Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express (2017) review

When it comes to some of the most famous authors of all time, Agatha Christie is undoubtedly one of the most legendary in that field. Over the span of several decades, the late English author was well-known for writing several classic mystery stories, so much so that she currently holds the record as the best-selling novelist of all time with over 2 billion copies of her work sold. And in her first novel, 1920’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, readers were introduced to arguably her most famous creation, the Belgian detective known as Hercule Poirot. Poirot went on to appear in 33 of Christie’s novels, her 1930 play Black Coffee, and over 50 of her short stories. But as for the most famous story that he ever appeared in, that honor goes to Christie’s 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express, in which the detective with the well-groomed mustache found himself dealing with, as the title suggests, a murder mystery onboard the titular Orient Express. This particular Christie story has already been adapted to the screen several times over the years, including a star-studded 1974 film adaptation directed by Sidney Lumet and an episode of the long-running British TV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot. But now Poirot is back on the big-screen once again in a brand new take on this iconic story, with Sir Kenneth Branagh taking on the role of the legendary detective. He also serves as the director of this new film which, like the 1974 adaptation, also features a star-studded cast. And overall, despite some of its shortcomings, this new version of Murder on the Orient Express does manage to be a solid adaptation of its source material.

As the film begins, we are introduced to the man himself, Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), the most famous detective in the world. The year is 1933 and despite Poirot’s plans to go on holiday after his most recent case in Jerusalem, he receives a telegram demanding that he return to London to take on a new case. To get there, Poirot’s friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) offers him a compartment on the luxurious Orient Express, which Bouc has just been appointed the director of. Whilst onboard, Poirot is joined by an eclectic group of passengers, including young governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), American socialite Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), and immoral businessman Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp). Ratchett ends up approaching Poirot and asks him to be his bodyguard as he fears that he’s in danger. Poirot refuses but, soon enough, Ratchett is found dead in his cabin from several stab wounds. When the Orient Express is forced to make an unscheduled pit stop due to an avalanche, Poirot quickly begins to investigate the cause of Ratchett’s death. Deducing that one of their fellow passengers was responsible for the crime, Poirot works tirelessly in order to figure out which one of them is the murderer. And as he soon finds out, this case ends up having some noticeable connections to a highly public kidnapping/murder case that had occurred a few years back.

Now, just a quick disclaimer; at the time that I’m writing this, I have not read the original Murder on the Orient Express novel. I also haven’t watched any of the previous adaptations of this story, which of course includes the last major feature film adaptation from 1974. And from what I’ve read online, comparisons between this film and its various predecessors have been quite common. Thus, given what I just said about my general unfamiliarity with the source material, unfortunately, I can’t really add much to that discussion. What I will say, though, is that Branagh does do a good job in making this film an engaging murder mystery, and because I didn’t really know anything about the plot before seeing it, it allowed me to go into the film without already knowing the final outcome. With that in mind, however, I am aware that some have been rather mixed on the ending, not because it changes anything (from what I’ve read, it seems like Branagh stayed generally faithful to the source material) but more in the case of how Branagh handles it as director. Some have felt that the ending diminishes the impact of the final reveal by way of how Poirot ultimately responds to it. And despite this being my first major experience with this classic murder mystery story, I will admit that I did find that the ending didn’t quite have the impact that it wanted to leave on the audience. Still, at the very least, the build-up to the final reveal is well-handled and the film is well-made on a technical level, benefitting especially from some great cinematography from Branagh regular Haris Zambarloukos that was shot on 65 mm film a la Dunkirk.

