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Against all inconceivable odds, the almighty Marvel Studios has successfully kept up with their shared cinematic universe for eight years now. It’s uncanny to conceive that with 13 films and roughly 16 main characters (that’s not counting villains, secondary characters, or supporting characters) that Marvel has managed to keep their universe free of major cracks and holes. After all, Fox Studio’s X-Men franchise bears a couple lackluster films and is littered with glaring inconsistencies (not to mention the failure of three Fantastic Four films). Even Sony’s Spider-Man franchise contains a few rotten eggs and has been rebooted twice now. With Marvel’s nearly unblemished record, it seems that they have the Midas golden touch. In Captain America: Civil War, two major storylines come to a head in what is both a conclusion to the Captain America trilogy and an aftermath to the most recent Avengers film.

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Summary: (No spoilers)

For four years the Avengers have basked in the glory of unprecedented victory in the face of domineering adversity. But when their seemingly-heroic actions are placed in a completely alternate light, their perceptions of war and glory and victory are quickly put into perspective. Their defeat of Ultron in Sokovia may have been triumphant, but their actions caused unprecedented loss of life in the process. It’s for this very reason that Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.—–Sherlock Holmes, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) backs a multi-national treaty to place the Avengers under the responsibility of the United Nations.

Staunchly opposed to the notion is Captain Steve Rogers (Chris Evans——Fantastic Four) who claims that bureaucratic oversight will restrain the team from carrying out their duties as earth’s mightiest heroes. With the debate from every team member readily growing by the day, the Avengers quickly find themselves divided against each other as all-out war imminently looms ahead.

Also starring: Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Don Cheadle, Anthony Mackie, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Rudd, Daniel Brühl, Tom Holland, Martin Freeman, and William Hurt   

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Debate is a major facet of life. Whether discussing politics or the feasibility of film plots, conjecture and opinion is something we all engage in on a regular basis. And the higher the risk involved, the more heated the debate will be. Saving the world isn’t entirely a black and white issue. Marvel’s past films may have presented it in that way, but Civil War takes our perceptions of our favorite superheroes and places them in an entirely different light. Is Captain America truly the pillar of virtue we so admire? We know Tony Stark is a class-A narcissist, and dire mistakes aren’t out of his realm of possibility, but is he really the heroic billionaire playboy philanthropist we’ve been lead to believe?

Ever since we were introduced to the scrawny kid from Brooklyn who never shied from a fight, Captain America has always been our moral compass and rock of integrity we’ve anchored ourselves to. His patriotism coupled with his incessant hatred for injustice is what makes him not only a fan favorite, but the perfect leader for the Avengers to follow.

In The Winter Soldier, however, we learned that duty to country can make you blind to the hidden agendas that lurk just under radar, and that saving his old friend-turned-foe required him to deny all past sense of obligation and disobey higher command. These seeming “flaws” of Captain America carried over into Age of Ultron where his ardent passion for taking down the bad guy caused him to drag his team into an affair that ultimately cost the lives of countless innocents. Their death may not have been at his expense, but they died anyway.

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Ever since we were introduced to the weapons-manufacturing billionaire playboy who used his technology to stop those who sought to pervert his work, Iron Man has been the unofficial soul of the Avengers. His technology has provided incomparable aid to the team, and he’s the one who assembled the team to begin with. When he sees people in need, he doesn’t hesitate to intervene.

What I found most refreshing about Civil War is that it doesn’t strive to take sides. Its marketing urged us to do so, but the film doesn’t. Instead, it presents both Cap’s and Stark’s viewpoints in a balanced way. Cap claims that the world will always need to be saved, while Stark claims that the Avengers need to be in check. Cap claims that being in check will inhibit and ultimately dismantle the team, while it’s pointed out that Stark has only incited global destruction since getting into the Iron Man suit. Tack onto that the continuing storyline from The Winter Soldier concerning Bucky—–Rogers’ life-long friend. Though his friend has been involved in decades of stealth assassinations, he and Stark clash over whether he can be trusted.

These moral dilemmas make for the most indecisive Marvel film yet. Not because the film itself is indecisive in what it wants to convey, but because the characters themselves face perhaps their greatest challenge yet. DC made their interpretation of super-dispute a mere month ago with Batman v Superman; but where their film ultimately lacked, Marvel’s film once again showed how it’s done. Both films are similar in premise: two titans of power collide head-to-head. Another similarity is that, in both situations, the two sides are being coerced by a figure lurking in the shadows pulling the strings. That particular subplot doesn’t especially play out to the film’s advantage in Batman v Superman; and while it isn’t the strongest aspect of Civil War, it isn’t nearly as clear of a weakness.

