Saturday, December 29, 2018

Mary Poppins Returns Review

The Disney monster is at it again, capping off what has been an absolutely incredible year for them at the box office. In the United States alone, Disney made a whopping $3 billion at the box office, which was 26 percent of the total market share. Both of those numbers are what Disney was able to accomplish in 2016 as well, while in 2017 they *only* got $2.4 billion and 21 percent of the total market share. So yeah, that's three straight years where Disney has reigned supreme. And we all know that's only going to continue in 2019 with the likes of "Captain Marvel," "Dumbo," "Avengers: Endgame," "Aladdin," "Toy Story 4," "The Lion King," "Frozen 2" and "Star Wars: Episode IX" all on the schedule. Yes, it's true that a lot of people might complain at Disney's dominance as it looks like they are searching for a monopoly of the movie industry. But as long as they are making movies that have a great appeal to general audiences, Disney is going to listen to the dollar bills rather than all the commentary from the peanut gallery because the silent majority often speaks quite loud when it comes to what they want at the cinema. In this case, it's really hard to not be super excited about "Mary Poppins Returns," especially when it looked like such a magical experience. 

In regards to the original "Mary Poppins," the story behind it's development is a fascinating one that may or may not be told accurately in "Saving Mr. Banks." Long story short, Walt Disney promised his two daughters that he would make a film version of "Mary Poppins," which was their favorite book. But it took 20 years to get it made because author P.L. Travers was not a fan of the idea. She finally agreed mainly because she was running out of money, but the agreement included her getting the final script approval. In a bit of a devious move, though, Disney essentially tricked her into getting his version of the movie made despite her disapproval because she wasn't given any say during the editing process, which she thought she was going to get when she officially approved of the script. This resulted in her hating the movie. In fact, she hated the movie so much that she cried during the film's premier, an event that she wasn't even invited to initially. After the premier, she approached Disney and told him that the animated sequences were the first thing that needed to go, to which Disney replied, "Pamela, the ship has sailed." In other words, after 20 years of frustration, he finally got his version of the movie made and he didn't care what she thought of it.

That's kind of brutal if you think about it. But is this a case where the end justifies the means? Should Disney have given in to her demands since she is the original creator? Does an artist deserve more creative control when their property is being adapted? Should Disney have shown her more respect rather than tricking her into letting him do what he wanted? These are all interesting questions to ask, but I find myself not feeling too bad for Travers that she thinks her original property was ruined by Disney because the movie made her a multi-millionaire since she was given a certain percentage of the royalties. Also, I tend to love Disney's final product. Travers may have been a Grinch when it came to animation, but I think the combination of live action and animation was used brilliantly to help teach the positive use of creativity and imagination for kids. Travers also may have not liked exactly how the character of Mary Poppins was portrayed, but I think Julie Andrews gave an absolutely iconic performance. Not only is the character a lot of fun, but she does a perfect job of helping teach the young Banks kids a lot of important life lessons while also helping out their parents. And of course the music and dance numbers are some of the best that musicals have seen.

However, the consequences of Disney not treating Travers well was that it took forever to get this sequel made. Walt Disney wanted to get a sequel made shortly after the original, but Travers refused. Long after Walt himself passed away, Disney kept trying to get Travers to let them do another movie, but she never let them, so they gave up and had to wait until she passed away, which wasn't until 1996. By that time, the ship seemed to have sailed on a Mary Poppins sequel. That is until this modern age of revisting all of their old franchises left the door wide open to finally fulfill Disney's wishes of getting a sequel made, which was finally approved by Travers' estate. It also helped that musicals are very much in right now thanks to the likes of "Les Mis," "Into the Woods," "La La Land," "The Greatest Showman" and "Mama Mia! Here We Go Again" all finding great success at the box office. So "Mary Poppins Returns" felt like it fit perfectly into 2018. Initially I was slightly skeptic, but mostly cautiously optimistic. I thought it was a fine idea, but I knew the movie would live or die based on the musical numbers in the movie. They didn't need to be as good as the original, but if the music wasn't acceptable, the movie wasn't going to work. 

For those reasons, I wasn't necessarily beaming with excitement. Not initially, anyways. That all changed, though, when they started showing footage. The initial teaser didn't show much, but it set a tone for the movie that was visually impressive while Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins looked and sounded brilliant. So it had my attention. But then that full trailer arrived. Just... wow! This seemed like Disney had something special on their hands. I didn't realize how much I needed a Mary Poppins sequel in my life until I saw how magical that trailer looked. And, yeah, I'm happy to report that the movie is just as magical as the trailer. In regards to plot, the movie takes place in 1935, 25 years after the events in the original movie. Michael and Jane are now grown adults. Jane is still single, but Michael is now a widower after his wife has passed away a year ago, leaving him to raise their kids on his own. He's also ran into a lot of financial difficulties as his wife was the one who was good with the finances. So it's safe to say that he's in a bit of a dark place that gets even worse when two lawyers show up to the door and tell him that he has only a few days to pay off a huge loan he took or else his house is going to be repossessed, which is the same house they grew up in as kids.

Enter Mary Poppins who is here to save the day. And she does so in a very Mary Poppins way. She's there as a nanny spending most of her time with the three children, but the ultimate goal is to help Michael get back on his feet. He's lost a lot of his passion and creativity that he had as a kid that certainly wasn't helped by the passing of his wife. This is a bit reminiscent of "Christopher Robin" from earlier this year, which showed Ewan McGregor's portrayal of Christopher Robin as one who had become so obsessed with work that he had all of his priorities a bit backward. Although what makes Michael's position in "Mary Poppins Returns" feel more real and intense is that feeling of loss that has completely wrecked him. I think this aspect of the film has a good chance of hitting home for anyone who has experienced a similar loss like this and it's boosted by an excellent performance from Ben Whishaw as Michael, as well as Emily Mortimer as Jane, who is such a great sister as she's there to provide support wherever he needs it, whether it be watching the kids or helping him find a deed for the bank that could help them save the house. I mention these performances first because I don't want them to get overshadowed too much by some of the other performances.

But of course one of the said performances get most of the attention is Emily Blunt, who steps into some very large shoes as she tries to follow-up on Julie Andrews' performance. Talk about pressure there. As I stated earlier, Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins is one of cinema's most iconic and well-loved performances. What makes Emily Blunt so excellent is that she takes that pressure and makes it look so easy. I watched the original "Mary Poppins" literally right before I went to the theater for the sequel and this is one of those performances that made me convinced that someone had a time machine and was able to go back to 1964 and convince 29-year-old Julie Andrews to come to 2018 to reprise her iconic role. Not only do I have to give props to the make-up, hairstying, and costume design teams for helping Emily Blunt look like Mary Poppins, but she also had the voice, the personality and all the mannerisms down perfectly. This movie worked because Mary Poppins was back. The very Mary Poppins that I grew up adoring because of how perfect she is. The only major difference is that Emily Blunt's singing voice isn't quite on the same level as Julie Andrews, but few females on this Earth are and thus I think Emily Blunt does a great job in her own right.

Because of this performance, Emily Blunt is rightfully getting a lot of praise and I'm totally on that bandwagon. Between this and "A Quiet Place" from earlier this year, someone give that woman a trophy. She deserves. The other person who deserves of trophy is one of the world's current favorite entertainers and that is none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda. He's not stepping into the shoes of Dick Van Dyke's character of Bert because, unlike Mary Poppins, Bert is a normal human who ages and is thus not in this film. But Miranda plays a new character named Jack, who is a former apprentice of Bert and is a lamplighter who knows all about Mary Poppins. So he's essentially plays the same exact role as Bert did in the original even if he's technically a different character. Like with Bert, it's all about spectacle and performance with Jack and boy does Lin-Manuel Miranda put on quite the show. Given that the movie, much like the original, feels a bit like a stage performance, Miranda is right in his element here and takes full advantage of whenever the limelight is on him with some excellent singing and great dancing. In addition to that, he's so charming and charismatic that it's easily to immediately fall in love with him.

Speaking of singing and dancing, I said earlier that I initially thought this movie was going to live or die based on how good the music in the movie is. That turned out to not exactly be the case because I genuinely thought the story line of the movie had the right amount of emotion and depth to it, and I loved all of the characters and the arcs that they experienced. But boy is this movie a beautiful spectacle. The director here is Rob Marshall, who has a lot of experience with this genre and it's evident that him and the team around him knows how to properly craft a musical. The dance choreography is a blast to watch while the music is well written and well sung. I do think that it's a bit unfair to directly compare the music and dance to the original since those numbers have had 54 years to entertain audiences. I think we need to give this new music a bit of time before we give it a final judgment, but I honestly think this new music has the potential to be just as well-loved for this new generation of kids as the original music did for its generation and the many that have followed it. I didn't walk out of the theater with the songs stuck in my head, but I really enjoyed them as they were happened and I think I just need to give the movie a few more watches and it might stick.

