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Movie Review: Jurassic World – Fallen Kingdom

(Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of science-fiction violence and peril)

25 years ago, Steven Spielberg ruled the summer box-office with Jurassic Park. The film not only wowed audiences around the world, but also signaled full-speed-ahead for the use of computer technology in feature films.

Since then, the film series has had two mediocre sequels, a nostalgic ‘reboot,’ and now, with Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, an attempt to shake things up in a big way.

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Three years after the events in Jurassic World, the island’s long-dormant volcano, is about to erupt.

While debates rage about trying to save the dinosaurs, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), are recruited as part of a secret operation to try and rescue as many of the dinos as possible. This order comes from John Hammond’s former partner Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), and his assistant, Eli Mills (Rafe Spall).

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The rescue party encounters a Brachiosaurus.

While Claire and Owen are to assist with helping collect a number of dinosaur species, key among them is Blue, one of the velociraptors that Owen trained, and who exhibited some remarkable intelligence.

However, as the clock ticks down to the destruction of the island, things start to quickly spiral out of control.

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Much like how The Last Jedi looked to change the game with Star WarsFallen Kingdom is looking to rock some people out of their comfort zone as well.

Jurassic World’s Colin Trevorrow vacates the director’s chair (but has co-written the script along with Derek Connolly), and passes the torch onto director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, A Monster Calls).

The character depictions manage to be ‘passable’ for the most part. Pratt seems to have dialed up the ‘smugness’ in his depiction of Owen, and in the three years since the first film, Claire has gone from ‘proper businesswoman’ to a ‘dinosaur rights activist’ (shades of John Hammond in The Lost World?).

The two are joined by two conservationists that Claire knows, in the form of a no-nonsense paleo-vet named Zia (played by Daniella Pineda), and a tech-whiz by the name of Franklin (Justice Smith). Franklin ends up being the comic relief for much of the film, though his ‘city-boy-out-in-the-jungle’ act may grate on some who’ve seen it in a number of other films.

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Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon)

Like all Jurassic films, this one attempts to shoehorn in a child, in the form of Bruce Lockwood’s granddaughter, Maisie (Isabella Sermon). The film tries to add an air of mystery surrounding her, though I think if you pay attention to several scenes, you might be a few steps ahead regarding what the resolution is.

Watching the film, you may be surprised how quickly the story moves through the island of Isla Nublar, almost like Bayona is excitedly wanting to get us to ‘the good stuff.’

Unfortunately, much of the film quickly starts to feel like it’s a little too overloaded with subplots. It wants to not only add more to Hammond’s backstory, but also try adding more to Owen and Blue’s history, let alone dabble a bit more with the ‘genetic tampering’ we were privy to in Jurassic World. Plus, don’t be surprised if you get some Lost World vibes from the film, regarding it’s sub-plot about mankind trying to once again control nature…and once again getting lectured on this topic by Dr Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum in a very brief appearance).

By this point, the awe of seeing a dinosaur has worn off, and Bayona tries (commendably) to give us a few notable moments, but none of them come close to those ingrained in our minds from the 1993 film. Where he does succeed, is in elevating the tension with several darkened scenes. After awhile, the audience may find themselves keeping track of the flashes of light in some scenes. This is usually the key for something to sneak closer to us, depending on the number of light flashes.

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Director J.A. Bayona, inspecting one of his actors.

Speaking of ‘flashes,’ that seems to be what may stand out the most regarding the film. There are little ‘flashes’ of memorable moments that will probably stick with the viewer, but in regards to embracing the film as a whole, it feels like that may be a tall order to fill.

Even so, I couldn’t help but sense that Bayona’s fandom of Steven Spielberg, is inscribed all over Fallen Kingdom. I noted not only a number of scenes feeling “Spielbergian” regarding their use of lighting and reflections, but also a number of touchstones related to the 1993 film (and possibly it’s sequels from 1997 and 2001?).

In the end, Fallen Kingdom attempts to steer us in a new direction regarding a world in which dinosaurs and man exist…one that may surely divide fans of the Jurassic franchise, on just which direction the series should head towards.

