Annabelle: Creation (Sandberg; 2017)

2016’s crop of horror movies was one of the best we’d seen in years if not decades.  It didn’t bring us any classics like Alien or The Shining, no, but the overall quality of films in the genre as a whole was a giant leap beyond what we’d been getting.  The best of those films, in my opinion, was Lights Out which was a truly scary film with smart characters, a plot not overly reliant on cheap tricks, and a higher purpose than just scaring its audience.  The biggest pleasant surprise of the horror genre, and really of any film for the whole year, was from Ouija: Origin of Evil which, as a prequel to the worst film of 2014 horror or otherwise, gave us a memorable and scary movie with realistic characters, intelligent writing, and a truly distinctive feel.  The horror movies of 2017 have continued the streak of better quality, but nothing so far has been as good as those two films.  With Annabelle: Creation being made by the director of Lights Out, David Sandbergand starring the ever so creepy Lulu Wilson form Ouija: Origin of Evil , however, things were looking like the true horror movie season could be starting out on a high note.

Annabelle: Creation, much like Ouija: Origin of Evil, is the prequel to a not so great 2014 horror movie (which itself was a prequel to a very good horror movie – The Conjuring) in which a family is terrorized by devil worshipers and an evil doll.  This is the story of how the doll came to be the conduit of evil which we see in the 2014 film.  Annabelle: Creation focuses on a group of girl orphans who are taken in by a couple who lost their own daughter twelve years earlier in an accident.  The patriarch of the family was once a toy maker and he keeps his daughter’s room exactly as it was when she died, though he warns the girls newly under his care to never, ever go into her room and that the door is to always stay locked.   Of course, one of the girls just can’t resist the temptation to go in, and when she does, the doll Annabelle is unleashed on the household.

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Annabelle: Creation is another prequel which stands head and shoulders above the film it is based upon.  Annabelle was a typical stupid horror movie which wouldn’t work if the characters acted like real people relying nearly entirely on obvious jump scares for its “horror”.  Which, of course, means it wasn’t really scary at all, merely surprising and surprising in a cheap manner, at that.    The prequel, while certainly not without its flaws and pitfalls, is much better written.  Seemingly incidental events are brought back later to haunt us making the power of the scare more intense when we can see the set up.  The characters seem like caricatures who make dumb decisions at times, but again, the movie often brings things back around shedding light on what earlier seemed like bad cliche giving the scares some poignancy, as well.  Not every bad horror stereotype present in the film gets this treatment, unfortunately, there are some jump scares which are merely jump scares, but it happens often enough that you get a bit of a wry smile when you realize that the film makers are playing off of your expectations.

The acting by the ensemble cast is also very well done, especially since so many of them are children.  Miranda Otto and Anthony LaPaglia are the most recognizable names in the cast, and they are both quite good as the Mullins, the creepy owners of the house turned orphanage, and both are able to give some nuance to the people who seem at first to be stereotypes.  Lulu Wilson and Talitha Bateman play the focal orphan girls of the story, and both are excellent child actors, with Wilson in particular managing to greatly differentiate herself from the role she played last year in a very similar movie showing that she isn’t just playing herself.  Bateman also needs commendation in her performance showing a character who has true self awareness, and this is something most children her age lack in themselves, let alone have the ability to project that quality onto a character they portray.  The remaining cast don’t stand out quite as much as these four, but all do great work at ably toeing the line between cliche and authenticity the film calls for, the only one standing out in a perhaps negative fashion being Stephanie Sigman as Sister Charlotte who avoids stereotype in her caretaker nun character by simply being dull.

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The type of horror on display here is not of the slasher variety, there is very little gore on display here, in fact, excepting for one particularly grisly scene which is probably what garners the film its R-rating.  The scares here are more of a fear of the supernatural unknown variety ala The Exorcist.  Annabelle: Creation doesn’t bring us anything truly new where scares are concerned.  Aside from the fact that charcter decisions are revealed to not be as silly and arbitrary as was first believed, the source of the horror here we’ve seen many times before.  That being said, it’s still about as well done as can be expected, utilizing perspective, pacing, and timing excellently to scare you even though you can see the scares coming.

