X-Men: Dark Phoenix Review

Before there was a Marvel Cinematic Universe, before there was Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, before even Sam Raimi brought Spider-Man to the big screen, there was X-Men. When the first X-Men film was released in 2000, super hero movies weren’t nearly as commonplace as they are now. Sure, Superman and Batman had successful cinematic runs from time to time, but it was when X-Men hit theaters that the genre really started to pick up, with the aforementioned likes of Spider-Man, the Dark Knight Trilogy, and most prominently the MCU coming into existence in its wake. The super hero genre is now the movie genre, with this success being traced back to X-Men. But now, after almost twenty years, the X-Men film series – in its current state – comes to an end.

Disney’s recent acquisition of 20th Century Fox means it’s only a matter of time before the X-Men get rebooted and integrated into the MCU in some capacity. But if recent claims by Marvel and Disney hold true, that won’t be any time soon. That’s probably for the best, however. After almost twenty years of X-Men movies of wildly varying quality, and multiple timelines that have made less sense with every installment, the franchise is a bit exhausted. And its final proper entry, Dark Phoenix – quite ironically given its title – feels burnt out. It has its moments of promise, and it’s certainly not the worst X-Men movie, but Dark Phoenix suffers from simply not being good enough. It fizzles out this decades-long movie franchise instead of giving it a satisfying conclusion, and isn’t strong enough to make you forget about what a bumpy road it’s been to get here.

The creative burnout of the franchise is perhaps most evident by the fact that Dark Phoenix is treading familiar territory. This is a film that adapts the famous Dark Phoenix story arc from the comics, in which psychic mutant  Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) gains insurmountable power from a cosmic force, which turns the once-friendly X-Woman into a deadly super being. This storyline was already adapted back in 2006 with X-Men: The Last Stand (the final installment of the original trilogy of films). The only real difference here is that it features the younger cast first established in X-Men: First Class (2011), who have somehow been featured in more films in the series than Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen (who portrayed Charles Xavier and Magneto in the opening trilogy and Days of Future Past, and were perfectly cast in their roles, even if the films themselves were never worthy of those great casting choices). I can’t think of another instance of a movie franchise that adapted the same storyline twice without being properly rebooted first. So I guess that tells you where the X-Men movie franchise is at as it breaths its last.

Jean Grey is at the center of this story. The film begins with her as a young child in 1975, and how her psychic abilities inadvertently caused the car accident that killed her parents (while protecting herself from damage). She was then taken in by Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), so that her abilities could be nurtured and grow into something positive. But Xavier, being a psychic himself, tampered with Jean’s more tragic memories, making her forget that she accidentally caused her parents’ deaths and that her father, fearing mutants, never loved her.

Fast-forward to 1992, Apocalypse has been defeated, the events of Days of Future Past happened…sometime, and human-mutant relations are at an all-time high. Charles Xavier (who looks exactly the same – sans the hair – even though he should look like Patrick Stewart in only eight-years time) now has a direct hotline to the White House, as the X-Men are now trusted with aiding the US government during times of crisis (is it just me, or does answering to the government because you were born with unique abilities actually sound like a bad thing?).

The film wastes no time in finding such a crisis, as a “solar flair” has critically damaged a space shuttle in orbit. As one would do in such a situation, the president calls a professor to send his students into space to fix the problem. Xavier chooses Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Ororo Munroe/Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kofi Smit-McPhee), Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and of course Jean Grey (who doesn’t get a cool nickname), to save the stranded astronauts from the doomed shuttle.

Using their different powers (Nightcrawler’s teleportation seems particularly handy), the X-Men manage to save the astronauts by bringing them aboard the X-Jet. But when rescuing the final astronaut, Jean gets stranded in the shuttle just as the solar flair breaks through. The flair rips apart the rocket, and travels inside of Jean’s body, saving her from certain death in the void of space. Nightcrawler manages to rescue Jean, and the X-Men return to Earth with the astronauts.

As you might expect, having a mysterious cosmic force bury itself in your body comes with a few side effects, and it isn’t long before Jean’s psychic abilities begin to amp up considerably, and she even gains newfound abilities like flight and energy projection. She also starts having severe mood swings, and begins remembering the events of her past that Charles Xavier once made her forget. With these repressed memories coming back to haunt her, in addition to gaining a power she can’t control, Jean is quickly becoming a dangerous force that threatens the X-Men themselves.

As it turns out, this “solar flair” wasn’t a solar flare at all, but the Phoenix Force, a cosmic entity of unimaginable power. Hot on the Phoenix Force’s tail are a race of shapeshifting aliens called the D’Bari, who infiltrate the Earth looking for a way to use Jean’s newfound power to help them turn Earth into their new home world.

The plot may be a bit closer to the original comics than The Last Stand was, but many of its elements still feel overly familiar, and those that are new here aren’t very compelling. The D’Bari are entirely forgettable villains, with their only named character, Vuk (Jessica Chastain), being a lackluster big bad trying to manipulate Jean Grey for her power.

Other elements simply feel rushed, such as how Magneto (Michael Fassbender) gets thrust into the proceedings, and his motivation for the rest of the film feels flimsy. So many scenes zoom on by, and though the action scenes can be fun, they feel strangely crammed together. The final  set piece personifies this, as I didn’t even realize it was the finale until it was almost done. It provides some fun action and visuals, but it never feels like the climactic battle it should be.

It all goes back to the film simply being “not good enough.” The majority of the cast is comprised of good actors, but aside from McAvoy and Turner, most of them come across as disinterested. The film even includes a notable character death in the first act (which the trailers infamously spoiled), but instead of feeling like a well-earned emotional moment, it comes across more that the actor in question just wanted out of their contract.

