Directed By: J.J. Abrams
Release Date: December 20, 2019
Starring: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega
Growing up in the ‘90s, the original Star Wars trilogy was one of my favorite things. Like Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones, they were some of the films I watched again and again the most throughout my first decade, and I still remember the palpable excitement of the summer of 1999 when The Phantom Menace arrived. And while enough has been said about the prequel trilogy’s highs and lows, my view on the prequels has always been in opposition to the outright vitriol spewed their way over the years.
They’re imperfect, sure, particularly in terms of the writing and some very poor decisions (like the existence Jar-Jar Binks), but there’s a lot to love about them, from the music, the action, the incredible world-building, and the overarching tragedy at its center about Anakin Skywalker’s descent to the Dark Side. The prequels, as flawed as they are, feel like they carry purpose, charging ahead with forward momentum in a way that really makes the original six-film saga of the original and prequel trilogies satisfying and complete, with 1983’s Return of the Jedi – my favorite Star Wars film, period – serving as the perfect cap to it all, completing the redemption of Anakin Skywalker and setting up Luke as the future of the Jedi.
Like so many people, I was excited when The Force Awakens arrived in 2015, and though it caught its fair share of criticism, I thought it laid a great foundation for new films to leap forward and away from the past that also respected what had come before. This was the chance for a new saga to begin, and that was exciting only four years ago. Then The Last Jedi happened, a film that’s neither great or terrible, in my opinion, but one that felt like it squandered all sorts of opportunities its predecessor set up while quite literally “killing the past” in the process. In particular, I didn’t appreciate how the character of Luke Skywalker was handled, the original trilogy’s beacon of hope reduced to a caustic hermit who ultimately accomplished nothing in rebuilding the Jedi and was killed off.
All this is to say that, going into The Rise of Skywalker, my expectations were pretty low. While I enjoyed the Rogue One and Solo standalone films to different degrees, the actual sequel trilogy never felt like it had a purpose after The Last Jedi, that it was building up to something big in its third and final outing in the way that Return of the Jedi and Revenge of the Sith had. And it’s that issue, that notion that this film had to find a way to wrap up its own trilogy in a satisfying way, that makes it all the more problematic that it’s been marketed instead as the end of the nine-film saga as a whole, because the original saga ended in an immensely satisfying way already in 1983.
Directed By: Andy Muschietti
Release Date: September 6, 2019
Starring: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Bill Skarsgard
27 years have gone by since The Losers conquered their fears and defeated It in the sewers underneath Derry, Maine. Their adult lives have taken them away from Derry, their memories - good and bad - of their hometown having faded the further away they've gotten. Bill (James McAvoy) has become a well-known novelist. Beverly (Jessica Chastain) has established a career in fashion design. Richie (Bill Hader) has shaped his wicked sense of humor into a successful stand-up career.
Almost all the Losers have moved on except Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), who has remained vigilant about It's inevitable return and the promise he and his friends made long ago to return to Derry and put an end to the evil once and for all. And after the death and disappearance of a young man (Xavier Dolan) following a brutal beating delivered by a homophobic gang, Mike has no choice but to call his friends and reunite them when the truth is inescapable: It is back.
It feels like just yesterday that the first It arrived to wide acclaim, and yet two years have flown by since its release. The dust has settled on the initial wow factor of the film, which floated right into the pop culture stratosphere, and, fortunately, Chapter One still holds up. As I covered in my review of the film back in 2017, It isn't completely perfect, but it did so much right - with a clear passion at its core from everyone involved - that it's easy to forgive its faults in the face of all its great strengths.
In comparison, It: Chapter Two is mostly more of the same. All of my complaints about the first film pretty much return here, whether it's the occasional use of weak CGI - particularly notable in undermining a pivotal moment near the end of the film for being comically distracting - or the absolute short-changing of characters like Mike and Ben (Jay Ryan). Mike, for instance, often felt like a non-entity in the first film, and despite playing a pivotal role here in bringing everyone back together, he still feels like a sidelined player with little characterization beyond being responsible for dropping exposition.
Directed By: David Leitch
Release Date: August 2, 2019
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Vanessa Kirby, Idris Elba
I have a strange fascination with the Fast and Furious franchise. Though the franchise has been a mainstay on the big screen ever since 2001, popping a new film out every couple of years, I'd never been interested in them. It wasn't until the release of 2015's Furious 7 that I finally gave the series a chance, mainly out of curiosity as to how the film – and the franchise – was going to work around the death of Paul Walker during production.
