Monday, March 25, 2019

Shazam! Review

I feel quite fortunate to have caught "Shazam!" two weeks before its nationwide release. It was a fantastic experience knowing that I was among the first to see the movie, which now bears the responsibility of me helping spread the word to the rest of world. Or, well, at least to my personal sphere of influence. Truth be told, I did nothing special here to get this opportunity, outside being a little overly obsessed with Facebook. I was sitting in my apartment the weekend before last and saw a post from Fandango advertising that they're holding early screenings for fans on March 23. Fandango is one of those pages where Facebook's algorithms put their posts at the top of my news feed every time they post. Even though I never use Fandango since I don't like that extra convenience fee, I choose not to unfollow them because their content is pretty good on social media. In this case, me following their content paid off in the form of an early "Shazam!" screening because the second I saw that, my roommate and I immediately jumped on it, causing me to use Fandango for the first time in years. And it was totally worth it because "Shazam!" was one of my most anticipated movies of the year and the final product filled me with such a joyful delight.

When it comes to this Marvel vs. DC war that the internet likes to continue to fight over, I generally choose not to participate. I instead like to argue the position that we should learn to all get along and just enjoy a good superhero movie, regardless of who is putting it out. Yeah, sure, when it comes to the MCU vs. the DCEU, the MCU is miles ahead at the moment because they got a much early start and did things the right way from the very beginning, causing Warner Bros. to go in panic mode with DC as they spent their time trying to play this game of catch-up rather than taking notes on HOW Marvel built such a great franchise. I mean, Marvel has done such a good job at this that "Captain Marvel" went completely unfazed by an angry internet mob that tried their best to destroy the movie. Just three weeks in and "Captain Marvel" is on the brink of becoming yet another $1 billion movie for Marvel. How did they pull this off? Well, it's because they've built such a strong franchise that the level of trust among the fans is at an all-time high. Said fans couldn't care less about what the internet has to say. They want to see another movie in their franchise, especially since "Infinity War" clued them in on the idea that "Captain Marvel" is required viewing before "Endgame."

Despite this, I refused to join the bandwagon of DC hate even though DC was failing miserably at the same time that Marvel was going to infinity and beyond. Instead, I was sitting there silently hoping that DC would figure it out. Why? Well, first, as I said before, I'm a fan of superhero movies. I want them to be done right. But second, and most importantly, I've always been more of a DC fan at heart. Characters like Batman and Superman meant so much to me growing up that it pains me to see the modern DCEU completely botch the execution of these great characters and their stories. In fact, when it comes to Marvel, I really didn't have the same childhood experiences with them, outside those 90's Spider-Man cartoons, of course. I'm a long time DC fan, but only a more recent Marvel fan as I really didn't get into Marvel that deep until the modern MCU revolution. So I honestly think me refusing to jump on the DC hate bandwagon is why I've been able to be a lot nicer to the DCEU than some. Their only film that I've truly hated is "Man of Steel." "Justice League" and "Suicide Squad" were a bit disappointing, but not nearly as bad as some people have claimed. And "Batman v. Superman" is a movie that just kinda exists for me. I roll my eyes at it, but I don't passionately hate it.

My patience with DC paid off huge with "Wonder Woman." The moment she stepped on that battlefield after telling Steve Trevor that her fight was to help these people was perhaps one of my all-time favorite moments ever in a superhero movie because that was the moment where it dawned on me that I was watching a classic DC film. The studio had gone through a lot of darkness, both literally and figuratively, but this was the moment where it hit me that proper DC was back. It gave me chills and my inner child was so happy that I was on the verge of crying tears of joy. It's like when you've been watching your favorite sports team play awful for years, but then you suddenly witness a turnaround point where you realize they've figured it out and are good again. Yeah, sure, we then had to deal with "Justice League" a few months later, but I think that was the after effects of the Zack Snyder movement not having completely died away since the production of both movies had overlapped. I was hoping that DC would learn from the success of "Wonder Woman" and use that movie as a springboard moving forward. "Wonder Woman" worked because they weren't focused on building a universe. They just hired Patty Jenkins and allowed her to make a "Wonder Woman" movie.

With "Aquaman" and now "Shazam!," it's rather evident that they have learned from that. Both of those movies have plenty of references to the other characters from the DCEU, especially "Shazam!," but in both cases, DC hired individual directors who would then focus on making their individual movie as good as they could. They hired James Wan to direct "Aquaman," then knowing his experience as a director, they stepped aside and allowed him to work his magic with the world of Atlantis. There was no studio mandates and no pressure to make it tie in perfectly to a Justice League film. His job was simply to make a good movie just like it was Patty Jenkins' job to make a good "Wonder Woman." James Wan succeeded. He made a highly entertaining and rather large "Aquaman" that audiences responded quite well to as it made $334 million domestically, second only to "Wonder Woman" in the DCEU, and also become the first DCEU film to cross $1 billion worldwide, having made a total of $1.15 billion thus far. And now they've done the same thing with "Shazam!" as they pulled a trick from Marvel by hiring a fairly unknown horror director in David F. Sandberg and let him make a "Shazam!" movie.

After that important essay on the DCEU, let's talk about this "Shazam!" movie. In terms of the history of this character, I touched on this briefly in my "Captain Marvel" review as well, but he was first created by Fawcett Comics in 1939, but their name for him was Captain Marvel. He was super popular in the 1940's, but Fawcett stopped publishing in the 1950's because DC had a copyright infringement on them after claiming he was a copy of Superman. DC eventually got the rights to the character and started republishing in 1972, but branded the comics as "Shazam!" to avoid confusion with Marvel's character of Captain Marvel, who was first introduced by Marvel in 1967. I missed this next bit when I previously discussed this, but I just learned in looking it up that, despite DC calling the comics "Shazam!," they didn't actually rename the character until 2011. So for several decades we had a character named Captain Marvel in both Marvel and DC comics. But DC's Captain Marvel is now named Shazam. If any of that is still confusing to you, that's probably a normal reaction, but simply stated, in 2019 Billy Batson from DC is Shazam and Carol Danvers from Marvel is Captain Marvel. It's kinda crazy that both of their movies were released within a month of each other.

Despite me having looked up that history, I actually didn't know much about Shazam the character before going into this movie outside the fact that he was a lot like Superman and was a kid who turned into a superhero by saying the name Shazam. I think that lack of knowledge on my end really helped me love this movie even more because I realized there was a huge magical universe here that was rather fascinating and a deep lore that I was just now being introduced to. As a quick summary, Billy Batson is a young kid who is about 14 years old. He's had all sorts of family issues as he was separated from his mother at a young age and has spent most of his life bouncing around from various foster homes, but never being satisfied by any of them as he's instead put much of his effort into finding his birth mother. After his latest attempt fails, he's put into a new foster home with Victor and Rosa Vasquez as the foster parents. They have five foster kids named Freddy, Mary, Eugene, Pedro and Darla. Despite their best efforts, Billy still has a hard time connecting with them because family has never been his thing. But one day in running away from some bullies, Billy has a bit of a brush with fate as he comes upon an ancient wizard who gives him his powers.

There's a lot of things that make this movie work and I'll get into the major highlights of them here, but the biggest thing that propels this movie forward is not necessarily all the superhero stuff, it's the family element of it. First and foremost, Asher Angel as Billy does an incredible job at portraying this kid who you feel bad for. He's a very broken individual. You can feel the pain deep inside him as all he wants is to be reunited with his mother. Thus a lot of his actions in the movie make sense. Victor and Rosa are perhaps the two best foster parents one could ask for, and both are played brilliantly by Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans respectively. They know what Billy is going through and they're there to help him. But Billy is not willing to accept them. There's a very powerful definition given early on about what home and family truly are, but this is a lesson that Billy needs to learn and he's not very good at learning it. Thus the movie doesn't allow everything to just happen super easily. It opens things up for there to be a lot of character development and growth. In addition to Billy and the foster parents, all of the foster kids are quite different and unique, providing for a fun dynamic. Leading the charge here is among the kids is a disabled superhero enthusiast named Freddy.

The dynamic between Freddy and Billy is what you see advertised heavily in the trailers. When Billy stumbles on these powers that turn him into a superhero, he immediately turns to Freddy since Freddy is the one who knows about all this superhero stuff and thus together, without revealing Billy's identity to anyone else, they help build this character together as they go through all these trials to figure out who Billy is and what his powers are. Enter Zachary Levi as the superhero form of Billy, which is an absolutely perfect casting choice. Zachary Levi himself is more or less a grown-up kid, so I feel it was really easy for him to become this character. He's a 14-year-old superhero who looks like an adult and has no idea how to use his powers. Just like there's a lot of room for character progression with Billy as a troubled kid, there's also a lot of room for growth with him as a new superhero. Shazam is a character who is rather powerful. You can even use the word "broken," if you want because that's often a term used to describe a character who is overpowered. But the idea that he's just a kid who was given powers makes him really interesting as he has no idea how to use them and is thus very irresponsible at times, causing him to be further separate from his foster family.

