Review – Spider-Man: Far From Home

After Avengers: Endgame the question for cinephiles and Marvel fans alike is what next? How do you continue after such an epic culmination of 22 films? The answer, at least presented by Spider-Man: Far From Home, is go back to your roots. Present a smaller scale, more intimate depiction of the superhero life. By no means does that mean that this final film of Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a throwaway flick, meant solely to capitalize on the wave of goodwill Endgame wrought. Instead, the filmmakers give us an epilogue of sorts, showing some of the aftermath of Endgame but propelling Spider-Man’s story to the forefront. It would not be unreasonable to suspect that Peter Parker, not Carol Danvers or Sam Wilson will be the face of the MCU in Tony Stark’s absence. The result is a straightforward story void of the bells and whistles of Endgame that is another great entry into the MCU, though not necessarily one we haven’t seen before.

Peter Parker (Tom Holland), struggling with the results of Endgame, is ready for a vacation and in Far From Home, he is visiting Europe with his classmates. Along the way, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) highjacks the trip to enlist Spider-Man’s help to assist a mysterious Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal) in stopping the Elementals, a group of monsters representing the core elements of earth, fire, water, and air. But as Parker travels across Europe he suspects that there is a bigger threat to face.

The first Spider-Man standalone in the MCU, Homecoming, was established as a character piece described as a John Hughes movie with superheroes. That trend continues here as a good portion of the film focuses on the relationships between Peter and his classmates Ned (Jacob Batalon) and MJ (Zendaya). These are the moments that truly work and the basis for most of the humor (there’s plenty) throughout the film. However, the other half is yet another retread of Parker struggling with his other identity. We have now seen Holland’s Spider-Man five times and each time we see a very anxious, very unsure yet eager Spider-Man. The events of Infinity War and Endgame clearly have taken a toll on him but in this, Spider-Man seems like a brand new development for Parker; unestablished and unsure of his own powers. The hesitation, while good for character development, is a little frustrating because, as Nick Fury points out, “You’ve been to space.” He has a point. The experiences that Spider-Man has had should have made him stronger, smarter, and surer of himself. Instead he regresses to the end of Homecoming when he turns down Tony Stark’s offer of being Spider-Man in the Avengers. This retreading of responsibility does not align with the mantra that is at the core of all Spider-Man stories: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

This results in a mirror story to Iron Man 3. Stripped of his sense of purpose and void of his mentor, Parker is forced to rely on his own smarts and skills to save the day. There are other parallels to Iron Man 3 too that I can’t reveal due to spoilers but these similarities are almost assuredly done on purpose to illustrate that while Captain America passed on his mantle at the end of Endgame, Iron Man did not. This is an odd creative choice since Iron Man 3 is perhaps the most devisive movie in the MCU.

Visually, Far From Home is uninspired. The CGI of the Elementals is not clean and other visual effects lack the realism of other Marvel movies. In fact, it almost looks as though the movie was rushed through production. This is distracting at first but there is an in story explanation for this. That said, it does seem like the production quality is not on the same level as other films. While some of the sets work, scenes in Europe lack the pop and identity as other Marvel locations like Wakanda, New York, or Asgard. This is distracting because Europe seems untouched by the decimation. Opening scenes in NYC clearly show the aftermath but Europe seems unaffected. In this regard, the film fails to continue to build the world of the superheroes which seems like a missed opportunity.

The cast on the other had continues to own their characters, particularly Gyllenhaal. He is very clearly having a blast and those who remember that he was in the running to replace Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man 2 will be happy that this is his first foray into Spider-Man’s world. He is the highlight of the film and brings with him an intensity befitting of his character. Holland, despite his character’s hesitancy, is all zealousness, a bundle of energy and in his element as an awkward teen crushing on the girl of his dreams. Zendaya, though still fine as MJ, does not bring anything new to her character to explain why she is the way she is. Martin Starr as the class chaperone and Batalon as Parker’s best friend are the comedic standouts in the talented cast. And since it is a Marvel movie, the audience can expect a cameo and the one the film throws at us is the most exciting bit of fan service in the entire MCU.

Ultimately, director Jon Watts delivers another fun entry into the Infinity Saga storyline but more importantly, by the end, he propels Spider-Man to the forefront of the narrative moving forward. The cast and story carry the film that is otherwise hindered by mediocre visuals. It serves as a perfect epilogue to Phase 3 of the MCU and a more intimate portrayal of the superhero life following the events of Endgame.

Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace: 20 Years Later

20 years ago in a cinema not so far, far away…

Star Wars

Episode I

The Phantom Menace

It had been sixteen years since fans had seen a new Star Wars film. Anticipation was high and fans were lining up to return to George Lucas’ galaxy. It was a period of great excitement and the trailers looked really, super cool. But something happened in those theaters and audiences didn’t know how to react. They were confused. Some were insulted. Many watched wide-eyed with a fresh imagination and new-found passion.

