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Sunday, July 14, 2019

Crawl

CRAWL

** SPOILERS **

Apex Predator All Day

"I never thought it'd end like this," Kaya Scodelario tells her father Barry Pepper in Crawl. No doubt. How could she ever think she'd die in a watery basement eaten by alligators during a Category 5 hurricane? That's a very specific way to die but in Alexandre Aja's Crawl, that's exactly the life or death scenario Scodelario and Pepper find themselves in. Crawl is a perfect storm in more ways than one: beyond just the hurricane, which has caused floods and broken levees in South Florida, it's beyond unfortunate Pepper's house is right next to an alligator farm. Going up against one gator would be bad enough but there are multiple gators in Crawl, each hungry for Scodelario and Pepper's limbs - and they definitely get their licks in.

In Crawl, Scoledario plays a swimmer for the University of Georgia, Gainsville swim team. She's estranged from her father but goes looking for him when a hurricane hits and she finds him unconscious and badly wounded in the filthy crawl spaces of his basement. Unfortunately, Pepper's not alone: there are two gators down there too, with more on the way. That's it, that's the movie - Scodelario and Pepper have to somehow survive as the storm gets worse and worse, flooding the town and turning it into a gator party. Within this simple premise, a father and daughter reconnect and go to extremes to survive. They don't necessarily make it out with all of their limbs intact. They also have a dog, a wonderful pup named Sugar that the filmmakers wisely don't use as gator feed. Mostly a two-person and one doggo show, Crawl has a few extra characters who the gators make mincemeat out of. Meanwhile, Scoledario is in nearly every scene and she's a champ whether she has a medal for swimming or not.

Unlike sharks, the basic factoids of which have seeped into the collective unconsciousness ever since Jaws and the annual Shark Weeks and Sharknados, Crawl takes advantage of the fact that most of us don't really know a lot about alligators (I sure don't). Besides the obvious basics like avoiding the jaws, the ins-and-outs of fighting gators are a mystery, as Scoledario finds out when she dodges a gator's snapping mouth but gets whacked in the face with its tail. We wonder whether a gator attacks because its visual acuity is based on movement, like a T-Rex. And we're not exactly sure if a champion swimmer like Scoledario can swim faster than a gator - but it's fun finding out. The gators act like movie monsters when they need to and come out of the water for jump scares, but they also stay in the shadows when necessary to effectively build tension. 

Crawl starts off a bit like a crawl but then ramps up nicely. Pepper and Scoledario both get bitten quite a bit and are badly injured throughout the movie; it's probably not as easy to shake off multiple gator bites as they both make it seem and, in reality, they likely should both have bled out and died from their nasty wounds. There's one moment where a gator clamps onto Scoledario's arm and takes her on a death roll but at that late point in the film, Scoledario has been bitten so many times that she just takes it in stride as she tries to reach a flare to electricute the gator with. 

Overall, considering how Pepper, Scoledario, and the other actors and crew must have spent weeks in a wet, cold, filthy set, everyone comes out of Crawl looking like champs for their total commitment. Especially Scoledario, who holds the movie together with determination and gusto; she even has to swim through rancid water with her eyes wide open which should earn her an award of some sort just for being a great sport. Crawl is as good a father-daughter v alligators movie as you could ask for. And Crawl could even be a segment from Batman V Superman; when Scoledario and Pepper are on top of their house waiting for help, if they'd drawn a giant S shield on the roof, Superman probably would have shown up hovering over them.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Aladdin

ALADDIN

** SPOILERS **

Hold Your Breath, It Gets Better

"The monkey knows the way," Aladdin (Mena Massoud) tells Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) as they both escape the palace guards after them, and anyone who has such loyal friends as Abu the monkey and the Magic Carpet is well worth knowing. Director Guy Ritchie's dazzling Aladdin brings the classic Disney cartoon and the splendorous fictional Arabian world of Agrabah to life in all its vivid, colorful glory. This is a nearly miraculous production full of endearing charm, genuine wit, and eye-popping beauty, starting with its two leads and their meet-cute: he's an orphaned thief who's dismissed as "riff-raff" and a "street rat" while she's an intelligent and headstrong princess forcibly sheltered in the palace since the death of her mother. They're both stunningly attractive, clearly into each other, and they obviously belong together. "You should be Sultan," Aladdin later assures her and it's clear that when all is said and done, Jasmine will not just rule Agrabah but Aladdin's heart as well - and he'll thoroughly enjoy being ruled by her for the rest of his days.

We all know the story: the malevolent Grand Vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) wants to be Sultan but he needs the power of the Genie (Will Smith), who lives in a magic oil lamp hidden in the Cave of Wonders (voiced by Frank Welker, the voice of Megatron), to make his evil wish come true. Jafar kidnaps Aladdin, the "diamond in the rough" and the only person allowed to enter the cave (although Abu goes with him so the magical cave is clearly okay with a monkey tagging along). Inside the Cave of Wonders are treasures and riches beyond imagination, unless you're Scrooge McDuck or Smaug, in which case, you're familiar with piles of gold coins you can swim in. But there's also the lamp, which Aladdin retrieves, which means he's now the master of the Genie and the Three Wishes he can grant.

Following in the late Robin Williams' footsteps as the Genie is a daunting task but Will Smith rises to the challenge with a performance that's funny, razor-sharp, and unexpectedly emotionally moving when it counts: he's both exasperated mentor and supportively loyal friend (reluctantly at first) to Aladdin as he turns the street rat into the fictional (fresh) Prince Ali of the even more fictional kingdom of Ababwa - complete with Smith leading a musical number accompanying Prince Ali's arrival in Agrabah that brings the house down. But there's a key difference with this Genie: he's all man too and he has the hots for Dalia (Nasim Pedrad), Jasmine's eligible handmaiden who is quite interested right back. But the relationship between Aladdin and the Genie is sharply-written and poignant, especially when Aladdin ultimately delivers on his promise to free the Genie so he can live a normal life.