Another problem I’ve had with these X-Men films is how the makeup effects haven’t evolved since the first movie was released nearly two decades ago. The actors may have changed with First Class, but the effects used to bring the more fantastic-looking mutants (read: the blue ones) to life look outdated. The makeup for Beast remains as it was in the 2006 film, while Mystique’s hasn’t been altered since 2000. Some might say the filmmakers are aiming for continuity between the films, but seeing as the X-Men movies have retconned, reset and flat-out ignored so many established character and story elements in the past, clearly continuity isn’t at the forefront for this franchise. Save the continuity for the storytelling, people. If the makeup effects look outdated, change them up a bit.

I’m sounding incredibly negative towards the film, but I admit it’s not a total lost cause. There are moments of fun to be had in Dark Phoenix, but again, nothing that feels like anything more than your run-of-the-mill superhero fare. And considering this conclusion to the X-Men comes relatively shortly after the MCU’s decade-long payoff with the exceptional Avengers: Endgame, Dark Phoenix feels all the more underwhelming.

I don’t think Dark Phoenix is on the same level of franchise ruination as say, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald. But seeing as it was destined to be the final installment in this nearly twenty-year old X-Men movie franchise once Disney started eyeing Fox, Dark Phoenix is a big letdown of a sendoff.

 

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Banjo-Kazooie Are in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

Oh. My. Shatner.

They did it. They finally did it!

During Nintendo’s E3 Direct, it was revealed that Banjo-Kazooie will be joining the Super Smash Bros. roster sometime this Fall, complete with music by Grant Kirkhope and a Spiral Mountain stage.

Oh yeah, the Dragon Quest “Hero” was announced for a Summer release as well. But he’s not Banjo-Kazooie so he kind of got overshadowed.

This is… This is amazing! For years I (and so many others) have wanted, and hoped, and dreamed that this could be a possibility. Now our patience has paid off, and this dream has become a reality.

With the exception of Super Mario RPG’s Geno, I don’t think there’s another character left who has been so strongly requested for so long as Banjo-Kazooie. And now, after all this time, the bear and bird tandem finally join their rightful place among the Super Smash Bros. roster.

Now if we could just get Geno…

Here is the Banjo-Kazooie reveal trailer, courtesy of GameXplain (admittedly, it is a little bit of a bummer it’s mostly a tweaked version of King K. Rool’s trailer, but I’m not about to let that dash any of my excitement).

Godzilla: King of the Monsters Review

Shared “Cinematic Universes” are all the rage these days, after Marvel did an unprecedented job at tying together so many different franchises sharing connected narratives. While other studios are trying – and failing – to play catch-up with Marvel’s accomplishments, there is one other Cinematic Universe that is actually working: Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros.’s “MonsterVerse,” which seeks to reunite the worlds of Toho’s Godzilla monsters with those of King Kong.

There are a few key reasons why this MonsterVerse is succeeding where so many other Cinematic Universes introduced in Marvel’s wake have failed. The first is that Toho established shared universes with their characters some time ago, with iconic monsters like Mothra and Rodan having their own features before they went toe-to-toe with Godzilla. The other reason is that the MonsterVerse has thus far not aimed any higher than it needs to. Whereas the DC Extended Universe tried to catch up with Marvel all at once and predictably failed because of it, and Universal’s ill-fated “Dark Universe” collapsed before it could even begin, the MonsterVerse isn’t biting off more than it can chew.

So far, the MonsterVerse has kept things simple. Godzilla over here, King Kong over there, with the two set to clash in the follow-up to King of the Monsters, and any future films being dealt with one at a time. Its simple, short-term goals have helped the MonsterVerse stay afloat, instead of crumbling like one of the buildings Godzilla is bound to come into contact with in an attempt to replicate the MCU.

While the overall franchise is the only other working cinematic universe of today, the individual pieces of the MonsterVerse unfortunately can’t claim to be as well made as those Marvel provides. 2014’s Godzilla – in an attempt to take things seriously – focused far too much of its time on the human drama, to the point that its titular lizard only had a handful of minutes on screen. 2017’s Kong: Skull Island poised a reverse dilemma, with fun creature combat but flat human characters. Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the third film in the MonsterVerse, suffers from similar faults as Skull Island, and even doubles down on them. It’s because of the weak human characters and their flimsy narratives that I can’t say that Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a good movie in the traditional sense. But because of how generous the film is with its giant monster action and spectacle – not to mention the fanservice for long-time Godzilla fans such as myself – it’s an undeniable fun time.

Appropriately taking place five years after the previous Godzilla, King of the Monsters has seen the giant, atomic reptile go into hiding after his grudge match with the duo of “MUTOs” in the previous film leveled San Francisco. During the gargantuan scuffle, a married couple of scientists, Mark and Emma Russel (Kyle Chandler and Vera Farmiga) lost their son. The couple drifted apart after that, with their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) living with Emma, who became a researcher for Monarch (the government organization who has secretly been studying “Titans” such as Godzilla and King Kong for decades), while Mark’s grief lead him to alcohol for a time, before he picked himself up and continued his research studying animals.

Emma is currently studying one of the seventeen-plus hibernating Titans discovered after the events of the first film. This particular Titan is Mothra, who soon hatches into its larval form, which makes for the perfect opportunity for Emma to test her “ORCA” device, which can emit frequencies that can alter a Titan’s behavior. Just as Emma activates ORCA and soothes the rampaging Mothra, a group of eco-terrorists – lead by Alan Jonah (Charles Dance) – invade the facility, kill the scientists, take Emma and Madison hostage, and take the ORCA with them.

