And A Justice League For All

Justice League is the latest film for the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) franchise and I think it is one of the best. Once again, a DCEU film has for some bizarre reason received a divisive reception, but to me this film works on just about every level. The story continues from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and in a nutshell, shows Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) seeking out other meta-human super heroes: Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg )Ray Fisher) to form a team capable of stopping an alien invasion led by supervillain Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds).
The action and stunts in this movie are top notch and the story is relatively straightforward. Some would say too much so since it is a two-hour film as opposed to Batman v. Superman, which was two and a half hours long. I would have liked to have seen more world-building and perhaps another 10-15 minutes of runtime to do so, but Justice League still did not feel rushed to me. Another complaint I’ve heard is the CGI, especially with Superman’s missing facial hair due to actor Henry Cavill having a mustache during reshoots. There were maybe a few seconds where I noticed this, but it did not ruin any scenes and the rest of the effects in the movie were quite good. Everything from Cyborg’s armor to Steppenwolf’s parademons were all well done. The fight scenes were a thrill to watch and the history lesson shown early in the film that depicts a previous invasion was a special treat since it shows alien Green Lanterns for the first time in the DCEU, as well as massive armies of Atlanteans and Amazonian warriors facing off against the hordes of Apokalips. I do wish this scene was longer to set up the whole invasion storyline, but what we did see was great.
 
The acting was also a positive as the chemistry between the team members was a highlight. Ben Affleck continues his role as the definitive live-action Batman, Gal Gadot is just as good as she was in this summers big hit Wonder Woman, Ezra Miller(the Flash) provides hysterical comic relief as the youngest member of the team, Ray Fisher is effective as the troubled hero Cyborg and Jason Momoa gives fans a good preview of Aquaman, the next DCEU film in December 2018. The underwater battle sequence shown was a sight to behold and should be great to see for a whole film come next year. Finally, Henry Cavill returns as the iconic Superman. His resurrection is handled well and showcases his awesome powers as things don’t go quite the way Batman planned because Supes isn’t in a good mood when he does wakes up. His eventual return to battling the villains is a great moment and gives fans their first glimpse of the hopeful Superman in the DCEU they’ve been waiting for. I also enjoyed Steppenwolf’s portrayal by Ciaran Hinds. He was a powerful adversary for the League and his parademons were also scary looking henchmen. I did not see him as a weak villain, however I would have liked to have seen more of where he came from, the planet Apokalips, as well as his ruler Darkseid, who is only mentioned but not seen.
The tone of this film is lighter than Batman v Superman, and there is more banter between the heroes which is not surprising since Joss Whedon took over from Zack Snyder during reshoots. Most of the quips are amusing and they didn’t take away from the stakes the Justice League faced with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. Batman is a changed character from the previous film since Superman’s sacrifice and death gave him a new outlook on what it means to be a hero. This propels him first to form the Justice League and then to bring Superman back to life when he realizes that the League are overmatched and need the Man of Steel to get them over the top against Steppenwolf and his legion of parademons. Wonder Woman is shown still dealing with the aftermath of losing Steve Trevor in her solo outing and even argues with Bruce about having to come to terms with your past. I liked seeing this character progression and it seems to bring the heroes full circle from where they started in previous films.
 
Aside from the minor quibbles of the shorter run time and mustaches, Justice League is a film that I definitely enjoyed. The ending sets up further adventures for our heroes and villains with a  post-credit scene (SPOILER ALERT!) showing a freed Lex Luthor wanting to create his own group of supervillains starting with Deathstroke. Whether this happens or not is unclear due to the mixed reception the film has gotten.
I would love to see another JL film, especially if it features the League battling a rival group of supervillains and having Green Lantern joining the team as the seventh member. New characters joining the league is hinted at in the end and this is something that should be explored in future films. Previous incarnations of the Justice League in both comic book and animated films, plus, characters like Martian Manhunter and Shazam, would be nice to see. In any case, even if this doesn’t happen, it was great to finally have a live-action Justice League film featuring these legendary characters. It was a pure joy seeing them joining together on the big screen for the first time, showing off their amazing powers, and saving the world. Any future team-up movies with them are something we all can look forward to.
C. S. Link
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Thor: Ragnarok Is Three Times The Fun

For the third film in a trilogy, Thor: Ragnarok is the liveliest one of the bunch. Frankly, after the dire and listless second film Thor: The Dark World, this third Thor film is a spectacular shot in the arm for the God of Thunder’s films set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

