Quick review: ‘Hobbs & Shaw’ offers summer popcorn movie fun

fast-furious-hobbs-shawI don’t know what it was about that first trailer for “Hobbs & Shaw,” the latest in the Fast and Furious movie franchise, but as soon as I saw it, I thought, “I have to see this movie.”

The funny thing is, I’m not even a Fast and Furious fan. I’ve only seen one and a half Fast and Furious movies, and don’t feel a particular need to watch the others. It’s just not my thing.

But something about the “frenemies” chemistry between Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham made me believe this was going to be a fun movie, and I wasn’t disappointed.

“Hobbs & Shaw” is loud, ridiculous, and everything I wanted it to be. I caught an afternoon matinee with a big bucket of popcorn and had a great time at the theater.

It’s tough to do a review for a movie like “Hobbs & Shaw,” because there’s not really anything to dive deeper into. And you know what? Sometimes that’s okay. If you saw the trailer, you know what you’re getting in this movie: Johnson and Statham’s banter, lots of explosions, and delightfully over-the-top action sequences.

Even as someone who’s not super familiar with this franchise or the characters, I had a pretty easy time following along. Vanessa Kirby is great as an MI6 agent and the sister of Statham’s character. There are some celebrity cameos I didn’t know were going to be in the film and were a fun surprise when they popped up on-screen. The villain character isn’t particularly deep, but I always love seeing Idris Elba in a movie.

In short, if you enjoyed the trailer for “Hobbs & Shaw,” you’ll probably enjoy this movie. Is it a bit silly at times? Yes. But sometimes a movie is just plain fun, and at least for me, “Hobbs & Shaw” delivered.

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Movie review: ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ returns to Tinseltown’s golden age

Film_Review___Once_Upon_a_Time_in_Hollywood.0Up until about five years ago, I’d never seen a Quentin Tarantino film. Other films fans would lovingly give me grief about this, and so I finally decided to sit down and watch one.

I popped his first movie — “Reservoir Dogs” — into my DVD player and then hit “play,” not really sure what to expect. As a film, it was often violent and disturbing, and after I finished, my first thought was that I kinda hated it.

However, I kept mulling it over, and the film slowly grew on me, and I ultimately decided it was a masterpiece. And I’ve been a fan of Quentin Tarantino ever since.

Tarantino is one of Hollywood’s most distinctive directors. If you’re watching a Tarantino film, you know it’s a Tarantino film. While his films cover wildly different settings — a heist, a revisionist Western, World War II, and so on — they all share a certain style that is unmistakably Tarantino’s.

My favorite Tarantino film is probably “Django Unchained” (though it definitely could have been edited down to a shorter runtime). I’m not sure where his latest — “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” — will ultimately rank, but like most Tarantino films, I need a little time to mull it over.

Set in late 1960s Hollywood, the film centers on two friends: actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose starpower is fading, and easygoing stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). While Booth seems fairly content with whatever life sends his way, Dalton fears for the future of his career, which he knows is languishing. As he gets progressively less meaningful roles, he fears his legacy will come to nothing.

Simultaneously, the film shows us anecdotes from the life of Sharon Tate, Dalton’s neighbor. While Dalton is fictional, Tate is a real actress, who was cruelly murdered by members of the Manson family cult in 1969.

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Drenched in style and sun, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is both a love letter to the golden age of Hollywood and a somewhat melancholic reflection on the fleeting nature of stardom. For every star that people remember fondly today — Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, etc. — there are plenty like Dalton whose names have been lost in time, captured only on unwatched reels of film now collecting dust.

One of my favorite parts of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” were the “films” within the film; you get to see clips of fake movies and TV shows from Dalton’s career. For better or worse, you don’t see those types of movies being made anymore in Hollywood. While I don’t necessarily have much nostalgia for that period and the ones preceding it (I tend to prefer films from the 1970s and on), I do respect the history. And it’s hard not to feel sad as you watch Dalton’s relevancy slowly slipping away.

One thing I was a little worried about was how the film might handle the real-life history it touches on. I did not want to see the murder of Sharon Tate sensationalized or exploited, especially since Tarantino is known for his scenes of over-the-top violence.

Thankfully, Tarantino handles this real-life character respectfully, and the footage of Margot Robbie as Tate is shot with a surprising love and tenderness. I have seen some criticize the fact Tate has minimal dialogue in this movie, but even though she doesn’t have a large number of lines, her warmth and spirit fill the screen.