With a clever screenplay by Ritchie and John August that adapts the classic cartoon but also adds a few interesting new touches - mainly modernizing Jasmine with a fierce independent streak, progressive worldview, and a new, ultimate destiny - Aladdin astoundingly hits all of the high points of its beloved magic carpet ride. The costumes, sets, and production design are spectacular and,  thankfully, Scott is a powerful vocalist who belts out her part of "A Whole New World" and has an additional new song all her own. Meanwhile, Massoud is a charming Aladdin while Abu and the Magic Carpet are each remarkably loyal and endearing sidekicks. Ritchie's Agrabah is a sight to behold: a wonderous, immersive kingdom that should be its own Disney theme park. Although Kemzari's version of Jafar is a different flavor of sinister from the cartoon that takes a little getting used to and perhaps Gilbert Gottfried not voicing Iago the parrot is a bit of a letdown as well, even then, the movie just clicks and delivers genuine pleasures. Happily, Aladdin is a gorgeous fantasy and a new fantastic point of view of one of Disney's best fairy tales.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Spider-Man: Far From Home

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME

** SPOILERS **

In Spider-Man: Far From Home, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) goes to Europe in pursuit of "Peter Tingles". He gets them, in more ways than one. Director Jon Watts' sprawling and entertaining follow-up to Spider-Man: Homecoming is also the 23rd Marvel Studios film, the final film of MCU Phase 3, and a sequel to both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame (whew). That's a lot of weight to put on Spider-Man's slender shoulders, Spider-Strength or no. As such, before Peter and his school chums from Midtown School of Science and Technology, including his trusty man in the chair Ned (Jacob Batalon) and MJ (Zendaya), the girl he has the Peter Tingles for, get to go to Europe, there's some MCU admin to get out of the way. Far From Home handles this irreverently, looking at the events of Thanos' mass genocide from the teenagers' point of view: the Decimation is now called 'The Blip', the dead Avengers (Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, and Vision) are memorialized with a video set to Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You", and everyone wants to know if Spider-Man is going to take the late Tony Stark's place as the next Iron Man and the leader of the Avengers (if the Avengers are still even a thing). 

Of course, Peter Parker can't just go on vacation, especially when the world is threatened by Elementals, other-dimensional monsters made of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Not long after Peter and his friends land in Venice, the city is attacked by the Water Elemental and Peter encounters Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), a new superhero who no one seems to notice is wearing the most ridiculous costume ever, complete with a fishbowl helmet. The Italian news dubs Beck 'Mysterio' and he takes a shine to the moniker (a lot more than Peter does to Spider-Man's European name: Night Monkey). Soon, Peter is recruited by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to help Mysterio save the world from the Elementals. Oh, Beck is from another dimension and the Elementals destroyed his world and now they've come for Earth. If that story sounds like horse shit, congratulations, you've got [insert your first name here] Tingles! Thing is, Peter doesn't want to join in on this world-saving crusade; even though it's been 8 months since he's been to space and fought two Thanoses from two different time periods, all he wants to do is go to Paris and tell MJ he has the Peter Tingles for her.

Meanwhile, even though Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is dead, Iron Man lives on in his tech and the late Avenger bequeathed his protege Peter a new toy: his favorite sunglasses, which contain E.D.I.T.H. (Even Dead I'm The Hero), an A.I. that gives Peter access to Stark's entire network of weaponry, including killer drones he can launch from Stark satellite. Peter doesn't know what to do with E.D.I.T.H. (besides accidentally use it to kill the kid who also likes MJ) and he dumbheadedly hands the tech over to Beck, playing right into his hands. For you see, Mysterio is not who he appears to be! Beck is actually a disguntled former Stark employee heading up a cadre of disenfranchised fired Stark employees and they all hold a grudge against Tony. Mysterio wanted E.D.I.T.H. to manufacture an Avengers-level threat so he can swoop in and become Earth's new Iron Man. Beck explains this in the movie's best scene: a hilarious speech of pure exposition where Gyllenhaal chews the scenery as he gleefully explains his master plan even though everyone in the room already knows it. But once Peter realizes he's been bamboozled, he throws all hope of his vacation aside to stop Mysterio.

Spider-Man: Far From Home doubles down on everything that worked in Spider-Man: Homecoming. There are more scenes with Peter and his endearing gang of buds, plus their goofball teachers, and there's just heaping amounts more of everything, to the movie's detriment. Even before they're revealed as illusions, the Elementals are letdowns as villains since, as giant water and fire monsters, they're not enemies Spider-Man can fight with his tried-and-true weapons of webs and punching. While Far From Home zips along through gorgeous European locales like Prague, Berlin, the Netherlands, and London, it feels overstuffed when the movie could have been leaner and meaner. Whereas Spider-Man received a new Stark Tech suit in Homecoming, now he has a half-dozen costumes. And while he was mostly operating alone in Homecoming, now he's got tons of help, from MJ, Ned, Nick Fury, Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), who happens to be dating Peter's Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). And while it seems there's no problem Spider-Man can't solve with enough Stark Tech, Peter does Spider-Man-up in Far From Home and the film addresses his Spider-Sense, making him earn one of his classic superpowers so it ends up being the difference-maker against Mysterio's incredible illusions. All the while, Holland easily plays an immensely likable Peter Parker, Gyllenhall is a dynamite Mysterio (I wish there was even more of him in the film), and the whole gang give Americans a good name all over Europe.

