Movie review: ‘Bumblebee’ is the Transformers movie we’ve been waiting for

This is a sentence I never thought I’d write, but here it is: yes, a Transformers movie really is one of the best movies of the year.

The films in Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise haven’t exactly been beloved by critics, or by a lot of geeks. Though they’ve collectively made $4.3 billion(!) at the box office, their highest achieved Rotten Tomatoes score is a still-rotten 57 percent. The performance of the previous film, “The Last Knight,” indicated possible waning interest in the franchise.

If you feel burned out after the previous five Transformers movies, I hear you. And while you might not want to give the franchise one more chance, I’d really encourage you to do so. “Bumblebee” is a wonderful, surprisingly heart-felt and character-driven movie, and I absolutely loved it.

I know “heart-felt” and “character-driven” aren’t the typical words that come to mind when you think of the Transformers franchise, but “Bumblebee” has a very different feel than the films that have come before it. Set in the 1980s, the film follows the lovable, bright-yellow robot as he flees to Earth to find a safe haven for Optimus Prime and his allies after a devastating Decepticon attack. Bumblebee befriends Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a lonely teenage girl who’s been struggling since the death of her father.

Although Charlie copes with her grief by shutting out everyone who tries to get close to her, Bumblebee slowly wins her trust, and their friendship helps her begin to heal. When two Decepticons come to Earth to track Bumblebee down, Charlie and her new robot friend work together to save the day.

I really don’t have anything to criticize about this movie, because it pretty much fixed all the problems I had with the other Transformers films.

One of the common complaints about the franchise is that the action scenes were always a little too over-the-top; I love a good explosion in an action film, but the Transformers movies relied too much on special effects over substance.

While there are some cool action sequences in “Bumblebee,” they are refreshingly smaller-scale, and the emphasis of the film is on the characters. Sometimes it’s nice to have a stripped-down blockbuster like this, where there aren’t a million and one things flying at the screen at any given moment.

And speaking of the characters…I REALLY loved the character arcs in this movie. My biggest frustration with the past Transformers movies has been the treatment of the female characters, who have, for the most part, been over-sexualized, objectified, and basically relegated to the role of “eye candy.” I never felt like the past Transformers movies respected their female characters, and as a female geek, that was hard to watch.

By contrast, Charlie feels like a real teenager. She’s given hopes, dreams, fears, and struggles. I loved seeing her friendship with Bumblebee develop, and when they had to say goodbye at the end of the film, yes, I did get a little misty-eyed.

I’m not crying – you’re crying! (Okay, I’m crying.)

The cast of characters is actually rather small, which was also refreshing. This allows the film to really focus on the interactions between Charlie and Bumblebee, which form the heart of the movie. Another character I liked was Charlie’s neighbor and co-worker, Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.). I thought his crush on Charlie was adorably awkward, and their relationship felt like an authentic “teenagers falling in love for the first time” experience. It reminded me a little of “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” one of my favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe films.

Like I said before, I really can’t think of anything to criticize about this movie. I appreciated that they got rid of the cringe-y humor (the less we say about “Transformers 2,” the better). There are some laughs in “Bumblebee,” but they’re sweet moments, rather than eye-roll inducing.

Anyway, I had no idea that I’d end the year by gushing about a Transformers movie, of all things, but here I am! 😉 I’m glad I held off making my “best of 2018” movie list until after I saw “Bumblebee.” I wasn’t even originally planning to see it, but when I saw it receiving really glowing reviews, I decided I had to check it out. I’m glad I did, because it’s definitely in my top five this year. It’s the perfect way to close out my 2018 at the box office.

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Movie review: ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ is a charming, old-fashioned musical

My favorite moment from “Mary Poppins Returns” actually wasn’t a moment in the film itself.

I went to see the movie with my mom on Christmas Eve, and there was a little kid sitting several seats down from us. After one particular song and dance number (involving a magical bubble bath), the little kid proclaimed, “That was fun!”

That childlike sense of joy and wonder was exactly what I felt while watching “Mary Poppins Returns.” It’s a charming, old-fashioned musical that reminded me of the classic Disney films I watched as a kid.

Although the original “Mary Poppins” premiered 50 years ago, the sequel is set 25 years after the events of the first film. Michael and Jane Banks are grown up now; Michael, who has three children of his own, is grieving the recent loss of his wife and is also about to lose his home. The Banks’ childhood nanny Mary Poppins arrives at precisely the right time to lend a helping hand — and restore a little magic to the Banks’ lives.