I’m still not sure what to think of the final act, and I can’t really comment on that without giving away spoilers. But I was touched by the very final scene and thought it was a good way to end the movie.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” can, at times, come across as a little rambling and indulgent, but maybe that’s okay. It’s probably Tarantino’s most emotional film, and I walked away feeling bittersweet.

This film captures the ending of an era, and it’s possible we’re seeing the ending of another era right now in Hollywood.

I’m reading more articles about the so-called decline of “traditional film,” about how people are less willing to go to the theater, and even if they are, they’re less likely to spend money on an original work like “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Will theaters and films like Tarantino’s eventually become like Dalton himself, less relevant in a world of streaming services and blockbuster franchises?

I honestly don’t know, and as a longtime lover of the movie theater experience, that makes me sad. However, I like to think that, as it always has, the film industry will continue to evolve, and people will keep finding ways to tell meaningful stories that can stand the test of time.

For now, I’m content to sit in the darkness of my local theater, watching the magic happen on the big screen for as long as I can.

Learning to let go: Quick movie reviews for ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Toy Story 4’

YesterdayToyStory2.jpgHow do you let go of a dream that you’ve been holding onto for so long that it’s become a part of who you are? Even when that dream has turned into something toxic, you just can’t imagine your life without it.

I really wasn’t expecting to find parallels between the two movies I saw in theaters this weekend: “Yesterday” and “Toy Story 4.” One is about a man who wakes up in a world where only he remembers The Beatles, and the other is a continuation of an animated franchise about toys who come to life.

Both of these movies were entertaining, yet they also turned out to be way more thought-provoking than I had planned on. I wish I could write up full-length reviews on both of these, but alas, it’s summertime and difficult to keep up with all the new movies coming out. Here are my quick thoughts on each, and some of the interesting parallels between them.

Yesterday

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I was intrigued by “Yesterday” from the moment I saw the first preview. Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a struggling singer-songwriter who is pondering giving up his dream of becoming a famous musician. Then, on the night of a strange power outage that takes place across the world, he gets in an accident.

When he wakes up, he appears to be the only one who remembers who The Beatles are. This presents him with an intriguing ethical conundrum: should he perform The Beatles’ music and market it as if it were his own? Technically he’s not hurting anybody or stealing from anyone in this reality, because The Beatles were never “a thing.” Yet deep down, he knows he’s being dishonest, and untrue to himself.

On a surface level, “Yesterday” is a quirky, entertaining romantic comedy. Overall, I felt like it was lacking the little extra push it needed to go from “good” to truly “great” but I would still definitely recommend it, especially to Beatles fans. It’s always a pleasure to hear these songs again.

(Spoilers ahead…)

I also really loved that they never explained how reality shifted and apparently erased the existence of The Beatles. I think including that would have bogged down the movie and detracted from its quirky charm. I do wish they hadn’t added in additional missing pop culture fixtures (like Coca-Cola and Harry Potter), because that kinda distracted from The Beatles premise.

I also appreciated the movie’s message about recognizing when it’s time to let go of a dream. It’s something we don’t talk a lot about, because we’re used to the message of “follow your dreams and don’t ever give up and you too can succeed!”

The truth is, not everyone is going to be famous. You can work really hard and never get recognized for that work. It’s terrifying to look a dream that is so precious to you and think about giving it up, but sometimes that is the healthiest thing you can do.

Jack eventually lets go of his dream of being a superstar (and confesses about stealing The Beatles’ music). Then he goes on to find incredible joy and meaning in an ordinary life.

As someone who had big dreams post-college and then my life ended up going a different way, the ending of this movie really resonated with me. Maybe I’ll never be famous, but I still find joy and fulfillment in being creative.

Toy Story 4

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I missed seeing “Toy Story 4” on opening weekend due to traveling for work, and I actually considered skipping it. “Toy Story 3” felt like such a perfect ending to the franchise, and the trailers for “Toy Story 4” didn’t necessarily grab me.

However, it was actually my husband who announced that he wanted to see it after hearing some glowing reviews, and I’m so glad he did.

“Toy Story 4” is so much more than a mere cash grab or tired, rehashed sequel. It’s a great film in its own right, and it stands with “Toy Story 3” as the best in the franchise, at least in my opinion. It’s been a while since I laughed so hard I cried in a theater, but “Toy Story 4” delivered (“plush rush” is all I’ll say and leave it at that, for those who haven’t seen the movie yet).

