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Rating History

Thor: Ragnarok
10 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

November 3, 2017

The release of a Marvel Comics Universe movie has become so routine that we can pretty much expect one every quarter of the fiscal year. 2017 alone gave us "Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2" back in May and "Spider-Man: Homecoming" in July, while February 2018 already promises "Black Panther." In the meantime, we get "Thor: Ragnarok," and even though the release of this movie underlines just how predictable Marvel Studios has gotten with regards to the timing and frequency of its superhero movies ("Dr. Strange" came out this very weekend last year), at least their content continues to stay mostly fresh, which is actually something to marvel (pun intended) at given the ubiquity of this world and its colorful characters.

As a Marvel Comics Universe movie, and as a second sequel, "Thor: Ragnarok" is surprisingly punchy and vivacious. It's a welcome aberration from the standard MCU entry simply for the fact it's unabashedly silly and lighthearted. It's not "serious" like so many of its brethren, and yet we take it seriously as a fun, amusing and diverting experience. Many critics and viewers may watch it and brush it off as frivolous yet entertaining, but good frivolity isn't necessarily easy to pull off and I've never understood why it's assumed that it takes less skill to make a silly, laid back movie than a dramatic one. In any case, director Taika Waititi shows he's got the skills not only to make a sound superhero movie, but also one that's edgier.

The plot finds Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the muscle-bound, overconfident God of Thunder with locks of golden hair, on a mission to thwart his evil sister, Hela (Cate Blanchette), from destroying his beloved realm of Asgard. Thor and his sometimes good/sometimes evil stepbrother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), are actually just learning they have an older sister, who is also the Goddess of Death. Their father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), explains he imprisoned Hela, who's actually his first-born child, for craving too much power as his dynasty established control over the Nine Realms of the universe. But now that Odin foresees his own death, he warns his two sons that Hela will be released and that her ambitions could wipe out all the people living on Asgard, including Thor's trusted sentry friend, Heimdall (Idris Elba).

All this comes amidst Thor believing he's just saved Asgard from total annihilation in the form of Ragnarok, a prophesied series of destructive events brought upon by the demon Surtur, who holds Thor captain in the droll opening scene. It's foretold that Surtur will engulf Asgard in flames and then submerge it underwater, which Thor thinks he's prevented by taking Surtur's crown.

But, Thor quickly learns a hero's job is never done, because once Hela arrives, her powers overcome him and she destroys his beloved hammer, Mjolnir, which Thor believes to be his source of power. When the siblings battle it out for the first time, Hela wins and Thor and Loki wind up on the funky garbage planet Sakaar, which is ruled by an egomaniac known as the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). He's captured and handed over by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), a former Asgardian warrior-turned-bounty-hunter and forced to compete as one of the Grandmaster's gladiators, pitting him against his old Avenger pal, The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who has resided on Sakaar for the past two years, ever since the events of "Avengers: Age of Ultron." During this time, Hulk has not turned back into his human alter-ego, Bruce Banner, and Banner is afraid the next time this happens, his transformation into the Hulk will be permanent.

There is a mild significance to the plot, I suppose, as it once again pushes the Marvel Universe forward toward the next chapter, but it's not as important, per se, as the more momentous "Captain America: Civil War," which had farther-reaching story and character consequences. This aspect of "Thor: Ragnarok," which feels more like a self-contained superhero adventure, allows it the freedom to do its own thing, and Waititi and his crew seize that opportunity by making the movie particularly jolly and irreverent. They utilize the cast's talents as comedians rather than as dramatic actors, allowing them to let loose. It proves these ceaseless MCU movies can, in fact, evolve, change course from time to time, and take a different approach to otherwise standard material without sacrificing quality.

The movie's overall vibe is one of high spirits and rhythmic energy, accentuated by several punchy and well-timed slapstick moments, as well as Mark Mothersbaugh's offbeat yet completely fitting synthesizer musical score, which further reflects the filmmakers' desire to be innovative and perhaps exude an attitude that makes it seem like they're getting away with something. This brings a freshness and vitality to a genre that's not always known for reinventing itself.

