The tenth overall installment in J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World movie franchise beginning with the first Harry Potter released in 2001 and the sequel to 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is a surprisingly complicated mess of a movie that tries to recapture the magic of the hugely successful Harry Potter universe, and the only real merits are to appeal to Harry Potter fans and the use of fantastical CGI. Set a few years after the original Fantastic Beasts and many decades before the appearance of Harry Potter, the plot follows the exploits of the lowly wizard Newt Scamander, played by Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne, who must track down and disrupt the malevolent desires of the recently imprisoned dark wizard Grindelwald, played by the always creepy-looking Oscar nominee Johnny Depp. Suspicious of his connections to Grindelwald, the British Ministry of Magic also tries to find the villain of the first movie Credence, played by Ezra Miller, who they believe may be working with and for Grindelwald. Newt is surprised to run into his non-magic Muggle friend Jacob, played by Dan Fogler, and Jacob’s magical girlfriend Queenie, played by Alison Sudol, who join the investigation into Grindelwald and the manipulated Credence. In a nostalgic nod to Harry Potter fans, Newt eventually meets up with a young Dumbledore, played by Oscar nominee Jude Law, at Hogwarts School made famous in Harry Potter because it is believed that only the powerful Dumbledore can defeat the equally powerful Grindelwald. As they continue to pursue Grindelwald, Newt along with Jacob and Queenie as well as his love interest Tina, played by Katherine Waterston, find themselves in Paris and trying to find information at the French Ministry of Magic. From there, the characters are taken to the climax of the movie where Grindelwald has gathered all pureblood wizards to join his plot to take over the Muggle world. He uses his dark magic skills to practically force wizards to take up his cause, and Newt along with his allies engage in a battle with Grindelwald in a fantastical CGI sequence. Overall, I found it to have an overly complex storyline that was often hard to follow for the average moviegoer not well versed in the Wizarding World, and strangely there were not many scenes with the titular character Grindelwald or much about his so-called crimes. Unfortunately, I felt that the franchise is reaching a point where it is overextending itself in order to simply make money at the box office and appease the rabid fans of anything related to Harry Potter.
Directed by critically acclaimed filmmaker Ron Howard who won the Academy Award for 2002’s A Beautiful Mind, Solo: A Star Wars Story is an entertaining movie in the Star Wars saga with plenty of adventure and CGI-enhanced action sequences but underwhelms compared to the original and most recent installments. As the second standalone anthology film in the series, the movie is more of a origin story that follows the early exploits of Han Solo, played by the up-and-coming charismatic Alden Ehrenreich, and how he evolved into the famous character portrayed by Harrison Ford in the original trilogy. We first meet Han trying to escape a criminal organization with his girlfriend Qi’ra, played by Emilia Clarke of Game of Thrones fame, and travel to another planet where he can pursue his dream of becoming a pilot. For a time, he is a soldier for the Empire, but he eventually becomes a deserter to join forces with a group of criminals led by Tobias Beckett, played by Oscar nominee Woody Harrelson. He also meets his future famous copilot Chewbacca, and they enter in their friendly rapport with humorous back-and-forth as depicted in the first movies. The rest of the movie follows the formula of a heist film in which Han and his new outlaw friends must steal the valuable so-called hyperfuel coaxium for yet another criminal syndicate known as the Crimson Dawn led by Dryden Vos, played by Paul Bettany. Things get increasingly complicated for Han, and he must team up with the notorious smuggler Lando Calrissian, played by Emmy winner Donald Glover, who provides him the means of piloting the well-known Millennium Falcon spaceship. Towards the end of the film, there are a few plot twists and not all of the characters are as they appeared in the beginning. The story appeases Star Wars fans with the appearance of characters and new details that refer to the nine other installments and may not have as much significance for general audiences. Overall, I found it to be a satisfying cinematic experience that had enough excitement to make up for the shortcomings of being sometimes too formulaic and not adding much depth to the already complex Star Wars franchise.