Loki and Thor

Thor: Ragnarok quickly picks up where the second film left us, with Thor’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) commanding the throne of otherworldly Asgard under the guise of their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Thor (Chris Hemsworth) quickly deduces what Loki is up to and the two find out the consequences of Loki’s actions. In Odin’s absence, the Nine Realms that he ruled over have slipped into anarchy. This also means that Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death, who was imprisoned by Odin to escape and wreck havoc on Asgard. Before Thor could stop her, he is accidentally transported to the planet Sakaar, taken captive and forced to fight in gladiator-type games held by the planet’s ruler, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). As we all saw in the trailers, Thor’s opponent is the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who was last seen going into self exile in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Thor must find a way to stay alive, escape his enslavement and convince the Hulk to join him in saving Asgard from Hela.

thor vs hulk

Now reading the above makes you think this will be another serious-minded Thor film with high stakes and Shakespearean undertones. But that isn’t the case with Thor: Ragnarok. The somber approach worked in the first Thor film thanks to the skillful hands of Kenneth Branagh, who is familiar with Shakespearean drama and brought that to Thor. But this time, Thor: Ragnarok’s director Taika Waititi relied on his comedic tastes and background for the film. In doing so, he brought a welcome change of pace and mood this time around as this film is more of a comedy. This approach mostly works though I have to admit there are times there are just a tad too many jokes and there are moments that should’ve had more weight but come off as too light. It’s clear that Marvel Studios wanted to repeat the look and formula that worked for Guardians of the Galaxy and this is very evident in the scenes taking place on Sakaar. The Guardians of the Galaxy films perfectly balanced its comedic tone with serious drama but Thor: Ragnarok comes up a bit short in keeping that balance.

Hela (1)

Nevertheless, the third Thor film is a fun blast with stunning set pieces and special effects that buttress its lighter tone. Credit for that does not just go to Waititi, but the film’s stars starting with Chris Hemsworth. In other films, Hemsworth has shown that he has quite a comedic gift and he gets to display that in this film. Thor seems less pompous and more laid back in his third outing. It’s almost as if he has thrust off his original regal persona and taken on an ability to crack a joke. This does not mean he takes things lightly. Hemsworth and the director knew which moments to hold back the jokes  and appropriately react to more serious moments. Continue reading

Stranger Things 2: The Second Season

Stranger things 2 poster

Stranger Things was an unexpected hit when it premiered last year on Netflix, not just with genre fans but the wider public. Everyone loved the series’ homage to ’80s sci-fi and horror films  and vintage Stephen King books. Given all that praise (and Emmy nominations), it’s not a surprise that a second season is now here.

Stranger Things 2 picks up about a year after the previous season in Hawkins, a small Indiana town that could easily double for a Spielberg setting. The preteen boys Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin) try to carry on with their lives even though in the past season they had incredible, out-of-this dimensional experiences. Many of the characters like Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), the psionic girl raised in an evil government agency, Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer), Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) and Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) return and they all have separate story arcs as the start of Stranger Things 2 deals with the aftermath of the previous season.

In a nod to Gremlins, Dustin discovers a creature that he keeps as a pet, which turns out to be related to the otherworldly demogorgon creature they faced. Meanwhile, Mike is preening for Eleven, who is supposedly dead, but in reality, the psionic girl who is kept hidden from the outside world by Hawkins’ sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour). But Eleven is starting to rebel since she wants to reunite with Mike and learn about her past. This desire brings about unexpected developments for both El and Jim.  As for Lucas, he falls for a new girl that the boys meet, Max Mayfield (Cadie Sink), and her arrival brings some friction to the gang. However the core of Stranger Things 2 lies with Will, who is suffering from being abducted by the demogorgon last season. Not just by being teased by bullies in school but by having nightmarish visions of a giant monster threatening our dimension that soon becomes real.This is odd to say for a TV series in its second season, but Stranger Things 2 feels more like a movie sequel. That is probably because of the second season’s structure. It starts off as a slow burn by taking its time to reintroduce characters and bringing in new faces and situations. The first few episodes are more of a mystery and we are not sure what is the main threat. However, by the fourth episode, Stranger Things 2’s tone shifts into full-on horror mode as genuine jump scares fill many scenes and the thrill factor is amped up as our dimension is threatened once more.Like the first season, Stranger Things 2 effectively captures the mood of those beloved ’80s genre films featuring believable kids that anyone can relate to. The homages this time subtly shifts to mid-80s classics like Ghostbusters (the boys even dress up like them for Halloween), Gremlins, The Goonies and even the nightmarish aspects of A Nightmare on Elm Street. The boys and the other characters are for the most part three dimensional with their own quirks and faults. Even the government agents in the series (this time represented by Paul Reiser) are not cut from the usual bad guy stock. The characters have their own separate journeys and you can see how they are changed from what they experience.Although the second season is as good as the first, it must be pointed out that some of the characters don’t get as much attention as others. This should not deter anyone from watching the second season because it has so much to offer. Also, as mentioned before, the second season starts off at a slower pace. It lacks the immediate hook that the first few episodes had in the previous season. This may turn off some viewers expecting the same thing, but be patient, because Stranger Things 2 delivers the thrills and scares in a topnotch production.

