Anon (2018): A Concept That Nearly Pays off

        “Anon” is very much a Philip K. Dick book. This was a man who had great sci. fi. ideas but you never cared about his characters in the end. The adaptations I’ve read have always been better in their adaptation (“Minority Report” and “Blade Runner” as prime examples). He just didn’t get people or empathy, and this film has that exact problem. I’ll get more into that later but I think most of the problem lies in execution. This was a Netflix original with a great main cast, but that wasn’t enough to make it anything more than enjoyable.

The film was directed by Andrew Niccol who also wrote the film and was one of the producers. This is really his vision at the end of the day, and it’s a start. I really wish there’d been more though.

The story follows Sal (Clive Owen) a divorcee dealing with feeling for his ex-wife and a mystery of false suicides. This is a future where all memories are recorded and all the past appear as hacked with the only connection being “The Girl” (Amanda Seyfried). From here he must find out who she is as she murders people connected to her past.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The World – A world where your memories are recorded. It is very much “Minority Report” in idea and feels like a Philip K. Dick novel. I like it, he created interesting worlds that would drive anyone to paranoia as it did him, and that is something worth exploring. Who wouldn’t want to revisit their past memories clearly? If you have the good memories of the past, why would you leave that up to a dying mind? This core idea is what makes the film work, and is really the only thing that does. Like a Philip K. Dick novel, the world is far more interesting than how the protagonists are expressed.

The Main Characters – I like Sal and like “The Girl.” Both of them are driven to be better but consumed by past mistakes. They work, it is sad they weren’t in a better story as each of them could have changed this world or themselves in major ways that never happens. Each has charisma that the writer did not fully use. You have divorced Sal and his past trauma and you “The Girl” in deep with a corrupt world that she ends up having little control over. I still found the characters worth at least passively following. I guess, if you need an escape, it is worth it for Clive Owen and Amanda Seyfried.

Okay:

The Plot – The core mystery is alright. “The Girl” hacks peoples minds and makes them kill themselves and wipes all memory of her even being present. Who she is and Sal’s hunting her down with his agency is the premise. Within this Sal is divorced and has a drinking problem. I thought the plot was okay but it needed more. Sal’s trauma should have been explored more and in the end we never get to know “The Girl.” She doesn’t even have a name and even though the things she does are interesting, we never get deeper motivation.

Don’t go into this film expecting great, it isn’t. If you need a quick escape “Anon” might be your jam. The execution isn’t as nearly as good as the premise, but the cinematography and acting is enjoyable and it is a fun world, even though it needed a lot more fleshing out.

Final Score: 7 / 10

Upgrade (2018): An Amazing Sci. Fi. Thriller Worth Your Time

   “Upgrade” is a really great film. This is the kind of film that reminded me so much of “Ex Machina” as it deals with a similar exploration of Artificial Intelligence and what makes a person, which any story exploring personhood and identity is something I am always intrigued by. These are ideas that when pulled off well, lead to unforgettable films, and “Upgrade” does not disappoint.

The film was directed and written by Leigh Whannell. He’s written a lot of horror movies mostly, like the “Saw” Franchise and “Insidious.” This film certainly has horror elements but is more of a thriller.

The story follows Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) a stay at home mechanic. When his wife Asha (Melani Vellajo) is killed and he is paralyzed in a mysterious attack. After the attack his enigmatic CEO client Eron gives him STEM, an A.I. that makes it so he can walk again also can communicate with him. With new drive he seeks out those responsible for the killing of his wife.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The World – The world is a sci. fi. future where there are self driving cars and areas of extreme tech. advancement and desolate poverty, such as where Grey grew up. The world is fascinating and it is a believable place where the plot that goes down would happen. The through line of wonder and desperation makes the world real and I would watch another story told in this universe.

The Lighting / Cinematography – Part of what brings this world to light is the cinematography. This is a film that uses light really well. There is a red tinge pver everything and when they are in the poorer areas of town everything is draped in darkness. These things do a great job at racking up the tension and isolating Grey. The use of red and black express the isolation beautifully and that is part of what makes the film’s presentation work.

The Plot – The plot revolves around Grey hunting down his wife’s killer and the mystery with that as he learns to work with an A.I. that he lets control his body in life and death scenarios. There are some dark twists as each new reveal shows that there was another manipulation going on, leading up to the final reveal. All is not as it seems and this film is figuring out just how many betrayals are in store for Grey.

