Bumblebee Review

Oh my God! It’s a good Transformers movie!

While I would love to wrap-up my review right there for a bit of humor, I suppose a proper review is in order, seeing as Bumblebee accomplished the seemingly impossible and delivered the Transformers movie fans of the franchise have waited for (and deserved) all along.

Let Bumblebee stand as a counterpoint to all the pretentious cynics who dismiss franchise films on the basis of being franchise films. The Transformers film series as helmed by Michael Bay has ranged from passable (the 2007 original) to some of the worst movies ever made (pretty much every entry thereafter). But now, under the direction of animator Travis Knight (director of Kubo and the Two Strings), Bumblebee produces a genuinely entertaining and heartfelt movie out of the very same franchise. Bumblebee is proof that even a big sequel-heavy franchise is still ultimately the work of artists. It all boils down to the filmmakers behind the movies. It wasn’t the fault of the Transformers brand that the movies up to this point have sucked. Under more creative and thoughtful hands, the franchise has now produced a lovingly crafted piece of entertainment.

What separates Bumblebee from the previous Transformers movies is that this film actually has a good, character-driven story (as opposed to the bathroom jokes, racist caricatures and robot testicles of the Michael Bay features). Taking place in 1987, Bumblebee shows the fall of the planet Cybertron – home of the Transformers – as the evil Decepticons have overcome the Autobots. Out of desperation, the Autobot leader Optimus Prime sends his surviving followers across the galaxy, in hopes that the Autobots can rebound at a later time.

One such Autobot, B-127, is sent to the planet Earth. But B-127 has been followed by a Decepticon, and the two wage battle. Though B-127 comes out  on top, he loses his voice and memories from the battle. But before he shuts down, B-127 scans a beetle parked nearby, and assumes its form as a disguise. The aforementioned giant robot fight also happens to take place near a training exercise by a secret government agency, with the ensuing chaos leading Agent Jack Burns (John Cena) to believe that all of these interplanetary robots mean to do harm to Earth.

Later B-127, the robot-turned-car, is found by a junk dealer, which is frequented by one Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), a young woman with a strong knowledge of mechanics. Charlie is going through a rough time in her life, as she’s still grieving over the loss of her father, while her mother and younger brother have moved on with her new stepfather so quickly that Charlie is feeling forgotten, a point that is hit home when her parents get her some rather uneventful gifts for her eighteenth birthday. So Charlie decides to get something for herself and ends up buying a certain beetle from a certain junk dealer. And when she goes home to repair the beat-up vehicle, it transforms back into its robot self, whom Charlie then names Bumblebee.

As you might expect, there are more Decepticons involved, with two of them, Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) on a manhunt for Bumblebee on Earth. Meanwhile, Agent Burns is on his own hunt for Bumblebee, in an attempt to neutralize what he perceives as a threat.

Bumblebee’s 80s backdrop doesn’t just serve as the film’s setting, but also a reflection of the movies it pays homage to. This is, for all intents and purposes, a 1980s movie released in 2018. Anyone familiar with the popular films of the 80s should be right at home with Bumblebee, as it follows a very similar structure of the blockbusters of that decade. While the five Michael Bay directed Transformers films felt tonally confused with its insistence on crude humor and over sexualization of what is supposed to be a children’s franchise, Bumblebee’s focus on feel-good nostalgia better compliments its standing as a family film.

Not only do we get plenty of 80s goodness in the music and scenery, but we even get a heartwarming story out of Bumblebee as well. Aside from the Transformers license itself, Bumblebee’s biggest 80s influence seems to be E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial. Much like Steven Spielberg’s seminal feature told a simple “boy and his dog” story, but with an alien playing the role of a dog, Bumblebee provides a “girl and her dog” story in which the dog is portrayed by a robot. It’s true that the Transformers franchise was created to sell toys, but what many adults fail to remember is how much children love their toys. So while the previous five Transformers films seemed to cynically only see dollar signs in the Transformers property, Bumblebee understands that there should be a beating heart to the story as well, so that the movie can recreate a similar sense of wonder that a kid may have when playing with action figures.

In yet another breath of fresh air for the franchise, the Transformers now actually look like, well, Transformers. Gone are the hideous junk constructs of Michael Bay’s films, and in their place are character designs that are fun and colorful. The past Transformers movie may have had large budgets for their visual effects, but the character designs for the Transformers were so ugly it was hard to care. But here everything looks fun and lively. You actually enjoy looking at this picture. And yes, the Decepticons finally have some color to them as well.

