Friday, 18 August 2023

Blue Beetle (Movie Review)

As the DCEU prepares to end its run with Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom later this year, one might rightfully wonder if it is even worth investing in yet another last-minute entry. But yet here we are with Blue Beetle, a comparatively lesser-known character from the DC pantheon of superheroes. Originally scheduled to make its debut on HBO Max, the movie has been cleverly positioned by James Gunn as the first and possibly only character to make the jump from the older cinematic universe into the rebooted one. But does the new film give any meaningful glimpse at what we can expect from the DCU or was it merely a marketing ploy to get some butts in seats?

The film stars Xolo MaridueƱa as Jaime Reyes, a young man who inadvertently gets hold of an ancient alien artifact called the Scarab. This would end up transforming him into the titular Blue Beetle, an androidlike being that is highly skilled in combat and capable of a number of superhuman feats. But when the original finders of the Scarab come knocking, seeking to weaponize his newfound abilities and profit off of them, Jaime will have to do whatever it takes to ensure that the other members of his close-knit family don't wound up as collateral damage.

Heading into Blue Beetle, my expectations were about as low as they could get. Not only was the movie coming in the wake of a number of high-profile DC flops, but the overall quality of the films in the DCEU had been hit or miss as well. The marketing leading up to its release had also done nothing to get me on board. For all intents and purposes, the film looked like yet another generic superhero origin story with little to offer beyond hitting an arbitrary diversity quota. And while there is nothing wrong with studios endeavoring to have more diversity in their films, I still feel the films themselves and the stories they tell need to be able to stand on their own in terms of providing entertainment value.

And in terms of pure entertainment value, Blue Beetle ranks on the lower end of the scale. Right off the bat, we are introduced to a pair of villains that are about as cookie-cutter as they come. Susan Sarandon in particular comes across as villainous for the sake of being villainous with hardly any nuances to her performance. They might as well have given her a mustache to twirl around with the way that the character was written and portrayed. The same can be said for most of the cast members. Xolo was adequate in the role of Jaime and George Lopez was about as obnoxious as I felt he was in the trailers. He did manage to garner the most laughs from the crowd in my screening, so your mileage may vary.

The story in the movie itself is what I would refer to as aggressively okay. It ticks all the boxes one would expect from a superhero origin story but doesn't attempt to do much more than that. It offers very little in the way of surprises and a lot of its plot points were heavily telegraphed in overtly obvious ways. Perhaps some of this can be linked to its adherence to the source material but since I have never read the actual comic books the movie is based upon, I can only speculate. What I know for sure is that for someone who was not a preexisting fan, I came out of the movie feeling just as indifferent as I was going in.

There is still some fun to be had in Blue Beetle, of course, don't get me wrong. It has the right amount of set-piece moments and laughs to keep most people engaged. But the jokes that landed are few and far between and the action, while largely serviceable, fails to reach the heights of some of its predecessors or offer anything we haven't already seen before. The only thing that truly attempts to help the movie stand out was a late revelation made regarding the past of one of its two main antagonists. Unfortunately, this comes a bit too late into the movie and my brain had all but already checked out by that point.

Blue Beetle is a superhero origin story that barely manages to get off the ground. That it exists in a very strange middle ground between cinematic universes only further adds to the confusion regarding its wider significance. Whether or not we see any more of this iteration of the character would ultimately depend on how well it performs over the course of its theatrical run. But I honestly think it should have stayed as the direct-to-streaming movie it was originally intended to be as the final product simply does not do nearly enough to justify the price of admission.

Friday, 11 August 2023

Heart of Stone (Movie Review)

The Netflix content machine is still chugging along like the well-oiled train that it aspires to be. And as anyone who has tried to browse through its massive catalog of movies could attest, its Netflix Originals in particular are pretty much hit or miss with varying levels of quality and entertainment value. But every now and then, you get a genuine diamond in the muck, a film that is so great that it helps justify your continued subscription to the streaming service. Unfortunately, Heart of Stone is not that movie.

The film stars Gal Gadot as Rachel Stone, an MI6 agent with very little experience in the field. But unbeknownst to her teammates, she is actually far more skilled than her resume would let on. She is in fact a double agent also working for the Charter, a secret organization with the sole purpose of helping other agencies and world governments to keep the peace. But when the complex computer system that makes their clandestine operations possible falls into the wrong hands, Rachel will have to go rogue in her pursuit of the people responsible.

With a plot that sounds like a hodgepodge of Mission: Impossible story beats, Heart of Stone can't help but feel derivative by design. The fact that it is coming from the very same production company responsible for Dead Reckoning Part One only goes further to highlight that its writers might have been pulling from the very same well of ideas. This is not to say that that other movie would score any points for originality. After all, it was the seventh entry in a series that appears to have done it all at this point, a fact that is currently being reflected in its less-than-solid box office performance.

But even in the realm of derivative spy thrillers, Heart of Stone still manages to sink toward the very bottom of the barrel. This is primarily because it is a movie that feels like it could have been cobbled together by the very same AI at the heart of its narrative. It tries to tick a number of arbitrary boxes, like having a strong, female protagonist to root for in the person of Gal Gadot, a generic villain with a mysterious past that ties into the central conflict, as well as a quippy sidekick to bring in some levity. You know, the way that most modern action movies on Netflix would.

Except it doesn't endeavor to do anything more than the very bare minimum in each of those areas which results in a bland, uninspired movie-watching experience that barely manages to register or pass as entertainment. Add to that the fact that the movie often veers into full-blown campiness in the area of its characterization, with intelligence agents that lack intelligence and an overall ensemble that is driven by some of the most wooden performances I have seen all year, and you start to get an idea of just how poorly executed most of it feels. Even the music and song choices that fill out its soundtrack feel played out with its mix of forgettable pop songs and cookie-cutter compositions, none of which ever quite manage to elevate the on-screen action.

