Film Review: Dunkirk (2017)

Dir: Chris Nolan
Starring: Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Fionn Whitehead, James D’Arcy, Harry Styles, etc.
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 1hr 47min
Spoiler Level: Light

A lot of the early buzz about the latest WWII drama Dunkirk has called it Christopher Nolan’s best film to date. Considering he’s the man who brought us both critically-acclaimed Inception (2010) and widely-lauded The Dark Knight (2008), that’s a statement that isn’t to be taken lightly. Now that I’ve seen it, I have one thing to say about the monumental praise this film’s gotten thus far; it is 100% deserved, and Dunkirk may well be Nolan’s best so far.

Dunkirk_Film_poster.jpgBased on true events, Dunkirk presents three different timelines (land, sea, and air) within a non-linear narrative that chronicles the journeys of various characters – from struggling soldiers to stalwart civilians – during the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940.

Story-wise, I didn’t find the three different timelines too difficult to follow – it was compelling to see land, air, and sea diverge from and intersect with one another. The timelines are a bit disjointed, and it might take a bit to get used to the switching between perspectives (at one point it’s day, then night, then day again, though less than 24 hours have passed) but the narrative is consistently captivating, and as the timelines merge, it’s intriguing to see how certain characters meet and interact with one another.

The entire cast is strong; newcomer Fionn Whitehead delivers a mesmerizing performance as an Army private desperately trying to survive a relentless wave of peril, Tom Hardy, a Royal Airforce Pilot, evokes powerful emotion even while most of his face is concealed, and Mark Rylance is solid as a civilian mariner heading to Dunkirk to try and save some of the stranded soldiers. No one really stood head or shoulders above the rest, but in that same vein, I don’t think there was a weak link among the cast. Performances all around were impressive, especially considering the sparse dialogue, as great acting speaks much louder when there are no words at all. The narrative is carried by everyone, and even though about 90% of the character’s names don’t get spoken onscreen, it’s easy to get invested.

And for those of you wondering, Harry Styles is fine in it – definitely holds his own against the talented veterans. From what I’ve seen browsing around the internet, I imagine a significant chunk of this film’s box office will come from 1D fangirls, because anytime I’ve looked up anything about this film I have to slog through pages upon pages of Harry Styles swooning before getting anything of use, and there were as many middle-aged history professor type men in the theater last night as there were middle-school and high-school 1D fangirls. That’s not a criticism, though; it was actually awesome to see the IMAX theater in my local cinema close to full for a film that isn’t from Marvel. But I find the voracious media attention Styles has received simply for being in a popular boy band prior to this film is unfortunate because Dunkirk is an ensemble effort, and the other actors all deserve just as much, if not more, attention and praise for their performance.

Visually, the film is absolutely stunning – that’s an odd thing to say about a war film, I suppose, but the cinematography (per usual for Nolan) is gorgeous and the film is beautifully shot and edited. Dunkirk is also Nolan’s tightest film to date, as it offers nothing in excess; it’s clean and concise, presenting a well-balanced narrative and a clear picture without delving too deep or dragging too long. Sure, the film doesn’t show too much in the way of blood or gore, but it also didn’t need crimson spills in the sea or severed limbs splayed around craters to convey the horror and cost of conflict, nor does the lack of blood and guts glorify the idea of war in any way. The unseen enemy threat closing in, the stark faces of fear, a foot sticking out from a sandy grave, and the dead bodies floating in with the tide, are all images that stand out long after the credits have rolled.

The music (by Hans Zimmer) and the sound weave together to enhance the intense, knuckle-biting atmosphere. The scream of sirens, the whine of engines, the creak of sinking ships, the wails of dying men, the boom of torpedoes and crash of bombs and the ticking of precious time running out – and at times, silence – all serve to make the events of the film more visceral, more engrossing. The sound of bullets made me jump out of my seat on more than one occasion and honestly, I was so stressed out and tense throughout this film that I forgot to eat my Reeses Pieces. (I’m eating them now, don’t worry).

If it is possible for you to see this film in IMAX, you MUST do so – it’s worth splurging for the price of the ticket. The sound is incredible (VERY loud, but not deafening) and the sweeping shots of the beach and the sea and the dogfights in the air are best seen on a massive screen. My only quibble with the IMAX experience was the dialogue, as it was difficult to discern at times. It didn’t detract too much, since the gist of the narrative is easy to follow, but there were times that I genuinely had no idea what the characters were saying and wish I could have picked it up better. This might be different for the standard version, as it usually is.

