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Blade Runner 2049 – Review

Some movies are instant classics, while others become classics over time; aging like fine wine.  When Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner came to theaters 35 years ago, it did not perform well at the box office.  Released in a rather remarkable summer season that also included the likes of John Carpenter’s The Thing, Disney’s Tron, Star Trek’s The Wrath of Khan, and Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-TerrestrialBlade Runner was viewed as too slow-paced and ponderous by critics and audiences at the time.  For a time, it seemed like the movie would remain a relic of it’s time and then something remarkable happened.  It found it’s audience, and turned not just into a cult hit, but became one of the most defining cinematic milestones of late 20th century.  You can see the influence of Blade Runner in everything from anime like Ghost in the Shell (1995), to The Matrix (1999), to even the visual pop of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) with all it’s flashy neon color.  The future that we also live in has somewhat seen an influence from the movie, including how some of it’s imagined future tech like video based communication, synthetic food and artificial intelligence have become a reality in our present day.  Truth be told, the then far off future date of 2019 looks far different than the reality that we see only 2 years out, but there is quite a lot that the movie did predict right. Also of note is the philosophical legacy that the movie has left behind.  Taking it’s cue from the original story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” from futurist Philip K. Dick, Blade Runner asked many questions that still are debated today; much of which centers around the basic idea of what it means to be human.  Several decades after it’s release, Blade Runner continues to be an influential film and it’s esteem only continues to grow; with more and more people claiming it as one of the best every made.  And now, 35 years later, Hollywood has done something thought unthinkable before; they made a sequel to Blade Runner.

Blade Runner 2049 is without a doubt a gamble.  One can see rebooting a franchise after a long absence if it’s got the kind of following that could justify it.  Sometimes it works out well (Mad Max: Fury RoadTron: LegacyStar Wars: The Force Awakens), other times it does not (2016’s Ghostbusters).  But, what these successful reboots have in common was their basis in the action genre.  Blade Runner is considered by many to be a thinking man’s film.  Oh sure, there are action bits in it, but the movie takes it’s cues more from classic film noir, using mood and atmosphere to build the story.  The success of Blade Runner comes from it’s perfect execution of those noir tropes, transplanted into a sci-fi plot-line.  One of the biggest fears that fans of Blade Runner had going into this movie was the worry that it would be given the Hollywood treatment, meaning that the sequel would take out all the noir elements that made the first film great and replace it with a lot more action.  To many of them, the idea of a sequel at all seemed to be an insult, because the first film stood so well on it’s own; anything else would just spoil what was already there.  While some of those worries are justified, there was a lot of good omens leading up to the making of this movie.  Ridley Scott, who’s recent track record with sequels isn’t all that great (Alien: Covenant for example), wisely stepped aside and just assumed the role of producer this time, giving the reins over to rising star Denis Villeneuve.  The French Canadian filmmaker has been on a role recently with Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015), and Arrival (2016) all winning critical acclaim, and he couldn’t be better suited to carry the mantle for this daunting project.  Couple that with Harrison Ford making another return to an iconic role, surrounded with a prestige cast and crew, and you’ve got the makings of an A-List production.  But, is it a film worthy to carry on the legacy of such an iconic film, or is it Hollywood once again milking a product and missing the point.

It’s hard to say much about the plot of Blade Runner 2049 without getting into spoilers, so I’ll try to keep the important stuff vague.  It is important to have some knowledge of the original movie in order to understand the intricacies of the plot, but at the same time it does a pretty decent job of laying that stuff out for you while at the same time feeling distinctly it’s own thing.  The movie is set in the year 2049, 30 years after the events of the first Blade Runner.  In that time, the earth’s climate has catastrophically changed, leading to a global shift in weather patterns.  Los Angeles, the setting for this story, is now cold and frigid, and sees frequent snowfalls.  Every part of the city is shrouded in a misty haze, and it is in this urban sprawl that we find a young “blade runner” named simply K (Ryan Gosling).  He is assigned by his superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) to track down a rogue replicant named Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista).  The replicants (human-like androids with superior strength) have been used for the last several decades to colonize distant planets beyond Earth, but older generations were known to be rebellious against their masters.  The Tyrell Corporation that built them has long been defunct, with a new corporation run by enigmatic founder Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) built upon it’s foundations with a line of even more obedient replicants.  K finds Sapper’s compound and promptly “retires” him as all blade runners are ordered to do.  However, upon investigating the compound, K finds a tree with a mysterious box buried within it’s roots, along with a mysterious date carved into the tree; 6-10-21.  This finding leads him down a road towards learning about the old Tyrell replicants who held a lot more secrets than what was thought before, and K must now search for the man with the answers he needs; former blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).

Blade Runner 2049 could have gone awry in so many different ways, as many sequels to great movies do, and I’m happy to say that this one thankfully accomplishes what it needed to do.  This is a very well crafted and masterful sequel that will please any Blade Runner fan out there.  In many ways, I was stunned just how well they pulled it off.  Watching this movie almost immediately after viewing the original makes this new film feel like the second part of a larger whole, which is exactly what it needed to do.  It expands and deepens the world of the first Blade Runner, while at the same time feeling fully complimentary to it as well.  The filmmakers did a fantastic job matching the aesthetic and thematic elements of the original film.  It is not a cheap retread at all, but a fully realized expansion, and it’s every bit a dream come true for those who worship all the bold cinematic choices that the original is known for.  In many ways, it probably worked to this film’s advantage that it came so long after the original.  It needed for film-making technology to catch up to see the vision fully realized.  The original film was groundbreaking itself, with Ridley Scott firmly making a name for himself as a visual artist, but it was also grounded by the limitations of the period.  Here, visual effects have advanced to the point where the limits are boundless, but at the same time, the filmmakers here have shown great restraint, choosing not to overload on the effects but instead use them to broaden the scope of what was already there.  The movie also needed to wait for a filmmaker of Denis Villaneuve’s ilk to give to take on the project with a degree of seriousness.  The movie also benefits having the original screenwriter Hampton Fancher on board, as it’s clear that he’s been refining this story out for decades, making sure that the next chapter in this story was worth the wait.

Now, while I am awed by the degree of success that this production managed to deliver on it’s promises and the remarkable skill put into it’s creation, there is an element to it that does keep it from being an overall great movie in my eyes.  And it’s something that more or less is tied to my feelings about the original as well.  While I did enjoy this movie quite a bit, it did have one fundamental flaw, and that’s pacing.  The original movie has pacing issues as well, but it managed to balance that out a bit more with a tighter edit (although the movie is notorious for having multiple edits, so it depends on which one you prefer).  Blade Runner 2049 runs at a staggering 165 minutes, which does make it feel more epic, yes, but also more bloated as well.  There are plenty of parts of this movie that do flow very well, and some of the slower paced scenes are welcome, if only for allowing us to soak in some of the incredible atmosphere of this film.  There are, however, plenty of moments in this new movie where the pacing drags out to a crawl which left me with a feeling of impatience at times.  One scene in particular, involving a wooden horse, is so drawn out that it actually left me rolling my eyes at one moment, almost begging for the movie to finally get one with it.  It may not be a big problem to some who are more absorbed into this world, but I just felt that some of these slower paced moments could have used a tighter edit.  In the end, it keeps the movie from really soaring in my opinion.  And again, it’s something that I felt the original had a fault with as well.  Blade Runner, I acknowledge is a great movie, but not among my own personal favorites.  It’s a movie that I find myself respecting more than loving, and that likewise is how I feel about 2049.

But there is a lot about the movie that I did love, and it mainly has to do with it’s exceptional production.  This is an Audible and Visual experience the likes that you’ll never forget.  This is by far the most beautifully shot film of the year, as well as one of the most dynamic sound edits I’ve heard in a long time.  The cinematography manages to evoke the look of the original Blade Runner, keeping it within the same visual realm, but elevates it with a far more dynamic color palette and richness to the textures.  It helps that the man behind the lens is none other than Roger Deakins, who is probably the greatest working cinematographer today and one of the best of all time.  Most famous as a collaborator with Coen Brothers, Deakins has already worked well alongside Denis Villenueve before on equally brilliant work in Sicario.  Here, working with a more substantial budget, Deakins and Villenueve create some of the year’s most staggering imagery on screen, filling every frame with eye-catching wonder.  I just love the way that Deakins captures the hidden shadows of colossal structures appearing out of the hazy smog like great symmetrical monoliths holding up the sky.  He also makes his compositions feel in character with the original, helping to honor it’s legacy while at the same time pushing out it’s boundaries.  One scene in particular in a Vegas nightclub is a tour de force in visuals that represents just how much creativity Deakins and Villeneuve can find in this world they’ve become the caretakers of.  The musical score is also a bold statement onto itself.  Composed by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, the music takes it’s inspiration from the original Vangelis melodies and takes it a whole other aural experience.  This movie has a musical score that will quite literally rattle your bones.  It’s pulsating and overwhelming, but at the same time perfect for this movie.  I could even swear that one of the themes felt inspired by the sound of a revved up Formula 1 engine.  I don’t know why it sounded like that, but it’s indeed unforgettable and worthy addition to the whole experience.  It overall makes this a remarkable cinematic experience, even if the plot itself suffers from slow pacing.

The movie also has a stellar cast, who for the most part do a fine job.  It’s neat to see Harrison Ford once again step into another one of his iconic roles so many years later and not miss a beat.  Only a short time after revisiting Han Solo, we find him returning to Rick Deckard with the same amount of passion and care put into the performance.  Deckard is a much trickier character to pull of, given the complexities that he’s got to encapsulate, but Ford does an incredible job not just returning to what he’s done before, but also finding new shades to his persona that give so many more layers to the character.  He doesn’t show up until very late into the movie, but it works to the benefit of the film because it makes his appearance all the more important when it happens; and plus, it’s not really Deckard’s story this time.  Ryan Gosling instead carries much of the weight of this film, and he does so quite admirably.  Some might find him a little dry, but I liked the restraint in his performance, which feels spiritually in line with what Harrison Ford brought to his role in the original film.  Much of the supporting cast does a great job as well.  My own particular favorite among the newcomers was actress Sylvia Hoeks as one of the Wallace Corporation’s more deadly replicant models, going by the ironic name of Luv.  There is also a nice tender performance from actress Ana de Armas who plays K’s artificial intelligence “girlfriend” Joi, who appears to him as a hologram.  It’s a tricky kind of role, but one that she brings a surprising amount of emotion into.  The only weak link in the cast would be Jared Leto’s Wallace, who while not terrible, is also not really fleshed out that well.  It’s a problem when he needs to act as your film’s antagonist, and I’m sorry he does not hold nearly half the menace nor the presence of Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty from the original Blade Runner.  Apart from this, it is a well rounded cast that helps to elevate the movie as a whole.

So, much like the original Blade Runner2049 is a movie that I can recognize as a great cinematic achievement, while at the same time feel a tiny bit underwhelmed.  Don’t get me wrong, it deserve every amount of praise that is going to come it’s way, and fans of the original are absolutely going to be satisfied by this one as well.  In that respect, this movie is an unequivocal triumph, because it took the daunting task of following up a widely regarded masterpiece with a bigger and louder sequel, and did so with in the best possible way.  It honors the original, while at the same time building upon it and expanding it into new horizons.  I can see why this movie is already being proclaimed as one of the year’s best.  The pacing problems were just too hard to forgive for me, and it keeps it from becoming a masterpiece in my eyes. I have the same reservations about the original as well, but feel that it holds up better because there were so much else about it that works.  I feel that Blade Runner 2049 should have been given another edit to tighten things up and remove some of the more bloated, unnecessarily drawn out moments.  Hell, more edits didn’t hurt the original in the long run, as Ridley Scott was better able to refine his masterpiece and find the version that both satisfied him artistically and appealed to audiences.  But, as it stands, the movie is still one of this year’s most impressive cinematic achievements, and one that will be deserving of it’s expected fan-base.  Few sequels, especially ones made so long after the original, ever come close to retaining the same level of quality as their predecessor, so the fact that this one was able to come so close is a bit of a Hollywood miracle in this day and age.  Keep in mind, I was born mere weeks after Blade Runner premiered originally in 1982, so this was a sequel that took my entire lifetime to become a reality and the fact that it turned out this good is a testament to the astounding hard work and seriousness that the filmmakers undertook in it’s making.

Rating: 8/10

Kingsman: The Golden Circle – Review

Hollywood’s love affair with spy thrillers goes back all the way to it’s early days.  Pioneered largely by filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, espionage and undercover mysteries have given the genre fertile ground to mine for many years.  With the onset of World War II, the spy thriller also became an important part of conveying the work being done to gain an intelligence advantage against the enemy to a broad audience.  After the war years, spy movies entered a new phase.  As the Cold War changed the spy game once again, and turned it more covert and mysterious, the idea of the spy took on more mythic qualities and we began to see the emergence of the “super spy” archetype.  No character better exemplified this than James Bond.  In his 50-plus years of existence, Bond has become cinema’s most famous spy; an international man of mystery, who wears the finest clothes, drives the fanciest cars, sleeps with the most beautiful women, and has a licence to kill.  And while most of the Bond films hold up as great escapist entertainment, some of the movies do slip into the absurd once and a while, and that opens the image of the “super spy” up to ridicule.  The genre was most famously lampooned by Mike Myers in his Austin Powers trilogy.  With Austin Powers, we saw the genre reexamined through the eyes of generation raised on the myth of the “super spy,” but living in a post-Cold War era, and recognizing the absurdities within.  But, with the recent resurgence of the Bond franchise and intelligence gathering becoming more of a priority in a “cyber spy world” the genre needed something to reflect the absurd conventions that have built it up, while at the same time standing on it’s own as an action film.

Thus we got Kingsman: The Secret Service.  Based on the comic book series “The Secret Service” by Mark Millar, Kingsman was refreshing departure for the spy genre, mixing the hard edge action of James Bond with the silly, over-the-top absurdness of Austin Powers, with a little John Woo thrown in for good measure.  What resulted was one of the best action films of recent memory.  Kingsman even managed to stand out in a banner year for spy films in 2015, which also saw the big screen debut of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. from Guy Ritchie, as well as new entries from genre mainstays like Mission: Impossible (Rogue Nation) and even James Bond (Spectre).  Directed by Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass), the film perfectly mixed all the ingredients of the genre together that stood well on it’s own as both an action thriller and as a comedy.  Not only did it deliver some incredibly well choreographed action set pieces, but managed to be laugh out loud hilarious as well.  There was something just so perfect about seeing Bond-esque fight scenes performed by what essentially look like stereotypes of stuffy upper-class British aristocrats.   They are her majesty’s secret service looking always ready to meet her majesty.  And the very archetypal Britishness of the whole thing helped to make the film feel unique and fresh.  It was also very self aware of audience expectations and managed flip a lot of genre conventions on it’s head.  For one thing, who would have ever expected seeing Oscar-winner Colin Firth in a finely tailored suit slaughtering a whole bunch of redneck thugs in a church with samurai like skills.  There was a whole lot to love about Kingman: The Secret Service and it promised us a whole new world worth delving into in an expanded franchise.  We didn’t have to wait long as Kingsman: The Golden Circle presents the next chapter in the Kingsman saga.  But, is it a mission worth taking or did it self destruct on it’s own?