As noted earlier, the 1974 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express featured an all-star cast that included the likes of Albert Finney in the role of Poirot, Lauren Bacall, John Gielgud, and Sean Connery just to name a few. The same applies to this new version as well, with names like Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad, Judi Dench, and Johnny Depp… and again, that’s just to name a few. And, of course, Kenneth Branagh not only directs the film but stars in it as well as the one and only Hercule Poirot. Branagh does a great job in the role, excellently conveying both Poirot’s wisdom and eccentric nature, two traits that very much help him when it comes to solving cases. As for the rest of the cast, they’re all great as well but they admittedly don’t have as much to work with compared to Branagh. Now, to be fair, it can be argued that this is just a consequence of being a story in which there are 12 primary suspects. Still, aside from a select few like Gad and Ridley’s characters, most of their roles in the film are basically just limited to one or two major scenes that they share with Poirot, who interrogates them all one at a time. Ultimately, though, if I had to pick the biggest standouts of the supporting cast, that would include Michelle Pfeiffer as the headstrong Mrs. Hubbard, Judi Dench as the pushy Princess Dragomiroff, and Leslie Odom Jr. as the often put-upon Dr. Arbuthnot.

So as I’ve made it clear, this film basically served as my introduction to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. As such, I can’t really say much about how this version of the story compares to other adaptations of it because simply put, I haven’t seen any of them. With that said, though, I am aware that some have been critical of this adaptation for not really doing anything new with the source material. And, of course, some have also taken issue with the ending, which I’ll admit is an argument that I do sort of agree with in terms of how it kind of lessens the final resolution of the main conflict. Still, for the most part, I found this to be a solidly made mystery thriller. While the plot does maintain a ‘slow burn’ style of pacing throughout, there is never a dull moment in this film. And like many of Branagh’s films (e.g. his remake of Cinderella and the first Thor film), this film does benefit from some solid production value, namely in regards to the cinematography, and an excellent ensemble cast. In short, if you’re like me and you’re not too familiar with the original source material going in, at the very least this film serves as a nice way of introducing newcomers to Christie’s work. And given that the film ends with a nod to another Poirot story, the potential is there for a sequel or two adapting other classic Christie novels. But if you are familiar with this story and the previous adaptations of it, this adaptation may seem a bit more questionable given everything that’s come before it. Overall, though, this film does succeed when it comes to being an entertaining popcorn flick that’s worth checking out on the big screen.

Rating: 4/5

Monday, November 6, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok (2017) review

Thor Odinson AKA the Asgardian God of Thunder has been a vital member of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its core superhero team, the Avengers. Despite this, however, many have viewed the character’s solo outings as being some of the weakest installments of the MCU. Now, to be fair, this wasn’t always the case; namely, back when the first Thor film came out in 2011. If anything, that film was arguably Marvel Studios’ first big ‘risky’ project, as it was the first MCU film to focus on a character who didn’t primarily reside on Earth. As such, there was a considerable possibility that this tale of god-like beings could’ve ended up being incredibly cheesy. However, thanks to the Shakespearean influence from director Kenneth Branagh, the film did manage to make its arguably ludicrous setting feel believable. But while the film did do solidly with both critics and audiences, I think it’s safe to say that, nowadays, you don’t see it brought up too often when people discuss their favorite MCU films. The same can be said for the 2013 sequel, Thor: The Dark World. While not technically a critical/commercial failure, many consider it to be one of the weakest installments of the entire MCU if not the absolute ‘worst’. And while I don’t think that it’s as bad as some people have put it out to be, it’s undeniably one of the prime examples of an MCU film that was heavily influenced by the studio’s infamous (and now thankfully disbanded) creative committee. After all, if it wasn’t for some highly publicized creative differences, the film could’ve been directed by Patty Jenkins who, thankfully, would go on to direct a far more successful superhero film four years later with DC’s Wonder Woman.