The standouts of the movie are actually some of the new characters: Forky (voiced by “Arrested Development’s” Tony Hale) and carnival plushes Bunny and Ducky (voiced by comedy duo Key and Peele). I never thought I would laugh so hard at the antics of a plastic spork, but Forky and his obsession with trash are hilarious. Bunny and Ducky also generated lots of laughter during the showing I went to, including the moment referenced in the previous paragraph.

Yet what impressed me most about this movie is that Pixar was able to present a new story with a meaningful message that doesn’t detract from previous films or borrow too heavily from them, either.

(Spoilers ahead…)

The heart of this movie is Woody’s personal journey to adapt to a new life after Andy has moved on. He isn’t connecting with his new kid, Bonnie, as much as he connected to Andy, and it’s hard for him, since so much of his identity is wrapped up in being a child’s beloved toy.

I was actually a little surprised that they ended the movie with Woody going off on his own adventure with Bo Peep, who is a proud “lost toy” without an owner. I’ll admit it, I definitely got a little teary-eyed as Woody watched Buzz, Jessie, and the rest of the gang driving off in Bonnie’s family’s RV after an emotional goodbye.

But I really liked that ending, and it’s the reason why “Yesterday” and “Toy Story 4” play well together. Woody has a hard time letting go but eventually he realizes that he needs to let go of his past dreams and try something new.

There’s grief in letting go of his old life, but also joy in embracing a new adventure. And saying goodbye to your friends doesn’t mean you stop caring about them.

Closing thoughts

Anyway, I wasn’t expecting either of these movies to touch me as deeply as they did, and I thought both were well worth catching in the theater. Letting go is a hard lesson to learn, and I loved how both of these movies communicated that without being too heavy-handed. I definitely want to see both of these movies again!

Will Ashley survive the Game of Thrones?: Thoughts on the series from a first-time viewer

1200At this point, it feels like I’m the last person in all of my social circles who hasn’t watched Game of Thrones.

I know that’s probably not true, but as a geek, it feels weird not being part of the discussion surrounding such a hugely popular fantasy TV series. However, by the time I started experiencing major “fear of missing out,” the show was almost over.

So, I decided to wait until the last episode had aired, and then watch the series in its entirety. I’ve already heard a number of spoilers for the show (I know how all the major character arcs end, and I know who ultimately ends up on the coveted Iron Throne).

While knowing these spoilers does take away from the suspense somewhat, I thought this prior knowledge might actually make for an interesting viewing experience. Since I know how the story ends, I can watch for clues along the way, to see how the writers get our characters from beginning to end. I won’t be worried about how certain character arcs wrap up; instead, I can watch this series more through the lens of wanting to see if the writers justify how we arrive at the ending.

I’ve heard the controversy surrounding the show’s final season, and I’m curious how knowing some of the criticisms ahead of time will impact my overall perception of the show. Also, after eight years of buildup, can this show live up to the hype?

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Political games

***Warning: From here on, there are tons of spoilers for the entire series!***

In terms of narrative scope and cinematography, Game of Thrones is probably the most impressive TV series I have ever watched. A lot of times, you can tell that TV shows have smaller budgets than big screen movies, but all the costumes, sets, and special effects here are top-notch. It really helps create an immersive world that can compete with the caliber of most any big-budget blockbuster.

One of the things that first intrigued me about Game of Thrones was its similarity to real-life history: the Wars of the Roses in medieval England. A couple years ago, I fell down what I’ll lovingly call a “historical rabbit hole” triggered by the BBC miniseries “The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses.” This miniseries covers several of Shakespeare’s historical plays depicting the Wars of the Roses, a brutal period in England’s history plagued by conspiracies, betrayal, backstabbing, and fierce competition for power. (Sound familiar?)

Anyway, I was so intrigued by this show that I immediately went searching for books on this time period, so I could learn more about it. During this time, my husband was forced to hear a LOT about the Wars of the Roses, and he very patiently listened to all the reasons I found this time period so fascinating. (Side note: “The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors” by Dan Jones is a great read, if you’re curious. And if you’re missing Game of Thrones, you should definitely watch “The Hollow Crown.”)

Apparently original Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin at least somewhat shares my obsession, as he reportedly used the Wars of the Roses as inspiration for his own series.

Despite the show’s fictional setting, there’s a sense of “realness” that grounds Game of Thrones, and I believe this in no small part contributes to the show’s popularity. Plus, even though we may no longer live in medieval times, political maneuvering and backstabbing are behaviors that are still going on today (just look at some of those political mailers that inevitably show up in your mailbox around election time).