While I haven’t watched the original “Mary Poppins” since childhood, I have seen the stage play a couple times in recent years. I’m sure other reviewers have spent time comparing the original “Mary Poppins” to its brand-new sequel, but I’ve found that isn’t something I’m really in the mood to do. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how nostalgia impacts the way I view new and old films, and I just wanted to enjoy “Mary Poppins Returns” on its own merits.

The structure of the sequel reminded me a lot of the first film, but the familiarity felt comforting rather than derivative, at least to me. I saw someone on Twitter compare “Mary Poppins Returns” to “The Force Awakens,” and I feel that’s a pretty good analogy, actually.

While some have argued that “The Force Awakens” is just a remake of “A New Hope,” I personally never agreed with that. “The Force Awakens” does have some of the same story beats as “A New Hope”; however, it uses these familiar settings, themes, and character types to tell a new story that very much stands on its own. “Mary Poppins Returns” does the same sort of thing. Some may find it reminds them too much of the original, but I thought it had its own unique charm.

I enjoyed all the song and dance numbers in “Mary Poppins Returns,” and I particularly loved the 2D hand-drawn animation sequence. Emily Blunt is “practically perfect in every way” as the new Mary Poppins. Although Julie Andrews’ classic portrayal will always be wonderful, I loved Blunt’s performance as well. She’s the perfect mixture of stern, proper, imaginative, and kind.

I also really enjoyed seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda as the lamplighter Jack. He was grinning every moment he was onscreen, and I could tell he was having a blast just being in this movie. It’s always fun to see performers who are passionate about what they’re doing.

“Mary Poppins Returns” is the perfect sort of movie to watch around the holidays. Just like after watching “Christopher Robin” earlier this year, I left the theater with a smile on my face and a wonderfully “warm, fuzzy” feeling.

Movie review: ‘Aquaman’ is a wild and wacky dive into the DC Cinematic Universe

It’s fair to say that DC Comics has sailed through some choppy waters as it seeks to build its own cinematic universe. (As a quick aside, I feel like I need to apologize for all the water-related puns that I’m going to be dropping in this review. Since I’m writing about “Aquaman,” I just couldn’t help myself. I’m sorry.) 😉

“Wonder Woman” remains the crown jewel in the DC cinematic universe, and while I don’t think “Batman v. Superman” received enough praise for the things it did well, for me at least “Justice League” was a letdown. As a direct follow-up to that film, “Aquaman” needed to make a splash at the box office and get the franchise back on track.

While an argument could be made that “Aquaman” could’ve been a stronger film overall, it is a fun ride, and is a step in the right direction for the DC cinematic universe.

“Aquaman” is sitting at a respectable 68 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and the “critics consensus” blurb is actually a fairly accurate summary of what you can expect from this film: “‘Aquaman’ swims with its entertainingly ludicrous tide, offering up CGI superhero spectacle that delivers energetic action with an emphasis on good old-fashioned fun.”

To quickly summarize the plot: Although Arthur Curry a.k.a. Aquaman (Jason Momoa) has decided to embrace his superpowers and help those in danger on the high seas, he doesn’t really want anything to do with his Atlantean heritage. His mother Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) originally fled the underwater paradise and fell in love with Arthur’s human father (Temuera Morrison), but was eventually forced to return to the ocean’s depths.

Arthur’s half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) has become king in his place, and Orm’s dangerous obsession with power threatens to bring war to both land and sea. Thanks to a push from Princess Mera (Amber Heard) — and the help of a powerful, mythical trident — Arthur decides to finally claim his destiny.

There are parts of “Aquaman” that are really great, and some parts that are more just “okay.” I actually really liked the mini arc that featured the love story between Arthur’s Atlantean mother and human father. I enjoyed seeing Temuera Morrison’s performance in Star Wars (Jango Fett and voices of the clone troopers), and I’d love to see him in more big-budget films.

I also really enjoyed Jason Momoa’s performance as Aquaman. He’s clearly having a fun time playing this character, and that in turn makes him fun to watch. I might not have predicted it originally, but the “super-bro” take on the character actually works really well. I also enjoyed Mera’s character. I feel like Hollywood has been doing much better with its portrayal of female characters in big-budget movies; Mera is Aquaman’s love interest, but she’s also an important part of the plot and gets plenty of her own action scenes. It’s cool to see her and Aquaman working together and mutually respecting each other.

The villain character is one of the film’s weaker spots. I felt Patrick Wilson was chewing the scenery a little too much (although the final scene with this character was an interesting twist I wasn’t necessarily expecting). The more interesting villain was Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). His story felt somewhat shoehorned into the plot, but I really loved the character and the performance, and I definitely want to see more of him in the DC cinematic universe. I would have liked to see him play an even bigger role in the events of “Aquaman.”

