Movie review: Returning to Downton Abbey

da-1sht-int-f-hiresI can’t remember exactly how I got into Downton Abbey. I think a friend recommended it to me, and I watched the first season while it was still on Netflix.

Needless to say, I quickly fell absolutely, completely in love with this show. I’d watched plenty of British period dramas before, but there was something extra special about this one. Maybe it was the elaborate sets, or the gorgeous costumes, or the top-notch ensemble cast.

Whatever the reason, by the end of the final episode of the first season, I was hooked. I watched the rest of the seasons on PBS as they aired, and I had a wonderful time discussing the show with family members, friends, and coworkers, who also couldn’t seem to get enough of this show.

When the final season aired in 2016, it was a bittersweet moment. I was sad because I knew I was going to miss all these wonderful characters, but I was happy because the show wrapped up in such a lovely way. I was satisfied with the ending, but of course I didn’t object when I heard the announcement that the story would be continuing in a big screen movie.

The Downton Abbey movie, out in theaters this past weekend, feels more like an extra long TV episode than a movie — and I mean that as a compliment. I was curious how the TV series would translate to film, and to me it worked seamlessly. This is really just like two or three episodes played together, and at the end of the movie, I wanted it to keep going!

This is not a standalone film; if you saw the trailers and were curious, you definitely need to watch the show first. As a fan, I appreciated that they didn’t take up any runtime by reintroducing characters, but the film will probably feel rather confusing to those who aren’t already familiar with the Crawley family and their staff.

The plot is fairly simple: the Crawleys receive word that the king and queen of England will be coming to stay at Downton, and this brings a rush of excitement and anxiety. Of course, it wouldn’t be “Downton Abbey” without a few conflicts and scandals along the way, but everything is nicely wrapped up by the end. Pretty much everyone gets a happy ending, and the film ties up a few loose threads remaining after the end of the final season.

The Downton Abbey movie feels like the cinematic equivalent of grabbing a book and a cup of hot chocolate and curling up by a warm fire. Nothing earth-shattering happens here, but that’s okay. Watching the movie gave me a nice, cozy feeling.

I actually found myself tearing up at two points in the movie — the first time was at the beginning, when I heard the theme music and saw the camera panning over Downton, and I realized how much I’d missed this place. Then I also got a bit misty eyed at the very end, as I realized I was probably seeing Downton for the last time.

Is the movie actually the last we’ll see of Downton? The film apparently exceeded expectations at the box office, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the story picks back up again at a later date. But, I’ll also be okay if this truly is the end. It was nice to get one more chance to say goodbye.

Movie review: ‘The Lego Movie 2’ is more okay than awesome

hero_lego-movie-2Even though lovable minifigure Emmet saved the day in “The Lego Movie,” life in Bricksburg is most definitely no longer awesome.

The Lego world that Emmet and his friends live in has become a grim, post-apocalyptic wasteland, that not even Emmet’s eternal optimism can fix. When his best friend Lucy is kidnapped by an invader from outer space, Emmet has to find the courage to venture into strange new worlds and face a mysterious and dangerous new villain.

When “The Lego Movie” arrived in theaters in 2014, it was an unexpected hit. It could have easily come across as a cash grab or a really long toy commercial, but instead it managed to be wonderfully zany, surprisingly heartfelt, and a ton of fun. Chris Pratt voiced everyman minifigure Emmet, who sincerely believes that everything is, indeed, awesome (let’s admit it — even five years later, we all still have that song stuck in our heads). Will Arnett’s Lego Batman was a breakout star who eventually got his own spinoff, and the movie also had a nice message about rediscovering your childhood.

Right or wrong, “The Lego Movie 2” hasn’t quite captured that same level of buzz, boasting a lower-than-expected box office haul. Sometimes, it’s hard to replicate that same sense of magic with a sequel.

On the surface, “The Lego Movie 2” has everything the first movie had: wacky jokes, some fun cameos (my favorite was definitely the Bruce Willis “Die Hard” reference), and a surprising twist that shifts the way you think the story is going to go. But overall it doesn’t feel as fresh or fun as the original.