So with all this in mind, it’s safe to say that there’s been a lot of pressure on Thor’s third solo outing to, shall we say, ‘redeem’ the franchise. And thus, here we are now with Thor: Ragnarok. Fans of the comics, as well as those familiar with Norse mythology, will no doubt recognize the subtitle for this film as the plot is based around the fabled apocalyptic event known as Ragnarok. In both Norse mythology and the comics, this was a major event in which the kingdom of Asgard was destroyed and several of its most notable inhabitants were killed. But while the film does focus on the prophesized destruction of its main protagonist’s home-world, do not expect a huge and serious fantasy epic going in. Instead, Thor: Ragnarok can arguably be described as an 80’s-inspired ‘road trip comedy’ starring not only Thor but also the Incredible Hulk, whose plotline takes influence from the character’s popular Planet Hulk storyline from the comics. In the director’s chair is Taika Waititi, who is arguably the biggest ‘out of left field’ director that Marvel Studios has ever hired… which, for them, is saying a lot. Over the past few years, the New Zealand native has become well-known for his work on several critically acclaimed films. This includes 2014’s mockumentary horror comedy What We Do in the Shadows, 2016’s adventure dramedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and a few episodes of the hit HBO comedy series Flight of the Concords. And as for Thor: Ragnarok, his first big-budget feature, he proceeds to give us a highly entertaining film that not only stands as the best Thor film yet but also one of the best MCU films to date as well.

At the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Thor Odinson AKA the God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth) left Earth to embark on a quest to try and find the mystical objects known as Infinity Stones that he had seen in the visions that he had during the film. As this film begins, it has been two years since then and Thor has not had much success with this current endeavor. To make matters worse, when he returns to Asgard he learns that his treacherous adopted brother Loki AKA the God of Mischief (Tom Hiddleston), who had been presumed dead during the events of Thor: The Dark World, has been impersonating their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), ruler of Asgard. And then if that wasn’t enough, Thor and Loki soon find themselves dealing with a new threat in the form of Odin’s firstborn, Hela the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett). After being imprisoned for several eons due to her ever-growing ambition, Hela has now returned and is hell-bent on conquering the Nine Realms. When Thor tries to stop her, she ends up destroying his hammer, Mjolnir, and he ends up getting stranded on the planet of Sakaar. There, he becomes a prisoner of the planet’s eccentric ruler, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), and is forced to fight in a gladiatorial arena where his opponent is his old Avenger ally (and ‘friend from work’) Dr. Bruce Banner AKA the monstrous creature known as the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).  And thus, Thor now finds himself in a race against time to return home to Asgard and stop Hela before the kingdom’s prophesized destruction, AKA Ragnarok, can occur.

So yes, as it’s been well-documented by several critics, Thor: Ragnarok is easily one of the most comedic outings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe… which, to be fair, is something that the MCU has always been known for anyway. Right from the get-go, this film is jam-packed with humorous bits of dialogue and funny sight gags. This, however, has proven to be a rather controversial development for some fans due to the fact that, in the comics, the Ragnarok storyline of which this film takes its name from was more serious in tone. Ultimately, though, this doesn’t prove to be as big of a problem as those fans may have feared, because while Thor: Ragnarok is undeniably one of the funniest MCU films to date, that doesn’t mean that this is all that it has going for it. When the story delves into the whole Ragnarok prophecy and Hela’s takeover of Asgard, the film does take these events seriously. Plus, for a film that is part of the allegedly so-called ‘kiddie’ franchise that has been the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it isn’t afraid to pull a few punches here and there to once again prove that long-standing argument wrong. Simply put, while the film is an absolute riot when it comes to its humor, director Taika Waititi establishes a solid tone that does, in fact, manage to keep it from just being a straight-forward comedy. And don’t even get me started on all of the great minor touches that he adds to the film to make it all the more memorable, from the implementation of the scores from the previous two Thor films to a scene that, no joke, pays homage to the infamous tunnel scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

