Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Red Dead Redemption II (2018) - Video Game Review

The best video game of all time! Nuff said!

A prequel to the original game from 2010, excels in every regard on top of an already perfect game. Acting, storytelling, and computer effects don't get any better than this. I acknowledge that it is a slow burn. It took me 70 hours to finish the game and some of the more fun side activities. The first 20-25 hours were at a slower pace. I have heard from some gaming personalities that they felt the game was pushing them away with a friction force. Again, I concede that it is a slow burn. Also, for fans of the original game, accepting Arthur Morgan as the protagonist may take some time.

I, however, had complete trust in Rockstar games and the Houser brothers to offer another masterpiece. Red Dead Redemption II is their magnum opus (up to this point at least). I am also a fan of the Western genre, so I admit that I was biased.

The game has received countless perfect 10 scores from the game media and 97% score on metacritic. I also echo their opinion and give it a 10/10. Red Dead Redemption II is a game that I will revisit and relive again and again.

Black Panther (2018) - Review

Black Panther is a significant cultural breakthrough in the comic book genre, but besides that, the characters and effects are seriously lacking!

It is yet another superhero origin movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; so, you can expect the tried and true formula to be replicated again: the hero is recovering from a tragedy (loss of his father in this case), finds his stride and puts on his costume, but then is challenged by an antagonist that is a carbon copy of our hero. This is the same plot that we have seen in Iron Man, Ant Man, and Dr. Strange. Seems Marvel is going with the old adage of if it ain't broke, don't fix it. And, well... it works!

What doesn't work is the character of T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), or the Black Panther himself. He is depressed by the weight of the world on his shoulders, seems to be constantly constipated, and is simply boring. The movie also ignores the development of the character in Captain America: Civil War. T'Challa is hundred times more interesting in Civil War or in Avengers: Infinity War. The antagonist, Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan), has somewhat genocidal goals, however, his character arc is better developed, and he captured the attention better whenever he was on the screen.

Besides the character development issues, the computer effects were another weak point of the movie. Particularly, the last fight scene between Black Panther and Killmonger next to the underground trains was as primitive as a PlayStation 2 game circa early 2000s.

Going back to an earlier post that I had about the three pillars of a good movie, Black Panther fails in the first dimension, but story logic and pacing are done well. Bottom line, the film left me desire for more, and for that I give it 4.5/10.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) - Review

Six short stories by the Coen brothers that make everyone (well, at least me) envy their creativity and smooth flow of story telling!

Trying to stay spoiler free, these six stories take you for a ride with each protagonist for a few hours up to a couple of days. I am a huge fan of the Western genre, so, the escapism was much appreciated. Besides, the protagonists were interesting enough that I enjoyed my time watching them. The stories were dark and some anticlimactic. Also switching from one point of view to another every 20-25 minutes may be a little cognitively taxing. However, Joel and Ethan Coen are masters of their craft, and it is always a pleasure experiencing one of their stories.

If it is not clear already, I loved this masterpiece and I give it a 10/10! Although, I acknowledge that this work may not appeal to the majority of the audience the way it did to me.

BlacKkKlansman (2018) - Review

The true story of an undercover African American police officer in Ku Klux Klan is stranger than fiction. The premise of this story is fascinating, and the boldness of that officer defies expectations and beliefs. The movie's message is that KKK is a racist organization, and race prejudices of the past are still with us today. These, sadly, are facts that are widely known already...

I also found some of the matters were handled heavy handedly. Again, we know that those issues from 60's and 70's are still persisting. Putting today's political slogans (e.g., build a wall, and make America great again) in the mouth of David Duke - the leader of KKK - is a little too on the nose. Okay, we get what Spike Lee (the director) was trying to say. But the overemphasis on these parallels felt like Spike Lee was trying to force feed his message.

I personally subscribe to liberal views, however, I raise this issue because I prefer nuance in story telling. For example, George Orwell's Animal Farm was a social commentary on its contemporary socio-political situation and Marxism in particular; however, the allegories were used delicately and hence, made a stronger impact.