But the largest difference between these two powerhouses of film is that we’ve had four films familiarizing ourselves with Rogers, two of which contained both Cap and Stark. These are characters we’re intimately familiar with and invested in. Batman and Superman, not as much. So when the punching and the fighting commences, we feel it on an emotional level. They’re not only fighting because they’re being tricked—–they’re fighting because they no longer see eye-to-eye. To witness that after years of camaraderie and friendship (though, granted, at first reluctantly) is difficult to observe.

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The film stuffs numerous characters, super and non-, into the story. While most films would have crumbled under the weight of so many characters, directors Joe and Anthony Russo create a truly perfect balance within the narrative. With 12 superheroes plunging head-on into the fray, it seems like Avengers 2.5 from the outside; but at its core it’s still a Captain America film. Each actor brings their all. But perhaps one of the standout aspects of the film is the new Peter Parker/Spider-Man. We’ve had Tobey Maguire, then Andrew Garfield, and now Tom Holland. Though I’ll wait for his upcoming stand-alone film before determining whether he’s the best incarnation of the character we’ve seen yet, I will say that this new Spider-Man definitely shows incredible promise.

In a nutshell:

While I can’t say for sure if it’s the greatest film from Marvel yet, I’d undoubtedly place it in the top three. Captain America: Civil War more than delivers on the promise of the trailers by delivering a film with breathtaking action choreography, impressive production design, heart-felt drama, and a fresh plot. If there’s any doubt about the Marvel formula growing stale in the near future, then this film eradicates all doubt. Captain America: Civil War does practically everything to perfection. But what truly sets this film apart from most others in the genre is Steve Rogers’ and Tony Stark’s final confrontation in the third act. If anything that precedes it feels even remotely comic-y, the truly heart-breaking end of the film will change your mind. Team Cap or Team Iron Man? The true victor is Team Marvel.   

9 stars

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With the recent release of Disney’s live-action adaptation of The Jungle Book, the Mouse House proved indefinitely that not only are the animation-to-live-action adaptations a good idea, but that they’re here to stay. Of course The Jungle Book  was the fourth of a string of these adaptations that have ranged from good to mediocre.

Though many were dismayed at Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, I personally thought it contained a wacky charm that served Lewis Carroll’s book well. While Maleficent was by no means a poor film, and its focus on the villain was a great idea, the retelling of the classic fairytale didn’t translate well. Cinderella was beautifully made, retaining the charm of the original film while adding flair of its own. It was my favorite of the live-action retellings until The Jungle Book came along.

But above all, the live-action adaptations have proved a monetary boon to the Disney Company (with Alice In Wonderland alone garnering over $1 billion). So it’s no surprise that Disney has announced a slew of classic (and some non-classic) live-action retellings. The list includes: Pinocchio, The Sword in the Stone, Beauty and the Beast, Fantasia, The Little Mermaid, Dumbo, Mulan, Winnie the Pooh, Chip ’n’ Dale, Aladdin, and both a Tinker Bell film and an untitled “Prince Charming” film.

The films that excite me the most are The Sword in the Stone, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast (which with stellar stars like Emma Watson, Stanely Tucci, and Ian McKellen, is shaping up to be quite a film). While I have full faith in the Disney story brains, I’d just as soon throw out several of these films on this list and replace them with different classic Disney animations. While the three aforementioned films are at the top of the list of much-needed live-action adaptations, there are several films that would translate superbly onto the big screen (or at least more so than Tinker Bell).

The Rescuers Down Under

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 If there’s one word to summarize this film, it’s “adventurous”. The Australian outback would be a fantastic setting to film on location, and Disney proved with The Jungle Book and Cinderella that they can give non-caricatured animals all the charm and personality of their animated counterparts. I personally would be ecstatic to see Miss Bianca and Bernard interact with Joanna the monitor lizard. And the flight through the clouds atop the majestic eagle would be a spectacle to behold.