So yeah, when all is said and done, this was a very well done sequel by Disney that I think Walt himself would've been very proud of. After watching both movies back to back on Christmas Eve, I walked out of this new movie feeling that they had perfectly recaptured the magic of Mary Poppins. Some might complain that this movie was too similar to the original with not enough creativity and ingenuity to it. I don't see it that way. I saw it as filmmakers and actors who loved and respected the original movie and wanted to bring it back for a new generation of families to love. And they succeeded. And not only did the movie do a good job at pleasing me personally as one who grew up with this movie, but I was a bit surprised to see how much all of my nieces and nephews loved the film as well, so this serves as the perfect family film for this holiday season and beyond. The movie has already played quite well at the box office in the last week and a half, showing some great signs that it'll have a leggy box office run and that makes me delighted. If you haven't yet jumped on the train yet, then now is the perfect time. This has the potential to develop into a new classic for Disney and if they keep making movies like this, I'm happy to give them my money. I'll give "Mary Poppins Returns" a 9/10.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Aquaman Review

Christmas has come and gone, so it's time to finally sit down and put out some reviews that I haven't gotten around to due to the busy holiday season. First up in that is our latest trip to the DC Extended Universe, which been really struggling as of late as they've desperately tried to catch up to Marvel. And that there has been a big part of the problem. Marvel very patiently set up their universe with a handful of solo films that turned "The Avengers" into an event film like no other. DC decided to not be patient and forced their way prematurely to "Justice League," which then caused it to crash and burn. As a long time DC fan, it's been really hard to watch this take place because I want properly done DC films, but the people in charge haven't been able to give that to me. In fairness, I didn't hate "Justice League" or "Suicide Squad." I thought "Justice League" was an mindlessly entertaining popcorn blockbusters and "Suicide Squad" had a lot of great characters. But the problem there is that both movies deserved so much more. And while there were elements of good in "Batman v. Superman," the fact that they crammed five movies into one was really frustrating. And I'm doing my best to erase the abomination that was "Man of Steel" out of my memory.

Despite all this, I still was excited going into "Aquaman." Why? Because DC has had one huge success and that was "Wonder Woman." With "Wonder Woman," the focus wasn't to help set up a cinematic universe or to try too hard to copy Marvel. The focus was to simply make a good movie. A competent director in Patty Jenkins was hired and she did her absolute best to bring a proper "Wonder Woman" movie to the screen. And that brought me so much joy. With "Aquaman," I saw legitimate signs that DC had learned from what they did right in "Wonder Woman" in order to bring us a proper "Aquaman" film. An excellent director in James Wan was hired to take charge and, from everything I saw, it seemed like they gave him full control to do what he wanted with the movie. And that was an exciting prospect. Based on the trailers and advertising, it seemed like Wan's focus was to give the world a good "Aquaman" movie. DC deciding to put their focus primarily on the individual movies rather than their cinematic universe is something that I wish they had done from the very beginning, but at least they appear to be learning from their mistakes instead of stubbornly continuing down the same road, which was only going to bring them even more scorn from everyone.

Thankfully I can report here that my optimism towards this movie was rewarded with a positive cinematic experience. It feels rather refreshing to walk out of a DC movie having been thoroughly entertained without feeling like I deserved more. It also feels refreshing that "Aquaman" successfully stands on its own as a movie you can watch and enjoy without thinking about whatever big picture it is that DC is planning. There is one brief reference to "Justice League" as Amber Heard's character briefly mentions Aquaman having helped stopped Steppenwolf. But that's it. If you skipped any movie in the DC due to the general negativity towards the DCEU, there is no need for a marathon or for you to read the Wikipedia pages of the films. You can go in completely blind, not knowing anything about the DCEU or the underwater world of Atlantis and be totally fine. In fact, doing so would put you at an advantage because the movie itself starts completely fresh. I even think that there are scenes in "Justice League" regarding Aquaman that they completely retconned or ignored and I am totally fine with that. I think it was the right decision to make. Acknowledge the past, like they briefly did, but move forward with fresh eyes and a fresh vision for this character.

In regards to the comic book version of Aquaman, it's worth noting that I'm not as well versed when it comes to him like I am when it comes to other DC characters such as Batman, Superman or the Flash. But I do know that he's been a character who has been commonly mocked and made fun of. He wears bright clothes, swims around in the water and talks to fish. He's not a very manly character, nor is he a very cool one. But yeah, the casting of Jason Momoa is a direct attempt to go against those stereotypes and make him cool again. You don't get any more manly than Jason Momoa. And in regards to his powers and the talking to fish thing, James Wan did an excellent job of creating a fascinating universe unlike any we've seen in the cinematic comic book world up to this point. Aquaman's powers are also really intriguing, so they successfully transformed Aquaman from the butt of every joke into someone to take seriously, which is impressive. And it's also really nice that James Wan actually knows what to do with Aquaman to make him interesting, which is something that Zack Snyder had no idea how to do as Aquaman just sort of stood around and existed in "Justice League" while acting as a cheerleader for the other characters.

As a character, Aquaman has an Atlantian mother and a human father, making him the perfect individual to stand as a mediator for both worlds, yet the drama in this film is that he has no desire to do anything with Atlanta. He grew up on land with his father and is convinced that the Atlantians killed his mother because she left them to start a relationship with a man on the land. So he fully plans to stay on land and not associate with the Atlantians at all. Early on as a kid, he discovers his ability to communicate with the sea creatures and initially his peers make fun of him for it, but then when he gets mad at this bullying and uses all the sea animals to intimidate the bullies, that's an intense scene. It made me want to have those powers of communicating with the sea. Imagine what you could do with all that! On top of that, the ability to swim as fast as an underwater sea vessel while being able to breath and talk under the water would be really awesome. And the icing on the cake is that he's super strong. So yeah, all of this immediately makes him quite the appealing and likable character. And with the backstory regarding his parents, it gives him some emotional depth that I wasn't expected, which sets up for some real character growth.

As far as the plot of the film goes, I will fully admit that this is a lot of movie. It's not like "Batman v. Superman," which is like five movies in one. There's just a lot of story that they tell. I walked out of the theater feeling like I had just binged an entire season of an Aquaman T.V. show rather than having simply watched the pilot episode. This is both a positive and a negative in certain ways. On a positive note, this makes it much more than just your average origin story that I have a habit of being super picky with. But on the negative side, they could've done a better job of focusing the movie up a bit. In fact, there's one specific story arc that they could've completely cut out and the movie would be improved. I'll leave you hanging there for a second because I plan on diving into that a bit later. But as is, both of these positive and negative elements end up cancelling each other out a bit to the point where I was able to accept what was happening and simply enjoy the long, crazy ride that I was being taken on. Because, yeah, this is quite the adventure and the great part is that none of it is taken too seriously. It felt like a 90's superhero cartoon brought to life and dumped into the end of 2018, making the whole thing an enjoyable and relaxing ride that felt fairly nostalgic.

The main element of the plot involved Nala coming to Simba to inform him that there is a lot of commotion happening at Pride Rock with his Uncle Scar. Simba has ran away from home and wants nothing to do with Pride Rock. He's moved on with life. But Nala is here to beg him to come back to Pride Rock and take his rightful place as king because Simba is the one person who is capable of bringing order back into the world. Eventually some sense is knocked into Simba, so he runs back to Pride Rock in order to challenge Scar for the throne. And here's where the twist is. Before he is able to challenge Scar, Rafiki comes to Simba and tells him that he must first find the Holy Grail so that he can properly take the kingdom back. He's a little rebellious at first, so he challenges Scar anyways and mostly fails, but before all is lost, Nala comes to save the day and then they are off to find the Holy Grail as Simba has successfully transformed himself into Indiana Jones, who then has to face all sorts of fancy obstacles along the way, which get more and more intense as the journey goes on. In the midst of that, we also go on a random tangent where Simba/Indiana Jones has allowed a random evil dude's father die, causing evil dude to have a serious vendetta against him.

OK, I'll come back down to Earth now and start talking about "Aquaman" again instead of "The Lion King" or "Indiana Jones." Although I hope you grasped my point there. Earlier this year I gave "Black Panther" a lot of flack for being "The Lion King" of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Some people were blown away by the Shakespearean of "Black Panther" since "The Lion King" is simply a re-telling of "Hamlet" with the African animal kingdom. To me I felt like it was a bit of lazy story-telling, which caused me to be a lot more "meh" about the film than your average person. So I figured if I gave "Black Panther" some flack, I had to be fair here and also give "Aquaman" the same flack. The big difference here is that no one is claiming that "Aquaman" is the greatest superhero film ever made and it's not on track to be the highest-grossing domestic superhero movie ever, which was the case with "Black Panther." So that caused me to push back on "Black Panther." With "Aquaman" there's nothing to push back against, so I'm more accepting of the story here. No one is calling "Aquaman" the greatest superhero film ever made. Most people are simply enjoying the fact that the DC has actually made a decent film.

The other point I wanted to make with that paragraph is to illustrate the fact that this is a lot of movie without giving specific plot details. I can draw comparisons to "The Lion King" and "Indiana Jones" to prove a point and I don't have to spoil "Aquaman" in the process. I will add that it does veer away from both of these movies quite a bit. In regards to "The Lion King," it's his younger half brother that's in control of Atlantis and not his uncle. And Aquaman didn't run away from Atlantis following the death of his father. It's his mother that ran away before he was born, and was then forced back to Atlantis before Aquaman was too old. And the whole Indiana Jones thing isn't following a specific Indiana Jones story arc. He's not actually searching for the Holy Grail. He's searching for something else. But the idea there is that he's searching for a lost artifact that is thought to have not existed or permanently lost a long time ago. And yes, the final part of that is the tangent involving the movie's secondary villain, which is precisely the story line that I was referring to earlier when I said there's an element of the movie that could've been completely cut out. Since the cat is already out of the bag, that secondary villain is that of Black Manta, a popular Aquaman villain from the comics.

