Friday, November 17, 2017

Movie Review: “Justice League”


Justice League

*** 1/2
120 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

As painful as the DC Extended Universe’s (DCEU) growing pains have been, it pleases me to say that Justice League finally puts things on the right path. While still not up to Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) standards, it’s at least better than Batman v Superman and is Oscar-worthy compared to Suicide Squad.

It was most unfortunate the circumstances that Zack Snyder had to leave his project, and as fun as JL is, Joss Whedon still may not have been the best replacement. It’s no surprise that the man who was able to pull off two Avengers films would get called up to bat for DC’s supergroup. But Whedon definitely gives it everything he’s got to cobble together what Snyder had already filmed.

In the aftermath of BvS — with Superman/Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) dead and buried — Metropolis is still trying to pick up the pieces of their beloved city. A new threat looms in the form of Parademons unleashed by Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds). Now, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) is putting together a superhero dream team — Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), The Flash/Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), Aquaman/Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg/Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) — to save Metropolis and the world.

If there’s one thing immediately apparent about the absence of Snyder, it’s Justice League’s tone. With Danny Elfman behind the score — utilizing themes from Wonder Woman, Man of Steel, his own Batman themes from the Tim Burton films, and John Williams’ Superman — the film kicks off to an almost campy start. But don’t worry, Snyder’s over-stylized action scenes remain intact. The good news is he filmed this one with a brighter scope and a bigger lens. This is the least dark DC film in years and it’s the best thing that’s happened to the DCEU.

Filled with action scenes that may be over the top, they’re finally edited with precision — there are even some long takes (gasp!) — and a grandiosity that fits the kind of movie you’d expect a film like Justice League to be, you never get lost in the action and always know what’s going on. Which says a lot when you consider most of them revolve around six to (minor spoiler alert) seven characters.

Justice League only really suffers from a pacing issue. The setup covers too much ground too quickly leaving the middle to sag, all before it kicks into hyperdrive for the DC-prerequisite CGI overloaded finale. Also, some of the characters aren’t what they should be. Batman is a punster now and Barry Allen is really Wally West. Cyborg gets the short end of the stick with the least characterization, so hopefully there’s an upcoming extended cut in our future. This may be one of the few times a superhero movie is too short.

Justice League may come with the same amount of problems as the rest of the DCEU, but at least there’s now a sense of forward progression and even more so a sense of fun! This is what we expect when we walk into a DC film and it’s about damn time. With James Wan’s Aquaman next on the horizon — and Shazam, Wonder Woman 2, Cyborg, and Green Lantern Corps in the wings — we can finally look forward to the DCEU lineup.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Movie Review: “Murder on the Orient Express”


Murder on the Orient Express

** 1/2 out of 5
114 minutes
Rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements
20th Century Fox

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com


We regularly hear about casts having fun on set. Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is no exception. Except the actors are starring in one of the year’s most boring movies. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again. It’s just sad that even Quentin Tarantino did Christie better and The Hateful Eight was only an homage. Sadly, it’s all downhill when things should be picking up the pace and don’t be surprised if you find yourself fighting to stay awake before the credits roll.

It’s 1934 and renowned detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) is on the case at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. After closing, he’s on his way to relaxation, but just wouldn’t you know it, he’s soon aboard the Orient Express and a murder is afoot. With a long line of suspects — Miss Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) in the dining room with the candlestick, Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.) in the library with the rope, Hercule’s old friend/Express owner Bouc (Tom Bateman) in the kitchen with the poison, Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad) in the hall with the knife, or Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer) in the conservatory with the revolver — we know for sure it’s not Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), the unlucky victim, leaving Poirot up to his mustache in red herrings.

Screenwriter Michael Green has been involved in some great films recently (Blade Runner 2049, Alien: Covenant, Logan, and TV’s American Gods) but he’s on autopilot just as much as Branagh is. It starts of wacky — OK, so it’s a comedy — but slowly, very slowly, it starts to take itself way too seriously. If we don’t care about who gets killed, then why do we care for a second whodunnit?

Branagh plods things along, whipping his ridiculous mustache from suspect to suspect, all while you can’t help but wonder when it will finally get interesting. I’ve never read Christie’s novel, but let’s just say that even in the final roundup things get more convoluted than she probably ever could have dreamed.

It’s all parlour tricks as Branagh tries to keep you enthralled when you’re bound to be snoring. The film is way too long and doesn’t even run a full two hours. There is a lot of setup to get through and it takes forever just to get Poirot even on his fateful train ride. It also doesn’t help that our protagonist comes across as a super-serious mix of Inspector Clouseau and Ty Burrell’s Jean Pierre Napoleon from Muppets Most Wanted.

The marketing for Murder on the Orient Express has gone out of its way at making the film look classy and old school. And Branagh does manage to make a lot of it feel that way, but that’s not always necessarily the best approach. A slow burn works in these types of films. Watching this is like watching a boiling pot. Eventually you’re going to tune out and wonder what else there is to do making this Murder on the Orient Express not worth punching your ticket.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Movie Review: “Thor: Ragnarok”


Thor: Ragnarok

***** out of 5
130 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material
Marvel Studios

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

Of all the Avengers, the one with the rockiest big screen efforts has been Thor. Kenneth Branagh’s first entry was entertaining in a universe-building/Shakespearean way, but The Dark World does not hold up in repeat viewings. While it’s nothing new for sequels to feature rotating directors, Alan Taylor (TDW) — of Game of Thrones fame — took the material way too seriously.

Good news everyone! Marvel has upped their game and brought in Taika Waititi — one of the funniest comedy directors working today — to save Thor’s solo entries. Believe the hype. Thor: Ragnarok is not just one of the best entries of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s also one of the funniest films of the year!

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has been off on his own adventure looking for Infinity Stones and has wound up imprisoned by the fire demon Surtur (Clancy Brown). Thor learns Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is not on Asgard and the Ragnarok prophecy may soon become reality. Thor takes on Surtur, making his way back to Asgard where he finds the Bifrost guard taken over by Skurge (Karl Urban) and hilariously bad theatrical reenactments are under way portraying a vital moment from The Dark World.

Thor quickly realizes that Odin is actually Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and the two must now find Odin. With the help of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), they make their way to Norway to say their goodbyes to their father. To rub salt in the woods, now Hela (Cate Blanchett), Odin’s first born, arrives, destroys Thor’s hammer, and sends the two brothers crash landing on the garbage planet Sakaar. Here, Thor and Loki must team up with Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and a fallen Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), to escape the clutches of the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), return to Asgard, and save their beloved realm from annihilation.

It certainly feels like with every MCU entry we all gather around proclaiming it’s nothing like anything they’ve done before. In the case of Ragnarok, it’s more true than ever. Waititi brings his deadpan humor along for the ride to play off Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost’s already hilarious screenplay. The action scenes and comedy help the pace fly by, despite a few early pacing issues. Some scenes feel like they run a tad long as if watching a director’s cut, but you can see how much Waititi is relishing his chance at helming a huge blockbuster.

Directed with abandon, the film is a huge joke machine firing on all cylinders. We’ve seen Hemsworth do comedy before, but working with Waititi brings out the best of his funnyman side. The rest of the cast all work remarkably well together — Thompson comes close to stealing the show — and Goldblum is at his delirious best.

