Black Panther Review

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Let me start this review by saying how unique of a film Black Panther is. It’s as if the viewer is transported to a different culture. We’re very used to seeing the New York setting in comic book films, so it’s refreshing to see a new setting. The African scenery is beautiful. There’s a scene late in the film where T’Challa shows N’Jadaka a view of Wakanda, showcasing the fictional country’s splendor. The unique setting doesn’t hide mediocre performances either. Some films have stylistic scenery, but mediocre writing. Not so in Black Panther, where almost every major character is well developed and engaging. It’s tough to say if Black Panther is the best made Marvel film to date with films like Captain America: The Winter Solider and Iron Man. It very well could be, because Director Ryan Coogler gives viewers a well paced, developed story with fantastic characters.

The story takes place shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War. In that film, King T’Chaka (T’Challa’s father) was killed and T’Challa assumed the mantle of Black Panther. Here in his titled movie, T’Challa officially becomes Wakanda’s king. Meanwhile, Ulysses Klaue, last seen in Avengers: Age of Ultron, is still on the loose and working with a black-ops soldier named Erik Stevens, nicknamed Killmonger. T’Challa makes a plan to capture Klaue, but Killmonger ends up being a bigger threat, because he has personal ties to Wakanda…

In Civil War, Black Panther’s character arc was that of revenge for the death of his father. At the end however, T’Challa let go of that desire for revenge. In his title film, we get to see T’Challa take on the center focus. With the revenge story out of the way, what would his character arc be? To put it simply, to display his love for his country as its new king. Chadwick Boseman is a standout as the title character. The performance is very likable. Unlike many of the other Marvel protagonists, T’challa is rarely sarcastic, instead coming off as more of a subdued character with just the right amount of humor. (If there was too much humor, it would have ruined the flow of the story.) T’challa is an engaging character, and viewers get a sense throughout of how passionate he is. A good scene demonstrating that passion is late in the story, when T’Challa shouts at his ancestors that they were wrong for not being more involved with the world outside Wakanda.

It’s always a treat when the whole cast is excellent. This is the case with Black Panther. His sister, Shuri, is a fun character throughout the story. She being something of the Lucius Fox to T’Challa made for an interesting dynamic, and the banter between the two siblings was organic and genuinely funny. Nakia and Okoye get substantial roles, and both are compelling characters. Nakia’s sense of duty to helping those less fortunate, and Okoye’s unwavering loyalty to the throne made for interesting dynamics. There are a lot of strong performances in this movie.

Klaue’s brief appearance in Age of Ultron was notable, because the titular robot ripped off his arm. In this film, Klaue has a chance to be seen as a compelling character. Aside from some forced, unrealistic dialogue like “That was awesome!”, Klaue is a fun character, with highlights being his scenes at the Korean casino and his interrogation with Everett K. Ross.

Klaue however is not the primary antagonist, that would be N’Jadaka/Killmonger. The Marvel films have a history with mediocre villains, but that isn’t the case here. Sure, some of Killmonger’s dialogue is generic. (“The world took everything from me!”) But overall, Killmonger is an interesting character with ties to T’Challa’s family. The opening scene set in 1992 is nicely tied into what motivates Killmonger to want to kill T’Challa. Similar to Thor realizing that Odin was not the perfect being he idolized in Thor: Ragnarok, T’Challa is given the revelation that his father made a controversial decision, thus ruining T’Challa’s perfect view of his father. Killmonger’s street type of talking makes for an interesting contrast to the more noble-sounding Wakandians One of Killmonger’s best scenes is his ritual battle with T’Challa. Here, Killmonger demonstrates genuine passion when mocking T’Challa in front of the onlookers.

There are some other named characters that should be mentioned. M’Baku, known as Man-Ape in the comics, was an interesting character. W’Kabi was decent, but needed more development. Finally, there’s the CIA agent, Everett K. Ross. While some may see him as an Agent Coulson stand-in, he was nonetheless fun to have around. He bordered on being unrealistic for the sake of laughs at times, but never quite crossed that border into the Erik Selvig land of no return.

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The sequences are extremely well done in this film. Perhaps the best part was the casino sequence. First, the build-up was interesting because of the change of scenery. T’Challa travels to Korea, which is in stark contrast to the vibrant land of Wakanda. The scenes in the casino are full of tension because the viewer knows something is about to go down. Black Panther does not disappoint in the action department, featuring well choreographed sequences such as the outbreak at the casino and the climatic battle at the heart of Wakanda.

If the review hasn’t made it apparent by now, I’ll summarize what makes Black Panther good: the writing. The characters and their interactions are excellent, and the overall tone is consistent. It doesn’t traverse into ultra-dark territory, but it lacks the constant gags of other Marvel movies. That’s not to say the tone of the other Marvel movies is negative, because it has worked for the most part. But, what’s special about Black Panther is that it doesn’t rely on gags or funny scenes; it relies on the core characters and story. The only discrepancy in the writing I found was right before the journey to Korea. Shuri asks T’Challa if he thinks it’s a good idea to take his ex on a mission. That line of dialogue didn’t need to be there, because it doesn’t become a focus at all when at the casino. Moving past that, the soundtrack is notable. As I said earlier, the film transports the viewer to a different culture, and the music is part of that, providing some unique sounds we don’t typically hear in these movies.

