Uncharted

Street-smart Nathan Drake, is recruited by seasoned treasure hunter, Victor “Sully” Sullivan, to recover a fortune amassed by Ferdinand Magellan, and lost 500 years ago by the House of Moncada.

Video-game movies are always a concerning subject, and with Uncharted being one of my personal favorite video games (not being a huge gamer myself), this film does translate the set pieces and globe-trotting style to the big screen, but much of the wonder is lost in translation. Tom Holland plays a younger version of Drake than seen in the games, and its his charisma and energy that elevate his take on the character, and even when his dialogue feels lacking, it’s Holland’s spirit and star power that do the heavy lifting. Mark Wahlberg shares some good chemistry with Holland, but on its own, his performance as Sully falls short. His character’s writing can’t quite decide what it wants to be, and it feels like a case of less-than-stellar casting with Wahlberg’s delivery. Sophia Ali also does a good job as Chloe, but again, it’s the script that can’t take her character in a satisfying direction. Even famous Oscar nominee Antonio Banderas has an all-in-all boring presence — as if that was even possible for him. The writing also fails to make the origin between Drake and Sully’s meeting feel unique, and ultimately the entire film suffers from being cliché. The editing feels watered down and studio-like, despite some exciting action which feels visually imaginative, but the actual CGI work looks digital and unbelievable. The exposition to explain the adventure can’t quite pull you in and the twists are easy to see from a mile away. Like I said, the scenes they’ve come up with are interesting, whether it’s journeying through ancient underground rooms looking for clues or hanging off planes while fighting bad guys, but the way it’s shot and edited makes any sense of originality or wonder and discovery feel lost. In the hands of a better director and more creative freedom and realistic-looking green screen, this could have been something special. While the action scenes are certainly watchable and bombastic, the delivery feels too fluffy and disposable, without any sort of new creative touch, and fails to differentiate itself from films from the worlds of Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider.

Death on the Nile

During the honeymoon cruise of the Doyles and their wedding party on the Nile, a murder occurs and a detective onboard, the iconic Hercule Poirot — played once again by Kenneth Branagh, who also directs –must dig through the motives of the passengers to find the killer and bring them to justice.

Death on the Nile embraces the thrilling aspects of the Whodunnit murder mystery genre, with a case that keeps you guessing. Kenneth Branagh leans more into the vain, larger-than-life portrayal of Poirot. However, the performances of some of the cast, especially Branagh and Gal Gadot, can get over-the-top and distractingly humorous, possibly unintentionally. They also try too often to give Poirot a tragic backstory, which can be appreciated but it’s far inferior to the story involving the other characters. However, Letitia Wright and Emma Mackey are standouts whose acting turns are actually able to shine. The buildup to the titular murder mystery is too long, as the title and marketing clearly tells you what kind of movie this is but takes too long to actually become that film. Once it does, however, I was actually engaged and following along as new details, motives, and alibis were presented. Though the costume design is stellar, the visuals have lots of moments of obvious green screen and CGI and the movie could’ve benefitted from a more practical look. Though it isn’t a must-watch, Death on the Nile is an improvement over its predecessor but doesn’t manage to necessarily be shocking or rewatchable — it doesn’t also help that Rian Johnson’s 2019 caper Knives Out set the bar so high for murder mysteries and that it has a sequel coming out later this year, or that Branagh just released the best film of his career, Belfast, only a few months ago. If you know what you’re in for, the ride is fun, but keep your expectations light and reasonable for an interesting and edge-of-your-seat second and third acts.

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Licorice Pizza

The story of Alana Kane and Gary Valentine growing up, running around and going through the treacherous navigation of first love in the San Fernando Valley in 1973.

