Sicario: Day of the Soldado

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FBI agent Matt Graver teams up with operative Alejandro Gillick to prevent Mexican drug cartels from smuggling terrorists across the U.S. border.

Sicario director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins, who helped make the first one feel so special, are absent this time, but Stefano Sollima and DP Dariusz Wolski still hold their ground to create beautiful production and violent sequences that nearly hold up to the first one’s glamour. The sound editing is harrowing and elevates the terror of sequences that could feel like real-life combat, and the gunfight choreography and use of blood to elevate terror are fitting. Like the first film, even with a slight amount of violence the stakes can be gripping, which is strong for a world with movies filled with loud sound effects and explosions. Even without Emily Blunt, the cast is great, particularly Benicio del Toro once again as a complex lead who isn’t all heroic and also dark at times. Josh Brolin also has a great return as a man trying to get the job done, and this actor never seems to disappoint or perform under your expectations, as he’s able to embrace every one of his performances to the fullest. Some of the powerful writing from the first film is present — like exploring the children of drug lords and their experience in the crosshairs.

Like its predecessor, Day of the Soldado is very well-shot, with night vision scenes to intense shootout sequences in the desert, and the music is as awe-inspiring as in the first. However, there are some scenes that feel unnecessary to the plot or don’t lead to many places, and the movie introduces some great ideas in the first two acts that are ignored towards the end. The ending feels like its teasing what could be next in Sicario 3 which is fine but it ends a little too abruptly to be taken in. I’m glad it’s unpredictable and well made like the first movie but it doesn’t feel as motivated and suspenseful, and it hardly felt like a complete story because a little too much was left open for the next movie and there wasn’t edge of your seat tension and shock in the climax or most importantly emotion like the first film’s insane final minutes. It’s still got a dark story and themes like the first one that work very well, and holds its ground in terms of style, but in the end never justifies its existence other than promising a hopefully better Sicario threequel.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado feels as well-done and harrowingly violent as its predecessor, with great performances as well, but doesn’t completely embrace its themes and saitsfy in terms of substance by the end. Recommended for action fans who will likely enjoy the  thrilling and violent fight sequences like I did.

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Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

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Three years after the fall of Jurassic World, Owen and Claire return to the island to rescue the dinosaurs from a volcano that will cause the extinction of all the dinosaurs on the island.

There’s no surprise that audiences, including me, will continue to go pay watching dinosaurs wreak havoc on the big screen, not just because I enjoy it, but also because Jurassic Park is still on my top 10 favorite movies and I continue to have high hopes for the franchise. Unfortunately, Fallen Kingdom ditches a lot of the heart this series used to have for new high-paid cast members and plenty of scenes dedicated to rich corporate officials talking about dinosaur genetics. Jurassic World was far from perfect but still really enjoyable and had tons of edge-of-your-seat suspense, and one of the best parts of that movie was Chris Pratt’s protagonist, Owen Grady. Last time we met him, he was a unique dino trainer who knew the creatures better than anyone and took on threats in style. Here, there’s nothing heartfelt or fun to his role that all of Chris Pratt’s other performances seem to possess. His character is hardly developed this time around and his connection to Bryce Dallas Howard’s character is done the exact same way as in the last movie. The new characters played by Rafe Spall, Justice Smith, and Toby Jones are anything but engaging and a large subplot involving a young girl made zero impact on the film’s plot. The child protagonist subplot didn’t work well last time, so why try it again with a new child character? Also, if the movie can afford Jeff Goldblum in its budget, why only have him in two scenes instead of having him be a main character again like the old times? The movie’s character roster could have really used a lot more of him as none of the characters outside of Pratt and Howard are interesting at all.

