2019 Summer Movie Review: Spider-Man: Far From Home

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Peter Parker (Tom Holland) joins Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) to save the world in Spider-Man: Far From Home, the final film of Phase Three in the MCU. (Source: Thrillist)

The friendly-neighborhood superhero has been a staple in popular culture for years. According to a graph in 2016, Spider-Man has made $1.6 billion in global retail sales (yes, more than The Avengers, Batman, and Superman combined). He has appeared on toys, lunchboxes, cereal boxes, candy wrappers, video games, television shows, and, of course, movies. After being famously played by Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, British actor Tom Holland swung into action to make his MCU debut in Captain America: Civil War

With everyone’s expectations went through the roof, he went onto appear in his standalone film, the surprisingly terrific Spider-Man: Homecoming, which contained amusing elements to ‘80s-nostalgia. With it paying tribute to John Hughes, Spider-Man: Far From Home pays tribute to the National Lampoon’s Vacation films. It’s a pitch-perfect film set in a post-Avengers: Endgame era.

Peter Parker (Holland) struggles to get back to his normal life; trying to ace his classes as a high school student by day and fight criminals as Spider-Man by night. He is excited to go on his trip to Europe with his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) among other students, because it will give him a chance to tell MJ (Zendaya) on how he truly feels about her. Great power comes great responsibility when Peter witnesses one of four monsters, known as The Elementals (that make up of earth, fire, air, and water), wreak havoc through Venice. Illusionist Quentin Beck a.k.a. Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) comes into save Peter and his friends. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Agent Hill (Cobie Smulders) assign Peter to help Mysterio take down The Elementals once and for all.

Yes, there are plenty of thrilling action set pieces, particularly one set at a festival in Prague in which he tries to save Ned and his girlfriend Betty Brant (Angourie Rice, The Nice Guys). However, the movie shines bright when Peter interacts with his peers, getting into trouble (at times) in humorous ways, or when he is stricken with grief. Holland plays a more angsty Peter, yet, he still manages to bring enough charm and awkwardness to the table. Whenever he gets upset, we feel his pain. Whenever he swings into action, we cheer. 

He leads a gifted supporting cast. From knowing him in the Spider-Man 2 video game, it’s exciting to see Mysterio (or Quentin Beck) makes his first on-screen appearance. Gyllenhaal couldn’t be more perfect for the role! If Tony Stark was a father figure to Peter, Beck is viewed as the “cool uncle”, as director John Watts describes him. He and Holland have some great chemistry. Jon Favreau returns as Happy Hogan, who has a bigger role than in the previous entries in the MCU, and provides some good laughs, especially when he flirts with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). Batalon’s Ned still has perfect comedic-timing and Zendaya’s MJ is as dark as she is engaging.

After the heart-breaking finales of both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, it’s about time Watts and screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers give some of what made Homecoming great; a light-hearted, energetic, hilarious, and visually dazzling sequel with plenty of dark, emotional moments and pleasant surprises sprinkled throughout. Spider-Man: Far From Home is a much-needed light-hearted escapism after Endgame. Although I wanted more, it’s just as fun as Homecoming. It ends with plenty of room for Spider-Man and what is yet to come in Phase Four.

9/10

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2019 Summer Movie Review: Toy Story 4

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Woody (Tom Hanks) catches up with an old friend (Annie Potts) in Toy Story 4. (Source: Washington Post)

In 1995, John Lasseter made history by bringing the first ever feature-length computer-animated film Toy Story. It followed a group of toys coming to life whenever humans aren’t around, and they help each other in the most perilous of situations. It became a monster box-office success, Disney/PIXAR decided to make a sequel. Toy Story 2 featured a much bigger adventures that went into new heights. No one knew the toys would make a comeback ten years later with Toy Story 3, where things got more emotional and intense. When it was announced there is going to be Toy Story 4, everyone (including myself) got nervous. If the previous film ended on a pitch-perfect note, how would the series go on? Director/co-writer Josh Cooley (who worked as one of the screenwriters for Inside Out) steps into use his bag of tricks. The results are nothing short of surprising.