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Final Grade: B- (Final Thoughts: Following in the foosteps of Colin Trevorrow, director J.A. Bayona attempts to steer Fallen Kingdom in a new direction. The film’s attempts to shake up what we’ve come to expect, ends up getting a bit unwieldly, as it strives to balance a number of subplots over the course of it’s 2-hour run-time. The attempts to awe the audience, pale in comparison to a number of moments where the director manages to build tension with some well-paced scenes, relying a bit on the ‘Spielberg playbook.’ )

 

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Movie Review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and language

When it comes to the world of children’s television programming, probably noone handled it in such a unique way, as Fred Rogers.

Originally intent on becoming a priest, his career path swung in an unlikely direction, when he first saw what was being offered as children’s programming in the early 1950’s. Pies in the face and shows that seemed to care more about selling children products, made Fred want to use the medium in a way to help children.

MrRogers-1This led him to start what became known as a staple of The Public Broadcasting System (aka PBS), for almost thirty-five years. Mr Roger’s Neighborhood was a show where Fred could talk to children in a simple environment, have them experience new things, and send them to the Land of Make-Believe via his toy trolley car. On his show, he embodied the figure of a good neighbor, the kind that would not judge, but want to talk to you, and get to know more about who you were.

With his latest film, director Morgan Neville gives us more information on a man whom many of us have only known from our youthful watchings.

Rather than choose to have a narrator guide us through the film, Fred’s life is chronicled through remembrances with family, friends, and acquaintances. It is through their observations and memories, that the film is buoyed onward with Rogers’ ‘spirit.’ For those expecting there to be a lot of ‘dirt’ to dish out, you will be disappointed. Pretty much the kind of man you saw on your television screen, was very much what Mr Rogers was like off-camera.

My memories of Rogers’ show were very faint, and what the film revealed were things I had never realized. Notable was how Fred would take real-world problems, and try to deal with them in the settings of his show. Covering topics like assassination and even divorce, he would try to help children (and in some cases adults), make sense out of things.

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Daniel Striped Tiger, with Fred Rogers

Of course, he wasn’t without his own problems. From being ill as a child to being a chubby kid in his early teens, he seemed to hold onto these memories, and try to channel them into something that could help others. Some of the things he experienced, are presented to us in animated form, with the puppet of Daniel the Striped Tiger from the Land of Make Believe, standing in for Fred. In fact, some claim that Daniel was a stand-in on the show, for how Fred felt about certain things.

On his show, he seemed to want to show us a world where kids could depend on grown-ups to help them, and to give them the attention and love they needed. In the times we are in now, such things feel like a ‘myth’ from long ago. Watching Fred talk strongly about his beliefs in how love and acceptance are keys to helping those in the world, will definitely make many people wish Mr Rogers was still with us today. One could imagine him sitting down by his staircase, and trying to help relieve people of the numerous fears that have taken hold of our daily lives…and those knowing that the words coming out of this man’s mouth, were genuine, heartfelt, and honest.

Released amid a cacophony of summer films, Won’t You Be My Neighbor feels like the ‘pleasant’ alternative that not only entertains, but also educates. I do agree with one headline, that it is definitely ‘the film we need right now.’

I think for many, it will act as a ‘salve for the soul.’ This is a film that will surely make some sad to realize how long we have been without Mr Rogers, but maybe, learn a few new things about him, and take away some new lessons to apply to our world, once the lights come up in the theater.

“Love is at the root of everything. All learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love, or the lack of it” – Fred Rogers

Final Grade: A-

Movie Review: Pacific Rim – Uprising

For filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro, the movies he makes have often been about bringing to life something that he feels passionately about. In the case of his 2013 release of Pacific Rim, the result was an emotional mixture of Japanese monster fights, interpersonal connections, and Mexican wrestling.

The film wasn’t a big hit stateside, but racked up three times it’s domestic gross overseas. Five years after it’s release, Steven S DeKnight expands on Del Toro’s world, with Pacific Rim: Uprising.

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Over 10 years have passed since the events in the first film.  In that time, the Jaeger program has been reborn, and newer, younger recruits are being trained for the possibility of another invasion from beyond our dimension.