If you’re looking for some monster fun, don’t worry, this will probably please you as plenty of scenes are entertaining for a wide audience. The CGI is great, and even better than the last time around. Every dinosaur has a fun look and characteristic to it and the dinosaur action is quite pleasing most of the time, especially a scene on the island which has been highly teased in the marketing. Viewers new to the franchise and those who love the fright the previous films offer won’t be let down on an action standpoint, and director J.A. Bayona quite delivers with some great shots and visuals. The story does start off with a nice concept that raises the question of whether these creatures that us humans created deserve to live — but it rushes to the action without much meaning or strong buildup. Soon the plot becomes too uneven and it focuses not enough on its main characters and too much on useless or boring parts without moving forward into new ideas the franchise hasn’t explored before. The trailer makes this seem like the Empire Strikes Back of the Jurassic Park movies but there isn’t much tension or suspense besides the constant dinosaur noise after dinosaur noise, and even the action scenes have the familiar “characters making dumb mistakes near monsters” tropes. At the end, it didn’t feel like I had watched a complete movie because though the story could’ve been something very thrilling, there isn’t much depth to it. This could’ve worked really well and even been one of the best Jurassic movies, if only there was a reason to care and get invested into the plot aside from great CGI and chases. The ending is an interesting choice that teases a (hopefully) better final installment, but there wasn’t much of a reason to get excited when it ends. I remember at the end of Jurassic Park, I felt like I had seen something magical like never before, and at the end of Jurassic World, I felt like I had to catch my breath after all the intense and awesome action, but here, there’s no reaction or takeaway that I felt like I did with previous installments of the saga.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom works on the surface as a good looking dinosaur extravaganza with action that will please many wide audiences, but the story has nothing fresh to the franchise and the character focus is out of place. I would recommend it for its action but as a film with real quality, not much is offered that will resonate. It doesn’t reach the heights of what’s been done before and I feel that this saga has much more to it than what’s offered here. It ends up being a mediocre monster movie that many can still have fun with, but won’t be remembered as one of the greats.

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Upgrade

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When Grey Trace’s wife is murdered and he’s left paralyzed after an assault, he is offered a piece of technology that helps him walk again, which sends him on a path to avenge his wife.

Upgrade has a clever science fiction concept boasted by great action and directing. It takes a while for the adrenaline to kick in, as the first 20 minutes aren’t interestingly written and feel dull in terms of style, but when the story really begins, the movie picks up and becomes and engaging ride. Logan Marshall-Green isn’t one of the biggest Hollywood stars right now but this isn’t the first time I’ve seen him in a leading role and he impresses me every time. He not only brings charisma to the main character but also emotional strength which he demonstrates in some scenes. The action is very well done and always entertaining, as the cinematography is creative and the over-the-top blood is fitting and adds to the excitement of the violence. The movie raises some interesting questions about technology and how far its usage could go, and though it struggles with making its villains and side characters as strong as the hero (none of the characters besides the lead are any memorable), it’s got some note-worthy action sequences and suspense, as well as a brilliant twist ending. I was also amused by the quality of the visual effects for such a low budget film. Upgrade looks impressive and also has a solid plot and thoughtful elements that fans of action and science fiction can enjoy.

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Hereditary

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After the death of her mother, Annie Graham must shield her family from the psychological and supernatural demons she believes she’s inherited from her mother.

A24 continues its streak of truly disturbing, frightening, and upsetting movies that redefine the horror genre as we know it. This movie has a layer of terror that no other horror film I’ve seen lately has offered. Not only does it offer scares, but the emotional depth and damage the characters have is the most terrifying part of it because it feels more grounded than what comes later. What’s so disturbing about Hereditary isn’t just the supernatural aspect but also everything that our characters are already put through before, which could be a tragedy on its own. Ari Aster does a terrific job creating suspense and placing the camera in creative angles, without using too many cuts within scenes. He also elevates tension with effective use of music. He writes a nightmarish family drama that escalates into screams, visions, and paranoia in nearly every scene. You can never tell what will happen in the movie, from a scene in the first 30 minutes that’s so unthinkable and disturbing it makes your jaw drop. Toni Collette is not to be ignored in her deep and unsettling performance as a woman dealing with grief and loss, and her character acts somewhat insane at some points, but Collette’s performance is believable enough to be taken seriously and she brings chills down the viewer’s spine in some scenes. There are some truly terrifying sequences that will have your heart racing and some gory imagery, and I should warn you that if you don’t like gore or slower, less conventional horror movies, then you should probably stay away from this one. This movie has strong psychological fright and themes about grief and broken families, but I feel that the ending decided to go more supernatural and I hoped for a more emotional blow that stuck true to the themes rather than the scares, like most A24’s horror movies have done. Other than that, Hereditary will live up to the expectations of those hoping for scares, but it’s also got the depth that fans of the studio will be looking for.