This creates a lot of problems when our villain shows up. Said villain in this movie is Dr. Sivana. Even though his back story is nothing to write home about, and the movie does spend quite a bit of time on that, Mark Strong's performance was so good that it gave him the sufficient amount of menace for me to buy into him as a villain. There were several scenes with him early on that reminded me that the director of this movie is David F. Sandberg, whose only previous two directorial features before this are "Lights Out" and "Annabelle: Creation," two solidly entertaining horror films that properly set up the horror elements. Sandberg gets the opportunity to do something much different than a horror film with "Shazam!," but that background made for quite the menacing scenes even though the characters motivations are a tad bit cliche. He's a power hungry villain who, for certain reasons that I won't mention, but are thoroughly explored in the film, needs to go through Billy Batson in order to obtain his ultimate goal. The scenes with Billy as Shazam and Dr. Sivana are quite excellent, especially since Dr. Sivana is a whole heck of a lot more powerful since he's entering the scene at a time when Billy has figured out his full potential as Shazam.

All of this does set up quite the wild ride. I've talked to several people who watched the trailers and said the movie looks overly cheesy and dumb. If you are one of said people, I don't know the exact words to say to you since I loved the trailers, but I hope you give this a chance because there's a lot of depth behind all the cheese, which is certainly there. Although I wouldn't refer to it as cheesy. I'd refer to it as lighthearted and fun. This is a superhero movie that enters the "Guardians of the Galaxy" realm of almost being more of a comedy than a superhero drama. And they nail the comedy here. There were several scenes throughout the movie of pure gut-busting laughter that had the whole theater so loud that everyone ends up missing a few lines in the film. That's the type of laughter that doesn't happen to me as often as I would like and am thus extremely refreshed when I'm treated to it. This lighthearted nature also gives this movie an old-fashioned feel to it. I also mean that in a positive way because this is like bringing back an old 1940's superhero story, but implementing it into a modern day setting. And that fits perfectly because the 1940's is exactly the time period that the original comics came from, so it's an ode to what these comics used to be.

Despite the heavy comedic nature, the movie never loses sight of what it is. It's a family drama with superhero characters. And that element is what keeps propelling the movie forward for the entire run time. Thus I feel like comparing it to "Fighting with My Family" from last month. In terms of genre, that's a sports movie about the rise of a female WWE star. But at the heart of the movie is a great story of a family that makes the film so powerful. "Shazam!" is a hilariously entertaining superhero film that even spends most of its run time making fun of traditional superhero tropes, but at the heart of it, it's also a very powerful family drama. I'd argue that it's the most complete film in the DCEU right now because of it. "Wonder Woman" certainly hits higher heights than "Shazam!" and is thus still my favorite DCEU movie, but "Shazam!" is the most well-rounded and has a final act that is far superior than most any superhero movie I've seen. It's so good and so entertaining that I want to go see it again tomorrow for $5 Tuesday, but I'm disappointed that I have to wait two weeks before it actually gets it nationwide release on April 5. "Shazam!" is a definite crowd pleaser and I hope you'll all give it a chance in April because it's worth it. I'm going to give "Shazam!" a strong 9/10.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Us Review

He's only two movies in and already I feel comfortable calling Jordan Peele one of my favorite directors working today. It's crazy to think how far he's come in just a short amount of time. Just two years ago he was simply one half of the comedy duo Key & Peele. And now he's suddenly skyrocketed into the realm of one of the most prolific directors of our day to the point where "Us" is about to enjoy a $60+ million opening weekend simply because "it's the new Jordan Peele movie." Very few directors can sell a movie simply by their name alone. I'd say Jordan Peele joins the likes of Christopher Nolan and Steven Spielberg when it comes to that. We just don't live in that type of era anymore. Movies are sold based on the franchise and studio, not typically by the director and the star like it often was in the past. But yet here we are. All that can be directly attributed to how huge of a cultural phenomenon "Get Out" was. It made such a huge impact that Jordan Peele won an Oscar for best original screenplay and the movie came close to winning best picture as well, this despite it being a horror movie released in February. Yes, good trailer reaction and strong reviews out of South by Southwest have helped "Us," but everyone wants to see what the guy who directed "Get Out" does next.

When it comes to "Get Out," I was floored. Leading up to it, I thought the trailers weren't very good. It looked like a strange, bizarre movie in a bad way and it was coming from a dude who had never directed any feature-length film before, let alone a horror movie. So I wasn't expecting anything from it. That is, not until reviews out of Sundance the month before came out and had the movie pegged at 100 percent at Rotten Tomatoes, a mark which it stayed at for quite some time. That's what floored me. The movie itself was pretty solid, too. I got a bit nit-picky with it in my review mostly because I thought the social commentary in the movie elevated it slightly higher than it deserved. Granted, I thought the social commentary itself was great. It had very important messages about racism that were told in a way that connected with a lot of people who have been victims of racism and was in turn eye-opening for those of us who might be more privileged. But having an important message can't be the only thing right with your movie. I had certain issues with the horror elements itself. Thus if we judge it based solely on horror standards, it wasn't even the best horror movie of that year, but I won't say much because because most of my questions had to do with the resolution.

On that level, "Get Out" was very comparable to "Black Panther." A lot of people loved "Black Panther" because it was the first major superhero movie starring a mostly black cast. I think it was fantastic that it did that, but I still need a good movie to go along with it. "Black Panther" had a very average story that was cut and pasted directly from "Hamlet" and "The Lion King," thus the story felt very boring to me and the action sequences were very generic. That's why I say that sometimes movies like "Get Out" and "Black Panther" are boosted more than they deserve because of the social commentary or social relevance of the film. Movies about racism will always be praised as the best thing since sliced bread simply because of the subject matter. And that's certainly not a bad thing to have movies like this. It's just that I get annoyed when people are willing to completely ignore a lackluster screenplay or slightly subpar filmmaking simply because the movie had something important to say. The best movies will get both aspects right, not just one or the other. All this said, if it feels like I'm throwing too many punches at "Get Out," I'll defend myself by saying that I bought the movie and have watched it many times. I still enjoy it even if I don't crown it as a horror masterpiece.

I feel comfortable spending that much time on Jordan Peele and "Get Out" for two reasons. First of all, I think it's important for you to have a bit of context in regards to my thoughts so that you can better understand where I'm coming from when I make the claim that "Us" is the overall better movie. Second, "Us" is the type of movie where the less you know going in, the better your experience will be, so I can afford to spend time talking about the movie's director and said director's previous film because I don't want to say too much about "Us." I'd prefer you just go experience it for yourself. On that note, I won't be talking about spoilers here in this review, but if you're a fan of "Get Out" and/or you like quality horror films, then my recommendation here is that you see this movie before you continue with this review. Come back afterwards and read my thoughts, then let's discuss because this is quite the film. The trailer does a great job of telling you exactly what this movie is all about, at least in regards to the premise. Where it goes is a whole different story. But we have a family going on a vacation, led by Winston Duke and Lupita Nyong'o as the parents, who start to see these strange figures at their house. Before too long, they realize that those figures are themselves.

That's all I'm going to say about plot specifics for "Us." Even that seems like I'm almost giving away too much as it takes a surprising amount of time getting to that point. But I don't know what else I'm supposed to say to describe this movie. That's why I think those less hardcore film fans who haven't seen any trailers for this movie, yet stumble upon it several months from now after having heard nothing about it other than it was a great movie, might have an even better experience watching this because the movie slowly builds towards that premise. It made me partially bored at the beginning because I've seen the trailer nearly 5,000 times and so I was just waiting for the movie to get to the point. In hindsight, though, I really appreciated that Jordan Peele took the time to properly set up this story. He didn't just throw a random family into a scary situation within the first 5-10 minutes of this movie. He let us get to know the family first. Winston Duke as the father was the goofball. Lupita Nyang'o as the wife was more of the straight-edge. Together they made for a really balanced couple. And their two kids were quite likable, albeit a bit strange at times. Thus overall we had a great family that I immediately began to care about, which is very important for a horror movie.