There are also big surprises in Spider-Man: Far From Home and the ones with the most ramifications for the future of Spidey and the MCU come at the end. Far From Home's final minutes finally bring Spider-Man to the familiar concrete jungles of Manhattan so that Tom Holland's webhead now swings across the same cityscape that his predecessors Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield did. (Only this time, MJ hates swinging along with Spidey, unlike her predecessor Kirsten Dunst.) After four films (counting the Avengers movies) of the MCU's Spider-Man avoiding the tropes of the Maguire and Garfield films, Spider-Man truly comes home to New York City - and he's hit with a double shock: the return of J.K. Simmons as (a bald) J. Jonah Jameson, who then reveals doctored footage left by Mysterio exposing Spider-Man's secret identity to the world. In the words of May in Homecoming's final seconds, "What the fu--?!?" And this is before the big Skrull reveal that seems to set up Captain Marvel 2. So despite Spider-Man's NYC homecoming in Far From Home, he's now in unfamiliar territory with the whole world knowing Peter Parker is Spider-Man. You might say it's a Brand New Day for poor Peter Parker.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Yesterday

YESTERDAY

** SPOILERS **

Danny Boyle's Yesterday posits an alternate reality where The Beatles never existed, which turns out to be both great and terrible news for Jack Malik (Himesh Patel). Mostly terrible, really. Jack, a struggling musician living in Clacton-on-Sea, UK, is run over by a bus during a global blackout that lasted for 12 seconds. When Jack comes to, he soon realizes that no one understands the Beatles references he drops, nor do his friends recognize the song "Yesterday" when he plays it for them. Panicked Google searches soon reveal the stunning truth: somehow, the blackout wiped The Beatles from history (among other random things like Coca-Cola, cigarettes, and Harry Potter). 

From this wacky high concept, Boyle and his screenwriter Richard Curtis hang a sweet, awkward, but frothy story of a man who is nothing particularly special seizing the opportunity to pretend that he is the sole author of some of the greatest rock songs ever. At first, Jack performs and records the Beatles' music just to preserve them but soon, the magic of the Beatles' hits lands him TV spots, which leads to Ed Sheeran himself showing up at Jack's door to invite him on tour. Poor Ed is exceedingly jealous of this nobody who somehow writes and performs songs that are instantly legendary, and Jack is quickly scooped up by an L.A.-based record label. Jack's record deal comes with a new, ball-busting manager (Kate McKinnon), but this means Jack has to leave behind his previous manager Ellie Appleton (Lily James), who has unrequitedly loved and supported Jack since they were classmates together in 2004. 

While Yesterday is an unabashed lovefest for the Beatles and their music, the film is clever enough to recognize and poke fun at the fact that those songs are from the 1960s and come off as dated in 2019. On one hand, "Let It Be", "Yesterday", "I Wanna Hold Your Hand", etc. remain as powerful as ever, but they're from an entirely different era, which is what makes them refreshing juxtaposed against today's heavily sampled and remixed pop music. And yet, some of the film's best jokes come at the expense of the Beatles' eccentricities: the album titles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band makes no sense and The White Album comes off as racist. Ed Sheeran also insists "Hey Jude" would be better and more contemporary if it was changed to "Hey Dude". McKinnon also hilarously (and correctly) sizes Jack up as "not attractive, out of shape" i.e. not a rock star. However, the novelty of one man supposedly writing and performing so many incredible songs in such a short period of time rockets Jack Malik to global stardom, but the guilt of being a complete fraud rips his soul apart, as does his realization that he also loves Ellie, who can't join him on this journey and has moved on romantically.

Boyle and Curtis wisely don't explain the hows and whys of the new reality, nor do they go into detail about the whereabouts of the surviving Beatles, and this lets them drop a huge surprise in the third act when the last Beatle anyone expected to see turns out to be alive. This leads Jack to finally listen to his conscience and tell the truth about being a fraud but, fortunately, he's not a fraud about loving Ellie. While James and Patel share an easy chemistry and she is at maximum Lily James-level charm, but Yesterday itself isn't Danny Boyle at his Danny Boyle-iest - the director only fleetingly dips into his bag of distinct cinematic wizardry. Rather, Boyle lets the actors and the music of the Beatles carry the load, and it all fuses into a lovely climactic montage of Jack and Ellie's life happy life together set to "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da ". While Yesterday isn't quite all it could have been, it packs enough irreverence, joy, wit, heart, and music that you recognize its deficiencies but just let it be.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Anna

ANNA

** SPOILERS **


"I work for the KGB, baby," Anna Poliatova (Sasha Luss) snarks to KGB chief Olga (Helen Mirren) at her job interview, but the truth is she doesn't want to. A former junkie and aspiring entrant to the Russian Navy (like her dead Soviet sailor father), Anna was recruited by Dracula Alex Tchenvok (Luke Evans) because she fits the profile for Hot Blonde Female Assassin in an Action Movie. And, since Anna looks like a fashion model, et voilà! She is both! As part of her deal, Anna must spend 5 years (1 in training, 4 in the field) serving her country as a government-sponsored assassin so the KGB sets her up with an ideal cover as a model in Paris. Anna books jobs, she has a Parisian girlfriend named Maud (Lera Abova), and when a shoot wraps, she jumps in a car, takes out a target, and reports her mission status to Olga via payphone. It's a great life but Anna hates it with a passion. She hates being a model and hates being a killer. What's option C for Anna?

Luc Besson's Anna is a stylish, efficient, Cold War assassin's tale. Set in 1990-1991, with flashbacks to 1985, 1987, and 1988 (the film keeps circling back onto itself to explain its various twists and turns), Anna's dangerous world of glastnost keeps her very busy. Though she's a reluctant killer, Anna is highly trained and can take out a room full of soldiers all by her lonesome without any type of superpowers. But what she really wants is to be free and not have her destiny dictated to her by men or women doing the bidding of their governments. Anna's dream is to go to Hawaii and live in the idyllic image of the postcard her father once brought home and stuck on their refrigerator; when she returns from a vacation in St. Tropez, she gives a similar postcard to Olga, who pretends she isn't touched by the gesture. Olga can't and won't make retirement in Hawaii happen for Anna - but the Americans can.

Enter The Scarecrow Leonard Miller (Cillian Murphy), a CIA agent working a long range plan of vengeance against the KGB. In 1985, the new KGB chief, Vassiliev (Eric Godon), asserted himself in his new position by executing 9 CIA agents in Moscow and sending their heads in boxes back to Miller at Langley Gwyneth Paltrow-in-Se7en-style. Five years later, Miller catches onto the tall, foxy, blonde killer the KGB has installed in Paris and sets a trap for Russia's best honeytrap. Anna then becomes a double agent, informing the CIA of her KGB-sponsored activities. Meanwhile, Miller personally walks into Anna's honeytrap himself, unaware that Anna has also had a longstanding relationship with Alex, her man in Moscow. The odd lover out is poor Maud, who is frozen out by Anna and kept totally in the dark (although why Anna remained in her cover in Paris after she eliminated the target she was sent there for in the first place remains a mystery). Soon, Miller makes Anna an offer she can't refuse: kill Vassiliev for him in retribution for the 9 heads-in-boxes and Miller will send her to Hawaii (though she can't pick which island). 