With his family hostage, Mark is recruited by Monarch scientists – including Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), returning from the 2014 film – to track down Jonah, save Mark’s family, and prevent Jonah from awakening any more Titans with the ORCA. Things become more complicated, however, when Jonah uses the ORCA (and a good deal of explosives) to free a particularly powerful Titan frozen in Antarctica. This Titan is King Ghidorah, the three-headed, lightning-spewing golden dragon who – in any Godzilla continuity – has served as Godzilla’s archnemesis. But King Ghidorah soon proves to be a greater cataclysm than even Jonah had imagined, as it uses its immense power to begin awakening the rest of the world’s Titans all at once (including Rodan, the secondary antagonist monster of the film). With Ghidorah threatening the entire planet, Monarch looks for a way to aide Godzilla (Ghidorah’s natural enemy) in defeating the dragon in a desperate attempt to save the Earth.

As I said, the plot is incredibly silly. The artfulness of the 2014 film is thrown out the window in favor of all-out monster action. That’s perfectly fine in most respects, as I believe a Godzilla film can do just fine prioritizing the giant reptiles kicking each other’s ass. With that said, there are certain elements of the plot that do unfortunately play out as more stupid than silly.

First and foremost, the human villain’s plot seems shaky at best. I can understand that he’s an environmental extremist who’s trying to destroy human influence to let nature take over. But unleashing ancient, atomic giants seems like the opposite of helping the planet. I suppose I can write off Jonah as a crazy old man on a suicide mission of sorts, but a less forgivable element in the villain scenario takes place with a twist at the end of the film’s first act, when (without spoiling too much) it’s revealed that Jonah has an accomplice. This accomplice is presented as the more “human” of the villains, but in trying to bring out sympathy in their bonkers plan, it just makes the character feel like a directionless mess. It may have been easier to stick with the crazy old guy and the gold dragon, as far as villains are concerned (and my boy Rodan, of course).

Another disappointment comes in the form of the main human hero. Though Kyle Chandler works in the role of Mark Russel, the role doesn’t have a whole lot to work with. The way the film ties his backstory into the events of the 2014 film is interesting, but as a character, he doesn’t have a whole lot going for him. Despite the advertisements presenting Millie Bobby Brown as the human star of the film, the Madison character seems strangely underutilized.

This has actually been a weird trend with this MonsterVerse. Bryan Cranston was made out to be the star of the 2014 film, but he was killed off before Godzilla even found his way into the picture. In Kong: Skull Island, John Goodman only lasted until about the halfway point. Now here in King of the Monsters, the character who feels like they should be the main character has more of a bit part, while the actual main character isn’t particularly memorable.

I think there are just too many human characters all around, to be honest. On top of all the ones I’ve already mentioned, there are others still, such as Dr. Rick Stanton (Bradley Whitford), a scientist who’s supposed to provide comic relief, but just kind of seems to be there. Again, this film doesn’t spend as much time on the humans as the 2014 film, yet it features considerably more of them. With so many humans and so little time dedicated to them, most of them come across as paper thin. Hopefully future films in this crossover franchise will hold back on the number of human characters a little bit, so that we can have a couple of memorable human characters coexisting with the giant monsters we all came to see (and just make Millie Bobby Brown the main character).

With all these complaints though, I’d be an absolute liar if I said I wasn’t grinning ear-to-ear several times during the movie. Because if you have a soft spot for giant monsters duking it out, Godzilla: King of the Monsters delivers just that, and in spades. While the 2014 film had a slow burn leading up to Godzilla (which is fine), and then often cut away just as he was about to fight the other monsters as a means to tease the audience (not so fine), King of the Monsters doesn’t waste any time with reintroducing us to Godzilla and Mothra. And when Ghidorah and Rodan come into the picture, the movie delivers plenty of them as well. With most of Toho’s mainstay monsters in the film (sans MechaGodzilla and Gigan), the film lavishes the opportunity to utilize them at every turn, with each subsequent clash between monsters outdoing the last.

King Ghidorah, it should be noted, gets extra special treatment. Mothra is almost always depicted as “the good monster,” while Rodan has set aside its differences with Godzilla to help fight other monsters like Ghidorah on a few occasions. King Ghidorah, on the other hand, has always been Godzilla’s ultimate foe. And King of the Monsters presents Ghidorah as just that. It never fails to hype up the three-headed dragon as nothing short of the ultimate evil that all other monsters fear. The film pays such great respects to Godzilla’s nemesis, that you wonder if he was director Michael Dougherty’s favorite monster growing up, and now is all too happy to fanboy out about him within his own movie (and I mean this in the best way).

As someone who absolutely loved Godzilla as a kid, I was pleasantly surprised with how much earnest fanservice King of the Monsters provides. While the 2014 film tried to be as grounded as this material could possibly be (which is an interesting take in and of itself), King of the Monsters fully embraces the more ludicrous aspects of the franchise, never once feeling embarrassed by its source material. We get subtle nods to past Godzilla films (Monarch classifies Ghidorah as “Monster Zero,” just as he was labeled in the original continuity, with Godzilla himself being “Monster Zero-One,” and Rodan “Monster Zero-Two”), as well as direct adaptations of Godzilla lore that the 2014 film may have avoided (yes, King Ghidorah is from outer space). We get plenty of references to Skull Island and King Kong himself, to remind audiences of his impending clash with Godzilla. And perhaps best of all, we actually get the Godzilla theme music!

The special effects used to bring these monsters to life is impressive, but its how much King of the Monsters relishes in the opportunity to have them duke it out, destroying entire cities in the process, that truly delight (in an unnecessary but much appreciated detail, the film makes a point that the cities have been evacuated before the monsters make their way to them, so it thankfully doesn’t relish in the casualties of it all in the way films like Man of Steel did).