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Final verdict: If you are a horror aficionado, Annabelle: Creation is a borderline must see film.  It’s a film that, while steeped in cliches of the genre, uses those cliches as well as they can possibly be used making for an interesting study if that’s your thing, or just a really fun scary movie if that’s more your style.  While those who aren’t horror movie buffs won’t enjoy this film quite as much, Annabelle: Creation still has respectable acting, interesting writing, and excellent technical work backing it up making for an experience you will most likely enjoy even if it’s your horror movie loving friend or significant other dragging you along to see it.  If you despise horror films, or just have a low tolerance for nightmare inducing images, then this is a film to avoid.  It’s a good example of the genre, but not one which will elevate itself to a status where all audiences will enjoy it, and it is horrific enough that I guarantee it will give all but the most jaded among us the creeps when the lights are out for a couple days afterward.

 

Detroit (Bigelow; 2017)

Before I begin the review proper, I’m going to allow myself a bit of a tangential rant on the way the actual city of Detroit is used, or rather not used, in fictional portrayals of the city.  It seems that if a film is set in the city of Detroit it is nearly always filmed somewhere else.  Robocop was filmed in Dallas.  Assault on Precinct 13 and Detroit Rock City were filmed in Toronto, as was Four Brothers.  Don’t Breathe was filmed largely in Hungary.  There are a few films that take place in Detroit which were actually shot in Detroit such as the Detroit scenes in Beverly Hills Cop and the Red Dawn remake, but for the most part Detroit is used as a generic city which won’t be recognized such as in Regarding Henry, Batman v. Superman, and the Transformers movies.  As a resident of Detroit, to find out Detroit was shot primarily in Boston was a bit of an insult.  Rant over.

Kathryn Bigelow is one of the most interesting directors in Hollywood right now giving as dramatic critical darlings that border on action films in that they deal with subjects that are normally considered hypermasculine but she often eschews the pure action you would expect from her subject matter to give us gripping, often downright brutal, drama instead.  Her latest film Detroit does just this using an unusual five act structure in which we don’t even meet our characters until the second act nor delve into the main focus of the film’s plot until the third.  Detroit takes place during the 1967 Detroit riots in which 150 blocks of the city had to be shut off from the world outside, and the entire city had to be put on a curfew and patrolled by Detroit and State Police as well as the National Guard for 5 days.  Since it is coming out on the 50th Anniversary of these events, and not by coincidence, of course, Detroit is being marketed as the story of the Detroit riots, but it really isn’t.  Detroit uses the riots as its backdrop and setting, but the story focuses on an incident which occurred at the Algiers Motel in which three black men were found murdered and many others beaten.

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The screenplay for Detroit, as mentioned earlier, uses a five act structure which makes for some unusual story telling.  The first act is devoted entirely to setting up the mood and the situation by showing us how the riots began and how they spread.  This means we don’t even meet the focal characters of the story until the second act, and a lot of time is spent on them before we get to the real meat of the story in the third act.  This methodology makes for a film in which you aren’t really sure what the film you are watching wants you to focus on for a large chunk of its running time, but I believe all this set up pays off in how immersive and gripping the story ultimately becomes after you really get to know both the main characters and the level of lawlessness and fear going on around them.  I won’t spoil the story by going on at length about the focus of the last two acts, but I will say that I also don’t believe there is any way they could have gripped our attention the way they do if we didn’t have an intimate connection with the characters involved by the time we get to this part of their story.

Detroit is a brutal, unrelenting, and unfortunately very contemporary movie.  I would say that the film has more in common with a horror film than an action movie or thriller, in fact, though this horror is one that actually happened and could still very easily actually happen today.  Bigelow’s film shows us either that history repeats itself, or that very little has changed in the past 50 years, as the events on screen are ones we could imagine seeing on the evening news any given night.  The story is brutal and modern enough that I imagine Detroit is going to trigger anger in a great many people of many different races and beliefs bringing up cries of racism, reverse racism, injustice, distortion, and many, many other sensitive buzzwords which lead to loud arguments and worse.