The film’s special effects did vary a little in quality. There were some moments where the underwater scenery really blew me away; it was gorgeous and strange and otherworldly. I saw some things I had genuinely never seen on screen before, and I loved being immersed in that world. At other moments, though, the CGI was applied a little too heavily, and the scenery ended up looking a little fake (similar to what happened in the Star Wars prequels).

Also, there’s some genuinely bonkers stuff in this movie — and I do mean that as a compliment. At one moment, Arthur shows up in this big underwater battle between a bunch of crabs and sharks, and he himself is riding this giant kaiju-like monster. Was it over the top and a bit ridiculous? Yes. Was it fun to see? Most definitely yes. “Aquaman” doesn’t take itself too seriously, and the film is better for it.

In short, the film does have spots where the plot drags a little, and some concepts could have been executed more strongly. There’s also a lot of little side-plots that could have been connected more seamlessly (Black Manta, the quest for the trident, etc.).

But in the end, I did have fun watching this movie, and I was definitely never bored. I wouldn’t mind diving into this part of the DC universe again (final water pun, I promise!).

Movie review: ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ is truly something special

By now, we’ve seen Spider-Man’s origin story on film multiple times. Like me, you probably feel that you don’t need to see it again. But trust me, you do — you really do.

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is the most colorful, fun, and emotional animated movie — or superhero movie, frankly — that I’ve seen in a long time. It truly is a fresh take on Spider-Man’s classic origin story and expands the superhero genre in an inventive and exciting way. If you’ve heard the hype, it’s not an exaggeration; this really is one of the best movies of the year.

When I saw the first trailer for “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” I remember thinking, “Hmm, this looks interesting.” What caught my attention was the unique computer animation style. It’s a bit tough to describe, but it’s definitely colorful, vibrant, and highly stylized, with certain animations that really make you feel like you’re watching a movie based on a comic book. You see panels, like the ones found in the pages of a comic book, and thought bubbles even pop up from time to time.

I had a hard time deciding what to put in this review, because I believe the best way to experience this movie is to just walk into the theater and let yourself be surprised by this film. I didn’t know exactly what characters were going to show up or what the plot was going to be, and I just went along for the ride. There are moments where the screen is bursting with a sense of joy and wonder, and I don’t want to spoil that for someone who hasn’t seen it.

Although I haven’t read the original comics, I already knew a little about the origin of teenager Miles Morales, who takes up the mantle of “Spider-Man” after Peter Parker. I love how Morales has some of the same traits/struggles as Parker (he’s a teenager trying to fit in), but he also has a unique personality and outlook.

While the superhero genre is getting better in terms of including diversity, there’s still a ways to go. Our favorite geek films need to be as diverse as the real world we live in, and Miles Morales — who is half-Puerto Rican and half-African American — is another important step forward.

I also loved Miles’ dynamic with his family. Unlike many superheroes, both his parents are still alive. And like all teenagers, he’s going through some growing pains, and he’s trying to figure out what his relationship with his parents will look like in the future (especially now that he’s become the next Spider-Man).

There are really two plots going on at the same time in this film — Miles Morales’ origin and coming of age story, and then the break in reality caused by famous Marvel crime lord Kingpin that unleashes a multitude of “Spider-heroes” from alternate dimensions. This film could have easily become too chaotic and unfocused, but it doesn’t; these two plots blend seamlessly together and complement each other perfectly.

The film is funny, but it also manages to be emotionally authentic, which can be a tricky dynamic to pull off. I enjoyed all the teasing references to past Spider-Man films, as well as the jokes about how many different versions of Spider-Man there are onscreen. Thanks to the introduction of the Spider-Verse, we get to see some new takes on the Spider-Man character. My favorite was probably world-weary, washed up Spider-Man (voiced by Jake Johnson). Of course, you’ll probably guess long before the ending that he’s going to be shaken out of his apathy and show up to save the day, but the ending doesn’t feel cliche or forced.

I’m still mulling it over (and I’ve got a few more movies left to see in 2018), but “Into the Spider-Verse” may well be my favorite movie of the year. Even if you think you’re tired of superhero origin stories, go see it anyway. It’s a genuinely special film, and I can’t wait to see it again.

Endgame: What’s ahead for the Avengers and the Marvel Cinematic Universe

A journey that started a decade ago will come to an end next April, with the follow-up to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “Infinity War.” We now know the sequel will be titled “Endgame,” though what sort of ending the film will have is still anybody’s guess.

