Review: ‘Baby Driver’

Ansel Elgort

Once again, it’s a summer of inevitabilities in Hollywood. Superheroes are perched at the top of the box office. A flare in Minions merchandise signals a new Despicable Me entry. There’s a new Transformers, and yes – it’s very bad and extremely long. Studios will try to restart properties nobody cares about anymore, like The Mummy or Pirates of the Caribbean, and then they’ll wonder why they can’t succeed.

Even Wonder Woman, loudly celebrated for its ability to break new ground with its female lead, devolves into typical blockbuster slush towards the end. And then there’s the most obvious inevitability, which I’m demonstrating right now: critics complaining about an industry that has abandoned taking risks on original concepts, especially when it comes to big, mainstream entertainment. Enter Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, a movie so intensely old-fashioned in its craft yet cutting-edge in its energy and wit, that it serves as a powerful adrenaline shot for a sequel-fatigued theatergoing public.

Edgar Wright has long been known as one of the finest and most vivacious writer-directors working today, even if his cult hits Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World have never had the kind of box office heft to give studio executives much trust that he could draw the attention of anything wider than a niche, hipster audience. Baby Driver handily puts those doubts to rest, with a lovably despicable cast of characters and gloriously old-school action.

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This is a crowd-pleaser in every sense of the world, a music-infused heist film merges the beating heart and tapping toes of La La Land with the white-knuckle car chases of a James Bond film and the aggressive, self-reflexive humor of Tarantino. At its center is the fantastic Ansel Elgort as Baby, a quiet yet goodhearted getaway driver with a constant ringing in his ears to go along with the violent, psychotic musings of the scumbag criminals he’s forced to work (portrayed by such charismatic faces as Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm).

Baby’s skills as a driver, his ability to get down and dirty without ever betraying his central values or sacrificing that which matters most to him (which includes his many iPods and his girlfriend Debora, played by the immensely charming Lily James of Cinderella fame) makes him an instantly iconic protagonist, and also reflects Edgar Wright’s own convictions as the director of intensely idiosyncratic entertainment. Anyone who followed his troubled and ultimately unsustainable collaboration with Marvel on what was supposed to be his Ant-Man will know that, like Baby, Edgar Wright can play the game as well as anyone but will not surrender his own principles and standards.

Baby Driver is a fun film, but it’s fun in Wright’s own special way. Manic, dynamic editing, obscure pop culture references and that particularly British style of fast-paced dark comedy are given the Bullitt treatment with old-school car chases and wacky stunts shot with minimal CGI (and it shows). It’s all set to a constant pulse-pounding soundtrack that’s perfectly synched with the action. This not only offers a portal into Baby’s enigmatic conscience, it lets the audience know it’s okay to have fun, to not take it too seriously. Paradoxically, this makes the pivotal moments of suspense and emotion feel even more pronounced, because Wright lulls viewers into a false sense of silliness.

Ansel Elgort;Lily James

The simplistic nature of the “just when I thought I was out…” narrative is perhaps best-suited to Wright’s already-dizzying style. Whereas Scott Pilgrim was radical in both form and content (and bombed at the box office as a result), Baby Driver employs a more traditional construction to avoid alienating viewers who might otherwise find his work disorienting. Even though there are segments that drag significantly and it occasionally falls victim to infuriating tropes such as ‘the villain who just won’t die’, the end product is an accomplished mixture of what Wright always does best, and what studio blockbusters can do best when they’re fully committed to original, audacious ideas.

Significant credit should go to Sony for taking such a bold risk. After disastrous attempts to build a rebooted Spider-Man universe around Andrew Garfield and to restart the dormant Ghostbusters franchise, it’s heartening to see them investing in genuinely exciting adult blockbusters, including an action-musical-comedy-heist film. Even more gutsy, Sony invested in Edgar Wright, a director who’s never made profitable films and who’d just had a messy break-up with Disney over his unwillingness to compromise with the studio’s mandates. But he has made good films, and it’s a wonderful thing that this still means something to Hollywood, especially during a summer of such inevitability.

Score: 4 out of 5

Ansel Elgort;Jamie Foxx

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Review: “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”

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The first several minutes of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 act as an exhilarating kick-off for 2017’s summer movie season. The colorful, confident and comedically satisfying opening credits sequence makes it clear that director James Gunn’s goal is to recapture the flashy freshness of his 2014 predecessor, only turned up to eleven. The scene (featuring a winning combination of adorable Baby Groot and Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky”) is packed with Guardians’ trademarks: outsized personalities, witty banter, imaginative sci-fi spectacle, nostalgic musical choices and an overall anarchic sense of fun. It is about as good as a first impression can get.

It doesn’t take long, however, for that confident veneer to fade and Vol. 2 to reveal itself as a movie exceedingly burdened by its precarious place in the superhero movie landscape. It is not only the sequel to a surprise hit praised for its inventiveness, but also the fifteenth film in an interconnected cinematic universe often criticized for its precise lack of inventiveness. It’s a lose-lose situation, as Gunn can’t possibly match the original’s novelty while simultaneously giving fans more of what they liked about it. He (and the Disney brass) ultimately choose to go the route most blockbuster sequels take: it doubles down on the familiar and simply pretends that it has something new to show.

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This isn’t to say there aren’t fresh elements to the film, or that they aren’t some of its main assets. Though Vin Diesel’s Baby Groot is clearly a Disney ploy to insert the cute, easily marketable side characters found in their animated films, his toddler-like behavior and the reactions they elicit from the team is used to smartly build on the idea of the Guardians as a real family. Meanwhile, the hilariously naive insectoid Mantis, played wonderfully by French actress Pom Klementieff, fits perfectly within the established crew, providing a few moments of the genuine sweetness that the first film did so well, but that the returning cast never quite recapture within their own flimsy arcs.

