Star Wars: The Last Jedi Review

Opening to thunderous applause from audiences everywhere is Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  After what I feel was a strong predecessor (not including Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which I felt was rather underwhelming), I was very excited to see what direction Star Wars would be taken in.

With the Resistance on the ropes and the First Order hot on their trail, things become increasingly desperate for the Rebels. Prepared to make one final retreat, the Resistance places its hope on Rey (Daisey Ridley), who desires to be trained in the Jedi ways by a reluctant Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).

The Last Jedi attempts to integrate many various characters (new and old) and side plots, which ended up feeling more like a juggling act. There are even some plot points established by the preceding film (The Force Awakens) that are completely blown off here.

The acting was mostly strong from the rather large cast, but the characterization varied. Poe Dameron (a highly skilled pilot for the Resistance) gets a lot of screen time and development, which was very nice to see. Our up-and-coming Jedi character of Rey gets lots of attention too, further solidifying her as a pivotal piece in the franchise.

Unfortunately, a lot of previously strong characters are inevitably thrown to the back-burner for the majority of the film. Take one of my favorite new heroes, Finn (played by John Boyega), for example. He’s given a not very important side plot with little to no further development on his character. A real shame.

Oftentimes I found the humor to be out of place and frankly miscalculated. Moments that could’ve and should’ve been more emotional are thrown away by quick little gags. I’d even go as far to say that the oversimplified humor interfered with some of the characters and their behavior. Which made everything feel less like a Star Wars film and more like a Marvel film pulling for laughs.

The characteristics that felt most consistent with the other more recent Star Wars films were the designs of the sets and creatures. Locations like Supreme Leader Snoke’s (voiced heinously by Andy Serkis) throne room

The designs of the creatures that inhabit The Last Jedi are pretty imaginative and cool. All except for the porgs (plush, penguin-looking animals), which frequently hijack the movie to needlessly remind you that they exist. They might as well put an ad for toys and stuffed animals in the film itself. Regardless of my disdain for these annoying characters, a lot of the creatures were brought to life through costumes and puppets, which is something I highly respect in a film nowadays.

The truly magical, awe-inspiring moments are few and far between in The Last Jedi, but are well worth the wait when they do arrive. One of my favorite scenes is where Luke Skywalker meets up with an old friend, who teaches him an important lesson on where to place his values. Not only does this scene look great visually, but at its core I believe it represents and understands Star Wars far better than anything else in the film.

And while these scenes like this are wonderful, I don’t think Rian Johnson and Disney were able to capture the passion and creativity that made the original Star Wars films so enjoyable.

On the surface it seems to have everything. The exciting space battles, witty characters, newly designed creatures, and intense lightsaber duels. And while all these aspects are genuinely fun to experience, I still feel that a few ingredients are missing. Perhaps it’s the gross overcalculations of Disney trying to mathematically appeal to all fans of the series. All the while unintentionally ostracizing some individuals who dare call the mass-marketing of Star Wars excessive.

I’m glad I saw The Last Jedi, and I enjoyed my time watching it too. However, it’s by far not the best Star Wars film, as I don’t think the writing, or the characters were as clever or powerful enough to warrant such a bold claim.

The Verdict: B-

-Zachary Flint

Coco Review

Following the lukewarm critical and public reception to numerous of their recent films (particularly The Good Dinosaur and Cars 3), Pixar hits home with their musical tale titled Coco. Based on the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), Coco features a variety of enjoyable characters, exciting moments, and an overall light mood.

Coco follows the character of Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a young boy who dreams of becoming a famous musician like his idol Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), despite his family’s multi-generational hatred of music. However, through a series of unfortunate and inconvenient events, Miguel finds himself stuck in the Land of the Dead. Among the colorful people of the dead is a mischievous yet delightful man named Hector, who befriends Miguel and promises to help him return home. Together they embark on a fantastic journey that may unlock secrets to Miguel’s family.

