife and finding Adrian’s phone in the attic. The more Cecilia digs into it, the more she believes that Adrian isn’t dead and is stalking her without being seen.

The story is a fractured and misleading tale about two broken people. The main focus is on Cecilia, her years of abuse and manipulation haunting her like a ghost, making her constantly look over her shoulder, worrying that she’ll never be able to get away from being controlled. When she starts to believe Adrian is stalking her, all of those fears come to life and her paranoia causes her to start ruining her own life, making you even wonder if there even is an invisible stalker and she’s making all of this up.

But Adrian’s side of the story cannot be overlooked, after all the movie is named after him. One thing is made clear about Adrian from the beginning control. He doesn’t feel safe or content with life unless he is in control of every little detail, including what his wife wears, eats, and thinks. And if he can’t have that control, then he’ll take any action necessary to regain control, especially if that means manipulating control to show that things would be better if he was in charge. This is shown in many ways, like Adrian stealing Cecilia’s laptop and writing a nasty email to her sister through her email account, or making it look like Cecilia hit her friend’s daughter. Everything is a mind game to Adrian and he wants to show that he is the most dominant and in control.

Together, this creates a wonderfully tense dynamic that plays on Cecilia’s fears and Adrian’s quest for control that never lets up. Even moments of a long shot down an empty hallway are terrifying, using negative space better than any movie in recent memory. And it’s all because of the basic carnal desires of these two leads one that wants love and another that wants freedom, but both ultimately desire peace of mind in their own ways.

Final Grade: A

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Movie Review - "My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising" (2019)

"My Hero Academia" is a special breed of anime, falling more in line with Western ideals of heroism with the spectacle and wonder that comes with Japanese animation and long term character development. For those unaware, "My Hero Academia" is set in a world where 80 percent of the worlds’ population is born with a unique super power, known as quirks, such as sweat turning into nitroglycerin or being born with engines in your legs that let you run extremely fast. As expected, there are those who use their quirks for personal gain and villainy, praying on those with weaker quirks or no quirks at all. To combat these villains, the world relies on superheroes using their own quirks to protect the innocent. These heroes are so ingrained in their society that they have special schools to train the next generation of heroes, hone their quirks and learn from the wisdom of veteran heroes, including the world’s number one hero, All-Might.

What makes "My Hero Academia" so special is that, despite living up to its opening line of "not all men are created equal" since many are born stronger, faster, or smarter than others through their quirks, while others are simply just more powerful which they feel makes them better, the show never stops being amazingly optimistic and uplifting. Part of it is because of the heroic beliefs the show often projects about being a selfless person and how power should be used to help others. But the bigger example is how we watch this group of high schoolers not only learn how to be better heroes, but better people. Despite having a cast of 20 characters that all have decent amounts of screentime, it does feel like each of them is learning from each other to become the best version of themselves. The best parts of the show are not the ones with big action sequences with lots of destruction, but rather the quiet moments where a character stands up for themselves or breaks out of their comfort zone and sees how that affects their classmates. The show proves that heroism isn’t about being born stronger or faster, but rather being better than the person you were yesterday and sharing that enthusiasm with the world.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that "My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising" is not only a perfect movie version of the anime, but just might be one of the greatest anime movies of all time. The movie knows exactly what makes the show so great, the characters, and delivers that in droves, while still escalating the conflict to a more personal and hard-fought level that couldn’t be shown on television. In this case, the class of 1-A is tasked with protecting and guarding a small island and its people all on their own, which becomes threatened when an extremely powerful villain, Nine, attacks the island so that he can steal a quirk that would allow him to take over the world through brute force. Without any way of contacting their teachers or the hero society, class 1-A must stop Nine on their own, led by the figure heads of the class, Midoriya and Bakugo.

"Heroes Rising" gives every character a chance to shine, even the ones who have taken more of a supporting role over the last few seasons. Whether it’s a memorable line or heroic moment, or nailing a big blow against Nine or his companions, they all come across as heroes in their own way. But what really sells the movie is the animation and the ending fight, both of which are so beautiful in their scope and impact that I nearly cried at a couple points. The awe of stellar animation and wonderfully built character development between Midoriya and Bakugo is what makes this movie worthy of being the greatest anime movie of all time, right up there with "Dragonball Super: Broly," and the final push where everything clicks is what sends it over the edge.