The Reveal – STEM is the bad guy and wins. STEM wanted to become human so it created the circumstances where Grey would accept taking it in and in the end takes control of Grey’s body and mind and kills the CEO who created it, preventing another STEM from being born. It is a dark, powerful and fascinating story.

Okay:

The Wife and CEO / Supporting Cast – The supporting cast is okay but I felt like the wife, CEO and gangster who killed the wife could have done with more exploration. They are plot mechanics in the end for the advancement of STEM’s self-actualization, which worked but it kept the film from perfection. If they’d all felt as fully realized as Grey or STEM this film would have been perfect as the mystery and tension never lets up. All it needed was more realized characters on the sidelines.

This is a film I highly recommend to any fan of sci. fi. Like “Ex Machina” before, this is a film that doesn’t have a large cast and doesn’t need one. The core ideas being explored of personhood and fear of A.I. are handled really well and the main thriller is masterfully executed. I highly recommend checking this film out if you get the chance. Might not make my Top 5 at the end of the year, but it is competing to be on that list.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

 

Mute (2018): This is no “Blade Runner”

Netflix is the new Blockbuster in more ways than one. Any place where you have a concentration of films you have copycats and crap ripping off much better films. “Mute” is a film that rips from the world of “Blade Runner,” but doesn’t have anything to say on its own. This film was awful, and one of the most disappointing films I’ve seen in a while.

The film was directed and co-written by Duncan Jones (the director behind the “Warcraft” film) and Michael Robert Johnson.

The story follows Leo, an Amish immigrant to Germany, who has lost his vocal cords after an accident. When his girlfriend, Naadirah, goes missing he investigates her hidden life as the dark underbelly of dystopian Berlin is revealed.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Cinematography – This is a beautiful looking film. The neon colors and the future tech are great. The neon lights bring out the dark mystery of the environment and how shady most of the people in this world are. Gary Shaw, cinematographer, is the only person who truly did well with this film as the film’s cinematography is one of the few things about the film that works.

The Idea of the Story – I am a fan of noirs and mysteries and this is both of those things, as well as Sci-Fi. Like “Blade Runner,” we are learning about this broken world and how each person relates to one another as the mystery of Naadirah’s disappearance is slowly revealed. That is the idea anyway, nothing else works.

The Cons:

The Characters – The characters are all terrible people. Even Leo is shown to be as dark as those around him as he is willing to do anything to others ,and only cares about his girlfriend and that is it. Naadirah is manipulative and using those around her. And the antagonist, Cactus, and his friend, Duck, are creeps who don’t have arcs. They just exist as a threat to Leo, as they are doctors for the mob and Cactus killed Naadirah.

The Story – The story is crap. How Leo discovers each bit of the puzzle and how deep Naadirah was in with the gangs is a muddled mess. What story is here involves Cactus trying to escape with his daughter as he keeps having to do more jobs for the mob, and Leo gets closer to finding out that he is the killer. It sucks and the fact that Leo adopts Cactus’s daughter as his own after killing him has no real lead-up or payoff. However, Cactus and his friend give Leo vocal cords so he can speak, so that is a thing… I guess. It just happens. God I hated this story.

This is the worst film I’ve seen this year, thus far. It is a film that failed to develop characters, and unlike “Blade Runner,” had no deeper point. It took a cool idea of a mute protagonist and wasted it. What made hate this movie more than I usually would was the world is presented beautifully and I am a fan of Sci-Fi Noirs. I was ready to explore this world and find interesting characters. In the end I learned nothing about the world and the characters were some of the worst written in film.

Final Score: 3 / 10 Nothing worked except the cinematography.

 

Extinction (2018): A Fascinating Exploration of Memory and Personhood

 

Netflix is the place where original sci. fi. films are accessible. Theatres are ruled by franchises, and maybe every so often you will get a “Ex Machina” or “Annihilation,” but those are the exception rather than the rule. Netflix you will get it all. From the awful like “Mute,” to the enjoyable like “Anon,” and the good like this film. I’m still holding out for a great, but this one was greatly enjoyable for the sci. fi. it was.

“Extinction,” is a film that was written by committee. The film was directed by Ben Young, with 3 people behind the screenplay being Spenser Cohen, Eric Heisserer and Brad Kane.