Licorice Pizza is no less than a Paul Thomas Anderson movie — stylized, larger-than-life, and a beautiful anomaly. Like Boogie Nights and Magnolia, things happen to the characters that often go unexplained but its the way the characters react that defines the story. PTA makes movies that are defined by characters who feel larger-than-life but have a human core, though one may not always understand them on the surface. Alana Haim steals the show in her very first movie role, portraying a young woman trying to find herself only to find that she may not be alone in that. To make things even cooler, her family plays themselves in the film! Cooper Hoffman is also great as an incredibly confident teen actor who looks forward to achieving his destiny someday. The crazy situations that happen may not always add up to much sense but they offer revealing moments about the film’s spirit and character. With that comes a layer of irreverence and craziness with how bold and out there this film gets — like a famous actor trying to his favorite scenes from his movies, or another Hollywood star having a big meltdown — but it’s all PTA’s complex way of conveying his themes and the messy beauty of the human condition. The free-spirited nature is amplified by the vivid direction, including great production value and soundtrack to immerse you into the Valley in the 70s. Like many of PTA’s other films, the movie doesn’t quite fit the mold of one genre — it’s part coming-of-age story, part outrageous comedy, part political drama, part Hollywood-based epic. The movie does slow down in the second half but ends on a strong beat. The movie is a picture of youth, the parts we play to fit into the world, and the bonds that not everyone may understand. It’s a great watch, but it’s best to be familiar with the director’s style and filmography to know what you’re in for.

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The King’s Man

In the prequel to the Kingsman film series, Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) forms the Kingsman agency during World War I to stop a huge conspiracy to wipe out millions.

In this large, historically-based prequel, Matthew Vaughn’s unique eye for action and wit remain sharp but he ditches the parodical energy of the last two films for a tonal mess of a WWI action film that takes itself too seriously. Obviously, war is not a joke but the movie already makes fun of the figures behind WWI with its caricatures of Rasputin, Kaiser Wilhelm, King George and Tsar Nicholas (the latter three all being played by the same actor, to make things sillier). So with this Inglorious Basterds-like irreverence the movie plays around with, why not make the entire movie a comedy like the last two movies? The script tries way too hard to teach a somber lesson about violence, but the problem is the movie thrives on the over-the-top carnage seen on screen. The movie is a tonal mess, with the film trying to be both a cartoonish spy comedy and attempting to deconstruct war and lessons around what violence is, as well as having serious, intense scenes on the Western Front that feel like something out of a completely different movie. To make matters worse, the characters all feel flat and the supporting roles, like those of Gemma Arteron and Djimon Honsou, have no agency of their own. Ralph Fiennes is the only actor who gets a fully realized character and he can obviously do no wrong as a performer.

The action and music shine here — as soon as the action begins, the energy kicks in, with thrilling choreography, score (the Kingsman theme that recurs throughout the franchise can never get old), and set pieces. The action and humor play off each other well in these sequences, and Vaughn is an expert at crafting action scenes that grab your attention but are still unapologetically witty and crazy. If I were ever to watch this movie again, though, I would skip all the boring drama and go straight to the awesome action scenes. Instead of embracing the wild and sharp fun the action brings the film, it’s brought done by serious attempts to be a WWI drama, Unfortunately, in the more serious scenes, it feels detached from its audience, and creates a tonally confused movie that can’t decide what it wants to be. The original Kingsman film spoofed James Bond-like spy films while being a terrific example of one. This one missed an opportunity to lean completely into satirizing the politics of war while having an actually fun and wondrous action adventure, but it lacks the unapologetic confidence, energy, adventurousness and irreverence of the last two.

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The Matrix Resurrections

In a rebooted Matrix — literally — a resurrected Neo, now oblivious to the truth, must once again choose to take the red pill and free his mind, in order join the rebellion against the systems holding the humans prisoner inside of the Matrix.

The Matrix Resurrections picks up decades after the end of the third film, which was supposed to definitively conclude the series. This new sequel manages to suck you back into this marvelous sci-fi world with great visuals and world-building, but fails to justify its existence beyond being a cash-grab that relies way too much on reminding you that the first movie exists. The movie tries to be meta and self-aware about sequels and corporate greed but this commentary becomes laughable in ways that I wasn’t sure it was trying to be, and it ends up becoming the exact thing it attempted to mock and satirize. The irreverence and over-the-top nature this movie was going for that tried to mimic the original film just doesn’t work when at the same time taken this seriously. It’s nice to see Keanu Reeves back in action as Neo, but his performance somehow doesn’t manage to reach the heights of his turn in a more recently launched franchise, John Wick. Carrie-Anne Moss also returns as Trinity, and so does Jada Pinkett-Smith as Niobe from the previous sequels, but Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is here replacing Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, playing an alternate version of the character inside the Matrix. Wouldn’t have been much more rewarding to see Fishburne return as one of the most iconic movie members and have the talented Abdul-Mateen play a new key character? The only real standout performance-wise is Jessica Henwick, whose part feels like a mix between Morpheus and Trinity’s roles in the original but Henwick gives a lot of personality here, which is saying a lot for this movie. Some of the supporting performances, like Jonathan Groff and Neil Patrick Harris, felt weak as they seemed to be over-acting the whole movie.