Overall, Black Panther is a great movie. Chadwick Boseman delivers a fantastic performance as the title character. He is assisted by an excellent cast of compelling characters. Nakia, Okoye, and Shuri are particularly strong characters, each with their own unique personality. Killmonger is an engaging antagonist. The action scenes are great, and the pacing is adequate. The film is a special one among the Marvel movies, worthy of acquiring its 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, the highest rated Marvel Studios film as of the publishing of this review.

9/10

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The Cloverfield Paradox Review

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“Some thing has found us” read the tagline for 2008’s Cloverfield. That film had arguably one of the most interesting marketing campaigns in the history of movies. The untitled trailer that played during Transformers, the mystery surrounding the story, and the Easter eggs on the web provided much anticipation for its opening day release. It did not disappoint. Cloverfield remains one of the most intense films of the modern era, delivering a grounded monster movie. In 2016, a film titled 10 Cloverfield Lane was released. Producer J.J. Abrams called the film a “blood relative” to the first Cloverfield.

After watching 10 Cloverfield Lane, this reviewer had come away with the ambiguous question, “Can marketing ruin a film?” 10 Cloverfield Lane was undoubtedly a well-acted, tense film. But by using the “Cloverfield” name, certain expectations were set. The film had nothing to do with the 2008 giant monster movie, thus producing massive disappointment. It felt like marketing was just using the Cloverfield name to sell tickets. Fast forward to February 4, 2018, a brand new film with the Cloverfield title launched on Netflix. The trailer premiered during Super Bowl 52. Unlike 10 Cloverfield Lane, where the trailer did not align itself with the 2008 film aside from the title, the trailer for the third film proudly stated that the story would show why the monster appeared out of nowhere. We learn why artificially, in this film titled The Cloverfield Paradox, directed by Julius Onah. Though not coming close to the quality of the 2008 film, Paradox is nonetheless an engaging film, with an interesting story and sometimes unsettling atmosphere.

The backdrop for the film is that Earth is running out of energy resources. In order to combat that, the world governments send a space station to utilize a particle accelerator. If successful, the accelerator will be able to draw unlimited amounts of energy, thus eliminating the shortage problem. After a failed attempt, the space station’s crew once again fires the accelerator. It seemingly works, but something odd makes the crew look outside the space station’s windows.

The Earth is gone.

At first, it appeared the film was going to be like Alien or Life. (Tell me you didn’t automatically think Chestburster when Volkov started to have a seizure.) It soon becomes apparent that the story is going in a different direction. There’s a sense of great tension and dread as the characters can’t see the Earth. Did they just destroy their planet? That was an incredibly interesting concept, and really makes the viewers think how they would react if they had been part of this crew. Things take a turn for the mind-bending as other dimensions and messing with reality comes into play. It never becomes too sciencey however, just interesting enough to make sure the viewer is paying attention.

The cast features some big names, such as Daniel Brühl (Zemo in Captain America: Civil War) and David Oyelowo (Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma.) Oyelowo is particularly engaging as the crew’s captain, Kiel. One particular standout scene was him confronting  Brühl’s character later in the story. “We trusted you! For two years!” Kiel shouts. Oyelowo did an excellent job showcasing his genuine frustration with a man whom seemingly is a traitor. Our main protagonist is Ava Hamilton, portrayed by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Ava is an engaging character, showcasing a love for her family back home. Her character is further deepened near the story’s climax, when we learn she was indirectly responsible for a personal tragedy. Her relationship with her husband Michael feels genuine. Michael’s scenes back on Earth are always a highlight. It’s a shame there wasn’t more screen time dedicated to the intense Earth scenes with him.

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Most of the characters are fine, but it does take a bit in the beginning to care about them. One character who did not particularly work even after the first half hour was Mundy. It seems he was just put there for forced snappy lines, such as “Well we found the worms” and “What are you talking about arm?!” His reaction to his limbless arm also came off as incredibly unrealistic and took away from the tense atmosphere. He was really the only severely weak character however. Tam and Mina Jenson, the latter whom emerges a particularly important character in the climax, were solid. Considering Mina’s explanation of the alternate dimension, her motivation in the climax is very interesting to watch.

This type of film can falter if certain aspects of the story isn’t explained. While the film attempts to explain the dimension aspects, there are some things that aren’t explored well enough. For example, what was the point of the worms? It was never given a reason why they were there, other than to look creepy. Why did the wall gain sentience and  trap Mundy? These things aren’t truly explained. The other unexplored aspect is the film’s relation to the first Cloverfield. Let’s look at this. I said in the first paragraph that Paradox artificially sets up the first film. This is because the viewer is only left to assume why the monster appears. It’s difficult to infer if the particle accelerator is what woke the monster. It’s not explicitly said, and because the way things go in the film, it feels like the original Cloverfield aspect was thrown into the story in the last second. The storylines between Ava on the space station and Michael dealing with something happening on Earth almost seems like two separate movies. The final shot of the film is epic, though it comes off as forced to make up for 10 Cloverfield Lane having nothing to do with the first film.

