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07
Jan
16

Review: The Revenant

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Lush landscapes and a primal DiCaprio performance . . . smells like Oscar.

Last year (technically 2014) director Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams, Babel) masterfully directed the Best Picture-winning Birdman. Starring Michael Keaton, the film followed a once great actor (Keaton) struggling to become relevant again by writing, directing, and starring in a production of his own stage play. Aside from winning four Academy Awards for the film (Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, and Cinematography); what stood out the most about the film to me was that the entire film seemed to be encompassed by one long continuous shot. How does Iñárritu follow up a smart and elegantly shot film like Birdman? By going out into the harsh wilderness of Canada and Argentina to shoot The Revenant and in all natural light.

The Revenant focuses on frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who while on a fur trading expedition in the 1820s is left for dead after being brutally mauled by a bear; and embarks on a quest for survival and revenge against those responsible. Battling immensely harsh environmental conditions, Glass also has to contend with Native Americans and his diminishing health in order to stay alive.

If there is one thing I have to say about Iñárritu, it’s that he really knows how to envision a story. At its core, The Revenant is a story about survival. It’s Iñárritu’s keen vision and the actors that he chose to work with (namely Leo), that gives the film this grandeur that really makes it something to behold and see in a movie theater.

Leo by the fire.

Leo by the fire.

Because as I’ve alluded to already, I’ll start with the cinematography; it’s a real standout aspect of the film. Working with his longtime partner/cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Iñárritu beautifully captures the Canadian and Argentinian landscape in The Revenant. From snow covered forests to foggy woods, to night shots lit by firelight, nearly every scene that does not include a human is exquisitely shot. But, it isn’t all about scenic vistas, the scenes with humans are masterfully crafted as well.

As if he was winding down from Birdman, Iñárritu employs many long takes in the film which amp up sequences in the film. The action does not stop for a moment as the camera follows characters and much of the action that takes place, all in real time. In a sense, it keeps the audience locked into a scene because It doesn’t really give the viewer a moment to catch their breath.

In one spectacularly shot scene that one-ups the opening sequence of Avengers: Age of Ultron, in one take, the camera follows several individuals during an Indian attack on Glass’s encampment. Right after someone gets hit with an arrow, the camera deftly follows another member of the party as he scrambles to get his bearings. Next the person that the camera is following shoots at an attacker and then the camera shifts and follows the incoming attacker as he shoots an arrow at the previous person we were following. Still with me? The audience is led through this elaborately choreographed battle sequence in one or two quite long camera takes! And then there’s the bear sequence. I haven’t even gotten to that yet (just wait).

Bears, Indians, and snow; oh my.

Bears, Indians, and snow; oh my.

I think it’s safe to say that Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the best working actors today that hasn’t gotten an Oscar. Just perusing his filmography on IMDB as I type this and he’s played a lot of different characters for a lot of different directors. And he does it all with this intensity that metamorphosizes him into the characters he portrays. He just flat out does good work and we shouldn’t expect anything less from him at this point.

With The Revenant, Leo really gets to do a lot with a role that is physically demanding by enduring harsh conditions AND forces him to act and emote with not a lot of dialogue. In many of his scenes, Leo conveys much of his emotions and what he wants to “say” by the look on his face and his body language. After being attacked by a bear in the first 20 minutes of the film, Leo’s character Glass is wounded (physically and emotionally) for the remainder of the film and is pretty much on his own. Much like Robert Redford in All is Lost; Leo scowls, grunts, and moans his way through most of the film. With that intensity that he has, he’s able to communicate a lot with the look and pain in his eyes. When DiCaprio jumps into frigid waters, forages for food, or crawls his way through dirt and snow . . . you can nearly feel the chill, hunger, and distress that he’s going through as he experiences them on screen.

The said bear attack in the film is one of the most harrowing scenes in any film from 2015. Again, as with many of the other scenes throughout the film, it’s very well choreographed and pretty much sold by the expressions that appear on Leo’s face. For the most part, the bear is a product of visual effects, but there are some practical effects mixed in as well to give a very realistic feel. Not that the bear was a product of bad-CGI, but there is just no way that any studio (and probably even Leo himself) would allow Leo to interact with a grizzly bear. Needless to say, the intensity, realism, and pain in the scene are sold through Leo’s eyes.

Iñárritu and DiCaprio: two auteurs at work.

Iñárritu and DiCaprio: two auteurs at work.

Though Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, and Will Poulter all lend supporting roles in the film; this is Iñárritu and Leo’s film to be sure. It’s a simple story told on a grand and extravagant scale as only these two auteurs could create. And as amazing as the film is, I can’t recommend it for everyone. For starters, the film clocks in at 2 hours and 36 minutes (just about ten minutes shy of The Hateful Eight that’s playing here) so it’s a long film to start. And like I mentioned earlier, much of Leo’s scenes don’t involve a lot of dialogue; many are also meditative as well. If you crave non-stop action, a lot of talking and explanation in your movies, or movies that have a run time of fewer than two hours then The Revenant is not going to be for you. However, if you can withstand all that, then The Revenant is definitely worth seeing and is one of the best films of 2015.

The Revenant expands today and is now playing in theaters locally.

4 of 5 stars // rated R // 2h 36m

17
Dec
15

NON-SPOILER Review: The Force Awakens

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There are stories about what happened . . .

I know many people are excited for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and even as you read this many more are actually watching the film. Which brings me to the conundrum before me: how I write about this film when so many people have yet to see it? I certainly don’t want to spoil the excitement and anticipation that I had by spoiling something for those who haven’t seen it. I know I would be pretty disheartened if I was going to watch the film this weekend (or maybe even in the coming week) and I read something that basically spoiled the film for me. Having said that, this will be a NON-SPOILER review of The Force Awakens. This review will discuss the film, but not reference specific details that would give anything way. There is one caveat–any footage from the trailers and tv spots is fair game to discuss and reference.

I guess the burning question on everyone’s mind is: Does Episode VII ‘get it right’ after the disappointment that was the prequels? In my honest opinion, I think it does. JJ Abrams brings us a really close approximation on what ‘Star Wars’ is. With his work on Mission Impossible III and Star Trek, JJ has done a great job of taking old franchises and updating them for new audiences and The Force Awakens is no exception. Because of who he is, JJ Abrams respects this material way too much to make a Star Wars film that’s not Star Wars. He knows what we want and expect from a Star Wars film because he himself is just as big of a fan.