Kingsman: The Golden Circle picks up not long after the events of The Secret Service.  Eggsy (Taron Egerton) has settled into his new role as one of the elite Kingsman, taking over the designated title of Galahad from his deceased mentor Harry Hart (Colin Firth), who was shot in the head in the previous film.  While maintaining his new career as an expertly trained spy, Eggsy is also engaged in a loving relationship with Princess Tilde (Hanna Alstrom) of Norway, who would like to see her boyfriend make an even deeper commitment to their love life.  While Eggsy is away meeting his girlfriend’s parents, the King and Queen, the Kingsman organization falls prey to a coordinated attack which destroys the entire organization and leaves all members dead, except for Eggsy and the Kingsman’s skilled quartermaster and technician, Merlin (Mark Strong).  With nowhere to turn, Eggsy and Merlin seek out their doomsday scenario options, which leads them to a whiskey distillery in Kentucky.  There, they discover a secret organization of spies not unlike their own, made up of cowboy styled super agents known as the Statesman.  The are welcomed in Statesman Tequila (Channing Tatum) who introduces them to their resident technician Ginger (Halle Berry), as well as their superior Champagne (Jeff Bridges), or Champ for short.  Eggsy and Merlin learn from them that their organization was destroyed by a drug syndicate called the Golden Circle, which is run by a nostalgia obsessed kingpin named Poppy (Julianne Moore).  Not only that, but Poppy has concocted a master plan to poison the world’s population by lacing her drug supplies with a lethal disease and demanding a ransom for an antidote.  Eggsy teams up with another Stateman agent, Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) to get to the bottom of Poppy’s organization and find the antidote before it’s not too late.  And to complicate things even more, Eggsy finds another surprise in the Statesman’s lair; an alive but amnesiac Harry Hart.

In many ways, Kingsman: The Golden Circle delivers on everything that a sequel should do.  It stays true to what it’s predecessor has set up and continues to expand on the world that it’s built up.  But, at the same time, The Golden Circle also falls into the same pitfalls that a lot of other sequels do after the success of their beloved predecessor.  The big problem that befalls this film is that it feels more bloated.  The first Kingsman was a swift, fast-paced adventure that managed to balance the action and the laughs perfectly.  Golden Circle runs for nearly two and a half hours, and unfortunately this longer run time leads to a lot of padding, which spoils some of the momentum.  I get the feeling that Matthew Vaughn and his co-writing partner Jane Goldman perhaps had too short a turnaround between features, which led to a script that featured a lot of neat ideas but not enough focus to make them all work.  The first film may have had an absurd premise, but it at least kept it focused and cohesive to a point where you could stay engaged.  Here, plot points meander from scene to scene, seeming to only be there as a way to glue action set pieces together.  That’s not to say that the movie is an unwatchable mess.  Vaughn and Goldman still manage to entertain with a lot of clever bits throughout.  But, when compared to the first feature, the pieces here feel more undercooked.  My take is that the movie could have used a fair bit of editing to smooth out the more unnecessary bloat that hampers the movie; like maybe 20 minutes or so.  That way you have less time wasted on Eggsy awkwardly trying to balance his professional and love life (a plot point that goes nowhere) and more time devoted to learning more about the underdeveloped Statesman.  The common misconception with sequalizing a new popular film is thinking that more is better, and that filling a movie with more stuff makes it feel more epic.  It’s a level of excess that ended up diminishing the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise as well as Transformers, and sadly Kingsman has fallen down that same hole.

What bothered me most about The Golden Circle’s lack of focus is that it doesn’t devote the right amount of time to building up the plot and characters.  It almost seems that Vaughn and Goldman spend way too much time building up to punchlines that are not worth the effort.  The reason why the humor worked so well in the first movie was because it was so punchy and unexpected.  With the sequel, we already know what to expect, but the writers seem too concerned with making things connect that they lost the ability to just let things flow.  The movie does have some laugh out loud moments, but they diminish the longer that the movie hangs onto them.  There is a cameo by a legendary pop star that starts off funny when we first see him, but as the movie goes on, the cameo turns into a full on supporting role, and by then the novelty has worn off.  There’s also the unfortunate aspect of the underwhelming threat that the Kingsman and Statesman face.  Julianne Moore’s Poppy is unfortunately a very disappointing antagonist.  While she is a great actress, she looks lost in this feature and I think that it’s due to the fact that like most things in the film, her character was not very fleshed out.  She’s made up of ideas that could be turned menacing, but end up just being gimmicky.  The first film’s villain, played by Samuel L. Jackson, was a perfect blend of how to make character that was both threatening and absurd.  Here, Julianne Moore only has the one note to play, and try as she might, it still just remains one note.  While I understand that Vaughn and Goldman want to delve deeper into story-lines carried over from the first film, particularly with Eggsy and Harry, it undermines their attempts to expand their world, especially with the Statesman, who sadly are not given the full development that they are due.

One thing that does carry the film, however, is the cast itself.  Taron Egerton remains the heart of the series, and he still is enjoyable to watch as the film’s charismatic lead.  He even more so is in command of his persona here, and it’s a joy watching him go from sincere, to comical, to fiercely intimidating with great ease.  It’s also a pleasure to see Colin Firth brought back into the fold and his resurrection in the film makes some sense (though is a tad convoluted).  Firth in particular was born to play this kind of role; suave and sophisticated, but with lethal killer instincts.  Before Kingsman, Firth was seen as the quintessential British every-man in Hollywood, excelling in roles ranging from Love, Actually (2003), to A Single Man (2009), to The King’s Speech (2010).  Kingsman flipped his already established persona on it’s head, and showed that he was equally adept as an action movie star, without loosing any of his sophisticated appeal.  He’s still endlessly entertaining here, and while his presence is kind of unnecessary, since his “death” scene in the first film was such a pivotal motivating factor (which is sadly now diminished), he still manages to remain a hero worth rooting for.  The Statesman are sadly given too little time to leave an impact, but they still are welcome additions to the franchise.  Jeff Bridges is more or less just playing a version of himself, and that for the most part fits his character well.  Channing Tatum uses his brief screen-time effectively, as does Halle Berry, giving a nice reserved performance here.  The standout of the Statesman, however, is Pedro Pascal as Whiskey.  The former Game of Thrones star steals every scene he is in as the lasso twirling hotshot Statesman, and embodies the fullest aspect of what Matthew Vaughn imagined for the State-side band of super spies.  Even if he is portrayed as a stereotypical cowboy, he still has enough charisma to carry it through and as a result he is certainly the highlight of the film’s newcomers.  My hope is that if there is ever another chapter given to this franchise, that more emphasis will be given to this second team, and not have them relegated to a sideshow of the franchise’s larger plot.

The other good thing that I’ll say about the film is that while the writing suffers from a lack of focus, Matthew Vaughn’s direction still is just as sharp as ever.  Vaughn continues to show his skill behind the camera with well-executed sight gags and kinetically charged action set pieces. In fact, it’s when the movie ends up getting to the action bits that it finally comes alive.  There’s a spectacular car chase with a taxi at the beginning that showcases some flashy camera and stunt-work that immediately plunges us right back into the Kingsman’s world.  There’s another outstanding action scene with a cable suspended sky cabin, which involves one of the most ridiculous and thrilling escape attempts seen in this series to date.  There is unfortunately nothing in this film that quite lives up to the now iconic church massacre from the first movie, where Firth’s Harry takes out an entire congregation of right-wing extremists all by himself.  Still, the movie does remain expertly crafted, with action scenes that still are above the average in the industry.  There are some very clever visual touches thrown into the movie too.  The Statesman’s headquarter’s is a wonderful mix of the rugged and the state-of-the-art mixed together.  The villain’s lair is also a nice reworking of a genre cliche.  The movie takes the idea of a secret fortress built into a remote hollowed out mountain (popularly conceived through James Bond’s arch-nemesis Blofeld) and adds a retro-50’s kitsch to it, complete with a deco-infused diner as it’s centerpiece.  It doesn’t make much sense why it looks like that, but then of course that’s part of the Kingsman’s appeal.  It’s a series built upon flipping genre conventions on it’s head, while still indulging in the things that make the genre work in the first place.  And while a lot of it was done better in the first movie, the series as a whole continues to stand out as a unique blend of the thrilling and the absurd thanks to Matthew Vaughn’s own assured vision.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is still far more clever and thrilling than most other action films today, but I’m sure that most people like myself will come away with a slight bit of disappointment after seeing it.  The plot is too unfocused to ever remain engaging, and most of the clever ideas end up getting diminished in a movie that takes too long to deliver the goods.  Perhaps part of the problem is that the expectations were too high based on the success of it’s beloved predecessor, but I think the problem lies more in the fact that we got this movie before it could be ready.  I think another draft of the script could have smoothed out some of the pacing and helped to make this movie flow a lot better, but Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman weren’t given the time necessary for pulling that off, and instead we find them here quickly trying to scramble together something that could pass for a sequel.  Some good things have come out of it, like the reintroduction of Colin Firth back into the series, and the establishing of the Statesman organization, but I just wish that more time wasn’t wasted on gags and plot threads that go nowhere.  If there is to be any more of these films, they need to have a more menacing threat for one thing, and not a villain that comes across as more gimmicky than anything else.  It’s a disappointing sequel, but not one that crushes the franchise as a whole.  There could be plenty of more worthwhile adventures still waiting for this franchise and hopefully they learn from the mistakes here as they go forward.  Until then, if Kingsman: The Secret Service feels like a loving homage to the best of James Bond, absurdity and all, The Golden Circle feels like one of the lesser Bond movies; works fine as part of the hole and important as a continuation of the franchise, but something you’ll probably never revisit again in the same way.  It’s the Kingsman’s equivalent of Quantum of Solace (2008); fun, but hard to love.

Rating: 7/10

Dunkirk – Review

There are few directors out there that has accomplished in such a short time what Christopher Nolan has.  Plucked out of the world of independent film-making with his bold artistic statement called Memento (2000), and nurtured through a stint within DC Comics and the Batman franchise, he has now become one of the industry’s most esteemed talents, and a filmmaker to be envied.  With epic scale films like Inception (2010), the Dark Knight trilogy, and Interstellar (2014) making up his body of work, his name has now become synonymous with spectacle, something that few other filmmakers can attest to.  Even big name directors Spielberg and Scorsese will occasionally take a break and work on something minor in between their big tent-poles.  But for Chris Nolan, he continually sets his bar high, and it’s a sign of just how great a director that he is that he continually clears the high expectations that we have of him.  Not everyone will agree that he succeeds all the time, but no one can doubt that such an ambitious style is nothing but a good thing for everyone.  Not only that, but he’s also a passionate champion for the medium of film itself.  He still shoots on physical film stock, has been critical in the past of the industry’s move towards an all digital market, and specifically makes movies that you can only get the full experience of by watching on the big screen.  What really fascinates me about Nolan as a filmmaker is that he takes that same passion and bold vision, and works it into many various types of genres of film.  With Batman, we saw how his style could work within the super hero genre; with Inception, we saw him play around with heist movies and cerebral thrillers; and with Interstellar, we saw him work with the high concepts of space travel.  With his new film, we now see Nolan’s style and eye for spectacle brought into something that he surprisingly had yet to tackled up to now; the historical war film.

Dunkirk is a really interesting choice of subject for Nolan to work with, especially after some of the more out of this world projects he’s worked on in the past.  Here, Nolan is working with a real historical event, and one which you would’t expect much could be mined from for a grand spectacle.  The movie recounts the harrowing retreat of British soldiers and French civilians from the coastal town of Dunkirk, France  in the summer of 1940.  After a disastrous military miscalculation by the British army, 450,000 soldiers found themselves completely surrounded by advancing German forces.  The soldiers had no choice but to retreat, but they unfortunately were pushed back to the sea, and the British navy was unable to send any vessels out to bring their soldiers safely home, fearing that German U-boats would completely wipe them out on the way there.  Miraculously, brave British civilians crossed the narrow sea passage with their own private boats and managed to save nearly all the remaining soldiers who were left stranded.  It is considered to this day one of the greatest moments in wartime solidarity and a point of pride for the British people.  It is also considered one of the turning points in the war, because by preventing the slaughter of such a major chunk of their military force, and preserving their very much needed naval battleships, the British military opened the way to the allied invasion later on.  It’s a story deserving of a cinematic treatment, but it’s interesting that this is the one that caught the eye of a filmmaker like Nolan.  It’s somewhat unusual for him, considering that most of his movies are driven by triumph in the extraordinary, while Dunkirk is all about dread in desperation.  Still, it’s a story that Nolan clearly wants to tell, and it’s interesting to see how his style fits with this story.

The events of Dunkirk are set up with little exposition and almost with no time allowed to collect your bearings as a viewer.  Christopher Nolan immediately plants us right into the action, with a group of British infantrymen escaping gunfire in the abandoned streets of the titular town.  The group is gunned down except for a lone soldier named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), who makes it all the way to the beach.  There he finds the other half a million soldiers waiting their turn to leave for home, and all he can think about is how can he get to the front of the line.  From there, the film splinters into three separate stories from different vantage points in the conflict; on land, sea, and air.  On the land, we follow Tommy and his different attempts to find a quick route home, which brings him together with two other desperate soldiers looking for help; the silent Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and the temperamental Alex (Harry Styles).  On sea, we are introduced to Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a civilian who takes his own private vessel out to sea in the hopes of saving the stranded soldiers, accompanied by his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a young man named George (Barry Keoghan), who only wants to help out.  Along the way, they meet a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy), the only survivor of a sunken rescue ship, who may jeopardize the success of their crucial mission.  And in the air, we follow two RAF pilots, Farrier and Collins (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) as they risk precious time and fuel in order to take out every last German plane that’s trying to sink the rescue fleet out at sea.  All the while, the commanding naval officer Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and his army counterpart, Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) do what they can to keep the hopes of their soldiers up as the world seems about to collapse on them.  It’s a race against time as we see all three stories come together in an explosive way.

The bar for Christopher Nolan as a director is exceptionally high, since he’s not only responsible for some of the best and most successful films of the last decade, but his movies may also be some of the best that’s ever been made.  So, you can imagine that a lot is expected of his work here on Dunkirk.  Well, I can tell you that he not only meets those high expectations with his new film, he completely obliterates them.  Dunkirk is an absolute masterpiece, and one of the most cinematically impressive films that I have seen in a long time.  Where to begin with this one.  I don’t think that you will ever see a war epic that puts you into the thick of battle quite as well as this one did.  Imagine the opening scene from Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), only stretched out to feature length, and that’s essentially what Dunkirk is.  The entire movie is a masterwork of editing and of ratcheting up tension.  From the opening onward, you feel every twist and turn of the battle, and become completely absorbed into what is going on.    It can be confusing to some, as little time is allowed to collect your bearings into the story, but I quickly went along with it because I could see that Nolan wanted to tell his version of the story in a different way.  Dunkirk is a film experience and not a film story.  I would bet you that his script was actually nothing more than an outline for what he wanted to shoot.  The amazing thing is that there is very little discernible dialogue in the movie, often incidental, as most scenes are played out with nothing but sound and music, both exceptional on their own.  Only in the scenes on Mr. Dawson’s boat do we get any semblance of plot and character development, and even that is kept to a minimum.  We never know much more about these characters than what they are going through at the moment, and it’s still just enough to be riveting.  This is a directorial exercise on Christopher Nolan’s part to make his audience feel like they are a part of the dread of this experience and in that regard, he has triumphed with this goal.

