Review – Deadpool 2

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Josh Brolin is having one heck of a summer, isn’t he?  First he stood toe-to-toe with the Avengers as Thanos and now here he is as the fan-favorite character Cable, giving Deadpool a run for his money (unless they’re friends, of course.  One can never tell with these two.).  Deadpool 2 has been highly anticipated since Deadpool hit it big back in 2016.  Audiences went crazy for that film and the movie grossed far more money than anyone anticipated, making this follow-up a simple formality.  For this go-’round, original director Tim Miller has bowed out and been replaced by David Leitch, which doesn’t upset me since he directed one of my favorite films of 2017.  But how did he handle everyone’s favorite Merc with a Mouth?

In the film, Deadpool encounters a young mutant by the name of Russell (Julian Dennison, from one of the best films that almost none of you have seen, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) being hunted by Cable, a cybernetic mercenary from the future.  Cable claims that Russell will be responsible for something horrific, later in his life, and Cable has come to kill Russell and prevent those events from ever transpiring.  To help stop Cable and save Russell, Deadpool assembles a team of wannabe-heroes, including Domino (Zazie Beetz, “Atlanta”), Bedlam (Terry Crews, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” – the show no one ever talked or cared about until it appeared to be canceled), and the Internet’s favorite: trailer standout Peter (Rob Delaney, “Catastrophe”), and christens the team as X-Force.

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I’m going to stop there describing the events – and even the characters – in the film because Deadpool 2 is chock full of fun surprises.  Whether they be in the form of cameos, storyline developments, or one-liners, there is a lot that the viewer won’t see coming (assuming they didn’t search such things out and ruin it for themselves due to their complete lack of patience and respect for how the filmmakers desire to deliver their own film).  I never knew what was coming and very much appreciated that in this day and age.

I also appreciated the much-improved story structure and characterization when compared to the original film.  2016’s Deadpool was unquestionably enjoyable but it seemed that every time that film started gaining momentum, it was stopped in its tracks by the decidedly unenjoyable flashback origin sequences.  In this sequel, the tone is consistent, even when allowing for more serious events to unfold amidst the expected zaniness that comes as part of the Deadpool package.

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Also significantly improved is Deadpool, himself.  In the previous film, Deadpool was a riot, but wasn’t the Deadpool from the comics.  Those who aren’t as familiar with the comics and only know Deadpool from Internet memes, or some such, were convinced otherwise, unable to recognize anything beyond the overall irreverence of his presentation.  But the subtleties in his character were way off mark (which I detailed at length here).  But that has all been fixed in Deadpool 2.  From a personality standpoint, this is the Deadpool I’ve been reading for so many years.  And, even if it wasn’t, now that he’s lacking the self-awareness that he had in the original film, he is much more likable and endearing, making it an improvement not because it’s closer to the source material, but because it better serves the protagonist and his connection to the audience.

Not all sat well with me, though.  I thought the majority of the humor was either only mildly amusing or fell completely flat.  Don’t misinterpret (or misquote) me; there are funny parts in the film.  In fact, there are a couple that are both hilarious and memorable.  But, much like the first film, the adult language is forced, only present to justify the unnecessary R-rating and often attempting to serve as the sole source of a laugh.  That might have worked to an extent in the first film but that was due to the novelty of a Marvel Comics character using such language (even though, again, he doesn’t do so in the comics any more than a dozen other characters do).  But with this sequel, that novelty has worn off.  Maybe the guy two rows in front of me is so easily amused by adult language that he guffaws at every use of the f-word, but I require more wit and surprise in my humor and, by the sound of it, so did most everyone else at my Thursday-night screening.  And much of the comedy was derivative of not only the first Deadpool film but other films, as well, even lifting an entire bit from Shrek the Third, if you can believe that.  This was the preview night screening crowd, folks.  They/we are the ones most likely to enjoy whatever is thrown at them/us.  And the laughs were not exactly dominating the entire viewing of the film.  They should have asked Gerry Duggan – the best Deadpool writer in history – for some assistance.  That guy knows how to make Deadpool funny.

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And then there’s the biggest issue with the film: the mid-credit scenes (there is no post-credits scene, so feel free to leave after the second mid-credits scene).  It’s going to be difficult to convey this because I’m not about to spoil any aspect of it for anyone who has yet to see the movie, but all I’ve heard is how these are “the best mid/post-credits scenes ever” and I couldn’t disagree more.  I understand why people are saying that with their gut reactions: the scenes are funny.  And, yes, I agree with that.  They are funny.  But they also so severely undercut the dramatic events of the film that I couldn’t believe a professional filmmaker working for a major motion picture studio would even consider including them or that the studio would acquiesce.  They are the most important mid- or post-credits scenes I can immediately recall.  The film’s narrative is not complete without them.  But I absolutely loathe their contribution to the story and they leave me wondering if this franchise has any genuine aspirations to be anything other than a kooky alternative to other blockbuster fare, without worrying about containing any real substance of which to speak.