I wouldn't go so far as to say the makers of "Thor: Ragnarok" push the boundaries too far beyond what they know fans will find acceptable and comfortable (it's still a blockbuster superhero movie in every sense of the phrase, especially the mostly perfunctory ending), but they lend it a different kind of style and sense of humor that keeps it moving, funny and exciting. "Thor: Ragnarok" may not be the first Marvel movie fans think of when they want to catch up on major plot events or are seeking a heavy, dramatic experience, but it will be near the top of the list when they're simply looking for a mellow and playful one.

Only the Brave
23 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

October 20, 2017

"Only the Brave" reminds us why we gravitate toward drama. It's because we see a piece of ourselves in it and therefore feel drama can teach us more about who we are, why we're here, and perhaps how we can become better. That's an obvious, high-level explanation I know, but with that said, it seems drama need only incorporate truth and sincerity in order to be good. And yet, storytellers often forget that one of the easiest ways to appeal to an audience is to simply be genuine. As a drama, "Only the Brave" isn't high art, but it's certainly genuine, and its basic sensibility allows us to connect with the people it portrays and appreciate what they do.

If you know nothing about the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the name given to the elite group of Arizona firefighters, then do yourself a favor and don't look them up until after you see "Only the Brave." But even if you do know their story, the movie is worth your time because of the way it touches us and involves us in their lives.

I was fortunate enough (if "fortunate" is even the right word) to go into the film unaware of who the Hotshots were and it engaged me because I didn't exactly know where the story was going or even why a full-length feature was being made about these people. I assumed, based on the ads, it was just an excuse to showcase buff, womanizing firemen as they fight wildfires and for the filmmakers to flaunt their budget and special effects, which is actually suggested as early as the opening scene. I also assumed it would end with a big, death-defying climax, with all the plot and character threads having been neatly tied up, and a couple of hanging-on-for-dear-life and/or man-outrunning-fire-type moments.

I assumed wrong. While these scenarios play out to a degree, they're not the point of the movie. Yes, Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer's screenplay, based on Sean Flynn's GQ article, "No Exit," does have its share of standard, inevitable scenes that go along with any film "based on true events," but "inevitable" and "standard" in this case shouldn't be construed as disingenuous. It takes the first act or so, but the filmmakers eventually convince us they're committed to showing the characters neither as larger-than-life heroes nor as stock Hollywood archetypes, but rather as people we might actually know or as people we are, with relatable problems, worries and fears. In this context, director Joseph Kosinski's down-to-earth approach is wise and effective because it allows the movie to free itself of the burden of either being something it's not, something outrageous and silly, or something we might have seen before.

The story connects us to the Hotshots by focusing on two characters who seemingly have nothing in common but who eventually learn they do. Eric "Supe" Marsh (Josh Brolin) is the leader of the group, has been for years, and he desperately wants his crew to graduate beyond their "Type-2" firefighting status and become "Type-1," which requires special certification and would allow them to fight wildfires anywhere in the country, not to mention demand higher pay and overall more respect from their peers. Marsh beseeches fire chief Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges) to help convince the the town mayor to give them a shot at certification, which gives the movie an excuse to show just how arduous a job and how much physical training goes into firefighting, particularly for wildfires.

Brendan "Donut" McDonough (Miles Teller), the film's other major character, is new to the crew and joined as a way to shed his drug addiction, and because he's recently learned he's going to be a father. In Prescott, Arizona, the best (and perhaps only major) opportunity for young men like Brendan seems to be firefighting and he shows he's willing to fight for it, even if it means swallowing his pride in the face of other guys like Chris MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch), who want to see Brendan fail.

"Only the Brave" doesn't have one central or grandiose conflict, but rather a series of smaller, ongoing ones. Its predominant theme is how firefighters must perform a balancing act between their life-threatening yet thrilling jobs and a more settled home and family life. Marsh's wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), who works as a horse trainer, wants her husband to free himself of his "addiction," so to speak, and finally talk about starting a family. It's an argument the couple seems to have routinely and Marsh's answer is that Amanda always knew what she was getting into when they got married-that he would essentially be a firefighter first and a husband second-but she believes people should change.

