Infinity War: Mega Marvel Team-Up Should Thrill Fans, Confuse All Others

4 out of 5 stars (one of the best in its series)

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Avengers: Infinity War is the culmination of the past 10 years of superhero movies within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Fans of the franchise will laugh and cry as their favorite heroes go up against the toughest foe they’ve ever encountered, while non-fans will wonder what all the fuss is about.  Essentially, this is a movie for the devotees of this billion-dollar series.  If you are not on the Marvel train yet, either engage in a massive binge session to get caught up, or wait until The Incredibles 2 next month for your superhero fix.

The story sees several members of the Avengers team (who are too numerous to mention) battle the malevolent alien Thanos (an intimidating Josh Brolin).  Everyone will put their egos aside in order to stop Thanos from getting the magical Infinity Stones and annihilating half of Earth’s population.

Avengers: Infinity War will thrill and emotionally devastate series fans, but the uninitiated will be lost.  Despite the downbeat tone, the film contains unexpected humor from the character interactions and some of the best action in the franchise.  The performances are uniformly strong, and Brolin steals the show as one of the series’ best villains.  Lastly, the emotionally charged ending is nothing short of heartbreaking for fans, changing the rules for both this universe and superhero films as we know them.

Avengers: Infinity War is a thrilling, fun, and emotional climax to the past 10 years of Marvel’s reign over the multiplex.  May future installments continue to entertain as much as this.

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence And Action Throughout, Language, And Some Crude References

“Concussion”: Will Smith’s Football/Medical Drama Can’t Score The Winning Goal

2.8 out of 5 stars (decent)

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Concussion is one of those movies that has a good cast and a very important message, but has too many flaws to win an Oscar or be slated as a classic.  The cast members are giving it their all, but are let down by the material in front of them.  The director of this film has one other project under his belt, and it’s painfully easy to see that, with odd camera shots, not-so-subtle writing, and misplaced comedy that deflates the dramatic tension.  Thank God for Will Smith and Alec Baldwin being good enough actors to make the material work.  Had they not been cast, this film likely would have disappeared into the vacuum of forgotten sports dramas.

The film follows Dr. Bennett Omalu (Smith putting on an extremely convincing Nigerian accent), a coroner who discovered and named CTE, a disease afflicting retired football players as a result of multiple hits to the head over the course of their careers. To make matters worse, the NFL knew of this problem and put it under the rug.  No one believed Omalu besides ex-Steelers doctor Julian Bales (Baldwin having trouble deciding on whether or not to do a southern accent).  However, with the support of his boss (comedic relief Albert Brooks) and girlfriend (Gugu-Mbatha Raw), Omalu would stop at expose the League and spread the truth to prevent further injury.

This movie caused mixed feelings for me. On one hand, Will Smith is dedicated to his character, keeping the accent up throughout, imbuing Omalu with likability and sympathy that immediately gets us on his side.  Alec Baldwin gives a fine performance as well, despite switching between his normal voice and an overdone southern accent (one scene in a hotel room near the film’s end is unintentionally hilarious due to this problem).  Newcomer Gugu-Mbatha Raw has good chemistry with Smith in their scenes together.  However, the scenes of players being affected by CTE are extremely tense, well-shot, and convincingly acted, brutally showing the pain these players went through, making them, in my opinion, the best scenes in the film.

Unfortunately, Concussion has several problems that keep it from being a complete pass.  The first and most glaring of these problems is the film’s pacing.  The first 20 minutes of this movie are glacially slow, making it impossible to tell what the main plot will be.  At first, it seems the film will be about Omalu’s relationship to his girlfriend, which left me feeling confused.  At the 30-minute mark, we see Omalu examine the first body (Mike Webster), and I remembered what I paid for.  The pacing picks up a bit after this point, but it still is a slow movie.

The second problem I have lies with the cinematography. This past semester (Fall of 2015), I took a video editing class where I learned the importance of camera shots, lighting, and other editing tricks.  The director of this film needed to take this class before he shot this movie.  Most scenes are fine, but there are others that are hilariously blurry, making it hard for me to know what to focus on.  There is also a sequence in a dance club that could have been deleted without hurting the movie at all.  These and other minor mistakes in the movie make it frustrating to watch at times, especially since the film’s message about the corruption of the NFL and its disregard for its players safety is one that everyone should see.