Heart of Stone is Mission: Impossible at home. And unlike those other films which at least sought to push the boundaries for action movies within the constraints of their fairly formulaic trappings, this one seems content with merely adding to the sludge of Netflix Originals created to pad out its library. Perhaps it could have been salvaged if the filmmakers had opted to lean into its corny dialogue and inherent campiness and turned it into a fun, B-movie-styled parody of the genre. But as it currently stands, the movie lacks any kind of heart or soul and I can't recommend it as anything more than something to pass the time with on a slow Saturday afternoon.

Saturday, 22 July 2023

Oppenheimer (Movie Review)

Not many directors in Hollywood today can command the level of respect that Christopher Nolan gets. You only need to hear his name attached to a project for it to shoot up most people's most anticipated movies lists. This is a result of having consistently delivered great cinematic experiences like Dunkirk and Inception to name a few. So of course I was already onboard with Oppenheimer long before I even knew what the film was about. But does the film itself live up to the director's reputation or does it fall short of his incredibly high standards?

Set over a period spanning the Second World War and the early years of the Cold War, the film tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist who was chosen to head the Manhattan Project. His work would lead to the development of the atomic bomb, a devastating nuclear weapon that would prove instrumental in bringing about the end of World War II. But as we learn over the course of the film, one does not flirt with such destructive power without psychological ramifications, and so the movie explores the moral quandaries of its titular character as he grapples with the dangers of the forces he has helped set into motion.

It is hard to dive into any kind of critique of Oppenheimer without first spotlighting the actor that helped bring the whole thing to life. Cillian Murphy delivers what is arguably his best performance to date in the titular role of J. Robert Oppenheimer with an acting turn that can be considered both restrained and poignant. His every move and mannerism embodies the troubled mind of the genius scientist at the center of the film, showing that the actor has an acting range that rivals that shown by the very best thespians. I know it is still too early to call an Oscar nomination for the actor a lock but I'll be very surprised if his name doesn't get called out among the nominees at next year's ceremony.

He was of course supported by a stacked cast of actors who likewise gave standout performances. Both Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh went the extra mile as the title character's two love interests while Robert Downey Jnr. in particular was almost unrecognizable as Lewis Strauss. There were a few actors like Rami Malek and Gary Oldman that I would have loved to see more of, but that would probably have meant the final cut of the film might have ended up even longer than the 3-hour theatrical cut we have presently.

Going behind the camera now, props have to immediately go to Christopher Nolan for his handling of the script and source material. And in true Christopher Nolan fashion, he once again uses the recurring motif of time to tell the story in a nonlinear manner. The story is told in a series of flashbacks, with two separate hearings serving as a framing device, before the whole thing ultimately coalesces during its third act. But because it juggles between quite a number of characters and events spanning several years, a lot of it might be hard to follow for those not already familiar with those aspects of world history. It also takes a fair chunk of its 3-hour runtime before things truly kick into gear. But once it does, the narrative flows in a way that is scarcely seen in the realm of biographical dramas. In fact, one could almost liken it to watching a psychological thriller with the way it manages to keep you on the edge of your seat as its events unfold.

But the area where Oppenheimer truly excels in my opinion is in its striking visuals, from the stunning black-and-white sections to the mostly practical effects that helped depict the sheer power and force of a nuclear explosion. It is all stuff you would want to see on the biggest, most premium screen available so do yourself a favor by heading down to your nearest IMAX theater or premium large format of choice. It also bears mentioning that all those incredible visuals were complimented by the cinematography, score, editing, and sound design, all of which come together to create an audio-visual experience worthy of the Christopher Nolan name.

As far as character studies go, Oppenheimer is one of the best ones I've seen in years. It takes you on a journey into the very psyche of its subject matter, asking you to judge for yourself if his heart was truly in the right place. And like any good character study, it never shies away from showing the various vices and idiosyncrasies that helped define the man. But most remarkably, the movie manages to transcend the typical character study to become one of the finest cinematic experiences Christopher Nolan has crafted to date, so go out and experience it for yourself if you haven't already.

Friday, 14 July 2023

Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One (Movie Review)

After setting the box office on fire with Top Gun: Maverick last year, Tom Cruise is back in Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One. This time around, he once again steps into the shoes of aging IMF agent, Ethan Hunt, who is on a new globe-trotting mission to save the world from those who would rather see it go up in flames. But having worn those shoes for seven movies spanning almost three decades, one has to wonder if they still manage to fit or if perhaps it is time for him to hang them up for good.

Billed as the first of two halves, the film has Ethan going after the lost keys to a rogue artificial intelligence simply referred to as the Entity. With the ability to hack into any defense system in the world, it soon becomes the target of several competing governments and shadow organizations, each one planning to use it for their own nefarious needs. But when Ethan is faced with an adversary from his distant past, he'll be tested like never before as he pushes himself to do whatever it takes to complete the mission.

The Mission: Impossible franchise has prided itself on thrilling moviegoers ever since the first movie came out in 1996. And with each subsequent entry, Tom Cruise and the various filmmakers involved have found increasingly inventive ways to up the ante. Except things wouldn't really get kicked into orbit until Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, a film that had the Hollywood star scaling the sides of the world's tallest building. And the franchise has continued to soar ever higher ever since, an ascent that would eventually crescendo with the phenomenal HALO jump and other stunts in 2018's Mission: Impossible - Fallout.

So heading into Dead Reckoning Part One, I already had doubts that it could ever manage to match or surpass the highs of the previous one. This is despite following up on news of its production, which was impacted by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as watching an extended behind-the-scenes look at its audacious motorcycle cliff jump. And while I feel that the final product didn't indeed match the thrills of the last one, it at least comes with its own bag of tricks, even though some of it did tend to feel like already-explored territory.

