“Justice League”

The DCEU is like a kid riding a bike; they crash on the first couple of rides, but slowly get better with practice. They’ve improved with Justice League.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) learn of a new CG-villain named Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) who plots world domination. Their solution – recruit Aquaman (Jason Mamoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and The Flash (Ezra Miller) and resurrect Superman (Henry Cavill) from the dead to help them stop the new baddy.

I’m a fan of comic book movies, but I also have a love-hate relationship with Zack Snyder. I love his earlier work (Dawn of the Dead and Watchmen particularly), but his DCEU films are huge misfires. Thankfully, Justice League is an improvement. It’s a B-superhero movie that’s just lighthearted fun. I admire that Snyder and Joss Whedon (who did extensive rewrites and post-production work) treated Justice League as a lighthearted superhero flick.

There are a few occasional dark moments with the best being a brooding opening credits sequence. It uses a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” to show how hopeless the world has become without Superman. Part from that, Justice League relies on one-liners and witty banter to make the movie fun. Even Batman makes jokes, which is shocking!

The cast has great chemistry and each actor does their character justice. Mamoa plays Aquaman as a debauched rockstar, Miller plays The Flash as an antisocial nerd, and Fisher portrays Cyborg as a man torn between his humanity and robotics.

Affleck and Gadot are once again great as Batman and Wonder Woman; they both sell their characters’ conflicts and opposing views of battling Steppenwolf. Steppenwolf is where the movie suffers. There’s no substance or originality with Steppenwolf and even with the underrated Hinds playing him, I wasn’t sold. Then again, does anyone ever watch a superhero ensemble movie for the villain?

The plot is a standard save-the-world formula we’ve seen done a thousand times. However, the final act is worth the ticket admission alone, thanks to Snyder and Whedon’s portrayal of Superman. He’s not recklessly destroying cities or brooding; he’s smiling and saving villages from destruction.

The DCEU sounds like it’s on its last leg, but I’m willing to keep going back since the movies are getting better.

Grade: B

 

Advertisements

“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-

“Spider-Man: Homecoming”

Spider-Man…. Spider-Man…. Does what “The Amazing Spider-Man” can’t! That’s right, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is a return to form for the iconic Marvel character.

The self-aware titled “Spider-Man: Homecoming” takes place eight months after Peter Parker (Tom Holland) was introduced in “Civil War.” Since then, he’s hungry for more action. He’s flaking on his friends and beloved Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), he’s dropped out of various clubs, and he’s beyond high school.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) takes on a father-figure role to Peter and wants him to be patient and focus on being a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Peter ignores his advice when he crosses paths with a heavily armed thief called The Vulture (Michael Keaton); their battles cause Peter to learn some valuable lessons the hard way.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” is a lighthearted and fun MCU movie that’s more a coming-of-age tale than standard origin story. Director Jon Watts (the solid B-movie “Cop Car”) gives Spidey the John Hughes treatment. Peter loves being Spider-Man, but often has to choose between his superhero addiction and being a kid. This sets up some comedic and dramatic moments for Peter.

The 21-year-old Holland does an amazing job playing Peter. He isn’t brooding like Maguire or arrogant like Garfield; he perfectly captures the angst, excitement, ambition, and recklessness of being a teen. Keaton and Downey both are great in their respective supporting roles. Keaton makes a menacing-albeit-sympathetic villain while Downey portrays Stark in a more humanized fashion.

The Vulture and Stark play important roles in teaching the naïve Parker the harsh ways of the world and are perfect foils to each other, despite no screen time together. “Homecoming” excels in fleshing out each character and making them grounded and empathetic. Though I was rooting for Spider-Man, I also wanted The Vulture to win occasionally.

“Homecoming” isn’t perfect due to a redundant narrative. Throughout the whole movie, Peter tends an event, conveniently notices The Vulture in action nearby, apologizes to his friends, ditches them, fights the baddy, then apologizes again. I would have preferred each action sequence setting up confrontation differently.

The redundant narrative is forgivable due to the performances and a couple of harrowing action sequences that capture both Spider-Man’s noble and destructive nature. He isn’t destructive like Zack Snyder’s Superman  and not take responsibility; he’s a powerful kid who doesn’t realize that his actions have consequences. “Homecoming” is a fun time and I’m looking forward to Spider-Man’s return in 2019.

Grade: B+

Ranking of all “Spider-Man” movies favorite-to-least:

  1. “Spider-Man 2” (2004)
  2. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017)
  3. “Spider-Man” (2002)
  4. “The Amazing Spider-Man” (2012)
  5. “Spider-Man 3” (2007)
  6. “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (2014)

“Wonder Woman”

The DCEU has finally gotten their act together! After their three consecutive misfires (“Man of Steel,” “Batman vs. Superman,” and “Suicide Squad”), they’ve redeemed themselves with “Wonder Woman.”

Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) grows up training to fight Ares, the God of War. She’s trained by her fierce aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) until one day a soldier named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) appears on their beach, informing them of World War I. Diana agrees to help Steve stop a powerful enemy, under the assumption it will end all war. But will it?

“Wonder Woman” is the first DC film since the original “Superman” that paints heroism in a positive light. Diana doesn’t bomb buildings like in Tim Burton’s “Batman” or recklessly destroy buildings and kill thousands of people in a fight like “Man of Steel.” She fights, kills only when provoked, and she saves people (did Superman save anyone in “Man of Steel?”).

Diana’s flaw is often highlighted in key scenes where she has to decide between saving someone in front of her or pursuing the greater evil and save thousands of lives. This sets up some emotionally investing conflicts as she learns the hard way that she can’t save everyone; even if she wins a battle.

Gal Gadot is charismatic as the lead heroine; despite showing off impressive stunt work, I was more impressed with her emotional moments. It’s sweet watching her discover small joys such as babies or ice cream. It’s funny to see her match an outfit with her battle gear. It’s sad watching her mourn the loss of loved ones in battle and learning war has consequences.

Chris Pine brings boyish charm as the sly Trevor. He acts as Diana’s mentor, partner, and lover. I was more invested in their mentor-protege and buddy cop relationships rather than the actual romance. The romance between them is forced, but not annoying.

The main villains could have also used some more development and originality since they are cliched mad scientists; however, “Wonder Woman” is about the hero and not the villain, so I’ll let it pass.

Director Patty Jenkins also pulls off something few indie directors have accomplished: transition from a low-budget film to a big blockbuster and direct both competently. Each action sequence looks like an expressionist painting and are strengthened by Jenkins’s exceptional use of slow motion (a style I’ve resented in recent years).

“Wonder Woman” is arguably the best film so far this summer. And when that guitar solo kicks in during action sequences, it will likely have you quietly saying, “Yes,” like it did for me.

Grade: A-

“Power Rangers”

While watching “Power Rangers,” all I wanted was Krispy Kreme. Mmmmm…. Krispy Kreme….

In Angel Grove, a Breakfast Club ensemble of high school students befriend each other and find strange coins. The students are former football star Jason (Dacre Montgomery), ostracized mean girl Kimberly (Naomi Scott), the autistic Billy (RJ Cyler), new girl Trini (Becky G), and loner Zack (Ludi Lin).

The coins empower these kids and lead them to an ancient being named Zordon (Bryan Cranston), who trains them to be the next Power Rangers, protectors of the galaxy. Meanwhile, alien invader Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks) searches for the Zeo Crystal in her plot for world domination.

“Power Rangers” isn’t an original film since it borrows heavily from “Man of Steel” and “Chronicle.” While those films were overly destructive, brooding, and cynical, “Power Rangers” depicts the optimistic side of one discovering powers. Sure, there’s some cheese, but that’s part of the fun.

“The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” was always a cheesy show with mindless action, but it had heart and great messages about diversity and friendship. “Power Rangers” maintains these messages, even when it occasionally treads on the dark side.

The original series depicted the characters as these perfect, popular kids, but in “Power Rangers,” they’re far from that. Jason is an outcast for letting down Angel Grove’s football team, Kimberly is guilt-ridden over a prank, Zack ditches school to take care of his mom, Billy’s often bullied for his disability, and Trini is afraid of coming out to her parents.

Any writer could have written these sensitive arcs in a juvenile fashion, but writer John Gatins (“Kong: Skull Island”) handles them maturely and realistically. All the rangers feel like kids and not caricatures. The cast does well with their roles, especially RJ Cyler as Billy (I related to him the most).

Elizabeth Banks steals the show as Rita Rapulsa and is clearly having a blast on camera. Whether she steals gold, brag about her plan, or eats a Krispy Kreme doughnut, she rocks.

Speaking of Krispy Kreme, “Power Rangers” over kills Krispy Kreme product placement, but it weirdly suits the plot and tone of the movie. It’s more charming than annoying. I would say the only let down of “Power Rangers” was the action was lackluster (lots of slow-mo, fast-mo fight scenes). But good news is there’s an upcoming sequel, which means room for improvement.