I don’t know if this is Nolan’s best, but it is certainly a contender for the spot, and well worth seeing for fans of Nolan and war cinema alike. A sprawling film with a strangely intimate feel, Dunkirk shares bleakness and hope in equal measure, and though countless war films have been made, especially about WWII, there are still so many stories to be told, and Nolan’s put a unique stamp on this one. There’s not much bravado, virtually no soap-boxing, no victory-touting, no medals doled out, and the film doesn’t offer a lot of chit-chat about the horrors and toll of war; it simply shows it, along with the dedication and perseverance of the soldiers who yearn for home, and the civilians striving to get them there. It’s not as gory as Saving Private Ryan or as in-depth as Band of Brothers, but it certainly deserves a place among the memorable high-tier war films.

Overall Rating: 9/10

Film Review: Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

Dir: Miguel Arteta
Starring: Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, Chloe Sevigny, etc.
Runtime: 1hr 23min
Rating: R
Spoiler Level: Super lite

After viewing this film, I’ll say one thing for certain; I am so glad that I was not invited to this dinner.

Beatriz_at_Dinner.jpgBeatriz at Dinner follows the titular character, an employee/massage therapist at a cancer treatment center, who ends up staying for dinner at a client’s house when her car fails to start. Beatriz attempts to navigate the evening while reflecting on her personal circumstances and how they compare and collide with the wealthy lives she is surrounded by, ultimately creating tension between her and powerful businessman Doug Strutt.

The film follows a relatively simple premise, and is buoyed by the stellar performances from the cast. Hayek is brilliant as Beatriz, the central character, and capably delivers a range of tangible emotion, from quiet, tempered despair, to deeply-rooted resentment, to cautious hope for the future. Lithgow is irritatingly good as Doug Strutt; I love Lithgow, but definitely felt that he needed a good punch in the face for this role. Britton, Sevigny, Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, and David Warshofsky all play their parts as poised, simpering, shallow, occasionally frustrating, and yet multi-layered members of this dinner party. Each character could easily be a real person and each actor delivers a convincing and thought-provoking  performance with complexities that make it difficult to really hate any of them, with perhaps the exception of Lithgow. Everybody knows somebody like each of the dinner guests, and that is the strength of the film; it is a believable tale, with believable people and a relevant message. Even the “bad guy” isn’t just a standard corporate suit caricature; he’s got layers, like an onion. But the film is mostly carried by Hayek; the camera follows her every move, analyzes every tiny facial expression, and navigates her story, though it never really delves deep enough into her psyche to give us a clear picture of Beatriz’s motivations or the underlying reasons for her conflict with Strutt. There are clues left, and theories that can be woven together to make some semblance of an answer, but much of Beatriz’s psyche remains a mystery, even as the film draws to a close.

Since the film takes place predominately over the course of a single dinner, the pacing is a bit slow, but there is enough happening that the progression does not feel like a tedious drag. The tone is fairly balanced, and the dialogue is believable; I feel like I’ve heard people having similar conversations and discussing similar topics, but the writing did not feel tired or overdone. The tension in the film is also palpable; as the dinner drifts into different topics and controversial statements, the awkwardness and discomfort is real. There were several parts that made me squirm in my seat, as the discomfort was practically radiating from the screen. It’s a film that creates a very definitive mood, and it succeeds in it’s ability to generate a realistic atmosphere and emulate situations and characters that could very well exist in the world today, and probably do.

Unfortunately, the film’s efforts at subtlety occasionally miss the mark and fall more ham-fisted than is intended, or fly too far beneath the radar to be thoroughly detected. Overall, the film utilizes a commentary that is easily applicable to the world today and features an extremely prevalent message about society/money/greed, and for the most part, it comes across beautifully, but there are moments where the film picks up steam only to abruptly lose momentum and grow aimless. The end also left me with more questions than answers, and though I think films that stir up questions and make the viewer wonder are often a good thing, Beatriz at Dinner raises a few too many ambiguities and the conclusion comes across as “unresolved.” However, for the performances and the commentary alone, the film is definitely worth checking out, though lingering mysteries and dangling threads might leave you more frustrated than appeased. But if you’re looking for an action-based thriller with a quick pace, then this dinner party isn’t for you.

Overall rating: 8/10

Top Superhero Film Themes

With so many superhero and comic book films coming out over the last few years, and more still looming on the horizon, I decided to scroll back through my music library and compile a list of what I consider to be the best superhero “themes” from these films. There may be a few films I haven’t seen, so certain themes might have evaded my notice, but I have witnessed the bulk of them and here are my results!

I’ve linked a Youtube video (not mine) after each selection that contains the theme, as well as the Amazon link for purchase/listening. This isn’t sponsored or anything and I don’t own the rights to these songs; just want to have a bit of fun and spread some good hero themes around!