JJ Abrams at the helm of The Force Awakens.

JJ Abrams at the helm of The Force Awakens.

One of the ways Abrams makes The Force Awakens a Star Wars film is by mirroring several beats from Episode IV – A New Hope. Without giving too much away, some of the journeys undertaken by characters in The Force Awakens are similar to those of characters in A New Hope. Some may claim that there are certain plot points lifted straight out of Episode IV. I think JJ and fellow screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt diversify things enough to make The Force Awakens feel fresh AND familiar.

By incorporating Original Trilogy (OT) characters into The Force Awakens, it automatically gives us older fans something to latch onto and in a sense bridges two generations–both the characters in the film and audiences in the real world. I went on the record earlier this year as saying that I didn’t really care for JJ’s decision to bring in OT characters into this new trilogy. I was worried that it would be too much fan service and would try to give us a new movie with the OT characters as the main focus. It’s not a spoiler to say that this is not the case.

Daisy Ridley’s Rey is the main character of The Force Awakens with John Boyega’s Finn, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, and BB-8 providing great supporting roles. Ridley’s Rey has this certain spunk but yet at the same time this isolationism that in some ways combine both the characters of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker into a single character. I think one disappointment that I did have is that I wish there was more screen time for Oscar Isaac’s  Poe Dameron. He’s a great X-Wing pilot, but we really don’t get a sense for his character too much since he doesn’t have a lot of screen time. Harrison Ford as Han Solo is not a cameo role at all and if I were to guess; actually has the second most screen time when compared to Ridley. Carrie Fisher as Leia and Mark Hamil as Luke Skywalker also turn in supporting roles that literally support the roles and missions of our new characters.

This was the Han Solo I was looking for.

This was the Han Solo I was looking for.

Since going into detail regarding what our new characters are like would give away too much from the film, I’m going to stick with the fan favorite that I know everyone is excited to see . . . Mr. “We’re Home” himself, Han Solo. The apprehension I had seeing him in the full trailer back in April was put aside early on. I was worried because in his past couple of films we’ve seen Harrison Ford as a crotchety old man who looked like he was there just to collect a paycheck. I don’t know what JJ Abrams did or if it was just being with old castmates again or if maybe he was just excited to be Han again, but Harrison Ford BROUGHT IT for Star Wars. The man that I saw on screen was Han Solo. A slightly older version of Han Solo, but you could see the character we fell in love with from the OT in Ford’s performance in The Force Awakens. He had the great one-liners, quick quips, and that scoundrel-like attitude that made Han Solo, Han Solo. And he did it with these new set of characters.

As for the film itself, storywise, I think JJ and Kasdan have come up with a great hook in which to get the saga going in a new direction. You get a sense of that from the film’s title, but the opening crawl will make it plainly clear what this first film is about. The film is quite action packed and if I had to venture to guess, probably has the most action in any of the films in the series to date. Chase sequences, battles between opposing forces (pun not intended), and one-on-one battles happen multiple times throughout the film. With all the action going on you would think that there wasn’t much storytelling going on. There are a few quiet moments for characters to tell us about themselves, but JJ excels at giving us character and story development in the midst of these action sequences.

The passing of the torch.

The passing of the torch.

Overall I was pretty pumped by the time end credits’ overture started to play. Here was one generation of Star Wars characters passing the lightsaber to the next. The action and spirit of the saga were all present in The Force Awakens and while the film closed at an appropriate point it left me with a number of questions that already have me anticipating the next episode.

Because I’m so excited and because I have so much more to say, another review of The Force Awakens will be forthcoming, this time with spoilers. Until then, go out and see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. All the hype you’ve heard about the film . . . to quote Han Solo: “It’s true. All of it.”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is now playing everywhere. Look for our spoiler-filled review shortly after Christmas.

19
Nov
15

Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

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Breaking up the final book in a series into two movies instead of one seems all the rage these days. It started with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows being broken up into two 2+ hour films and then continued with the Twilight series becoming two sub 2 hour Breaking Dawn films. From what I’ve been told by book readers; for Harry Potter it was okay for the final book to be broken up over two films due to its content–not so much for Breaking Dawn. Is breaking up a book into two films more of an artistic decision to tell better tell the story that’s in the book? Or is it just another way for studios to grab money

These two questions aside, I’m always for more movie if it’s going to end up telling a better story. Which brings us to one of the top blockbusters of 2015; the final movie in The Hunger Games series: Mockingjay Part 2. Unlike Star Wars’s episodes or films in a trilogy or series, movies broken up into parts have the distinct disadvantage of being one really long movie with a really long intermission. They’re not two separate self-contained movies. They’re both parts of one movie. Which is why judging one-half without the context of the other half is difficult to do.

When we last saw Katniss, she had just been nearly strangled by her former District 12 Tribute turned Capitol propaganda speaker Peeta at the end of Mockingjay Part 1. Part 2 dives right in where we left off and hits the ground running with both Katniss and Peeta continuing to be used as tools of the war machine. Katniss, still the reluctant leader, is anxious to be fighting out on the front lines with the people that she is supposed to be rallying rather than just posing for more political propaganda pieces.

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Mockingjay Part 2 continues the theme of war and propaganda that was started in Part 1 with the machinations of District 13 President Alma Coin and gamesmaker turned rebel war consultant Plutarch Heavensbee; but also puts a different spin on it in Part 2 with the inclusion of questions about war and who the enemy really is. Katniss questions whether or not Capitol loyalists from the Districts are the enemy of the rebels when they are in fact District citizens. She also questions whether it’s right to kill people who may in fact not be their enemy. And in a move that nearly kills her, she questions the rebel cause when she defends their enemy when it appears as if they are surrendering.

While I’m glad to see that some of the bigger themes from the book made it into the film, things don’t really pick up until we get to the action in the Capitol; where defying direct orders from President Coin, Katniss tries to go on a rogue mission to kill President Snow. If you’ve seen the trailers this is the part in the film where a majority of the city is laid with Hunger Games like traps for the rebels to wade through. As expected, the traps that are set are grand, over the top, and especially deadly.