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Maybe it’s because the script isn’t quite as strong, or maybe it’s because we know what to expect now; the concept no longer feels like an exciting novelty. Also, maybe five years was too long to wait to release the sequel, and audiences have moved on to other franchises.

However, I did still enjoy watching this movie. It’s fun to see famous characters like the Justice League pop up in the story, and there are some funny new songs. My favorite involved Batman performing a duet with another character, but to say more would be a spoiler (just know that it’s a fun play on the Batman vs. Superman rivalry).

I loved the Mad Max aesthetic of the washed-up Bricksburg in the beginning of the film, and there’s an entertaining new character (also voiced by Chris Pratt) named Rex Dangervest. He’s a space-traveling raptor trainer/cowboy/action hero etc., etc., etc. — a fun play on some of Pratt’s previous live-action roles. I loved all the scenes with the Lego raptors, especially when their squeaks and growls were translated via captions on screen.

This is turning out to be a shorter than normal review, but I really don’t have a lot else to say. As mentioned previously, I had fun watching the movie, and it was nice to get out of the house on a cold, dreary winter afternoon. Yet I probably won’t be rushing out to watch this movie again, and I don’t plan to add it to my personal DVD collection, like I did with the first one.

If you’re a fan of the first “Lego Movie,” then part 2 is still worth seeing…just go into the theater knowing that it’s more “okay” than “awesome.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie review: ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ fun, but not as fresh as the original

antmanhr-5.jpgI’ve always felt that the original “Ant-Man” is a bit of an underrated gem within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Although it had a much more modest box office haul than Marvel’s bigger hits, it’s a fun (and funny) heist flick starring a perfectly-cast Paul Rudd as the sometimes misguided but always well-meaning ex-con Scott Lang. It just barely misses out on ranking amongst my top five MCU films, and I was really looking forward to the sequel, “Ant-Man and the Wasp.”

I had a lot of fun watching the sequel, and it’s refreshing to have a superhero flick with a lighter tone and smaller stakes (no pun intended there). It’s a perfect summer blockbuster and certainly isn’t as intense as “Infinity War.” However, it didn’t feel *quite* as fresh or fun as the original. I’ll get my criticisms out of the way first, and then I’ll dive into what I liked best, because I really did enjoy watching this film.

My reaction to “Ant-Man and the Wasp” reminds me a little of my reaction to “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” actually. With the first “Ant-Man,” I had no idea what to expect, and there was a certain glee in discovering how awesomely they executed the challenging concept of this tiny superhero who commands an army of ants. With the sequel, the writing didn’t feel quite as snappy or tight. We’ve seen this before, and it’s still fun, but the element of surprise isn’t there anymore.

My only real issue with the first “Ant-Man” was the lackluster villain, but I actually liked the “villain” here. I use “villain” with quotation marks, because the primary villain isn’t necessarily a “bad guy” in the traditional sense but more of an antagonist whose goals are in opposition to the hero’s. It’s tricky to say more about Ghost without diving into spoilers, but I really liked the nuance Hannah John-Kamen brought to this character. In fact, I wish the film had dedicated even more time to delving into who she is and the reasons she is seeking justice/revenge. I personally would have jettisoned the second villain, an underused Walton Goggins as black market dealer Sonny Burch, in favor of more screen time for Ghost.

There were a couple of other moments I would have tweaked, as well. The jokes weren’t quite as snappy as the original, which I rewatched right after seeing “Ant-Man and the Wasp” and was still a delight. I also thought there were some too-obvious moments of exposition.

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Still, I don’t want this to come across as a negative review, because I really did have fun watching this. Paul Rudd is still great as Ant-Man/Scott Lang, and I loved that they brought back Abby Ryder Fortson as his daughter, Cassie. All of Rudd and Fortson’s scenes together are utterly charming, and their father-daughter relationship is a highlight in both Ant-Man films. It was also super cool to see Evangeline Lilly share top billing as the Wasp/Hope van Dyne. She and Ant-Man make a great team.

