Transformers: The Last Knight (Bay; 2017)

I spoil the end of the movie in this review, if a movie this horrible to begin with can truly be said to be spoiled, so proceed at your own risk.  But, trust me, it’s a lousy movie which you shouldn’t see so the risk is pretty minimal.

Transformers: The Last Knight opens during the Dark Ages during a war between King Arthur (Liam Garrigan) and an unknown force.  The men in King Arthur’s cadre of warriors ask him about Merlin (Stanley Tucci) and where he is, while others write Merlin off as a worthless drunk.  We then cut to Merlin and find that he is, indeed, a drunk, but that he knows the location of a Transformer.  The Transformer has a staff that Merlin needs to control a dragon Transformer, and when drunk Merlin swears off drink and money for the rest of his life if he can have the staff, the Transformer for some unknown reason decides that Merlin can now have the staff and Merlin saves the day for Arthur with his mechanical dragon.  Why the staff is needed to bring the dragon into the fight is never made clear.  Why the dragon is needed to win in the first place is also never made even remotely clear since Arthur had 5 normal Transformers fighting for him where their unnamed enemy just had normal Dark Ages people with normal Dark Ages technology.  And, in the main story which takes place 1600 years later it is also never made clear why this staff can only be wielded by a descendant of Merlin nor why the staff is needed at Stonehenge when the planet of Cybertron and the creator of the Transformers,  Quintessa (Gemma Chan), are attacking Earth.  It’s even unclear in the film’s climax because when Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock) the said last descendant of Merlin gets her hands on the staff, the dragon shows up and the heroes just win.  Because. Cybertron is still there and it isn’t clear what happened to Quintessa, but the script and director apparently decided the plot did what it needed to do, so the heroes win.  Yay!

At one point mid-movie when Cogman (Jim Carter), a rather annoying butler Transformer (that’s a thing) is speaking to is speaking to Cade (Mark Wahlberg) one of the other Transformers, I can’t tell which one since all the Transformers show up at random with no purpose and have a line or two each at most, approaches them and asks “Who is this?”  Cogman immediately spins around and breaks all of the fingers on the larger Transformer’s right hand.  Why?  I guess random acts of extreme violence performed on a large thing by a small thing are hilarious in the minds of Michael Bay and his fans.

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Slightly before this, our female lead Vivian gets into an argument with her elder female family members about why she doesn’t have a boyfriend, so she gets into a car and reads a note, but the car is a Transformer which immediately kidnaps her!  Why did she just climb into a random car?  Beats the crap out of me.  How did she know there was a note inside that was for her?  Who knows?  But she needed to get kidnapped and whisked away to Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins) otherwise how could we have a good looking woman in the movie to gawk at?

This is the intelligence on display throughout the entirety of Transformers: The Last Knight‘s running time.  It’s not too uncommon for the cast and crew of a film to miss an important detail or two and leave behind plot holes to annoy their audience, but Transformers: The Last Knight never bothers to make any sense of anything from the get-go.  A character motivation is whatever Michael Bay incorrectly believes will get the biggest laugh and nothing more.  Occasionally it’s whatever will let him blow things up, but not a single action taken on the part of a single character is tied to any exposition, world laws, motivation, nor anything else other than the law of what would titillate a teenage male of very low intelligence.

Transformers: The Last Knight is the cinematic equivalent of a cat chasing a laser pointer where the audience is the cat.  It’s staring at a screen, drooling, and exclaiming “Oooh colors!”, and if that were all there was to this movie I would simply chalk it up as a bad movie, tell you I don’t recommend it as anything more than the possible subject of a do it yourself MST3K party, and leave it at that.  But, Transformers: The Last Knight takes it one step farther and actually crosses the line from horrible into downright offensive.

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Yes, it does have the racist undertones of previous movies, but those jokes are at least a little toned down here, not that that’s an excuse just an explanation that this isn’t the film’s biggest problem.  Transformers: The Last Knight includes two characters amongst its cast that are touted as smart people.  One is the female lead Vivian mentioned a few times earlier.  She has a PhD in history and archaeology and is a professor at a prestigious English university, I can’t recall exactly which one.  The other smart character is a scientist of an unknown discipline who people in the Earth military call on when it’s found that Cybertron is making its way directly toward Earth.