Though the music, world-building, and concepts are great, as well as the ideas around AI, choice, and free will, it’s hard to give this movie credit for all that because it’s all derived from the original. This film also makes way too many on-the-nose references to the original, including showing scenes again and having visual nods to the point that the first act is almost the same as that from the 1999 film. As a huge fan of that first movie, it’s cool to see the visuals of that outside robot-infested world done today, speaking of which the CGI in the real world is amazing, but the nostalgia for Matrix fans is all the movie has going for it. What made the original work is the incredible action scenes as well as the simplicity of the story and ideas, and this one ditches all that. The fights within the Matrix have headache-inducing editing, and the cuts make it hard to follow. Also considering the conceptually similar Free Guy, which was partly inspired by the original, came out mere months ago, as well as us getting a CGI-filled blockbuster every couple of weeks, it’s hard for this movie to feel that special, besides Lana Wachowski’s evident ambition. There’s also so much exposition needed to explain the gap between The Matrix Revolutions and now, as well as the rules of the world and action of this movie. These explanations are so excessive, confusing and convoluted that it took my friends and I the ride home to truly grasp all the rules. It felt like the final act ditches any sort of logic to simply go for cool visuals and a safe story structure. If you’re a big fan of 1999’s The Matrix like me, and want to see those visuals and that world how it’d be made today, then that’s the only reason to go see this movie. Otherwise, this feels like a rehash of that magnificent first movie that only seeks to bank on our nostalgia and give us more from what we liked 20 years ago.

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Spider-Man: No Way Home

Spider-Man: No Way Home leaves off right after the previous movie, Far From Home, in which Mysterio exposed Spider-Man’s identity as Peter Parker to the world, which has repercussions on Peter’s life as well as his loved ones. He goes to Doctor Strange in an attempt to reverse it, but when a spell goes wrong, villains from other universes — and previous Spider-Man films — emerge and wreak havoc across the multiverse.

After the post-credits scene of the last movie, No Way Home by concept already had immense potential. Marvel Studios decided, however, to up the scale for the Spider-Man series and make it the most exciting film led by the web-slinger yet, by bringing in fantastical aspects and past franchises of the character. Jon Watts takes the style and tone of Homecoming and Far From Home and keeps the heart and lovability of the films but also makes this the darkest and most intense Spider-Man movie yet, with genuinely heart-pounding stakes and characters the audience is invested in. The threats span across multiple realities yet some of the internal conflicts have relatable roots, such as applying to college. Tom Holland’s character’s arc takes mature directions but he’s supported by a great ensemble too. Zendaya and especially Jacob Batalon are hilarious as Peter’s girlfriend and best friend, respectively. The three play off each other wonderfully and are a terrific anchor for the trilogy. Benedict Cumberbatch is great as the no-nonsense Doctor Strange and Marisa Tomei has her most substantial role yet as Aunt May. Actors also return from previous Spidey franchises, including Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina from the Raimi films starring Tobey Maguire, and Jamie Foxx as Electro from the Amazing Spider-Man films with Andrew Garfield. Dafoe is especially a scene stealer as Green Goblin, reprising the role after nearly 20 years, and the return of Doctor Octopus makes for a great action scene as well. The story, action, and execution up themselves and there are plenty of exciting moments that necessitate a theatrical viewing with an audience. There’s also plenty of surprises, so make sure to be careful with spoilers before seeing this one. There are a few iffy moments in terms of CGI and green screen but they’re redeemed by cool character designs and suits, as well as great fantastical visuals including the Mirror Dimension from Doctor Strange. The movie emotionally builds on its predecessors in a rewarding way while promising great potential for the multiverse in future MCU projects. It’s the most rewarding MCU project of 2021 and arguably the best live-action Spider-Man film to date. It could’ve easily felt like a retread of the conceptually similar animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, but it’s the characters that Marvel has worked so hard to build that makes a movie like this work so well that it feels like the event of the year. This will be a delightful time for superhero and Spidey fans, even if it’s not always thematically a home run, by the end there are positive messages and emotional weight that feel earned through the execution and cast. As always, stay for two post-credits scenes that will have you on the edge of your seat.