The final problem I have with the film is a more personal one. I didn’t grow up watching football and following player’s careers, so I don’t understand people’s obsession with it.  I do not hate the game itself, but the amount of love people have for it.  This movie was shot in Pittsburgh, where the events took place, and some of the dead players were Pittsburgh icons (Mike Webster was a “favorite son” of the area).  The movie seems to think that everyone going into this film will know about the players who died from CTE, and doesn’t make an effort to explain them to outsiders.  I did not grow up in Pittsburgh, nor had I ever heard of any of these players before seeing the film.  It is horrible that they died due to negligence of the NFL, but I could not feel as sad as the film wanted me to because of my lack of knowledge.

That being said, there are two reasons to see this film: The message about the corruption of the NFL, and Will Smith. Had I never seen Smith in a movie before, I would think he sounded like this character in real life.  While not Oscar-worthy, Smith’s dedicated performance deserves attention.  He carries the film on his shoulders, and his performance should not be missed.  Luckily, he was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama, as well as other minor awards, but the Academy failed to recognize him, furthering the #Oscarssowhite controversy of this year.

All in all, Concussion is a decent movie with a very important message. It’s weighed down by odd directing, some badly-placed humor, and a horrid pace, but I still recommend the film so that people will know the truth about the game they love so much.

Rated PG-13 for Thematic Material Including Disturbing Images and Language

“Dawn” of the Missed Opportunity

2.5 out 5 stars (decent)

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Note: I enjoyed “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” far more the second time I saw it.  This movie is more about exploring complex ideas than it is about action sequences, and I thought I would get more of the latter.  While this isn’t my personal favorite in the series, I would give it at least 3.5 out of 5 stars (above average) now.  Please enjoy my review from 2014 below:

Sequels can be a mixed bag.  Occasionally, a sequel can rise above its predecessor (“The Godfather Part Two” and “The Dark Knight” are examples of this), but most of the time, sequels do not meet the expectations set by their predecessors, sometimes to glaringly disappointing effect.  I am extremely sad to report that “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” falls in the latter category.

For every well-executed action scene, there is a boringly-written conversation.  For every quiet scene with the apes, there is a scene of humans screaming at each other when everyone needs to take a breather.  If this sounds like a lot of action sequels, then I’m sorry to say that it is.

The story picks up ten years after the events of the first film, and life has radically changed for both humans and apes.

The apes, led by Caesar (A brilliant motion capture performance by Andy Serkis) have developed a mostly peaceful society in the Redwoods near San Francisco, believing that all humans have been wiped out by a human-bred virus released a decade earlier.  Unbeknownst to them, there is a small number of humans still living in the ruins of San Francisco. They are led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman giving quite possibly the least engaging performance of his career), a man who attempts to inspire the people, but is running on empty. In short, Annie’s hard-knock life would look great to these people.

To make matters worse, the humans are rapidly running out of power.

They know the location of a power source, but it’s in the apes’ territory. Desperate, Malcolm (Jason Clarke) decides to head in the area and talk to Caesar about activating the power source to ensure the humans’ survival. He takes along his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and a doctor who used to work for the CDC (An extremely underdeveloped Keri Russell) with him.

At first, things don’t go well, but Malcolm convinces Caesar that his merry band mean no harm. Caesar lets them work, inciting unrest in his ape colony, unintentionally starting a fuse that will ignite the battle between ape and human.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes” ended up on my “Best of the Year” list three years ago because it combined human emotion with exhilarating action.

I was able to feel compassion for both Caesar and the good human characters. Here, the human characters are underdeveloped and boring, causing the audience to feel very little sympathy (if any) for them.  On the other hand, the apes are very interesting characters that I wanted to spend screen time with.

