Sicario: Day of the Soldado Review

I was initially surprised to see the nail-biting 2015 drama Sicario get a direct sequel. The film was pretty conclusive and didn’t leave much story left to be told, so it was interesting to see what they’d do next. What was even better about this news was that Benicio Del Toro, arguably the best character in the film, would be reprising his role as a mysterious and sometimes frightening hitman.

I immediately knew that regardless of the quality of the film itself, Del Toro would deliver another solid performance and give more depth to a fascinating individual. How right I was.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado brings FBI agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and hitman Alejandro Gillik (Benicio Del Toro) back to Mexico to fight the cartel. However, this time drugs aren’t the name of the game, its people.

Attempting to start a war between the numerous cartel clans, Alejandro kidnaps the daughter of a kingpin named Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner). As they dig themselves deeper into the mess they’ve created, the life of young Isabela becomes in jeopardy, and Alejandro begins to question what exactly he’s fighting for.

I have to say that this concept doesn’t work as well when we don’t have that fish out of water character (like Emily Blunt) to latch onto. In the first Sicario, we the audience were just as helpless and confused as Blunt. We cared about her, felt sorry for her, and learned all the crazy plot twists along with her.

Here we have Isabela (a very well-written character) as an innocent child to care for, but that doesn’t work as well when it comes to plot suspense and tension. We’re constantly being fed spoonful’s of plot to come before the events even take place. It makes for some interesting scenes, but nothing feels as dramatic or tense with Brolin and Del Toro holding our hand through the chaos.

Speaking of Del Toro, one advantage Sicario: Day of the Soldado has over its predecessor is giving more focus on the character of Alejandro. This time around he isn’t as mysterious or menacing, and we even see a softer side to his existence. There’s some touching moments between Alejandro and Isabela that turn out to be the best scenes in the film. Moments that properly convey the message of how children and families are negatively affected by acts of terrorism and counter-terrorism.

Sicario plays out as a fairly solid drama/action film, at least up until the last ten minutes. A couple of very bold choices are made in the direction of the film, and I was suddenly shocked into excitement over what might happen next to our leads. Lots of buildup for what is ultimately a letdown ending. Sicario concludes on a note that’s confusing, nonsensical, and overall anticlimactic. I feel like there may have been several scenes taken from the final cut that tied everything together. Rather than end the film hitting the message home, they instead decide to leave us with an obscure cliffhanger. How disappointing.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado is an entertaining yet flawed mix of action and drama, with some light social commentary and great performances sprinkled in. If you’re expecting anything as hard-hitting or thought-provoking as the first Sicario, you’ll be leaving the theater more than dissatisfied.

The Verdict: C+

-Zachary Flint

My Neighbor Totoro Review

After my review of Spirited Away back in 2017 (my most popular post to date, mind you), I immediately decided I wanted to review my second favorite Studio Ghibli movie My Neighbor Totoro. An animation studio that, to the extent of my knowledge, never made a bad film. As you can guess, this goal has been postponed, ignored, and procrastinated for a very long time. Finally, after over a year of slowly chipping away at this article, I feel I can competently and properly review this wonderful film.

My Neighbor Totoro follows two young girls named Satsuke and Mei, as they move to the rural countryside of Japan with their father. Together they settle into their home, awaiting their mother who’s ill at the hospital. Satsuke and Mei, full of curiosity, come across a group of good-natured spirits while exploring their new home. Most notable of these spirits is the lovable fan favorite Totoro, a snuggly and plush creature who leisurely roams the nearby forest.

My Neighbor Totoro is the kind of film that you could mute the dialogue and still understand everything occurring on-screen, while also having an enriching experience. The beautiful hand-drawn animation is abundant with warm, welcoming characters and relaxing watercolor skies, lulling the viewer into a sense of contentment. The magic of Ghibli’s animation maintains a well-deserved reputation for being immaculate, and it continues to delight me to this day.

On a purely storytelling level, Ghibli films often just “go with the flow”. There’s no predictable three act structure that audiences groan at because they know precisely what will happen next. We’re merely along for the ride, traveling through a myriad of dream-like sequences of awe-inspiring music and pleasant visuals.