The story follows Peter (Michael Pena) haunted by visions of the Earth being decimated by an invasion. Torn between whether this is simply visions or reality an invasion arrives and Peter must protect his family and discern reality.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The World – The world is really fascinating. At the beginning it plays with your head, as there is futuristic technology, and the main character has a problem with his head so you don’t know if what he is seeing is real. This world makes the viewer question the hint of annihilation they get until the action finally goes down. I love it, because in a world of the human mind and advanced tech where memories can be wiped, anything is possible, and the premise is explored through this.

Peter – Michael Pena is a great actor. He is the one who carries this film, and in doing so, makes it good, beyond the premise. The rest of the cast do okay to not even being noticeable, which brought it down some. Peter never stops being compelling though. You are with him as he questions what is real, and when he takes the next step of questioning his entire reality and what he is. There is so much depth to his character and weight to his decisions that I couldn’t help but be pulled into the drama.

The Truth and Conclusion – The people inhabiting Earth are robots, and the aliens invading are human colonists trying to take back Earth. It is very much like the “The Twilight Zone” in the premise, and I really enjoyed this core truth that drives the film. Especially as one of the invaders save’s Peter’s wife after he realizes that the robots have kids, families, and lives. After that, the robots are on the run as the invasion continues and things are left up in the air as to the future of Earth.

The Cons:

The Supporting Cast – None of the other characters stood out to me except for his cop friend, played by Mike Colter (Luke Cage), who kept his memories from the last human / robot war. He was the only one with any layers to him and the rest were just plot devices to drive Peter’s actions. If the cast had been better, this movie would have been great but because I only cared about Peter, it never got beyond good.

Netflix is the place where any B sci. fi. movie will get made now, and that works for me. Movie theaters are so lost in franchise management that I almost prefer seeing a flawed decent original gem than another “guaranteed-to-be-good” franchise film. It is out of these original stories and taking chances that more “Ex Machina” and “District 9” original movies will get made. If there is no taking of chances, the visual medium of science fiction could easily get lost. I support this movie for being on the better end of that spectrum of original sci. fi. films and I definitely recommend to anyone who is a sci. fi. film fan.

Final Score: 8.2 / 10

Annihilation (2018): A Haunting Exploration of Inner Fears

  If you are new to the blog, I am a huge fan of sci. fi. Most of the films and shows I review are science fiction based and more often than not, they make my Top 5 of whatever year they were made if they are great. “Annihilation” never reaches the heights that the premise creates, but it is a solidly good film. I rented it from Amazon and it is worth checking out.

The film was directed and wrote Eric Garland, who was the writer and director behind one of my favorite films “Ex Machina.” It is based off a novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, which I plan on checking out.

The story follows Lena, a biologist who is brought in on a special mission when her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) returns back changed and goes into a coma. From here she works with the team to try and solve the mystery of “The Shimmer,” a reality warping anomaly that is expanding slowly upon the Earth.

The Mystery – The core mystery is what drives the story, and what kept me most involved. The characters were interesting enough that I cared about what happened to them a little (though we never got to know them fully outside of Lena). And, I love that it starts out with a mystery; someone coming home different with no memories of who they were before. “The Shimmer” is a fascinating concept and I love how everytime you feel you learn something else about it, it reveals a greater mystery. The core premise of solving “The Shimmer” kept me in the story the entire time.

The Idea of the Team – The team is made up of women, and they are awesome! We have Lena, the biologist, holding her secrets. The cruel and distant Dr. Ventress, as the leader. The empathetic Josie, the kindness of Cassie, and the hard driven Anya. Each character carries a darkness that “The Shimmer” brings out.

The Darkness We Carry – Each of our characters carries a darkness with them. There is the fact that Lena cheated on her husband, Anya cuts herself, and Ventress has become detached and uncaring. The darkness consumes each of the characters in different way the deeper they get into the “Shimmer.”

Metaphorical and Actual Cancer – The film is also a metaphor for cancer. Everything in “The Shimmer” warps and grows. Like cancer it consumes until there is nothing left. “The Shimmer” is defeated after the alien inside of it is set on fire by Lena. As it burns, the entire “Shimmer” down to its core continues to desire to spread.

Okay:

Lena – Lena is okay. I like how she is complex as a character, but Natalie Portman’s performance doesn’t bring to the next level. I didn’t care enough about any of these characters the way I cared about the protagonists in “Ex Machina.” Here there is a level of detachment from the events going on, and a good portion of that is Lena’s own detachment from the situations she is in. She still did okay, but I can’t put her as a pro, though she was the most compelling member of the team.

