Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Batman Begins Review

"Deep down you may still be that same great kid you used to be. But it's not who you are underneath, it's what you do that defines you."
(warning: spoilers--mainly in Batman's origin story-- revealed)

Batman Begins provides both a satisfying origins story and kick-off adventure for the well known and loved comic book character, Batman/Bruce Wayne.

A lot gets crammed in, but it's handled more coherently and compellingly than other overstuffed superhero flicks have been, like say, The Amazing Spider-Man 2. It sometimes lacked the emotional appeal that should have accompanied events like the Wayne parents' death. Likewise, Bruce's decision to exact revenge on his parents' murderer could have been better fleshed out for more suspense and emotional capability. The timeline can also feel a bit choppy at times.

Regardless, this was an excellent superhero movie. Rather than distracting from the main character, the sheer scope of the film built a compelling arc. Bruce Wayne changes drastically throughout the film and became a character I could totally get behind.

The supporting characters are impressive-- the lovable Alfred, the terrifying Scarecrow, and also terrifying(in a very different sense) Falcone. I'd also like to give a shout-out to this movie for including a romantic interest who actually propels the plot. Not that I find the damsel-in-distress device always wrong or offensive in superhero films, but when the hero and the girl can drive the story, it adds dynamic.

There are funny moments and plenty of-- arguably too much -- big and exciting action. I definitely enjoyed it.

Batman Begins is entertaining, vast, and a movie I'm dying to rewatch. It easily earns four out of five stars. 

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Dunkirk Review[Spoiler Free]

"...we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall never surrender." -Winston Churchill, shortly after the evacuation of Dunkirk

In the spring of 1940, British troops were surrounded by German military at Dunkirk, on the Northern coast of France, a mere 20-some miles from the English shore. The British launched Operation Dynamo, an effort to evacuate as many of allied forces as possible.*

A few weeks ago, the lauded Christopher Nolan(Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, etc.) released Dunkirk to commemorate those events.

Thankfully, after all the hype and praise, it turns out there is little wrong with Dunkirk. At the same time, it never floored me and I might even go so far as to say it never quite reached its full potential. That isn't to imply a movie must floor its audience to be good-- Dunkirk isn't not good. It's a fine movie. But it isn't the cinematic exhibition I had expected.  

The story unfolds simultaneously on three levels: land(one week), water(one day), and air(one hour). The overlap was highly disorienting. I've heard the confusion was intended to immerse the audience in the unsettling nature of war. However, I feel like war is disorienting in different ways so I wish he had focused more on different opportunities for demonstrating that. 

Nolan conveyed terror less through graphic violence and more through facial expressions, dialogue, and the loud noises of warfare-- I jumped in my theater seat several times. There's a place for that explicitness in other war films, but I think Nolan wanted to impress on us the more prominent horrors of the Dunkirk scenes. I feel like he could have done a little more of that-- lingering longer on the bombing episodes and shorter on the interim(or not necessarily shorter, considering the movies quick run-time). Even without crossing a boundary into gratuitous violence, I wish the film had better impressed on me the stakes at Dunkirk. 

So what about Dunkirk did impress me?

For one, the casting. The more respected actors(Kenneth Branagh, Cilian Murphy, Tom Hardy) were relegated to fairly minor roles, leaving room for the extras and smaller-name actors. 

Dunkirk is both Fionn Whitehead's and Harry Styles's film debut. Casting Fionn Whitehead as the main character was brilliant because he felt authentic and didn't carry any celebrity baggage. And though it baffles me why the casting directors saw fit to include a boy-band-heart-throb-teen-sensation, Harry Styles performed well, his character fitting neatly into the narrative. 

Much of the movie's shots are gorgeous-- almost distracting-ly so. The sheer beauty of the composition, the landscape, and the use of colors were enough to nearly detract from the tone of the story. 

Unlike most war movies(and films in general), Dunkirk doesn't pedestal a couple select heroes of the evacuation, but offered a grounded immersion in the actions of realistic characters-- some heroes, but most frankly on level with how average people would probably respond in those circumstances. 

The lack of dialogue was reverent and boasted amazing showing-versus-telling techniques. Hans Zimmer's soundtrack, though un-melodic, complements the tone and heightens tension. The videography, especially in scenes shot underwater, was inventive and (literally) immersive. 

Immersive is an excellent word for this movie. It was a 107 minutes of my afternoon well spent. Dunkirk could have delivered better in a few areas, but it gave me deeper respect for the historical event and in many aspects, was even enjoyable. So I'm giving it 3.5 out of 5 stars. 

