Thursday, December 21, 2017

Quick Movie Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Fans may be frustrated with the lack of twists and big reveals in the new Star Wars movie. But personally, I'm glad there isn't anything big. We don't want these films to merely become fan pandering. Vehicles for countless Easter Eggs with the stories becoming second fiddle. 

This is the middle act of a trilogy. It's meant to keep the story going while presenting the perfect amount of conflict and resolution, balancing both. If it tries to do too much, it risks losing its identity and any cohesiveness developed so far.

Although J.J. Abrams directed Episode 7, and is slated to direct Episode 9, it was a good choice to get Rian Johnson on board to direct this installment. 

While Abrams is a lover of popcorn entertainment that's big and full of audience-craved plot points, Johnson isn't as concerned with that. He's focused more on giving us what we actually need. He builds up momentum slowly and knows how to give us the proper climax.

Johnson also directed last year's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which I'm not a huge fan of, but can still appreciate. Rogue One is poetic, but doesn't really come together until the end. 

This was my fear with The Last Jedi. But since it utilizes The Force Awakens to help set up much of the story, it doesn't have to focus on that as much here. And the poeticism works well for this one as the middle act. Though I wouldn't want all of the films to be like this. I like my Star Wars a bit more popcorny--just like J.J. Abrams.

The Last Jedi starts off pretty slow. It takes place immediately after the events of the last film, and noticeably struggles to pick up the well-built momentum of its predecessor as well. Much of the first half is spent with Leia and the Resistance trying to survive attacks from the First Order. It's interspersed with Rey trying to convince Luke to train her to become a Jedi Master.

This film is also much darker than the last. We've seen now that Johnson is also a big fan of the theme of finding hope amidst despair, yet constantly reminding us of that despair. Certain moments are very potent. Use the end of Rogue One for reference.

A truly bright spot in this film is the introduction of Benicio Del Toro's computer hacker character, DJ. His moral compass points to neither good nor bad. He plays for himself and adjusts accordingly. And they brilliantly utilize him to parallel Kilo Ren--albeit a less monstrous version. Both men are capable of being empathetic and selfish at the same time. Del Toro's existence in this movie is absolutely no throwaway.

As much as The Last Jedi will pride itself on staying true to its goal of telling a solid and important story first, it still has it's fair share of surprises. Naturally though, there aren't as many. We have to remember that these new stories must stand on their own at some point too. 

As far as major plot points go, this film makes all the right decisions. It may not feel like a Star Wars film in the traditional sense, but it's a really amazing story executed at the highest mark. 

Twizard Rating: 100

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Quick Movie Review: Santa With Muscles (1996)

It's no surprise that Hulk Hogan's film career never really took off. The only lines he can deliver convincingly are the ones that don't require any eyebrow movement. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger was able to make good comedies.

But sad to say, I'm not sure Schwarzenegger could have saved this one either. Though, he would have made it a little bit more funny.

The film is doomed from the start. The script is awful. There are plot holes you can drive a train through, and the dialogue is cringy--containing unique lines such as, "See ya! Wouldn't wanna be ya!" and "'Never turn your back on someone in need.' A friend of mine once told me that." Also, it builds up speed slower than my '88 Volvo on the freeway. You start looking at your watch a mere 15 minutes into it. Luckily though, if you stick around long enough it gets slightly better I suppose.

The movie follows Blake (Hogan), a rich and selfish millionaire who gets hit on the head and wakes up thinking he's Santa Claus. He has a sudden urge to help out an orphanage in danger of being closed down illegally. 

It's a clever concept full of potential, and actually has some glimpses of brightness shining through. But it fumbles most opportunities it has to be better, often choosing silliness over quality. 

It's one of those films where they give the strong protagonist all kinds of unrealistic powers, like the ability to throw a grown man over a 7-foot fence. It's so ridiculous. I guess we have to remember it's a movie targeted at children.

But then, why are there cops shooting RPGs at a car during a high-speed chase? 

Also, what was the artistic decision to have it set in California rather than a snowy city? That simple change would have made it a lot more Christmasy. 

Still, it has a touch of unexpected science fiction and some interesting twists that have pretty much no business in a film this poor, making it end up being way better than it starts out. Unfortunately, before these things come into the story, most viewers will have likely stopped watching already.