As Katniss and her squad progress through the Capitol, their numbers are slowly diminished as they encounter trap after trap. Fellow comrades are mourned, more propaganda is spread, and the burden of being some big savior of the rebellion continues to build on Katniss’s shoulders even when they are mere steps from achieving their objective. Without giving the ending away, let’s just say people live and people die and that where Katniss eventually ends up is sort of befitting of what she’s been put through throughout the entire series.

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All the actors that you know and love from the first three films are back. Obviously JLaw is front and center as Katniss with Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark and Baby Thor Liam Hemsworth as Gale Hawthrone–the other two sides of the angsty love triangle. Lawrence is solid as always, though she doesn’t have as much heavy lifting (acting-wise) that she did in the first two films in the series. She does have a moment here or there where she is required to emote, but it’s nothing really overly dramatic. A bad day for her would still be better acting than what we see in a majority of other films. Hutcherson on the other hand had me convinced that he was damaged goods as the tortured and brainwashed Peeta. So much so that I never fully believed that he was actually getting better. I was just waiting for him to go all Manchurian Candidate on Katniss at some point when she or I was least expecting it. The two heavy Oscar hitters Julianne Moore as Coin and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch don’t have a lot of screen time and don’t really get a chance to spread their dramatic wings.

On the whole, Mockingjay Part 2 was not the conclusion to a great series that we needed or the one we deserved. From book readers I’ve talked to, Mockingjay was the weakest book in the entire trilogy and I think it definitely shows. We went from two really great films that focused on characters, the effects of war, and great action set pieces to a set of films that tried to tell a somewhat different story than what the first two films were.

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Here in the Mockingjays, it’s more about the politics and maneuvering that the action in the films (which in the first two films supported the story) seemed to not support it. It’s almost as if you’re traveling in one direction and then turn dramatically in another direction. Instead of signaling and slowly making a turn, the Mockingjays seemed to have dramatically changed the pace of the overarching story in the final two films. While I get where things were going (big themes and questions about war, propaganda, and fighting); it just seemed a little out of place in Mockingjay considering where we as an audience came from in The Hunger Games and Catching Fire.

I’m not going to say ‘don’t see it’, cause it’s definitely one of the biggest films of the year and if you’ve seen the other three then you have to see how it all ends.  There is some spectacle in this film that is worth watching and the final third of the film does provide some dramatic moments for those that haven’t read the books. I will say just go into it wanting to be entertained. Like other cinematic bookends that have come before it (Return of the Jedi, The Dark Knight Rises, and even Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), Mockingjay Part 2 is more of something you have to just see–not something you should be really excited to see.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 is now playing in theaters everywhere.

3 of 5 stars // rated PG-13 // 2h 16m

07
Oct
15

Mililani Native Lands Moana Role

Moana

When Disney announced the Hawaii set animated feature Moana two years ago the state let out a collective sound of joy (and in some instances a collective sigh) at a new high profile Hollywood production that shine the spotlight at the Hawaiian culture. Slowly over the course of the two years since, more details have emerged about the film most notably that Dwayne Johnson would have a major role in the film as the voice of the Hawaiian demi-god Maui.

Today Disney unveiled that 14-year old Mililani native Auli‘i Cravalho has landed the title role of Moana, and in true local fashion, she sounds just right for the role. In speaking with People magazine on landing the role and playing Moana:

“From baby time to now, I wanted to be a Disney princess and then I wanted to be a singer or an actress . . .”

“Moana is such an amazing character . . . She’s brave, she is so empowered, she knows what she wants and she’s not afraid to get it, and I think that’s something that I can relate to as well. I just love watching how she goes along in this wonderful movie and grows as a person and helps her culture along the way.”

Even her co-star The Rock was quick to congratulate his co-star:

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IT'S OFFICIAL: After months and months of worldwide casting calls, we've finally found our next DISNEY Princess… #MOANA. I'm pumped to welcome 14yr old @AuliiCravalho of Mililani, Hawaii to our project. What's amazing about this story is that she didn't think she was good enough so she never auditioned. Fortunately, one of our Oahu casting agents discovered her singing at a charity competition and the rest is history. * An awesome lesson to all young kids out there… work hard, have confidence in yourselves and never think you're not good enough because you never know what the future holds. Congratulations Auli'i! Can't wait to work with you and watch you bring this new Disney Princess to life. #YesThatsMeOnTheRight #HisNameIsMaui #HesADemiGod #AndHePutsMoanaInHerPlace #SoHeThinks #DisneyAnimation #MOANA #TimeToSing

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There’s also a nice featurette which shows Auli‘i’s casting and when the film’s producers told her that she had gotten the role:

From this short video, it sounds like the film’s creators have made the right choice. I love Auli‘i’s energy and I’m sure that will translate into her voice work that will give Disney animators a lot to work with. Because the synopsis of the film doesn’t state that Moana is a princess, I’m going to stop short of calling her a “Disney Princess” (besides, Hawaiians didn’t even have princesses). Even so, I’m sure that like myself, the rest of the state is proud to have Auli‘i represent Hawaii and Hawaiians on the big screen.

I think we’ve come quite aways from “Ohana means family. And family means no one gets left behind.”

Moana is due out in theaters in November 2016.

14
May
15

Review: Mad Max: Fury Road

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I’ve lamented it many times on the blog, but it seems like the studios keep putting out remake, after reboot, after reset. That said, when it was first announced that we’d be getting another Mad Max movie I was pretty indifferent to the news. Another remake? Meh, nothing to get excited for. When the first trailer came out it definitely looked cool, but yet even then I still wasn’t intrigued. Now that Mad Max: Fury Road is finally here all I have to say is that I thought no film this summer could top Avengers: Age of Ultron in the sheer amount of action in a movie . . . I was wrong.

Mad Max: Fury Road stars Tom Hardy as Max, a lone wolf of a man who wanders the post- apocalyptic wasteland just trying to survive; the role made famous by Mel Gibson who starred in the first trio of films back in the early 80s. Max gets caught up with Charlize Theron’s Furiosa when she initiates her plan to steal baddie Immortan Joe’s most precious cargo, The Wives. What starts out as a basic escape plan turns into a battle for survival against warring post-apocalyptic tribes with a chance at rebuilding civilization hanging in the balance.