After what I felt to be an underwhelming start, Coco really picked up around the halfway point, at a scene involving a big musical contest. Here, a variety of interesting and rousing musicians come together for a competition of sorts. This is when Pixar fully began to display their talent for entertaining animation, with a distinct visual style and plenty of heartwarming charm. This scene and beyond is when the storytelling and imagination really escalated into the Pixar methodology that people know and love.

I don’t claim to be an expert on Mexican culture or the Day of the Dead, but I can presume that we got the watered-down Disney version of the whole thing. Nonetheless, I think Coco serves as a great stepping stone for those curious in learning about another culture, especially young children.

The film even has a few nice little twists at the climax, ones that parents may see coming but kids will definitely respect. And while I was hoping the end resolve would’ve taken a morally grey direction, the message is well-crafted and communicated brilliantly.

At times, Coco tries too hard with its overly childish humor (like the comic relief dog sidekick, which was a huge misfire), and at other times it wasn’t confident enough to take the story to the next level. However, with its shortcomings easily forgivable, Coco developed into an emotionally heartwarming and visually pleasant film. A worthy entry into the Pixar canon.

The Verdict: B+

-Zachary Flint

Olaf’s Frozen Adventure Review

Moviegoers around the world hoping to see a cute, five-minute short with their viewing of Pixar’s Coco, are instead being kidnapped for over twenty minutes to see Disney’s Olaf’s Frozen Adventure. A Christmas special starring the cast of Frozen, this short is full of forgettable music, beautiful animation, and a runtime that seems to go on forever.

With nobody to celebrate Christmas with in the Kingdom of Arendelle, Anna and Elsa become sad when they realize they have no holiday traditions to share. That’s when their snowman friend Olaf (Josh Gad) decides to travel to the local community and find other people’s Christmas traditions to share with them.

The story, for being a Disney short, was surprisingly all over the place and had no real focus. I know that Frozen is geared towards younger audiences (who don’t care so much about focus), but even the kids in the theater seemed quite bored.

Olaf’s Frozen Christmas served more as a pointless distraction from the main event (that being Pixar’s Coco) rather than a cohesive, self-contained story. Sitting at over twenty minutes long, I became irritated with just how much time this “short” occupied. It begs the question of, “Why they didn’t just make an entire film?”. With all the hard work and effort but into the animation, why not just put the resources into making Frozen 2 at this point?

After numerous films with underwhelming box office performances, I have a feeling that Disney was a little self-conscious with Pixar’s newest venture. Therefore, they felt the need to include a Frozen Christmas special to bolster ticket sales. A bold (and sly) move.

At least, that’s the idea I’m running with.

The Verdict: D+

-Zachary Flint

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl Review

With the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, I’ve decided to review the film that kicked off this billion dollar series.

The story, full of sword-clashing, swashbuckling pirates, takes place near the Caribbean Sea, in a city called Port Royal. There we meet the charming and absurd pirate named Captain Jack Sparrow (played by Johnny Depp), who is down on his luck with no crew and no ship. Sparrow’s arrival to Port Royal turns out to be most unfortunate, when the city is besieged by a ship of undead pirates. In the process of raiding the city, the pirates kidnap the governor of Port Royal’s daughter, named Elizabeth Swan (Keira Knightley), who they believe is the key to breaking an ancient curse. It’s now up to a valiant blacksmith (Orlando Bloom) in love with Elizabeth, as well as an incredibly reluctant Jack Sparrow, to rescue her from the cursed pirates.

I believe that Pirates is a great example of how to perfectly craft an action-adventure film. It maintains just the right balance of sword fights and ship battles, while also exploring new and exotic locations. Because of this pleasant balance of features, the audience is never really given time to get disinterested in what’s happening on-screen.

The characters are all memorable and entertaining to watch, especially Johnny Depp’s character of Jack Sparrow. His constant mannerisms resemble that of an eccentric drunk. Sparrow is full of hilariously shrewd comments, and knows just how to get on the nerves of any character. He kind be an idiot at times, but also cunning and resourceful. A great mix of traits for an impeccably written protagonist.