Throughout the course of the movie, Vivian makes snarky comments to Cade, falls in love with Cade because he has abs, screams, wears skintight clothing and glasses (because she’s smart), finds out she is the last descendant of Merlin, gets kidnapped, and ends the movie when she touches the staff she’s supposed to touch.  It’s bad enough that so much of this is incredibly sexist, but it’s made worse by the fact that her multiple advanced degrees and prestigious employment are in the movie purely so Michael Bay can say he has a smart woman in the movie and so she has an excuse to look down on people arrogantly until she sees their abs.  The unnamed military scientist’s role is even worse, put into the film only to play an obnoxious, arrogant nerd stereotype and to scream about how physics are more dependable than magic only to then be wrong and screw up every single thing he does.  Transformers: The Last Knight does not settle for merely being stupid, it goes all the way to straight out anti-intellectual.

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Final verdict:  If Tom & Jerry cartoons confuse you due to the high amount of intellect required to understand them, then perhaps this is a movie for you. Otherwise, Transformers: The Last Knight is a movie that is not content to be simply terrible and a jumbled mess of confused actions and images, it is also racist, sexist, and paranoid of anything with an IQ greater than the mid double digits and any degree of any kind.  Transformers: The Last Knight should not just be avoided, it should be shunned, as it is the embodiment of exactly the attitude which is running through American culture right now that makes us so susceptible to charlatans and those who seek to exploit anyone they can for their own greed and narcissism.   This film is worse than bad, it’s downright irresponsible and evil.

 

 

The Mummy (Kurtzman; 2017)

Everyone wants to get on that train to big money which Disney/Marvel Studios and DC/Warner Brothers are on by starting up their own cinematic universe.  The Mummy is Universal Studios attempt in which they bring out their classic era horror movie monsters such as Frankenstein’s Monster and The Invisible Man and, of course, The Mummy,  into the modern day with a series of films known as “The Dark Universe”.  Right out of the gate they are making the same mistake Warner Brothers made with their DC Comic Universe by starting in the middle of a story already well underway and expecting their audience to just run with it.  However, unlike DC the characters they are using are not so iconic and ingrained in our culture that they can get away with stumbling out of the gate based on the draw of the characters alone, and with The Mummy the Dark Universe may be doomed before it even begins.

The Mummy starts out in Iraq with Tom Cruise and Jake Johnson playing Nick Morton and Chris Vail respectively, both soldiers in the U.S. military who use the fact that ISIS is destroying monuments in the area as an excuse and a cover up for their own activities of stealing precious artifacts from sites in the area and selling these artifacts on the black market.  This unfortunately is everything there is to these two characters, they have no families we know of, no ambitions beyond selling artifacts, we don’t even know the branch of the military they are in nor their jobs within that branch.  This is true of every character in the film, they are merely a reason to be in the film attached to a good looking countenance and absolutely nothing more.  Russel Crowe’s Dr. Henry Jeckyll runs a mysterious organization and occasionally turns into a monster, we know nothing more about him nor his nor his organization’s history even though they have apparently amassed astounding numbers of trophies and pieces to study from a great many monsters over the unspecified amount of time they have been around.  Anabelle Wallis’ Jenny Halsey works for Dr. Jeckyll and likes Tom Cruise for some reason.  Sofia Boutella was an Egyptian Princess who got angry at her family and is now an evil mummy.  If you want to learn any more about any of these people, you’ll have to hope this universe continues and these characters are in future movies, because that is all you’ll learn about any of them here.

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The Mummy is billed as an action/horror, but it is definitely much, much more action than horror.  There are three major action set pieces in the movie along with quite a few minor ones, and this is where the movie excels.  While the action scenes are insanely over the top to the point that they shatter suspension of disbelief even in a film of this nature, they are still creative in their execution and reasonably well shot, though they do rely far too much on quick editing for my tastes.  The horror half of that equation is lacking, lacking to the point that I think the only reason it’s labelled as such is because there is a mummy in the film, and mummies are classic movie monsters.  Aside from that factoid the only thing even bordering on the horror genre is the mummy’s ultimate plans for Tom Cruise’s character, which I won’t go into detail on as doing so would spoil one of the few interesting parts of the story’s plot.