5.) Spider-Man 2 (2004) – Danny Elfman
Obviously I haven’t seen Tom Holland’s solo spin on our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man yet (besides his appearance in Civil War, which was excellent) but I’ll always have a place in my heart for the original Spider-Man films and Toby Maguire’s portrayal of the character. Maybe it’s because they were the first superhero films I got into, but regardless, I love both the original Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 – I actually still consider the second one to be one of the greatest superhero films to date. Not big on the third one, to be honest, but one thing is consistent throughout the three films – the music, and the amazing Spider-Man theme provided by Danny Elfman. In a way, the theme covers an “arc” – it hits different tones, from sweeping and emotional to action-packed and intense, hitting all the notes that combine to make a heroic sound. I honestly can’t even remember the theme from the second series of films; that’s not to say the music is bad, just that Elfman’s theme packed a bigger punch and has come to define the character (for me, at least.)

Here is the LINK! (Youtube)
Or purchase on Amazon: LINK!

4.) The Avengers (2012) – Alan Silvestri
Though I’ve loved nearly all of the Marvel solo hero films to date, I actually have trouble remembering the theme music for all of the individual characters; they’re all good in the moment, but none of them really “stuck” with me after the films ended. However, when the characters all teamed up for 2012’s The Avengers, they earned a new “team” theme, and it’s pretty great. It’s definitely the kind of song that will encourage you to finish the last strenuous laps of a running session or push you to the end of a difficult workout, and when it plays in the film, it’s easy to get pumped up about seeing a team of heroes take on a dastardly villain. It’s got the right blend of hype-building and morale-boosting, which is perfect for an ensemble film like The Avengers; it helps them sound like a team, instead of just looking like one.

Here is the LINK! (Youtube)
Or purchase on Amazon: LINK!

3.) Doctor Strange (2016) – Michael Giacchino
Benedict Cumberbatch’s turn as Doctor Strange is the most recent introduction into the MCU, and his theme music is very fitting for him as a character. Doctor Strange is enigmatic, sarcastic, and his ingenuity is as much as strength as his actual powers are; and since he is a “different” sort of hero than most of the other MCU characters, his theme is also a little strange – in the best way.  It’s definitely my favorite theme from the Marvel films, which isn’t much of a surprise, since Giacchino consistently delivers great themes and scores (Rogue One comes to mind as a recent non-superhero standout). I went into this film knowing very little about Doctor Strange, and emerged from the theater humming the theme song under my breath. It’s whimsical and heroic and evokes strength all at once; the perfect sound for a hero who defies the norm.

Here is the LINK(Youtube)
Or purchase on Amazon: LINK!

2.) Wonder Woman (2017) – Rupert Gregson-Williams / Junkie XL
One of the major highlights of 2016’s Batman V Superman was the introduction of Gal Gadot’s portrayal of Wonder Woman, and her solo film was released to glowing reception a little over a year later. And her theme music is absolutely BADASS – just like the character herself. The theme was initially created by Junkie XL for BvS but was also included and expanded on in the solo film, and Gregson-Williams does it justice. When this theme starts playing, it’s obviously a pulse-pounding, energetic prelude to some serious action, and it’s the perfect music to serve as the buildup and backdrop to battle. When Wonder Woman made her first appearance in BvS, this theme played to announce her arrival, and I remember sitting in the theater, listening to the music, and thinking “Wow – this is how a hero makes an entrance.” Now, every time it starts playing when Diana is fighting onscreen, I get chills; it’s everything a heroic theme should be and I hope we get to hear it in all Wonder Woman appearances to come.

Here is the LINK! (Youtube)
Or purchase from Amazon: LINK! (WW) and LINK! (BvS)

1.) The Dark Knight (2008) Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard
Though the theme from the original Batman film back in ’89 is pretty excellent as well, I think Zimmer and Howard’s theme for the caped crusader is the most definitive and powerful version thus far. Whenever this theme kicks up, it gets the energy flowing; it’s come to signify Batman as a character and really helped to mold The Dark Knight Trilogy as a whole. Like Elfman’s Spider-Man theme, this one seems to cover an arc – it hits all the notes of Batman’s character; his suffering, his heroism, his experiences, his humanity. None of these films would be what they are without their score, but I’d argue that Zimmer and Howard’s contribution to this trilogy has the biggest overall impact. It’s a theme I won’t forget, even when new incarnations of Batman take the screen; this is a theme that will endure, and whenever I think of Batman, this is the theme I associate him with. I’m still baffled the soundtrack wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar, though that’s probably because I’m biased. The Dark Knight Trilogy really revolutionized the “comic book film” genre with its gritty, dark tone and groundbreaking performances, and the music provides the a fitting, powerful soundtrack to Bale’s incarnation of the much-beloved character.