Now I did enjoy Black Manta in this movie. He's played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who does an excellent job in the movie. He has solid motivation and is a formidable opponent for Aquaman with quite the epic supervillain suit. It's just that the story arc itself felt like more of a side thing that distracted from the main story. I think they should've saved Black Manta solely for the sequence while focusing this movie specifically on Aquaman's half brother, who is also played brilliantly by Patrick Wilson. In fact, there's a lot of great acting in this movie. Jason Momoa and Amber Heard are more than just eye candy for fans. They own it in the lead roles. And in addition to who I've already said, we also have Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgreen and Temuera Morrison in the film who all work together to provide a great cast of supporting characters who are all directed excellently by James Wan in order to provide us with a cinematic experience that felt great in magnitude. And the aquatic visual effects were honestly breathtaking. We've done a lot of things with superheroes in the last 10 years or so, but exploring the sea is not something we've done very much, so that element managed to make this movie feel a bit fresh and unique when compared to the rest.

In summary, if you've not been on board with the DCEU at this point, I don't blame you. It's been a really rough ride as of late that have caused many fans to give up on DC. But the great thing about "Aquaman" is that it feels separate from all of that. We can pretend for a moment that "Man of Steel," "Batman v. Superman," "Suicide Squad" and "Justice League" all ceased to exist and that this is the second DCEU movie after "Wonder Woman." With that in mind, it feels like a much safer venture to dive into "Aquaman" because "Wonder Woman" is the DC movie that "Aquaman" belongs in the same conversation with. No, it's not as good as "Wonder Woman." But it shows that the success of "Wonder Woman" was not a fluke and that DC actually can make good movies if they continue to follow that formula instead of what they were trying to do before. Because this works. "Wonder Woman" and "Aquaman" are both good movies and it gives me a renewed sense of hope for the DCEU moving forward that makes me confidently excited for "Shazam!" in April, because that seems like yet another example of DC done right. As far as a grade goes, that's a bit fickle. It's easily the second best DCEU movie, so take that as you will. For now, I'll give "Aquaman" an 8/10.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Bumblebee Review

It feels really strange to be genuinely excited for a new Transformers movie. I think I speak for just about everyone when I say that I've grown tired of these movies. Not only is a frustrating that they are so awful, but it makes it worse that Michael Bay doesn't even care. No matter how much people complain, he keeps making the same awful trash over and over. Why? Because he thinks with his bank account and not with his brain. Despite what everyone was saying, people kept showing up for his movies. Even though there was continued diminished returns domestically after the second movie made $402.1 million, international numbers kept going up as the third and fourth movies both made over $1.1 billion worldwide. I mean, who cares about quality movies with the same pile of trash keeps making money, right? Luckily for all of us, this philosophy eventually came back to bite Michael Bay in the butt as last year's fifth installment, "Transformers: The Last Knight," not only completely crashed domestically with just $130.2 million, but it also only made $605 million worldwide. People were officially done. Paramount needed to do something or else it was just going to get worse. And do something they did. That something is this rebootquel "Bumblebee."

Why was I excited for "Bumblebee" when I didn't even see "The Last Knight" in theaters last year (I watched it on Google Play in December -- I never even got a full review out)? Well, OK, I can't say I was excited from day one. But I was certainly intrigued. Cautiously optimistic, if you will. This because Michael Bay was NOT back to direct this movie. But not just that. He was being replaced by Travis Knight, director of "Kubo and the Two Strings." Now I don't know if this was Michael Bay ditching the franchise or if it was Paramount finally telling him to get lost after the failure of "The Last Knight," but either way, could this mean that someone else might come in and actually treat the franchise with the love and respect and deserves? Because remember, this is a franchise that people actually care about. The Hasbro toys this whole thing is based off of are still a huge hit among kids today and the cartoon was a beloved part of many people's childhood. It was painful to watch Michael Bay continue to take a dump on this whole thing while showing the middle finger to the fans who just wanted to see a faithful adaptation of the series they loved. The answer is yes. Travis Knight HAS come in and finally delivered us a Transformers movie we've all been waiting for.

The law of contrast for "Bumblebee" here is an interesting one. Had the previous five Transformers movies all been good movies that people enjoyed, I'm not so sure people would've take well to this "Bumblebee" prequel. It may have been seen as an unnecessary deviant that added nothing to the franchise and been deemed ultimately forgettable. But given that the five previous movies were mostly atrocious, it was such a breath of fresh air to be watching a Transformers movie that was actually enjoyable. The opening sequence of this movie takes place on Cybertron with the war breaking out (or perhaps continuing -- I'm not an expert on my Transformers lore) between the Decepticons and Autobots, the latter of which are seen as the rebellion force who needs to be exterminated. Watching this simple sequence take place was heaven. This is what SHOULD'VE happened from day one. But since Michael Bay just didn't care, it never did. Thus the idea of a proper Transformers setup became a mere dream in the hearts of fans that many thought would never take place. But Travis Knight made it happen. Thus sitting here watching it take place felt surreal. It's like I had entered into an alternate dimension where Transformers movies were actually good.

After this initial battle on Cyberton, Optimus Prime realizes that the Autobots aren't strong enough to overcome the Decepticons, so he sends Bumblebee off to Earth, a remote planet where Bumblebee can lay low and establish a base for the Autobots to eventually build up their forces until they are strong enough to win the war. Things don't go quite as smoothly as planned, but Bumblebee is eventually able to disguise himself as a yellow VW Beetle and disappear from all the commotion. Thankfully this is not a movie with Transformers testicles. It's not a movie with dogs humping each other or parents telling dirty jokes. It doesn't double as a Megan Fox photo shoot made for immature teenage boys who love watching her run in slow motion with revealing shots. We don't see Transformers peeing on people or legendary actors making a fool out of themselves as if they lost a bet and were forced to let Michael Bay push them around as he sees fit. We don't see endless amounts of fireworks-style explosions and other overly long action sequences that only please Michael Bay and no one else. We're not subjected to a three-hour movie with a paper thin plot full of uninteresting characters who serve no purpose and experience no character development. All of those Michael Bay-isms are completely removed and we are left with an actual movie that feels professionally done.

Yes, it's been pointed out about a thousand times that the plot of this movie very closely resembles "E.T." or any other movie about an alien who crash lands on Earth and befriends our main character. Because of that, that derivative plot did not bother me at all. I prepared myself to enjoy watching this relationship play out between Bumblebee and Hailee Steinfeld. And that's exactly what I did. Again, if this were a Michael Bay movie, Hailee would've been oversexualized with tons of skimpy outfits and unnecessary closeup shots. But that's NOT what happens. She's a normal teenage girl with an emotional backstory that immediately makes her worth caring. She's had a rough time trying to deal with the sudden death of her father and she hasn't come to terms with her mother's new boyfriend (or husband?) and thus has no one to turn to for emotional support. She's also an extremely handy girl who's great with cars, because working on cars is what her and her dad did. On her 18th birthday, she stumbles on a beat-up yellow beetle and convinces the owner of the junk yard to let her fix it up and bring it home for her birthday. And, well, you guessed it. Hailee becomes rather surprised when that yellow beetle turns out to be Bumblebee.

Watching the two of them grow together in this movie was touching. I didn't care of that storyline had been done a thousand. I love Hailee as an actress. And I have ever since she completely owned it as a boss 14-year-old girl in the 2010 "True Grit" remake. Her music career has gone in interesting places, but she's always given it her all when she's on screen in a movie and she yet again brings a lot of emotional gravitas to this film. In real life, she just barely turned 22, meaning she was 21 during the filming of this movie, which is certainly not too old to be playing an 18-year-old troubled teenager. I honestly felt bad for her character and I wanted to jump on screen and give her a friendly hug in order to help her feel better, especially since her family didn't seem to be doing anything to help her out. And that's why I was so glad to see her run into Bumblebee, who was also lost, alone and confused, having had his voice and memory get shot during his escape from the Decepticons. A lot of his scenes were also legitimately hilarious as he innocently tried to figure out how to adapt to this human world as if he were a simple pet. A giant, heavy, metal pet that could accidentally cause a lot of trouble as he fumbled around through the house or innocently sped away from the police.

Eventually you know you were going to get some action sequences in this movie and when they happen, there's actually some emotional weight to them. The Decepticons have tricked John Cena and his military forces into thinking Bumblebee is the enemy, which wasn't that hard to do since John Cena had a bad first encounter with Bumblebee anyways. Knowing that Bumblebee wasn't quite strong enough to take on everything by himself, I was genuinely worried and afraid. I cringed every time he got attacked and cheered every time he succeeded in a battle. I appreciated Hailee Steinfeld's in all of this. She wasn't just a useless human running around amidst the danger. She had a purpose in all of this and became a very strong female character as she battled to help Bumblebee. I also appreciated the specific action sequences. The Transformers actually transformed like the toys do. They aren't just robots that magically turned into cars and vice versa. When they go into robot form, you can see all of the individual car parts, like the headlights, the tires and whatnot. And the visual effects of the transformation were actually spectacular. Travis Knight, in his first experience in live action, proved that he knows how to properly construct an action sequence and it was beautiful.