While Bumblebee may play by the 80s movie rulebook in many ways, it ultimately wins us over by the simple fact that it’s a fun movie and (take note Michael Bay) features characters we actually care about. To say Hailee Steinfeld is an improvement over the likes of Shia LaBeauf is like saying jumping will give you more elevation than sitting. She’s downright charming in the role, and gives this franchise a much-needed hero you actually want to root for. Charlie’s ventures with Bumblebee are later joined by Memo (Jorge Lendeborg), Charlie’s next door neighbor who has a crush on Charlie, but is put into a more unique “not-quite a love interest” role. Meanwhile, John Cena’s Jack Burns gives the franchise a (relatively) complex human antagonist, whose hatred for Transformers – Autobot and Decepticon alike – is made into an understandable fear due to his early circumstances in the film, as opposed to the generic “I hate things because reasons” type of villain we’re used to seeing in these kinds of movies.

Bumblebee adds a much-needed soul and genuine sense of fun to a franchise that has been soulless and boring since it made the jump to the big screen in 2007. Though one has to hope that Bumblebee serves as a reboot to the Transformers franchise, as opposed to a prequel (one would hate to think that an enjoyable story such as this would eventually devolve into the schlock that came before it). It may not be the most original blockbuster out there, but like the 80s movies that inspired it, Bumblebee should leave audiences with a big smile on their face when all is said and done.

 

7

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Creed II Review

Rocky is one of the few movie franchises that can still claim to be going strong even by its eighth installment (the other being Star Wars…just don’t let its fanbase know that). 2015’s Creed served as a brilliant way to continue the Rocky lineage, by having the legendary Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) mentor upstart boxer Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), son of Rocky’s original heavyweight rival, Apollo Creed. Creed II not only continues Adonis’ story that began with Creed but, interestingly, also serves as a continuation of 1985’s Rocky IV.

Rocky IV was the most outlandish Rocky movie (though not the worst, Rocky V is a much harder watch). This was, after all, the Rocky film in which the Italian Stallion more or less ended the Cold War by beating his opponent, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) in Drago’s home country of Russia. The same Rocky movie in which Drago actually killed Appolo Creed in the middle of a boxing ring. The same Rocky movie that inexplicably featured a robot!

Seeing as the Creed series goes back to the more grounded roots of the franchise (in the same vein as the underrated sixth installment, Rocky Balboa, did in 2006), using this series to continue the legacy of Rocky IV may seem like a hard sell. Yet somehow, Creed II makes it all work. It may feel a bit formulaic at times, but Creed II accomplishes the seemingly impossible by combining the realism and genuine heart of Creed with a sequel to Rocky’s most ridiculous outing.

Creed II begins with Adonis finally claiming the Heavyweight Championship, which eluded him in the first film. Soon thereafter, he proposes to his girlfriend, Bianca Taylor (Tessa Thompson), who also reveals she is pregnant. Everything seems right in Adonis’ world, until a boxing promoter named Buddy Marcelle (Russel Hornsby) informs him of a potential “dream match” thirty-three years in the making. It turns out the son of Ivan Drago – the man who killed Adonis’ father in the ring – has been training for the sole purpose of defeating Creed to avenge his father’s loss to Rocky Balboa all those years ago. This new fighter, Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) quickly gets under Adonis’ skin as he mocks the violent history between their fathers. Despite pleas from his fiancé and Rocky to decline the fight, Viktor’s taunts get the better of Adonis, who accepts the challenge.

Rocky is haunted by the regret of his actions thirty-three years ago. At the behest of Apollo, Rocky refused to throw in the towel for his friend no matter how beaten and battered he was, which lead to his untimely death at the hands of the elder Drago. Rocky, feeling responsible for what happened to Adonis’ father, refuses to train the new champ ahead of his fight with the younger Drago. Although Drago’s actions lead to his disqualification in the bout (allowing Adonis to keep his title with an asterisk victory), Adonis ends up in the hospital, hardly looking like the victor.

This, of course, leads to a story of Adonis trying to rebuild himself (both literally and figuratively), as Viktor Drago waits for a title rematch, given his less-than-definitive loss. Though like any Rocky movie, the story isn’t defined solely by the in-ring bouts, but by the lives of its fighters. You could say the film’s biggest dilemmas are found within the strained relationship between Adonis and Rocky, as well as that between Adonis and Bianca.

Creed II is a worthy continuation of the series, with its combination of an underdog boxer tale and its down-to-Earth life drama echoing the ongoing themes of the series. For a change of pace, even the film’s villains get some appreciated humanization. The Ivan Drago of Rocky IV was portrayed as an emotionless fighting machine with actual superhuman strength (a trait that’s never directly mentioned in this installment, though Viktor’s brute force is a subtle hint that he’s inherited the same strength). But here in Creed II, Ivan is a man whose country abandoned him after his loss to Rocky, as did his wife. Ivan is modeling his son as the successor to finish what he started in hopes of reclaiming his glory (and, in his mind, his wife as well. With the tragic irony being that anyone who would leave their spouse over losing a boxing match probably isn’t worth winning back). Viktor sees the folly in his father’s intentions, but simply wants to prove his worth to himself and his father. Creed II takes the most cartoonish villain in the franchise and makes a compelling story through him and his son.