Overall, The Cloverfield Paradox is an intriguing case of a film. Paradox has a great story, and unlike 10 Cloverfield Lane, it actually connects to the original monster movie. However, Paradox barely seems about Cloverfield, until the last few seconds. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a more consistent movie for this reason. It seems like the writing wanted to make sure not to further alienate fans of the original movie with Paradox, so they forced an unexplained reason for it to be a prequel. What if Paradox eliminated all references to the original film? Well, it would have fallen into the same boat as Lane, bearing the Cloverfield name, but having nothing to do with it. So, unless it stuck with its original title, “God Particle,” many viewers would have probably felt cheated again. Though, some might still feel cheated because of the forced relation to the original film, instead of it being an organic part of the story. It is indeed quite a paradox when discussing this movie. At the end of the day, The Cloverfield Paradox isn’t a bad film, with some engaging characters, an interesting story, and a decent soundtrack. If its relation to the original film had been more organic and explained, this could have been a fantastic prequel.

7/10

Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters Review

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Ever since Godzilla made a triumphant return to the big screen in 2014 thanks to Legendary Pictures, the King of the Monsters has enjoyed a resurgence. TOHO released Shin Godzilla in 2016, crushing the Japanese box office. In 2019, Godzilla will once again return to American theaters, and in 2020, he will do battle with King Kong. In short, it’s a great time to be a fan. The latest film, Planet of the Monsters, marks a special achievement for the series: it is the first animated Godzilla film. Yes, there have been animated shows starring the king – namely the Hanna-Barbera show from the ’70s and the Animated Series two decades later – but this picture is the first film. Released January 17th on Netflix worldwide, Planet of the Monsters – Part 1 gives viewers new characters, new continuity, and most importantly, a new Godzilla. It’s a well made film, though suffers in some areas.

It begins in space where we meet our main character, Haruo Sakaki. He believes the elderly are getting sent off so there are fewer people to feed. It’s an effective sequence demonstrating the type of character Haruo is: passionate. After he’s arrested, we’re shown the title screen and then the most tension-filled part of the movie, the flashback. Here Haruo tells the viewer what happened at the end of the 20th century on Earth. Monsters rose up (including some familiar faces such as Orga and Kamacurus), and eventually Godzilla came. Two aliens species, the Exif and the Bilusaludo, also arrived. This was the prefect setup; it’s a shame it was told in this format instead of showing in detail the world getting taken over. Part 1 isn’t that long, so there was enough time in the beginning to further detail the flashback sequence. But, what we do get is still effective. Godzilla blows up a rocket that is trying to escape, which also kills Haruo’s parents. Soon, we’re back in the modern day.

This storyline of a human wanting to get revenge on Godzilla is nothing new. We’ve seen that in Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, Godzilla vs. Megaguirus, and Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla. For the many going into Planet of the Monsters having never seen those films, this plot point will seem original. But for longtime Godzilla fans, the thought, “Here we go again…” may cross. But, the plot point is handled well for the most part. This is thanks to the passionate nature of Haruo’s character. Everyone on the spaceship seems to be content with looking for a habitable planet to colonize. Not Haruo. He’s passionate about Earth and taking it back from Godzilla. One of the best scenes is him arguing with Leland over retreating. Leland is not wrong when he says retreat is realistically the only option. The flying monsters were unexpected, and lives were lost. One can’t help but admire the dedication from Haruo as he argues with Leland, whether or not Haruo is in the right for talking against retreat.

This being a shorter film (only 88 minutes), there is not a lot of time for character development. The heroine of the story is Yuko Tani. Her only real development is the line, “I want to get stronger!” Beyond that, she isn’t given much to do. She has the potential to be an interesting character (voiced by Cristina Vee of Shantae fame), so hopefully she does more in the sequel. The most interesting character aside from the protagonist is Metphies, an Exif. His smart and sometimes ominous dialogue is interesting, and by the end, the viewer does not know what to expect from this guy in Part 2.

It takes a bit before the characters return to Earth. Some of the scenes in the spaceship border on the boring side, but there’s nothing too dull. The exchange between Metphies and Mulu-Elu Galu-Gu was particularly interesting. There’s some exposition as Haruo explains his plan to get past Godzilla’s defenses and destroy the monster from within. It’s told in a sciencey, but understandable way. When the characters finally arrive on Earth, things start to get interesting. Before we talk about Godzilla himself, let us discuss the film’s original monster. Though not named in the film, the flying monsters mentioned earlier in the review are called Servum. Their first sequence was well executed; it went down like something out of a horror movie. But, after that, these vicious creatures aren’t given much to do. Honestly, it felt like they were just there to satisfy the “Planet of the Monsters” title. (Other than Godzilla and the Servum, no other monsters appear in the present day.)

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Godzilla. The name is one of the most iconic in popular culture. This version of the king has a unique new look, but you can still tell it’s him. Though standard animation would have been preferable (imagine if Production I.G did the animation), one can’t deny how magnificent Godzilla looks thanks to the CGI. From the closeups to the distance shots of him firing his atomic ray, Godzilla looks great. Sadly, he isn’t given too much to do. He remains typically in an almost static position firing atomic blasts. He does get one nice scene of using his tail. But, there are no buildings to crush and no monsters to fight. This leads to a rather dull climax. The final battle features a bunch of air vehicles shooting Godzilla, and the latter retaliates with an atomic blast. Rinse and repeat.

