Free Solo

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Free Solo is a documentary that follows Alex Honnold as he becomes the first person to free solo climb El Capitan — in other words, climbing up the rock without a harness or anything to protect him from the deadly consequences of falling.

I’m not a huge watcher of documentaries but I’m very glad I didn’t miss this one and was able to catch it in IMAX. Not only are the climbing sequences very impressive and the visual scale is worthy of a big screen watch, but the movie is able to pull you into the story on an emotional level that not many scripted films this year have reached. Alex Honnold is displayed as an inspiration to everyone who has an insane amount of passion and those who dream to one day set the bar higher. His love of his hobby and eventual profession really connected to someone like me who would also want to one day make a profession out of my love of films, in my case. But not only does Honnold teach us to believe in the impossible, but the movie also shows us a different side of things in a very powerful way, like the emotional toll the buildup to the climb takes on his friends, crew, and girlfriend, who must prepare for the possible outcome that he may not survive the climb. Ultimately, when the movie reaches its climax, your heart will be pounding as you watch the incredible final few minutes of the film that are boasted by reactions from the crew as they watch, as well as a strong score from Marco Beltrami, and even if you know how it will end, the journey there is a damn lovely one.

Free Solo is a must-watch documentary that deserved its win at the Oscars in every sense. It’s amazingly done and inspiring on both a technical and emotional level, and had me engaged for every minute of the film. The film and its subject remind us that there will always be people passionate and daring enough willing to break barriers and set the bar higher.

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Mary Poppins Returns

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Decades after her original visit, the magical nanny returns to help the Banks siblings and Michael’s children through a difficult time in their lives.

Mary Poppins Returns maintains a similar formula for a new generation, but some of what it maintains from the first film works and doesn’t work for a modern film. First off, Emily Blunt is fantastic in the titular role. I wasn’t sure if any actress could maintain that same spirit and charm Julie Andrews brought to the character 50 years ago, but Blunt did it perfectly and follows large footsteps yet makes the role feel like her own. Lin-Manuel Miranda was also well-cast in a role clearly meant as an homage to that of Bert (played by Dick van Dyke, who actually cameos here in his other role from the original as the banker), and the two leads get plenty of time to show off their singing skills that we’ve already known of. Also entertaining in her minor role is Meryl Streep who cameos in a comedic and funny scene as Mary Poppins’ eccentric cousin. However, a lot of what this movie goes for just feels inferior to the first film, like traditionally animated scenes and unconvincing visual effects that don’t really fit for a 2018 movie when animation has advanced so far, even in the last couple years alone. It felt like something new and groundbreaking in the ’60s but here it does not feel realistic or refreshing. The musical numbers are also forgettable in comparison, and don’t have that sing-along quality that classics like “Chim Chim Cher-ee” or “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” have, which are probably the first things that come into your head when you think of Mary Poppins. However, I did love the musical number called “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” which was not only memorable but it also payed tribute to “Step in Time”, my favorite part from the original movie. There are also times when these songs go on for too long and forget to come back to the plot, but the musical score is definitely great and carries the film very s strongly. However, another gripe is that the child characters are at times annoying, like a character named Georgie who continuously makes frustratingly dim-witted decisions and messes everything up for the other kids. Though the climax is definitely entertaining and has some heartfelt conclusions to the character arcs and is a fun race against time, the first half especially feels painfully mediocre and feels very much like a kids/family movie, unlike other recent family films like How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World or Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse which have merit that adults can connect to just as much as kids. The movie at times relies heavily on nostalgia, which sometimes works but at other times doesn’t feel necessary. The original Mary Poppins stuck with us for so long because it used the ability of imagination and the impossible to help the characters find the beauty in life — this movie does the exact same thing, in the exact same way, so if you’ve seen the first one you won’t be as impressed. The best you’ll get out of many parts is that Disney really knows who to hire to design their costumes and sets. It’s really only in the last 30 minutes that the film really redeems itself and meets its goal. Kids will definitely enjoy the concepts and musical numbers, but there isn’t too many new things for adults to discover about Mary Poppins Returns that wasn’t already established by the terrific classic that is Mary Poppins.

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Alita: Battle Angel

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Centuries after a devastating war known as the Fall, Dr. Dyson Ido finds and revives a deactivated female cyborg who cannot remember anything of her past life and goes on a quest to find out who she is, who the enemy she fought was, and who the enemy is now.