The nineteenth installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that started with 2008’s Iron Man and the third film in The Avengers franchise since 2012, Avengers: Infinity War is an entertaining comic book superhero movie whose title is particularly apt as a result of the seemingly infinite number of Marvel characters all appearing in their greatest war yet. The plot revolves around the appearance of the most threatening villain Thanos, played by Josh Brolin, and his quest to capture all six Infinity Stones, mystical stones imbued with great magical powers, in order to control the universe and remake his own planet. Practically all of the superheroes who have had their own Marvel film seek to prevent the god-like Thanos from destroying half of humanity in his ploy to solve overpopulation. The ensemble cast is jam-packed and features Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Mark Ruffalo as Hulk, Chris Evans as Captain America, Tom Holland as Spider-Man, Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther, Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, and Chris Pratt as Star-Lord. Although the plethora of superheroes and storylines is at times over-the-top and complicated to a casual viewer, the filmmakers are able to present a somewhat surprising cohesive story by having several of the characters grouped together and involved in separate parts of the film. When the superheroes do all come together, the audience is in for spectacular CGI-enhanced action sequences that can be best described as comic book porn. The movie also has aspects of a drama in which the powerful protagonists display raw human emotions, including grief over fallen comrades. However, there are several moments of trademark tongue-in-cheek humor for a comic book movie, especially when it comes to the characters from the more comedic Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. Overall, I was impressed by the sheer amount of superheroes assembled for a motion picture and found it to be a largely enjoyable experience despite probably jamming a little too much into one bloated comic book lovefest.
Directed by Alex Garland who is best known for the 2015 Oscar-nominated film Ex Machina, Annihilation is a visually dazzling and thought-provoking sci-fi movie notable for its rather strange and frightening story and a terrific performance from Oscar-winner Natalie Portman. Based on the acclaimed 2014 novel of the same name written by Jeff VanderMeer, the plot revolves around Portman’s character Lena who is a biologist and former American soldier that unexpectedly becomes involved in a highly classified mission to study and prevent the spread of a scientifically unexplained phenomenon known as The Shimmer located along the American coast in a rapidly expanding region known as Area X. After her husband Kane, played by Golden Globe nominee Oscar Isaac, mysteriously returns a year after going missing on an expedition into Area X, Lena is recruited to go on another mission to study The Shimmer and determine whether it is earthly or extraterrestrial. It is a particularly dangerous operation because no one besides her husband has ever returned after that many failed attempts. Led by the stone-faced psychologist named Dr. Ventress, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, the all-female group of scientists is comprised of a paramedic named Anya, played by Gina Rodriguez, a physicist named Josie, played by Tessa Thompson, and a surveyor and geologist named Cass, played by Tuva Novotny. Immediately after venturing into Area X, Lena and the rest of the team notice that things are very abnormal, including the plants and animals exhibiting perplexing biological mutations. The filmmaker mystifies the audience through the realistic and often beautiful depictions of these strange creatures; towards the end, reality and the laws of nature become further blurred as emphasized by the ever increasing mind-blowing imagery witnessed by the characters. Not just purely science fiction, the film contains several suspenseful and often terrifying moments that could come from a horror flick, especially the scenes involving mutated animals and the psychoses experienced by the team members. Overall, I found it to be a riveting and creative work of science fiction that surprisingly delves deep into philosophical issues of humanity and our relationship to the environment, while also catering to fans of sci-fi and horror with its mesmerizing visual effects and creation of horrifying creatures.
A follow-up to the popular 1995 film Jumanji starring Robin Williams, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a fun and surprisingly clever adventure movie that successfully recreates the creativity of the original. The story begins when the Jumanji board game is discovered in the 1990s and a young man is sucked into the magical world of Jumanji. Then, the plot fast forwards to today when a group of high schoolers find themselves in detention and discover the game Jumanji that has been transformed into an old video game. Unaware of its powers, each teenager chooses a character to play in the game and are sucked into the jungles of Jumanji. The nerd in the group Spencer becomes the strong archaeologist and explorer Dr. Smolder Bravestone, played by Dwayne Johnson, the popular jock “Fridge” becomes the scrawny and squeamish zoologist and weapons valet Franklin “Mouse” Finbar, played by the hyperactive comedian Kevin Hart, the pretty popular girl Bethany becomes the obese middle-aged archaeologist and cartographer Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon, hilariously played by Jack Black, and the shy unpopular girl Martha becomes the attractive commando and martial artist Ruby Roundhouse, played by Karen Gillan. With all their practical skills and only three lives before they actually die, they must work together to navigate several challenges to finish the game and return home. They have to fight off the villain Van Pelt, played by the devious Bobby Cannavale, who wants to take control of Jumanji by possessing the mystical jewel “Jaguar’s Eye.” Defeating him and his army of mercenaries is the only way they can escape Jumanji. Eventually, they receive help from a pilot and adventurer named Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonough, played by Nick Jonas. There are several unexpected moments of hilarity that makes for a truly entertaining movie, especially the scenes with Jack Black’s character who talks like a flirtatious teenage girl and freaks out at the littlest things. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised to find the movie to be a light-hearted and fun-filled comedic adventure that goes beyond simply rehashing the original movie without much imagination.