Immortan Joe's wives. Who wouldn't want to get them back?

Immortan Joe’s wives. Who wouldn’t want to get them back?

Back to that action though, it’s the first thing that grabs when you once the film begins and never lets up till the end. And it doesn’t get tiring either. Well, okay, some might find it tiring, but I was entertained the entire time. The scenes are so masterfully put together that never at one point did it feel like cars just crashing together. There is real thought and coordination that went into producing some of these sequences and the stunt work is simply amazing. There are guys literally jumping around from car to car or falling of chase vehicles and when they hit the ground, you definitely feel it. The way the action is shot and how they handle the camera really put you in the middle of the action. When you have guys swinging back and forth on poles jumping from one car to another, you never really know what to expect next.

The world building is great as well. While the film is itself visually stunning, everything about the details–from the cars and trucks that are driven, to the costuming, to props, and to the way the characters talk to each other give you a good sense of how far humans have fallen in the years after a catastrophe struck. You definitely feel that everything in this world is just cobbled together piece by piece. All the vehicles are mutant versions of the vehicles they once were: dual Cadillac Coupe De Villes welded together on top of each other on top huge wheels; the War Rig (the main vehicle in the film) being a marriage between a semi truck and a hot rod. Things just feel as if they were Macgyver’d together as best they could by those that are still standing.

Immortan Joe and his band of "half-life" humans.

Immortan Joe and his band of “half-life” humans.

Even each of the characters in the film all really distinct and unique, which only adds to the crazy world that they all are from. First from a visual standpoint you can tell who each character is, even though you may not know their name, you know exactly who they are by the way they look. How these people speak and interact with one another also adds to each of their characters. While the film is more action-heavy than dialogue heavy, from the short lines or moments that people are given to speak, you can pick up on elements of their personality and sometimes even fills us in on why they look the way that they do.

And none of the characters are more unique than Max. Tom Hardy is not doing a Mel Gibson impression, and he doesn’t have to. We get everything we need to know about Max from from what we see of him in the film. In the first sequence of events, we get a good sense of who he is. We know he’s a tough guy from the way he puts up a fight as he is about to be captured and even after he is captured. We know he can think on his feet (which is a good survival trait) from the way he makes decisions in a mere second or two. The decision may not work out, but he commits to it as soon as he does make it. You get a sense that he is a loner and is fine working that way from the way he talks to people and how little he does talk when he’s around people. Whether this was the way that director George Miller envisioned this character or the way Tom Hardy wanted to play him, you get who Max is by the way he’s portrayed on the screen. It’s the same reason why I guess that Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception director Christopher Nolan tapped Hardy to play Bane:

Tom is somebody who really knows how to put character into every gesture, every aspect of his physicality in the way that great actors can. He’s a very, very physical actor. He transforms himself and it’s there in every movement.

Hero Complex, LA Times (2011)

Lethal Weapon this ain't.

Lethal Weapon this ain’t.

While you don’t need to have seen the previous Mad Max films to inform you as to what’s happening in this film, if you do have that knowledge, I think you are a little better off. At the very least you know what to expect from director George Miller as he’s back in the saddle directing Fury Road. Yes, the man that directed the first set of Max films (and who also directed Babe: Pig in the City and Happy Feet) is back for Fury Road. If you’ve ever seen scenes or stills from the first set of films, you definitely see that this Miller back in the world he created over thirty plus years ago. Visually, things look very similar. Mostly everything is shot in the same Australian desert that the previous films were shot in. And like I mentioned previously; all the characters, cars, and gonzo-ness of it all are nearly the same as in The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Though it’s not meant to look modern, Fury Road really is a Mad Max that was made today. While there are some visual effects at play here, I feel a lot of the practical work is on a different level from the first films and wouldn’t have been achievable years ago. Credit Miller for being able to bring his vision of Max to 2015 filmmaking.

Probably my only knock against the film is that there really isn’t too much to the story itself; which is a small nitpick and also totally fine. Even with the characters, outside of Max, what you see of these characters on screen is what you get. There’s some filling in of backstory for some of these characters, but ultimately it doesn’t matter because the driving force here is either that characters want to stay alive and survive or are following orders and are chasing people down. Having said that though, the way the story is told through the action, through the bits and pieces of dialog that we do get fills in enough details for you to understand what everyone’s motivation is.

Furiosa (Theron, right), Nux (Nicholas Hoult, left), and The Wives . . . the ultimate road trip. Are we there yet?

Furiosa (Theron, right), Nux (Nicholas Hoult, left), and The Wives . . . the ultimate road trip. Are we there yet?

In a summer where you have Avengers: Age of Ultron kicking things off, you wouldn’t think that you could get any higher than that. Mad Max: Fury Road proves that it can. You need to be a fan of action to be sure, but Fury Road is more than just action. It also showcases great storytelling and a distinct and unique visual style as well. Though this is a reboot/remake/reset or whatever you want to call it; it’s probably one of the better efforts Hollywood has put forth in the past few years. I’m not saying I’d like to see more remakes or that this proves the point. But I do think Mad Max: Fury Road is more the exception than it is the rule. And because it’s exceptional, it’s a remake that I won’t mind seeing again.

Mad Max: Fury Road is now playing in theaters worldwide.

4.5 / 5 stars // rated R // 2h

 

30
Apr
15

Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Seven summers ago there was an idea . . . the idea was to bring together a group of remarkable people to see if they could become something more. To see if they could work together when we needed them to, to make the movies that that no one else could.