That plot manages to somehow be at once incredibly simplistic and confusingly convoluted at the same time.  The main story of the mummy wanting to destroy or remake the world, we’re not really sure what she’s trying to do, actually, is a really straightforward chase movie.  She threatens, the protagonists run, she follows then threatens again, repeat until end.  But, due to a lack of any motivation on the part of any of the characters and a world steeped in lore which we the audience have not been introduced to and know next to nothing about, the reason for this chase and reason for anyone beyond the three who initially find the mummy’s tomb getting involved is next to impossible to fathom.  How did Dr. Jeckyll start his shadowy monster hunting organization and how do they know all these things in the first place?  Why can this random military officer order Tom Cruise around and how do they know each other?  If the mummy has the power over life and death, why does she need to murder people with a knife and fight them hand to hand karate style?  None of this makes any sense.

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The movie does have some charms, and is even able to surprise you once in a while with its sense of humor.  While the characters make cardboard look layered, they do manage to milk them for all they are worth giving us humor which really works on a more than superficial level despite the fact that there is nothing more than superficial to them.  As I mentioned, the mummy’s plan is also interesting, even if it doesn’t make a whole lot sense, and the way they end the film makes for an intriguing enough situation that, while I won’t go so far as to say I want to see more of these films, I wish the rest of the movie could have been creative and engaging enough to live up to the premise set up in its climax.

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Final verdict:  The Mummy is not the worst movie of the year as its horrible Rotten Tomatoes score would suggest, but it’s certainly not good enough to recommend seeing.  It does have some quality humor and action, and it’s finale sets up interesting sequels, but everything else is so simultaneously rote and poorly thought out that these few good elements can not overcome The Mummy‘s myriad and overwhelming flaws.   This should be a lesson to other studios wanting to start a cinematic universe out there – think long and hard about whether it’s a good idea, because it probably isn’t, and even if you feel it is you can not rush the story to the “Avengers” stage within the first couple of movies.  Cinematic Universes need time to germinate and develop in the minds and hearts of their audiences, and rushing to the “fun part” is only going to end in failure.

Wonder Woman (Jenkins; 2017)

Last November, I wrote on article on what the Marvel film universe is getting right, and the DC film universe is getting wrong.  To sum it up, I stated that Warner Brothers and DC don’t understand their own characters, are starting their stories in the middle giving us no frame of reference, and they are focusing solely on action and using no other elements of genre.  We are shown a Batman who unthinkingly kills, a Superman who couldn’t care less about collateral damage, a Lex Luthor who acts like a clown, and a Joker who doesn’t.  We have a story where Batman has been fighting the good fight for a long time and supervillains are filling the prisons, but no one seems to have heard about any of them until now for some reason.  And, every movie has been little more than excuses for people wearing unusual clothing to punch and otherwise injure each other.   I am happy to announce that for at least one movie every single one of these issues has been fixed in a DC Universe film, and the result is a movie comic book fans, action film lovers, and women everywhere have been anxious to see for a long, long time.

The character of Wonder Woman has been a tough one to crack for a very long time for some reason, probably because until recently the comic book business has been all boys, and even now the number of women working in the superhero creation industry is a very, very small percentage.  The history of the character is a long and interesting one, but until the last decade and a half or so, her personality hasn’t been much more than a desire to do good, a mission statement, and some superpowers.  Modern writers have started to latch onto the fact that she is an Amazon warrior and have used that very element of her backstory to give her a role very different from her male counterparts and very well defined.  The film Wonder Woman captures those elements of her character perfectly and expands upon them, giving us the first protagonist, or really character of any size, in a DC film that is true to her source material and also captivating.

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This film is also an origin story, which means we actually start the story at the beginning.  We get to see Diana’s (Gal Gadot) training on Themyscira, her relationship with the other Amazons as she was growing up, and her meeting with Steve Rogers (Chris Pine) which inspires her to leave her sanctuary and enter the world of men.  You would think giving characters motivations would be  an obvious element of story telling, but until now the motivations in the DC films have been muddied at best.  Not so here.  We get to see what inspires Diana, what her life was like growing up, and more so that we end up with a fully formed character we can relate to and root for rather than someone who is just fun to watch.

Wonder Woman is not just an origin story, it is also a film that takes place during World War I, giving us not only an additional genre of war film to work with, but also an interesting historical period as a backdrop, one not used nearly often enough in film.  We get to see a Europe ravaged by war, battles in which chemical weapons are an ever present threat and victories are measured in inches, and technologies which are nearly obsolete today are state of the art.  Throwing a fierce demigoddess into this mix works wonderfully, and gives us a truly original superhero origin story not quite like anything we’ve seen before.