At the beginning of this review, I referred to "Bumblebee" as a rebootquel. That's because I really have no idea if it is either a reboot or a prequel. It's set in the late 80's and properly leads into the main saga of films like a good prequel should. But at the same time, they also have the potential to simply wipe the slate clean with this movie and pretend that Michael Bay's movies never existed. Thus the movie would also perfectly act as a reboot. Quite frankly, I hope that the latter direction is where they go because this franchise has always had potential. There's many stories that can be told and a lot of fun to be had. They just need to make sure that from this point on, Michael Bay never steps back into that director's chair. Keep Travis Knight on board and let him steer this franchise. Or bring on other acclaimed directors who respect the source material and know how to properly construct an action movie. Whatever it is they decide to do, I hope they can learn from the success of this movie and build upon it. If so, I can be excited for this franchise moving forward as we usher in a new era of Transformers movies. I know this holiday season is primed to be a busy one, but I'd encourage you to make time for "Bumblebee" as I'm going to give it an 8/10.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Retro Review: Home Alone (1990)

The last couple of years I've had fun reviewing some older Halloween films in October in honor of the season. I've wanted to carry that over to the Christmas season, but just haven't. Last year I think I was just burned out after getting a bit carried away with my Halloween reviews. This year I was a bit hesitant because Blogger is having some issues with their view count, so I decided to wait it out and just do my normal theatrical reviews. However, I did want to do at least one review of a classic Christmas movie In choosing which one, I came up with the idea of letting all of my Facebook friends decide which movie I was going to review. There were a lot of great suggestions made that made me want to get to all of them, but the top two most popular choices were "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Home Alone." So I pitted those two against each other in a Facebook poll and watched as "Home Alone" won out, getting 58 percent of the votes. It was a fun poll to watch as "Home Alone" started with 80 to 90 percent of the vote, making me think it was going to be a landslide decision. However, "It's a Wonderful Life" made a valiant push at the end, but was just too far behind. So here we are. By popular demand, my Christmas present to my friends is a review of "Home Alone."

It is worth noting that me honoring a request to review a movie doesn't guarantee you that you'll get the review you were hoping for. Fans of "Hocus Pocus" found that out this Halloween as I am not a fan of that movie, so I gave it a good beating in my review, which was very therapeutic for me, but a bit upsetting for some. Luckily, though, fans of "Home Alone" can breath easily after I probably made you a bit tense following that statement. I am a fan of "Home Alone." I have a lot of positive nostalgia from watching many times growing up. However, there are some things to talk about as it's not all rainbows and butterflies for the entire 103 minutes. Watching the movie as a kid and analyzing it many years later as an adult do bring two very different movie-watching experiences. Yeah, sure, you might get mad at me for that and tell me to just shut up and enjoy a holiday film, but that's not how my brain works, especially considering how powerful holiday nostalgia can be. I get a bit weary with people sometimes claiming a holiday movie is a flawless masterpiece just because a character said "Merry Christmas" at some point in the movie, if you know what I mean. Yeah, it's nice to have some feel-food holiday themes, but I still like my holiday movies to be made well.

In regards to "Home Alone," if you don't want me to be a bit nit-picky with the movie, well I suppose you don't have to continue reading if you don't want to because that's what I'm going to do. There's some things in this movie that bother me and I want to point them out. I think this is very much a 90's film and as such, there are certain elements of the movie that don't hold up as well as you might remember. Some of these things I didn't care about when I was younger as I simply had a lot of fun watching some dumb robbers getting beat up by a little kid. It's slapstick humor at its finest and that's going to make every kid fall in love. But as an adult, I can totally understand why critics weren't necessarily on board with this movie. I don't want to say critics "hated" this movie, but it got mixed reaction. Even today it gets mixed reaction from critics. Its Rotten Tomatoes score stands at a 63 percent with 51 reviews counted and a lot of those are from more recently. And when I went to look at those reviews, many of the positive reviews aren't necessarily praising it either. There's a lot of average and barely positive reviews among that 63 percent score. And the average score of those 51 reviews (because Rotten Tomatoes DOES provide that stat) is a 5.5/10.

On the flip side of things, the audience reaction was a much different story. Despite whatever critics at the time thought of the movie, this had one of the most successful box office runs ever. It opened to $17 million, but remained No. 1 for 12 straight weeks before it eventually finished with $285 million at the domestic box office, making it the highest grossing film of 1990 and the third highest grossing film of all-time at that point, behind only "Star Wars" and "E.T." That $285 million is the equivalent of $619 million with 2018 ticket prices, a total that's about on par with "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," "Incredibles 2" and "The Avengers" if you need a modern comparison for context. Even when you look at the list of highest grossing movies adjusted for ticket price inflation, "Home Alone" still makes the top 50 of that list, currently coming in at No. 42. So yeah, this wasn't a situation like "A Christmas Story" or "Hocus Pocus" where the movie was an initial dud, but then became a cult classic later. This was an instant classic that people fell in love with right away and swarmed out to see in theaters. Even with that, though, audiences scores still aren't quite as high as you might think. It has a 79 percent on the audience section of Rotten Tomatoes and a 7.5 on IMDb. Decent scores for sure, but not universally praised scores.

The first thing that needs to be said in regards to my opinion of the movie itself is that, despite any flaws the movie has, the entire film is completely held together by the charming and wonderful performance of Macaulay Culkin as young 8-year-old Kevin McCallister. He gives what might be one of the most iconic performances ever from a child actor. And it's a performance that still holds up today. Watching the movie for the upteenth time earlier today, I was still enamored by his performance. When his family is being rude to him early in the movie, I felt for him. When he was having a blast all alone in his house, I was having a lot of fun just watching him have fun. When he was off at the grocery story having conversations with adults, he just oozed cool. He was having the time of his life and he did a great job. Even when everyone around him seemed to be phoning it in or being overly cheesy and comical with their performance, he was still giving it his all. His life and career following "Home Alone" is an interesting tale. For a while, he went the way of a lot of child actors and even disappeared for a while. But he's resurfaced again recently, joining Twitter for the first time and he's absolutely hilarious there, so go give him a follow if you don't already.

When it comes to my nitpicks of the movie, it's everything around Kevin that's the problem and I think it starts out at the very top with the writing and directing. For some reason, his whole family hates him. All of his siblings are saying awful, nasty things to him. Even his parents are jerks. There's a whole lot of ruckus going on around the house, yet Kevin is the only one that his parents get mad at. And they're rude to him. And the idea of them accidentally leaving him at home is not executed very well. I could argue that it's not realistic for them to accidentally forget him and not remember at all until they're on the airplane, but that's almost beside the point. The writing and directing just aren't on point. The movie was very heavily advertised as a John Hughes film because he was a huge deal at the time, but the actual director here is Chris Columbus. He had his big break as the screenwriter for "Gremlins" and "The Goonies," but this was his huge breakout role as a director and I honestly don't think he's that good of a director. He directed the first two Harry Potter films, which are weak in comparison to the others, in my opinion, and that's the best he's got. Nostalgia boosts a lot of his 90's work and his most recent two films, "Percy Jackson" and "Pixels" are pure trash.

John Hughes' screenplay maybe could've used a bit of work, but I think on paper this is mostly fine. An issue with the directing is what makes most sense to me when I take a look at Chris Columbus' filmography as a whole. I think a top-notch director, like a Steven Spielberg, would've taken John Hughes' screenplay and created a masterpiece of a film that would've smoothed out a bit of the rocky edges here. Even growing up, the movie as a whole is not what stuck out to me the most. I always enjoyed the slapstick humor with the robbers in the house. All of that I think is classic and is still fun to watch in 2018. I don't know, something about a kid setting a bunch of traps for adults is entertaining, especially when it's Kevin McCallister setting the traps. In regards to this, one of the reviews that caught my attention was the review of legendary critic Roger Ebert. He took issue with the elaborate scheme that Kevin sets up, calling it completely unrealistic for an 8-year-old. Maybe that's true. But I think this is a situation where you can turn off your brain and just enjoy. If we had to be completely realistic, this would be a kidnapping episode of "Criminal Minds," which wouldn't have quite the same effect. The absurdity of it all is a huge part of the fun.

The other thing that I was impressed with on a re-watch is that there is a strong bit of emotion here, most of which is buoyed by a side-arc that I had completely forgotten about. In the midst of all the drama with Kevin, his family, and the two robbers is a story arc involving Old Man Marley, Kevin's neighbor who is rumored to be this crazy maniac who Kevin starts fearing, especially after his family seemingly disappears. Turns out that he's not a maniac, but is a really nice old man. There's a point in the movie where Kevin goes to a church and is approached by this man, learning that everything he's heard about him is wrong. This conversation they have might be the best moment in the movie and is the exact thing that gives Kevin the motivation to go defend his home against these robbers that are coming, leading up to the iconic sequence that I've always remembered most. Along those lines, I also found it really interesting that it's not Kevin who stops the robbers. He sets up this elaborate scheme that fails because the robbers catch him. But right when they do, It's Old Man Marley who comes in and saves the day by knocking them over the head with his shovel, right before the police finally come over and the arrest the robbers. It's a great moment.