This way of storytelling makes films like Castle in the Sky, Howl’s Moving Castle, and My Neighbor Totoro so memorable. They stand out from the massive amounts of animated white noise that’s pumped out every year.

Years ago, the late film critic Roger Ebert noted how My Neighbor Totoro represents the perfect kind of world to live in. One without villains, conflict, or any sort of antagonist conceivable. Not only do I agree with this sentiment, I think it is key to what makes My Neighbor Totoro such a lovably relatable flick.

It’s an exploration into childlike wonder, taking you back to a simpler time of bliss. No need for bad guys in a peaceful reflection of childhood, only the curiosity and imagination you wish you still had.

My Neighbor Totoro is a family-fun masterpiece of the highest quality. There’s a reason Totoro remains so popular with audiences of all ages, garnering a cult following that only seems to get bigger as time wears on. And if there’s anything that time won’t wear on, it’s Totoro, which I believe will remain timeless and relevant for generations to come.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint

Ready Player One Review

The amazing thing about nostalgia is that, at one point or another, all of us feel it. Whether it’s watching a favorite childhood movie (like Back to the Future) or plugging in a long-forgotten video game (like GoldenEye for the Nintendo 64), everybody loves reminiscing. And never has this love for nostalgia and pop cultural ever been taken to such a level as Steven Spielberg’s latest blockbuster film, Ready Player One.

In the dystopian future of 2045, life has become so bleak that everyone plugs in and tunes out into a virtual reality video game known as the OASIS. In OASIS, anyone can assume the avatars of any creature, being, or pop culture related character, living the life they wish they could in reality. After the creator of this VR technology dies, a rat race ensues for a hidden Easter egg he placed inside the game. The first one who finds it receives not only untold riches, but the deed to the OASIS itself.

Enter our main character Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a young orphan who’s become very good at the game, who looks to find the Easter egg first. With the help of his friends Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and Aech (Lena Waithe), they hope to save OASIS (and possibly the world) from a tyrannical company called IOI. All of our heroes learning true friendship, acceptance, and bravery in the process.

Ready Player One is chock-full of easily marketable nostalgic properties of some of the most iconic games and movies. The Iron Giant, Overwatch, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Street Fighter, the works. If you can name it (and it existed between 1980 and 2000), it was probably included in the movie.

The environment the characters inhabit (a pivotal piece to the film) is bleak and hopeless, especially once it’s contrasted with the slick, awe-inspiring creativity of the OASIS. The imagery is often colorful and attractive to the eye, and the many situations our protagonists come across test the imaginative boundaries of this world.

One scene that really caught my eye was the ten-minute sequence dedicated to Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining, in which our main characters must travel through iconic scenes of the film in search of a hidden key. We see great homages to a great horror movie done in ways that could be described as funny, scary, and intense.

It’s well known that Spielberg was a friend of Kubrick and envied his unique directing style. The same could also be said for Kubrick, who wished he could make a mass-appealing family adventure flick like Spielberg but died before he could make that a reality. Well in Ready Player One Spielberg seamlessly weaves The Shining into his family-friendly action flick. A wonderful tribute to a wonderful director.

It’s this kind of care and affection that Spielberg has for his audience and fellow filmmakers that makes Ready Player One work on such a phenomenal level. Running the plot and technicalities of this film through my head, I came to the conclusion that this shouldn’t work. Such a mashup of pop culture should be, quite frankly, stupid; pandering to a small demographic of people who obsess over this sort of thing. Yet Spielberg pulled it off, effectively making the film both fast-paced and exciting for all audiences.

The film does come across its share of minor hiccups along the way. For example, a plethora of exposition is dumped on the audience throughout the first thirty minutes; so much so that some information is actually repeated twice. A lot of this backstory knowledge didn’t need explaining and could’ve easily been shown to the audience rather than told.

Another criticism is actually the main lead of Wade Watts, again played by Tye Sheridan. Sheridan fairs much better as a voice actor rather than live-action, as his expressions aren’t particularly strong or convincing.