One person who finds himself being brought back into the program, is Jake Pentecost (John Boyega). Jake has lived his life outside the shadow of his famous father Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), but is coaxed back into service by his sister, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi).

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Jake Pentecost (John Boyega)

The human-manned Jaeger program also finds itself in jeopardy, when a Chinese consortium led by Liwen Shao (Tian Jing), wants to streamline the program, and control the huge machines by way of unmanned drones, thanks to the help of former Shatterdome scientist, Dr Newton Geisler (Charlie Day).

However, things suddenly change when an unknown Jaeger appears, setting off a chain of events concerning Jake, and those around him.

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Right from the start, it’s clear to see that Uprising is one of those sequels where most of the first film’s main cast, are either gone (just what happened to Jaeger pilot Raleigh Beckett is unknown), or relegated to supporting roles. Much like Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day sequel, this film wants us to focus on ‘a new generation’ of young characters.

Jake Pentecost quickly becomes our film’s Raleigh Beckett. Jake is played up as the rebellious child of a heroic figure, but fortunately, Boyega manages to do a decent job balancing out his character, as well as giving him several humorous moments.

While Del Toro’s 2013 film seemed intent on dealing with the emotions of his characters, Uprising either speeds through some of these areas, or doesn’t do quite enough. Case-in-point, is where we are introduced to the young Jaeger pilots. I was hoping we’d really get to see them come together through training, but much of this is glossed over in favor of focusing more on the Chinese Jaeger-drones subplot.

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Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny)

Out of all the young pilots on-screen, the one whom the film puts most of it’s emphasis on, is the orphaned Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny). Given her attitude towards Jake and her mechanical prowess, I couldn’t help but feel like I was seeing a fleshed out version, of what Michael Bay intended for the character of Izabella in Transformers: The Last Knight to be (at least I could believe that Amara was mechanically-inclined!). However, while Amara can be a bit stand-offish, the film does make her more than just ‘a girl with attitude.’ She wants to make a difference, but fortunately, she isn’t going to just stand in front of a multi-storey Kaiju and tell it to ‘go to hell.’

For those who felt the first film was lacking in giant robot/creature battles, Uprising will definitely be seen as a marked improvement. However, some of the effects work feels like they had to pick-and-choose where the production money went (no elaborate ILM-budgeted night battles in the rain this time!). I’m sure some will feel that the new Jaegers are more in line with Michael Bay’s Transformers, but much like computers getting smaller over time, to me it makes sense that 10 years beyond the first film, the Jaeger designs would look a little leaner and more agile, rather than the bulkier, heavier first-generation models.

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It’s fair to say that director Steven DeKnight does his own thing with the material, and while it doesn’t hit as deeply on an emotional level, I was surprised to find that Uprising felt like it could have been adapted from an anime or manga series. There are certainly some small touchstones to the first film, though I couldn’t help but feel like some bits of the story, felt like it was cobbled together from some recent science fiction films I’d seen in the last few years. However, unlike those films such as Independence Day: Resurgence and Transformers: Age of Extinction (that just seemed to plod on with a few punctuated scenes that held my interest for a few minutes), Uprising managed to press my buttons, and actually had me entranced throughout!

Seeing the film in IMAX (though not released in 3D) I thought would be quite entertaining. Unfortunately, it felt like the camerawork at times got a little too close to the action. Though it is impressive to see the images projected so large, it feels like an average-sized screen would be more-than-welcome for viewing purposes (plus, there weren’t any floor-to-ceiling IMAX-style shots to make it that worthwhile).

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Final Grade: B (Final Thoughts: “Pacific Rim: Uprising” continues on in the world Guillermo Del Toro created, but feels ‘manageable’ for a second film. Writer/Director Steve DeKnight chooses to almost flip the first film on it’s head, choosing to make the giant robot/monster battles our main focus, while jettisoning some important time to allow the audience to really get to know much of the film’s cast.

 

Movie Review: A Wrinkle in Time

(Rated PG for thematic elements and some peril)

The last time I recall reading Madeline L’engle’s book A Wrinkle In Time, was during the summer of 2003, when I decided to spend my summer reading banned books.