Whenever the apes were onscreen, I was engaged.  Whenever the focus shifted to the human side, I couldn’t care less.  It amazes me how the same writers who wrote “Rise” also penned this film.  There was a third person involved in writing this film that wasn’t on the last installment, but, as much as I’d like to say that this individual is responsible for the faults of this movie, I can’t.

Perhaps the biggest flaw of this film comes at the very end.  The last film ended cut and dry, where the filmmakers had the choice to make a sequel or not.  This film ends on a terrible cliffhanger.  I’m not against cliffhangers (some of my favorite films and TV shows use them), but this cliffhanger absolutely requires Fox to make a sequel.

Thankfully, one is already in the works, but if it wasn’t, this movie would end what began as a great series.

Some good qualities exist within this film.  The action sequences are quite glorious.  Though I adored the “less-is-more” approach to action in the last film, these sequences feel bigger than in their predecessor, making for some exciting action scenes.  As in the last film, the special effects are top-notch, creating realistic-looking creatures with dynamite facial expressions.  The quiet moments (where the apes are talking to each other via sign language) are the best ones.  The conversations in these scenes are very interesting, making this one of the few times where I actually wanted to read the subtitles.  Caesar speaks more in this one (as expected), but he does so confidently like a true leader, someone who could inspire all who listened to him.  It pains me to say this, but see this film for the action and Serkis’s performance.  Other than that, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a huge missed opportunity.

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action, and Brief Strong Language

“Echo” is Entertaining Entertaining Entertaining

3 out of 5 stars (average)

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In 1999, the world was introduced to “The Blair Witch Project”, a movie about a group of film study students who recorded everything they saw with a hand-held camera. The film received critical acclaim for its original approach to filming and ability to scare by not showing the audience the monster, but creating a high amount of suspense.  Many years passed, and the “Paranormal Activity” franchise came to light with a similar effect on the public.  However, those films progressively became overdone, and the found-footage genre went with it.  Now, Relativity Media goes into the found footage genre again with “Earth To Echo”, a cute sci-fi family flick that, despite its small budget (and cast of unknowns), should entertain families.

The film follows three preteens, Tuck (Brian “Astro” Bradley), Munch (Reese Hartwig), and Alex (Teo Halm), who live in a neighborhood about to be torn down to make room for a highway. As the days count down, the trio come to terms with the fact that they will no longer live near each other.  To help ease the situation, Tuck begins filming everything they do together to preserve their memories.

A few days before the move, the kids notice their cell phones are “barfing” (an odd image is appearing on the screens). They’ve asked everyone they can think of, and answers are nowhere to be found.  Using the great and powerful internet, they determine that the image is a map leading to something far out in the desert.  They decide to follow the map, which leads them to a cute little alien.  After the initial “Oh God, it’s an alien” freak-out that all kids would go through, they realize that this alien comes in peace (a rarity for sci-fi movies), and is looking for his ship in order to go home.  Unbeknownst to the kids, accepting this challenge will take them on a town wide adventure that will take them to a bar, a party, a barn, and a junkyard and even help them grow up a bit along the way.

“Earth To Echo” is a good film for families seeking a break from “Transformersesque” sci-fi movies (the type where action is more important than characters).  The movie was loud at times, but I never became bored with the action, a rarity in this genre.  The kid actors are exceptional because they feel real (they talk and react like real kids might in this situation).  It’s always a small pleasure to see and hear kids in the movies acting like real kids instead of spoiled brats.  Given the budget, the special effects look great, especially in the climax.

Audiences should know going in that this is a found-footage movie.  The entire film is seen through a video camera, which means that some jerky camera movement is present, especially during bike riding scenes in the first 3rd of the film.  I acquired a small headache during these thankfully brief sections, but it went away as I adjusted to the filming style, of which I am not a big fan.  However, I cannot see this movie being filmed any other way and having the same effect as it did in its present state.