From his first foray into what we now refer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with 2008’s Iron Man, president of Marvel Studios Kevin Feige collected talent and creatives and guided them on a path to create the largest “universe” of films anyone has seen. Forget the characters on screen. Names like Joss Whedon, Robert Downey Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Evans, and Scarlett Johansson are now real life Avengers. And Feige, he’s the real world equivalent of Nick Fury; ever so astutely manipulating storylines and stars as deftly as Fury could manipulate secrets and spies.Flash forward to 2015 and that Marvel machine shows no signs of stopping. Avengers: Age of Ultron is the second film in the MCU that brings together the “group of remarkable people” we know as the Avengers. With the Battle of New York now three years past, we join right in as the team is in the heat of battle; still cleaning up Hydra agents from the events that took place in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

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Flash forward to 2015 and the Marvel machine shows no signs of stopping. Avengers: Age of Ultron is the second film in the MCU that brings together the “group of remarkable people” we know as the Avengers. With the Battle of New York now three years past, we jump right in as the team is in the heat of battle; still cleaning up Hydra agents from the events that took place in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

In an effort to close the book on Hydra, the Avengers are tracking down Loki’s scepter (which we last saw in Hydra’s possession in The Winter Soldier and which Phil Coulson discovered intel on its whereabouts in this week’s Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD). Having neutralized the Hydra threat, the Avengers discover that Hydra has a focus on collecting Inhumans–a sub-race of humans who possess special abilities. Hydra’s Inhumans, aka The Twins, aka Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch (also seen at the end of The Winter Soldier), manipulate Tony Stark and turn his fears from the Battle of New York against him which leads him to create Ultron–initially a protocol of automated Iron Man suits to fight large threats and protect the human race; but morphs into an evil artificial intelligence bent on “protecting” humanity by destroying it.

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Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson join the cast as Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. They’re more Inhuman than human.

 Avengers: Age of Ultron has all the action that you’d expect from an Avenger movie. While we’ve gotten some cool action sequences in the stand alone Avenger films, it’s totally amped up in Age of Ultron since in nearly every scene you’ve got at least two Avengers working together. A lot of action scenes in the film are fun because the Avengers are fighting together, working as a team, and riffing off of each other’s weaponry and special talents. When you see Captain America whipping his shield around, Black Widow catching it, throwing it back to him–but knocking bad guys into the air, with Iron Man flying in and repulsor blasting said bad guys in mid air and then finishing off with Thor slamming his hammer down on Cap’s shield creating a shockwave that knocks everyone out . . . you can’t help but crack a smile on your face because yes, this is what superhero team-up movies are supposed to be.

Whedon’s comedic stamp is still all over the film as well. From the quick one-liners during battle (Cap’s chastising of Iron Man’s “language”), to our heroes being self-deprecating with one another, to fun scenes of comradery (like say when you’re hanging out after a party and everyone tries to lift Thor’s hammer); all the little touches and flourishes of humor that made the first Avengers so fun is still here as well.

Great action and fun laughs aren’t the only things that Age of Ultron gives us. It also does some table setting for Phase III and also subtly explain other goings on in the MCU. Things like “well where was Hawkeye when all that stuff with SHIELD going down” are in fact addressed and answered (no, he wasn’t just appearing on Fallon). Then there’s the role call of cameos from supporting characters from many of the other stand alone films. Not only do we get to see War Machine and Falcon, but we also get the inclusion of two new Avengers as well (spoiler alert–it’s The Twins). We all know that Marvel can’t keep this train with the core group of Avengers going forever. They literally can’t afford to as the actor’s salaries will keep getting higher with each passing movie. The next logical step is to bring in new blood and set things up for a changing of the guard. I mean, in the comic books the Avengers are a big team of superheroes so it only makes sense that new Avengers are introduced in Age of Ultron.

Where did you come from where did you go? Where did you come from cotten eye Hawkeye?

Hawkeye’s still super as they are.

In a similar vein, Age of Ultron also moves us ever so closer to the next Avengers film three years from now: Infinity War. From the discovery of the tesseract in Captain America: The First Avenger to the outright explanation of the Infinity Stones in last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, you can’t help but notice that these items seem to be the most power artifacts in the universe if everyone is out to get them. While I won’t give too much away from Age of Ultron, the Infinity Stones are referenced several times in the film. If one by itself commands so much power, just imagine an enemy who possesses all of them.

If there was one thing that felt a little out of place in Age of Ultron, it would have to be the developing relationship between Bruce and Natasha. We saw a few hints at this in the first Avengers film. In Age of Ultron, it is in full bloom. What I found out of place about it was that I thought it was completely unnecessary. Did they want to keep the female audience interested by introducing a romance element to the story? Who knows. What I do know is this . . . you have a strong female character in your comic book movie (something in short supply and high demand at the moment) and you give her character weepy eyes throughout the film? Sure they gave us some backstory and point of view moments for her, but I think the end result was not worth adding that in. Talk about sidelining your character–it just makes her character look that much more vulnerable on a team packed with powers.

DID YOU ORDER THE CODE GREEN???

DID YOU ORDER THE CODE GREEN???

While Avengers: Age of Ultron does deliver the fun, I couldn’t help feeling that something was missing after the movie was done. I laughed and I cheered throughout the movie and yet I didn’t feel as good as I did when I got out of seeing The Avengers. The best way to equate this is probably to The Dark Knight and The Dark Night Rises. With The Dark Knight being as good as it was, expectations for it’s follow up were sky high. When The Dark Knight Rises came out, due to those high expectations, many people felt that Rises was a bit of a letdown. And that what we’ve got going on here.

Pound dog!

Pound dog!

Though Ultron is a diabolical foe, the entire movie feels a bit like more of what we wanted from the first Avengers movie but just didn’t have time to have in there. There wasn’t anything that special that blew me away. This time around we don’t have the novelty of seeing these guys come together for the first time. Don’t get me wrong, there were some great scenes and I did enjoy myself throughout the film, but at the end of the day I thought Ultron was just another bad guy in the long list of Marvel bad guys that got left in the dust. What he did was the typical things that we’d expect any one-note bad guy to do: he came up with a plan to destroy the world, he got the Avengers to fight each other, and he had the whole multiple versions of himself going for him. With all of that, none of it left a lasting impression on me.

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To be sure, I’ll see this movie a couple more times in theaters. And like I mentioned at the top, Marvel has nothing to fear in regards to their universe slowing down anytime soon. Feige, Whedon, and the entire cast have put together something that is special. What I’m hoping we get next time is a movie that “becomes something more” and is not just more of the same.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is now playing in theaters worldwide.