If you’re a fan of "My Hero Academia" or anime or even just animation, do yourself a favor and give "Heroes Rising" a shot. The movie tells you everything you need to know about the anime, so you’re not missing out on much information. I guarantee that if you’re not a fan of "My Hero Academia" already, watching this movie will make you want to give it a chance.

Final Grade: A

Movie Review - "The Hours" (2002)

"The Hours" is a story told throughout multiple generations, detailing how one act of discovery can affect many lives, even ones you’ll never meet. It takes place during three different time periods one in 1923 England while Virginia Woolfe (Nicole Kidman) struggles with depression and bipolar disorder while writing her novel "Mrs. Dalloway," another in 1951 Los Angeles where pregnant Laura (Julianne Moore) is reading that novel while trying to figure out what she really wants out of life, and finally in 2001 New York with Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) who has built her life around being like Mrs. Dalloway as she tries to put together a party for her friend (Ed Harris) before he dies of AIDS. All three women desperately try to find meaning in their own lives through this book, regardless of the struggles they all face and the temptation they all feel of taking the easy way out.

And boy is it overly and rather unnecessarily melodramatic.

I admire a network narrative told through three different time periods, something I can only recall being done in 1916’s "Intolerance," but the whole thing does feel forced and exaggerated. The 2001 timeline is especially egregious of this, with Streep’s character basing her entire life on a fictional character and a party. Regardless of what that party means to her or Ed Harris’ character, the whole thing is played out like a life-or-death ordeal with many moments of reflection and regret. All that’s missing is a musical number and every cliche would fall into place. While the acting is wonderful from all three leads, especially Nicole Kidman who really sells just how disturbed she is, the film goes so big on every little moment and treats everything like the end of the world. It really is too much at times, never giving the audience a chance to breathe.
Final Grade: C

Friday, March 20, 2020

Movie Review - "Manhattan" (1979)

Despite what the plot might tell you, "Manhattan" is a love letter to the city it is named after. It is about a one-sided love affair between Woody Allen and a city that never sleeps how New York made him who he is and why he can’t live without it. The culture, the diversity, the attitude of the city is wrapped up so much in Woody Allen’s life that he can’t imagine a world without New York. But he’s also so committed to having only one love in his life, in this case he loves a city more than anything else, that he bumbles through the other loves he could have, including the love of a 17-year old girl (Mariel Hemingway) and his best friends’ mistress (Diane Keaton).

What sells "Manhattan" is the beautiful black-and-white cinematography of the city. Each shot gives the city its own character, never focusing on the people but rather the architecture or billboards or fireworks, always to breathtaking effect like Brooklyn Bridge cast in the fog. The love that Allen has for the city is put on display like one of the paintings in the Museum of Modern Art that Allen and his uppity friends would discuss. While this just as much of a reflection of Allen trying to separate himself from the city, the film takes an artistic look at how New York is a simple town, where everything is black-or-white, and Allen discovers that life doesn’t share that same quality.
Final Grade: B+

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Movie Review - "Fantasy Island" (2020)

Never heard of the TV series "Fantasy Island"? It’s fine. I’m pretty sure this films’ producers haven’t heard of it either.

While I’ve never watched an episode of the series, I do find the premise interesting a magical island that brings your biggest dream to life, regardless of what that may entail or how impossible that might be. For a television show, that has a lot of potential, each episode bringing in a new guest with a different fantasy. Much like "Star Trek," the possibility for episodes is endless and each episode could be a different genre, some going for more dramatic and introspective, while others could be funny or action-packed or thrilling.

The new "Fantasy Island" movie though decides to take none of those routes, remove the wonder and awe of an island that can grant your wishes and make an uninspired and forgettable horror movie that has no business being a horror film. Not only is a movie the wrong format for this premise, because there are about six different plotlines that have no business being connected, but then it doubles down on the stupidity by trying to go deeper in an "Inception"-style plot where everything is a fantasy-within-a-fantasy, without ever making any of these characters seem like anything more than walking stereotypes.

It was honestly painful watching "Fantasy Island," mostly because the rules of the island don’t make any sense. From the beginning, they make it clear that everyone only gets one fantasy and that everything they imagine isn’t real if they imagine a certain person, like a long lost lover. Except the movie contradicts itself almost immediately. While one guest wants a second chance to fall in love again, and gets a not-real copy of her former boyfriend, another guest wants revenge on a childhood bully and they fly in the actual bully for her to literally torture. Why did they need to kidnap the bully? Couldn’t the island make a fake bully like it made a fake boyfriend or a fake dead father for another guest?