In case you were picking up on the psychedelic vibes in the trailer, they aren’t lost on the film. Sometimes they can be mismarketed and feature a totally different tone — not here. Ragnarok sets out to do one thing, and that’s Ragnarok your soks off. The best thing to do is run out and see the film on the closest IMAX screen — it’s been specially formatted during scenes to fill the screen — and buckle up for Marvel’s wildest ride yet.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Movie Review: “Kingsman: The Golden Circle”


Kingsman: The Golden Circle

**** out of 5
141 minutes
Rated R for sequences of strong violence, drug content, language throughout and some sexual material
20th Century Fox

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service was a huge breath of fresh air for the spy genre. Which says a lot in a year that had a pretty good run for spy films. From Kingsman to Spy to Spectre, 2015 was a lot of fun. So, how does Vaughn’s sequel The Golden Circle stack up? While it may still be every bit as fun as the first, it does have a tendency to get caught up in some instances of sequelitis. With co-writer Jane Goldman returning — along with the main cast who didn’t die in the first one — The Golden Circle returns our beloved Kingsman to the big screen with gusto. Hopefully, with Vaughn’s announced trilogy — and spinoffs — we can let this one’s shortcomings slide as a case of middle-child syndrome.

Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is loving his life as a Kingsman. Saving the day suits him far better than trying to rue the day, even if he’s still trying to get over the death of his mentor Harry Hart (Colin Firth). After a run in with Kingsman-reject Charlie (Edward Holcroft) and his new robo-arm, Eggsy is trying to do the one thing Harry never could: have a relationship with Princess Tilde (Hanna Alstrom). Soon enough, Poppy (Julianne Moore), a maniacal drug cartel entrepreneur — the titular “Golden Circle” — blows up Eggsy’s flat, along with the Kingsman compound.

Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) are all that’s left and initiate the Doomsday Protocol, taking them to Kentucky, where they meet their cousin affiliates, the Statesman. Now, Eggsy and Merlin must get over some heavy trust issues and join forces with their new partners — Tequila (Channing Tatum), Ginger (Halle Berry), Whiskey (Pedro Pascal), and their leader, Champ (Jeff Bridges) — to save the world again after Poppy uses her drug running to kidnap Elton John (hilariously playing himself) and prepares to unleash her “Blue Rash” toxin across the world. Something the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood) plans to use in his own personal war on drugs to wipe out the “criminal” population of the world.

If there’s one thing Vaughn revels in, it’s aspiration. Poppy may sound like just another villain, but Moore relishes playing against type as the antagonist. She brings a glee to Poppy’s plotting that keeps her just this side of unhinged, making her a pretty scary foil. In an early scene, we find out that to enter Poppy’s golden circle of trust, she makes new recruit Angel (Tom Benedict Knight) kill another member and eat him as a big juicy burger.

If there’s one thing Vaughn needed, it’s an editor. Clocking in at whopping 141 minutes, the film can barely sustain the runtime. A few snips could have slimmed down the shenanigans — as fun as they are — to make the film even faster paced than it is. It also suffers from Lord of the Rings syndrome with plenty of false endings and too many climaxes. Just when you think the movie is reaching the end credits it takes off on another denouement. But it’s all in good fun mind you. The cast are all perfect, even if Tatum exercises his use as yet another episode of stunt casting. Hateful Eight anyone? And Berry never gets a chance to step up and earn her rightful place amongst her fellow Statesman. Something even more glaring considering poor Roxy (Sophie Cookson) gets taken out in the Kingsman estate explosion.

However, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a whole load of fun and offers glimpses of Vaughn unchained, for both better and worse. While I have loved every single film he’s made — Layer Cake, Stardust, Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class, and the first Kingsman — it feels as if 20th Century Fox is maybe granting him a little too much freedom. But I definitely don’t want to see him hand off the reins to anyone else. He knows what makes his Kingsman films work, and just because The Golden Circle may feel a little long in the tooth, it’s still a cool movie, and one of the most fun playing right now. With such a horrible summer behind us, it’s nice to be able to enjoy heading back to the theater.

Blu-ray Review: “The Mummy”

With cinematic universes all the rage in Hollywood, it was only a matter of time before Universal would come calling with their classic monsters. After sputtering out of the gate back in 2014 with Dracula Untold, they set to work on figuring out a way to make it happen. Unfortunately, they’re still trying to figure it out even though they already have a slew of A-list stars attached to unannounced projects. With Dracula behind them, they set their sights on another heavily branded property, cast Tom Cruise to lead the way, and The Mummy came flopping out of the gate.

Burdened with scathing reviews — not from this guy mind you — this Mummy is everything we liked about the Brendan Fraser/Stephen Sommers film: big, dumb, fun. I’m honestly not sure if Cruise will be returning, but he’s having every bit as much fun here as he is in any of the Mission: Impossible films. It’s a shame it didn’t find a larger audience because it really is a lot of fun if you turn your brain off for a couple hours. And sometimes that’s more than enough to make up for being a little below average on the story scale. With Russell Crowe and Atomic Blonde/Kingsman’s Sofia Boutella tagging along for the ride, The Mummy may be able to find a second coming on home video with Universal releasing it on Blu-ray in a BD/DVD/Digital combo pack September 12.

In present day, Henry Jekyll (Crowe) has discovered an ancient tomb beneath the streets of London. In Iraq, soldier-of-fortune Nick Morton (Cruise) discovers an ancient Egyptian tomb housing Ahmanet (Boutella) — an Egyptian princess mummified after killing her father for birthing a son, forfeiting her heritage as ruler — after his sidekick Chris (Jake Johnson) calls in an airstrike. Meanwhile, Jekyll’s assistant Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) uses Nick to transport Ahmanet back to London where Jekyll has ulterior motives for her arrival. But just wouldn’t you know it, Ahmanet turns Chris into a cursed zombie only Nick can see, and now Nick and Jenny must find a way to stop Ahmanet from turning the world into her personal ancient sandbox.

Universal unwraps The Mummy on Blu-ray framed in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio housed on a 50GB disc. It’s becoming very interesting to see the difference between films shot on film versus digitally when upsampled from 1080p on a 75” 4K TV. 35mm has a more filmic texture to it, however, some of the sharpness takes a tiny hit. Detail isn’t quite as outstanding through most of the film as it probably is on the 4K disc, which is ironic considering that in HD, the film’s CGI looks better than it did in theaters. Blacks are slightly brighter than they should be, but considering the amount of scenes taking place at night or below the surface, it helps to make sure shadow detail is top notch. That being said, crush is never a problem. Aliasing and banding are absent, colors are natural if on the desaturated side a lot of the runtime. That is at least whenever they’re, again, either inside a building or down below. Whenever it’s daytime or a scorching desert scene, contrast runs on the hot side, but it’s supposed to. It’s hot!

The Dolby Atmos mix (downsampled to 7.1 Dolby TrueHD for those of us unequipped) is the typical blockbuster showcase of aural assault. That is, when characters aren’t chit chatting. But surrounds make sure to engage during the loud action scenes with the music and sound effects never drown out the dialogue. Directionality is spot on with bullets, flying glass, and blowing sand enveloping the room on cue. In a surprise move for Universal, the only two additional soundtracks are Spanish and French 5.1 DTS tracks. Subtitles are also limited to English SDH, French, and Spanish.