Props to acting and soundtrack, however, the movie neither entertained nor informed. I'd give it a 4/10.

The Favourite (2018) - Review

The Favourite is a (somewhat accurate) historical drama that relies more on its style than substance.

Yorgos Lanthimos, the director, certainly made a movie unlike anything else out there. From the camera angles to music and wardrobe, everything is unconventional. The acting is perhaps the most traditional aspect of the movie, and is of course of highest quality. I do not consider Lanthimos an auteur as I still do not see occurrence of similar patterns in his movies. However, his movies are different. Difference doesn't make it a masterpiece though.

The movie is about the rise of Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) and  the fall of Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) in the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). I liked the camera angels that Lanthimos chose to reflect to status of the players in their pursuit for power (or favour). In the beginning, when Abigail was on screen, the camera was almost at knee level and it was looking up. With her rise, the camera gradually moved up to the (classic) shoulder height.

The other unconventional touch was the music, which made me nauseous. At points, there was just one instrument (violin in one instance, or a church organ in another) playing aggressively, which almost deafened the dialogue between the actors.

Overall, the acting was superb, the pacing was okay, but the story was predictable, and the music was unsettling. Similar to Roma, if it weren't for 10 Oscars nominations, I would have quit the movie (maybe just because of its musical score). It is a borderline good movie though, and I'd give it a 6.5/10.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Roma (2018) - Review

Alfonso Cuaron wrote, produced, directed, shot, and edited the story of his family's live-in maid from his childhood. This semi-autobiography compares and contrasts the lives of people from different social classes in early 1970's Mexico City.

Roma is a very slow film. The first hour and a half of the 135 minute runtime goes at a snail's pace. It shows the day-to-day routines of a working class maid and the upper middle class family (or as the Mexican call them, the rubios) that she works for. Shopping, eating, cleaning, children playing, adults driving and going to work are activities that are too boring for a youtube vlog, let alone a cinematic experience...

The lives of these two groups hit road bumps around the same time (in the last hour of the movie), and it shows that life is not easy, regardless of social class. The problems are of course different, but as Kurt Cobain once said: "nobody dies a virgin ... life f**** us all".

I would have quitted the movie many times over, but soldiered on only because it had received 10 Oscar nominations! I acknowledge that the movie was beautifully shot. The same still frames would have looked amazing at a museum though. I also enjoyed how Cuaron compared and contrasted the lives and problems of the two classes, but the same comparison could have been done in a two-page article.

I have a hard time giving a score to Roma. As mentioned, it is slow (particularly in the first hour and a half), and the beautiful shots and social commentary could have been presented elsewhere to greater effect. But having forced myself to watch till the end, I respect the director and actors (particularly, Yulitza Aparicio who truly deserves her Oscar nomination based on some of her scenes in the last hour of the film). This is one of those situations where you enjoy the destination despite the boring and steep journey. Of course, that is what life is, but I prefer to escape from the daily challenges when I'm watching a movie.

Some filmmakers called it the best movie of the year or decade, but to me, it was a 7/10 at best.

Punisher (2019) - Season 2 - Review

The second (and probably last) season of Punisher is a punishment to viewers who liked Jon Bernthal's portrayal in the second season of Daredevil and also Punisher season one.

The first three episodes of this season felt like a proper continuation of the show. Frank Castle had got full closure on his personal tragedy in the conclusion of season one, and starts season two moving from one city to another trying to fill a void.

Frank makes an attempt to adjust to his new life, but maybe that is just a little too boring for him. When he notices a young girl (named Amy/Rachel) being chased by some gangsters, he decides to become an active participant (i.e., seeks trouble). This type of trouble suits Frank Castle well, and that is where the season peaks.

The show opens up the scope in episode four and brings in all the side characters. It is from that point that becomes an entirely different thing. More specifically, in a show named 'Punisher', the titular character only gets 25-30% of screen time, and the rest is spent on Agent Madani, Curtis, and Billy Russo's weird relationship with his therapist. Besides the side characters, the show is counting on the 'old veteran and teenage girl pairing' that worked so well for Logan and The Last of Us. Unfortunately, Frank's relationship with Amy/Rachel (or whatever the name of that teenage girl is), did not come close to those exemplars in any shape or form.