One thing that Christopher Nolan shows us with this movie is that not every epic movie has to have an epic length to it.  The movie runs at a very brisk 107 minutes, making it the shortest film in his entire filmography.  And yet, even at that short length, it feels as massive in scale and scope as the likes of Saving Private RyanTitanic (1997), Apocalypse Now (1979) and many more epic films of this kind.  And all those movies needed a minimum of 2.5 hours to tell their epic tales.  Nolan succeeds with Dunkirk by not spoiling the recipe for his masterpiece with too many ingredients.  There’s not a scene in this movie that feels like it doesn’t need to be there, and nothing feels missing either.  It’s exactly as long as it needs to be.  I was perfectly okay with not knowing who any of these characters were, because it didn’t matter in the end.  The movie is not about who they are, or how they feel, because in the thick of war, all that becomes a moot in the grand scheme.  Everyone in this movie has one goal, and that’s to get home safe.   Whatever characters we latch onto is solely dictated by where Christopher Nolan wants to point our focus to next.  Every scene is another vignette into all the different stories that went on during that event.  What we end up with in this film is a window into what it was like to be there in those harrowing few days; seen through the perspective of some key eyewitnesses.  I like the fact that Nolan doesn’t single one out as a main character, instead making the film an ensemble effort.  Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy might be the one standout, since he’s the first important character we meet and he carries the bulk of the film’s screen-time.  He also features on most of the film’s advertisements, and though he’s quite good in the movie, don’t mistake it as it being all about him.  It’s a film about heroism in solidarity from a multitude of people and in the end that’s where Chris Nolan finds his narrative.

The movie is also an amazing showcase for film craft.  We’ve seen the wonders that Nolan can do with large format cinematography, and in Dunkirk, he outdoes himself.  This is one of the most visually stunning films I have ever seen.  Keep in mind, I watched the movie the way it was intended to be seen, and that’s in 70mm IMAX.  Christopher Nolan has made it his mission to keep physical film stock alive in our digital age, and that’s why he has this long standing relationship with IMAX.  Every film he has made from The Dark Knight (2008) on has been film for the IMAX format; with each progressive film featuring more and more scenes shot with IMAX cameras.  At this point, Nolan has crossed the threshold and has now made a movie where the majority of the scenes were shot in 70mm.  Only a handful of scenes shot on the boat were filmed using regular 35mm film stock, probably due to logistical restraints.  But, the particular emphasis on large format film-making makes the film feel massive and overwhelming.  Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, who previously worked with Nolan on Interstellar, captures some exquisite imagery here with the deep focus of the IMAX lenses.  From the wide panoramas of soldiers lining up on the beaches of Dunkirk, to the empty expanse of open water, to the sometimes haunting scenes of mass destruction, everything in this movie is eye-catching and unforgettable.  The aerial battles themselves are wonders of execution, given how dynamic they are with the kind of cameras used to film them.  I found myself in awe for most of this movie.  I was sitting fairly close to the screen, and in the end it was worth being so close, because the movie just envelopes you.  I also want to spotlight Hans Zimmer’s exceptional score for the movie.  It’s heartbeat pulse rhythm is unrelenting and perfectly orchestrates the rising tension of the movie, never stopping until almost at the very end.  His longtime collaboration with Christopher Nolan has led to some truly memorable music, and with Dunkirk, he once again shows his absolute value in making these movies memorable.

For Dunkirk, the challenge will be seeing how it will stand up over time as both a work of it’s director and as an example of it’s genre.  My worry is that Nolan may have limited himself by his own passion for large format film-making, and created a movie that will end up being diminished if viewed in the wrong way.  While I commend his loyalty to film stock and large formats, he may have also made a movie that can’t live outside of this form either.  I worry that when I revisit the film again eventually on home video, that it won’t have the same visceral impact that it had on my first viewing.  It’s a big movie and deserves the biggest of presentations to go with it.  Some people who miss out on the film in the theater might not see what the big deal is once they watch it on television.  Now, my hope is that it won’t be the case, and that all the other strong points about the movie, like it’s breakneck pace and unconventional storytelling, will still be riveting to audiences no matter what format they watch it on.  For me, what made me love the film is just the instinctual sense of knowing where to put his camera that Christopher Nolan is renowned for.  There is a sequence late in the film of a sinking ship that is so well shot from different angles that it transcends conventional film-making.  One shot in particular is mounted high above the deck of the ship and is fixed in place as the entire thing tips over.  As a result, the angle of framing is tilted to an extreme where it gives you the sense that you are sinking with the ship itself, and makes you feel the same dread that the characters are feeling too.  Overall, it’s that sense of immersion that sets Nolan’s film apart, both in the visuals and in the narrative, and it makes his vision so integral to the telling of this story.  My hope is that other viewers will see that as well and help this movie live well beyond the limitations of it’s exclusive presentation format.

Suffice to say, if Dunkirk doesn’t top my end of the year list of favorite movies, it will almost certainly be near the top.  It is already the crown jewel of a surprisingly strong summer, and as of now, the best movie I have seen so far this year.  I hesitate to anoint it as a likely winner, because there are still so many promising features on the horizon, but Christopher Nolan has clearly set the bar high yet again.  I would also say that it stands as one of the best directorial achievements of his already stellar career, which is saying something.  I still hold Inception up as my absolute favorite, but again, time will tell how well Dunkirk holds up over time.  Needless to say, I am so pleased to see the marriage of his eye for spectacle combined with a harrowing true life story that needed this kind of treatment.  The story of Dunkirk is one of survival, and when gazed through the vision of Nolan’s cinematic style, the odds feel incredibly more powerful.  I also like the fact that he reserved his own indulgences, and made sure to not spoil the movie with superfluous scenes that didn’t need to be in there.  It may bother some audiences who want a little more context to what they are watching, especially when it comes to the characters, but I didn’t mind the minimalist approach to plot and characters at all.  In a way, I like the fact that the characters are little more than our eyes into the event, because it allows us to implant more of ourselves into what’s going on.  In the end, it’s not the actors, nor the cinematography, nor the direction that makes Dunkirk exceptional.  It’s the event itself that becomes the draw, and seeing a great historical moment play out in front of us.  All those other elements are there to elevate what history has already created, and make it feel larger than life.  It’s fortunate that Nolan chose to use his talents to tell this story, because it’s a story about humanity, and how big things can happen when we all work together.  Through Nolan’s exceptional sense of scale, we see that play out in the most harrowing way possible.  That’s why Dunkirk may not only be one of the best movies of the year, or one of the best war epics ever made; but could very well be one of the best movies ever, period.  Keep setting that bar higher, Mr. Nolan.

Rating: 9.5/10

Spider-Man: Homecoming – Review

Once again I’m reviewing another entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, mainly because I find Marvel’s cinematic experiment so interesting in it’s size and scope.  With every new movie brings a new piece to the puzzle, and seeing the brand build itself through multiple franchises all bound together is a sight to which we have never seen before in Hollywood.  But, what fascinates me the most is how Marvel has managed to maintain this for so long, especially when given some of the roadblocks that have been in their way.  As many people know, this bold plan formed once Marvel created it’s own independent studio, with the intent to have more creative control over their own properties.  Before then, Marvel had been spending years licensing out their characters to other studios in order to see them make it to the big screen.  There were successes, like the Sam Raimi directed Spider-Man trilogy at Columbia Pictures, as well as Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men films at Fox.  But, there were plenty of failures as well, such as the disappointing Daredevil (2003), Fantastic Four (2005), and Ang Lee’s disastrous turn with the Hulk (2003).  This would lead Marvel to take more responsibility over their own characters, and thus, with the leadership of producer Kevin Feige, they formed their own studio.  Starting with the foundation of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008), Marvel set out to not only do a more earnest job of bringing their comics to life, but to bring everyone back into the fold under one house.  With the acquisition of Marvel by the Disney company, Marvel not only had their home, but a parent company with deep pockets to make the dream happen.  Unfortunately, some holdouts would still remain before their plan could be fully realized.

Chief among those holdouts was of course Spider-Man.  Sony, the parent company of Columbia Pictures which held the rights to the character, refused for the longest time to let Marvel have their character back, believing that they could still profit well enough on their own with him.  As part of their original contract, they could retain sole cinematic rights to Spider-Man as long as they continued to make more movies.  Unfortunately for them, both Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire were done with the franchise and had moved on to new projects.  This left Sony in the position of strategizing a new direction for Spider-Man, not only as a means of keeping him within their fold, but also competitive with Marvel’s rising success.  Thus, we got the newly re-branded The Amazing Spider-Man series.   With Andrew Garfield now filling the iconic role, this new Spider-Man was intended to be a more grounded and dramatic take on the character’s mythos, with a bold plan to establish a multi-layered cinematic universe of it’s own.  Along with The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and it’s 2014 sequel, Sony was planning plenty of character spin-offs as well, including a Sinister Six film, centered on Spidey’s rogues gallery.  Unfortunately for them, it didn’t work out.  The Amazing Spider-Man didn’t perform as well as hoped against hard hitters like The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises that year, and the sequel proved to do even worse.  So, Sony, probably reading the signs, relented and Marvel got their golden boy back; but with conditions.  All movies made with the character from here out carry a 90-10 profit share between Disney and Sony. If Spider-Man has a cameo in another Marvel Property, like he did in Captain America: Civil War (2016), Sony gets a minority share of the profits.  And when it’s a Spider-Man franchise film with other Marvel characters in it, then the opposite applies.  So, now that he’s living under shared custody, Spider-Man now is able to have his own adventures in the Marvel Cinematic universe, and it all begins with this new film; Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Taking place right after the events of Captain America: Civil War, we find high schooler Peter Parker (Tom Holland) feeling very confident that he’s about to become an official member of the Avengers.  Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), aka Iron Man, still insists that he has a long way to go before he can prove to be a full-time member of the team, so he encourages Peter to use his power responsibly within his own community of Queens, New York.  So, Peter spends most of his after-school time stopping petty crimes and helping the less fortunate in his community.  In other words, being the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.  All the while, he pesters his contact to Tony Stark, chauffeur Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), with phone calls wondering when he can join the Avengers again.  At school, he tries to keep his identity a secret from other students, including fellow nerd Michelle (Zendaya), his school crush Liz (Laura Harrier), and the school bully Flash (Tony Revolori).  Unfortunately, Peter’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) discovers his identity by accident, and Peter desperately tries to keep his very blabber-mouth accomplice quiet on the matter; though he still finds him a rewarding ally in the end.  On one routine encounter with some bank robbers, he discovers that some highly advanced weaponry has been hitting the black market.  Through his investigation, he discovers that they are being sold by an underground organization that has been stealing artifacts left behind by the Avengers and their adversaries and creating new weapons from them.  The leader of this group, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) even has a special winged flying rig for himself and has assumed the criminal identity of the Vulture.  Along with his accomplices known as the Shockers (Bokeem Woodbine and Logan Marshall-Green), Toomes has his eye on a big prize (Tony Stark’s private collection) and it’s up to Spider-Man to stop him.  And all the while, he has to balance this with the normal life of a kid that he wants his beloved Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) to still believe he is.

For Spider-Man, it’s been a rough cinematic road.  We are now on the second reboot of the character in 10 years, and the third overall iteration in general.  This could lead to a lot of fatigue for fans who just want to see a good, basic Spider-Man story on the big screen.  Thankfully, they will find it with Spider-Man: Homecoming. This is an excellent translation of the character; probably the best we’ve ever seen.  And the fact that he finally is able to stand alongside his fellow Marvel peers is just the icing on the cake.  What I especially like about this movie is the fact that both Marvel and Sony made the right choice to not go backwards with the character again and retell his origin.  Instead, Spider-Man is already an established hero this time around, and the story focuses more on his journey of learning what kind of hero he wants to be.  My biggest fault with the Amazing Spider-Man films was that they retreaded already familiar ground and added nothing new or interesting into the mix.  Their complete lack of knowing what they wanted to be also hurt those films a lot.  With Spider-Man: Homecoming, the story has a lot more identity, and that’s of a coming of age tale for a young high schooler, who also just happens to have superpowers.  The people at Marvel said that the mid-80’s films of John Hughes were a particularly strong inspiration for the tone of this movie, and it’s a good match for the character.  Up until now, we have never seen Spider-Man depicted as a young man like he is in the comics; bearing the responsibilities of his power, while at the same time dealing with the anxieties of growing up and the social pressures of high school.  This helps to make everything in this story feel fresh and interesting, without the need of explaining everything we already know about the character again.  His origins barely even get a passing mention here.  Thus, it helps the story flow much better without that cumbersome exposition.

Another reason the movie works as well as it does is because of the character himself.  This is without a doubt the finest version of the character we have ever seen, and a large part of that is due to the casting of young Tom Holland in the role.  Both Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield were fine in their turns as Spider-Man, but what hampered their versions of the character was the fact that they were perhaps too mature for the part.  Both started playing Spidey in their late 20’s, so buying them as teenagers was a little hard to swallow.  Also, they were never allowed to play the character like a teenager, instead focusing more on the pathos of Peter Parker’s maturity rather than reveling in the energy of his youth.  Maguire got around this a little better by having the character quickly grow out of high school within the first movie.  Tom Holland’s version of Spider-Man on the other hand perfectly embraces the youthful essence of the character.  From the opening sequence, which has Peter Parker documenting the events of Civil War from his smartphone camera, we are given perfect introduction to a new Spider-Man who also just enjoys being a kid.  Holland is in his early 20’s, but still looks youthful enough to be believably still in high school, and his energy throughout the film is endlessly endearing.  He’s all parts charming, funny, awkward, and remarkably agile.  Knowing that quite a few stunts in the film were performed by Holland himself makes his performance all the more impressive.  But whether he’s in the suit or out of it, Holland’s Peter Parker nevertheless feels authentic, and truer to his comic origin than ever before.  This is largely what makes Spider-Man: Homecoming work so well, because it puts the emphasis back on the character, and less on how he functions within the story or a larger master plan.

But it’s not just Tom Holland’s endearing performance that makes this movie work.  He’s also surrounded by a strong supporting cast.  The other teenage acquaintances in Peter Parker’s life are also all well rounded.  Just like with Holland’s performance, all of them are not acting out of place for the characters they are playing; they all act like real teenagers do, with the same social awkwardness and impatience of youth that comes with that.  The influence of John Hughes movies really helps in this regard, because like with his movies, it spotlights the often disregarded misfits in high school.  Parker and his friends often find themselves falling victim to adults who don’t understand their plights as well as facing the abuse and humiliation from bullies their own age.  They are kids who have special skills, but also suffer the disappointment and inconvenience of detention and getting the courage to ask a crush out on a date.  The adults in the film are also given plenty of excellent scenes as well.  I especially like that the movie gave an extended role to a side character like Happy Hogan, and you can tell that Jon Favreau is relishing his extra screen time here.  Robert Downey Jr. of course still shines as Iron Man, but he also does a good job of not hogging the spotlight away from his young co-star.  Marisa Tomei’s stunningly beautiful and sexy Aunt May could put off some purists, but she does a fine job filling the role here.  However, it is Michael Keaton who really steals the show as the Vulture in this movie.  What a casting coup for Marvel to get a former Batman into their cinematic universe, only this time in the role of a villain.  Keaton’s performance thankfully belies little of his Dark Knight days, and instead fits perfectly within this story.  He’s devilish and intimidating in all the right ways, and helps to make what is generally a silly character in the comics into a very effective cinematic baddie.  It’s a real testament to Keaton’s abilities as a performer and he makes a great asset to this film in general.  There’s also a great running gag involving Chris Evans’ Captain America, which delivers a killer punchline by the end.