Here is the LINK! (Youtube)
Or purchase from Amazon: LINK! 

Film Review: Wonder Woman (2017)

Dir: Patty Jenkins
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis
Runtime: 2hr 21min
Spoiler Level: Light, discussion of any spoilers will take place under a “Continue Reading” tag and will be preceded by a bolded warning.

Though reactions to 2016’s Batman V Superman were polarizing at best, Gal Gadot’s debut as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman garnered a significant amount of praise. Her role in the film also served as the beloved character’s first (and long overdue) silver screen appearance, and set the stage for her very own film – arguably the first major superhero movie to focus on a female character, if you ignore Elektra and Catwoman, as I do. And may I just say… IT’S ABOUT TIME.

images.jpgPersonally, I’m not a lifelong Wonder Woman fan, so my first real introduction to her (outside of Cartoon Network’s old Justice League show) was Batman V Superman, and though her screen time was limited, her impact was huge and she was one of the major highlights of the film – and it piqued my interest for her solo outing. Her initial appearance created some buzz, but also raised some questions… the main one being, can a superhero film centered on a female hero succeed in a male-dominated genre?

At last, we have an answer: and Wonder Woman totally delivers. Not only can it stand against some of the more “landmark” superhero films, it qualifies as one of the better ones – and Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince / Wonder Woman carries the film with just as much (if not more) strength as her fellow DC counterparts and even the Marvel tentpoles, like Captain America and Iron Man.

Wonder Woman follows the titular hero from her idyllic childhood on the mythical island of Themyscira to her eventual involvement in the War to End All Wars. As she strives to defeat the cause of hatred in the hearts of mankind, Diana discovers that the world outside her isolated island home is not the place she thought it was and she struggles to determine what her role should be – or if she belongs in the world of men at all.

DC has burned us before (I mean, I didn’t bother with Suicide Squad but I got the gist)  but where previous installments fell into horrendous spirals of “too much” and “not enough” in various categories, often coming across as more convoluted than captivating, Wonder Woman is a solid superhero outing with an excellent cast, superb music, jaw-dropping action, and an engaging story that is a thrill from start to finish.

As far as casting goes, DC has done pretty well so far, and Wonder Woman is no exception. Gal Gadot is equal parts charming and intense – she pulls off the ultimate badassery of the titular character as she campaigns against evil, while also channeling the earnest naivete and curiosity of Diana as she strives to navigate the intricacies of the world of men. Chris Pine is affable, yet serious as Steve Trevor, an army captain who introduces Diana to the world outside of Themyscira and supports her in her mission against Ares, offering his guidance and witty remarks. Their chemistry is electric, and their interactions are both a source of humor and heart throughout the film. The supporting cast is full of great performances – with Connie Nielsen as Hippolyta, Robin Wright as Antiope, David Thewlis as Patrick Morgan, Danny Huston as Ludendorff, Elena Anaya as Doctor Poison, Lucy Davis as Etta Candy, Saïd Taghmaoui as Sameer, Ewen Bremner as Charlie, and Eugene Brave Rock as Chief – but really, it’s Gadot and Pine who steal the show with their emotionally-charged, dynamic partnership. I legit cared about both of them; they created reasons to be invested in their individual arcs, their relationship, and the overall plot.

Where most DC films thus far have fallen short on the “humor” track, Wonder Woman’s got humor and charisma without completely losing the darker, gritty tone of its predecessors. Parts of the film do feel hopeless; the saccharine “everything will be okay” sheen perpetuated by comic book films is peeled away to reveal real, raw darkness – some of which cannot be defeated entirely. The action is mostly superb, the pacing is decent, and the scenery is gorgeous; it’s one of the most visually-engrossing films I’ve seen this year, as it successfully portrays the bleakness of war-torn Europe, utopian beauty of Themyscira, and the grey gloom of early 20th century London. The music, composed by Rupert Gregson-Williams, builds on the previously-introduced Wonder Woman theme from BvS (which is SO FREAKING GOOD) and generates new pulse-pounding accompaniment to Diana’s battles and the landscape of WWI. All in all, this film does a great job of maintaining balance – where previous films have either been “too much” or “not enough” or some catastrophic fusion of the two, Wonder Woman stays on course and the end result is a film that essentially fires on all cylinders, despite a couple of stumbles.

For a movie that is starring a woman and is helmed by a woman, the “feminist theme” of the narrative is not overt or over the top. It’s woven naturally into the dialogue and through the actions of the characters, but there’s no harping; no soapbox preaching. Basically, Diana doesn’t talk about kicking ass – she just does it, and in spectacular fashion, too. The film also carries a powerful message about the nature of man, and delivers it exceptionally well. It’s a theme that many superhero films have heralded in the past, but this film manages to do so in a way that feels fresh and new, not just a regurgitation of the same old stereotypical tropes.