While I wasn’t wholly in love with the book, most of it’s concepts still stuck in my head (warping space and time is often a good way to get my attention).

When word came that Jennifer Lee (the writer of Disney’s Frozen) was attached to write an adaptation, I was actually excited to see what she could do with the material. And then, when word came that Ava DuVernay (the director of Selma) was attached, I felt this might definitely be something special, coming from the House of Mouse.

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It’s been four years since the patriarch of the Murry family (played by Chris Pine) suddenly disappeared. In that time, Mrs Murry (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has tried to care for their two children, Meg (Storm Reid), and Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe).

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L to R: Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling), Mrs Which (Oprah Winfreey), Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon)

While Charles Wallace is an intelligent young prodigy, Meg has not coped well with the disappearance of her father. One day, she is surprised when Charles Wallace introduces her to three strange women, who may know where her father is.

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As the film started out, I was very surprised at the pacing DuVernay was moving at (we don’t have any super-long backstories, and we don’t have Meg brooding around for half the film). This is definitely a film that trusts that it’s audience is smart enough to assemble the pieces, and just keep on moving!

While advertising has played up the roles of Mrs Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), and Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling), they are most definitely here to just fill supporting roles (like Johnny Depp in Alice in Wonderland), along with providing a little humor (courtesy of Who and Whatsit). While some may be disappointed about not getting a huge dose of Oprah, I felt it was nice that the script didn’t try to make the three wear out their welcome.

For much of the film, the secret weapon that the marketing seems to hide, is Storm Reid as Meg Murry.

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Meg Murry (Storm Reid)

Reid’s characterization manages to feel ‘real,’ and even when she’s spouting a few lines that should sound corny, she never seems to falter. This is Meg’s journey, and we can definitely see a change come over her, as the story goes along (plus, I did enjoy that Reid sports glasses throughout the entire film, just like Meg in the book!).

I had vague memories of Charles Wallace being a child prodigy from reading the book, and Deric McCabe managed to portray the character quite well. With know-it-all children, there is a certain propensity for them to get really obnoxious on film, but McCabe never manages to get there.

Overall, the film’s cast seems to be it’s greatest strength. Even the minor players like Levi Miller and Zach Galifianakis, work remarkably well with their limited roles.

The trailers have definitely played up a lot of fantasy visuals, but don’t expect this to turn into The Chronicles of Narnia. While most of the scenes manage to do a good job showing us places beyond our Earth, the film feels like it meanders a bit too long in a picturesque green landscape, that feels like Lord of the Rings mixed with the painterly visuals from What Dreams May Come.

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L to R: Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling), Calvin (Levi Miller), Meg (Storm Reid), Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon)

There are also a few areas that seem to almost have a very abrupt change-of-pace. One notable scene felt like it was building to something bigger, when it just suddenly fizzled out to a rather ho-hum resolution.

A few times, I was surprised when non-orchestral score music was used across several scenes, somewhat ruining the mood for me. While this may have been done to play to the younger audience, I couldn’t help but wonder what composer Ramin Djawadi could have done with the few scenes I saw.

At times, I was reminded of the tone of films like Bridge to Terabithia and the recent remake of Pete’s Dragon. There’s a sense of trying to make a family film that is a bit ‘smarter’ than most of the other stuff out there, and one that almost goes back to the ‘darker’ tone of films from the 1980’s (such as The Neverending Story, and Labyrinth).

A Wrinkle in Time does have it’s faults, but I was very surprised that even so, it’s heart was in the right place. DuVernay’s film managed to hit me emotionally in several places…something that I felt was severely lacking from the last Wrinkle in Time adaptation I saw, which was made by Disney’s Television division back in 2004.

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Final Grade: B (Final Thoughts: Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of “A Wrinkle In Time” brings us a PG-rated fantasy film, that carries along at a good clip, thanks to the talents of it’s cast and crew. The pacing of the story can feel a little uneven in places, but even with a run-time of almost two hours, it never feels boring. )

Movie Review: The Cloverfield Paradox

(Rated TV-MA, for Mature Audiences. May not be suitable for children 17 and under)

10 years ago, Matt Reeves and JJ Abrams released Cloverfield. Composed of classified found-footage, it put the audience in the center of an alien invasion, whilst intertwined into the lives of a number of young people, as they attempted to get out of New York.