As noted earlier, Thor: Ragnarok mainly revolves around the duo of Thor and Hulk, a crossover that excited many due in no small part to some of the great interactions between the two of them in the Avengers films (e.g. the scene in the first Avengers where Hulk abruptly punches Thor off-screen after an intense battle… need I say more?). It’s also quite good that these two were paired together for this film seeing how, as far as the MCU films are concerned, we haven’t seen either of these two in more than two years. Not counting Thor’s cameo during the mid-credits scene of Doctor Strange (a sequence that is expanded upon here with Benedict Cumberbatch returning, of course, as the titular Sorcerer in a brief cameo), these two haven’t had a major role in an MCU film since Age of Ultron. But even after all this time, Chris Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo both do excellent jobs once again in their respective roles as the film allows the two of them to utilize their comedic timing to its full potential. This, in turn, results in some of their best performances as Thor and Hulk (definitely Hemsworth’s best and arguably Ruffalo’s best). Another major returning player to the MCU is Loki, and heck, he hasn’t been seen for longer than Thor and Hulk combined. His last appearance was in Thor: The Dark World… all the way back in 2013. He almost appeared in Age of Ultron but his scenes ended up getting cut. Still, just like Hemsworth and Ruffalo, Tom Hiddleston is still great as always as the cunning but deeply-layered God of Mischief who continues to maintain a strenuous relationship with his brother.

Moving on to the new characters that are introduced in this film, first there’s Tessa Thompson as one of the Grandmaster’s assistants who, as we learn, is an Asgardian who was once a member of the kingdom’s elite Valkyrie squadron. However, we also learn that she is the only survivor of the group following a devastating battle with Hela long ago, which gives the character a solid backstory and character arc as a hard-drinking warrior turned scrapper who’s trying to escape her past. Plus, Thompson works excellently alongside Hemsworth, Ruffalo, and Hiddleston and proves to be a great new badass addition to the MCU’s lineup of female leads. As for Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster… well, he’s the Jeff Goldblum that we all know and love, simple as that. Finally, we come to the main villain of the film, Hela AKA the first lead villainess of the MCU films. And while I admittedly wouldn’t call her one of the ‘best’ MCU villains to date, Cate Blanchett certainly kills it in the role. Sure, the final conflict between her and Thor’s team sort of concludes rather quickly but, as noted before, the film does treat her as a serious threat throughout. She also gets a great henchman in the form of Skurge (Karl Urban), an Asgardian warrior who allies with her when it gives him an opportunity for the attention that he has long yearned for. And he ends up getting a surprisingly layered character arc as a result, effectively making him one of the MCU’s greatest henchman characters.

For many years, Marvel Studios tended to get a lot of flak from critics who argued that they often limited the creative visions of the directors that they’ve hired, resulting in a few ‘copy and paste’ installments. And while I don’t fully agree with that argument, I think it’s safe to say that this hasn’t been as much of an issue since the studio’s controversial creative committee was disbanded. Case in point, Thor: Ragnarok gives us one of the most creatively visionary installments in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. While the previous two Thor films stumbled a bit when it came to their overall tone, this film decided to just fully embrace the silliness of its cosmic-based premise. Because of this, Thor: Ragnarok is yet another highly entertaining installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe thanks in large part to it being one of the funniest entries of the franchise. With that said, though, the film’s primarily comedic tone may throw some people off given the generally serious nature of the Ragnarok story arc from the comics. However… that’s the whole point! Director Taika Waititi did state that his overall intention with this film was to make a ‘fun’ superhero adventure, and that is exactly what he did. Sure, maybe it doesn’t have the best overall plot of these MCU films, but seriously… what’s so wrong about a ‘fun’ superhero flick?

Rating: 5/5! (And yes, I’m well-aware that I’ve given this rating to every major superhero film that has been released this year. Now it’s time to see if Justice League will also earn that rating and officially confirm 2017’s status as one of the genre’s greatest years ever… though, to be perfectly frank, this will still be the case even if Justice League doesn’t turn out that good (though, of course, hopefully, it IS good!))