Creed II follows suit with its predecessor in telling an emotional journey worthy of the original Rocky. And like the previous film, the acting is top notch, particularly by Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone (the latter of which never seems to get his due for his acting ability). It moves at a brisk pace, and is a fitting continuation of one of cinema’s most enduring franchises.

If there’s any fault to be had with Creed II, it’s simply that it follows something of a predictable formula. More specifically, it follows the formula of Rockys II through V so much that you can probably guess what’s going to happen at every next turn. It’s certainly a well made formula, no doubt about that. But because it follows the familiar beats, Creed II doesn’t have the same sense of freshness as its predecessor.

Creed II succeeds in continuing both the storyline of Adonis Creed as well as the greater Rocky franchise in a way that feels meaningful, despite its predictability. It’s all too easy to imagine the Creed series spawning a similar number of sequels as Rocky himself, though Sylvester Stallone stated shortly after the film’s release that this will be his last time portraying the legendary Italian Stallion. Of course, we should all know by now not to expect Rocky to stay down for the count. Here’s hoping Stallone puts back on the boxing gloves (or, more accurately at this point, his trainer’s cap) sooner or later, and helps Jordan’s Adonis deliver another knockout.

 

7

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald Review

In more recent years, with what was previously deemed as the “nerd side” of popular culture more or less becoming one with pop culture itself, it seems more and more properties are putting a higher emphasis on world-building, in the vein of Tolkien or George Lucas. On one hand, this is a great thing, as it’s always enjoyable to see a fantasy world create a backstory for itself and its characters. But I have recently began to worry that too many works are prioritizing world-building over actual storytelling. One reason I love the Star Wars sequel trilogy is that it bucks this trend, introducing elements such as The First Order in passing without detailing how and why they came to power, and letting the story at hand take center stage. By contrast, it seems that the Harry Potter prequel franchise, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them, goes in the exact opposite direction of the Star Wars sequels, with its own narrative being drowned in backstories and lore. While the first Fantastic Beasts at least introduced us to some potentially charming franchise players, its sequel – the bizarrely titled The Crimes of Grindelwald – feels like it completely surrenders its own identity for the sake of world-building.

Like the first film, the screenplay is written by J.K. Rowling herself. Though Rowling seems to handle the material as if she’s writing the appendices of one of her books, as opposed to a screenplay. This is a film that squanders so much potential with its characters, as it feels so much more inclined to explain elements of the Wizarding World than it does in following its lead cast. It does this to such an extent that it really feels like very little actually happens within the film’s plot.

“Sexy Dumbledore.”

The (supposed) story still follows magi-zoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and his American friends; Wizarding sisters Tina and Queenie Goldstein (Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol), and the muggle/no-maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). They are all caught in the middle of a crises in the Wizarding World, as the evil wizard Grendalwald (Johnny Depp) has escaped custody, and is rallying more and more wizards to his cause of “wizard supremacy” (that is to say, wizards being superior by nature to non-magic beings). While Scamander would rather not be involved in any greater conflict and just resume his studies of magical creatures, he is persuaded by one Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) to aide the future Hogwarts Headmaster’s personal attempts to weaken Grindelwald’s efforts.

That may sound like a brief summary to avoid spoilers, but the fact of the matter is the story never really evolves from that setup. To make matters worse, elements of the first Fantastic Beast film’s ending are entirely retconned for seemingly no reason other than that they allow for more convenient progression to future sequels.

Kowalski – along with other non-magic folk in New York City – had his memory of the magic world wiped clean in the first film’s finale, which served as its most emotional moment. But apparently he still remembers everything just fine, because only “bad memories” were erased, and his were mostly good. Way to undermine the first film’s emotional crescendo…

Now, it’s safe to say we all assumed Kowalski would be getting his memories back, but to more or less brush aside an important part of its predecessor’s ending so nonchalantly just demeans the franchise itself. Ironically, The Crimes of Grindelwald would have probably been a better movie if getting Kowalski’s memories of wizards and magic back were a key plot point. At the very least, the plot would have actually been about the main characters in such a scenario.

“Unless you’re the most diehard Potterhead, this may be your reaction to all the mythology babble.”