I do have one small complaint, and it’s not with the movie itself, but with its marketing.  I was at a family reunion this week and had to endure numerous commercials (which seem to devolve every time I see them).  Some of these commercials were for “Earth To Echo”, and they did not advertise the movie correctly.  The ads make “Echo” look like a sappy kid’s movie, which it is not.  My parents and sister found it inspiring, since the kids grew up a bit and stepped out of their comfort zones, but I thought it was a good sci-fi flick that didn’t ask you to think too hard.  My pet peeve here is that more and more movie trailers miss the main thrust of their films.  That said, I hope that the trailer for the upcoming “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie does apply to this rule, because at this point in the game, my hopes are very low for it.

I urge all to see this film.  If you want realistic acting, a good story, and some well-placed humor, then “Earth To Echo” will surely entertain you.

Rated PG for Some Action And Peril, And Mild Language (Tuck says “Cr*p” a few times)


These “Stars” Have Very Bright Futures

5 out of 5 stars (one of the best films I’ve ever seen, period)

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I am not a fan of “romantic movies.” This is because Hollywood screenwriters usually go through the motions, having the couple meet up in some quirky way, then having them form a hastily-assembled relationship so they can have sex and earn that oh-so-coveted PG-13 to sell tickets instead of crafting a real relationship with their characters.

“The Fault in Our Stars” skips that well-worn yellow brick road, and I am happy to say that it is not only one of the best films out this summer, but one of my favorite romantic movies. I was initially skeptical about this film, given that the star was Shailene Woodley (Of “Divergent” and “Secret Life”).

Since her career began on an ABC Family series, I was quick to dismiss her. After seeing “Fault,” I possess high expectations for Ms. Woodley and hope that she will continue to impress.

She plays Hazel, a teen with cancer who is trying to have as normal a life as possible. Though she thinks them dorky, Hazel appeases her mother (Laura Dern) by attending a teen cancer support group. You know-that thing where everyone sits around and says what they have and everyone claps at the end. Hazel would much rather be living her life than attending a weekly feel-good session.

That life improves when she meets Gus (Ansel Elgort of the “Carrie” remake) at a group session. He had cancer once before, but has now beat it and is living life to the fullest. Though she is hesitant about a new relationship, Hazel slowly becomes friends with Gus, changing both of their lives forever.

This film is incredible. The actors have amazing chemistry (especially given their ages) and the relationship that develops seems extremely real, a rare treat in a movie of this genre. It has come to my attention that the screenwriters are two of the most sought-after writers, and I can now understand why.

The characters didn’t seem like characters, but actual teenagers, an anomaly in a market flooded with 30 year-olds playing teens. Though Woodley is 22, she still looks and sounds like an authentic 18-year-old. Praise should also be given to Elgort, who gives an equally honest, relatable performance.

I especially loved the film’s script, which is written with humor, warmth, and honest humanity that is sinfully absent in other films of the genre. I did not expect the lead of an ABC Family series and an actor playing a minor role in a remake would be so much fun to watch onscreen together.

The other noteworthy performances come from Nat Wolff as Gus’s best guy friend and Willem Dafoe (Of 2002’s “Spider-Man”). Wolff has finally grown out of his “Naked Brothers Band” phase and possesses a surprisingly engaging likeability and screen presence, and Dafoe gives his best performance since “Spider-Man.” I am now interested to see Dafoe’s other works from the past.

The film also succeeds at being a tearjerker, something I didn’t expect. Most romantic dramas attempt to go for “tearjerker” status by turning sentimental at the end, and this one does for one scene, but it’s the writing and emotion given by the actors that earn it that status. I am not a big crier, but I was fighting back small tears near the end. Word of Advice: Bring a tissue box.

The final ingredient to this masterpiece is its use of music. Every teen drama film or TV show uses music to express the feelings of characters or to set up the tone of a scene or sequence, but this film uses it to an effect that puts most teen shows (which often use music appropriately) to shame. If a soundtrack is released for this film, I would highly recommend it.

All in all, “The Fault in Our Stars” is the most romantic film of the summer and one of the most romantic films I have ever seen, earning it a place on my “Favorite romantic films list” with “Titanic”, “Ghost”, and “Ever After”. Like the other films on this list, “The Fault in Our Stars” also serves as a perfect date movie. Guys, I know it looks like a chick flick, but your girlfriend will be crying into your shoulder for comfort.