Overall, Deadpool 2 is an enjoyable couple of hours.  The action is thrilling and exceptionally choreographed.  The cast of characters is varied and colorful (if lacking much depth) and Deadpool, himself, is more thoughtfully developed than in his first film.  The structure and pacing is a vast improvement over the original; the film never drags and I thought the two hours flew by.  But the humor lacks much in the way of cleverness and the mid-credits scenes left such a bad taste in my mouth that I had to see Infinity War for the fourth time in an attempt to wash it out – and it still lingers.  Without those scenes, I’d be feeling much better about the film, even with the lazy comedy in tact.  Perhaps the scenes won’t bother you as much, despite the weight that they hold.  I hope that’s the case and that you can also enjoy the fun and surprises that Deadpool 2 otherwise holds.

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Review – Deadpool 2

Review – Avengers: Infinity War

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We weren’t ready.

Here we are.  We have arrived at one of the most anticipated films of all-time, if not the single most-anticipated.  Ten years ago, the Marvel Cinematic Universe began with Iron Man.  Over the course of the next four years, Marvel Studios built to what, at the time, we thought was their end game – The Avengers.  But then, during that film’s mid-credits scene, we saw the mastermind behind the events of the film: Thanos.  We then came to understand that Marvel had a much longer game in mind than we previously envisioned – especially once the next Avengers film was announced as Age of Ultron, with no mention of Thanos or anything Thanos-related.  After eighteen films of world-building, we have finally arrived at this, the nineteenth film in the MCU, the Russo Brothers’ Avengers: Infinity War.  This is not just a film.  This is a cultural event.

I have to say that, as often as my childhood self envisioned one day seeing a film such as this one, it’s not exactly what I pictured.  I imagined a big barnburner of a film (Secret Wars was the big event I always had in mind for a theatrical adaptation) in which it was obvious what would end up happening: all the heroes win and the day is saved and that’s that.  The fun would exist entirely in experiencing the journey on the way to that foregone conclusion: the characters, their interactions, mindblowing action, and so on.  But Marvel has crafted their MCU in such a way that there are no foregone conclusions heading into this weekend.  Everyone seemingly believes that they know what will happen, but no one actually does.  I sure didn’t.  And without even considering anything else, that alone makes Infinity War more than I ever could have dreamed.

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I will not go into any of the events of the film.  That would rob those of you who haven’t seen it yet of all the fun.  Instead, I’ll give my general impressions, starting with Thanos.  Thanos is the biggest, baddest, and best movie villain of all-time.  It’s not even close.  Sorry, Star Wars geeks.  I love the Star Wars movies, too, but Thanos makes Darth Vader look like one of Infinity War star Elizabeth Olsen’s older sisters.  All of those who have (foolishly) whined that the MCU has a “villain problem” can kindly find something else to whine about (and they will.  They always do.).  Thanos is the end-all, be-all of villainy.  He can’t be topped in the future, so Marvel will have to focus on being different, rather than being bigger.

But that’s not a problem, as Marvel does different better than anyone.  They tackle so many varied genres, character types, action sequences, arcs, and so on, and Infinity War continues that trend.  After building the characters and story through eighteen previous films, this one allows everything to explode from the beginning and never let up.  Someone who may have insanely never seen any of the previous films can follow the narrative and will get a clear picture of who each character is, but for the rest of us – the majority of us – we don’t need any further world building.  It’s time for the payoff.  And Infinity War is a 150-minute payoff.  A very bold, gutsy payoff.

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Marvel tosses all the rules out the window in this film.  Well, except for one.  I still would have preferred that the film be more succinctly titled Marvel’s Infinity War rather than Avengers: Infinity War.  I understand why it wasn’t; casual audiences need that Avengers brand identification to have a clearer picture regarding what they are about to see but, make no mistake, this is Marvel Comics: The Movie (minus the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and a few others, but just roll with me, here).  All of the characters receive equal attention, whether they are technically Avengers or not.

Casual moviegoers who have become Marvel fans over the last ten years will be thrilled and they’ll be shocked.  The film is unquestionably a full-bore adrenaline rush – a crazy bonanza of insanity – from beginning to end.  There’s never been a film like this in any sense.  There’s never been a film with this scale, this ambition, this execution, this impressive a cast, this level of courage, that was this unapologetic, this self-assured, or this imaginative.  Whether you’re new to Marvel or not, it’s impossible to avoid an appreciation of what plays out on-screen, unless you’re just determined to from the moment your butt hits the seat.