The final point of discussion with "Home Alone" that I want to bring up is the question of is this a Christmas movie? This question is most prevalent when it comes to the movie "Die Hard," which I argue is NOT a Christmas movie. I think there's a huge difference between a movie being set on or around Christmas and a movie being about Christmas. My definition of a Christmas movie is the latter. It has to be about Christmas, not just set around Christmas. "Die Hard" is an action movie that happens to take place around Christmas. It's not about Christmas. In fact, if "Die Hard" is a Christmas movie, than so is "Iron Man 3." When I think Christmas movie, I think "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," "The Santa Claus," "Elf" or "A Christmas Carol." Those movies are specifically about Christmas. "Home Alone" rides the line a bit, but I think I would put it just over the edge because there are strong themes of wanting to be with your family on Christmas. Kevin is initially excited to be all alone, but then misses his family. Christmas music is playing throughout and we have a great Christmas finale. But it's not Christmas through and through, if that makes sense. It's more of a slapstick family comedy with a touch of Christmas sprinkled in occasionally.

Does that effect the overall quality of the movie? Absolutely not. Christmas or not, it's still a fun movie to watch and if you want to put it on during this Christmas season, then be my guest. If you're a longtime fan of "Home Alone," I hope you didn't find this review too harsh. Because I do have overall positive feelings towards this movie. I just enjoyed the opportunity to explore this movie in more depth with more of a critical eye. Nostalgia is a powerful thing that often clouds our judgment when it comes to being critical of something, so I enjoy the task of taking a nostalgic movie and determining if nostalgia is the only thing holding it up or if there's some actual substance there and "Home Alone" is a bit of both. Macaulay Culkin is an absolute gem that holds the movie together, giving an iconic performance when it comes to child acting. There is a good amount of emotion regarding him ultimately missing his family despite all the trouble they give him. And of course the classic sequences of him beating up on the dumb robbers are a whole lot of fun. It's just that it's a bit rough around the edges and it maybe could've been smoothed out a bit with some better writing and directing. I still have fond memories of the movie, though, thus I think it's fair to give "Home Alone" an 8/10.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Mule Review

Clint Eastwood is back in town with his second directorial feature of the year. His first movie of the year was "The 15:17 to Paris," the movie about the two Americans who stopped a terrorist attack on a Paris-bound train. While that movie looked really interesting and the story it's based on is truly inspiring, I actually never saw it because the reviews were pretty sour. It earned a 24 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, with the user score not being a whole lot better at 39 percent. This overall distaste led to a very mediocre box office run, earning just $36.3 million domestically after a $12.6 million start. That was Eastwood's weakest outing since 2010 when "Hereafter" made just $32.7 million. It even made less than "J. Edgar" ($37.3 million) and "Jersey Boys" ($47.0 million), which have become two forgotten about Clint Eastwood movies. And of course it made a whole heck of a lot less than "Sully" ($125.1 million) and "American Sniper" ($350.1 million). So after a disappointing outing, Eastwood is looking to get on his feet again with "The Mule," which is already off to a good start, having opened in second place this past weekend with $17.5 million and is set to play well over the holidays as it provides some counter-programming to our bigger blockbusters this month.

Similar to pretty much all of his recent movies he's directed, "The Mule" is also based on a true story and it's a rather fascinating one at that. Sure, the general concept is not that unique as it's yet another drug trafficking sort of movie that we've seen a lot of recently, with "American Made" and "White Boy Rick" being two examples. And yeah, all of these movies have pretty much the same structure. A person without a ton of money gets caught up in the wrong crowd and gets greedy as they see how much money they can in the drug business. And of course they learn the hard way that this is the wrong business to get involved in, which usually ends up with them getting arrested or killed. These never have a happy ending. However, what makes "The Mule" a bit unique is that it involves a 90-year-old man named Leo Sharp, who had no prior criminal record. He was married with children and grandchildren, he was a war veteran, and he had a fairly successful day-lily business that he had spent most of his life working on. So how does a normal, successful family man like this randomly get involved in the drug business as a drug mule? I mean, can you imagine waking up one day to learn that your grandpa has been driving as a drug mule for over a decade? That would be crazy!

The semi-unfortunate thing for me is that my curiosity as to exactly why Leo Sharp got into this will never fully be satisfied. That's because he never really revealed much about why he did what he did or even exactly how he got started, which makes adapting his story into a movie a bit of a tricky prospect. The movie is based on a New York Times article that I have linked right there and Sam Dolnick, the journalist who wrote the article, describes in a separate article that despite his best efforts of trying to get all the details hammered out, he couldn't quite crack it. He mentioned that he had his theories, but as a journalist he could only write the facts as opposed to reporting on theories. Now the article itself was written in 2014 and immediately got national attention due to how crazy of a story it was. The rights to the article were immediately sold in 2014, but it wasn't until January of this year when Clint Eastwood was officially brought on as the director. Now I don't know if it was Clint Eastwood or screenwriter Nick Schenk who made the final decisions on how exactly to go about this. But regardless of that, the final decision was to not tell Leo Sharp's story directly, but to create a fictional movie that was based on his story.

I'm not exactly sure how I feel about this, but I suppose I understand the reasoning here. If Leo Sharp wasn't willing to reveal how or why he got into this, then there had to be a lot of fiction that filled in the gaps. And if that was the case, then why not make the whole thing fiction? So this ends up not being the story of Leo Sharp directly, but rather the story of Earl Stone, a fictional old man played by Clint Eastwood, who is loosely based on Leo Sharp. I didn't realize this was the case at first. But I was highly suspicious that something was going on since the movie opens in 2005, then rather quickly jumps forward 12 years to 2017. From then on, a timeline of events is not discussed at all. While I didn't read the article before watching the movie, I knew that the article was published in 2014 and I was pretty sure I remembered beforehand that Leo Sharp had been a drug mule for at least a decade. So if Clint Eastwood's character of Earl Stone started driving in 2017, how does this all fit into the timeline? I decided to watch and enjoy, but I was definitely curious to figure out the actual facts. Discovering that Clint Eastwood took a fictional approach made everything make sense, even though it was still a bit confusing as the movie advertises this as a true story.

But OK. Accepting this fact means that we have to take a "Breaking Bad" or "Ozark" approach to this, two fictional TV shows revolving around family men that get involved in the drug business. And I can get on board with that, so long as the movie itself is intriguing. And it's decent enough. Not only is Clint Eastwood directing this movie, but he also decided to step into the lead role, making it the first acting job that he's done since 2012's "Trouble with the Curve," not counting his brief cameo in "American Sniper." It's also the first time he's starred in a movie that he's also directed since "Gran Torino" in 2008. Clint Eastwood definitely turns this character into his own. I don't think he even ever attempted to become Leo Sharp. Rather his fictional character of Earl Stone feels very much like a Clint Eastwood role as he seems to have a whole lot of fun acting as a gruff, grumpy old man, taking every shot he can at the internet and other modern technologies. How Earl Stone actually gets into this business feels a bit rushed, but once he's in there, Eastwood also has a lot of fun acting as this carefree old man who isn't at all afraid of any of these young drug cartel people, making for a lot of genuinely humorous moments as the cartel people tried to get serious with him.

What I do like about this movie is that, even though it isn't the actual story of Leo Sharp, the story that Clint Eastwood does tell is a surprisingly emotional one. One thing that the article doesn't touch on much at all is Leo Sharp's family. Sam Dolnick mentioned in his article that he put a lot of effort into learning all he can about Leo Sharp, but I didn't see much attempt of contacting his family. I don't know if that was an option, but it seems to be an angle that the article ignores. I also don't think that Eastwood put much effort into learning about his family because he had other ideas for the family of Earl Stone. He made him a man who focused way too much on his work as a day-lily enthusiast who didn't spend enough time taking care of his family. He ends up divorced and completely estranged from his daughter, who is played by Clint Eastwood's actual daughter Alison Eastwood. Father and daughter both do a great job of giving us a fascinating family dynamic in the movie while Dianne West also adds a lot as Earl's ex-wife, as does Taissa Farmiga as the granddaughter. I found myself really caring about this broken family and I think there were some excellent character arcs with all four of them that made this a solid, touching movie.

The other angle that I liked was the angle of the D.E.A. agents trying to hunt this guy down. In real life I believe they were clued in beforehand that the guy they were searching for was an older man, but in this movie that fact was a complete mystery. Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena play the two agents on the case, with Laurence Fishburne as their boss, and the three of them make for a good trio of agents on the case. I enjoyed watching them try to solve this mystery as they initially search for your more traditional drug mule, not knowing that their real target is someone who they are not expecting at all, making it really easy for Clint Eastwood to casually walk by them and other officers or even have a conversation. I will say that after reading up on the story afterwards, how this all turned out is some really fascinating drama that could've made for an intense movie, but all of that was cut out as Eastwood chose to focus more on the story of this man and his family dynamics rather than telling the story of the drug cartel itself. I suppose I can understand and appreciate that, but it still doesn't change the fact that I was a little baffled when I learned that there was a whole lot more story to this story that wasn't told. It could've made the movie even better.