The Cons:

The Ending – In the end we find out Kane, who came back as a doppelganger, is the alien life form (from “The Shimmer”.) The twist is that Lena is now a doppelganger too, even though she defeated it in the end. This contradiction took away from the entire film’s theme of overcoming darkness and healing. It kept the film from being great. The film really should have ended with her being interviewed, and Kane’s mystery never being answered. .

If you are fan of sci-fi, like me, chances are you will enjoy this film. This is a flawed and beautiful film that aspires to achieve so much, but because the characters are never quite fleshed out enough, never gets there. The ending also was a bit of a cop out and cancels out so much of what Lena went through. Even with a flawed ending, it is still worth checking out. I rented it, and it is a film that I’d say isn’t worth buying, but was worth the rent.

Final Score: 8 / 10

Ready Player One (2018): When the Film is Better Than the Book

It has been some time since I’ve watched a Steven Spielberg film. After seeing this film, I really should change that. He really is one of the best living directors today, as this is a film that could have been a cringe-worthy mess. First, I was a fan of the book, even though this film gets away from the book in some ways it still keeps the core spirit of the book. This is a film that celebrates video games and nostalgia while doing it well, even though the main characters are flat. My non-spoiler thoughts are: if you liked the book, you will probably enjoy this film too.

The film was directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline (the author of the book).

The story takes place in the dystopian future of 2045. The world has fallen apart and everyone lives in the Oasis, a virtual reality world created by Halliday where you can be anyone and do anything. Wade Watts is the main protagonist who is trying to find the 3 Easter Eggs that Halliday put in the game as a way of passing on ownership after his death. From here Watts and his friends must find the keys and beat the game before the evil corporation, Innovative Online Industries (IOI), lead by Nolan Sorrento.

The Pros:

The Dystopian Reality – The dystopian reality of the world outside of the Oasis is a tragic place. You have debt slaves to IOI, cars and houses stacked on each other in the Stacks, a militarized police force and drones everywhere. I wanted to learn more about this world and spend more time there as the human connections we see are made primarily in the Oasis. For me, one of my favorite parts was seeing the characters outside of the game working together, having to depend on their brains rather than how awesome they were in the game. I wanted more of this and to hear more of their stories.

The Oasis – The Oasis is really cool. This is a VR world where you can make yourself into any avatar you want. You can also build robots, tanks, cars, etc. It is a huge modding community where you can do PVP (Player versus Player) and PVE (Player versus Enemies [AI]) combat. It is the endless possibilities of imagination and gaming combined. I really hope we can make something like it, someday.

i-R0K the Mercenary – i-R0K is the mercenary Sorrento, and his evil corporation IOI, uses to hunt our heroes. He is a funny guy, as he is only in it for the loot. He’s a huge threat, and also, very human as he talks about how bad his back is and needing physical therapy. He has more character than our heroes, and I would watch a movie just about him.

The Tone – The tone is one of wonder and imagination intermixed with sorrow and desperation. Spielberg owns the tone, and it pervades the film giving weight to everything that happens and the actions our characters take.

Okay:

Flat Heroes – Wade is an orphan who lives in the stacks who comes off as a bit one-dimensional, as he only lives for the game and has no real defining character traits. Samantha is the love interest who thinks she’s ugly because she has a birthmark on her face, and her dad is enslaved by IOI. The Japanese Brothers are an older and younger brother duo. The younger brother is an 11 year old who doesn’t like people thinking he’s young, as he fears they’d mock him in the Oasis. Helen is an African-American woman who plays a troll-like, tough character, called Aech. These characters aren’t bad… it’s just that there isn’t more to them beyond the descriptions I gave. They are all heroes who do the right thing, always, and have no inner conflict or aims. This was a missed opportunity. They are this way in the book, but we do get into Wade’s head which makes him more compelling. These characters work within the story, but they really deserved much better development.

Idealization versus Reality – Oasis is a giant gaming community, so where are or what happened to all the toxic trolls? The racists? The sexists? As far as we know there isn’t a moderator who kicks players out, so how did this reality become perfect? This is where the stories fantasy element really came out. The film could have critiqued itself, or shown us how to get to the ideal reality the Oasis community seems to be.