A year after Andy has left for college, the toys have a great owner in Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw). Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles, via audio archives, and Estelle Harris), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Slinky Dog (Blake Clark), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), and the rest of the toy gang go on a road trip with Bonnie and her parents before heading for kindergarten. At her orientation, Bonnie makes a new toy made out of a spork called Forky (Tony Hale), although he sees himself as trash instead of a toy. Woody embarks on a mission to save her new toy. Along the way, he encounters Bo Peep (Annie Potts) at an antique shop, who helps him make his way back to Bonnie and the toys.

This movie really shows how much the animation has evolved since the first film. It opens up with Woody and the toys trying to save a toy in the rain. Notice the water droplets dripping on the toys. It’s clear the animation is more photo-realistic and a lot more breath-taking this time around. Every single shot is like a painting come to life. 

Of course, you see a lot of familiar faces (and voices) as well as some likeable newcomers. Toy Story 4 is centered more on Woody than the previous entries. It continues to contain the wonderful message about always being there for one another (either toys or human owners). Before, Woody’s relationship with Bo Peep was more flirtatious. Here, they have matured over the years. I’m so glad Bo Peep has a much more fascinating empowered character arc. 

The side characters are a ton of fun to watch. Forky would have easily been one that would have been straight-up annoying. But–it’s hard not to feel bad for him, despite finding hilarious ways of escaping. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are a hoot as Ducky and Bunny, two carnival prize toys who want to be “The Chosen Ones”. The scene-stealer, however, is Keanu Reeves as Duke Caboom, a Canadian daredevil toy with a tragic backstory, who is just as sophisticated as The Stig from Top Gear. I mean, is there anything Reeves cannot do?

For all of the parents out there, Toy Story 4 might be too dark and upsetting for younger children. The appearances of vintage pull-string doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and her ventriloquist dummies are intimidating. For those who have followed the series since the beginning, expect a handful of emotional moments. I sense this will be the end of a beloved saga, but it does, once again, end on a high note.

10/10

2019 Summer Movie Review: The Dead Don’t Die

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Three officers (Bill Murray, Chloe Sevigny, Adam Driver) all have a feeling there’s something not right in a small town in Jim Jarmusch’s horror-comedy The Dead Don’t Die. (Source: IndieWire)

Jim Jarmusch is one of the most unique filmmakers of all-time. He has been writing and directing movies since the 1980s. Since his 1984 debut Stranger than Paradise, his films have showcased a dry sense of humor and subtle storytelling. His anthology film Night on Earth and his most recent masterpiece Paterson are among his best. The Dead Don’t Die, his latest film, is not the first time where Jarmusch uses horror-movie creatures (the two main characters in Only Lovers Left Alive happen to be vampires). With this movie having a massive ensemble featuring collaborators of Jarmusch’s earlier work as well as newcomers, it tends to have a message about climate change. Unfortunately, the movie hardly does anything to it.

Set in the small town of Centerville (population: 738), strange things begin to occur. A radio station has reported a “polar fracking”, causing the Earth to come off its axis. The sun is staying up longer than usual. Cell phones and watches stop working. Pets are mysteriously disappearing and reappearing as vicious. At night, people are being eaten alive. Chief Officer Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray), Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver), and Officer Mindy Morrison (Chloe Sevigny) begin to investigate. Peterson quickly comes to the conclusion reanimated corpses are coming out of their graves late at night. They all go around town talking to the locals and prepare for battle.

I appreciate a good deadpan comedy and a good zombie movie, and some amusing references to classic horror films, from Psycho to Night of the Living Dead. Jarmusch does show his love for the genre; adding some elegant touches. For instance, when the zombies are killed, they produce dust instead of blood and gore (like everyone is used to seeing). However, they hardly make up for the deadening dullness Jarmusch brings to his nonsensical writing and tedious directing.