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A Quiet Place

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This apocalyptic horror film focuses on a family who is forced to live in silence while hiding from creatures that hunt by sound. Starring in the main roles are John Krasinski (also the director of the film) as the father of the family, and Emily Blunt (his real-life wife) as the mother. With A Quiet Place, Krasinski not only crafts a great edge-of-your-seat thriller with plenty of scares for wide audiences and horror fans to enjoy, but also makes excellent use of suspense with the sound, directing, and acting. Every noise is made to feel loud enough to pose a threat and surprise us at certain moments, and the sound editors knew very well which sounds they needed to make louder than others and how loud each sound needed to be. The tension is built effectively in every scene, as we get character development with each member of the family while the danger around them quietly builds. Small moments like a lamp falling and breaking or a toy making a sound will frighten you, and whenever it gets too noisy you’ll even start getting stressed just by the thought of what what be about to happen to our characters. None of the intensity feels fake and you’ll definitely be as anxious as the characters in some of the most scary scenes in the film. Krasinski and Blunt are both splendid as the parents; Krasinski’s character clearly showing fright but also leadership of his family through the everyday hours and protecting them with everything he can. His love for his children is the strongest part of the film and his acting is always spot-on. Blunt also can’t be ignored; she’s a fearful and also protective mother who demonstrates pain and terror excellently.

A Quiet Place is not only a great showcase of acting and directing but doesn’t forget to be an entertaining horror flick; you don’t have to worry about this one being too boring or stretched out even though most of the film is in sign language rather than spoken dialogue as the device the family uses to survive against the creatures. The visual images are always conveying of the conflict and emotions the family faces, and we though we never see too much about how the creatures got there or what’s going on in the rest of the world, that’s what makes everything more mysterious. My one problem is the ending, which though I didn’t have something strong against, I feel the ending had a more light and even comedic feel to it, and I hoped it would’ve stopped at a place a little more powerful, like the rest of the film. Otherwise, horror and science fiction fans won’t bed disappointed by this short but noteworthy thriller that won’t fail to keep you thrilled and entertained.

The film poster shows a close-up of Emily Blunt in-character with her hand over her mouth.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

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Steven, a charismatic surgeon, is forced to make an unthinkable decision after his life starts to fall apart, when the behavior of a teenage boy he has taken under his wing turns sinister.

I’ve seen many movies over the years that dare to do something different, that have an unconventional style or method of storytelling and challenge the mainstream audience in some way, but nothing has compared to the pure insanity that I witnessed watching The Killing of a Sacred Deer. There is no film that you can call similar to this movie, because everything going on in this film is so unprecedented and different than what we’re used to seeing in film. The opening shot alone convinced me how messed up and different this movie would be, and this film is effective in its thrills and scares like no other horror/thriller movie could. There are no jump scares or supernatural threats, most of what is going on would have seemed completely normal if Yorgos Lanthimos had not directed it. He directed probably the most bizarre film I had seen before this one with The Lobster (which got him a screenplay Oscar nomination, and I hope he gets another for this), and his style is notably dark, unsettling, and uncompromising about the worst of humanity. His cinematography is gorgeously in unexpected places and he breaks the rules of how every other director chooses to place their shots. No filmmaker has been quite this daring since Stanley Kubrick, and you can even draw similarities to his work The Shining, with the symmetry and tracking shots that are used. The music is also beautiful and loud and promotes the tension and uncomfortably even further. With The Lobster, Lanthimos was able to create a dark and painful yet funny and satirical dystopian indie, and here he takes all those elements and kick them up a notch to create one of the most horrifying, tragic, and powerful horror movies I’ve ever seen. If you go in expecting a typical horror, thriller, or even an art movie that is slightly challenging, you will be unprepared for the unimaginably gruesome imagery, terrible decisions made by the characters, and the dilemma the main character, portrayed brilliantly by Collin Farrell in a career-best performance, is facing, which is a shocking journey Lanthimos invites you to take.