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The one thing DC has always gotten right is its visuals.  While the stories are messy and the characters confused, watching the action on display in the DC Universe is a wonder to behold, and that is no different in Wonder Woman.  The sharply angled viewpoints, the technique of making some colors vibrant and others dull, and the use of slow motion to concentrate on detail rather than just being a cheap trick is all on display here.  This time around the battles are not just fun, though they certainly are that, but most are also inspiring.  Where most superhero action sequences are really a well choreographed dance with special effects mixed in, the battles here feel like battles, grittier than your usual comic book fare, and Wonder Woman herself feels less like an untouchable icon and more like a badass general leading and inspiring her troops to their best.

The relationship between Diana and Steve Trevor is handled as well as it possibly could be.  Chris Pine pleasantly surprised me last year with his tour-de-force performance in Hell or High Water which showed the world he had a lot more talent than just a pretty face and a decent Captain Kirk impersonation, and he brings that level once again here giving us just the right amount of confidence, smarts, self effacement, and wonderment to make a real person out of this character in a most surreal situation.  Chris Pine and Gal Gadot have some real chemistry going on, and half way through the film we feel it’s absolutely natural that this American spy and demigoddess should be so attached to and inspired by one another.

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The film does have a handful of minor issues, and two fairly major ones keeping it from being absolutely the best superhero film I’ve seen and only meaning that it’s in that conversation.  The film is fairly predictable.  They try to be clever about a major plot point which I won’t go into any more detail about, but if you’ve seen more than five movies in your life you will see a certain major reveal coming from miles and miles away.  The other major issue is that the climax of the film is a bit of a let down with a sort of deus ex machina of a type I thought movie studios were done with using a couple of decades ago giving Wonder Woman her ultimate victory.  These two disappointments were certainly not enough to sour the overall film’s effect for me, but they did make me sigh a bit.

Final verdict:  DC and Warner Brothers finally got it right, and in doing so they outdid themselves to a level that can only add pressure to both themselves and Marvel for the future.  Wonder Woman is exciting, inspirational, thoughtful, and visually stunning.  It makes a few missteps, but not fatal ones by a long shot, and I am so happy that the first superhero film in one of the comic universes starring and directed by women is one of the best films ever seen in the genre as a whole.  Wonder Woman is a must see movie.

 

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (Ritchie; 2017)

Once upon a time, ancient Londinium was ruled by King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana).  Uther ruled with his wife, Igraine (Poppy Delevigne), by his side, his brother Vortigern (Jude Law) giving him much good advice, and all in preparation for the day his son Arthur (Zac Barker) would eventually take the throne.  It came to pass that the evil sorcerer Modred (Rob Knighton) would attack Uther’s kingdom with 100 foot tall elephants, because that is how sorcerers operate, apparently, and would force Uther to flee with his family, and Vortigern to take his beautiful wife whom we shall just call Mrs. Vortigern downstairs where he would stab her most mercilessly.  Shortly after the stabbing, Uther’s family would run into a boss monster from a video game which would slaughter Igraine and have an epic fight with Uther that ends with Uther throwing his sword into the air, turning into stone, and the sword falling and burying itself in what was moments before Uther’s back.  During the battle Arthur climbed into a boat, which as we know, makes you completely and totally safe from boss monsters.

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Arthur’s boat apparently made its way to Rome eventually, as, even though everyone there speaks with an Irish accent, we see a shot of the Colosseum.  Arthur is taken into a brothel where he is raised by the women there into a very strong and pretty bro douchebag.  One day, when the bro douchebag Arthur (now Charlie Hunnam) is telling, via quick editing and snazzy sound effects, of his exploits in which he stole the money from and cut the beard off a viking he met at the docks – but the viking did something wrong so it was all justified – the brothel is raided and the captain of the guard who raids the brothel tells Arthur he can’t protect him this time, even though we have no idea why Arthur would have been protected before, because the viking Arthur attacked knows the king.  Well damn.

Arthur is therefore put on a ship to Camelot where he is to meet his punishment, which is apparently that he has to try to pull a sword from a stone, get branded on his wrist if he fails, then be sent on his way.  Arthur marches up to the sword in the stone, and the second he touches it he has intense pain and harrowing visions, which you think would be enough for him to walk away, get his brand, and call it a day.  But, no, the douchebag who would be king pulls and pulls on the sword and finally extracts it from the rocky sheath which once was his father just as he falls unconscious from the intense pain and visions.