4 / 5 stars // rated PG-13 // 2h 21min

 

24
Apr
15

Review: The Age of Adaline

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The thing you have to remember should you choose to see The Age of Adaline, is that the film is much more about the ‘what’ more than it is about the ‘why’ or ‘how.’ If you expect to find out exactly why Adaline doesn’t age, you do find that out. In fact, the film dolls out a long winded explanation via some sort of pseudo-sciency Neil deGrasse Tyson-esque explanation. But the film itself is more interested in asking, what would you do with your life if you could live forever?

The Age of Adaline stars Blake Lively as the ever-youthful Adaline, who finds herself in a unique position of everlasting youth after a freak car accident and a little help from planetary alignment. Born in the early 1900s, Adaline finds herself stuck at age 29 for roughly 80 years. During this time, she leads a solitary life; moving around and changing her identity every ten years so her secret isn’t discovered. However, in present day San Francisco she meets Ellis (Michiel Huisman), a charming philanthropist who gives her a reason to open up and love again.

As the film plainly illustrates, Adaline not being able to age is more of a curse than a blessing. Having lived alone for so long, Adaline doesn’t let people get close. Though she is well off financially, she lives modestly so as not to attract any attention. And probably the biggest heart breaker . . . she keeps a photo album of all the pets she’s lost over the years. This all points to the fact that you can’t really live your life when you confine yourself like this.

Adaline with her regular aging daughter.

Adaline with her regular aging daughter.

Of course, this story wouldn’t be interesting unless a curveball was thrown her way. Adaline’s daughter, who she had before her accident and who has aged normally, pushes her to not worry about her in her old age, but more importantly; to find love and live her life. And what do you know, on the day before her birthday (New Year’s Eve), she meets Ellis. From the moment he lays eyes on her he is transfixed and for a few fleeting moments she seems to be a little intrigued. This leads to Adaline questioning the life she’s lived up until this point. Should she stick to the plan that she’s set out for herself–solitary, alone, but safe? Or should she open herself up to love, even though she will most likely outlive the person that she’s with? While these are all great questions, the film pretty much takes all the expected turns.

Adaline and Ellis's first encounter on New Year's Eve.

Adaline and Ellis’s first encounter on New Year’s Eve.

Blake gives a nice performance in the film and plays an ‘older person trapped in a younger person’s body’ fairly well. I always got a sense that she was holding something back, not really opening up fully anytime Ellis made advances on her. And of course she looks great in any time period and got to show off a bunch of great looks as there were multiple flashbacks of her through the years. Michiel’s Ellis, meh, I could take him or leave him. He wasn’t bad in the role, he was more okay than anything and I think someone else could have played that role just as easily. His character did come off a little stalker-ish at times when he kept showing up at places Adaline was at. He’s actually more carismatic in his role as Daario Naharis of the Second Sons in Game of Thrones.

And of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about that narration. Within the first few minutes of the film, the narrator comes in and literally tells us about Adaline and her life. It then moves on to tell us specifically how, in scientific terms, why Adaline no longer ages. I’m not a purist by any means, so I’m open to narration providing me straightforward details when it’s applied appropriately. But, in this case, the narration was so out of place and so unnecessary that it almost made me feel dumber for listening to it. Had the narration not taken place, myself and I’m sure much of the audience could have inferred what happened to Adaline. The narration, however, was not limited to just the beginning of the film. The same style of narration is employed several more times throughout the film and actually closes the film out with more unnecessary mumbo-jumbo.

Adaline celebrating New Year's in the 1940s

Adaline celebrating New Year’s in the 1940s

On the whole The Age of Adaline doesn’t do much in terms of providing drama or romance. Yes, romance is displayed for us on-screen but I never really fully bought into Adaline and Ellis relationship. Still, it’s an interesting film in the sense that it tries to be a little bit more than a romance movie. If you’ve ever had a burning question about whether or not to find someone to love if you were forever young, then you’ll definitely want to check out The Age of Adaline. Or if you’re just looking for a decent date movie before heading out to Avengers next weekend, then Adaline fits the bill just nicely too.

The Age of Adaline is now playing in theaters everywhere.

⅗ stars // rated PG-13 // 1h 50min

23
Apr
15

Post View: Thoughts on The Force Awakens Trailer

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I’ve had a lot of cautious optimism since the dual announcement of the LucasFilm acquisition by Disney and the creation of new Star Wars movies two and a half years ago. Though I have fond memories of watching each of the episodes in the New Trilogy (NT, Episodes I, II, & III), they just weren’t as memorable or as imaginative as the Original Trilogy (OT, Episodes IV, V, & VI) was. That’s why since the announcement I’ve been patiently waiting to see how the franchise would be guided and what kind of storytellers would be brought in to carry the saga forward.

To be honest, I wasn’t all that hot on JJ Abrams decision to nix the script that Toy Story 3 writer Michael Arndt was working on in favor of a storyline that brought the OT leads back. I wanted to see what new stories and challenges the characters in a post-OT Star Wars universe would have to face; not tagging along with Luke, Leia, and Han for “one last ride.” Their stories have been told already. Been there done that.

When the Star Wars – The Force Awakens teaser trailer came out last December I was intrigued, but not blown away. I mean really, all we got were a couple of short scenes that gave us an idea of how the film would “look.” Probably the biggest takeaway for me was that this film “looked” like it fit in with the OT and not dramatically different like the NT did. While everyone was excited to see the Millenium Falcon (the only appearance of something from the OT), I was excited to see that scene as well. Not because we got to see the Millenium Falcon, but because of how we saw it. That over the shoulder tracking shot of the Millenium Falcon as it did a loop and then turned right side up was so dynamic and exhilarating that it was definitely my favorite part of the trailer.

Now cut to a week ago.

Disney drops the first full trailer for The Force Awakens last week at Star Wars Celebration to rave reviews, fans crying (hell, even Matthew McConaughey shed a few tears), and nearly half of my Facebook feed wetting themselves. Again, cautious optimism. But what was getting everyone so worked up?