Instead, we have a plot centered around Dumbledore and Grindelwald attempting to sway Credence Barebones (Ezra Miller) – the disturbed wizard with a demonic parasite who seemingly died in the first movie – to their respective sides of the struggle. Poor Newt doesn’t even feel like the hero of his own story, rather, just a figure passing through it. That’s a real shame, because Newt – as well as Kowalski, and Tina and Queenie – were characters who were distinct from the existing heroes of the Harry Potter series (particularly Kowalski, as his status as a non-magical being wandering the Wizarding World with childlike glee makes him one of the most unique characters in Rowling’s mega-franchise). But here we are, only in the second installment of this five-part series, and already the main cast feels like an afterthought to all the other goings-on. Heaven forbid the main characters get in the way of extended monologues of events the side characters went through.

All of this could have been made more forgivable if it only started out this way. Because in all honesty, there actually is some charm left in this Wizarding World as the film opens. The first few tidbits of lore and “for hardcore fans only” dialogue are fine, since they’re setting things up. But the film only builds on these overly descriptive elements more and more as the film goes on. I wish I were joking when I say the third act of the film comes to a dead stop as one character gives an overly long monologue on some backstory, before another character butts in and delves into their own overly long monologue on some backstory. What’s worse is that certain revelations that are made with the main characters feel completely rushed and meaningless because of this (one major ‘twist’ in particular comes across as utterly lifeless, as it seemingly comes out of nowhere). Maybe Rowling should have spent a little more time writing her main characters and less on…everything else possible?

There are some redeeming qualities to the film. The costume designs and special effects still impress, and despite their tragically limited presence, the primary quartet of characters still feel like a refreshing change of pace from Harry, Ron and Hermione. The acting is also pretty solid, with Jude Law and (I hate to admit it) Johnny Depp making the most of their limited screen time (seeing Grindelwald wave his magic wand like a conductor’s baton as he burns his enemies in blue flames is a memorable visual that feels overdue for the franchise, as it sums up its villain in a single moment). The titular Fantastic Beasts that show up are still memorable (even if they only really show up in an attempt to justify this series’ ongoing title), and I like that we finally get to meet Nicolas Flamel (Brontis jodorowsky), the immortal alchemist first mentioned in Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, who has become so old that a small handshake nearly breaks his fingers, but still possesses strength in magic.

There are small doses of memorability in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald then. But they are too few and far between the constant cascades of exposition and sequel-hyping. There are still three entries left for the Fantastic Beasts series to live up to its potential (and Crimes of Grindelwald certainly lets you know more films are coming). But in order to make a great franchise, each individual installment has to be able to stand on its own two feet in addition to building the greater mythology. J. K. Rowling’s script for Crimes of Grindelwald is so deeply preoccupied with world-building that it forgets to be a movie in its own right.

 

4

Venom Review

Venom is the kind of movie I wish I could say I liked more than I did. The idea of a Marvel film based around a villain/anti-hero certainly stands out in this day and age when several films based around Marvel heroes are released every year. But while the concept of Venom has some promise, and some strong performances, it ultimately feels indecisive with what kind of film in wants to be, which continuously halts any momentum it gains.

Venom of course tells the origin story of its titular anti-hero, a hotshot reporter named Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) who, after raising suspicions of illegal activity with Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) – the billionaire head of Life Foundation, a scientific research organization – loses his career and credibility, as well as his fiancée, Anne Weying (Michelle Williams). It turns out (of course) that Drake really is committing heinous crimes, having homeless people kidnapped and experimented on under the guise of medical tests. In truth, the Life Foundation has come into possession of blob-like alien lifeforms called Symbiotes, which can’t survive on Earth for long without latching onto (or, more accurately, into) a host. Drake is using his victims as guinea pigs for the Symbiotes, but if the host isn’t a perfect match, the connection between them and the Symbiode will quickly kill the host.

Luckily for Eddie Brock, at least one of Drake’s scientist actually has a conscience, and she seeks him out so he can expose Drake’s crimes (the cops are a no-go due to Drake’s threats, which I guess also include any official press, so Eddie – being fired and all – is her go-to I suppose). She sneaks Eddie into the facility, and during his escapades he accidentally releases a Symbiote, which then uses him as its host. Thankfully for both Eddie and the Symbiote, they are a perfect match for each other. Not that the film gives much detail as to what that means. Are they a biological match? The Symbiote also affects his mind, so does it feed off his emotions? The former is probably what the film intends, though the latter scenario seems like it makes for a more interesting character.

With the Symbiote in his body and mind, Eddie Brock is able to become the creature Venom, who can manipulate its liquid-like body in a variety of ways, in addition to possessing superhuman strength and agility. Although a decent stretch of the film is dedicated to Brock getting used to a life shared with an alien parasite, it eventually becomes your standard superhero fare, with Venom destined to stop Drake’s evil plots involving the other Symbiotes.