 

Lewis T. Grove

This Beautifully Crafted Blade Runner 2049 Does Not Replicate The Original Classic

blade runner 2049 poster

Blade Runner 2049 is the sequel to the Ridley Scott sci-fi neo noir classic film that came out 35 years ago. It takes place in the same dystopian Los Angeles introduced in the original film, which took place just two years from now, yet seems uncomfortably accurate today. Now thirty years later the world is even more ruined but further technologically advanced. Humanity is still utilizing  race of artificial humans called replicants as slave labor. Whenever a replicant escapes or rebels, special police officers called blade runners are dispatched to kill them.

In Blade Runner 2049, replicants no longer have limited life spans and are more integrated into society. However, they are still second-class citizens who are derided by humans. The main protagonist in this film is K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant who is actually a blade runner that hunts down his own kind without remorse. Early in the film during an assignment he uncovers a baffling mystery. He discovers a long-dead body and this leads him on a mission to find out more about the deceased person because it has important connotations for replicants and society itself.

Denis Villeneuve directed this sequel and he is an inspired choice for the job because his visual style and storytelling techniques are very reminiscent of Ridley Scott. The landscapes are still breathtakingly chilling with the towering and crumbling skyscrapers, large intrusive holographic advertising and constant rain, which signal the climate change ravaging our planet. Only now snow and ash pelt the inhabitants of the futuristic Los Angeles. This does not mean that Blade Runner 2049 is a copy of the original. It tells its own original story without rehashing the beats of the first film, while further exploring the theme of what it means to be human. Gosling does his usual stoic act, which fits perfectly with his soulless character. But as he digs deeper into the mystery, he comes to question his own self and wonders if he has a soul. If so would that make him human despite how he is treated?

The sequel even takes time to examine the nature of sentience with K’s holographic home AI, Joi (Ana de Armas). At first glance, Joi just seems to be a household tool to K, sort of an advanced Siri or a Google Home but with holographic projectors. What was interesting about this set up is that a subservient non-human intelligence services a second-class citizen who isn’t considered human himself by society. How K and Joi treat each other in their tender,  growing relationship formed the heart of this film and featured in its best moments.

Another highlight is Harrison Ford himself, who reprises his role in the first film as Deckard, the blade runner who fell in love with a replicant. He is a welcome face and believe it or not helps lighten the mood in this dour film. Ford’s Deckard is a reminder of a world that has been lost and only now exists as a distant, treasured memory. Although Ford is a scene stealer, Gosling with his tortured character is the focus in this film.The most important question is about how Blade Runner 2049 compares to the original. Honestly, this is the kind of film that will be many things to many people. Already, some are hailing this as a masterpiece, while others are writing it off as dull. Bottom line, the original is the better film for several reasons. Starting with the story, the first Blade Runner had a tighter plot that was quite clear: Deckard had to find a group of renegade replicants. In this film, the mystery (and plot) are laid out but it seems more muddled and sometimes it is easy to lose track of what is going on. Later in the film, a new development occurs that is disjointed and clumsily inserted into the film. What is worse is that this development does not lead to anything and just reeks of an obvious plot thread for a sequel. This does not mean the film is dull as some are claiming. Just like the first Blade Runner, this is a slower, more contemplative film than what most of today’s audiences are used to, which is not a bad thing. Also, while it emulates the look and themes of the first film, Blade Runner 2049 fails to replicate (pardon the pun) that memorable future noir atmosphere that made the first film stand out. For a film that centers on a mystery it feels less like a detective story than the first Blade Runner. Another vital drawback is with the villain. Roy Batty so wonderfully played by Rutger Hauer was a much more realized and dimensional villain. He was motivated by a desire to be free and extend his short life span. That is something we can all identify with, which is why we mourned his fate at the end of the film. The villain in this sequel does not have a clear motivation and as a result comes off as one dimensional.Blade Runner 2049 is nonetheless a beautifully crafted film that honors the original while being able to stand on its own. Denis Villeneuve demonstrates again why he is one of the most lauded film directors today and this is a great entry in his filmography. The film’s cinematography is simply gorgeous even though it depicts a sadly decaying world. Every shot is expertly composed and should be seen at least once in the big screen. It goes without saying that the special effects are as grand and spectacular as the first film. But these technical aspects are just window dressing for the film’s central themes about humanity and how we treat each other. Those are the film’s true highlights and what will leave the greatest impression upon audiences.