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Stranger Things: Season 1 Review


In 1997, entrepreneurs Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph created the DVD-by-mail rental service known as Netflix. After a full decade of operations, the company then established its own video streaming service in 2007, allowing customers to watch their favorite films and TV shows whenever they want. And while the video streaming service is still going strong today thanks to its vast library of distributed content, nowadays Netflix has become known for producing its own line of films and TV shows. Many of these ‘Netflix Originals’ have gone on to attract considerable critical acclaim and have also covered a wide array of genres that have been geared towards an equally wide range of audiences, from the prison-set dramedy Orange is the New Black to the numerous shows that have been produced in conjunction with Marvel Studios. And in the summer of 2016, Netflix debuted a show that has gone on to become one of their most popular projects to date, Stranger Things. Created by Matt and Ross Duffer, AKA The Duffer Brothers, Stranger Things is a supernatural sci-fi horror series that’s heavily influenced by 80’s pop culture, most notably the works of director Stephen Spielberg and author Stephen King. And thus, with the highly anticipated second season premiering this weekend, it’s time to take a look at this cultural phenomenon which does, indeed, live up to all the hype that has surrounded it.  

The year is 1983. On a quiet fall night in the town of Hawkins, Indiana, a young boy named Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) suddenly disappears under mysterious circumstances. The following day, a statewide search is initiated by Hawkins Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), and despite the growing amount of evidence that suggests otherwise, Will’s mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) and his older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) remain optimistic about the chances of him being found. During this difficult time, Will’s three best friends, Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin) also get involved in the search as well. And as the lot of them soon find out, Will is somehow trapped in an alternate dimension known as the Upside Down where he is being pursued by a vicious monster, which obviously puts more pressure on his friends and family to rescue him before it’s too late. While all this is going on, a mysterious young girl who calls herself Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) escapes from a nearby government facility. Mike, Dustin, and Lucas end up befriending her and discover that not only does she possess special telekinetic abilities, but that she may also prove to be vital to the process of rescuing Will from the Upside Down.

Now, admittedly, because I wasn’t around during the 80’s, I think it’s safe to say that I don’t have as strong of a connection to the various facets of pop culture that are referenced in this show compared to others. And yet, even with that said, you don’t have to be an 80’s kid to fully appreciate this series for all the great things that it does. Because while it’s obviously influenced by the likes of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, with a King-like supernatural premise and the kid-oriented narrative that’s often seen in Spielberg films, Stranger Things is ultimately bolstered by a highly engaging story that’s fully steeped in emotional poignancy. Oh sure, this show’s got mysterious alternate dimensions, badass telekinetic children, and terrifying demonic creatures to satisfy the science-fiction and horror crowds, but at the end of the day, this show is mainly about a young boy who goes missing as his friends and family do whatever they can to find him. This ultimately ties into one of the main things that made several of the films and stories that this series is influenced by so memorable; they inserted fantastical elements into a grounded human story, allowing us to connect to the characters even when they get into crazy scenarios. And thanks to a solid visual aesthetic and a deeply-layered plot, the Duffer Brothers manage to give us a story that feels incredibly fresh even when considering everything that’s come before it.

Sure enough, one of the best elements of this show is that you do end up being as fully invested in its wide array of well-layered main characters as much as you do with the main plot, and this applies to each of the show’s 3 age-based tiers of protagonists. Starting off with Stranger Things’ excellent batch of young protagonists, Mike, Lucas, and Dustin are quite the endearing trio and they have terrific camaraderie with each other as they band together to find their friend Will. Of the three, Mike is arguably focused on the most due to the strong bond that he develops with Eleven that even ends up spawning a sweet little bit of ‘young love’. But that doesn’t mean that Lucas and Dustin don’t get as much quality material to work with, as Lucas gets a nice character arc revolving around his initial distrust of Eleven, which ends up causing a rift in his friendship with Mike, while Dustin serves as the lovable ‘middle man’ of the group. Plus, he also gets some of the best lines of dialogue (“I'm just going to get some chocolate pudding! I'm telling you, lunch lady Phyllis hoards that s***!”). Speaking of Eleven, Millie Bobby Brown is easily the biggest standout of the entire show as the badass but tragically sympathetic telekinetic child who loves to eat Eggo waffles. Brown conveys so much despite only having around 42 lines of dialogue, which are mostly made up of one-word exclamations like ‘mouth-breather’.