But yeah, then crazy things start to happen. The best way to describe this is that it's like a "Twilight Zone" episode. I could say "Black Mirror" since I've been watching a lot of that recently, but "Black Mirror" is more technology and social media based. "Us" is just straight up bonkers. Certain scenarios are set up and instead of questioning everything that's going on, you accept said premise and focus solely on what's going to happen to these characters and what's the overall point of this thing. The problem with a lot of horror films today is that you can tell the whole purpose of the movie is to earn a few quick bucks. There's not a whole lot of thought put into them. Characters you barely know get thrown into a scary situation and the movie spends most of the time with jump scares and loud sounds meant to make people jump with not much of a story to back things up. Jordan Peele has proven with both "Get Out" and now "Us" that he cares about doing things the right way. His purpose here is to tell a story. He does this by introducing us to this likable family, then throwing them into this wild situation. And that's when horror movies get real good, when you have characters you care about and a story you become deeply invested in. That's what happened with "Us."

Now in going back to the "Twilight Zone" comparison, the thing that often makes those stories so fascinating is that they are shrouded in mystery and intrigue. There's themes presented throughout that are intended to make you think and often things are left a bit ambiguous. Thus is the case with "Us." It's like one mega "Twilight Zone" episode on steroids. In fact, in one of the interviews I read with Jordan Peele talking about his reasons for making the movie, he mentioned inspiration from a "Twilight Zone" episode called "Mirror Image." That's season 1, episode 21 if you want to check it out since it's on Netflix. I went and watched that after I read that interview and I can totally see how he takes certain things that the episode lays out and runs with it in a feature-length horror film. As such, there's a whole heck of a lot that could be talked about in regards to "Us," but from a spoiler free review perspective, how do I do that? All I can do is talk about my range of emotions while I was watching, but even then I want to be careful. I'll just say that the movie had me on the edge of my seat the entire time. There's a level of uncertainty throughout that left me uneasy and Jordan Peele did a great job of playing with my mind as he took me on quite the emotional roller coaster.

This is a movie that demands to be talked about. Some horror movies are pretty cut and dry. You know exactly what is happening and the thrill of it is quite exciting. Jordan Peele, however, doesn't let you off easy with "Us." He challenges you mentally. Like "Get Out," this movie has a lot of strong themes that Jordan Peele is interested in sharing. Unlike "Get Out," said themes aren't as obvious and take a bit of work getting to them. "Get Out" is obviously about racism. There's a lot of discussion about what it's like for a black man to live in a white man's world. He's not trying to hide that. He wants you to walk out of that theater thinking about racism. "Us" is quite a bit more ambiguous with its themes. It's layered and complex. There's a lot of things that don't make sense. At least not initially. It's a movie that made me and my friend talk about it for quite a long time. Then I had to spend the rest of the night looking up videos and reading comments about what others thought of things. And now I feel like I need to let everything simmer for a while, but then I need to see it again. And I feel like the more I see it, the more I'm going to pick up and the more I'm going to understand. But at the moment, I have to be honest and say that I still feel very much in the dark.

Despite feeling like I'm in the dark, I still was thoroughly entertained. This is a situation that parallels how I felt when I first watch "2001: A Space Odyssey." I was the most confused person on the planet Earth, but I absolutely loved every minute of it. And the more I've seen it, the more I'm able to pick up on what Stanley Kubrick had to say with it. But I use the word parallel in comparing the two movies because I don't think "Us" will ever be on quite the same level of "2001," especially since they're not really the same genre. But it was a similar feeling. But that level of confusion means it's really hard to assign a grade at this moment. There are certain things that bother me quite a bit about this movie. And I posed those questions online and got answers, but some of the answers brought up more questions that bothered me. I legitimately don't know how my brain is going to make sense of certain things at this point in time. I need more thought and I need more viewings under my belt. But regardless of how things turn out, I can't deny that the experience of watching this movie was a fantastic one. This could end up being one of my favorite movies of the year, but I have enough questions to hold my grade back for now, so I'm going to play it safe and give "Us" a 9/10.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Best Picture Winners Ranked: 2010's

Last month "Green Book" was crowned the best picture winner at the 91st Academy Awards. That got me thinking. This is 2019. Next year is 2020, which is a brand new decade. Does that mean we now have a complete list of best picture winners for the 2010's? Time for a list? Now I had to stop and think about that for a second because there's two ways of doing this. You could go by the year in which the movies were released OR you could go by the year in which the awards were handed out. There's a good argument for both ways. I've obviously chosen to do this based on the year in which the awards were handed out, mostly because I have plenty of other end-of-decade lists I want to do at this time next year and so doing this best picture winners list now is a way to space things out a bit. But sure, I could've started with "The King's Speech" and gone through whatever 2019 film wins best picture at next year's ceremony. But I'm not. I'm starting with "The Hurt Locker," a 2009 release that actually first debuted at the 2008 Venice Film Festival, but won best picture at the 2010 Academy Awards. See how the release date route can be confusing? Anyways, I hope you enjoy this. If this is popular enough, I might go back in time and do the previous decades, too. So let me know what you think!

10- The Hurt Locker (2010)

Speaking of "The Hurt Locker," that's exactly where we're beginning. I might be at a disadvantage here because until last week, "The Hurt Locker" was the one best picture winner from this decade that I hadn't seen. So it was awfully convenient of Netflix to put it up on there service in the beginning of March. Oddly enough, despite this having won best picture, I've heard nothing but bad about it. When I was searching it on Google, there was even one headline I noticed that said something to the effect of "'The Hurt Locker' is now on Netflix so that you can remind yourself of how awful it is." I had a hard time believe that, though. I mean, this won best picture for a reason, right? And Katheryn Bigelow went onto direct "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Detroit," the latter of which I love and the former I've heard nothing but good things. So I definitely didn't want to just jump on a hate bandwagon here, but for the life of me I can't figure out WHY this won best picture. It's one of those movies that's just war for the sake of war. There's no real plot to follow and the characters aren't all that interesting. I was bored the whole movie. Did this win just because it was a movie about the Iraqi War that came out right end of George Bush's presidency? That's the only thing I can think of at this point.

9- The Shape of Water (2018)

When I first walked out of the theater for this movie, I felt quite mesmerized and enchanted. This was such a beautiful movie that felt so fresh and unique. So kudos to this movie for taking me on quite the emotional adventure. However, said feeling lasted about 30 seconds. I was ready to tell the world how unique this was, but then I came to realize that this is not unique at all. Just think about any movie that tells the story about a human, often an outcast, who finds or meets an alien, monster, or creature and develops a relationship or friendship with said creature, only to have to figure out what to do when the government or other organization is trying to get rid of the creature. This covers just about anything from "E.T." to "Beauty and the Beast." This is exactly what "The Shape of Water" is without veering from the path at all. The only thing that makes this unique is, well, things get a bit too awkward with Sally Hawkins and the fish man. I know this wasn't the best field of best picture contenders, but our options did include "Lady Bird" (my favorite movie that year), "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" and "Get Out." With those three movies on the table, it was disappointing to see a movie as forgettable as this to walk home with the big prize.

8- The Artist (2012)

A gimmick is what we call this one. I mean, just think about it. They made a silent film in 2011 about a veteran actor who was having troubles transitioning from silent films to talkies. If you loved this movie, did you love it because it's unique and different or because you love classic cinema and this gave you a trip down memory lane? Nostalgia vomit is another term I could use. And because the Academy loves patting themselves on the back, they gave this one best picture because films that pay tribute to classic cinema are the best type of Oscar bait. They'll usually fall for it every time. And yes, to be fair, this is one of the movies I went back and re-watched because it had been a while and I wanted it fresh on my mind before I typed this up. And yeah, if I'm being honest, if I'm in the mood for a movie about the struggles of transitioning from silent film to sound, I'm going to go throw in "Singin' in the Rain" and not "The Artist." However, even though this is a gimmick, it's a well done gimmick. The sound design is excellent and the acting is superb, so the movie does take you on an emotional journey. I just wish that if we were going to have fun by doing a silent film in the modern era that we would've come up with a more unique plot. As is, I'll just stick with my Charlie Chaplin.

7- The King's Speech (2011)

Yeah, we're on a bit of a losing streak here with this decade's best picture winners. This is a fairly weak group of best picture winners, especially when compared to previous decades. However, we are getting slowly better as we progress forward through this list. "The King's Speech" is certainly not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it's quite the beautiful character study that is rather inspiring. It's just that I've had this grudge against it for the longest time. 2010 was the year where I had one of the most mind-blowing movie-going experiences of my life in "Inception" while also bawling my face off with "Toy Story 3." And yet the Academy gives the win to "The King's Speech"? It made no sense to me, especially back in early 2011 when I didn't follow the Oscars very closely. However, in the years since I've become much more heavily invested in the Oscars, almost to the point of obsession. So in hindsight, eight years later, this win makes sense. We don't award animated movies, we ignore giant blockbusters, and we certainly don't give Christopher Nolan the time of day. Historical movies that teach a good lesson are the way to go. So it makes sense. And if I separate this movie from the competition, it's a good movie. It was unfair of me to be so harsh on it.