The script’s fatal miscalculation is that it splits up the entire cast for a large chunk of the film. Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis chat, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Yondu (Michael Rooker) bicker, sisters Gamora (Zoe Seldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) brawl, and Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord bonds with long-lost father Ego, played by the ever-charismatic Kurt Russell. Breaking the cast up like this is a good idea in theory, as it allows Gunn to zero in on several specific relationships. In practice, it’s a complete disaster. Because the story jumps from one subplot to the next like an overstuffed, expensive sitcom episode, none of these threads are given nearly enough space or time to develop. An identical mistake was made in last summer’s similar sci-fi adventure Star Trek Beyond.

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As a result, the plot progresses at a snail’s pace and the characters are unable to develop naturally. The Star-Lord/Ego storyline, ostensibly the emotional core of the movie, devolves into a guided tour of exposition on Ego’s fake-looking planet right in the middle of the film. Gamora and Nebula’s arc is a total waste of time, the Drax and Mantis relationship is cute but inconsequential, and though the Rocket/Yondu thread features one of the film’s few set pieces, the conflicts they face act mainly as a shameless setup for the already-announced third installment. Worse yet, the film ultimately tries to insert Yondu into Star-Lord’s storyline for emotional impact, but because the characters spend such a vast majority of the film apart, this falls totally flat.

The only upside to the script’s inert structure is that it gives Gunn an excuse to focus even more intently on the freewheeling humor that made the first film feel so alive. There are moments in Vol. 2 that blow its predecessor out of the water in terms of comedy, such as an extended gag in which Star-Lord tries to find tape in the midst of battle and another round of unexpected ’80s pop culture references. Unfortunately, here too the movie is strained by the expectations that come with its heritage. Gunn tries to double, triple, quadruple the jokes, and the emphasis should be on tries, both because he doesn’t always succeed and because he is trying really, really hard.

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Comedy is extremely subjective, no doubt, but there are some jokes I can’t imagine anyone over the age of 14 would find funny (such as Rocket’s relentless, gratuitous insults) and there are others that are, quite objectively, not even jokes. I might have run out of fingers trying to keep count of how many punchlines consist of Drax simply giving a hearty laugh. Groot’s constant puppy dog eyes are also constantly played for laughs: When Shrek‘s Puss and Boots used the same tactic, the humor came from the fact that he was actually a smooth-talking Spanish lothario character using his cuteness for gain. Here, the whole joke is simply that Baby Groot is adorable. It’s true, but it’s not funny.

Another area of overcompensation is in the special effects. There are grander vistas, bigger explosions and a larger death count, but it all falls victim to inconsistent special effects. Disney continues to excel at creating lifelike CGI characters, with Rocket’s fur animations and Groot’s expressiveness being a noticeable step-up. The detail on spaceships and weaponry is equally impressive. On the other hand, the colorful vistas, especially Ego’s Eden-like home world, are extremely unconvincing, with shockingly poor green screen effects that recall the artificiality of some of Disney’s most subpar recent works like Maleficent and Tomorrowland. Compared to something like The Jungle Book, it never feels like the characters and the space exist on the same plane.

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Everything culminates in a particularly loud, weightless and incoherent climax, uninspired even by Marvel standards. Even if the emotional content hadn’t been particularly underwhelming throughout, it’d be drowned out by all shouting, flashing lights, and debris. When this predictable final battle finally comes to an end, there’s a hasty scramble to end on a touching note. The problem is that up until this point the attitude of the characters and the film as a whole is that nothing really matters and life is disposable, but the audience is suddenly asked to care very earnestly about someone. This feels both unearned and tone deaf.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 tries painfully hard to not just live up to expectations, but to blow them out of the water. The result is a strained affair in almost every regard, from the character dynamics to the effects to the comedy. Quantity takes very clear precedence over quality to the detriment of both. There are good things about the film – the performances are still charming across the board, and the soundtrack is perhaps even better than the first. Still, this movie drops the ball where it really counts, ending up as a poster child for the type of well-intentioned but poorly-executed blockbuster sequels that the Guardians of the Galaxy themselves would likely mock relentlessly.

Score: 2 out of 5

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Review: “The Fate of the Furious”

Fate of the Furious, The (2017)

The Fast and Furious franchise is one of Hollywood’s undisputed oddities. The schizophrenic naming system is its most obvious idiosyncrasy, but the series’ overall quality is just as unpredictable. These films range from unbearably bad (2 Fast 2 Furious) to regular bad (Fast & Furious) to mediocre (Fast & Furious 6) to decent (Tokyo Drift) to legitimately good (Fast Five), so in a way part of the excitement comes from not knowing where the next one’ll land on the scale. It’s been a white knuckle ride watching a series duct-taped together with flimsy characters, inconsequential plotting and gratuitous butt-shots, careen closer and closer to self-parody and ignominy with each increasingly ridiculous installment. Almost miraculously, these movies always manages to remain more or less on course, reveling in their own wild inconsistencies.

What began as a rather low-key story about Los Angeles street racers has evolved into balls-to-the-wall action spectacle of the most explosive caliber; the laws of physics have long since disappeared in the rear view. Full of wholesome camaraderie and impossible stunt work, the most recent entries are like a cross between Ocean’s Eleven and Brosnan-era Bond. Many long-running series fret over how to avoid jumping the shark, but Fast and Furious takes a different path by coming up with bigger and bigger sharks to jump over. The Fate and the Furious, the eighth film since 2001, shows no signs the franchise is going to pull back on the snowballing sense of scale. For instance, the ‘shark’ this time is a nuclear submarine (as close they’ve come to jumping over an actual shark).