What results is an engaging spy thriller held together by the solemn but sincere charisma of Sasha Luss, who is a real-life former Russian model discovered by Luc Besson. Luss's Anna is ably supported by the acting firm of Mirren, Murphy, and Evans, three skilled veterans who make this whole enterprise work. While Anna is a B-movie, it's a sexy and entertaining one that includes a terrific montage of Anna's assassinations set to INXS' "Need You Tonight" and some amusing Eurotrash caricatures who evoke the over-the-top drama queen Chris Tucker played in Besson's The Fifth Element. Amidst the violence, there are indeed a few laughs, like Miller having to give a green light to Anna chopping off the index finger of her target. But the best joke in Anna is right before she kills Vassiliev during a game of chess: the old KGB spymaster compliments Anna on her successes and notes that usually, the KGB doesn't hire beautiful women like her because they cause problems. "That's why we hire the ugly ones," he explains, before adding, "Speaking of Olga..." Obviously, Vassiliev never saw Excalibur and how hot Helen Mirren was - she gave Anna a run for her money back then. Ask Merlin.

Dark Phoenix at Screen Rant

DARK PHOENIX AT SCREEN RANT

Dark Phoenix is the final X-Men film of the Fox era. The X-Men saga has lasted for 19 years and I was there since day one. In the long buildup to Dark Phoenix's release, I've been fortunate to write a lot of Screen Rant Features about the film and the X-Men franchise as a whole. Here they all are collected below:















Thursday, June 6, 2019

Dark Phoenix

DARK PHOENIX

** SPOILERS **

"We're all that's left, the last of the First Class," Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) tells Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and we feel the significance of how long these X-Men have known each other and how long we, in turn, have known them. Though you'd never know it by looking at them, Mystique and Beast, along with Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), have known each other since 1962. They are indeed the last of X-Men: First Class, which rebooted the X-Men saga into a new continuity. Like the four X-Men founders, writer-director Simon Kinberg's Dark Phoenix is the last of this quadrilogy of films and also the last of the 19-year saga of X-Men movies from Fox. It's both a continuation and a finale about endings, rebirths, and... evolution. The film strains and teeters under all of that weight and it never truly takes flight (it tries but can't quite). And yet, it's still a pleasure to be with these X-Men after all of these years.

While it seems so on the surface, Dark Phoenix is thankfully not a retread of X-Men: The Last Stand. Instead, it feels like a glorified TV episode, which is both a good and bad thing. Good because at least it strives to be Peak TV and hits some of those dramatic notes; bad because it still feels undercooked and it could be grander, but it isn't. What is here, though, is rather interesting. We know the beats of the Dark Phoenix Saga story by heart, even if you've never read the comic: Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is a powerful mutant psychic with a tragic past (in this telling, her powers caused the death of her mother when she was 8) who is imbued with a cosmic force from outer space that she can't control. The Phoenix Force (though it isn't called that) feeds on her rage and trauma, which was kept in check by psychic walls secretly built by Professor X, and transforms her into a malevolent, god-like being. The X-Men try to bring her back to the Jean they know and it ends in tragedy.

Dark Phoenix's first act is its best: the year is 1992 (though you'd never know it from the fashion or music) and the X-Men are beloved, rock star superheroes on call from the President of the United States. (Xavier even has an X-Phone hotline to the POTUS.) When the space shuttle Endeavor is damaged by a solar flare, Mystique leads her team of X-Men, including Beast, Jean, Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) into space on a rescue mission. The X-Men save the astronauts but Jean is struck by the solar flare, which is actually the cosmic Phoenix Force. Instead of dying, Jean's powers grow "off the charts" and the walls in her mind Xavier built come crashing down. The cool thing about all of this is seeing something we've never seen before: the X-Men outright loved by the public. They get a standing ovation from the young students at the Xavier School and they even have a party in the woods with Dazzler (Halston Sage) as the entertainment. Meanwhile, Xavier soaks up adulation with all of the false modesty he can muster at a black-tie gala. All of this is accompanied by a groovy Hans Zimmer score that alternates from heroic bombast to eerie foreboding as the Phoenix grows Dark. 

Mystique and Charles have been friends since the 1940s but they've never really seen eye-to-eye. She thinks his lifelong patriarchy and ego-trips (she even calls out the sexist "X-Men" name) will lead to disaster - and she's right. He argues that he's finally achieved his dream - humans trusting mutants and regarding them as heroes - and he's also right that mutants are only one bad day from becoming public enemy number one again. That day comes immediately when the newly Dark Phoenix-ed Jean escapes the X-Mansion; she realizes that Xavier has lied to her for 17 years and that her father is actually alive. Just like in The Last Stand, there's a confrontation at Jean's childhood home and an X-Man dies, but this time it's Mystique, whom Jean kills (and not accidentally). Jennifer Lawrence's reluctant but heroic shapeshifter dies with a whimper and this splits the X-Men apart, with Beast blaming Xavier since they are two of the three men who have loved Mystique since 1962. 