Despite Farrell’s great acting in the lead role as a rather friendly family man whose past returns to haunt him, the film is stolen by Dunkirk‘s Barry Keoghan, who plays a psychotic teenager named Martin with terrible morals, who makes Colin Farrell’s characters life a living hell. Nicole Kidman is also great as Farrell’s wife, but all the film’s most awkward and horrific moments are thanks to Keoghan. There is a chance that you will dislike this movie, as some even walked out mid-film in disgust, because the humor is dark and odd and the story is so pessimistic yet so thrilling and inviting that I somehow was able to love it. The unorthodox filmmaking and techniques used in the film are used to elevate the feeling of distress, and the fascinating plot and dialogue feel so off yet so intriguing. Lanthimos knows that what makes a good horror movie isn’t showing the audience fantastical creatures such as zombies or ghosts, but by showing the audience the worst that could happen in real life — a character with a Sophie’s Choice-like dilemma, a teenager with a tragic past and a messed up mind , and characters with desires and sexual interests that are so uncomfortable to dive into, which is how it gets so deep under your skin. We feel like these characters could even be someone we could one day know, or these events could be real-life nightmares, and that’s what makes the grotesque content even more elevating in this hideous but poetic thriller. The plot takas es many dark turns that we are constantly invested in — unless you have been grossed out by the film’s disturbing moments and themes too much, that is — leading up to a gut-wrenching climax that had my heart pounding, which results tragically and leads to a magnificent final scene that will have you shocked beyond when the screen cuts to black and the title is shown. A24 is known for releasing films that are very odd and difficult for some audiences to love, but this is on a completely new level of weird and puzzling, and even beats the strongly allegorical, disturbing, and divisive mother! as the most unusual film to be released in a long time.  Many audiences will hate the macabre and sickening violence and the weird and dark humor, and that’s completely understandable, as it’s definitely not for everyone, but I have never been more invested and emotionally attached to a thriller movie in a very long time — a truly eccentric film that refuses to lighten up but I personally loved, with the powerful emotion and uncomfortable horrific feel adding so much to the suspense.

Yorgos Lanthimos has made a film for only the most patient and daring moviegoers, and although some viewers may believe that only a human as sick as the antagonist Martin could enjoy such a movie, but this thriller, that won multiple awards at the Cannes Film Festival in May, is simply groundbreaking and unforgettable — but only in the good way for some, so be cautious, because you may boo out of horror and disgust or cheer in awe and break into applause — both reactions were received by the film at its premiere. I can’t recommend this complex, bizarre, and shocking psychological thriller for everyone, but in my opinion, it’s a masterful film that has resonated with me and stunned me like hardly any other film out there, and hopefully there are many out there who believe the same.

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Murder on the Orient Express

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In the latest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel, Kenneth Branagh directs and plays Hercule Poirot, who must solve a murder on a train and bring the killer to justice. The large ensemble cast also includes Josh Gad, Michelle Pfieffer, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, and Judi Dench as the other passengers on the train whose guilt or innocence must be discovered by Poirot. Although the classic murder mystery style is entertaining and the cast is great, there isn’t much to offer other than an interesting mystery that is only sometimes inviting. Some of the cinematography feels out of place and some of the green screen effects and CGI feel obvious, but what matters in this kind of movie is the story, which isn’t perfect either. The opening scene set in Jerusalem is very entertaining and sets up a light tone for the rest of the movie, but later some darker elements are kicked in and it feels unbalanced. The titular murder only takes place about 30 minutes into the movie, and there is too much that’s unnecessarily built up before the inciting incident, and this could have easily been shortened. Some of the supporting cast, including Pfieffer, Gad, Ridley, Depp, and Odom, get their moments to shine, and it works really well for them, but lots of the other cast members do nothing and don’t get much significance. However, Branagh is definitely the standout of the cast and the film with his charming and great performance as the famous detective who’s been loved by many generations for nearly a century. He is able to bring his character to life very well and his presence is always fun and exciting. However, he may have not been the best person to direct the film, and although the sets and costume design are outstanding, the pacing and writing are uneven, and while some of the mystery is intriguing, a lot of the runtime feels rather slow and the movie could have been easily been cut down to a shorter runtime of maybe 10 minutes less, which would make it feel more like a nonstop thrill ride mystery like it should have been. Although I liked the big reveal and the solution to the murder, the way the very end was handled was heavy-handed and betrayed the way the character of Poirot was being established throughout the film.

While Murder on the Orient Express is surely not a bad film, it’s a remake that doesn’t offer anything new if you already know the story other than a great cast and some nice production design. The execution is uneven and could have used more balanced runtime and pacing, and it’s somewhat forgettable but will interest those who like the classic murder mystery style.

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