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But for anyone like me – anyone with a deep, long-standing connection to these characters and this universe – this is a gift from the cinematic gods.  There were several moments throughout the film where I truly, actually became teary-eyed simply because I felt such joy at seeing this film being realized in live-action on the big screen.  These weren’t even necessarily designed to be emotional moments.  But for practically my whole life, I had imagined seeing a Marvel crossover event film where characters from different books (or movies, as the case may be) all appeared and interacted and served a narrative purpose.  And I never imagined it was actually possible.  Even being able to mentally prepare for it over the last number of years, I wasn’t actually prepared.  Seeing Hulk, Spider-Man, Captain America, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, Scarlet Witch, and so on all together, doing their thing, and shining for the whole world to see just made me unexpectedly emotional.  If you call yourself a fan of this world and you can’t find joy in this film, then you’re taking life far too seriously for your own good.  Stop.  Smile.  Be grateful.  It doesn’t get better than this.

My crowd had a blast at Infinity War.  There were audible gasps, cheers, applause, laughs (enough that I missed being able to hear some lines) and every other reaction that Joe and Anthony Russo aimed to elicit from their viewers.  Virtually every year, a small, low-budget film full of artistic sensibilities and craftsmanship wins Best Picture and usually deservedly so.  But it’s with films like Infinity War that true movie magic happens.  Imagination is great.  Seeing it with one’s own eyes is far, far better.  The stronger your attachment to these characters, the more of an impact this film will have on you.  But no matter where one falls on that spectrum, Infinity War delivers on all levels to a degree that I frankly thought was impossible.  I told a friend of mine (and then the local news, who stopped me on my way out of the theater) that, on a scale of one to ten, Infinity War is a 125.  I stand by that.  Nothing has ever approached it as a combination of spectacle, gravitas, and pure escapism.  Don’t miss out on this.  Join us.  Our very existence depends upon our unity.

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Review – Avengers: Infinity War

Review – Isle of Dogs

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I was beginning to think I wasn’t going to be able to find a way to catch Wes Anderson’s latest film Isle of Dogs until my local theater went and surprised me by getting it over the weekend.  Truth be told, I’ve never been a huge Wes Anderson fan.  I don’t outright dislike his work, but I’m not as over-the-moon about it as I would like to be, either.  He has some fun ideas, but my biggest issue with his style has been in the way he directs his casts.  Anderson prefers a quirky aesthetic and guides his actors into performances that skirt reality and instead tend towards the downplayed and emotionless.  Monotone delivery and dead, lifeless eyes aren’t uncommon from a performer in a Wes Anderson film and it just rubs me the wrong way, feeling inauthentic.  Still, as a true film fanatic, I can recognize his talents and I’m always willing to give his work a chance.  It’s not like he’s the Wayans brothers, or anything.

In animation, however, it’s obvious that those creative choices that irk me in live-action could work much better, so I was interested to see what Isle of Dogs would bring to the table.  When watching real actors work on screen, I expect them to (at least attempt to) act like real people.  I understand many others feel differently, and that’s okay.  I’m not trying to sway anyone; that’s just my personal preference.  But when watching animation, all bets are off.  A director like Anderson who prefers to create his own little worlds that are more detached from the one we currently inhabit than any comic book or science fiction film can really go nuts and nothing will feel out of place.

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That’s exactly what happens here.  The matter-of-fact vocal delivery that is synonymous with Anderson’s work is supported by vibrant and expressive characters that are beautifully animated and simply fun to watch.  There’s a dissonance between the visual and the auditory that allows for a perfect balance to be struck and the effect that bothers me so much in Anderson’s live-action work is completely negated here.

The film has a casual humor to it that will fly far over the heads of any viewers who allow their attention to drift.  Some of it is laugh-out-loud funny, most of it is at least vastly amusing.  Anderson never stoops to using people’s natural affinity for dogs to elicit manufactured (i.e. cheap) emotion.  There’s no pandering and he challenges himself to create a connection with his audience without taking the easy road.

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At this, Anderson succeeds.  The film, which follows young Japanese boy Atari as he searches for his long lost dog Spots amidst the island to which all dogs have been banished, is populated by endearing characters who are easy to love and a story that is easy to relate to.  Said story is an obvious allegory for immigration but if one wishes to simply focus on the surface narrative of a boy and his dog, it still works beautifully.  Love is love, and Anderson tells a sweet and simple story about one of the purest forms of love there is.

I will say that kids will likely be enticed by the marketing and, while the film is perfectly suitable for them (there’s one use of the word “bitch” in context and a faraway shot of an operation.  Aside from those potential issues, it’s fine.), most will not enjoy themselves.  The themes and execution are simply too sophisticated for most typical children to either follow or to appreciate.  If you’re familiar with Anderson’s work, you don’t need me to tell you that you should expect as much.  But those who aren’t as familiar should take that into consideration.