One of my favorite parts of the film was the finale. Although we’ve seen plenty of car chases in films before, it was super fun to see a chase scene where the heroes’ car used what I’d call “strategic shrinking” to avoid the villains in pursuit. And I loved seeing Ant-Man become Giant-Man again, especially after the teaser we got for that in “Civil War.” Plus, Michael Peña’s Luis is my favorite MCU sidekick, right after Ned in “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”

Another great part was watching Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope researching the quantum realm and their attempts to find Hank’s wife Janet, who disappeared in the quantum realm years ago. Again, I don’t want to dive too heavily into spoilers, but I think the quantum realm offers a lot of fascinating potential for storytelling within the MCU. And I think it’s definitely going to play a big role in Avengers 4. I always encourage people to wait for the after credits scenes in MCU movies, but this time it’s especially important!

In short, I love Ant-Man as a character and am really glad that Marvel decided to make a sequel. It’s definitely worth watching, and I’ll look forward to adding it to my MCU Blu-ray collection once it comes out. This is something I’ve always said about the MCU; even though we all have our favorites, and there are a few that disappointed me just a little bit, they each have their fun moments and are still enjoyable to watch. “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is probably going to land somewhere in the middle of the pack for me.

Movie review: Was ‘Incredibles 2’ worth the wait?

Incredibles-2-Wallpaper-HD-30073It’s been 14 years since the first “Incredibles” movie premiered in theaters, and it’s amazing to see how much the superhero genre has changed during that time. The original “Incredibles” came out a year before Christopher Nolan’s groundbreaking Dark Knight trilogy and four years before the very first Marvel Cinematic Universe film, “Iron Man.” I don’t think anybody buying a ticket for “The Incredibles” back in 2004 imagined that by the time we finally got a sequel in 2018, we’d also be watching the epic superhero mashup “Infinity War.” So, how does the Incredibles franchise hold up after all these changes and all this time?

The original Incredibles movie introduced us to the Parr family, who were trying to live under the radar after superheroes had been made illegal. Despite their best efforts to live a “normal” life, parents Bob and Helen find themselves pulled back into the superhero business, except this time they also take their super-powered kids with them.

The sequel picks up right where the first film left off, with the Parr family jumping into action to stop a super villain with a giant drill, named the Underminer. Unfortunately, their attempt to save the day is a bit…well…messy, and isn’t exactly a PR win for the campaign to bring back superheroes. However, a wealthy benefactor named Winston Deavor offers to help superheroes like the Parrs become legal again by demonstrating to the public how great superheroes are. He picks Helen (a.k.a. Elastigirl) to be the poster child of these efforts. Of course, a new super villain arrives to foil their plans — the mysterious Screenslaver, who hypnotizes people using video screens.

Before I say anything else, I have to emphasize that “Incredibles 2” is a fun movie. It’s a good movie to take the kids to on a hot summer afternoon (and adults too, of course!) Although it seems like there are fewer films geared towards kids these days, at least in theaters, there’s clearly still a demand for this type of family film. “Incredibles 2” premiered to an amazing $180 million this past weekend — that’s a huge number, and a nice boost for Disney after the underperformance of “Solo.”

Still, I also have to say that at least for me, the sequel didn’t feel quite as fresh or exciting as the original. Maybe that’s a symptom of the 14-year gap between the two films, or the fact that so much has changed within the superhero genre in that time. Plus, sometimes it’s just tough to recapture the same magic in a sequel, because this time the concept isn’t a surprise.

The original “Incredibles” is such a good film, blending retro aesthetics, a fantastic soundtrack, and interesting family dynamics into this perfect cocktail of fun and adventure. For whatever reason, the plot of the sequel didn’t engage me as much, even though I still had fun watching the movie. I also thought the villain wasn’t as interesting this time; it’s hard to beat Syndrome, who was fascinating because Mr. Incredible inadvertently creates his own villain. The reveal of the Screenslaver’s true identity didn’t really come as a shock, and I thought it was interesting how much monologue-ing this villain did, since they made a joke about villain monologue-ing in the original.