The Lion King

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 Prior to seeing The Jungle Book, I emphatically stated that The Lion King would be absolutely impossible to make due to its need to be 100% CGI. Then I was immersed in the photo-realistic jungle that looked and felt like it was filmed in the rain forests of India, and my mind was instantly changed. Now that I know that CGI is of no issue, my only hesitation is eradicated. The Lion King is already Shakespearean in style, so it would translate perfectly. Cherry pick the best songs as they did with The Jungle Book and you have another instant classic on your hands. Still not convinced? Envision this: that stunning opening shot recreated on the Serengeti plains, with those same stirring vocals of “Circle of Life”.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire

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 Chances are you’ve probably never seen this film. It was released during the 2000s, which was a hit-and-miss decade for Disney. It comes highly recommended. Like The Rescuers Down Under, it’s adventurous. Its Jules-Verne-like method of storytelling and style coupled with its mythos makes for one exciting experience. And this is a film that the art directors and cinematographers and set designers could go to town with. The scene alone where the sea creature attacks the submarine—an already eerie scene in the animated film—could really turn out spectacularly if done convincingly.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

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 Disney has shown that they’re not afraid to alter their storylines in order to tell a more palpable and heart-felt story. The already existing storyline of a man shunned by society simply for being disfigured and then used by a pernicious antagonist, with adjustments for affect, could be really enticing. Cast some great comedic actors to do the motion-capture for the gargoyles and you have the makings of a hit.

Hercules

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 2015 saw a couple bad to terrible iterations of the demigod, and to this day the animated film remains the best there is. This is Disney’s opportunity to make their live-action adaptation that could potentially become the defining Hercules flick. Though it wasn’t as instantly accepted as The Little Mermaid or Frozen, I feel that the animated film has grown in popularity over the years. Cast a great comedic actor as Phil the satyr and someone who can bring terror and humor to Hades, and the potential is there.

Treasure Planet

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 Like Atlantis: The Lost Empire, you’ve probably never enjoyed this film. It’s a retelling of the classic “Treasure Island”, except taking place among the cosmos instead of the high seas. A film of its kind has never been made, and it’s been a while since we’ve had a “Treasure Island” remake, so Disney seemingly as a staple on it. A live-action retelling would be a great way to introduce the populace to the animated film, and a romping adventure in outer space with that classic pirate theme sounds like a perfect project for Disney to sink its teeth into.

 

 

 

 

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Ask the average bum on the street to name a superhero and chances are that he’ll mention either Batman or Superman. With a combined 13 films (and that’s not counting any of the older cartoons, television shows, and animated films), Batman and Superman are the defining superheroes. Even with Marvel Studios churning out great films one after the other, nothing will ever defeat the might and attraction of these two titans of comic book lore. Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” comic is a cult classic in the fan community. Now, through the eyes of director Zach Snyder, the ultimate fight is finally realized.

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Summary: (No spoilers)

In the wake of the devastating assault on Metropolis depicted in Man of Steel, the world has a split view on Superman (Henry Cavill—–The Man From U.N.C.L.E.). Some point to his invaluable aid of the human race, while others emphatically point to the desolation and ruin he’s left behind him. As the political ire intensifies by the day, Gotham billionaire Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck—–Argo, Good Will Hunting) uses his technological prowess as the Batman to devise a plan to take down the Son of Krypton. Tempers flare on both sides as the two titans head into the greatest gladiator battle the world has ever known.

Also starring: Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot, and Jeremy Irons

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How super is Superman? If his heroic actions save the lives of tens of thousands but leaves billions of dollars worth of damage, is it worth it? Can he even be trusted? The old Superman cartoons never bothered to answer these moral dilemmas, and they never needed to. They were upbeat, romping adventures of a superhero stopping bank robbers and blocking erupting volcanoes. But it’s 2016, and in a post-911 world with ISIS inflicting chaos, everybody and everything is under scrutiny. ­Batman v Superman seizes the opportunity to depict a modern world with an alien who can do extraordinary things.

The DC Cinematic Universe got off to a bit of a late start. The almighty Marvel Studios has been crushing it since 2008 with Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and the Avengers. Following the success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, DC began their shared universe of caped crusaders with Man of Steel, a film that I personally loved but that received mixed reactions. Batman v Superman needed to be great in order to make people as receptive to the DC films as they are to the Marvel films. While the end result is admirable at times, it’s hardly great.