6- Moonlight (2017)

I was get a bit nervous when talking about "Moonlight." I know so many people who would have this movie at the top of this specific list without question. It would also be super high up on many lists all-time of best picture winners. And I certainly don't have anything negative to say about it. It's a very well-made movie with a lot of important themes. But at the same time, it's also about a gay black kid growing up in harsh neighborhoods and what that life is like. I'm not the target audience there. I'm a straight white guy who grew up in a very nice neighborhood. I'll fully admit that I've lived a very privileged life. That certainly doesn't make me any better than someone else. It just means that I don't have the personal experience to connect with "Moonlight" on the same level that many others do. I appreciated the experience that this movie gave me because I do my best to learn different perspectives and this gave me a snapshot of what it's like for many people. But that's the thing. I appreciated it more than I personally loved it. I'm sorry, but I wanted "La La Land" to win best picture that year. That's the movie that connected with me personally on a deep level. And I do feel bad the two movies will be forever connected given the drama behind the announcement.

5- Green Book (2019)

OK, fine. Hate me if you want for putting the white man's racism movie above "Moonlight," but that's just how it goes when I'm typing up my personal choices. The bottom half of this list had a lot more negativity, but the top half of this list is where things become a lot more positive. And I couldn't help myself with being totally charmed by "Green Book." I didn't expect it to WIN best picture after I saw it in November, but when they announced it as the shocking upset over "Roma," I wasn't angry either. In my mind, there were only three deserving candidates out of the eight nominees and "Green Book" was one of them, with "BlacKkKlansman" and "A Star is Born" being the other two. Yes, I know the movie didn't dive as deep as they could've and I'm fully aware of what Don Shirley's family has said about this, but I'm fine with a user friendly movie about the troubles of racism and in a game of "he said, she said," I can only go by what I saw on the screen. I loved the buddy, road trip comedy feel that this movie gave. Both Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali knocked it out of the park with their performances as they shared a special onscreen bond that made it a joy to watch their journey unfold. It was two very different characters coming together to overcome the troubles of the day.

4- Argo (2013)

I think the 2013 best picture class may be the best overall class this decade. Case in point, "Argo" is listed here as my fourth favorite best picture winner, but it's towards the bottom in its own class as "Django Unchained," "Life of Pi," "Lincoln" and "Silver Linings Playbook" are easily better movies than it. Those are some of my personal favorites of the decade, actually. And I haven't even seen "Zero Dark Thirty," "Amour" or "Beasts of the Southern Wild," but I've heard great things about those three as well. So yeah, of course I was a little disappointed to see "Argo" win against such heavyweights, but on its own this is a fascinating story of the great lengths they went to in creating a fake studio and a fake screenplay in order to rescue a group of hostages in Iran. They did such a good job with this rouse that I read that after the fact, they got a whole bunch of screenplays sent to them from filmmakers here in a America that thought they were an actual studio ran by the CIA. Sure, the nail-biting elements of this movie's finale were a complete work and the movie also didn't get Canada enough credit for their role in this. But this was still a well executed film that got the spirit of the story right. Great effort from Ben Affleck in a time where his casting as Batman was not well received.

3- 12 Years a Slave (2014)

This was a tough one to place. As this decade's "Schindler's List," this is an absolutely amazing film that I think is important for every adult to watch at least once in their lives so they can truly understand the dark history that was slavery in the United States during the 1800's. This specific story is extremely tragic as it tells the true story of a black man who was born and raised a free man, but got mugged one day as an adult by a couple of white thugs and sold into slavery. And this does not hold back when it comes to the horrors of slavery. At the same time, though, it's very honest as it shows that there were slave owners that treated their slaves very well. But when we got to Michael Fassbender's portrayal of a down-right cold-hearted evil slave owner, things got real brutal and this became a very hard movie to watch. Thus I saw it once in theaters, put it as my No. 2 film of that year, behind only "Gravity," and never had a desire to watch it again. Because, yeah, like "Schindler's List," you don't just casually throw in "12 Years a Slave" when you're bored on a Friday night. As I said, it's a movie that every adult should watch once for educational purposes, but no one needs to watch twice. With just one watch, though, the movie will be forever printed on your mind.

2- Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2015)

One of my favorite movie-going experiences is when you find that film that completely blows your mind and leaves you lost in thought for days, which is exactly what happened to me with "Birdman." I'll never forget the feeling I had when the credits rolled and I walked out of the theater to my car, resulting in a fantastic drive home as I got to spend some quality time with myself and my thoughts. "Birdman" is a movie that immediately grabs you as some magical editing tricks give the illusion that the whole movie was filmed in one take, much like Hitchcock's "Rope." Sure, you can call that a gimmick if you want, but that's not why this movie is good. It's simply one of the many things that make this nearly a perfect movie. The story itself is about an old, washed-up actor who used to play a popular superhero, but fell off the map and is trying to make a comeback by writing and directing his own play. Not only was that reflective of Michael Keaton's own career at the time, which successfully relaunched him back into stardom, but it provided an excellent base for some fascinating characters and extraordinary themes. I said this when I initially reviewed the movie and it still holds true now. This is the perfect type of movie that could be studied in film classes for years to come.

1- Spotlight (2016)

As a whole, this decade is far from the best when it comes to the class of best picture winners. Perhaps if nominees like "La La Land," "Boyhood," "Lady Bird," "Django Unchained" or "Inception" had actually won, it would be a different conversation. That said, a top three consisting of "Spotlight," "Birdman" and "12 Years a Slave" is certainly not a bad trio of films to top this list. "Spotlight" is my personal choice for my favorite best picture of the decade because it's the one that felt most personal to me. I'm a recent Journalism graduate and even though I haven't found "the dream job" yet, "Spotlight" is a movie that came out right as I was in the thick of things in regards to my studies and it showcased the power of investigative journalism, thus giving me a great feeling that I was on a great path and that I can make a true difference in this world if I work hard enough in this field. It was also an eye-opening film as I had no idea how serious the situation was with child molestation in the Catholic church, so I feel that this was also one of the most important films of the decade. It was also the one year this decade where I felt my favorite movie of the year actually won best picture. Even though I officially listed it as No. 3 that year, it was more of a three-way tie for No. 1 for me.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Captain Marvel Review

Happy International Women's Day everyone! In honor of that, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has released their first ever female-led superhero film. Well, kinda. The way some people are wording it, it makes it seem like they've never had a female superhero in one of their films, which ignores the presence of Black Widow and Scarlet Witch, who have played major roles in the MCU for some time now. So I think people need to be a little more particular with what they're saying. Even saying that Captain Marvel is the first female character in the MCU to get her own movie is not 100 percent true. I started saying that a while back and was corrected because that technically belongs to Evangeline Lilly's character of The Wasp, who co-led with Ant-Man last year in "Ant-Man and the Wasp." So Captain Marvel is the first female character in the MCU to get her own movie WITHOUT having to share the title with a man? I guess that's the most correct way to say it. However, even if Captain Marvel isn't the first female character to play a major role in the MCU and isn't the first to get her own movie, this is a still a moment worthy of celebration as females, and especially young girls, haven't had many superheroes of their own gender to look up to. It's great that they now have another one in Captain Marvel.   

Before I dive into this review, I have a bone to pick with the internet. There are a lot of people who are legitimately angry with Brie Larson and are thus trying to destroy "Captain Marvel" because they claim Brie Larson was sexist towards white males in a recent interview she did Keah Brown of Marie Claire. I have that original interview right there for you to read yourself. In that interview, here are her exact words, "About a year ago, I started paying attention to what my press days looked like and the critics reviewing movies, and noticed it appeared to be overwhelmingly white male." That's the only comment in the interview about white males. She didn't say she hated them or didn't care about their opinions, like some people have spun it as. She made an observation, and an accurate one at that, that there were a lot of white males who were doing most of the reporting and the critiquing. She then says, "Moving forward, I decided to make sure my press days were more inclusive," which is why she reached out to Keah Brown, a black female reporter with Cerebral Palsy, who was absolutely thrilled at the opportunity because she's never had something this big as she says that usually people don't want to take a chance on a disabled journalist.

I think that's an absolutely fantastic thing for Brie Larson to do. She realizes that she now has the spotlight with being Captain Marvel and she's taking advantage of that by trying to make a real difference. And now a large segment of white males on the internet are extremely offended and are trying to sabotage her film? That's gross. Even if she was being sexist towards white males, do you know how long women have had to deal with sexism and oppression towards them? Basically as long as humankind has existed. And now the second a female makes a sexist comment towards a white male, all the white males are going to revolt and try to ruin her career as if its been their gender that has been oppressed for centuries? They can dish it out, but they can't take it? Hypocritical and soft are words that don't even begin to accurately describe this. But that's the thing. She's NOT being sexist. She's being inclusive. Which is why this whole thing is ridiculous. However, Brie Larson and Marvel are going to be the ones with the last laugh as "Captain Marvel" is poised for an opening weekend of at least $135 million based on Thursday night preview totals of $20.7, which isn't too far behind the $25.2 million that "Black Panther" scored before opening to $202 million.