Universal tries to give audiences more bang for their buck in the special features department. Touting “Over an hour of behind-the-scenes action” on a sticker across the slipcover, it starts to feel like a bit of a chore to sit through. A few are more fun than others. An “Audio Commentary” kicks things off featuring Director/Producer Alex Kurtzman joined by Boutella, Wallis, and Johnson. This is your typical audio commentary if ever there was, but Johnson is always fun to just kick back and listen to talk about anything. The two best featurettes are “Life in Zero G: Creating the Plane Crash” (7:32) and “Cruise in Action” (6:09). “Zero G” takes us aboard the “Vomit Comet” and shows us how they pulled off yet another crazy Cruise stunt idea with “Action” elaborating on that and showing the cast doing a lot of their own stunts alongside Cruise.

Considering how long the rest of the special features are, it surprised me to find only four “Deleted and Extended Scenes.” Included are “Beautiful, Cunning, and Ruthless” (1:44), “Your Friend is Alive” (0:55), “Sand In My Mouth” (1:03), and “She’s Escaped” (1:14); needless to say, none of them add anything had they been included. “Cruise and Kurtzman: A Conversation” (21:15) is the director and star sitting around patting each other on the back while they wax nostalgic about their big plans to modernize the franchise while being a launchpad to an extended universe. “Rooted in Reality” (6:52) extends this conversation as the cast and crew, yet again, discuss how the film was modernized.

“Meet Ahmanet” (7:39) is a nice feature dedicated to Boutella, with special mention of her body double, contortionist Claudia Hughes. “Becoming Jekyll and Hyde” (7:10) could have been subtitled “Everyone Loves Russell Crowe” as everyone talks about how awesome it was to work with him and to watch him go up against Cruise. “Choreographed Chaos” (6:35) quickly glosses over the effects/stunt work of Ahmanet’s climatic glass/sandstorm and “Nick Morton: In Search of a Soul” (5:43) covers the never-ending internal battle of good versus evil as Nick finds a way to come to terms with the end of the film. “Ahmanet Reborn” (3:52) closes things out and is an animated graphic novel covering Ahmanet’s story.


Plain and simple, The Mummy never tries to break down walls or reinvent the wheel. It’s a standard Cruise vehicle filled with lots of action scenes and fun characters you don’t mind following around for a couple hours. It’s way more fun than it has any right to be — Johnson in particular is hilarious coupled alongside Cruise, hopefully a sequel can focus more on their relationship if we happen to get one — and is way better than its reputation. It arrived with critics hating it — myself not included — and wound up being a pretty big box office flop. However, for those willing to kick back and have some fun, The Mummy features pretty great video, fantastic audio, and enough special features to choke a camel. It may not be the best film of the year, or even the most fun, but The Mummy is far from a waste of time and there’s plenty to enjoy in the safety of your own home where no one can say they saw you at a showing and have to hide your shame from being seen at one of the year’s biggest flops.

Article first published on Blogcritics.

Blu-ray Review: “Bluebeard”

The best mind bending movies all have one thing in common, the twist was worth the trip. There is some allowance along the way if a few things don’t quite add up, but as long as the final twist manages to satisfy, most can be forgiven. Memento, Mulholland Drive, Seven, and The Usual Suspects are some of the greats. And there’s thankfully more than enough classics to make up for the rest of the blips on the radar. In the case of Well Go USA’s recent release, Bluebeard, it’s even a far cry from the likes of A Tale of Two Sisters or Mother. It starts to lead up to what could have been a fun denouement, but ultimately you just don’t care as it heaps one twist on top of another until it’s buried in repetition.

Dr. Seung-hoon (Jin-woong Jo) is a proctologist up to his elbows in patients. Among them are his landlord’s father (Goo Shin) who is being taken care of by his son and daughter-in-law Sung-geun (Dae-Myung Kim) and Mi-yeon (Chung-ah Lee). One day, Sung-geun brings in his father who confesses to murder while under sedation. While Seung-hoon knows patients say some pretty odd things, his suspicions turn to realization after a decapitated body is found in the river and Seung-hoon becomes convinced there’s a head in a plastic bag in Sung-geun’s butcher shop below his apartment. Now, Seung-hoon must figure out if his landlords are serial killers, something his neck of the woods used to be synonymous for.

Well Go USA chops Bluebeard onto a 25GB disc with no special features. That being said, it still leaves plenty of disc room for a less than two hour run-time and a DTS:X track to breathe. With a healthy digital shine, the film looks fantastic. Detail is razor sharp with no aliasing to speak of. With such a dreary and cold color palette, colors are still natural enough with blood and raw meat looking nice and red. Crush is never an issue with blacks solid leaving visible shadow detail. Banding appears in just a few blink-and-you’ll-miss them instances.

The DTS:X track — downsampled to 7.1 DTS-HD for those without the extra speakers — is also as subdued as the cinematography. Another case of overkill as the film is extremely dialogue heavy making the audio track excessive and unnecessary. Not even most big budget action films are getting DTS:X or Dolby Atmos mixes on Blu-ray so there’s absolutely no need for it with a slow-paced murder mystery. A 2.0 Korean Dolby Digital track is also included, along with English-only subtitles.

Bluebeard is not the kind of movie you’ll want to watch again the second it’s over to fill in the pieces. Everything makes enough sense — whether you like it or not — by the last frame.  Unfortunately, it’s really not even worth the first viewing. Plodding and overly plotted, writer/director Lee Soo-youn leaves nothing to the imagination by the time the credits roll so even if you decide to watch it once, you’ll never watch it again. If it shows up in your Netflix recommendations it could be worth considering. It fails miserably at trying to be the next great mind trip with an ending that leaves you thinking, that was it?

Article first published on Blogcritics.

Blu-ray Review: “Iron Protector”

It feels like every few years someone comes along trying to be the next Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, or even Donnie Yen. And try as they might, they usually cough up a few watchable titles before fading back into obscurity. While Stephen Chow is undoubtedly the best of the bunch, we’ve also tread through the likes of Tony Jaa. And now here comes the triple threat of Yue Song (writer/director/star) taking aim at modern audiences with Iron Protector (aka The Bodyguard in most markets), but Song has a long way to go. Even while trying something at least sorta new with a superhero/kung fu mixture, it never knows what tone it wants to settle on, leaving your interest behind in the dust.

Wu-Lin (Song) has just been duped by a mugging of a man who is actually part of a cult of protectors, err, bodyguards. Working for Mr. Li is Jiang Li (Xing Yu, aka Shi Yanneng) who also happens to be Wu-Lin’s brother. Wu-Lin is the successor of the ancient “Iron Feet” clan so he is assigned to protect Fei-Fei (Li Yufei), daughter to the richest family in the city. Now, Wu-Lin and Jiang Li are pitted against each other when Fei-Fei is finally abducted and they must face their sibling rivalry head on.

Well Go USA offers up its typical fantastic video/audio presentations on yet another 25GB disc. It’s a good thing the film comes with scant extras and a simple — if not occasionally engaging — audio mix. Colors are bright with contrast running high, yet there’s no bleeding or blooming. Blacks are spot on with no crush. Aliasing is absent even if the dreaded banding rears its ugly in a few instances. Detail is as razor sharp as expected from a WGU release. The 5.1 Mandarin DTS-HD Master Audio leaves a lot to be desired throughout the first half of the film. Thankfully, as the action scenes ramp up the surrounds finally kick in. The first half is a rather front heavy affair. But at least it finally delivers when it needs to. A 2.0 Mandarin Stereo track is also available with English subtitles.