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, Some sexuality, and brief strong language (I’m not a fan of strong language, but its use was one of the most appropriate I’ve ever seen in a movie)

“Maleficent” is Not Magnificent, But Worth Seeing

2.5 out of 5 stars (decent)

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Disney has been around for a long time, bringing us animated classics like Beauty and The Beast, Aladdin, and Tarzan.  Of course, those films were in the 1990s, the “Disney Renaissance,” a time when Disney could do no wrong.  Disney’s newest trick has been to re-tell its classic animated films with a darker touch, as well as in live action, since live action appeals to a larger audience.  In 2010, Disney teamed with director Tim Burton to present a re-tooled Alice in Wonderland, which, while a financial success (so much so that a sequel is in the works), was not a critical hit. Maleficent will likely follow the same path as Alice, but I liked Maleficent more.  Maleficent is a dark (for Disney), sometimes funny fantasy telling the Sleeping Beauty story from the point of view of its villainess, Maleficent.  Is it a new Disney classic?  No, but it is entertaining.

In this interpretation, Maleficent (played devilishly well by Angelina Jolie) was once a good fairy who became close friends with a human, young Stefan (Sharlto Copley of District 9).  Their relationship blossomed through adolescence, when the war between humans and fairies reignited, forcing their lives down separate paths.  As they matured, each became a leader in their kingdoms.  They met again when the aging human king offered his throne to whoever vanquished Maleficent.  Stefan betrayed both Maleficent and the king, leaving her alive, but bitter, while he ascended to the throne.

Years later, Maleficent has a chance for revenge when she learns that Stefan is christening his baby daughter, Aurora (played as a teen by Elle Fanning). Maleficent crashes the affair, cursing her to “fall into a sleep-like state!” on her 16th birthday when she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel.  (It’s as if Disney is afraid to use the word “die” nowadays.)  Furious, Stefan tells his guards to burn every spinning wheel and sends Aurora to live in seclusion with three fairies (Lesley Manville, Juno Temple, and the extremely underused Imelda Staunton), who wouldn’t look out of place on one of those never-ending Real Housewives TV shows.  Since none of these three imbeciles possess the means to properly raise a child, Maleficent is forced to play fairy godmother in order to keep the child alive long enough to meet her demise.  The relationships between all the players of this game change and twist as the child grows.

Maleficent has many good qualities. Angelina Jolie is a fantastic choice for the role, giving it her all, as always.  The cinematography and visuals are astounding, and the action scenes are exciting.  The computer-generated creatures are entertaining without resorting to crude jokes or bathroom humor.  If the film is nominated for anything, it will be in the effects category.

Sadly, other parts of the movie are not as well done. Sharlto Copley is extremely miscast and completely unbelievable as a ruler of this beautiful land, there to yell for the entirety of his time on screen.  Elle Fanning plays the role with a little more ditziness than I would have liked, but at least she’s not one of those teenagers who are full of angst.  No Bella Swan complex here.  The three fairies are some of the most annoying creatures ever to come out of a Disney movie.  While their brief bickering was funny in the original, here it makes you want to kill them, and not in a love-to-hate way.

It was very hard for me to tell the age group for which this film was designed.  It has Jolie, who treats the role with the seriousness it deserves, but no adult with half of their brain cells working will find the fairies funny.  Also, the prince that Aurora is supposed to fall in love with is a huge throwaway character, only there for a couple of awkwardly scripted scenes.  The script is the biggest problem.  It switches from good, moderately dark scenes to “funny” ones to calm the kids down.  The kids in our theater were not scared by this at all.  The opening and the climax mirror the previews for the film, but the middle needed some re-writes.  No offense to Linda Woolverton (who also wrote Alice in Wonderland) but she should seriously consider finding a writing partner.  So far, her writing career has consisted of extremely high-concept ideas that end up being half-baked.  All in all, Maleficent is worth seeing and an interesting take on the story, but don’t expect anything magical.

Rated PG for Sequences of Fantasy Action and Violence, Including Frightening Images