Movie review: ‘Dark Phoenix’ closes out the X-Men saga (for now)

wp4031137For better or worse, “Dark Phoenix” marks the end of the X-Men franchise as we know it.

It’s a little like a political lame duck; it’s being released after the Disney/Fox merger but does not tie into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Reviews for the film haven’t been kind — it’s currently sitting at 24 percent on Rotten Tomatoes — and with its $33 million opening weekend box office, it barely managed to beat out Disney’s live action “Aladdin,” which is in its third week. (As a side note, I actually went to see “Aladdin” again this past weekend, and I enjoyed it even more a second time. It looks like it may prove to be one of the summer’s leggiest movies.)

I went to see a Thursday night preview of “Dark Phoenix,” and my immediate reaction was, “this isn’t quite as bad as the reviews would lead you to believe.” Sure, the movie does have some significant flaws (we’ll get to those in a minute), but there were some things I did enjoy about this movie.

As someone who doesn’t have much familiarity with comics (it’s my geek Achilles’ heel, and I always feel guilty about that), the only knowledge I had about the Dark Phoenix storyline came from the “X-Men: The Last Stand” movie which I saw a long time ago and don’t remember a lot about.

Basically, Jean Grey, member of the X-Men team, gets some new cosmic powers that pull her towards the dark side, and the X-Men are torn between wanting to save her and having to stop her. Also, from this point on, I’m not sure what parts of my review may be spoiler-y or not for those who have read the comics, so if you don’t want spoilers of any kind, stop reading now.

By this point in the franchise, it’s best not to think too closely about how the timeline for these reboot films (“First Class,” “Days of Future Past,” “Apocalypse,” and “Dark Phoenix”) matches up with the original Hugh Jackman films. In “First Class,” Michael Fassbender’s Magneto and James McAvoy’s Professor X appear to be 20/30 somethings in the 1960s. Fast forward 30-ish years to “Dark Phoenix,” and let’s just say these two have aged suspiciously well.

“First Class” is actually my favorite X-Men film, and I will never complain about seeing Fassbender and McAvoy return to these roles. They are, at least in my opinion, the best parts of these reboot films, and there’s a very nice moment at the end of “Dark Phoenix” that closes out their storyline.

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I did like Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, and I love the complexity of the character’s storyline. I’m a sucker for stories involving anti-heroes and nuanced villains, and I think we need more female characters who fit into these archetypes. Jean is a conflicted soul who is struggling with demons she can’t quite master, and if anything, the plot of this film moves too fast, instead of letting Jean’s conflict slowly build.

I wasn’t a fan of the alien subplot in this movie, and I felt it distracted from the main, more interesting storyline (i.e. Jean’s inner struggle). I have heard the aliens are a part of the original comics, but I wish they had cut it out altogether, because the shape-shifting aliens in this movie reminded me too much of the Skrulls in “Captain Marvel.” I personally don’t think the giant space cloud that Jean derives her powers from needs a backstory; just give her the powers, and then focus on how she deals with them.

I wanted to see more interactions between Jean and Magneto, and Jean and Professor X. I thought Professor X and Jean’s relationship was fascinating, because you have Charles trying to do something good by messing with Jean’s memories and burying her past trauma, but in the long run he harms her more than he helps her. Misusing one’s powers in the name of good is a potential pitfall that all superheroes face, and I love seeing this explored.

I also wish Jean had been able to spend more time at Magneto’s compound for mutants, because based on his own past, he seems the most qualified to help Jean with her dark side temptations. He also knows what it’s like to live with an overwhelming sense of rage and a desire for revenge, though he’s eventually able to find some peace.

Some other, very spoiler-y quibbles: It definitely feels like Jennifer Lawrence was kinda phoning it in as a performer in this movie; however, Mystique’s death does make a powerful emotional impact. It’s a sad twist, but it gives the story more weight. I also felt like Jean’s turn back to the light came too soon in the film. I wished they had kept her fate in limbo until the very end, when she makes a final decision to sacrifice herself to save her friends.

In short, this film has some good features that needed more polishing, and it’s a shame that it’s the end of an era. I definitely believe we’ll see the X-Men on film again, but I’m still feeling a bit hesitant on whether I want them to join the MCU’s main storyline. I like having them as their own franchise, with their own tone and style.

Regardless of some misfires along the way, the X-Men films have offered some great performances and storytelling. Maybe all fans don’t feel the same way — and that’s completely okay — but I will personally be sad to see them go.

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Return of the king(s): Quick movie reviews for ‘Rocketman’ and ‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’

Untitled-1What do “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” and the new Elton John biopic “Rocketman” have in common? Well, not much, actually. But I saw both these movies this past week, and since I didn’t have time to do separate, full-length reviews, here are my quick thoughts on each.

It’s not often that I’ll see two different movies on opening weekend, but I was intrigued enough by the trailers that I wanted to see them both right away, especially since we’re now in the middle of summer blockbuster season and there’s a new movie I’d like to see pretty much every weekend.

First, let’s tackle “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.” My response to its predecessor, “Godzilla,” back in 2014, was something along the lines of “meh.” Godzilla himself was awesome, but he wasn’t in the film nearly enough, and the human characters surrounding him weren’t super compelling.