Directed by Rian Johnson who is best known for 2005’s Brick and 2012’s Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a terrific follow-up in the Star Wars saga film series that effectively recreates the magic and creativity of the original trilogy in addition to creating an entertaining epic story with emotional heart. It takes place immediately after the 2015 installment Star Wars: The Force Awakens with the appearance of Luke Skywalker, played by Mark Hamill, who lives a solitary life on a remote island when he is visited by the Resistance fighter Rey, played by Daisy Ridley. She urges him as the Last Jedi to help the losing cause of the Resistance against the First Order led by the Supreme Leader Snoke, played by Andy Serkis, and the powerful Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver. As Rey struggles with the reclusive Luke, the relatively few remaining ships of the Resistance led by General Leia Organa, played by Carrie Fisher, with the help of the stubborn X-wing fighter pilot Poe, played by Oscar Isaac, are under siege by the First Order and General Hux, played by Domhnall Gleeson. In what could be the last hope for survival, the former Stormtrooper and now Resistance fighter Finn, played by John Boyega, joins forces with the unlikely hero and mechanic Rose Tico, played by newcomer Kelly Marie Tran, on a secret mission to prevent the destruction of the Resistance’s fleet. Besides the spectacular CGI action sequences characteristic of a Star Wars movie, the filmmaker also employs intimate interactions, particularly the philosophical relationship between Luke and Rey, to engender a powerfully emotional story. As such, it is also able to provide a touching and fitting farewell to Carrie Fisher who tragically passed away before the film’s release. In an ode to nostalgia and the legion of Star Wars fans, the movie additionally works beloved characters into the story, including Chewbacca, C-3PO, and R2-D2, while developing such new and adorable creatures as porgs and crystal foxes. Overall, I found it to live up to the original trilogy first released 40 years ago and exceeds the expectations set forth by the well-crafted first reboot of the series in 2015. With thrilling action and rich storytelling, the latest Star Wars movie will definitely please die-hard fans and casual moviegoers alike.
Directed by critically acclaimed Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro who is best known for 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth and 2004’s Hellboy, The Shape of Water is a beautiful and strange fantasy drama benefiting from evocative cinematography and terrific acting performances from a stellar cast. Set in early 1960s Baltimore, the story follows Elisa Esposito, played by the always brilliant Golden Globe winner Sally Hawkins, who is a lonely and compassionate mute woman working as a janitor for the mysterious Occam Aerospace Research Center. Her life dramatically changes when a new so-called Asset arrives at the laboratory after being discovered by the vicious Colonel Richard Strickland, played by the remarkably creepy Oscar-nominated actor Michael Shannon. Primarily living a quiet life alone with the exception of her charming coworker Zelda, played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, and eccentric neighbor Giles, played by Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins, Elisa develops a very close and warm relationship with the Asset, a sea creature that somewhat resembles a human. Strickland along with his overly officious boss General Hoyt, played by Nick Searcy, only see the Asset as a scientific experiment who can possibly help with space technology and allow the United States military to have a competitive advantage over the Soviet Union. Fully aware that the military leadership has plans to exterminate the Asset so that it cannot fall into the hands of the Soviets, Elisa devises a plan to free the Asset from the laboratory with the help of Zelda, Giles, and the secretive scientist Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, played by Michael Stuhlbarg best known for his role on the HBO TV series Boardwalk Empire. Although it is a very peculiar story and features a somewhat grotesque fantastical creature, the movie becomes something much more than simple fantasy; the dark and mysterious setting created by the mesmerizing cinematograph blends with the powerfully poignant emotions of the characters to create a very special movie. Overall, I found it to be one of the best films of the year despite probably being one of the weirdest movies that the audience will see; even though the subject matter may not be for everyone, it is definitely a very worthwhile cinematic experience.