Now, while I do have a lot to praise about this film, there are some nitpicks as well that unfortunately keeps this from becoming an all-time great for Marvel.  Chief among them is the way this film is directed.  Not that director Jon Watts does a bad job here.  For most of the movie, he actually does a really good job of maintaining the right tone for the movie, and excels when delivering some of the film’s more humorous parts.  However, he still seems inexperienced when it comes to crafting an effective action set piece.  While the action moments are fine, none of them ever come off as exceptional.  As the director, it seemed like Watts went for the more basic approach of action directing; utilizing a lot of quick cuts and shaky cam footage to ratchet up the suspense.  It’s something that doesn’t ruin the movie, but doesn’t elevate it either.  One wonders what a more stylized vision would’ve done with the material, like Sam Raimi managed to do during his run.  Raimi may not have always hit a bulls-eye with his Spider-Man films, but he nevertheless aimed high with some of his set pieces.  The phenomenal train sequence from Spider-Man 2 (2004) is still a standout sequence that remains a high water mark for the series.  That’s why I hesitate to call Homecoming the best Spider-Man film, because it lacks a sequence like that, although it does enough to come close to the top.  The movie also suffers from a slow first act.  While there are plenty of enjoyable bits in the first part of this movie, the plot actually doesn’t kick into gear until very late, and it might have been to the films benefit to tighten things up in the beginning.  But, again, none of these nitpicks are deal-breakers, and the movie for the most part holds together very well.  In the end, most people won’t care as long as they are having a good time, and this film definitely delivers on that.

What I hope for the most is that this movie leads to a new era of cooperation between all Hollywood players with regards to who has the rights to use characters from Marvel’s stable of heroes and villains.  Sony learned that it would be in their better interest to play ball with Marvel rather than battle against them, and in the end, both companies with see lucrative returns because of this deal.  Captain America: Civil War’s $1.5 billion dollar gross certainly benefitted both parties, and Homecoming will hopefully do the same.  My hope is that it also serves as an example that working together is in the best interest for all involved; something that I wish the lone holdout Fox would wise up to.  It’s a shame that characters like Wolverine and the Fantastic Four are still left out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe purely out of a stubborn refusal by Fox to have things done their way.  What Spider-Man: Homecoming proves is that allowing Marvel to call the shots makes the end product feel all the more authentic, and people are now excited for the character once again because they are interested in seeing how Spider-Man interacts with the rest of Marvel’s universe.  A closed off approach no longer works in this industry, not with so many other cinematic universes being launched, and the fact that Fox is still going in that direction will only limit their potential for better profits down the road.  It makes the title of Homecoming such an appropriate one for this movie, because not only is it appropriate for the high school setting of the film, but it’s a declaration of how much Marvel appreciates the character as a part of their family.  Spider-Man is indeed home, unencumbered by how well he fits into a corporations plans for future profits, and instead allowed to exist as a crucial piece of Marvel’s ever expanding universe.  It’s also a film that just wants us to have fun, and that’s something that we’ve have seen a Spider-Man movie be in a very long time.

Rating: 8.5/10

Cars 3 – Review

You know the saying of Newton’s Law that “everything that goes up must certainly come down.”  That applies almost without question to the world of cinema as well.  The Pixar Animation studio has enjoyed one of the strongest track records that Hollywood has ever seen.  Starting with the beloved Toy Story films of the late 90’s, and continuing through to the mid 2000’s, Pixar really looked like they could do no wrong.  Everything they touched seemed to turn to gold, no matter how peculiar the premise of each story was.  It’s really remarkable that they can take oddball concepts like a rat who wants to be a gourmet chef, or a senior citizen who makes his house fly with a million balloons, or a love story between two robots in a post-apocalyptic world and turn them into beloved animated classics.  But, somehow for over a decade, the Pixar brand was one that signified quality, and unparalleled success.  And then the market changed.  In a way, Pixar has become a victim of it’s own success, because with the run that they had for so long, the pressure likewise grew for clearing the bar that they set so high for themselves.  Not only that, but the studio was also received increased pressure from their parent company Disney to produce sequels to all their big hits, in order to keep those lucrative brands going for many more years.  Because of all that pressure, Pixar has made an effort to shift gears and devote their time and money to making future adventures with their most beloved characters.  That unfortunately has led to an era of inconsistency with Pixar’s output of films.  While they sometimes still manage to deliver sequels that everyone embraces (Toy Story 3 and Finding Dory), others are also met with a level of disappointment from fans (Monsters University).  Thus, we see Newton’s law play out, as the once infallible company is now suffering through a pitfall of lowered returns on their time and effort.

No where is that more evident than with the very divisive direction that they have taken with what is now the Cars franchise.  The first Cars was a generally well liked film from both fans of Pixar and the general audience.  Set within an alternate world where humanity is replaced with sentient vehicles, who exist in a parallel society like our own, the concept was a novel one for Pixar and it helped it to stand out.  While in no way one of their all time greats, it was still a beautifully constructed feature that represented the craftsmanship of the studio at it’s best.  But what is probably most surprising about Pixar is how well it performed as a brand.  Movie grosses aside, Cars surprisingly has become the most profitable film that Pixar has ever made when it comes to merchandising.  You’d be hard pressed to visit any Toys R’ Us or toy department in any store and mall across America and not find at least one product branded around this movie.  The characters of Lightning McQueen and Mater are seen everywhere, even when there is not a movie out to cross-promote with them.  It’s because of that highly profitable exposure that Disney has pressed Pixar even harder to churn out more movies in this franchise, whether they wanted to or not.  Because of this, we now have a trilogy of movies, created over an 11 year span which is just insane for the usually meticulous studio (keep in mind, 11 years is the same number of years in between Toy Story 2 and 3).  The downside of pushing out sequels this quickly (not to mention the existence of the Planes spin-offs) is that the lack of quality control, as Pixar isn’t allowed the time to carefully craft a story as they are fond of having usually.  So, what ended up happening was that the beloved first Cars was followed up with a very lackluster sequel in Cars 2 (2011), which became the first critically panned film in the studio’s long history.  Their perfect streak was over, and what went up now was preparing to come down.  Since then, Pixar has attempted to right the ship, acknowledging the failure of Cars 2, and this year, we see them returning to the franchise to in a way make amends.  The only question is, did it work?

For those who are looking for a follow-up to the plot of Cars 2, you won’t find it here.  Cars 3 is more in line with the continuity of the first Cars, and 2 almost seems to be deliberately forgotten altogether in this film.  We find Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) at the top of his game as a multi-race champion on the professional racing circuit; enjoying the spoils of celebrity status along the way.  While still making his home-base in the small town of Radiator Springs, where his best friend Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and his girlfriend Sally (Bonnie Hunt) show him love and support continuously, Lightning continues to travel the world, facing little challenges along the way.  That is until he’s beaten in a race by a flashy new rookie race car named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), who’s been equipped with the latest technology that makes him almost impossible to catch up to on the track.  Feeling intimidated by this new arrival, Lightning pushes his body to the limit, which unfortunately causes him to crash during a race, breaking both his body and his spirit.  Seeing Jackson Storm sit on the throne that once used to be his causes Lightning to try to compete once again, but this time trained with the same high tech gadgetry that benefited Jackson.  His corporate sponsor Rusteze takes on new corporate management under a flashy, corporate car named Sterling (Nathan Fillion), who teams Lightning with a new trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who we learn is just as new to the world of racing as Lightning is to technology.  Over time, Lightning and Cruz form a bond as they both seek answers to the directions of their lives.  In a way, Lightning finds it as they take a pilgrimage to the stomping grounds of his old mentor, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, voiced through archival audio), where they encounter Doc’s old trainer, Smokey (Chris Cooper), who helps the duo train the old fashioned way.  But, is it enough to beat Jackson, and is Lightning ready to continue the life he had before, or see a different way.

So, in many ways, this film is a return to basics for the Cars franchise.  It’s less of a mindless side story that Cars 2 turned out to be, and more of a continuation of themes that the original had begun, becoming far more of a character driven story centered around Lightning McQueen.  But, does that make it any better than Cars 2.  Well, yes and no.  There is a big issue that I had with watching Cars 3, and that is the sad reality that I just didn’t care what was going on in  the story.  For the first time ever watching a movie made by Pixar, I felt absolutely nothing upon seeing it.  That’s pretty much unheard of for this studio.  This is the company that specialized in being able to draw a variety of emotions from it’s audience.  People wept openly in screenings of Up (2009) that I went to, after witnessing that now legendary opening montage.  Not only that, but Pixar’s films are almost always laugh out loud funny and edge of your seats thrilling.  Cars 3 was about as uninspiring as I’ve ever seen a Pixar movie ever get.  It’s about as involving to me as any sub-par History or Travel Channel series that I’ll put on TV as background entertainment while I’m working or cleaning up my apartment.  It just lies there, filling time that I could have better spent somewhere else.  Despite this, though, it does nothing offensive either to garner any significant hatred either.  My disappointment with the movie really is just in lamenting how pointless it all is.  Keep in mind, I hated Cars 2 as well, and it might generally be a worse movie overall.  But, it still got a feeling out of me regardless, even if that feeling was pure distaste.  Cars 3 just feels like the first Pixar movie ever made to me that doesn’t feel like a movie at all.  It’s that tedious feeling that made me really feel in the end unsure about the future of Pixar as a brand.

First of all, I have to stress exactly why this movie is a failure, and that’s mainly due to the lazy execution of the story.  In a way, every Cars film has been derivative of some other film.  The first Cars was an exploration of the hot shot from the city learning the homespun values of the countryside motif that Hollywood has revisited many times over the years.  In particular, critics pointed to the Michael J. Fox film Doc Hollywood (1991) as a direct inspiration for the plot.  Cars 2 was a spoof of spy films from the 60’s, particularly with James Bond and Alfred Hitchcock’s “wrong man” thrillers, shifting focus away from Lightning McQueen and onto the sidekick Mater.  Cars 3 borrows it’s plot from a lot of comeback sports stories like the Rocky sequels.  Now being derivative is not a problem as long as you provide your own unique spin on it.  The first Cars did just that, making it feel fresh and not overly familiar.  Cars 2 was too dumb to ever work as a genre throwback, or a movie in general.  The extra insult of Cars 3 is that it take it’s tropes and just plays them out to the letter, diverting in no way in order to make it feel unique.  No matter what plot point the movie threw my way, I just knew how it was going to play out, because I’ve seen it all before.  The mentor/student relationship, the shenanigans that befall our hero through training, the inevitable final race showdown; it’s all too familiar.  There is even a moment where the character Cruz Ramirez reveals to Lightning her childhood dreams and how she had to abandon them, and I knew right away that this was an obvious set up for the finale.  And sure enough, the movie followed that playbook exactly.  Pixar is a studio that very often subverted expectations with it’s storytelling, or at least were able to hide the cliches well enough to make us not care about them.  Here, we can clearly see that this was a story that was not thought through with the same kind of care, and was purely slapped together to quickly role out into theaters, never once offering the audience a challenging and provocative experience.  Pixar’s storytelling was once the exception, and now, it’s fallen into mediocrity, feeling as generic as everything else that Pixar once stood proudly over.

In general, it’s the blandness that I disliked the most from this movie.  I want my Pixar movies to be something special, and this one was not in any way.  But, at the same time, it doesn’t insult the series itself like Cars 2 did.  I think still stands as Pixar’s worst film, just because of how purely it used every minute of it’s run time to be aggressively obnoxious.  It was loud, in-your-face, and thoroughly pointless.  It also made the huge mistake of relying too heavily on the talents of Larry the Cable Guy as the voice of Mater.  Mater is best used in small doses, and to it’s credit, Cars 3 does reel back the character significantly.  Mater only appears in a handful of moments, as does most of the supporting cast of the first movie.  It may not be such a big loss, but I do miss some of the character interactions that made the first Cars such an appealing narrative.  Lightning’s relationship with Sally is sadly minimized here, which was such a major part of the first film’s appeal, and that’s a waste of the talents of someone like Bonnie Hunt, who should be in this more.  The newer characters in general are a mixed bag.  I unfortunately didn’t care all that much about Cruz Ramirez.  She’s not an offensively misplaced character in this story, but her journey was so uninspiring and cliched that it just never endeared her character to me.  Jackson Storm is an even more uninteresting new player in this movie, and probably the blandest villain Pixar has ever made.  He never inspires menace or charisma; he’s just an empty shell.  Some of the secondary characters fare a little better.  I particularly liked Chris Cooper’s Smokey, who makes a great stand-in for the very much missed Doc Hudson.  There’s also a great bit with a maniacal school bus named Miss Fritter (voiced by Orange is the New Black’s Lea DeLaria) in what is probably the movie’s only stand-out scene, as Lightning and Cruz find themselves stuck in a demolition derby.  Good characters ultimately lift up lackluster material, and sadly there are just not enough of them for this movie.

One other positive that I will say for this movie is that while it doesn’t feature the usual finesse of story-telling that has defined other Pixar movies, it still manages to hold up in the visual department.  It may not be the most groundbreaking and visually resplendent Pixar movie to date, but Cars 3 still represents the fine craftsmanship that sets the studio apart.  The backgrounds in particular are really beautiful in this movie.  The filmmakers clearly know how to create a sense of atmosphere in these movies, and that becomes particularly impressive given how frequently this movie moves around in setting.  While the novelty of a car-based world has worn off from the first movie, I still like taking in the small little details that the movie puts into each of it’s environments to show the little car-based twists on familiar everyday objects.  When the movie allows itself to slow down and have us take in the scenery, it’s when the movie works at it’s best.  This includes beautiful recreations of places like a sunny day at a coastal beach, or a fog-filled day in the valleys of the Great Smokey Mountains.  You can tell that the movie benefits from the advances that Pixar has made over the years with movies like Brave (2012) and The Good Dinosaur (2015) in trying to accurately capture the feeling of experiencing the great outdoors. The first Cars was a step forward in that process, but Cars 3 looks more advanced, with regards to how the scenes are lit, exposed, and textured.  It is certainly a beautifully looking film; I just wish that this artistry was attached to a better story.  At least it shows that while their story-telling talent is suffering, it’s animation and environmental development departments are still firing on all cylinders and showing off what they can really do.

So, again, this movie does little to make me care any more for this franchise.  The damage done by Cars 2 was too severe, and Cars 3 does very little to make a u-turn for this series.  And honestly, is this really a series worth saving.  The first Cars worked fine on it’s own; it was a simple story about rediscovery set within a unique alternate world.  Unfortunately, the success of the merchandising around this film has caused Disney and Pixar to abandon their high standards in a pursuit to exploit this world for more money, and that makes every sequel and spin-off feel like a cynical cash grab.  And that’s something that I just don’t want to see a company like Pixar fall into.  They made it their mission to always put story first, and Cars 3  seems very much like the exact opposite of that.  They should’ve recognized long ago that they have explored all that they needed to explore with the first movie.  I’m not saying that sequels from Pixar are a bad thing; Finding Dory was quite good and Toy Story 3 is an outright masterpiece. But, when you go into a movie that bears the Pixar name, you should expect something that is going to movie you in some way, and Cars 3 never once did that for me.  I just sat in the theater feeling nothing, and that in itself made me feel upset in retrospect.  Is it possible that Pixar abandoned it’s high standards for a cynical cash grab.  Solid recent efforts like Inside Out and Finding Dory make me hopeful that this is just a speed bump in Pixar’s track record, just like Cars 2 was, and that they’ll be back strong with their next effort; the very promising Coco (2017) which comes out in November.    Until then, Cars 3 will unfortunately represent another down-point for the company.  I wish I never would have had to see the day when Pixar failed to illicit any emotion out of me, and now that it has passed, I hope that it never comes around again.  Everything that goes up inevitably comes down, but the best thing about gravity is that nothing is meant to stay down either.  Pixar has fallen, but it can easily come back up again.