“Godzilla: King of the Monsters” fixes one of those problems, but unfortunately still struggles in the other area.

Every time there were monsters on screen fighting, this movie was magnificent. It was gloriously over the top, and I watched all the scenes involving the monsters with a sense of childlike glee. The 2014 “Godzilla” had too few scenes of monsters fighting, but this movie has plenty. Watching Godzilla, Mothra, Ghidorah the three-headed dragon, and others was so much fun. I’m glad I decided to see this movie in IMAX, because the fights were amazing.

Sadly, the movie still suffers when it comes to the human characters. I really wish both of these Godzilla movies had featured Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Ishirō Serizawa as the main character, instead of relegating him to a more supporting role. They could have gone a lot deeper with this character and his reaction to the monsters. I won’t give away any spoilers, but the scene where he finally gets to come face to face with Godzilla is actually quite moving.

I’ll definitely watch more of these monster movies, but I hope they will work on adding more depth to the human characters. While it’s fair to say that the monsters are always going to be the main draw for these films, the humans around them don’t have to be two-dimensional. More nuanced characters would have made this film more memorable. As it stands now, it’s summer popcorn fun, but not much else.

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I actually decided to see this movie based solely on the strength of the previews. I saw them multiple times while going to see other movies, and this film looked really interesting and fun.

While I’m not super familiar with Elton John or his music, I do enjoy listening to his songs. I’ll always stop for “Rocket Man” or “Tiny Dancer” when I’m scanning through radio stations in my car.

“Rocketman” is actually more of a big screen musical than a biopic, and I think that concept works really well, considering Elton John’s vibrant and creative stage persona. The musical format allows the filmmakers to work in all his famous songs, but in an unexpected way.

All the musical sequences are really fun, but what I wasn’t prepared for was how tragic this movie was going to be at times, and all the struggles Elton John went through early in his career.

Growing up, his family didn’t provide the emotional support he so desperately needed. He falls in love with his manager, John Reid, who later uses and betrays him. Elton uses drugs and alcohol to cope with his crushing loneliness, and he hides his true self behind the glitz and glamour of the world of stardom.

Elton John is played by Taron Egerton, who I’ve been a fan of since the Kingsman movies. While his voice may not sound exactly like Elton John’s, Egerton gives a heartfelt and committed performance. Although the movie has numerous fantasy sequences, the story it tells is moving and authentic.

In short, I’d definitely love to see more biopics like this one. Sure, some of the details might not be strictly historical, but the style of this movie fits with the subject it is portraying.

Movie review: ‘Tolkien’ film shows the story behind the storyteller

Untitled-1“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” might be my favorite introductory line for a novel.

It’s simple and direct, but still has enough information to spark your curiosity. What is a hobbit? And what sort of “hole” do they live in? (A very comfortable and cozy one, it turns out!)

The narrative that develops from these 10 initial words encompasses “The Hobbit” and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, one of the greatest stories of our time.

I already knew a quite a bit of background about the storyteller behind this story (in high school I loved the Lord of the Rings series so much that I did a report about author J.R.R. Tolkien). Still, I was particularly intrigued by the trailer for the new biopic “Tolkien,” since it looked like some magical elements would be incorporated into the cinematography, highlighting Tolkien’s vivid imagination.

It’s interesting that this movie is receiving mixed reviews from critics, because I personally really enjoyed it and found it rather moving. I’m not always a fan of biopics as a genre, because they often wind up feeling formulaic. It’s also difficult to strike a balance between maintaining historical accuracy and also telling an effective story (real people’s lives are messy and meandering, and don’t always fit into the standard narrative we’re used to seeing in fiction).

However, “Tolkien” seems to find a happy middle ground, and I would say it mostly aligns with what I remember from the past biography I read about Tolkien (although it has been a long time since high school…longer than I’m willing to admit).

“Tolkien” sticks to the author’s childhood and young adult years. Instead of showing how he writes “The Hobbit” and the Lord of the Rings books, it shows us the life experiences that later inspired him to write these stories.

Tolkien’s early life was marked by tragedy. He lost his father and mother at a young age, and was sent away to a school where he didn’t necessarily fit in at first. He does eventually make some friends — Geoffrey, Robert, and Christopher — who are all bound by their love for art and literature, and form a group called the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, or TCBS for short. Tolkien also finds a muse in Edith Bratt, who ignites his imagination and his heart.

This spell of camaraderie is shattered when World War I breaks out. Some of Tolkien’s classmates at Oxford celebrate this news, assuming war will be a grand adventure.

It isn’t. In fact, World War I is one of the most awful, bloody, and heartbreaking conflicts in human history. As a companion piece to “Tolkien,” I highly recommend the documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old.” Directed by Peter Jackson, the film painstakingly restores old WWI footage and makes it real in a way that it may not have been before to modern audiences.

It’s hard to find hope down in the trenches, particularly as Tolkien learns of friends who have gone missing in action. Too many soldiers do not come home. The smoke, the mud, the gunfire, and the senseless violence are more than enough to crush the last little bits of goodness and light flickering inside oneself.