Moving over to the main teenaged characters of the story, there’s Jonathan, who gets just as involved as his mother does when it comes to searching for his younger brother, and Mike’s older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), who ends up becoming tied to the whole ordeal when her best friend Barb (Shannon Purser; and yes, as everyone else on the internet has said, Barb is a memorable supporting character despite only appearing in about three episodes) disappears as well. The two of them eventually team up to deal with the situation, and despite that one creeper scene early on in the season when Jonathan takes pictures of Nancy and her friends while at a party (don’t worry, he improves after that…), they do share a nice chemistry that could potentially blossom into something else in future seasons. Finally, there are the two main adults of the series, Joyce Byers and Chief Jim Hopper. Admittedly, some of Joyce’s early ravings come off as being perhaps a bit too hysterical, but that does go away as the season goes on (e.g. the powerful scene in Episode 4, ‘The Body’, where she insists that Will is still alive even after a body is found). And if anything, Winona Ryder absolutely owns the role of a mother who’s fully devoted to finding her son no matter what. As for Hopper, David Harbour is great as well as the alcoholic police chief who, as we come to learn, suffered an immensely devastating personal tragedy a few years prior. Said tragedy is shown in the final episode of the season, ‘The Upside Down’, where it’s intercut perfectly with another highly emotional moment. In fact, there were a lot of great emotional moments in that episode, hence why it ended up being my favorite episode of the season.

Well, there’s not much else that I need to say about this series other than the fact that if you haven’t seen it yet, I highly encourage you to give it a watch. Like I said before, you don’t have to be an 80’s kid to fully appreciate everything that’s great about this show. With that said, though, if you are an 80’s kid, then this show delivers an excellent dose of 80’s nostalgia thanks in large part to the various bits of pop culture that it’s heavily influenced by. But at the same time, this show also delivers thanks to its strong and emotional story that’s mainly based around a down-to-earth plot of a young boy’s disappearance and the desperate search efforts made by his friends and family to find him. And this story is further elevated by a terrific ensemble cast portraying an excellent collection of likable characters that are just as well-developed as the plot. In short, it’s easy to see why this show has been such a hit amongst critics and audiences during a time where a nostalgic passion for classic films and TV shows is at an all-time high, and I look forward to seeing what happens next in the town of Hawkins, Indiana in Season 2.

Season 1 Rating: 5/5!

And that’s my review of Season 1 of Stranger Things. Thanks for following along and you can look forward to a review of Season 2 sometime in the next few weeks.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Battle of the Sexes (2017) review

In tennis, the term ‘Battle of the Sexes’ is used to describe an exhibition match that’s held between male and female tennis players. Since 1973, there have been various ‘Battle of the Sexes’ matches that have been played over the years, but only three of these have been primarily designated as such. And in today’s film of the same name, we get to see the true story of what is easily the most famous of these particular tennis matches, the 1973 nationally televised exhibition match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. King’s victory in the match proved to be quite a game-changer when it came to female tennis players earning more respect in the sport, and she would later go on to become the founder of both the Women’s Tennis Association and the Women’s Sports Foundation. And in this film, we learn the full story behind this milestone moment in her life thanks to the directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. This husband and wife duo has been responsible for some well-received films over the years, including 2006’s Oscar contender Little Miss Sunshine, which ultimately won two Oscars for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Alan Arkin, and 2012’s Ruby Sparks, a film written by its main actress, Zoe Kazan. And with their latest directorial endeavor, they give us a captivating true story drama with a well-executed feminist undertone and an outstanding lead performance from its leading lady in the role of one of the most famous tennis players of all-time.

In 1973, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is the top-ranked female tennis player in the world. At the same time, she’s also been quite an outspoken activist when it comes to male and female tennis players earning equal payouts from their victories. Unfortunately, she and her friend Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), the founder of World Tennis magazine, haven’t been able to make much leeway on that front. At the time, male players were earning eight times more than female players which, as explained to the two women by US Lawn Tennis Association chief Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), was because “the men are more exciting to watch”. In response to this, King, Heldman, and eight other players decide to hold their own tournament which ultimately becomes the Virginia Slims circuit, even though it also ends up getting them kicked out of the USLTA. While all this is going on, cocky former tennis star Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) comes up with a crazy idea. He gets in touch with Billie Jean and challenges her to an exhibition match with a purse of $100,000. Billie Jean declines, though, and Riggs plays her longtime rival, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), instead. However, when Court ends up losing to Riggs in an embarrassing blowout, Billie Jean decides to finally accept Riggs’ offer and compete against him so that she can redeem the reputation of female tennis players in the male-dominated sport.