Jack Sparrow is, for good reason, the staple protagonist of Pirates, a very fitting role for Johnny Depp. Even in the most dangerous of situations, Jack Sparrow (as well as our other protagonists) remains humorous and witty. That, I feel, is part of the charm of Pirates of the Caribbean. What could easily be consumed with an extremely dark and gritty story, is kept at a relatively upbeat level. An unfortunate flaw of its many sequels.

I savor every scene in which Jack Sparrow miraculously escapes the British, or even some abandoned island. And I appreciate the attempt of director Gore Verbinski to make an entertaining and worthwhile movie. Making a thrilling film based off a theme park ride is no simple task, and Disney sure delivered.

The Verdict: A-

-Zachary Flint

Cars 3 Review

In the past, I’ve made it no secret that I highly dislike Disney Pixar’s Cars and Cars 2. While most people either find the films passable or okay, I cannot stand watching even a second of them. Coming from the creative giant Pixar, we should’ve gotten a film much more imaginative and unique than something like Cars, which looks more like an idea Blue Sky Animation would conjure up. The first film is an unoriginal mess, with an all too predictable plot and lame characters. Unfortunately for audiences, Cars 2 was even worse, with an incredibly bizarre plot involving spies. So, when going in to see Cars 3, I had already established some pretty low expectations for what I was about to watch.

And to my honest amazement, I thought the film turned out pretty great. Not only did Pixar course correct some of the issues of past films, they managed to make an all-around quality movie people of all ages can enjoy.

The film follows the fleeting racing career of Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), as a new generation of advanced racers begin replacing cars like himself. In a last ditch effort to continue racing, Lightning looks to his new coach named Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) for help. And despite a rocky start, the two embark on a journey of self-discovery, learning a lot about themselves and each other.

Our main cast gets another major update for this picture, and this time for the better. All the characters, new and old, are written much stronger, with a lot more personality. Not only does Lightning McQueen get a fulfilling story arch, but Cruz Ramirez and a few other minor characters get good payoffs too. This time around I actually found myself invested in the story and the protagonists, and I wanted to see our characters succeed in their endeavors.

In the previous Cars films, most of the camera angles and shots are boring, with little variety. Cars 3 on the other hand does a complete one-eighty, constantly shaking things up with great new angles that really captured the excitement of the movie well.

The camerawork is complimented nicely by the fast-paced, crisp animation, making Cars 3 much more visually appealing than its previous installments.

The only major downside to the film is the villain, who is just your standard one dimensional bad guy with no redeeming qualities. I feel that with how strong the morals are in Cars 3, they could’ve had a better antagonist that really hit the messages home. Instead, we just get a young, generic hot-shot who occasionally hurls insults at McQueen.

While I believe the Cars movies are among Pixar’s worst, I’m happy to say that Cars 3 is a real winner. There are some fun characters, an exciting story that moves along quickly, and even a really good message about aging. Cars 3 doesn’t break new ground in any sense of the word, and it stills has its issues. However, it does excel at being a fast-paced, family-friendly adventure that is infinitely more enjoyable than its previous two installments.

The Verdict: B+

-Zachary Flint

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales Review

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales finally jumps the shark for this tiresome series.

Taking place some years after On Stranger Tides, a luckless Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is now being pursued by his old nemesis, a ghost pirate named Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem). The only thing that may be able to save the life of Sparrow is the legendary Trident of Poseidon, which has the ability to break any curse. Jack must now form an alliance with Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of William Turner, as well as a young astronomer named Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), to find this legendary artifact before it’s too late.