The film is titled Batman v Superman, therefore it isn’t implausible to assume that they’re gonna duke it out. And with a 2 hour 30 minute runtime, it isn’t implausible to assume that they’re gonna duke it out a lot. Perhaps not as long as Kal-El battled Zod in Man of Steel, but most likely a clash that is drawn out over two fights. You would assume that, wouldn’t you?

Unfortunately the end result hardly plays out that way. The two spend more time battling as friends (not a spoiler, it was in the trailer) than they do as enemies; which would be far less disappointing if the film were titled “Batman and Superman: Dawn of Justice”. The film hypes you up for this epic showdown for the ages. While the struggle itself is enthralling and grand in scope, it hardly constitutes as the gladiator battle we were so enthusiastically promised.

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In his second run as the Son of Krypton, Henry Cavill manages to progress his excellent portrayal, playing it even darker and a tad more brooding this time around. The classic Daily-Planet-reporter-out-saving-cats Superman he may not be, but for a hero who is being shunned and even degraded by society for his valiant efforts, he portrays the Superman adequate for this tone and style.

Amy Adams’ performance as Lois Lane is adequate, while not outstanding; Jeremy Irons brings us a different Alfred than we’ve seen in any Batman iteration: less of a proper English butler and more of a friend and accomplice to Bruce Wayne; Gal Gadot wows us with a strong presence as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman; and Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is, well, shall we say an “interesting” rendition. Eisenberg clearly channels Jim Carrey’s Riddler from Batman Forever (and maybe even hints of Ledger’s Joker) in several moments of the film. Perhaps he was going for the “mad, crazy bad guy that comes off as brilliant” approach, but unfortunately that method of acting didn’t pay off for him.

Where this film truly shines, ironically enough, is with Ben Affleck’s Batman. I say “ironically enough” because a year ago when Affleck was announced fans practically rioted in the street. Now, they’re all in unified agreement that he is perhaps the greatest aspect of this film. While multiple more viewings are required before it can be determined if he rivals Christian Bale’s Batman, I can say this: Ben Affleck is outstanding in this film. Absolutely remarkable. The presence and gravity he brings to both Batman and Bruce Wayne is absolutely perfect for this iteration of the Dark Knight. He’s an older, grizzled war veteran of Gotham crime. He’s been around the block more than a few times. He’s seen things that have likely rocked him to his core. But when he takes to the streets to take down the bad guys, he’s like a tank. His fighting is less grunt-punchy and a little more fluid.

Ultimately, where this film truly loses its focus is in the story—the single most important element of any film. The core storyline and motivation for the heroes serves the film well; it’s quite logical to assume that a Bruce Wayne embittered by the destruction of an entire city would view Superman as an alien, a loose cannon that could potentially wipe humanity from the face of the earth at any time. Therefore you sympathize with him. But you’re also well aware that Superman is no foe to humanity. So when the two battle to the death, you aren’t necessarily rooting for one person.

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But there’s a secondary motivation for these two clashing that links to Lex Luthor. While I won’t reveal it for spoiler reasons, it certainly is not the way the story should have gone. It’s quite unfortunate that Warner Bros. didn’t have the foresight to hire a new director and leave Zach Snyder as producer, because as much as I loved Man of Steel  (which partially had to do with Chris Nolan’s involvement in the project), I despise 300 and Watchmen.

In a nutshell:

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice hits many of the right chords, just not the ones that truly matter. Epic in scope and thought-provoking in its morality, the end result is still enjoyable but hardly noteworthy. It’s worth the view, if not to relish the epic (but short-lived) battle between Supes and Bats. In the end, this film leaves me less excited for the subsequent Justice League films (especially considering Zach Snyder’s involvement as director) and ecstatic at the prospect of a Ben Affleck-directed Batman solo film with him starring. That is the film I’ll be eagerly awaiting.

7 stars

The Jungle Book

Posted: April 16, 2016 in Movie Reviews

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It’s 2016. Stunning computer generated imagery has been around since 1993’s Jurassic Park. Since that time, the film industry has produced a plethora of CGI-laden films; some have managed to push the limits of possibility, some have causd a fatigue for big budget blockbuster films among the general audience. There have been milestones in CGI in the decades since: Star War I: The Phantom Menace, The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, Avatar, etc. Now, through The Jungle Book,  we have the next milestone in the world of special effects.