We get the usual spy thriller staples like car chases and tense hand-to-hand combat encounters, all of which play out exactly how one would imagine for a film of that nature. But it is how these sequences are shot and edited that helps them feel alive and vibrant. The film is also well-paced for the most part, doling out such scenes at a steady enough cadence to keep most viewers engaged. I did start to feel the length of the movie over time though, especially while it took the needed time to explain the various twists and turns of its ever-evolving plot, and it took some time before the story truly kicked into gear.

But once it did, it never truly lets up until the very end. And with the story being the first of two halves, I was afraid that perhaps they might end it on a cliffhanger without any real resolution to the ongoing conflict. Except I still ended up coming out of it feeling like I had eaten a full meal, which is more than I can say about most other movies that get split in two. A lot of ground was covered in this first half and just enough threads were left unresolved to keep me interested in seeing how the whole thing wraps up next year.

In terms of acting and performance, Tom Cruise proves that he's still got what it takes, pulling absolutely no punches in his pursuit of delivering breathtaking stunts and top-of-the-line action scenes. I had to constantly remind myself that he was now in his 60s as I marveled at his latest feats of physicality. The fact that he is willing to risk life and limb for stunts that typically get put together with CGI in other films goes to show his commitment to the craft and his willingness to do whatever it takes to sell all of it to the audience. That level of dedication is rarely seen in the action film genre and for that reason alone, I hope that the movie gets to experience every bit of success that it deserves.

Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One is a solidly-crafted spy thriller that once again serves as a showcase for Tom Cruise as one of the very best action movie stars working today. That it does that while telling a timely, cautionary tale about the dangers of AI in today's society only goes further to add to its overall appeal. And while I felt it didn't quite hit the same level of sheer brilliance as past entries, or even other recent action films like John Wick: Chapter 4, I still feel it is a movie that is very much worth experiencing on the best cinema screen available.

Friday, 16 June 2023

The Flash (Movie Review)

The Flash finally graces cinemas this weekend after spending nearly a full decade in active development. But following the lukewarm reception Shazam! Fury of the Gods had received during its shortened theatrical run, you'd be forgiven for thinking this was just another remnant of the DCEU as started with Man of Steel back in 2013. The question then is does this new movie actually warrant going out to see or are you better off waiting for it to hit streaming or skipping it entirely?

The film centers upon Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), the titular metahuman who is having trouble balancing his role as a member of the Justice League with working to prove his father's innonence in the case of his mother's death. And the fact that he is able to speed through the world around him isn't exactly helping. But when he inadvertently discovers that he also has the ability to phase through time, he makes the decision to travel back in time to save his mother from dying in the first place. Except this ends up having dire consequences on the current timeline as well as wide-reaching ramifications for the multiverse as a whole.

Stop me if it sounds like you've heard that plot synopsis before because it sure seems like multiverses are Hollywood's current obsession. And in the wake of the recently-released Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, the bar of quality has been raised tremendously high for these types of movies. Gone are the days when a few throwaway cameos and visual gags were all it took to get us hooked and invested. Nowadays, audiences are sophisticated enough to demand that those cameos serve the narrative ala Spider-Man: No Way Home or at the very least bring something of substance to the movie.

I say all that to explain how the landscape had changed since the first trailer for The Flash dropped and why I had approached the film with some measure of apprehension, even as I was eager to see how it would build upon the events of the DCEU and the larger DC library of stories. I basically wanted to know what it did with the foundation already laid by Zack Snyder and others and if it pushed the narrative forward in any meaningful way or if it merely served as the reset button for the franchise many believed that it was.

Thankfully, it didn't take too long into the movie before I discovered that I had very little to worry about. Director Andy Muschietti clearly has a deep understanding of the title character as well as the famous Flashpoint storyline and he indeed manages to do both justice (no pun intended) over the course of his movie. The film respects the existing canon while still finding fun and inventive ways to expand upon it. A lot of it can be considered nostalgia bait though, as it did tend to lean heavily into the Easter eggs and references without really giving most of it any real narrative weight.

The film also has some truly impressive action setpieces that rank as some of the very best in the DCEU. The Flash's abilities are used to great effect throughout the film and they never ceased to be fun to look at. The third act did fall into the trap of being too reliant on spectacle though and the stylistic way some of the CGI characters were rendered might rub some people the wrong way as it creates an uncanny valley effect that feels out of place in a production of this size and budget.

But the area where the film really excels in my opinion is in its heartfelt narrative. As tired as the time travel trope might be nowadays, it is the very real emotions that propel our heroes to do the things they do that kept me most engaged with the movie. Their real-life shenanigans asides, Ezra Miller absolutely shines in the dual role of Barry Allen. It was also nice to see both Ben Affleck and Michael Keaton reprise their respective roles as Batman, although a part of me wishes that the former was given a bit more to do in the film.

The Flash is the closest thing to a fitting swansong that the DCEU could possibly hope to get at this point. It is also a fun and action-packed superhero romp in its own right, one that is elevated by the performance of its lead star. Whether you choose to go out and see it should probably come down to how much you valued the entries that came before it. And as a fan of the overall DCEU, barring one or two weaker installments, I'd say it is one of the better ones in the entire collection.

Friday, 2 June 2023

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (Movie Review)

Spider-Man swings his way back into cinemas this weekend in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. This is the eagerly-awaited sequel to the Academy Award-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a movie that not only introduced moviegoers to Miles Morales but showed us that he was just as capable as the various Peter Parkers that came before him. And like any good sequel worth its salt, this one sets out to expand on the titular Spider-Verse while giving fans more of what they really loved about the first film. But does it manage to achieve either of those two goals or has it perhaps grown too big for its own good?