With some large talents like James Cameron behind the talent but risky material to adapt and bring to the screen, like the anime-style look of the main character and the world building that could feel either enthralling or detaching to the audience, Alita: Battle Angel is a mixed bag and a film that not everyone will love. It’s a visual treat that must be viewed in 3D on the big screen, should you decide to see it. The way this futuristic universe is brought to the screen feels vivid and engaging, even if the narrative feels inferior to the visual storytelling. The action also feels lively and grand, and there is some violence that feels brutal for a PG-13 film and pushes the boundaries of what you’d expect from the action when the film begins. The film’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness — it feels very much like a manga adaptation, translating luminous worlds to the screen, but also horrific character designs and sound effects. The world building feels fresh and ecstatic, but also too overly done to really convey any meaning. There’s a rich over-world people want to reach to escape a poor and corrupt society underneath, a popular sports game called Motorball, a big war that happened in the past that we learn more about (but still not much by the end), a “Hunter-Warrior” underworld where anyone can stand up and fight rogue criminals and robots, and a “Cyborg-Lives-Matter” message. But did all of this interesting buildup lead to much by the end? The answer is unfortunately no. Whatever potential these ideas had are traded for a tiresome romance and focus on lifeless antagonists and conflicts. Whatever performance that Rosa Salazar may had delivered, good or bad, is lost in the distracting animation on her face that makes the character feel less likable. The only really memorable performance was that of Christoph Waltz, as Oscar winners Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali are underutilized in forgettable and disposable roles that have little screen-time and don’t feel very imposing or significant.

Though the movie has a few good things going for it, any charm or meaning ultimately is overshadowed by terrible dialogue, and for a cult filmmaker like Robert Rodriguez, it felt like he was struggling to make everything not feel awkward and out of place. Also, there didn’t feel like there was much development for Alita as a hero because she jumps from not remembering anything about her surroundings, right to being a nearly unbeatable badass. The film could have delivered more emotion between its characters if it hadn’t only hinted at this theme of discovering yourself and instead really emphasized it, but the movie ultimately sacrifices any emotional satisfaction to set up a sequel that will probably never happen. In the end, nothing story-wise feels worth merit or reflecting on because there is really no ending to the film. It’s not even similar to other franchises that had open-ended installments like The Hobbit or The Hunger Games, because in those situations, there actually felt like there was more story to tell and more of those worlds to explore. Alita could have gone on for twenty minutes longer and everything would have probably come full circle. Unfortunately, there is nothing about the conflict they set up for the next one or much about this movie to promise a great sequel, and considering the mixed response and average box office performance, how much more faith should studios and audiences put in the stories yet to come in the world of Alita?

Alita: Battle Angel is a visually exciting 3D experience with entertaining action and interesting world-building. However, the story and writing fail to keep up with the visual appeal, and the set-up of sequels feels frustrating and forced, making this film feel too incomplete and unrewarding. James Cameron is a filmmaker who’s full of fascinating ambition and imagination, but maybe he’s better off dedicating himself to the upcoming Avatar sequels.

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The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

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The citizens of Bricksburg face a dangerous new threat when LEGO DUPLO invaders from outer space start to wreck everything in their path. The battle to defeat the enemy and restore harmony to the LEGO universe takes Emmet, Lucy, Batman and the rest of their friends to faraway, unexplored worlds that test their courage and creativity.