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When he wakes, Arthur is in a prison cell and is soon visited by King Vortigern, plot twist!, and told through quick editing and snazzy sound effects that Vortigern was working with Modred to take the kingdom, but he needed to get the sword out of the stone and kill Arthur to make it official. Oops!  Looks like our douchebag is in a whole heap of trouble!  But, just as his execution is to take place, people we’ve never seen before including a girl mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) who can control animals rescue our future monarch.  Once the excitement dies down, we learn that this band are Percival (Craig McGinlay), the girl mage who was sent by Merlin, Bill (Aldan Gillen), and Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou), who, while I have no problem with diversity in casting, is a black man in England with no real explanation much like why everyone in Rome speaks in baroque.  Why did they rescue him?  Because the plot calls for it, silly!  Otherwise Arthur would die and the movie would be nowhere near two hours long!

This kind of crap continues, I won’t spoil anything more, and believe it or not this is barely more than the set up, but this level of intelligence and understanding of the original Arthurian myths continues throughout the entire film’s length bring up such questions as:

Why is Sir George in a movie about King Arthur’s origins and why is he Chinese?

If the lady mage is Morgana why isn’t she Arthur’s sister and if she’s Guinevere why is she a mage, and why don’t we know who the hell she is in the first place?

Why does the king feel the need to stand so near his body double as well as taking along his advisors if he is just setting a trap for the good guys?

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If you could summon a giant rattlesnake to kill everyone in seconds, why the hell didn’t you do it earlier and save everyone a lot of trouble and effort, not to mention lives?

If the sword, which is obviously Excalibur but never called such, gives you superpowers like the Flash, why the heck was the video game boss able to defeat Uther?  And, how the heck did Uther turn into stone, anyway?

Why the hell is Vortigern building the tower to make his powers unbeatable when he doesn’t seem to have any powers which aren’t given to him by outside sources in the first place?

Final verdict:  If Joby Harold (writer) and Guy Ritchie (director/writer) know anything about the legends surrounding King Arthur aside from a handful of characters’ names, they certainly don’t show it in this abomination of a movie.  While I have no problem with taking liberties with source material, and in the case of Arthurian myths actually believe it to be necessary, this handling of it is so poorly done in every conceivable way from the plot, to the dialogue, to the acting, to the special effects, and the camerawork, that it accomplishes nothing but offend those who care at all for the original stories.  King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a senseless, ugly, unthinking, scattershot attempt at storytelling which will hopefully be seen by no one so that the sequel they seem to want so badly given the number of loose plot strings in the film never gets made.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (Gunn; 2017)

In 2014, Marvel Studios took a pretty big chance, which ended up having a huge payoff, in bringing us Guardians of the Galaxy, a Marvel property which was largely unknown even to comic book fans, let alone those who had never picked up a comic in their life.  In Guardians of the Galaxy movie fans got a fast paced space adventure with incredibly charismatic characters and just the right amounts of adventure and humor.  It was the best “Star Wars” movie since The Empire Strikes Back (I went there).  Three years later, and the Guardians are back, minus Groot but plus Baby Groot, except this time we already know and love these characters and are familiar with their schtick and how they fit into the Marvel Universe, so can Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 have the same impact as the original?

This time around, the characters are just as, if not more, charming as in the original.  Chris Pratt as Peter Quill (Star-Lord, man) is still the leader of the Guardians with Zoe Saldana as Gamora, his right hand bad ass assassin, Dave Bautista as Drax the overly literal Destroyer, Baby Groot voiced once again by Vin Diesel, and Sean Gunn and Bradely Cooper both working to bring weapons expert Rocket (don’t call him a Raccoon) to life.  Michael Rooker is also back as Yondu in an expanded role from the first Guardians of the Galaxy, and he deserves special mention as he and Dave Bautista are, in my opinion, the two true stand outs in the cast. Last time around, while the Guardians did ultimately end up as a complete group, there was still some definite pairing up going on with Quill and Gamora being one team, Rocket and Groot being a second, and Drax being the unfortunate fifth wheel.  This time around, the relationships are much more advanced with every character having quality time with each of the others and now very established ties to each other, making their interactions far more dynamic than the first time around – most of the time, but I’ll get to that in a few paragraphs.