Brendan believes people can change, too, which is why he's more willing to sacrifice his job for his daughter, but he also knows he runs the risk of falling back into his old habits if firefighting isn't there to feed his need for a rush. For both Marsh and Brendan, and we assume the other Hotshots, their jobs are a means of rising above mediocrity, predictability and boredom. Without it, they don't know who they'd be, which is another subject the film tackles-the idea that men often see their careers as their essence and it takes their family to remind them they can devote just as much time, energy and dedication toward being a good husband and father, which the film doesn't pretend is easy.

Above all else, "Only the Brave" is about people learning, growing and ultimately finding the courage to make sacrifices for others. This may sound hokey, but the film isn't mawkish. It makes its way into our hearts and we become invested in the characters and really listen to them as they struggle. One of the best scenes takes place when Marsh is at his wit's end about his job and marriage and seeks advice from Duane, who asks him what it is that Marsh can live without. Brolin and Bridges are particularly good here and the scene is so natural and strong it causes us to reflect on our lives and priorities.

"Only the Brave" isn't particularly distinct, neither cinematically nor narratively. Its value comes from its humanity and directness. Some scenes feel obligatory, sure, but they all feel true. Given the genre and subject matter, the ending could have been manipulative and fraught with over-the-top action and false sentimentality, but instead it's tense, emotional and deeply moving, culminating in two key closeups of Teller and Connelly and a final exchange between Brendan and Amanda. Moments like these, and several others in "Only the Brave," stir us and we see a part of ourselves in them. That's probably why it's such an effective drama.

Blade Runner 2049
35 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

October 6, 2017

Perhaps the best way to recognize just how good "Blade Runner 2049" is would be to acknowledge what it's not. It's not a carbon copy of Ridley Scott's original "Blade Runner" (1982). In fact, it's not even preoccupied with reminding us it's a "Blade Runner" movie, and although it's a sequel, it's not reliant on the original to be understood and effective. It's not heavier on action than it is on substance, but it doesn't cut corners with regards to its production values. It's doesn't rush through its story or feel impatient, yet it's not slow or dull. And despite its star power, it's not merely a showcase for the cast.

The reason I mention what the film is not is because so many Hollywood sequels tend to be inferior renditions of their originals, especially ones made so long after the fact. They're often bigger, louder and more ostentatious, yet less substantive and effectual. Not "Blade Runner 2049." This is a full-blooded, confident, self-contained experience, with mesmerizing visuals and sounds and a surprising amount of depth and humanity. It's a movie so striking and layered it practically asks us to see it twice, a request to which we'd gladly submit.

As the title indicates, the story takes place in 2049, 30 years after the original, and humans still occupy the same dark, dreary, dystopian world where they've exhausted Earth's resources and rely on bioengineered robots knowns as "replicants," or "skin jobs," for their superior strength and agility, albeit deliberately limited intelligence. If you recall from the first film, the Tyrell Corporation first invented replicants, which are virtually human save for their lack of emotions, in order to explore and colonize Off-world planets. Replicants were essentially slaves and it was only after a replicant mutiny took place that they became illegal. It's the job of special police squads, known as "blade runners," to "retire" replicants.

Now, however, a new, obedient replicant model exists, some of which serve as blade runners themselves. One of these is K (Ryan Gosling), who's been tracking members of the replicant freedom movement, who believe all replicants should be liberated rather than hunted. K's latest assignment leads him to a remote farm outside of Los Angeles, where one older replicant (Dave Bautista) protects the buried remains of a female replicant that actually gave birth several years ago, which was long thought to be impossible, but this "miracle" serves as the freedom movement's strong push to fight for their rights as living beings ("We are our own masters; we are more human than humans").