Rating: 6/10

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – Review

It’s an interesting world we live in today where it seems like anything can be turned into a movie.  In the old days of cinema, you merely had to look to literature or the latest headlines for inspiration when crafting a property for the big screen.  Television shows making the crossover was the next phase.  Now, all media of every kind is fodder for big screen adaptations.  We’ve seen movies based off of commercials (1996’s Space Jam), toy products (2014’s The Lego Movie), and later this year, a movie based on the way we text (The Emoji Movie).  But even more shocking than the sources of inspiration is the sometimes unexpected result of those movies ending up actually being good.  The Lego Movie is a perfect example of a baffling concept of a movie actually paying off, thanks to a smart script and beautifully executed animation.  But, there has been perhaps no bigger unexpected hit made from the unlikeliest of inspirations than Walt Disney Pictures’ Pirates of the Caribbean.  Seriously, when you first heard that Disney was taking one of their theme park attractions and turning it into a full length feature, you would’ve thought they had gone crazy.  And maybe they were a little.  But, it was a crazy idea that somehow managed to manifest itself into a box office and critical hit.  It wasn’t Disney’s first attempt at creating a film themed around one of their theme park rides (The Country Bears, 2002), nor their last (The Haunted Mansion, 2003), but it would be the only one that actually succeeded.  This is largely due to the fact that it was far more earnest in it’s execution and was carried on the shoulders of a career-defining performance from Johnny Depp, who created his most popular character here; the unforgettable Captain Jack Sparrow.

When Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) first launched into theaters, it blew all our expectations away.  It was adventurous, funny, visually stunning, and just all around fun.  It also turned Johnny Depp, who up until that time was seen as more as an indie film actor, into a bankable star.   It gave co-star Orlando Bloom a much needed post-Lord of the Rings boost, and helped to introduce Keira Knightley to the world.  It also featured a deliciously evil performance from Geoffrey Rush, who created an equally iconic character in Captain Barbosa.  Naturally, with the success the film achieved, sequels were destined to follow.  And Disney took the ambitious step of shooting two Pirates films back to back.  The over half a billion dollar project resulted in Dead Man’s Chest (2006) and At World’s End (2007), and both performed even better at the box office.  But, despite being praised for some of their aspects, like the villainous Davy Jones(played by Bill Nighy) and the amazing CGI technology that brought him to life, the sequels were received critically with a mixed reaction.  Some loved the movies, while others felt they were a let down.  Despite what everyone thought, it was clear that the latter Pirates movies suffered from the problem of a bloated production.  People felt that the films lacked the tightly paced thrills of the first movie and that they had become way too long; At World’s End clocked in at nearly three hours alone.  It was enough criticism to drive Disney to reassess the series in the next installment, which resulted in On Stranger Tides (2011), which was a disastrous disappointment.  It was a dismally boring sequel that retained none of the charm of the other movies, and just felt like a pale shadow of it’s former self.  From this, Disney took a long break from the series, but now we have another return to the seas with Captain Jack and crew in Dead Men Tell No Tales.  The question now is if the extended wait helped to calm the seas and right the ship for this series, or did it leave it shipwrecked and forsaken.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales reintroduces us to Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), who we last saw in At World’s End, cursed to command the doomed ship The Flying Dutchman for all eternity.  We see Will confront his son Henry, who vows to free his father of the curse and he tells him that he has searched all legends of the sea to find that answer.  Many years later, a grown up Henry (Brenton Thwaites) believes that if he can find an ancient artifact known as Neptune’s Trident, it might be able to end the curse forever.  His search leads him into an area called the Devil’s Triangle, where he’s brought face to face with a Ghost Ship that is commanded by the haunted presence of Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem).  Salazar tells Henry to deliver a message to Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), telling him that he means to take his revenge once he is out in open waters again, acting on the grievance of losing his life thanks to the trickery of Jack who had trapped him in the triangle many years ago.  Henry finds Jack on the island of St. Martin, along with what’s left of his crew, including the ever loyal Gibbs (Kevin McNally).  Also in St. Martin, they run across a fugitive named Carina (Kaya Scodelario), who is accused of being a witch purely because of her ability to read the stars.  They soon learn that she may have the knowledge necessary to find the location of the Trident, and together they set sail out into open seas.  But, in pursuit is a British warship under the command of the tenacious Captain Scarfield (David Wenham) as well as Salazar, who has allied himself with an old adversary of Captain Jack; the fearsome Captain Hector Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush).  It’s a mad rush to reach the Trident in time, because whoever possesses the trident commands the sea itself, and with it, can break any curse it has put on anyone.

Now that the series is up to 5 films total, one has to wonder if there is any new territory left to uncover with this world and these characters.  With Dead Men Tell No Tales, Disney was far more interested in cutting the fat out of the series and returning it to it’s more modest roots.  They brought on Norwegian directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, who had previously made the acclaimed Kon-Tiki (2012).  Their more adventure oriented tastes seemed like a good fit for the series and would be a welcome change from the bloat of Gore Verbinski’s back to back sequels and Rob Marshall’s limited vision.  But, was it enough to make us care again.  Well, here’s the thing; is it really a series that needs to be saved.  My feeling is that the series had played itself out in the original trilogy. Despite all of it’s problems, At World’s End was an adequate capper to the story-line, and had a great sense of finality to it.  Everything since has felt like nothing more than a shameless cash grab.  Dead Men Tell No Tales falls into this category unfortunately, but at the same time, it is not the worst we’ve seen from this series either.  On Stranger Tides had no redeeming value whatsoever, whereas this has the benefit of some moments that do merit praise.  For the most part, it still feels like it’s not needed at all, but it does entertain periodically.  The tighter plot helps out with the pacing (at a brisk 126 minutes, this is the shortest film in the series, by a long shot).  If only the plot didn’t preoccupy itself with a lot of unnecessary world building.  For a series that is based off of a theme park attraction, they sure have crafted a complex mythology around it.  And even over five films spanning 14 years, I still don’t think the filmmakers have fully grasped all of it.  That’s perhaps the biggest flaw of this film is the fact that it doesn’t streamline the plot mechanisms in any way, and that interferes with us trying to find enjoyment in the ride itself.  A movie like this doesn’t need to explain anything or have to make sense; it can just be a big, loud adventure and we’ll be happy with that.

Trying to balance the adventure plotting with complex mythological themes along with Jack Sparrow’s often slap-sticky shenanigans creates this often uneven tone to the movie, and it spoils most of the experience overall.  By the time the movie does reach the mythical Trident, it has gone through so many shifts and turns that you’re just exhausted trying to piece it together and become numb to it all.  I honestly didn’t care what was going on by the end of this movie, which is a shame because there are some plot developments late in the movie that should’ve carried more weight than they should.  The movie feels more successful in individual scenes than as a whole.  There is an especially great scene early on involving a guillotine that I found very entertaining.  It’s a physical comedic bit that would’ve done Buster Keaton proud, and I’m sure that it gave Johnny Depp an excellent moment to dig into character for.  That and other scenes like it help to lift this movie up from the disappointment of On Stranger Tides, which had maybe only one good scene in the entire film (the mermaid scene), and even that pales in comparison to some of the moments here.  What becomes apparent, however, is that nothing in this movie really justifies it’s existence other than some neat set pieces.  Nothing feels like it adds to the lore of Pirates.  It’s just more of the same.  It’s also clear that the character of Jack Sparrow has run it’s course.  Jack really just feels like a tag-along this time around, as he adds nothing more to the plot than a previous connection to the villain.  It’s not that Jack Sparrow can no longer be entertaining, it’s just that his adventures have long stopped being interesting.

That being said, the thing that does help keep this movie afloat for most of it’s run-time is Johnny Depp’s performance.  He still commands every moment he is on screen, and I managed to never grow old of his shtick either.  Truth be told, the character has lost some of the subtlety that we saw in Curse of the Black Pearl, but even in a more clownish version of the role, Depp’s Sparrow is still a welcome sight.  Depp just feels more at home as Captain Jack and it’s a role that still brings out the best in him.  It’s certainly far better than his awful Mad Hatter seen in the Alice in Wonderland pictures.  But, his routine only works at it’s best when it has other strong performance to work off of.  That was the failure of On Stranger Tides, because he had to do double lifting after bland performances from Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane gave him nothing to work with.   Here, he has Javier Bardem as the villain, who is a marked improvement.  Bardem’s Salazar manages to be both menacing and over-the-top ridiculous at the same time.  You can tell that Bardem loves chewing the scenery here just as much as Johnny Depp, and it makes for a perfect match.  The ghost effect they put upon Bardem is really effective too, and it makes for a striking effect that really sets him apart from other Pirates adversaries.  Geoffrey Rush also makes a triumphant return as Barbosa, reaffirming my belief that he’s the best element of all five films and my favorite character in the series.  Series newcomers Brenton Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario don’t fare quite as well.  They are improvements over the young couple from On Stranger Tides, but not much better I’m afraid.  It’s clear that they are just stand-ins for the original trilogy’s Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), and sadly they fall way short of the appeal of those two.

The visuals are also a mixed bag.  At some points, the movie does have some visual splendor to it.  One scene in particular, involving a run away bank (trust me, it makes sense in the film), has a great epic scale to it, and it did impress me that directors Ronning and Sandberg accomplished it with little to no CGI.  But, later on the film does tend to favor style over substance, and it turns into one messy visual effects extravaganza by the end.   The showdown at the Trident’s resting place might as well had been a cartoon, because it’s so clearly a green screened environment that looks too artificial to every be believable.  One thing that I lament being lost over the years in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies is the sense of time and place.  Sure, these are special effects extravaganzas, but they are period pieces as well.  The first Pirates did an exceptional job of placing you in a different time period, allowing the movie to take it’s time and soak up moments that let us enjoy the beautifully detailed scenery.  I remember the blacksmith shop fight scene being a perfect example of that; where it was clear that period detail mattered as part of the story.  In Dead Man Tell No Tales, we get very little of that.  In fact, Ronning and Sandberg have almost stripped the movie down a little too much, making even the period details feel inauthentic.  The period sets look a tad too clean in this movie, like it’s clear that they were just built only days prior, and don’t feel lived in at all; much like a brand new production set would.  I prefer a period film to have a real, lived in feel, which previous Pirates films have done so well.  Here, the movie reveals itself as very basic and unwilling to fully commit, and it’s the thing that holds it back from feeling like a return to form for the series.

So, sad to say, but this is yet another indicator that the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise no longer has any wind in it’s sails. Truth be told, few of us ever thought more than one of these movies, let alone five.  Somehow, Disney managed to turn their park attraction into a viable franchise, which in turn has become of their most valued titles in recent memory.  Jack Sparrow is now one of Disney’s most popular characters, both in and out of the parks.  Johnny Depp still values the character himself, often appearing in costume at charity events and children’s hospitals, or even just to please the everyday fan unexpectedly (like he did in the actual ride at Disneyland earlier this year).  But, all good things must come to an end, and I think this franchise has overstayed it’s welcome a little too long.  Truth be told, it could have been worse, like On Stranger Tides which still stands as the worst in the series.  But Dead Men Tell No Tales does not make the case for continued adventures with Jack and crew.  Disney seems to think that there might be (an end credit sequence keeps the door open just a crack), but I’m not holding my breath in anticipation.  Honestly, let the series end on this little uptick.  It’s not a saving grace, but it didn’t dig the hole any deeper.  That’s the best that I can say for it.  If you liked all the previous Pirates films before, you’ll probably enjoy this as well. There are a number of serviceable scenes that do harken back to the series’ heyday, and a couple nice surprises as well (including a particularly unexpected cameo from a musical legend), but overall Jack Sparrow’s best days are behind him. Whether or not there is more on the horizon is likely to fall on the wishes of Johnny Depp, and I would suggest to him that it’s better to weigh anchor now before the series really starts to fall into irrelevance.  The only options that would be worth exploring now would be to take the world of Pirates and reinvent it through different mediums.  Maybe an animated film or series; I mean it’s Disney after all.  For now, Dead Men Tell No Tales proves that it’s best for there to be no more tales to tell.  Enjoy what we already have, take it easy, and drink up me hearties, yo ho.  Savvy.

Rating:  6/10

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – Review

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the gift that keeps on giving to both fans and to Disney, the company responsible for making them.  Marvel’s track record has been the envy of the industry, with seemingly everything they touch turning into gold.  What I find most pleasing about all this is the fact that Marvel is not just succeeding on the backs of their most notable characters, but they are amazingly diving deep into their extensive catalog and giving the lesser known characters in their library the spotlight.  Who would’ve imagined a decade ago that characters like The Vision, or the Falcon, or even Rocket Raccoon would make it to the big screen and become popular in their own right.  Not only that, but long gestating films for some of Marvel’s more popular characters who had yet been given their own movies are now finally coming to us with great regularity; such as last year’s Doctor Strange (2016) and next year’s Black Panther (2018).  It seems like no subject or character in the MCU is unworthy of a cinematic treatment, because their brand is so strong right now that every ship they have is rising with this enormous tide.  That’s not to say that everything in the MCU has been flawless.  A few missteps have happened along the way, like Edgar Wright’s controversial departure from Ant-Man (2015), the disappointing plot twist of Iron Man 3 (2013), and from what I hear the entire first season of the Iron Fist Netflix series (I can’t judge yet, because I have yet to watch it).  But, for the most part, Marvel’s formula has worked amazingly well, and has managed to successfully launch new franchises into cinemas from some unlikely places.  And that is true no more so than in one of their crowning achievements to date; Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).