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The visuals are of the quality we’ve come to expect from Marvel, with very proficient camera work and excellent special effects even if neither is ever terribly inventive.  The art direction on display, however, is definitely unique.  We are shown that the galaxy is a diverse place with equal parts ’60s psychedellia, dystopian grunge, and medieval retro pastiche making up its reaches.  The settings don’t always make a lot of sense, even within the confines of the story, but they are always creative and eye catching.  Even the opening and closing credits hold onto those creative and eye catching visual elements, with the opening credits being one of the most visually dynamic pieces in the entire film and a great way to open things up.

The script is well done with its dialogue being its stand out element.  The plot does have a few pacing issues unlike the first film, and the methods used to move it along can get a tad clunky, but overall it’s a story that does its job of drawing you in and raptly holding your attention, so even the few lulls aren’t obvious in the moment.  The dialogue, though, is the best I think has ever been written in a Marvel film.  Every single line is full of character, is crisp and entertaining, and this is by far the funniest Marvel film made to date with quip after quip, joke after joke, I was laughing so hard I had tears in the corners of my eyes for Guardian of the Galaxy, Vol. 2‘s entire running time, and I have never really found Marvel films quotable before despite how entertaining they are in general, but I’ve found myself wanting to quote many lines from this one, virtually biting my tongue even as I write this.

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This, however, leads me to the films largest flaw, and the flaw large enough that it keeps me from ranking it among Marvel’s best.  Can a movie be too funny?  The jokes are non-stop, one after the other, often verging into straight on slapstick territory, yet the film has a lot to say about familial themes.  Every character in the film deals with daddy issues on some level, with the exception of Baby Groot, and we see the Guardians and their various acquaintances playing the parts of a family unit in the film and all that entails.  It’s the point of the movie, showing when a family is at its strongest and when it can hold you back.  Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 has a lot to say about family, and it could say it well, except that it undercuts every serious moment in the film save one with a joke.  Sure the jokes work, but Gunn and the cast did not know when to let the humor go for a minute and let a poignant moment sink in.  I will say, though, that the part of me that’s more analyst and less film fan finds it fascinating that the movie’s main weakness is also its greatest strength.

To those who are wondering how this movie specifically plays into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and whether it can be seen without knowing much about the rest of the movies Marvel has created, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is practically a stand alone entity.  The only references to other films in the Marvel canon are to the original Guardians of the Galaxy, and even those are more character references and not needed to understand the story going on here.  The future world building that goes on in most Marvel films also seems to be absent here, though it is possible they are just more subtle about it than is often the case and we will see ripples from this movie in future Marvel installments, but importantly even if that is the case it is never distracting nor even obvious.  Anyone can see this movie without having seen another Marvel film in their life and still enjoy it just as much as someone who has seen every Marvel Studios movie to date.

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Final verdict:  Marvel films are always entertaining, they have yet to release an outright dud, and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, while not being one of Marvel’s greatest, is still excellent and continues the tradition of high quality we now have come to take for granted from Marvel.  While Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 may take the humor a bit too far at times, it is still Marvel’s funniest movie to date, never, ever letting up on the laughs while also giving us plenty of eye popping action taking place in eye popping settings.  You will be entertained, and you may even gain a little insight into family while you’re at it.  Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is highly recommended by yours truly, go make Marvel and Disney even richer than they already are, they keep earning it.

 

 

 

Free Fire (Wheatley; 2016)

The first thing you notice about Free Fire, the British film from studio A24 which is now getting a wide release after making its away around the world via the film festival circuit, is that it has one hell of a great cast.  Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, and Brie Larson are all three darlings of the independent film crowd and Brie Larson is right on the cusp of becoming an A-Lister with both action and serious drama credentials, plus Sharito Copley had his day when he showed he had some serious talent in District 9.  The second thing you notice is that after a short opening, the film is essentially one long gunfight, and the third thing is that there is only one setting in Free Fire‘s entire running length.

The premise of Free Fire is a simple one.  Justine (Brie Larson) has set up a meeting between some IRA members led by Chris (Cilliam Murphy) and a group of gun runners led by Vernon (Sharito Copley).  Despite a few hiccups, the meeting is going fine until one of the grunts on the gun runners’ team recognizes one of the grunts on the IRA’s team as someone he had a serious run in at a bar the night before.  Things degenerate quickly and we spend the rest of the movie watching them make quips and shoot at each other. That’s really about the entirety of the movie.