Of course, as with all good movies, there are some negatives. Parts of the dialogue in the third act toe the line of heavy-handed on the corn front, but there’s always a sprinkle of cheese or two in a film adapted from comic books, so it’s not exceptionally bothersome. The action is a bit hard to follow at times, with the frequent slo-mo and CGI and pacing switches, but I’ve come to expect that as par for the course when it comes to DC films. Though the action gets a bit distracting at a few points, the fight sequences are absolutely beautiful 95% of the time. The “No Man’s Land” bit in particular is, to put it bluntly, f*cking BRILLIANT.

Say what you want about Zack Snyder, but it’s pretty obvious that he cares 1000% about the properties he/DC is adapting to the big screen. He didn’t direct this one (I love him, but that’s probably a good thing), and yet, his influence is definitely felt in some areas (the slo-mo, the fight scenes, his typical trademarks, the story) and if we hadn’t gotten a glimpse of Diana in BvS first, the buzz surrounding this film might not have reached such a high mark on the hype-o-meter. He’s made some missteps, and DC/Warner Bros have definitely mishandled things in the universe thus far, but if this film is any indication, the daughter of Zeus may have steered this franchise back on course.

Under the stellar direction of Patty Jenkins (I am soooooo looking forward to seeing more from her), for the first time, a DC film actually comes across more of a sleek, polished machine with heart rather than a muddled mess that tries too hard, with a clear and coherent story, some of the best action scenes to come out of a superhero film in recent memory, and a cast of charming, compelling characters that it is easy and exciting to root for. Jenkins succeeds in portraying the softer side of Diana coupled with her incredible strength in a superhero origin tale that is engaging from the sands of Themyscira to a snowy war-torn village. The DCEU has been off to a stumbling start, but hopefully the bombastic Wonder Woman will help garner some momentum that will carry into November’s upcoming Justice League and beyond.

Overall rating: 9/10

WARNING: SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT. DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO BE SPOILED.

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Film Review: Everything, Everything (2017)

Dir: Stella Meghie
Starring: Amandla Stenberg, Nick Robinson
Runtime: 1hr 36min
Spoiler Level: Light, mostly; discussion of the ending will be below a “Read More” and will be preceded by a bold warning.

I have a policy about films with approval rating below 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is to not spend money to see them in theaters unless I have some sort of investment in the story/previous films/source material. Even scores in the 50’s are questionable. But, since I read and enjoyed Nicola Yoon’s YA novel Everything, Everything last year, I figured I might as well head out for Tightwad Tuesday and see how well the pages transitioned to screen.

16601948_699564803538333_7623149780067371960_o.jpgEverything, Everything follows 18-year-old Maddy (Stenberg), who suffers from an illness that severely cripples her immune system and basically makes it impossible for her to go outside. But when Olly (Robinson), a boy her age, moves in next door, Maddy starts to wonder even more about what she is missing out on. As she and Olly grow closer, Maddy decides that she wants to experience everything, no matter the cost.

Overall, I’m not a stickler who believes that book to movie adaptations have to be 100% accurate and true to the book, so I’m usually not a “the book is so much better” person. For a novel to make the leap to screen, changes always have to be made. Always. Sometimes, the changes can be for the better, as with The Lord of the Rings, or they at least stick mainly to the source material, like Harry Potter. However, they can also totally decimate the work on which they are based, like the Percy Jackson movies. Sea of Monsters is flat-out unforgivable.

Luckily, Everything, Everything, while it trims plot-lines and neutralizes characters, doesn’t fall into the “decimated” category. From what I remember of the novel, the film stays close, and the heart of the work – Maddy’s relationship with Olly, and her evolution as a person – is not severely damaged by the changes. It’s not a perfect adaptation, but I’d say it’s acceptable, and nowhere near Percy Jackson territory.

Stenberg is charming and bright as main character Maddy, and Robinson is equally as effective as her co-lead, Olly, although he does need a haircut. I’m glad he managed to escape that crazy dinosaur park, though. Unfortunately, Olly also gets less development than Maddy; they touch on his history and the issues he’s facing with his family, but don’t explore as deep as the book does, which made his character seem “unresolved” in some ways. He’s kind of relegated to “cute boy next door with some emotional baggage” but doesn’t get as much exploration or resolution. As a pair, their chemistry is convincing, but their connection suffers from the same pitfalls as several similar films/projects; it treads the dangerous line of “insta-love.” I didn’t really feel that way about the book, as their relationship seemed to grow over a greater length of time and with much more conversation, but in the movie, while their relationship is totally adorable, the risks that Maddy ends up taking just seem… a bit rash. But hey, it’s teenage romance, and maybe I’m getting jaded in my old age. I will say that as a duo, Maddy and Olly are mega adorable and felt more or less like a real young couple than some unrealistic idealization of teen romance.