How many of the original Avengers will we have to say goodbye to forever? And will “Endgame” truly serve as an ending for the MCU as we know it, or will it be more of a springboard for future storytelling opportunities (or both)? I guess we’ll all have to stay tuned to find out!

Like many of you, I’m sure, I’ve watched the “Endgame” trailer multiple times by now. It’s a somber and emotional trailer, and I thought it did a great job hinting at the sort of movie we’ll be getting, without giving away too much. The tone is definitely going to be darker here, and appropriately so. Half of the universe has vanished, thanks to Thanos’ snap, and the Avengers’ failure to stop him is weighing heavily on them.

I appreciated that Marvel was willing to actually let Thanos use the Infinity Gauntlet at the end of “Infinity War.” It’s a gut-punch of a scene…with one caveat. Others have pointed out that as the year has gone by, that scene has been robbed of some of its emotional impact by the fact that all the Avengers who disappeared are almost 100 percent guaranteed to come back. We know their deaths — as well acted as they were — are not going to stick, because many of them are going to appear in sequels of their own.

Still, I can understand why certain characters were chosen for the snap, and certain ones were left alive. “Endgame” will give us what may very well be our final chance to see all the original Avengers in action together, before some of them retire or possibly even die.

Captain America has been one of my favorite Avengers characters. Will “Endgame” be his final film? Will someone else take up the shield?

I love all these characters. I’ve enjoyed getting to know them on screen over the past decade, and one of them dying would break my heart. But… (and please don’t hate me here!) at least one of them NEEDS to die in “Endgame.” Thanos is one of the most serious threats the Avengers have ever — or possibly ever will — face, and defeating him needs to come with serious consequences. “Endgame” will be the culmination of 10 years of franchise building. A major character death will give this film emotional weight.

When it comes to character deaths, I think the most likely candidates are Captain America and/or Iron Man, which is hard because they’re two of my favorites. The MCU began with Tony Stark, and him sacrificing himself in “Endgame” to save the entire universe would be such a poignant and powerful moment for the character. But, I also really love the idea of him and Pepper finally tying the knot and then him retiring, serving as a consultant to the new Avengers team and a continued mentor to Peter Parker.

Cap is the most logical choice to make a sacrifice, and it would be interesting to see what could happen in future films with either Bucky or Falcon picking up the shield. Chris Evans has done such a great job in the role, and I’d love for his story arc, however it ends, to be epic and emotional.

As for the overall plot of this film, I’m trying hard not to speculate too much. I’ve heard rumors about time travel (which would be a cool twist to add to the MCU) or everybody who disappeared being trapped inside the Soul Stone. I’m really curious to see what role Scott Lang/Ant-Man plays in this story, partly because I just adore Paul Rudd and also because I’m really intrigued by what could happen with the Quantum Realm.

How much of an ending will “Endgame” be?

Beyond that, I really just want to be surprised by this movie. I want “Endgame” to do for the MCU what “The Last Jedi” did for Star Wars. I know that’s a slightly controversial thought, because Episode VIII sparked a lot of debate within the fanbase. However, one of the things I appreciated most about “The Last Jedi” was the way it dared to shake up its fictional universe and make us ask tough questions about characters we love.

I’d love for “Endgame” to be a challenging film that digs deep into who the characters are and forces them to make sacrifices with lasting consequences. I’m hoping for a darker film that balances tragedy and hope, and provides some sort of definitive ending to the first decade of the MCU. I want the impact of “Endgame” to be felt in all the MCU films that come after it.

It will be really interesting to see what the MCU looks like post-“Endgame.” There’s still lots of potential with Tom Holland as Spider-Man, and there’s a wealth of untapped material with Black Panther and the world of Wakanda. And, of course, I can’t wait to meet Captain Marvel and see how she ties into “Endgame.”

Years down the road, maybe we’ll look back and see “Infinity War” and “Endgame” as the peak of the MCU, and the films that follow will be smaller in terms of both scope and box office. I’d be okay with that, actually. I’d love to have more films focused in on individual characters, with smaller stakes (similar to the excellent “Spider-Man: Homecoming”). Someday I want to see a live action Miles Morales, and I’d be game for a Guardians/Thor team-up.


So, what are your hopes for the future of the MCU? What do you think will happen in “Endgame”? What are some of your theories, hopes and fears?

‘Ralph Breaks the Internet’ – a (slightly!) belated review

ralph-breaks-the-internet-3600x1771-wreck-it-ralph-2-animation-2018-4k-12053Time always seems to go by quickly, but it goes by even MORE quickly during the holiday season. It always feels like there are lots of movies in theaters between Thanksgiving and Christmas that I want to see, but I never quite make it to all of them.