This doesn’t damper the overall spirit of the film, which gets its messages across in a firm but gentle way. Escapism can be great and help us to connect and foster relationships with distant people. But as the creator of The OASIS nicely puts it, eventually we all need to face reality, as it’s the only place to get a decent meal.

There’s even potential commentary on the politics behind gaming, microtransactions, and advertising. Sometimes it’s clever and thought provoking, other times it’s so heavy-handed that I kind of relished it.

Ready Player One transcends fanboyism and taps into a wide audience of eagerly nostalgic individuals. At points it goes too far with the pop culture references, and sometimes it’s subtler (like a beloved television character who passes by in the background). I believe Ready Player One meets in the middle and fulfills the desires and expectations of a variety of moviegoers.

For the uptight contrarians who feel that this is mindless and of poor quality, perhaps you should wait outside the theaters playing Ready Player One. There, you can greet the multitudes of well-satisfied fans (young and old) to state your antagonistic case.

For what it’s worth, I had a marvelous time watching Ready Player One and truly believe that there’s something for everybody in it. It’s fast-paced, touching, and all-around fascinating, and I hope others can take as much pleasure from it as I have.

The Verdict: A-

-Zachary Flint

Young Frankenstein Review

During the month of October, I had the incredible experience of viewing Mel Brook’s 1974 comedy classic Young Frankenstein on the big screen. Sitting in an almost completely empty theater, I watched in admiration as one of my favorite actors played out one of his most famous roles, just as people did in 1974.

The story, a comedic spoof based on various film adaptations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, focuses in on the well-educated medical doctor Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder). Frederick discovers that he has just inherited the Transylvania castle of his famous grandfather, who conducted experiments in attempts to reanimate the dead. Initially hesitant, Frederick decides to recreate his grandfather’s experiments with the help of an unlikely group of odd individuals.

If there exists a film that is so universally hailed as comedic and undeniably hilarious, then it was probably directed by Mel Brooks. Brooks utilizes every level of humor to its fullest effect, whether it be simple slapstick or a subtler humor that takes a couple of viewings to fully appreciate.

Discussing humor can be a difficult and daunting task, partly because of the subjective nature of comedy. There are only so many ways that I can say a scene from Young Frankenstein is funny, and only so many ways I can say entire films made in its image are not. Yet, with that established, I believe Young Frankenstein to be comedic genius. Brooks takes a beloved source material and handles it with such care, delicacy, and most of all, lunacy.

Pondering such questions as, “What if Igor was in denial that he had a hump?” Or even, “What if Frankenstein’s monster meeting the blind man had a more comedic punch to it?” It’s questions like these that any individual can conjure up in their heads, but only Brooks has the audacity to carry it out on the big screen.

Playing the role of Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, Gene Wilder gives what I would argue the best performance of his career. The frantic ravings and occasional lunacy of a mad scientist in denial about his family heritage is about as outlandish as imaginable, and Wilder fits the bill. Not only that, he becomes the character, going beyond the call of duty to give the audience an unforgettable experience. And is it surprising for me to say that whenever I hear somebody talk about Frankenstein, I first think of this movie, rather than the Universal classic?

One can hardly forget the enigmatic supporting cast, who help make this lovely masterpiece what we know it as today. My personal favorite would be Igor (Marty Feldman), a dimwitted wisecracker with a knack for making the situation worse. Something about Igor has always appealed to me unlike anyone else in the film. His onscreen presence alone is enough to elicit hysterical laughter from yours truly.

Young Frankenstein is a film I re-explore at least once a year, typically around the Halloween season, and for good reason. It’s listed as one of the greatest comedies of all time by the American Film Institute (14th), Bravo TV (56th), Rolling Stone (5th), and was even selected for the Library of Congress National Film Registry. It’s a beloved masterpiece that will hopefully be respected by moviegoers for years to come.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint

 

Space Cop (2016) Review

Probably my biggest inspiration for pursuing film criticism (as well as one my favorite pastimes) is watching the film review-based web series of Red Letter Media. Often noted for their sardonic and hypercritical tone, Red Letter Media has helped to shape the way I view movies. The creators of RLM (Jay Bauman and Mike Stoklassa) have directed several of their own independent films in the past, most notably their 2016 sci-fi schlock picture Space Cop.