However, let’s move on to the positive. Baby Jack-Jack was, hands down, the best part of the movie for me. Watching him discover his powers (and subsequently terrify his poor family) was absolutely hilarious. I loved superhero suit designer Edna Mode’s reappearance (she and Jack-Jack absolutely deserve a spin-off short). And I enjoyed seeing how the Parr family continues to love and support each other, even though they hit a few road bumps. The interactions between the family members provide both the film’s best comedic moments and its heart.

In short, I enjoyed watching “Incredibles 2” and thought it was a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon. If you were a fan of the first, definitely go see the sequel. However, for me it didn’t *quite* live up to the original, and I left the theater wishing for just a little bit more than it ended up delivering.

Too much of a good thing: Are sequels/revivals always a great idea?

arresteddevelopmentallcharacters2“Arrested Development” is one of my all-time favorite TV shows. The series, featuring the misadventures of the spectacularly dysfunctional Bluth family, ran for a mere three seasons on Fox before getting canceled. However, thanks to a still-devoted fanbase, the show was revived seven years later on Netflix.

Although Netflix swooping in to save the day seemed like a good thing at the time, response to the show’s fourth season was…well…a little lukewarm. But showrunners were determined to try again, and Netflix recently released a fifth season of the show that appeared to be a return to form.

I binged most of the fifth season of “Arrested Development” this past week. It was good to see the gang back together, and there were plenty of moments that made me laugh out loud. Still, it’s fair to say that the show didn’t have *quite* the same magic of its initial run, though it’s tough to pinpoint exactly why.

Revivals/sequels to beloved TV shows and movies often seem like a good idea on paper, but that’s not always the case in practice. Especially when there’s a long gap between the original product and the revival.

Sometimes it works out, like the 35-year gap between the original “Blade Runner” and the sequel “Blade Runner 2049.” Although not a box office blockbuster per se, “Blade Runner 2049” was a masterful science fiction film in its own right, at least in my opinion. But then you have other examples like the “Arrested Development” revival, which *should* work flawlessly since you’ve still got the same cast. But it just doesn’t seem quite as fresh or funny. Whether that’s because the show has changed or the audience has, is an interesting question to ponder.

Whether a revival/sequel is worthwhile or not has to be determined on a case-by-case basis. Is there anything new to add to the original story? Are there opportunities to add more layers or nuance, or portray the characters, setting, etc. in a new way? If the answer is yes, then a sequel or revival can be the perfect way to capture nostalgia while also offering fresh material. I know not all Star Wars fans are pleased with how Disney has handled the franchise, but I love the direction Star Wars is going these days. At the heart of it, it’s still the same Star Wars we know and love (at least to me!), but we’re viewing these characters/places/themes through a new lens.

Alternatively, I was initially a little skeptical about “Incredibles 2,” because it’s been 14 years since the previous film and I wasn’t sure the movie needed a follow-up. But judging by the reviews so far, it looks like it’s a worthy successor to the original film, and I’m now looking forward to seeing how it will play out. It will be especially interesting to see if the film riffs on all the changes that have occurred in the superhero genre since the original Incredibles flick.

As fans, I think it’s also important to keep our expectations in check when it comes to a return/revival. Nostalgia can be a powerful drug, making us see things as better than they really are simply because they’ve been a part of our lives for so long.

That’s partly why, as much as I love Joss Whedon’s “Firefly,” I’m not really sure I’d want to see a revival, even if the cast got back together. That show is so beloved by many fans, and we’ve all had years to watch — and re-watch, and re-watch — the series. No matter how good a reboot was, would it ever feel the same? Maybe yes, maybe not.

While there are some complaints in Hollywood about too many sequels and “retreading old ground,” I think there’s nothing wrong with continuing a story, as long as it’s done in an authentic and creative way. Audiences are pretty savvy; they can spot which products are a labor of love, and which are a shameless cash grab. And creators should also be willing to let a concept go when its time has come, no matter how beloved it was in the past.

So, what do you think the “magic ingredients” are for a successful sequel or revival? What shows, franchises, etc. would you like to see revived, and which ones should remain as they are in the past?