Under the childlike playfulness and humor of a film based on a popular children’s toy line, there’s some heart to be found in this enjoyable and amusing sequel. Despite a concept that was ridiculous when first announced, these Lego movies have actually resonated with critics and audiences as well as at the box office. Though there’s more merit to be found in other animated franchises, the Lego film franchise remains not only a great way for the company to sell more toys, but a pleasing showcase of great cast members, colorful animation, and effective humor. Though sometimes the humor doesn’t hit its mark and feels only aimed towards kids, there’s also some jokes that only adults will get, like references to previous Batman movies (Lego Batman even compares himself to Michael Keaton and Christian Bale at one point), Die Hard, and even an appearance from a Lego version of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As outrageous as it may seem, this film, that’s literally a Lego movie, isn’t afraid to not take itself seriously at all (there’s even a song called “This Song’s Going to Get Stuck Inside Your Head” used to brainwash some characters), but that’s what makes it work. The studios hit the jackpot when they were able to cast Chris Pratt as Emmet because nobody fits the role better than him, but Pratt also plays a new role who’s a clear compilation of Pratt’s live action roles from Avengers and Jurassic World. Will Arnett as Lego Batman is once again another standout, but so are Tiffany Haddish and Stephanie Beatriz as Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi and General Sweet Mayhem, especially Haddish who sings and entertains in her over-the-top but memorable role. Though her character is at times ridiculous to look at, like I said, the film’s ability to go all out on referencing other materials and embrace the ridiculousness of it all is what makes it quite fun, and Haddish as well as every cast member make the best out of their roles (even cameo appearances like Bruce Willis and Jason Momoa who reprise their roles from Die Hard and Aquaman, respectively)

Despite the absurd concepts and non-serious premise, the film finds away to make meaning out of these plastic characters and touch the viewer’s heart by the end. though the first half is basically what you’d expect in terms of story and direction, the movie, especially the second half, connects everything to a bigger theme that applies to the real world — be yourself and let others do the same. This will make for a touching message for audiences of all ages. My one minor problem is — at the end of The Lego Batman Movie, Batman became much more open and decided not to push away those who were like family to him, but here it feels like he’s still trying to not fill that void of losing his parents — I didn’t expect them to go too deep about it, but it almost felt like they undid his development from that movie by having Batman still try to push away any personal relationships. Even though the overall story and script won’t blow you away, the humor and entertaining cast, songs, themes, and references are enough for kids and parents to have a fun time at the movies.

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How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

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After achieving his dream of establishing Berk as a utopia where dragons and humans can live in harmony, Hiccup and his dragon best friend Toothless encounter a new threat that forces him to lead the people of Berk away from their homes, on a journey to find the mythical Hidden World.

The first two How to Train Your Dragon movies have set the bar high for DreamWorks as their greatest franchise, with emotional and visual quality that reaches near the heights set by the works of Pixar, unlike more playful animated comedies they’ve made like Madagascar or The Boss Baby. The Hidden World is a marvelous conclusion to this excellent trilogy, one that I remember watching the beginning of on the very first day it was out, nearly nine years ago. Along with lovable dragons like the absolutely adorable Toothless (who also has a girlfriend now), the voice cast kills it, including Jay Baruchel as a young man trying to bring together his love and compassion for the dragons with his duty to lead Berk as chief, as well as bigger headliners such as Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson, and Gerard Butler. The one character I did not encessarily enjoy was the villain — unlike the villain from the 2nd movie, this one is rather annoying than threatening, and his motivation and presence weren’t strong enough on screen to care. The only reason to hate him is because his goal is to hurt Toothless. But otherwise, the story is packed with plenty of emotion from the main characters and sweet sequences that remind us why we love this ode to the friendship between a human and a mythical creature. There are lots of intense moments but enough heart and action for all audiences to enjoy. And to top it all, the animation is absolutely stunning and makes this a must on the big screen and in 3D. The visual appeal outdoes every past DreamWorks project and every scene, from the ordinary scenery to the vivid Hidden World, is done so beautifully. I was constantly in awe during the film, and watching this in theaters is an experience that shouldn’t be missed. There are some fantastic emotional moments that finally lead up to a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy, that will hit you right in the heart and leave you talking. It’s perfect for all ages and I’d be surprised if any animated movie outdoes this one in 2019.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is not only a perfect family movie — it’s a near-perfect movie and a visual masterpiece. I’d be surprised if DreamWorks ever tops this amazing trilogy of touching and moving animated films and this consistently impressive saga will be remembered and rewatched for years. Go see it with your family in 3D when it’s out on February 22!

