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.

 

 

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.

 

Alien: Covenant (Scott; 2016)

In 1979, Star Wars had recently made science fiction a very cool genre and studio after studio was looking to capitalize on that by giving the public bad clone after bad clone of the film that had inspired so many to flock to the theaters for swashbuckling space opera.  Ridley Scott took a different tack.  Instead of flashy pulp action heroes jetting through space in fighters and fighting off bad guys with blasters and laser swords, he gave us a horror movie which just happened to take place light years away from Earth starring blue collar grunts hauling ore and machinery on their space semi tractor-trailer.  Needless to say, with Alien he hit a nerve where movies such as The Black Hole, Starcrash, and Laserblast failed, and now 38 years later Ridley Scott once again returns for his third installment in the franchise he started – Alien: Covenant (the second installment directed by Scott would be 2012’s Prometheus).

Alien: Covenant takes place ten years after the events which occurred in Prometheus.  After a brief prelude, the real action of the film opens on a colony ship making a seven year long journey to its final destination.  All of the colonists and ship’s crew are asleep in cryostasis for the duration of the journey and the only the ship’s android Walter (played by Michael Fassbinder) and the ship’s computer “Mother” (voiced by Lorelei King) are active.  During a routine recharging stop, a freak accident damages the ship forcing the crew to be awakened prematurely to deal with the situation.  While repairing their vessel, a message is received from a nearby planet which should be uninhabited and uninhabitable, but upon further investigation the crew finds that this planet is in fact a sort of paradise world that their deep space scans somehow missed and this may be a perfect place to start their new colony rather than going back into cryogenic sleep and continuing their journey.

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If this all sounds familiar, be prepared to feel that a lot throughout the course of the film.  The major problem with Alien: Covenant is that far too much of the film feels less like an original plot, and more like a “Best of Alien” special in which we get to see all the best scenes from Alien movies of the past shown again except with different actors.  They even go out of their way to make Daniels, our main female protagonist played by Katherine Waterston, look a hell of a lot like Ripley.  No spoilers, but throughout the course of the film you can practically make a checklist of Alien tropes as they appear over and over.

Another of Alien: Covenant‘s flaws which is hard to overlook is the premise that the ship’s crew is made up almost entirely of couples.  Now, couples being sought out as the focal point of starting a new colony makes a lot of sense, and is a smart idea, but extending that to the crew who does emergency maintenance on the ship if it is in trouble is problematic.  While it makes sense that a crew member would have a spouse or loved one making the journey with them, to be a coworker making decisions upon which the fate of the entire ship rests is a less logical choice, and this very dynamic is what leads directly to the majority of the bad decisions which drive the crises which make up the plot of the movie.  Heck, couples usually aren’t allowed to work together in a modern office or retail environment, who the heck would look to hire couples specifically for a dangerous job in which many lives depend on the quality of their decisions?

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While these two flaws are large enough that Alien: Covenant becomes a movie impossible to recommend to everyone, the rest of the film is very well done.  The special effects are really impressive, the aliens themselves have never looked better, and the art direction and scenery is at worst effective and often is a straight out wonder to behold.  This is, to date, the best looking film in the Alien series in every way except for cinematography.  Though, while Alien and Aliens are both a little better in the cinematography department, this one lags only a small distance behind making for an entire visual package which is a wonder to behold.

The acting on display here is also fantastic with even minor characters whose only jobs are to be gruesomely killed managing to project a personality using little more than facial expressions and body language.  The main cast really outdo themselves, though, with Billy Crudup embodying the ship’s captain thrust into a situation he couldn’t have predicted and is not prepared to deal with, the aforementioned Katherine Waterston chanelling Sigourney Weaver as the incredibly strong “with it” protagonist, and Michael Fassbender gives us a true tour de force playing two roles, both androids, who have to be similar enough that we recognize them as similar model mechanical creations, but different enough that we can tell the two roles apart at a glance.  I won’t go so far as to say Michael Fassbender outdoes himself here, but he does prove yet again what an incredibly talented and dedicated actor he is.

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How would I rate this film compared to the myriad other Alien films?  I haven’t seen the Alien vs Predator movies, and they aren’t considered canon regardless, so I will leave them out of the equation, but Alien: Covenant is nowhere near the masterpiece which both the original Alien and the perhaps greatest sequel of all time Aliens are but it is a good deal better than both Alien 3 and Prometheus and light years ahead of Alien: Resurrection.

Final verdict:  Aside from Michael Fassbender’s performance(s) there is nothing in Alien: Covenant that hasn’t been seen before in the Alien Franchise, and it has a plot which relies too much on people making bad decisions.  However, it also as some eye popping settings and special effects and impressive performances from every single actor who appears on screen.  Alien: Covenant is not a film I recommend unequivocally, but if you’ve somehow never seen an Alien film before in your life, this could be an excellent introduction to the series.  If you’ve seen every entry so far, then your mileage may very.  It could be a fun action packed bit of nostalgia or it could merely be a shameless retread.  I personally found it to be the former, but your mood upon entering that theater could greatly influence how you feel about what you’ve seen upon exiting even more so than with most films.