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The acting and camera work are both top notch featuring a very large ensemble cast.  You’ll recognize John Boyega (Finn from the new “Star Wars” series) as a security guard trying to diffuse racial tensions, Hannah Murray (Gilly in “Game of Thrones”) as a party girl from Ohio who gets caught up in the events at the hotel, and Anthony Mackie (Falcon from the Marvel Studio movies) as an ex-veteran staying at the motel right away, and most of the rest of the large cast will at least seem familiar (and probably are).  All do a fantastic job making us believe that we are really reliving the intense events which took place 50 years ago, and all give us three dimensional real characters we can recognize and relate to.  As for the visuals, I do have a minor issue with the amount of shaky cam used throughout the film, but for the most part it was competent to excellent cinematography which captured both the action and the moods of the film unobtrusively which is saying something since so much of the action takes place in constrained bordering on claustrophobic environments.

Whenever a film is based on actual historic events there is nearly always some doubt as to its accuracy, and Detroit is no exception, but two of the survivors of the Algiers Motel that night 50 years ago were actually on set for the filming of Detroit working with the cast and crew to give their take on the events.  Both have given their stamp of approval to the film, so if it isn’t completely authentic, it’s at least close enough that two of those who the film really portrays are happy.

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Final verdict:  Bigelow does yet again what she does so well, takes what in different hands would be an action/thriller and turns it into compelling character driven drama.  Detroit is going to be a controversial film as it is brutal, unrelenting, and focuses on themes which are incredibly divisive in the here and now, but that is what makes it so important.  Detroit is not light entertainment, I also would not call it educational as its story is more narrowly focused than you would expect from a historical drama, but it is powerful and it makes an equally powerful statement about race, entitlement, power, and desperation.  Detroit won’t be easy for many to watch, both due to subject matter and its unusual story structure, and even more difficult for many to confront, but its powerful and insightful message is one that demands your attention.

 

 

Atomic Blonde (Leitch; 2017)

The year is 1989, the Soviet Union’s collapse is all but done with revolutions happening throughout their territories and communist regimes toppling left and right.  In Berlin Russian, British, and American spies are all trying to get their hands on “The List”, a comprehensive registry of all known intelligence agents for every country involved in the Cold War, including the real name of “Satchel”, a double agent all sides have an interest in getting their hands on.  Charlize Theron is Lorraine Broughton an M.I. 6 Agent who has the talents her bosses need when the man who had The List, who also happens to be a former lover of Lorraine’s, is killed in East Germany.

Atomic Blonde is the major motion picture directorial debut  of former stuntman David Leitch (he has directed a Deadpool short and parts of John Wick previously).  The stunts are top notch, of course, given his background, but even more impressive is his camera work.  He and director of cinematography Jonathon Sela give us a film which appropriately mixes up its styles to give us some really impressive visuals including one ten to fifteen minute long fight sequence in an apartment stairwell which seems to have been done in one long cut.  Directors are commonly known as having a type and Leitch seems to be a natural when it comes to the art of action from the standpoint of both the people and the visuals involved.

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Charlize Theron has been impressing me for decades giving us hardly a bad movie and never a bad performance going all the way back to the early 2000’s and her turn in Monster which impressed the world with her talent and her bravery.  In Atomic Blonde she shows off her bravery yet again as she bares everything and does her own very physically demanding stunts in her 40’s.  Theron has long been showing she’s more interested in her reputation as a serious actress than as a beautiful woman, and while her performance here is certainly more about plot and action than it is about character, one of Atomic Blonde’s main weaknesses is a lack of real character development, she once again proves her dedication to the craft of acting.

James McAvoy performs our other primary character David Percival.  McAvoy is another actor who is known for his talent  when he could be coasting by on his good looks.  Here he does his job well giving us person whom we cannot nail down.  In a film which relies on suspicion to move the story, McAvoy gives us someone we want to trust but know what a bad idea that would be.  His performance is one which relies on body language and glances, and subtle variations between the words he is speaking and the actions he performs.  He perfectly treads the thin line between subtlety and obvious to give us the necessary doubt without ever having to figuratively give the audience a wink.