Quick Movie Review: A Bad Moms Christmas (2017)

While sequels to movies like Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey take 25 years to get greenlit, 2016's Bad Moms begins principal photography on its followup just 10 months after its release.

In a sequel more rushed than Porky's 2, Bad Moms Christmas must've had some sort of high demand. I know I was very surprised with the first film, but in no way did I need a sequel a year later. Especially if I knew it was going to look like this. 

The premise revolves around the three main characters from last time--played by Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, and Kathryn Hahn--having issues with their own mothers as they visit during Christmastime. 

Of course, it wouldn't be hilarious unless their moms had putrid flaws. And the writers know this as well, which is why we get cookie cutter maternal stereotypes: the over-bearing mother who never gives her daughter any space (Cheryl Hines), the mother who neglects her daughter and only comes around to ask for money (Susan Sarandon), and the high expectations mother whose daughter can never do anything right (Christine Baranski)--all three played way over the top in the most annoying and unrealistic way possible.

But that's pretty much the whole movie. Everything the characters do or say to each other is unrealistic. The hijinks always ensues because of this. In fact, it NEEDS character responses to be impractical in order for it to exist. It merely serves to further the plot and allow the story to keep going.

Which it barely even does. Up until the last 10 minutes, nothing develops between the beginning and end of this movie. There's just scenario after scenario of the mothers doing things to upset or annoy their daughters. It's the final straw about eleven different times, yet there are no changes in the outcome or how the characters deal with it either way, because no one possesses any real self-awareness. The characters just keep getting angry, and so do we.

And it's not just the lack of development that keeps it running at snail's pace. The humor is juvenile and unfunny. So many scenes are halted by verbose dialogue that's supposed to make us laugh. We don't. When a film draws out comedic scenes for too long--which is a trend these days--it suspends any momentum that the narrative has built. But when it happens over and over again, there becomes almost no momentum to be suspended in the first place.

On paper, this movie should be good. But this proves that a film is so much more than its actors. A Bad Moms Christmas is a complete waste of its talents.

There are countless comedies that are forgettable, yet still give us one or two memorable moments. They won't ever be considered classics, but they were never trying to be. You have to take them at face value. However, even at face value, this one is way below par. 

Monday, December 18, 2017

Quick Movie Review: Murder On the Orient Express (2017)

There aren't nearly enough murder mysteries made these days. They're fun, but I get how they're difficult to execute. In these kinds of films, you have only the facts to look at. Whereas, in real life, you can look at if someone seems like they're lying. In a movie, everyone is lying because they're all actors. You can't solve it from that. So the clues are all given in what the audience--and, in this case, the detective--knows, and nothing else. 

Fortunately, we're all on the same page in this one. Often times, the filmmakers have to give the on-screen detective some bit of information that we don't get to know, in fear that we might solve it before we're supposed to. But here, it's not a crap shoot because we can still figure it out if we really think about it. Yet, we still don't--unless we already know the story.

I suppose, however, that in these instances, the film is most enjoyable for those who haven't read the book or watched any previous adaptations. Because the best part, still, is the mystery and the conclusion, itself. If one already knows the outcome, then they are looking at other things. For me, I didn't know the story, so with fresh eyes, I thought it was truly well-executed. Though, by others' standards, maybe it won't quite live up to its predecessors. Taking on a project of this nature, you can't please everyone.

The movie starts off a little slow as our main character, detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), is being established. We get to see him solve a case, meet with some friends, and then eventually get a telegram requesting his help solving a case in London. His friend gets him the last room left on his train, the Orient Express. 

The murder on the train doesn't occur until almost the 40 minute mark, but then it significantly picks up the pace from there without losing its identity or tone established before. 

Details pile up, but the dialogue is so fluid that it's pretty easy to follow unless you're not a fan of movies with a lot of talking.

Where it gets the most confusing, no matter what you like, is when the dialogue relies too heavily on the characters' names to let us know what's going on. There are about a dozen other passengers on the train that help make up this ensemble cast--which includes Josh Gad, Johnny Depp, and Judi Dench, to name a few--and it gets hard to keep them all straight at first. But eventually we catch on.