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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.

 

 

 

 The Circle (Ponsoldt; 2017)

The Circle is an adaptation of the novel by the same name by Dave Eggers who also worked on the screenplay alongside director James Ponsoldt.  It’s the story of Mae (Emma Watson), a young woman searching for a job which pays enough that she can help her rural working class, now unemployed, parents care for her father’s (Bill Paxton in his final film role) multiple sclerosis.  Her friend Annie (Karen Gillian) gets Mae an interview with The Circle, a tech firm in which Annie is a high ranking member of the inner circle (no pun intended).  Mae nails the interview, gets the job, and quickly rises up in the ranks of the company discovering along her meteoric journey that The Circle’s agenda may be far more nefarious than it seems on the surface.

If that summary seems trite, it is, but you haven’t heard the half of it.  If just being trite was this film’s only problem, I’d say I don’t recommend it and promptly forget about it ten minutes after writing this review.  But, the surface of the film The Circle is at least as rotten as the underbelly of the company The Circle.  The best part of the film is its cinematography and visual effects, these are best because while they are in no sense of the word creative nor innovative, they at least aren’t utterly incompetent.  The visual effects are almost entirely computer user interfaces overlayed on top of the action going on in the movie, and the camera work was little more than point the camera where stuff is going on, but the visuals at least had the skill of an infomercial.

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As for the script, well I hope you like infomercials, because large chunks of this movie, nearly every time Tom Hanks is on screen, are fictional TED Talk style infomercials, and that isn’t even the screenplays worst transgression.  Almost all of Tom Hank’s scenes and almost all of the scenes which further the plot occur as a corporate mass meeting where hundreds of sit in a theater as The Circle’s founder Bailey (Hanks) gives a speech complete with Blu-tooth headseat outlying The Circle’s latest product and how wonderful it is, how it will change the world, and how proud everyone should be to be a part of this great company.  It’s probably meant to be unsettling and imply to the audience that something creepy is going on at The Circle, but that is so obvious just from the premise of the film, that we don’t need these scenes to imply that, let alone over and over again.

The other problem with these scenes and the ultimate problem with the script overall, is that the vision of this film is so flaky, so scattered, so unfocused, that I have no idea what the film makers’ point is.  Is this a satire of our Facebook obsessed society?  Is this a warning about how we are gradually losing all right to privacy in our society?  Is it saying privacy is overrated and we function far better as a culture with true transparency?  I have no idea.  These are all topics touched on, as are holding our leaders up to the same standards we are, the way the internet has transformed how we interact with each other, and a few other “Black Mirror” style topics, but when all is said and done I can’t figure out what lesson or viewpoint, if any, the writers and director wanted me to walk away with.   Every one of the topics I mention above was touted as both a positive and a negative, but the film’s end suggests that Ponsoldt and Eggers intended us to walk away with a message, they just did a horrid job at getting across which message it is.

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There is one aspect of The Circle which is even worse than its writing, and that is its acting.   Tom Hanks performance is essentially just a charming Tom Hanks style infomercial, and as awful as that sounds to watch for close to two hours, it is the best performance on display here.  Emma Watson is once again wooden and robotic,  seemingly incapable of showing any emotion or displaying any passion, convincing me more and more that she just is not a good actress and perhaps she should have retired after hanging up Hermoine.  I hope that is not the case, and she finds something within herself eventually, but nearly everything she’s done since Harry Potter has been barely watchable.  Most of the other cast members line up with Watson where wooden and dull is concerned, but one performance, that by Ellar Coltrane as Mercer is so horrible, it could be the origin of a drinking game, and I honestly can’t see how it made its way into a professionally made movie.  Coltrane somehow manages to scream every line without any emotion to them whatsoever as he stares blankly at something off screen for every second he is on screen.  It’s seriously embarrassing and the only reason it won’t be a front runner for a Razzie at year’s end, is because its a smaller role in a film very few are going to even remember.

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Final verdict:  Emma Watson hasn’t shown the greatest judgement when it comes to choosing her film roles since she finished Harry Potter, so that may explain how she came to be in this travesty of a movie, but Tom Hanks had to have been blackmailed.  That’s the only explanation I can think of.  The Circle is a movie that defies genre, but not because it’s so original, rather because it has no idea what it wants to be or what it wants to say.   Nearly everything about the movie is amateurish and uncomfortable, and the only reason I would ever recommend it is for some sort of MTS3K party in which a lot of drinking is involved.  Then I could see it actually being kind of a blast.