In summing this whole thing up, it's interesting to note that this movie had a really quick turnaround from when Eastwood was brought on to when the movie was filmed and finished. As I said, it was January of this year that Eastwood was announced as director. The movie started filming in June. Now it's December and the whole thing is done and in theaters. This makes me believe that there wasn't a whole lot of time and effort put into this movie on Eastwood's part. It's as if this was more of a side project for him to keep him busy until he finds something more interesting to devote more time to. Suddenly when you think about it from those terms, this whole thing makes sense. This movie could have been big. It could've been super intense and super gritty, given the subject matter. It could've been the type of movie that sticks with you long after leave the theater. But it's not really any of those. It's just kind of a movie that exists. That said, as a small Clint Eastwood side project, the movie is certainly not bad at all. If you're not interested in the likes of "Aquaman," "Bumblebee" or "Mary Poppins Returns" this holiday season, this is a decent movie to hold you over until some of the bigger adult-targeted Oscar contenders come your way. I'll give "The Mule" a 7/10.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse Review

From the studio that brought us "The Emoji Movie" comes Sony's desperate back-up plan to keep the rights to Spider-Man in case the third reboot of the live-action character via "Spider-Man: Homecoming" somehow failed? Or at least that's what I thought this was when it was first announced. Because, yeah, Sony still owns the rights to Spider-Man. They just made a deal with Marvel to let Marvel use the character in the MCU as long as Marvel helped Sony make a good movie that everyone would enjoy. Despite my personal opinions, the two Amazing Spider-Man movies failed both financially and with audiences, leaving Sony in a state of panic because they need to make a new Spider-Man movie on a consistent basis in order to keep the rights. "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" came out in in May 2014 and word of this animated Spider-Man started coming out in late 2014, officially being announced early in 2015, which was around the same time that Sony struck up the previously mentioned deal with Marvel before Tom Holland's Spider-Man officially showed up in "Captain America: Civil War" in May 2016. So yeah, can you blame me for thinking this was just a desperate back-up plan? And now that "Spider-Man: Homecoming" succeeded, what's the point of this one?

Little did I know that Sony had something miraculous up their sleeve. In fact, I'm partially convinced that Sony had no idea that they had something miraculous up their sleeve, either. It's not like they're the most trustworthy studio out there. Sony Pictures Animation is certainly no Pixar or Disney. Although in their defense, not every one of their movies is as bad as "The Emoji Movie." Most people like the "Hotel Transylvania" trilogy, even though I personally think those movies are a bit juvenile. I also rather enjoy both "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" movies as well as some of their lesser known gems like "Arthur Christmas" and "Pirates! Band of Misfits." But then they also have those Smurfs movies, that garbage Christmas movie "The Star," and this year's "Peter Rabbit," which I've been extremely hesitant to give a chance to. That's not a good resume of movies to get me excited about an animated Spider-Man. Yet the teaser trailer that debuted last year had me curious. People who went to Comic-Con this year claimed that footage that they saw was very encouraging. The full-length trailers released shortly after looked spectacular. Then we had "Venom" show a sneak peak of the movie, which had me excited. So it was quite the journey for me, but I eventually jumped on board.

I'm certainly glad I did because this is one heck of a crazy journey that left me absolutely blown away. Despite everything I described in the previous paragraph, I did come to the movie with a bit of hesitation due to the reviews, which were through the roof. That seems like a silly reaction to reviews, but it was initially at 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes (it's now down to 97 percent) and everyone I heard was calling this one of the best Spider-Man movies ever made, the best animated movie of the year, and one of the best superhero movies of the year, challenging "Infinity War" for that honor. I didn't buy it. I believed that the movie was going to be good, but no way it was going to be THAT good. Right? In the back of my head, I speculated that maybe people were overreacting because of the fact that this is the first on-screen appearance of Miles Morales as Spider-Man, making this another culturally significant film. I mean, I feel many people did that to "Black Panther" earlier this year. A decent movie that is elevated above what it deserves due to its cultural significance. Maybe "Into the Spider-Verse" is getting the same treatment? But no, I don't think that is the case. This movie is genuinely fantastic. I was shocked and amazed at what I saw. The hype is real.

Before I jump into the plot of the film, the first thing I want to talk about is the animation because this is one of the most cleverly animated films that I've ever seen. It is a bit jarring at first because the animators force you to look at a specific spot on the screen. There will be certain characters or focal points of the frame that will be in focus and if you try to look at the other parts of the movie, it feels like that sensation of taking off your 3D glasses and looking at the screen during a 3D movie. So that took a bit of getting used to. But once I was adjusted, I was just amazed at everything they did with the animation. First off, this is 2D animation. If you're one of those people that is frustrated that every major studio, Disney included, has followed Pixar with 3D animation, leaving 2D animation completely in the dust, you'll be happy just with the idea of this movie because it shows that 2D animation can be successful. Also, if you're a comic book fan, as in fans of reading comic books, you'll also be super happy because this movie looks like it came straight from the pages of a comic book. There are a lot of comic book tropes that this movie uses throughout. Plus, all the characters are animated exactly like they are drawn in the comics.

But there's more, in addition to this movie's animation certainly pleasing fans of 2D animation as well as comic book readers, the most impressive thing to me personally is that this is a blend of several different animation styles. This specifically comes into play with several of our side characters, namely Spider-Man Noir, Spider-Ham and Peni Parker. We'll get to their actual characters in a bit, but when Spider-Man Noir was on the screen, we had that old-fashioned black and white, detective style of animation on the screen, because that's what his character is. Laugh at the fact that they brought on Spider Ham, but his style of animation is the Loony Toons style of cartoon animation, which they implemented into this movie when he was featured on the screen. And finally, Peni Parker is a Japanese anime version of the American Spider-Man story, with a young girl in the lead role instead of a young boy. Whenever she was on the screen, the movie was an anime. Even when all of them were on the screen together, along with Miles Morales, Peter Parker and Spider-Gwen, their individual characters were still animated in their individual style, giving us a brilliant and unique mashup of comic book animation, cartoon animation, neo-noir animation and anime.

So yeah, I spent the whole movie being blown away by the animation of this movie. At the exact same time, I was also blown away by the movie itself. We've done the Spider-Man origin story so many times that you would think that we'd all be sick of it by now, but yet "Into the Spider-Verse" somehow manages to do a full-out Spider-Man origin story while still making me glued to the screen the whole time. The biggest difference here is that this is not a Peter Parker origin story, but a Miles Morales origin story. Now I know that there are some people who are so emotionally invested in Miles Morales that having him on screen in and of itself is enough for them to call this a great movie, much like going to Wakanda was enough for people to love "Black Panther." If you are one of those people who love Miles Morales, then you will absolutely be madly in love with what the do with him because they do his character justice. That said, I have no prior emotional investment in Miles Morales, so I was going in with a blank slate. But what they did with this kid's story was so inspiring and so uplifting that I don't think you need to know anything about him going in to completely fall in love with him. After watching this movie, I'm totally on the Miles Morales bandwagon.

If you don't know the specifics of the Miles Morales origin story, I'm not going to tell it to you because I didn't know everything about it going in and thus there were a few surprises in the first part of the movie that I didn't see coming. Yeah, he gets bit by a radioactive spider and becomes Spider-Man. We all know that. But there are a few specifics that are different than the Peter Parker origin story that make this a bit fresh. I will say in a more general sense that this involves Miles' relationship with his dad, his Uncle Aaron and with Peter Parker. His dad is an officer who doesn't like Spider-Man and Miles doesn't have the best relationship with him. His dad tries his hardest to connect with his son, but Miles is just going through a lot of things that your typical teenage kid is going through. Miles does have a great relationship with his Uncle Aaron, who is more of the cool uncle. But his dad and Uncle Aaron, who are brothers, haven't actually talked to each other much, so there's a lot of inner family drama that the movie makes you emotionally invested in. The writing is spot on and the voice acting is also spot on, making this a beautiful story. Once Miles gets his Spider-Man abilities, his connection with Peter Parker is also an interesting one, but I won't say a whole lot about that.

Where I'm guessing this movie veers from your typical Miles Morales origin story is this idea of the multiverse being introduced. This was also something I was fascinated to see on screen because the Arrowverse on the CW uses the multiverse a lot and it's a genius idea in the comic book realm. By Arrowverse, I mean specifically that "The Flash" uses the multiverse a lot, but being that "Arrow" and "Supergirl" are also in the same universe together, they play around with the multiverse a bit in their shows, too. If you are lost as to what the multiverse is, the idea is that there are a lot of parallel universes, with each universe haven't different versions of everyone. So each different version of Earth has a different version of Spider-Man on that Earth and this movie brings together six different versions of them onto Miles's Earth, which I'm guessing is most likely Earth One. This happens because Kingpin and his croonies have a master plan that involves Kingpin getting a different version of his family back to him. But it all kinda blows up due to certain circumstances, causing all of our Spider-People to be together, but they need to get back to their own Earths or else they're not going to last very long due to some sort of glitch. So the main plot of the movie is helping them get back.

Despite all of this multiverse stuff, I do want to stress that this is not like a Spider-People Avengers movie. This is still a Miles Morales origin story, which is something that I was very impressed with. The movie was able to maintain its focus on Miles Morales and his journey of becoming Spider-Man while also introducing a whole slew of fun characters that I want to see more of. Our main trio is Miles Morales, Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy, but we start out with just Miles Morales and Peter Parker as they try to come up with a plan to infiltrate Kingpin's lair despite Miles having no idea what he's doing and Peter not having the best knowledge of how exactly to help him. Gwen comes in a bit later and when she did, I immediately fell in love with her. I think Emma Stone's portrayal of the character in the Amazing Spider-Man movies was sheer genius, making me fall in love with both Emma Stone and Gwen Stacey, so to see her here as an alternate version of Spider-Man, or Spider-Woman as she calls herself, from a different Earth, was pure gold. I now want a full-on Spider-Gwen movie. Impressively, though, she doesn't steal the movie, but rather makes Miles' story even better.