When watching a whodunit, there is always this inherent fear that the conclusion won't be worth the time you spend waiting for it. However, this story is one of the most famous mysteries for a reason. It's really clever. And as someone who has had no exposure to any Poirot in his life, this film has made me a fan. Now I want to see more. This is my own benchmark.

Twizard Rating: 98

Quick Movie Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

I sure wish writer-director Martin McDonagh would make more movies. He only has three, but they're all highly regarded. His 2012 film, Seven Psychopaths, is one of my all-time favorites.

His newest movie revolves around Frances McDormand's character, Mildred, renting three billboards outside of town in order to put a message on them criticizing the local police chief, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), for not solving the case of her daughter's rape and murder. 

This plays with our own gut reactions, as we quickly shake our heads assuming that this must be another result of a corrupt system. It's not. Willoughby actually becomes the film's best character, grounding it and providing the one true conscience amidst everyone else's anger and lack of forgiveness. You could make a case that he's the real protagonist.

Much like in Seven Psychopaths, Three Billboards is character driven, but in a way that incorporates their actions as well as their given depth. They all have faults and make terrible decisions, but their peer's counter-decisions is what changes them--even if their peers aren't doing great things either.

Most of the characters are neither good nor bad. Much like most of us, they have their vices AND their virtues. McDonagh could have followed this sentiment with showing them, at the end of the day, being completely changed in every aspect. But he doesn't. Because it's never that easy in real life. It's never that black and white. 

The key to fully appreciating this movie is knowing when Mildred is wrong even when it's portrayed that she isn't. She's always talking all high and mighty. It's like arguing with a guy who thinks that just because he's yelling, using big words, and sounds intelligent that he's right.

The reason why Three Billboards is such a brilliant film is because McDonagh understands film formula so much that he knows how to perfectly subvert it without alienating his audience. It allows so much more to happen in a smaller amount of time. Much like Hitchcock used to do, he prevents everything from being streamlined or foreseeable, while at the same time not letting it become jarring. The abrupt tonal shifts are completely intentional and meant to be a simile for real life.

Sam Rockwell plays an extreme cop who handles situations with violence because he thinks he can always get away with it. Rockwell's mercurial demeanor that he brings to many of his characters fits so perfectly with McDonagh's style--which draws comparisons to the Coen Brothers (but with more warmth and realistic endings).

McDonagh has a love for the politically incorrect. He likes to draw humor out of situations that shouldn't ever be funny. You might not laugh at first if you're in a room with others because you're unsure if you're supposed to. Often times the joke is surrounded by very serious context. It's because he knows that the best humor is rarely in the well-scripted dialogue, but in scenarios that are true to life.

McDonagh does well to keep his own ideals and agendas out of the movie. Though he slips up once in allowing his anger to enter in through Mildred when she rants about how priests should have culpability like the Blood and Crip gangs have in Los Angeles. It's an odd choice for a person of power in this industry to promote culpability laws in his movies--especially at a time like this in Hollywood. 

With that said, Three Billboards is truly a brilliant film, and another reminder of why McDonagh should have more than just three movies.

Twizard Rating: 100

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Quick Movie Review: Suicide Squad (2016)

My first thought when going to see this movie was, "It's not rated 'R'??" It's such a dark and macabre film. A superhero movie to change all the rules of superhero movies. And while it almost does, it's difficult to do so when you go for a PG-13 rating. Although, I understand why. Widening your audience means more butts in the seats. And those who would want it to be rated R will probably still think it's rated R.

After the death of Superman, US intelligence agent, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), wants to put together a team of criminals to go on dangerous missions at no risk, since they're seen as expendable.

Of the ensemble cast, the bigger names consist of Will Smith as the hit man, Deadshot, Margot Robbie as The Joker's girlfriend, Harley Quinn, and Jared Leto as The Joker, himself.

I'd like to preface this all by saying I enjoyed the film. It's not terrible. I'd watch it again, and probably even buy it on DVD. It does a lot of things right, but it's not without its fair share of hiccups.

You can't help but notice that the DC cinematic universe is always playing catchup to the Marvel one. And it doesn't have to. This was its chance to do something totally different. And in some ways it does--or at least, sets itself up to in the future. But the random interjections of jokes amidst action scenes don't feel fluid, but forced. DC is supposed to be much darker and less tongue-in-cheek. Less quippy.