I dutifully binged the previous six films in the series, finding that the ones I enjoyed most – 2 Fast 2 Furious and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift – were also generally regarded as the worst entries in the series. Regardless, though I didn't come to love the franchise overall, I was taken by their eccentric charm. This series has only gotten bigger and stranger over the years; what started out as a film about a cop investigating a gang of street-racing criminals has since blossomed into a globe-trotting adventure series where its characters have essentially become physics-defying superheroes called upon to save the world from cyberterrorists. On the surface, it's absolutely insane, and yet this series remains held together by the simple fact it's oddly amiable and thoroughly unapologetic about what it is.
It's become a billion-dollar franchise, and it's clear that Universal has no plans to let this series go anytime soon, especially with ninth and tenth entries in the mainline series in the works. With the release of Hobbs & Shaw, a spin-off built on the foundation of the chemistry between Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham on display in 2017's The Fate of the Furious, Universal is dipping its toe into the type of expansive storytelling that has given the Marvel Cinematic Universe such success. (And the very public bad blood between Johnson and his former cast members like Vin Diesel and Tyrese Gibson most certainly has something to do with this film's existence as well in order to keep the ever-popular Johnson in the franchise yet away from the rest of the now-fractured "Fast family.")
The new spin-off sees Johnson's Luke Hobbs and Statham's Deckard Shaw coming together to find Shaw's sister Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), who has gone on the run after injecting herself with a dangerous virus to keep it out of the hands of Brixton Lore (Idris Elba, wasted in yet another blockbuster franchise). Brixton, a former ally of Shaw's who has been brought back from the dead by a shadowy organization named Eteon and enhanced with a whole host of cybernetics, will do whatever it takes to retrieve the virus and unleash it upon the world, and it's up to Hobbs and Shaw to put aside their differences and come together to stop him.
Directed By: Lars Klevberg
Release Date: June 21, 2019
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Gabriel Bateman, Brian Tyree Henry, Mark Hamill
Seeing the toll an unwanted move has taken on her son Andy (Gabriel Bateman), Karen Barclay (Aubrey Plaza) gets him a special surprise for his impending birthday: Buddi, the Kaslan Corporation's advanced learning doll. Armed with an AI that can interact with all of Kaslan's devices, from self-driving cars to your home's thermometers, Buddi dolls imprint on their owner and become their best, most loyal pal, the seemingly perfect companion for a young boy whose closest friend is his cell phone.
Unfortunately for Andy, a situation involving a disgruntled employee at one of Kaslan's production facilities has left this specific Buddi – who names himself Chucky, of course – without its inhibitors on, something that allows for the AI to learn and behave in ways it shouldn't. Watching his best bud Andy get hurt by the family cat or get yelled at by Karen's boyfriend Shane (David Lewis) or seeing how much of a blast Andy and friends the boy does eventually make have watching gory horror movies, for instance, all shape Chucky's view of the world and his relationship with Andy, who he wants to make happy whatever the cost, and it doesn't take long before he's solving Andy's problems with murder.
Stripping away the serial killer possession aspect that has defined Chucky for over thirty years gives this big reboot of the Child's Play franchise a chance to branch out on its own. With a screenplay by Tyler Burton Smith and directed by Lars Klevberg, this new spin on Chucky is freed from the baggage of the past, which may alienate loyalists – something I'll touch on in a little bit – though ends up surprisingly refreshing as a result. The case could be made that the world didn't need a new Chucky, but Child's Play overcomes that, giving us a film that's better than it has any right to be.
There's a self-awareness that courses through the film's veins about what it is, a movie about a killer doll, and how part of the fun of these types of movies is often laughing about how grown adults manage to get killed by a two-foot-tall hunk of plastic. The original Child's Play played its concept mostly straight, which worked at the time because it felt like a relatively new spin in the slasher genre, and while the sequels that followed ranged in quality, a simple fact remained: Once the toy is out of the box, it's hard to make it scary again. The original films became less about the horror of a kid's doll hiding in plain sight between murders and more about Chucky's personality, and understandably so, as original actor Brad Dourif is a massive reason why Chucky became – and has remained – such an icon.