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But as much substance as there is to the film, and as adeptly presented as it is, I can’t go without discussing the technical achievements that Anderson and his team also pull off.  This film is absolutely drop-dead gorgeous.  The locations and environments command the gaze of the viewer.  The attention to detail is astounding.  The stop-motion animation is remarkable, even allowing for the wind to blow through the fur of our canine companions.  The whole production is visually stunning and will absolutely dazzle on 4K.  There can be no question that Anderson has style.

I can’t help but wonder if Anderson was inspired to make Isle of Dogs after seeing Laika Studios’ Kubo and the Two Strings.  If you don’t know (and how can you be one of my readers and not know, by now?), Kubo is a stop-motion animation film about a young Japanese boy searching for a way to connect with his lost family.  Now, Kubo was an instant classic and, as much as I enjoyed Isle of Dogs, it doesn’t have the same level of artistry, poignancy, or inspiration that Kubo had.  But that’s not meant to be disparaging; on the contrary, my intention is to draw a favorable comparison between the two films.  And if I’m drawing a favorable comparison to Kubo, you know I liked the film.

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I haven’t seen every single Wes Anderson film, but of the ones I have, Isle of Dogs is my clear favorite.  It’s charming, fun, and light, but it also addresses humanity’s tendency to cast out those we deem as troublesome, rather than moving to help and incorporate them.  Underneath the film’s attractive presentation resides a metaphor for inclusivity wrapped in a Japanese fable.  Fans of Anderson, prestige filmmaking, and – of course – dogs should find plenty to enjoy here.  I personally would like to see Anderson stick to animation more often but, no matter what he offers audiences next time, he’s earned another chance from me.

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Review – Isle of Dogs

Review – Rampage

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Here we are with another new video game adaptation in the form of Rampage from director Brad Peyton and starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.  The Rampage video game came along in the eighties, when video games were simpler (and arguably more fun, in many cases).  In the game, the player chose one of three massive monsters – George the gorilla, Lizzie the lizard, or Ralph the wolf (the Atari Lynx had an exclusive fourth monster in Larry the rat) – and then proceeded to rack up points by knocking down buildings, eating soldiers, and fighting each other.  That’s it.  Pretty straightforward.  And there certainly isn’t much there upon which to base a movie.  So, the narrative needed to be filled out substantially for this adaptation, if only as an explanation for the premise so that audiences can get to the wild action that they came to see.

In a way, Rampage also contributes to the recent eighties revival, alongside the likes of Netflix’s “Stranger Things”, Atomic BlondeIt, and Ready Player One.  It’s in a different way – Rampage doesn’t have an eighties vibe to it, as those other projects do.  But it’s based upon an eighties property and fueled by eighties nostalgia.  I’m still waiting for that long-rumored Masters of the Universe reboot and, even if I wasn’t into it as a kid, I have to admit that a live-action Voltron movie could be pretty cool.  But Rampage beat them to the punch and, from the perspective of someone who was a kid in the eighties, it’s just another cog in a very enjoyable wheel of fun and excitement.

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In the film, Johnson plays primatologist Davis Okoye.  When a biological agent crashes to Earth and infects his favorite gorilla George, Davis seeks to find a way to cure George while also dealing with the threat of other infected and mutated animals that are posing a danger to millions – particularly in the city of Chicago.  Johnson is surrounded by a strong supporting cast with Jeffrey Dean Morgan (in three-fourths Negan mode), Naomi Harris, Joe Manganiello, and Malin Akerman, but this is unquestionably Johnson’s movie.  Johnson has become the kind of classic action movie star that appeared to have faded away over the years.  He reminds me of Schwarzenegger and Stallone back in their glory days, with the exception that Johnson is generally a better actor (certainly better than Schwarzenegger) and unquestionably more versatile than the action stars of yesteryear.

Johnson makes for a strong lead, but he’s assisted by the screenplay, which provides some equally strong characters, at least for this type of mass appeal spectacle film.  Only Akerman’s Claire Wyden (evil businesswoman) and Jake Lacy’s Brett Wyden (goofy sidekick and Claire’s brother) are overly stereotypical.  As a primatologist with a personal connection to one of the monsters/animals Johnson’s Davis spends the entire movie in a state of internal conflict, knowing that George needs to be stopped but not wanting to hurt his friend.

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It’s these kinds of inspired creative choices that provides the film the substance that keeps it engaging even when there’s no on-screen action.  It would have been very easy to simply make all of the creatures storyless villains with no history or development.  But George becomes as important a character as any of the humans and just as easy to invest in, if not more so.  George has a true personality and reminds me of a hybrid of the recent theatrical incarnations of Caesar from the Planet of the Apes series and the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Hulk.