In other words, general audiences don't care about the internet trolls, especially when it comes to a well-loved franchise like the MCU. There was a strong campaign to take down "Black Panther," too, and look how that turned out. That means it's Marvel Studios - 2; internet trolls - 0. Oh, but the movie itself? Yeah, that's a completely different conversation that we're going to now switch gears towards. When push comes to shove, the thing I care most about is the quality of the movie itself. Whenever there's a controversy surround a movie's production or comments from someone on the cast or crew, I try to do my best to push those aside and judge the movie based on its own personal merits. When it comes to "Captain Marvel," even though I'm annoyed at all the undeserved controversy, I wasn't bound and determined to give it a positive review just in spite of everything. I'm completely compartmentalizing the two issues and am judging the movie based on the movie alone. And it's a movie that I really enjoyed. That shouldn't be too surprising to you because the superhero genre is one where I'm fairly easily pleased. I've watched every episode of the Arrowverse shows, I've enjoyed the DC movies more than most, and I've never disliked a movie from the MCU.

That said, I wasn't sure what to expect with "Captain Marvel." It's Rotten Tomatoes score is settling around an 82 percent, which is a solid score, but also on the lower end of things with the MCU. It's way above "Thor: The Dark World," "The Incredible Hulk" and "Iron Man 2," but right in line with "Captain America: The First Avenger," "Iron Man 3," "Ant-Man" and "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2." Movies that are generally well-liked, but are also a lot more mixed than some of the top tier MCU films. A lot of the YouTube critics I follow were very meh about the film, which had me worried, but at the same I know a lot of people who watched the trailers and were very disinterested. I saw the trailers and thought the movie looked like a blast. I never expected it to be a top five Marvel movie, but I expected to have fun with it. So all of this combined together to make me very confused as to what my expectations were supposed to be, thus resulted in me essentially having no expectations one way or the other. I honestly think that helped me to enjoy the film because I was able to accept it for what it was rather than demanding the film to live up to some sort of preconceived notions of what it was supposed to be. It's a light-hearted, fun superhero movie set in the 90's.

As far as specifics of the movie, I'm going to tread lightly here because there's a lot to talk about here, yet the majority of that constitutes spoilers. The very basic premise is that there is a war going on between two alien races called the Kree and the Skrulls. Carol Danvers is a member of the Kree race and they're out to hunt down the Skrulls, who are shape-shifting aliens that are very evasive. Certain things happen in an early battle that has Carol crash-landing on Earth with several of the Skrulls, who manage to escape. Thus she's out to hunt them down before they do too much down. This captures the attention of SHIELD agents Nick Fury and Phil Coulson, who have both been impressively de-aged to look like younger versions of themselves. They decide to help Carol in her effort to hunt down the Skrulls, thus we have a bit of a buddy cop adventure, focused mainly on Carol Danvers and Nick Fury teaming up to fight the enemy. Again, that's a very basic plot, but I'm not going to say much more. This is a very mysterious, complex story as we're thrown in right in the middle of Carol Danvers' story as she can't even remember who she is. She thinks she might have a history here on Earth, but she doesn't know for sure because all she remembers are flashes of her past. 

The obvious comparison to "Captain Marvel" is to DC's "Wonder Woman" as both movies are the first major female-led superhero films in their respective franchises and both characters are arguably the most powerful in the Avengers and the Justice League. Both movies start with a fish out of water sequence as Carol and Diana are trying to figure out their exact place Earth and are not familiar with the culture. Diana is from the secret Amazonian land while Carol is from the world of the Kree. And if we move forward with this comparison, we get to make the very rare claim that DC did it better. Because, yeah, "Wonder Woman" is a far superior film than "Captain Marvel." But that's not necessarily an insult on "Captain Marvel." It's more of a compliment towards "Wonder Woman," which is on a completely different level in terms of superhero films and is better than just about everything in the MCU, in my opinion. However, the "Wonder Woman" comparison is not what my mind gravitated towards. Oddly enough, the first thing I thought of was Star Trek, which is what I wasn't expecting. But the Kree vs. Skrull battle felt like a Star Trek storyline with Carol Danvers and the Kree feeling like our main crew, with Jude Law's character acting as captain.

As far as a superhero comparison, when Carol Danvers crash-landed on Earth, I thought this felt more like another female DC superhero, that of "Supergirl." Maybe I made this connection because Supergirl's name is nearly identical to Captain Marvel's. It's Kara Danvers and Carol Danvers. Once I made that connection, the rest of it flowed perfectly. Specifically, this is like the first season of "Supergirl." In addition to their names being nearly the same, both are blonde-haired female superheros with powers that make them nearly unstoppable, but they're not sure how to use them or what their place is. Kara was sent to Earth to protect her cousin Superman, but her pod got knocked off course and when she arrived, he was already fully grown. So she hides in the shadows as a CatCo reporter until she's forced to reveal herself, eventually teaming up with her Earthly sister Alex Danvers and black DEO leader Hank Henshaw, who turns out to be J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter. Carol Danvers crashes on Earth and doesn't know her place because she doesn't know who she is, but eventually teams up with a female best friend and black SHIELD agent Nick Fury. So yeah, there's a whole lot of parallels between Carol Danvers and Kara Danvers.

In addition to story parallels, a lot of the style and themes are quite similar. Both are fairly political, especially with the feminist messages, but not in a way that bothered me. "Supergirl" is super political, especially in this current fourth season. But I don't care. I suppose "Captain Marvel" isn't super political in terms of the issues "Supergirl" tackles, but I would say it carries a much more feminist message than "Wonder Woman." There's even a scene where Carol is fighting a whole bunch of male villains while the movie plays the No Doubt song "Just a Girl." I didn't roll my eyes and complain. I was rather amused. But that said, I don't think the approach of the movie is that men are dumb and useless. It just showcases the power and independence of a female character who is more than able to hold her own without having to have male characters run to her rescue. I think seeing more female characters like this in superhero movies is a very positive thing. You look at the power that Wonder Woman had for young girls across the world and I think Captain Marvel is another female superhero that can have the same effect, especially since Brie Larson's excellent portrayal of her showcases her in a very normal, human way that will make her that much more relatable.

I think the biggest flaws of the movie lie with an issue that Marvel is going to have to continue facing as they move forward and introduce more new characters. Where was Captain Marvel when everything else was going down? If Nick Fury knew about her since the 90's, why didn't he call out for help sooner? The movie tries to insert her into the timeline as if she's always existed and it's not a perfectly smooth process as it raises certain questions about continuity. When Marvel officially decides to introduce the X-Men into the MCU, this will be the same issue. Where were all the X-Men during the events of "Infinity War" and "Endgame"? Why didn't they come to help? There's also a couple of moments that reminded me of "Solo" last year where they tried to explain things that didn't need explaining. I won't say what those were, but it reminded me of when "Solo" explained how Han Solo got his name. It was kinda dumb. But at the same time, it didn't negatively effect the movie, which is the same case here. Sure, trying to pretend that Captain Marvel always existed and trying to explain certain things that didn't need explaining were a bit rocky, but neither of those aspects bothered me enough to think less of the movie as a whole. Just minor nitpicks.

As a whole, yeah I was entertained. The movie had an upbeat, fun vibe to it that had me smiling the entire time. I liked Brie Larson as Captain Marvel. I think she did excellent. She portrayed a very human character who was trying to figure out who she was and what her place was with everything going around her. It was a solid arc. There was also a whole lot more to the story that I found myself really enjoying that I refuse to dive into. I'll just say the movie took me in directions that I wasn't expecting, but I enjoyed those directions. Like most origin stories, this is the very beginning of Captain Marvel. Now that she's established, there's a whole lot more that we can do with her character in the future and I'm excited about that because there's a lot of ground and world-building established in this first film that I think was done pretty well. While the movie is not a straight-up comedy like a "Guardians of the Galaxy" or "Thor: Ragnarok," there was a lot of well placed Marvel humor that cracked me up. No, this is not quite on the level of the top tier Marvel films and is more in the middle of the pack in regards to Phase III, but this is still a perfectly fun adventure that introduced me to a character and a world that I think has a lot of potential. I'm going to give "Captain Marvel" an 8/10.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Apollo 11 Review

There's been a lot of movies in the last 10 years that have given me the opportunity to go to space. No, I'm not counting things like "Star Wars" or "Guardians of the Galaxy" when I'm saying this. I'm talking about movies like "Gravity," "The Martian" or last year's "First Man" that attempted to give accurate depictions of space travel. Despite how incredible these journeys have been for me, I found a movie this week that has to now hold the trump card for the most incredible theatrical experience I've had when it comes to space travel and that's this new documentary titled "Apollo 11." This is a movie that grabbed my attention when it premiered at Sundance back in January. I thought it would be something that I would have to wait until closer to the end of the year to experience, but it surprised me a bit by releasing here in March. It debuted in 120 IMAX locations this past weekend and is now set to expand to about 450 theaters total this upcoming weekend. How many of those will be IMAX screens? I have no idea because Marvel is set to debut "Captain Marvel" into over 4,300 theaters, which includes over 400 IMAX screens. So that opportunity might be gone, but I hope not because I saw it in my local IMAX theater on Tuesday and that was quite the surreal experience.

