“Thor: Ragnarok”

Replacing a franchise director can be risky. Putting Taika Waititi in charge of Thor: Ragnarok is just what our God of Thunder needed.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) learns that Loki (Tom Hiddleston) survived the end events of The Dark World and they have a bittersweet reunion. They also discover they have an evil sister Hela (Cate Blanchett). Hela takes over Asgard and casts Thor and Loki to Sakaar where the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) forces Thor to become a gladiator. He also reunites with a certain angry green scientist (Mark Ruffalo) and they try to find a way to save Asgard.

Of the MCU franchises, the Thor is my least favorite. I found the first two films repetitive with too much focus on Thor and Jane’s relationship. Ragnarok is a breath of fresh air. Waititi replaces the rushed romance with a platonic friendship, removesThor and Loki’s brooding attitudes and amps up their wit, and he swaps out the Shakespeare undertones for a retro 80s aesthetics. I wanted to yell “YES,” in the theater like Thor does out of the happiness.

We see that Thor’s come a long way in growing up. He’s less arrogant, reckless, and is now wiser and accepting of Loki. Loki is still mischievous, but recognizes how much he cares for Thor. After four movies together, it’s easy to believe Hemsworth and Hiddleston’s chemistry as dysfunctional brothers.

Ragnarok is also the funniest MCU film to date. The jokes are physical, slapstick, and self-referential without ever being annoying. During the big battle between Thor and Hulk that’s in every trailer, we’re treated to some of the funniest cross-referencing jokes, thanks to Hiddleston’s comedic timing and facial expressions.

The action sequences are kinetic, flashy, and fun; they felt like a fantasy version of Guardians of the Galaxy due to the candy-colored explosions and retro soundtrack (yes, Immigrant Song is in the movie). Waititi had previously directed The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which spliced humor into over-the-top action sequences. He clearly loves both genres and will continue to make a strong impact.

The end battle is a tad anti-climactic, but is filled with enough character moments to suffice. Each cast member excels with Blanchett’s wonderfully evil villain and Goldblum’s eccentric secondary antagonist being welcome additions. I can’t think of another superhero movie that was this funny.

Grade: A-

“Blade Runner: 2049”

I’ve now seen Denis Villeneuve’s highly anticipated film, Blade Runner: 2049 twice. That alone should tell you how I feel about the film.

Thirty years after Deckard (Harrison Ford) fled with Rachael (Sean Young), we’re introduced to a new blade runner named K (Ryan Gosling). K’s tasked uncovers a certain secret that’s connected to him and Deckard, and threatens what remains of order. That’s all you need to know.

Blade Runner: 2049 was my most anticipated film of 2017 and it lives up to the hype. This is a mesmerizing film that maintains its predecessor’s tone and aesthetics while acting as a stand alone film. It’s currently my favorite film of 2017.

A lot has changed between 2019 and 2049 in the Blade Runner universe. Replicants have evolved, computers have evolved, and the world is now overpopulated and decayed. LA isn’t just rainy; it’s snowy, foggy, and smoggy. There isn’t a single shot of sunshine, yet the film is still stunning.

From start to finish, Blade Runner: 2049 is eye candy. I was mesmerized between the aerial shots of K driving through the neon skyscrapers and the shots of him walking through dark hallways and smoggy landscapes. Cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall, The Shawshank Redemption, Prisoners, No Country for Old Men, Fargo) once again proves he’s the master of cinematography.

This isn’t a style over substance film by any means. Much like Ridley Scott’s masterful predecessor, Villeneuve’s sequel maintains the philosophical themes and ambiguous questions about life, death, and humanity. It also raises new ones about memory, miracles, evolution, and survival. 2049 isn’t at all a rehash of the first film.

2049 is 2 hours and 43 minutes long (roughly 44 minutes longer than the original) and is an epic in scale and tone. If you saw Villeneuve’s previous works Sicario and Prisoners, you know he has a knack for violent quick bursts of action. 2049 has enough to satisfy action lovers.

Everyone in the cast is perfect. Gosling delivers another cool, expressionistic performance as a troubled antihero. Ford portrays Deckard as a traumatized battle-torn veteran with grace. Robin Wright adds some humanity to her cold character Detective Joshi; she’s K’s superior and acts as a caring maternal figure. Even Jared Leto has a few golden moments as a god complex-ridden replicant manufacturer, Niander Wallace. Of all the performances, Sylvia Hoeks shines as Luv, Wallace’s replicant enforcer who wants to prove she’s the superior replicant.