The “texting” sequences are especially impressive and engaging; I liked the visualization of Olly and Maddy being inside Maddy’s architecture projects, speaking face to face, as opposed to through a screen, as it helps to better portray the development of their romance. The little pop-ups representing their email/text interaction works too, but I’m glad it didn’t dominate the entire film. Could have done without the narration, though; that’s something YA novel adaptations can’t seem to get away from, but it’s a superfluous inclusion that defies the “show not tell” mentality and undermines a viewer’s ability to draw conclusions on their own. Like, there are other ways to include exposition without a narrated info-dump at the beginning. Also, I must say, the astronaut is definitely the best supporting character in the film.

Other supporting characters of the fairly small cast include Maddy’s mom Pauline, played by Anika Noni Rose. Her portrayal is equal parts calculated and loving as she juggles the dual role of mother and doctor and grapples her own demons while dealing with Maddy’s illness. Ana de la Reguera is great in her role as Carla, Maddy’s nurse, as she does a great job of showing how Carla sympathizes with Maddy and wants her to experience at least a few aspects of a “normal” life. But really, it’s Stenberg and Robinson that helm the ship, and they do a fair job of plucking at your heartstrings; it’s easy to root for them and hope for a happy ending, even in the face of such bleak, unrelenting odds.

As far as other elements go, the music is nice; I’m not a big fan of insert songs, but the choices seem to fit the narrative, and the score was charming, if not exactly memorable. I loved how Maddy’s wardrobe changed over the course of the film, reflecting the growth in her character – even Olly trades in his signature black for a spot of color at one point. The sets are decent and the colors pop, and, as I mentioned before, the visuals are utilized in a compelling way. All in all, each portion of the film is solid and comes together smoothly; it looks and sounds great.

If you’re a fan of Yoon’s writing or are a hopeless YA fan (like myself) just looking for a way to pass a rainy day, then Everything, Everything is definitely worth a watch.  It’s a touch cliche, it’s escapist (to a degree), and it’s a love story – all the ingredients of great young adult media But if such content really isn’t your style, it might be wiser to sit this one out.

Overall rating: 7/10

DISCUSSION OF ENDING AND SPOILERS BENEATH THE “CONTINUE READING,” YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

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Film Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Dir: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Kurt Russel
Runtime: 2hr16m
Spoiler Level: Light (ANY MAJOR SPOILERS WILL BE UNDER A “READ MORE”)

MV5BMTg2MzI1MTg3OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTU3NDA2MTI@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_.jpgBack in the summer of 2014, I knew nothing about Guardians of the Galaxy, but when Marvel’s film adaptation rolled into theaters, my best friend and I decided to venture out to see it on opening night. I knew there was a raccoon involved, and I do love my nocturnal, trash-eating rodents, so I figured it would be worthy entertainment for a Thursday night.

However, I did not expect it to become my favorite installation in the MCU up to that point. The original Guardians is an action-packed, visually-engrossing space opera laden with laugh-out-loud humor and fantastic music, and 2017’s Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 is a worthy sequel and excellent addition to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, even though it doesn’t quite achieve the same level of quirky charm of the first.

Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 follows the titular band of space misfits as they continue their travels through space and adapt to their new role as “heroes”, but after a mission goes awry, they must work to resolve their internal conflicts while also navigating various precarious situations, including the question of Star Lord’s parentage, the sisterly rivalry between Nebula and Gamora, and Baby Groot’s inability to understand even the most basic directions.

Naturally, with such a stacked cast, it’s easy for the more “supporting” characters to get shoved aside so the main cast can bask in the spotlight, but GotGv2 does a decent job of balancing the plot and the narrative focus between all of the characters. I think this contributes to the somewhat “nonlinear plot” of the film, as this film is far more character-driven than it is plot-driven, but that’s not necessarily a drawback; in fact, I think it’s the film’s strength. Each character seemed to get their own sizable piece of the action, and in most cases, the character arcs “overlap” to help ensure enough time is devoted to each person/creature. Gamora has to grapple with her dysfunctional relationship with Nebula, which also gives the viewer a better look into Nebula’s motivations. Drax strikes up an unusual (and hilarious) friendship with Mantis, and Rocket finds an unusual kinship with Peter’s old mentor/guardian Yondu (Michael Rooker), which also opens a window into Yondu’s past as a ravager and his history with Peter. Peter struggles to reconcile the dreams he once had about his real father with the reality of his actual father, Ego, in addition to dealing with an “unspoken thing” with Gamora. And Baby Groot is… well, he’s Baby Groot. Every moment he is onscreen is a moment to treasure.