Upon learning of this birth phenomenon, K's superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), orders him to destroy all evidence of it because news of a human-replicant offspring could lead to chaos and unrest. But K remains curious and he takes it upon himself, with the help of his trusted holographic girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas), to look into the identity of the replicant mother and human father. Without giving away crucial plot details, K unearths a disturbing history involving veteran blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) while simultaneously examining his own potential humanity and existence.

On one level, "Blade Runner 2049" is a tried and true science fiction action movie, complete with flying space vehicles, futuristic technology, chase sequences, shoot-outs, etc., all set amidst vast cityscapes with brooding skyscrapers and giant, interactive video monitors, as well as barren, desertic wastelands with sand dunes and heavy winds. These are classic characteristics of the genre, and if you've seen the original "Blade Runner," or any dystopian science fiction movie, then you know what I mean.

But this is just one of the movie's levels, and as a traditional sci-fi adventure, it's nothing short of exemplary, and one of the reasons must be because director Denis Villeneuve allows us time to simply look at and appreciate this rich, intoxicating universe-for its immensity, its beauty, its decrepitude, its sounds, its serenity. "Blade Runner 2049" continues its predecessor's distinct atmosphere and mood and doesn't allow either of them to fall by the wayside or even become secondary. Villeneuve is keenly aware of just how much the cinema can affect our senses, and this film's sights and sounds infect and hypnotize us. Of course, any movie with a near $200 million price tag ought to look and sound top-notch, but even so, the production design, sound design, cinematography and visual effects teams have really harnessed their resources and we marvel in their craftsmanship.

Still, the film's visual and audio achievements might have only added up to a technical exercise if it weren't also for the emotional story and performances behind them. On this level, the film penetrates our hearts and minds in such a way that we end up examining our own humanity, our own memories, our own sense of reality. It asks us to consider what we're willing to sacrifice for the people we love and the causes we believe in and reaffirms it's both what we do and what remember that make us who we are. These ideas are written into Hampton Fancher and Michael Green's screenplay and realized through the actors, specifically Ryan Gosling, an actor who has the unique ability to be both strong and threatening yet vulnerable and sensitive. Roles like these remind us of his range.

I've a feeling there will be many admirers of "Blade Runner 2049" and for many different reasons. For die-hard fans of Scott's "Blade Runner" (Scott fills in as executive producer this time), they'll appreciate that it remains loyal to that film's vision and message. For me, though, it's the way the film was able to go beyond merely continuing something and instead serve as an unrestrained, expansive experience, one that engages us on multiple levels-viscerally, intellectually, emotionally. It envelops us and causes us to look inside ourselves so that we might remember and reexamine who we are. Not many films have that kind of power.

Stronger (2017)
49 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

September 22, 2017

Typical model for "inspirational drama based on a true story": a humble, likable, and often blue-collar individual suffers tragic loss; initially, individual is motivated to overcome new hardship but soon grows frustrated and becomes self-destructive; eventually, he or she discovers "what really matters" and ultimately realizes their life is all the richer for having endured and surmounted their adverse situation.

Most of the time, movies that follow this pattern ("The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," "127 Hours," "Rush") work because they're unique, dramatic and remarkable enough not to be predictable. They're also adapted with some special vision or boldness by the filmmakers.

Then there are others ("The Blind Side," "Extraordinary Measures") that make it all too easy to spot the machinations of a contrived screenplay, which simply target our emotional buttons. These are also the ones in which the filmmakers probably assumed, or at least hoped, the uplifting story would mask the banality of the presentation.

The generically titled "Stronger" falls somewhere in between. It hovers between good and just okay, although it mostly leans toward the latter. It's heartrending and well acted, but at the end of the day, it feels too average to warrant our full investment. It pains me to write this, given the actual individuals and the challenges they faced (and no doubt continue to face today), but just because someone has experienced a trying and seemingly insurmountable ordeal in real life doesn't mean their experience makes for compelling cinema. "Stronger" might have if it was presented in a different way, but as is, it's rather standard.

Based on the same-name memoir by Jeff Bauman and Brett Witter, the film follows Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) after he loses both his legs during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Bauman was a spectator at the race, waiting at the finish line for his on-again/off-again girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany), with whom he hoped to get back together. The film even suggests one of the terrorists bumped into Jeff as he was holding his homemade sign.