0423_02-HanAndChewie

. . . the reveal of Chewie and Han. I’m not going to lie, Harrison Ford looks older than ever. I don’t know if it’s because he became such a big star, but after his last slate of films that he’s been in (Expendables, Ender’s Game, Cowboys & Aliens, Morning Glory) I don’t see him as Han Solo anymore. I see him as an old and grumpy Harrison Ford. The brash and beguiling Han I know only appears in Episodes IV, V, and VI. Seeing him here at the end of the trailer telling Chewie “we’re home”, that did not do anything for me. Do not get me wrong, I am a fan of the series through and through and I love Han as much as the next fanboy; but seeing a tired Harrison Ford on-screen just kind of deflated the entire trailer for me. I’m still hopeful that maybe in the grand scheme of the movie, this wasn’t exactly Ford’s best moment. And who knows, maybe he is still is the same old Han Solo we all know and love just a bit older. We’ll have to wait and see.

Similarly to the teaser trailer, it’s the sum all the parts of this trailer that really gets me excited for Episode VII.

StarDestroyerDown

The trailer starts out with a familiar shot of Tatooine, but then as the camera pans across the desert landscape we see a massive star destroyer crashed into the dunes with a wrecked X-wing in the foreground–already I’m hooked. We’ve seen the Tatooine landscape laid out for us before, and Lucas even brought back similar shots in the NT to give Anakin an angsty emotional moment. This opening shot, however, it lets us know that we’re not in that same galaxy far, far away that we once knew–things are different now.

0423_03-Helmet

Then the nostalgia train gets started with Luke (we think) reciting his line from Return of the Jedi that talks about his family “having” Force abilities. While seeing Vader’s burnt and disfigured helmet is a nice touch, it’s when we get to this particular shot (image above) that we realize this isn’t the line from Jedi that we’re hearing, but new dialogue when we hear “my father HAS it.” This could mean any number of things, but most fans are speculating that this suggests that Vader is not dead. Why would Luke say this unless he knew his father (Darth Vader) wasn’t dead right? Maybe, just maybe he lived and what Luke burned at the end of Jedi wasn’t his father. Granted, this is one possibility.

Another interpretation could be that the reason Luke said it this way is because, as Obi-Wan told us, “from a certain point of view” Luke doesn’t consider his father dead because he is still “alive” as a Force ghost–which we saw at the end of Return of the Jedi. He could still be interacting with his father/Vader’s Force ghost ever since his death.

Still another possibility is that this isn’t Luke speaking at all, but perhaps it’s his son instead. Most of the theories out there posit that this next set of episodes will focus on the children of Han and Leia–who would have Force abilities passed down to them from their mother. However, as no official synopsis has yet been released, we still don’t know what the story is. The reference to “my father has it” could be from Luke’s son being told to someone else. Fun speculation to be sure, but like I said, this could be another possibility.

As we get into the second half of the trailer though, that’s where we get to see a bunch of fun puzzle pieces . . .

An ominous cloaked figure putting a metal hand on R2D2, someone being handed a lightsaber, Oscar Isaac getting excited flying he X-wing . . . while these next set of shots didn’t move the needle too much for me, the following did:

0423_04-StrafingFire

Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and BB8 running from tie fighter strafing fire . . . totes exciting.

 

Is this a new sith lord? Is he the main villain of the film? Always two there are right? Which one is he?

Is this a new sith lord? Is he the main villain of the film? Always two there are right? Which one is he?

 

A tie fighter shooting up an Imperial hanger--you can feel JJ’s presence with both the look of the shot and how everything is framed.

A tie fighter shooting up an Imperial hanger–you can feel JJ’s presence with both the look of the shot and how everything is framed.

 

I saw this guy and wanted to know his story. Is he the sith lord from a few scenes ago? Or is he just a badass Tie fighter pilot?

I saw this guy and wanted to know his story. Is he the sith lord from a few scenes ago? Or is he just a badass Tie fighter pilot?

 

And then, the pièce de résistance for me . . .

FalconChaseSequence

This chase sequence through a crashed star destroyer (same one from the opening shot perhaps?) is damn near genius. It’s definitely got hints of Return of the Jedi when Lando took the Millenium Falcon into the Death Star, but I also love that it’s updated by JJ with the snap zoom shot as the Millenium Falcon enters the star destroyer. It’s something we’re familiar with, but updated for a new generation.

And that last shot, well, I’ve already talked about that at the top.

After seeing this trailer, I’m much more excited and hopeful that this next set of Star Wars films will be the Star Wars movies that we’ve been waiting for. While I will always have fond memories of camping out and seeing the NT in theaters the same way the previous generation did with the OT; the newer films themselves didn’t live up to the bar that was set by the older ones.

After this trailer though, there has been an awakening . . . have you felt it?

17
Apr
15

Review: Monkey Kingdom

0417_01-MonkeyKingdomDOM

Every Earth Day Disney puts out a family-friendly animal documentary. In the past, they’ve told us stories about our planet’s oceans, chimpanzees, African cats, and brown bears. This year’s film, Monkey Kingdom focuses on a troop of toque macaque monkeys in Sri Lanka.

The first thing that usually comes to mind when someone thinks ‘wildlife documentary’ is usually those old boring wildlife videos from high school with bland narration about whatever the animals on screen are doing. If you haven’t seen any of the Disneynature series of films then you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise as their films are crafted really well and present the audience with conventions that you’ll get in a regular film. Things such as a protagonist that the movie follows, a plot that tells the story of our protagonist, fun supporting characters, rising tension, and because it’s a Disney movie . . . a happy ending.

Monkey Kingdom focuses on Maya, a pretty well-groomed macaque monkey who’s at the bottom of her troop’s social strata. Like the human world, the toque macaque monkeys of Sri Lanka have a social class structure–the privileged get all the best fruit on the top of fig tree, while those on the bottom (literally the ground) have to scrounge around for food. The film follows Maya as she struggles to find food, raise her young son, and her climb up the troop’s social structure–which helps them to survive.

0417_02-MayaEating

It’s actually a pretty ingenious endeavor when you think about it. How do you get people to watch what might ordinarily be a boring subject? By getting them into it. Give the audience someone to root for. Someone that they can empathize with. For us, that person (or monkey rather) is Maya. I don’t know how much of Tina Fey’s narration is actually true, but from the footage the producers shot and edited together; they’ve crafted a pretty interesting story that people will sit down to watch.

When the film starts off, Maya is essentially a low income worker with no good prospects and she only stays with her troop because she knows that if she were to leave, she would not be protected by any number of predators that lurk in the surrounding jungle. We see Maya “going to work” every day as she goes out to search for food. We see her as a single mother when she begins to raise her son on her own. And we see her rise to prominence in her tribe when they start to rely on her skills as a searcher and gatherer of food.