Movie review: ‘Pacific Rim Uprising’ falls short of original, offers minimal monster mayhem

pacific_rim_2_uprising-wide.jpgThere’s a moment in the original “Pacific Rim” where one of the Jaegers (a giant, human-piloted robot fighter) picks up a cargo ship — an actual, full-size cargo ship — and uses it to take a swing at an attacking monster (a.k.a. Kaiju). This giant robot vs. giant monster battle is a moment of sheer, giddy delight — one that makes you feels like a kid again, no matter how old you are.

Sadly, the new sequel, “Pacific Rim Uprising,” doesn’t have a moment that captures this same level of magic. Overall, the sequel feels more like a half-hearted cash grab than a true follow up to Guillermo del Toro’s original film.

The first “Pacific Rim” wasn’t necessarily an instant blockbuster, at least here in the U.S. However, it got a decent score from critics (71 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) and has since become a favorite of many geeks. It doesn’t have the deepest plot (or characters, for that matter), but you can tell Del Toro had a blast making this movie, and it’s a heck of a lot of fun to watch. I love watching “Pacific Rim,” especially with friends, and it has a special place in my film collection.

Del Toro didn’t direct the sequel, and unfortunately, “Uprising” is missing the style and the weight of the original. There are too many competing ideas and story lines that never fully coalesce. In case you haven’t seen the first “Pacific Rim,” this new movie takes place after the humans have (presumably) defeated all the Kaiju that had invaded Earth from another dimension. John Boyega (best known as Finn from the new Star Wars trilogy) plays Jake Pentecost, the son of one of the original Jaeger pilots, General Stacker Pentecost, who sacrificed his life in the last film. Jake is called into service to train a new generation of Jaeger pilots — just in time, as it turns out, because the Kaiju are back, and more dangerous than ever.

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I’m a big fan of Boyega’s — I think he has a lot of talent and charisma, and he’s definitely capable of carrying his own franchise. Sadly, the script for “Uprising” doesn’t do him a lot of favors. The idea of Jake struggling with — and rebelling against — his father’s legacy is an intriguing one, and it’s a theme the film doesn’t fully explore. Instead, too much of the run time is taken up with other side plots. I would have loved to see this movie dig a lot deeper into who Jake is and why, and develop his tense friendship with fellow Jaeger pilot Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood).

While Jake training young cadets could have been an interesting plot point (tying back to his father’s legacy), I just wasn’t as invested in it. This isn’t the fault of the young actors, who did a good job with what they were given. However, the “unusually gifted teenager with an attitude problem” trope was never my favorite character archetype and, again, distracted from Jake’s story.

Without going into spoilers, there are a lot of other plot threads, some of which make more sense than others. There’s a (sort of? maybe?) romance; an evil corporation; a surprise villain twist; and name drops to people and events from the first film. Some of these callbacks feel authentic and some don’t.

I also don’t feel the Jaeger vs. Kaiju fights were at the same level of the first movie. As I mentioned before, maybe slightly deeper characters could have made the first “Pacific Rim” an even better movie. But the film definitely had plenty of heart, and you could tell it was a labor of love for the people who made it. I had a huge grin on my face throughout all the action scenes and couldn’t believe I was seeing something that cool on the big screen. “Uprising” doesn’t capture that same feeling, and takes too long to get to the final Jaeger vs. Kaiju showdown.

I remember one of the criticisms about the original movie was that most of the fights took place in the dark, so sometimes it was hard to pick out all the details. However, after watching “Uprising,” where most of the fights take place during the day, I think I actually prefer the night ones. I can’t quite describe why, other than a vague “I thought it looked cooler.” But it was cool to see the Jaegers fighting the glowing Kaiju amidst the backdrop of skyscrapers lit up at night. Overall, “Pacific Rim” had a more unique style, while “Uprising” feels a little too much like a Transformers spin-off.

I really don’t like having to write negative reviews, and it hurts to be a downer about a sequel to a movie that I really, really loved. But the first “Pacific Rim” felt like something special to me, while I probably won’t be watching “Uprising” again.