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Summary: (No spoilers)

Since infancy, the man-cub Mowgli (Neel Sethi) has been reared by the law of the jungle and the wolf pack that have become his family. But when the vicious tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba—–Thor, Pacific Rim) demands the boy who will one day grow into a man, Mowgli’s trusted friends must aid him as he flees from the jungle to the protection of his own kind.

Also starring: Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, Lupita Nyong’o, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Esposito, and Scarlett Johansson

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I went in wondering if we would get a film from the director of Iron Man or Cowboys and Aliens. Very thankfully, we got the former. The Jungle Book  is for certain among the top 10 most beloved Disney animated classics, and it would have been an absolute shame for this to have gone the same way as Maleficent. Ultimately, it ended up being the best live-action adaptation Disney has produced yet.

The 1967 classic bears all the signature elements of a great Disney film: loveable characters, an enticing environment, a heartwarming story, and a list of Sherman Brothers songs that leave you humming for days. What this iteration of The Jungle Book does is beautifully and almost flawlessly blends the classic themes and tone with a modern, grittier story. All of the characters you know and love are present (even if one or two are in it less than we’d prefer).

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At its core, the story remains the same. But the opportunity is taken to embellish the story, partially with material from Rudyard Kipling’s book. The result is a film that feels both nostalgic and completely fresh. From its opening title, certain scenes and thematic elements are utilized from the animated film. Even a couple of the songs, modified and revitalized, make their way into the film (with a brand new bit written by Richard Sherman).

Visually, this film is among the greatest ever. The staggering fact is that nothing you see, with the exception of Mowgli, is real. Everything, everything, is created inside of a computer. While so many films suffer from an over-saturation of special effects, The Jungle Book is rescued by the fact that it all looks stunning. From the individual blades of grass to the water droplets on the animals’ fur, everything you see is absolutely incredible. Does it rival even Avatar? Yes; though, granted, Avatar did create an entirely new world filled with breathtaking creatures and environments. But as for being immersed in an environment, The Jungle Book does it best. Never once do you question the look of an animal or the flow of a river.

But where the heart of this film truly lies is with the cast. Bill Murray may not seem like an entirely appropriate choice for the larger-than-life bear, but he pulls it off astoundingly, instilling an appropriate amount of humor and levity. Ben Kingsley as the panther Bagheera provides a deepness of tone and authority to a character who must look out for Mowgli’s safety. As much as Christopher Walken seems like the most unlikely actor who could bring King Louie to life, Walken is fantastic in the role. While he seems like a guy to do business with, he’s perhaps the biggest double-crosser and con artist in the jungle. Newcomer Neel Sethi handles himself with aplomb, especially considering that his acting environment consisted of 100% green screen, an environment that seasoned actors have crumbled in. He instills all the youthful charm and charismatic nature of the animated Mowgli.

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While it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact standout, it’s Shere Khan who should be considered for one of the best villains of the year. Frightening, collected, and subtle, the villain that evokes the most terror is usually the one that holds back but could strike at any moment. Idris Elba’s voice lends itself perfectly to a villain that could have easily become bland and stereotypical had it not been for the right type of motivation that compels him.

In a nutshell:

While I’ve stated emphatically that a live-action iteration of The Lion King is impossible, this film has not only changed my mind, but has made me genuinely ecstatic at the thought of it. Beautifully adapted, ideally cast, and at times heart-warmingly pleasant, The Jungle Book is a visual feast and contains a lively musical score to match. It perfectly mixes somber tones with the levity of the animated original, and is sheer proof that live-action adaptations of the Disney classics can truly be great.

9 stars

 

Zootopia

Posted: March 8, 2016 in Movie Reviews

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Walt Disney once said, “Animation can explain whatever the mind of man can conceive.” While this may not be one of those inspirational Walt Disney quotes on a mug, it nonetheless rings true as a testament to his studio’s 75 + years of animation and imagination. And if there’s one quintessential word to surmise the Disney success, it’s imagination. It’s why billions of people have flown over Neverland in a pirate ship or sailed the Spanish Main with vagabonds or have been hijacked by 999 grim, grinning ghosts; because imagination——whether experienced through Disneyland or the art of animation——is one thing that Disney has always excelled at.

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Summary: (No spoilers)

Since a young age, rabbit Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin——Once Upon a Time) has dreamed of becoming a police officer in the bustling city of Zootopia, a place where predator and prey——of all sizes——live in harmony. After successfully becoming Zootopia’s first rabbit officer, her success is only met by consistent discouragement as nobody believes that such a small creature can endure the pressures of police work.