As for those scant special features, the film’s trailer (1:04) is included, along with three behind-the-scenes featurettes. “The Chase” (1:43) is a fun look at an elongated foot chase involving a van. This one was more interesting as they quickly talk about how they had no stunt drive and simply found someone daring enough to drive for them to pull it off. “The Final Battle” (3:11) is an interesting look at how the finale came together through practical effects, CGI, and lots of wire-work. There were plenty of accidents and injuries on set, something also shown off during “Training, Stunts, and Fighting Highlights” (3:26). This feature would have been better if we hadn’t already seen it play out during the end credits. However, it is a nice throwback to the Jackie Chan era when his films used to show on-set incidents for anyone daring enough to question his prowess.


Iron Protector comes from a long line of bodyguard sub-genre films and never really tries to push things more than what’s come before. But it does have a sense of humor running through it that helps keep the action moving along. It does start to feel rather long and I honestly thought it was almost over when the finale commences, but when I checked the run-time, there was still a whopping 30 minutes left. Song at least delivers where it counts and there’s a few action scenes that are pretty impressive for being such a new director. With time, Song may not be able to fill the shoes of those who came before, but at least we can see he’s having a good time trying to at least stand alongside the greats, even when falling short. Featuring great A/V while being lax on extras, Iron Protector may not be a new classic, but at least you won’t be mad at yourself for wasting 90 minutes on it either. At least a rental could be recommended, but with how fast WGU discs wind up on Netflix, you could always just wait and give it a whirl once that time comes.

Article first published on Blogcritics.

Movie Review: “The LEGO Ninjago Movie”


The LEGO Ninjago Movie

***** out of 5
101 minutes
Rated PG for some mild action and rude humor
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

It appears as though the year belongs to Warner Bros. — so far. After knocking it out of the park with one of the year’s funniest, and still best, films with The LEGO Batman Movie, here they are again with The LEGO Ninjago Movie. I was worried that maybe it would be a case of too much too soon, but Ninjago is every bit as hilarious, whimsical, and heartfelt as both Batman and the original LEGO Movie that started it all. Keeping the action and hilarity moving at as brisk pace as possible. It’s filled with spectacular animation and instantly loveable characters. Just about the only film that could possibly better it may be November’s Coco from Pixar/Disney.

Starting with a tiny bit of live-action — hopefully not squandering its chances at a Best Animated Feature nomination — a Kid (Kaan Guldur) happens upon Mr. Liu’s (Jackie Chan) curiosity shop. Soon enough, Mr. Liu begins telling the Kid the story of Ninjago where the city is constantly under attack by the diabolical Garmadon (voiced by Justin Theroux). Unfortunately, for Garmadon, six Ninjas — Lloyd (voiced by Dave Franco), Cole (voiced by Fred Armisen), Jay (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani), Kai (voiced by Michael Peña), Nya (voiced by Abbi Jacobson), and the cyborg Zane (voiced by Zach Woods), lead by Master Wu (voiced by Chan) — always manage to foil his evil plans. What Garmadon doesn’t know, is that Lloyd is his son, abandoned to his mother Koko (voiced by Olivia Munn), 16 years ago. Just when the group thinks they finally have everything under control, Lloyd manages to unleash Meowthra upon his beloved city. Now, everyone must find a way to save Ninjago by finding the “Ultimate Ultimate Weapon” on an age old journey of self discovery.

Funny? Check. Action? Check. Heart? Check. Daddy issues? Triple check. Yes, as with The LEGO/Batman movies, Lloyd is forced to come to terms with who his father is and find a way to balance his resentment so the two can work together. Lucky for us, directors/co-writers Charlie Bean and Paul Fisher — along with their four additional screenwriters William Wheeler, Tom Wheeler, Jared Stern, and John Whittington — and co-director Bob Logan, present a giant sandbox for themselves to play in. Being based on a TV show was also a hurdle it needed to overcome and boy does it deliver. Filled to the brim with enough jokes and classic kung fu film references to choke a dragon, Ninjago will have audiences drying their eyes from laughing one minute while stifling tears the next.

The cast clearly loves being part of this movie and Ninjago deserves to be every bit as big a hit as both of the other two LEGO movies. Warner Bros. has their pulse firmly on what makes these films work and completely trust their writers/directors with each project. It’s a tough call to decide whether Ninjago or Batman is the better movie, but Ninjago gets a slight edge on Batman for managing to be the year’s best family/comedy/action/animated films so far. Checkmate, Pixar.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Movie Review: “It”

It

***** out of 5
135 minutes
Rated R for violence/horror, bloody images, and for language
Warner Bros. Pictures

If anyone’s suffered a hit-and-miss collaboration with Hollywood, it’s Stephen King. They can’t all be The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Stand By Me, or even Misery or The Mist. But at least they’re not all cases of The Lawnmower Man. And it’s been a busy year for the man. Unfortunately, The Dark Tower and The Mist TV show didn’t leave their intended mark — The Dark Tower the lesser of the two evils — so at least we have Mr. Mercedes and director Andy Muschietti’s It. After losing director Cary Fukunaga, Muschietti was brought in to replace him and I’m not sure they could have possibly found anyone better to fill our favorite clown shoes. If one’s things for sure, Pennywise is back to terrorize a whole new generation.

With a time shift from the ’50s to 1988, it’s October in Derry, Maine and raining cats and dogs. Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) is stuck inside sick, but his little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) demands a paper boat be made to go outside and play. Things take a turn for the worse when Georgie loses his boat down a sewer grate and comes face to face with Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård). Cut to June 1989 and it’s the last day of school and Bill is trying to find a way to balance holding out hope that Georgie is still alive and enjoying the summer with his best friends Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), and Stanley (Wyatt Oleff).

Soon enough, the friends find out that history has a way of repeating itself every 27 years and an ancient evil has come stalking. Now, the newly formed “Losers Club” — joined by tomboy Beverly (Sophia Lillis), new kid on the block Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), and outsider Mike (Chosen Jacobs) — must find a way to put a stop to the disappearing children of Maine before they fall prey next.

Boy, oh boy, did Warner Bros. do right by granting It a hard R rating. Looking back on the beloved 1990 mini-series, it doesn’t hold up the way nostalgia would hope. I would have loved to have seen an epic full-length adaptation of the whole 1,000+ page novel, but it was a smart move to split the story in two. This is the Losers Club’s story and we’ll just have to be patient while we wait for chapter two with the adults. In the meantime, Muschietti has delivered a knockout King adaptation. Full of scares, hilarity, and heart, this is what we expect when we pick up a new King novel. The same is rarely said when sitting down for one of his movies. It can be characterized as as “Stephen King’s Goonies.”

Granted, they are condensing half of an epic book into a just over two hour film so corners were still cut. Mike and Stanley more than anyone, but everything else we could possibly want is here. There’s no holding back on the violence. Skarsgård is fabulous as Pennywise and gives it his all to creep us out every time he’s on screen. The Losers Club are all outstanding with more rapport than most teen movies over the last 10 years combined. Netflix’s Stranger Things borrows very heavily from It in the friends department, but they’re every bit as lovable here as they are on that show.

I may have found Annabelle: Creation (which shares screenwriter Gary Dauberman) to be more on the scary end of the spectrum. But I’m more connected to It’s source material. I adore the novel and, of course, own the mini-series on Blu-ray — and have read just about every King novel connected to The Dark Tower — so I knew exactly what to expect. But It is one of the year’s best horror films and works even better when it’s focused on the Losers Club. And it also happens to be one of the year’s biggest joyrides as well. It has returned to find a new generation to sink its teeth into so come on down and buy a ticket and you’ll float too!