The film is at its best when it focuses on Eddie and his struggles with the Symbiote. Tom Hardy’s performances as both Eddie Brock and the voice of Venom are the film’s biggest highlights. Hardy gives both characters a sense of complexity that you wish were present in the rest of the film. Not that Venom is ever truly terrible (I’ve seen many worse superhero films), just that it can’t seem to decide what kind of movie it wants to be. It’s edgy and serious one minute, then tries to pull a Deadpool-esque joke between Brock and the Symbiote the next. It can, at times, be effective with being serious or comical, but it never finds a way to make them mesh together cohesively. So when we do get to the ‘funny bits’ after so much angst, it can come off as more awkward than funny.

Sadly, the characters outside of Eddie/Venom just come off as stock superhero movie stereotypes. Although Michelle Williams and Riz Ahmed put in the effort, the characters they have to work with are just kind of flat and boring. This is particularly true of Carlton Drake, who falls squarely into the most cliched of super villain roles: the evil billionaire. I suppose it’s an easy archetype to work with (give a bad guy unfathomable wealth and it gives a good excuse why he can afford to act out evil schemes), but it doesn’t exactly change the fact that we’ve seen the evil billionaire super villain a thousand times before. On the plus side of things, the mandatory mid-credits sequence does give us insight as to who the villain in the next film will be, and given the character (and the actor they nabbed to portray him), that raises hopes for the sequel.

Without a more interesting villain here though, Venom suffers. Again, the film is at its best when it’s dealing with Eddie Brock’s struggles with the Symbiote. The film may have greatly benefitted if those struggles in themselves were the primary conflict of the movie, as opposed to the stock villain. Take a note from the Dark Knight films, with the first movie focused on its protagonist’s origin story, then deliver the big villain in the sequel. Venom got the second part right, at least.

As much as I appreciate the concept of a standalone superhero film these days (though I’m sure Sony will make sure Venom doesn’t stay that way), I can’t help but think Venom also suffers from existing in its own bubble without the Spider-Man aspects of the mythology. I understand that Sony has ‘lent’ Spidey to Marvel Studios, but I’m not saying this film needed to have ties to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There’s an animated Spider-Man film on the horizon with no connections to the MCU, so why not at least mention that the world of Venom has its own Spider-Man? After all, part of what makes the Venom character stand out is his contrast to Spider-Man. Spidey is the altruistic hero who’s willing to forgive even his greatest foes, while Venom is the more tormented soul who may have morality to him… but only to an extent, having no qualms with biting the head off someone more wicked than himself. With Spider-Man seemingly non-existent in this film universe, there’s no ‘greater good’ to compare Venom’s conflicting good and evil traits to, which ultimately makes him feel not all that different from any other super hero (sans for the head biting).

I don’t want to write off Venom completely. As stated, Tom Hardy’s performance does help elevate the film, and there are some fun moments and exciting action sequences. But by the time the credits start rolling, you won’t feel like you just watched a film that did anything for the superhero genre that you haven’t seen already. But at least when that aforementioned mid-credits sequence happens, you may feel that, next time, you just might.

 

5

Reservoir Dogs Review

1992’s Reservoir Dogs was a landmark in the history of independent cinema. The first film directed by Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs broke the mold with its nonlinear deconstruction of cinematic narrative, and set the tone for Tarantino’s films to come; with violence, profanity, and pop-culture references abound.

One could sum up the uniqueness of Reservoir Dogs with one simple factoid: it’s a heist film in which we never actually see the heist, only the events leading up to it, and its consequences. Summing up Reservoir Dogs as such wouldn’t quite do it justice, but it is a good starting point in describing its unique style.

Reservoir Dogs centers around a band of criminals, each of which have been given nicknames: Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr. Blue (Edward Bunker), and Mr. Brown (portrayed by Quentin Tarantino himself). These six men are strangers to each other, but are acquaintances of mob boss Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney). Joe and his son “Nice Guy” Eddie Cabot (Chris Penn) have recruited the six men to steal a fortune in diamonds.

Things go awry, however, and the heist goes disastrously wrong. Mr. Blonde, a violent psychopath, starts shooting civilians, Mr. Orange takes a bullet in the stomach, and cops were ready and prepared at the scene, leading the criminals to grow suspicious that one of them is an undercover cop, and that the whole thing was a setup. Mr. Pink is the only member of the gang to have absconded with diamonds, which he has hidden as he rendezvous with Mr. White and Mr. Orange – who is slowly bleeding to death – at a warehouse where they wait for any other survivors to show up.