Then we have our three side characters that show up even later than Miles, Peter and Gwen. Those are the three that I talked about above, Spider-Man Noir, Spider-Ham and Peni Parker. Their roles are fairly minor, but they add a lot of great humor. Nicolas Cage plays Spider-Man Noir and he absolutely relishes in this role. In fact, Nicolas Cage does great with animation as I also loved him in "The Croods" and now he has two pretty solid roles in 2018 as Superman in "Teen Titans Go! To the Movies" and as Spider-Man Noir in "Into the Spider-Verse." Spider-Ham is the weirdest of the bunch, but it's a crazy weird that I really love. He's not a pig that got bit by a radioactive spider like you might think. He's a spider that got bit by a radioactive pig. And that's about all you need to know. He's crazy and loony and I absolutely loved it. And then we have Peni Parker. This is were fans of anime are going to go crazy because her character humorously implements just about every anime trope. Again, all three of these characters, in addition to Peter and Gwen, don't step on Miles Morales' origin story at all. They aren't distractions. Rather they are there as a support to Miles. But I'm not going to lie, I would love to see individual movies of all of them, which is how you properly set up a shared universe.

I think the only negative thing I came up with for this movie, outside the animation being a bit jarring at first, was that this was the second best Kingpin that we've seen this year. Kingpin, aka Wilson Fisk, in the now cancelled "Daredevil" show from Netflix is one of the most brilliantly written and portrayed comic book villains ever in my opinion. Thus this version of Kingpin had huge shoes to fill and even though he's not awful by any means, he was probably the most forgettable element of the movie. In fact, the movie has a lot of villains thrown in there and the best thing I can say about them is their animation style comes straight from the comic books, making them a lot of fun. But that's more of a nitpick than anything. It didn't take anything away from my experience as a whole. The movie is a ton of fun. It had a lot of moments that had be busting up laughing. It's extremely emotional and powerful. All the characters are brilliantly written with great voice acting. It's honestly one of the best Spider-Man movies I've seen, behind only "Spider-Man 2." It's not too far behind "Infinity War" for best superhero movie of the year and challenges "Isle of Dogs" for best animated movie of the year. As such, I'm going to award "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" a strong 9/10.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle Review

It's not often that I review Netflix original films on this blog. Most of the time when I check them out, I'll either post something quick on Facebook or simply leave it to my own personal enjoyment. However, occasionally an exception comes around and that's most definitely the case here with Andy Serkis' "Mowgli," partially due to the fact that I've put so much personal investment into following this film for several years now and partially due to the fact that it wasn't initially supposed to be a Netflix original film. I'll get to all of that history in this review because I think the story behind the making of this film and its journey to arriving directly to all your devices is a rather fascinating one. In fact, I would say at least having a basic knowledge of all of that is going to help your viewing experience. One might think that this is a movie that was quickly thrown together to cash in on the success of Disney's own live action remake of "The Jungle Book" back in 2016, yet dumped onto Netflix once Warner Bros. realized that they weren't going to make much of a profit on it. If anyone thinks that, I don't blame them at all for coming to those conclusions. In fact, I expected that sort of reaction. However, that couldn't be further from the truth, which is why I'm here to explain.

This is a movie that has gone through several different title changes, but I liked the fact that they settled on "Mowgli" because that seems like a very fitting title for what this movie is trying to accomplish. Yes, in every iteration of "The Jungle Book," which initially began in 1894 as a collection of stories by author Rudyard Kipling, Mowgli is the central character. But in most of these versions the focus seems to be more on all of Mowgli's adventures in the jungle, which is especially the case with Disney's 1967 animated movie. While that movie is adorable, charming and super infectious with all of its music, it barely has much of a story to it. It's more of a collection of fun sequences loosely threaded together with a basic storyline, which was a common narrative structure for early Disney. Meanwhile, Andy Serkis' "Mowgli" has less of a jungle focus to it as it's more of a coming of age story for Mowgli himself, with everything in the jungle being there to support his journey in figuring out who he is. Because, yeah, he's a human who grew up with animals, so he naturally doesn't fit in with the animals super well, but when he goes back to the village, he's not cultured enough to figure out how to properly interact with the humans because he's had zero experience in that area.

Surprisingly I found myself quite invested in this story and it has enough unique twists to it that I genuinely didn't know what direction the movie was going. We start out with Mowgli with the pack of wolves, like in every other Jungle Book movie, but this iteration of the story takes a more grounded, realistic approach. The older Mowgli gets, the more he realizes that he's not a wolf. There comes a point in the pack where all the cubs need to pass a certain test in order to be able to be able to hunt with the pack and Mowgli sure as heck ain't gonna pass this test. Why? Because he's a human. He wasn't built like a wolf. He can't run as fast as the wolves, nor does he have the skills to be evasive enough to make up for it. He's not a wolf and nothing he can do can change that. Baloo does his best to try to train him to use his other skills so that he can pass the test, but it's a huge uphill battle. This leads to Bagheera playing the voice of reason, demanding that he needs to go to the man village because that's where he belongs, especially because Shere Khan is out there in the jungle with a vendetta against Mowgli. The longer Mowgli stays in the jungle, the higher the probability that Shere Khan, or one of the other dangerous animals in the jungle, catches him.

This is where the story veers a bit from your typical Jungle Book movie because it's usually towards the end of the movie where they get to the man village and you usually don't see a lot of the other humans in the story. But Mowgli ends up back in the man village probably towards the middle of the film. And initially things seem to be going fine and peachy as there's several adults that take him under their wing, but then there's the idea here that the humans don't have very much respect towards animals and that doesn't sit well with Mowgli. I'll leave it off right there because I don't want to spoil what happens in the film, but these were some interesting arcs that I found myself attached to while watching the movie. In terms of that, I enjoyed the fact that I was watching a remake of a movie we've all seen done a thousand times before, yet I had no idea what direction they were going. If we're going to do all of these remakes, that's a direction that's more intriguing to me. And this is a conversation that's going to come up a lot in this next year with Disney having "Dumbo," "Aladdin" and "The Lion King" all on the docket in 2019. What are they going to do to separate these new versions from the old classics that we all know and love?

I wish Disney would take some notes from these other versions of these movies, but they're most certainly not going to because Disney is making a ton of money by creating carbon copies of their popular classics, with "Beauty and the Beast" being a prime example of that. Now I actually enjoyed that live action "Beauty and the Beast," but my biggest complaint then, that certainly is the case now, is that if I'm going to revisit "Beauty and the Beast" in the future, which version am I going to gravitate to? The answer there is the animated version. That's why I really appreciated the story of "Mowgli" because it does something different. This is a darker, grittier, more grounded version of the story that doubles as the evil step-brother of Disney's own live action remake from a couple years back, which is why I think both can live in harmony with each other. Now if we hone in specifically on Disney's remake of "The Jungle Book," that's a scenario where Disney took their previous material and crafted it into a better film, which is why it's their best live-action remake yet. But it's still a Jungle Book film that you know what's going to happen. "Mowgli" uses the Jungle Book lore as a backdrop to tell its own story, which is why I really appreciated it as a remake.

On that note with the Disney remake, that segways perfectly into the history of this film. Is this a scenario where Andy Serkis looked at the success of Disney's film, which nearly made $1 billion worldwide, and decided to use that as a motivation to make his own Jungle Book film? No. Absolutely not. In fact, production for this film started back in 2012 with Warner Bros. deciding that they wanted to do this film, with Steve Kloves, Alejandro Inarritu and Ron Howard as early directors attached to the project before Andy Serkis was officially brought on in 2014. Disney didn't start production of their movie until 2013, so the real story is that there was a race to see which studio would get their film out first. A race that Disney would go onto win because their production went a bit smoother. Andy Serkis spent a long time crafting this film because he wanted to make sure all of the visual effects were right. Instead of doing the whole thing on a computer, which is what Disney did with their version, Serkis was more focused on doing this one via performance capture. Given that he is the king of performance capture with the likes of Gollum and Caesar, it seemed right to make sure he got everything correct rather than rushing things for the sake of money.

There's a bit of a double-edged sword with that, though. Personally I had been following this race since it began. Knowing Andy Serkis, I was willing to be patient with him and accept both versions of the film. But I knew that this was going to kill the movie's popularity. With Andy Serkis being so late in getting his film finished, I knew everyone else was going to be confused as to why we were getting another Jungle Book movie. And my fears were realized once they finally started advertising this film. No one seemed interested. And I was sad. That's also part of the reason why this ended up on Netflix instead of getting a theatrical release because Warner Bros. knew that this was going to be a disaster at the box office, so they sold the rights to Netflix for distribution. Again, people are going to look at this negatively because "Netflix original" seems to be the new "straight to DVD" in people's minds. And while there's basis to that thought with a lot of bad Netflix films out there, I don't think it's completely fair because Netflix and Amazon are working on changing the game when it comes to streaming as both platforms have been scowering the indie market, searching for films that deserve an audience, yet probably wouldn't get one with a traditional theatrical release.

That's the sad state of society right now. You see a lot of people demanding for their to be more original films, but when said original films get released, no one gives them the time of day. Believe it or not, there's actually a lot of original films out there. If you don't believe me, then go look at the list of films that debuted at film festivals such as Sundance, Cannes, TIFF, New York and many others. They're out there. It's just that many of them don't get picked up by studios and go unwatched. Others that do get picked up fail when they get put in theaters. If more people would decide to go watch these films, Hollywood would pay attention and more of them would get a bigger push. But given that the film industry is a business, studios have to put out what audiences will pay for and right now it's all of the sequels, remakes and franchise films that are what audiences are willing to pay for. This upcoming weekend, everyone is going to be seeing "Aquaman," "Mary Poppins Returns" and "Bumblebee," but how many people comparatively are searching for "The Favourite," "If Beale Street Could Talk" or "Green Book" to see over the holidays? Yes, I'm excited for those blockbuster films, too. But I wish more people would give a chance to the smaller films.