The soundtrack is solid. The soldiers’ theme evokes the classic TOHO military march.  Godzilla himself gets an epic theme, similar to what was heard in Shin Godzilla. There is an after-credits scene. Haruo wakes up, apparently rescued by the mysterious girl we saw briefly running around in the bushes earlier in the film. She makes a sound of surprise…and that’s it. We know nothing about this character, so the cliffhanger does little to build anticipation for Part 2. (How about showcasing a monster reveal in a film called Planet of the Monsters?)

Like with a lot of Godzilla movies, there is a running theme. In Ghidorah, it was about putting aside differences and utilizing teamwork against a larger threat. In Hedorah, it was about fighting pollution. In this movie, it’s about human pride. The pride to fight, to not give up when things look bleak, and to press on knowing you might not make it. The speech Haruo makes when he’s put in charge exemplifies this: “If we stand our ground, we don’t show fear and if we put our lives on the line, we’ve already won.” It’s still hard to root against Godzilla, but one can’t help but want to see the human characters succeed in their endeavor. It’s an interesting conundrum. Godzilla is Godzilla, it’s hard to root against him. But thanks to Haruo’s unwillingness to relent, the viewer can’t help but root for him as well.

Overall, Planet of the Monsters gives viewers an intriguing status quo, but a bit of an underwhelming film. It’s not bad by any stretch. The story is good. The idea of Godzilla driving away humanity and somehow living on Earth for 20,000 years is epically interesting. There are some exciting moments (make sure you have your surround sound speakers ready for Godzilla’s roar near the end), and an engaging main character. The problem is that it doesn’t feel much like an actual “planet of monsters.” The battle scenes against Godzilla are fun for a bit, but during the climax the thought, “I wish he were fighting another monster” will probably occur. The Servum sadly don’t contribute much. It’s understandable that Part 1 would focus as setup. It’s a good enough story to make the viewer anticipate the next part in Godzilla’s anime saga.

7/10

Star Wars: The Last Jedi Review

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Star Wars is the undisputed king of science fiction when it comes to popularity. Every new film with the Star Wars name gets people talking. After a 10 year break (unless we count the animated Clone Wars film), the series was brought back with Episode VII: The Force Awakens. The film brought back classic characters such as Princess Leia and Han Solo, while introducing new characters for a new trilogy. It ended with Rey, our new protagonist, finding an older Luke Skywalker. The Last Jedi continues this important plot point and once again has the First Order looking to wipe out the Rebellion. Rian Johnson directs, taking over from J.J. Abrams of The Force Awakens.

The Force Awakens was a fun film. But it was easy to notice its major flaw: it felt like a retread of A New Hope. The Last Jedi avoids this but is hit with some problems of its own. The Phantom Menace is the definition of a boring Star Wars film, and to say The Last Jedi is in league with that film would do Episode VIII a disservice. But it does approach the mediocrity of those early prequel movies than the stronger later films. I can’t call it a bad film, but it’s definitely not one of the stronger Star Wars movies.

In typical blockbuster format, The Last Jedi opens up with a big action sequence. The Rebellion is attempting to evade a First Order Dreadnought. Poe Dameron manages to stall just enough, but then precedes to go against Princess Leia’s orders in hopes of destroying the Dreadnought. It’s an effective enough sequence with one piece of clever humor from Poe playing around with General Hux. Poe didn’t leave much of an impression in The Force Awakens due to not appearing too much. The Last Jedi fixes that by having him be a major character throughout the film. Oscar Isaac gives Poe a notable charisma and dedication. The viewer gets a sense that Poe genuinely cares about destroying the First Order; he’s not just a hotshot pilot because the story requires that stereotype. One good example is him calling Amilyn Holdo a traitor for seemingly giving up the battle.

Soon we cut to arguably the most important aspect of the film: Rey’s meeting with Luke Skywalker. Their dialogue is interesting, but it takes much too long for Luke to say why he gave up on the Jedi. It does sour Luke’s legacy, to the point where the longtime fan would be disgusted. However, thanks to some advice from an iconic character (one of the film’s best scenes) Luke makes a triumphant return in the climax. This is perhaps Luke’s greatest sequence since his battle with Vader in the climax of Return of the Jedi. Does it save Luke’s portrayal though? It’s a great scene, but it does not help elevate the overall score of the film. There’s still that feeling that a lot of things could have been avoided if Luke had come on the scene earlier.

It should be noted that Rey is an excellent character. Even when seeing the Rebellion ships shot down one by one, she holds onto hope. She was fine in The Force Awakens, if not generic – here she has become a compelling and inspiring character. Her scenes with Kylo Ren were the best. Speaking of Kylo, he goes through some intriguing development throughout the story. In some ways, he is still that character trying to be as great as Darth Vader – but there’s more layers to him, as we see in the intense scene with Supreme Leader Snoke and Rey. Kylo emerges a new character in a new position at the end of The Last Jedi. I for one am excited to see what he does in Episode IX.