Meanwhile, Jean seeks out the third man who loved Mystique: Magneto, who now runs a mutant refuge on the island of Genosha. Unlike Ian McKellan's Magneto, who wanted to seduce Dark Phoenix into his Brotherhood, Fassbender's version doesn't want anything to do with Jean. But someone who does is Vuk (Jessica Chastain), the leader of shapeshifting aliens called the D'Bari, who lost her whole planet to the Phoenix Force. Vuk plays the role of seducer to Jean, offering to teach her how to control her power, but what she really wants is the Phoenix Force itself, which she is somehow also strong enough to absorb. The movie is unclear about how Vuk can also be its host, but Vuk doesn't mince words that she doesn't care about humans and she wants the Phoenix Force so the D'Bari can take over our planet. The whole thing ends with a mutant brawl on a block outside Central Park West, which leads to all of the X-Men captured on a train by the US Military, which then leads to a big train fight between the X-Men and the D'Bari where Jean fully evolves into the Phoenix Force. Unlike the comics or The Last Stand, Jean doesn't die. Rather, Dark Phoenix fulfills the original voiceover by Patrick Stewart's Professor X in the first X-Men movie: "Mutation. It's the key to evolution." Jean transcends her mortal form and embraces her destiny as a cosmic being. While it doesn't quite stick the landing, it's still a better ending to this story.

Just as Charles argued in favor of Jean despite the chaos she caused, I would argue that there is a lot of good in Dark Phoenix. There's more intimacy between Tye Sheridan's Scott and Sophie Turner's Jean than there ever was between Famke Janssen's Jean and James Marsden's Scott (it's easier when there's no Wolverine at all in Dark Phoenix). Cyclops even drops the F-bomb - "I will fucking kill you!" - at Magneto. Alexandra Shipp's Storm also has more to do and is a better fighter (and lightning thrower) than Halle Berry's version, while Kodi Smit-McPhee's Nightcrawler is the MVP and has some cool action moments - the X-Men could not have accomplished anything in this film without his BAMFs. Alas, Evan Peters' Quicksilver is short-changed; Dark Phoenix doesn't attempt a three-peat of the superspeed rescue sequences set to a pop song that were memorable highlights of X-Men: Days of Future Past and X-Men: Apocalypse. However, there's a clever reversal of one of McKellan's signature quips: "You homo sapiens and your guns!" This time, Fassbender's Magneto uses a trainful of guns as weapons and opens fire on Vuk.

As the centerpiece of the film, Turner has much more inner turmoil to play and she digs deep. Also - this is important - no X-Man has to save Jean as she can save herself, thank you very much. Still, Jean isn't exactly a witty conversationalist and she doesn't have much of a personality, whether or not she's malevolently powerful. Dark Phoenix ends not unlike The Dark Knight Rises, with Charles Xavier retired in Paris and Magneto still looking to play his old friend in a game of chess. It's a low key and muted ending to the grand, messy, but weird and wonderful X-Men saga, but Dark Phoenix also contains a meta-joke for the X-Men's future: when the military captures the X-Men and transports them to the Mutant Containment Unit. The X-Men didn't make it to the MCU in Dark Phoenix but they'll get there regardless soon enough. And when the next evolution of the X-Men begins in the MCU, we hope it'll also be first class.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS

** SPOILERS **

Roland Emmerich's Godzilla 1998 is still the worst American-made Godzilla movie, but Michael Dougherty's Godzilla: King of the Monsters makes a hearty bid for that crown. Unlike Emmerich, the new Godzilla gets the monsters right, at least, but both films are populated with humans that deserve to go extinct. While Emmerich leaned towards bottom-feeding 1990s sitcom archetypes for his characters, Dougherty's film is populated by complete idiots who think they're smart but no, they're complete idiots. Here is the human cast of Godzilla: King of the Monsters: Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler), Norman Bates' Mom (Vera Farmiga), the Kid Who Does Whatever She Wants (Millie Bobby Brown), Godzilla's Biggest Fan (Ken Watanabe), the Lady Who Likes Sea Monsters And Is Killed Offscreen (Sally Hawkins), A Clown (Thomas Middleditch), A Clown Who Voted For Obama (Bradley Whitford), Ice Cube's Kid (O'Shea Jackson, Jr.), the Asian Lady No One Knows Is Twins - Or Do They? (Zhang Ziyi), and Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance). Except for Tywin, they all work for Monarch, a secret organization with unlimited resources that collects giant monsters (now called Titans) like Pokemon - gotta catch them all! Monarch's mission statement is "Discovery and Defense in a Time of Monsters" but their real playbook is "Let Godzilla Do Whatever He Wants. Godzilla Is Always Right" because, apparently, he is.

After the attack on San Francisco in the 2014 Godzilla that killed Norman Bates (Honolulu was destroyed in that film too, but no matter), Norman Bates' Mom invented Orca, a sonar device that can 'talk' to the monsters and calm them down, apparently. Like Homer Simpson, she stages a phony kidnapping by Tywin Lannister and his unnamed mercenary group to get to the Monarch Antarctica outpost. There rests Ghidorah, the giant three-headed dragon, and for some reason, Bates' Mom thinks releasing him and then all of the other Titans is the best way to save the planet from climate change. She reveals her innermost thoughts to her ex-husband Coach Taylor and the rest of Monarch in a preposterous speech and after hearing it, the Kid realizes her mom is fucking nuts. In this movie, the monsters and their radiation are the planet's natural line of defense. Bates' Mom spouts some weird hippie shit about humans and monsters living together in harmony (amidst the ruins of our smashed civilization?) and it's not even clear whether she believes it or not. No matter, because it doesn't take long for her to realize she's an idiot, but it does take her a lot longer than it took me.

Once Ghidorah is released and Godzilla is unable to stop him, the dragon is revealed to be an alpha among the monsters that rivals Godzilla himself. The other Titans start waking up to meet the new boss, who's not the same as the old boss. There are at least 17 other monsters in this movie and we see a lot of them but the Big Four are Godzilla, Ghidorah, Mothra, and Rodan. All of the monsters start wrecking cities all around the world but Monarch has a plan: let Godzilla handle it. The US Military has a different plan - kill them all - and it's a good plan but they also fuck it up. Admiral David Strathairn announces the military has a new weapon: an oxygen destroyer missile that can kill anything that breathes oxygen within a two-mile radius. They fire it at Godzilla and Ghidorah in the ocean; it doesn't work on Ghidorah because it's an alien dragon, but it doesn't kill Godzilla either. But the oxygen missile does kill millions of fish, despite the fact that fish don't breathe oxygen. This is that kind of movie.