But this focus on the characters only seems to add more of an emotional impact to the film, even if the result is a less “plot-driven” film than the previous one. I mean, while there’s a solid plot and all, the individual stories and plotlines are kind of loosely interwoven until the climax, where they all crash into one another; but instead of stretching the story too thin, I think it adds a unique sort of depth. After all, a film about a superhero team should give adequate screen time to each of the members, and this film does a great job of doing just that. It didn’t feel like anyone got left behind, and certain events over the course of the film packed more of an emotional punch because of the enhanced focus on the entire cast, not only the leads; this is especially apparent in the treatment of Yondu and Nebula, who get more of a layered portrayal this time around.

New additions to the cast include Pom Klementieff as the empath, Mantis, who expresses a genuine naivete and wide-eyed sweetness that balances out some of the “rougher” members of the team. Mantis contributes to a lot of big laughs throughout the film, especially through her interactions with Dave Bautista’s Drax the Destroyer. Kurt Russell oozes confidence and charisma as Star Lord’s father, Ego, and Elizabeth Debicki is “gold” in her appearance as High Priestess Ayesha of the Sovereign, though her screen time is limited. Also, Sly Stallone is in this for a hot second – didn’t know that until I saw the opening credits.

Much like with the first film, the music in this film is fitting for the plot and all around fantastic to listen to, and the effects are amazing, per usual – especially the design of Ego’s Planet. There’s plenty of action, and several sequences that are just an absolute blast to watch, especially in IMAX/3D. Plus, for a film/property that is generally more light-hearted in tone than other Marvel installments, GotGv2 isn’t afraid to land a roundhouse kick right to your feels in a couple of spots. Unlike Mantis, the film is beautiful – on the inside, and the outside.

Alas, with the good comes the bad; while the film features several legitimately hilarious moments (I’ll discuss a couple of them under the spoiler cut), some of the humor feels a bit forced and awkward, especially in the beginning – though obviously, this might differ for other folks depending on their sense of humor. It takes a bit of time for the film to find its groove, and a few jokes failed to hit the mark. However, Drax (along with his interaction with Mantis) is definitely the comedic heart of the film, along with the lovable Baby Groot. Everyone gets a few quips, and the film eventually finds a rhythm and sticks to it, despite a faltering start.

If you’re a fan of the first film, or just love a good, humorous jaunt through the distant reaches of the universe with a twig, a couple of aliens, a human/celestial, and a cybernetically-engineered trash panda, then prepare yourself to get hooked on a feelin’ (again) by Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2.

Overall rating: 9/10

SPOILERS BENEATH THE “READ MORE,” YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

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Film Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)

Dir: Niki Caro
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl, Michael McElhatton
Runtime: 2hr6m
Spoiler Level: Light (Unless you are somehow unaware of the events of WWII)

I have a few rules when it comes to seeing movies in the theater, and one of those rules is: If Jessica Chastain is in it, make every attempt to see it. I haven’t regretted it yet – she’s stellar in just about everything. Then again, I did manage to miss out on Snow White and the Huntsman: Winter’s War. So, there’s that – though I’m sure Chastain is not the primary cause for that film’s poor performance.

Since The Zookeeper’s Wife has finally landed in my hometown, my mom (my frequent cinema-going companion) and I ventured out to see it, despite a relatively lukewarm reception.

The_Zookeepers_Wife.jpegThe film is based on the true story of zoologist Jan Żabiński (Heldenbergh) and his titular wife, Antonina (Chastain) who operate a zoo in Warsaw, which features a variety of impressive, exotic animals. When WWII ignites in Poland in the summer of 1939, their zoo is no longer able to function as it once did, and as the Jewish residents of the city are herded into the ghetto and the horrors of Hitler’s rise overtake Warsaw, the couple must adapt to their new circumstances and they begin the incredible task of secretly harboring and ferrying both friends and strangers to safety via their re-purposed zoo.

The film’s best feature is the cast; Chastain is predictably marvelous as Antonina, conveying an empathy for animals (she’s basically an elephant-whisperer) that is only matched by her compassion for and willingness to help those in need, even if it means risking her own safety. She becomes the center of the film, but Heldenbergh’s portrayal of Jan is similarly impressive; I found his scenes and character development equally as compelling, even though Chastain’s character is intended to be the heart of the film. The pair function extremely well together, especially as Jan and Antonina struggle to adapt to the new state of their zoo after the bombing, then grapple with the decision to involve themselves in daring attempts to rescue those trapped in the ghetto, and all the ensuing battles they face each day they put their own lives (as well as their young son, Ryszard, played by Timothy Radford and Val Maloku) at risk. A major highlight for me was how both Antonina and Jan expressed hesitance about taking Jewish friends and strangers into their home, and weighed the possible repercussions that would befall them if they were caught rebelling against the Nazis. Jan and Antonina’s decision was not easily made, but, after they arrange to assist one friend, it soon opens the door to even more dangerous attempts and intricate plans, and that initial hesitance quickly evolves into sturdy resolve. Watching the strain of the war and their resistance efforts on their family and their relationship was the most engrossing aspect of the film for me; though the film is called The Zookeeper’s Wife, it was Jan and Antonina’s actions, struggles, and scenes as a duo that left the biggest impression.