Directed By: F. Gary Gray
Release Date: June 14, 2019
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson
After witnessing a pair of mysterious, black suit-wearing men wipe the memories of her parents following their encounter with an alien creature when she was a child, Molly (Tessa Thompson) has made it her life's goal to track down the organization the two agents worked for. Armed with the confirmation that we're not alone in the universe, her relentless quest to prove the agency's existence finally pays off two decades later when she discovers the location of their New York City headquarters, run by Agent O (Emma Thompson), who decides to recruit the young woman to the Men in Black on a probationary basis based on her tenacity.
Molly – rebranded as Agent M – is immediately shipped off to the London branch of the agency, which is overseen by High T (Liam Neeson), where she quickly wrangles her way into tagging along with the branch's rockstar agent, Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), on an assignment to protect an alien from a larger, dangerous entity known as the Hive, a collective that can assimilate and assume the identities of whoever it gets its hands on. When things inevitably fall apart, Agents M and H find themselves on a globe-trotting adventure as they work to uncover the mystery around two dangerous alien twins, a devastatingly powerful superweapon they're in pursuit of, and the possibility of a mole behind everything within the very agency they work for.
Let me start off by saying that I love the original Men in Black. I really, really do. It's a fantastic sci-fi story peppered with comedy, but presented in a grimy, gross package that benefits from playing the whole thing straight. It's a film that's aged extremely well. In contrast, Men in Black II spun all that around, often feeling like a straight comedy peppered with sci-fi elements, a decision that actively works against it even if the chemistry between its two leads, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, remains its true saving grace. Then there's Men in Black 3, which arrived in 2012, a decade after the second film, and had no right being as good as it was; imperfect, sure, but thoroughly entertaining, surprisingly affecting in its final act, and a pretty solid sendoff for Smith and Jones which managed to balance the sci-fi and comedy better than II even if it didn't fully live up to the original film.
So here we are seven years on, the arrival of Men in Black: International marking the series' return to the big screen without its original leads, the film instead banking on the chemistry that Hemsworth and Thompson had in 2017's Thor: Ragnarok to make up for Smith and Jones sitting this one out. If you were expecting a straight up sequel to the original films, though, lower your expectations a bit. A painting of Agents J and K depicting the finale of the first film serves as a nod to their existence, the worm guys and Frank the pug appear – despite what the marketing would have you believe – collectively for about thirty seconds, and Agent O, the only human character to resurface from the trilogy, features in only three scenes.
Directed By: Simon Kinberg
Release Date: June 7, 2019
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Sophie Turner, Jennifer Lawrence
And so an era comes to a close, with Simon Kinberg's Dark Phoenix marking the end of the X-Men films as we've come to know them over the last twenty years now that the characters have come back home to Marvel Studios via Disney's acquisition of Fox. Since the release of Bryan Singer's original X-Men all the way back in 2000, the landscape of comic book movies has grown and evolved, the series itself continually trying to keep up with it. It's impossible to deny that the era of quality we live in now in terms of Marvel films – namely the Marvel Cinematic Universe – owes a lot of its existence to the success of that first film and its 2003 sequel, both of which played huge roles in proving the viability of comic book movies in a post-Batman & Robin era.
Despite its strong start, I don't think any film series has been such a rollercoaster ride in terms of quality as this has been over the last two decades. It gave birth to incredibly well-regarded films, like the Deadpool duology, X-Men: First Class, X2: X-Men United, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Logan, the latter three of which are some of my favorite comic book movies period. And yet it also gave us middle of the road entries like The Wolverine and a few that are considered some of the worst comic book movies ever: X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and X-Men: Apocalypse.
It's unfortunate, then, that Dark Phoenix sends this franchise out on a middling note rather than a high one. It never quite reaches the atrocious lows of, say, X-Men Origins, but it never even comes close to the level of greatness of the franchise's best. In many ways, it feels like a relic, a film pushed out in order to keep the series relevant that instead feels a decade too late, especially when entries like Days of Future Past and Logan felt like better, more poignant conclusions to this franchise than Dark Phoenix could hope to be.