Reservoir Dogs set the stage for Tarantino’s nonlinear storytelling. While most of the film takes place in the warehouse in the aftermath of the botched heist, there are three different ‘chapters’ spread throughout that showcase one of the characters in the events leading up to the formation of the planned heist. Before the opening credits, we see the criminals enjoying breakfast at a diner, which gives us a little insight to some of their personalities by means of Tarantino’s trademark ‘removed-from-the-plot’ dialogue. One conversation revolving around Mr. Pink’s vehement aversion to tipping being a particular example at just how entertaining Tarantino’s dialogue can be.

If there’s any notable drawback to Reservoir Dogs, it’s that there isn’t quite enough of that kind of dialogue and other such trademarks that define Tarantino’s works. That’s certainly not to say that there’s anything wrong with the writing at any point in the film, but seeing as the majority of Reservoir Dogs takes place after a horrific shootout, that is understandably the focal point of most of the film’s dialogue. Again, the writing is excellent throughout, but with the writing being so scenario-focused for most of the film’s running time, there’s not as much character to Reservoir Dogs as there is in most of Tarantino’s later work (you may even wonder why Mr. Blue even needed to exist in this movie given his minuscule amount of screen time). You could say the director’s hallmarks are present, but being Tarantino’s first film, they still had yet to grow. It would be with his second film, the masterful Pulp Fiction, that Tarantino’s trademarks were set loose to wreak havoc on conventional movie storytelling.

Still, that’s only a relative complaint. It makes sense that a director’s first film would be a little rough around the edges. And when you consider the limited budget and recourses Tarantino had to work with here (reportedly, some of the suits worn by the cast were owned by their respective actors, as the film’s budget could only afford so many costumes), then the achievements that Reservoir Dogs does make seem all the more impressive, making the shortcomings of both the film’s personality and some of the characters a bit easier to forgive.

Of course, this being a Tarantino movie, Reservoir Dogs doesn’t hold back on violent imagery. Mr. Orange spends most of the film writhing in a pool of his own blood, and the film’s most infamous moment sees the deranged Mr. Blonde torture a kidnapped police officer while listening to the Stealers Wheel’s Stuck in the Middle with You. Per the norm, the violence is all part of the style and craft of Tarantino’s work, though some audiences may understandably find the torture scene hard to watch (even if it isn’t as graphic as a lot of movie’s you see these days). So a small warning for sensitive audiences, but Reservoir Dogs’ merits certainly outweigh any moments that may make you wince.

Reservoir Dogs remains an immensely entertaining and captivating film even today. It can feel a bit like an unpolished diamond when compared to later Tarantino films like Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, and the under appreciated Jackie Brown, but it’s a diamond nonetheless. One worth absconding with.

 

8

Christopher Robin Review

Of all the casts of Disney characters, the most likable has to be that of Winnie the Pooh. Sure, Mickey Mouse and company may be the figureheads of Disney, but the adaptations of A.A. Milne’s characters are Disney’s most endearing and charming consistencies. And while Disney’s recent trend of turning their beloved animated films into live-action retreads has been a bit of a mixed bag (for every Jungle Book there was a Maleficent), the idea of a Winnie the Pooh addition to this sub-genre of Disney films was promising. Thankfully, Christopher Robin ultimately delivers on the fun and charm one would expect from a film starring the bear of very little brain, though it does take a while to get there.

“Hello there!”

Christopher Robin begins where the original Disney film ended, with a young Christopher Robin ready to leave the Hundred Acre Wood to begin school and, subsequently, grow up. Winnie the Pooh, Tigger (both voiced by Jim Cummings), Eeyore (Brad Garret), Piglet (Nick Mohammed), and the rest of the Hundred Acre Wood gang throw a going away party for Christopher Robin. And though Pooh and friends don’t forget about Christopher, as he grows older (becoming Ewan McGregor in the process), he forgets them.

We get brief glimpses of Christopher’s adult life from there: Meeting and marrying a woman named Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), fighting for the British forces in World War II, and having a daughter named Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). After returning home, he finds a job as an efficiency expert at the Winslow Luggage Company, where he slowly but surely begins dedicating more and more of his time.

Admittedly, this is where the film starts to teeter both into overly familiar and slow moving territory. A movie about the importance of family over work – while always a well-meaning message – is a bit formulaic, and it’s here where the film maybe slows down a little too much. However, once Winnie the Pooh and company come back into the picture to help Christopher Robin remember his more carefree days, things pick back up and start building more steam. Not to mention heaps of charm.