There are a number of fun moments in the film–one or two of which I wouldn’t be surprised if they were staged. In one particular scene, Maya and some of the other low-class monkeys raid a human kitchen where a birthday cake with a bunch of different goodies are all perfectly laid out, ripe for the plundering. It’s fun to watch the monkeys go crazy grabbing at all this food, but I found it really hard to believe that the filmmakers just happened upon a scene like that.

0417_03-MonkeyRuins

Conversely, there’s an emotional sequence in the film when Maya is separated from her son by “The Sisters”, a trio of upper-class female monkeys who treat lower classed monkeys badly because they can. While more heart-wrenching moments like these are few and far between, it does give us a sense that that the animal kingdom mirrors the human kingdom in many similar ways.

If I were to tell you the plot of this story without telling you that it stared monkeys, you might think it’s a halfway decent movie. And for the most part it is. Believe it or not the narration adds a lot to the film. It’s not so much Tina Fey’s personality as it is how the filmmakers edited the footage they shot and developed the narrative for it. Again, who can say exactly how much of what we hear is actually how things happened. At the end of the day, just like in any movie, you’re here to be entertained and that’s exactly what Monkey Kingdom does. It gets you to root for Maya and her family of monkeys.

As in previous years, a portion of opening week box office sales will be donated to an organization that will help the animals and/or environment that the film was shot in. In conjunction with Conservation International, this year’s collected proceeds will go towards protecting habitat across Indonesia, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka. Not only do you get to see a movie the entire family can enjoy, but part of the cost you pay for admission will help Maya and other monkeys in the region. Remember, it’s only during the first week of Monkey Kingdom’s engagement (April 17-23).

Monkey Kingdom is now playing in theaters everywhere.

⅗ stars // rated G // 1h 22min

20
Feb
15

Review: The DUFF

0220_01-TheDUFF-DOM

High school is rough. With age comes insight and perspective, so you can look back on your high school days and ask “Wow, were we . . . were things, really that dramatic when I was in high school?” Through the lens of The DUFF, it’s safe to say that though the lingo, clothes, and technology have changed, high school is still high school. You still have the popular kids, the jocks, bullying; it all just looks a little different, but it’s still there.

In case you haven’t visited Urban Dictionary lately, DUFF stands for ‘Designated Ugly Fat Friend’. However, the moniker doesn’t have to strictly adhere to the descriptors the acronym stands for. In broader terms it mainly refers to a situation where a less attractive and more approachable person (usually female, but can apply to either male or female) hangs out or is friends with two or more attractive people. Needless to say that when our main character Bianca is made aware of her situation, drama (of the high school nature) ensues.

I guess one question I initially had was how could a girl with popular friends not be comfortable with who she is? And an even potentially bigger question: does it really matter how you’re perceived? In high school, the answer is almost invariably YES. From the get-go Bianca our protagonist and is portrayed as very independent and very much her own person, but yet she lets the title of ‘The Duff’ to cause doubt in herself. With such a strong minded character, I didn’t get why she let it bother her. Was it just because of high school insecurity? I guess. We need something to move the story along right? Whatever the case may be, I’m always a sucker for high school movies and the struggles of the less popular class of students against the more popular kids at school.

0220_01-Girlfriends

This class struggle is deftly woven into the fabric of the film with the relationship between Bianca and Wesley. At first you might think that they’re the usual “childhood friends” where one grows up to be popular and the other not at all. Well, that’s sort of the case here, but The DUFF gives us some great setup for their friendship by showing us an old photo of Wes and Bianca taking a bath together as kids. You know the type of photo, those embarrassing ones of you that your parents took of you as a kid. It’s inserted into the film and paints us a more authentic history for them.

Being childhood friends, Bianca and Wesley are still pretty good friends in high school–though they both inhabit different social circles. Bianca is the independent, school newspaper editor with something to say who hangs out with two of the hottest girls at school. Wesley meanwhile seems like the stereotypical sex crazed jock–but with some sense of conscience and the right amount of doubt. You can tell he sort of wants to do the right thing (or at least thinks about it), but is held back by the high school social class system that demands the cool kids act like cool kids. Despite their baggage, Bianca and Wes’s friendship feels really developed and their chemistry is fun and playful.

0220_03-BiancaAndWes

A happy surprise is Ken Jeong who fits in surprisingly well in this film as the supportive teacher. He’s not playing the over the top character that we normally get (à la Mr Chow in the Hangover films) and is definitely dialed it back, but still serving up some pretty witty banter. Amazingly he is the inspirational teacher who thinks he’s cool, but in reality is not. Even though his character tries really hard to be cool, he doesn’t really succeed. It’s his attempt to be cool that really made me want to see more of him. When he delivers his lines you almost feel like you’re seeing a different side to Ken Jeong.

And that kind of leads into one of the great things about this movie: the dialogue. Some of the banter and one-liners are so sharp and so perfectly timed. I’d like to think people are this smart and quick in real life, but I don’t think that’s the case. However, almost every character in the film that has screen time has a quip that they get in or a hilarious comedic beat that they hit. Kudos to the screenwriters for giving us some very smart and very fun dialogue.

0220_04-RealityMedia

Focusing back on Bianca and her quest to un-DUFF herself, we do get the usual plot points that we’re all used to in these types of high school movies: friends stop being friends, our awkward protagonist going after the high school crush, our protagonist getting a makeover, and the always fun romantic comedy drama where one person realizes they have feelings for the other person–but at the wrong time. Though The DUFF has all of these tropes, it’s the way it tells them that kept me interested and laughing throughout the film.

Overall The Duff kind of surprised me. Going in I thought I was going to get some pretty standard high school faire just updated for 2015. Though the story was nothing we haven’t seen before, there was enough of a slant to the characters and situations to make them different enough to feel a little more real and original. And the comedy–definitely one of the highlights. As the The DUFF went on I found myself enjoying the film more and more. Good high school flicks get me every time.

The DUFF is now playing in theaters everywhere.

3.5/5 stars // rated PG-13 // 1hr 41min




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