Battle of the Sexes is a highly engaging sports drama, even when considering the fact that those going into the film most likely know the outcome of its story (I mean, heck, I kind of already spoiled it in the intro). But even with that in mind, the film’s focus is geared more towards the build-up to the main event and Billie Jean’s efforts to champion equal pay amongst her fellow tennis players than the actual match itself. And through it all, the best thing about this film is that by the time the iconic match finally occurs, we are fully behind Billie Jean because of how important it is for her to win. That and she also proves to be quite a likable protagonist with a solid emotional arc based partially around her growing relationship with her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) despite her marriage to Larry King (Austin Stowell (disclaimer: not THAT Larry King)). It also helps that she’s played by one of the most charismatic actresses in the industry, Emma Stone, as this is easily one of the best performances of her career. Meanwhile, Steve Carell is great as well as he slips into the role of the loud-mouthed, self-promoting Riggs with ease. In short, Battle of the Sexes reminds me a lot of another sports film that came out last year, Eddie the Eagle. These two films, both of which were based on true stories, ultimately succeeded because of how effective they were in making us sympathize with their main protagonists in their athletic endeavors. And thanks to strong direction from Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, as well as an excellent ensemble cast highlighted by Emma Stone in what could potentially be another Oscar-winning performance for her, Battle of the Sexes is quite the rousing affair that couldn’t be more timely.

Rating: 5/5!

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 (2017) review

In 1982, director Ridley Scott released the second big science fiction film of his career, Blade Runner. An adaptation of author Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the film starred Harrison Ford in the role of Rick Deckard, a Los Angeles police officer tasked with hunting down humanoid robots known as Replicants in the year 2019. Upon release, the film didn’t do so well at the box-office and received a generally polarizing response from critics. A few years later, however, it started to attract a cult following that was paired with the release of different cuts of the film, which helped to provide new context to the narrative after the theatrical cut had been severely shuttered by studio-mandated cuts. Thus, this initially polarizing film has gone on to become one of the landmark entries in the sci-fi genre, and now, 35 years after the original, we finally return to the world of humans and Replicants with Blade Runner 2049. And as that long gap in time between these two films’ release dates suggest, this sequel was in development for many, many years. For a while, it seemed unclear if it would ever get made or if Scott and Ford would even be involved with it at all. But, ultimately, both are back for this highly-anticipated sequel, as Ford returns to the role of Deckard while Scott serves as the film’s executive producer. In the director’s chair this time around is Denis Villeneuve, who’s made quite a name for himself these past few years thanks to critically-acclaimed hits like 2015’s Sicario and 2016’s Arrival. And thanks to solid direction from Villeneuve, along with several of the things that made the original such a classic, fans of the original Blade Runner should be extremely satisfied with this long-awaited follow-up.

It’s admittedly rather hard to talk about this film’s plot as some of its elements delve into spoiler territory. Villeneuve even made a request to those who reviewed the film prior to its release to not reveal anything from the plot, and while this ‘embargo’ has technically been lifted now that it’s out, I’m still going to try and keep plot spoilers to a minimum in this synopsis. As the title suggests, this film takes place 30 years after the original Blade Runner in the year 2049. While the development of human-like robots known as Replicants has blossomed in the past few decades, several older models are still on the loose, requiring the continued need of special police officers known as Blade Runners to hunt them down and ‘retire’ them. One such officer is K (Ryan Gosling) who, after retiring a Replicant that’s been hiding out on a farm, stumbles across a fascinating discovery; the remains of a female Replicant who was pregnant despite it being theoretically impossible. Thus, K now finds himself on the search for this elusive child of the Replicant mother, who turns out to be none other than the former assistant of the original Replicant creator Dr. Eldon Tyrell, Rachael. This, of course, then leads to K crossing paths with Rachael’s lover, former Blade Runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who’s been missing for several years. And soon, the two find themselves hunted by the current leader in Replicant development, manufacturer Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who seeks to use the child to further advance the process of creating Replicants.