Yet Tolkien continues clinging to them, desperately, and these seeds eventually develop into the fantasy tales that are now loved by so many.

Understanding Tolkien’s involvement in WWI — and his love for languages — is key to understanding the themes in his fictional works. The darkness he saw in war can be seen in the darkness of villains like Sauron and Saruman. Yet the warmth of his deep and genuine friendship with the TCBS members no doubt inspired the bond between the members of the Fellowship of the Ring.

Even though “Tolkien” received so-so reviews from critics, this film genuinely moved me, and it reminded me why I fell in love with Lord of the Rings in the first place. We live in a world that is plagued by darkness and violence and hate, but as Sam tells Frodo in “The Two Towers” film, “there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.”

‘Till the end of the line’: ‘Avengers: Endgame’ wraps up a decade of superhero storytelling

AvengersEndgameFinalPoster-Top-1024x576.jpg“This is not going to go the way you think…”

Remember that line from “The Last Jedi” trailer? Marvel fans were wise to keep those same words of warning in mind as they walked into the theater for “Avengers: Endgame.”

The culmination of approximately 10 years and 20 films, “Endgame” is the bittersweet and emotional conclusion to this stage of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

I knew going in that the Avengers would have to pay a steep price to stop Thanos, and I thought I was prepared to say goodbye to some of these characters. Turns out, it was harder than I thought, and while the ending is satisfying, it’s definitely a gut-punch.

I’m not even going to attempt to write a regular review here, because literally anything I say would be a spoiler. And by this point, you’ve either A) already seen it; B) have made plans to see it; or C) this isn’t really your thing and you don’t plan to see it at all, which means that no review of mine is going to convince you of anything. 😉

These are some of my VERY spoiler-filled thoughts on the film, so final warning if you haven’t seen this movie yet and don’t want to have the twists ruined for you — stop reading now!

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WARNING: Literally SO MANY spoilers ahead

All right, if you’re still with me, that means you’ve (hopefully) already seen “Endgame” and we can all commiserate together.

I don’t quite know how to review a movie like this. It’s weird to think that this has all been building since a little movie called “Iron Man” in 2008. I don’t think anyone back then guessed that the end to this story arc would gross $350 million in ONE weekend — and that’s just domestically. It’s a cinematic event film that people needed to see on opening weekend.

I’m sure that in the days and weeks to come, plenty of bloggers will be breaking down the story and all the plot’s twists and turns. I know that if I sat down and started picking apart the details, I’d uncover a few plot holes or inconsistencies in regards to the time travel stuff.

But in the end, what this movie comes down to is the characters, and it’s a fitting end for these superheroes that we’ve come to love over the past decade.

While one could argue that they maybe could have shaved 15-20 minutes off the film to bring its runtime below three hours, none of the time feels wasted to me. We get lots of little character moments, which are all the more meaningful since this is probably the last time we’ll be seeing many of these characters.

“Endgame” has some surprisingly funny moments, despite its more serious tone overall. This helps to break the tension, and also shows how many times, these troubled characters use humor as a coping mechanism.

I was surprised by how quickly the Avengers killed Thanos in the opening minutes — a twist that serves to throw the audience off balance. I had a lot of theories about “Endgame” and really only one of them came true (Falcon taking on the mantle of Captain America, which I’m really excited about).

This twist also provided a good set-up for the main plot of the film, a so-called “time heist” to steal the Infinity Stones from previous points in the timeline and then use them to undo Thanos’ snap. As I mentioned earlier, the “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey” stuff may have more than a few holes in it if you look closely, but I loved the scenes themselves and seeing the Avengers revisit important moments from their past. It reminds the audience of how much these characters have experienced — and how much they’ve grown.

I appreciated the movie’s slow burn set-up, which culminated in a truly epic final battle that brings together all the characters for one last stand against Thanos. It also contains one of my favorite moments in the entire MCU — when Cap calls Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, to his hand, proving himself worthy. That moment earned cheers both times I watched this movie in the theater over the weekend.

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I wish I had time and space to talk about each character’s journey in this film in depth, but I’m going to highlight the characters that I believe are the two greatest Avengers, and whose stories are the main drivers of this film: Iron Man and Captain America.

For the past year, I’ve been saying that in order for “Endgame” to make an emotional impact, at least one major character needed to die. Thanos is THE “big bad” of the MCU, and if he’s defeated too easily, it undercuts the dramatic impact of “Infinity War” and, truthfully, the entire MCU.

However, I wasn’t expecting Iron Man and Black Widow to be the two major characters to die. Especially with the long-rumored Black Widow spin-off film (which I hope is still happening, as a prequel), Black Widow’s death came as a shock. The scene where she and Hawkeye are fighting over which one of them is going to make the sacrifice is tough to watch, but highlights the strong bond between their characters. It’s a bond I wish had been explored even more in the preceding films.

I really thought that Tony was going to end this movie by retiring and serving in a mentor role, popping up in cameos every now and then. As I’ve mentioned before, Iron Man is my favorite Avenger and one of my all-time favorite film characters, actually. Seeing him die upset me far more than I was prepared for, but I think that in the end, I’ll come around to accepting the story’s conclusion.