Blade Runner was an acquired taste and 2049 isn’t any different. If you want an artistic epic that’s restrained in action but grandiose in themes, 2049 is for you. Villeneuve once again proves he’s one of the best working filmmakers to date.

Grade: A+

“Battle of the Sexes”

I’ve heard claims that Battle of the Sexes is an analogy for last year’s Trump-Clinton election. That’s not the case at all, though I can see both Emma Stone and Steve Carell playing Clinton and Trump in a future satire.

Women’s tennis champion Billie Jean King (Stone) is fed up with the gender wage gap and misogyny in the ATP. Washed up tennis player-turned-hustler Bobby Riggs (Carell) sees King’s crusade as a prophet for him and proposes a match dubbed “Battle of the Sexes.” King gladly accepts since Riggs continuously mocks women’s tennis.

Battle of the Sexes is a better-than-average biopic thanks to Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s (Little Miss Sunshine) direction and Stone and Carell’s performances. The film is filled with glossy 70’s visuals and some beautiful, expressive shots. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of witty dialogue and banter thanks to the terrific Simon Beaufoy’s (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) script.

Battle of the Sexes’s best aspect is its complex characters. This isn’t a black-and-white depiction of King versus Riggs, but quite the opposite. King plays for a cause, but has some flaws of her own in her love life. Riggs plays for attention and is clearly putting on a show to recapture his lost glory. Both Stone and Carell excel in capturing the emotions and complexity of their respective characters.

The film suffers from trying too hard at being Oscar bait on occasion. It’s quite obvious with Alan Cumming’s character’s closing line that the filmmakers are campaigning for the upcoming awards season. Also, like most biopics, we get closing captions in the end. It would be nice to see a biopic that defies this convention.

Still, I recommend Battle of the Sexes. It has spirit, humor, panache, and complexity.

Grade: A-

“Gerald’s Game”

What a year for Stephen King, huh? He’s rolling in royalties from It and The Dark Tower (maybe not so much the latter. Now his controversial novel Gerald’s Game has been adapted for Netflix.

The estranged Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) and Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino) take a vacation to spice up their love life. Things take a horrific turn when Gerald suffers a heart attack and leaves Jessie handcuffed to her bed. There’s no neighbors, housekeepers, or travelers nearby. When Jessie has some surreal hallucinations and a starving dog makes its way inside, how will Jessie escape? Can she even?

Writer/director Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Hush) once again delivers a nail-biting genre film that utilizes editing to its full potential. Gerald’s Game isn’t a film you can look away from (and you’ll want to at one particular point), but you must watch; like Oculus, Flanagan splices the film in a way that tricks its viewers.

I want to be abundantly clear that Gerald’s Game is NOT a horror film. Yes, there’s a survival situation, creepy visions, and some grisly moments, but it’s a film about toxic relationships, trauma, and catharsis.

Jessie spends most of her time shackled to the bed recounting her marriage to Gerald. We learn that Gerald was misogynistic, unfaithful, manipulative, and condescending towards Jessie. Jessie also finds catharsis in the situation as she uses this and flashbacks of her traumatic childhood to motivate her.

The underrated Carla Gugino delivers a demanding-yet-graceful performance as Jessie. We don’t just watch her panic, but we also see her interact with an imagined dominant version of herself. These sequences add the right dose of humor. Hopefully, the Academy isn’t too snobby over horror or Netflix and consider Gugino for Best Actress.

Bruce Greenwood (also underrated) is convincing as Gerald. He’s a despicable human in the opening act, but as Jessie imagines their confrontations throughout the film, he becomes more complex.

The final act is a slight copout; It’s a pet peeve of mine when films end in a exposition-fueled narrative explaining what happened in the aftermath. Gerald’s Game disappointingly does this via written letter. Given Flanagan’s unconventional narrative techniques, I would have expected something less straightforward.

Still, Gerald’s Game is a terrific thriller and a great kickoff for the Halloween season.

Grade: A-

Top 5 Worst Stephen King Adaptations

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Welcome back! So, It comes out tonight and leading up to my review, I thought I’d share my top 5 worst Stephen King adaptations. Here we go!

5) Secret Window (2004) – “The most important part is the ending… And this one is perfect.” Not the case in David Koepp’s self-indulgent and predictable thriller. Johnny Depp was good at least.

4) Pet Sematary Two (1992) – Pet Sematary Two isn’t an official adaptation, but it’s an unnecessary sequel. It seems the screenwriter amped up the animal and child deaths while missing the point of its much scarier predecessor.

3) Thinner (1996) – While King is a great writer with some terrific books under his belt, Thinner is one that didn’t need to be adapted. The book centers on a morbidly obese crooked lawyer who’s cursed by a Gypsy to lose weight until he dies. The film adaptation is equally ridiculous and even more disjointed than its source material.