As time went on, the memory of Phantom Menace descended into darkness. It was hated, reviled, especially Jar Jar Binks. Why so much politics? Why so much racism? However, this wouldn’t be the end. Over two decades opinions changed and what’s left is a newfound appreciation for the first of the prequel trilogy…

The general displeasure in George Lucas’ prequel trilogy is long and well-documented. To delve into why Jar Jar and young Anakin are so despised would be akin to beating a dead bantha over the head. It’s all been documented before. However, the phrase hindsight is often 20/20 seems appropriate in this manner as some folks start to look back on the prequel trilogy with newfound admiration. After all, at least these films fall into the scoop of George Lucas’ vision as opposed to the schlock that Disney is putting out, right? That seems to be the general consensus whether it is merited or not (I’m inclined to lean to the latter, though the new films are far from perfect). However, it does we should not dwell on the past. Instead, I’d like to look at the merits of The Phantom Menace and how it holds up two decades later.

First, we must look at the cast. Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson, Samuel L. Jackson, and Natalie Portman. Performances aside, this is an all-star roster before the likes of the Avengers films came along, at least when looked at through modern eyes. At the time, these were veritable nobodies, with only Neeson and Jackson sporting multiple good credits to their names, albeit in mostly niche genre films. All would go on from this as bonafide a-listers. Add in some returning names like McDiarmid, Daniels, Baker, and Oz to add some familiarity and, voila’, you’ve got yourself a cast devoted to bringing these characters to life. For any that may mention Anakin actor Jake Lloyd’s whininess, might I direct your attention to “But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!” as delivered by Mark Hamill? Cut the kid some slack. Being whiny is apparently a Skywalker trait.

Now let’s talk story. Despite the politics, the narrative structure is actually quite rich. We get the classic adventure that the originals were known for as the heroes venture from one place to another in a very fluid, natural way. It doesn’t seem like go from here to here just because we need a variety in location as we see in the new sequel trilogy. The mechanics for why the characters are going to where they are going flows naturally, albeit with flawed logic. That’s an intentional character flaw though and not the result of lazy writing. Further, the mechanics for long-term storytelling and the foundation to build to what we see in the originals is also admirable. When one truly examines the scope and cunning of Palpatine’s plan – particularly his hand in manifesting Anakin in the first place – it adds an additional level of depth to his character in the originals…and sequels?

Galactic politics have always been present in Star Wars but here they are given the spotlight. Whereas the original had an almost lawlessness and disdain for the governing body, that was a reflection of the time it was produced. The same is true as we get to see the Galactic Republic here reflect a prosperous time, much as was true when the film was released. The rest of the prequels would reflect the political climate as well with the descent from prosperity to war. Here’s the thing though. This is what grounds Star Wars, makes it relatable and relevant. It makes the world Lucas created real, livable, and parabolic.

This also gave us the first instance of war in Star Wars. Previously we had seen battles and skirmishes but very little beyond that. The other scenes we had seen previously lacked scope, which was not inherently bad. It made the battles more intimate, rebels vs Empire, good vs evil. War is not so simple however and there is inherent evil in the motivations for either side, which we see here, in retrospect. But what makes it exciting is how Lucas was once again on the front lines of the technology of the time. These battle scenes are truly epic in scope and action. We finally get to see what the Jedi were like in their heyday and it is truly exhilarating to experience. We will see CGI take over in the following prequels but there is still a reliance of practical effects on display here that once more ground the film.

But the final feather in the cap for this epic feature is John Williams’ amazing score. Personally, I find his Attack of the Clones score to be his true Star Wars masterpiece, however the themes he creates are as iconic and recognizable as “Binary Sunset” and “Imperial March.” “Duel of the Fates” remains nothing less than an epic anthem and one of the greatest pieces of orchestration for the last twenty-five years. The motifs Williams carries over from the originals also lend a sense of familiarity and connective tissue between the two trilogies which also helps reaffirm that this is one continuous story to be told. It isn’t three, six or nine disjointed and vastly different stories tied together with similar characters and themes, but rather one full epic saga telling the Skywalker story from beginning to end. And for that beginning, The Phantom Menace deserves its place in the Star Wars canon and marks a fantastic start to the greatest saga ever!

What do you think of Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace? Let us hear your thoughts in the comments below! 

 

Star Wars Celebration Chicago: Episode IX Trailer

Star Wars Celebration Chicago is in full swing and it wasn’t long before Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy and Episode IX director J.J. Abrams released a bit of information that is sure to keep the energy and buzzing high throughout the weekend. While some other topics are buzzworthy, such as the upcoming Disney+ live-action series The Mandalorian and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge theme park expansions, nothing was so highly anticipated as the panel and suspected trailer for the ninth installment of the Skywalker saga.

Moderator Stephen Colbert hosted the panel as Abrams and Kennedy were both on hand to say…almost nothing about the newest upcoming film. One by one they brought out the cast including Anthony Daniels, Billy Dee Williams, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Issac, Kelly Marie Tran, Joonas Suotamo, and newcomer Naomi Ackie. Each had a chance to reveal a little insight into what it’s like to be coming to the end of the third act of the newest trilogy. As Colbert fired question after question, the secrecy surrounding Episode IX was evident as many of the cast would defer their questions to Abrams who would squirm uncomfortably before looking quickly to Kennedy before giving his potentially spoilerified answer. At one point, Ridley through a question to him about any new Force powers that Rey potentially learns to him to which he responded, “I used to really like Daisy.” Given that the film opens in 8 months and we had not even heard a confirmed title, fans were eager to get any tidbit about the new film.