Movie review: ‘Blade Runner 2049’ a worthy sequel to a sci-fi classic

Blade_Runner_2049_2040.0I love being surprised by a movie. A couple times a year, I’ll walk into a theater to see a film, either not quite sure what to expect or not feeling particularly hyped, and then I’ll end up walking out afterwards completely blown away. That was my experience watching “Blade Runner 2049,” a film that wasn’t on my “most anticipated” list this year but has definitely earned a spot on my “best of 2017” ranking.

I’ve only seen the original “Blade Runner” once, several years ago. Although I enjoyed it and recognized how important it was to the science fiction genre, I happened to watch it when I was going through a period of really bad insomnia. I didn’t feel like I was fully engaged with the film and the story didn’t stick with me (I had to re-read the plot synopsis on Wikipedia before seeing the sequel). I also had some skepticism about a sequel being released more than 30 years after the original. Did we really need a sequel? Was this just a cash grab?

The answers are yes, we did need this sequel, and no, this feels like far more than a cash grab. Director Denis Villeneuve has crafted a haunting, thought-provoking film with absolutely gorgeous cinematography that stands proudly alongside the original.

Like its predecessor, “Blade Runner 2049” is a sci-fi noir that takes place in Earth’s dystopian future. In the first movie, Harrison Ford played Rick Deckard, a “blade runner” or sort of bounty hunter who “retires” renegade androids called “replicants.” “Blade Runner 2049” takes place 30 years later, after Deckard has gone off the grid. Ryan Gosling plays an LAPD blade runner known simply as “K,” one of the newer model replicants designed to be more obedient to humans. The film begins with what appears to be a fairly standard mission for K, eliminating a replicant who has been hiding out on a farm. However, an unusual object buried deep underground tips off K to a larger conspiracy and leads him to question his own existence.

I’ll delve more deeply into the story in the spoiler section below, because I’m dying to discuss some of the plot points, but for those who haven’t seen this yet, I’d highly recommend it. Denis Villeneuve is definitely going on my list of directors to watch (he also directed last year’s excellent “Arrival”). Normally my local IMAX theater only offers 3D movies in IMAX (I’m still not a huge fan of 3D), but when I saw “Blade Runner 2049” was showing in IMAX 2D I decided to splurge. I’m so glad I did. “Blade Runner 2049” is probably the most visually stunning movie I’ve seen this year. Every shot feels lovingly and painstakingly crafted, and it was breathtaking to see these visuals on an IMAX screen (especially without the clunky 3D glasses). The film overall has a lonely, melancholy tone that make the few flashes of genuine hope all the more impactful. It works as both a sci-fi action/detective film and a more thought-provoking meditation on what it means to be human and what gives life its meaning.

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

I managed to avoid pretty much all spoilers ahead of time, and I really enjoyed following along with the film’s central mystery, which involves K trying to hunt down the seemingly impossible: a child born to a replicant. K uncovers evidence that leads him to believe he is actually the replicant child, a fact that causes him to start thinking more independently. Although he does become more human, he later learns that he was actually just a decoy created to help hide the real replicant child, the daughter of Rick Deckard and the replicant Rachael. It’s heartbreaking to see how much this crushes him. He’s now caught in a dangerous limbo: he’s not the chosen one, but he can’t just go back to being an obedient replicant.

I thought the film used just the right amount of Harrison Ford; his appearance is more substantial than a cameo, but Rick Deckard doesn’t take over the plot, allowing the new characters plenty of time to shine. I appreciated how many layers they added to the characters; there’s more to them than you assume after first encountering them.

The movie is ultimately a fascinating study of humanity and explores the murky area of ethics and artificial intelligence. We as the audience can identify with K and want him to be treated as a human because he looks like a human. And even though he’s supposed to be an obedient android, we see he has real thoughts and emotions. He may not be the real replicant child but that makes his journey of self-discovery no less meaningful. I was also left wondering just how “real” his holographic girlfriend Joi was. She’s obviously a computer program but are her feelings for K genuine? Does she really care about him, or is this just a part of her programming? The film doesn’t fully answer this, leaving us with something to think about after the credits start rolling.

End spoilers!

“Blade Runner 2049” didn’t make a huge splash at the box office, especially considering its sizable budget. But I hope positive word of mouth will motive more people to check this out, along with the original. This is definitely one of my favorite movies of the year.