Many thought that was all, until 8 years later, we had the release of 10 Cloverfield Lane. However, while many came seeking answers, what they got was little more than another end-of-the-world story, with very little to do with the first film.

Rumor was that there would be another Cloverfield film (or two), and then, during the 2018 Superbowl, Netflix dropped a trailer, claiming the next installment, would be shown exclusively on their channel, following the game.

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On Earth, numerous countries are on the brink of war over dwindling resources.

Hoping to resolve this issue, the Cloverfield space station is put into orbit (along with an international crew), along with a particle accelerator, that many hope will be able to supply unlimited, free energy to save the planet. Even with this possibility, some fear that using the accelerator will lead to horrifying consequences.

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L to R: John Ortiz, Zhang Ziyi, David Oyelowo, Daniel Brühlm Gugu Mbatha-raw, Chris O’Dowd

After many failed attempts, the accelerator finally works. However, after an overload of power, the crew finds that Earth is no longer outside their window, and a number of strange things begin to happen aboard the station.

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When it comes to anything with JJ Abrams as producer, expect the unexpected.

That definitely seems to be the case with Paradox. Up until the announcement of the film’s release during the Superbowl, I had no idea what this third film’s title would be, but once I heard the word Paradox, my time-addled brain began to consider some possibilities.

And true, the film did start clicking into place regarding a few of my hunches…and then, it started doing all sorts of crazy things.

There’s talk of time distortion, alternate dimensions, but that seems to become part of a jumbled mass of ‘craziness,’ as the film pushes onward. That seems to be the film’s modus operandi: stuff starts happening, and you are supposed to accept it, and move on to the next set-piece.

The crew of the space station is comprised of 7 people, led by Ava Hamilton (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Of all of them, she is the one given enough back story, while the rest are little more than multi-national crew members. Strangely, while many can speak and converse in English, the filmmakers have decided that Chinese engineer Tam (played by Zhang Ziyi) should only speak in Mandarin-Chinese.

Unlike the time given over in the first two films to get to know some of the characters, much of the crew here, are just dependent on you gleaning some of their personality from a little bit of time with them (reminding me of how Ridley Scott chose to introduce us to his crews aboard the Prometheus, and Covenant).

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While stuff is happening aboard the Cloverfield Station, we also cut back to some bits with Roger Davies, as Ava’s earthbound husband, Michael.

However, much like the isolated camera-view aboard the space-station, the filmmakers keep the camera on Michael as tightly as possible. Apparently, stuff is happening down on Earth…but as to what, that’s largely left up to our imagination for much of the film.

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I can imagine a lot of people (like myself) going into The Cloverfield Paradox, expecting it to give us answers related to the last two films. Well, prepare to be disappointed.

At this point, it feels like the use of the word Cloverfield is just meant to be some continuing ‘gag’ by Abrams and his filmmakers (I’m waiting for the day when we find out that it was once the name of some guy’s childhood sled, that brought him joy before the monsters came). It’s becoming a bit like going to an event expecting an awesome ‘free gift,’ and you find out it’s just a dinky little keychain.

Paradox did little more than make me wish I was watching other films that it seemed to be referencing at times (heck, I think I could even have been willing to give Europa Report a second chance after this). At this point, it might be time to put the Cloverfield ‘experiment’ out of it’s misery. By now, it is starting to feel more and more like some kind of test to see just how much the audience can take, before they realize they’ve walked into another pit of quick-sand.

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Final Grade: C+ (Final Thoughts: “The Cloverfield Paradox” wants us to be enthralled and concerned for it’s lost spacepeople, but much of it’s story is little more than strange set-pieces, as we go from one ‘happening’ to the next. Even when the film seems to have settled down a little, it never gives us enough ‘grounding’ to really feel for the plight of it’s characters, with the minor exception of Ava Hamilton, who seems to be this film’s ‘Ripley.’)