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West Side Story (2021)

In Steven Spielberg’s update to a classic, Tony and Maria fall in love despite being associated with rival gangs in New York, the Sharks and the Jets. It seemed like a daunting task to remake West Side Story, considering the status of the 1961 film as one of the greatest musicals — and films – of all time. However, Spielberg invigorates the movie with wonder and talent that makes this one of the rare remakes that rivals the quality of the original. The films are very similar yet this welcome reimagining hits all the right notes and assembles an amazing team in front of and behind the camera, filling the movie with passion and excitement. Ansel Elgort is great as Tony, and his standout moment is when he sings “Maria” — who is played beautifully by Rachel Zegler. Her film debut proves she’s a superstar and she embodies Maria perfectly, perhaps an even better singer and fit for the role than Natalie Wood in the original. Ariana DeBose is also lovely as Anita, and in a wonderful tribute, Rita Morena plays Valentina, a role with so much emotion and Moreno does substantial acting and singing even at 90! Mike Faist is also a great Riff here and has great screen time alongside Elgort. It seems like the key to making this movie work is Spielberg’s direction. You can tell someone who loves this story and material is taking charge here. The way he shoots on film, focuses on certain details and props for symbolism and foreshadowing, and the effort put into the costumes and production design are all simply dazzling. Leonard Bernstein’s booming legendary score gives the movie an old feel but the homage never brings the film down. Even as someone who has seen and loved the 1961 film, the story still made me emotional and watching scenes play out had me in awe. The numbers from “America” and “I Feel Pretty” to the powerful “Tonight” and the irreverent and fun “Gee Officer Krupke” are not just delightful to rediscover — but the production and singing are awe-inspiring and recapture what makes West Side Story resonate. The movie also casts Latinos as the Sharks and other Puerto Rican characters — believe it or not, Rita Moreno was the only Latina in a prominent role in the original film. The movie also highlights gentrification, racial tensions, the American dream, poverty, and other themes in a way that isn’t necessarily subtle or new — some themes are also even reflected in this year’s In the Heights — but still reflects what we see and must address now. The 156-minute runtime flies by and it didn’t feel nearly as long as it really is. For those of you who love the original, go rediscover a story with your loved ones with one of the greatest remakes I’ve ever seen and one of Spielberg’s best of his later career — and for those of you discovering West Side Story for the first time, be in for the greatest cinematic treat of 2021 so far.

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Encanto

Maribel Madrigal, a member of the magical Madrigal family in Colombia, is the only Madrigal without powers, but soon discovers she’s the family’s only hope of saving their magic.