So then they showed the trailer. A glorious two minute and four second look into what I assume Nerdvana looks like.

I won’t go in depth into what you see in the trailer. Watch it and enjoy it as it is intended. Instead, I’ll offer my thoughts. The trailer shows a great level of balance between the two styles we have seen in the sequel trilogy so far. We get the emotional depth and despair that was seen throughout Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi and the practical effects and light seen in Abrams’ own The Force Awakens. This is an important feature. To some, Last Jedi left a bitter taste in fans’ mouths, ruining the goodwill that Force Awakens and Rogue One had garnered. However, to others it was seen as the stepping stone into the future of Star Wars. Gone were the comparisons to the other movies and instead we got a fresh, sleek approach that took an unexpected path. The new film could not simply reverse what was seen in Last Jedi; it had to build upon it and from the aesthetic and brief character interactions seen it seems Abrams is indeed honoring its predecessor.

Yet, the nostalgia factor that drove Abrams’ freshman Star Wars outing was present as well. Mark Hamill’s moving voiceover, the first onscreen appearance of Williams’ Lando after 36 years, and, perhaps most movingly, the late Carrie Fisher as Leia hugging Ridley’s character all bared the mark of the nostalgia that made Force Awakens so popular.

But perhaps the biggest callback lie in the last seconds of the trailer as the main cast are looking out over what is the destroyed hulking façade of the Second Death Star, submerged a lake/ocean on what is presumably the forest moon of Endor. Hamill’s voiceover gives way to a familiar laugh before the title card appears revealing, at last, the title of the film: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

As the lights come back on in the auditorium, Ian McDiarmid stands on stage, confirming what has long been suspected. Emperor Sheev Palpatine will appropriately be back in the finale of the Skywalker saga.

The effect is instantaneous. The audience erupts. Facebook feeds are filled the emojis of excitement and suddenly Avengers: Endgame may no longer be the most anticipated movie of the year. Or to be more accurate, it is a good year to be a Disney stockholder.

2009 In Review: ‘Fanboys’ – A Love Letter To Passionate Fans

There was a period of time between 2005 and 2015 when it seemed like there would be no more Star Wars movies. No film for avid fans to rally around, cheer for, or ultimately berate endlessly. Then, in 2009, a new hope emerged. A long-gestating independent film called Fanboys was released. Most independent films do not get thunderous applause, hearty whooping laughter, or elicit the same level of excitement as the films that inspired it as this one did. It was a movie made for a very specific group of people by that very same group of people about that same group of people. Directed by Kyle Newman the film follows a group of long-time friends and Star Wars fans in the late 90s before the release of The Phantom Menace as they roadtrip to sneak into Skywalker Ranch to see Episode I early before one of their own succumbs to cancer. Along the way the ideas of what it means to be a fan, one’s lasting legacy, friendship, and passion are all explored.

When I Fell In Love with ‘Fanboys’

The Star Wars nods, references, and discussions throughout perfectly captured the relationship and pastime of my friends and me but the scene where I fell in love with Fanboys was early on in the movie when Windows (Jay Baruchel) and Hutch (Dan Fogler) are arguing about the significance of Boba Fett. The banter back and forth with encyclopedic knowledge of the character is likely lost on most average movie-goers, but to someone who has participated in similar discussions, it strikes a chord. These are the conversations I have had with my friends suddenly validated. In a small way, I suddenly knew that we were not alone. These characters were talking my language and I didn’t stop smiling from that point on.

Most Rewatchable Scene

Midway through their journey to Skywalker Ranch, the gang decides that the best thing to do would be to pick a fight with Trekkies, the devoted fanbase of Star Trek, in the hometown of James T. Kirk. Seth Rogen leads the fans in retaliation as Hutch and crew rag on Kirk, Star Trek, and the entire inferior “Star” franchise. The scene is over-the-top and hilariously points out the ironies of these two groups of very passionate people defending the culture that they love while simultaneously tearing down the other. The insults levied against each other are collectively familiar to fans of both franchises but to have them aimed toward one another illustrates the very reason why nerds, for a long time, were socially ostracized; they simply don’t see themselves as anything less than cool. Mass spontaneous brawls are always amusing (see Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy) and this one is no exception.

The Best Scene

Late in the movie, after several hiccups, setbacks, and some jailtime Linus (Chris Marquette) and Eric (Sam Huntington) sit on the brink of a canyon and discuss the failure of their mission with Windows and Hutch. Trying to encourage Eric to continue on their quest, Hutch tells him he needs to find his Death Star, that one defining moment like Luke Skywalker had, that allows them to live on forever. It’s a somber moment, particularly for that character, but illustrates the central theme of the movie of living your life to the fullest, passionately and unashamedly. Rather than slow the movie down, it gives it the emotional jolt to get through to the end and it’s the one scene that continually resonates with me.