Grade: B+

“Captain America: Civil War”

The third installment of a great franchise is usually the black sheep of the family. “Alien 3” (1992), “Spider-Man 3” (2007), “X-Men: The Last Stand” (2006), “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012), etc. But how to the Russo Brothers keep topping themselves and their previous installments?!

“Captain America: Civil War” takes place a year after last year’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and after another catastrophic mission, Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt’s character from the 2008 “Incredible Hulk” movie) steps in and proposes a program to register all the Avengers as government operatives. Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) isn’t a fan of this while Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) is okay with being put in check.

The situation further escalates when Rogers finds his best friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) wanted for more crimes, prompting him and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) to protect Bucky and enlist Scarlett Witch/Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) to help. Iron Man, on the other hand, has Jim Rhoades/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Vision (Paul Bettany), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and a young kid no one’s heard of named Peter Parker aka Spider-Man (Tom Holland). Who will win?!

“Civil War” begins like the same gritty spy movie/superhero hybrid that the great “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014) was, but then evolves into something greater. This is an epic movie about a dysfunctional superhero family, plain simple. Rogers and Stark both have a strong case of sibling rivalry while Bucky is well, um, the black sheep! There’s much more to the movie than family metaphors… Like moral ambiguity!

“Civil War” shares the traits of some of the best spy and political thrillers, including “The Hunt for Red October” (1991) and “Crimson Tide” (1995) in which neither of our protagonists are right or wrong. It’s a debate. Would you want to surrender your freedom and be restricted? Or would you feel okay with restriction laws, knowing it’s potentially preventing more destruction?

We also get some suspenseful and masterfully directed action sequences, including one well-developed and cathartic fight between both teams at an airport. This fight emphasizes each member’s wit, power, and flaw as they beat the crap out of each other. It’s also just long enough. It’s not drawn out like the “Age of Ultron” climax.

Each cast member has their moments with Evans portraying Rogers as self-righteous, but also self-aware, Downey, Jr. playing Stark as vulnerable and lonely, Stan playing Bucky as a soldier with a lot of demons, Boseman playing T’Challa as honorable and vengeful, Holland playing Parker as a lovable smart-ass, and Rudd playing Lang as an everyman excited to be part of something bigger (it’s a better Ant-Man movie than last year’s “Ant-Man”). Daniel Brühl, of “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) and “Rush” (2013), is chilling as a mysterious villain obsessed with the Avengers.

For an ensemble comic book movie, “Civil War” is a fine example of how to confidently manage a large number of characters without getting lost in weaker subplots. I’d recommend it to comic book fans and anyone who wants to see a great, fun summer movie.

Grade: A+

“Fant4stic”

You stylize a title as cheesy as “Fant4stic”, you bet I’m going to refer the movie by that title. The one thing I learned watching “Fant4stic” is that director Josh Trank (“Chronicle” (2012)) is better with less money in his budget.

The premise of “Fant4stic” is simple; five genius kids in either high school or college are enlisted by Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey from TV’s “Oz” and “House of Cards”) to research teleportation, discovering another planet in the process. You have high school genius Reed Richards (Miles Teller), his best friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), Storm’s rebellious son Johnny (Michael B. Jordon) and adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara), and Storm’s eccentric and arrogant protege Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbel).

The team are all exposed to the other planet’s fuels, mutating them in the process, which leads them against Victor on Planet Zero. There’s the premise in a nutshell!

What’s irritating about the narrative in “Fant4stic” is that there’s no development or lesson learned by the end of the movie! Ben resents Reed after their mutations, Ben and Johnny form a rivalry, Reed and Sue take a romantic interest in each other, and Reed and Johnny are clearly friends, but none of this is developed or resolved. With a running time of 100 minutes, I wonder if Trank was forced to edit the film and cut out all of the development and back story.

The small amount of development is some of the most half-assed writing in recent memory. Ben and Reed are respectively the brain and heart duo trying to change the world, Victor wants to destroy Earth and go back to Planet Zero because he feels we’re killing Earth (though not wrong there, but that’s a different conversation), and the kids get their powers due to a drunken mishap? Maybe the message of the movie was don’t drink.

As far as acting goes, Miles Teller and Kate Mara both look bored, Jamie Bell overacts as the inept and street smart muscle, Michael B Jordon and Toby Kebbel are good sports on screen, and Reg E. Cathey works well with what he has.

Trank envisioned “Fant4stic” being a blend of Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” movies, Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” (2014), and David Cronenberg’s body horror classics “The Fly” (1986) and “Scanners” (1981). Ambitious idea, yeah, but like I said in my “True Detective” review, execution matters! I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’d rather rewatch the 2005 and 2007 “Fantastic 4” films before I watch “Fant4stic” again.

Grade: F