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Long has it been established that the franchise revolves around ‘family’, with Vin Diesel’s Dom as head patriarch, a deceptively wise Jesus figure with a revolving door of ethnically diverse disciples. Every time he opens his mouth, the word “family” spills out like the most wholesome of Tourette’s symptoms. It’s a punchline by this point, but the unabashed hokeyness of Vin’s family mantra has become the series’ greatest strength. The conviction with which Diesel delivers his proclamations of unity, not to mention the genuine chemistry between the entire cast, is wildly effective in keeping audiences invested in the characters. In the absence of any serious stakes (at least three characters have died and come back to life in some way) or true emotional substance, Dom’s sweet, uber-cheesy value system is the glue that holds the whole rickety enterprise together.

This is important to note because, after a ludicrous opening sequence in Havana that harkens back to the series’ street racing roots, long-time series writer Chris Morgan throws a curveball that threatens to disrupt the very core that makes these movies work. One moment Dom is helping icy blonde stranger Cipher (Charlize Theron) with car trouble. Next thing he knows he’s betraying the rest of his crew, stealing a deadly EMP device and fleeing aboard Cipher’s high-tech airplane. At first the lack of explanation for Dom’s uncharacteristic turn is uncomfortable, decimating the lovable meathead figure before our eyes. Luckily, it doesn’t take long for his motivations to be made clear, and audiences are able to take a sigh of relief: family is still the filmmakers’ top priority.

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With Dom on the dark side, it’s up to the rest of his family to bring him back to the light, and also to deliver a tangible sense of team spirit in his absence. As usual, most of the laughs come from wise-cracking Roman (Tyrese Gibson), who’s especially on-point when mocking the new blank slate pretty-boy played by Scott Eastwood (aptly named ‘Little Nobody’). He’s second-in-command to their equally-bland new team leader, government operative Mr. Nobody, who’s at least afforded a semblance of charisma by the great Kurt Russell. Another fun new dynamic is the hostile, strangely adorable relationship between DSS agent Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) and former villain Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), which gradually blossoms from bitter aggression into sweet, sweet bromance.

While the self-serious ‘DOM HAS TURNED ON FAMILY’ twist threatens to bog the story down with extraneous plotting (you know, the stuff that has always mattered least in these films), the substantial dose of comic relief from the family (rounded out by Ludacris’ Tej, Nathalie Emanuelle’s Ramsey and Michelle Rodriguez’ Letty) provides exactly that: relief. The lovable, dopey interplay assures the movie stays planted firmly at the intersection of dumb and badass. Oddly enough, the worst new addition is Charlize Theron, who’s usually the best part of anything she’s in. The ice queen shtick is tired, and she doesn’t do anything new or interesting with it. The franchise has always been full of archetypes, but they’re usually hilariously archetypal; Theron is just plainly so.

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Why am I still talking about the characters, though? This is a Fast and Furious movie and the main attraction will always be the high-octane set pieces. Fate‘s action sequences may not be the best-executed in the franchise’s long history, but they are some of the biggest and most creative nonetheless. Of special note is a spectacular mid-film section in which Cipher hacks hundreds of cars to incite a self-driving stampede through the city streets of New York (only slightly more terrifying and dangerous than your average drive through NYC). It’s these types of moments, void of all logic, that reminds us that blockbusters are at their best when they embrace the impossible. Ditto with the wacky submarine climax, complete with Tyrese wake-surfing on a Lambo door across a frozen river.

There are two main reasons that the action doesn’t live up to its predecessors: first, though director F. Gary Gray (coming off of Straight Outta Compton) does a great job handling the Nos-fueled car chases, he struggles with the on-foot scenes, far too choppy when compared to James Wan’s excellent hand-to-hand brawls in Furious 7. It’s odd that the camera never has any problem following the near hyper-speed vehicles, but comes down with a heavy case of the shakes when trying to keep up with Jason Statham’s legs. The second problem is that, as the size and scope of the action increases, so too does the need for CGI. As a result, there’s a noticeable reliance on computer-generated artifice over practical effects, which means the film will not age as well as the last few have.

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The movie’s other main issue is its length, which could have easily been cut down if not for the desire to introduce new characters such as Helen Mirren as Jason Statham’s foul-mouthed mum. While the newbies each have their moments, the movie never makes the case for why it was necessary to include Mirren, Eastwood or Russell, except to inject some new blood and set up for… whatever crazy title they come up with for the next movie. The best F&F films are those that have leaned on brevity rather than trying to be some sort of giant Avengers ordeal that’s overly concerned with the future.

Though unwieldy and mercilessly idiotic, this franchise has battering-rammed its way into the hearts of filmgoers, myself included, through pure willpower and bombast. The longer the series runs, the harder it becomes to turn on the ‘Fast’ family. As long as the filmmakers continue to genuinely care about the characters as much as theatergoers do, the series will always have a strange innocence and amiability that most blockbusters try to avoid in an attempt to be taken serious. Since taking a Fast and Furious movie seriously is contradictory to their very existence, by all means: bring on the stupid.

Score: 3.5 out of 5

Fate of the Furious, The (2017)

 

Review: “Beauty and the Beast”

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Not to sound too cynical, but it appears Disney’s been actively testing our tolerance for remakes over the past several years. First, the Mouse House reworked its animated classics Alice in Wonderland (1951), Sleeping Beauty (1959) and Cinderella (1950) into sparkly new blockbusters. Acceptable, as the originals films have admittedly grown outdated (especially the latter two, while Alice remains shockingly ahead of its time) and deserved to have the cobwebs removed. Then last year they released their reimagining of 1967’s The Jungle Book, a slightly less antiquated movie but one that is fifty years old nevertheless and provided ample opportunities for the company to show off their advances in immersive computer graphics technology.