The third lead, Daniel Brühl, is convincingly sleazy and intimidating as German zoologist Lutz Heck. Granted, anyone with the name of “Heck” is guaranteed to be at least somewhat villainous, but Brühl’s portrayal, while occasionally vicious, is also grounded by his humanity – at times, he even comes across as brash and foolish rather than calculated and cunning. His motivations, though horrendously skewed and deplorable on the moral scale, are not done without purpose. As a result, the character is not degraded to a 2D, mindlessly-evil Nazi, which makes for a different sort of monster; one much more frightening and believable. However, at a few points, I felt like I was watching a palpably angry Helmut Zemo. Also – sidenote – super nice to see the talented Michael McElhatton (A.K.A., Father-of-the-Year Roose Bolton from Game of Thrones) in something where he isn’t a complete asshat!

However, despite a handful of great performances (shout-out to the adolescent camel, who is the star of the animals) the other aspects of the film struggle to stand out. The music (Harry Gregson-Williams) is excellent, the costuming/makeup is superb, and the cinematography is gorgeous, especially the lush colors. However, despite those key factors, it’s a great film that isn’t great; it tries to make the viewer scramble for the tissue box, but, though there are heartbreaking moments (Urszula’s plight, the devastation of the zoo, the horrific conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto,) the film’s maneuvering and shifting direction makes it difficult to invest and pinpoint what the focus is meant to be, which creates a conundrum – the film tries to do too much, yet, as a result of that, it also does too little. Each time it plucks up a new thread, it leaves others dangling, even as it strives to have them all tied up in a neat bow at the end. The viewer can experience a vast spectrum of emotions (and it delivers lots of gut punches), but it ends up being more of a detriment to the film than a high point. Stylistically, the film is stunning and it’s a visual triumph, but from a narrative standpoint, it hits a few snags that no amount of heartwarming or heart-wrenching moments can patch up.

But I will say that the film is worth watching, if just for the performance of the lead actors, and the overarching story of the is a compelling one, as it draws on a segment of history that, while well-known, still contains so many untold stories. Had I not seen the film I might never have known about the Żabińskis and their zoo. It might not end up earning many statues at the end of awards season, but the film is entertaining; it delivers a strong message, features powerful performances, and it’s got a bunch of cute animals… not all of the animal-based scenes are cheerful ones (be forewarned, oh ye of tender heart!), but seeing adorable lion cubs is never a bad thing.

I haven’t read Diane Ackerman’s book, which the film drew from, nor have I read Antonina’s diaries, which are only available in Polish, so I don’t know exactly where the film crossed over from “historical” to “historical fiction.” I’m sure artistic liberties were taken, with certain events exaggerated and others downplayed. I wonder about the tension between Antonina and Lutz, the backstories and introductions of some of the people they assisted, a few other key interactions between the characters, and the events of the final confrontation, as certain elements of the film seem like they were added for dramatic effect. I’m not a stickler for 100% accuracy (largely because it’s pretty much impossible) but the more accurate, the better – more toward the Tora! Tora! Tora! end of the spectrum than Pocahontas. I mean, I like The Patriot well enough but they shouldn’t be showing it in history classes. In any case, The Zookeeper’s Wife, while it blurs the fictional line, doesn’t tread into Braveheart territory, and despite artistic liberties, the scenes and scenarios felt plausible, and nothing left me saying “There’s no way that happened.” I’ve poked around a bit on the internet, and, from what I’ve gleaned thus far, it seems that the film does contain several historically accurate scenes and depictions, which is encouraging, but I haven’t delved too deep.

Though it might not land itself on any “Best Of 2017” lists, The Zookeeper’s Wife is far from a letdown. It shows an important perspective of a war that has been recounted hundreds of times in literature, film, and other media; a perspective that many might not know anything about. It’s not perfect, but if the film brings a greater awareness to the real story of Jan and Antonina and their zoo, and inspires others to do more research into that tidbit of the past, then the film has accomplished something great, even if the film itself fails to break new ground.

Overall Rating: 7.5/10