But have no fear, once the action kicks in, it delivers in a massive way.  No matter what you’re looking for from this movie in terms of gigantic action set pieces, you’ll get it.  The film builds, giving little teases of what’s to come, until it delivers a super-scale climax that is sure to please those hoping for some pure escapist entertainment.  I would even wager that the film delivers to the point where it will have indie wrestling marks chanting, “FIGHT for-EV-er!  *clap* *clap* *clapclapclap*” before remembering that they’ve sworn to hate anything that the Rock is involved in.  (I can’t imagine the identity crisis they’d be faced with if they went to the movies and begrudgingly realized how great John Cena is in Blockers.)

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I saw a headline for a review of Rampage, earlier today, that declared it to be the funniest film of 2018.  That’s . . . well, that’s absurd.  The film has its funny moments but it is in no way a comedy.  It doesn’t aim to be a comedy.  The world in this movie reacts to the events unfolding around it in an appropriately serious way.  And there are stakes.  People die.  People you don’t expect to die die.  And they often do so in brutal fashion.  The film is PG-13 and it works within that rating, but it manages to do so without presenting a watered-down Hollywood version of violence without consequence.

I’ve seen other reviews declaring Rampage as the best movie ever to be based on a video game.  I wouldn’t go that far (I’m still extremely enamored by Silent Hill) but I do agree that it exceeds expectations.  Not only does the spectacle dazzle, but the unforeseen complexity in the characters and their relationships is an added element that gives the movie just the extra boost it needs to stand out.  Yes, the narrative has to jump through some hoops to bring all of the elements together and, yes, a couple of the characters are cookie cutter in nature.  But most aren’t and the film still gives audiences what they came to see and then some.  For large-scale entertainment with a charismatic lead and some unexpected depth, one can’t go wrong with Rampage.

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Review – Rampage

Review – Ready Player One

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I read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One because of Robin Williams.  Shortly after Williams’s passing, I caught a radio replay of an interview with him that was conducted by Whoopi Goldberg.  At one point in the interview, she simply asked him, “What are you reading?”  His response: “Ready Player One.”  If I remember correctly, she, like me, wasn’t familiar with it, so Williams gave a short synopsis and I was instantly intrigued.  When I got home, I found it on Amazon, ordered it, and fell in love with it.  Such imagination was on display.  So many great characters were driving the action.  The nostalgia was a poke to the pleasure centers of the brain. And the suspense was gripping; there were endless plausible endings to the story, making it a true page-turner.

When Steven Spielberg was announced as the director of the feature film adaptation, I would imagine most everyone who loved the book rejoiced.  I know I did. And those who didn’t should have.  Nobody is better suited and no one could be trusted more with a property such as this one, with its combination of scale, vision, story, character, excitement, and spectacle. Spielberg is the most versatile director of all-time – possibly the greatest of all-time.  He excels at everything he does and Ready Player One required someone capable of storytelling on multiple fronts.

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For those on the outside, Ready Player One tells the story of a virtual reality world called the Oasis.  When its monumentally rich creator (Mark Rylance) passes away, his will reveals that he has hidden a metaphorical Easter egg within the Oasis and whoever finds it first – by discovering a series of three hidden keys –  will inherit his entire real-world fortune and control of the Oasis.

It took me much longer to see Ready Player One than I had hoped and intended.  I traveled to Washington, D.C., this weekend, to attend Awesome Con and I just couldn’t find the time or energy to catch it while navigating the con.  But I finished my con goals a day early and so, today, I made my way to the IMAX at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum to see it in as big a way as I could muster.  I’m so glad I did.

I knew within minutes that I was going to have to see the film in theaters, again.  I settled for a 2D IMAX showing because I was tired (having probably walked 20-25 miles over the last three days) but 2D just isn’t good enough.  Ready Player One deserves more than that.  The entire idea is that someone in the real world steps into a fictional one.  With 3D, the viewer will share that experience along with the characters.  Don’t give me any of that fluff about “not liking 3D”.  Enough.  Do you want to experience it in the best way possible or not?  Unless you have a vision/eye issue that prevents you from doing so, 3D is absolutely required to the point that I will prioritize buying a home 3D release (which, so far, Warner Brothers still does in North America) over 4K.

Spielberg was simply born for this kind of movie.  It’s completely second-nature for him.  Whereas another director would have taken 5 years and required $300 million to get the job done, Spielberg took three and probably could have done it with his spare change and a Starbucks gift card (Just kidding.  Kind of.  The reported budget is $175 million which isn’t as much as one would expect when watching the film.).  I’m not suggesting that he doesn’t have to work hard to make these films as good as they are; that would be ridiculous and insulting.  Nobody works harder than Steven Spielberg.  I’m saying that he has an instinct and understands exactly how to mix entertainment, heart, and subtext in a way that leaves the viewer thinking about life without sacrificing a single bit of fun along the way.