Now Disney leaps ahead a few decades for their first (but certainly not last) live-action crack at the Renaissance era (their hugely successful string of hits between 1989 and 1999). As one might imagine, the original Beauty and the Beast still holds up exceptionally well, making it difficult for Disney to hide behind the excuse that kids these days simply can’t connect with it, an argument that could more reasonably be made for, say, the original Cinderella. As such, this Beauty from director Bill Condon is the most glaringly unnecessary Disney production mounted since Tim Burton’s horrendous Alice attempt. Luckily, they’ve learned much over the last seven years about how to best balance what still works from the originals with the aspects most in need of updating.

In particular, Beauty and the Beast’s simple yet effective romance remains mostly untouched. The relationship still goes from a captive/captor situation into a full-blown romance a bit too quickly while glossing over the disturbing implication of Stockholm Syndrome, but that was always an incredibly tricky dynamic which can likely never be full explored in a family friendly way… not to mention it’s patently besides the point. In a light and airy way, the chemistry between the actors works as expected.

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Emma Watson has never been a top-tier actress, evidenced most severely in her overly-emotive Hermione performances in the middle few Harry Potter films. She has of course improved over time, but it’s still clear from her performance as Belle that she does fear and sadness far more convincingly than love or joy. She more or less has the look and the singing voice, but does not give as indelible a performance as Lily James’ Cinderella. Likewise, it’s hard to heap too much praise on Dan Stevens as Beast, mainly because he’s covered in CGI fur (very, very good-looking CGI fur, I might add). His eyes do much of the heavy lifting, and in that regard he was another good casting decision on Disney’s part.

Those disappointed that last year’s The Jungle Book either omitted or watered-down much of the original’s music will be glad to discover that the new Beauty and the Beast actually includes more songs than its 1991 predecessor, written by original composer Alan Menkin. None of this new material can hold a candle (no pun intended) to the returning favorites, but they do fit seamlessly in terms of tone, and give the characters’ simplistic internal conflicts an extra dose of sophistication.

But it’s a shame then that the visuals that accompany these musical numbers are irritatingly inconsistent. Opening number “Belle” gets things off to a rocky start with dull shot compositions that too closely mirror the animated version, as well as some obvious lip sync issues. More painfully is that the same problems plague the funniest and most energetic of the original’s songs, “Gaston”, leaving it feeling oddly limp and hokey. Neither sequence takes advantage of the live action switch nor any of the technological innovations of the last fifteen years, settling for a shrug-worthy rehash.

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On the other hand, the two highlights of the entire film are the spectacular, dynamically shot “Be Out Guest” sequence with Ewan McGregor at the fore, and a recreation of the beloved ballroom-set title track, sung this time by Emma Thompson. While most remakes these days tend to ignite skepticism amongst weary audiences, these sequences exemplify Disney’s ability to evade such criticism by marrying old-fashioned earnestness with top-shelf technology. The creative magnificence of these soaring, lavish showstoppers makes it difficult to accuse the film of having little ingenuity, or to complain that the original simply ‘looks good enough’ and thus invalidates another go.

At the same time as they break visual ground, both songs demonstrate the company’s respect for the original, leaving the central tone wholly unchanged. McGregor and Thompson channel original performers Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury and attain the same warmth, while both scenes contain just enough callbacks to their 1991 counterparts to feel reverent without being redundant. Disney’s winning formula is to maintain the heart and soul of their older catalogue while modernizing primarily through external means (thanks to the best special effects and musical talent that money can buy).

In addition to gradually raising the bar for technical excellence, Disney has been working over the past few years to revise the outdated social values of some of their earlier works, mainly through a pointed emphasis on diversity and equality. Yet unlike animated hits Tangled, Frozen, Zootopia and Moana, the social justice efforts of Beauty and the Beast feel half-hearted, if not laughable. The highly publicized and supposedly revolutionary “gay moment” is less a watershed moment of acceptance and more a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nod of admission.

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Meanwhile, the racial diversity on display is nothing more than trumped-up tokenism, made all the more obvious due to the relegation of the extremely talented Gugu Mbatha-Raw to a thankless side role (who has technically played her own ‘Belle’, and better). I’m certainly not arguing that there’s something innately wrong with having all-white leads, but if Disney is going to keep acting like they’re the new face of inclusion, feeble winks aren’t going to cut it. It not only undermines their own apparent goals, it undermines the hard-working actors of color whose side they claim to be on.

The social issues are ultimately insignificant compared to the very real narrative ones that plague the film. The first act feels noticeably rushed in an attempt to get Belle to Beast’s castle as soon as possible. The most baffling addition is an added thread revolving around Belle’s mother, which doesn’t serve any discernible purpose other than to take up time that could have been better used to establish a better emotional connection between her and her father, her sisters and Gaston.

Speaking of Gaston, Luke Evans is well cast in the role but the character and his comic relief sidekick LeFou (played by Josh Gad) remain wholly tangential until the end. They inject a sense of vitality and humor thanks to witty banter, but are too out-of-sync with the main plot to serve as a tangible threat. These problems could just as easily be leveled upon the original, but it’s too bad Disney missed their chance to rectify them to create a more cohesive story.