I often struggle when reviewing documentaries on this blog. I enjoy watching them, but I often don't know what exactly to say when reviewing them or what score to give at the end because they're a different style of filmmaking that I'm not accustomed to talking about in great length. And that's especially the case here as this is even more unique when it comes to documentaries, which is what I'll get to in a second. That means I'm a bit conflicted in regards to how to approach this. I almost settling for giving a quick few sentences on Facebook and Twitter, but I wanted to do something more than that given how incredible of an experience this was, so I'm diving into a blog post anyways and seeing how this goes. Forgive me if this is a bit more rough around the edges than usual. But yeah, the reason why this is so unique, even by documentary standards, is that this is almost completely a compilation of archival footage from the Apollo 11 mission back in July 1969. I say "almost" because there's a few moments where they put a graphic on the screen to fill in the gaps where there was no footage. But outside that, this is footage from 1969 that they put together. No narrator. No modern-day interviews. Just old footage that was enhanced for IMAX screens.

I suppose doing things this way is a bit risky because without a narrator guiding you through what's happening, there's the potential for the audience to get a bit lost or bored along the journey. But this is not the case. They way in which everything is edited together helps keep your attention for the whole run time and this is done by going back and forth through three different vantage points, most of which takes place between the control room in Houston and the astronauts in the spacecraft. This is what actually takes place of a narrator. We as an audience are clued in on everything that's happening so that we're not lost as if a narrator is guiding us through the experience, but it's the authentic audio from the control people that were communicating among themselves as well as with astronauts and other people in charge of the launch. I mean, there had to be a whole ton of communication among all of them in order for this to be a successful mission, so getting the narration from that vantage point was a clever way of doing things. And perhaps there was a bit of the TV broadcast from the time helping us as well? I'm not 100 percent sure on the latter, but either way, any human being that was talking in the documentary was from 1969 and not 2019 voice over, which I thought was a fascinating way to do this. 

The other aspect that I really enjoyed was there was a lot of shots included of the crowds of people around the rocket launch who were coming to observe this monumental event. It didn't feel like I was in a theater watching something that happened 50 years ago. It felt like I had been transported back in time and was a part of the crowd. I got to experience this event with the people. I got to see what the atmosphere was like that day. I got to see what it was like from their perspective when the rocket launched into space. It was a really cool experience. Then when they completed their mission a week or so later, I feel like I was a part of the crowd welcoming these three American heroes home. But at the same time, I felt like I was being taken on a tour through the control room in Houston and got to witness what it was like from their perspective in helping things run smoothly. Oftentimes when we see this perspective, all we see is a bunch of people in a room staring at the monitors or typing on keyboards. But with this movie I got to know a taste of what it was like for them to be working countless hours behind the scenes to make this work. I got to see their communication with the astronauts and their constant updates and discussions on how things were going.

Then of course we have the launch itself and the flight through space. We got a dramatized version of this last year in the movie "First Man" and those sequences were incredible in that movie, especially on the big screen in IMAX. No offense to Damien Chazelle and his crew, but it's just a whole new level of amazing when you're seeing the actual footage of the launch. They had a camera right next to the rocket as it took off, so in addition to us seeing what it was like from the crowd's perspective, we also got to see what it was like from the rocket itself. Add to that an excellent score for the documentary and fantastic sound design in remastering this footage to work on an IMAX screen and I was in pure awe as the rocket launched into space. This was also a very educational piece as not only did we get to experience the journey, but we were informed of how things were able to happen. There was a meter on the bottom of the screen that told us the speed of the rocket as well as the distance from the surface of the Earth, and later the Moon. With the help of previously mentioned graphics, we got to learn how the rocket traveled around the Earth, then launched itself into space at the right moment, as well as all the appropriate maneuvers required to make this happen.

I was very pleased with the education I received on how this all came about and I think this documentary could be perfectly served as classroom education for kids and adults for years to come. I also thoroughly enjoyed the journey through space, seeing the Earth get further and further away, looking out the same windows that our astronauts got to see while enjoying the dialogue that they were having among themselves. And then it was really cool as we arrived to the Moon. Again, we got to see as we circled around the Moon, looking at those meters, seeing how closer and closer we were getting to the surface of the Moon. I also kinda felt bad for Michael Collins as he had to stay behind and circle around the Moon for hours, while the other two separated and got to land on the surface and walk around. But I also learned how important his role was because him staying in space like that was critical to the three of them being able to get home. Without that, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong might as well have dug graves for themselves there on the Moon. Back to "First Man," I think their depiction of the Moon landing was excellently done. But again, nothing rivals seeing the actual footage of the Moon landing, the iconic speech from Armstrong, and them placing the flag.

The advertising of this movie focused heavily on the fact that there is previously unseen footage here of the Apollo 11 mission. I'm not enough of an expert on this subject to know which of these sequences were previously unseen footage vs. which of them had been widely known, I was just really blown away at how expertly put together all of this footage was so that we got to experience the entire mission starting from the hours leading up to it until their arrival at home from all vantage points in a way that was equally mind-blowing and educational. I haven't read up on this documentary much because I wanted to experience it firsthand without knowing anything, but now having seen this, I would love to see a documentary on the making of this. Maybe they'll have something like that in the special features when the movie is released to DVD. If so, I want to watch it and get all the commentary from the filmmakers. I think that would go a long way to enhancing this experience even more. As far as a grade goes...  how do I give a grade to this? That's like going on a tour of some sort of historical site then grading that tour. So I'm not going to. This is an incredible experience worth seeing on the biggest screen possible. We'll leave at that.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Greta Review

Big things are coming here real soon as the world is preparing for the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to make its mark, that being "Captain Marvel," of course. But before we get to that, it's time to dive into a bit of a personal adventure with a little movie called "Greta" that you may or may not have heard of. It debuted last weekend in 2,411 theaters, so you may have seen the poster around if you've been to the movies recently, but it's not a movie that got that big of a marketing push. If I'm wrong on that, then we can at least say they didn't do a great job of capturing people's attention with said marketing push as the movie could only scrounge up a $4.5 million opening this past weekend for a pretty pathetic per theater average and an eighth place finish, all of which suggests that this isn't going to be around in theaters for very long. However, it did capture my attention since I really enjoy thrillers. It had decent enough reaction from critics and audiences to convince me to give it a chance. Plus, it's not like I had much else to go see since the only other wide release was "A Madea Family Funeral" and I have zero interest in that franchise. Tyler Perry has his loyal fan base that'll show up for all his movies. I'm just not one of them. So here we are with "Greta."

In regards to thrillers, the reason why I think it's such a fun genre is the huge kick of adrenaline that you get when it's done right. Alfred Hitchcock is one of my all-time favorite directors because he's known as the master of suspense. He knew how to do this genre right, thus most of his films keep you at the edge of your seat for the entire movie and often leave you with the added bonus of having something deep to ponder once all is said and done. But sadly, there's not been a whole lot of directors since Hitchcock who have been able to master this, which is why it's a bit more rare to find a true Hitchcockian thriller in today's world. But they do exist and thus I'm always on the lookout for them, which is exactly why "Greta" intrigued me. It had all the right ingredients in place, which included a solid premise and good lead stars. Said premise involves Chloe Grace Moretz as a young woman who recently moved in with a friend in New York and finds that someone left a purse on the Subway. Even though her friend suggests she go through the purse and scavenge what she can, Chloe decides to be a good person and return the purse. She finds that it belongs to a middle-aged woman named Greta, played by French actress Isabelle Huppert, and tracks her down.