Have you seen Dunkirk? What did you think? Were you able to follow the story, or did you find it confusing? 


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Avengers Review

Ahhh, the movie that started it all. Just kidding. That was Iron Man.

But Avengers did a lot to launch the MCU into the cinematic dominance it still enjoys today. In a way it has almost become its own franchise's touchstone.

Synopsis: Prompted when the Asgardian demigod Loki brainwashes S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Clint Barton and steals the Tessaract, Nick Fury(director of S.H.I.E.L.D.) gathers a group of superhumans to deliver the world from Loki's influence. 

(Warning: Spoilers for Avengers and Age of Ultron follow)

The best word to describe the Avengers is "fun". And I don't mean mindless, unsubstantial diversion, but more the sort of fun that you feel justified having. It's a good movie-- the producers and actors obviously had a grip on what they were doing. Yet more than anything, it's really just fun. 

Per usual Marvel style, the villain and his army are probably the weak link. YouTube's The Closer Look points this out in his video essay, Why Thor Is The Best Marvel Movie(disclaimer: I don't agree with everything he says and there is a quick instance of language). He points out that Loki's motives are inconsistent with those in Thor. Not to mention, they're just bland. However, Tom Hiddleston's acting compensates for this in a number of delightful scenes(particularly when Natasha "interrogates" him).

The characters experience pretty minimal growth throughout the film's 2 hr+ run-time, but the dialogue, acting and background provided for each Avenger suffices for considerably thorough character development.

It's frustrating Marvel teased a potential Clint/Natasha pairing without any since payoff. It may have made Hawkeye's backstory reveal in Age of Ultron more surprising, but Marvel could have developed Natasha and Bruce's chemistry earlier on, leading to a richer relationship. 

Minus that, the dynamics and interactions between characters owns the movie. The obvious tension between Tony and Steve and Tony and Thor humorously deepens each person's development. As does Bruce acting cool and patronizing despite Tony's shenanigans. Everything is more interesting with Iron Man. 

The CGI is beautiful and made the non-character focused scenes intensely enjoyable as well. And despite all the fun this movie is, it does allow the audience to understand the stakes through Agent Coulson's death. 

To conclude, Avengers rises above its limited flaws to offer a solid big-scale superhero flick. I'm giving it a 4 out of 5 star rating. 

Do you enjoy Avengers? How do you think it compares to Age of Ultron?

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming Review

Spider-Man: Homecoming faced high expectations-- not only was it a third interpretation of the character and a sixth in the long line of Spider-Man movies, it was also a Marvel Cinematic Universe installment. Not to mention it had the lowest budget of the Spidey films since Spider-Man in 2002. Was Homecoming everything fans had wanted and more? 

Homecoming centered on Peter Parker's quest to prove himself to Mr. Stark, fit in with his classmates, balance superhero responsibilities with school and life, and win the affection of his crush, Liz. It introduced Vulture to the big screen-- a ex-construction worker who feels cheated by "big shots" like Tony Stark and turns to illegal weapon manufacturing to support himself and his family.

Let's be real, Homecoming lacked the depth we've come to appreciate after the three(yes, all three) Sam Raimi movies. I never really identified a takeaway. The movie played on the concept of Peter's identity with and without the suit. That was great and created a nice little character arc, but was ultimately underplayed. It even toyed with the "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility" theme that was central in former Spider-Man movies and comics(and many other superhero flicks), but not majorly.

from Amazing Fantasy #15, Spider-Man's debut

This could be attributable to its attempt to cater to a younger audience. The first two acts felt almost like one of those kids movies that's frosted over with innuendo-winks at adults. Some depth could have made it more adult-friendly-- because sorry, that Ned-in-the-library joke doesn't count.

Some of the jokes worked really well, others were crude, out-of-place...or just not funny. Also the instances of strong language were mostly throw-aways and further confused who the film wanted the audience to be.

(From here on, there will be unmarked spoilers. If you haven't seen Homecoming yet, stay clear.)

Michelle delivered some of the funniest lines, but her character felt more like an excuse to include a kids' celebrity-- Zendaya-- until this part. Whether she can justify her inclusion to the series in the next movie, we'll have to see. Flash, who likewise provided a dose of humor, failed to impress the audience as a formidable bully. Even Ned(who was also hilarious) lacked development. Besides Peter and The Vulture, none of the characters experienced much growth or got a chance to emotionally connect with the audience unless by extension because they were friends with/enemies to Peter.