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The other comic relief characters are the cursed castle staff members headlined by candelabra Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) and Cogsworth (Sir Ian McKellen), and they are fantastic in every way. Their designs are clever and imaginative while their intentionally janky movements are perfectly animated to humorous effect. It’s true that their more ‘realistic’ look allows for limited facial expressiveness compared to the googly-eyed cartoon versions, but each of the voice actors (including Mbatha-Raw, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci and Audra McDonald) bring them to life by tempering the cutesy, wholesome dialogue with sharp delivery.

Beauty and The Beast does little to pander to audiences, refusing to force an unnecessary ‘attitude’ or the heavy-handed irony that’s in style these days. Like the modern Cinderella and Jungle Book, the movie is unafraid to be schmaltzy and simplistic because it believes strongly enough in the moral core of the story it tells. At the same time, it doesn’t rest solely on the original’s laurels by providing spectacle that begs to be seen on a big screen. Though inconsistencies in the narrative, performances and musical numbers keep this the lesser Beauty, Condon does an impressive job of threading the needle between old-fashioned and newfangled to create a crowd-pleasing hit of sweet, pretty nostalgia.

Score: 3 out of 5

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Review: “Kong: Skull Island”

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One of the smartest choices in monster movie history was made out of sheer necessity. In 1974, Steven Spielberg decided to shoot his film Jaws on the open ocean rather than in a tank on Universal’s lot. The filmmakers dragged three robotic sharks (collectively named ‘Bruce’) out into the Atlantic to proceed with a shoot that went 100 days over schedule. The production was a mess for several reasons, but one big problem was that the salt water began to distort and corrode the mechanical carcharodons. This posed a big problem for a movie that hinged entirely upon its ability to make audiences believe the shark was real.

So Spielberg made a decision that must have frustrated the engineers behind his aquatic animatronics: he would have to shoot the shark as little as possible. Thus, in many sequences Jaws is seen just below the surface or not at all, while John William’s iconic musical theme is constantly used as a stand-in for the benevolent fish’s physical presence. Though the simple result of unfortunate circumstances, keeping the shark hidden proved extremely beneficial. It forced Spielberg to adhere to an essential horror truism: a monster is much more frightening when left to the imagination. Instead of a waterlogged action-adventure film, a truly terrifying horror classic was born.

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The restrictions that plagued special effects-centric movies in the 1970s have since been eradicated and it’s fitting that Spielberg himself had a hand in it. After the Jaws ordeal, he must have felt absolutely liberated by the ability to use sophisticated computer graphics for Jurassic Park and War of the Worlds, later cementing CGI’s staying power by producing 2007’s Transformers. These days, blockbuster filmmakers are free to imagine fearsome foes of any size or complexity, and display them however they choose. This poses an important conundrum for Hollywood monster movies: should they show off their convincing effects as much as possible, or do they stick with the effective techniques Spielberg perfected by keeping the monster obscured… on purpose this time?

For instance, Cloverfield purposefully kept its monster mostly under wraps until the end in order to better reflect the disorienting, incomprehensible anxiety of the 9/11 attacks. And say what you will about 2014’s Godzilla (I will, it’s overrated), its insistence on keeping the titular lizard marginalized added immensely to the impact of its impressive third-act rampage. In stark contrast, Warner Brothers’s Kong: Skull Island goes the Michael Bay route. This movie is a toy chest and director Jason Vogt Roberts just wants to show off his toys. We see the big monkey in all its glory early on, not to mention a handful of other insane, imaginative species that live on his island domain. This bombastic approach turns out to be at once a breath of fresh air and a case of sensory overload.

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But it’s important to give some context first. Vogt-Roberts is the latest filmmaker to be handed a huge blockbuster after directing only a single indie feature (in his case 2013’s low-key coming-of-age comedy The Kings of Summer). This practice worked out for Warner when they hired up-and-comer Gareth Edwards, straight off of his low budget debut Monsters, to direct their Godzilla reboot despite his lack of experience. The massive box office success of that film earned him a job helming Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and convinced Warner to set up an interconnected giant monster universe that contains Skull Island, a 2019 Godzilla sequel, and mash-up Godzilla vs. Kong in 2020.

So who can blame the studio for once again entrusting a young (and cheap) whippersnapper like Vogt-Roberts to create a sleek, modern King Kong story? At the very least the youthful energy he brings is on full display, reflected in an extreme visual dynamism. His camera spins, swoops and careens across the screen, jumping from character to character and location to location at a rapid pace. The production design is infused with dazzling colors and though the CGI doesn’t reach the industry high bar, Kong and the other huge beasts (including stilt-legged spiders, skeletal lizards and stone-horned buffalo) are inventive and evocative in their designs.

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Vogt-Roberts seemingly aspires to be a Quentin Tarantino for a new age, drawing from an eclectic range of pop culture from his childhood: instead of exploitation and westerns, it’s anime and video games. These aesthetic sources are clearly responsible for his decision to keep the monsters in the spotlight. Video games rely on having the enemies in sight as often as possible, while the freedom of 2D animation has lent anime a long history of gigantic monstrosities. It’s exciting to see the rise of a new generation with distinctive influences, but Vogt-Roberts is no Tarantino (at least not yet). At times it appears he’s more interested in paying homage to his influences than creating a coherent vision, and while this leads to an astonishing kaleidoscope of style, there’s so little substance it hurts.

For all the differences between this film and 2014’s Godzilla, both suffer from terrible scripts that both commit the same major sin: too many characters with no space to flesh them out or take advantage of the actors’ skills. The first half hour of Kong introduces a horde of characters played by an insane amount of talent including Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson, Toby Kebbell, and both Jason Mitchell and Corey Hawkins from Straight Outta Compton (two actors who deserve the blockbuster break). Everyone is given at least one moment in the spotlight, but one is not enough. Much of the focus ends up going to John C. Reilly (as a WWII vet stranded on the island for decades), whose wacky delivery fits the tone but steals everyone else’s screen time.