Oxygen destroyers are stupid anyway because along with a giant undersea base and a super jet, Monarch has nuclear weapons, which they apparently have authority to use whenever they want without clearing it with anyone. In their nuclear sub, Monarch chase Godzilla and find out the Hollow Earth theory pitched in the vastly superior Kong: Skull Island is correct: there are massive tunnels beneath the surface connecting the whole planet and that's how Godzilla gets around. In fact, there's even an ancient Godzilla City deep, deep under the sea. Godzilla went back to take a nap and recharge but Monarch decides he's taking too long so they decide to launch a nuke at him to speed things up. When they realize they have to literally hand deliver the warhead to Godzilla - a one-way trip - Ken Watanabe volunteers and no one tries to talk him out of it. Bradley Whitford says he'll miss it when Ken says "Let them fight!" even though he wasn't in the last movie the one time Ken said it. No matter, Watanabe brings the nuke to Godzilla and says "Goodbye, old friend" as if they're old friends and Godzilla knows or cares who he is. And another thing: he's deep in the Earth's core, where it must be blazing hot, but Watanabe just removes his gloves and helmet and he's fine. It's the same when everyone is in Antarctica (average temperature - 49 degrees Celsius or -120 degrees Fahrenheit for us dumb Americans) but they all walk around with no hats and their heads fully exposed. Not to mention the radiation of the monsters and the nukes - everyone in this movie should have radiation poisoning, cancer, or worse but they can't help touching the monsters like the teenage girl did the Brachiosaur in Jurassic Park.

Back to the Kid, who gives her mom a big FU by stealing the Orca. This kid just takes the device, which is left unguarded, and strolls out of a secret bunker crawling with armed mercenaries and then walks miles on foot to Fenway Park in the middle of a Boston under emergency evacuation. Her crazy mom, Tywin, and the mercenaries don't realize the Kid is gone until she's already at Fenway blasting the Orca on their loudspeakers, which the Titans can apparently hear no matter where in the world they are. The Orca draws Ghidorah, who was hanging out in Washington D.C. for some reason, to Boston, and yet, this lightning-shooting three-headed dragon the size of the Hancock Tower can't kill one stupid kid. Monarch arrives with Godzilla, and Mothra and Rodan also join in the fatal four-way match, but the movie is much more concerned with Coach Taylor and his crazy wife finding their dumb kid, who went home to her townhouse because it's "safe" there, I guess? (It isn't.) Meanwhile, Godzilla is supercharged with nuclear radiation and Bradley Whitford announces he'll go thermonuclear in 12 minutes, then six minutes, but it takes a lot longer than that for Godzilla to blow. By then, Norman Bates' Mom driving a Humvee has led Ghidorah on a merry chase around Boston while the rest of Monarch escape in an airplane where they leave the rear hatch wide open the whole time, giving them a nice aerial view of Godzilla's nuclear explosion destroying Boston and killing Ghidorah. But it's fine because you can just be a few thousand feet away from a nuclear detonation and no worries, you're all okay.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is so immensely stupid that the monsters bowing to Godzilla at the end - Rodan, a giant pterodactyl, even knows how to genuflect and practically does a curtsy - almost seems normal. In the end, Monarch is exposed as a Keystone Cops operation that's even more dangerous and out-of-control than the monsters and it's an outfit where a drunk ex-football coach and his boneheaded teenage daughter can just do whatever the hell they want and this one family is more of a threat to the safety of the world than the Titans are. So, sure, let Godzilla be king of the world because Godzilla knows best, but as for me, let me off this crazy fucking planet.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 - PARABELLUM

** SPOILERS **

The best line in John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum is spoken to John Wick (Keanu Reeves) by the Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui): "I've never seen anyone fight so hard to end up right back where he started!" The Elder, the only man above the High Table, which is the international consortium of assassins John Wick works for, has a point. You'd think with this third John Wick movie, the franchise is about to wind down the story of John Wick but you don't title movie number three "Parabellum" (i.e. "prepare for war" in Latin) if you're looking to put a cap on things. No, by the end of John Wick 3, John Wick isn't at his wick's end; rather, he's got an even bigger war on his hands.  

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum kicks off immediately after the events of John Wick: Chapter 2. The titular black suited killer and dog lover committed a cardinal sin of the assassin's creed and killed an Italian mob moss in the Continental Hotel, which is supposed to be a safe haven for killers. Winston (Ian McShane), the hotel manager, made John Wick "ex-communicado", placing a $14-million bounty on his head. Now on the run, John Wick has to get out of NYC as hordes of multinational assassins come to collect. The first act of Parabellum sees John Wick fighting off assassins while nonsensically leaping around New York City from Chinatown to Queens with no regard whatsoever for geography. No matter, because Wick is trying to get out of Dodge and he returns to his roots, the Russian mafia, where he got his start as Jardani Jovonovich, "a child of the Belarus". John uses up his last favor with the Director (Anjelica Huston) and is sent to Casablanca.

Meanwhile, an Adjudicator from the High Table (Asia Kate Dillon) arrives to clean up the unholy mess left behind by John Wick that's made a mockery of the noble profession of assassination. She lays down the law that the High Table is making some changes and both Winston and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), the leader of the New York underworld, are going to be replaced. The Adjudicator is a force to be reckoned with and she's a big step up as a villain for this franchise. For muscle, she recruits the local cadre of Japanese assassins headed by a wild-eyed and charming Zero (Mark Dacascos). Zero is a big John Wick fan, as are we all, so he's eager to test his skills against the top dog.

In Casablanca, John meets up with Sophie (Halle Berry), another career assassin who goes way back with him, and they run afoul of the High Table's dapper Morocco chief Berrada (Jerome Flynn, who is the second Game of Thrones alum in this franchise after Alfie Allen's dog-murdering baddie in the first film). Speaking of Game of Thrones, Sophie is also a dog lover who fights using two highly-trained German shepherds as her wingmen and their shootout in Casablanca is spectacular. In fact, in one ten minute sequence alongside John and Sophie, John Wick 3 outdoes 8 seasons of Game of Thrones' direwolves combined in terms of dogs fighting alongside humans. But it all has to come back to the Continental for a final showdown between John Wick and the Japanese, where the Baba Yaga lays waste to Zero's entire fighting force before their mano e mano showdown in a tower of glass. 

