Sunday, July 23, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) review

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It’s safe to say that one of the most surprisingly effective revivals in recent years has been with the Planet of the Apes series. Of course, as we all know, the franchise first started back in 1968 with the original Planet of the Apes, a film that became a landmark entry in the sci-fi genre thanks in part to its groundbreaking makeup effects and its iconic twist ending. It was then followed by a string of sequels in the 70’s that varied in terms of overall quality. After that, the original film got a remake in 2001 directed by Tim Burton. However, unlike the original, the remake’s twist ending went over horribly with audiences; thus, due to the film’s mixed reception, plans for a follow-up ended up getting nixed. It wasn’t until a full decade later when the series was revived again, albeit in a much more successful manner. In director Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the ape characters were portrayed via motion-capture instead of the traditional makeup process. It was all led by the king of motion-capture performances himself, Andy Serkis, in the role of genetically enhanced ape Caesar. And thanks to Serkis’ outstanding performance, as well as its groundbreaking visual effects, Rise ended up being one of the surprise hits of 2011. Three years later, director Matt Reeves stepped in to direct the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. And overall, many felt that it was one of the rare instances of a sequel that far surpassed its predecessor. Not only were the motion-capture visual effects majorly improved upon, but Reeves also took the strong emotional depth of Rise one step further. In other words, ‘style over substance’ this was not, effectively making it one of the best summer blockbusters of that year. And now, here we are again three years later with the third entry in the new PotA series; War for the Planet of the Apes. Reeves is back to direct and Serkis is back once again as the mighty Caesar. And even after the impressive benchmark that was Dawn, War once again delivers exceptional visual flair that buoys a strongly written story centered around equally strong-written characters.

At the end of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, genetically-enhanced ape Caesar (Andy Serkis) managed to regain his control as the leader of his group of similarly enhanced apes from his traitorous lieutenant, Koba. However, because of Koba’s actions in that film, tensions between the apes and the humans who had survived the widespread ‘Simian Flu’ virus caused by the experiments that had been done on several of the former (during the events of Rise) were greatly increased. Thus, as War for the Planet of the Apes begins, Caesar and company now find themselves hunted by an elite para-military squadron known as Alpha-Omega, led by a vicious Colonel (Woody Harrelson) who is hell-bent on wiping out all apes so that humanity can regain its place as the dominant species on Earth. Meanwhile, the apes continue to do their best to try and survive in this increasingly hostile world. But when the conflict between the two sides ends up crossing a very personal line, Caesar, along with his loyal lieutenants Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary), and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) head out to confront the Colonel and his faction before they can kill any more of their kind. Along the way, they also come across a young orphan girl (Amiah Miller) who they begin to take care of. But as Caesar and his comrades approach Alpha-Omega, they soon find themselves embroiled in a violent and deadly conflict that puts the lives of them and their fellow apes in jeopardy.

As was the case with its predecessors, one of the biggest selling points of War for the Planet of the Apes is its impressive visual effects. The motion-capture visuals for the ape protagonists are better than ever, and just like how its immediate predecessor Dawn upped the ante from 2011’s Rise, War is easily the biggest Planet of the Apes film to date in terms of its scale. Matt Reeves’ direction is just as great as it was in Dawn, providing us with fantastic action sequences that are highly benefitted by the effects and excellent cinematography. But, of course, this film is way more than just pretty visuals. As many others have pointed out, these recent Planet of the Apes films have gone above and beyond in the realm of blockbuster filmmaking when it comes to its story and characters. This very much feels like a natural follow-up to Dawn. Case in point, it only takes place two years after the events of that film whereas Dawn was set over a decade after the events of Rise. Sure enough, the consequences of what happened in Dawn are still felt throughout this film. In fact, a lot of Caesar’s characterization in this film comes from him being haunted by what he did at the end of Dawn when he allowed Koba to die after everything that Koba did to him despite the number 1 rule of their society, ‘ape not kill ape’. Thus, all throughout this film, Caesar constantly grapples with the possibility that he’s starting to act exactly like Koba (i.e. vengeful against humanity). Because of this, War for the Planet of the Apes is easily the darkest entry in the trilogy by far. Through it all, though, we are still given a highly sympathetic bunch of main protagonists to follow as well as a sinister but layered antagonist that ties it all together.

Of course, leading the charge in the film’s great ensemble cast once again is Andy Serkis as Caesar. It’s been said before time and time again and I’ll say it here as well; his turn as the great ape is just as awards-worthy as all the other great performances from this year. All those impressive visual effects never once take anything away from the pure emotion coming out of Serkis’ performance, and as alluded to earlier, this film features what is arguably Caesar’s biggest character arc to date. Thus, it can also be argued that this might just be Serkis’ best performance as Caesar in the entire trilogy. And because of everything that Serkis has done in the business of motion-capture performance work, we also have excellent performances from the rest of the film’s ‘ape’ cast. Of course, there are the series regulars, like Karin Konoval as Maurice and Terry Notary as Rocket, the only two members of the cast (apart from Serkis) who have played the same roles in all three films. But then you also have newcomers like Steve Zahn as ‘Bad Ape’, a former zoo ape who ends up joining Caesar’s group on their journey. ‘Bad Ape’ ultimately provides this generally grim sci-fi war story with some much-needed moments of levity. As for the film’s human characters, this series once again does an excellent job of making them just as well-developed as their ape counterparts. Woody Harrelson’s ‘The Colonel’ is easily the most villainous human antagonist that this series has ever seen. And while he’s not exactly ‘sympathetic’ like Gary Oldman’s character Dreyfus from Dawn was (hell, even Koba was more sympathetic by comparison), he’s still a fascinatingly complex character, thanks in no small part to Harrelson’s excellent and steely performance in the role. Finally, there’s newcomer Amiah Miller in a breakout role as the young girl that Caesar and co. end up adopting. And as it turns out, her character happens to be one of major significance to this franchise; thus, it’ll be interesting to see if she plays a part in possible future installments.

Well, I’ll be damned… it looks like we have a new contender for the best film trilogy in recent years. After Andy Serkis and Rupert Wyatt surprised us all in 2011 with the well-layered sci-fi drama that was Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Matt Reeves then surpassed that with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014. To some, that might seem like an extremely tough act to follow. However, that didn’t stop Reeves and Serkis from damn near reaching that exact same mark with this year’s War for the Planet of the Apes, which might just be the best ‘third installment’ of any trilogy ever (and, yes, I know that’s not really saying much but still…). It’s a natural follow-up to its predecessor, with a storyline that’s tied perfectly to the events of Dawn. This, in turn, further develops the character of Caesar in what ends up being a satisfying conclusion to the overall character arc that he’s had in this trilogy. Pair all this with the reboot series’ greatest strengths, both visually and narratively, and you have yet another summer blockbuster where the writing is just as complex as its visuals. But while they are promoting this film as the end of a trilogy, I’d be interested to see them try and continue from here. Because without giving anything away, they’re inching closer to closer to the scenario that was played out in the original Planet of the Apes, where an astronaut unknowingly crash-lands on Earth after the apes had become the dominant species on the planet. And if they do decide to do another one, hopefully with a lot of the same crew that worked on these last three films, I bet that this hypothetical new take on the story that is Planet of the Apes would be fantastic. Because that’s exactly what this recent PotA trilogy has been… fantastic.


Rating: 5/5!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) review

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It could be argued that Spider-Man is Marvel Comics’ most popular character. His characterization as a regular high-school student from New York who finds himself immersed in the larger Marvel universe has made him an incredibly endearing character to audiences young and old. This has also translated well to the web-slinger's time on the big-screen, as Spider-Man films have grossed over $3 billion worldwide. Of course, it all started with the trilogy of films directed by Sam Raimi and starring Tobey Maguire in the lead role, which ran from 2002 to 2007. The first film was one of the three major releases, alongside Bryan Singer’s X-Men and 1998’s Blade, that helped revitalize the superhero film genre after the low point that it experienced in the late 90’s. It was then followed by an even better-received sequel in 2004… and then an extremely polarizing third installment in 2007. That would ultimately be the final installment of the series, as Raimi backed out of directing the impending fourth installment when he felt pressured by the studio into getting it done by 2011. Thus, just one year later, Sony decided to reboot the Spider-Man franchise, with Marc Webb taking over as director and Andrew Garfield cast as the new Spidey. However, the short amount of time that had gone by since the Raimi series ended, paired with the fondness that many had for those films, ended up having a majorly negative effect on the Amazing Spider-Man films. While the first Amazing film managed to hold off a decent amount of the skepticism that had been surrounding it, the second Amazing film ended up being even more polarizing than Raimi’s third film. It was also the lowest-grossing Spider-Man film to date, barely grossing over $700 million worldwide.

The harsh reception to Amazing Spider-Man 2 put a lot of pressure on Sony, who have owned Spider-Man’s film rights since the 80’s. Clearly, their plans at the time to develop their own ‘Cinematic Universe’ a la Marvel Studios were not going over well with critics and audiences. And so, in 2015, they decided to strike a deal with Marvel Studios who, due to Marvel’s initial handling of their characters’ film rights, were originally unable to use some of the company’s biggest heroes for the first few years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s existence. This new deal, which was made official in February 2015, would allow Sony to hold onto Spider-Man’s film rights while also giving Kevin Feige and his team at Marvel Studios creative control over future films, thereby allowing everyone’s favorite neighborhood web-slinger to finally appear in the MCU. However, this also meant that the series would see another bit of rebooting for the second time in five years. Tom Holland, breakout star of 2012’s The Impossible, took on the role of Peter Parker and officially made his MCU debut in last year’s Captain America: Civil War. And overall, his turn as Spidey in that film was well-received by critics and audiences, proving that he was more than ready to take on the lead role in his own film. And so, here we are now with Spider-Man: Homecoming. General newcomer Jon Watts takes on directorial duties for this collaboration between Sony and Marvel Studios. To reiterate, because Sony still owns Spider-Man’s film rights, this is a Sony release, unlike the other MCU films which are distributed by Disney. However, given the involvement of Kevin Feige and co., it’s also the newest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Thus, with the involvement of the studio that has continued to deliver top-quality hits time and time again, I’m pleased to say that good ol’ ‘Underoos’ is indeed back and, more importantly, is better than ever in his latest on-screen adventure.