The film is set a year and a half after the events of the previous one with Miles (voiced by Shameik Moore) still struggling to juggle between schoolwork and his duties as the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. In that time, he has amassed his very own rogues gallery of villains as well as some notoriety. He is soon sucked into a brand-new multiverse-spanning adventure with a fresh cast of Spider-People along with some returning favorites. And with a new arch nemesis hellbent on revenge to contend with, Miles would quickly find out that he needs all the help that he can get.

My expectations heading into Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse were about as high as you can imagine being the massive Spider-Man fan that I am. The first film had immediately won me over with its uniquely beautiful animation style which sought to replicate the look and feel of a comic book within a three-dimensional space. But it was its heartfelt story and great characterization that ultimately made it one of my favorite films of 2018, long before it went on to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film. And since then, Spider-Man fans have been treated to gem after gem across the various entertainment media with video games like Spider-Man: Miles Morales and live-action movies like the two most recent ones in the MCU.

But just when I thought things had gotten as good as they could get in Spider-Man: No Way Home, the crew at Sony Animation scoffed and asked us to hold their beer. Because you'll have to believe that I am not being hyperbolic when I say that this is now possibly my favorite Spider-Man movie of all time. That's high praise indeed considering that Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 had held the title of my favorite comic book movie since its release in 2004. And much like that movie had managed to take its predecessor to the next level, this one shoots everything that came before it into the stratosphere.

The animation is just as vibrant as it was in the first film with each variant of Spider-Man given their own unique animation style. This extends to the worlds they inhabit as well, with each one sporting a distinct look and feel. It would appear like we've been inundated by a heavy dose of multiversal adventures lately, between the MCU's recent movies and the impending release of the DCEU's The Flash. But nowhere has the multiverse been as clearly and as fully realized as it is here, not even in the Best Picture-winning Everything, Everywhere, All at Once.

But the real highlight in my opinion is once again the stellar characterization. Miles is as fully formed as he has ever been and we get to watch him grow even further into his Spider-Man-sized shoes. We also gain new insight into Gwen Stacy's backstory with the film spending a significant portion of its runtime fleshing out her character. The same holds true for several new characters like Miguel O'Hara and The Spot, although fans of the first film might wonder what happened to the likes of Peni Parker and Peter Porker, but at least they'll get to instead witness Peter ParkedCar in all its glory. And no, I'm not making that up.

Another highlight worth mentioning is the curated soundtrack by Metro Boomin, several songs from which could be heard playing throughout the film. The one that stuck out to me the most was Mona Lisa by Dominic Fike, with its earworm melodies fitting the joyous thrill of watching both Miles and Gwen swing through New York like a glove.

The only real criticism I can give to Across the Spider-Verse is the fact that it ends on a cliffhanger as it sets the stage for what is sure to be an epic conclusion in Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse next year. Its extended runtime also keeps the movie from feeling as punchy and precise as its predecessor even though it does manage to cram in a lot of characterization and world-building into that runtime, not to mention the countless Easter eggs that are sure to have diehard fans going back to watch the movie over and over again.

It's a great time to be a Spider-Man fan and nowhere is that more evident than in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. The film serves as another celebration of the webslinger's storied history even as it attempts to tie it all together in its very ambitious narrative web. That it largely succeeds while doing so speaks to a deep understanding of the superhero and his various iterations as well as a mastery of the art of storytelling by all those involved in crafting the film. This is the Spider-Man film to rule all Spider-Man films and one can only wonder where they could possibly take things next.

Friday, 19 May 2023

Fast X (Movie Review)

Dominic Toretto and his family of street racers return in Fast X, the tenth entry in the mainline Fast and Furious franchise. And after watching them literally fly a car into orbit in the last film, my immediate question heading into this one was what new ridiculous stunts could the filmmakers possibly have planned to top that. The keyword here is ridiculous of course, because these films clearly left the realm of plausibility behind several entries ago. But does their pursuit to up the ante with this latest installment come at the price of a sensible script with tangible stakes, or was it redeemed by the power of family?

As is now a tradition in these Fast and Furious movies, Fast X begins by retconning a new villain into the current timeline. So cue a flamboyant Jason Momoa as Dante, son of slain drug lord Herman Reyes from Fast Five, who like those that came before him now seeks revenge against Dom and the rest of the family. But unlike prior adversaries, Dante would quickly prove to be unhinged enough to do whatever it takes to get that revenge, even if it means eliminating all and any that stand in his way.

A film like Fast X almost demands to be appraised by its own rules. Either that or you'll constantly find yourself struggling to grapple with its disregard for basic inconveniences like the laws of physics, or the way our heroes tear through cities full of people without batting an eyelash at the stacks of bodies they leave in their wake. The last film explored the idea that our main characters might even be godlike beings who can perform superhuman feats, and it seems that this one fully embraces that idea, for better or worse.

I guess this is my way of saying if you weren't a fan of the prior entries, then there is nothing in this new one that could possibly work to win you over. You are either along for the ride from the very beginning or you'll feel like you are being dragged along against your will. I find myself somewhere between those two extremes, having enjoyed past entries like Fast Five and Furious 7 while completely hating Fate of the Furious. So I was indeed very surprised by just how much enjoyment I was able to glean out of Fast X.

The plot is just as nonsensical as it has ever been of course, don't get me wrong, and the script almost feels AI-generated at points, with cheesy dialogue and leaps of logic galore. There is a near-constant barrage of meaningless fight scenes that end just as abruptly as they began, making one wonder if they were simply inserted into the movie to keep viewers engaged. The sound mix was also messed up during action scenes, making it hard to hear what characters are saying over the sound effects and music, although I'm not sure if that was from the movie itself or the particular screening I went for.