Movie Review: Baby Driver

Rated R for violence and language throughout

While I grew up loving and watching films made by Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, I was always on the lookout for new directors to add to that must-see list, who would engage my senses with their unique vision. In the late 2000’s, the name Edgar Wright quickly made the leap onto that list.

Wright’s films had a nostalgic taste of pop-culture, while often engaging in stories where their somewhat childish protagonists, would need to take charge of their lives, and grow up (often through rather bizarre circumstances!).

After he was let go from the Marvel Studios production of Ant-Man, many wondered just where Wright’s creativity would go afterwards. I will admit, when the title of his next writer/director project came up, my first thought was a mental flash to the poster for the family comedy, Baby’s Day Out.

However, once the first trailers hit for his new film, that image was thrown aside, as I soon felt I had found my must-see film for the Summer of 2017.

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In Atlanta, Georgia, a young man known only as Baby (Ansel Elgort), serves as the getaway driver for a number of heists, engineered by a man known as Doc (Kevin Spacey).

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L to R: Bats (Jamie Foxx) and Baby (Ansel Elgort)

Unlike a typical getaway driver, Baby is usually plugged into one of his many iPods (the music helps cancel out the ringing of tinnitus in his ears), which serve as a soundtrack to the numerous jobs he pulls.

One day, Baby chances upon a waitress named Debora (Lily James). Her love of music and engaging Baby in conversation, may be just what he’s looking for. But, in order to have a chance with her, Baby has to get out of his ‘job’…which may not be as easy as he thinks.

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While Wright’s Shaun of the Dead focused on 30-somethings, and Scott Pilgrim vs the World focused on teenagers, Baby Driver is his first film to focus on 20-somethings. It definitely helps in a story that deals with a young man named Baby, who is at a crossroads in his life, with a few options…many of which are not the sanest of choices.

Ansel Elgort plays Baby as a quiet-yet-observant young man, who speaks only when spoken to, or when he feels he has something to say. Also of note is the pop-cultural flair that his wardrobe displays, with the white-and-back shirt/vest, looking like it came from Han Solo’s closet. In a sense, Baby is like an earthbound Han: using his driving skills to make money, but not really wanting to get involved in other’s affairs (and like Solo, Baby has a debt or two to pay off!). There is also a sense of dignity to what Baby does, in that while he is helping others commit crimes, he does not want to hurt the innocent.

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Baby (Ansel Elgort)

To Baby, the music on his iPod‘s are a soundtrack to the world he lives in, and to him, the world has to sync up to them in order for him to function (I got a big kick out of him telling some of his cohorts to wait to pull off their job, until he reset a song!).

Along with filmmakers Cameron Crowe and James Gunn, Wright is one of the film filmmakers who really knows how to put together a decent playlist. Every film he’s made has usually featured a catchy lineup, but Driver is the first film he’s done, where it’s playlist is actually hardwired into the film itself!

It’s not just enough that Baby has to be listening to a particular track, but the film’s edits, the firing of guns, and much more, largely keep time to the music being played. Wright even has some fun with this during a coffee-run Baby performs, with a single-take camera move that has some excellent blink-and-you’ll-miss-them-the-first-time song lyrics, graffiti’d onto some surrounding buildings and telephone poles.

The music is often a key to the various car chases and heists that Baby pulls with a slew of other characters. Each one has their own specific eccentricities, with the most violent being Jamie Foxx’s Bats. He’s the guy with a hair-trigger, and his ‘off-the-cuff attitude,’ makes him a character you quickly grow to dread, when the camera lingers on him.

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L to R: Baby (Ansel Elgort, Bats (Jamie Foxx), Darling (Elia Gonzales), and Buddy (Jon Hamm)

Of the other cohorts Baby works with, two of interest are Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza Gonzales). Buddy is quick to catch our attention, seeing as he’s the only crew member who seems willing to engage with Baby on a musical level (they soon start comparing playlists at one point!). However, his and Darling’s relationship, almost serves as a cautionary tale of ‘love-on-the-run,’ much like Bonnie and Clyde.