Why You Should Watch It Again

Ho-o-boy, where do I start? Since this movie’s release, the number of self-proclaimed fanboys/girls has increased exponentially. Due, in part, to Disney’s rejuvenation of the Star Wars brand and the general acceptance that nerds were right all along and have always liked the actual coolest things, the definition of “fanboy” has been watered down. Most of the Disney-era fanboys wouldn’t be able to list more than five characters from the former Expanded Universe, nor are they aware of the intricacies of the entire universe Lucas built. They do recognize that Rey stands as a role model for young girls, BB-8 is the new generation’s R2-D2, and the Force can be used to make one fly like Superman into a damaged ship. They may not be as well-versed but the existence of these new fans help to stoke the fire and bring Star Wars back to the forefront of pop culture relevance. It’s like inviting the cool kids to come play in your sandbox where you get to establish the rules of the universe. This movie serves to educate the masses on what it was like before the Episode VII boom to be a fan. It represents an entire generation of fans and, like when Rey desperately holds out the lightsaber to Luke hoping to learn more, these new fans are eager to learn the ways of the Fanboy.

2009 in Review: ‘Up’ – A Masterpiece in Style and Heart

When one thinks of the saddest Disney movies, one of the common titles to come up is, well, Up. Not only is the opening sequence detailing the life of Carl and Ellie heartbreaking, the theme of childhood heroes not living up to one’s expectations is sad as is the struggle of growing up trying to prove your worth to a father that is never there for you. The whole film, on paper, reads like a Sarah McLaughlin song, simply there to make adults weep. Yet somehow the film is bubble-wrapped in sweetness and presented as innocent as a balloon. And in that we find the brilliance of Pete Docter’s masterpiece.

Now a decade old, Up holds the distinction of being only one of three animated features to have been nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards (Beauty and the Beast and Toy Story 3 being the other two). That is not an accident. The film brings together the best components of what Pixar had produced previously and married it together in a cohesive way; it has the imagination of Monsters, Inc, the childlike innocence of Toy Story, the silent storytelling of Wall*e, the visuals of The Incredibles, and adds in a heart all of its own.

For those who may not recall, the film centers around Carl Fredrickson (voiced brilliantly by Ed Asner), an elderly gentleman who, mourning his late wife and eager for the adventure he had always promised her, inflates thousands of balloons tied to his house and flies to Paradise Falls. He is accompanied by an eager Wilderness Explorer in the form of Russell and a loyal dog named Dug in the journey that leads to an encounter with a childhood hero and a mysterious bird, all of whom help Carl find a joy and excitement in life that was lacking since Ellie’s passing.

When I Fell In Love with Up

Set to Michael Giacchino’s Oscar winning score (criminally, his only Oscar win so far), an early scene tells the story of Carl and Ellie’s life from childhood crush to her somber funeral. Not a single line of dialogue is spoken through the entire segment but the short clips of their joys, sorrows, misfortunes, adventures, and undying devotion for each other is enough to elicit laughter and full-on sobbing from even the most cynical moviegoers.

It is a beautiful example of storytelling and is able to convey more emotion than most other animated features are able to fit into an entire feature length presentation. From the end of the scene, the movie had my heart and my imagination and it had already earned the right to do whatever it wanted with it.

Most Rewatchable Scene

See above. But in truth the scene that stands out to me is when Carl, about to be forced out of his home and into a retirement community, unleashes his daring balloon escape. The idea of the negative aspects of urbanization had already been hinted at and to see Carl and Ellie’s colorful little house surrounded by cookie-cutter skyscrapers of steel and gray reinforce the melancholy of Carl’s life.

His escape illustrates that change and the animation here is astounding. Equal parts whimsical and colorful and breathtaking, the animators allow the light to filter through the balloons to paint a tapestry of beauty on the surrounding city scape.

His ingenuity in household steering captures my imagination the same way that seeing Flik use a blade of grass and a dewdrop did in A Bug’s Life. Additionally, as he soars over the city, with the rapidly changing backgrounds this is the prime time for some easter egg hunting; the Pizza Planet truck and Lotso the bear both make appearances here.

Cultural Impact

Many couples have their go-to Disney couple – Belle and Beast, Ariel and Eric, Donald and Daisy – but none inspire the kind of life-long partnership than Carl and Ellie. They have dreams together but maintain separate passions. They face adversity together as a team. They are mature and playful, spontaneous and patient. Theirs is the kind of love anyone would dream of having in their own relationships. So it makes sense that couples would recreate their house or mailbox design. That weddings would be themed after a kids’ movie. That the image of a house floating in the sky by balloons would become synonymous with the need to break free from the rigors of life and tackle an adventure. That grape soda bottle caps would become relevant. But perhaps the biggest cultural takeaway from Up is thanks to Dug.

How many of us have ever been deep in a conversation when the other person becomes distracted and someone barks, “Squirrel!” to illustrate their wandering attention span?

Why You Should Watch It Again

The world is a beautiful place. One thing that did not resonate with me when I watched this at 19 was that I had not yet started a life; no career, no wife, no (fur)baby. I had been privileged to travel extensively and expected to continue to do so. In a sense, the cold-iron grip of responsibility had not fastened its piercing talons into my psyche. Of course I would travel again, what would stop me? Now, as an adult, with a much stronger understanding that money does not grow on trees and new AC units for your recently purchased home are equivalent to about three 7-day cruises, I relate to Carl and Ellie’s struggle of wanderlust.