Not too long ago, Avengers: Endgame showed the world that you can have deep, complex characters amidst fantastic action and franchise fanservice. So it may be disappointing that in this day and age when the MCU set the standard for blockbusters, that the MonsterVerse still hasn’t been able to weave strong characters into the spectacle of it all. King of the Monsters may not be the thoughtful and poignant franchise blockbuster that Endgame was by any stretch of the imagination. But damn it all if it isn’t a whole lot of fun.

 

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Aladdin (2019) Review

There’s a famous scene in the beloved television series Friends in which Rachel tries to make an English Trifle for dessert, but inadvertently mixes up the recipe with that of Sheppard’s pie, resulting in a horrible mix of flavors. “It tastes like feet!” exclaims Ross. Meanwhile, the simple-minded, food-loving Joey continues to eat the ill-prepared dessert with delight. “What’s not to like?” says Joey, not minding the clashing tastes. “Custard, good! Jam, good! Meat, good!”

I bring up this random scene of television because I feel like, when it comes to Disney’s recent live-action remakes of their animated back catalogue, I’m totally Joey. While much of the internet seems to be the Ross of this scenario, bemoaning the very existence of these live-action remakes for “ruining their childhood,” I think it’s important to view and critique these remakes for what they are. And while some claim that Disney is undermining their animated films by attempting to ‘legitimize’ them through live-action, I don’t believe that’s the reason for these remakes. As an immense fan of animation, I would be among the first to cry foul if I thought Disney’s reasoning for these remakes was because they thought the animated versions weren’t valid stories and need to be live-action in order to attain that validation.

It’s true that, because Disney’s animated films tend to be timeless classics, they don’t necessarily need to be remade. But these live-action remakes are here to stay for a while, so why not view them for what they are? And what they are are more homages to Disney’s animated films than they are replacements. They’re here to provide nostalgia and fanservice for fans of the original animated versions, and to entertain.

Admittedly, the quality of these live-action remakes has varied – with the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent being particularly forgettable, while The Jungle Book was the one example that was as good or better than the 1967 original – which makes them the attempted English trifle in the aforementioned Friends metaphor. The right bits and pieces are often there, but the results may very. Still, you can’t disregard these live-action Disney remakes just because they exist, and you do have to view them as the homages that they are, and how well they may or may not pull that off.

In short: “Jungle Book, good. Dumbo, good. Beauty and the Beast, good.”

So where does Aladdin fall into this equation? I’m happy to say I think it’s the best of these remakes since The Jungle Book. But at the same time, much of the reason for that is because of how closely it follows the template of the beloved animated original from 1992, which surely won’t help justifying the necessity of these remakes to the naysayers.

The story here is more or less the same as in the 1992 film. Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a thief living on the streets in the kingdom of Agrabah, whose only friend is his pet monkey, Abu. Though Aladdin is a thief, he only steals to survive, and is otherwise a selfless individual. Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) is the daughter of the Sultan of Agrabah (Navid Negahban), though she rarely leaves the palace due to her father’s strict rules. One day, Princess Jasmine sneaks out of the palace in disguise and meets Aladdin, and the two instantly have a connection. But Aladdin, unaware of her true identity but knowing she’s from the palace, believes someone like him is unworthy of her attention.

“Even Jafar’s parrot sidekick Iago returns, this time voiced by Alan Tudyk (because this is a modern Disney movie, so of course it’s Alan Tudyk).”

Meanwhile, the Sultan’s grand vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), tired of playing second fiddle and always wanting more power, seeks to overthrow the Sultan. Jafar plans to do so by claiming a magic oil lamp from the Cave of Wonders, with which he can have anything he desires. But only a chosen one can enter the Cave of Wonders ,and Jafar – being a sensible bad guy –  has been goading others to retrieve the lamp for him for some time, though all of his patsies have met an untimely end at the entrance of the cave. But when Jafar stumbles across Aladdin, he’s found his diamond in the rough. Revealing Aladdin’s dream girl as the princess of Agrabah, Jafar promises Aladdin the riches he would need to be worthy of a princess if he retrieves the mystic lamp. But Jafar betrays Aladdin, and the latter ends up with the lamp in his own possession, and with it summon the all-powerful Genie (Will Smith), who will grant Aladdin three wishes, thus setting off a fun and comedic adventure that sees Aladdin try to win Jasmine’s heart with the aide of the Genie.

The story is admittedly very familiar, with Aladdin playing closer to its animated original perhaps more so than any of the other live-action Disney remakes of recent years. On one hand, that should make the movie an easy win for fans of the original who don’t think the movie’s existence threatens their nostalgic memories. On the other hand, it also means that – as previously stated – this film won’t change the minds of those who don’t see a reason for these remakes. But if you view 2019’s Aladdin for what it is – a loving tribute to the 1992 original – there’s an entertaining movie to be had here.

That’s not to say that this Aladdin doesn’t make any changes, just that it probably could have made a few other tweaks to better justify itself and these continuing remakes as a whole. Perhaps the two biggest character differences are Princess Jasmine’s more fleshed-out character arc, and Jafar’s newly-introduced backstory.

Though I strongly disagree with the criticisms that are often aimed at Disney Princesses, it is true that Disney has made a lot of progress in creating more fleshed-out characters within the archetype in recent years. And in this day and age of Frozens and Moanas, a direct adaptation of 1992’s Princess Jasmine may have felt too simple. The new film does a good job at detailing her story and motivation, as she doesn’t simply not want to marry a prince this time around, but refuses to do so because she honestly feels she would be a better heir to her kingdom than anyone else. Meanwhile, Jafar’s new backstory gives the character a little extra dimension as to why he’s never satisfied with the power he already has, and why he always seeks more.