Like Darling is to Buddy, a young waitress named Deborah begins to become a part of Baby’s life. Lily James plays her character as the yang to Baby’s yin. She doesn’t have a big role in the film, but James’ waitress is just as integral to Baby making a change to his life, as Scott Pilgrim was upon seeing Ramona Flowers (however, Deborah doesn’t turn into a battle-warrior like Ramona does). James’ role is brief, but enjoyable.

Reuniting with cinematographer Bill Pope (The MatrixScott Pilgrim vs The World), Wright shows that his crew has an eye for capturing and editing action coherently (in a world where quick edits ala Paul Greengrass and Michael Bay are the norm). There’s method to the madness in many an action scene, and the best part is, we are never at a loss regarding where to focus our attention.

While the concept and story are a new and original journey for Wright, the underlying theme of growing up that has permeated through his other films can soon be recognized by ‘veteran viewers.’ However, the twists and turns that are thrown along the film’s path, keep it from ever getting boring. Plus, while there are a few humorous moments, Driver may be one of the more serious films that the director has ever done. There are some points where Wright just had me on edge regarding what would happen to Baby, or Debora.

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L to R: Debora (Lily James), Baby (Ansel Elgort)

Wright’s films have not been the easiest for most American theatergoers to zero in on. Even 13 years after Shaun of the Dead, he has yet to have a film that has gone mainstream beyond the small amassings of cult followers to his work.

While Hot Fuzz was his way of paying tribute to his love of action films, Baby Driver appears to be his ode to chase and heist films, notably the ones in which the main character, struggles with keeping their moral compass from cracking.

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Final Grade: A- (Final Thoughts: “Baby Driver” is that rare, ‘original’ film buried within a summer of blockbuster sequels, that just delivers as a smart-yet-fast action ride. It is definitely one of Edgar Wright’s less-humorous stories, but it’s musical journey following Baby on his road to self-discovery, is one that is both fast, smart, and an emotional rollercoaster ride.)

Movie Review: Transformers – The Last Knight

Rated Rated PG-13 for violence and intense sequences of sci-fi action, language, and some innuendo

It’s hard to believe that 10 years ago, I was in the throes of doing something that I had sworn never to do again: I was anticipating the release of a Michael Bay film.

Ever since I played with Transformers toys as a kid, I like many, dreamed of seeing those crudely-animated cartoons become real-life ‘robots in disguise,’ and so too did Steven Spielberg. It was Steven who wanted Bay to direct his Dreamworks-produced Transformers film, and upon seeing Steven’s name as executive producer (and Industrial Light & Magic bringing these characters to life), I ended my ‘no Bay’ rule (temporarily). Since then, his Transformers films have been the only Bay-directed films I’ve see in theaters.

The 2007 film became the one film that I was willing to give Michael props on. However, in the 10 years since that film, the live-action series has ‘transformed’ into one built on foreign box-office, and Bay’s frat-boy hubris. And now, the fifth installment in the series has been unleashed on the world, with many wanting to know, if The Last Knight can redeem the series from the critical drubbing it took with 2014’s Age of Extinction.

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Several years have passed since the events of the last film. In that time, the Autobots are still ‘illegal aliens,’ and Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) has gone into hiding with them. More Transformers have also been coming to Earth recently, with many in the United States being captured and detained by the human-led, Transformers Reaction Force (aka the TRF).

As Cade attempts to help a number of Autobots on the run from the TRF, he soon finds himself rescuing a young orphan named Izabella (Isabela Moner), and encountering a human-sized automaton named Cogman (Jim Carter). Cogman soon leads Cade to England, where along with an Oxford professor named Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock), is introduced to Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins).

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L to R: Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins), Cogman (Jim Carter)

Burton has concluded, that something big is happening on Earth involving the Transformers, and that Cade and Vivian, are to play an integral part in these events.

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With Age of Extinction, the live-action franchise was diverted in a whole new direction. The world of the Transformers began to open up a bit beyond just the scope of our planet, as we were given hints about the Autobot’s creators, as well as a legendary group of knights, that Optimus recruited to help in the film’s final battle.