But it was clear to me that in the midst of all that madness that the all-star cast was simply having a blast hamming it up in those scenes. And it was their enjoyment that I found most infectious, almost making the cheesiness excusable. Notice I'd said almost because there is simply no excuse for some of the atrocities I had to endure during the movie. If you've watched any of the trailers then you probably already know what I am talking about. But believe me when I say that none of those trailers were enough to prepare me for what was to come.

At nearly two hours and thirty minutes, the movie feels overlong. The worst part is that it doesn't even manage to tell a complete story in all that time, as it quickly becomes apparent that this was all set up for another inevitable sequel. And if what Vin Diesel himself had alluded to during the recent premiere of the film is to be believed, then we might be getting not one but two of those sequels. But if you enjoy watching CGI cars and explosions get thrown around the screen with reckless abandon, then maybe that's the exact type of news you want to hear.

Fast X can be summed up in three words: fun but exhausting. It ticks all the requisite boxes that make for some good, mindless action but does so without managing to move the franchise forward in any meaningful way. It makes the most of its worn-out premise by leaning heavily into the star power of its cast members, especially Jason Momoa. The decision to end the film with a literal cliffhanger might not bode well for those that like to have some closure in the films they watch though, but there is a mid-credits scene that will all but ensure that fans will be back for the next round of vehicular madness.

Saturday, 6 May 2023

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (Movie Review)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a mixed bag of late. For every Spider-Man: No Way Home, it seems we've gotten at least three less competently put-together sequels like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. This is primarily why I approached Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 with a measure of uncertainty. The first film had taken the MCU in a bold, new direction while its sequel had served as a somewhat worthy follow-up. But given the current direction of the MCU or its lack thereof, the third film definitely feels like it's got its work cut out for it. So does it manage to right a ship that is clearly veering off course or does it succumb to the growing sense of superhero fatigue?

The film picks up right where the Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special left off with the eponymous team now taking up residence in the severed head of a dead celestial known as Knowhere. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is still struggling to come to terms with the death of the original Gamora (Zoe Saldana), spending his days drinking himself into a stupor. But after Rocket (Bradley Cooper) becomes the target of a mad scientist called the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), through a powerful mercenary named Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), Peter must work together with the rest of the Guardians to protect their good friend and comrade.

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that a lot was riding on James Gunn to deliver another homerun with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. You only need to look at the box office performance of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania to see just how dire a position the MCU is in. Gone is the magic that once drew fans to these movies in record numbers or at least so it would seem. Basically every sequel since Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness has seen diminishing returns compared to its predecessor. But I would put that down to the quality of the storytelling in the recent crop of movies, which appears to have taken a nosedive, than any actual sense of superhero fatigue.

The real question then is how does the new Guardians of the Galaxy compare to the old ones. Well, I am happy to report that it compares quite favorably. I might even go as far as declaring that it is a return to form for the overall MCU, although I'll hold off until I've gotten a chance to see The Marvels before making such a declaration. The film not only captures the essence of what made the previous Guardians movies great, namely the top-notch characterization and killer soundtrack, but it also isn't afraid to take audiences to some very dark and disturbing places.

The film functions as both an origin story for Rocket, whose existing ties to the High Evolutionary are explored through flashbacks, as well as a final outing for the current iteration of the ragtag team. So do with that information what you will. Just know that the movie tugs on your heartstrings from the very beginning and it doesn't let up until the very end. It is also one of the most violent movies in the MCU and I could definitely see a lot of James Gunn's sensibilities on display. But it is how he is able to balance all that out that makes him one of the more gifted directors of superhero films working today.

The action scenes are as sharply stylized as they've ever been especially one extended beatdown sequence that was set to the Beastie Boy's "No Sleep Till Brooklyn." Likewise, the entire soundtrack feels meticulously curated by hand, with each song lending the on-screen drama and action additional weight. Considering that this is most likely James Gunn's final contribution to the MCU, having since taken up the position of co-CEO at the newly-minted DC Studios, I would say that he has managed to go out with one hell of a bang.

About the only thing that I can really fault the movie for is that it doesn't always appear to make the best use of some of its characters. The core team of Guardians get to shine of course, even newer additions like Kraglin and Cosmo. But characters like Adam Warlock barely get enough screen time, making them feel tacked on or written into the story after the fact. Some others were just thrown in for a quick cameo with no real bearing on the plot. And while I was never a fan of the decision to bring Gamora back after Avengers: Endgame, I was at least surprised by how her inclusion in this movie had played out.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is a near-perfect sendoff for the MCU's most unlikely heroes. The film earns every minute of its two hours and thirty minutes runtime and somehow still leaves you wanting more. This is the most fun I've had with a Marvel movie since Spider-Man: No Way Home and that's including the various highs that came with entries like Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. It serves as a stark reminder as to why I'd fallen in love with these MCU films in the first place and it shows that there is still some magic left to be found in the aging franchise.

Friday, 7 April 2023

The Super Mario Bros. Movie (Movie Review)

In terms of recognizable video game IP, it doesn't get much bigger than Super Mario Bros. This is why from the moment it was announced that the iconic duo would be once again gracing the big screen, I was cautiously optimistic. After all, the 1993 live-action movie had left a bad taste in many people's mouths, even as the trailers for the new one appeared to promise a far more faithful adaptation. But does the new film set a new high score for video game adaptations as a whole or is it the latest victim of the dreaded video game movie curse?

The film centers upon the titular Super Mario Bros., a pair of small-time plumbers from Brooklyn. After getting sucked down a warp pipe during a particularly tasking job, they both wind up on opposite ends of a strange, magical world. There, Mario (Chris Pratt) must not only struggle to reunite with Luigi (Charlie Day), but he must also contend with the looming threat of Bowser (Jack Black), the king of the Koopas whose mission of love and conquest could very well spell doom for the inhabitants of the Mushroom Kingdom.