The film is an important reminder to take any opportunity you can to see the world with your loved ones before it is too late. Plus it is cute and funny and pretty to look at.

What do you think of Up? Let us hear your thoughts in the comments below!

Check out our 2009 In Review Series, running for the next three weeks at We Bought a Blog. Check back for a new film every day!

Josh’s Top 10 Okayist Movies of 2018

Sigh. Here we go again. Last year, I had to convince you dear and loyal readers as to why my pulp-filled top 10 was worth reading. This year is an even harder sell because, save for perhaps a solid three true favorites, this year was simply okay. And I’ll tell you why that is. A-List, MoviePass, and stupid people have ruined the movie-going experience for me. Plant yourself in the tourist Mecca of irresponsible and truly deplorable etiquette and you might find going to the theater to be more of a chore than a chance to escape into the imagination of the filmmakers.

As such, my enjoyment of this year’s cinema is heavily skewed. I didn’t see many of the films I wanted to because I chose not to subject myself to utter rudeness and a blatant disregard for the respect of your fellow audience member. The films I did see, I admit to being distracted by the aforementioned tomfoolery, thus hampering my overall enjoyment of the features. Or, perhaps even more infuriatingly, they simply didn’t live up to my expectations. The rest were just plain awful. Hurricane Heist, I’m talking to you.

So what we are left with is a toss-up of basically nobody’s favorites, presented to you in list form of least sucky. I present to you, patient and understanding readers:

Josh’s “Okay-ist” Movies of 2018

10) Once Upon a Deadpool

Deadpool purists lament the Merc with a Mouth being regulated down to a PG-13 rating. It’s the cursing and blood and guts that make him so entertaining, right? This experiment for charity answers that question. I was no less entertained by this watered down version of Deadpool 2 than when I saw the original. In fact, I actually enjoyed the narrative framing of Once Upon a Deadpool. Having Fred Savage unwillingly reenact his childhood role from The Princess Bride is so perfectly Deadpool. Watching this is like having a visual to go along with the audio commentary on a Blu-Ray extra, which, in itself, is often entertaining enough. Having Savage point out the shortcomings of the original film allow those errors to now have a purpose, raising the overall quality of the entire product.  Deadpool can work as a PG-13 or R without losing its entertainment value.

9) Christopher Robin

Christopher Robin is noteworthy for two reasons. First, voice acting. Jim Cummings absolutely brought such a fantastic gravitas and innocence to Winnie the Pooh and Tigger too. While seeing these traditionally animated and beloved characters brought into the real world could have been a bit of a culture-shock and weird juxtaposition, Cummings’ voice bridges that gap. It is a whole new Pooh but it is still familiar and relatable to those who have grown up with the silly old bear. Second, it is simply a heartwarming and genuinely good story. There is conflict but nothing malicious. Emotional but not heartbreaking. It strikes a very positive tone and sometimes that is the most important thing.

8) A Quiet Place

I am not a horror aficionado. In fact, I’m not a fan of being scared at all. However, something was different in A Quiet Place that made it seem different. Perhaps it was the beautiful silence that permeated the film. What the filmmakers do with the absence of sound is more effectively unsettling than showing monsters. The acting is top-notch and the relatively concise script doesn’t ever feel bogged down in exposition or time-filling subplots.

7) Solo: A Star Wars Story

Here’s where you are surely saying “Pump the breaks. This future-anthology-ending, behind-the-scenes mess of flick made your top ten? Have you got Hyperspace Sickness or what?” Again, I refer you to my defense of all things Star Wars when I put The Last Jedi at #2 last year. It makes the list simply because it is Star Wars. And I’ll tell you what. Solo is better than The Last Jedi. Solo captures the fun, excitement, and adventure that is Star Wars. Solo fleshes out the universe the George Lucas created. Solo is not perfect but it doesn’t suffer from the inconsistencies that should be evident from such a late-in-the-game director or should it be heralded as a failure due to mishandled marketing leading up to its release. It stands on its own and is the first of the Disney-produced Star Wars movies to capture the fun of any of the originals. That said, the meaning behind Han’s famous last name? C’mon, you can do better than that!

6) Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Fight me. I loved Fallen Kingdom. I was on the edge of my seat from the word go. The privatization of dinosaurs is the next natural step in the franchise and the questionable decisions by the characters deviate so minutely from decisions made in the other films (taking raptor eggs, kidnapping a baby T-rex, running in heels, using amberized DNA to create dinosaurs and make a theme park out of them, etc) that that cannot be seen as a fault of the film. I’ve never been made to feel for the dinosaurs until this one. They weren’t really given personalities before, regulated to beastly antagonists. I appreciated that the argument for their rights was finally addressed, allowing the franchise to explore even more of the moral dilemma inherent in humans playing God. Also, unlike Indominus Rex, the Indoraptor is downright terrifying.

5) Game Night

Game Night stands out to me as the only great comedy of 2018. The premise was original and fresh and the performances were top-notch. As an avid game night participant, this movie perfectly summed up the dynamics of a group of adult friends who use the playing of board games to connect and share their lives and air their problems in a healthy way. The film was made to be even more engaging by allowing the audience to play along, inviting them to follow the clues to determine the course of the “murder” mystery, with plenty of twists to keep them guessing. The laughs come hard and often and the opening and closing credits are possibly some of the coolest this year.