Iron Man started the MCU, and even though I didn’t want him to die, I appreciate that the film gave him a powerful final scene, letting Tony be the one who finally stopped Thanos and saved the universe. I could spend another whole blog post going over his character journey throughout the MCU (actually, I did!), but I have loved seeing his redemption arc and watching him grow from a selfish, spoiled playboy into the galaxy’s greatest hero. I would love for a future film to feature his daughter carrying on his legacy and wearing one of the Iron Man suits.

I was expecting Captain America to die in this film, but I really loved the ending they gave his character. After all he’s been through, he deserves to lay down the shield. And the scene where he finally gets that dance with Peggy Carter was a beautiful, poignant ending to his story. Does it break all kinds of time travel rules? Yeah, probably. But emotionally, it just feels *right.*

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In short, there are places to be picky with this film. There’s the confusing timeline stuff, and I’ve heard debates about Thor and Hulk’s character arcs. I’ll be curious to see how the CGI ages. But Tony and Cap’s storyline was a home run, at least for me, and reminds us how much the MCU owes Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans.

It’s possible we’ll never see another film series quite like this one, and I don’t know what the future of the MCU will look like from here. But I’ve really enjoyed this journey, and it’s meant so much to me as a geek. Thanks for the memories, MCU!

Movie review: ‘Shazam!’ is a fun, feel-good superhero movie

maxresdefaultI have to confess, when I first saw the trailer for the new DC superhero film Shazam!, it didn’t really grab me. I wasn’t sure what to think of the concept or the costume, and I feared the final product might be too cheesy. I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to watching it.

However, I’m happy to admit that my initial impression turned out to be wrong. Shazam! is an incredibly fun, feel-good superhero movie, and I walked out of the theater with a huge smile on my face. While it doesn’t carry the same sense of epic grandeur and emotional weight as Wonder Woman, it has a much more coherent story than Aquaman (which, to be fair, was still a fun film). At least at this point, I think it’s safe to say that the DC cinematic universe has finally found its footing. Hopefully the trend will continue!

For the uninitiated, Shazam is the alter ego of a somewhat unlikely superhero candidate: Philadelphian teenager Billy Batson. Separated from his mother at a young age, Billy has jumped from foster home to foster home, never able to find a sense of belonging.

Then one day, he is transported to a magical cave where an ancient wizard offers him magical powers that are activated by saying the word “Shazam!” Understandably skeptical, Billy complies and then immediately realizes his life is never going to be the same.

Whenever he shouts “Shazam,” he turns into an adult with a bright red costume with a yellow lightning bolt, and he does indeed gain superpowers — like flying and channeling electricity. Still, simply having powers doesn’t automatically make one a hero, and Billy has to learn how to take his gifts seriously and use them to help others.

As a film, Shazam! strikes a nice balance: it’s funny without being too silly, and it’s earnest without being heavy-handed. I’m sure I’ve said this before, but as much as I love large-scale, interconnected storytelling in superhero films — like the lead-up to “Infinity War” and “Endgame” — sometimes it’s nice to see smaller scale movies like Shazam! At its heart, it’s really a family film that just happens to involve superheroes.

While Zachary Levi does a great job as Shazam and is clearly having a blast playing a teenager trapped inside an adult superhero’s body, I was also impressed with the young actors in this film. I loved watching the friendship develop between Billy (Asher Angel) and his foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer).

I also enjoyed Mark Strong as the film’s villain — who turned out to be a more nuanced character than I was anticipating. I’m a big fan of Strong’s, so I’m glad they gave him a role with a little more to do besides just “mustache-twirling villain.”

In some ways, he’s like a darker reflection of Billy — he too experienced rejection and a lack of belonging as a child. Yet instead of finding healing, he holds onto his pain, and he turns to revenge as his motivation for living. They could have even done more to really play up the nuance of the villain, and contrast this with Billy’s own story — which is my only real complaint about the movie. Still, “not enough nuance” is better than “no nuance” when it comes to a movie’s villain, at least in my opinion.

Some other highlights — the film does a good job portraying authentic diversity, and I loved the cast of young actors playing all of Billy’s foster siblings. There is also a really great twist at the end of the film that I really loved but don’t want to say anymore because I might spoil the surprise.

In short, I’m glad I decided to go to the theater with an open mind, because I really enjoyed this movie, and watching it just made me feel good inside. With everything going on in this world, sometimes you need a warm and funny film that reminds you that there are still good people in this world, and that everybody deserves to find a sense of belonging and “home.”

(Oh, and there’s also a really great cameo at the end of the film — one of my favorite-ever cameos in a superhero film, actually. But you’ll have to watch and find out what it is!)

Super-powered success: The future of the MCU and the DCEU

MCUDCEUI’m sure many geeks would agree that this is a pretty good time to be a superhero fan. Superhero films seem to be breaking box office records left and right, and we’re seeing a diverse array of superhero stories portrayed on both the big screen and on TV.

If all this somehow stopped right now, and we never got another superhero film or TV show, we still would have a wonderful wealth of content to look back on. I’d keep watching “Wonder Woman” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” over and over and over again (which is pretty much what I already do right now).