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And I can’t recall a film since the original Guardians of the Galaxy that was as much pure fun as Ready Player One.  The film exists on two fronts: inside the virtual Oasis and outside in the real world.  The two planes dovetail to tell a single united story and it matters not which reality we are coexisting with at any given time, as both are equally compelling, relevant, and thrilling.  The cast knocks it out of the park with authentic and charismatic performances (Rylance is a favorite of mine but Olivia Cooke really sizzles, here, too).

Underneath all of the mystery, puzzle-solving, and adventure, the narrative speaks well to our modern society, who tends to disappear into their own virtual worlds, whether it be games, social media, or anonymous comment sections and message boards.  Much like in the Oasis, everyone in our real world creates an identity for themselves within our virtual world.  Sometimes that identity syncs with their real-world selves, and sometimes not.  Spielberg addresses the oft-held belief that one must be more careful meeting people online than in the real world because it’s so easy for someone online to pretend to be someone that they aren’t.  But Spielberg counters that by asking if that’s really so different from the world of reality.  In fact, one might argue that most people are more comfortable being their true selves behind that protective shield of binary codes and digitized screens than they are face-to-face.  Generally speaking, if someone is true and honest in the real world, aren’t they also more likely to be so in a physically virtual existence?  Either way, one can never tell until they take the time and chance to get to know them.

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No matter one’s stance on that debate, it would be hard to deny the appeal of being able to live as and be whatever one wishes.  Within the Oasis are avatars of all types, representing the most ardent desires of each individual user.  Some are more down-to-Earth, some are hyper-stylized, and others are exact copies of fictional characters that already exist.  Think about it: what would you choose to be if you could be anything?  You’d see me running around as the Hulk.  Not creative, I know, but I don’t need creativity if I can just smash anything in my way.  (And look out, because I’d be the smart, merged Hulk, folks.)

Still, each user’s true personality leaks through any artificial veneer with which they disguise themselves.  The idea is that these falsehoods unleash a new confidence in each player that, should they unlock them in the real world, could allow each person to realize their own unique potential and be who they always dreamed they could be.  We all have it inside of us.  If I could turn pain into power the way the Hulk does, who could I be?  Spielberg holds a mirror up to all of us and asks us to ask ourselves our own personalized version of that very question.

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There will invariably be those who ignorantly whine about the “changes” to the book.  To those, I say this: shhhhhh.  Yes, the details change.  The challenges change.  The intellectual properties change.  They have to.  Warner Brothers wouldn’t have been able to get the rights to use everything in Ernest Cline’s book.  So they naturally stuck mostly to their own properties and it’s every bit as joyous and awe-inspiring as the novel.  When the second challenge is revealed, I felt myself break into an irrepressible grin of anticipation.  In fact, I had a grin on my face for most of the film.  It’s that kind of experience.

Even at two-hours-and-twenty minutes, the relationships are rushed a little bit.  There’s a lot to pack in and Spielberg knows the limits of his target audience.  Choices have to be made and in this kind of film, the spectacle has to win out because that’s why people are showing up.  Still, it’s a minor sacrifice and it’s an appropriate one. Ultimately, Ready Player One exists as a celebration of all things that used to be ridiculed and mocked.  Geeks now rule the world and the toxic masculinity that was once so prevalent is now taking a backseat to brains and fun and a new form of cool (well . . . at least that will be true after the 2020 elections).  For anyone who ever felt ostracized for loving the things you love, Steven Spielberg is here to remind you that you aren’t alone and now you’re among the in-crowd.  So stand up, be proud, and let those metaphorical geek flags fly!

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The fact of the matter is that, for me, this film sits behind only Jurassic Park on my list of favorite Spielberg films.  And it will easily find its way into my all-time Top Ten Spectacle Films.  Ready Player One is an instant classic.  It’s absolutely must-see.  Years from now, when asked what their favorite movie of all-time is, there will be many people who answer, “Ready Player One“.  When asked what movie made them love movies, there will be many people who answer, “Ready Player One“.  To steal a turn of phrase from Jim Carrey’s Riddler from Batman ForeverReady Player One is a 140-minute “joygasm” by which only those who are dead inside could fail to be entranced.  See it.  See it many times.  See it in 3D.  See it in IMAX 3D.  And sit as close as your field of vision will allow.  This is a new generational celluloid anthem that will outlive us all.