If you pick a Batman comic book, you can expect to see Batman on at least 70% of the pages (sometimes more). The side characters and villains take at most 30% of the book - not more! Going with this expectation of the genre, it is truly frustrating to see that season two of the Punisher has become an ensemble show that gives equal screen time to all the side characters and villains. If the name of the show was Avengers, or Friends, then I'd be fine with that approach.

As much as I liked the first season (and also Punisher's introduction in Daredevil), the latest season of the show left a bitter aftertaste; hence, I give it a 3/10 (for the 30% of the time that Punisher was on screen).

P.S. I am a fan of Jon Bernthal's interpretation of Frank Castle; however, I wish he'd speak with his regular voice. He is either grunting and growling - which make you miss the incantations and stylish wordings of Sylvester Stallone - or, he is whispering with gravitas that make the dialogue almost inaudible.

Green Book (2018) - Review

A dramedy - based on a true story - that focuses on a road trip of an odd couple. It is a smooth ride, and sometimes thought-provoking.

Tony Lip - played by Viggo Mortensen - is an Italian-American that checkmarks all the items on the list of stereotypes. He works as a bouncer at a club, and is always looking for another gig to make ends meet. Mortensen is a master of his craft, and fully immerses himself in the role. The other member of this odd-couple is Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali's character), an African-American musician, who has three doctorates and speaks eight languages fluently.

These two clash on multiple fronts, from skin colour prejudices of the time to their personal cultures and upbringing (blue collar vs. white collar). Along the journey from northern to southern states, both characters feel more like misfits as they go from one city to another, and they only find comfort in the presence of one another. More specifically, as the (semblance of) tolerance of general public fades, the bond between Tony Lip and Don Shirley strengthens. This juxtaposition is where the film shines most!

I can't say it's the must-see movie of the year, but it sure was a good film that was worth the time. I give it 9/10.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Venom (2018) - Review

An uninspired movie filled with computer generated images (CGI), that is merely an okay watch!

After Sony loaned Spider-Man - its crown jewel comic book property - to Disney, it had to settle for side-characters from that universe. Venom, a member of Spider-Man's rogue gallery, is not a standalone character in my opinion, but Sony gambled on Tom Hardy, and the box office data shows that they won (with over $850 million gross worldwide as of the writing of this review)!

The movie revolves around the alien Symbiote (the black goo that gives a human host super powers) family that want to take over the earth. As the trailers show, there are a few Symbiotes in play, and that makes the movie a little too heavy on CGI.

I have never been a fan of Tom Hardy, but I have two positive things to say about his performance in Venom: i) I got to understand him in this movie without the need for subtitles, cause his mouth wasn't covered (see Bane in Dark Knight Rises, Mad Max in Fury Road, and his character in Dunkirk), and he was speaking with a North American accent, and ii) he was unintentionally funny. I say unintentionally, because I think Hardy, as a supposed character actor, wanted to show the internal struggle between his character (Eddie Brock) and Venom (the Symbiote), and he was constantly fighting with himself.

Bottom line, it's a somewhat humorous movie and an easy watch for a Sunday afternoon. I'd give it a 5.5/10.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Aquaman (2018) - Review

A fun ride from beginning to end! Aquaman is visually stunning, particularly the underwater scenes. The story is rather predictable, but I think is completely fine. Not every comic book movie needs to push the boundaries of the genre.

We had seen Jason Momoa's Aquaman in Batman v Superman (2016), albeit briefly, and also in Justice League (2017) before. Props to Zach Snyder for this inspired casting. It is obvious that Momoa loves every second of being in the role.

The events of this solo movie happen after Justice League (2017), and we also get to see Arthur Curry's (aka Aquaman) origin story in a series of flashbacks. The main story is adapted from Geoff Johns' Throne of Atlantis story arc from the comics, which might be familiar to hardcore DC fans. I think the main beats should be predictable to non-fans as well...