Given that both Greta and Chloe have experienced a loss recently, they start to develop a relationship with each other and become friends. Or so that's what Chloe thinks, anyways. Her friend keeps warning her against this relationship, but she doesn't listen, which turns out to be bad because Greta is a bit of a psychopath. I will say that I wanted to like this movie a lot more than I really did. So no, it's not exactly the Hitchcockian thriller that I wanted it to be. There are moments where it does succeed and I'll get to those, but I think there's a lot of problems with the direction the movie decides to go with this script. I don't know if it's right to blame director Neil Jordan for this or perhaps him and Ray Wright, who teamed up to write the screenplay, but things were just a bit off and I don't think it had anything to do with the acting or the premise behind the movie. The idea of a crazy stalker woman preying on younger females as surrogates for her daughter is something that could work and I think both Chloe and Isabelle Huppert do their best to pull this off. I just feel like the things they were told to do and say just didn't quite spark the right tone and there's too many illogical choices made throughout that force the audience to suspend disbelief in order to be fully entertained.

If I'm getting into specifics, I first want to start with Chloe. I think she's a great young actress with a lot of potential and I think she's on the right road to living up to her potential. Most of her career she's filled the role of teen actress with things like Hit-Girl in "Kick-A--" or other roles like "Hugo," the "Carrie" remake, and 2016's "The 5th Wave." Given that she was a teenager at the time, these fit her. But now she just celebrated her 22nd birthday and so she's trying to transition into more adult roles, hence her taking a lead role in the indie film "The Miseducation of Cameron Post" last year or "Greta" this year. And I wish her well. I think she can do it. I just think her character was written as a bit too naive. There are so many signs that she should turn tail and run, but she never picks up on them until Greta starts calling and texting her non-stop or follows her around the city. Even then, she feels a bit spacey as all she can come up with is to have people keep calling the police. Given that all of the police are written as unhelpful morons, this continuing to be Chloe's only solution became a bit frustrating. Chloe also looked a bit uninterested in the role throughout the movie, but the more I thought about it, the more I think it was the direction she was given. 

As far as Isabelle Huppert's character of Greta, I think Huppert had a fun time with this role... when she was given stuff to do. For most of the film, I think she was told to be as nice and innocent as possible, thus I had a hard time being scared of her. Most of the setup for her character was done when she was off camera with all the calls and text messages she was sending as well as what other characters were telling Chloe about her. But when she was on screen, she wasn't that intimidating. She was just a nice lady. Then the music kept telling me that I should be scared of her when it sounded ominous and mysterious, but she hadn't done anything wrong up to this point while she was on camera, so I started to get upset at the score trying to trick me into feeling emotions that the movie hadn't yet made me feel. The sound design and score is absolutely essentially, especially in horrors and thrillers. But it should be used as a means to support and build on the emotions that the movie has already set up with a good story and solid characters. If the movie tries to force the emotions by using sound, then they have things backwards. That's the problem that a lot of cheap horror films have as they think loud noises is how you're supposed to scare the audience.

The other thing that's especially essential for a thriller is the element of realism. The more real the scenario feels, the more the audience can become invested in what's going on. If I have to continue to suspend my disbelief in order for the movie to work, that's a problem. So the fact that the movie set up Chloe's character as extremely dumb and naive was frustrating because she didn't act in a way that most girls in their early 20's would act. Another big flaw here is that Greta became nearly superhuman with her stalking abilities, being everywhere that the plot needed her to be in order for her to seem intimidating, which got to be a bit ridiculous. I brought up the police before, but while I'm in a mood of talking about moments where the movie forced me to suspend disbelief, I might as well bring them up again. If a young woman calls the police and tells them that she is being stalked, I had a hard time seeing them acting so extremely unhelpful as they were. They're not even going to keep tabs on the situation or look into it at all? Finally, and this is where I'm getting into spoiler range a bit, but when Chloe finally gets herself into trouble, it becomes way too hard for our other characters to track Greta down. It seems like they should've found her immediately.

If it seems like I've been doing a whole lot of complaining, it's because I saw potential in this movie. Granted, no one has been able to consistently pull off thrillers in the same way Hitchcock did, but I think there's plenty of directors out there that come awfully close. Give this premise to a David Fincher or maybe even Jordan Peele and this transforms into an excellent thriller. That said, I did mention earlier that there are good things in this movie, but the problem is most of these things took place in the final act, which puts me in a bit of a bind regarding this review. But given that I don't think anyone really cares about this movie. It made no money, which usually means most people won't even care to read this review. So I'm going to treat this like a journal entry and throw some thoughts down just for the sake of getting them out of my head. If I'm wrong and you are reading this review and might even be interesting in seeing this movie, and you want everything to remain a surprise, now is your queue to close out and come back later. The movie may have taken a long time to get there, but it did eventually become the movie that I wanted it to become. I was forced onto the edge of my seat, having no idea how this was going to turn out, which I appreciated.

So here we are. The final act of the movie. I won't spoil the full resolution, but eventually Greta manages to drug and kidnap Chloe, locking her up in a box inside of a locked up room, that's hidden behind the piano in Greta's home. Even though Chloe looked disinterested in the movie and overly naive for the first two-thirds of the movie, she kicked it into full gear when she became the kidnapped victim. She showed a ton of emotion and was even as smart as she could be, given the situation. Coincidentally, this was also the part of the movie where Isabelle Huppert as Greta was finally given something to do and she delivered a pure psychotic role that had me terrified. Chloe tried to escape and fight back, but Greta was just too smart and too powerful. She's not even phased when Chloe chops off her finger with a cookie cutter, which is literally the only reason the movie is rated R. No other graphic violence, no strong language, and no sex or nudity. Just a severed finger. But anyways, Chloe becomes trapped and loses hope and I felt bad for her. Greta becomes completely psychotic and I bought it. And since her friend and father were too dumb to figure out where she was, I had no idea how Chloe was going to get herself out of this predicament, if at all.

All that said, a solid finale didn't excuse a poorly executed film for the first two-thirds of it. It just made me frustrated that we didn't get to that point sooner. Had Chloe been trapped in Greta's house closer to the beginning of the second, or maybe even as a part of the first, I think this whole movie would've been excellent. It could've been comparable to the thriller "Don't Breathe," which was a solid movie involving a group of kids who got trapped in an old psychotic blind man's house with no means of escaping. But as is, the finale was still good enough for me to give this movie a pass. And the first two-thirds of the movie wasn't completely cringe-worthy or awful. I just saw the potential of what this could become with better writing and proper direction, so it was more frustrating rather than outright bad because I wanted to love this movie, but I found myself not being able to love it as much as I wanted to. But still, if you're curious enough about this movie to check it out, I'd give it the green light. There's a lot of people who hated this movie, but also a lot of people who loved this movie. I kinda did a lot of both. It has a solid premise, solid acting by our leads when they were given their moments to shine, and a solid ending. As a whole, I'll give "Greta" a 7/10.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Movie Preview: March 2019

It's been a miserable start to the box office year in 2019. After January could only muster in $812 million, the lowest January total since 2011, February tanked even harder, earning just $623 million, the worst February since 2013 and second worse since 2002. The month fell nearly 40 percent from last February, which saw "Black Panther" boost the month to the first ever $1 billion February. With the holiday holdovers in the rear view mirror, the new releases just haven't been able to connect. Expected hits like "The LEGO Movie 2" and "Happy Death Day 2U" completely failed while "Alita: Battle Angel," "What Men Want," "Isn't It Romantic" and "Cold Pursuit" delivered only the mid-range results that were expected from them. "LEGO 2" led the month, but with only $85 in the bank domestically, whereas "LEGO Batman" had $135 million at this point in its run while the original "LEGO Movie" had $192 million through its first month. Coming in second place this month was "How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World," despite only being in theaters for seven days, taking in an impressive $67 million first week total. Despite this disappointing start to the year, March is looking to get 2019 on track with several big titles scheduled, so let's dive in and explore what's on the table!

March 1st - 3rd -

This first weekend of March is already underway, giving us a good idea of what is going to happen. The expected result is for "How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World" to repeat at top with around $30 million. However, if it follows the same trajectory as "How to Train Your Dragon 2," which was more frontloaded than expected, its weekend total will be $27.5 million, which theoretically could make for a close race with the weekend's biggest new arrival, Tyler Perry's A Madea Family Funeral. Tyler Perry has a pretty loyal fan base when it comes to his films as his 19 movies average an opening weekend total of $21.4 million. That average goes even higher when you look at his Madea movies as the eight of them average an opening weekend total of $26.1 million. While it may not be fair to expect "A Madea Family Funeral" to hit towards the higher end of the Madea range, this is being advertised as the final Madea movie. Whether or not that's true is a different story, but the claim that it is could give the movie an extra boost this weekend, perhaps getting it close to that $26.1 million average, which would give it a solid second place finish. It's not completely out of the question for it to sneak in a weekend win, but runner-up seems most likely.