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Yes, there are quite a few notable character moments throughout the film. The story’s big problem however, is that there’s this immensely long stretch without any major action scenes. Yes yes, I know that exposition is important – mindless action throughout does not make for a good movie. But, the exposition is just boring. There’s this subplot with Finn and Rose going off to do something that could prove useful to the Rebellion. Due to circumstances, this subplot becomes almost pointless. The sequence with them running into an intergalactic bar and eventually freeing some horse-like creatures just felt like a detour from the main story. Rose is one of the new characters, but I didn’t feel emotionally invested. (Let’s not get started on the rushed romance.) Another new character Finn and Rose run into is DJ. This guy disappears later on, leaving me to ask what was really the point of the character other than taking time away from actual interesting things?

The only engaging new character is Amilyn Holo, taking over leadership duties after Leia is injured. Amilyn commands the screen, and her decision near the climax is one of the most powerful scenes in the Star Wars franchise. Going back to older characters, Snoke takes on a bigger role than in The Force Awakens. He was incredibly generic in Episode VII, serving as little more than a second rate Papaltine. That changes here, as he demonstrates the evil that runs the First Order. His early scene with Kylo Ren was great, and of course his dialogue with Rey was fantastic. Finn was thankfully a little less comedic than in The Force Awakes. His early scene with wanting to give up was sketchy, but he ended up being a fun character. Captain Phasma returns for a fun battle with Finn. But that’s it. Remaining fans of Phasma will be disappointed with how incredibly small her role is.

Finally, the soundtrack is solid. It’s typical of Star Wars – you’ll recognize the familiar beats. It’s at times too similar to the previous films’ soundtracks though, thus severely lacking in originality.

Overall, The Last Jedi isn’t a bad movie. But it’s not a great movie. There are great moments for sure, such as the climax. The final act of the film is fantastic. Rey and Kylo have an interesting dynamic, and Snoke commands the screen with his genuinely evil persona. It’s the slow-moving pace that hurts the story. Luke is hard to watch until he redeems himself in the climax. (By then though, it could be too late for some viewers.) Finn’s subplot feels like an unnecessary detour. Most of the new characters don’t add much. (So, what was the purpose of the Porgs other than to look cuddly? Wait…was that their only purpose?!) There’s also a surprising lack of action. Still, there are things to appreciate. The theme of hope against tyrannical forces reigns. The lightsaber battles, when they finally appear, are excellent. A lot of the characters are enjoyable to watch. Episode VIII isn’t close to being the best Star Wars film, but at least it nicely sets up Episode IX.

6.5/10

Justice League Review

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You can’t save the world alone.

DC Comics has some of the most iconic characters of all time. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman have been around since the early 20th century. Seeing the three together in a film was but a dream until last year with the release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. With that film, the idea of the Justice League forming on the big screen started to become a reality. The DC film universe started with the fantastic Man of Steel, and then we got Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad, and Wonder Woman. These films, aside from Wonder Woman, have proved controversial in reviews, especially BvS (the theatrical version isn’t terrible, but the Ultimate Edition propels it into being a stellar film). Justice League brings the light of Wonder Woman into the darker world of BvS. Zack Snyder’s style has proved decisive with many. I think his work is underrated, and honestly his films have delivered some of the best action scenes. Justice League lacks the deepness of BvS/Man of Steel, and doesn’t have the great writing of Wonder Woman. It is however an extremely enjoyable story of heroes coming together.

The core story of Justice League is Batman realizing there’s a grave threat on Earth, and only a combination of special people can stop it. Meanwhile, the death of Superman continues to be felt throughout Metropolis, and the rest of the world. I particularly liked the opening scene, which was a flashback of Superman talking to kids after a small disaster. It was brief, but it reminded viewers what kind of a hero Superman is. The tone, scenery, and music in the montage scene afterward show the effect of Superman’s death. There’s a genuine sadness as a great hero is no longer among the people.

Superman returns toward the latter half of the middle act. Since I just brought him up, let’s discuss the iconic hero. Henry Cavill’s portrayal of the character has been met with positive reception in previous films, though fault has been placed with the directing for making Superman a “brooding” character. This is mainly felt in Batman v Superman, where it’s hard to find him smiling at all. After watching the Ultimate Edition and thinking back on Man of Steel,  it’s easy to see what Zack Snyder was going for. He didn’t make Superman automatically the hero we’ve come to know and love from the comics. Rather, there’s a journey that takes place and eventually culminates in the hero’s death. Now in Justice League, Superman is a man reborn and the result is the hero we know.

When Superman tells Steppenwolf that he’s a fan of justice, the viewer knows things are about to get good. Henry Cavill delivers the definitive Man of Steel. His dialogue is reminiscent of the Superman from The Animated Series. Superman appears the least of all the heroes, but his presence is felt the greatest. It’s a little sad also because the viewer begins to think how much more exciting the film could have been from the start if Superman wasn’t saved for over halfway through.