The great actors do are definitely on their game here, all giving charismatic, energetic performances to the level we’ve come to expect from this crew.  Unfortunately, that is all the good that can really be said about the film.  While the performances are excellent, the characters themselves have next to nothing to differentiate them, the dialogue they are given to work with is repetitive and generic and the situation they are placed in is ultimately fairly mundane.   This was actually a hard film to review since all there really is to say is that great actors give great performances, but there is absolutely nothing else of any worth on display here.

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That is, until I realized this is a perfect opportunity to talk  about how to recognize the director’s influence in a film by demonstrating an absolute failure on Ben Wheatley’s part in Free Fire (he is also co-writer on the film with Amy Jump, which may also explain a few of the failures).  The director is essentially the foreman or the manager on a film crew, overseeing every aspect of a film’s production even if he doesn’t directly handle any of those functions (though, he often can).  Therefore, the ultimate vision of what a film becomes lies squarely in the director’s hands, the tone, the themes, the style all come directly from the director’s vision of what he wants the film to be, and it is his responsibility to make sure everyone in the cast and crew understands and follows that vision.

Free Fire‘s first problem is that it has no idea what tone it wants to follow.  The lack of stunts, the single setting, and circumstances surrounding the action of the film suggest a gritty crime drama.  The quippy dialogue, the fact that people are shot over and over but never receive more than flesh wounds, and choices of music and a few exaggerated stereotypes suggest a comic tone.  If I had to guess, Wheatley was trying for a Tarantino or Guy Ritchie style film with witty dialogue, eccentric characters, and gritty action mixing to make a mixed tense and hilarious experience, but he never marries the styles together and ends up with a mess.  Even the actors themselves never quite get in sync with all their admittedly excellent performances seeming to come from different movies, Larson acts for an over the top action thriller, Copley is in a wry comedy, and Murphy gives a performance that belongs in a historical drama.

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The different acting styles are practically the only thing differentiating the character’s, though, that and their accents, so maybe it’s a good thing the different styles were so discordant.  Larson stands out as the only female character, but everyone else is dressed in a garish 70’s style outfit, most of them suits, most of them blue or grey, all the men have very similar facial hair, again garish 70’s style, and even the people he chose to cast look as if they could be related.  The only real stand out among the men is Armie Hammer due to his height, deeper voice, and slightly different hairstyle, all the others blend together to the point where you really have to concentrate to differentiate who is who, especially once the action starts.  This very well could be because of Wheatley’s vision, but if it was it was a poor idea, and if it wasn’t it was something he should have caught and put a stop to.

Those action sequences do seriously add to the problem of differentiating the characters as most of the film is done with hand held cameras (not shaky cam, though, fortunately) so the shots are close up too much of the time.  This means that we’ll see a character screaming and firing a gun with no idea where he’s aiming, or we’ll see an area around someone being riddled with bullets, but with no idea even which direction they are coming from let alone who is doing the shooting.  It’s rare that we are given any sense of perspective in Free Fire, and this makes for a situation where the tension is taken out of much of the movie as we have no idea what exactly is going on, so we can’t get excited about the events.

Finally, the script is the final nail in Free Fire‘s coffin.  Wheatly gave us witty dialogue, sort of, sometimes, but since any line could come out of any character’s mouth interchangeably the wit is lost since it has no real context, it’s just random funny things random characters say.  I’ve already mentioned the tone, but those tonal issues stem directly from a script which had an idea, but nothing else, and even that idea is fairly rote and mundane, so the complete lack of a solid tone just adds confusion to the drabness.

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Final Verdict:  I can only guess Free Fire came about because some high talent actors had a weekend free and someone wanted to take advantage of that, because aside from the performances everything this movie has to show seems like it could have been put together over a long weekend.  Cardboard thin characters, a mundane plot, no tone to latch onto, and hard to follow cinematography, art direction, and editing make for a film impossible to recommend.  There are critics out there who like it, so apparently there are those out there who see something in Free Fire I’m missing, and it probably is worth a rental or a view on streaming service some day because there are a few real gut level chuckles to be had here, but overall the only thing Free Fire has going for it is charisma, and that isn’t enough in my humble opinion.