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For a surprisingly long while, it’s possible to overlook the vaporous relationships and awkward dialogue because the visual bombast is strong enough to carry the movie on gonzo B-movie fumes alone. But the whole narrative crumbles hard in the final act, once it tries to ‘pay off’ emotional arcs that were barely even established in the first place. Suddenly, we’re asked to care about the well-being of these people, despite the fact that by this point half of them have died in abrupt and often hilarious ways. Certain characters are paired off by this point, but if you blinked at any point, you probably missed when and how these relationships happened.This awful storytelling manages to dull a terrifically badass climactic fight sequence with Kong at center stage because it constantly cuts to the dumb humans in the middle of the action.

Kong: Skull Island demonstrates the positives and negatives behind the Transformers approach to monster movies. CGI allows for a greater focus on the look and scale of whatever vivid creatures one can imagine, but it also encourages blunt storytelling that runs contrary to the genre’s suspenseful, legitimately frightening legacy. It’s a shame the movie doesn’t embrace its own insane frivolousness and jettison our attention on the human characters altogether, instead opting to emulate every other blockbuster by the second half. Vogt-Roberts leaks potential all over the screen (this is the clear result of a guy who’s been handed $185 million) and it’ll be interesting to see where he goes from here, but his Kong is another modern monster mishap. His successor would be wise to look to Spielberg for the answers.

Score: 2.5 out of 5

KONG: SKULL ISLAND

 

Review: “Logan”

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Logan is a film at war with its own blood.

As with every prior venture starring Hugh Jackman as the vicious, tortured, self-healing mutant Wolverine/Logan, it is a superhero movie down to its very DNA. This is clear from the opening sequence, in which Logan murders several men meddling with the vehicle that is his office and home. Of course, this introduction is meant to show off the film’s R-rating, which for the first time allows for an anatomically accurate demonstration of what would happen if Wolverine’s adamantium claws tore through actual human flesh. But on a narrative level the brutality serves no purpose. The cynical truth is that these movies simply need violence. Death and destruction are studio mandates. And it’s the filmmakers’ clear desire to escape from these conventions and from the genre’s innate cruelty that is reflected beautifully in Wolverine’s struggle.

Amidst sequences of nihilistic savagery and grit there is a warmth that handily demarcates Logan from its contemporaries and from every other X-Men film over the last seventeen years (yes, it’s been that long). The narrative begins in 2029 with few mutants left besides Logan, Charles Xavier (again played by Patrick Stewart) and vampire-like Caliban (Stephen Merchant). The three of them remain hidden in Mexico, believing themselves finally rid of the endless fighting that has long characterized their existence. By this point, though, the characters themselves are no less privy than the audience to the fact this will never actually be the case. Sure enough, conflict arises yet again with the arrival of the sadistic Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), who’s after Laura (Daphne Keen), a mute little girl with far more importance to Wolverine than he’d like to believe.

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What follows is a classic road movie that borrows the look and heart of a western. Wolverine, Laura and a Professor X (quickly slipping into senility) flee from Pierce and his small army through the southern United States in search of a rumored save haven, a promise of peace that may or may not actually exist. As Logan deals with his own deteriorating state caused by poisoned blood from his steel claws (in effect, his body is eating away at itself), Laura’s presence forces him to face the inner demons he has spent his whole life running from. The refreshing focus on the character’s emotional state is perhaps only possible because audiences have spent so long in the company of Jackman’s mutant. The same goes for the iconic Xavier whom Stewart has portrayed for just as long.

The leisurely pace, moody atmosphere and near-episodic plotting can sometimes cause the film to drag, but this is easier to swallow knowing it’s a sendoff of characters (and actors) who deserve the rest. Whereas most comic book adaptations consist of long strings of action punctuated with slower moments meant to build character, Logan is the exact opposite: it’s a quiet tone poem punctuated by bursts of violence, often shocking and novel in their goriness. The blood-soaked presentation not only works as a gimmick but as a tool to confront audiences with a hard truth: every blockbuster contains this level of violence, but the blood is often conveniently left out. By finally seeing an honest depiction of the carnage that Wolverine (and many other Marvel heroes) would realistically cause, it’s much easier to understand his pain and guilt.

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Last year’s Deadpool was another X-Men spinoff hailed by audiences and critics alike as a refreshing departure from the comic book norm. Yet it didn’t take long for many (myself included) to point out that while the movie gleefully mocked genre tropes, in essence it was as much a slave to convention as the latest Avengers bonanza. Making fun of how predictable and repetitive superhero blockbusters are makes for a hollow, hypocritical gesture when the parody maintains those same predictable, repetitive elements (although with admirable energy). A year after its release, Deadpool still drips with palpable frustration over a system that’s perpetually lacking in innovation, but the movie’s smug, snarky approach only emphasizes the futility of change.

Tellingly released in the aftermath of Fox’s own X-Men: Apocalypse (an ‘assembly line’ iteration in every sense), Logan is just as much a self-aware reaction piece to genre fatigue as Deadpool ever was, posing the same broad question: why do we keep consuming the same stories over and over, and why these violent, destructive stories in particular? The difference comes from the tools each film utilizes. If Deadpool’s weapon of choice is wit, Logan’s is soul. Instead of self-righteous sarcasm, director James Mangold goes the opposite route with a probing and contemplative approach, while retaining an unflinching impulse to shake up a tired system. After all, few in Hollywood know the constraints and pitfalls of making a big-budget comic book blockbuster more intimately than Mangold.