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Review – Ready Player One

#ThrowbackThursday – Finding Nemo

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Original US release date: May 30, 2003
Production budget: $94,000,000
Worldwide gross: $940,335,536

I’ve been a Pixar fan as long as most everyone else has been: since the beginning.  Still, in spite of that, I somehow missed seeing Finding Nemo in the theaters upon its original release.  I still don’t really recall how that happened.  I’ve of course seen it since and I own the movie, but it remains one of the Pixar films with which I feel least connected.  So, in this #ThrowbackThursday, I intend to determine if it’s simply because I didn’t have that theatrical experience or if there’s more to it than that.

There’s no question that I have been one of the few who haven’t felt a strong personal connection to the film.  With a production budget of $94 million, the movie was a massive hit all around the world, earning more than ten times its original budget (after a 2012 re-release.  It neared $900 million in its original 2003 run.).  I still hear – and make – references to Finding Nemo in my daily life on a fairly regular basis as it has become entrenched in the general public consciousness and is undeniably considered a timeless family classic.

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For the few who may be unfamiliar with the film, Finding Nemo follows single father clown fish Marlin as he must find his son Nemo, who has gone missing off the Australian Reef.  Marlin enlists the help of a regal tang (yeah, I looked that up) named Dory with a short-term memory problem and a gigantic heart.  As the duo attempts to pick up Nemo’s trail, Nemo himself is trying to escape captivity that appears to be leading to a potentially life-threating scenario.

Though I’ve seen the movie a few times, this was my first time watching it in 3D and, wow, did it ever pop!  Even in 2003, Pixar’s animation was gorgeous and detailed.  The textures actually engage the brain’s sense of touch, the colors are vivid but not unrealistic, and the environments are completely immersive – even more so with the addition of 3D.  To my eye, Finding Nemo hasn’t aged and appears as if it could have been released last weekend.  In recent years, Disney’s home-grown animation studio has caught up to, and perhaps even surpassed (by a slim margin), Pixar’s technical and artistic abilities.  But in 2003, nobody was anywhere close to what Pixar was doing.

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But we all know that Pixar is about so much more than the superficial qualities of filmmaking.  With this story, Pixar crafted a tale that is just as relevant and poignant for adults as for the children that many of them brought with them to the theater (or the couch, as the case may now be).  This particular narrative manages to address single parenthood, the fear of loss, physical handicaps, mental handicaps, persistence, confidence, and the importance of relationships.

Nemo never even meets his mother, who sadly dies as his egg is laid.  As a result, Marlin is even more terrified to lose what remains of his family than a typical parent might be.  In fact, he’s so terrified that he becomes overprotective, inadvertently creating a sheltered life for his son.  Compounding Marlin’s fears is the fact that Nemo has a physical handicap in the form of an underdeveloped pectoral fin.  So, when Nemo becomes lost, he not only faces the challenge of being on his own for the first time, but also the idea that he is at an immediate disadvantage due to his physical nature.

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At the same time, Marlin meets Dory, who forgets things very easily and very quickly, demonstrating her lifelong struggle with short-term memory loss.  So now Marlin must learn to depend on someone with a handicap, rather than protecting and restricting them, otherwise he will possibly never find his son.  Nemo also makes new friends who are captured alongside him and both father and son learn to embrace and work with others in order to hopefully achieve their goals.

Whew!  That’s a lot of meat on this bone.  Yet none of it is ever forced down our throats.  It’s all a natural part of this story with the subtext there for those who choose to take the time to fully process what they’ve watched.  For those who do that, adults will be thinking about how it’s difficult but necessary to accept that their kids will eventually grow up and need to experience life – even the scary parts.  Kids will be thinking about how their future is to be written by them, according to their own desires and hard work.  The film effortlessly makes the point that we all have our own handicaps and life will be a challenge no matter what, but persevering and overcoming is part of what makes it worth living.

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But even without that, the movie is pure entertainment from start to finish.  The characters are endearing and loveable (Dory was the break-out, but Crush came in a close second), the action is exciting and innovative, and the humor ranges from amusing to outright hilarious.  Dory attempting to speak Whale might still be the funniest moment from any Pixar film.  What this all comes down to is that Finding Nemo is a total package of a film, appealing to all audiences on all levels.  It’s everything a classic film should be.  It still doesn’t speak to me on a personal level the way some of Pixar’s other films do (specifically Monsters, Inc. and Toy Story 3) but it’s easy to see why it speaks to so many others.  Finding Nemo is one of those films that everyone should see and carry with them on some level from day to day.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Finding Nemo

Review – Pacific Rim: Uprising

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It’s been approximately five years since Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim hit theaters and, for a long time, all we heard is that a sequel was (to paraphrase) “probably coming”.  Del Toro’s original film (which is actually my favorite del Toro film, alongside Hellboy II: The Golden Army) was moderately successful, but not overwhelmingly so, making a sequel a risky financial proposition if not handled correctly.  And though del Toro isn’t back, having been replaced by Steven S. DeKnight as director (del Toro has a producing credit), del Toro’s most mainstream-friendly creation is, in the form of this long-awaited sequel.