Since its debut on the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Super Mario games have been known for their imaginative worlds and the cast of colorful creatures and characters that call those worlds home. So heading into The Super Mario Bros. Movie, I was most eager to see all of it brought to life by the talented team of artists at Illumination. And right out of the gate, the movie dazzles in a way that only the very best animated films manage to. The Mushroom Kingdom has never looked as crisp or vibrant, and that extends to its many inhabitants as well, almost making this an early lock for a Best Animated Feature Film nomination at next year's Oscars.

The same attention to detail had also gone into crafting the sound and music in the film, with many recognizable themes by Koji Kondo and others being lifted directly from the games and worked into the overall score. The film also employs all the sound cues one would expect from a Super Mario game, as well as licensed music from popular 80s hits like "Take on Me" by a-ha or Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time." But by far the best song in the entire movie was a surprisingly heartfelt piano ballad called "Peaches" by Jack Black. The song channels the actor's singing and comedy chops from his time spent in Tenacious D and it had me in complete stitches all through its performance.

Regarding the voice cast, I think everyone did a more-than-adequate job in their roles. Despite my initial concerns regarding Chris Pratt voicing Mario, I found that his take on the character quickly grew on me and his lack of the stereotypical Italian accent was explained fairly early on in the film. Charlie Day was equally effective as Luigi, although he didn't get nearly as much screen time as the other actor. But once again, the true standout of the bunch was Jack Black, who succeeded in infusing Bowser with his signature humor without compromising on the goofy menace the character is known for in the games.

Speaking of the games, perhaps it is somewhat appropriate that the film had debuted over the Easter holiday since it is absolutely crammed with Easter eggs and references to the various games in the series. I lost count of how many subtle nods to things from the games I could immediately identify, from their various sound bites to all the ones hidden in plain sight. Each scene is practically brimming with so many callbacks that I suspect it will require multiple viewings or rewatches to catch them all. But the ones I did manage to catch during my initial viewing had me grinning from ear to ear.  

About the only thing I can really fault The Super Mario Bros. Movie for is its nearly breakneck pacing. The film hurtles through some of its scenes so quickly that you don't really get enough time to appreciate all of the work that went into them. And while the story itself, like the ones in the games, might also leave a lot to be desired by way of character development or its lack thereof, I still think it manages to tick all the requisite boxes while hitting all the emotional beats one might expect from what is effectively a kid's movie.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a more-than-worthy adaptation of one of gaming's biggest icons. It serves as an overall celebration of the Super Mario franchise with its many Easter eggs and top-of-the-line animation. It is clear that its filmmakers know what their target audience wants and they've gone above and beyond to deliver just that. There is no doubt that this is just the start of something potentially huge for the series though and as such, it should be counted as another win for video game adaptations as a whole. 

Monday, 27 March 2023

Shazam! Fury of the Gods (Movie Review)

The DCEU is officially dead, folks. Or at least it is currently suffering its biggest financial failure in the form of Shazam! Fury of the Gods. I finally got to see the movie for myself this past weekend, after being forced to sit out its opening weekend due to the unrest surrounding elections here in Nigeria. And while I'd thoroughly enjoyed the first film, I had approached the sequel with a healthy dose of skepticism. This was mainly because its trailers and overall marketing had failed to sell it as anything more than another generic superhero flick. But did the actual movie deserve better than the poor hand it had obviously been dealt?

The film continues the misadventures of Billy Batson, a teenage orphan (Asher Angel) imbued with the ability to turn into an adult-sized superhero (Zachary Levi). He now works to protect the people of his city along with his foster siblings, having decided to share his powers with them at the end of the last movie. But as it turns out, the source of those powers can be traced back to a titan named Atlas. And now his daughters, Hespera and Kalypso (Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu respectively), would stop at nothing to get those powers back for their own nefarious needs.

I guess I need to start by saying that I actually enjoyed my time with Shazam! Fury of the Gods, a lot more than I thought I would. The film tapped into most of the things that made the first one so great, like its lighthearted humor and overall sense of charm. And while it lacked the first one's heart and emotional pull, it tries to compensate with more action and spectacle. So if watching a giant dragon wreck an entire city is your type of jam, then chances are you'll find much to love in this Shazam! sequel too.

With that out of the way, it is fair to say that Shazam! Fury of the Gods was pretty much dead on arrival. Not only had last year's Black Adam left a bad taste in many people's mouths, it also didn't help that James Gunn had announced a full reboot of the overall DCEU before the new film even got to see the light of day. All this worked together to make the film feel inconsequential. Most people have already deemed it unworthy of checking out at the cinema. And who can blame them, when the company behind the film itself didn't seem to know what to do with it either?

Between all the delays and shifts in release dates, it was clear that Warner Bros. didn't have much confidence in the film. A part of me feels the movie would have probably done better had it simply been released alongside Avatar 2 in December as once intended when walk-in ticket sales are typically at their highest. After all, a rising tide lifts all boats and those who weren't able to secure tickets to the James Cameron effects extravaganza could have opted to see this one instead.

But hindsight is 20/20 like they say and the fact remains that the new Shazam is going to lose quite a bit of money at the end of the day. What that means for the prospect of subsequent entries or appearances by the character in the newly-minted DCU remains to be seen. But I am now more curious than ever to see how the other remnants of the old DCEU perform later this year. There has been much buzz surrounding The Flash, so I'll definitely be checking that one out on Day 1. As for Blue Beetle and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, only time will tell.