Having got that out of the way, Homecoming was actually an excellent movie. It stood out from other MCU installments and previous Spider-Man movies.

Firstly, Tom Holland plays a basically perfect Spider-Man character. Andrew Garfield may still be a better representation of the original comic book character, but Tom Holland isn't far off. He's definitely less prideful than Garfield's interpretation and less goody-goody than Tobey Maguire-- who, to be fair, is another excellent Peter Parker. Neither Garfield nor Maguire played very convincing teenagers but thankfully Holland nails the fifteen year-old. His character also lends more continuity between Peter and Spidey.

The Vulture wasn't quite as fleshed out as he could have been but was nonetheless one of the best MCU villains since Loki.

I did mention earlier that some of the jokes didn't work-- that being said, this is, hands down, the funniest Spider-Man(and perhaps MCU?) movie ever. In fact, a lot of it was flat out hilarious.

"As you know, we made it out alive, and that’s the important thing. Couldn’t bear to lose a student on a school trip...not again."
-Mr. Harrington on the Washington Monument incident
One of the funniest elements was the insight into everyday life for teenagers in the same universe as the Avengers and their activity. The Captain America PSAs and Flash's Black Widow reference played out perfectly. I don't know why the "hot Aunt May" change was necessary except to mix things up but it provided some of the movie's funniest lines("I think he larbs you.") and otherwise seemed to work.

Thankfully, funny as the movie was, the jokes didn't clog its emotional appeal. A few days before Homecoming, I had watched the popular video, What Writers Should Learn From Wonder Woman, that argues recent Hollywood movies(especially from the MCU) have inadvertently become parodies-- undermining their own emotional appeal by opting for jokes. It's an excellent video; I highly recommend it. While watching Homecoming, I kept an eye out for instances of this mistake. There really aren't any. When Peter loses his suit, when he's on the car ride to homecoming(which has its own sort of nervous humor that isn't what I'm describing), when he decides not to move into the Avengers tower, and above all, when he's caught under the rubble, the audience is allowed to fully experience the consequential emotions.

The rubble scene was one of the too few times in MCU history that I was caught off by my own emotional response. Not only that, it was possibly the most heart wrenching "kid" moment in the entire Spider-Man cinematic history. For the first few lines of his monologue, Peter was a fifteen year old caught under a collapsed building. We have plenty of Peter-Parker-crying shots during Uncle Ben's death or whatnot from the previous franchises but this was a kid dying under a cement heap and he did what any teenager would do-- he freaked out. And it was absolutely effective. It was a jarring reminder to the audience of what previous Spidey series have told us, but never shown us this well.

And let's not forget the plot twist. I'm going to be honest-- at first the reveal failed to impress me. I think I can trace that back to watching Beyond the Mask and its plot twist which followed a similar formula. "Guy likes girl. Guy asks girl out(in this movie he actually proposes). Guy must meet family member first. Family member turns out to be guy's archenemy. Some awkward tension with guy, archenemy, and unwitting girl. Guy and archenemy fight."

But when I had time to reflect on the execution of Homecoming's twist and see it a second time I realized how brilliantly it was executed, especially compared to Beyond the Mask's reveal which was executed lazily.

Not just the twist, but the whole subsequent scene was genius. It was even funny at times but in a way that didn't necessarily compete with the suspenseful tension.

Peter could act immature and even (dare I say?) a little annoying in the beginning of the movie, but once the Vulture reveal scene triggered his leaving homecoming, saving Adrian's life, and finally turning down Tony Stark's offer, we were given gobs of reason to get behind him and sympathize with him. By the end, the audience was ready to shout with the ferry passenger, "Yeah, Spider-Man!" Or I was anyway.

As to the ending before the end credits, I'm personally really looking forward to seeing how Aunt May interacts with this discovery and his future superhero activity.

The first end credit scene touchingly completed The Vulture's character arc and the second end credit scene...well, that scene speaks for itself.

In conclusion, Spider-Man: Homecoming introduces fresh content to the MCU and legacy of Spider-Man movies. Despite lacking the depth Sam Raimi taught us superhero movies are capable of, it delivers an emotionally compelling and otherwise highly entertaining reincarnation of one of Marvel's most iconic superheroes. I loved it, it was amazing, and I'm giving it a solid 4 out of 5 stars.

What did you think about Spider-Man: Homecoming? What did you think was the takeaway of the movie? What has been your favorite Spider-Man movie thus far?