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Glass

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Glass was a bigger risk than any Hollywood blockbuster lately — its target audience is to only those who have seen both Unbreakable and Split, but not all average moviegoers will be able to tell you who David Dunn and Elijah Price are. And for a big studio movie marketed as a superhero film, it doesn’t have a lot of action either. However, Glass presents us with deep story development and world-building unlike other superhero franchises, as a truly great sequel to two outstanding films. The movie holds on to the strengths of the previous two films, which on their own feel very different but are combined seamlessly. M. Night Shyamalan’s style is always there, and his lovely direction is impressive once again, including great cinematography and music. This movie could not have worked without Shyamalan, whose vision for this film has been out there since he made Unbreakable nineteen years ago, and then he brilliantly connected it with Split in the latter’s final scene, a shocking revelation that nobody knew about until the ending of the film. Shyamalan is a one of a kind filmmaker and his passion really shows here with how well he was able to follow up two films of his own and still bring the great style and unpredictability we love from him, even if his cameos are still silly and some lines of dialogue could have been removed. James McAvoy doesn’t show any less commitment or steal the screen any less effectively than he did in Split, and even when he’s placed with Hollywood legends such as Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, he still makes Kevin Wendell Crumb the most memorable part of the film, making the audience let go of his real-life appearance and disappearing into a frightening role we’ve loved to follow over these last two films. He is able to bring a unique feeling to each personality and really captures this character with a performance like no other.

Shyamalan adds a lot more of the commentary on superhero stories that we got to love in Unbreakable, and the other characters doubting the super-humanity of these characters and how their peers are involved or affected, like David’s son’s strong belief in his father as a superhero and helping him track down criminals, is very interesting. Also a welcome return is Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey, who was abducted by Kevin in Split but the direction their chemistry takes here is always intriguing. Though some critics were not big on this conclusion to Shyamalan’s one-of-a-kind trilogy, I think he did a great job following up on two of his films and bringing the themes of Glass to the screen more effectively than most modern sequels. The climax will split many but I think it had some jaw-dropping revelations and moments that feel very earned and a shocking and risky twist that no other mainstream filmmaker would have gone for. However, the ending does find a brilliant idea but then goes on 5 minutes too long which were not needed and nearly ruined the effect Shyamalan was originally going for. Also, there are a few fight scenes where the violence could have been more utilized, but ultimately this is an expectation-defying and unique film that’s the final part of an expectation-defying and unique trilogy, and you should see this strongly done thriller on the big screen despite what the critics are saying — but make sure you see Unbreakable and Split first.

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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Miles Morales is juggling his life between being a high school student and being Spider-Man. However, when Wilson Fisk uses a collider to open a portal to new dimensions, Peter Parker, another Spider-Man from another dimension, accidentally winds up in Miles’ dimension, joining others from across the “Spider-Verse”.

This animated version of Spider-Man is brought to life with a less popular iteration of the character, Miles Morales, and is animated to look like a comic-book with many different editions of the Spider-Man character appearing, as well as many familiar villains. Though it starts about the same as any Spider-Man story, the second half presents some unexpected and mature character moments that are touching and make the final act of the movie exciting and rewarding. There are some humorous moments throughout, and a solid voice cast, including Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Bryan Tyree Henry, and Mahershala Ali. The animation is often vibrant and colorful, even though some scenes and details feel very vague and dull graphically. Even though it did make me laugh a few times, some moments do feel cringeworthy or only there for fan service. The soundtrack was also poorly chosen and the awful rap songs distract from the strong point some scenes were trying to make. Even though I enjoyed seeing villains like Doc Ock and Green Goblin appear, I don’t approve of them turning Fisk from a compelling and unpredictable human being into a heartless, soulless antagonist who doesn’t stop before making evil decisions and has no moral compass like the superior portrayal of the character in the Netflix series Daredevil. It’s clearly a kid’s film, so I don’t expect them to make him an R-rated character, but I was hoping for enough layer to stay true to what I love about the character but also fit for a PG-rated movie. I really loved Hailee Steinfeld as Gwen Stacy, who I had no idea was also Spider-Woman before seeing this movie (and I’d easily watch a spin-off of her own should Sony choose to make one), and Spider-Ham is also an unexpectedly fun character. There’s also a terrific Stan Lee cameo and a touching tribute to the late legend during the credits. Even though the movie does teach kids that they can all be Spider-Man, we don’t need the line “Anyone can wear the mask” constantly repeated to understand that.

Kids and families will definitely have a good time with this new family-friendly version of the friendly neighborhood hero from New York. However, I personally felt that it’s only in the second half of the film where it really finds its heart and makes up for a predictable first half with some heartwarming moments, adding to its solid cast and characters as well as its unique style.

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