4.) Mission: Impossible – Fallout

How is it that 6 movies in, Mission: Impossible does what other franchises cannot? Each outing ups the ante on stunts and is arguably better plotted, acted, and executed than the entry before. There will surely be a point where Tom Cruise hits a plateau as Ethan Hunt but this is surely not it. It helps that Christopher McQuarrie is the first director to helm two consecutive sequels, allowing the chance for this movie to seamlessly build off its predecessor. The action is breathtaking and unrelenting, giving the audience a sort of visceral experience of being in the trenches with the IMF. At the end of it all, you sit in the theater trying to catch your breath, not realizing that you had been holding it for the past two hours. Solidly the best action movie of the year. Sad that Jeremy Renner was too busy nursing his broken arm back to health to participate in this mission. What’s that, you ask if he broke it filming Avengers? Nope. He broke it filming Tag.

3.) Mary Poppins Returns

While not quite practically perfect in every way, Mary Poppins Returns did delight from start to finish. The music of Marc Shaiman did miss a bit of the whimsicality of the original Sherman brothers songs and score but was fun and fresh in its own way. Emily Blunt did a respectable job of making Poppins her own without the need of being a Julie Andrews impersonator. However, the real standout here was Ben Whishaw who brought such a heartbreaking weight to the character of Michael Banks that the need to save the Banks children was clear. Personally, Disney’s use of traditional animation for the first time since 2011’s Winnie the Pooh was another highlight. Eventually, Disney will toss aside Meryl Streep like they did Johnny Depp and their movies will be better for it, for her segment was the point when the film slowed to near a halt before zipping right back up again.

2.) Avengers: Infinity War

It truly was a banner year for Marvel. It is easy to think about how big a film Infinity War is and make a snap decision that it was the best of the year. In terms of the box office, it certainly left all the others in the dust. Compared to the other many comic book movies released this year it stands out in stark contrast as the one that raised the stakes. Heroes aren’t allowed to lose and yet here we are, all waiting with bated breath to see what happens after the Decimation. The Russo brothers certainly did a great job balancing so many individual characters, story-arcs, and personalities. And most importantly, they allowed a genocidal maniac retain a level of sympathy through it all, which seems like a strange compliment but really illustrates the directors’ vision to give the villain depth. As far as event films go, nothing has ever come close to the excitement level of this one…until this coming April.

1) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Not since 2009 has an animated movie made its way to the top of my “Best of” list but no other film of 2018 is more deserving of the top spot (that I’ve seen; remember my disclaimer) than Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The film is surprisingly emotional throughout and is certainly Sony Pictures Animation’s most mature film (this is the company that produced The Emoji Movie, where poop was an actual character). Additionally, the animation is a masterpiece. The unique way that the animator’s pay homage to all the various styles not just of the different characters but to the world they inhabit is brilliant.

The voice-acting is top notch, especially by Shameik Moore as Miles Morales and John Mulaney as Spider-Ham. Even Nicolas Cage is well cast as the brooding Spider-Man Noir. The thing that allows this film to stand out in a year dominated by great comic book films though is its story. While the other films mostly rely on the characters to carry it, this is truly about world-building in a way we haven’t seen in a Spider-Man movie to date. Here we get to see, like in Captain America: The First Avenger, the hero Spider-Man’s impact on the “real” world, paralleling the impact the character has had over the years. Having lost both Steve Ditko and Stan Lee this year, this is the perfect send-up of their creation.

What do you think of Josh’s Top 10 for 2018? Let us hear your thoughts in the comments below! 

Review: ‘The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’ is Dull and Bloated with CGI

Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms holds an appealing premise. It is a reimagining of the classic story of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E.T.A. Hoffmann that performs the duel sin of making the holidays joyless and allowing the epic to seem boring. For all its gaudy costumes and grand CGI spectacle, the film is horrendously dull. It is generically rendered, unabashedly unoriginal, and entirely lifted from other recent features just with a new and underused cast.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms Poster