During the events of Captain America: Civil War, teenager Peter Parker AKA Spider-Man (Tom Holland), who gained spider-like abilities after being bitten by a genetically-altered spider, was recruited by billionaire Tony Stark AKA Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) to aid in the Avengers’ internal conflict in that film. Afterward, Tony gives Peter the new and improved suit that he had made for him but also tells him that he’s not yet a member of the Avengers. Thus, Peter returns home to Queens, where he lives with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), and his life as a ‘regular’ student at Midtown High while continuing to fight crime around town under the ‘supervision’ of Tony’s long-time bodyguard, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). But despite this, Peter is still left wishing for an opportunity to do more than just deal with minor incidents. He eventually manages to find a chance to prove himself when he starts to come across criminals that are using new and dangerous weapons that have been crafted from the Chitauri remains of the Battle of New York in the first Avengers. This soon leads to him coming into conflict with the man in charge of these recent criminal operations, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), who uses a mechanical wingsuit to become ‘the Vulture’. However, the intensity of the situations that Peter soon finds himself in also gets him into trouble with Tony, who wanted him to maintain a more ‘grounded’ lifestyle. Thus, Peter now finds himself being pressured into proving that he’s capable of dealing with the kinds of threats that the Avengers face on a regular basis.

In the months leading up to its release, the filmmakers promoted Spider-Man: Homecoming as a high school film that was reminiscent of the classic 80’s films written and directed by John Hughes. And overall, the film does deliver on being just that, from its greater focus on the younger members of its cast to its various homages to films like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But, of course, at the end of the day, this is still a ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ film, so it also has all the great things that you’d expect from the MCU at this point. The action sequences are excellent, which in turn are backed by solid visual effects, and there are plenty of humorous moments that never take away from the more emotional moments of the story. And because this film is centered on a superhero who’s still in high-school, the advice that his mentor gives him (‘Stay close to the ground’) applies nicely to the overall scope of the film. Instead of being one of the high-level Avengers films, this is just a nicely scaled solo film that sometimes verges into the larger-scaled escapades of other MCU films but never once diverges from its high-school setting. I mean, if I had any sort of issue with this film, it’d be that it admittedly feels a bit overlong. Now, to be fair, this film is only about two hours and ten minutes long, which is on par with most of the other ‘solo’ MCU films. Heck, this isn’t even the longest Spider-Man film to date; The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was a little over two hours and twenty minutes long. Still, this film’s second half is made up mostly of its biggest action sequences, so it sometimes feels like the film never ends. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that there were any points where the film dragged or anything, but perhaps it could’ve benefitted from some better pacing.

As noted before, this film focuses heavily on its younger stars, and all of them do excellent jobs in their respective roles. Of course, leading them all is Tom Holland who, as we already saw from Captain America: Civil War, is a great fit for the role of Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Not only does he have Spidey’s trademark quips down perfectly, but he’s also given a great overall arc in which he finds that he must prove himself within the larger world of the MCU. In some ways, it’s a lot like the arc that Tony Stark went through in Iron Man 3, in which he realized that his suit didn’t define who he was. And in this film, the fact that Tony knows himself well enough to not want Peter to go down the same route that he went truly goes to show how effective the MCU has been in terms of developing its characters in a consistent manner with each new film. Meanwhile, Holland is backed by some memorable supporting characters, including Jacob Batalon as Peter’s best friend Ned, who ends up learning about Peter’s big secret. And thanks to Batalon and Holland’s terrific camaraderie with each other, Ned proves to be one of the great MCU sidekicks, up there with the likes of Luis from Ant-Man and Wong from Doctor Strange. Another standout is Zendaya, who plays one of Peter’s classmates, Michelle. Her role in the film is a minor one but she does get some great lines of dialogue thanks to her hilariously dry wit. Rounding out the main ‘youth’ cast is Laura Harrier as Peter’s main love interest Liz Allan, who has solid chemistry with Holland, and Tony Revolori as Flash Thompson. It’s a different Flash than the ones we’ve seen in the previous film incarnations of Spider-Man but he still serves his purpose as a constant pain in Peter’s side.

As for the film’s adult leads, there was some controversy surrounding the casting of Marisa Tomei as Aunt May due to Tomei being the youngest actress to date in the role. However, Tomei does prove to be a great fit as the MCU version of Peter’s loving aunt. She works well with Holland while also getting one of the best humorous bits in the entire film right at the very end. Meanwhile, Jon Favreau gets to work with what is easily his biggest role in an MCU film to date (outside of directing, of course) as Happy Hogan, characterized excellently here as Peter’s begrudged liaison between him and Tony Stark. On that note, I’m aware that a lot of people were worried that Robert Downey Jr. was going to hog the limelight in this film to the point where it’d practically be Iron Man 4. Trust me, though, when I say that this isn’t the case. Tony’s only in the film for about 10 minutes and is used perfectly, both in terms of being the goofy genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist that we all know and love as well as being an effective mentor for Peter. And, of course, there’s the main villain, Adrian Toomes AKA the Vulture. Is he another one of Marvel’s ‘mediocre’ villains? No, not at all… in fact, I’d dare say that since the start of Phase 3, Marvel Studios has improved quite a bit when it comes to their villains. Michael Keaton is excellent in the role and the character is set up solidly as a former salvage operator who got screwed over by Stark Industries after the events of the first Avengers. This effectively continues the series’ tradition of having Spider-Man’s adversaries be more ‘sympathetic’ than just pure evil. And then, if that wasn’t enough, there’s one big twist surrounding the character that makes him even more of a personal threat for Peter.

There was quite a lot of backlash surrounding this film prior to its release, from its ‘allegedly spoiler-y’ trailers (personally, I didn’t think that they gave away too much) to its admittedly subpar main poster (though, seriously, how does a poster impact the quality of the film that it’s for?). Thankfully, though, that didn’t stop Spider-Man: Homecoming from becoming yet another satisfying entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as a much-needed win for Sony after their last few attempts from this franchise fared poorly with audiences. Sure, this is still technically the second time in half a decade that Spider-Man has seen an on-screen reboot, but the filmmakers wisely avoid going down many of the same routes that the character’s previous incarnations went. Jon Watts’ direction is solid and the film finds a nice mix between the high-school antics that its young protagonist deals with on a regular basis and the grand-scale adventures within the larger MCU. And thanks to its terrific ensemble cast and the continuously great atmosphere that one can always expect from the MCU films, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a fun new spin on this beloved character. Now, with that said, I’ll admit that I’m still a little bummed about how the previous incarnation of Spider-Man, the Amazing Spider-Man series, was rather unceremoniously tossed aside after only two films. Yeah, I know I’m in the minority when it comes to liking those films, but why couldn’t they have just been given the opportunity to continue but through the way that they’re doing now and have Kevin Feige and his team come in to fix things up, allowing Andrew Garfield’s Spidey to be a part of the MCU? Still, I won’t lie… after his appearance in both Civil War and now this film, I’m fully onboard with Tom Holland’s portrayal of Spider-Man and, therefore, any future films featuring Marvel Studios’ version of the friendly neighborhood web-slinger.


Rating: 5/5!

Thursday, July 6, 2017

In Defense of the 'Amazing Spider-Man' films

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This weekend sees the release of the next installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Spider-Man: Homecoming. This new film is a collaboration between Marvel Studios and Sony, the latter of whom still hold the rights to the character as they have had for many years now. However, thanks to a deal that they made in 2015 with Marvel Studios, Spider-Man: Homecoming is very much a part of the MCU, with the webslinger having made his long-awaited series debut in last year’s Captain America: Civil War. It’s also worth noting, though, that this is the second major reboot that the character has had in half a decade. Some may express a bit of concern about this happening as often as it has in this timeframe, but based on its current critical reception, it looks like Spider-Man: Homecoming will turn out to be another big success for Marvel Studios and their legendary Cinematic Universe, while also serving as a bit of redemption for Sony and their own Marvel output. However, today on Rhode Island Movie Corner, I’d like to make an argument in defense of the previous film incarnation of Spider-Man, the one that ended up putting a major dent in Sony’s reputation when it comes to their handling of the character. I’m, of course, referring… to the Amazing Spider-Man films. Obviously, this first attempt at rebooting the Spider-Man film franchise did not go over too well with audiences, especially after the second entry in the series was both a critical and commercial underperformer. And, basically, that’s exactly why we now have this second reboot; the first one was that big of a disaster amongst critics and audiences. However, I still have a soft spot for these two films, despite them now being mostly remembered by the internet as nothing more than a failed attempt to copy Marvel Studios’ success.  