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The story is a straightforward one with not a single subplot to be found, but the main story is intricate and winding enough that you could get lost if you’re not paying attention to details.  There are revelations made which can change the way earlier scenes and characters needed to be viewed, and after the fantastic finale to this film when we think the final piece of the puzzle is put into place, we realize just how much of what we experienced was a game meant to deceive us through tropes and misdirection.  In a way the plot is the most simple of all, find and bring home “The List” is really its entirety, but there’s genius in the way this simplicity can lead us down so many misleading paths.

A definite make or break element of Atomic Blonde is its soundtrack.  As someone who did the majority of his growing up during the 1980’s I was really into the movie’s use of it’s music made up entirely of 80’s dance club tracks.  The film has a constant beat, and much like Baby Driver, the action moves along to that beat and there is more than one scene obviously choreographed to match the music which accompanies it.  I thought it added to the already dynamic action of the film, but if 80’s club music isn’t your thing, I can see where the non-stop barrage of it could become an annoyance as the film moves on.

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Final verdict:  Atomic Blonde won’t give you deep characters to study nor enlighten you with its nuanced world view, but if you can live without intellectualism you are in for a treat as it is a really smart, non-stop action film with a very recognizable style.  It can be absolutely brutal at times, and Atomic Blonde earns its R-rating more than perhaps any other spy film I’ve seen, and that element is what keeps the movie modern when everything else about the film is a throwback to 30 years ago when synthesized music reigned, cigarettes were cool, break dancing was in, and the motto world wide was “it’s all about me.”  I not only highly recommend Atomic Blonde, but I predict that this is a film that will one day reach a classic of the spy genre status.

War for the Planet of the Apes (Reeves; 2017)

In 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes rebooted yet another beloved franchise in the attempt to show us the story of what happened to Earth while the astronauts who feature in the now classic 1968 movie were away on their ill-fated mission.  Most were surprised at just how gripping and intelligent this new take was with a story with themes warning us of the dark road hubris could one day lead the human race down, completely sympathetic and gripping characters despite their hubris, and just the right amount of action to make the film more a blockbuster and less a think piece so it can appeal to a broader audience.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes continued the story of Caesar (Andy Serkis), the leader of the new intelligent species of apes, and once again ended up being an intelligent action film giving us both spectacle and commentary on xenophobia and its insidious and far reaching consequences.  Now we have the trilogy’s conclusion, and with Rise, Dawn, and now War for the Planet of the Apes we get to see the truly rare trilogy in which every part  is masterfully crafted both as an individual work and as one third of a larger epic story.

War for the Planet of the Apes picks up two years after the conclusion of Dawn with Caesar and his clan still hiding in the forests outside San Francisco, but now they are being actively hunted by the remnants of the United States Army who were called in to exterminate the apes by the human colony in San Francisco in Dawn‘s finale.  Caesar has had a new child in the intervening years and his older son has been acting as a scout trying to find a place the apes can relocate to so they can get away from the army without violence.   The news of a new living space reaches Caesar too late, however, as just as the apes are preparing to leave San Francisco they are discovered by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), leader of the army stationed in the area who is bent on wiping out the apes.  A skirmish between apes and man ends with the humans being chased off, but the apes’ losses prompt Caesar to decide the Colonel must be killed at all cost and so he leaves his tribe on a suicide mission to confront the Colonel and end his life.

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War for the Planet of the Apes has all the intelligence and empathy of the two films which preceded it.   This time, the major themes on display are ones of survival, revenge, and fear, though not the xenophobia which was the focus of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  This time the fears are very well known, not unfounded, and inescapable.  It’s less about fear of the unknown, and more about how we act when our fears are justified and right in our face.  Caesar and the Colonel are both charismatic leaders and idolized by those who follow them, and Andy Serkis and Woody Harrelson bring both of these magnetic personalities to life brilliantly.  As is the case in the best fiction, but particularly in the best action adventure fiction, we are given two characters working against each other who are nearly mirror images and the only reason one is considered a hero and the other villain is due to the lengths the Colonel is willing to go to ensure the survival of the human race and the men in his unit.

