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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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