The Cons:

The Villain and Predictability – Sorrento is a cliched. corrupt businessman. one-dimensional villain. He’s just greedy and selfish, having no greater depth. He was that way in the book too, which is a shame as he knows Halliday and it could have been Halliday who brought out his worst self. He’s entertaining, but there is nothing there. He is flatter than our heroes, and their presentations aren’t great.

Overdependence on Nostalgia – The Oasis is full of references, and it is fine up to a degree, but in a game you’d expect more original content. Why is everyone so focused on creating things that already exist rather than things that don’t exist. Some moments of nostalgia are cool, like the T.Rex  and King Kong in the race at the beginning, but the old arcade game at the end felt unneeded and could have been adapted into a better trial.

This was a film that missed opportunities to critique the culture of gaming, and nostalgia found in the modern world (they could have shown how we got past toxic troll culture, etc.). The flatness of the heroes and  the villain didn’t help the film… but the world, the world carried it for me. This is a good film that could have been great if it had dared to observe and critique itself. Once more, if you loved the book or love Spielberg, you will enjoy this film.

Final Score: 8.3 / 10

 

Pacific Rim Uprising (2018): The Great Old With the Bland New

I’m a fan of the “Pacific Rim” universe. I also think the last film was perfect for what it was, and didn’t need a sequel. Now that a sequel has been made… I enjoyed it. But, this is a very flawed film brought down by child actors that can’t act; contrasted with some beautiful action, expansion of the “Pacific Rim” universe in intriguing ways and solid leads. I wouldn’t call it good, but if you are looking for an escape, my thoughts are, it is worth checking out.

This was a film that had a lot of people involved in its creation, with Steven S. DeKnight directing the film and being one of the 4 writers. Guillermo del Toro and John Boyega were producers, along with 5 other people. On paper, this looks like a film designed by committee.

The story picks up 10 years after the end of the first film. Jake Pentecost (Stacker Pentecost’s son, played by John Boyega) is living as a scavenger until he is picked up, and forced back into being a Jaeger Ranger. He must train new recruits as the world prepares for the return of Kaiju. All is not as it appears to be, though, as a new drone program is implemented, and a mysterious Jaeger arrives. The new Jaeger starts attacking people rather than protecting them.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Universe – I love this universe. Since middle school I’ve been a fan of monsters and mechs. The world del Toro realized is so rich in character and mythology. The mythology this time around doesn’t disappoint. We get solid world building, as we learn more about the Kaiju, The Precursors, and how humanity has changed after the Battle of the Breach that ended the first film.

The Jaegers and Kaiju – The Jaegers and Kaiju look great, as always, and the introduction of drones, which are later shown to be Jaeger/Kaiju hybrids, are a treat that add a lot the action. These two things, along with del Toro, are what drew me to the first film, and it was the mechs and monsters that kept my interest through the times where this film fell short. As both their creative designs and action scenes brought to life the world when the characters weren’t up to it.

Jake Pentecost and Nate Lambert – The main character drama is between Jake Pentecost and Nate Lambert. Jake is the party boy who becomes responsible after facing his trauma. Nate is the one who has to trust Jake, once again, if they are going win. Boyega’s charisma continues to make his character intriguing, even if the script doesn’t always help. Nate Lambert is a battle hardened veteran who was shaped by the war in such a way, he has trouble connecting to people. It gives him a level of mystery, as if he is holding onto some past trauma, which gives him a way to relate to Jake. It is their core relationship that kept the film going for me, as each of them grew over the course of the film, and it was a genuine challenge for them learning to trust one another.

Newt and the Kaiju – The main antagonist is Newt, who is being controlled by The Precursors, that also control the Kaiju. We discover he kept the Kaiju brain at the end of the last film, and it has corrupted him. Charlie Day hams the hell out of it, and is enjoyable to watch in his madness. He nearly wins on multiple occasions, and I can’t wait to see where they take his story.

Dr. Hermann and Liwen Shao – The two support characters who really drive the story are Dr. Hermann (he was around in the first film too), and Liwen Shao, owner of the drone program. Together they are able to save the world from the Kaiju, as each of their skills complement the surviving Jaegers and help them defeat the Giant Kaiju in its final assault on Tokyo. Which felt like a brilliant salute to all the mech and monster films that made this genre possible.