As has been the case in the first two films in the trilogy, the special effects on display in War for the Planet of the Apes are remarkable.  There are more animated via motion capture actors than live action in the film, but this does not create any lack of empathy in he audience.  The apes are still quite silent, preferring to rely more on sign language than actual speech, so their communication is done with facial expressions and body language and nothing is lost in translation despite the fact that what we are seeing isn’t real.   The environments also change this time, as we leave San Francisco and its forests behind for more northern climes, and again the shots involving the snow covered mountains are gorgeous.  Also deserving special mention is the lighting in the film.  Much of the action takes place at night, but Reeves and his crew never allow that to interfere with our vision either as mistake nor crutch.  We see everything we need to see while still understanding when the action is taking place, and in a Hollywood in which action scenes are literally getting darker and darker this was a pleasant choice.

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This trilogy does have its problems, and one that seems to be consistent across all three films, and that is that since the characterizations and plotting are so intelligent that when a specific bit of action has to be rushed through due to pacing issues that bit really stands out.  For instance, in Rise of the Planet of the Apes what takes years and years to change Caesar’s brain so he has human level intelligence happens overnight with a little gas for the rest of the apes.  In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Caesar is brutally fighting for his life with great strength and agility mere days after being shot with a high powered automatic weapon.  Without spoiling anything, War for the Planet of the Apes also has to fall into similar traps to keep the story moving, and that little bit of dumb shoved inside what is otherwise genius really sticks out.

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Final verdict:  War for the Planet of the Apes ends its trilogy wonderfully, putting this apes trilogy up there with The Lord of the Rings, the original Star Wars trilogy, and the Nolan Batman films as one of the truly great action trilogies in all of filmdom.  Each part can be enjoyed on its own as a complete work and will still be satisfying, but the experience is amplified by enjoying all three as a continuous work.  Caesar will go down as a legendary Hollywood character, and his story as one of the greats.  I hope Hollywood ends it here and does not give in to the temptation to create more films as a cash grab as this really was the finale the story of Caesar deserves.  None of the films are perfect, War for the Planet of the Apes being no exception, but they are gripping and intelligent action films which deserve your attention.  If you’ve seen the first two, War is a must, but you probably already knew that.  If you haven’t seen the first two, you can still enjoy War for the Planet of the Apes, and I recommend you do, but I recommend even more seeing Rise and Dawn before moving onto this one for a far richer experience.

Baby Driver (Wright; 2017)

Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End, and Scott Pilgrim vs the World.  All four of these films are cult classics, if not just outright classics without the cult attached, and all four were written and directed by Edgar Wright.  That would make for an impressive enough resume, but what makes it even more impressive is that, for major motion pictures, that is its entirety  There is no Coen Brothers’ The Ladykillers, no Kurosawa’s Dreams, no Polanski’s The Ninth Gate, there is, so far no bad movie marring an otherwise perfect record.  So, when Edgar Wright’s new film Baby Driver was announced it was to a good deal of anticipation and fanfare, and I’m happy to say the fanfare is deserved and the perfect record is still intact.

The reason Edgar Wright keeps making classics is because he keeps sticking to what he does best and that is taking a genre and half paying homage, half satrizing, and stylizing the hell out of said genre while using it to skewer the way we live our lives.  Wright actually switches up the formula mildly, because while it is most certainly a stylized genre filck, there is little of the satire, humor, or society skewering which is half of Wright’s trademark style.  What Wright gives us this time is a slick, smart, but straightforward crime movie.  Baby (Andel Elgort) was orphaned at a very young age, and the auto accident which killed his parents left him with tinnitis (a permanent ringing in the ears) and an obsession with cars.  A run in with crime lord Doc (Kevin Spacey) at a slightly older, but still very young, age left Baby with a debt he had to repay and, so he now works as Doc’s permanent get away driver in a crew of otherwise constantly rotating criminals including Jon Hamm as Buddy, Eliza Gonzalez as Darling, and Jamie Foxx as Bats.