Shazam! Fury of the Gods feels like an unfortunate product of an already-dead franchise. This is despite the fact that its filmmakers had done everything they could to craft an entertaining follow-up to the first film in the series. And while it is easy to point fingers regarding its financial woes, it is still a shame that it never got the fighting chance that it so clearly deserved. So even though there is plenty of fun to be had with the movie, especially if you were a fan of the first one, I still find it hard to recommend it over some of the other stellar blockbusters currently playing at the cinemas.

Saturday, 25 March 2023

John Wick: Chapter 4 (Movie Review)

The Baba Yaga returns in John Wick: Chapter 4. And as a big fan of the three prior entries in the series, I thought I knew what to expect heading into this latest one. But as I've also come to discover in my many years as a cinephile, more of the same is not necessarily a bad thing. So the question then is does the new John Wick movie match the thrills of its predecessors, or does it perhaps even manage to find new or inventive ways to exceed them?

The film follows the events of the last one, which if you remember had ended with a battered and bruised John Wick vowing to get revenge against the High Table, the organization that controls the criminal underworld he has been dragged back into. But like all things in life, this pursuit does not come without its own share of consequences. So before we know it, John is faced with his greatest challenge yet, one that would test the bounds of old and new friendships alike. And all that while the bounty on his head continues to rise higher in response to the stacks of bodies he leaves in his wake.

The John Wick films have always had a certain B-movie level appeal to them, with their revenge-driven plots, high-octane action scenes, and impressive stuntwork. But what really works to set them apart from other films of that ilk is their excellent world-building. Everything from the operations of the hotel Continental and the various rules and regulations that govern the High Table speaks to a larger-than-life mythology. And all through the series, the writers and director have always strived to shed more light on its world while gunning to outdo their previous effort.

The same is definitely true of John Wick: Chapter 4, a movie that barely ever takes its foot off the pedal over the course of its nearly three hours runtime. From the moment we catch up with the titular assassin preparing for bloody retribution, to the film's highly-kinetic third act, your mind is barely given any room to wander or lose interest. And while that might sound like overkill to some, it is simply true that its filmmakers know precisely what its audience wants, namely some creative action set pieces and a cast of colorful characters worth investing in.

And the new John Wick film delivers all of that in spades. Each new set piece manages to upstage the last, as though the filmmakers had challenged themselves to find increasingly creative ways for John Wick to dispatch his foes before the whole thing eventually culminates in a surprisingly emotional showdown. A few of those set pieces might seem like variations of what came before, but trust me when I say you haven't seen action done quite like this.

And all of it is framed by some of the best cinematography I have seen in the genre. There is one particular shootout that takes place inside an abandoned building that looks like it was ripped straight out of Hotline Miami. The sound design and music that accompany these sequences also deserve mention, though chances are you might be too busy wincing at the bone-crunching stunts to notice that. The whole thing does threaten to become overwhelming before long, but to simply call the action in the movie over-the-top or relentless does a disservice to the level of love and care that has clearly gone into crafting each and every scene.

John Wick: Chapter 4 is the most fun I have had in a cinema in years. It takes the series to new heights as it builds upon everything that came before it. Most other franchises would be in danger of losing steam or becoming repetitive by their fourth entries, but this one shows that it still has more than a few tricks up its sleeves. So if we don't get any further installments following this most recent round of cinematic bloodshed, then I am at least glad that the franchise has been able to go out with one hell of a bang.

Friday, 17 February 2023

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (Movie Review)

Phase 5 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has officially begun with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. And while the previous phase did have some highlights like Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, as well as Spider-Man: No Way Home, I still came out of the whole thing somewhat disappointed. That was mostly due to a perceived lack of direction or much of the connective tissue fans have come to expect from the aging franchise. So does the new film begin the process of righting the ship, or does it merely compound the existing problems of an ever-expanding universe?

The film finds Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) enjoying his newfound fame following his involvement in the events of Avengers: Endgame. But after being stuck in the Quantum Realm for 5 years, he struggles to make up for all the lost time with his daughter, Cassie (Kathryn Newton), who has since grown up to be both a rebel and a brilliant scientist. During one of her experiments, she inadvertently ends up sending herself, Scott, and the members of the Van Dyke family into the Quantum Realm where they encounter an entire civilization of otherworldly beings. Now they must all work together to escape, even as they are faced with their greatest adversary yet.

The Ant-Man movies have traditionally held a unique place in the overall MCU, with their comparatively smaller stakes and focus on a particular blend of action and humor. As such, they've often served as palate cleansers between the larger cosmic-level events that define much of the franchise. All that changes with Quantumania though, a movie that serves as another introduction to Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors). For those that remember, he had previously appeared at the end of Loki Season 1 as He Who Remains. But this time around, we see a far more sinister depth to the character.

He is currently being positioned as the next Thanos-level threat in the MCU, at least if the title of forthcoming installments like Avengers: The Kang Dynasty is anything to go by. And on those grounds, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania succeeds in showing us why we should care. It also offers us our first real glimpse at anything resembling some connective tissue between the films in The Multiverse Saga (Phase 4 - 6). Loki had introduced the concept of variants and multiple timelines, while both Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness had established the concept of parallel universes (or the multiverse as they are known in the MCU).

This one begins the process of tying it all together, even though one could say it does so in a somewhat messy or convoluted way. Without getting into spoilers, the film sometimes felt overwhelming with its various sci-fi concepts and it frequently buckles under the weight of all the exposition it needed to make any of it make sense. But at least it never ceased to be fun or pleasing to look at, with far more creatures on display than any of the other MCU entries. It does lose some of the perspective-shifting thrills of the other Ant-Man films though, and their ability to make mundane objects and everyday settings look large and otherworldly.