When it was first announced that Marvel was turning their Guardians of the Galaxy comic book series into a film, it left quite a few people surprised.  Sure, Guardians had a fan-base, but it was a minor title in the Marvel catalog compared to say the likes of Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Captain America.  Not only that, but the one tasked with adapting the comic was a young writer/director named James Gunn, who had only directed two films before, and neither of which were huge in scale on the level that we’d expect from Marvel.  And yet, Marvel seemed pretty confident with their project, and when it premiered in the late summer of 2014, we finally saw why.  Guardians of the Galaxy was a transcendent hit, proving that even a more obscure title like itself could click with audiences when given an inspired and confident treatment.  James Gunn showed remarkable talent as a storyteller, making the movie feel both unique and fresh, even when given the requirements to stay close to the source material.  Even more impressive is the fact that Guardians is regarded by many to be Marvel’s best film to date, even exceeding the reputation of their beloved Avengers franchise.  That’s quite an achievement for a comic title that few people had even known about beforehand.  Now, people who had never read the comic are familiar with the likes of Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket Raccoon, and of course, Groot.  It’s the broad appeal cross-over hit that Marvel was always hoping for, and one that would open the flood gates for so much more.  Which put’s enormous pressure on following that up with an inevitable sequel.  Luckily, James Gunn and crew are back with their ambitious follow-up; the appropriately named Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Picking up directly after the events of the first film, we find the Guardians working as mercenaries for hire.  After defending a high value target from a monstrous creature’s attack, the Guardians are rewarded by a genetically engineered super race called the Sovereign.  Unfortunately, Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) deceptively stole some of the Sovereign’s sacred treasure, which causes the Sovereign’s leader, High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) to launch a warship attack on the Guardians.  The Guardians manage to miraculously escape once the Sovereign’s ships are destroyed by a mysterious being who calls them to a nearby planet.  There, he introduces himself as Ego (Kurt Russell) and reveals that he is in fact the father of Guardian member Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) aka Star-Lord.  Ego asks for Peter to accompany him to his home planet, which he reluctantly does along with Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax (Dave Bautista) by his side.  They leave Rocket behind to fix their broken ship, along with their prisoner Nebula (Karen Gillan), Gamora’s disgruntled sister, and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), who’s slowly regenerating after sacrificing his adult form in the last film.  When they reach Ego’s planet, they soon learn that Ego is not only the man they see before them, but the planet itself, having been made from the same particles.  While on this living planet, Star-Lord learns more about his past, but Gamora and Drax begin to grow suspicious, especially when Ego’s only companion Mantis (Pom Klementieff) begins to worry for them.  Meanwhile, the Sovereign calls upon Star-Lord’s former employer Yondu (Michael Rooker) to hunt him down, which becomes more problematic when his own crew rises up in mutiny against him, because he still holds a soft spot for the kid he once raised up. With alliances coming into conflict, and Peter Quill becoming more aware of his destiny, everything begins to culminate into one cosmic adventure.

The first Guardians was not only a high water mark set by Marvel, but it could also be argued that it’s one of the best films of the last decade.  I for one put it at #2 on my list of the top films of 2014; only bested that year by Birdman, and believe me it was a tough choice between the two.  Which makes the bar extremely high for a sequel to clear, let alone match.  I tried to tamper my expectations somewhat, and would have accepted anything from this same team, just as long as it was entertaining.  Thankfully, it was more than just that.  I’m pleased to say that Vol. 2 is remarkably just as good as the first film, and even manages to improve upon it in many ways.  Everything that made the first movie great can be found here intact; the hilarious banter between characters, the often jaw-droppingly beautiful visuals, the often explosive action sequences, the subtle but always exciting Easter eggs to other Marvel entities, and of course the killer retro soundtrack.  Thus far, Marvel has done a fairly good job of making their sequels work as perfect continuations of what’s been done before, allowing the extra time spent with these characters work as a way of exploring new territory.  What is interesting here is that Vol. 2 does expand on this universe in some ways, but also reigns a lot of stuff back in.  Unlike the first Guardians, which devoted a lot of time towards establishing larger Marvel Universe elements like Thanos and the Infinity Stones, this Guardians actually leaves a lot of that out, staying more focused on the characters and their continuing stories.  This is a far more standalone story for the Guardians characters, and that’s somewhat refreshing from Marvel, given their whole leadup these last few years towards the inevitable Infinity War.  For the most part, this helps Vol. 2 feel freer than it’s predecessor, acting more as it’s own thing than part of a larger whole.

It’s hard for me to find any flaws to speak about in this film, since it gets so much right that any flaws feel really insignificant when looked at together with everything else.  If I were to maybe single anything out, it’s that some story-lines outshine others, and that’s largely due to some of those other plot-lines just feeling generic compared to the more creative ones.  For instance, the interaction between Star-Lord and Ego, while still entertaining for the most part, feels a tad too familiar, because it’s a plot thread that we’ve seen perhaps too many times in other movies.  To the movie’s credit, it still plays around with this plot element in a way that does make it feel unique, including probably the funniest spin I’ve seen on a game of catch in any movie.  The extended final climactic showdown also kinda feels a little bloated, but again, it is flavored with enough creative bits that you’ll end up not feeling bored at any time.  And that’s the biggest strength from this film, is it’s incredible sense of balance.  Any time you start to think that the movie is going to lose it’s footing, it manages to surprise you with an unexpected treat.  That’s a great testament to James Gunn’s abilities as a writer and director.  There is so much creativity thrown into every scene of this movie, with physical and verbal gags hitting their mark frequently.  One sticking point with some viewers is that some of the jokes and visual references might fly by too quickly, especially for those unfamiliar with the comics and their lore.  I’m sure that quite a few people are going to wonder why Sylvester Stallone is in this movie, and who he’s playing (classic Guardian character Stakar Ogord) for those who are wondering.  But, few, if any of these more confusing and weaker elements ever ruin the enjoyment of watching this film, which remains a consistent delight.

Of course, the strongest element of the film is the thing that also made the first movie great, and that’s the flawless cast that’s been assembled.  The returning cast is just as solid as ever, and are given even more time to flesh out their characters more fully.  I’m still amazed at how these movies manage to evenly divide time between all of their disparate characters, and never once make it feel like any of them got short-ended.  In fact, many of the supporting characters are even given an upgrade; in particular, Michael Rooker’s Yondu, who honestly is the film’s standout.  Yondu was a great character in the first movie, but here he plays a far more integral role that really endears him to the audience and brings him to his full potential.  Rooker’s performance is so good here, and it could even be the best work of his already stellar career.  He also delivers probably one of the funniest line deliveries I have ever heard (one regarding a famous British nanny), and it left me in stitches after hearing it.  The other returning cast are also exceptional, including Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana taking their career boosting roles to the next level.  The vocal work of Bradley Cooper as Rocket is also still top notch, and it still amazes me that Vin Diesel is able to get so much emotion out of a character who only speaks in three words.  Baby Groot, by the way, is as adorable as you’d expect, and even gets to feature in the opening credits dancing to an ELO song.  Of the new characters, Kurt Russell really shines as Ego, which is not an easy character to adapt to the screen.  How do you play a living planet?  Well, Russell found a way and it’s just by playing a version of himself; charming and quirky, but hiding many secrets underneath.  Pom Klementieff is also wonderfully sweet and innocent as Mantis, someone who disarms with her inner beauty, while repulsing with her outward appearance; something which Drax hilariously keeps discussing throughout the movie.   Guardians is defined by it’s great characters, and this sequel proves that more equals more with regards to it’s story.

One other thing that I love about this franchise is the incredible visuals that are on display.  James Gunn has shown that he’s just as adept at creating a visual feast as he is at writing a clever humorous bit.  The first Guardians wowed with it’s impressive space ship battles and this sequel gives us that as well.  But, it also delivers some really impressive elements that we have yet to see before.  The visuals of Ego’s planet, for example, are stunning; filling every space with Technicolor splendor.  DC and Warner Bros. should take note; not everything needs to be washed out and drab to make an action scene feel exciting.  Guardians of the Galaxy uses color and light as an essential tool of it’s world building, and it’s something that really sets it apart from the rest of the field.  There is one sequence in particular, with Yondu taking out his mutinous crew with his whistle controlled arrow, that is one of the most beautiful action scenes that I’ve watched in a while.  As the floating arrow moves through the ship, it leaves a neon trail of light behind it, creating a striking ribbon of destruction in it’s wake.  It’s one of my favorite moments in the entire movie, and one that I’m happy that the filmmakers devoted a good amount of time to.  The film also uses it’s CGI very responsibly, supporting the storytelling instead of just showing off.  With a film that’s no where near earthbound, it’s pretty much a necessity to use visual effects to make it come alive, but in lesser hands, this movie could have become more style than substance.  Thankfully, visual effects are abundant, but restrained here; only aiming for extravagance when needed.  And there’s some impressive effects work here too, like Ego’s manipulation of the planet late in the film, a hilarious over-the-top and surreal portal traveling sequence, and the fore-mentioned arrow scene.  Also, the animation used to create Rocket and Groot is still impressive, getting great expressiveness out of the two.  Like it’s predecessor, Vol. 2 is unparalleled in it’s visual splendor.

In total, there is little reason for you to not go out immediately and watch this movie.  If you loved the first Guardians, you are going to love Vol. 2 as well.  It’s amazing to think that this once obscure collection of comics is now the Crown Jewel of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.  Not only that, but it managed to maintain that same level of quality over two separate movies; hopefully with a third one on the way in the post Infinity War phase of the MCU.  I expected a sequel from this same team to be good, but I didn’t expect it to be as great as this one.  It will take me time to consider which Guardians I like more, because they honestly are really on par with each other.  I think the original has the benefit of novelty, but Vol. 2  does take smaller elements from the first film and expands on them in spectacular ways.  For one thing, it’s great to see characters like Yondu get more development this time around, as well as exploring new territory with some of the more central characters too.  Both die hard comic fans and casual viewers are going to cherish this film as well.  I know people who have never read a Guardians comic book who now consider the original their favorite superhero movie, which just shows you the transcendent appeal that Marvel has tapped into with these movies.  Just like our actual universe itself, the MCU is inexplicably speeding up in it’s expansion when it should be slowing down, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a prime example of it’s forward momentum.  It’s stellar cast, incomparable vision, and complete confidence in it’s own identity has made it the envy of the entire superhero genre and a franchise that stands strong on it’s own.  There’s little doubt that this will stand as one of the best sequels ever, and for right now, it is this summer’s must see hit.  I doubt very few of you need any coaxing from me to go see this movie, but I can tell you that personally it has been incredibly rewarding going ’round the galaxy once again with these Guardians.

Rating: 9/10

Beauty and the Beast (2017) – Review

The “tale as old as time” is a story that will seemingly always be around in our culture.  Beauty and the Beast has seen numerous incarnations over the years ever since it’s first literary introduction and was likely just as prolific a narrative even before then.  The story and message behind it are universal to every nation and culture, and that’s the idea that love transcends beauty and that a person should never be judged by their physical appearance alone.  It’s the narrative basis behind every opposites attract story we’ve ever seen, as well as a definitive example of a redemption story-line arc that we also find very common in our pop culture.  But the story itself remains popular in it’s purest form through pretty much every type of media.  We all enjoy seeing the beautiful Belle find the pure soul buried down inside the twisted form of the Beast and help him find his humanity once again, ultimately allowing him to return to his natural form.  With it’s fairy tale elements and universal appeal, this story has naturally been a beloved one for filmmakers.  Jean Cocteau made his famous French production, and it’s become one of the most influential movies ever made.  But perhaps the best known version today is the 1991 animated feature from Disney.  Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was groundbreaking in itself, capturing the essence of the original fairy tale, while at the same time giving it a modern sensibility, with particular regard to the depiction of a more independent and free thinking heroine in Belle.  The movie would go on to be a high water mark in animation and would also go down in history as the first animated feature to receive a nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  Since it’s release, the animated Beauty and the Beast has left it’s mark on the classic story, and has gone on to influence many more adaptations, including this most recent one that takes it’s cues directly from this version.

Disney is in an interesting spot right now.  After many years of producing successful animated features, they’ve built up an impressive library that stands on it’s own.  But, while they still continue to release new animation every year, they have in recent years discovered that there is a nostalgia market that they can capitalize upon through the power of aura surrounding their “Disney Vault” of classics.  This has sometimes been a sword with two ends for Disney, because while they do make a lot of money exploiting their classics of the past, they also run the risk of cheapening their brand over time.  You definitely saw this a lot in the decade long era of Direct-to-Video sequels that the studio was putting out; a practice that, while profitable, ultimately cheapened the Disney name.  Now, Disney is mining the vaults once again, only this time they are taking their animated classics and giving them lavish live action make-overs.  This too has resulted in mixed results.  On the one hand, some good adaptations have resulted like 2015’s Cinderella and 2016’s Pete’s Dragon.  On the other hand, you also get misfires like Maleficent (2014) and Alice in Wonderland (2010).  The big risk with these types of productions is that they need to create an identity all their own in order to justify their existence; otherwise, all it’s going to make us think about is that we’d rather be watching the original animated classic instead.  The stakes are even higher when it’s an adaptation of one of Disney’s most beloved properties, which is the pressure that is put on this new adaptation of Beauty and the Beast.  Let’s face it, this new adaptation has some mighty shoes to fill, so the question is it a beauty in the making or is it forever doomed to be a Beast?

The story is familiar to everyone who’s seen the original movie, but it also does surprisingly deviate at times for both good and bad reasons.  We are introduced to Belle (Emma Watson), who is ridiculed by the villagers of the small provincial town she calls home because of her independent spirit and her refusal to conform to their outdated ways.  Her days in the village are made even harder by the sexual advances made by her overbearing admirer Gaston (Luke Evans), who has just returned from battle.  He is accompanied by his companion LeFou (Josh Gad), who has his own latent desires towards his brawny friend.  Belle’s creative spirit is still supported by her artistically inclined father Maurice (Kevin Kline), who promises to bring her back a rose every time he leaves town.  On one such trip, he finds himself lost in the woods, where one area seems to be perpetually snowbound.  Within, he finds a massive castle where he finds shelter.  Upon entering, Maurice finds that it is enchanted, with the household objects coming alive and talking to him.  He tries to escape, but remembers that he still needs to find a rose for Belle, to which he finds one in the castle’s gardens.  Once he picks one, he immediately is nabbed by the castle’s master; a hideous looking Beast (Dan Stevens).  Upon learning of her missing father, Belle sets out to find him.  Upon reaching the castle, she finds Maurice held captive and pleads with the Beast that she’ll take his place.  Now a captive, Belle adjusts to life in this crumbling castle, and acquaints herself with the enchanted staff, including the candelabra Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), the mantle clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellan) and the tea pot Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson).  And from them, she learns of the curse put on the castle, and how it’s all tied to a singular wilting rose that when it loses it’s final petal, it will doom them to this state for all time.

Throughout this movie, there are plenty of nice throwbacks to the original story as well as some welcome references to Cocteau’s classic.  However, the majority of the film is a retread of the Disney animated feature, and there lies much of the problem with this movie.  It lacks an identity that helps it to stand on it’s own.  It’s a problem that Disney has had to struggle with when adapting all of stories from their own library.  What I have found from watching many of these live action adaptations is that the best among them are the ones that go out of their way to be their own thing.  What made Cinderella work as well as it did was the fact that it used only a few scant things from the Disney original (like character names and a scant famous phrase here and there) and mix them in with a largely original take on the same story, hence making it stand more solidly on it’s own.  Pete’s Dragon made an even more remarkable transformation, overhauling the style completely and turning a goofy, saccharine 70’s musical into a tear-jerking, emotional indie drama, and in turn, making it work even better.  Also, despite some story nitpicks that I had about it, last year’s Jungle Book remake by Jon Favreau still managed to successfully carve out it’s own identity.  The worst kinds of these movies are the ones that purposely mine the nostalgia elements of these beloved movies, but offer up nothing better in return.  Sadly, Beauty and the Beast is one of these films.  In fact, I dare say it may be the worst one of these movies to date; yep, even more pathetic than the much maligned Alice in Wonderland.  I was really shocked by how badly this movie missed the mark.  The adaptation is terrible, the production is a mess, the performances by the cast are mixed at best, and overall all it made me feel was a complete sense of disappointment all the way through.