Most of the songs from the animated film are recreated here (with the unfortunate omission of Jafar’s reprise of ‘Prince Ali‘). But there’s one new addition in the form of Speachless, a new belter by Naomi Scott’s Jasmine that more than holds its own among such classics as Friend Like Me and A Whole New World, and actually puts up an argument to being my favorite, non-Frozen Disney song in recent years.

Another small addition comes in the form of a comedic scene in which the Genie tries to help Aladdin win over Jasmine through dancing. But seeing as Aladdin can’t dance, the Genie magically controls Aladdin like a puppet to bust out the dance moves. This scene is pretty funny, and exclusive to this version, making you wish there could have been a few more scenes like this one added into the mix.

The cast is also enjoyable, with Massoud and Scott giving memorable performances as Aladdin and Jasmine. Though Kenzari’s Jafar may take a while longer to get used to. His performance is solid in a number of ways, but Kenzari is too soft-spoken in the role. When you remember this is the same character who in 1992 had a distinct regality in his voice which could quickly melt away into a howling cackle courtesy of Jonathan Freeman, the new Jafar seems nonthreatening by comparison (which may explain the absence of Jafar’s musical bit from the original).

Of course, the big question is how good is Will Smith’s Genie? While no one could ever replace Robin Williams (whose vocal performance as the Genie in the 1992 film is one of the great voice-over performances in cinema), I’m happy to say Will Smith makes for an entertaining alternative. Smith’s performance of the Genie often pays homage to Williams, without being derivative of it. As was the case with the original film, the Genie is far and away the standout character, and Will Smith does his own thing as the Genie that does justice to the role that Williams’ made so iconic.

If you’re one of those people who disregards Disney’s recent remakes by default, well then I pity you for not giving things a proper chance. Aladdin certainly won’t sway those who are dead-set against the mere existence of these remakes, and the film’s over familiarity might not win over the more reasonable detractors, either. But if you’re just looking for a fun Disney movie, the 2019 Aladdin delivers just that, with plenty of spectacle and great musical numbers. Fans of the 1992 original willing to give this remake a chance might even have the most fun with it, given that the film often plays more like a loving tribute to the original than a remake trying to better its source material.

In short: “Aladdin, good!”

 

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Wario’s Woods Review

*Review based on the NES version of Wario’s Woods, as released on the New Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console*

Wario’s Woods was released simultaneously on the NES and SNES in 1994 (being the last officially licensed game released on the former). Unfortunately for Wario’s Woods, it saw very little attention in its day, seeing as gaming was well into the 16-bit generation, meaning the NES version went under the radar, while the SNES version was released amid many more high profile games. That’s more than a little bit of a shame, because Wario’s Woods brought an interesting twist to the falling-block puzzle genre.

Working as something of a cross between Tetris and Dr. Mario, Wario’s Woods sees players try to eliminate multi-colored monsters from a playing field. Getting rid of these monsters will require the aid of similarly colored bombs. By lining up a row of at least two monsters and one bomb of the same color (either horizontally, vertically or diagonally), you will destroy the monsters. If you can create a stack of at least five objects of the same color (again, with at least one bomb required), the eliminated monsters will leave behind a colored gem. If you line up monsters or bombs with a gem of the same color, every object of that color will be removed from the playing field instantly.

Be weary, if you can’t keep chains of eliminations going fast enough, Wario will appear above the field for a short time, summon more monsters, and lower the ceiling, decreasing the amount of space you have to work with (the ceiling can be raised, as you may have guessed, by completing more rows).

It may sound like standard fair for the genre, but the big twist Wario’s Woods brings to the table is that you manually control an on-screen character. Taking inspiration from Super Mario Bros. 2, Wario’s Woods pits Toad in the spotlight (well before he earned the title of ‘Captain’), who has to pick up and place the monsters and bombs under direct control of the player.

Toad can lift and drop whatever object is in front of him with a push of the B button, and can lift and drop an entire stack of objects with the press of A. Toad can of course only lift things that are level to him, but has slightly more leeway when dropping them (three squares of the playing field above his head). He can even kick an object to the next open space by pressing down on the D-pad along with one of the key buttons. Toad can also drop items/stacks directly underneath himself, and objects Toad is currently holding will also count towards a completed row should it match up. Mechanics like this can really be lifesavers if you find yourself sinking down the board amidst the rising stacks of monsters. Unfortunately, the aforementioned gems are too heavy for Toad to lift, meaning the player will have to get extra crafty if they want to take advantage of their ability.

It sounds pretty simple, but it’s pretty incredible how addicting the gameplay can get. This is one of those games that you can seriously lose track of time with. Wario’s Woods even keeps things fresh as you push further through the game, introducing monsters that can only be eliminated with diagonally-placed rows, and monsters that require to be part of two completed rows in quick succession in order to be vanquished.

The game consists of two different versions of its story mode (oddly referred to as “Round Game”), categorized as “A Mode” and “B Mode.” Both versions feature 100 courses, with the only difference I can tell being that the B game features boss fights. This is a game that doesn’t mess around, either. Wario’s Woods can get brutally difficult at times, with some levels seemingly punishing the player with certain death over one slight miscalculation.

It’s pretty long for a falling-block puzzler, especially on NES. Fortunately, this was one of the few games on the NES with a save function, with every fifth level working as a checkpoint for the player’s progress (with every completed fifth level being selectable thereafter). The downside to this is that if you’ve completed four straight levels and lose on the fifth, you’ll have to go through the previous four all over again. You can obtain continues which can be used to replay the current stage upon defeat, but you can only do so by collecting 30 coins. And you only get these coins if you complete a stage fast enough (every time Wario’s ugly mug shows up, 20% of the stage’s possible coins are deduced). So most continues you get will be obtained in the early stages. Because, again, this is one tough puzzle game. Only the most diehard puzzle fans will consistently claim coins in the game’s later stages.