Encanto once again shows off the unlimited abilities of Disney’s animation team, already having a great year with Raya and the Last Dragon and Luca, as well as Lin-Manuel Miranda who has been everywhere this year, including In the Heights and Tick, Tick… Boom! One of the stars from the former, Stephanie Beatriz, delivers the (voice) performance of a lifetime as Mirabel, a role that feels written for her and she fits it beautifully. Her singing range is also wonderful and Mirabel is incredibly heartfelt as a protagonist. There’s one song in particular called “Waiting on a Miracle” in which her vocals, character arc and the emotion of the entire film especially hit hard. But the catchiness doesn’t stop there — although “The Family Madrigal” and “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” won’t reach the heights of other recent hits like “You’re Welcome” (Moana) or “Remember Me” (Coco), they’re still fun and the musical themes bring so much to the film. With that though, there are a few songs that aren’t as memorable. The animation is Disney’s most colorful yet, and it’s surreal to see them outdo themselves more than once this year but the shots of the Colombian scenery as well as the magic created in their home, an “Encanto”, is so beautiful it’ll invoke emotion just journeying through it. The story revolves around Maribel trying to fit in and find herself when the family’s dynamic is built on each one’s abilities and how they can contribute physically — but each of them is more than that under the surface. With this we also get a number of interesting examinations of Maribel’s connections with her parents, sisters, and Abuela. There are occasions, however, where the pace drags and you wonder where the story is going, but once you get there, it gets fun once again. The movie also continues Disney’s recent trend of ditching traditional villains for complex characters whose decisions conflict but are more complicated than that. While I wouldn’t put this in the same discussion as Coco, Moana or Zootopia, it’s a heartwarming and vibrant family film with strong cultural representation and themes and a lovely protagonist and animation style.

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Eternals

7,000 years ago, the Eternals, a group of immortal beings created by Celestial space giants, arrived on Earth to protect us from the Deviants. In the present day, the Eternals reemerge after living among us humans to fight against the Deviants, who have returned, and stop the end of the world.

Eternals has all the right elements there, including a 2-time Oscar winning director in Chloe Zhao, an acclaimed, diverse ensemble cast that includes Oscar nominees and winners like Kumail Nanjiani, Salma Hayek and Angelina Jolie, a compelling concept and premise, and tonal elements of a more intimate yet grand and mystical MCU film. Though all the parts are there, something feels missing that could have made this one of the best films in the franchise but instead falls short. The movie is very bold and feels the least like the rest of the series, mostly because of the slower, more character and emotion-focused story rather than fast-paced fun that dives straight into the conflict. There is big action and humor, but the movie never spends enough time with either tone at once to give us an earned emotional moment or a “classic MCU moment”. Unfortunately the movie doesn’t have neither the humanity nor the fun it wanted to evoke. Though it did keep me engaged throughout its runtime, I never really felt much of a reaction from watching what should’ve been exciting action go down, though the action set pieces do feel like a mess. There’s often too much going on at once during the fights and the finale especially has messy CGI and questionable character placements.

The cast is great, especially Gemma Chan, Kumail Nanjiani and Brian Tyree Henry. Chan plays an empathetic and strong protagonist and Nanjiani gives the movie its funniest and most entertaining moments, including a Bollywood dance being filmed for a movie his character Kingo directs and stars in. Henry gives the movie lots of charisma as well and an interesting edge due to his character having the most to lose on Earth, having settled down with a husband and son. Richard Madden, Barry Keoghan and Lia McHugh also come to mind with interesting performances of their own, and Lauren Ridloff also gives the movie a lot of heart, even though there’s an extended period of time where she’s not in the movie, which does happen with a few of the film’s best players. The problem is that with there being 10 main Eternals, the movie keeps trying to push them all to center stage and have all of them be the emotional core, which makes the character development very messy, and some of the best characters’ arcs have disappointing or unrewarding resolutions. Avengers: Infinity War managed to balance having over 20 main Avengers by having some beloved characters have more of a supporting presence while a few take the lead in terms of emotional importance, unfortunately the writers here try to shove everyone front and center which hurts the dynamic between the characters and the audience. Hayek’s performance feels especially weird and unnatural at times, and Jolie’s character keeps trying to feel important but the script has no idea what to do with her for the entire second half. Kit Harington needed to be a much bigger part of the film but unfortunately is sidelined in the movie, as he gives the film a lot of charm and humanity.