Before I go further, a recap: Nearly a decade after the events of X-Men: Apocalypse, the world has come to tentatively accept the X-Men as heroes and mutantkind as deserving of a place in the world. When the famous Endeavour space shuttle launches in 1992, the X-Men are called in to help when something goes wrong, as the shuttle is damaged by a mysterious energy force. Though they manage to save the shuttle's crew, much to society's appreciation, it's nearly at the cost of the life of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), who absorbs all of the energy, an act that boosts all of her mutant powers and reveals secrets that Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) had attempted to suppress within her mind when she was a child.
Directed By: Michael Dougherty
Release Date: May 31, 2019
Starring: Godzilla, Ghidorah, Mothra, and a Bunch of Humans
It's been about a week now since I've seen Michael Dougherty's Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the third entry in Legendary’s slowly-unfolding cinematic franchise known as the MonsterVerse, which began with 2014's Godzilla and continued with 2017's Kong: Skull Island. I've been thinking about the film over the course of the week, having been unable to write about it on release weekend, only to find myself in a rare situation wherein I’ve found myself struggling with what to say.
I'll admit, I've never been a huge Godzilla fan. I've seen a handful of the dozens of movies that have come out of Japan since 1954 as part of the big guy's legacy, and know enough about some of his fellow kaiju, like Mothra, Rodan, Ghidorah, and Mechagodzilla, that I'm not completely in the dark, but rather than an emotional attachment to Godzilla as a franchise, I have more of a mere appreciation for it by virtue of the character being a part of pop culture. It doesn't help that the first time Hollywood tried to tackle the character in 1998 with Roland Emmerich's Godzilla, the result was terrible, something I saw in theaters and – despite being part of the target audience as a nine-year-old boy – hated, and put enough of a sour taste in my mouth to avoid when they tried it again in 2014.
King of the Monsters is set five years after the first film, which saw Godzilla well and truly enter the public stage. Since that time, other monsters, which have come to be called Titans, have been discovered, monitored by the Monarch organization. Some, like King Kong, are active; others, like the winged Rodan, are simply in a long slumber. The world, however, is divided on their existence, with many wanting the Titans exterminated and others believing that humanity can co-exist peacefully with them – or, at least, tentatively friendly ones like Godzilla – because it's their planet and we just happen to live on it.
But as with all debates, there are radicals, in this case a team of eco-terrorists lead by Jonah (Charles Dance), who kidnap Monarch member Emma (Vera Farmiga) and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) as part of a plan to awaken all the sleeping Titans, set them loose on the Earth to battle one another, and cull humanity as punishment for its own neglect of the planet. One such Titan is Ghidorah, the worst of the worst, who is awakened and immediately sets out on a path of devastation and death, and soon the fate of the world is put on Godzilla's shoulders as the two Titans go head to head to see who truly is the King of the Monsters.
Directed By: Chad Stahelski
Release Date: May 17, 2019
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne
Every action has consequences, and in John Wick: Chapter 3, Keanu Reeves' titular assassin is on the run thanks to his decision in 2017's Chapter 2 to murder the scumbag Santino D'Antonio on Continental grounds. Having broken that cardinal rule – no "conducting business" at The Continental Hotel – that film ended with John excommunicado from the world he'd been sucked back into, with a one-hour window in which to flee before a worldwide, multimillion dollar bounty on his head became active.
Chapter 3 picks up right where Chapter 2 left off, with Wick's tiny window of a head start drawing to a close, and when it finally does, the film hits the gas and never really lets up. From the neon-filled streets of New York City to the potential sanctuary of Casablanca, Morocco to the vast emptiness of the Sahara Desert, Chapter 3 takes John across the globe and back as he fends off countless assassins eager to claim the bounty as he searches for The Elder, the highest-ranking member of the High Table, who he hopes will listen to his story and allow him to undo his excommunication.
To think that this all started as a story about a man getting vengeance against those who killed his dog is insane, because Chapter 3 really blows up the scope of Wick's world to heights no one could've imagined these films would go to back in 2014. In retrospect, the original film feels downright modest in its ambitions, and one of the strengths of this ever-growing series has been its ability to continually flesh out its world with unique characters and wrinkles in the mythology without overstepping its bounds and grinding its forward momentum to a halt for the sake of one big information dump.