The difficulty in claiming continues may be off-putting to some, especially considering the game’s already steep learning curve (okay, the basics are simple, but mastering them well enough to finish the stages quickly while avoiding Game Overs is another beast entirely).

One cumbersome element takes place when the objects fill the screen and the ceiling falls to the point that Toad can only move horizontally in a crawlspace equal to his size. You kind of wish, in these specific instances, that Toad could swap positions with the object directly in front of him. Because at this point, the game is essentially over, unless an enemy/bomb spawns in just the right spot to complete a row out of sheer luck. Some might say this is in the same tradition as Tetris picking up speed until you can no longer control it, but Tetris is a game you play as long as possible to beat your high score. Wario’s Woods features stage progression, so it can be frustrating when you get to the point when you know you’re going to have to replay the last few stages over, but just have to watch helplessly as Toad inevitably gets crushed, unless sheer luck buys you an extra few seconds.

Wario’s Woods also features a time attack mode and a VS. mode for two players, which could certainly become intense showdowns. These alternative modes give Wario’s Woods some variety, and can give you a much needed break when the “Round Game” gets too difficult.

One issue with the game is more of a recurring issue with Nintendo itself. And that’s how it’s the NES version of Wario’s Woods that keeps seeing re-releases, as opposed to the SNES version. For an NES game, Wario’s Woods looks great (being released so late in the console’s life, the game’s visuals are comparable to Kirby’s Adventure in how they push the NES), but it still doesn’t look as good (or as timeless) as the SNES version. What’s worse, every stage in the NES version has the same music. And while it may be somewhat catchy, the lack of audial variety does take something away from the experience.

It’s the NES version that has been released on every downloadable service Nintendo has provided, from Wii to Switch. It’s reflective of a weird trend with Nintendo where they seem to constantly be re-releasing NES games, but rarely those from their other systems. And that’s a shame because (unpopular opinion incoming) aside from the Mario and Mega Man games, not a whole lot of NES titles hold up. Meanwhile, the SNES has a timeless quality to the gameplay and aesthetics of so many of its games, that Nintendo’s apparent preference for its predecessor is dumbfounding. At least Wario’s Woods can claim to be among the handful of NES games not called Mario or Mega Man that’s still fun, anyway.

Wario’s Woods is a challenging puzzle game, no doubt. But those with the patience for it will find an incredibly addicting and rewarding experience that will keep them coming back. Now if only Nintendo could remember that this game was also released on Super NES…

 

7

New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe Review

Poor New Super Mario Bros. U. As far as the “New Super Mario” games go, it was a marked improvement over the DS, Wii and 3DS titles that came before it. But due to its status as the fourth entry in the sub-series, and being released mere months after the uneventful New Super Mario Bros. 2, fans were a bit New Super Mario Bros-ed out. Being released on the ill-fated Wii U probably didn’t help it in the long run, either.

While the Super Mario series as a whole is known for innovation and reinventing itself, the ‘New’ sub-series was a throwback to Mario’s early side-scrolling years. The 2006 DS original was a nice nostalgic experience, and the Wii sequel added four-player co-op into the equation. By the time New Super Mario Bros. 2 on 3DS rolled around, and offered little to nothing in the realms of newness, gamers were burnt out on the retrograde sub-series. That really is a shame, because New Super Mario Bros. U felt like a refinement for the ‘NSMB’ series, even if the “New” in the title was increasingly ironic by this point.

NSMBU, like many Wii U titles before it, has been given a second life on Nintendo Switch (complete with the New Super Luigi U DLC intact). While it would be hard to argue that the title is one of Mario’s finest, hopefully its presence on Switch will allow a wider audience to see what an improvement it was over its NSMB predecessors.

Like the other NSMB titles, ‘U‘ was more interested in recreating Mario’s past than it was in paving the way for his future. It’s still a side scroller that sees players try to conquer obstacle course-like stages by reaching the flagpole at the end. With that said, however, this fourth New installment had a much more playful and intricate sense of level design. Though it may not stack up to classics like Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World, the depth and creativity of the level design was stronger here than it had been in any other 2D Mario title since those games (unless we’re counting Yoshi’s Island, of course).

“The Van Gogh “Starry Night” inspired stage is the one instance when the New Super Mario Bros. games decided to do something visually different.”

Sadly, the visuals and music, while not technically bad, leave a lot to be desired. It’s almost humorous that this game – not Super Mario 3D World or Mario Kart 8 – was the first Mario game to be released in HD. It looks great from a technical standpoint, but while the 2D Mario games of old were visually and aesthetically distinct from one another, the New Super Mario Bros. games all used the same visual style. Sure, the graphics are certainly better now than the previous games, but from an artistic standpoint, New Super Mario Bros. U – like the other NSMB games – is Mario at its most vanilla.

At least the world of Super Mario is colorful and vibrant enough that, even in this vanilla state, it still has its charm. The music, sadly, suffers considerably more. The music isn’t bad per se, but it’s more or less the same as it was in the previous NSMB games. It can be fun and catchy, but this is far from Mario music at its best.

When you consider that the classic 2D Marios such as Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World all looked stylistically unique to the point that you could identify them from a single character sprite, and provided some of the most iconic video game tunes of all time, it was more than a little disappointing that New Super Mario Bros. U simply provided more of the same in terms of visuals and audio.