But before I get into the films themselves, let’s start with a little history. Of course, as many of us know, the friendly neighborhood webslinger’s first major outing on the big screen was Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man trilogy. Prior to this, there had been several attempts at a Spider-Man film, even one directed by James Cameron. Finally, Raimi was brought in by Sony, who had bought the film rights to the character in 1985. The first installment of this new series, simply titled Spider-Man, was a huge hit when it was released in 2002. It was the first film ever to gross over $100 million during its opening weekend at the U.S. box-office. Thus, it is now generally regarded as one of the major catalysts in the modern-day resurgence of the superhero film genre, alongside 2000’s X-Men and 1998’s Blade. Two years later, Raimi and his crew returned for a sequel; Spider-Man 2. And while it didn’t outdo its predecessor at the worldwide box-office, many viewed it as a superior sequel and, thus, it became one of the most beloved entries in the superhero genre. It was then followed by Spider-Man 3 in 2007 and… well, you already know what happened with that one. While it was another box-office success for the franchise, even to the point where it became the highest-grossing entry in the trilogy, it only did ‘okay’ with critics and was mercilessly SAVAGED by audiences for its mishandling of the famous ‘alien symbiote’ storyline from the comics, which saw Peter Parker adopt a darker persona. Said storyline is also known for the creation of one of his most infamous adversaries, Venom, who in the film was ultimately relegated to a minor supporting role after being written in by studio demand. Still, despite the polarizing reaction, plans were still in place for a fourth film. However, in 2010, it was announced that Raimi was stepping down from the project because he felt pressured by Sony into getting it done by a 2011 release date.

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Thus, in 2012, Sony decided to instead reboot the Spider-Man franchise. Director Marc Webb, who was fresh off 2009’s critically-acclaimed romantic drama indie (500) Days of Summer, was brought in to direct the first installment of this new Spider-Man series, The Amazing Spider-Man. Andrew Garfield, fresh off an award-nominated performance as Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network, was cast in the title role while Emma Stone was brought in to play Peter Parker’s original love interest from the comics, Gwen Stacy, who had previously appeared in a minor supporting role in Spider-Man 3 played by Bryce Dallas Howard. Upon release, the film did manage to hold off most of the skepticism that had been surrounding it; it did fine with critics and it grossed over $750 million worldwide. Still, there were some dissenters out there, and part of the reason why is admittedly understandable. Because to be perfectly blunt… The Amazing Spider-Man is basically just a retread of the original Spider-Man. It’s the same general story of an unpopular high-school student who gains superpowers after being bitten by a radioactive spider. His uncle dies, he falls in love with one of his classmates, a close colleague of his becomes the main villain, and the film ends with Peter having to sever any chances of a romantic relationship with his love interest. Sure, the film adds in the plotline of Peter’s parents, skirts around Uncle Ben’s famous ‘With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility’ line, and the part where Peter breaks off his relationship with Gwen does go differently than before because she immediately realizes why he’s doing this. But at the end of the day, this origin story isn’t that different from the 2002 film’s origin story. I mean, to be fair, that was just an unfortunate side-effect of this film’s status as a reboot that came out only a decade after the release of Raimi’s first film. On that note, thankfully the new series with Tom Holland has decided to skip past the character’s origin, which is good seeing how we’ve already seen it twice now on film since 2002.

Still, I’d argue that this film does just enough to differentiate itself from Spider-Man’s previous onscreen incarnation. I mean, if anything, it’s not like this is a direct ‘carbon copy’ of Raimi’s film. The biggest change comes with the increased role of Peter’s parents, Richard and Mary Parker. Having only been mentioned in the Raimi films, the first Amazing film opens with Peter’s parents leaving him at Uncle Ben and Aunt May’s while they go off on an important business matter, only to never return. Thus, most of the film’s plot revolves around Peter learning more about his parents’ secrets and why this led to their disappearance which, in turn, ultimately leads him on the path to becoming Spider-Man. Now, admittedly, despite what I just said, the film doesn’t really focus too much on what happened to Peter’s parents save for a brief flash of a newspaper article mentioning that they were killed in a plane crash. Afterward, it basically just turns into a Spider-Man story that only occasionally ties everything back to Peter’s past. However, it does seem like there was initially going to be a greater focus on Peter’s parents based on the film’s several deleted scenes. These scenes include, among other things, some additional character development for Dr. Curt Connors, Richard Parker’s colleague, and an expanded role for their seemingly sinister superior, Dr. Kafka, who straight-up disappears from the film after the big action sequence on the bridge. Some of these scenes even appeared in the trailer, only to then not appear in the final cut. As we’ll soon see, that’s basically one of the biggest dilemmas with these films. Clearly, a lot of material was left on the cutting room floor, perhaps so that it could be saved for the sequel. On that note, thankfully, the plotline with Peter’s parents returned in the sequel and was given more attention there than in the first film.

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Ultimately, though, the main reason why I liked these films more than the Raimi films (which, to be clear, I still like by the way) is that I just liked the characters in this series more, especially Peter and Gwen. While I do feel that both Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst were solid in the Raimi films, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone totally have them beat when it comes to chemistry. I mean, after all, these two were a couple in real-life, and that is indeed apparent in the several scenes where they’re together. As for Andrew Garfield’s performance in the role of the iconic webslinger, I much preferred his take on the character over Tobey Maguire’s. And, for the most part, it seemed like most critics were happy with Garfield’s take on the character as well. However, there have been some who felt that he wasn’t that good when it came to portraying Peter outside of the suit. They argued that he was whiny and that he didn’t look the part of a high-school nerd. And I’ll admit that, yes, Tobey Maguire was perhaps better when it came to conveying Peter’s nerdy qualities when he wasn’t in the suit. However, I don’t really agree with the ‘whiny’ argument, which in the first film mainly comes into play when Peter argues with Uncle Ben in the scene before his death. And the main reason why is one that gets brought up by several cast and crew members in the film’s behind-the-scenes material; at the end of the day, Peter is just being a teenager. At that age, teenagers will often find themselves lost at times and, thus, make questionable decisions. And that’s exactly what Peter does at times in this film, as a lot of his inner turmoil is, of course, based around him not knowing why his parents left him at such a young age. In short, I fully appreciate how this new version of Peter was characterized overall, which I would argue makes him more sympathetic than Maguire’s Peter.

But if there’s one clear thing that Garfield did indeed do better than Maguire, it’s being Spider-Man. Spider-Man is a character who is well-known for the comedic quips that he spurts when he’s fighting crime, and Garfield had that part down perfectly. Sure, some may argue that he didn’t do this that much in the first film save for the scene where he confronts the carjacker (“You’ve found my weakness. It’s small knives!”) but at the very least, things only got better in the sequel, where Garfield truly shined in the role. By comparison, Maguire never really got the chance to use Spidey’s trademark quips. I don’t know whether it was because of Raimi or the screenwriters, but Maguire’s Spider-Man was much more serious in tone. Thankfully, there were a few instances here and there where Maguire did throw out some quips at his enemies. It’s just that they really were few and far between. The first instance of this that I can recall came in the second film when he’s fighting Dr. Octavius at the bank. When Octavius remarks that Spidey is getting on his nerves, Peter then proceeds to joke that “he has a knack for that”. The other major instance that I can think of comes in Spider-Man 3, during his first fight with Flint Marko AKA the Sandman. When he first confronts Sandman, he informs him that he’s ‘the sheriff around these parts’. Then, after the fight, he goes to the roof of a skyscraper to empty out the sand in his costume, where he poses the question, “Where do all these guys come from?”. I will say that, at the very least, Spider-Man 3, which was co-written by Raimi and his brother Ivan, did allow Maguire to be more comedic in the role of Peter. However, considering that part of this included his infamous ‘emo’ phase (which really wasn’t as bad as the internet constantly puts it out to be; if anything, it was far from being the film’s biggest problem), that’s up for debate. Garfield, thankfully, never went ‘that far’ when playing the character.

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The real standout of these films, though, was Emma Stone in the role of Gwen Stacy, who is hands down the best on-screen love interest that Spidey has ever had in these films. Again, nothing against Kirsten Dunst, as she had good chemistry with Tobey Maguire and even a solid character arc in the second Raimi film as she navigated through her complicated love life. But at the end of the day, Mary Jane Watson was mainly just a damsel in distress who was constantly being saved by Peter. Gwen, meanwhile, was by no means a ‘damsel in distress’. Sure, she got cornered a few times by the Lizard in the first film and was captured by the Green Goblin during the finale of the second film, but she also played an active part in helping Spider-Man defeat his enemies. She helped to develop the cure for the Lizard’s mutagen in the first film and helped make Peter’s web-shooters resistant to Electro’s attacks in the second film. Heck, during a scene in the first film when she’s confronted by the Lizard, she straight-up wards him off with fire. But easily one of her most defining moments in these films came at the end of the first film which, like the ending of the first Raimi film, had Peter breaking off his current romantic relationship with her. Except in this instance, instead of it ending with Peter just walking away, Gwen immediately realizes why he is doing this; during the final battle, her father, Captain George Stacy, is killed by the Lizard. With his dying breath, he makes Peter promise to ‘leave Gwen out of it’, knowing that he’ll make many enemies as Spider-Man in the future. However, by the end of the film, it seems as if Peter and Gwen’s relationship might not be over after all. Though as we’ll soon see in the second film, this relationship becomes quite complicated.