The first half of the film centers on Batman and Wonder Woman, then together they get the team going. Ben Affleck delivers another great portrayal of the Dark Knight. It’s interesting because we see Bruce Wayne as a man changed because of his encounter with Superman in Dawn of Justice. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman continues to shine. One of the most fun scenes was her rescuing the hostages at a bank. (We get to see her reflect bullets in a scene straight out of a comic book.) Wonder Woman’s inspiring persona returns as well, as evidenced in her conversation with Cyborg. Batman and Wonder Woman work well together, and their dialogue is always fun to hear.

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The big three – Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman – all look great. It’s the other members that are a bit more mixed. The problem with a team movie like this is that there wasn’t other movies to develop the characters. The Avengers worked because audiences were already familiar with the members. Here, the story has to fully introduce Aquaman, Flash, and Cyborg. There’s just not enough time, especially in Aquaman’s case. I’m not faulting Jason Momoa’s portrayal, but the writing doesn’t give viewers many reasons to care about Aquaman. There’s a scene later in the film with Steppenwolf attacking Atlantis and Mera. Aquaman arrives, and Mera gives some expository backstory. The scene came off as forced exposition to make up for a lack of Aquaman development.

Cyborg however was a surprise hit. His story is very interesting, and the scenes with his father are engaging. Ray Fisher perfectly portrays the conflicted, yet sternly heroic character. It was a little hard to buy into Cyborg being part of the Justice League in the comics when The New 52 launched. In this film, it works. Flash is probably the most mixed of the characters. Justice League separates itself from Batman v Superman in that it has a lighter tone. Barry is a contributing factor to that tone, as he serves as the group’s comic relief. Sometimes it worked, and his scenes with his incarcerated father were genuinely emotional. But sometimes Barry is a bit much – a lot of his dialogue just doesn’t seem like what a real person would say. Barry isn’t a bad character, he’s still fun to have around most of the time.

Steppenwolf is the antagonist, and a notable one. There’s something grand to his character and dialogue. He’s not a multilayered character like the Joker from The Dark Knight, but he hardly comes off as one-note. He works as an engaging, otherworldly threat. His objective in aligning the three Mother Boxes was exciting to watch. The battle scenes against him were excellent. As I said, Zack Snyder has delivered the best action scenes in comic book films, and that continues here. The early battle with Steppenwolf plowing through the Amazons as Hippolyta attempts to race away with the Mother Box was amazingly done. The middle act battle with Steppenwolf taking on the League was also a lot of fun. And of course, the climax is exciting. Justice League does not disappoint in the action department.

There’s fun character moments throughout the film. Wonder Woman saying, “I’m old fashioned that way” to Cyborg for a face to face meeting is one example. Another example is Aquaman’s honesty to the team on the plane (the reason for that happening is too good to spoil). So, the film is fun. But it’s not a superbly written film like The Dark Knight or Logan. It’s also not as consistently good as this year’s Thor: Ragnarok. The first half is fun because of the characters and action, but there’s a lack of stellar writing. The story could have used an additional half hour to develop the members. The soundtrack is exciting, featuring the iconic Wonder Woman theme among other engaging tunes.

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Overall, Justice League is an enjoyable film. It doesn’t have the substance of Zack Snyder’s previous DC films, but it’s a fun story. That’s not to say the film is devoid of meaning – the viewer sees that Superman is the missing element, and the world feels it too. Superman is excellent, and his appearance makes the viewer greatly anticipate the upcoming Man of Steel sequel. Batman and Wonder Woman are engaging as well. Aquaman suffers from lackluster development, but Cyborg was very good. Barry is funny, but sometimes borders on being over the top. Two other characters that deserve mention are James Gordon and Alfred, both of which add to the story. (This is the definitive version of Alfred.) Also, Amy Adams delivers a genuinely emotional performance as Lois Lane. It seems there was behind the scenes changes with Justice League, which is a shame. I believe if Zack Snyder did his full vision for the movie, we could have gotten something amazing. As it stands, Justice League is far from mediocre and does the iconic comic book team justice.

8/10

Sonic Forces Review

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Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the biggest names in the video game industry. Back in the 90s when SEGA still made consoles, the Blue Blur was a rival to Super Mario. It’s unfortunate that quite a few of his later games were mediocre. Secret Rings, Unleashed, and more recently Boom, all helped to sour the name of Sonic when it came to quality platforming. This year looked to reverse the trend. Sonic Mania, a throwback to classic Sonic side-scrolling, released to positive reviews. Of course, the time was right for a new 3D installment as well. Sonic Forces released this past week and is the first “big” game in awhile. It brought back familiar faces and was to feature a grand storyline. Combine that with fast-paced 3D and 2D gameplay, and we have what should be a platformer resurgence for the franchise. Sadly, the concept of Forces is better than the actual product. It’s a fun game, but lacks in some key areas.

The story begins when Sonic is called in to stop Dr. Eggman once again. The hero races through Green Hill and arrives in the city. Unfortunately, Eggman seems to have recruited Chaos, Zavok, Metal Sonic and Shadow. There’s also a new villain called Infinite working alongside the doctor. Sonic is defeated, and fast forward 6 months, Dr. Eggman has taken over the world. The resistance, led by Knuckles, has to somehow win the day. Though with Sonic seemingly gone, this could get hard.