But it doesn’t stop there at least three different guests get multiple wishes, even some getting another wish while their former wish is still playing out. The film can’t make up its mind on what these characters truly want and it is infuriating, especially since the rules get thrown out the window. Why should any of this matter to these people? If there really are no rules, then if anything goes bad, they could use another wish to undo everything.

Even then, it’s not clear how the island knows what to wish for, especially for one character whose wish keeps changing. At first, he makes it clear that he wants to serve in an active military situation and be a soldier, but then it quickly changes to fighting alongside his dead father, then changes again to saving his father, only for all of that to be completely pointless when we find his real fantasy was "to be a hero." Why go through that whole ordeal when the island could have just given him superpowers and fight crime? It is unnecessarily convoluted and never gives us a chance to like this guy when his motivation is all over the place.

That’s the problem with "Fantasy Island" in a nutshell way too many ideas, and not enough talent to execute them all. It feels like they tried to cram an entire television season’s worth of ideas into a 90-minute movie. Nothing comes organically, everything feels rushed and the characters have no defining traits or development. It all feels hollow at best, and insulting at worst. Ultimately, a massive waste of time.

Final Grade: F

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Movie Review - "Sonic the Hedgehog" (2020)

The "Sonic the Hedgehog" movie is one of the rarest and most bizarre experiments in the history of Hollywood. While it wasn’t the first film to receive universal backlash after its first trailer dropped, one of the biggest examples of that being the all-female "Ghostbusters" remake, I’ve never seen a studio so quick to apologize for such a bad representation of a beloved character and actively work to remake the movie so that the character actually looks like how they’re supposed to…until "Sonic" came along. We never got that kind of apology with "Ghostbusters" or the 1998 American "Godzilla." I can only guess that Sega decided to redo all of the effects shots of Sonic because it would be the final nail in the coffin to the decline of Sonic’s reputation, ruining him forever.

Regardless, if you haven’t seen what Sonic was originally supposed to look like in this movie, you’re doing yourself a favor. I can’t imagine this movie Sonic looking like a beady-eyed reject from "Cats" with teeth and weird hands and feet. He looked like a gremlin that’ll steal all of your possessions before you even see him, which would have ruined the movie. If Sonic’s design had been unchanged, this movie would be terrible a main character that is unpleasant to look at and would only get worse as he ran around. If we hadn’t complained about how terrible the design was, this movie would be irredeemable.

With the redesign though, "Sonic the Hedgehog" is a serviceable kids movie. Sonic and James Marsden’s characters are likable and have good chemistry together, Ben Schwartz perfectly captures the manic energy of Sonic as well as his love of life, the running effect for Sonic and slow motion is put to good use, the comedy hits many of the right notes it needs to, and it has a good moral about the importance of making connections with people. I do want to stress that this is still a kids movie though, since the characterization is shallow and expected, much in the same vein as an episode of "Power Rangers" or "Kim Possible." Plus, Sonic does the "Fortnite" floss dance. Twice.

But if there’s any reason to see this movie, besides seeing the marked improvement over the old effects, is because of Jim Carrey, playing the evil Dr. Robotnik. Carrey steals the show in every scene he’s in, capturing the same crazy insanity that made him famous in the first place in movies like "Ace Ventura" and "The Mask." Imagine if all of Carrey’s characters from his movies in the 1990s merged together and decided to be a super villain. A character so full of himself and his greatness that he delights in proving how everyone else is dumber than him, despite throwing temper tantrums like a five-year old. Little moments like him taking command from a general by talking over him any time he speaks up to the way he treats his minion like one his malfunctioning machines that he doesn’t know how to fix are the things I’ll remember the most about this movie.

Overall, "Sonic the Hedgehog" knows exactly what it wants to be a cartoonish, kid-friendly adventure that captures the crazy energy of a blue alien that can run really fast being chased by Jim Carrey. And while this wouldn’t have been successful in the slightest if the effects weren’t updated, the film does everything adequately, if rather simply. For a kids film adapting a video game character, that’s all we can ever ask for.
Final Grade: B-