The two are backed by an excellent supporting cast. Denis Leary is a major standout as Gwen’s father, George Stacy. Given his status as a New York City Police Captain, he provides a nice contrast to Peter’s actions as Spider-Man while also getting some of the best lines in the film, from “38 of New York’s finest versus one guy… in a unitard” to his response to when Peter tells him about Connors transforming into a giant Lizard (“Do I look like the mayor of Tokyo to you?”). And I won’t lie… I teared up quite a bit when he died. Sure, his role in the sequel was odd, to say the least, as he mainly appeared as a vision of Peter’s, forcibly reminding him of the promise that he made to him. Still, he was easily one of the best parts of the first film. Meanwhile, Martin Sheen and Sally Field are both fantastic as this series’ iterations of Uncle Ben and Aunt May. Their takes on these classic characters are a bit more authoritative in tone compared to Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris’ performances in the Raimi films. They still are the loving surrogate parents in Peter’s life but they do take on a stricter parenting role whenever he gets into trouble, especially Uncle Ben. And on that note, while it is pretty much the same as the scene from the first Raimi film, Webb does do a good job when it comes to handling Uncle Ben’s death in this film. Heck, I’ll even admit that perhaps I found this one to be just a tad bit more heartbreaking seeing how this happened while Ben was looking for Peter after an intense argument between them. And as for Sally Field as Aunt May… well, recently she’s distanced herself from these films, stating that it wasn’t ‘her kind of film’ but that she did it for her friend, producer Laura Ziskin, who had also produced the Raimi films. The Amazing Spider-Man would ultimately be one of the last projects that she worked on before her death in 2011. Field also stated that she felt that there wasn’t much depth to the character; a shame, really, because I’d argue that she gave it her all in the role, especially in the sequel.

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As for the main villain, Dr. Curt Connors AKA the Lizard, I think that he was the series’ best ‘sympathetic’ villain since Dr. Octopus in Spider-Man 2. After all, that’s a common starting point when it comes to some of Spider-Man’s adversaries in these films; not all of them are just straight-up ‘bad guys’. In fact, almost all of them have a personal connection to Peter in some way, shape, or form. In this instance, Dr. Connors was a close friend of Peter’s dad who worked alongside him at Oscorp. And when we first meet him, we learn that he and Peter’s father were experimenting with cross-species genetics to try and find cures for diseases along with other potential scientific breakthroughs, including the possibility of humans being able to regenerate limbs. Connors himself only has one arm, hence why he’s fully determined to make his experiments work. While there was some material with Connors that was cut from the final film, including a scene where we see that he has a son, Rhys Ifans does a great job in making Connors a sympathetic character who’s trying to heal himself as much as he wants to heal the world. But, after one failed test, he becomes a diabolical creature and his goals become corrupted as he works to turn all of New York into lizard beings like himself. Dr. Connors had previously appeared in the Raimi films as well, played by Dylan Baker. Sadly, for Baker, he was never given the opportunity to become the Lizard, though, apparently, he was being set up to do so in the unmade fourth film. Thankfully, we finally got to see this character fully realized on the big screen in the first Amazing Spider-Man, and I think that it was also good that they started out with him instead of re-doing a villain from the Raimi films. Obviously, they re-did Green Goblin in the second film but, again, that was the second film. At that point, I’d argue that it was okay for them to try and do a new take on a previously seen character.

Finally, one of the other major things that I think the Amazing films do better than the Raimi films is its action sequences, namely whenever Spidey is swinging through the city. Admittedly, the first Raimi film has become rather dated in terms of its effects; you can clearly tell whenever a digital double of an actor is used during a fight scene. Thankfully, the Raimi films did improve from an effects standpoint as they went on. Thus, by the time that the Amazing films came around, Spider-Man’s web-slinging became more fluent than ever from a visual perspective. The second film, especially, featured some of the best Spider-Man swinging sequences ever put on film. With that in mind, I do think that Webb managed to improve as an action director the same way that Christopher Nolan did between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. In Nolan’s instance, while Batman Begins was a great return to form for Batman on the big screen after almost a decade, its biggest shortcoming was its poorly edited fight sequences, which I attribute to it being Nolan’s first big action film. Thankfully, Nolan stepped up his game three years later with some exceptional fight sequences in The Dark Knight. Now, for the record, I’m not saying that Webb pulled off a Dark Knight-level leap in quality when it came to the second Amazing film. But, like Nolan, this was a case where the first Amazing Spider-Man was his first big action film. And while the action was solid enough in the first film, Webb managed to take it one step further in the sequel. For one thing, the sequel has action sequences that are set during the day instead of at night like in the first film. Seriously, the only major daytime action sequence in the first film… was one that took place within a school.

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On that note, now it’s time to talk about that infamous sequel, 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Like Spider-Man 3, it experienced an extremely polarizing response from critics and audiences that leaned more towards the negative. And while it was one of the top-grossing films of the year, with over $708 million worldwide… it was ultimately the lowest-grossing Spider-Man film to date. Thus, the following year, Sony made a deal with Marvel Studios to co-produce a second reboot franchise, which would allow the character to finally make his long-awaited debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This also meant that all of Sony’s plans at the time to continue the Amazing series ended up falling by the wayside. But as for me, I was in the minority of people who did like The Amazing Spider-Man 2. And after re-watching it again as research for this post… I found that I still liked it. Hell, scratch that, I love it. As I noted before, it improved upon its predecessor in terms of the action sequences and visuals, effectively becoming the best-looking Spider-Man film to date. And just like its predecessor, it benefitted greatly from the lead performances of Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Garfield fully embraced Spidey’s comic persona while Stone’s Gwen continued to be his best on-screen love interest. Sure, the two do spend most of the film apart from each other after they break up due to Peter’s guilt over not sticking to the promise that he made to her father. But when they do share romantic scenes, boy are these two cute together. The scene where the two rekindle their relationship on top the Brooklyn Bridge is especially heartwarming… though also a bit gut-wrenching when you know exactly what’s about to happen to them. But I’ll get to that later…

Remember how there was quite a lot of material left on the cutting room floor with the first film? Well, it’s an even bigger problem with this one. Once again, several scenes that were even featured in the trailer ended up being removed for various reasons, and in this instance, it does indeed impact the overall narrative. This includes a scene where Peter’s best friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) informs him that his father’s company, Oscorp, has been watching him and his family for years and, in what is perhaps the most notable (or ‘infamous’, depending on your point of view) deleted scene of the bunch, Peter is reunited with his long-lost father, who is revealed to have survived the plane crash, which we see happen in the film’s opening sequence. There were also a few scenes featuring Shailene Woodley as Mary Jane Watson, but her scenes were cut because Webb wanted to focus more on Peter and Gwen’s relationship instead of the one that would obviously occur between Peter and MJ. But unlike the previously mentioned deleted scenes, these haven’t been released yet, and now that Sony has moved onto a new series, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see them. To me, this film feels very much like Iron Man 2, which also tried to set up a lot of material for future films to the point where it ended up being detrimental to its main plot. But whereas Iron Man 2 didn’t do ‘terribly’ with critics and was part of the continually-developing Marvel Cinematic Universe, Sony didn’t have the same kind of leeway with the Amazing films. Thus, several big-name actors ended up being vastly underutilized in roles that were clearly meant to be expanded upon in future films. This includes Felicity Jones as Harry’s assistant Felicia, who would’ve become the vigilante Black Cat from the comics, and B.J. Novak as scientist Alistair Smythe, who was well-known in the comics for creating robots known as the Spider-Slayers.

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Ultimately, though, the film ends up facing the same dilemma as Spider-Man 3; a narrative that featured several main villains, three to be specific. However, while I do think that both films clearly bit off more than they can chew by having all these villains in one film, I still think that Spider-Man 3 was more problematic when it came to it having ‘too many villains’. And that’s because, after about 2-4 viewings of that film, I’m still unsure as to who the main villain of that film was. At first, it seemed like it was going to be Harry Osborn AKA ‘New Goblin’, but he’s put out of commission for a bit due to a sustained bout of amnesia. Then, there was Sandman, and for the most part, he was the ‘main threat’ of the film, especially given the big personal connection that he has with Peter as it’s revealed that he was the one who killed Uncle Ben. But then, like Harry, he too exits the film for a decent amount of time before coming back at the end. And then, of course, there’s Venom… who’s only in it for like ten minutes or so before he’s killed off. Amazing Spider-Man 2, at the very least, was a bit clearer as to who the main villain was; Electro. Sure, there’s a point in the film where he’s taken into custody for a bit, but by the end, he’s still ultimately the big threat for Spidey to stop. As for Harry, he slowly but surely changes into the Green Goblin by the end of the film; in other words, he was clearly meant to be one of the ‘big baddies’ in future films, though he does play a major part in this film’s finale. And as for the film’s third villain, Rhino, he was only meant to be a ‘book-end’ villain, first appearing at the beginning of the film and then returning at the end. I mean, to be fair, while Spider-Man does have a wide array of adversaries in the comics, not all of them are big enough to be ‘main villains’. And it seems like Spider-Man: Homecoming is doing a similar thing; Michael Keaton’s Vulture is the main villain while the film will also feature characters like Shocker and the Tinkerer in smaller roles.

And overall, I was fine with the villains in this film. Paul Giamatti was delightfully hammy in his brief appearance as the Rhino; again, a brief appearance, but it did result in a fun opening sequence and ending, even though the latter cuts to the credits before the fight gets underway. As for Jamie Foxx as Electro, the film continued the series’ tradition of sympathetic villains who weren’t ‘bad guys’ just because they’re evil. In the case of Electro, he starts out as a lowly Oscorp employee named Max Dillon who is led to believe that he’s Spider-Man’s best friend after Spidey saves him one time. After transforming into the electrically-powered being Electro, Max is confronted by Spider-Man again, and even though Peter attempts to peacefully subdue him, this fails and the ensuing battle leads to Max’s opinion of Spidey being forever tarnished. Sure, maybe this happens rather abruptly… that and Foxx’s take on the character is very reminiscent of Jim Carrey’s portrayal of Edward Nygma AKA the Riddler in Batman Forever, complete with a whole subplot that focused heavily on the fact that his transformation occurred on his birthday. In fact, there are a lot of overly goofy moments in this film, more so than just anything that Electro does. Thus, one of the major criticisms of the film was its tendency to have some noticeable tonal shifts. I do see where people are coming from with this, but it ultimately didn’t bother me that much. Plus, going back to what I said before about how this film had some of the best Spider-Man action in any film to date, the creation of Electro does lead to some awesome electricity-based visuals and action sequences. And I also don’t mind the changes that were made to Electro’s overall design. I mean, to be fair, I don’t see how they could’ve put Foxx in a green and yellow spandex suit complete with a lightning-bolt shaped mask; that would’ve made things even sillier if you ask me. And finally, with Dane DeHaan as the new Harry Osborn AKA Green Goblin, I thought that he was an interesting new take on the character, as we see traces of both his long friendship with Peter and his eventual descent into anarchy. If he had been given another film to work with, I think his take on the character would’ve become even better.