Let’s discuss the story, arguably one of the game’s primary selling points. The concept of Dr. Eggman finally winning and taking over sounds awesome. The opening scene is filled with tension as Sonic is struck by his old enemies, and also a new powerful villain that Tails says is even faster. After this, the screen goes black with the text, “With Sonic defeated, Eggman’s army quickly took over. Within months, all but a few isolated areas in the world were under their control.” …What? Instead of telling me that happened, show me. The game is incredibly short, only a little over three hours long. This is due in part to the story taking shortcuts. According to the dialogue, Sonic was captured and tortured for months. Once again, don’t tell me, show me. Later in the game, Infinite traps Sonic and the Avatar in “Null Space.” Some time should have been spent in there, but the two heroes escape a few seconds later!

As one can see, the story seems to rush itself for no reason. Back in the early 2000s, the Sonic games had excellent, well-paced stories. Adventure 2 still stands above the rest when it comes to quality storytelling with actual emotion. Forces often lacks that emotional punch (Sonic was tortured for months, but when we find him, he has no bruises and gives no indication that he endured hardship) and has rushed pacing. Also, Sonic’s old enemies returning ended up being a massive disappointment – almost false advertising even. The story is still fun, but it’s a shame to think about what could have been. Infinite gets quality dialogue and is an interesting character. His last scene was anti-climatic sadly; he should have come back and be the true final boss.

The gameplay is another primary reason why one would pick up this game. The main Sonic gameplay uses a refined engine from Sonic Unleashed. This is sometimes a good thing, and a bad thing. It’s fun to blast through levels, but I can’t say there’s quality level design at work here when it comes to the main Sonic’s gameplay. The problem isn’t really in the levels themselves: the problem is the length. Just about every level you can beat in under two minutes. So, it’s hard to enjoy a level because it’s over incredibly quick. Ironically, the boost mechanic ends up almost being a negative, because it speeds up already short levels. (You can almost blast through Mystic Jungle completely with boost.) Why were the levels so short? It’s baffling.

Classic Sonic returns for retro gameplay. Again, the levels are too short. It’s a shame, because there is some quality design here. Iron Fortress late in the game was genuinely challenging, and even featured a nice auto-scrolling section. Just when I’m really enjoying the platforming, the level ends. This could have been better if each level had a second act, but that isn’t the case. There is a third type of gameplay, and that’s the “Avatar’s.” For some reason, Sonic Team thought fans would want to create their own character. To be fair, the Avatar’s gameplay isn’t bad. Personally, I would have rather been playing as Sonic but the Avatar’s levels were solid. (They are also sadly short as well.) The ability to customize Avatar’s weapon is a nice feature.

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Sonic Adventure 2 still features the best platforming of all the 3D Sonic games, and that came out over 15 years ago. The gameplay was fast, but not too fast where you’re zooming through the entire stage. The stages were of great length and memorable. (We all still remember City Escape and Metal Harbor.) You won’t be remembering many, if any, stages in Forces because they’re over before they get really good. Also, the gameplay mechanics didn’t seem very tight at times. Classic Sonic and Avatar in his/her 2D sections seemed loose, thus making some simple jumps seem almost risky.

One consistently strong aspect of the game is the soundtrack. From the heroic ‘Fist Bump’ to the villainous theme of Infinite, the music is one of the best in the franchise. That’s another reason why it’s too bad the levels are short: the music ends along with them. I wanted to keep listening to the amazing ‘Guardian Rock’ and ‘Aqua Road’ songs. The boss battles are solid. The Death Crab battle is well done and intense. It was lazy, however, for the big Infinite battle to be a re-skin of the earlier fight with Metal Sonic.

Overall, Sonic Forces is a missed opportunity for something truly great. I had fun playing through it – the gameplay and music is a pleasure. Some of the levels have thematic quality (the Death Egg robots in the background of Ghost Town is one such example) and surprisingly the Avatar’s gameplay is interesting. Sadly, the levels are too short to enjoy. The game is probably the shortest Sonic 3D game, clocking in at a little over 3 hours, which is criminally short. Even the story is disappointing. There’s some great cutscenes, but too much untapped potential and often lack of emotion to be invested if you don’t care about the characters. One can mock Sonic 06’s romance, but the plot there was engaging and well paced. Forces comes off as a rushed gameplay experience.

6/10

Thor: Ragnarok Review

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On August of 1962, Journey Into Mystery #83 released on the newsstands. That issue is legendary because, according to the cover, it stars “the most exciting super-hero of all time!” That hero is the mighty Thor. From that issue, Thor would become one of Marvel’s biggest characters, appearing in his own ongoing series and as a founding member of the Avengers. Thor was well known to comic fans, but not very well known with the general public, as with other Marvel characters that weren’t Spider-Man or Hulk. That changed when the Marvel Cinematic Universe began, making Iron Man a household name and eventually Thor as well in 2011.

The God of Thunder now joins Iron Man and Captain America with a third film. The Thor films are fun, but not examples of quality storytelling. (I’m still wondering what the thought process was with Erik Selvig in The Dark World.) So it wouldn’t be hard for Ragnarok to pass its predecessors. It goes far beyond that however: Ragnarok is an immensely entertaining film. Director Taika Waititi delivers one of the best Marvel movies to date.