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The same goes for Jackman. There are few actors who have portrayed the same character over so many years and so many films, let alone one that has been imposed upon time and time again to pesky studio meddling, always adjusting the character to fit a perceived audience rather than staying true to a singular vision. Jackman has been a supremely good sport considering his starring ventures have ranged from excellent (his fierce original performance and recently X-Men: Day of Future Past) to abysmal (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), but it’s clear that he, along with those behind the camera, have always had to dull his claws muzzle the unstoppable rage he embodies to keep things PG-13. This is no longer a problem. The claws are out, and Wolverine is finally unleashed.

Mangold’s attempt to understand the character, and to simultaneously make sense of the vexing Hollywood system ultimately turns out to be one and the same, resulting in a brilliant meta-narrative in which Logan acts as the walking, bleeding, self-loathing manifestation of the superhero genre as a whole. Though disillusioned, Wolverine seeks an answer to the same question posed earlier: why do we keep consuming the same stories over and over, and why violent, destructive stories in particular? His life is the definition of insanity, fighting the same battles over and over (seriously, read some plot summaries of X-Men movies to see how repetitive it gets), yet always hoping it will finally end. Still, conflict follows him everywhere. There is seemingly no end to the vicious cycle that pains him, just as there’s seemingly no end to studio executives recruiting him (or perhaps someone younger) for yet another round of senseless violence and suffering.

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Yet the movie tries anyway, and so do its heroes. The plot sees Wolverine literally fleeing from the genre’s worst and most inevitable impulses: convoluted/convenient plotting, mindless action sequences full of blaring chaos, an un-intimidating antagonist (Halbrook’s Pierce is as bland as it gets), and the promise of a sequel or ten. All of these familiar drawbacks encroach on the film itself, leading to certain moments that fall back on traditional, dull storytelling techniques in a very disappointing way. Yet unlike Deadpool, Mangold at least valiantly questions why a movie like Logan apparently can’t exist without these flaws. Without spoiling anything, a couple of plot points in the second half demonstrate the only logical conclusion for what should, and perhaps one day will, happen to today’s most thriving genre. The ending is not only poignant – it feels correct.

If the suggestion that Logan is actually a commentary on the superhero phenomena seems far-fetched, Mangold doubles down on the idea by drawing a (sometimes too) clear parallel between his film and the Western. The setting, lighting, and narrative structure make this apparent enough, as does a recurring, overt reference to 1953’s classical Western Shane, a major influence on Mangold’s work. But the darker tone and a deep reckoning with the consequences of its genre more accurately aligns Logan not with the patriotic, violent ’40s and ’50s classics of John Wayne and co., but with ‘revisionist westerns’, later entries that question the values earlier westerns had perpetuated in the American cultural psyche.

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One of the most famous revisionist westerns is 1992’s Unforgiven, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood (one of the most recognizable figures of the genre) as weathered cowboy Will Munny, who must face all the terrible things he (and the western mindset) has done in the past. It’s hard not see Jackman’s Logan in relation to Eastwood’s Munny, attempting some sort of retribution on behalf of a system of Hollywood films that may just reflect the worst of their contemporary societies. It’s not completely fair to compare the woefully racist and ultra-aggressive classical western to the increasingly diverse superhero movie, but at least in terms of massive popularity, repetitive content and a penchant for violence, there are striking similarities that have not gone unnoticed. What the CGI-fueled, mass destruction-obsessed, and globally set exploits of Marvel’s cinematic universe says about today’s society will be up to future film theorists to debate.

That Logan is more insightful and inquisitive than most superhero movies isn’t to say that it doesn’t work simply as crowd-pleasing action spectacle with a suitably unique vibe. The action is well choreographed, the score is fantastic, the performances are formidable, the dialogue draws real emotion and much of the shot composition is excellent. But it’s the acute self-awareness that makes this a special film that rises with the best of the genre. It isn’t as deep and nuanced an experience as The Dark Knight (still the gold standard) but the desire to be more than its DNA is strikingly sincere. Logan is thoughtful, artfully made entertainment that acts as a touching tribute to a character and franchise that helped start a filmmaking revolution, as well as a visionary look into what the future may hold for comic book adaptations in the right hands.

Review Score: 4 out of 5

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Exploring The Deceptive Brainlessness of ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’

[Note: this article was originally posted on Moviepilot.com]

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John Wick: Chapter 2 would like us to believe it has nothing to say. It’s a breathless, trashy descent into ultra-violence set in an assassin underworld where murder is as natural as breathing. Following another year of high-profile shootings, surely a film of such unrepentant brutality is bound to leave a bad taste in the mouth. Yet, it never does. That’s because, even more so than its fiercely frivolous predecessor, Chapter 2 is actually a remarkably stealthy satire that, through its inventive world-building and crazy characters, holds a mirror to society’s shameful, near-religious fetishization of violence. In reality, this film has plenty to say, but the effectiveness of its message hinges on its ability to disguise itself as nothing more than shallow escapism.

The film’s mindless exterior is so skillfully crafted that it’s easy to get caught up in its vicious whirlwind. Director Chad Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad expand on all the best elements of the first John Wick film without losing its tight focus. The action sequences are larger, weightier and more over-the-top, mixing in old-school slapstick that laces the carnage with dissonant humor. Whereas the original took its time before revealing exactly what Wick was capable of, the sequel doesn’t have the element of surprise and the filmmakers smartly chose to begin, quite literally, at full throttle. From there, each new set piece escalates in scale while shifting the stakes and introducing new absurdities all the way to its eye-popping climax. Stahelski’s background in stunt work is apparent in the immense physicality and attention to detail within every frame, while Kolstad ensures each action scene forwards the plot rather than distract from it.