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On that note, what were the plans then if the franchise hadn’t stalled out with this film? Well, obviously, there would’ve been a third (and maybe even a fourth) Amazing Spider-Man film, once again directed by Marc Webb and starring Garfield and DeHaan. But perhaps the most notable planned follow-up was a spin-off that focused on Spider-Man’s most notorious group of adversaries from the comics, the Sinister Six. The film was set to be written and directed by Drew Goddard, to the point where he even dropped out of handling show-running duties on Daredevil to work on this film. And the lineup for this gang of villains was directly teased in the credits of Amazing Spider-Man 2. This included, of course, returning characters Green Goblin and Rhino along with two characters that were teased in the film itself during a scene set at Oscorp that showcased their technology; Doc Ock and Vulture, the latter of whom will finally make his big-screen debut in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Finally, the other two confirmed villains were Kraven the Hunter, who would’ve debuted in the third film, and either Chameleon or Mysterio as implied by a bright-white mask. Ultimately, though, as we all know, this film, along with a planned Venom spin-off (that, apparently, is now back in development with Tom Hardy set to star in the lead role), were both canceled after the Marvel Studios deal was made official. It’s a shame, really, because I was interested in seeing both these films. Sure, it probably would’ve been difficult to try and make a film based around villainous characters and not superheroes, but I’m sure that it could’ve been done. Instead, we ultimately got our first big villain-centered comic book film in 2016 with DC’s Suicide Squad. And while that film also didn’t fare too well with critics, I still think that we’ll eventually see a good supervillain-led film in the future.

Anyway, back to Amazing Spider-Man 2… amidst all the goofy moments in this film, there are also some genuinely brilliant moments as well. Early on, there’s a scene where Peter saves a young kid from bullies and then proceeds to befriend him, complimenting his wind turbine science project and so on and so forth. This kid, Jorge, later returns at the end of the film where he dresses up as Spidey before the real Spidey comes back after being on a brief hiatus. In short, this was arguably the greatest on-screen instance of Spider-Man being the kind of role model to younger audiences that he’s always been known for. There’s also the scene where Peter talks with Aunt May about his father’s secrets which, as noted before, is a prime example of how Sally Field was truly giving it her all in the role despite her eventual thoughts on the films. Finally, of course, there’s the tragic finale in which, like in the comics, Gwen dies after sustaining injuries from a long fall. Say what you will about the rest of the film, but this moment is handled perfectly, thanks in no small part to Garfield and Stone’s excellent performances. Sure, it’s not exactly like it was in the comics, where the Goblin drops her from the George Washington Bridge, but we already got a scene like this in Raimi’s first Spider-Man film (with thankfully less tragic results). Instead, it occurs within a clock tower, and there’s even a neat little Easter egg where the clock stops at 1:21; #121 is the issue of Amazing Spider-Man in which Gwen died. Simply put, this was a truly emotional and heartbreaking scene that, along with all the other previously mentioned ‘brilliant’ scenes, is why I take issue whenever someone says that this is one of the worst superhero films of all-time… far from it. This is NOT the 2015 reboot of Fantastic Four, even though both films were clearly affected by hasty studio interference. And this is also NOT Batman and Robin, even though both films do have plenty of corny moments in them. Now, for the record, I do understand if some consider this to be a ‘middle-of-the-road’ entry in the genre, but worst? No way!

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Which is why I’m still a bit disappointed that this series had to end with a whimper by being replaced just like the Raimi films were. Now, don’t get me wrong, while I do prefer Garfield’s take on Spider-Man over Maguire’s, I did love Tom Holland’s portrayal of the character in Captain America: Civil War. Like Garfield, Holland had Spidey’s comedic quips down perfectly, and I also loved how this new take on the character is really focusing in on his high-school years, more so than Maguire and Garfield’s iterations combined (“I can’t go to Germany… I’ve got homework!”). And again, it looks like Spider-Man: Homecoming is shaping up to be the best Spider-Man film since Spider-Man 2, thanks in no small part to the influence of Kevin Feige and his team at Marvel Studios. But I must ask… why then couldn’t they just continue the Amazing films but do what they’re doing right now and have Feige and his team brought in to rework things so that the series could continue at a smoother pace? After all, as I’ve noted numerous times, Feige and his team clearly know what they’re doing. The Marvel Cinematic Universe wouldn’t be where it is today, in the middle of Phase III and building up to what will surely be an epic conclusion to the current age of the franchise in Avengers: Infinity War, without them. Now, I’ll admit, maybe they figured that the plans for future Amazing films were just too messy at that point to be salvaged, but given how many characters have been ‘redeemed’ through their roles in the MCU, I bet that they could’ve saved it. But, of course, that didn’t happen, and it does make you feel bad for Marc Webb and Andrew Garfield, both of whom are talented at what they do. It’s a shame, really, that both were ultimately hindered by a pair of films that were severely affected by studio influence. 

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Well, even though the internet has mostly forgotten about them by now, I still really enjoy the Amazing Spider-Man films. In fact, I won’t lie… I have a stronger personal connection to them than I do the Raimi films which, again, I do still like. For one thing, the Amazing films were the first Spider-Man films that I ever saw in theaters. Yes, I’ll admit that I didn’t see any of the Raimi films in theaters, mainly because I was too young for them at the time. I did catch a few glimpses of the first Raimi film back in 2002, but that was at the drive-in and it was a situation where my dad and brother were seeing it while my mom and I went to see another film. The Amazing Spider-Man was my first true Spider-Man film seen in theaters. In fact, that instance was a special one for me as it was the first time that I ever went to an early screening. One of my local radio stations had a contest where they were giving away tickets to an IMAX screening of the film in Providence to those who called in and correctly named a film that the hosts used an audio clip from. And as fate would have it, I won on the day that the audio clip came from Marc Webb’s first film, (500) Days of Summer (how fitting!). And I remember this because my mom called it in for us (I had just been dropped off at school) and when she told the hosts that I gave her the answer, one of them joked that the film was rated R… even though it wasn’t. And I guess that part of the reason why I loved Amazing Spider-Man 2 so much is that I saw it at one of those ‘perfect times’. It was the last day of my freshman semester at college and the film was exactly what I needed after a rather rough second semester. In conclusion, yes, I know that I’m in the minority when it comes to liking these films. But remember, film is subjective; thus, it works in different ways for different people. Case in point, a lot of people my age are still very fond of the Raimi films, which in turn impacted their thoughts on the Amazing films. And, heck, I’ll even admit that back then, I was as skeptical as most people were about these films when they were first announced. But at the end of the day, I was surprised to find that I really connected with these films, more so than I ever did with the Raimi films.

Monday, July 3, 2017

2017 Midyear Recap

Well, we’re now halfway through 2017, and for those who have been following this blog for a few years now, you know exactly what that means. Yes, today I’m looking back at these past six months of the year, recounting every film that I’ve seen during that time, and ultimately ranking them from worst to best. And unlike previous years where I didn’t keep much track of everything that I saw, the film fan website Letterboxd has allowed me to keep a ‘diary’ of the films that I’ve seen, thereby making these posts easier to assemble. And, overall, I’d say that this year has been quite excellent in terms of its new releases. Sure, there will always be those out there who will say otherwise (hopefully, in a few months, we won’t have another situation like last year where the entire internet expresses disappointment over this year’s summer slate) but, as usual, there has been a great variety of films from multiple genres to appeal to all age groups. Though, of course, there have also been a few notable ‘stinkers’ that I’ve seen this year, as there always is. However, for now, at least, I’ve found that the ‘worst’ films that I’ve seen this year so far have been more ‘disappointing’ than ‘anger-inducing’. After all, as I’ve made it clear in the past, I rarely get angry at films anymore because I find it to be rather pointless in a time where I feel that film fan culture is starting to get more nitpicky and negative due to overly heightened expectations. I mean, the internet does have this tendency to focus more on the ‘bad stuff’ than it does with the ‘good stuff’… and, simply put, that’s just not what I’m about as a film fan. Thus, with that in mind, here is my annual Midyear Recap of every film that I’ve seen so far in 2017, starting with my worst of the year and culminating with my current Top 5.

Also, just as a quick warning, there may be a few spoilers ahead for some of these films.