The world that John Wick resides in is a truly fascinating one, and yet the films never have to hold the audience's hand to explain things, opting instead to have faith that we can figure it out so things can keep rolling along. Take, for instance, the Director (Anjelica Huston), a new face introduced here in Chapter 3, who John turns to for help early in the film. It's clear that the two have a wild history, particularly when it comes to John’s own origins, but the sequel never bogs itself down in trying to expand on it and ultimately overreach with its exposition, allowing us instead to piece together vocal inflections or throwaway comments between the two to sort out their relationship. It's that kind of stripped down storytelling that really benefits the world-building – and even the overall pacing of the narrative – of this franchise.
Directed By: David Sandberg
Release Date: April 5, 2019
Starring: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer
What a time we live in. Mere weeks after Marvel Studios introduced the world at large to Captain Marvel, Warner Bros. is unleashing Shazam! As you may know, the character of Shazam was originally named Captain Marvel when he made his comic book debut eighty years ago. When DC Comics decided to revive the character in the '70s after a long absence, he was rebranded as Shazam due to the trademarks in place surrounding Marvel Comics' own Captain Marvel, and has held that title ever since. That both the recent MCU film and this film have arrived so soon together is fascinating considering their history with one another, and it's a sign of just how far comic book movies have come that – despite their fundamental differences – both films turned out highly entertaining.
Even better, Shazam! – as the seventh film in the DC Extended Universe that began with 2013's Man of Steel – proves that Warner Bros. and DC are continuing to move in the right direction with their troubled franchise. I've covered the topic enough before, most recently in my review of this film's predecessor, Aquaman, earlier this year, and while I won't dive back into the subject all over again, I have to make clear right off the bat that Shazam! is a real win for a franchise that's been staggeringly hit or miss to date.
As usual, before we go further, let's tee up the film itself: In Philadelphia, a young orphan named Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has spent years bouncing from foster home to foster home, constantly in search of a mother he was separated from as a child to the point of refusing to get close to any of his new families, adamant that he and his mother will be reunited and life will go back to normal. After a failed attempt to find her, Billy is relocated to the home of Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa Vasquez (Marta Milans), a lovable duo who welcome him with open arms into their family, which also consists of five other foster kids, among them the disabled, superhero-obsessed Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer).
After defending Freddy from bullies at school, Billy winds up finding himself in the presence of Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), an ancient wizard who gifts all his power to Billy, allowing Billy to become a costumed superhero (Zachary Levi) at will simply by saying his name. As Billy embraces his new abilities, the wicked Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) comes calling, fueled with vengeance over having been denied the same power by Shazam when he himself was a boy, forcing Billy to sort out whether he can let go of the past he so desperately clings to as destiny lays out his future.
Directed By: Jordan Peele
Release Date: March 22, 2019
Starring: Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright, Evan Alex
The year is 1986. It's young Adelaide's birthday, and she's spending it at the Santa Cruz boardwalk with her parents. When her mother goes to the bathroom and with her father distracted playing a carnival game, she wanders off on her own, eventually finding herself in a house of mirrors, where she comes face to face with a young girl that looks exactly like her. Though the particulars of what happened during their encounter aren’t immediately revealed, the event is traumatic enough for Adelaide to seemingly retreat into herself, unable to speak or socialize with others.
Years later, an adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) returns to Santa Cruz with her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), daughter, Zora (Shahadi Wright), and son, Jason (Evan Alex), staying in their family vacation home. Still haunted by meeting her mysterious doppelganger as a child and tormented by the very idea of being back in Santa Cruz, she finally shares her experience with Gabe, confiding that she has worried her whole life that the other her is out there somewhere, biding time until she coming for her.
As it turns out, she's right, as her doppelganger, along with doppelgangers of the entire family, turns up outside her home, setting off a night of terror that will force Adelaide to confront her past and that fateful night in ways that will change more than she could’ve ever expected.
That is, without spoiling too much, the basic setup for what goes down in Jordan Peele's Us, his highly-anticipated follow-up to 2017's Get Out, a film which took the world by storm and demonstrated that Peele could very well be a force to be reckoned with in the world of horror filmmaking. With Us, Peele cements that fact, delivering a stellar sophomore outing that's an absolute blast to watch, strong for how sure-handed and confident the director and his entire team, particularly the incredibly game cast he populates the film with, are in telling this story.