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These characters are all compelling due to a real sense of motivation, dialogue that is both natural and clever, and performances that exemplify a commitment to the art of bringing a fictional person to life.  While there isn’t a bad performance in the bunch, it is Jon Hamm and Eliza Gonzalez who truly go above and beyond in Baby Driver and steal every single scene they are in as their Bonnie and Clyde-esque criminal lovers who eventually reveal themselves to be far more unstable than their charming exteriors would suggest.  These two give two of the most accurate portrayals of true sociopaths I’ve ever seen captured in film in the way they disarm even the viewer with their charisma and false empathy all the while caring about nothing beyond themselves.

The camerawork is also excellent here, though, a few of the action pieces which do not involve cars did get a little dark and muddled, allowing us to experience the intense pacing of Baby Driver with very little confusion or lack of perspective.  The excellent choreography of both the actual action pieces as well as the cameras which capture these pieces show a true area of growth for Wright as a film maker as, while he has always focused on action genres in his previous films, he has never before been given a budget this large nor a story which relies so much on truly death defying stunt work, and he handles it all at a level that embarrasses many directors who have been putting together high spectacle action films their entire careers (yes, I’m still angry at you for last week Michael Bay).

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The use of music in the movie is also invigorating.  Due to Baby’s tinnitis, he listens to music throughout nearly the entire running time of the film to show that music is a never ending obsession of his because it drowns out the ringing in his ears, and other reasons which would enter into spoiler territory.  The music selection is mostly older, but it does run a gamut from the incredibly popular and overplayed to the “how have I never heard this song?, I love this band” level of exposure, and it really adds an additional level of fun to the film in very much the way the Awesome Mixes did in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

What really makes the film shine, though, is the way all of these elements are edited together into a cohesive whole.  We get why the characters are criminals, and we appreciate their motivations and quirks.  We ooh and ahh at the stunts and the excellent cinematography being used to capture them, and the tunes get our foots tapping and our heads bobbing .  When the car is spinning and the guns blazing in the rhythm of the hip hop beat as the graffiti going by in the background portrays the lyrics of song on the        I-Pod and the banter even starts to go along with the beat, that’s when we realize what a true work of love we are experiencing.  The visuals, acting, and screenwriting are all very well done, but the editing is the real masterwork on display.

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All that is not to say Baby Driver doesn’t have its share of problems, though, and a couple fairly serious ones at that.  The first is that by removing Wright’s sense of satire, we really don’t have much more going on here than a remarkably pretty series of action set pieces broken up by bits of banter.  There is no lesson to be learned here, no exploration of character, and no real insight into our universe.  The love story is believable, but ultimately pretty banal for a movie, and even the pseudo familial ties ultimately are nothing more than an excuse for be involved in a certain power dynamic.

The other, and I feel slightly more serious, problem is one of pacing, though not a typical issue in which the director couldn’t quite get the timing of action versus plot advancement.  In Baby Driver we get incredible action right off the bat letting us see right away the creative and kinetic journey we have ahead of us, and while the film never ceases being intelligent, frantic, and stylish, it also never surpasses what it gives us at the start.  This leaves us with a movie that plateaus immediately and never really builds to a climactic resolution, leaving us a bit disappointed without really completely understanding why at the end.

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Final verdict:  Edgar Wright continues his legacy of excellence with Baby Driver, but this most likely is a film that will remembered more as a film made by Edgar Wright than as a film which stands as great under its own merit.   Despite its problems, there is a lot more to like here than to dislike, an awful lot more, but this is also certainly a film that many will walk away from feeling it was overhyped and will suffer a hit of reputation due to this.  Baby Driver is a fun, stylish, fantastic crime movie which will leave nearly everyone satisfied.  Just understand that on the Edgar Wright scale, this is closer to The World’s End than Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz.

 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.