Of course this is a movie about rediscovering childhood wonderment. Of course it’s about not being a slave to your work and the importance of, as Pooh puts it, “doing nothing.” But it works because it’s told well, acted well and, perhaps most importantly, because it’s impossible for Winnie the Pooh to ever come across as anything other than lovable.

The movie is naturally at its best whenever Pooh and friends are on-screen, with their childlike simplicity and humor being all too easy to win us over with. But Christopher Robin also manages to find some good footing in the live-action department due to the performance of Ewan McGregor as its titular character as well as that of Hayley Atwell.

I’ve already seen some comments regarding that the film is “confusing” in regards to the relationships between the human and stuffed animal characters. Winnie the Pooh, Tigger and company are possibly created from Christopher Robin’s imagination as a child, yet other humans are able to see and hear them. And Pooh even manages to accomplish teleportation by means of entering a tree in the Hundred Acre Wood and finding London on the other side. But this is one of those movies where you really don’t need a logical explanation for things. When Christopher Robin questions his sanity when Pooh comes back into his life via the aforementioned tree, he claims Pooh’s explanation of the tree “being wherever it needs to be” to be silly, to which Pooh responds with “why thank you,” which delightfully sums up the nature of the movie.

It should be noted that although the film is (of course) the definition of child-friendly, I actually think it’s geared more for the adult crowd who grew up with these characters. This is, after all, a film about a grown-up Christopher Robin. It doesn’t bask in childhood like the animated Pooh movies, but rather expresses a melancholic yearning to recreate childhood. Younger kids may even get a bit antsy in the film’s slower moments, but adults may appreciated the film’s (very, very relative) more mature tone and pace.

“Could they be any cuter?!”

The CG used to bring Winnie the Pooh and his friends to life is, as you might expect with a Disney budget, top notch. It may not quite reach the levels of The Jungle Book in terms of realism, but the characters here don’t really require it. They mesh well with the live actors, and the character designs are adorable (especially that of Pooh himself).

Christopher Robin is a fun movie with a lot of heart, only held down by a sloggish start and some overly formulaic material (Christopher Robin even has a snobbish hire-up at the workplace who seems far too much like a Hollywood product for a Winnie the Pooh feature). But the flaws are easy to look past for the sheer warmth that radiates from the film. Though there’s nothing innately wrong with more hectic and serious family fare, it’s rare that you get to see a film aimed at a family audience that isn’t afraid to quiet down a bit.

Winnie the Pooh has always provided winning material by extolling simplicity and even passing on a good dose of wisdom (“They say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing everyday.” Explains Pooh). Christopher Robin follows suit with this tradition, and provides a film that, despite its early missteps, has a heart that continues to grow as it moves along.

 

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Incredibles 2 Review

Of all the great films Pixar has made over the years, there’s perhaps none more beloved than The Incredibles. The 2004 super hero feature – which still ranks above every super hero feature made since – garnered wild critical praise, and more importantly, became a cherished classic, but for very different reasons than most Pixar films. While the studio is often known for bringing audiences to tears, The Incredibles was instead an action-filled romp, but one filled with all the intelligence you would expect from the Pixar brand. It was also more adult than the studio’s previous features, dealing with issues and themes that would likely go over the heads of younger audiences. Perhaps most importantly, The Incredibles shifted Pixar and, subsequently, western animated features to a stronger level of auteurism. Brad Bird became the first outside director hired by the studio, and brought with him the concept of the film, which he had planned virtually shot for shot.

In a time when it seems every animated film and (even more so) every super hero film receives a sequel, The Incredibles seemed like the most likely Pixar candidate to receive a follow-up. Even when Pixar started producing more and more sequels, to the point where people questioned the state of the studio’s originality, The Incredibles was the Pixar sequel everyone wanted to see.

Audiences had to wait fourteen years, but Incredibles 2 finally became a reality. With Brad Bird returning as writer and director, the film serves as an absolutely winning continuation of the original, even if it doesn’t quite match it.

Almost tauntingly, Incredibles 2 begins mere minutes after the ending events of the first film. Three months after Syndrome’s defeat, the Parr family – the secret identities of Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl, and their children – are re-adjusting to civilian life, when the mole-like Underminer attacks, resulting in the Parrs getting ready to do battle with the spelunking villain.

That’s where the first film wrapped up, and fourteen years later, it’s right there that this sequel begins. Mr. Incredible, AKA Bob Parr (Craig T. Nelson), Helen Parr, AKA Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), and their children Violet (Sarah Vowell) and Dash (Huck Milner) are on the Underminer’s tail, all while protecting civilians and babysitting the youngest Parr, baby Jack-Jack.