Driver and Murray are both the masters of deadpan humor. Their chemistry is the only decent quality in this movie. In an early scene, they are both in the police cruiser. Sturgill Simpson’s country anthem “The Dead Don’t Die” (a song I hope gets nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar) is playing on the radio. Cliff is wondering why it sounds so familiar. “Well, because it’s the theme song,” Peterson says, sensing they are breaking the fourth wall. Then, it’s all downhill after the opening scene.

Containing an ensemble featuring the likes of Steve Buscemi, Tilda Swinton, Danny Glover, Tom Waits, RZA, Selena Gomez, Iggy Pop among others, everyone is about as soulless as the movie itself. There are plenty of unnecessary subplots (particularly one set at a juvenile detention center) that don’t go anywhere. Even on a low-budget, the visuals look cheap. There’s a moment where Gomez’s Zoe, a hipster from Ohio, introduces herself while bidding farewell, and computer-generated sparkles explode behind her (I don’t know what the hell that was all about). Probably the weirdest part of all is Swinton’s performance as Zelda Winston, a Scottish funeral director obsessed with the samurai, with a fate so ridiculous it will infuriate moviegoers. Every single human character is about as soulless as the zombies. The Dead Don’t Die is a wasted opportunity.

2.5/10

2019 Summer Movie Review: Rocketman

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Elton John (Taron Egerton) collaborates with songwriter Bernie Taupin in Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher’s spectacular biopic of Sir Elton John. (Source: AZ Central)

A biopic of living legend Elton John has been in development for years. The singer’s first choice to play him was Justin Timberlake, but the first actor attached to play him was Tom Hardy. However, budget issues, creative differences, and the fact Hardy couldn’t sing caused the project to be put on hold. Michael Gracey (The Greatest Showman) stepped out as director of Rocketman while Dexter Fletcher (who directed the overlooked Eddie the Eagle and finished directing Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer got fired) stepped in. With Taron Egerton playing the titular artist, it’s about time to get the music biopic Sir Elton John deserves. It certainly paid off brilliantly!

Elton John (Egerton), born Reginald Dwight (rising newcomers Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor play the singer as a youngster), grew up in Middlesex with his horrible parents Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and caring grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones). He dreams of songwriting and playing the piano; becomes a prodigious student at the Royal Academy of Music.

As an adult, Reggie changes his name to Elton John and meets his music partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). They meet inside a cafe, discuss about popular music, and become friends almost instantly (they still collaborate to this day). Scottish music manager John Reid (Richard Madden) works under his wing while having a brief relationship. Although struggling with his alcoholism, drug addiction, and homosexuality, Elton’s motivation is to get the love he deserves.

As a big fan of Elton John, there are a lot of things in Rocketman that would have disappointed. Fletcher and screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy Elliott, War Horse) make up for what Bohemian Rhapsody got wrong. There is a lot of graphic content (e.g. drug use, sexual content) suited more for adults, and not dumbed-down to appeal more teenagers. Instead of lip-synching, the stars actually sing the songs. Rocketman is unlike your typical music biopic. It’s a jukebox musical and a fantasy wrapped into one fantastic movie.

Egerton brings a lot of flamboyant energy and charisma as Sir Elton. It makes perfect sense not just because he looks like him, but they hint it in Sing when his character performed “I’m Still Standing”, and the singer made a small appearance in Kingsman: The Golden Circle. His singing is the icing on the cake.

The movie opens up with him in rehab wearing his “stage gear”, as he perfectly describes his ridiculous costumes he wears while performing live, setting up what’s to come during the two-hour ride. He struggles getting the respect from his friends and family, while living in his own little world. During the “Rocket Man” sequence (featuring gorgeous cinematography by George Richmond), he sets off into the night sky from the crowded arena like a rocket, and explodes like a firework, which resembles how Elton’s fame sets off. While in the “Bennie and the Jets” sequence, he fantasizes himself in an orgy, which showcases the descent into sex and drug addiction. I just love how the two contradict each other perfectly.

After coming a long way from winning everyone over with his impressive debut in Billy Elliott, Bell does great work as Bernie Taupin, and definitely a front-runner for Best Supporting Actor during awards season. Madden’s John Reid is one everyone loves to hate; he manipulates Elton for money after their first significant night with each other.