Space Cop stars the internet’s very own Rich Evans as the inept and careless police officer from the future, Space Cop. Space Cop travels back in time to the present to stop a renegade team of aliens that threaten the extinction of humanity. In the present, Space Cop must team up with a cryogenically frozen cop from the past who’s thawed out in the present. With two different cops from two different time periods on the same case, they’ll have to learn to work together to save the day.

Space Cop is as strange and awkward of a film as the title and plot clearly suggest. Average Joe moviegoers having the foresight to see this, you’re probably not watching Space Cop because you found it at the local Family Video or while browsing Netflix. No, you’re watching because you’re a fan of the popular web series by Red Letter Media.

Humorously referred to as “hack frauds” by their core audience, RLM shares a cordial love-hate relationship with their fans and peers. Space Cop is a wonderful extension of this sentiment. Plenty of fans seem divided on the quality of the film, despite its purposeful attempt at absurdity.

Some scenes are hilarious and get a good chuckle. Other scenes are just painful to sit through and carry on for too long. Some sets are designed with an intentional cheapness that felt self-aware, which I kind of admired. Other sets felt a little too lazy, as if they were crunched for time on the production (like bad 80’s movies). The acting from our leads was overly theatrical in a lot of places, but occasionally was more distracting than humorous.

Despite all these conflictions, I believe the film stays true to its intended purpose, serving as a nice sendup to 80’s schlock films that the makers of Space Cop obviously took inspiration from. Schlock films of the past made little logical sense, had corny dialogue, and included over-the-top protagonists that loved to ham it up. All these aspects are confidently showcased in Space Cop, either to the enjoyment (or agitation) of the moviegoer.

Space Cop is a sci-fi schlockfest with as niche of an audience as humanly possible, mostly because it was made with the intent to be terrible. Therefore, it’s ill-advised that a traditional moviegoer watches Space Cop, unless they take masochistic pleasure in viewing bad movies (of forcing friends to).

Red Letter Media is at their funniest and most clever on their internet review shows Half in the Bag and Best of the Worst, where they often discuss terrible, long-forgotten films. RLM’s honest reactions to bad movies are infinitely more entertaining than the scripted puns and gags of Space Cop. Those who decide to venture into Space Cop territory would benefit greatly from listening to the commentary track, as you might get more out of the experience doing so.

-Zachary Flint

The Verdict: B-

Tomb Raider Review: The Last Crusade Meets National Treasures

There has never been a good video game movie. Never. Period. Not a single one. Super Mario Bros., Double Dragon, and House of the Dead, all failures.

Time and time again audiences get pumped up for the next video game adaptation, only to be entirely disappointed by the end product. Some try to defend such films like Assassin’s Creed and Resident Evil, only for their opinions to be muffled by the multitudes of disgruntled moviegoers calling BS. It’s hard to blame the stubborn dissonance of the few, as making one decent adaptation of a video game isn’t asking for much. Yet, the closest we ever got to something good was Mortal Kombat in 1995, and even that was off the mark.

In many respects, I believe Tomb Raider to have finally broken this curse, giving audiences something entertaining and worthwhile to watch.

The film follows a young Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander), an adventurous individual whose father (Dominic West) mysteriously disappeared years ago. Lara embarks on a treacherous journey to his last known whereabouts, a mythical Japanese island with an ancient (and powerful) tomb located on it. Upon arrival, she discovers a secret organization already there, looking for the tomb to use it for evil. Lara must now use her bravery to outsmart the organization and venture into unknown territories.

Tomb Raider is like the goofy, hilariously inept version of Indiana Jones. Take the plot of The Last Crusade, sprinkle in some National Treasures, and voilà! A perfect Tomb Raider recipe. Equipped with confusing ancient booby traps, numerous gun fights, and questionable logic/deductions, Tomb Raider is thrillingly incompetent in the sincerest of ways. It knows its far-fetched, so why not have some fun with it?

Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft is the most respectable and serious part of the film, and this isn’t to be taken lightly. Her performance makes the movie what it is and gives it some real credibility. Any scene involving Vikander I was following along intently and very invested.

Her character of Croft has a somber and scarred side to her, but also an adventurous and carefree one. Her actions frequently reminded me of Indiana Jones, in that she wasn’t always trying to be some macho action hero. If somebody pulls a knife on her when she’s unarmed, she runs away! Croft doesn’t win every fistfight, in fact she loses about half the time! Scenes like these make her behaviors more relatable and comical for the audience.

The last five minutes or so, dedicated to setting up a potential sequel, didn’t sit quite well with me. It seemed hastily rushed and forced at the end, with no real buildup to what the film was leading audiences to assume. Tagging on something so trivial when the real adventure is already over was trite and unnecessary, and to conclude on it was disappointing.

Nonetheless Tomb Raider was exactly what it needed to be and precisely what it set out to be. Lots of big action movie fun. It has plenty of blunders and illogical moments, as well as some hokey acting and cheesy lines, but the overall experience remains untainted. I enjoyed myself and the time I spent watching Tomb Raider, and I hope others can share in that feeling too.

The Verdict: B

-Zachary Flint

A Wrinkle in Time Review: A Wrinkled Mess

Seeing as Disney didn’t get the memo sent by the writers of Tomorrowland, that when you write a film that’s too universally idealistic and preachy it loses any sense of realism to viewers, they made the same mistake again. This time with the fantasy/adventure movie A Wrinkle in Time.

The film stars Storm Reid as Meg Murry, a self-conscious young girl whose scientist dad (Chris Pine) went missing four years ago (after all, it is a Disney movie, at least one parent must be gone or dead). Her father had been working on something called the tesseract (no he’s not an Avenger) that allows you to travel through space and time. And through a string of events I still don’t fully understand, Meg meets three astral travelers (played by Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling) who inform her that her father is alive and needs her help on a distant planet. Meg then goes with the three travelers on a journey of a lifetime to save her father and bring him home.

Sadly for A Wrinkle in Time, the only halfway decent performance came from Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who was barely even in the movie. Everyone else was either mugging for the camera or just acted too ridiculous to take seriously. I refuse to believe the actors and actresses are solely to blame, as the writing hardly served as a platform to work off. Most of these characters didn’t have defined personalities or motivations, and some didn’t have any reason being in the film at all.

Aside from the main cast, characters seemed to drop in and out of the film haphazardly, with no driving force moving the plot forward. Meg’s younger brother Charles Wallace is who introduces us to the three traveling Mrs., yet it’s never explained how he knows who they are or where he met them in the first place. And while information like this is pertinent to convey to the audience, they choose to instead spell out the obvious with on the nose backstory’s that we already understood.

Even the special effects, which are usually showcased in these kinds of fantasy/adventure movies, were subdued and hidden. It was as if they were so embarrassed of the end product that they purposely held back on the FX when they stitched the film together in post. Moments that should’ve been visually awe-inspiring and magical were incredibly lackluster and unconvincing.

One of A Wrinkle in Times many morals it tries to convince the audience is that your flaws and imperfections make you who you are, and that everyone has their faults. A good, genuine message for kids. However, the protagonist Meg is written too perfectly and altruistically to the point where she has no real character flaws herself. All this making her an impossible person to relate to.

The other messages have the same effect. You create this oversimplified world where all the woes of humanity are boiled down into this one evil entity. It goes so overboard in so many ways that I couldn’t take any of it seriously. I think kids would appreciate a simpler, well thought out message (like the one about self-esteem and self-efficacy) over some ham-fisted hippie morals.

I can’t really tell whether A Wrinkle in Time’s themes were incompetently well intentioned or hippy-dippy propaganda meant to manipulate kids rather than inspire them. Regardless of the intent, the film was a boring mess of half-baked ideas and lamely written characters. I’d like to conclude this review with a little quote of my own for Mrs. Who to use:

“This movie sucks.”

-Zachary Flint, American

The Verdict: D-