Lewis T. Grove

 

 

The Orville Captures The Traditional Spirit Of Star Trek

When The Orville was first announced, many quickly noticed that the Seth-MacFarlane’s dramedy had strong resemblances to the vaunted Star Trek. If it was not a comedy, it would have been labeled a rip-off and for good reason.

The TV show, which airs on Fox, is about the adventures of Captain Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane) and his crew onboard the Orville, an exploratory starship in the 25th century. Like a traditional Star Trek show, each episode to date is a standalone where the crew would visit a strange planet or deal with some science fiction plot. Sounds familiar?

orville crew

Despite the overtly comedic tone of the early trailers, The Orville is not a laugh-out-loud comedy like MacFarlane’s Family Guy. It is very funny at certain moments but it’s more serious than one would think. This is probably why the show received so many negative reviews since the reviewers were probably expecting a yuck-fest. But if one would actually watch the show and put aside any preconceptions then what will be discovered is that The Orville is actually quite fun.

It is clear that Seth MacFarlane is not trying to make fun of Star Trek. It may be surprising to some that he is actually a huge Trek fan. This is why The Orville does not come off as a spoof that makes fun of the source material; it’s surprisingly respectful.

Anyone who misses Star Trek will be pleased to know that the spirit of Star Trek is alive and well with this show. This is not a knock against Star Trek: Discovery, but while the latest Trek incarnation has the burden of trying to be different, The Orville does not have that problem. It is free to capture the essence of Trek and show us why we loved Star Trek in the first place.

Typical episodes have the crew encountering alien cultures and planets where various themes are explored. In one episode, the Orville discovers a giant generational ship where the inhabitants believed they were living in a world. It was up to Mercer and his away team to expose them to the truth (the bothersome Prime Directive is noticeably absent) despite the efforts of the ship’s rulers.

Another episode centered on the plight of the Orville’s second officer Bortus (Peter Macon). He is a gruff Klingon-like alien that is part of a single-gender species. All the members are male but in this episode he and his mate have a baby girl and want to have her sex changed. This decision clashes with the human culture of the Orville crew and leads to ethical questions. While the episode did have jokes, the subject matter was treated dramatically and with respect, and in the end it was thought provoking like a classic Star Trek episode.

What completes the overt resemblance to Star Trek, especially the ‘90s versions, is the look of the show. The costumes, sets, and props look like they could blend in easily with Star Trek in the post-Roddenberry era. The ship has replicators, holodecks and the crew is adorned with communicators and phaser guns that only look slightly different than those seen on Trek. Of course, Star Trek: Discovery has much better effects, but it is comforting to watch the more downscale special effects in The Orville. It feels less pretentious and just a means to tell a story.

orville ship

With all those pluses for Trek fans, The Orville does have its problems. A lot of the attempts at humor falls flat or feels forced. More often than not, the jokes will only bring smiles, but when they land the humor is quite funny. Also, the natural banter between the crew tries too hard at times to sell the notion that they are everyday Joes. Somehow these characters do not seem like a good fit in an actual starship. Helmsman Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes) and navigator John LeMarr (J. Lee) seem too laid back and casual to be believable starship officers. In trying to make them so relatable to viewers the show instead makes their behavior seem unnatural for their setting.

As for Mercer, MacFarlane lacks the gravitas to pull off a commanding presence. Instead Captain Mercer is more of an officer manager type, although he is quite likeable. Making him more sympathetic is his dilemma of his first officer being his ex-wife, Commander Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki). Do not be surprised if the show soon veers into will-they-or-won’t-they shenanigans.

For those who are unable to easily watch Star Trek: Discovery because it’s held behind a streaming wall, The Orville is a perfectly acceptable substitute. After watching it, it is easy to see that The Orville in many respects outdoes Star Trek: Discover in carrying on the tradition of Star Trek.

José Soto