Directed By: Mike Mitchell
Release Date: February 8, 2019
Starring: Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Tiffany Haddish, Stephanie Beatriz
Let me get this out of the way: 2014's The LEGO Movie had no right being as good as it was. What could've easily been – and seemed to be – nothing more than a hollow, two-hour advertisement for everyone's favorite building blocks turned out to be a surprisingly entertaining film, one with wit for days and an abundance of heart tucked away underneath its colorful veneer. Though it was followed in 2017 by two spin-offs, The LEGO Batman Movie (which I loved) and The LEGO Ninjago Movie (which I skipped), it's taken five years for the film to get a proper follow-up in The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part.
Picking up where the first film left off, the citizens of Bricksburg witness the arrival of Duplo aliens that set to work destroying the city before the film skips ahead five years. Time hasn’t been kind to Bricksburg, which has been reduced to a wasteland rebranded as Apocalypseburg, where characters like Lucy (Elizabeth Banks) and Batman (Will Arnett) have adapted and fit in to a post-apocalyptic lifestyle where violence and pessimistic brooding has become part of the day-to-day culture. As for Emmet (Chris Pratt), however, everything is still awesome, the upbeat hero carrying around the belief that things can only get better if everyone – ahem – works together, though he's haunted by premonitions of a mysterious, world-ending event called Our-Mom-Ageddon.
In time, a visitor arrives in Apocalypseburg named General Sweet Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz), sent on behalf of Queen Watevra Wa'Nabi (Tiffany Haddish) of the far-flung Systar System, who intends to marry Batman, with Mayhem kidnapping him, Lucy, Benny (Charlie Day), Unikitty (Alison Brie), and MetalBeard (Nick Offerman). As the group is taken to the Queen, Emmet – left behind and rudderless for not feeling tough enough to stop anything from happening – sets off in pursuit of his friends, teaming up with the space-faring adventurer Rex Dangervest (also voiced by Chris Pratt) along the way, only to discover new truths about himself and what Our-Mom-Ageddon truly is.
Of course, the real world introduced at the end of the first film ties heavily into the events of this sequel, with the relationship between Finn (Jadon Sand) and his younger sister Bianca (Brooklynn Prince) forming the backbone of the conflict the LEGO characters experience. The sequel has a lot to say about the brother/sister dynamic, both in how age and gender differences create a dividing line between the two, and explores themes of growing up, which is something that makes the film resonate even if it treads some familiar ground already explored by the first film.
Directed By: James Wan
Release Date: December 21, 2018
Starring: Jason Momoa, Patrick Wilson, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman
It's been a year since the events of Justice League put Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) in the public eye when he helped save the world, but the man known as Aquaman doesn't quite see himself a hero. He spends his days saving people and fighting pirates, sure, but he's also more interested in getting back in time for his local bar's happy hour, content with a life that has allowed him to shirk his destiny as the king of Atlantis, an underwater kingdom that views him as a bastard - he is, after all, the son of Atlantean queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) and a land-dwelling lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) - and is ruled instead by a half-brother he's never met, King Orm (Patrick Wilson).
When Orm decides it's time to punish the surface world for treating Earth's oceans like dumping grounds, Arthur is found by Mera (Amber Heard), a princess engaged to Orm, and called to action in order to help stop Orm. After seeing what his half-brother is capable of when Atlantis fires a global warning shot that nearly claims the life of his father, Arthur finally agrees to join Mera, setting off on a journey to stop Orm, save the world, and - quite possibly - embrace who he has always meant to be.
That a movie centered around Aquaman, a character who has spent decades as somewhat of a pop culture joke for many who know little about the character other than he can talk to fish, even works is no small miracle. As the sixth film in the troubled DC Extended Universe, Aquaman also has the unfortunate burden of being saddled with the baggage of its predecessors. For me personally, though I enjoyed 2013's Man of Steel and really loved 2017's Wonder Woman, I haven't quite dug any of the other entries, finding 2016's Batman v Superman an utter slog, Suicide Squad an outright waste of opportunity, and Justice League a mixed bag of good and bad traits that all add up to disappointment nonetheless.
Wisely, director James Wan and his creative team all make the decision to distance Aquaman from the franchise it's a part of. Aside from a quick reference to the events of Justice League, Aquaman doesn't actively try to link itself to the franchise by throwing in connections left and right to films past (or future) or cameos from any of the other major players, focusing purely on Arthur and his story alone, and for the most part, it works simply due to trying to stand on its own two feet. Unlike, say, Batman v Superman, which felt like an attempt to cram together too many ideas, or Suicide Squad, which felt like a Frankenstein's monster of different visions of a single movie haphazardly patched together, Aquaman benefits from staying on course with Arthur's journey from reluctant do-gooder to true hero and king.