With three writers (led by Akiva Goldsman) at the helm this time, The Last Knight faces a new foe, one that has recently caused great anguish for many a film fan in other series: world-building. Apparently, numerous humans have kept hidden their association with giant mechanical robots for centuries. They were there helping King Arthur, they were there to help bring down Hitler, and given shots of numerous famous persons in Sir Edmund Burton’s study, it’s assumed they helped out many, many more humans.

Much of this information is delivered through flashback, but also in a long, drawn-out exposition by Hopkin’s character. He’s basically our ‘Morpheus’ of the piece, telling our heroes what they need to know…but not too much, err we risk not being surprised when we find some things out.

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L to R: Megatron (Frank Welker), and Colonel Lennox (Josh Duhamel)

Character-wise, there aren’t a whole lot to really root for. Almost everyone has an attitude, tries to ‘talk tough,’ and usually try to one-up the other. Probably the most level-headed character is the returning Colonel William Lennox (Josh Duhamel), who has become a reluctant member of the TRF, and seems to be the main guy leading a number of soldiers into action.

Cade and Lennox have had experience with Transformers, but every one of these films needs a human newcomer to their world, and that is Vivian Wembley, whose family history secretly connects her to our story. While being a piece to the film’s overall puzzle, she is sadly forced to banter back-and-forth with Cade, in a typical ‘animosity-equals-attraction’ storytelling form, that doesn’t seem uncommon for a Bay film.

Also adding some ‘girl-power’ to the film, is Isabela Moner, one of the most touted new members of the film’s human cast, who plays an orphaned girl in Chicago, who befriends and fixes outcast Autobots (though this skill is largely left up to our imagination, as the most we have is her spouting technical jargon). Much of the time however, her character’s personality feels like a cross between Scrappy-Doo (seriously, she tries to talk tough to Megatron!), and Ian Malcolm’s daughter Kelly from The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Of all the characters we’re introduced to, it feels like she could be excised out of the film entirely.

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Izabella (Isabela Moner)

We also get a hefty number of Transformers this time around, but most of the time they feel like walk-on ‘set dressing,’ delivering some smart-@$$ lines, and then disappearing from a scene. The most time we get with them is mostly comprised of scenes with Bumblebee, and Burton’s assistant, Cogman. As for Optimus, he’s in the film, but it feels like he only gets about 10 minutes of screen-time.

Along with the task of ‘world-building,’ the bigger problem with Knight, is that even though it is one of the shorter Transformers films (coming in at around 2 1/2 hours!), it feels like it just drags on too long. In a strange way, from it’s first scenes, it feels like it is in a race to juggle it’s myriad subplots, AND hit it’s designated run-time, but it just ends up throwing too much at us, too fast. By the end, I was feeling as fatigued as when I came out of 2009’s Revenge of the Fallen. In fact, the film’s pacing and storytelling even feels like a distant cousin to that film (notable in the neverending battle/ticking-clock ending!).

Like the previous films, it tries to make us feel that the human story is the one we are really interested in, but many of us are just here for the Transformers. Industrial Light & Magic continues upping their game here, from in-camera transformations, to some massive set-pieces, that would have been impossible to animate and render a decade ago.

The film also attempts to stitch together all five films, notably in how we get a number of references (and ‘easter eggs’) to previous ones (and some of the different animated series based on the characters). However, there are still questions that they never give us the answers to (like how/when did Galvatron from the last film, become Megatron again?).

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L to R: Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock), Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen)

For those wanting to see some familiar faces, cool transformations, and speeding vehicles, you’ll get that here…but, you might find yourself having to impatiently sit through a lot of exposition that may surely go over the heads of the more casual filmgoer, as Paramount Pictures and Hasbro seem intent to think you’ll be eager to get sucked into a world that wishes to compete with the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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Final Grade: C- (Final Thoughts: “Transformers – The Last Knight,” comes off as Michael Bay’s send-off to a world he helped create 10 years ago. While we get plenty of Transformers action and some huge set-pieces, the film sadly gets bogged down by it’s own hubris. The film ends up walking a rather precarious tight-rope, trying to appease seasoned viewers, while acting as a first-step for newcomers into a larger world that will be expanded upon in future installments.)