That's why I'm glad at the work that Netflix and Amazon are doing, or at least trying to do. That's why I don't see "Mowgli" as a Netflix dump. In fact, I see it as a situation where Netflix knew that it was going to be a failure in theaters since audiences just weren't reacting to the marketing and collectively Netflix, Warner Bros., Serkis, and co. decided that a Netflix release would be the best platform to actually give this movie an audience. Has it worked? Well, I don't know. Netflix doesn't exactly release their viewing numbers, so I can't just look up the stats like I do for weekend box office totals. I just know that this movie was going to be a flop in theaters, so I hope that it's getting good viewing numbers on Netflix. Netflix wants more big-budget films like this on their platform and I hope that this can be a stepping stone for that because it's hard for every movie to do well at the box office because there's only so many theaters around to show all the films. Yet there's unlimited space on streaming services so more movies can co-exist on Netflix as compared to the theaters. Now I do wish I could've seen this movie on the big screen because I feel it was made for that. But that just wasn't destined to happen due to everything that I've stated in this review.

My final word on this movie is that I hope you give it a shot. If you already have a Netflix account, you can close this review and go watch it right now without spending any extra money than you otherwise would've. Just your normal monthly Netflix fee. If you don't have Netflix, then I'm sure you can find someone that does if you want to watch this movie because it's worth it. Yes it's true, I have more emotional investment in this film than your average person because of how closely I've been following this. If I take a step back, I have to admit that Andy Serkis is not as experienced at writing and directing a film as he is with his performance capture. So the movie is a bit rough around the edges in terms of some of the writing and directing. Disney had a smoother film with their 2016 movie that ultimately makes it better. But Andy Serkis' performance capture work is rather fascinating and I liked how we had real sets instead of the movie being a glorified animated film. Does it always work? Well, I don't know. Some of it seemed a bit rough and unfinished, but I don't know if that was the movie itself or the picture quality on my tablet. As a whole, though, I still think this is a solid effort that I enjoyed watching, so I'm going to give "Mowgli" an 8/10.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Green Book Review

On November 27, the National Board of Review named "Green Book" as their best film of 2018. A few hours later, I went and saw the movie. This was purely coincidental as I was already planning on seeing the movie that day before I heard that announcement. This was the week after Thanksgiving and I had already seen "Ralph Breaks the Internet" and "Creed II," so it was time to go see the other movie that I was wanting to see that opened (or expanded, rather) that week. The National Board of Review is one of the first major precursors for the Oscars, so it was the first look into what movies are going to get some attention come time for the Oscar nominations in late January. Following the announcement from the National Board of Review, AFI also listed "Green Book" as one of their top 10 best films of 2018. The Golden Globes then gave it five nominations, including best picture, best actor for Viggo Mortensen and best supporting actor for Mahershala Ali. Just recently, the SAGs also gave nods to Mortensen and Ali. So yeah, this movie is becoming quite the big deal this awards season and is certain to pick up a whole slew of Oscar nominations in January. Why it took me over two weeks to write my review is an excellent question, but here we are, so let's talk.

If you're not as crazy about the Oscars as I am and you're wondering what in the heck this "Green Book" movie is, well let me explain. This is a movie that is directed by Peter Farrelly, one half of the Farrelly brothers duo who directed "Dumb and Dumber," "There's Something About Mary," "Me, Myself & Irene," "Shallow Hal" and several other similar wacky comedies. But no, "Green Book" is absolutely not that style of comedy. In fact, it couldn't be any different from pretty much everything Peter Farrelly has done in the past, which is impressive in and of itself. Yeah, sure, it has comedy in it, but it is first and foremost a drama that tells the true story of an unlikely friendship between Dr. Don Shirley, a black classical pianist in the 1960's, and Tony Lip, a through and through New Yorker who has spent most of his time working as a bouncer in various clubs. They meet because Tony's job is done for a few months while the club remodels, so he needs a new job. Eventually he gets referred to Dr. Shirley, who is looking for a driver for his upcoming tour. It takes a bit of convincing, but Tony eventually accepts the job, with permission from his wife, which puts him on the road with Dr. Shirley for several weeks. Thus the movie becomes a road trip movie with these two characters.

Now I will stress again that this is not a comedy. Dr. Shirley and Tony aren't cracking jokes the whole time or pulling of gags like Harry and Lloyd in "Dumb and Dumber." But there is a lot of comedy in the movie that's more or less natural comedy given that these two characters are completely opposite of each other. Dr. Shirley is very elegant and proper. He also feels a bit compulsive as everything has to be done perfectly. Tony is the exact opposite. He feels very much like a redneck living in New York in that he is super chill and relaxed. He's also a bit disorganized and scattered, but he does a dang good job at what he does. When they get to a certain location and the people setting up for the concert don't have the right piano that Dr. Shirley wants, he's not afraid to confront them and force them into getting things right. But the humor comes in with the personality clash between these two. Watching them naturally interact with each other is hilarious because of how different they are and both Mortensen and Ali do a great job of staying in character and sticking to their guns. It's two genuinely fantastic performances as the two of them completely disappear into their characters, making you fully believe that its Dr. Shirley and Tony rather than Mahershala and Viggo.

But no, this is not your normal every day road trip on a concert tour. This is a white guy and a black guy travelling together through the South, because that's the region that Dr. Shirley insists on doing his tour. And remember, the time period here is the 1960's. So yeah, with that in mind, you know exactly what type of movie this going to be. And for better or for worse, the movie delivers on that. In terms of the "for worse" part of that, there's a term called "Oscar bait" that oftentimes comes with a negative connotation. The movie does a great job of specifically pandering to the awards season crowd, taking the list of things needed to be included in order to be considered for awards and shamelessly checking off every single box. The movie knows what it needs to do to be culturally relevant in 2018 and it makes sure to do just that. I imagine some might get bothered by this, viewing the movie that as one made to bait the Academy rather than being made to tell a good story worth telling. But I wasn't one of said people bothered by it. I think the big reason that I wasn't was because I was so attached to these two characters. I had a feeling I knew what was coming for them, but the idea still made me nervous and I spent the whole movie cheering for them to make it out of it.

Because, yeah, racism is the big theme here. Dr. Shirley is certainly no stranger when it comes to racism in the 60's, but he also doesn't fit into your typical black person mold from the time period. He personally doesn't feel like he quite fits in with his people, which provides a significant portion of drama for the film. He's not trying to fit in. He's trying to be himself and hopefully do his best to change people's hearts. But that obviously doesn't go quite as planned, especially when they get into the deep South. One of the things that is interesting about their experiences in the film is that Dr. Shirley is going around to people who are openly welcoming him in to perform for them. White people who are mostly super rich. They are inviting him to perform so that they don't look racist, but of course it's all superficial because they don't let him eat in their restaurants, they don't let him use their restrooms and they usually only give him a small closet to get prepared in. So deep down they are super racist, but are using him to put on a mask to make themselves seem good. This is all heartbreaking and tragic, especially when we see Dr. Shirley accept this without any fight or argument. As an audience member, you want to see something done about all of this.

The other person that wants to see something done is Tony. He starts to realize exactly what is going on and he doesn't want to tolerate it, but Dr. Shirley is fairly insistent on not using violence or anger towards these people, even though you can feel him hurting with the way he's being treated. I don't want to dive too deeply into how everything's resolved, but there's some really beautiful character arcs between both Dr. Shirley and Tony. They start off as such opposite characters whose personalities clash very hard. And while those moments create a lot of humor, it also sparks the intense drama that forces both of these characters to learn and to grow from each other and from their experiences on this concert tour. While the sequences involving racism are heartbreaking, especially seeing racism portrayed as people superficially trying to make themselves look good and sound good while deep down they are really awful -- something that perhaps is more accurate than seeing people be bluntly racist, the way this story moves and converges brings a lot of happiness. It teaches that people can learn to grow and live together, regardless of their background. But not just that, it shows that people with vastly different backgrounds can grow to become best friends.

I left "Green Book" feeling so uplifted. It brings all of the warm, fuzzy feel-goods to you in all the right ways. It was a movie about racism that reminded me of something like "Remember the Titans," which is a movie that showcased people of completely different backgrounds and cultures converging to become best friends. Those genuinely crafted relationships in "Remember the Titans" bring you so much joy that you can see the film as an example of the fact that good things can happen in an awful world. These are the exact same feelings I had with "Green Book." It may not go as dark, grim and violent in the portrayals of racism like movies such as "BlacKkKlansman" or "Detroit" do. But it does enough to get the point across loud and clear while focusing mainly on this friendship between Dr. Shirley and Tony that leaves you with such positive, happy feelings. There are plenty moments of humor, but a lot more moments of solid, powerful, genuine emotion. In fact, the movie is centered around the Christmas holiday as the goal is to get back from this tour on Christmas Eve so Tony can spend the holiday with his family. Because of this and other themes that I won't dive into, this could be seen as a perfectly festive movie for the season. I'm going to give "Green Book" a 9/10.