Though the Parrs manage to stop Underminer’s devastating machinery, damage has been done to the city, and the villain escapes. Super heroes are still illegal in the world of The Incredibles, and this last, botched scuffle proves to be the last straw for the government, who shut down their ‘Super Hero Relocation Program.’ With their last relocation being a ‘modest’ motel, the Parr family is in a bind.

Luckily, Bob’s best friend Lucius, AKA Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) happened upon an employee of eccentric billionaire Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), who is determined to help super heroes regain legality. Deavor wants to meet Bob, Helen and Lucius to explain his idea of improving the public image of supers. Winston and his cynical inventor sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener) hire Helen has their first representative (her stretching abilities being less destructive than Mr. Incredible’s strength or Frozone’s ice powers), which puts her back in the super hero role just as a new villain, the Screenslaver (Bill Wise), is coming to prominence. This in turn makes Mr. Incredible  Mr. Mom.

The film takes a cue from previous Pixar sequels Monsters University and Finding Dory by promoting the original film’s deuteragonist into the protagonist, with Helen Parr and her escapades taking center stage, while Bob’s story takes a relative backseat as he tries to manage stay-at-home life with the kids, which turns out more difficult than he prepared for. Violet is having issues with her crush, and Jack-Jack – whose powers were revealed to the audience at the end of the first film but remained unknown to the Parr family – are becoming more powerful and varied. Perhaps the only downside in the plot is that Dash doesn’t have much to do compared to everyone else in the family, mostly providing comic relief, as the closest thing he has to his own sub-plot is trouble with homework.

But I guess not every character can play as large of a role, and Dash’s reduced presence is a small price to pay for the fact that the story frequently matches the structural perfection of its predecessor, as well as its intelligent writing.

Helen’s story serves as the main plot, and features action scenes that match the excellence of the Mission: Impossible franchise and some top-notch moments of dialogue between her, Winston and Evelyn. Bob’s story is a little more comical and low-key, but it still manages to bring out a lot of heart and character development in the film. And as you might expect, the plots eventually converge on each other, which only kicks things into high gear.

Of course, with Helen separated from the rest of the family for most of the film, that does mean we get less moments of the sharp banter between her and Bob, which is a little disappointing. The Incredibles movies are often at their best when they’re dealing with familial issues, and though the early scenes feature some memorable moments with every Parr family member, you do kind of miss the realistic arguments and conversations between the parents in the film’s middle act.

Again though, these are only quibbles in comparing these elements to their presence in the original Incredibles film, which is a pretty much perfect movie. So any of these narrative complaints are only relative.

Incredibles 2 may actually be the funnier of the two films featuring the super hero family. Unlike most animated sequels, which introduce a new comic relief character for marketing reasons, the primary sources of comedy are Jack-Jack – whose multitudes of powers exhaust poor Mr. Incredible – and super hero fashion designer Edna Mode (voiced by Brad Bird himself). Both were characters from the original film, with Edna once again wisely being used sparingly, and Jack-Jack getting a more prominent (and humorous) presence than in the first film. The only major new characters are Winston and Evelyn, as well as the villain Screenslaver and a spunky super hero named Void (Sophia Bush), all of which feel like natural additions to the Incredibles universe, as opposed to flashy new characters created to sell more toys because they’re new.

As stated, the action sequences are top-notch, proving once again that Brad Bird is one of the go-to filmmakers for A-grade action. Like the aforementioned Mission: Impossible films (which Bird has had a hand in in the past) and Mad Max: Fury Road, Incredibles 2 features action scenes that flow along with the story, instead of merely being attention grabbers that exist outside of the plot. Even with only two movies and fourteen years between them, The Incredibles may just provide the best action sequences of any super hero franchise.

Of course, in those fourteen years since the first Incredibles movie, CG animation has only gotten better, and Incredibles 2 certainly showcases how far the medium has come. Incredibles 2 features state of the art animation that rivals anything else out there right now. And with its uniquely stylized character designs, it may just outdo all of its contemporaries.

Much like the first film, Incredibles 2’s score evokes not only super heroism, but James Bond-style spy films and espionage as well. And just like the first go-around, it’s among Pixar’s catchiest and (dare I say it?) sexiest scores.

If Incredibles 2 falls short of the original, it’s only ever-so-slightly. But that’s only a testament to just how perfectly crafted The Incredibles was. Incredibles 2 really isn’t that far behind – suffering only from a bit of longing to see all of the Parrs together more frequently – and is very likely the best sequel Pixar has made since Toy Story 2. Its  animation and action set pieces may be outstanding, but they are merely complimentary to the strong storytelling and memorable characters. The shadow of its predecessor may be unavoidable, but Incredibles 2 more than lives up to its name.

Now, when’s Incredibles 3?

 

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