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. 

Life (Espinosa; 2017)

I’ve been talking quite a bit lately in my reviews how horror is going through something of a mini-Renaissance of late.  It seems the writers, directors, and producers of these films have at long last figured out that audiences are tired of and want more than jump scares, story arcs that work only because of idiotic decisions, and cheap camera tricks meant to mislead the viewer but ultimately just very temporarily conceal the plot holes riddled throughout the story.  Life is the first science fiction horror film which is a part of this trend, and it continues it admirably for the most part, but it unfortunately does fall prey to a few cliches and traps at times.

Life is the story of six astronauts from around the world living and working on the International Space Station.  A sample collected by a probe on Mars leads Earth scientists to believe that there could once have been extraterrestrial life on our neighbor, and it is up to these six to grab the sample and then study what it contains.  A dormant, but definitely living, single celled organism is found amongst the Martian sample and humanity now knows for certain that we are not alone in the universe.  As to what happens next, I did mention this is a horror movie.

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Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the writers of Life, are most definitely at least acquainted with biological science, as the life form they discover is based on what we know of evolutionary and biological sciences today.  As they study it and discover its nature we see a creature that is completely different from anything living on Earth, but still follows the laws of Natural Selection.  I am far from a scientist myself, and biology was absolutely my worst subject when I was still in school, but I could tell that the writers were very concerned with creating a truly alien being, but also a truly realistic one.  It was so well done, in fact, that at a point in its growth when the alien develops something approximating a face, I was a little disappointed that those involved in making the film, whether it be the writers, the director, or someone else, didn’t completely commit to giving us this truly alien thing.

The human characters in the film are a bit of a mixed bag.  All are realistic, perhaps too much so, and fleshed about as well as can be expected for six people you get barely an hour with before Life does what horror movies do.  We understand quickly and naturally their working and emotional relationships to one another, who is the boss, who are friends, who are attracted to each other, and so on, but we are never given enough time to learn who any of them truly are.  The Japanese member of the crew works on the stations mechanical parts and his wife gives birth to a daughter early in the movie, and that’s about all we know of him, and that’s more than a few of the other members of the crew.  I like that none of the characters are stereotypes, and that the actors, and thus the fictional crew, have good chemistry with one another, but only two of the actors, Ryan Reynolds and Ariyon Bakare managed to give performances strong enough that I actually cared about them as individuals, something pretty necessary in a horror flick.

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The conceit of the movie taking place entirely on the International Space Station also works wonderfully for the most part.  The opening scene in the film gives us an excellent idea of what it would be like to live in space as it shoots our characters in close ups with no anchor to give the camera a focus.  It will weave around, switching directions slowly, and even gradually turning upside down giving us the idea of what being weightless inside a technologically advanced tin can would feel like.  After establishing this feeling, the weightless camera does go away, probably for the better, but we are still given a very claustrophobic but now somehow familiar environment for our characters to be hunted down in.  I was reminded a lot of Alien while watching Life, it’s very obviously the biggest influence on the creators of this film, but unlike the Nostromo in that movie, the International Space Station has rooms so small that two people inside any one of them would become very cramped, making for an even more frightening setting once the festivities get underway.  But, much like the alien life form itself, someone in the making of the film could not completely commit to their ultra realistic and incredibly cramped setting and had to give us in the finale a plot device that entirely ruins that spell cast on us which made us believe that this really could happen.

The camerawork and the special effects in the film also fit the bill of the rest of the film.  Very unobtrusive and realistic for the most part.  The alien life form itself does have a few problems with the realism of its CGI in places, but due to its design, these are easily forgiven and many may not even notice them.  The camerawork is workmanlike and never relents on giving us the feeling of claustrophobia so necessary for the movie to work and shows us what we need to see without pulling cheap tricks…  until the finale.  This is another element of the film done so well until once again the film’s creators broke with the style of the rest of the film and rely entirely on a cheap camera trick for the film’s climax.  I won’t say more than that, I feel badly about saying that much, but that cheap camera trick in the end was the most disappointing of this flawed, but overall really well done horror film, and I would be remiss in not mentioning it.

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Final recommendation:  If you are a science fiction or horror fanatic (or both), then this is a movie that will definitely please, even if it will never be listed among the classics of the genre.  It’s a movie that tries hard to emulate Alien while still being its own entity, and in that it certainly succeeds.  However, it’s a film that at times is too realistic for its own good when it shouldn’t be and can’t commit to its own tone in the end when it’s most important.  Most everything about this film is really well done, and it’s worth seeing just for the alien life form they give us, but unless you are the type who must see everything possible on the large screen for the theater experience, then this is one you can wait for and rent eventually, or maybe see at a matinee so you can pay less and still get the full “we’re in outer space” experience.