However, of course superhero films aren’t going away anytime soon, because they continue to make a boatload of money. So, what does the future look like for the two big franchises, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Extended Universe (and outliers like the X-Men and the Fantastic Four)?

For the MCU, I’m very curious to see what happens (or doesn’t happen) in “Endgame,” and if this film really will serve as a reset of sorts.

Before I say what I’m going to say next, I feel like I have to repeat that I am a big MCU fan and I love all these characters. That being said, I do feel it’s time for “Endgame” to drop a big, shocking twist and send the MCU in a new direction.

Maybe that means retiring certain characters — or even killing them off, as long as it’s done in a narratively satisfying way. I love Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, etc., but I’m curious to see some movies with a new line-up of heroes, like Captain Marvel, Black Panther, and Doctor Strange. I really loved the character of Carol Danvers, and I can definitely see her as the new head of the Avengers.

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I’ve mentioned this before but going forward, I’d like the MCU to steer the narrative in a more cosmic direction. We’ve seen plenty of Earth-based superhero films; I want to see heroes like Captain Marvel and Doctor Strange adventuring into space or other dimensions. I want to the MCU to really blend the sci-fi and superhero genres.

I’d also like to see character-driven, smaller-scale adventures like “Spider-Man: Homecoming” that feature lower-stakes villains. “Spider-Man: Far from Home” looks like a ton of fun, and I want more of that.

It will be interesting to see if the MCU remains a box office powerhouse after “Endgame” or if interest will level off a bit. Historically, there really hasn’t been a franchise quite like the MCU, so I don’t know that we can make a prediction.

My personal guess? It’s going to take a while to build up to “Endgame”-level hype again, but I think that’s okay. Like I said, I’d love to see some smaller or more creatively risky films (like “Guardians of the Galaxy” initially was). And hey, if these films *only* make $1 billion at the box office instead of $2 billion, that’s still pretty darn good.

I do want to see an MCU Fantastic Four film eventually; there’s a ton of possibility there, and quite a bit of demand from fans to see these characters again (in a film that serves their story better). As for the X-Men, I’d actually prefer that they let that franchise rest for a while. I enjoyed the originals with Hugh Jackman, and I have also enjoyed the prequels with James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. I don’t really want to see an X-Men reboot for a while, regardless of how “Dark Phoenix” turns out. Maybe they should take a break for a decade or so and then come back and revisit the characters (although Disney will probably not want to wait that long after acquiring Fox).

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While the DC Extended Universe has had a more troubled trajectory than the MCU, I feel like they’re finally starting to find their footing. I loved “Wonder Woman,” and it’s one of my all-time favorite movies. I’m already hyped for the sequel. And even though “Aquaman” had its flaws, it was a lot of fun. I’m hearing good initial buzz about “Shazam!” and if it’s a hit, the DCEU is going to be in a pretty good position.

I actually don’t mind if the DCEU steers away from big team-ups like “Justice League.” The MCU does great team-up movies, but the DCEU doesn’t have to copy that or necessarily have this expansive, interconnected universe where every film is intricately tied into one overarching narrative.

I wasn’t the biggest fan of 2016’s “Suicide Squad” but I am intrigued by the notion of former “Guardians of the Galaxy” director James Gunn taking on possible writing and directing duties. Apparently he’s been rehired for the Guardians franchise, which is good news, but I also don’t want him to abandon the Suicide Squad reboot because I think he’d be a really great fit for that project. Especially if the rumors are true and Idris Elba will be joining the film.

It does sound like Ben Affleck is officially out as Batman, which makes me sad because I thought he was one of the best things about the early DCEU and is actually my favorite cinematic Batman. His solo film could have been something truly special, but Hollywood projects don’t always work out. I’ll always remember you, Batfleck!

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I’m not really excited about the solo “Joker” film coming later this year; one of my geek confessions is that I’ve never really been a fan of the Joker as a character, so a standalone movie doesn’t interest me much. However, it does look like an interesting concept (it’s also separate from the DCEU), and I’m excited for those who are big fans of the character.

Finally, “Birds of Prey” looks pretty cool. Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn was probably the best performance in “Suicide Squad,” and a female supervillain/anti-hero team-up sounds like tons of fun.

In short, there’s a lot of superhero stuff to look forward to in the coming months and years. I guess my biggest hope is that these franchises don’t get stuck in a rut. They need to keep innovating and finding ways to make the material feel fresh. Even though “Thor: Ragnarok” wasn’t my personal favorite MCU film, I want to see these studios continue to experiment with styles and tones.

Movie review: ‘Captain Marvel’ takes the MCU ‘higher, further, faster’

Captain-Marvel-Character-PostersIn the coming days and weeks, I’m sure there will be plenty of articles addressing the impact of “Captain Marvel,” from the movie’s massive $150 million opening weekend, to the implications this character will have on the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe (if anyone has a shot at taking out Thanos, it’s definitely Carol Danvers).

However, to me the most important impact this film is making, is on a much smaller, more personal scale: all the photos and stories I’ve been seeing on social media highlighting what this character means to young girls.