WORST FILM OF THE YEAR (SO FAR)

BAYWATCH

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While I had never watched an episode of Baywatch before seeing it, it seemed like this year’s R-rated film adaptation of the cult TV series was shaping up to be the big comedy hit of the summer, especially given all the marketing that went into it. Sadly, it ended up being the complete opposite; in other words, Baywatch was a colossal dud. Its talented cast, which included the likes of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Zac Efron, and Priyanka Chopra, was ultimately stranded with a mediocre script that failed to produce any major laughs. From what I’ve read, the show took a more serious approach by comparison. At the same time, though, nowadays the show is regarded as being overly cheesy; thus, there legitimately was some potential for some good humor that poked fun at the show’s goofier elements (e.g. its iconic motif of lifeguards running in slow motion). However, this film ends up having one of the worst hit-miss ratios that I’ve ever seen out of a comedy, producing only a few chuckle-worthy moments and not a single laugh-out-loud moment. And it’s sad because many of the people involved in this have done better in other films, especially comedies. Zac Efron, of course, has been a stand-out in the Neighbors films while Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is one of the most charismatic actors in the business. But even with their solid on-screen camaraderie, their best efforts do nothing to save this film. As such, this new adaptation of Baywatch does quite a piss-poor job of representing its source material. I mean, I probably will watch a few episodes of the original show someday, but if you’re like me and you went into this film having never watched Baywatch before, this does not portray it in a positive light.

OTHER NOTABLE ‘STOINKERS’

(For those unaware, the term ‘Stoinker’ is a homage to Schmoes Know host Kristian Harloff, who often uses the phrase ‘It Stoinks!’ to describe bad films.)

THE CIRCLE

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Despite the best efforts of a talented and impressively stacked ensemble cast, director James Ponsoldt’s adaptation of Dave Eggers’ best-selling novel from 2013 felt like a severely watered-down version of its source material. Granted, I haven’t read it at the time that I’m writing this but from what I’ve read about it online, the film clearly cuts out some of the darker elements of the story. This ranges from a plotline in which main character Mae’s (Emma Watson) best friend Annie (Karen Gillan) suffers some serious emotional trauma due to some unearthed family history to the ultimate characterization of Mae herself, who goes down a more sinister path by the story’s end to tie everything back to its themes regarding the dangers of technology. And while I don’t mind the idea of toning these plot elements down to make the film more appealing to audiences, it ultimately feels like there’s not much at stake here. The whole plotline in which Mae and Circle co-founder Ty (a severely underused John Boyega) try to prevent their superiors from misusing employee information doesn’t amount to much. Plus, the film doesn’t do much to make its supposed ‘main villains’, Circle CEOs Eamon Bailey and Tom Stenton, seem like sinister antagonists. I mean, for one thing, it doesn’t help that likable actors like Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt were cast in these roles, to begin with. Ultimately, though, the overall truncation of the source material is what hurts The Circle the most, as any chances of it being an engaging and even timely technological thriller are wasted in what ultimately becomes a rather dull affair. On that note…

THE MUMMY

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It’s quite sad when a Mummy film that stars the one and only Tom Cruise ends up being quite the dull affair. But, unfortunately, that was exactly the case with Universal’s new adaptation of their 1932 horror classic, The Mummy. It tried to be a combination of the horror elements of the original and the action-adventure vibe of the 1999 remake starring Brendan Fraser. Unfortunately, it didn’t really deliver on either of those aspects; it wasn’t that scary and while the action sequences are, at least, well-directed, they feel few and far between. And despite the best efforts of a talented ensemble cast that includes the likes of Cruise, Russell Crowe, and Sofia Boutella in the title role, they’re all stranded by a mediocre screenplay with subpar character development. And then there’s the whole thing about this film being the first installment of a new cinematic universe based around the Universal Monsters. It’s odd, though, because this film does so little to set-up this universe and yet still focuses on teasing future films so much that it ends up being a ‘set-up’ film first and a Mummy film second. Despite this mediocre start, though, I do think that this ‘Dark Universe’ could work because it’s technically been done before in some of the original Universal Monster films. I mean, Bill Condon is set to direct the next installment, Bride of Frankenstein, which he does have experience with because he directed a 1998 film, Gods and Monsters, that partially focused on the making of the 1935 horror classic. But as for The Mummy, while I don’t blame all its shortcomings on director Alex Kurtzman, this new franchise is admittedly off to a slow start.

WORTHWHILE RECOMMENDATIONS

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE

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In director Niki Caro’s newest film The Zookeeper’s Wife, based off the book of the same name by author Diane Ackerman, Jessica Chastain stars as Antonina Żabińska, who ran the Warsaw Zoo in Poland during the 1930’s with her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh). However, most of the zoo ends up getting destroyed when the Nazis invade the country during World War II. Amidst the chaos of their war-torn city, the two decide to use their zoo as a place of refuge for several of the Jewish families who are being aggressively tortured by the Nazi regime. Caro’s direction is solid in this adaptation of a true story and Jessica Chastain does do a fantastic job in the lead role, as does Daniel Bruhl in the role of Nazi zoologist Lutz Heck, who Antonina has a tumultuous relationship with that’s often on the verge of being romantic. The only downside, though, is that I don’t think the film manages to fully capture the emotional depth that it wants to convey. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a powerful story about two people who risked it all to save several during one of the darkest times in history. However, it does feel like the film focuses more on its protagonists’ actions than the protagonists themselves. In fact, it could be argued that Antonina is sometimes overshadowed by her husband despite being the titular character of the story. Still, it’s hard to fault this film when its heart is clearly in the right place. Thus, while it may not end up being the award contender that it’s aiming to be, it still is a fascinating story of hope, one of several that came out of the horrors of World War II.

SPLIT

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During the 2000’s, M. Night Shyamalan experienced one of the most brutal periods of ‘rock bottom’ that any filmmaker can go through. Many of his films (e.g. The Last Airbender, The Happening, etc.) were subjected to scathing reviews from critics and audiences, a far cry from his early successes with films like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. However, it seems like things are turning around for him recently thanks to hits like The Visit and this year’s Split, in which James McAvoy stars as a man named Kevin with 23 distinct mental identities. The story revolves around him kidnapping a trio of teenaged girls as he prepares to sacrifice them to his mysterious 24th identity known as ‘The Beast’. McAvoy truly is the star of the show in a well-layered and multi-faceted role, as he effectively switches in and out of his numerous identities with ease. Some of his most notable ‘identities’ include the 9-year old child Hedwig and the stern matriarch Patricia. Meanwhile, Anna Taylor-Joy is solid in the role of main protagonist Casey while Betty Buckley shines as well as Kevin’s psychologist Dr. Fletcher. And then, of course, there’s Shyamalan’s trademark twist ending. But while many of his more recent twists have gone down horribly with audiences (e.g. nature is responsible for the events in The Happening), this one I think will go over better. Why? Because through a closing cameo by Bruce Willis, it’s revealed that this film takes place in the same universe as Unbreakable. And while I haven’t seen that film yet, I probably will soon as Shyamalan is now preparing to do a third Unbreakable film, Glass, in 2019. Taylor-Joy and McAvoy will be returning from this film while Willis reprises his role of David Dunn once again. And, of course, Samuel L. Jackson will be returning from the original Unbreakable as that film’s main villain, Mr. Glass. Given Shyamalan’s recent track record, I bet that it’ll turn out to be another solid hit.

KONG: SKULL ISLAND

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The most legendary ape in cinema, King Kong, returned this year in a brand-new film, Kong: Skull Island. This film is the second installment of Legendary Pictures’ planned Cinematic Universe (AKA the ‘MonsterVerse’) that also involves the version of Godzilla seen in the character’s 2014 reboot. Like that reboot, though, this new take on King Kong has proven to be rather polarizing as well. And to be fair, it’s understandable as to why this is, as Kong: Skull Island is a much different kind of beast compared to other blockbusters both visually and narratively. Plus, like Godzilla, there isn’t much in terms of character development for the human characters, despite some solid performances from the likes of Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson, and John C. Reilly. Though even with that said, Reilly does, in fact, get the most interesting subplot of the group given his character’s status as a WWII pilot who got stranded on Skull Island several decades prior to the time that this post-Vietnam set story begins. But unlike Godzilla, where the monster-based action sequences were mainly limited to the finale, this film doesn’t shy away from its monster action. Featuring the largest Kong yet in film, Kong: Skull Island benefits from an eye-popping visual style and great production design. Thus, overall, I did enjoy it despite its shortcomings. Plus, this is all leading up nicely to future films, including a sequel to Godzilla directed by Michael Dougherty in 2019 and the biggest one of the bunch, a Godzilla vs. Kong crossover in 2020 directed by Adam Wingard.

ALIEN: COVENANT

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Speaking of polarizing releases, we have a similar situation with Alien: Covenant, the follow-up to 2012’s most polarizing release, Prometheus. This film claimed that it would answer some of the unexplained mysteries left by its predecessor, which was one of the biggest problems that critics had with Prometheus. Whether it does so is ultimately up to the viewer, but I will say that I did find Covenant to be another solid entry in this long-running franchise. Sure, it probably has one of the weaker overall stories of the franchise and it doesn’t really live up to its promise of returning to the series’ horror roots. That and the ending is rather lackluster because a lot of it is based around a blatantly obvious twist. Still, to its credit, the film’s ending is also a rather ballsy one given the ways in which it sets things up for the next installment. And, of course, just like the other Alien films directed by Ridley Scott, it benefits greatly from fantastic visuals and a terrific production design. As for the cast, the sheer amount of ‘main protagonists’ in this story does sometimes make it hard to keep track of them all, but the plotline of having them all tied together as couples does give some emotional depth to their death scenes. Michael Fassbender is terrific as always in the dual role of Prometheus´ android David, who’s still just as enigmatic as ever, and the new crew’s android, Walter. Meanwhile, Katherine Waterston immediately establishes herself as the most sympathetic member of the new crew, Daniels, after an opening in which she suffers a tragic loss. With all this in mind, Alien: Covenant may not be the best entry in the Alien series but it’s also far from being one of the worst.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES

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And speaking of polarizing franchises, this year gave us another installment of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, a series that’s done far better commercially than it has done critically. And that overall streak continues yet again with the new installment, Dead Men Tell No Tales. However, as someone who has been a fan of this series and has liked all four of the previous films (yes, even the sequels), I found that I still liked this film about as much as I did the other films. Sure, there are times where the film slips into the same old flaws of its predecessors, like a messy narrative and scenes/characters that don’t really go anywhere (e.g. a truly random scene where Jack Sparrow and his crew are captured by an old associate of his who forces Jack into marrying his sister). But at the same time, directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg did do a solid enough job of keeping things generally fresh, especially with the addition of new main protagonists as well as some solid development for returning characters. Barbossa, especially, gets a major plot thread in this installment that surprisingly elicited some effective emotional results, though it’s mainly because of how big a part he’s played in this franchise. Johnny Depp, even amidst all his recent controversies, is still just as memorable as ever as Captain Jack Sparrow while Javier Bardem is a solid (albeit a bit underwhelming) adversary as the ghostly Captain Salazar. And, once again, I’ll admit that I wouldn’t mind seeing future installments of this franchise. After all, this film’s post-credit scene teases an interesting plot development revolving around the apparent revival of one of the series’ best characters. At the very least, I would like to see how this new development pans out.