 

Ghost in the Shell (Sanders; 2017)

Before starting the review proper, I have to say that I have seen the original anime version of Ghost in the Shell, but it was in 1995 when it was first released.  I remember thinking at the time that the movie was “pretty good” but didn’t really have any large effect on me past that, and I haven’t seen it since.  My memories of the film now pretty much cap out at it was Japanese, it was animated, it was pretty good, and there was a tank near the end.  So, this review will not be a comparison to the original in any way and will just take this remake at its own merits.

Secondly, the controversy surrounding the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the lead, Major, in Ghost in the Shell is something I am largely aware of.  In determining how and if I should address that controversy in the film I found that I have so much to say about it that it’s worth an article on its own.  Look for that in this blog shortly, but for now I will just say I am aware of it, and I will speak about it eventually, but not in this review.

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Ghost in the Shell begins by introducing us to Major, a cyborg with a fully robotic body and the brain, but only the brain, of a human being.  We see her as she is initially being created, the doctors inserting the human brain into the robotic body which looks exactly like Scarlett Johannson, and as she blinks her eyes to signify that she is awake and aware, the doctors explain to her what she is.  In this explanation they make absolutely sure to point out that the robotic body is a shell and that her mind is a ghost.  So, she’s a ghost…  in a shell.  I can’t speak for everyone, but I think most of the movie going audience will understand the film’s title without that explanation, but the movie spells it out for us just in case, and not just that one time but several times throughout the course of the film.

Unfortunately, the film’s assumption that its audience is filled with idiots does not end there.  Nearly every move every character makes is accompanied with an explanation of exactly what they are doing and why verbatim as if we couldn’t possibly understand any of the film’s subtext without explaining it all for us.  This all makes for an aggravating and distracting experience where the dialogue in Ghost in the Shell is concerned, making me long for a film in which the characters didn’t speak at all and I could just enjoy the visuals on display.

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Those visuals, I did enjoy immensely.  The special effects and the creativity behind them in combination with the mood and setting they create are as fantastic as the dialogue is lousy.  Every scene we’re shown in this dystopian cybernetic future gives us a fully fleshed out, well conceived universe where overpopulation and pollution are rampant, and where the rich and powerful use holographic advertisements in every single square inch of skyline and sidewalk in an attempt to fleece a desperate populace giving us a vision at once incredibly colorful and bleak,  Many of you reading this have probably seen the trailer in which Major runs along the walls of a room filled with geishas and men in suits firing two pistols as she defies gravity.  As spectacular as this scene is, I wouldn’t rank it among even the top few most visually astonishing scenes in the film. The special effects team, art direction team, and cinematographers all deserve serious kudos for their work here.

The performances are also well done especially considering the script they were given to work with.  Scarlett Johannson is actually the weak link among the actors, as she doesn’t successfully convey the depths of confusion and anxiety that are so important to the ultimate development of Major’s character.  She plays the entire thing from start to finish as an aloof bad ass with an occasional quizzical attitude when the tragedies inherent in her history are revealed.  Pilou Asbaek as Major’s right hand man and possible love interest Batou, though, is excellent.  He comes across as what Major should be: badass, funny, vulnerable, and introspective all at once.  “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, one of Japan’s most popular actors, also gives a fantastic performance as Major’s boss Aramaki.  Even though he has not a single line in English he still portrays a character that is at once boss and father figure, the leader who cares perhaps too much for those he leads, without ever turning it into a caricature and surprises us more than once throughout the film with his acting choices which very much break from the way a character of this nature would normally be played.

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Final recommendation: Ghost in the Shell has serious script problems.  The dialogue is the worst kind of spoon fed tripe and the plot could be so much more thematically but ultimately ignores what could the more profound elements of itself and devolves into a video game complete with final boss monster (that’s kind of unfair to video games as their plots are getting better and better as time goes on – this is a 1995 video game).  However, it is a feast visually with a fully fleshed out world, beautiful camera work, and awe inspiring action.  The sound, including the music, aside from the spoken words are also excellent, and the acting is pretty darn good.  So, while the immensely flawed story and words make this a hard one for me to recommend overall, if you are the type who think nuance is overrated and you just want to see something cool, then this will do the trick.  If you need character development, subtlety, and rich themes to explore, though, Ghost in the Shell is one to skip.