The first few scenes of the film gave the impression that I’d be seeing a much better flick than I did. Scenes were shot and paced nicely, and I was pretty interested in what was happening. Unfortunately for the audience, Pirates totally gives up very early on. In fact, I can pinpoint the exact moment the film jumps the shark and accepts that it’s going to put in zero creative effort. That’s when Gibbs (played by Kevin McNally), and the rest of Jack’s crew, pull an entire building by horseback throughout a city. From here, everything goes downhill fast.

The entire returning cast looked particularly grim and out of it. As if Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush have grown tired of playing these roles. Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley were also conned into returning for a few moments, and they too looked annoyed to be back. These are no longer the cool, swashbuckling pirates we used to know. Now, they’re clearly just actors antsy to finish this lingering franchise.

On the topic of Jack Sparrow, I feel that the writers for the first time actually wrote him incorrectly. That his personality here is far different from in any other Pirates of the Caribbean movie. In previous films, while Jack could be an idiot at times, he was also conniving and devious. He knew how to double-cross others in clever ways, ways that benefited his own gain. In Dead Men Tell No Tales, he’s just a bumbling buffoon with little charm or spunk. Nothing that made his character memorable or creative in the first few movies was in this flick.

Another aspect that really bothered me about Pirates was the female lead, played by Kaya Scodelario. Instead of actually writing a strong female character, the filmmakers felt it would be better if they just told us how independent, strong, smart, and better she is than everyone else. Resulting in a poorly written character that comes off as arrogant, in constant need of being saved, and as interesting as tree bark. The moral of the story being: Show, don’t tell.

Even the most refreshing character in the film, Captain Armando Salazar (played by Javier Bardem), was the weakest written villain in the whole series. I’m usually a big fan of Bardem, but here is regrettably boring. Just like everyone else in the flick, he kind of just goes through the motions and doesn’t really stand out too much. Apart from his appearance, I can’t remember a single thing about his personality or motivations.

Sadly, the conclusion of the film feels rushed and very unsatisfying. After dragging its feet for two hours, Pirates feels the need to tie all its loose ends with one quick swoop, producing an ending that is sure to leave viewers saying: “That’s it?” Knowing that this may be how we’re left remembering the characters forever, I find Dead Men Tell No Tales to be insulting.

I cannot in good conscience recommend this to anyone. As a huge fan of the first three Pirates movies, I feel that I’ve more than put up with sloppy and convoluted writing here and there. However, this is the straw that really breaks the camel’s back. Not only did Dead Men Tell No Tales manage to be worse than On Stranger Tides, it ruined the character of Jack Sparrow for me. It’s safe to say that I’ve completely run out of patience for this careless, dead in the water franchise.

The Verdict: D-

-Zachary Flint

Born in China Review

This most recent installment of the Disneynature documentary series, titled Born in China, was directed by Lu Chuan and narrated by John Krasinski (The Office).

Born in China follows the interesting lives of various animals native to China. These animals include a Panda named Ya Ya, a Snow Leopard named Dawa, and a Monkey named Tao Tao. We the audience get taken on an adventure to see these animals at their highest, and lowest moments in life.

I was surprised at how well Born in China was able to tell a cohesive narrative with these animals. It seems that all the cards fell perfectly into place for the filmmakers, as these animals all live incredibly fascinating lives. They dealt with matters pertaining to family, growing up, death, and the struggle for survival. Overall, everything in the film flowed very well, and kept my attention easily.

Dealing with animals that live in remote parts of China, Born in China served as a good learning tool for the audience. We learn about the vast open landscapes of China, as well as the harsh realities that nature has in store. Having limited knowledge about these animals, I really enjoyed the educational aspect of the documentary.

There were occasional line deliveries from the narrator that came off as awkward and completely unnecessary. At times where we should’ve been just observing the animals interacting with one another, we had to listen to ignorant comments made by the narrator. These comments were cute once in a while, but for the most part just annoying.

Despite the issues in the narration, Born in China remains an atmospheric and educational little documentary. Just like the other Disneynature films, it was entrancing to watch and delightful to experience.

The Verdict: B

-Zachary Flint