CARS 3

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Contrary to popular opinion, I really love the first Cars film from 2006. Was it one of Pixar’s absolute best? No, but it was still a charming little story with a heartfelt message about slowing down and appreciating the simpler things in life. Heck, I’ll even admit that I still like Cars 2, Pixar’s first critical dud. Again, it’s nowhere near the studio’s best work, namely due to a messy narrative, but it’s ultimately a harmless affair. Thankfully, with Cars 3, the filmmakers leaned more towards the spirit of the first film; it’s back to racing again and this time, the story of Lightning McQueen comes full circle. In Cars, he was the hot-shot rookie that eventually learned about his mentor Doc Hudson’s devastating crash that put him out of commission before he was ready to retire. This time around, Lightning finds himself in the same situation as he tries to outlast a new and advanced line of rookies who threaten to put an end to his career. Yes, like its predecessors, the story in this film is simple but at the same time, that doesn’t mean that there’s no emotional depth to it. Just look at this film’s terrific implementation of Doc Hudson, despite the character’s passing after the events of the first film due to his voice actor Paul Newman passing away in 2008. Then there’s also the great characterization for new protagonist Cruz Ramirez who, despite starting out as just Lightning’s new trainer, is shown to be very much capable of lasting alongside other racers on the racetrack. If this series ever does continue in the future, I wouldn’t mind seeing her return to become its new main protagonist. After all, to reiterate, this third Cars film did basically conclude the overall story arc for Lightning McQueen. No matter what happens, though, I’ll always argue that while Cars 3 may not be the best Pixar film ever made, it’s certainly more than just a ‘middle-of-the-road’ affair as some critics have been saying.

TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT

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Yeah, I know… this is a questionable choice to put in the ‘Worthwhile Mentions’ category given that it’s one of the worst-reviewed films of the year and is yet another critical dud in the live-action Transformers series. But, for those who have been following this blog for a while, you’ll know that I’m one of the few people out there who does indeed like every entry in the series; yes, even the most critically despised ones like Revenge of the Fallen and Age of Extinction. The same can be said for The Last Knight. Now don’t get me wrong, this film isn’t even remotely flawless. For one thing, this was the first time where I genuinely got lost at times with the plot. They literally throw everything but the kitchen sink at you when it comes to conveying new ‘information’ about the Transformers. Plus, this time around it’s legitimately a Transformers film where the titular characters themselves are downplayed in favor of the human characters. So… why the heck did I still end up liking this film, you ask? Well, like always, its shortcomings in terms of the writing are [somewhat] saved by the consistently terrific visual effects. Plus, Michael Bay at least deserves some credit when it comes to crafting impressively staged action sequences. Though on that note, hopefully, this will be Bay’s last entry in the series, as he’s claimed, for two reasons. A.) Because it’s time for him to move on to other projects before he gets stuck doing these for the rest of his career and B.) so that new blood can be brought into this franchise to turn things around. I mean, who knows, maybe the upcoming spin-off starring the franchise’s best character, Bumblebee, could turn out fine. After all, it is set to be directed by Travis Knight, director of last year’s critically-acclaimed Kubo and the Two Strings. Only time will tell, though…

POWER RANGERS

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This was one of the year’s most pleasant surprises for me. As I’ve noted in the past, I didn’t really grow up with the Power Rangers franchise despite being part of the generation that grew up with it. Still, I was genuinely interested in seeing this new big-budget film reboot of the franchise BECAUSE of its connections to my generation. And even as a casual fan of the franchise, I felt that this film was a solid new take on this iconic facet of 90’s pop culture. Granted, it isn’t perfect; like its source material, there are quite a few goofy moments in this. For one thing, this film has one of the most ludicrous bits of product placement in recent memory involving Krispy Kreme. Despite this, I was impressed by the film’s surprisingly effective handling of its plot. This is a true ‘origin story’, as we see the main characters grow and develop to become the Power Rangers. And when they do, it results in an awesome finale that respects the original Mighty Morphin series while still being its own thing. Sure, this means that the film doesn’t really get into any Power Rangers action until the very end, but unlike, say, Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie, where the Rangers did nothing until the finale despite having their powers, this film takes its time to develop the main characters. And this is what makes the finale incredibly satisfying because, at this point, we’ve become fully attached to this group of ‘misfits’, portrayed by an excellent group of young leads who work off each other incredibly well. In fact, they work so well together that I genuinely hope that they get to do a sequel. I mean, I know that the franchise’s future is in flux right now because this film didn’t do so well at the box-office, but come on! After that post-credits tag that teased the franchise’s most iconic character, Tommy Oliver AKA the Green Ranger, they deserve at least ONE sequel.

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2

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In 2014, Keanu Reeves’ career experienced a great bit of resurgence with the action thriller John Wick. Directed by former stuntmen Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, who had both worked with Reeves before on the Matrix films, the film featured some of the most stylish and all-around best action sequences in recent years. These were then packaged nicely with a simple but effective story of a legendary hitman who’s out to avenge the death of his dog against those who attacked him. And while it’s only Stahelski behind the camera this time around due to Leitch moving on to other projects (i.e. Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2), John Wick: Chapter 2 is yet another fantastic and action-packed thrill ride. Keanu Reeves is great once again as the calm and collected badass John Wick, while also being backed by a highly memorable supporting cast that includes the likes of Common, Ian McShane, and Laurence Fishburne. But, of course, the true stars of the show are the action sequences and, once again, they’re excellently choreographed and filmed. Plus, the film ends on an awesome note that sets the stage for what will surely be an epic third installment, in which good ol’ ‘Baba Yaga’ will find himself facing down incredible odds without the help of the hitman community. And that’s because he broke the one rule that a hitman knows never to break; never commit one’s business in the Continental Hotel. With all this in mind, I will, in fact, argue that John Wick: Chapter 2 is one of the rare ‘superior sequels’ to an equally fantastic predecessor. It has a larger scale compared to the first film, as is the case with most sequels, but it still manages to maintain the simplistic but badass nature of the world that it creates.

THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS

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We’re now at the eighth installment of this absolute monster of a film franchise. And at this point, you’re either fully invested in it… or you despise it with a burning passion for being so popular despite it getting more ridiculous and goofy with each new film. And yet, that’s precisely what makes these films so damn fun; at this point in the game, they know exactly what kind of series they’re trying to be. And I won’t lie… this new one may have become my new favorite entry in the series. While many of us may have joked at how the film would handle its main plotline of main protagonist Dominic Toretto going rogue against his team, the reveal is surprisingly well-handled. If anything, it ties in perfectly with the franchise’s recurring theme of ‘family’… despite all the behind-the-scenes controversy that happened during this entry of the series. Of course, there was the ‘clearly not staged’ feud between Vin Diesel and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, but now it’s being reported that Michelle Rodriguez may leave the franchise if they don’t start giving its female characters larger roles (which, to be fair, she’s right…). Well, no matter what happens after this, one thing is for certain; the cast still works great together on-screen. Jason Statham is thankfully given a larger role this time around and while Charlize Theron spends most of the film away from the action, she manages to be one of the series’ best villains through her effective manipulation of Dom. In conclusion, though, to reiterate a point that I made in my original review, if you scoff at the sight of The Rock pushing away a torpedo with his bare hands, then this film isn’t for you. But if you’re one of this series’ long-time fans, then I’m sure that you’ll love this new entry just fine.

THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE

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After Warner Bros. scored a big hit in animation with 2014’s The LEGO Movie, they continued their new line of animated LEGO films with yet another smash-hit, The LEGO Batman Movie. Of course, as the title suggests, it focuses on the character that many felt was the standout of the original LEGO Movie; LEGO Batman. And Will Arnett once again does a phenomenal job as this hilarious interpretation of the classic superhero. But this time around, he’s also given a great story arc in which he learns to finally accept people into his life again after years of isolation. This comes to fruition through his ‘unintentional’ adoption of a young ward, Dick Grayson, his sometimes-tumultuous partnership with Gotham’s new police commissioner, Barbara Gordon, and even his ‘hero-villain’ relationship with his greatest nemesis, the Joker. And because of this, the film very much delivers on having a strong emotional depth, just like its predecessor. Meanwhile, the animation in this is just as excellent as it was in the original LEGO Movie. It really is impressive how the animators managed to inject a stop-motion feel (the animation style commonly seen in fan-made LEGO films) into a computer animated film. And, of course, being a Batman film, The LEGO Batman Movie is full to the brim with references to DC Comics and the character’s long, long, long history (“I have aged phenomenally!”). Thus, The LEGO Batman Movie is a fantastic follow-up to its equally fantastic predecessor. Simply put, to quote the predecessor’s iconic song, ‘everything is awesome’ right now with Warner Bros.’ LEGO franchise.