However, even though this is a bit belated, I did eventually make it to “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” the sequel to the 2012 animated hit “Wreck-It Ralph,” which opened in theaters Nov. 21. I’ve only seen “Wreck-It Ralph” once, when it came out on DVD (almost six years ago!), but I remembered enjoying it, enough so that I wanted to check out the sequel.

In the original, we meet video game “villain” Wreck-It Ralph, who’s spent 30 years inside an arcade smashing pixels, trying to destroy a high-rise building until Fix-It Felix arrives to save the day. However, he’s tired of being labeled as “the bad guy,” and he wants something more out of life. He breaks the rules and starts exploring other video games, hoping to make friends and become a hero.

Ralph does find a happy ending, and at the start of “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” he’s living a pretty good life. He’s got lots of friends now, including Vanellope von Schweetz, a character from a dessert-themed racing game called “Sugar Rush.” He’s pretty content with his circumstances…but Vanellope isn’t. She’s bored with the status quo and wishes she could live inside a more exciting game.

When Ralph tries to manufacture some excitement for her, he accidentally ends up breaking her game. Feeling guilty, he volunteers to venture into the mysterious world of the Internet to find a part that can fix “Sugar Rush.” Needless to say, Ralph isn’t fully prepared to face the exciting, confusing, and (potentially) dangerous World Wide Web, and the increasing conflict between him and Vanellope threatens to ruin their friendship forever.

There are two ways to look at “Ralph Breaks the Internet.” In the slightly more cynical way, you’ll notice that there is a LOT of product placement. Once Ralph and Vanellope arrive, you’ll see lots of websites that you recognize, like Twitter and eBay. They also spend time on a Disney fansite, with references to many other Disney properties, including Star Wars and Marvel (“Ralph Breaks the Internet” is also a Disney film). Is this product placement distracting and gimmicky, or is it charming and fun?

ralph-breaks-the-internet-11-e1537802393883-700x367.jpg

Which side you fall on will undoubtedly impact your enjoyment of this movie. Personally, I didn’t mind the “product placement,” and it felt a lot more natural than the similar product placement I saw in marketing for “The Emoji Movie” (the less said about that movie, the better). I loved the scenes on the eBay website, and I’m a sucker for Disney franchise references — it was great to see Iron Man and stormtroopers show up in “Ralph Breaks the Internet.”

Overall, this was a fun movie; it made me laugh, and I enjoyed seeing it in theaters. I have heard some comments from other viewers that it feels more like a series of shorts strung together vs. a more streamlined narrative, and I think that’s a fair criticism, even though it didn’t really bother me.

There are some really funny vignettes in this film, including a running gag about “pop up” ads, a frustration anyone who’s surfed the Internet can relate to. And the scene with Vanellope meeting the Disney princesses was just as charming as I’d hoped. There’s a really hilarious moment where Vanellope gets her standard “Disney princess ballad.”

On a more serious note, I found I actually really appreciated the movie’s themes of friendship and letting go. At times, the delivery of these themes was a bit heavy-handed, and sure, it could have been done in a more natural, subtle way.

But the main lesson to be found in “Ralph Breaks the Internet” is that sometimes friendships change, even the really close ones. Friends may develop new dreams that take them in different directions. You may become different people, and that requires the maturity of letting go and realizing that even though you may no longer have the same priorities or live in the same place, you can still be friends. The more Ralph tries to hold onto/control his friendship with Vanellope, the more he starts to lose her. In the end, they find a bittersweet balance; their friendship looks a lot different, but it’s still just as strong.

If you enjoyed the original “Wreck-It Ralph,” I’d recommend checking out the sequel. While it won’t end up on my “best of the year” list, it’s a fun film that’s good for families and kids of all ages.

Better Late than Never blog series: The Dude abides in ‘The Big Lebowski’

big-lebowski-re-release-promo.jpgAll Jeffrey Lebowski really wants is to get his rug back.

The easygoing slacker (better known as “the Dude”) is just minding his own business one night, when two crooks show up at his Los Angeles home and demand the money his wife owes their boss. The catch: the Dude isn’t married, and the crooks eventually figure out that they’ve got the wrong “Jeffrey Lebowski.” That doesn’t stop them from, well, ruining his rug and spoiling his night, and this incident leads to a somewhat bizarre, rather madcap adventure that involves our hero (in no particular order) bowling, serving as a courier for ransom money, and getting into a fight with a group of German nihilists.