2) Dreamcatcher (2003) – Aliens, psychics, alter egos, a genocidal army general, and an autistic man with the key to saving the world? Talk about unrestrained. The effects are 90’s Sci-Fi Channel-level awful while the dialogue is something out of M. Night Shyamalan’s worst movies.

1) Maximum Overdrive (1986) – Fun fact, King wrote and directed this 80’s crap fest while high on cocaine. It shows! It’s hard to tell what King wanted between a Cold War satire, a 50’s B-movie homage, or a machine gun-fueled Ac/Dc music video. Either way, I don’t even think King knows.

Stay tuned for my review of It.

“Good Time”

The Twilight days are long over for Robert Pattinson. The man is now at chameleon status, disappearing into the role of a blonde sociopath in Good Time.

Connie’s (Pattinson) a lowlife. He lies, cheats, and steals to survive in New York. After his latest heist lands his autistic brother Nick (played by co-director Ben Safdie) in jail, Connie desperately attempts to bail out Nick. He’s ten grand short and most of his loot was ruined by a dye-pack, so now what? Credit card fraud, an amusement park robbery, and selling an acid-laced Sprite bottle sound like a good time.

Ben and Josh Safdie direct Good Time as a fast-paced, neon-drenched heist film. This is a product reminiscent of the 70s New Hollywood and 80s Indie eras. It’s gritty, violent, mesmerizing, and exhausting. It’s also an acquired taste, depending on the viewer’s tolerance of trash cinema.

Good Time begins and ends in Nick’s point of view. His scenes are semi-heartbreaking given he doesn’t understand what’s going on. When Connie interrupts Nick’s therapy appointment, that’s when Good Time is Connie’s show. Pattinson chews up every scene as Connie, whether we root for him or not.

That’s where Good Time suffers. We watch Connie take advantage of his girlfriend’s credit card, make out with a teenage girl, and later sell her out to police. There aren’t any redeeming qualities for Connie as he’s an immoral sociopath. When there is supposed redemption, Connie isn’t there for us to witness it, lacking power.

What Good Time lacks in substance, it makes up in its style. The score is a hypnotic techno score, each shot is filled with color and kinetic energy, and every chase is a thrilling blend of shock and dark humor.

Grade: B+

“Ingrid Goes West”

Aubrey Plaza needs more dramatic work. #Ingridgoeswest.

Plaza plays Instagram stalker, Ingrid. After a stint at a mental hospital, Ingrid becomes obsessed with Instagram model Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen) and moves to Los Angeles, stalking Taylor in the process. They become friends (Taylor’s oblivious to Ingrid’s behavior), but what happens when Taylor’s punk brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen) enters the picture? Also, who’s really the villain?

Ingrid Goes West starts as a sharp, darkly funny satire. With its jabs at hipster culture and avocado toast, I found a few good laughs. I also was blown away by Plaza’s brave performance as Ingrid. She’s funny, scary, sad, and brutally honest.

Ingrid is a complex character ; an unhinged person who wants what we all want – happiness. Can we blame her for leaving behind her old life for a better one in California? Despite the wrong reasons, no.

Olsen also turns in another great performance this year (check out her work in Wind River). As Taylor, Olsen plays the phony celebrity gracefully. Taylor’s friendship with Ingrid is one-sided and we can see that Taylor only hangs out with her for her own benefit. We root for Ingrid since she’s too delusional to see Taylor’s true colors.

The satirical edge fades in the second half as Ingrid Goes West turns into a standard romantic comedy. Give me less of Ingrid’s relationship with the Batman fanboy Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and more of the psycho thriller/dark comedy moments. Dan starts as a sweet, quirky love interest, but after the millionth Batman Forever reference, I got bored of their romance.

Ingrid Goes West briefly returns to its dark roots in the final act with a strong message on social media and loneliness. It’s just unfortunate that it went off the rails in its uneven second act. Regardless, I still recommend Ingrid Goes West for Plaza and Olsen alone.

Grade: B-

“Wind River”

By the time Taylor Sheridan’s (writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water) Wind River concluded with an informative caption, I was devastated. Sheridan writes and directs a brutal modern-day Western about a subject that needs our attention.

US Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) finds a murdered teenager in the Wind River Indian Reservation. Rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is assigned the case and is unprepared for the harsh weather and violence that await. With Lambert’s help, Banner hunts for the killer. Lambert, however, has his own reasons for taking the case.