BABY DRIVER

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It’s good to see that Edgar Wright has managed to come back after his tumultuous exit from Marvel Studios’ Ant-Man. Clearly, both sides have moved on from that problematic ordeal; Marvel Studios continues to dominate the superhero genre (as we’ll see in a bit) and Wright has another stylishly entertaining film for us with Baby Driver. Influenced by a music video that he directed for the band Mint Royale in 2003, Baby Driver focuses on a young and generally innocent getaway driver for a local kingpin who constantly listens to music. This allows him to both drown out the hum in his ears following a traumatic incident from his past and to be the best getaway driver in the business. And that is very much apparent thanks to the film’s exceptional car chase sequences, all of which were done practically and are excellently shot and edited. But the real star of the show is the film’s soundtrack. Not only does the film feature a rocking soundtrack full of classics but Wright also manages to seamlessly tie them into every action that happens on-screen, from a shoot-out set to ‘Tequila’ to a scene where Baby takes the time and effort to restart a song so that he’s in the proper mindset. And it’s all backed by an excellent ensemble cast, which includes the likes of Ansel Elgort as the film’s charismatic lead, Kevin Spacey being the Kevin Spacey we all know and love, and a great collection of supporting characters played by, including but not limited to, Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx. Thus, if you’re a big fan of Wright’s previous work, including the legendary Cornetto trilogy, then I bet that you’ll love his latest directorial effort just as much. It truly is fantastic.

AND NOW, MY TOP 5 OF THE YEAR (SO FAR)

Spoilers… almost all these are superhero films! So much for that superhero fatigue, eh?

5. CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS: THE FIRST EPIC MOVIE

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Yes, a film adaptation of a popular children’s book series that has been around for two decades has turned out to be one of my favorite films so far in 2017. The main reason why is because it managed to be one of the most faithful adaptations of any given source material that I’ve seen in recent memory. Director David Soren and screenwriter Nicholas Stoller (AKA the director of comedy hits like Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Neighbors, along with co-writing the screenplay for the two most recent Muppets films) perfectly capture the crude but charming style of Dav Pilkey’s best-selling series, right down to the on-screen implementation of its iconic running gags. Seriously, I damn-near cheered when they brought in the classic ‘Flip-O-Rama’ segment from the books. But amidst all the toilet humor (figuratively and literally as there are, in fact, sentient toilets in this), this film genuinely has some heart to it. This is mainly represented by the terrific friendship between main protagonists George Beard and Harold Hutchins, who are excellently voiced by Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch, respectively. Meanwhile, Ed Helms is a great pick for the dual role of Mr. Krupp AKA Captain Underpants as is Nick Kroll as the film’s main villain, Professor Poopypants. Really, I can’t say much more about this film except for that I really felt like a kid again while watching it because I used to read these books all the time when I was growing up. And even though it’s been years since I’ve read any of them, the kid in me was very much satisfied with this adaptation. TRA LA LA!!!!

4. LOGAN

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After 17 years in the role of Wolverine, Hugh Jackman ended his run as one of the best casting choices in the history of the superhero genre on the best note possible. With Logan, Jackman and director James Mangold managed to give the iconic hero the film adaptation that his fans have long wanted to see; a brutal, no-holds-barred, and all-around gory R-rated superhero film. They almost got that with 2013’s The Wolverine, but Jackman and Mangold were forced to cut that film down so that it would be PG-13. Thankfully, an uncensored cut was released on Blu-Ray and it was, obviously, the superior version of that film. But as for Logan, nothing is toned down here; these fights are so brutal that they’re very much capable of eliciting visceral reactions from the audience. But even amidst all the awesome action sequences, the film also does a great job in concluding Logan’s story. Part of this is through the introduction of a young girl named Laura, AKA Wolverine clone X-23. Newcomer Dafne Keen straight up steals the show while Jackman and Patrick Stewart give arguably their greatest performances in the roles of Logan and Xavier AKA Professor X, respectively. Save for a few underdeveloped villains, this film is an incredibly well-layered story that also serves as the final curtain call for the X-Men of the original film series. Of course, the cast of the franchise’s First Class era lead the show now and will do so again next year in X-Men: Dark Phoenix. But as for Logan, not only is it the best Wolverine solo film to date (though some may say that this isn’t saying much), but it’s also one of the best entries in the entire X-Men franchise. And it achieves this with a story that, as we expected, really hit us on an emotional level.

3. WONDER WOMAN

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After suffering tons of critical backlash in 2016 with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, Warner Bros. and DC finally managed to catch a lucky break this year with the fourth installment of the DC Extended Universe, Wonder Woman. Director Patty Jenkins did a phenomenal job in bringing the beloved member of DC’s Trinity to the big-screen in her long-awaited solo film after initially debuting in BvS. And, of course, Gal Gadot did an equally phenomenal job in the role of the iconic heroine, very much proving her critics wrong thanks in part to a terrific character arc in which the initially naïve Amazonian princess soon learns about the harsh reality that is the darker side of humanity. But even though the film is primarily set during World War I, that doesn’t mean that it forgets to be a fun and light-hearted superhero film that ties in perfectly with Wonder Woman’s characterization, complete with epic action sequences and an equally terrific supporting cast to back Gadot up. Chris Pine is a great foil to Gadot as Diana’s love interest Steve Trevor, never once overshadowing her while still being more than just a typical love interest. Meanwhile, the two are joined by a highly memorable group of supporting characters in the form of their fellow team members (Sameer, Charlie, and Chief), while both Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright give great, dignified performances as Diana’s mother Hippolyta and aunt Antiope, respectively. And while I do think that the villains are ultimately some of the weaker elements of the film, that doesn’t take away from everything else that’s great about it. In short, Wonder Woman is one of the most satisfying entries in the superhero genre and a much-deserved win for all who were involved.

2. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

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Sure, maybe this entry in Disney’s continuing line of live-action remakes was a questionable one given that the original Beauty and the Beast is one of the studio’s most beloved animated efforts. And sure, at the end of the day, it’s mostly just the same plot as its predecessor, making its overall status even more questionable in the minds of those who aren’t fans of remakes. But even with all this in mind, and ignoring the completely overblown and 100% stupid controversy revolving around the announcement that the film would feature Disney’s first ‘exclusively gay’ moment (a moment which, may I add, is so subtle that some may not have even noticed it if it hadn’t been pointed out by the media beforehand), at the end of the day this is just a highly satisfying ‘feel-good’ film. It respects the original film while also doing just enough to be its own thing, even if it is admittedly the same general narrative. Still, the changes to the narrative are subtly executed without ever betraying the heart of this classic story of embracing people for who they are on the inside. And if that wasn’t enough, the film is visually spectacular with terrific visual effects and a great production/costume design. It also boasts a terrific ensemble cast highlighted by Emma Watson as Belle (P.S. Contrary to popular opinion, I thought that she was perfectly fine in terms of her singing), Dan Stevens as the Beast, Luke Evans as Gaston, Josh Gad as LeFou, and an awesome supporting ensemble to fill the beloved roles of the Beast’s servants, from Ewan McGregor to Ian McKellen to Gugu Mbatha-Raw to Emma Thompson. And of course, who can forget the classic songs from Disney icons Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman, plus a few new songs as well that are great additions to this ‘tale as old as time’ (I especially love the Beast’s new solo, ‘Evermore’). In conclusion, no, I don’t think that this was better than the original; that was a tough act to follow, after all. But even though the original Beauty and the Beast is one of my Top 5 favorite Disney animated films of all-time, that doesn’t mean that I was going to be judgmental towards this new take on the story because of it.

1. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2

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Now when I first reviewed this film, I noted that I felt that there were some instances where, to quote the common argument seen in almost EVERY SINGLE DAMN REVIEW for the film, ‘it wasn’t as good as the original Guardians of the Galaxy’. However, as I thought about it more, I realized that, contrary to popular opinion, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 IS better than the first film. Don’t get me wrong, I still adore the original Guardians for its successful efforts in making us care for a group of characters who were once viewed as a ‘C-list’ superhero team in the comics. However, writer/director James Gunn manages to take the strong emotional depth of the original one step further with the sequel thanks to a poignant story based on the theme of fatherhood. And while some may question the decision to have the Guardians be split up into pairs of two for most of the film, it ultimately works because each pairing (e.g. Drax and Mantis, Yondu and Rocket/Groot, etc.) is a perfect match. This all leads to what is arguably the most emotional moment in any Marvel Cinematic Universe film to date, which is backed by the scene’s excellent score by Tyler Bates (i.e. the track ‘Dad’) and is then followed by the perfect use of Cat Stevens’ song ‘Father and Son’ in the subsequent scene. And just like the original, the main characters are all lovable and portrayed by an excellent ensemble cast, the film boasts gorgeous visuals, and it’s all backed by the kick-ass tunes of Awesome Mix Vol. 2. Simply put, I adored Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and because I do think it’s better than the original, that effectively makes it my new favorite entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And bear in mind that at the time that I’m writing this, I’ve only seen it once. That, my friends, is saying a lot!

And those are all the films that I’ve seen so far in 2017. Thanks for following along and be sure to sound off in the comments below with your own personal Top 5 of the year so far.