The narrative does a commendable job of paying service to what came before it while not being so beholden to it that new viewers are lost.  If you saw and remember del Toro’s original Pacific Rim, then some of the proceedings will have more meaning and resonance for you.  If that original film is a mystery to you, the film fills you in on what you need to know (which is actually not all that much) and then introduces some new faces to carry the bulk of the story’s weight.  If nothing else, it’s more accessible than Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope, and people seem to be okay with that one, so Uprising‘s plot should be fine for most.

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Truth be told, the script isn’t as lazy as I feared it might be.  Everyone knows that the movie is eventually headed for another epic confrontation between the humans in their Jaegers and the monstrous Kaiju, but the path to getting there isn’t as linear as expected.  There are plenty of unexpected detours and turns along the way, even up until the very end of the film.  DeKnight (who also receives a co-writing credit in addition to his directorial duties) and the rest of his team go out of their way to keep things unpredictable and fun and they succeed to about as great a degree as possible for a movie such as this one.  Kudos to them for even caring about doing so, as there is probably no legitimate reason for them to unless (gasp!) they actually care about the quality of their work and not just making money.  If the viewer cares to look, they may even pick up on the underlying theme of world unity being carried over from the first film and then challenged by a devious outsider who attempts to unravel all the progress that had been made.  Sounds sadly topical, does it not?

While there was certainly an intangible sense of poetry within del Toro’s original film that doesn’t quite make the transition over to this one, it’s not for a lack of trying.  The characters – both new and old – are charismatic, engaging, entertaining, and diverse not only in terms of ethnicity, but also personality.  Motivations are clear and sensible and they are generally relatable, being assisted by a capable cast.  Some of the arcs are essentially a repeat from the first film (or at least one of them), but that doesn’t harm things all that much.

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John Boyega continues his bid to take over Hollywood as Jake Pentecost, the son of Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost from the original film.  Rinko Kikuchi reprises her role as Mako Mori and Charlie Day and Burn Gorman also return to the series as their scientist buddies Newt and Hermann, respectively.  Joining them are franchise newcomers Cailee Spaeny, who plays 15-year-old Amara – a wannabe Jaeger pilot, and Scott Eastwood as Nate Lambert, a personal and professional rival of Jake’s.  Boyega and Spaeny are the standouts of the bunch (as written for this film) but all hold their own and elevate the material, keeping it interesting during the downtime.

Because, let’s be honest, as nice as all of that is, that’s not why any of us are here, is it?  I’m sure you will see plenty of reviews that eschew validating the action in favor of talking about the character development, story, etc.. as if it all bears equal weight.  It doesn’t.  All of the latter is great and it always helps and is preferable to have, but what matters most in a franchise like Pacific Rim is the monumental action and visual effects.  That’s the flat-out truth.  Anybody who is pretentiously claiming otherwise is flat out lying in a misguided attempt to preserve their own perceived reputation.  Lying, I say!

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Fortunately, I have nothing but praise to heap upon that aspect of the film.  In fact, Pacific Rim: Uprising, in my opinion, far and away features the best action of any 2018 film, thus far.  Not only is the scope and scale massive, but the movie gradually builds from one impressive set piece to an increasingly more impressive one until it climaxes in one monumental battle for the ages.  The effects are top-notch, the Jaeger and Kaiju designs are outstanding, and DeKnight generally has an eye for giant-robot-versus-monster throwdowns, keeping the camera wide and the action slow enough that it’s easy to interpret and the power plows through the screen (though the characters are a bit reckless in their efforts to win the day).  Near the beginning of the film, his cuts are a little too fast, but that ends quickly and it’s all smooth sailing after the initial twenty minutes, or so.

I feel like the Pacific Rim series, artistically speaking, is what Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise wishes it could be.  Pacific Rim (both the original and Uprising) has characters that are generally enjoyable, dialogue that is unremarkable but good enough, and action that is decipherable – a low bar but one that Bay often has trouble clearing.  Transformers makes the money but it also has the benefit of being an established intellectual property with a long history and a devoted fanbase (although it’s looked much less devoted, recently).  But Pacific Rim is much better balanced, paced, and sophisticated.  Uprising successfully carries on the themes that del Toro introduced and brings them into 2018 while also raising the stakes.  It doesn’t quite possess the artistry of del Toro’s original, but it’s a more-than-worthy follow-up, regardless, and delivers big time on what the audience is looking for: giant monsters versus giant robots.  Stop pretending you need or want anything more and just go see it.

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Review – Pacific Rim: Uprising