After 10 years and 20 movies, “Captain Marvel” is the MCU’s first female-led superhero film. It’s an exciting milestone, hopefully paving the way for more female Marvel superheroes to get stories of their own.

Before she fully becomes Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers is a Kree warrior with no memory of her past. She helps keep the peace across the galaxy as part of a special ops team, fighting against the shape-shifting Skrulls. That’s until one mission unexpectedly goes awry, and Carol finds herself stranded on planet Earth…a place with some rather important ties to her past. As Carol begins to question who (and what) she is, she learns how to fully embrace her powers and become who she was meant to be.

“Captain Marvel” will probably end up landing somewhere in the middle of my MCU ranking (probably upper middle, though I’ll need to see the movie again to say for sure). It actually feels rather like a phase 1 MCU film, and it would have felt at home next to the first Iron Man and Thor movies. In fact, watching “Captain Marvel” made me sad that we didn’t get to see Carol in the Avengers line-up as part of the first Avengers team-up movie in 2012, but at least she will be part of the team for “Endgame.”

“Captain Marvel” is a fairly standard origin story, though there are a couple unexpected twists. A superhero origin story fails or succeeds based on the performance of the lead actor, and I loved seeing Brie Larson join the MCU as Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel. I didn’t know a lot about the character or her personality ahead of time, and I wanted to purposely keep it that way so I could walk into the film and be surprised.

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I loved the character’s brash recklessness and sense of humor (I’m imagining a fun fanfic involving Carol Danvers, Han Solo, and Captain Kirk going on an intergalactic adventure together). She brings a unique flavor to the MCU, and it will be fun to see her with more established characters like Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor. I do wish the script had dived just a *little* deeper into the character’s feelings regarding the revelation of her true backstory, and the film could have done more to explore her past relationships with some of her fellow Kree warriors. But maybe we’ll get more of that material in the sequel.

Another highlight of the film was seeing Samuel L. Jackson return as Nick Fury. His appearance is far more than a cameo this time, and it was so fun to see the dynamic between him and Carol. Parts of the film almost have a “buddy cop movie” vibe. I was initially a little worried about the de-aging technology (the movie takes place in the ’90s) and feared the character would cross over into uncanny valley. However, the CGI looked incredibly realistic to me and never distracted from the story.

There are some other fun side characters to round out the cast. It’s always good to see Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson, and I loved that Carol’s best friend from Earth, Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), got to play a role in the film. We don’t get to see enough female friendships in action/genre films, and this was a welcome addition to the film. Also, Goose the Cat totally steals the show. I cannot say more, but just…don’t underestimate the cat.

Some things I would have changed about the film: I really enjoyed the beginning and ending of the film, but there are parts of the middle that dragged a little, at least for me. Maybe my opinion on that will change on second viewing, now that I know where the story was going. Also, this is probably another personal thing, but I wished more of the movie had taken place in space. I’m really hoping to see more of the cosmic side of the MCU as the franchise moves forward, and I would love if the Captain Marvel sequel primarily took place in space.

I also felt Jude Law’s character was a little underused, and I think more depth for this character (and screen time) would have boosted the film’s lagging middle section.

However, all that aside, there’s a lot to enjoy about this film, and it’s wonderful to see a female superhero starring in her own Marvel movie. I don’t think Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman will have to stand on their own for long.

Movie review: ‘Alita: Battle Angel’

17010I wasn’t really sure what to expect from “Alita: Battle Angel.” I remember seeing a trailer for it all the way back when I watched “The Last Jedi” in theaters in December 2017, so I’m assuming somewhere along the line it got delayed or pushed back.

The film was finally released in theaters Valentine’s Day weekend. Despite a decent marketing push, it opened to under $30 million over the weekend…not quite what the studio was hoping for from a potential franchise-launcher.

The film is based on a manga series about a young woman named Alita who is haunted by her past as a cyborg super-warrior. She’s torn between wanting to live as a regular girl and to also use her unique powers to help people. Of course, there are some who don’t care about her as a person and merely want to weaponize her, and she has to fight to protect herself, her family, and her friends.

If you’ve seen the ads, you’ve probably figured out that the character of Alita is brought to life via CGI, with large eyes and a mechanical body. At first I experienced a bit of “uncanny valley” but I got used to it as the film went on. You can sense the performance of real-life actress Rosa Salazar driving the character.

I enjoyed this film more than I anticipated, and my favorite part was actually the world-building. The story takes place in a sort of post-apocalyptic/steampunk city called “Iron City,” where there are many people with cyborg parts walking down the streets. In the sky above you can see the more prosperous, floating city of Zalem; many people trapped down on the ground in Iron City dream of someday traveling upwards and finding a better life.

Iron City felt lived-in, with a distinctive design and its own unique culture. I thought the population mix of humans and cyborgs was fascinating; some cyborgs have just one robot arm while others appear to have almost completely robotic bodies. Licensed vigilantes called Hunter-Warriors help keep the streets safe from crime.

I thought the story was pretty good as well, although the dialogue isn’t particularly strong (and some of the actors’ delivery of this dialogue is a little flat). Of the side characters, my favorite was definitely Christoph Waltz’s Dr. Ido. I loved watching he and Alita’s relationship develop, as she starts looking up to him as the father she never had.