But when Judy is given a chance to crack an important case, she employs the use of a slick, wily Fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman——Horrible Bosses). Together, these otherwise incompatible companions must work as a team, setting aside stereotypes, to accomplish their goal.

Also starring:  Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, Bonnie Hunt, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk, and J.K. Simmons

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Walt Disney Animation Studios has been delivering quite the variety lately. Princess flicks The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and Frozen gave a charming-yet-modern spin to the classic fairy tales; the gaming-heavy Wreck-It Ralph opened an entire realm for a potential franchise within the world of video games; and though I personally found the Big Hero 6 narrative to be a bit underwhelming, it was still proof that Disney can handle the aesthetic authenticity (not to mention character appeal) of anything they put their creative hand to.

Zootopia continues with that unprecedented creative range by creating yet another immersive world ripe for genius storytelling. And if there’s one thing that the great Walt Disney inspired in his animators, it was creating those worlds——the foundation for visionary storytelling. At its core, Zootopia carries current connotations and weaves it into its plot. Animals have evolved and advanced over the years from primitive predator-eats-prey mindsets to living together peacefully in an urban setting.

But not all is well in Zootopia, for some predators are seemingly reverting back to their savage ways. It’s up to officer Hopps to discover what is causing this damaging pandemic. But over the course of the film, she discovers that wide-spread concern is becoming just as harmful as the actual crazed animals. This concern quickly becomes fear, which becomes panic, which turns into pure animosity for all predators, even those who have committed no wrong. It’s Civil Rights- and current-America in the animal world.

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But lest you think that this is a socio-political thesis set within a childrens’ movie, you couldn’t be more wrong. Zootopia is just as much a Disney Animation film as Aladdin; it simply carries with it nuances and implications that can be seen in today’s society. Within Zootopia, many animals are seen as one way, and one way only. The brute animals such as the rhinos comprise the police force. The smaller, more helpless creatures have the office jobs. And the sloths are, quite appropriately, employed at the DMV (a hilarious scene that will have you laughing aloud). While this mindset perfectly reflects today’s society, it also depicts that your size and stature and background needn’t have bearing over what you can accomplish, an idea that Walt himself cherished and lived by.

Disney chooses the fox, a creature known throughout the centuries for its craftiness, as its secondary protagonist. They’re not a trusted species in Zootopia, but the film suggests that stereotypes, though often seeded in truth, should not define the individual. Though a person may be of descent that is commonly associated with a particular viewpoint, it isn’t incumbent of that person to live within that stereotype. Ultimately, Zootopia teaches that stereotypes are often in place for a reason, but that it’s also the responsibility of society to not blindly assume.

In a nutshell:

What truly makes Zootopia work as a film is not its mere preaching about social morals, but the way in which it makes you connect with the characters authentically. It imbues these characters with dimension, even giving some of them back stories that might leave a tear in your eye. Set within a richly-detailed world (I can’t wait to buy the Blu-ray so I can pause and absorb every detail), this film proves yet again that Disney is the master at telling beautiful stories with mature themes within child-friendly environments. As fun as the minions are, this is the stuff that fulfills you in a wholly positive way and leaves you happier and more cheerful than when you started out.

 

8.5 stars

The Revenant

Posted: January 15, 2016 in Movie Reviews

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There are two age-old facets and themes of film that have been utilized in cinema for decades. The first is that of getting home: the protagonist(s), by circumstances beyond their control, find themselves helplessly far from their home and must overcome the hurdles and obstacles that stand in their path to the ones they love. The second is that of survival: the main character(s) faces numerous dilemmas—whether man vs. man (the vast majority of war films), man vs. society (The Hunger Games series), or man vs. nature (Cast Away and Apollo 13). The Revenant embodies both of these aspects and deals with two of these “man vs.” scenarios.

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Summary: (No spoilers)

In the American frontier during the 1820s, frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio—Titanic, Inception) leads a group of fur trappers through the bitter wilderness. When they’re attacked by the Pawnee, the slowly-dwindling group must flee to safety, leaving their prized pelts behind.

When Glass is attacked by a grizzly bear and mauled within an inch of his life, he is betrayed by fellow frontiersman John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy—The Dark Knight Rises, Mad Max: Fury Road) who murders his son and leaves him for dead. Empowered with the will to survive, Glass endures the bitter cold and hostile elements on a path of sheer revenge.