First, what works? Scenes of the “real” world, wherein Clara (Mackenzie Foy, doe-eyed and a passenger to her own movie) and her family struggle to keep up appearances following the death of their mother. It’s Christmas and the affluent family must maintain their societal duty of making an appearance at the residence of Clara’s godfather Drosselmeyer, played with no enthusiasm by Morgan Freeman. The familial emotion is real and the present string tree is an insanely fun concept. If the filmmakers had devoted more time to the emotion of the struggling family and the sense of innovation as Clara demonstrated her skill as an inventor – a very neat character detail that goes almost entirely unused through the rest of the movie – the film might have been more bearable. Additionally, there is a dazzling scene that serves as exposition for how Clara’s deceased mother first discovered the Four Realms. The scene features a ballet performance by Misty Copeland that was beautifully choreographed and staged. This is the only instance of true art in the entire film.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms Mackenzie Foy 1Instead, once Clara enters the magical world of the four realms, all sense of who she is is lost in the glitz and bustle of the CGI’d background. In this realm, she meets the regents of each realm, including the Land of Snowflakes, Land of Sweets, Land of Flowers, and Land of Amusements. She also meets the Nutcracker, named Phillip (Jayden Fowora-Knight, lacking any charisma), who agrees to watch over her within the Realms but does little more than complain and hold arguments with a mouse.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms Group ShotOf the regents Clara meets, only Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren, clearly overcast) and Sugar Plum, played to utter irritation by Keira Knightley, have anything to do. The sickly sweet and breathy voice Knightley adopts for her character was a misguided choice that, coupled with her extended amount of screen-time, moves the film from utter dullness to pure tedium.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms CastleAs an adaptation, the script by newcomer Ashleigh Powell fails to find new relevance in an age-old and beloved story. Instead, the plot elements seem tied together from bits of previously released Disney features, chiefly Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and its sequel, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and The Santa Clause 2: The Escape Clause. The visuals presented by directors Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston do nothing to distant those comparisons. Disney’s penchant for recycling animated sequences in the past is well-documented; this plays like a greatest hits of those recycled moments. Additionally, the story is brooding and melancholy. Even the finale seems sad and wistful, effectively sucking all the joy out of this holiday feature.

The score by James Newton Howard is a saving grace but as it is of Tschaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite it had a very strong base. However, Howard is able to apply the components of Tschaikovsky’s composition in beautiful and subtle ways. In fact, one thrilling moment is when the conductor tune’s up the orchestra right before the ballet performance and the visuals (lifted straight from Fantasia) show the silhouette of the conductor and pieces of the orchestra. While unoriginal, this moment stood out as the closest to honoring the source material of the film.

The film fails the most when attempting to be an epic. Certainly, the visuals lend themselves to grand spectacle, but there’s nothing inspiring in them. The three-dimensional world seems particularly flat due to lower quality CG-rendering. Additionally, scenes of battle are likewise lackluster as the tin soldier army are slow-moving, non-threatening, and easily dispatched without much flourish. The audience never is led to believe the heroes are in any danger so the stakes are nonexistent. In a fight for control over an entire kingdom, this should not be the case. Further, this does nothing to add excitement to the movie, adding only to the dullness.

Ultimately, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a boring and uninspired adaptation that does little to honor its source material. Its cast is neglected and overqualified for the poorly written storyline and expository dialogue. While a few scenes showcase inspired artistry that could have elevated the film to new heights, it instead struggles from a lack of purpose and meaningless spectacle.

GRADE: (★½)

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1998 in Review: ‘Quest for Camelot’ Features the Middle Ages in Non-Disney Animated Film

Set in Medieval England, Quest for Camelot is an animated telling of what happened following the classic tale of King Arthur and his knights of the round table. As a Warner Bros animated feature, it had the similar styling, visually and musically of many Disney features, though the animation is much less clean. That said, character design and environment rendering do not suffer for it.

Additionally, the film is bolstered by some very strong (and recognizable) voice talent, including Gary Oldman, Eric Idle, Don Rickles, Pierce Brosnan, and Cary Elwes. The film focuses on the young daughter of a knight of the round table who is killed in the film’s opening segment. Longing to follow in her father’s footsteps, Kayley (Jessalyn Gilsig) sets out to recover the mythical sword Excaliber in order to save the kingdom from the villainous former knight Ruber (a fantastically sinister Oldman). Along the way, she encounters a dashing but blind hermit (Elwes), a two-headed dragon (Idle, Rickles, brilliant), and a chicken with an ax-for-a-beak. Did I mention that it is a musical? On paper, that’s a lot to get excited about. However, the film arrived to meek attendance and a low box office.

When I Fell in Love with “Quest for Camelot”

From the opening musical number, I was enthralled with Quest for Camelot. As the score by Patrick Doyle begins with its steady drums and Celtic lilt, I was hooked. It was the music that hooked me and the characters that kept my interest. The original songs are all catchy and the characters are distinct and fun. My favorite? The useless ax-beaked chicken. Why? I was a child and he was weird looking and funny.

Most Memorable Scene

To this day, the scene that sticks out most to me is the musical number of the two-headed dragon, Cornwall and Devon. This film’s Timon and Pumba, Devon and Cornwall are brothers. Due to years stuck with which other, they are bitter and frustrated. The song, which comes midway through the movie, is about what they would do if they didn’t have one another. It’s the first time the movie takes a step out of its time period to make jarring pop culture references. What’s fantastic about this is that Idle, as a member of the infamous Monty Python, skews the genre in this film that same way his troupe did in its most popular work, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. That in itself is a fun meta-reference. Beyond that, it’s a fun, catchy song that ends with an Elvis impersonation.

Best Scene

The best scene in the movie is another musical number, this time sung by Garrett (voiced by Elwes, sung by Bryan Adams). Shortly after meeting Kayley in the Enchanted Forest, Garrett expresses his isolation through an empowering power ballad (“I Stand Alone”) that could have been a contender for a Best Original Song Oscar had the, even more, moving “The Prayer” not snagged the nomination. What elevated this song above any other in the film, and, indeed, above any other in children’s movies of the time, was that it was a song sung by a character with a disability about how he rises above his disability.