Now regarded as a cult classic, “The Big Lebowski” was actually a box office flop when it was released in 1998 and received mixed reviews. Audiences and critics both seemed to warm up to it, though, and according to Wikipedia, in 2014 the movie was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” film. I wonder what the Dude would make of that?

I had never seen “The Big Lebowski” before starting this blog series, and I realized I’d actually never seen a Coen brothers film, either. The writing/producing/directing duo have a fairly distinguished Hollywood resume, including films like “Fargo” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Both those films should probably be added to my movie bucket list, actually. 😉

I watched “The Big Lebowski” a couple weeks ago, and I’m actually still not sure how I feel about it. I know that seems like a bit of a cop-out, because in a review you’re supposed to say whether you liked or disliked a film and why. 😉 It’s interesting because with the other three “Better Late than Never” blog series films — “Jaws,” “North by Northwest,” and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” — I knew within the first 20 minutes what kind of films they were going to be, and I knew I was going to love them.

I don’t think that I’ve ever watched a movie quite like “The Big Lebowski,” and that’s really part of the movie’s charm. I’ve seen quirky comedies before (Edgar Wright’s Cornetto trilogy is one of my favorites); however, “The Big Lebowski” has a style all its own. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t sure what to think of it at first — I didn’t really have anything to compare it to.

Here’s what I liked: Jeff Bridges is obviously having a blast playing the Dude, and it’s hard not to love the character. He’s pretty lazy but is good-natured and well-meaning, and I loved his friendship with John Goodman’s much more intense Walter Sobchak. I’d watch more movies featuring the misadventures of these two, even if it was just them sitting in a bowling alley and having conversations.

I also enjoyed the complicated plot; the Coen brothers do a great job drawing comedy out of the Dude’s somewhat bumbling efforts to stay ahead of everything going on (he’s often pretty much clueless). The soundtrack is great, and there’s some great cinematography. I particularly enjoyed the creative ways the bowling scenes were shot.

I did feel that Steve Buscemi was a little under-used in this movie, but maybe that’s just because I love Steve Buscemi and wanted to see more from his character. I also thought Julianne Moore’s character, Maude Lebowski, was interesting, and I would have liked to see her more involved in the plot, as well.

In short, I feel like “The Big Lebowski” is a film I need to see again to fully develop my thoughts on it. It was a weirder movie than I was expecting; that’s not a bad thing, but it did take me a bit to adjust to the narrative style. I think I might enjoy it more the next time I watch it.

And regardless of whether it ends up being in line with my personal tastes or not, it is a very creative film, and I can see why it’s become a cult classic with a devoted fanbase.

With the “Better Late than Never” blog series, it has been really fun getting out of my “cinematic comfort zone” and watching some movies that don’t necessarily have a superhero or a spaceship in them. 😉 There’s definitely value in watching something with a fresh perspective. I do also want to watch more Coen brothers films, to see how “The Big Lebowski” compares to their other work.

Movie review: ‘Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald’ receives mixed response

fantastic-beasts-the-crimes-of-grindelwald-lbI don’t blame J.K. Rowling for wanting to return to the fictional universe she created.

The Harry Potter series has sold millions of copies, launched a theme park, inspired a blockbuster film series, and become a beloved literary classic. It’s a rich world full of numerous storytelling possibilities, and the spin-off prequel series, “Fantastic Beasts,” seemed like it had the perfect recipe for success: an exciting new setting, adorable magic creatures, and the backstory of mysterious dark wizard Grindelwald.

However, despite the fact the script was written by Rowling herself, the latest film set in the Wizarding World — “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” — has received a rather mixed response from both fans and critics.

I don’t want to give away the plot of “The Crimes of Grindelwald” for those who have not yet seen it, but it basically revolves around Newt receiving a special mission from Albus Dumbledore (played by the perfectly cast Jude Law). Dark wizard Grindelwald has escaped and is growing more powerful, and is seeking a gifted but troubled boy named Credence, believed dead at the end of the last film but somehow survived. Grindelwald wants to use Credence for his own dark purposes, while Newt wants to save him.

While I didn’t enjoy the original “Fantastic Beasts” film as much as the Harry Potter series, I thought it was a fun adventure with some really endearing characters. As a Hufflepuff myself, I liked seeing Hufflepuff hero Newt Scamander and his case full of magical creatures, and I appreciated his compassion and desire to protect these creatures. My favorite character, though, was actually a non-magical one: Jacob Kowalski, an aspiring baker who falls in love with the mind-reading wizard Queenie Goldstein.