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Part of the first film’s charm was how easy it was to explain (they kill John Wick’s dog, John Wick kills everybody), the plot was never more than an excuse to offer a tantalizing glimpse into an intriguing fantasy world. I don’t mean “fantasy” as in wands and muggles, but much like a certain Wizarding World, the assassin community that Wick belongs to has its own peculiar rules and traditions, well-respected (or feared) figures and complex institutions tucked secretly within our own. The first film dropped audiences into this shadowy world with little explanation, leaving it up to viewers to imagine just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Though Wick 2 opens the scope of the order far beyond New York’s Continental Hotel, for the most part it still obscures just as much as it reveals, continuing to revel in its own mysteries.

All of this results in an immersive, beautiful bloodbath ballet, where we’re asked to smile and laugh as the body count rises. In that respect, the movie doesn’t seem different than any other mindless Hollywood blockbuster, save for an excess in style. Many reviews have inevitably chalked Chapter 2 up as a “guilty-pleasure” action flick, and the filmmakers themselves don’t appear to want fans to read any farther into it than that. However, good storytellers know that a story doesn’t resonate as deeply as Wick’s does without something deeper going on under the surface. Some may note that one element fans gravitate towards is the cavalcade of peculiar characters that Wick meets on his blood-soaked quest. It’s not their peculiarities that are the key to the film’s effectiveness — it’s what they all share in common.

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Some of the figures Wick meets are nefarious, such as central antagonist Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio). Some are oddly cordial, like bodyguard Cassian (Common), even when he’s out for John’s head. Then there are the in-between oddballs like the indeterminate Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne, perhaps the most tonally out-of-place performance in the film, but a welcome extended cameo nonetheless). Despite their differences in demeanor and motivation, all are bound by a single, unalterable code. The absolutism of this complex system is unmistakably similar in form and function to any organized religion, made clear through constant nods to Catholic imagery (especially during the Rome-set middle stretch). The assassin order is carefully illustrated as an overtly absurd belief system, and that gives it a relatability that’s as effective as it is hard to pick out amidst all the blaring gunfire.

As with any faith, the followers of the assassin order walk among us every day; they’re the baristas, the bouncers, the businessmen and the buskers. They look, speak and present themselves as anyone else. Internally however, their entire lives are built around a strict adherence to a rule system that is assumed honorable and moral, and thus can not be defied under any circumstance. If this were a religion, though, their God would be death. The order’s way of life revolves around killing and little else. Murdering others for money is as simple a tenant as prayer or a matter of etiquette, like washing one’s hands before eating. As one can deduce, this leaves almost every character in John Wick: Chapter 2 completely desensitized to violence, which has its own adverse effects on them. Because death is clearly not desirable but is nonetheless a necessary part of their lifestyle, they might as well enjoy the process. Thus, killing people is frequently referred to as “business” and weaponry is savored like fine wine.

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We only meet one character in the film who has successfully “broken free” of this order: John Wick. Keanu Reeves seemingly plays Wick with this idea in mind. His face is constantly pained as he carries the unmistakable weight of religious guilt on his shoulders. He doesn’t want to enjoy the process because he’s seen that the order generates copious harm and hypocrisy to be swept under the rug. After all, nobody can question an absolute. However, as Wick learns the hard way, you can never truly leave a closed system without the specter of hellfire looming over your shoulder. Part of him wants to atone, but atonement in this world means death. So he must sin. He must break rules. Anyone who has experienced a crisis of faith can relate to and find a release through John Wick’s plight, as can anyone who’s ever questioned a large, powerful institution and felt the fire as a result. Wick is a secular Jesus for any and all.

Except he kills for our sins.

While the film’s religious metaphor is deceptively nuanced, the connection made between organized religion and violence should not be mistaken as an attack on religion. Rather, it’s an attack on humanity’s morbid fascination with blood and guts, and specifically America’s disproportionate obsession guns and gun rights. The film does not claim that religion will necessarily lead to corruption and danger, but instead warns that an increasing desensitization to — and interest in — violence could blossom into an almost religious fervor; that is, if our society does not become self-aware as to how ridiculous it is to fetishize death and destruction — as most blockbusters seem to encourage. That’s what makes John Wick: Chapter 2 and its predecessor so different.

The insane amount of mass murder that takes place on screen is not at all ridiculous to its characters. It’s just business. But it is ridiculous to us, the audience, who react with laughter at the absurd indecency playing out, as though it were a Buster Keaton comedy. By letting us in on the joke while the characters play it straight, the movie goes beyond being just another violent romp and becomes a timely, self-reflexive tool for audiences to mock their own savage tendencies and hopefully reflect on them on some subconscious level. That the final action sequence takes place in a hall of mirrors is not merely a great source of spectacle — it’s a symbol of the filmmakers’ intention to confront the audience’s depravity while allowing them to delight in it, to see the image and our reflection at once. In less pretentious terms: To have our cake and eat it too.

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Had any of its messages been more clearly spelled out, John Wick: Chapter 2 would have lost the narrative simplicity of its predecessor and could have fallen into preachy territory, or even garner accusations of sacrilege. It’s Stahelski’s skillful grasp over filmmaking as a celebration of the surface image that allows him to distract so masterfully from the important messages Kolstad imparts, working on the psyche from within. All the longwinded analysis in the world doesn’t matter, as the movie is meant to be enjoyed without a second thought. It only works when it’s working in secret. So enjoy John Wick: Chapter 2 for its mindless action, for its debaucherous excess, for its shallow, fleeting joys. But remember that not all guilty pleasures are equally guilty.

Review Score: 4 out of 5