Movie review: Kingsmen saddle up for sequel, ‘The Golden Circle’

Kingsman-The-Golden-Circle-1st-Day-Box-Office-CollectionOn paper, the Kingsman sequel, “The Golden Circle,” looks like it has all the right elements. It features the same details we loved about the first film, “The Secret Service,” such as over-the-top action, quirky humor, lots of unrealistic but super fun spy gadgets, and a sense of British charm. Then, to keep things fresh, the sequel adds in a new wonderfully cheesy super-villain and the Kingsmen’s American counterparts, the Statesmen. However, even though “The Golden Circle” is a fun, entertaining movie, the final product doesn’t live up to its predecessor.

In “The Golden Circle,” Eggsy, a.k.a. “Agent Galahad” (Taron Egerton), is now a full-fledged spy and proud member of the Kingsman secret service, though he still mourns the loss of his mentor, former Agent Galahad Harry Hart (Colin Firth). His latest mission is investigating an unlikely drug lord, Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore). In order to stop Poppy’s nefarious plans, he’ll have to team up with the Kingsmen’s partner organization from the U.S., the Statesmen.

At first it was a little tough for me to pinpoint why I didn’t enjoy the sequel quite as much as the first film (kind of similar to “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” earlier this summer, actually). As a viewing experience overall, it just didn’t feel as funny or clever as the first. Perhaps that’s a symptom of the first movie being such a surprise; it felt like a treat to discover “The Secret Service,” a quirky spy flick that almost slipped under my radar.

Here’s the parts I did like: Taron Egerton is great as Agent Galahad, and I love how he brings a different perspective to the very formal Kingsmen, since he’s not an aristocrat. I also like how he really wears his heart on his sleeve; we’ve seen plenty of spies who are cool, calm, and collected, always keeping their emotions locked behind a bulletproof shield. But Eggsy isn’t ashamed of his more sensitive side, and there’s a quite lovely moment towards the beginning of the film where he gets a little choked up as he remembers his mentor, Harry Hart.

And speaking of Harry Hart… Although I know it’s a common complaint that franchise films kill off and then miraculously bring back their main characters a little too flippantly, I don’t mind that “The Golden Circle” brought back Hart after a seemingly point-of-no-return in “The Secret Service.” These Kingsman movies are designed to be over-the-top and crazy, so why not bring back Hart? It’s a pleasure to see the always-dapper Colin Firth in some of these delightfully cheesy scenes.

I also enjoyed how they sent up American stereotypes with the cowboy-esque Statesmen agents, named after different types of alcohol. I wished they found a way to work Jeff Bridges’ Agent Champagne into the plot more, but perhaps an extended cameo was all that time/budget allowed. Same goes for Channing Tatum’s Agent Tequila, although the film’s closing scenes indicate we haven’t seen the last of him. I also thought Pedro Pascal did a good job as Agent Whiskey, and it was fun to see Halle Berry as Ginger Ale, the American counterpart to Mark Strong’s Merlin, the Kingsmen’s tech guru.

I loved that the first Kingsman movie had such as fun, cheesy villain (played with relish by Samuel L. Jackson), and Julianne Moore also seems to be having a good time as a sort of dark, would-be “Martha Stewart.” I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about her villain plan, though. Sort-of spoiler alert — Poppy poisons the world’s supply of recreational drugs and then holds the antidote hostage. I couldn’t figure out whether the movie was intending to make a statement about the war on drugs or if it was just a plot point. If the former, what was that message? Stop the war on drugs? Just have people stop taking these drugs? To me it just felt odd to work this very serious issue into what’s supposed to be an action comedy. Maybe it didn’t bother others, but it was one of the things that felt “off” to me. I won’t go into more details, but the meat grinder scene was also a little too much for me (and really, that’s all I want to say about that!)

Even though the sequel isn’t as good as the first, I still had a fun time at the theater and there are some really good moments here. I felt like the Elton John cameo was worth the price of admission, all on its own. John Denver’s “Country Roads” will also bring a tear to my eye the next time I hear it.

So, what did you think? Did you like the sequel? What worked, and what didn’t?