DC, in some sense, has far more interesting and unique characters--especially villains--than Marvel. They've grown to be more twisted over the years, and this film tries to use that to its advantage, but it just doesn't always work.

That's not to say it never does. This year's Batman v Superman film uses cheesy filters to make it feel dark. In Suicide Squad it's more convincing. It's dark. Really dark. But you can't help feel like the film is torn between sinister and cartoony. Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy succeeds at this perfectly. But Suicide Squad is trying to be both Dark Knight and Avengers at the same time. I'm not so sure that's possible.

It could have benefitted from being more serious. The film starts out comfortably fitting into its own universe, but the random bits of levity are often jarring, making it seem like the film is trying to be as appealing to its more popular contemporary. Yet, it never has to. The material is great on its own. And we won't blame writer-director David Ayer, because apparently, it was the studio who demanded there be more humor scattered throughout.

This is what Marvel does very well. In the Avengers films, entire scenes don't come to a grinding halt whenever Iron Man says something funny. The humor blends into the action. It doesn't combat it. Here, the action scenes were the only times the film was free of jokes.

And we don't mind levity. However, in this scenario, the jokes should have been darker--not cuter. But with Robbie delivering them, that's what you get.

They seem to want her to be the focal point of the laughs, but I just wanted her to stop. You don't always buy in to her jokes, and she just ends up getting annoying. Smith, however, is the unsung comedic talent of the film. His timing is as good as ever and it never feels forced--fitting into the Marvel vibe they're going for.

Leto as The Joker was perfect because he wasn't overexposed. Every time we see him, he's gone moments later, making us want more. Robbie is in almost the entire film. You're supposed to love her antihero, but you never really do. Not enough is given to us. We end up just feeling indifferent.

There's a scene towards the beginning of the film where Davis' character is sitting down at a table, explaining one-by-one the backstory of each character. it takes about 10 minutes and freezes any plot progression that's going on. The normal version of me would have hated this in any other situation, but it may be the best part of this movie. We're being introduced to these interesting, complex, deranged characters. We get get excited about what's to come. The filmmakers want us to fall in love with these antiheroes, but this is the only time it truly lets us.

Despite the lack of action sequences, the pacing's fairly good, and the film is entertaining everywhere else. However, it has a long way to go to be considered great.

I really want these new DC films to be of the best quality, but I fear that they can't. Not as long as they're too preoccupied with trying to be Marvel. Honestly, if I never saw another Marvel film again, I wouldn't be devastated. It's time for something new, and DC can give us that. They almost had it here.

Twizard Rating: 78

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Quick Movie Review: The BFG (2016)

As a fan of Roald Dahl as a child, The BFG has always been one of the books I've most wanted to see adapted for the big screen.

Based on the children's novel of the same name, The BFG is about a giant (Big Friendly Giant) who takes a girl from her orphanage and brings her above the clouds to Giant Country, out of fear that she will tell people about him. Although he's "friendly," his larger contemporaries aren't. They bully him and feast on human beings.

There are some points in the film where you aren't quite sure how the story is progressing. It meanders a bit during the 2nd act and the pacing can get pretty slow, but it's not so much of a bother since there is so much to enjoy visually and the scenes are so dense.

While not quite as dark as the book, the imagery still translates well. The CGI isn't just there. Rather, it's as much a part of the film as the story itself. If the visuals were less impressive, the movie just wouldn't have worked as well.

Part of what makes the film so enjoyable is the charisma of its two leads. Mark Rylance plays the title character, and newcomer, Ruby Barnhill, reminiscent of Drew Barrymore in E.T., plays the little girl, Sophie.

The BFG's job in life is to collect dreams and give them to people. The events in this film feel like a dream from a child's perspective. Having nobody in life and turning to a seemingly-imaginary character for friendship.

Luckily, the last third of the film elevates in a wondrous way. Things begin to happen and the story becomes full and complete. Director, Steven Spielberg, has a way of wrapping things up like no other. While the brief hiccup halfway through the film--though not really his fault--is uncharacteristic of his films, the ending reminds us why he's the best.

The vision of The BFG is magical. There's no other way to put it. It doesn't just offer some fairytale story masking, for children, the harsh realities of the world. Instead, it shows them that there's hope--no matter how impossible it may seem.

Twizard Rating: 98