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Who’s who in Westeros

There’s probably never been an ensemble cast quite like the distinguished crew of actors gathered for Game of Thrones, many of whom have gone on to successful careers outside the show. In terms of characters, if you’re looking for noble knights and benevolent rulers, you’ll have a hard time finding them here. However, there’s more nuance to be found than you might first suspect.

After the first couple of episodes, I felt pretty sure that ALL the Lannisters deserved to be pushed out a very high window. Yet as I kept watching, I could tell some of these characters were going to get a deeper, more layered character arc. I’m definitely #TeamStark all the way, but I am intrigued by pretty much all the major characters. And of course, you always need a few characters that you love to hate (looking at you, King Joffrey!).

This show is grittier and bleaker than a lot of the fantasy stories I’ve read or watched previously, and it took me a couple episodes to adjust to the tone. I would say there’s more villains than heroes, but again, I can see several characters that may wind up as anti-heroes or even heroes at the end. There’s a lot of tragedy to be found in Westeros, as well; I can see how some of the nastier characters, like Cersei, have been trapped by their circumstances. It’s an environment that doesn’t exactly allow them to flourish and become their best selves.

Sadly, one of my favorite characters is already gone (R.I.P. Eddard “Ned” Stark — Westeros was not worthy of you!). He’s noble, loyal, and genuinely trying to do the right thing and protect his family. Tragically, he’s outmaneuvered in the game of thrones going on around him, and the price he must pay is his life.

While I’d like to watch more of the show before commenting on what themes I think it’s trying to communicate, I have heard some say that Game of Thrones presents more of a nihilistic viewpoint, where it doesn’t matter if you try to be a moral person. However, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. Ned Stark isn’t rewarded for doing the right thing, but I’d argue that you should do the right thing because it’s the right thing — whether you’re rewarded or not. Sometimes in life, bad things happen to good people. That doesn’t give you an excuse to just give up and be a bad person.

Ned Stark’s selflessness gets him killed, but, because I already know the ending, I find it fitting that one of his children (Bran) claims the throne and another is Queen in the North (Sansa); they become two of the most powerful players in the political games going on around them. Again, I’m curious to see how all these journeys are handled, but at least right now, I believe one very well could argue that Ned Stark does triumph in the end.

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Room for improvement

Well, you can probably tell by the fact that I’ve already written 1,000+ words in this article that I’m officially a fan of Game of Thrones now and I’m really glad I decided to start watching this series. But, I feel like I do have to address one of the most common criticisms I’ve seen about the show, because this issue did bother me while I was watching.

If you Google “Game of Throne and its portrayal of women,” you’ll find multiple articles on how the series has not always done right by its female characters. And it’s frustrating, because we live in an era with Wonder Woman, Rey, Katniss Everdeen, Captain Marvel, and so many other authentic and powerful female characters.

A number of the male characters in Game of Thrones don’t treat the female characters with a lot of respect (with the exception of the Stark family — again, I’m definitely #TeamStark all the way!). The writing and cinematography also seem to objectify and sexualize women to a much greater extent than their male counterparts.

On the one hand, yes, this series is based on medieval Europe, and women in that society probably were not treated very well. It’s important to remember that history, so we do not repeat it.

However, this is a fictional fantasy series written and filmed in the 2010s — if you’re going to do a period piece showing a society that is oppressive to women, you need to be responsible in how you showcase that oppression.

Case in point: although unlike Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey has practically no graphic violence, the women in that show are also held back by social constraints. The key difference is that in Downton Abbey, the female characters are given space (and a voice!) to communicate their frustrations and struggles with the limits that their society places on them.

In the first season, I desperately wanted more scenes with all of Games of Thrones’ rich female characters — Cersei Lannister, Sansa Stark, Catelyn Stark, Arya Stark, and Daenerys, to name a few — discussing their fears, thoughts, and feelings. Hopefully I’ll find more of this as the series goes on. I want the show to convince me it cares about its female characters as much as it cares about — and respects — the male ones.

Closing thoughts

Since I started drafting this blog post, I’m now about halfway through season 2, and I’m enjoying it even more than I enjoyed season 1. The show has also added several new female characters, which I’m excited about, and I think the portrayal of the female characters is improving.

I’m planning to keep blogging my way through Westeros as I watch through the stories, and I can’t wait to see more!

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.

Rocketman

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!)

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.