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

Saturday, August 26, 2017

4K UHD/3D/HD Review: “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”

Movie: **** 1/2 out of 5
4K Video: *****
3D Video: **** 1/2
HD Video: ****
Dolby Atmos Audio: *****
7.1 Dolby TrueHD Audio: ****
Extras: ***

It’s interesting to think what took Disney so long to jump in the 4K game. With Blu-ray discs that have always been stellar by nature, it should not have taken the studio 18 months to make the leap. Leave it to Marvel Studios to finally get them to change their tune with James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 paving the way for what are bound to be more spectacularly stunning features. Ultra HD is not a gimmick. While that could be said about 3D — a home format I still love — 4K presentation is just about as close to the director’s original intent as we’re bound to see for years to come. As for Vol. 2, the easiest way to put how it looks? This new demo disc could sell a lot of TVs.

Starting in 1980, Missouri, Earth, a young Ego (Kurt Russell) is eager to show Meredith Quill (Laura Haddock) what he’s planted behind the local Dairy Queen. Cut to 34 years later and we catch up with our favorite ragtag team of Guardians — Peter Quill/Starlord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) — as they’re keeping the Sovereign’s batteries safe from the multi-dimensional creature Abilisk. Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) is thankful for their service and turn over their prize, Nebula (Karen Gillan), herself captured also trying to steal their batteries.

With plans to return Nebula back to Xandar, the Guardians are quickly on the run from the Sovereign because Rocket decided to steal the batteries himself. They’re saved by the celestial Ego (Russell) and brought to his home planet where he explains his wishes to turn over his kingdom to Peter, his only progeny in the whole galaxy carrying his celestial genes. Meanwhile, Yondu (Michael Rooker) and the Sovereign are hot on Peter’s trail and soon enough, the Guardians find themselves having to save the galaxy once again from an even greater threat.

Disney/Marvel Studios shot for the stars with their first 2160p 4K Ultra HD disc and wound up with a demo-worthy disc of stellar proportions. It is framed in the film’s 2.40:1 aspect ratio — if only it had the alternating aspect ratios of the IMAX presentation — but this is still nothing short of breathtaking from start to finish. There’s been some debate about the film’s completed digital intermediate (DI), but Gunn himself has stated that the film was finished at both 4K and 2K despite being filmed at 8K. With how good the film looks as it is, it boggles my mind to think it could possibly have looked even better. Given a fantastic HDR treatment, it’s also a shame they didn’t jump to give us our first live-action Dolby Vision presentation — supposedly available via VUDU. My own 75” LG UH8500 is equipped with DV so I was holding out hope — seeing how the DV presentation is Gunn’s own favorite — even still, the HDR is a stunner.

A colleague was in house when UPS dropped off the review disc and we quickly popped it in to watch the first two opening scenes. We then decided to put in the standard Blu-ray and rewatch those scenes for comparison. And there is none. 4K is the only way Vol. 2 should be watched. He was instantly saddened that the 1080p video was all he got to go home to. Colors explode off the screen with perfect contrast and brightness. Both waver greatly when watching in standard HD. The fireside scene later in the film is a perfect example. While the Blu-ray suffers from some noticeable crush, the 4K disc brightens the image where you can clearly see the forest behind the characters. Another area where it devastatingly trumps the Blu-ray is with fine line detail. Every creature throughout the film, whether CGI or practical, are completely photorealistic. Rocket is a perfect example. In 4K, every single piece of fur is visible and finite whereas on the Blu-ray he looks fuzzy in every shot. Same thing goes for Groot, he is so lifelike in 4K you feel like you can reach in and grab him right out of your set.

The only anomaly visible is a weird instance of possible banding in the yellow walls of Ego’s ship. Whatever it may be, it’s definitely artifacting. It was something I also noticed watching John Wick Chapter 2. It seems to involve neon swarming and only some may notice it. However it’s a tiny distraction; thankfully the scenes aboard Ego’s ship come and go quickly. Otherwise, true banding is nowhere to be found. There are more than a few scenes of jaw dropping beauty throughout the runtime: the opening Abilisk fight, the Sovereign asteroid chase, a visit to the planet Contraxia, Gamora sitting in a field on Ego’s planet, Yondu’s prison escape, the entire final battle, and, of course, the Ravager funeral — but  every scene is honestly a showstopper.

In a rather fortuitous case of good fortune, my Best Buy exclusive Steelbook with the 3D disc showed up before finishing the review! How does it look in the third dimension? It’s obviously not as great as the 4K presentation, but it absolutely kicks the 2D disc’s keester. The best part is that it includes the IMAX formatted alternating aspect ratio changes — something that could have made the 4K disc even better had this version been used. I can’t help but think that being 3D, it didn’t have a 4K DI. Either way, the opened format breathes some much needed life into the action scenes that the standard 2D disc just doesn’t deliver. While some studios keep trying to stray away from the admittedly dwindling format, 3D still has plenty to offer at home and Vol. 2 is a standout full of impeccable detail, pop-out effects, as well as tons of depth in every scene. I dare you not to flinch when Yondu’s arrow comes flying at your face.

Considering how good the video looks, how does the audio fare? Let’s face it, we all know what to expect from a standard 7.1 Dolby TrueHD Master Audio track, so it’s especially nice to see Disney/Marvel finally make the leap not just to 4K, but they’ve brought along their first Dolby Atmos track with it. While the 2D/3D 7.1 track is every bit as good as usual, it’s a typical affair. The Atmos track is where they kick things up a notch. Surrounds are always engaged with overhead filling in the gaps while directionality is always spot on. The sound design manages to make the tape bit in the finale even funnier as we hear Quill move from speaker to speaker asking for tape. Bass is deeper and more refined, while the dialogue is also precise, clear, and never overpowered. Additional audio tracks are included on the 4K disc: English/Spanish 7.1 Dolby Digital Plus and a French Dolby Digital Plus 5.1; subtitles come in English, English SDH, French, German, Japanese, Spanish, Cantonese, and Mandarin (Traditional).

While the special features have all been relegated to the Blu-ray disc — the 3D also has no features, a plus in my book — Vol. 2 has more than your usual assortment for a Marvel release. While they’re still of the standard EPK variety, the cast and crew at least help make them more fun than usual.

Bonus Round: The Making of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is a four-segment feature that comes with a Play All option. “In the Director’s Chair with James Gunn” (8:36) covers the surprise success of the first film and how Gunn set out to make an even better film the second time around now that he can write for the cast as well as their characters. “Reunion Tour: The Music of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (7:37) gives Gunn a chance to rave about how important music is to the creation of a Guardians film. Examples being how the film was scored mostly to the screenplay and how every song was written in and not treated as an afterthought. “Living Planets and Talking Trees: The Visual Effects of Vol. 2” (10:44) allows us a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the films exemplary special effects. “Showtime: The Cast of Vol. 2” (10:41) gives a swift overview of the cast, showing how much fun was had on set and loved working together.

“Guardians Inferno Music Video” (3:35) is a full length music video of the Sneepers song featured in the end credits starring/featuring David Hasselhoff and some fun cameos. “Gag Reel” (3:41) is more clowning around, however, the best part comes from witnessing Russell trying to say Starlord’s name. “Deleted Scenes” (5:04) is armed with a Play All option and include “Adolescent Groot Extended” (1:01), “Memorial to the War on Xandar” (1:18), “Kraglin and Quill Talk Tunes” (0:41), and “Mantis and Drax Feel the Sadness Extended” (2:03). None of these necessarily strengthen the story, but there are some really funny jokes that wouldn’t have been out of place for a second had they been included.