As for “The Crimes of Grindelwald,” I liked parts of it but did not love the film. While there are some really powerful moments in the movie, I don’t think it was as good as the original “Fantastic Beasts.” I saw “The Crimes of Grindelwald” on Saturday, and already I’ve kinda stopped thinking about it. It hasn’t lingered with me in the same way that other recent game-changing franchise entries (such as “The Last Jedi” and “Infinity War”) have.

Part of the problem with “The Crimes of Grindelwald” is that it is a messy film. There are a LOT of characters and plot lines going on at the same time. I loved the characters, and I found the plot lines intriguing, but none of them seemed to get enough screen time. It feels like the Fantastic Beasts spin-off franchise almost needed to be split into two different series: one that focuses on Newt and his magical beasts, and one that focuses on Grindelwald’s plottings.

I wish we had seen more of Dumbledore, though I’m sure that will come in later films. His past relationship with Grindelwald is both an emotional one and one bound by a literal blood pact (important life lesson for would-be wizards: don’t make a blood pact with someone who might turn out to be a psychotic villain. Just…don’t.) I also wanted more screen time for Jacob and Queenie; their relationship takes an interesting and incredibly tragic turn (which was the most powerful and emotional twist in the film, I thought). The fact there’s a law forbidding relationships between wizards and No-Majs has some chilling parallels to the kind of elitism and racism seen throughout the course of real-world human history. I think the film needed to delve deeper into this issue.

I also feel that Credence is a fascinating character, and I was looking forward to seeing more of him in this film. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get enough screen time, and the film doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with Queenie’s sister, Tina Goldstein, either (her relationship with Newt feels a bit forced).

As for Grindelwald himself, I still feel that Johnny Depp was miscast in the role. Colin Farrell played a disguised Grindelwald in the last film, and I wish they’d just kept Farrell in the role. Grindelwald is a character who needs to feel dangerously charismatic, but Depp’s performance felt a little detached and disinterested, at least to me. If they really had to change actors at the end of the previous film, I could see an actor more like Michael Fassbender bringing some needed intensity to the role.

I feel like I’ve been negative so far in this review, so I’d like to end on a more positive note. I’m definitely still planning to see the next “Fantastic Beasts” film, and I really do care about these characters. I want to see what happens to Newt, Jacob, and Queenie. Newt’s fantastic beasts continue to be charming, even if they do feel a little tacked on to the plot. The film is best when these three characters are on screen, and I can’t wait to see more of Jude Law as Dumbledore in the next one.

Hopefully next time, these wonderful characters will have a stronger script to back them up.

Avengers assemble: A tribute to Stan Lee

Stan-Lee.jpgThis week for my scheduled blog post, I was planning to post the final review in my Better Late than Never blog series. However, with the passing of comic book legend Stan Lee yesterday, at the age of 95, I felt it was more appropriate to spend some time reflecting on Lee’s legacy and his impact on the superhero genre.

Even though I’m a proud geek, I have not read many comic books yet. It’s still something I’d like to get into, because I’d really like to learn more about the origins of the superheroes in some of my favorite films.

However, while I haven’t read many comics yet, I greatly appreciate the influence they’ve had on pop culture. The Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it today would not exist without those original comics stories. As much as I love the performances of actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans, they didn’t create those superheroes — Marvel Comics did.

Wikipedia summarizes Stan Lee’s career as “an American comic book writer, editor and publisher. He was the editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, and later its publisher and chairman, leading its expansion from a small division of a publishing house to a large multimedia corporation.”

But what Stan Lee means to the world is so, so much more. He helped create beloved characters like Spider-Man, the Hulk, Doctor Strange, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Black Panther, the X-Men, Ant-Man, Iron Man and Thor. That’s one heck of a resume.

What stands out to me about all these heroes is that despite their powers, they still manage to feel relatable. I’m going more off the movies and TV series, of course, but when you strip away these superheroes’ powers and/or armor, you find their vulnerabilities and a very real sense of humanity underneath.

The best example, perhaps, is Spider-Man. He is capable of feats I could never dream of — I’ll never shoot spider webs out of my hands or swing between skyscrapers. And yet, as a formerly awkward teenager myself, I can totally relate to Peter Parker. His uncertainty, personal struggles, and need to belong is something we’ve all experienced.

I’m so glad Stan Lee lived to see many of his characters come to life on the big screen. I’m saddened he will not see the culmination of all the MCU movies thus far with next year’s still-untitled Avengers 4. However, I’m thankful that he did get to see so many of his characters come together in “Infinity War.” Even 10 years ago, who would have imagined that film would even be possible?

I never got a chance to meet Stan Lee in person at a convention, but I’ve seen the outpouring of love for him from both celebrities and fans on social media. It seems like he is just as beloved in real life as his fictional characters are.