It’s not a good sign when you’re watching a movie, and all you can think about are the things that could’ve been done better with it.  The movie comes to us from director Bill Condon, whose career as a filmmaker has been a mixed one.  For one thing, he was the Oscar-winning mind behind the critically acclaimed Gods and Monsters (1998).  On the other hand, he is also the guy you can blame for bringing the universally loathed final two Twilight movies to the big screen.  One thing that I noticed about Bill Condon as a director is that he’s at his best when he makes a small, reserved dramatic film, like with Gods and Monsters, Kinsey (2004), or Mr. Holmes (2015).  But, give him a broader subject and a more lavish budget to work with, and he somehow completely mismanages it.  That’s the case that sadly happens with Beauty and the Beast.  The movie is a very shoddily directed, with some moments feeling completely disjointed.  There’s a scene where Maurice is lost in the woods and confronted by wolves, and like the worst kinds of action movies, the editing is so frantic and jumbled that I couldn’t get a handling on where the action was taking place and what was happening to the character.  The story itself also suffers quite a bit.  Remember the nice bit of flow that the original animated film had from scene to scene.  Well this movie clumsily force feeds you plot contrivances and unnecessary character business that makes the whole experience feel inconsistent.  Another major issue is the padding done to the story.  I understand that part of justifying the production of this movie was because it no longer needed to be bound by the limitations of the animated medium, including it’s shorter run-time, but what is added to this movie to bring it to 2 hours offers nothing of substance.  There’s even a horribly contrived new magical item, apart from the rose and the enchanted mirror, introduced into this version that, quite frankly, breaks the plot entirely.  Without giving it away, I seriously question it’s existence.  If it has this kind of power, wouldn’t it have been useful to use later in the plot?  Nope, it’s entirely forgotten by the end.

But, the most upsetting part of the movie is how poorly it deals with the iconic characters that were so beloved in the animated feature.  In particular, this movie does a real disservice to the supporting cast of enchanted objects.  Disney did an amazing job taking the nameless inanimate objects that inhabit the Beast’s castle from the original story, and turned them into clearly defined personalities that stood out on their own in the animated feature.  In this film, the same characters are pale imitations of their animated predecessors, and I think that’s largely due to the awkward transition they made from expressive hand-drawn animation to rigid CGI animation.  The new designs of the characters, quite frankly, are pretty ugly and it distracts from any kind of character development that they have.  Couple this with a screenplay that cares little about setting these characters apart and you’ve got a portrayal that really does insult the memory of these beloved characters.  What’s worse is that it wastes an amazing cast, made up of heavy hitters like Ian McKellan and Emma Thompson.  There is such a thing as a movie being overproduced, and the needlessly garish CGI enhancements put on these characters and the rest of the movie in general is proof of that.  The movie has production value to it, but it’s so aggressively thrown at you that you just don’t care by the end.  I was particularly disappointed by the staging of all the iconic musical numbers, because they are so poorly blocked and overly saturated with unnecessary flourish.  It’s amazing to think that the animated feature is the one that takes the subtler approach.  Disney thought that perhaps by throwing away all limitations they could make this film feel even grander, but sadly all it does is spotlight the artificiality of it all even more.  Animation is of course all artificial, but it’s one that remains consistent within it’s world and gives the imitation of life a much more bigger sense of reality.  Belle’s triumphant mountaintop moment, for example, feels so much more powerful when it’s all animated, and not filmed against a green-screen; quite poorly I might add.

Despite all my complaining up to now, I can’t say that everything in this movie is bad.  However, the good stuff that is here can be counted on one hand.  I will say that like most other classic adaptations of this story, the film’s most successful execution is of the Beast.  Actor Dan Stevens does do a pretty credible job taking on this difficult role and gives the character a surprising amount of charisma.  It’s even more remarkable that he stands out at all, particularly when he has to act through a CGI crafted mask to make him look like beastly.  I’m not a fan of the redesign, because it’s too closer to human-like than previous Beasts, and really pale in comparison to the iconic animated version which was such an amazing design.  But, the delivery that Stevens gives helps to make the design shortcomings feel less important.  I also thought that there were some surprisingly good performances from unexpected roles as well.  Kevin Kline gives easily the film’s best performance as Maurice, and that’s only because he’s the only subtle one in the entire cast.  Luke Evans and Josh Gad are also surprisingly effective as the villains, Gaston and LeFou.  There is actually better chemistry between these two than there is between Belle and the Beast in this movie.  It’s almost like the actors are coming from a different movie entirely, where their character histories are more clearly defined.  It helps you to buy them as the characters, even when you realize that they are a little uncharacteristically cast; especially Evans, who’s not quite a big enough actor to portray the man as “large as a barge.”  The controversial addition of a gay subtext to the character of LeFou is also not a big deal, and barely is important at all in the story.  My only complaint is why didn’t Disney just create a gay character from scratch instead of retroactively changing an already established one to be gay, let alone a villainous one?  Still, they are solid standouts in an otherwise mixed cast.  Emma Watson perhaps represents the movie’s mixed results more than anything.  She looks the part, yes, and does have her moments; but, you can tell that a lack of serious musical training has left her at a disadvantage and despite her trying her best, you can sense the struggle in her performance more than any other in the movie.

This movie made me think a lot of the recent Ghostbusters reboot, and how that movie also failed at carving out it’s own identity while also trying to milk the nostalgia that it was built upon.  Like it, you have a movie that has all the hallmarks of a beloved classic, along with talent that can bring a lot of new things to the material, and yet, it just falls flat on it’s face.  Believe me, I didn’t want to see this movie fail as badly as it does, just like I didn’t want to see a lackluster Ghostbusters.  But, the sad result is that these movies just come across as shameless cash-grabs in the end.  Disney has proven other times that they can make the formula work, as they have with Cinderella and Jungle Book.  I think this one hurts so bad because it’s an adaptation of such a beloved classic.  With the others, you could see a foundation where something fresh could be built upon and even improved in some cases.  With Beauty and the Beast, it seems that the animated film just sets too high a bar to cross.  Not that I don’t think it could ever be done.  With better direction, staging, and a more subtler approach, I think a live action remake could’ve worked.  Disney already proved that they could take the same film and bring it to the Broadway stage with all the charm and wonder intact.  That’s another thing that puzzled me while watching this; the hit Broadway musical successfully expanded the story with new musical numbers, and yet none of that was used here, instead opting for newer songs written just for this movie, none of which are memorable in any way.  Why couldn’t the Broadway show have served as a suitable basis for an expanded film production?  Whatever the case, I’m sad to say that this film adaptation is one of the bigger disappointments in recent Disney history.  The best thing I can say at this point is that it does make me appreciate the original animated feature even more.  Unfortunately, this trend of mining the Disney Vault is not going to end soon, with Jon Favreau’s adaptation of The Lion King and Tim Burton’s Dumbo coming up in the years ahead.  My best hope is that each of these adaptation at least makes an attempt to be it’s own thing and not a pale imitation of the movies that came before them.  In the case of this one, there is sadly no handsome prince underneath the skin of this monstrous beast.

Rating: 4/10

Logan – Review

In the pre-Cinematic Universe era of superhero hero movies, you would often see a lot of turn over in the casting of all you favorite superheroes.  The 1990’s for instance saw no less than three different Batmans.  It was a time when brand recognition mattered more than the casting of the characters.  Why keep the same actor when it’s the character that’s the big draw?  Nowadays, there is a whole lot more care put into the casting of superhero movies, with the persona of the actor sometimes becoming a deciding factor in their selection.  You can definitely see that in the current slate of Marvel films.  Can you imagine anyone other than roguish Robert Downey Jr. as the wisecracking Iron Man, or charming Chris Evans as the naively pure-souled Captain America, or even suave, dapper Benedict Cumberbatch as the mysterious Doctor Strange.  Yes, the casting of these characters matter today, and audiences are more keenly aware now than ever when someone is out of place.  Just look at some of the worst casting choices for these kinds of films, like Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, or Topher Grace as Venom, or more recently, Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor.  It’s a good thing in today’s film industry that so much more effort is placed on the construction of these characters to match more closely their print counterparts in order to meet the expectations of fans.  You could argue that the beginning of this era started all the way back in 2000 with Bryan Singer’s X-Men, where they not only took the characters more seriously, but even managed to collect top tier talent to portray them.  The cast of X-Men, with some minor exceptions, is largely praised for capturing faithfully the essence of their respective characters, and chief of all of the most highly praised casting choices for those films would be it’s breakout star Hugh Jackman as the iconic Wolverine.

When Bryan Singer cast the then unknown Aussie actor to play the metal clawed man-beast, I don’t think either he nor Jackman knew just how much of an impact that decision would leave on the character.  Hugh Jackman would prove to be the absolute perfect choice for the part, less physically (he never once has worn the iconic costume) and more in terms of personality. He’s gruff in all the right ways, but still manages to remain charming and assertive.  In time, Wolverine became the face of the franchise and it turned Jackman into a household name around the world.  The first X-Men was successful enough, but the franchise outdid itself with the follow-up X2: X-Men United (2002).  Then came X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), a huge mis-managed failure of a sequel.  In the aftermath, the series had to rethink it’s strategy, and one idea was to begin a series of origin films centered on each of the most iconic X-Men characters.  They again relied on their star to carry this franchise into it’s next phase, but unfortunately, the result was X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), one of the worst superhero films ever made.  After this, X-Men went through another revamp, choosing instead to look into the past and see the formation of the team in X-Men: First Class (2011).  This put the franchise back on solid footing, but even still, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine was kept as a common thread through everything.  With a great cameo in First Class and a key lead role in Days of Future Past (2014), Jackman’s presence gave this disjointed franchise stability it normally wouldn’t have.  In addition, a separate but interconnected Wolverine franchise emerged from the rubble of Origins and actually gave us a far superior sequel in The Wolverine (2013).  But, everything must come to an end, and Hugh Jackman now sees his after 17 years playing the same character over 9 movies, a feat that’s remarkable no matter how you look at it.  And that leads us to the release of his franchise swan song: Logan.

Logan, taken from Wolverine’s actual name, is a loose adaptation of the Old Man Logan Marvel comic event series that focused on Wolverine’s latter years.  The movie only uses bits of that comic’s story-line, along with bits of the “X-23” story-line as well, but it is largely it’s own original take on the material.  Set 10 years into the future, America has nearly wiped out mutantkind through medication and reproductive experimentation.  Only a handful of mutants remain, living discreetly either hiding their identity or living across the border, waiting for their time to come.  We find Logan (Hugh Jackman), working as a limo driver in borderland Texas.  He makes his home in an abandoned mill, where he looks after an increasingly senile and unstable 90 year old Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), alongside Charles’ care-giver Caliban (Stephen Merchant).  We find out that Charles’ telepathic powers are unstable and are capable of causing serious mental harm to anyone in the vicinity if he doesn’t take his medication.  One day, Logan is visited by a desperate Mexican lady (Elizabeth Rodriguez) who begs him to help her transport a girl she claims to be her daughter named Laura (Dafne Keen) across America to the Canadian Border.  Logan is reluctant, but once the woman is found killed, Logan is forced to look after Laura.  Soon, a shadowy group called the Reavers come to Logan’s compound looking for the girl, including their slimy leader Pierce (Boyd Holbrook).  While being attacked, Laura reveals not only a  mutant, but that she has the same abilities as Wolverine, including adamantium claws.  Stuck together, Logan, Charles, and Laura take to the road, hoping to reach the border before the Reavers can catch up to them.

Logan is largely meant to bring closure to the character of Wolverine, and in many ways it does bring the character (at least Hugh Jackman’s version) to a fitting end.  No other actor has come close to being as prolific as Jackman’s Wolverine, though some of Marvel Studios’ iterations are coming close.  You have to give him credit though for being really the first actor of this generation to not only portray the character on the big screen, but to also champion him like never before.  Since Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Wolverine, we’ve seen a lot more actors carry the mantle of their selective heroes with pride and want to portray them for longer periods of time.  So, it’s fitting that Fox and Marvel allowed for Jackman to call the shots on his final chapter, including finally having the freedom to make this an “R-rated” adventure.  There’s no tip-toeing around the blood and gore in this Wolverine film.  When Wolverine cuts into somebody with his claws, it’s in full Peckinpaw-ish detail, complete with gallons of spilled blood.  Also, the movie gets to throw far more f-bombs our way.  It’s not Wolverine’s first time dropping the mother of all swear words in one of these movies, nor is it Charles Xavier’s, but the frequency has definitely increased.  All of these are great and all for the direction of the franchise, but does it translate into a solid movie.  Well, I have to say yes and no to that.  The creative freedom to finally be as gratuitous as the filmmakers want with the violence helps to make the fight scenes more viscerally interesting than ever before, but I felt that the story itself was severely lacking in many areas.  Plot threads are established but never fully realized; character motivations don’t make sense all the time; and there is generally awkward pacing throughout the movie.  None of this is Origins or Last Stand bad, nor are they as disappointing as last year’s lackluster X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), but they prevent this movie from being as good as it could’ve been as a result too.

My chief problem with this movie is the overall conflict.  The basic essential plot point of Logan and his companions getting from point A to B is effective enough, but the danger around them is at times unfocused, unexplained, and just flat out mediocre at times.  The villains in particular are this movie’s weakest aspect.  The Reavers, I hear, are some very interesting bad guys in the comic books, but in this movie, they are no different than any black-ops bands of mercenaries that you see in any other action thriller.  They are mainly there to be lambs to the slaughter for Logan and Laura for most of the movie, which does lead to some admittedly cool looking death scenes.  Boyd Holbrook’s Pierce is also disappointing as the antagonist, because he never shows any depth in character.  He’s just a smarmy asshole whose only purpose in the story is to hunt down our heroes.  We learn nothing about who he is or why we’re supposed to find him interesting.  He’s a far cry from far more interesting villains in this series like Magneto and General Stryker.  In some ways, I feel like the filmmakers themselves realized how weak the villain was in this, so they introduced some new 11th-hour villains late into the movie to liven things up, like a corrupt scientist played by Richard E. Grant, and even he adds completely nothing to the mix.  There’s also the addition of a “creature” meant to rival Wolverine late in the film that I felt was is completely unnecessary, is never fully explained, and by the end just leaves you confused as to why it was created.  The movie also suffers from a story that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be.  It works best when it just stays to the “on-the-run” story-line, but there are unnecessary plot deviations that ruin the momentum and go nowhere.  Charles Xavier for instance mentions a troubled incident in his past that caused him to retreat from the world, but it’s only given the briefest of mentions and almost seems to have been forgotten by the filmmakers, making it infuriatingly pointless.  It’s lackluster elements like this that spoil what could’ve otherwise been a great movie.

Where the film does excel is in the interactions between it’s leads.  Despite the film’s lackluster story, it does have a great heart at it’s center and that’s the bittersweet final days of it’s hero.  Jackman, as always, is exceptional as Wolverine here.  The great thing about this movie is that we get to see a lot more vulnerability from him here than we have before.  This is a version of Wolverine that is on his last legs; not able to heal as quickly as he has before, broken down from the heartache of seeing his species wiped out, and knowing that his long days are finally about to be numbered.  Jackman balances this with the things that he’s been best at in this series this whole time, which are brutal take-downs of his enemies.  You can tell that Jackman knows this is his final chance to bring real emotion out of this character that he’s played for so long, and he really does excel in the film’s more emotional moments.  This is the closest we’ve seen to actual introspective acting from this actor in this series; more embodying the heart and sole of Wolverine, rather than just looking the part.  The movie is also at it’s best when he gets to work off his co-stars.  Partick Stewart is also saying goodbye to his longtime role as Charles Xavier, and it is a touching performance; perhaps the best in the entire film.  Like Hugh Jackman, Stewart gets an honorable farewell here too.  However, the movie does belong to the scene-stealing Dafne Keen as Laura.  Portrayed with incredible intensity for a girl her age, she commands every moment she’s on screen, and does so in a mostly mute role.  She also manages to hold her own against her more experienced co-stars and helps to make them even better as a result.  Of all the new characters introduced in this film, she is easily the best one, and the movie’s one true triumph.  Her character helps to keep this from being an out right disappointment of a movie, and apart from seeing Jackman and Stewart say goodbye to their characters, she is definitely the main reason to watch this movie.