And finally, an “Audio Commentary” is a fun listen with Gunn sitting down to discuss the development and execution of the film. Typical Gunn anecdotes and BFF shoutouts abound, but there is a nice now-poignant story about how one scene was inspired by a campfire performance by Glen Campbell that he was lucky enough to have been part of during a party at Jane Seymour’s house.

Disney/Marvel’s first jump into the 4K arena with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was the perfect place to start. It’s a stupendous presentation from beginning to end and earns the highest marks possible. Giving us a 4K display of the alternating aspect ratio version is just about the only possible way for it to have been even better. As it stands, I think just about everyone is ready for Marvel/Disney to kick it into gear and start releasing their catalogue titles — Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange being the top of the list, considering they’re 4K DI. Even with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales waiting in the wings, Vol. 2 is a disc that could sell 4K TVs like never before. Coupled with an outstanding Dolby Atmos track, Vol. 2 is going to be the disc to beat this year. For the time being, it’s the best 4K disc on the market, period. Obviously.

Article first published on Blogcritics

Blu-ray Review: “Kung Fu Yoga”

Movie: *** out of 5
Video: **** 1/2
Audio: *****
Extras: ***

In June, Well Go USA released a fun Jackie Chan throwback picture that showed the actor still has plenty of spunk. Now, they’re releasing one of his newest team ups with director Stanley Tong. Together they created some of Chan’s best films: Rumble in the Bronx and Supercop. Now, the two may be showing their age, but Kung Fu Yoga manages to bring out the best in both of them with a quick pace and plenty of Chan’s trademark fight choreography to help in the midst of some horrible acting and questionable CGI.

Jack (Chan), an archeology professor, has come up with one of the best restoration tools ever invented. One day, Ashmita (Disha Patani) arrives from India hoping that Jack can help her. She’s found the map to an ancient treasure and wants Jack to assist in finding it. Along for the ride are Jack’s two assistants — Xiaoguang (Yixing Zhang) and Nuomin (Miya Muqi) — and Kyra (Amyra Dastur), Ashmita’s assistant. Before they know it, they’re having adventures through Tibetan ice caves and mountain temples in India, while the nefarious Randall (Sonu Sood) is hot on their heels. Randall is a descendent of a rebel army leader and wants what feels is rightfully his.

You can tell almost instantly — without looking that is — when a Well Go USA title is on a 50GB disc instead of a 25. Details are sharper, colors are brighter, compression issues are non-existent. And Kung Fu Yoga is no exception. Watching this upscaled on a 75” 4K TV you’d think the picture would look strained, but everything looks better than watching in standard 1080p. It’s great when a disc looks better upscaled, not all of them do.

It’s a good thing they put it on a larger disc considering the included Mandarin DTS:X track. It raises a ruckus with hard hitting punches, pinpoint directionality, and with all the commotion in some scenes, dialogue is never drowned out. So you  never have to worry about that. The film includes a mix of Mandarin, Indian, and English, but if you turn on the English subtitles — hilariously English 5.1 DTS-HDMA and 2.0 Stereo tracks are also offered — they play through the entire movie regardless of whether English is being spoken or not. Chinese subtitles are also available, along with a Mandarin 2.0 Stereo and DTS Headphones:X option.

The special features may not be the best, but with any Chan film they’re bound to at least have some laughs or two. “Best of Both Worlds” (3:41) discusses the fun of crafting a co-production between China and India. “The Dynamic Duo” (2:43) covers the teamwork of Chan and Tong, mentioning this is their eighth film together. “The Making Of” is a standard EPK with cast/crew interviews and behind-the-scenes footage. “Jackie Chan Featurette” (2:37) is a nice piece with everyone talking about how amazing it is to work alongside Chan and how sincere he is. “Bloopers” (3:23) are self explanatory, as is “Bollywood Dance Featurette” (3:16). The film’s “Trailer” (1:39) rounds things out, along with trailers for additional trailers for This Is Not What I Expected, Railroad Tigers, and Greater.





Kung Fu Yoga never tries to break the mold, but it’s nice to see Chan can still make ’em almost like he used to. The story is a fun throwback to the Indiana Jones films with plenty of nods and references, while the cast gets to show off some practical fight skills amidst some horrible acting from being forced to speak English. If it weren’t for one sequence with some questionable CGI involving hyenas and a tiger, the film could have been a touch tighter and would have flown by even faster. With the help of a fantastic 1080p presentation and a stellar DTS:X track, Kung Fu Yoga is a another welcome addition to Chan’s exhaustive résumé.

Article first published on Blogcritics.

Blu-ray Review: “The Final Master”

Movie: **** out of 5
Video: **** 1/2
Audio: **** 1/2
Extras: **

Article first published on Blogcritics.

While not all of the Well Go USA Blu-ray releases have been gold, they do try their hardest to get the rights to some mighty entertaining martial arts films. Granted, some are better than others, but when they’re good, they’re damn good. In the case of The Final Master, Haofeng Xu manages to pull off a triple threat as not just writer/director, but the film is also based on his own novel. After garnering attention from co-writing Kar-Wai Wong’s The Grandmaster — one of the best martial arts films this decade — it’s not surprising to find himself behind the camera. While this may be his third film, he comes armed with spectacular choreography and a wicked sense of humor. The Final Master may not be Grandmaster good, but he’s getting there.

Wing Chung Grandmaster Chen (Liao Fan) — that’s Ip Man to you and me — just wants to honor his master by opening his own school in Tianjin. Master Zheng (Chin Shi-Chieh) wants to help Chen, but wants to make sure he prepares Chen for his journey. The Tianjin Martial Arts Committee has a set of rules, one being that he must prove he’s not on an ego trip and must defeat eight schools. He also needs a wife and a protege. The headstrong Zhao (Song Jia) will do for the wife and he settles on the impressive street fighter Geng (Song Yang) to train under his strict guidance. Soon enough, Chen finds himself under the scrutiny of the Committee and becomes a pawn in a battle with Zheng, underworld kingpin Master Zou (Jiang Wenli), and the local military where Chen stands to lose everything.

Reviewing Well Go USA Blu-rays feels like a broken record. The only major difference between discs seems to be whether they are afforded a 25 or 50 GB disc. Depending on a number of extras, and audio track, most are on a 25, such is the case with The Final Master. Featuring only a Mandarin 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 2.0 Dolby Digital track helps visually when there are also only three short special features vying for space.

Banding is non-existent, crush never creeps in to ruin shadow detail — it helps that most of the film takes place during the day. While possibly being filmed digitally, there’s a nice filmic image — if slightly noisy — when watched upscaled on a 75” 4K TV. Close-ups provide exemplary detail even when costumes start to lose the slightest bit of detail from long shots. Contrast and colors are also spot on. The audio track could have used a 7.1, Atmos, or DTS:X track, but the 5.1 mix still packs a pretty good punch. Surrounds don’t come into play as often as they could, the film feels extremely front heavy, but music, sound effects, and dialogue are all clean and discernible. Panning effects and directionality are used to great effect considering a number of fight scenes. English and Spanish subtitles are included.