Just like the original Blade Runner, one of the first things to stand out in this film is its impressive visual/production design. While visual effects have obviously come a long way since the original film, which had been made back when the art of CGI wasn’t fully realized yet, this film still manages to maintain the great atmospheric feel of the original while also utilizing its larger effects budget to its full potential. That and the always fantastic cinematography from the legendary Roger Deakins, along with the completely mesmerizing score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, help as well when it comes to fully immersing you within this futuristic world. As for the main plot of this film, it manages to be a natural follow-up to its predecessor without ever feeling like it’s just a direct carbon copy of it. With that said, though, as was the case with the original Blade Runner, this film does maintain a slow and methodical pace throughout with a sparse amount of action sequences. This may once again prove to be problematic for some audiences, especially given that this film boasts a far heftier runtime compared to its predecessor at nearly three hours long (I think it’s safe to say that we won’t need a Director’s Cut for this one, unlike the original). And while I do think that the film is perhaps just a tad bit overlong, it still benefits from having a generally engaging story based around a solid cast of characters.

While the film does see the return of Harrison Ford in the role of Rick Deckard, it should be noted that he doesn’t actually appear in it until after the halfway point. Still, the character is well-utilized in his limited amount of screen-time and Ford once again does an excellent job as the gruff but emotionally conflicted former police officer. Ultimately, the film mainly belongs to Ryan Gosling in the role of K, who embarks on a very similar emotional journey compared to Deckard’s that yields equally fascinating results. But as for the film’s biggest standouts, that honor goes to its two main female leads. As Joi, K’s loving A.I. companion, Ana de Armas brings much warmth to this generally somber sci-fi story. Plus, she has great chemistry with Gosling and is arguably the most interesting character in the entire film given their relationship, which is ultimately the main source of the film’s emotional depth. Sylvia Hoeks, who plays Niander Wallace’s Replicant assistant Luv, is also great in a role that blurs the line between diligent assistant and a stone-cold killer. But as for Wallace, played by Jared Leto, he’s, unfortunately, one of the weaker parts of the film. And for the record, no, it’s not because of Leto’s trademark eccentric performance which, for many people, would’ve been a situation similar to his recent turn as the Joker in Suicide Squad. Instead, it’s more because he’s not in the film all that much… which, ironically, was also the case with Suicide Squad. While he does get to have a few effectively unsettling moments whenever he’s on-screen, the character feels vastly underdeveloped. I promise that I’m not spoiling anything when I say that there is absolutely no resolution for the character whatsoever.

Well, like the original Blade Runner, there’s not much else that I need to say about this film, and that’s because most of the internet has already done that for me. Also, I’m not going to be delving into any sort of diatribe about mainstream audiences’ apparent rejection of this film given its rather lackluster opening weekend at the box-office. If it just wasn’t their cup of tea, then that’s perfectly fine. And besides, the exact same thing happened to the original back in 1982… and look how that one turned out. At the end of the day, I bet that this film will go on to have the same kind of legacy that its predecessor has when all is said and done, and that is because Blade Runner 2049 is very much one of the best films of the year. Director Denis Villeneuve does an excellent job in giving us a film that serves as a fitting follow-up to its predecessor without losing any of the stuff that made the original such a classic in the first place. And while it is just as much as an undeniably slow burn as its predecessor, it also has its same great sense of visual/production design, strong storytelling, and layered characters that help to make it all worthwhile. In short, if you were a fan of the original Blade Runner, then you’ll be pleased to know that this film did manage to live up to most of the hype surrounding it.

Rating: 5/5!