Jeff's life, like many peoples', would be forever changed that April 15th. Days later, he wakes up in a hospital bed and learns the doctors had to amputate both his legs from the knee down and that he might never walk again. His family, of course, is devastated, overwhelmed and angered by this news, especially his compulsive and over-protective mother, Patty (Miranda Richardson), with whom Jeff lives as he works in the meat department at Costco. She falls back on her cigarettes and alcohol just to maintain a grip while his father (Clancy Brown), uncle (Lenny Clarke), aunts and closest friends yell, curse and trade insults with one another instead of showing love and affection, or maybe this is their way of showing love and affection.

Once Jeff processes his situation, he initially vows to do whatever it takes to walk again, but his determination and willing attitude gradually give way to feelings of frustration, anger and anxiety, especially when he's deemed the unofficial spokesperson and symbol for marathon survivors. At the Bruins game, for instance, Erin pushes him out onto the ice in his wheel chair so he can wave the American flag, but the loud cheers, flashing cameras and rambunctious fans give him a panic attack.

A bright spot in all this is that Erin starts to fall in love with Jeff again and commits herself to supporting him, or at least she will to a point. Amidst his grueling physical therapy, his encounters with "fans" and admirers who constantly ask for his picture and thoughts on the terrorists/conspiracies, and his feelings of dependency and hopelessness, Jeff starts to do what many of his family members and friends do, which is to take comfort in alcohol. This behavior leads to various run-ins with the law, bar fights and yelling matches with Erin until Jeff finally realizes it's be up to him to either let his handicap consume him or for him to control it.

Even if we didn't know "Stronger" was based on a real-life individual, the nature and trajectory of this story, in the context of a Hollywood movie, are overly familiar and routine. As it plays out, we come to expect fewer surprises from it and the movie merely meets our expectations. By the end, it's hard for us to believe it won't go out on an upbeat, positive note, with footage of the real Jeff and Erin.

My reservations are in no way meant to undermine Jeff's experience or inspirational journey toward self-acceptance and peace of mind, and I can only image the pain and trauma he must have suffered. Indeed one of the film's strengths is the way it gets us to empathize with the characters, thanks in large part to the performances, which are raw, genuine and unaffected. Director David Gordon Green specializes in telling stories about non-glamorous, working-class people who have something unusually dramatic happen to them. The problem with "Stronger" is that it doesn't contextualize its drama in a way we haven't seen before. Despite the filmmakers and cast being completely dedicated to and respectful of the material, their good intentions only go so far before we simply watch the movie jump through foreseen hoops. When that starts to happen, our investment inevitably wanes and we simply check out.

It (2017)
2 months ago via Rotten Tomatoes

September 8, 2017

As a Hollywood horror remake, "It" accomplishes many things, but perhaps the two most surprising are that it: 1) improves upon the original; and 2) it's actually scary. In an ideal world, both of these qualities would be a given, because, if you think about it, the movie is simply doing what it's supposed to do. But, as we all know, Hollywood movies don't always do what they're supposed to do. "It" does, and more.

What's most impressive is just how well made the film is when measured on a scale beyond its genre, which might be hard to imagine given its content. It's well directed and edited; it features strong, nuanced performances from a young, mostly inexperienced cast; and the production values, including the special effects, are atmospheric and convincing. Plus, in addition to horror, it has elements of drama, comedy and romance. In a way, "It" is a horror movie for people who don't go to horror movies, because even they'll find something to take away from it.

The film is, of course, based on Stephen King's best-selling 1986 novel, the first half of which follows a group of grade-school children as they're terrorized by an evil entity in the small Maine town of Derry. The insidious being primarily takes the shape of a hideous clown, although it can manifest itself as any frightful construction, which it does in order to lure the kids to its underground lair, where it "feeds" on their fear and eventually murders them.