All throughout, John Wick 3's spectacular action is more thrilling and novel than before, with eye-popping choreographed fights and far more variety of colorful and opulent kung fu fighting and kills than the previous film's overreliance on mere gunplay. It's all held down by Reeves' understated and steely charisma. All told, Parabellum is the most rollicking John Wick entry thus far. And, as the Elder summarized, John Wick fought so hard to end up right back where he started, once more on the run from even more assassins trying to kill him. For all of the guff the Marvel Cinematic Universe gets for being one long episodic TV series, the John Wick franchise is even more blatant of that. This movie's title should really have been John Wick: Chapter 3 - Prepare For 4.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Brightburn

BRIGHTBURN

** SPOILERS **

Stranger Visitor From Another Planet

James Gunn and David Yarovesky's Brightburn sticks to that old adage of stage and screen: If you introduce a rifle in Act I, that rifle will be fired at the head of a 12-year-old alien lunatic by his adoptive father in Act III - and do no harm at all. But the same can't be said for what the boy does to him in retaliation.

Like a Marvel "What If?" tale, Brightburn retells the oldest story in superhero fiction from a horror point of view. Stop me if you've heard this one: a Kansas couple, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman) Breyer, want to have a child and their wish is granted when a spaceship carrying a baby crashes outside their farm. The couple hides the spaceship and raises the child, whom they name Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) as their own. They love him, care for him, but he's different and he's bullied by kids at school. Then, on this 12th birthday, the alien ship they hid in their barn glows red and calls out for Brandon in an alien language, ordering him to "take the world!" Brandon, who has never been hurt or sick in his life, gains even more powers: now, he can fly, is super strong, super fast, invulnerable, affect nearby electrical devices, and he can fire Heat Vision from his eyes.

The obvious conclusion is that with these awesome powers, Brandon dedicates his life to truth, justice, and the American way goes completely apeshit and starts murdering people and destroying things. He massacres the chickens in his family farm. He stalks and injures the prettiest girl in school, Caitlyn Conner (Emmie Hunter) - which isn't too far from what Brandon Routh's Man of Steel did to Kate Bosworth's Lois Lane in Superman Returns, to be honest, although Superman had the courtesy not to be seen or break her hand. When his parents or his school tries to discipline him, he boasts that he's "something superior" and makes veiled threats. And he murders, boy howdy, does he murder! Brandon likes to learn about human anatomy and doodles grosteque drawings about what he's gonna do to people - and then he does them. Brandon murders Caitlyn's mom Erika (not unlike how Henry Cavill's Man of Steel murdered the African warlord at the start of Batman V Superman) and opens her up from the inside out. She also gets a shard of glass in her eye in a funhouse mirror homage to when a bullet bounced off of Superman's eye in Superman Returns.

As Brandon keeps on murdering, donning a scary red hood and cape that accentuates his horrible red, glowing eyes, his mom Tori goes out of her way to defend him, despite his transparent lies. Meanwhile, his dad Kyle is not so sure about him anymore and the guilt they have of never telling Brandon about being from outer space bears down on them. When Tori finally confesses to Brandon that he's not really their son, his violent, incensed reaction is the polar opposite of how Clark Kent always took the news that he's from Krypton. And the creepy alien voice from his spaceship is no Marlon Brando or Russell Crowe. There are themes of nature vs. nurture in Brightburn and Brandon occasionally expresses he wants to be good, but they get swept aside every time he loses his temper and the urge to kill rises - which is constant. Brandon also understands branding; he draws up his own logo and leaves it in blood at his murder scenes.

Eventually, there's just no talking to Brandon anymore and Kyle decides there's only one course of action left: take his son hunting and then shoot him in the back of the head. It doesn't go well. One of the clever bits of Brightburn is the casting; Dunn is suitably creepy and vicious as Brandon and Banks is excellent in the Martha Kent role, but casting David Denman is a masterstroke because of how much he evokes a bearded Ben Affleck. When Brandon realizes Kyle tries to kill him, Brightburn pushes the Knightmare scene in Batman V Superman where the Dark Knight is held prisoner by a fascist Superman to its most horrible conclusion. In a lot of ways, Brightburn is the Superman horror story Zack Snyder was always teetering on making (and reportedly wanted to go all-in on in his aborted concept for Justice League) before saner heads prevailed.

Finally, Brandon stalks and destroys his Kansas farmhouse and the sheriffs who have come to arrest him. Tori realizes Brandon is a super killer and goes for the one thing proven to hurt him, a shard of metal from his spaceship, but she fails to pull a Jon Snow on Brandon's Daenerys Targaryen and, like Robin Arryn, Brandon makes his mother fly. There's also a concluding bit involving an airplane that's reminscient of something similar that happened at the end of Chronicle, another tale of a teenage superpowered maniac. 

Brightburn does feel a bit slight when it comes to answers and it holds back from going deeper and fully exploring the menace that is Brandon Breyer, but for the Superman-derived horror it's trying to accomplish, it's efficient, effective, and very well done. There's also amusing set up for a sequel by talk show host Michael Rooker screaming about Brightburn, as this new super villain is called, as well as other menaces like a "half-human, half-sea creature" and a "woman who chokes people with a rope", so good, there's gonna be an evil Justice League. And, ironically, there's far more likely to be a Brightburn 2 than a Man of Steel 2 or a Justice League 2.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Game of Thrones Season 8 at Screen Rant

GAME OF THRONES SEASON 8 AT SCREEN RANT

Game of Thrones season 8 concluded the biggest show in the world. I was thrilled to be part of the main Game of Thrones team covering the final season at Screen Rant with a sweet gig as the God of Death charting everyone who died plus a weekly deep dive into each episode, and more. Here are all my features linked below:








GAME OF THRONES: EVERYONE WHO DIED IN THE BATTLE OF WINTERFELL







Friday, April 26, 2019

Avengers: Endgame

AVENGERS: ENDGAME

** SPOILERS **

"Whatever it takes" is the never-say-die mantra of Joe and Anthony Russo's Avengers: Endgame, the 22nd film and the pinnacle of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What it takes, to echo a victorious Thanos (Josh Brolin) in Avengers: Infinity War, is everything... and everyone. Faced with their greatest defeat and the deaths of trillions - half of all life in the universe wiped out by a snap of Thanos' Infinity Gauntlet-wearing fingers - the surviving Avengers regroup and take the fight to Thanos. Their hope is to use the Infinity Stones to bring everyone back. Not all of the Avengers make it through. But over the course of a fluidly-paced 3 hours and 2 minutes, the titanic and unprecedented Avengers: Endgame brilliantly subverts expectations, crescendos, and brings the first 11 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to a magnificent and beautiful conclusion while never losing focus on these characters we've come to love so much.

Avengers: Endgame is essentially four movies in one. Picking up 23 days after Infinity War, the Avengers are smarting from their loss. When Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) rescues Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Nebula (Karen Gillan), who were stranded in space, and brings them back to Earth, the Avengers set out to lay the smackdown on Thanos at his "retirement home" on a planet called the Garden. But again, they are too late: Thanos destroyed the stones and not even Thor (Chris Hemsworth) aiming for the head with his magical ax can set this right. The Avengers lose again and that's that. Five years later, Endgame picks up with a spin on HBO's The Leftovers as the heroes and the human race cope with their new reality. Tony Stark moved on and he has a precocious daughter now. But some Avengers like Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) just can't. Others, like Thor, just give into despair and let themselves go. Suddenly, the tiniest, most impossible shred of hope arrives when Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) shows up at the Avengers' door with the craziest of crazy schemes: a time heist - travel back in time and collect the Infinity Stones before Thanos can and then use the Stones to bring everyone back.

The time heists are the centerpiece of Endgame and they brilliantly (and confusingly so don't think too hard about it - Back to the Future this ain't) take Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, Thor, Natasha Romanoff, Nebula, Scott Lang, the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) back to key moments of past MCU movies to nab the Stones. Rogers, Stark, Lang, and Hulk arrive in New York City 2012 at the aftermath of The Avengers to collect the Space, Mind, and Time Stones, which were all in NYC at that exact moment in time. Nebula and Rhodey go to Morag to the moment when Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) first stole the Power Stone in Guardians of the Galaxy. Rocket and Thor go to Asgard to steal the Reality Stone, which is imbued in the body of Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) during Thor: The Dark World. And Barton and Romanoff travel to Vormir, 4 years before Thanos would trade the life of his daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana) for the Soul Stone, both unaware of the rules of how to gain the Soul Stone means one of those Avengers isn't coming back.

The chaos that ensues during the time heists is simply ingenious, filled with numerous moments that connect to other MCU movies like Ant-Man and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Stark and Lang hilariously fail to get the Space Stone, which means Steve and Tony have to call an audible and make a side time heist to a secret SHIELD base in the 1970s where they both encounter younger versions of Tony's father Howard Stark (John Slattery) and the love of Steve's life, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), who is also joined in a cameo by her Agent Carter co-star Jarvis (James D'Arcy). There's also a brilliant nod to the controversial Nazi Captain America story in recent Marvel Comics when two Steve Rogers from two different time periods fight after the future Steve pretends he's a member of Hydra. Meanwhile, in 2013, Thor gets to heal some of his broken heart by seeing his mother Frigga (Rene Russo) one last time. And, in 2014, the younger versions of Thanos, Gamora, and Nebula find out that the future Nebula is trying to steal the Power Stone. Even more malevolent in 2014, Thanos is cursed with knowledge of his ultimate success in the future and he decides to get that big win now; Thanos manages to pull off a time heist of his own and arrives five years later to lay waste to Avengers headquarters and mount a full-scale invasion of Earth.

It's shocking to realize that the epic battles that closed out Infinity War were merely a drop in the bucket compared to Endgame's finale, which matches and even outdoes anything seen in Star Wars or Lord of the Rings for sheer spectacle. The Avengers use the Infinity Gauntlet to bring back... everyone... and during the melee, the resurrected superheroes like Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) all get important bits of business to play keep-away with the Infinity Gauntlet, fight Thanos, or both. In addition, other heroes like the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) finally get to fight alongside the Avengers when Captain America, at long last, utters the rallying cry, "Avengers Assemble!" But the most important and fitting rallying cry of all is by Tony Stark himself, who started all of this when he uttered: "I am Iron Man!" Stark says it once more, pulling a rabbit out of a hat and placing the crowning touch on the story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

Avengers: Endgame is a miraculous achievement by all involved - and just about everyone who was part of this Marvel Studios journey was involved. The film smartly gives focus to some characters, like Clint Barton and Scott Lang, who didn't get to play a role in Infinity War, it honors Natasha Romanoff (and Scarlett Johansson) as the unsung soul of the Avengers, and it offers a fitting new beginning for Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy, but most of all, Endgame gives sweet closure to the two pillars of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Chris Evans' Steve Rogers and Robert Downey, Jr.'s Tony Stark. Captain America and Iron Man broke the Avengers apart in 2016 but together they get to go out as friends, brothers, and legends who will never be forgotten. Avengers: Endgame is a glorious celebration of these characters, their love for each other, and our love for the single greatest cinematic universe that defines a generation. Our world is bigger and better thanks to the Avengers, who will continue on to teach our grateful universe about sacrifice, family, and that we can be the best version of ourselves if we do whatever it takes.

Star Trek: Discovery Season 2 On Screen Rant

STAR TREK: DISCOVERY SEASON 2 AT SCREEN RANT

Star Trek: Discovery is back for season 2 with Spock, Captain Pike, and me writing tons of stuff about it for Screen Rant. Linked below are all my season 2 features for the Disco:

 
 

































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