The film also had some surprise cameos and returning characters from the prior installments, as well as some glaring omissions. Michael Pena's presence as Luis in particular was sorely missed, especially since the character has pretty much grown to define the tone of the Ant-Man films, with his over-the-top narration and flashback sequences. But I can see why he and the other members of the gang were ultimately left out of the new film even though a part of me wishes they had found a way to fit them in.

Speaking of things that didn't quite make it into the movie, you'll want to stick around for both the mid and post-credit scenes as I believe they set the stage for what is to come during the next two phases. Recent MCU stingers have admittedly felt disconnected from one another so it is nice to see ones that carry enough weight to make me feel eager to see what comes next.

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania proves that the MCU still has a long way to go before it can get back to the pure thrills and exhilaration of its glory days. But at least it can be considered another pivotal step in that general direction. It might feel like yet another throwaway film in the MCU but I can see its true importance reveal itself as more information is doled out over the course of subsequent entries. And while it serves as a fun, standalone adventure in its own right, it remains to be seen if the current saga would be taking fans to any kind of a worthwhile destination.

Monday, 2 January 2023

My Top 10 Most Anticipated Movies for 2023

Welcome to 2023. A new year means a fresh slate of movies to keep us entertained over the course of the next 365 days. Whether you plan on braving your nearest cinema or staying home with your streaming service of choice, there's plenty for you to choose from. But not all movies are created equally and chances are you will not have enough time to see every single movie that releases this year.

This is why I like to keep track of those movies I am looking forward to the most at the start of any given year. Those that read my list from last year might spot a few returning entries, owing to the fact that those movies had been delayed into 2023. Blame it on the lingering effects of cinemas shutting down for nearly a year. But without further ado, here are my Top 10 Most Anticipated Movies for 2023.

10. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania

Disney kicks off Phase 5 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Ant-man and the Wasp: Quantumania on the 17th of February. But considering just how divisive some of the films and TV shows that made up the fourth phase had proven, a lot is riding upon this one to right the ship and start the new phase on a high note. The Ant-Man films aren't considered top-shelf MCU but I'm still hoping that this one manages to do justice with its introduction of Kang the Konqueror.

9. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny

Harrison Ford returns to one of his most iconic roles in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. The film is meant to serve as his final hurrah as the world-famous archaeologist. It is also the first in the series not to be directed by Steven Spielberg, with James Mangold stepping in instead. And through the magic of de-aging technology, this latest adventure promises to be more in line with the earlier films in the series (because the less said about Kingdom of the Crystal Skull the better).

8. The Flash

The Flash is a film that looks like it just can't catch a break. Originally slated to release all the way back in 2018, the movie has suffered numerous production delays. Add to that all the ongoing shakeups over at the newly-minted DC Studios, not to mention the controversy surrounding Ezra Miller, and you have to wonder if it is ever going to see the light of day. But word on the street is that the actual film was received very well by test audiences, so fingers crossed that it finally makes it out this year.

7. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

While there hasn't exactly been a shortage of Guardians of the Galaxy appearances since Vol. 2 (if I'm correct, they've been in both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, I am Groot, Thor: Love and Thunder, and the recent Holiday Special since then), the ragtag team is back once again for their next full-fledged adventure. And James Gunn returns to direct after he was briefly fired back in 2018, so we can expect more of his signature humor and focus on fleshed-out characters.

6. Oppenheimer

Not many filmmakers are as ambitious as Christopher Nolan who is known for often pushing the boundaries of what can be accomplished with practical effects. For his latest film, he tackles the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man responsible for creating the atomic bomb. So you can bet that I am interested in seeing what wizardry he works up to bring all that to life, short of detonating an actual atom bomb. He did after all crash a real plane for Tenet so we shouldn't put anything past him.

5. The Super Mario Bros. Movie

Video game movies have been faring a lot better than usual lately, with films like Detective Pikachu and the two Sonic movies serving as shining examples. Even more middling affairs like last year's Uncharted have managed to find some level of success at the box office. So the ground seems almost fertile for Hollywood to take another stab at what is arguably the most recognizable video game IP. The last Super Mario film might have been the stuff of nightmares but this new one looks very promising.

4. John Wick: Chapter 4

The Baba Yaga is back to dish out more of his wicked brand of justice in John Wick: Chapter 4. The last time we saw him at the end of Chapter 3, he'd been broken in body but not in spirit. And this time around, he has a fresh batch of goons that would need some knocking around. Donnie Yen and Scott Adkins join the ever-growing roster of assassins with a bone to pick, which means he's pretty much got his work cut out for him, and we are here for it.

3. Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning (Part One)

The first of two new Mission: Impossible sequels is out later this year. And if the trailers and promotional material are anything to go by, then it looks like Agent Ethan Hunt might be faced with his toughest mission yet. Tom Cruise has already defied death more times than we can count at this point, with the insane stunts featured in the last couple of movies. I still get goosebumps when I think about that HALO jump from the last one, so I am very excited to see what he has in store this time around.

2. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is another film that got bumped from 2022 into 2023. But between the time of the announcement of its delay and now, we've gotten two further looks (in the form of trailers) at just how the movies plan on upping the ante over the first one. The animation still looks about as breathtaking as it did in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse but it is the action that appears to be on a whole new level. June 2nd can't come soon enough.

1. Dune: Part Two

Denis Villeneuve is already getting ready to take audiences back to the deserts of Arrakis in Dune: Part Two, the second half of his adaptation of the seminal science fiction book by Frank Herbert. The first movie had felt incomplete due to the very nature of the adaptation but it was still able to introduce the members of House Atreides and House Harkonnen, as well as all the concepts that govern the world of Arrakis. So I am hoping that this new one builds off of all that while still managing to tell a coherent and satisfying story. And even though I've already read the book it is based upon, I would be lying if I said I wasn't anxious to see how well (if at all) the whole thing comes together.