The content of the song aside, the animation transitions at this point. Until this point, the Enchanted Forest was nothing more than a bleak obstacle in the hero’s journey. Ostensibly, we were seeing it through her perspective, clouded by fear and anger. Under Garrett’s unique “vision,” the Forest reveals its mystic beauty, with twisting vines, fantastic creatures, and vibrant colors. This is how Garrett sees his environment and it shows that the beauty in the world is more than appearances. To host not just one but two strong messages within a single sequence without overreaching is something that has yet to be matched in animated cinema.

Why You Should Watch It Again

Quest for Camelot is a timeless tale that, visually, is a product of the nineties. Its animation doesn’t hold up quite the way that most Disney movies do. However, in terms of content, it doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to characters with disabilities, legacy, death, and evil. The songs do stand the test of time and are still as catchy and moving as they were upon the film’s original release. Though it was the first animated feature of the year, it was overshadowed by higher-profile films such as Mulan, A Bug’s Life (which I’ve previously written about), The Prince of Egypt, and The Rugrats Movie. Despite all that, the film has heart and ambition and deserves another watch.

What do you think of Quest for Camelot? What do you remember about the film? Let us know in the comments below! 

1998 in Review: ‘A Bug’s Life’ is Now Underrated Despite Jumpstarting Pixar

In the echelons of great Pixar movies, it is sometimes easy to be forgotten, particularly when your stars are the size of, well, bugs. That is the problem that faces A Bug’s Life, Pixar’s sophomore feature. It is a fantastically original movie, simply released at the wrong time. More on that later. As a reminder, A Bug’s Life followed inventor ant Flik (Dave Foley) as he journeys to find “warrior” bugs to combat the tyrannous group of grasshoppers led by Hopper (Kevin Spacey, typecast as a villain before anyone realized just how true that was). Viewers are cast into a minuscule world where dandelion stalks become gliders, raindrops become dangerous projectiles, and a broken umbrella becomes a circus tent. The rendering of this miniature world is truly remarkable. Without the scope of human characters to provide scale, the bug’s world is made so much larger and the dangers inherent in the story drew comparisons to Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

When I Fell in Love with “A Bug’s Life”

I was the kind of nerdy kid that liked to collect bugs and put them in a tiny little bug cage. I would provide my unwilling inhabitants with a stick, patch of dirt, and some leaves; everything they needed to make their mesh prison a comfortable b&b – bed & bug. I had already seen Antz that year and was left feeling that the drab world presented in the Dreamworks film lacked the color and life that my little backyard ecosystem displayed. A Bug’s Life was much brighter and more visually stunning than its film competitor and that’s what immediately caught my attention. The characters were more diverse and loveable. And, of course, it was Disney. In a sense, I was hooked from the first trailers of a chubby caterpillar eating a leaf.

Most Memorable Scene

Another fascination of my childhood were Rube Goldberg machines. I loved the cause and effect and the transfer of energy inherent in these creations. This probably stemmed from my love of Scooby-Doo, particularly the traps. So the scene that I most loved in A Bug’s Life was in P.T. Flea’s circus when, in an effort to hold the attention of his audience, P.T. announces Flaming Death! Now, while this isn’t quite a true Rube Goldberg, the quick series of events is an entertaining comedy of errors that showcases both strong animation and some clever slapstick.

Best Scene

The best scene of the film is a cutaway scene that serves no true purpose but to demonstrate the hazards poised to insects. We leave our main characters to watch to flying insects outside of a trailer home. One warns the other to not look at the light while his buddy claims that, due to its beauty, he can’t help it, proceeds then to fly into the bug zapper, and presumably meets his maker. The scene is somewhat of a shock (tee-hee) in its brutal depiction of insecticide for no discernable purpose other than comedy.

What it does achieve, however, is perspective. This is the first time that we see the larger world outside of the miniature world the insects inhabit. It somehow makes the audience more empathetic to Flik’s journey. You see how tiny a bug is compared to the world around him, you get a sense of where the action is happening, and, most importantly, you get one of the most quotable lines from the film. “I can’t help it. It’s so beautiful!” has become commonplace in my personal lexicon anytime I’m told not to look at something.

Why You Should Watch It Again

A Bug’s Life is a great film. While CGI has certainly advanced, the glossy finish of the characters seems appropriate for insects and thus doesn’t distract from the overall experience as much as characters like Scud the dog or Sid did in Toy Story. The world is beautifully rendered and spectacularly creative. A blade of grass and a dew drop make a telescope? Genius!

But as mentioned earlier, A Bug’s Life was released one month after Antz. For those unaware, Antz was another CGI film starring an ant released by Dreamworks Studios. That film, while also decent, was much darker, more sinister, and controversial for perceived pro-Communistic views. Its PG rating made it accessible to younger audiences and for uninformed parents, the shock of the brutal character death, foul language, and political leanings likely turned some folks off to the possibility of a second insect-themed movie.

As such, A Bug’s Life is often times the forgotten Pixar movie. Cars 2 and Monsters University get more word of mouth as the generally accepted worst Pixar films but A Bug’s Life rarely enters the conversation at all. Unfortunately, it just came out at the wrong time and for those who missed it the first time, it certainly warrants another watch.

What do you think of “A Bug’s Life?” How does it hold up? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!