The movie's colour palette, costumes, and visuals are the best that I've seen in DC movies. James Wan, the director, should be commended for the spectacles as well as the pacing of the movie - it hardly wastes any time on non-value added expositions. The film borrows from a myriad of genres, including adventure (with homages to the Indiana Jones series - set pieces as well as the puzzles), horror (the end of second act), and of course comic book action. There are some slow motion shots that make you feel you are looking at a cover of a comic book (with all those heroic poses). Speaking of action, the fight choreography is top-notch. This interview with the director made me appreciate it even more:

In short, Aquaman is a beautiful and entertaining movie, with likeable protagonists, that helps you escape from your daily routine. I'd give it a 9.5/10!

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Bad Times at El Royale (2018) - Review

A fantastic cast of characters in the hands of a writer/director who doesn't know the difference between homage and imitation, led to one of the biggest wasted potentials of the year (even before Creed II).

The poster itself was enticing enough for me: the promise of that star-studded cast in a movie set in the 70's... It had all the makings of a classic. The first 30 minutes out of the 140-minute run time was actually well-made. The characters were meeting one another for the first time, and the audience had no idea about the characters' intentions. One by one they were ravelling, and it was interesting to see your expectations subverted. After the first act, style and substance both took a huge dip.

Some of the characters were evil, just for the sake of being evil. And, some were virtuous, just for the sake of being virtuous. There was no character development whatsoever - it shouldn't be confused with what I said in the previous paragraph about the intentions. You may know what a person wants, but the movie fails to tell you why or how they came to want that particular outcome. 

Overall, I think my time was wasted. I would've given it 6/10 (because of the cast and the first act), but one factor makes me deduct two points and that was the over emphasis on the singer. Nobody has come to that movie to hear 15 minutes of soul/church solos by one of the characters.

Bad Times at El Royale translates to bad times for the audience as well, and I give it a 4/10.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) - Review

It's truly rare when something exceeds your expectations, particularly when you've already had high expectations because of all the hype. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is one of those cases!

At the time of this review, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has won the Golden Globes and many other accolades. Critically, it has scored 87% on Metacritic, 8.7/10 on IMDb, and 93% on Rotten Tomatoes. The story is known to comic book fans, as it is an adaptation of the spider-verse saga from the comics. The execution, though, is absolutely breathtaking!

Using 3D models on 2D panels, incorporating a hand-drawn pig (i.e., the Spider-Ham) in a 3D space, the drop in frame rate every now and then, and recreating the look and feel of vintage comic books from 1960's and 70's (blurred edges and dotted textures) make this movie look different from everything else that has ever been done before! And, these are just the stylistic choices. The visuals that the movie delivers - while avoiding any spoilers - make you think that you have experienced a trip to the multiverse!

The story is not flawless, but I found myself grinning for the majority of the movie (mostly in the first half). It definitely deserves the Oscars, and I just hope that the creators pay as much attention to detail in the inevitable sequels.

Again, it's not flawless, but nonetheless, it's a masterpiece worthy of a 10/10 score!

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Mary Poppins Returns (2018) - Review

Continuing on with Disney's not-so-perfect track record for sequels, Mary Poppins does make a comeback in a step-by-step retread of the original that ends up trailing in every aspect.

The original Mary Poppins came out in 1964, and was the technological marvel of its time; it used the sodium vapor process - a yellow screen technique - to superimpose live action onto animation. It was the first live action Disney movie nominated for an Oscar in best picture, and the incomparable Julie Andrews won the best actress award (over competition from Audrey Hepburn's role in My Fair Lady). Sherman brothers also well-deservedly won two Oscars for best song and score for their timeless masterpiece.

After 54 years, Mary Poppins returned in 2018. Emily Blunt in the titular role is the highlight of the movie, although, I was not a big fan of her accent - wish she had used her own regular English accent rather than the gimmicky one that is supposed to be reflective of the time. Blunt has stated in the interviews that she based her character on the books rather than Julie Andrews' portrayal. Emily Blunt managed to pull off the more strict personality that she was aiming for, but whenever she smiled, the drill-sergeant facade fell down and she showed a sweet and giddy little girl. Maybe that was intentional... The dissonance was confusing to me though.