“I think it’s going to be a long, long time” (yeah, I had to go there) for a music biopic to top something as magical and devastating as Rocketman. With its colorful, extravagant sets, terrific performances, a screenplay that never shies away from Elton’s successes and struggles, this movie has its heart in the right place. One of the year’s absolute best!

10/10

2019 Summer Movie Review: John Wick: Chapter Three – Parabellum

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John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is running out of time in the masterful third film in the beloved cult action franchise. (Source: Entertainment Weekly)

John Wick didn’t become a big box-office hit when it hit theaters in 2014. However, it didn’t stop people from loving it for Keanu Reeves’ terrific performance as the titular hitman getting vengeance on a group of Russian gangsters after they killed his dog. With its straightforward premise, the thrilling action set pieces, and the surprising amount of dark humor, director Chad Stahelski and the crew thought it would be a great idea to have John Wick go on more adventures. The superior sequel contained much more action and visual wonder to carry through. The third film–subtitled Parabellum–showcases what audiences expect from the franchise, and shattering expectations to give another violent and badass ride against time.

In the previous film, John Wick (Reeves) is stripped from his services as an assassin for killing a member of the High Table. Winston (Ian McShane), the manager of the Continental Hotel, declares “excommunicado”. It means a $14 million bounty is put on his head, so anyone can gun him down. John runs through the mean streets of NYC, and meets a ballet instructor, known as “The Director” (Anjelica Huston), who helps him to go to Casablanca to clear his name. Along with colleague Sofia (Halle Berry) and her two German shepherds, John must run against the clock before it’s too late.

Stahelski’s direction has become more confident with each entry in this awesome franchise. Yet again, he and cinematographer Dan Laustsen (who also worked on Chapter Two) do a fantastic job capturing the over-the-top action set pieces (that are just as brutal and bone-crunching as before) and the abstract beauty with its massive scale. Hearing the guns going off is music to my ears. The final showdown at the hotel is one of the best action sequences of all-time.

Reeves, yet again, proves he can play a vulnerable anti-hero who can kick anyone’s ass if they get too close. This movie gives more insight to John’s mysterious past (explaining it will ruin the experience for everybody). Like with the previous two films, he does his own incredible stunts. There’s one scene where he takes down a group of assassins while riding on a horse that is nothing short of amazing! The supporting cast also has their shining moments; Laurence Fishburne provides enough suave energy as the Bowery King and McShane is as awesome as always. Berry, whose career has been going downhill for years, makes a surprisingly resonant role as the colleague who helps John in the middle of the stifling desert.

John Wick: Chapter Three – Parabellum will make audiences leave the theater smiling and wanting more. It has recently been announced a fourth film will come out in two years. Look forward to seeing more high-octane adventures from the badass hitman.

10/10

2019 Summer Movie Review: Booksmart

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Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) embark on one wild misadventure after another in Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart. (Source: AZ Central)

Ever since film existed, there have been plenty of high-school classics that defined a generation. American Graffiti, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, Dazed and Confused, and Superbad among others have all set the standard. Olivia Wilde sits in the director’s chair for the first time with Booksmart, a raunchy yet surprisingly poignant and downright hilarious portrait about the hardships of female friendship and growing up. Along with four female screenwriters, the movie brings something fresh to the genre.

Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) have been best friends since childhood. They are about to graduate from high school, kudos to focusing hard on their education, acing the SATs to get into Ivy League schools (Amy is about to go to Columbia, while Molly is going to Yale) and participating in extracurricular activities. The duo realized they missed out on the good times during their high school years. They both thought it would be a good idea to cram four years of fun into one crazy night they will never forget. Soon, they begin to learn about the truth of their friendship.

It’s extremely difficult to make a teen comedy to be crude without being too offensive. Yes, the two talk about sex, get into a series of mishaps and misunderstandings, go into a hilarious acid trip (rendered through stop-motion animation), but it focuses on their friendship and the means of being there for one another. After a series of script rewrites, it pulls off brilliantly.