Also starring: Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Paul Anderson, and Domhnall Gleeson

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Coming off of last year’s tremendous Oscar success, director Alejandro González Iñárritu delivers an epic and compelling narrative. Though this reviewer wasn’t convinced that his Best Picture film Birdman deserved the prestigious award, his Best Director win was a merited accolade. The Revenant only solidifies his standing as a near-brilliant and visionary director. Like Birdman, this film is a representation of sheer tenacity that defined past directors like David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia) and William Wyler (Ben-Hur).

There were two films released in 2015 that redefined film logistics on a Lord of the Rings-level. The first was Mad Max: Fury Road. The second was The Revenant. Shot entirely on location, this film utilizes natural lighting (that means no artificial studio lighting, relying solely on weather patterns) and a certain grittiness that few film-makers or studios care to imbue in their projects. The only CGI effects used are animals. Practically everything else your eye beholds is tangibly real, a technique that gives the film an organic feel.

But what truly makes this film such a critical hit is the acting. Blessed with incredible acting talent, you will not find one bad performance in the film. Being placed so prominently in real locations affords the actors to reflect their settings in their work. But the honest truth is that acting was probably not required for much of the film. When Leo DiCaprio is freezing to death of hypothermia, he isn’t acting. When Leo DiCaprio is gagging on the raw meat of a buffalo, he isn’t faking it. And it takes the term “actor’s determination” to entirely new levels. At times it feels like a survivalist show on reality television (except that this film is probably more authentic).

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As much as every actor pours their all into their performance, it’s once again DiCaprio who steals the show. It’s why he’s among the most sought-after actors working today; because he consistently imbues the films he’s in with Oscar-worthy performances. Even if Leo never wins his Oscar, it will never, ever, change the fact that he is a quality actor who puts forth his greatest effort in whatever he does. Even though he still most likely will not win for this film, The Revenant is, if anything, a testament to his often-excruciating ability and sheer talent.

In a nutshell:

The Revenant is not a film for the faint of heart. Gritty, graphic, raw, tenacious, bold, and agonizingly intense at times, the only thing this film truly suffers from is an often-excessive length. It’s been nominated for multiple Academy Awards, and it will deserve any award it wins. Seldom are we treated to a film with such dedication, where cast and director instill their passion and zeal for the art of film. Though perhaps not re-watchable enough to merit a purchase on Blu-ray, this is nonetheless an experience one will not soon forget.

8 stars

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Posted: December 19, 2015 in Movie Reviews

Daisey Ridley. John Boyega_SW: The Force Awakens

 

The theater goes dark. Eager fans wait in excruciating anticipation. The LucasFilm Ltd. logo flickers on screen. The buzz is felt by all.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. . .  

Three years of waiting, and we’re so close. STAR WARS. The theater erupts in joyous exuberance. As John Williams’ classic theme resounds through the room and the opening crawl commences, a wash of sheer passion and nostalgia flows through you just as the Force flowed through a certain young Jedi. If the overwhelming excitement over the past few years hasn’t convinced you of the global phenomenon that is Star Wars, then this moment will.

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Summary: (No spoilers)

Luke Skywalker has vanished. In his absence, the sinister First Order, a subsidiary of the Empire, has arisen. Hell-bent on finding the last surviving Jedi, the First Order track down Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac—–Inside Llewyn Davis) who contains the map to Skywalker’s location. Leading this new faction is the villainous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver—–Inside Llewyn Davis), a hateful, vengeful soul ardently trained in the Dark Side.

When Poe’s droid BB-8, map enclosed, escapes into the desert of Jakku, his paths cross with the young  junk scavenger Rey (Daisey Ridley). With the aid of ex-Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega—–Attack the Block), the trio set off to bring an end to the First Order and the Dark Side.

Also starring:  Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Domhnall Gleeson, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Gwendoline Christie, Max von Sydow, and Mark Hamill

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For the past decade, we all thought Star Wars was dead. Even though George Lucas’ prequel films were decent at times (this review will refrain from any prequel bashing), many of us gave up all hope on ever seeing Star Wars return to glory. While some were apprehensive when Star Trek director J. J. Abrams signed on to helm episode VII, the general consensus was a resounding “yes.” Three years later, and the fruits of Abrams’ arduous labor is finally seen. And while the result may not be perfect, the Force has indeed awoken, not only in a galaxy far, far away, but on a planet very, very close.