The rest of the movie is just a copy of the original. Lin Manuel Miranda is a lamplighter that substituted for Dick Van Dyke's Bert the chimney sweep - with an equally ridiculous cockney accent. Other copied elements are: an animated sequence, a cruel banker as the antagonist, a visit to one of Mary's wacky relatives, a sad slow song that's supposed to be profound, a choreographed street dance with 20+ dancers, and a dramatic resolution to the conflict at the 11th hour.

Other than the subpar imitation of the original, perhaps the biggest sin of Mary Poppins Returns (2018) was the forgettable music. As I left the theatre, I found myself humming the tunes from the 1964 original rather than the movie that I had just seen!

I hope Disney does a better job if they want to make more sequels to Mary Poppins in the future. I'd give it a 6/10, although it deserves a lower score, just because Mary Poppins Returns made me reminisce my childhood memories from the original.

What Makes a Good Protagonist?

After the release of James Bond's first movie, Dr. No (1962), critics attributed the success and popularity of the Bond character to one simple assertion: men want to be him, and women want to be with him.

I think that statement could be applied to determine the appeal of other characters too. I have a minor amendment or clarification to add: wanting to be with a character may not necessarily be romantic or sexual. I would like to consider it as spending time with the character and chatting over coffee or drinks.

I have found myself rooting for protagonists that were nothing like me (neither their physical appearance, nor their personalities), but they could have been fun people to hang out with; hence I found their characters appealing. Deadpool is an example that comes to mind in demonstrating this point: I don't think the majority of the fans want to be Deadpool or see themselves in Deadpool's character with his hundreds of psychological issues. I also don't think that the fans desire Deadpool in a romantic way. However, he's one hell of company to share a drink with and hear his stories. In other words, audience wants to be with him (in a social setting). Other examples out of the left field could be E.T., R2D2, C3PO, and so on...

What I'm trying to say is: if a character looks, sounds, moves, and acts like me (or in a way that I aspire to), then great! I'd want to be that character and would be able to see myself in them. But if the character has a different skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, religion, height, weight, dietary preferences, favourite colour, or whatnot, I can still root for them as long as they are cool characters that I'd want to be with (whether socially or romantically).

P.S. This post follows up on another opinion piece about the three pillars of a good movie or tv show.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Creed II (2018) - Review

The Rocky, or better say, Creed saga continues with an underwhelming entry to the series by wasting the high nostalgic potential that it had.

Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) starts the movie by becoming the heavy weight boxing champion of the world, while Rocky Balboa is sitting ringside. The happiness doesn't last long, as a blast from the past hits them hard in form of an exiled Ivan Drago - the Russian boxer from Rocky IV who brought Apollo Creed (Adonis' father) to an early demise. Rocky, however, had avenged Apollo by defeating Ivan in Russia. After Ivan's defeat by Rocky (in Rocky IV), Ivan was shunned from the society and was forced to seek refuge in Ukraine. There, Ivan trained his son Viktor and made a 'mean machine' out of him. Viktor sees Rocky and Creed as the reason for his family's misery. So, he wants to right the wrongs done to his father...

Creed II had me excited by the promise of another chapter in the endless vendetta between Drago and Creed/Balboa family. The movie, however, failed in a major way in my opinion. Going back to an earlier post that I had about the three pillars of a good movie, Creed II made me dislike Adonis Creed's whiny boring character (i.e., the protagonist), and root for Viktor Drago (i.e., the intended antagonist). Viktor was the underdog who was a victim of circumstances and was seeking glory and recognition.

Tessa Thompson returns as Creed's love interest. The focus on her singing career and her performance before Creed-Drago match felt forced in the plot of a boxing movie. Has anybody ever watched a sports movie in the hope of seeing the rise of a struggling singer (regardless of gender)?

The saving grace of this whole movie was Sylvester Stallone. He owned every second of screen time that he had. It's sad that he said goodbye to this role of a lifetime.

Overall, this was a mediocre movie at best. I give it a 5.5/10.