The movie doesn’t disappont with it’s visuals.  After the excessive use of bland CGI in X-Men: Apocalypse and the flat out terrible use of effects in Origins, it’s nice to see director James Mangold keep things simple for this film.  The fight scenes are mostly easy to follow and they get the most out of the extra bit of gore that this movie is allowed to have.  Not only do Logan and Laura get to cut into their enemies, they slice them to shreds, like a weed trimmer to a bush.   This is the most visceral we’ve ever seen the violence in any of the X-Men movies, or any superhero movie for that matter.  Even R-Rated Deadpool (2016) didn’t get away with this much. At the same though, the fight scenes here aren’t completely original either.  We don’t get any standout fight scenes like the bullet train sequence in The Wolverine.  All the ones in this movie are mostly interchangeable, except for maybe the excellent opening sequence or the one where Laura first shows her true abilities.  The final showdown in particular is a let down, mainly because of the choice of adversary that I’ve already discussed earlier.  In the end, it’s nice that Mangold and Jackman got the ability to really test the limits of gratuitous violence this time around, and they do make good use of it in the film.  If only all that freedom resulted in more interesting fight scenes.  Apart from that, the movie does have a nice melancholy tone to it, using the wide open spaces of the American prairie-lands to underline the isolation that these characters are experiencing.  At times, this is a very beautiful movie to look at.  The film excels during the quiet moments of reflection, when we the audience are allowed to soak in the atmosphere, and see the performers really shine through as the characters.  None of the more raucous moments are bad in any way, but more creativity could’ve been given to them in order to make this a more balanced movie overall.

Logan is by no means a bad film.  It does feature some passionate performances from a talented cast, and enables them to finally portray the characters the way they’ve always wanted to.  However, this is far from the best we’ve seen in this series.  I for one far more enjoyed the first two X-Men movies, as well as First Class and Days of Future Past.  Even it’s predecessor The Wolverine felt more consistent as a narrative and movie experience.  But, it is no where near as terrible as Origins or Last Stand, and it does hold up better than the boringly inconsistent Apocalypse.  What works best in this movie are the actors, because you can tell that they are trying their best to leave their iconic roles on a high note.  It’s the story that ultimately lets the film down, with a narrative that never really coalesces into a coherent plot, and is undermined by a underwhelming central threat.  I think another screenplay polish would have worked out some of the film’s shortcomings, taking out some of the more pointless character motivation and actually giving the heroes a real threat to go up against.  That said, if you are a fan of the X-Men franchise, then you’ll probably find this to be a worthwhile sit through.  Jackman and Stewart both conclude their iconic roles in a fitting fashion, reminding us all why we fell in love with their performances in the first place.  It’s really quite an achievement on Hugh Jackman’s part to have stuck with this demanding role for two decades, especially considering that Wolverine is a character that doesn’t age.  The question is, how will Wolverine survive without Hugh Jackman.  My hope is that Fox eventually relents and gives the rights to the characters over to Marvel Studios and Disney.  We probably will never get anything as bloody as this again, but a reboot by Marvel might finally help this character return to his roots; including possibly having him finally wear his iconic head gear.  Nevertheless,  Hugh Jackman will be hard to replace, and this movie works as a fitting, if underwhelming, love letter from an actor to the character that made him into a star.

Rating: 7/10

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – Review

A year ago, the whole world was deeply anticipating the long awaited return of the Star Wars franchise to the big screen with the release of the seventh film in the saga; The Force Awakens.  This was the first film in a new era for the series; unencumbered by it’s complete control under it’s creator George Lucas.  With the Disney company taking the reins, the Star Wars series was ready for the change it desperately needed.  And that change came in record-shattering fashion with The Force Awakens.  Though the story behind it wasn’t as fresh as people liked (basically it was a rehash of A New Hope for most people), the spirit behind it felt authentic, and it pleased a whole legion of fans young and old.  I for one included it on my best of the year list for 2015, more than anything just for the sheer entertainment value.  And while continuing the main saga of the Star Wars franchise is a pleasing mission to see realized in cinemas today, what Disney also had planned for this property actually is the thing that gives me the most excitement about the future.  What we are going to see from Disney and Star Wars is an endless series of standalone features dedicated to expanding the storyline outside of the main saga.  In other words, the sky is the limit to what can be turned into a feature with the Star Wars universe as it’s backdrop.  Primarily, we will be seeing backstories fleshed out, explore subplots in full length treatments, and experience other worlds that had until now been unseen.  Already Disney has been gearing up an origin story for one of Star Wars most beloved heroes, Hans Solo, which should be in theaters in 2018.  There are also standalone features rumored to feature Boba Fett and Obi-wan Kenobi in the near future.  But, this ambitious plan for an expanded universe must have a solid beginning, and this year, we have that foundation set by the first ever Star Wars StoryRogue One.

The idea to make this the first in the expanded universe tales seems like a sound one.  It’s taking a subplot from the original trilogy, about the Rebel spies who stole the Death Star plans from the Empire, and finally showing us how it was done and by whom.  If there is one thing that the Star Wars universe hasn’t devoted a lot of time to, it would be the lives and trial of the many people who make up the resistance.  Oh sure, we know about Leia and Han and of course Luke Skywalker, but what about all those nameless heroes who fight alongside them.  Rogue One finally lets us hear their story and learn about the sacrifices and hardships they face in the shadow of the evil Galactic Empire.  The movie also gives us another interesting side story to explore which is the creation of the ultimate weapon; the dreaded Death Star.  The Death Star of course is one of the most iconic pieces of the Star Wars universe, so seeing it again brought to life on the big screen is another thing that I’m sure will please fans.  Also, and more importantly, this movie’s strong sense of nostalgia is going to make it appealing to fans.  It takes place in the same time period as the original trilogy, and borrow strongly from that era’s visual aesthetic.  Because of that, many are hoping that this will be the first true Star Wars movie since the originals, and not the glossy retread that was The Force Awakens, or the garishly over-produced betrayals that were the prequels.  But, straying into the open world of an expanded universe can have it’s own troubling consequences if the stories are not strong enough to support the legacy behind them.  So, does Rogue One fall short of it’s astounding pedigree, or is it a hopeful indicator of the great things to come in the Star Wars universe.

Rogue One’s narrative begins in-between Episodes III and IV of the main saga; Revenge of the Sith (2005) and A New Hope (1977) to be specific.  In fact, it leads right up to the beginning of IV, in a very effective way.  The story introduces us to Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of a leading engineer for the Imperial Forces named Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who as we learn is the chief architect of the Death Star.  Jyn has spent years living as an outlaw trying to reconnect with her father and her misdeeds against both the Empire and the Resistence forces eventually gets her caught by a band of rebels led by Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his re-programmed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk).  They bring her before the Resistence leaders, including Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) and Senator Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits), who enlist her to help them retrieve a message from an Imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed) who had just defected and is in the custody of a rogue Rebel warlord named Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker); a former acquaintance of Jyn’s.  They find Saw’s base on the Imperial occupied planet of Jedah, a once holy center for the Jedi Order.  There they encounter Imperial Stormtroopers all around, but are assisted by two resourceful rogue warriors; the sharpshooting Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and the blind daredevil monk Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen).  But, while this small band tries their best to discreetly complete their mission, final preparations are being made on the Death Star, with it’s overseeing Commading Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) eager to test out it’s planet destroying power.  Krennic’s ambitions drive him to even more drastic methods than many of the other Imperial commanders; which makes him especially threatening to the Rebels, and a nuisance to some of his superiors in the Imperial force including Grand Moff Tarkin (Guy Henry) and Darth Vader himself (voiced again by James Earl Jones).

As you can tell, this is a heavily packed film with quite a lot of characters and plot threads.  In fact, it may be the most ensemble heavy Star Wars film we’ve ever seen.  So, is that a good thing or a bad thing?  How does this stack up against the other Star Wars.  Well, judging this movie is challenging, mainly because it is part of this legendary legacy.  The Star Wars grading curve is a peculiar one, mainly because the high points of the series are almost insurmountable, and we all know by watching the prequels how low the series can get as well.  My rating of the movie is like this; if it weren’t for the fact that this was another Star Wars movie, I would say that Rogue One is one of the greatest sci-fi adventure movies ever made.  But, because it is a Star Wars , it inevitably has to be judged with the other movies in the series, and that unfortunately brings an unfortunate burden on the film as a whole.  It doesn’t quite have the same kind of flawless spirit that Star Wars  had at it’s height with A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back  (1980), or even the nostalgic heart that elevated The Force Awakens, but at the same time it is still an enormously enjoyable adventure in it’s own right.  The best way to judge this movie is to look at it as a war film instead as a part the Star Wars narrative, and in that regard, it is an exceptional piece of work.  The movie does an excellent job of giving a face to the Rebellion fighters, showing them as more than just screen filler standing around the franchises’ main stars.  They are all vulnerable beings fighting for something they believe in and are willing to accept the cost of even their lives.  There are no Jedis in this movie and only one character wields a lightsaber late in the film (in a truly spectacular moment).  This is instead a battle fought through wits, determination, and blasters and in a way that’s the refreshing thing about this movie that sets it apart from it’s predecessors.

If the film has a major flaw in it, it would probably be with the characters.   None of the cast of characters in this movie are terrible per say, it’s just that very few of them are memorable.  This is one thing that made The Force Awakens a better film; it endeared us to the new characters of Rey and Finn and Kylo Ren with a lot more focus than there was on the story.  Here, characterizations are minimal, mainly because there is so little time to fit all of them in.  The one’s who suffer the most are the two leads; Jyn and Cassian.  The actors playing them do a fine job, but the characters are so underdeveloped that they come off as a little boring.  Jyn in particular is the biggest disappointment as a character, especially considering Star Wars history with strong heroines from Princess Leia to Rey.  The supporting players fare a little better.  I particularly liked the droid K-2SO.  He’s got all the resourcefulness of C-3PO, but with none of the cowardice, and he’s even got a sly sense of humor as well.  Some other great characters are Baze and Chirrut, the two exiled guards of a Jedi temple.  Chirrut is the one character in the movie that mentions the concept of the Force, and he in turn becomes the movie’s spiritual center.  It’s especially fun to see Donnie Yen’s martial arts skills put to good work with the character, especially knowing that the character is also supposed to be blind.  And Jiang’s Baze is just a great bad ass with a really big gun.  I also want to spotlight Ben Mendelsohn as the villain Krennic.  What could have easily turned into a whiny, unlikable villain instead becomes a richly textured character through Mendelsohn intimidating performance.  He even holds his own in scenes with Darth Vader, which is no easy task.

But while the cast of characters is a mixed bag, the visual presentation is beyond exceptional.  This is a spectacular looking film.  The epic scale is on par with Star Wars at it’s very best, and maybe even a little more.  Thankfully Disney and Director Gareth Edwards did not treat this side story any less important than the films in the main Star Wars saga.  In fact, the scale of production feels even greater here than it did in The Force Awakens.  In this movie, we are treated to incredible locals that we’ve surprisingly have yet to see in a Star Wars flick.  A tropical beach becomes a battleground for example, complete with all the classic Star Wars machinery that we’ve come to love over the years, including the mighty Imperial Walkers.  But, the visual give a lot more to the story than to show off, which is something that plagued most of the prequels.  I also commend the filmmakers for trying their hardest to recreate the texture and feel of classic Star Wars.  The movie has a definite lived in feel like the original films, with all the dirt and crime intact.  Some locals from the original trilogy even make a return appearance like the Yavin 4 moonbase of the Rebellion and of course the Death Star itself.  Speaking of the Death Star, this movie allows us to experience something that even the original trilogy was never able to show before, and that’s the true destructive force of it’s power.  In the original Star Wars, we saw the destruction of Alderaan from a wide shot, mainly because that was the only way 1970’s visual effects could portray a planet’s destruction on screen.  Here, we see the Death Star’s power demonstrated from the surface of the planet itself, and it is chilling.  I don’t think we’ve ever seen this kind of apocalyptic imagery shown in a Star Wars film before, and it really helps to elevate the true menace of the Death Star more than ever.

And that’s another thing that I like about this movie is that it does a great job of adding more lore to the Star Wars universe as a whole.  It actually helps to fill in some of the gaps in the overall Star Wars narrative and set things in motion in a very effective way.  Some of the classic characters are also used very well, although there is one distracting element about them that I have to point out.  Some characters who have aged too much over the years or whose actors have deceased since the original film’s release are digitally recreated in a very distracting way.  The CGI used for their faces are not the worst that I’ve seen, but it still falls into that uncanny valley where it just doesn’t look right and it takes you right out of the movie every time it happens.  Think of the de-aging effects they used on Jeff Bridges in Tron Legacy (2010), and you’ll get the idea.  It might of been better if they used make-up effects to do the same thing, or even cast someone who looks exactly like the original, like what they did for the character Mon Mothma.  Darth Vader fares much better as a revitalized character in this film.  He’s not in the movie a whole lot, but the few moments he has are spectacular.  You really get the sense of how much he was neutered as a character in the prequels, and this movie finally allows him to be the frightening force of nature that the original trilogy had made him to be.  Also, hearing James Earl Jones voice once again with the character is a true delight.  It all helps to make this film feel like it rightfully stands with the main saga, and best of all, by filling in the gaps in the story, it actually enhances the original film itself.

So, Rogue One may not live up to the stellar heights of the series at it’s very best, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a lot of fun to watch either.  What it lacks in characterizations it makes up for with thrilling action.  Some of the action moments here are among the best that I’ve seen in the series as a whole, including the final battle at the end which may even exceed the dogfight in space from Return of the Jedi (1983).  I commend this movie for it’s sense of scale, and for not pulling any punches either.  This is a dark and sometimes brutal film, and it really gives you a sense of the amount of sacrifice that the Rebels in the Star Wars universe go through in order to stop the Empire.  I think that this is the movie’s greatest contribution to the Star Wars lore; that it gives a face to the faceless rebels that we’ve only seen on the periphery of the main saga before.  These are not special people with special powers; they are merely survivors fighting against the odds and with only their skills and wits to help see them through.  That in itself makes Rogue One a triumph.  It may be rough around the edges and lacks the steady entertainment factor that elevated The Force Awakens, but it still is one hell of a ride, and it especially gives us a lot to look forward to in the future for this series.  Indeed, I’m happy this movie works as well as it does, because it shows us that any story outside of the main saga can hold it’s own on the big screen.  It makes me eager to see the planned Han Solo origin story, and especially excited to watch next year’s continuation of the saga with Episode VIII.   As for now, the force is still strong with Rogue One and it’s absolutely worth the journey to that galaxy far, far away once again for all audiences.

Rating: 8.5/10