Directed By: David Yates
Release Date: November 16,2018
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Johnny Depp, Jude Law
It's been three weeks now since the release of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, and though I saw the film opening night, I've sat down nearly each day since in an attempt to write about the big sequel only to repeatedly find that my enthusiasm just isn't there. I've had numerous conversations about the film over the weeks since, of course, but nearly all of them have centered around just how disappointing the whole thing is, which is incredibly frustrating, as I'm a huge Harry Potter fan – something I've covered in depth enough on here already – and even enjoyed the first Fantastic Beasts for setting up a whole new world of possibilities despite its flaws.
Unfortunately, Grindelwald doubles down on those very flaws rather than learns from them, resulting in a mess of a film that left me utterly bored for much of its runtime and generally unenthused with where the franchise is going next, a complete 180 from how I felt walking out of its predecessor only two years ago. That's not to say there aren't a handful of high points – and I'll be getting to them eventually – but the lows are just too glaring for me to overlook this time around to the point that I have no problem saying that this sequel is easily my least favorite entry of all the Wizarding World films we've gotten over the years since we took our first steps into it on the big screen back in 2001.
Oddly enough, on paper, Grindelwald has a pretty simple premise: A year after Johnny Depp's titular Dark Wizard was captured at the end of the first Fantastic Beasts, he escapes and travels to Paris in order to woo countless new followers, chief among them being Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who survived the events of New York City and has since gone into hiding, to his cause. At the same time, a young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) tasks Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) with finding Credence before Grindelwald can, setting the eccentric magizoologist off on the hunt.
Where Grindelwald stumbles, however, is that it takes its premise and loads up layer after layer on top of it of narrative threads, all sorts of characters, and an abundance of twists, turns, and callbacks. I've seen the experience of watching this film described as "what people who never read the books must have felt like watching the Harry Potter movies," a pretty fitting description, as the film is so overloaded with information that all too often seems to come straight out of thin air, the audience expected to be clued into things that are rarely given actual context.
Directed By: Julius Avery
Release Date: November 9, 2018
Starring: Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Mathilde Ollivier, Pilou Asbæk
There's an image in Julius Avery's Overlord that's been stuck in my mind over the last week since I saw the film. Set on the night before D-Day, the film opens with a team of paratroopers being flown in to France to destroy a Nazi radio tower set up at a church so that the Allies can safely storm Normandy, only to have their plane shot down. Young private Ed Boyce (Jovan Adepo) survives the event and finds himself wandering the woods alone in search of other members of his team, which includes a sniper named Tibbet (John Magaro), a photographer named Chase (Iain De Caestecker), and corporal/demolitions expert Ford (Wyatt Russell).
Eventually, what remains of the team reunite to push on with their mission, encountering a young woman named Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier) who lives in the village that the Germans have occupied. Though she helps them hide from the Nazis that patrol the streets, taking random townsfolk from their homes to undergo experiments performed by a mysterious Nazi doctor at the church, so that they can plan the destruction of the tower, time is against them, and as things begin to snowball, they learn the horrible truth about what's really going on at the church.
I won't say anything more about where the film goes from there, but I will say this: The image that I've been returning to is early in the film, not long after Boyce has set foot in France, gunfire and explosions sounding off in the distance. At one point, the camera lingers on the somber sight of several bodies hanging from trees, soldiers dead from failed landings whose parachutes make their limp bodies look like sleeping marionettes, all silhouetted against a foggy, fiery backdrop. It's such a simple illustration of the many horrors of war, understated and easy to blink and miss, but the image in all its haunting glory sums up what's so effective about the film as a whole.
Overlord doesn't burden itself by trying to do too much. Its ambitions are grounded even if the stakes everything is riding on are incredibly high. It takes liberties with real world history, of course, and the last act takes steps into a fantastical horror arena, but for much of its runtime, Overlord is a very solid war movie that finds strength – like its characters – in sticking to the mission. These troops need to succeed with what little time they have to ensure that the storming of Normandy can happen and history can be changed forever, and the film works hard to ensure that no one ever loses sight of that goal no matter what new development unfolds.
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