Among those of us who love and care for these films, the prospect of a new film can be daunting. We want to be satisfied, but not at the expense of another Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones. Though this reviewer is at peace with those films, there’s no reason to ever repeat them. With enormous satisfaction, though, I can say that all worries have abated.

It’s been stated much already that The Force Awakens is a perfect juxtaposition of the old with the new, and this statement couldn’t be truer. This film blends themes, characters, and ideas seamlessly with a brand-new storyline revolving around brand-new characters. Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron is the epitome of the word “likeable.” With true charisma and a roguish-yet-suave exterior, Poe is for certain the new Han Solo. Adam Driver, who very easily could have been a Vader Jr., at no point comes off as a villain rehash. With a perpetual desire to emulate the late Darth Vader, he bears keen semblance to the classic Sith lord while still retaining unique characteristics and motivations. As easily as this character could have been handled badly, the character stands on his own.

Adam Driver_SW: The Force Awakens

But the stand-out performances of this film are from newcomers Daisey Ridley and John Boyega. Plucked from obscurity and placed prominently into the most anticipated movie in cinematic history, these two were actors who could have ruined the entire film. But, like everything else contained in the film, their casting is testament to how much the Star Wars franchise is in the most capable of hands. Boyega’s comedic timing is played to perfection, instilling some levity to this drama-heavy universe. And Ridley? Remember that name, because it will become household known. Without revealing anything specific, her character is undeniably the lead of this new trilogy.

But where this film truly finds its stride is in the original cast, specifically Han Solo. Though it focuses heavily on the newcomers (as they’re the faces of this new trilogy) it never hesitates to remind us that these are the people who made Star Wars special. Han and Chewy’s chemistry is the best it’s ever been—ever been—and the two work together like an old married couple. Their banter is the stuff that film-makers crave to make. Even Han and Leia’s interactions, though estranged, still have that spark. And Hamill? Well, you’ll have to watch the film to discover that.

There are so many elements of this film to discuss that I could fill page after page. But I will refrain, and many of them are far too revealing. This I can say: The Force Awakens looks, feels, and nearly smells of the original films we so passionately love. All feelings of the prequels are eschewed. While some themes and elements may be a little too on-point for some, and several plot threads are borrowed almost exactly from past films, for many this feels just right. It’s utterly apparent that hundreds upon hundreds of hours were spent lovingly crafting this film, infusing it with personality, charm, emotion, nostalgia, and poignancy. It’s a testament to what can be accomplished when quality is at the forefront of film-making.

Many of these qualities brought this reviewer to tears on several occasions—some nostalgic, and some from raw emotion. When the “Star Wars” title blares onto screen, you’re emotionally affected. When BB-8 interacts in particular Wall-E charm, you’re affected. When the Force musical theme plays, you’re affected. And when . . . well, I won’t spoil that part. Bring your tissue.

John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Peter Mayhew_SW: The Force Awakens

For all the praise surrounding this film, though, it isn’t perfect. I know that films these days rarely are, but The Force Awakens is not your typical film. There are elements that could have been produced in a slightly different manner, and overall the story is ever-so-slightly simple. But this is Star Wars. If it were directed by Christopher Nolan I would have been disappointed. With an age-range of 5 years old to 100, this is a film that needs to be accessible to all, and if a slightly simpler storyline is necessary then so be it.

All other qualms with the film are purely stylistic, and several of them are contained to mere moments. There are no plaguing issues, nothing that brings this film down. Some characters could have had more screen time. But considering that this is establishing a trilogy, I’m quick to forgive these things. In almost every way it’s a display of genius quality and avid devotion to the idea and spirit of Star Wars.

In a nutshell:

Even though it didn’t live up to this ardent Star Wars fan’s sky-high expectations, this is the film we’ve been eagerly waiting for. With a perfect blending of the old with the new, genuine humor, acting that couldn’t have been better, a refreshing focus on feminine presence, pure nostalgia and raw emotion working cohesively, and a keen focus on making a memorable experience, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is completely satisfying. Even if you’re not an avid fan, there are so many enticing elements that make this more than simply a Star Wars film. Ultimately, this leaves you with exceeding anticipation for episode VIII. The Force has indeed awoken. Star Wars is indeed back.

 

9 stars