One can imagine, given the popularity of King's novel and the beloved TV miniseries from 1990, how much pressure the filmmakers must have felt to deliver a sound, updated adaptation of this material. And one of the ways they prove they're up to the task is by how effectively paced the film is. It's patient and rhythmic, taking its time to build tension and then release it in small sprints before going all out during the exciting climax, which is full-blooded and intense, both physically or dramatically. So often these days horror films attempt to shock and/or gross out the audience over and over again until we become numb and bored. Here, the thrills and scares are spaced out and targeted so they become effectual and disturbing.

The structure of King's novel, unread by me, fortunately allows the screenplay by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman to constantly refresh itself as it introduces and develops each of the child characters. Having essentially seven protagonists could have been too much since there's so much ground to cover, but director Andy Muschietti and editor Jason Ballantine are careful not to let scenes get shortchanged, feel rushed, drawn out, or redundant. They give each of the kids' stories a nice balance of horror and drama, and sometimes romance and comedy. This variety of elements gives the overall film a lot of energy and flow.

It helps too that the young cast is so dedicated and in touch with their characters' dilemmas. They seem genuinely scared and anxious on-screen, which in turn infects us. Their story begins in 1988 when It, taking the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (a very creepy and effective Bill Skarsgard) murders Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott), younger brother of Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), a stutterer who becomes the unofficial leader of the kids pack. This incident begins Pennywise's reign of terror over the next year as it invades the lives of Bill and his friends.

The other children include the chubby yet intelligent history buff Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor); the beautiful and daring Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis); the foul-mouthed class clown, Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard); the pragmatic and timid Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff); the paranoid germaphobe, Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer); and the brave and moral Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs). Collectively, they become known as "The Losers' Club" as Pennywise attempts to get inside their heads and exploit their deepest, darkest fears, whether that's being overweight and bullied at school; sexually abused at the hands of a parent; attacked by an evil female portrait in a synagogue; germs and infectious diseases; or the idea you may caused your parents' death. Pennywise, we learn, comes out of hibernation every 27 years and is a staple of Derry's troubling history, which none of the town's adults talk about.

In addition to Pennywise, the Losers must also face ridicule and threats from the school bully, Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), and his cronies. Henry proves just as dangerous as the clown, wielding a knife and gun to compensate for his own securities with his police officer-father (Stuart Hughes).

With so many characters, it's remarkable how well divided the film is so that each of the kids gets individualized, not to mention how their scenes as a group, many of which are light and playful and underline the story's theme of friendship, carry real emotion. We come to care about these youngsters and view them as real people, and not just for their survival's sake, but because we can relate to their coming-of-age experiences, which are true and universal. Muschietti knows how fragile, urgent and formative these years are and uses a lot of sensitivity to convey them. This is why "It" is such a good movie beyond its horror aspect-we're not just waiting around for the next scary scene to come along; we're engaged by it on the level of the characters growing and maturing.

Yes, the purpose of a horror film is to scare us, but somewhere along the line, the Hollywood horror film got out of control, becoming a non-stop shock fest and allotting little if no time to the characters' personalities and problems outside the main conflict, thus relegating them as boring, would-be victims. Not here. We care just as much about their budding romances and adolescent insecurities as much as whether or not Pennywise will eat them.

And speaking of scaring us, "It" actually does. The scenes with Pennywise are legitimately horrific and the studio wisely opted for a hard R-rating, allowing the filmmakers to go to town with violence and gore and deliver a truly riveting, frightening experience. This was something the TV miniseries wasn't able to to do, which not only makes this version more faithful to the source but also results in a greater visceral impact. Just like the kids, we fear such things as our limbs being torn off, or being bitten by razor-sharp teeth, or going down into a dark, damp basement alone, or being beaten up by fellow students and having adults drive by idly and not lend help.

"It" is a horror film first and foremost, and a first-rate one at that. We walk out of it genuinely shaken up and disturbed. But it's also a touching human story about pre-adolescent angst, friendship, first romances, childhood tragedy and trauma. These were all prevailing themes in King's novel and Muschietti hasn't allowed any of them to fall by the wayside. Together, they give the movie an unexpected depth and help make the horror elements that much more effective and lastig.