Although he lived to be 95, that time still seems so short. The Marvel films just won’t feel the same without those classic Stan Lee cameos, which were always full of humor, warmth, and humanity.

Just like the man himself.

Better Late than Never blog series: ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’

618000For whatever reason, I’ve never really enjoyed westerns as a film genre. I’m not quite sure why. Especially since some of my favorite films and TV shows have been influenced by westerns, some more overtly — like “Firefly” — and some more subtly — like the Star Wars original trilogy.

I’ve watched a number of different westerns over the years, but none of them really managed to capture my imagination. Yet I’ve kept trying, wondering if it was simply a case of not watching the “right western.” My husband told me I might like “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” and even though I was skeptical, I decided to add it to the “Better Late than Never” blog series and watch it with an open mind.

“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” is quite different from the films I normally watch. It’s not a “fun” film, and it is, at times, bleak, violent, and depressing. And yet, I can absolutely see why it’s labeled as a masterpiece, and considered by many critics to be one of the greatest westerns ever made. And though I wasn’t necessarily expecting to, I really loved watching it.

The Man with No Name

Clint Eastwood stars as “The Man with No Name,” a bounty hunter and con man who wanders across the wild west. He pretends to turn over a criminal named Tuco to law enforcement and then collects the reward money. Except, on the day Tuco is scheduled for execution, Eastwood shows up to rescue him, and then repeats this stunt in another town. It’s a rather ingenious scheme (though not exactly a morally praiseworthy one), and it seems to work pretty well for the two men, who always split the reward money afterwards.

However, they inevitably reach a point where they try to double-cross each other, and they end up chasing each other across the desert. They switch back and forth between allies and antagonists as they get caught up in a scheme to steal some buried Confederate gold. They try to avoid both the Civil War battles going on around them, and the mysterious man in black — known as “Angel Eyes” — who is also searching for the gold.

If you’re looking for a western with noble lawmen in bright white Stetsons or good-natured cowboys with hearts of gold, you won’t find them in “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Although Eastwood’s character is “the good” character referred to in the title, he’s not a spotless hero. The film is gritty and full of shades of grey, with Eastwood starring as an anti-hero who sometimes does the right thing but is mostly looking out for himself.

The western deconstructed

Although “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” is still stylized, it most definitely does not present a glamorized version of the west, like many of the other westerns I’ve seen. After watching the movie, I did some research about the background of the film, and learned that director Sergio Leone actually intended this to be somewhat of a critique of the standard western.

I was surprised to learn that this movie was released in 1966; it seemed more like a late 70s/early 80s-style movie to me, and it feels ahead of its time. There’s some really great camera work in this film. I particularly loved the standoff between Eastwood, Tuco, and Angel Eyes at the end of the movie. I love how Leone builds suspense by quickly switching between camera angles: a wide shot showing the standoff, then a close-up of the guns, then a close-up of the characters’ eyes, and so on.

The scenery is stark and sometimes drab, but it works with the tone of the film. There was also less music in the film than I was expecting, but the music that is used is fantastic. Even though I’d never seen the movie, I’d definitely heard some of Ennio Morricone’s famous themes before, which are as iconic as the film itself (or, even more likely, part of the reason why the film IS iconic).

Enduring legacy

I’ve often heard “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” referred to as one of the greatest westerns of all time, so I found it super fascinating that it wasn’t an immediate critical success. It had a far more mixed reception than I would have guessed. I’m wondering if maybe it deconstructed “the western” at a time some viewers weren’t quite ready for that (or the violence it depicted). However, it’s certainly well regarded today, and I think it does manage to capture some of that “western mystique” while also feeling more authentic than some of its peers.

I don’t know if I’ll rewatch “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” a bunch of times, just because it is a rather bleak movie (and it is also fairly long). My response to it was a lot like my response to Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs”; sometimes it’s hard to watch, and the characters aren’t always sympathetic, but it’s definitely a cinematic achievement.

And despite its violence and cast of anti-heroes and villains, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” isn’t completely devoid of humanity. Although Eastwood’s character probably has his own wanted poster hanging up in a sheriff’s office somewhere, you can see flashes of the better man he could have been (and perhaps still is deep inside). At one moment, he stops beside a dying soldier; he can’t really do anything for the soldier at this point, but he lays his coat over him to comfort him and lets him smoke his cigar. It’s a small spot of kindness and an unexpectedly emotional moment in the film.

Based on what I saw in “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” I definitely want to watch more of Sergio Leone’s westerns in the future. I think, perhaps, I have finally found the “right western” for me! 🙂