You’ll see several other famous faces pop up throughout the film — notably, Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly, although I wish the script had given them more to do. I also thought the character of Hugo, Alita’s love interest, came across as a little bland, which is a shame because there’s some really interesting twists with this character towards the end of the film.

My biggest disappointment with the film is that it introduces some thought-provoking themes but never really dives into them too deeply. Whenever cyborgs show up as part of a story, it’s a great opportunity to examine the question “what makes us truly ‘human’?” How does it feel to be a cyborg: part human and part machine? At what point would a cyborg stop being human and simply become a robot? In the film, there is one character who is saved from death by being converted to a cyborg in an emergency operation. Was that ethical? How much say did this character really get in what happened to them?

Again, the film does look at some of these issues, but not with the level of complexity I was hoping for. Like the dialogue, it remains on more of a surface level.

While “Alita: Battle Angel” doesn’t achieve cinematic greatness per se, I still enjoyed watching it and would like to see more of the story. I am disappointed to see it stumble at the box office, because this probably means we won’t get to experience the rest of Alita’s journey. Maybe it was just a hard film to market? Maybe it would have worked better as a Netflix miniseries?

Regardless, I would like to return to the world of Iron City and maybe even see other stories involving different characters in this setting.

There and back again: Revisiting Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy

the-lord-of-the-rings-hd-wallpapers-33796-6112247This year, the first Lord of the Rings movie, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” turns 18 — if you can believe that. It doesn’t seem like it’s been nearly 20 years since Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy first arrived in theaters, making an impact on film and pop culture that continues to be felt today.

The trilogy is now so well-regarded by critics and fans that it’s weird to think back and remember what a gamble these films initially were. Three films (all 3 or more hours long) filmed simultaneously by a relatively unknown director, drawing from beloved but complicated (and lengthy!) source material? Many studios might have feared a potentially catastrophic flop, but Jackson stuck to his creative vision, and fans were rewarded with one of the best film trilogies ever made.

It’s been a number of years since I last sat down to watch the Lord of the Rings movies, and I was curious to see how well the films held up over time, especially since special effects technology has continued to evolve since the early 2000s.

My husband and I recently re-watched these movies, and I was happy to find that, yes, the LOTR trilogy is still awesome. The few special effects that did feel dated by no means lessened our enjoyment of the film.

I’d forgotten just how good these movies were, and re-watching them made me fall in love with them all over again. Here are some of the reasons why I think this trilogy has aged so well.

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The journey begins…

It doesn’t matter how good a film’s special effects are — or even how cool the plot is — if the audience doesn’t connect with the characters. While Jackson already had plenty of great characters to work with, thanks to J.R.R. Tolkien’s original text, the casting for this film was spot-on, and remains one of the best ensemble casts I’ve ever seen.

It’s a shame that some of the actors who appeared in this movie have fallen off Hollywood’s radar over the years, but I’m glad new generations of fans will be able to discover their performances here. The acting, costumes, and makeup truly bring these characters to life, and I feel like if I tried to start listing out my favorite performances, I’d end up just listing the entire cast.

Another feature that really helps this film is the fact that Jackson chose to shoot so many scenes on location. These films came out around the same time as “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones,” but Episode II feels more dated because of its over-reliance on special effects. Jackson took the time to build lots of props and sets, and he showed off the breathtaking beauty of his native New Zealand, which truly is a real-life Middle Earth. Even after another 20 years, the cinematography is still going to look amazing.

Now, there are a few scenes where you go, “yeah, I can tell that’s some early-2000s CGI,” but this doesn’t happen a lot. I’m so glad they decided to use makeup and costumes for the Orcs, and took time to build all those props, armor, and models. They add so much texture and realism to the film.

Speaking of CGI, Gollum still looks great, and it just amazes me that they were able to make him appear so lifelike. A lot of that has to do with Andy Serkis’ performance; Hollywood owes him a lot for his pioneering motion-capture work. Gollum is also a wonderfully complex character, the kind you love to hate but also, in certain moments, catch yourself feeling just a little bit sorry for.

And I’d also be remiss if I failed to mention the music in this movie. Howard Shore’s score for this film not only fits with the story perfectly, it’s a beautiful musical work all on its own. The epic, sweeping pieces match the grand scale of the story being told.

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The road goes ever on and on…

Although Star Wars is my all-time favorite franchise (and the one I find myself returning to most often), the Lord of the Rings has a special place in my heart because it was the franchise that first got me into geek culture. It sparked my interest in film and cosplay, and it introduced me to the concept that there were a number of fans across the world who were also super passionate about fictional worlds. Even though we didn’t know each other, I could connect with another fan just by saying, “Hey, do you love the Lord of the Rings as much as I do?”

My favorite characters when I was a teenager were Sam and Éowyn, and re-watching the film reminded me of how much they meant to me. Sam might not be a badass warrior, but to me he’s possibly the biggest hero in the whole story. His selfless dedication to helping Frodo takes him to horrifying places, but he doesn’t give up and is willing to sacrifice his life to help his friend. We need more people in the world like Sam, and I still look up to him and try to follow his example.