The film opens up with narration from the God of Thunder himself as he’s tied up. It turns out he let himself be captured so he can get to the fire demon known as Surtur. This opening sequence defines the MCU in a nutshell: good fun. That can be a negative thing when taken to the extreme. (That was the case in this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.) But Ragnarok rarely takes its lighthearted nature too far. The opening scene felt like something straight out of a comic book. It’s a treat to see Thor do battle with Surtur, the demon’s minions, and eventually a dragon. The story continues when Thor finds out Loki has been impersonating Odin. It turns out Odin is on Earth, and with a little help from Dr. Strange (the entire sequence with Strange was short, but very memorable) the brothers find their father. Sadly, Hela, the Goddess of Death, emerges soon after.

Hela’s arrival was exciting, and that’s mainly thanks to the atmosphere, costume design, and of course Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of the character. Hela’s much marketed scene of her breaking Mjolnir was a game changer and cemented her as a menace like no other. Loki calls for a bridge escape and Hela follows, causing things to go out of whack. Thor lands on a planet named Sakaar while Hela looks to take over Asgard.

Let’s talk about Thor’s time at Sakaar, which comprises the middle act of the film. The gladiator setting was unique and had quite a few memorable characters. Valkyrie’s plotline was one of the most engaging. It’s an interesting development when Thor realizes she’s Asgardian, and later when Loki forces her to remember her past of Hela killing her comrades. Jeff Goldblum’s portrayal of the Grandmaster has charismatic flare, such as in the scene when he vaporized his own cousin. (As gross as it was, Thor’s reaction was a little hard to believe however.) Finally, Korg was fun, and he thankfully got to appear in the climax.

Chris Hemsworth’s Thor has come a long way since 2011. In this film he talks about being a hero quite often. I wasn’t sold on Hemsworth in previous films, but here he’s excellent. What’s interesting is that a major part of his development is how he fights without his hammer in the climax. It’s always an interesting concept when a character’s primary weapon is destroyed/taken away. Next, as seen heavily in the marketing, the Hulk is featured as a major character. Mark Ruffalo took on the role starting in The Avengers, where he was excellent. Since then, Marvel has pushed a character arc on Bruce Banner/the Hulk, starting in Avengers: Age of Ultron, which hasn’t worked.

Bruce Banner was a man sure of himself and in control of the Hulk in The Avengers. Then for some unexplained reason in the sequel, that development went away and Hulk was back to being uncontrollable. In Ragnarok, Banner isn’t in control when Hulk appears. Hulk’s mind is small compared to Banner’s, and as a result, Hulk comes off as childlike. This leads to some funny scenes, but Hulk isn’t too engaging as a character. (It would have been more interesting to see a Hulk more like from the show Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.) This is not to say the Hulk wasn’t fun to have around. The gladiator battle sequence against Thor was one of the film’s highlights. Bruce Banner also appears, and has a few humorous scenes. But like in Age of Ultron, he isn’t as engaging as his appearance in the first Avengers.

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The Marvel films are typically good, but the antagonists can sometimes be mediocre. Examples include Darren Cross from Ant-Man, Malekith from The Dark World, among others. Hela is one of the Marvel villains that can thankfully be called “great.” As already stated earlier, her emergence is genuinely menacing. Cate Blanchett brings grandeur to her portrayal as she tells Thor and Loki to kneel before their queen. Hela continues to be a highlight, as she arrives in Asgard and begins to take over. Her backstory is fascinating. In fact, it’s so fascinating, that it was a missed opportunity to not show some of it in flashback. This could have been useful in the late middle act. There’s this long stretch with Thor on Sakaar with no scenes of Hela that could have benefited with a flashback showing her time with Odin.

As for other characters, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is once again a lot of fun. One never 100% knows which side he’s on. He and Thor work really well together, such as when they team up late in the middle act. Odin doesn’t appear too much, but when he does, one can expect a scene of authority. Viewers learn intriguing backstory about Odin’s past with Hela, giving more dimension to his character. (It’s truly a shame there wasn’t a big flashback sequence.) Skurge goes through a character arc as he becomes the reluctant Executioner for Hela. It’s easy to see what the film was going for, but Scurge never came off as sympathetic or engaging.

One of the best aspects of this film is its pacing. The film never hits a boring moment, which is thanks to the excellent action and fun characters. From the opening sequence to the showdown with Hela, the film has quite a few exciting action pieces. I’ve already mentioned Hulk versus Thor in the ring, but it deserves a second shout out for being a particularly fun sequence. The soundtrack is Marvel’s strongest since the first Guardians of the Galaxy. Ragnarok’s music is stylistic and makes excellent use of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song.’

Overall, Thor: Ragnarok is one of the most entertaining Marvel movies to date. It never slows down and the storyline is engaging. This is thanks in large part to Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Hela. The Goddess of Death commands the scene every time she’s on screen. Thor is also great. His mission is to get back to Asgard, but he’s stranded on an unknown planet. This makes for an interesting middle act. Hulk is a fun inclusion that never steals the show away from the title character. As a whole, most of the characters bring something to the table. Ragnarok is an exciting film.

9/10