Wind River has taken the title of 2017’s feel-bad movie (who would have thought Detroit would be dethroned?). I haven’t seen any other film this year that’s either as provocative or visceral as Wind River. Sheridan is on a role with the cynical and grim Westerns.

While Sicario was nihilistic about the war on drugs and Hell or High Water about banks, Wind River isn’t nihilistic. It’s brutally honest about missing Native American women and how there are no statistics. No one knows how many are missing; this is a fact that floored me.

MILD SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

Lambert takes the case as a form of catharsis. His daughter has been missing (and possibly dead) for years and he aids Banner to help exercise his aggression. Lambert doesn’t hold back his rage during the climax, resulting in some shockingly violent moments. Renner delivers a taut performance as Lambert; he’s a likable-yet-troubled cowboy overwhelmed by pain. With one beautifully written monologue about grief, Renner is a guaranteed Best Actor nominee.

Olsen plays Banner with a certain level of innocence. She isn’t afraid to draw her weapon or take charge of the situation, but it’s obvious that this is her first homicide case. This is emphasized in the final act when she breaks down over the case’s grisly outcome.

Wind River is Sheridan’s sophomore directorial effort. While his aesthetics are slightly uneven (using voiceover narration in the prologue and title cards in the epilogue), he is one to keep an eye out for. His poetic screenwriting, dark commentary, and use of violence make him a standout auteur.

Grade: A

“Logan Lucky”

After a four-year absence from filmmaking, I’m happy to see the versatile Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Magic Mike, and the Ocean’s trilogy) return with Logan Lucky. It’s nice to see a lighthearted comedy after two months of dark, violent films.

Jimmy (Channing Tatum), Clyde (Adam Driver), and Mellie Logan (Riley Keough) are a trio of bumbling siblings who believe they’re cursed. Jimmy comes up with a plan to reverse their curse – rob Charlotte Motor Speedway during the Coca-Cola 600. With the help of incarcerated thief Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), they put their plan in motion.

There’s a line in Logan Lucky’s second act that describes the heist as “Ocean’s 7-11.” This sums up the film in a nutshell. Soderbergh crisply shoots, edits, and directs Logan Lucky, successfully making us root for a group of ne’er-do-wells.

The Logans aren’t the brightest bulbs, but they have good intentions with the heist (mostly family-related). Jimmy keeps a check list on his fridge reminding him important rules for the job, which adds charm and even comes into play during the heist’s surprise conclusion. Tatum, Driver, and Keough all have great chemistry as the Logan siblings, playing their characters with charisma and heart.

Daniel Craig deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination as Joe Bang. He’s cool, enigmatic, and insane in this role, often showing some comedic talents. Bang’s the biggest schemer behind the heist and often provides some hilarious and shocking moments.

It’s suspected that Soderbergh wrote the script for Logan Lucky considering no records or interviews can be found with credited writer, Rebecca Blunt. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the case since Soderbergh is an auteur who craves full creative control. And I say give Soderbergh the full creative control since Logan Lucky is a fun, harmless time at the movies.

Grade: A

Top 5 Best Stephen King Adaptations

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Hello! So, in between The Dark Tower and IT, I thought I would share my top 5 best and worst Stephen King adaptations. The Best got the popular vote leading into The Dark Tower, so here we go!

5) Misery (1990) – Kathy Bates’s terrifying performance is enough to watch this disturbing psychological horror flick. Misery is the tale of a fangirl who takes her obsession with an author one step too far.

4) The Dead Zone (1983) – Want to watch a thriller that’s politically relevant? Look up David Cronenberg’s classic supernatural thriller The Dead Zone. It tells the tale of a psychic teacher (a restrained Christopher Walken) who realizes that the popular presidential candidate (a terrifying Martin Sheen) tends to start WWIII.

3) The Shining (1980) – Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece is far different from the novel and that makes it a special gem. Kubrick’s adaptation is superior to King’s work, thanks to haunting imagery and an amazing performance from Jack Nicholson.

2) The Mist (2007) – Which was better? Stephen King’s horror novella with an ambiguous ending, or Frank Darabont’s no-holds-barred adaptation that polarized audiences? I’m going with the adaptation! The Mist is an unsettling film about good versus evil and features the most twisted ending of any horror film.

1) Stand By Me (1986) – I didn’t pick a horror film or The Shawshank Redemption, so sue me! Rob Reiner directed a funny, sad, and nostalgic film about growing up. I watched Stand By Me several times growing up and was touched every time.

That’s it for my top 5 best Stephen King adaptations! What are yours? And stay tuned for reviews of The Dark Tower, IT, and my top 5 worst list coming between this weekend and early September.