Éowyn is also a character who was a positive role model for me as a teenager. Despite the restrictions her world tries to place upon her, she rides into battle and ends up accomplishing the impossible — defeating the Witch-King. Watching the movies now, I do wish there were more female characters overall, and that these female characters actually got a chance to interact with each other. But that doesn’t take away from how amazing Éowyn is, and I love that she’s eventually able to find healing and peace after the war.

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It’s impossible to sum up the impact of the Lord of the Rings in just one article, but I think one of the main reasons these books and movies have experienced such enduring popularity is their message of hope and light.

Humanity has lived through some very dark times, some of which Tolkien experienced firsthand as a soldier during World War I. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and lost, and it’s tempting to look around at all the pain and suffering and simply give in to despair.

Yet there’s a scene in “The Two Towers” that I find myself returning to, where Sam encourages Frodo not to give up, despite the impossible odds. “Even darkness must pass. A new day will come,” he says. “And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. … There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.”

That’s the sort of message our world so desperately needs — and always will need. There’s still good in the world, and it’s up to us to not let the light of hope die. We don’t have to be powerful warriors; we can be like the ordinary hobbits, whose kindness, compassion, and courage have the power to save the world.

Looking ahead: Most anticipated movies of 2019

2019previewAttempting to peer into the future and trying to pick the best movies of the coming year is always an interesting challenge. I know there’s always going to be a Star Wars and a Marvel movie on my most anticipated list (no surprise there, I’m sure!), and then I inevitably pick a few films that end up being flops and/or stinkers. (Yes, I did put “Pacific Rim: Uprising” on my most anticipated list at the beginning of 2018. No, it did not make the “best of the year” list at the end.)

Then, there are always some really good smaller movies that aren’t on my most anticipated list but do pop up on my radar throughout the year — and turn out to be really wonderful surprises. In light of that, even though my most anticipated of 2019 list is weighted to the bigger franchise films, if there are some smaller, more off-the-beaten path movies that you are excited about, please let me know!

Since I ended 2018 with a list of my seven favorite films, here are my seven most anticipated of 2019. As Thanos himself would say, perfectly balanced…as all things should be!

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7. X-Men: Dark Phoenix (June 7)

I don’t actually know if this movie will turn out to be good or not (it’s been delayed a number of times). But the concept intrigues me, and I love, love, LOVE James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Professor X and Magneto. I’m definitely going to give this a try.

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6. Godzilla: King of the Monsters (May 31)

I didn’t love the 2014 “Godzilla” film but the trailer for this one looks intriguing (plus, that unexpected but fantastic use of “Clair de Lune” in the trailer was a stroke of marketing genius). I’m excited to see all the big-screen monsters, and to watch Millie Bobby Brown in one of her first major roles outside of “Stranger Things.”

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5. Knives Out (Nov. 27)

This is my pick for potential breakout hit. As anyone who knows me knows, I haven’t stopped talking about how much I loved “The Last Jedi” since December 2017, and I’m super excited to see more from director Rian Johnson. While I’m most intrigued by his potential spin-off Star Wars films, I’m also really looking forward to his mystery crime thriller “Knives Out.” Plus, check out that amazing cast — Chris Evans, Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon…and that’s just a few!

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4. Aladdin (May 24)

The chatter online about Disney’s live-action “Aladdin” remake hasn’t necessarily been positive, but I am looking forward to it because I’ve really enjoyed some of Disney’s other live action films, particularly 2015’s “Cinderella” and 2017’s “Beauty and the Beast.” “Aladdin” is one of my favorite Disney animated movies, and I hope they are able to do it justice. I’m a fan of director Guy Ritchie, but I have a feeling the portrayal of the Genie is going to be what makes or breaks this film.

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3. Downton Abbey (Sept. 20)

“Downton Abbey” is one of my all-time favorite TV shows, and while I loved how the series ended, I can’t resist an opportunity to revisit these characters! I am curious to see how this works as a film, since it was previously in a TV format. However, just seeing all my favorite characters again will be worth a ticket for me.

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2. Avengers: Endgame (April 26) – plus Captain Marvel! (March 8)

While I have some theories about what may (or may not) happen in “Endgame,” I’m excited to see how this story wraps up after a decade of anticipation. I hope it’s surprising, challenging, and thrilling, providing a satisfying end to the character arcs we’ve been following. I’m also excited for Marvel’s first solo female superhero film, “Captain Marvel,” and to see how she will play a role in the events of “Endgame.”

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1. Star Wars Episode IX (Dec. 20)

If you know me well, you probably already guessed what was going to show up at No. 1 on this list. As I mentioned before, I haven’t stopped buzzing about “The Last Jedi” since I saw it, and I can’t wait to see how the story concludes. I loved the way “The Last Jedi” both deconstructed and reaffirmed the Star Wars mythos, challenging our favorite characters in unexpected ways and forcing them to confront their past and present failures. While J.J. Abrams has a difficult task before him, I trust that he’s going to wrap up the story in a satisfying way that will make me fall in love with the franchise all over again.