The movie runs at 2 hours and 37 minutes (even longer than Infinity War!) and though there’s a lot of grand world building including ties to ancient history which makes for interesting sets, the movie definitely slows down with the messy explaining and reexplaining of exposition and dragged out drama between acts 2 and 3 that could’ve been shortened by at least 10 or 15 minutes. If you’ve seen Zhao’s previous film Nomadland, which won Best Picture at the most recent Oscars, you know her style is very intimate and naturalistic, and the movie doesn’t spend enough time with the intimacy and beauty of the scenery to give you much to care about and feel with its characters, as too much is thrown in to really stop and care, despite some great moments between Chan and Madden. On the other hand, though there’s some good humor and lots of big action, the movie never gives you enough epic-ness or fun to feel the stakes and unfortunately, the action and endearing characters going hand-in-hand is always what make these Marvel films resonate. It doesn’t commit to being small-scale or exciting, and this as well as the unrealized pace holds itself back from really gripping you the way Shang-Chi hit the mark earlier this year. It’s a good watch once for MCU fans or those who are interested in the premise and cast, but won’t leave you with that same elation and wonder, and urge to rewatch and treasure the film later, if only the film had been shorter and more focused.

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Dune

Paul Atreides, heir to the powerful House Atreides, is to inherit the sand planet of Arrakis, but soon a galactic war begins between Houses and Imperial forces, leading Paul to have to discover his legacy and what kind of leader he wants to be.

One of the most ambitious cinematic projects of the year, Dune merges the styles of mainstream blockbuster and artistic epic, with majestic direction from one of the best filmmakers of our time, Denis Villeneuve. He creates an incredible scope, resonant of the world-building of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and the grand desert shots of Laurence of Arabia. The visual effects seamlessly combine practical and CGI effects to create an immersive new galaxy, but the action and scenery is defined by the meticulous and grand cinematography, which adds to the gripping, breathtaking nature of the film. The production design and visuals create the ultimate spectacle of the year visually, and the world-building exposition may be slow-moving and slightly hard to follow for some, but mostly done well. The score by Hans Zimmer is destined to be a highlight of his career. The booming sound design combined with Zimmer’s loud, often godly music creates unforgettable moments throughout the movie. The cast is stacked with famous faces so I don’t even know where to start. Chalamet in the lead wonderfully balances Paul’s sense of youth, discovery and uncertainty, though he is good at adapting and looks to embrace his destiny and survive. The heart of the film may rest in the hands of Rebecca Ferguson, who delivers not only the best performance in Dune but the best of her career, as Paul’s mother Lady Jessica. Contrasted to Paul’s father Leto (Oscar Isaac), a noble leader who loves his son but the film mostly focuses on their relationship from the diplomatic lens and the responsibilities Leto will pass down to Paul, we see how Jessica who comes from a lower-ranking society gives Paul new, unique survival instincts and his heart. Other standouts include Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa as warriors from House Atreides who serves as mentors to Paul as well. Sharon Duncan-Brewster is also really great in the film, not to mention other familiar faces show up that will excite audiences — Stellan Skarsgard, Dave Bautista, Zendaya, and Javier Bardem all have small but key roles as well.

Those who have never read the source material will find themselves drawn into these vast new worlds thanks to the beautiful execution, and fans of Frank Herbert’s novel will not be disappointed by the invigoration of the story to the big screen. To add to the intensity and large action, Villeneuve not only likes to immerse the audience in the consequences of violence but often just observe the chaos. Though everything is otherworldly, there’s plenty of moments of stillness felt like the omniscient shots of Sicario, Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival. The film focuses on themes such as legacy, parentage, colonialism and our relationship with the natural world, as well as mentorship, and fate. Though the story is mostly engaging, the third act does fizzle out a little bit in an attempt to set up the sequel. Dune very much feels like the first half of a mega-movie that will be completed and certainly defined by the second part. Unlike other “two-parters” like Avengers: Infinity War which ended on a bang, this feels more like the end of The Fellowship of the Ring or The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey which ends less on a cliffhanger or large set piece but more on a feeling that the journey has just begun. Many plot points are left deliberately unresolved for that next film to adapt the second half of the book, and the movie has already much story and development to include in its 155-minute runtime. This can be frustrating for some, but for those like me who enjoyed this movie, you’ll be left wanting Part Two ASAP. Dune is a rich experience and a must-see in theaters for sci-fi lovers and fans of Villeneuve’s past efforts as well as the star-studded cast. Supporting this one on the big screen will not only get Warner Bros. to get to work on the next chapter soon, but will have its audience take away some beautiful visuals, scope and action, the kind we only get once in a while, even in the world of fast-paced blockbusters.

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