The special features could have been a little more sprawling — they clock in at less than eight minutes combined — but are pretty fun while they last. “The Weapons” (3:26) is a basic look at the weapons used throughout the film, while a “Director Featurette” (2:37) is a standard EPK praising Xu. The film’s trailer (1:38) is included, along with front-loaded previews for additional Well Go USA titles: God of War, The Game Changer, and Railroad Tigers.

Considering how many films have been made covering the legacy of Ip Man, it takes something different to stand out from the crowd. Xu’s The Final Master has a hilarious sense of humor and the prerequisite fight scenes to pique one’s interest. Ip Man fans will no doubt rush to pick this one up and have made a wise choice. It was nice to sit back and be entertained for a change with a martial arts film that didn’t take itself completely seriously. Sometimes that can make them just feel silly by the final fight. But with Well Go’s track record on the A/V end, and Xu keeping you entertained from start to finish. The Final Master may not be the final Ip Man film,  but it’s a fantastic addition to the pack.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Movie Review: “Annabelle: Creation”



Annabelle: Creation

***** out of 5
109 minutes
Rated R for horror violence and terror
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

A few issues were working against Annabelle: Creation. Mostly, that the first movie was not that great. While the first Annabelle had a few moments that helped it find a place as a Conjuring spin-off, it was nowhere near on par with either of the Conjurings. Then there’s director David F. Sandberg — whose own Lights Out was one of the worst films of last year — and screenwriter Gary Dauberman returning from the first Annabelle. But something funny happened on Annabelle’s return to the big screen: they got everything right and Creation is the scariest film of the year so far!

Traveling even further back in time (1957), Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) is a doll maker who has just finished creating the first ever Annabelle doll. Life is good for the Mullins — including his wife Esther (Miranda Otto) and daughter Bee (Samara Lee), but not before Bee is run over by a car and killed. Twelve years later, the Mullins have turned their home into an orphanage. Along comes a busload of children and teens — most importantly Linda (Lulu Wilson) and Janice (Talitha Bateman) who has a bum leg thanks to polio — brought by Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) who just wants the girls to have some kind of normalcy. But just wouldn’t you know it, a locked door holds dark secrets and soon enough, demons, possession, and terror abound.

Sandberg instantly seems to be paying homage to Guillermo del Toro’s Devil’s Backbone putting the Mullins’ home in the middle of a deserted countryside full of evil spirits. It also shares the honor of being every bit as terrifying, if not more so. You’d be hardpressed to find a bigger fright machine that Annabelle: Creation, and can proudly wear the moniker until Pennywise returns next month in It (which Dauberman also co-wrote only making me even more excited for it). Until then, Creation is full of terrifying visuals and scare sequences that don’t simply rely on jump scares. Sandberg and Dauberman make sure to squeeze every ounce of mayhem possible out of every situation. Where most films would cut away after something horrific happens, the camera never moves and we get to watch the horrific sequence continue. Scarecrows, crawl spaces, chair lifts, even a crucifix, are all used to maximum effort.

It helps having such a game cast to put through the wringer. While Wilson is no stranger to the genre — a standout against the older cast in the other superior prequel Ouija: Origin of Evil — Bateman manages to steal the show away from everyone. She gives Janice an arc most horror characters could only dream of. To put it bluntly, Sandberg and Dauberman have outdone their previous efforts and are completely forgiven for their past discretions. The Conjuring finally has a usurper, yes, Creation is even scarier than that first film that kicked off the whole Ed and Lorraine Warren Universe. But if they keep making them even halfway as scary as Creation is — next up is The Nun (Dauberman again) — then Warner Bros. certainly has their own horror multiverse full of carefully crafted monsters the likes of which Universal can only envy. Annabelle: Creation is the best and scariest horror film of the year, now that’s something for horror fans to scream about.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Movie Review: “The Dark Tower”


The Dark Tower

*** out of 5
95 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic material including sequences of gun violence and action
Sony Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com 

My first trip to the top of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series was unsuccessful. After plowing my way through the first four books, I hit a roadblock when I reached the fifth. I considered it unreadable and stopped, dead in my tracks. Cut to a few years later and the Tower kept calling me back. I wanted to finish the series and decided that maybe the best way to do it would be to embark on a quest of my own. After weeks of research I put together a pretty definitive reading list, putting them in order by how they’re connected, and started from scratch. (The reading order will be listed below for interested parties.) Taking just over a year to complete, I made my way through and came out the other side of the door, say thankya. So with the film finally on its way after 10 years in development hell, I knew it was time to hit the road with my favorite literary ka-tet and try to make another run through before it came out. While I may only have made it 70 percent through Wolves of the Calla, The Dark Tower screening has come and gone. I have seen the film and while it’s far from perfect, it’s still another turn of the wheel. For those who feel the most burned, it comes down to this: the film in their head was way better than what co-writer/director Nikolaj Arcel finally delivered. And while it may come with King’s own blessing, along with Robin Furth’s (Stephen King research assistant, Dark Tower Concordance author, DT comic book writer), there’s no denying that this Dark Tower may be an empty shell of an epic eight book series. There’s plenty of fun to be had for those willing to chuck khef out the window and just be thankful that we ever got anything at all. While the film may never have lived up to expectations, the best thing to do is just skip the first four steps of the grieving process and come to accept that this is the cinematic Dark Tower. We still have the books at our disposal. While it may not be new and improved, if Star Trek can have an alternate universe, then so can The Dark Tower. The whole series runs on the existence of multiverses and this movie just exists on a different level of the tower — which is the whole point to begin with. It was always said to be a “sequel” to the books. Even though this may be the loosest use of the word — Roland (Idris Elba) being in possession of the Horn of Eld as the only clue — therein lies the film’s biggest flaw. There are only one or two lines of dialogue that even remotely reference the books. One is better than the other, while the other is a huge spoiler for anyone who may not get through the books before the movie comes out. For the rest of us, we’re left scratching our heads as to how a complete reboot can be considered a sequel. t Then there’s the issue with Arcel — and co-writers Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and somehow-Oscar winner Akiva Goldsman — cramming in as many references to other King films rather than focusing on what makes the series work: character. Thank Ka we got Elba cast as Roland. The man is our beloved Gunslinger, he’s just stuck in a really bad reimagining. If there happens to be more films — we’ll see what happens with the TV series, which is supposedly going to be a straight adaptation of the fourth book, Wizard and Glass — Sony Pictures has some serious making up to do. Aside from the film’s many, many issues, Matthew McConaughey is surprisingly being one of the biggest flaws. He always looks bored, completely sleepwalking his way through a literary icon and it shows that he only spent a few days in the role. (Confirmed by Elba on Jimmy Fallon.) The last scene of the film is one of the most obviously tacked on studio-meddling sequences in recent memory. There’s no way studio interference didn’t bring this one about. It’s abominable. Let’s just say that with how meta the books get, I’ve got a great idea to make the next movie even more so. Call me! As it stands, The Dark Tower seemed to have three camps walking out. 1) Those who love the core books and are more casual King readers loathed the film with every ounce of their being. 2) Those who have never read a single book who seemed to enjoy it for what it is. 3) Those who may be a little in over our heads when it comes to The Dark Tower who feel complacent. That’s really the only word for it. The saddest part is they cater so much to fans while dumbing it down for everyone else that it turns the whole movie into a giant muddled mess. Even my wife — currently finishing up Wizard and Glass — was thoroughly confused. They spend so much time simplifying the story and even more time on exposition. It doesn’t help that the plot is culled from multiple books, some even from outside the core. For anyone who wants more information as to why the Breakers are so important, read Black House immediately! Long story short, there was no way The Dark Tower was ever going to live up to anyone’s expectations. It’s nothing short of a miracle that the film exists at all. Arcel does the best he can in trying to wrangle in an entire multiverse of storytelling. Could it have been better if he was given free reign to make a straight adaptation? Absolutely! But it could have been far worse. Early versions of the script were way worse from early reports so it’s a testament to Arcel for getting anything up on the big screen. Let alone something that so dearly loves King and all his works. For those willing to go along for the ride, most of the gang’s all here. Sombra, Taheen, Manni, oh my! Even the opening production logos features one for the Tet Corporation. Now that I think about it, maybe that should be the first clue for what you’re getting into. Maybe this is their version of the books? It certainly puts an even more meta spin on things. Considering how lazy some of the movie is, that’s giving it too much credit. However, if they would like to take credit, I’m happy to provide a mailing address for a royalty check. The Dark Tower was always bound to piss most people off. After 40 years, there’s no denying the power of the beams was too powerful to make something palatable to modern audiences while appeasing the rest of us. On the flip side, considering we live in a time where we have three Lord of the Rings/Hobbit films, Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones, it only shows how much more room there was for Arcel to get it right. As it stands, a Dark Tower film finally exists and that is the truth.