Wilde has chosen a rock-solid cast to play the high school students. What’s refreshing is none of them are portrayed as stereotypes, but more as actual teenagers. Known for her breakout performances in the TV series Justified and Last Man Standing, Dever excels as Amy, the smart girl who came out of the closet during her sophomore year. She tries to have the courage to ask her crush Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), an awkward skater girl, to go out on a date. It’s not until reality begins to slap her across the face.

Her chemistry with Feldstein (who rose to fame in Greta Gerwig’s directing debut Lady Bird), is enough to make Booksmart worthwhile. Molly, who is just as quirky and supportive to her best friends, wants to grow up to be the youngest Supreme Court justice. There is a great scene early on where she overhears her peers mocking her in the bathroom. Then, Molly walks out of the stall to give her criticism about what she heard. I have never witnessed a scene as brutally honest as anything I’ve seen all year.

The supporting cast has their shining moments as well. It includes Jason Sudeikis as the principal, Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow as Amy’s parents, and the scene-stealing Billie Lourd (the daughter of the late Carrie Fisher) as wild-child Gigi, who always appears at the most random situations. I bet she had a blast being in this movie!

Booksmart is destined to be the next teen comedy classic. Featuring razor-sharp dialogue, a realistic portrayal of high school, and wonderful performances. Well done, Olivia Wilde!

10/10

2019 Summer Movie Review: Tolkien

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J.R.R. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) poses with his “fellowship” in Dome Karukoski’s first English-language film Tolkien. (Source: Washington Post)

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is one of the best writers who ever lived. He brought readers to a different world containing fantastical worlds and inventive languages. His imagination of Middle-Earth was brought forth to the big screen. Everybody has seen and loved Peter Jackson’s marvelous Lord of the Rings trilogy that went onto win numerous film awards. The New Zealand director came back to direct The Hobbit trilogy. Although it didn’t earn as much praise as before, it was great to be a part of a wonderful world everyone wished they were a part of.

After the popularity of those films, a biopic of J.R.R. Tolkien and his inspiration of writing his popular novels needed to happen. In his first English-language film, Finnish director Dome Karukoski and screenwriters David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford focus on the writer’s early years. Fans of the source material will be sadly disappointed with Tolkien.

The movie starts off with Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) as an orphan. At a prep school, his life changes when he forms a friendship with three boys–Geoffrey (Anthony Boyle), Christopher (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Robert (Patrick Gibson). Together, they form a secret society called the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, where they sip on tea and discuss each other’s literary work.

Meanwhile, Tolkien develops a relationship with the lovely Edith (Lily Collins), who is also an orphan. She inspires him to write his popular Middle-Earth saga. However, their relationship gets in the way when he and his friends are enlisted in the trenches of World War I.

Making a biopic of the famous writer isn’t a problem. However, the family and his estate did not endorse Tolkien at all. It’s not a terrible movie, but it feels contrived and occasionally dull. The narrative jumps all over the place from No Man’s Land to the author’s past, which doesn’t help with its poor pacing. Hell, even the war sequences showcase what other war movies have done better. Although the cinematography by Lasse Frank is passable, they feel too generic. It is a treat to catch the numerous references from Tolkien’s work, though.

Hoult is no stranger when it comes to playing famous authors. He played J.D. Salinger in Rebel in the Rye, which also didn’t receive positive reviews. Here, the 29-year-old British actor delivers a strong performance as Tolkien, who captures his charm and wisdom of creating his own world. Two of the interesting aspects of the film is his fascination in linguistics. In one scene, we see Tolkien drunk in the middle of the courtyard shouting in Elvish to the stars. The fact he created languages and drew his own settings for his stories is amazing!

Another interesting aspect is his relationship with Edith. He and Collins are the two who keep the film moving. If the movie only focused on their relationship alone, it would have been more watchable. However–the movie has a lot of potential that hardly adds a lot to its unfocused narrative. Tolkien deserved to be so much more!

5/10