Looking to come in a bit further down the charts is the new thriller Greta. This stars Chloe Grace Moretz as a young woman new to New York who finds that someone left a purse on the Subway, so she rather generously figures out who the owner is and returns it. Said owner is a middle-aged lady played by Isabelle Huppert who Moretz befriends because she seems nice at first, but ends up being a lot more crazy than was initially expected. The absolute best case scenario if audiences really latch onto "Greta" would be comparing this to last September's "A Simple Favor," which opened to $16 million, or perhaps fellow stalker thriller from a few years ago in "The Boy Next Door," which opened to $14.9 million in early 2016. "Greta" will be playing in about 2,400 theaters this weekend, which leaves it open to surprise. However, with the reaction only being somewhat positive and the buzz not being super loud, general audiences might be looking to save their money for next weekend's big release instead of running out to see "Greta," making some more recent horror/thrillers a possible comparison with "The Possession of Hannah Grace" ($6.4 million) in late November, "Miss Bala" ($6.8 million) on February 1, and "The Prodigy" ($5.9 million) on February 8.

March 8th - 10th-

Releasing on International Women's Day (March 8) comes the first major female-led superhero film from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and that, of course, is Captain Marvel. The name Captain Marvel has a bit of a confusing history with several different characters in the comics assuming that title from both DC and Marvel over the years, with DC's Billy Batson being the original to take on the name in 1939, being then owned by Fawcett Comics. However, Fawcett stopped publishing in 1953 due to copyright infringements from DC, claiming he was a copy of Superman. DC eventually gained the rights to the character and rebranded him as Shazam in 1972 due to trademark conflicts with Marvel, who also had a character named Captain Marvel by then. Billy Batson's Shazam has his movie coming out next month. Marvel's Captain Marvel has also had several characters take on that title through their history, but in this case it refers to Carol Danvers, who was previously known as Ms. Marvel, but took on the title of Captain Marvel in July 2012. Got all that down? In short, in 2019 Billy Batson = Shazam and Carol Danvers = Captain Marvel. Academy Award winning actress Brie Larson steps into the role for Marvel after winning best actress for "Room" in 2016.

As far as the box office potential for "Captain Marvel," your typical origin story for the MCU has opened to $80-90 million. Doctor Strange took in $85 million in 2016 while "The Guardians of the Galaxy" opened to $94 million in 2014. On the low end of the spectrum, "Ant-Man" opened to $57 million in 2015, but held exceptionally strong after great word of mouth. However, "Captain Marvel" is not going to be your typical original story. First off, it will very likely get a strong boost due to the social relevancy of being Marvel's first major female-led superhero movie. I say "major" because technically The Wasp officially took that title last year with "Ant-Man and the Wasp," but she shared the title and the movie with Ant-Man. Similar social relevancy led last year's "Black Panther" to open to $202 million. While not expected to go that high, early tracking in some reports have "Captain Marvel" opening as high as $150-175 million. An opening at on par with 2017's "Wonder Woman" ($103 million) seems to be on the low end of what will happen. The other reason this is set to have a huge opening is the fact that Captain Marvel was teased at the end of "Avengers: Infinity War," suggesting that she will be key in "Avengers: Endgame" next month, which makes this movie more of a must see in theaters for those wanting to be fully caught up before "Endgame."

March 15 - 17th-

If "Captain Marvel" ends up hitting the high end of pre-release expectations, that would lead the movie to a second weekend total of around $70 million when looking at comparable MCU titles. Otherwise it's look at a $40-60 million second weekend. Competing with it will be two new releases, both of which might struggle to hit $10 million. We'll start with Five Feet Apart, a teen romance drama where both have Cystic Fibrosis, a genetic disorder that mostly effects the lungs. The guidelines with CF patients is that they have to stay six feet apart from other people who have CF or else it could be harmful to them. But the couple in this movie, played by Cole Sprouse and Haley Lu Richardson, decide they want to strive to live a little instead of having the disease control their life, so in their relationship, they set their own rule of five feet apart. The poster child for this genre is "The Fault in Our Stars," which opened to $48 million in Summer 2014. The two movies are especially comparable as both are about sick lovers. However, a realistic comparison for "Five Feet Apart" has this going route of "Love, Simon" and "Everything, Everything" ($11.7 million for both). There's also the path of "Midnight Sun ($4 million) and "Before I Fall" ($4.7 million), but there's probably enough buzz here to get this to the former as reaction from the target audience seems positive.

The other movie that will be opening this weekend is the animated movie Wonder Park. Paramount has been very aggressive in advertising this film as the initial teaser debuted all the way back in July and they've been fairly persistent with it ever since. They even purchased a pre-game Super Bowl spot. But has the push been worth it? That's debatable. Generally speaking, movies without a major animation studio behind them, like Pixar, Disney, or Illumination, have a hard time breaking out. And "Wonder Park" is awkwardly stuck on the schedule between "How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World," which still should be doing fairly well at this point, and Disney's live-action "Dumbo" at the end of March. Are families going to take an extra trip to see a more obscure movie about a theme park that doesn't have a studio they trust behind it? Perhaps not. As far as the premise goes, this is about a young girl who has dreamed of having a magical theme park and is fortunate enough to see it come to life. It seems like a movie that could connect well with the younger audience with themes of dreaming and imagination, but the issue will be getting parents to pay for the tickets. Last March Paramount could only get "Sherlock Gnomes" to open to $10.6 million and there's plenty of other examples of smaller animated films opening between $5-10 million.

March 22nd - 24th-

There's only one new release this weekend, but it's a huge one with Jordan Peele's Us. If we're talking about a cultural phenomenon, it almost doesn't get any bigger than "Get Out," which immediately skyrocketed Jordan Peele from well-respected comedy sketch artist to one of the most beloved and trusted filmmakers of our day. Talk about a debut outing. Not only was it a huge box office success, earning $176 million domestically after a $33 million opening, but it scored a 98 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and went onto get nominated for four Oscars. And they were huge Oscars in best picture, best director, best lead actor and best original screenplay, which is nearly unheard of for a horror film. Jordan Peele even won the award for best original screenplay and nearly walked home with best picture. Of course that means we've all been champing at the bit for his next movie, which will be "Us." In addition to being from Jordan Peele, the trailers for this movie have done a great job of terrifying people as it showcases a family that is being haunted by mysterious figures that look and think exactly like them. Horror has been on a role lately and this is sure to continue. Matching the $33 million opening of "Get Out" seems like the absolute low bar as this could soar a lot higher.

March 29th - 31st- 

The Disney brigade will be in full force in 2019. They already have "Captain Marvel" this month and "Avengers: Endgame" next month. But sandwiched in between those two is their latest live action reimagining, that of Dumbo. Even though many people might be rolling their eyes at the idea of Disney remaking... EVERYTHING, Disney has been paying attention to the box office receipts rather than internet reaction. On those terms, they see "The Jungle Book" making $966 million worldwide in 2016 and "Beauty and the Beast" making $1.26 billion worldwide and they think, why stop? That's why we have the big trifecta of "Dumbo," "Aladdin" and "The Lion King" this year, with many more to come if these three are successful. "Mulan" won't be too far afterwards in March 2020. Now "Dumbo" isn't as big of an IP as "Aladdin" and "The Lion King," so the expectations aren't quite as high, but it does have Tim Burton on board as director and he's the one who started this whole trend with his 2010 "Alice in Wonderland" movie. For box office comparisons, it might be worth going back a few years to look at the opening weekends of "Cinderella" ($67.8 million) and "Maleficent" ($69.4 million). Those numbers could be a bit optimistic, but reaction to the trailers so far have been good. The biggest problem might come in Disney overbooking themselves.

The final wide release this month is the Pure Flix film Unplanned. Pure Flix is a company that distributes low-budget Christian films. They've put out 16 films since 2015 and those films have averaged a domestic total of $7.4 million. The average opening weekend total for the films that have had at least a moderate opening is $2.6 million, so we're not looking at a huge opening here. "Unplanned" is an anti-abortion film about Abby Johnson, one of the youngest Planned Parenthood clinic directors in the United States. The movie is the true story of how she was asked to assist in an ultrasound-guided abortion at 13 weeks, which then caused her to resign and become pro-life activist. The controversy surrounding this film is that the MPAA slapped it with an R-rating, a first for a Pure Flix film, for "some disturbing/bloody images." In other words, the showed scenes of abortion. The directors of the film were upset at this, claiming the MPAA allows scenes of graphic sex, violence, degradation, murder and mayhem to be PG-13, while them showing an abortion gets an R. Fair or foul? You decide. Despite the complaints, they won't be appealing. The exact total of this film will be determined by the exact theater count. Their latest film, "Indivisible," opened in 830 theaters to $1.5 million.