*As promised, in order:
The Eyes of the Dragon
The Little Sisters of Eluria
The Gunslinger (Book 1)
The Drawing of the Three (Book II)
It
The Stand
Night Surf
The Talisman
The Waste Lands (Book III)
Rose Madder
Insomnia
Wizard and Glass (Book IV)
’Salem’s Lot
Jerusalem’s Lot
From a Buick 8
The Wind Through the Keyhole (Book IV.5)
Low Men in Yellow Coats
The Shining
11/22/63
Doctor Sleep
Wolves of the Calla (Book V)
The Dead Zone
Cujo
Dreamcatcher
Bag of Bones
Song of Susannah (Book VI)
Duma Key
The Mist
Lisey’s Story
Black House
Everything’s Eventual
1408
The Dark Tower (Book VII)

Friday, July 28, 2017

Movie Review: “Atomic Blonde”


Atomic Blonde

**** 1/2
115 minutes
Rated R for sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity
Universal Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

If there’s any actresses always proving how much of a badass she is, it’s Charlize Theron. While she’s always been one of Hollywood’s best assets, she really coming into her own after after stealing the show from Mad Max himself in Fury Road and taking on the lead protagonist in The Fate of the Furious earlier this year. But it’s with Atomic Blonde that she really comes into her own. Proving to be more than just a John Wick ripoff — comparisons abound with the film directed by one half of the first Wick’s directors, David Leitch — Atomic Blonde is the perfect action vehicle for Theron to kick ass and take names with the best of them.

In 1989 Berlin, James (Sam Hargrave), a spy, has just been tracked down and taken out by Yuri Bakhtin (Jóhannes Jóhannesson). Yuri takes a watch containing the tried and true spy film MacGuffin: a complete list of active agents. Ten days later, Lorraine Broughton (Theron), a British agent, is brought in for debriefing. Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and American Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman) want to know what happened to their informant Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), and try to find out who the double agent known as Satchel is. A series of flashbacks throw us into the middle of espionage and fisticuffs as Lorraine teams up with David Percival (James McAvoy) and Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella) to keep themselves alive.

Leitch may have gone uncredited as co-director of the first John Wick, but every fight scene in Atomic Blonde prove he was every bit responsible as Chad Stahelski. While Stahelski went on to one up themselves with John Wick 2, Leitch gives us a fantastic display of what he’s capable of on his own. For anyone who doesn’t know, Leitch is currently hard at work finishing up directing Deadpool 2 and if he’s able to come even close to the amount of carnage on display here, we’re in for one wicked ride.

Fast-paced, hard-hitting, action-packed, and a sense of humor to boot, Atomic Blonde is everything action fans could dream of this summer. Theron gives one of her steamiest performances — it’s been said that she even did a lot of her own stunts. This shines through the most in a 10-minute single take showdown between Lorraine and a gaggle of killers that never lets up and is as breathtaking as it is brutal. This fight sequence is one for the books fitting right alongside any fight scene in either Raid films, the hallway scene from Netflix’s Daredevil, and the subway scene from Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy. It is phenomenal and a complete showstopper.

While it may run just a tad too long, some of the twists are more obvious than others. Leitch loves his Tarantino as much as the next — he even goes so far as to recreate an Inglourious Basterds scene complete with David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” — but it’s filled with jawdropping fight scenes, an asskicking performance from Theron, and one of the year’s best soundtracks. Atomic Blonde’s plot revolves around an “atomic bomb of information” and the film almost lives up to that. Pacing issues and length aside, this is one of the best action films of the year.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Movie Review: “Dunkirk”


Dunkirk

***** out of 5
106 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language 
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

War movies are not my favorite. While you could say they’re usually just fact-based action films, I should like them more. So imagine my confliction when Christopher Nolan announced that his follow-up to the masterpiece headtrip Interstellar would be Dunkirk. Thankfully, not even Nolan can keep from making a Nolan film. While it may not feature any kind of twist — sticks to the facts and never goes Tarantino — he does have a few tricks up to his sleeve, making the film even more enjoyable than if it were simply another war movie. Dunkirk still is, but Nolan makes sure to keep it extremely interesting.

It’s 1940 and WWII is booming. We are split into three separate narratives focusing on different timelines of the Dunkirk evacuation where British, French, Belgian, and Canadian troops were trapped by Germany during the Battle of France.
  1. The Mole: One Week finds soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) seeking safety on the beaches alongside British Army Private Alex (Harry Styles) while Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) tries to get as many wounded piled onto boats.
  2. The Sea: One Day leads us to Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a mariner who is tasked with heading out to Dunkirk to help the trapped soldiers. Along with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and assistance from the young George (Barry Keoghan), they stop to rescue a Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy) on their way.
  3. The Air: One Hour whisks us into the skies with Royal Air Force pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) as he dogfights the enemy swirling the beaches.
Considering Nolan is at the helm — he wrote this one all by himself — it should come as no surprise that it’s one of the year’s absolute best. Relentless, thrilling, moving, terrifying, a technical marvel, there’s no stone left unturned. Coming up with the idea 25 years and a mere 76 pages later — this is his shortest screenplay to date — the technical prowess is astonishing. Nolan is firing on all cylinders creating a palpable sense of dread, putting viewers right in the middle of the action from the very first shot. Accolades are bound to come pouring in year end with everything from Nolan’s directing, the acting — even Styles is exceptional! — Hans Zimmer’s score, Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography, Lee Smith’s razor sharp editing, right down to every other technical merit.

This is wham-bam summer spectacle at its finest. Running a mere 106 minutes shows that Nolan doesn’t have to delve into “self indulgence” to put on a grand time. While you would never call a film like Dunkirk “awesome,” it is flat out one of the most intense films of the year. Had it been any longer you’d have to check your pulse at the door. And make sure to see it on the biggest and loudest screen possible. Nolan loves his 65mm IMAX and it’s on full display here more than ever before. Most of the film is shot with IMAX cameras capturing every detail. If it happens to be feasible to see it on film it will look even better. As good as digital IMAX movies look, they always leave a little something to be desired in the visual aspect. No matter how you see it, Dunkirk will leave you breathless from the opening logo to the blackout of the end credits. Operation: Do Not Miss is in full effect!