Still, it’s the gameplay and level design that are the stars of the show, and that’s where New Super Mario Bros. U always shined brightly over the preceding ‘New’ Super Mario games. The four player co-operative mayhem of New Super Mario Bros. Wii made its return here, with level design that just feels better suited for the additional players this time around, while also having enough to them that they don’t feel empty when going it solo.

As in the original Wii U release, New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe can be played as Mario, Luigi and Toad. Unlike the original version, however, Toad isn’t separated into two characters, with the yellow and blue variants merely being pallet swaps for the same character this time. The Switch release fills the void of the fourth character by bringing in the addition of Toadette, as well as Nabbit’s inclusion in the main game this time around, as he only appeared in the DLC in the original release.

“Using the Super Crown on a character other than Toadette…what could possibly go wrong?”

While Mario, Luigi and Toad all play identically in the main game, Nabbit is tailor-made for beginners, as he is unharmed by enemies. Toadette is somewhere in between, as playing as her will turn 1-Up Mushrooms into 3-Up Moons, and many of the usual power-ups are replaced with the ‘Super Crown.’ The Super Crown can only be used by Toadette, and transforms her into Peachette, a suspiciously Princess Peach-esque character who gains a double jump, in addition to Peach’s magic gliding abilities (essentially, she plays like the other characters when they get the flying squirrel suit).

I don’t mind that these characters are made with first-time gamers and young children in mind. That’s perfectly fair, as those audiences need to start somewhere. And these characters will probably make learning the ropes that much easier. What’s less tolerable, however, is now that the yellow and blue Toad are the same character, and two players can’t pick the same character, if you’re playing with a whole group of four, someone is going to have to play as one of the beginner characters whether they want to or not. What’s even worse, Mario isn’t present in the New Super Luigi U campaign, meaning that two players will have to play as Toadette and Nabbit no matter their skill level. Somehow, Nintendo has made the four player mode less appealing on Switch than it was on Wii U as a side effect of this.

Again, I have no issues with Nintendo including easier characters with new players in mind, but the fact that one or two players will have to play as them if you have a full group seems like a glaring oversight. Couldn’t the Switch version have added a few other characters who play like the standard ones in addition to the beginner characters?

The other big issue that’s plagued NSMBU since its Wii U release are the lackluster boss fights. Mario games may not be known for difficult boss battles, but the series has always done a great job at making them creative. Even the first New Super Mario Bros. on DS had a good variety of boss fights. But in New Super Mario Bros. U, not only are all the end-bosses of each world merely the Koopalings, but their battles don’t feel very different from what they were way back in Super Mario Bros. 3. And the mid-bosses of each world are mostly comprised of different fights against (the insultingly easy) Boom-Boom. Only in the late game does NSMBU throw different mid-bosses at you. And by that point, it feels like too little, too late.

As negative as I may be sounding by this point, New Super Mario Bros. U was always a great platformer, and a proper step up from its similarly-named precursors. Simply making it to the end of each stage is a joy to experience, but completionists will really have their work cut out for them by tracking down the three star coins hidden in every stage, as well as the secret exits found in select stages. And despite the unfortunate character limitations in the Switch re-release, New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe is still a good time with multiple players.

For those seeking a bit more of a challenge, the New Super Luigi U campaign provides just that. Not only does Luigi regain his slippery physics that originated in Super Mario Bros. 2 in this mode, but the stages themselves – though shorter – feature a steeper difficulty. Though the world map is identical in both games, the stages of New Super Luigi U are entirely different than those of New Super Mario Bros. U. The downside to this is that, by nature of sharing an identical overworld, the levels with secret exits in Luigi’s adventure are found in the same exact spots as those in the base game, which is an unfortunate limitation that takes away a bit of distinction in Luigi’s titular mode.

Having both games together, as well as returning challenge modes, means New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe certainly provides a good amount of content for platforming enthusiasts. Of course, even with its status as the best “New Super Mario Bros.” game, U Deluxe still falls drastically short if compared to Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, which is unquestionably the better option for 2D platforming fans. And unlike the Wii U releases, Tropical Freeze was released first this time. So if you’re only going to get one first-party 2D platformer on Switch, stick with DK.

New Super Mario Bros. U Summation

Consistently fun level design and fluid character control made this the best New Super Mario title. The levels feel more tailor-made for multiple players than previous entries. And like any great Mario game, it’s held up strong over the years. But the game is ultimately held back by flavorless aesthetics and poor boss fights.

7

 

New Super Luigi U Summation

“I just find the hidden Luigis of NSLU to be a hoot.”

The briefer, tougher levels make the Luigi-centric campaign something of the “hard mode” of NSMBU. A fun, steeper challenge for platforming veterans. But the multiplayer option is less fun now that half of a full group are required to play as the “easy mode” characters. And the fact it’s confined to the overworld of the base game prevents it from branching out more into its own beast.

 

7

 

Overall Summation

“Okay, this level is beautiful. Why can’t more of the game look like this?!”

While we were all burnt out on New Super Mario Bros. back in 2012, revisiting the Wii U installment on its shiny 2019 Switch release, and being reminded of how much of an improvement it was over its predecessors, makes you wonder what Nintendo could have done with a 2D Mario game in the seven years since. With NSMBU, Nintendo finally began to get their groove for 2D Mario back, which made it a fitting ‘finale’ to the New Super Mario Bros. sub-series. Hopefully this re-release inspires Nintendo to test where they can take the formula next (fingers crossed it comes with more distinct visuals and better music though).

 

7

Pokemon Detective Pikachu Review

At long last, the video game movie curse is lifted!

Ever since the 1993 Super Mario Bros. live-action film introduced the world to cinematic video game adaptations, the genre has – somewhat uniquely – never really been any good. At least the earlier adaptations had something of an excuse, as they were trying to figure out a way to take video games, (which by nature are quite different than movies) and translate them to movie audiences. As the years went on and video game movies never got any better (and in fact, often got worse), it seemed like game-to-movie adaptations were nothing but a failed novelty. Sure, there were a few video game movies here and there that perhaps appealed to the fans of the games (Mortal Kombat comes to mind), but it would be difficult to call them good movies unless you fit snuggly into the franchise’s established fanbase. But now, we have Pokemon Detective Pikachu, the first honest-to-goodness video game movie I would call a ‘good movie.’

Obviously, this live-action/CG hybrid is based on Nintendo’s beloved Pokemon franchise. While plenty of animated Pokemon films have been released over the years, they have all been direct continuations of the TV series (even if they don’t always share the same continuity). Pokemon Detective Pikachu, however, is not only the first live-action Pokemon movie, but the first one to be directly adapted from one of the games (interestingly, the film is based on a relatively obscure spinoff title in the franchise, the Nintendo 3DS’s Detective Pikachu).

What makes Detective Pikachu work so well may sound obvious, but it’s something that has eluded Hollywood’s video game adaptations for decades: It embraces and respects its source material, while telling a cinematic story set in that world. Because of this, Detective Pikachu  will delight fans of its franchise, and should even win over audiences who may not be overly familiar with the games or TV series, because it tells a good story.

So many video game movies come across as being embarrassed that they’re based on video games, and don’t seem to give much effort into being good movies, either. Pokemon Detective Pikachu feels tremendously refreshing with how it delights in indulging the world of the Pokemon series.

The story centers around Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), a young insurance salesman with previous dreams of becoming a Pokemon trainer. Tim has an estranged relationship with his father Harry – a famous detective of Ryme City – due to what Tim perceives as his father’s preference for work over his son, particularly after his mother passed away while Tim was still young. But one day, Tim gets a distressing call. His father, it seems, has perished in a car accident while in the midst of a case.

Tim travels to Ryme City to gather his father’s belongings, but while there, he stumbles across a most peculiar character: a Pikachu capable of speaking human language, though only Tim is able to hear him (everyone else hears the iconic squeaks of “Pika Pika Pi!”). This is Detective Pikachu (Ryan Renolds), the Pokemon belonging to Tim’s father.

Detective Pikachu was involved in the crash that supposedly claimed the life of Tim’s father, and is suffering from amnesia because of it. Despite his busted memory, Detective Pikachu remembers one important detail; Tim’s father is alive. After a bit of convincing, Detective Pikachu manages to sway Tim into helping him discover the mystery of what happened to Harry, and to solve whatever case he was working on at the time of the crash. The duo soon becomes a trio, as they are joined by Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton) a plucky junior reporter trying to become a serious journalist, as well as her Pokemon partner, a Psyduck (so I guess it’s a quartet).

It’s a simple detective mystery plot, but it makes for a good story thanks to the likable characters (particularly Pikachu himself, with Ryan Renolds giving a terrific vocal performance as the iconic character), as well as its embracing of the Pokemon license as a whole. Indelible elements of Pokemon lore find their way into the plot, with the film both paying respects to its license and also utilizing it for the benefit of its writing (the film finds plenty of ways to bring out humor in its creatures). Pokemon Detective Pikachu is a charming film for established fans and newcomers alike.

It’s hard to believe the original reveals for the various CG designs of the Pokemon were met with backlash, because honestly, they’re really faithful recreations. Pikachu looks like Pikachu, Charizard looks like Charizard, Psyduck looks like Psyduck. The CGI of the film is impressive, and the fact that they stayed true to the character designs of the games is admirable (ain’t that right, Sonic?). Perhaps the only one that still throws me off is Jigglypuff, who is given fur in the film, but I always figured had more of a balloon-like quality. But that’s not much of an issue, especially since Jigglypuff only shows up for its expected joke (singing karaoke at a bar, and putting the patrons to sleep). One mixed visual element may be Ryme City itself, which may look a little too dark at times – leaning into its Film Noir aspect perhaps a little too much – but the many different Pokemon keep the cute and colorful aspects of the franchise well intact.

Pokemon Detective Pikachu admittedly has its faults, with the most notable being its somewhat fragmented structure. While the film is always charming, it can feel tonally episodic. The film’s elements of action, emotion, comedy and mystery seem separated into their own scenes (“this scene’s a funny moment!” “This part’s an action scene!” “This scene has emotion and drama!”). It’s never bad, but you do kind of wish Pokemon Detective Pikachu could better blend its different elements together (Pixar comes to mind) instead of feeling so fragmented. Still, that’s ultimately a small price to pay when you remember that – by God! -Detective Pikachu is a video game movie that’s actually good.

It’s not just that it breaks the video game movie jinx that makes Pokemon Detective Pikachu stand out, but also in the possibilities it opens up for franchise filmmaking. Back in 2017, The Lego Batman Movie accomplished something similar, showcasing a Batman feature that could take its franchise in a brand new direction without affecting the integrity of the license itself. And I think Pokemon Detective Pikachu accomplishes something similar.

A sequel has already been confirmed, but I hope that Detective Pikachu begins a new trend of Pokemon movies altogether. Some Pokemon movies can be sequels and share continuities, while others could be standalone features with their own styles and tones. The only common link would be that they use the overarching Pokemon mythology as a backdrop. Why not have a Rocky-style feature about an up-and-coming fighter and his Machamp? It really is a franchise that can have so many different creative voices.

Pokemon Detective Pikachu is a cute and charming family feature, one that brings a merciful end to the video game movie curse, while also (hopefully) acting as the start of a new sub-genre of franchise filmmaking.

 

7