The Cons:

The New Recruits – These kids can’t act. I didn’t care about their story, each line of dialogue felt forced, and fake. These kids made the film feel like an episode of Power Rangers. If I had to describe them…it’d be difficult. We are shown how each of them are (the nervous one, the angry one, the inventor), but there isn’t enough there for them to be compelling. They brought the film down, and even making one of them a main character, in the inventor Amara, wasn’t enough to make me care about their story. 

The Death of Mako Mori – Mako Mori deserved better. She is killed by a rogue Jaeger, and it ends up being anti-climatic. She already existed primarily to give us plot (a disservice to the character), and even her great scenes with Boyega can’t change the fact that her death wasn’t dying in a fight against the monsters…it was in a copter crash. She never got that “moment of awesome” Stacker got, and there was so much more development she could have received with the re-establishing her relationship with Jake. Besides the child actors this was the worst part of the film.

Love Interest Woman – There is a woman named Jewel. Both Jake and Nate have a crush on her. She is an object in a contrived love triangle object. I couldn’t tell you her personality, her aims, or what she wants. She exists purely as “love interest girl” and is the worst part of the script. She wasn’t needed.

In the end, what holds up this film and keeps it from sucking are: the old characters and those tied to the old characters from the first film, Newt and Hermann were wonderful, Pentecost and Lambert had a great relationship, and Liwen Shao (the new character) shakes the story up in ways that only enrich this universe. I loved her character arc, and hope that she is a major part if they make a third film. This is a film that largely exists because of success in the international box office, specifically China. In the end I’m glad it was made.

Final Score: 7.7 / 10

Black Panther (2018): Seeking Justice in a Broken World

       “Black Panther” is easily one of my Top 5 favorite MCU films. This is a film that expands on the lore of the MCU, has great characters with amazing arcs, some of the best action and villains in any Marvel film. It also explores deeper themes of resistance and sovereignty adding up to a movie that is well worth your time.

The film was directed by Ryan Coogler who co-wrote it with Joe Robert Cole and produced by Kevin Feige.

The story involves T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), after “Captain America: Civil War,” as he takes the mantle as King of Wakanda but suddenly finds his world transformed as an enemy from Wakanda’s past upsets the status quo they’ve known for so long. This forces him and his allies to confront the past and what the choices they make will mean for Wakanda’s future.

SPOILERS Ahead

The Pros:

Wakanda – Wakanda is such a cool country. This is a Afro-Futuristic nation with advanced technology, hidden by a cloaking device that intermixes ancient tradition with tech. Wakandans are ruled by the King and a Tribal Council whose upholding of tradition drives the primary conflict in the shaping of Wakanda’s future. Each tribe differs in ideology, whether it is defending the King, the Border or trade. This world is rich and fully realized, each tribe is distinct and I wanted to know more about their histories in the foundation and development of Wakanda.

The Characters – The characters are definitely one of the most enjoyable parts of this great film, with Boseman once again killing it as T’Challa. Whitiker is fantastic as the Tribal Shaman whose history is intertwined with Wakanda’s past sins. The other minor characters, like the tribal leader W’Kabi, also have intriguing performances as well. In many cases it is these characters prideful choices that drive the conflict that T’Challa must untangle. Below, I’m going to explore some of my favorite characters of the film, as it was who they were that drew me into the story the most.

Okoye – Okoye, played by Danai Gurira, is Wakanda’s General and she owns this role. Not only does she one of the major focuses is some breathtaking actions scenes every action scenes, we see how important her role is for her as at one point following tradition has her on the opposite side of some of our heroes. She serves the Crown and Wakanda, and that is a complicated dance when T’Challa is believed dead and the sociopath Killmonger is now King of Wakanda. I can’t wait to see more of her in future films.

Shuri – Shuri is the Princess of Wakanda and T’Challa’s sister. She is one of the most intelligent characters in the MCU, as she is the inventor of the advanced technology of Wakanda, she is very much the Tony Stark of Wakanda.  Like Stark, she doesn’t care about tradition and is far more invested in the relationships around her and the beauty of discovery and invention. She has some great scenes, and like Okoye, she was one of the main reasons to see this film. 

Ulysses Klaue – Andy Serkis has a lot of fun as the weapons merchant who is almost Joker-like in how little he cares about anything. This is a guy who is selfish, and racist, and every reason why Wakanda is isolationist. He is an insane character and his chaotic and manipulative nature leads to some explosive conflict in the first act of the film. It is also great to see Serkis in anything. 

Killmonger – Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger might be one of Marvel’s most complicated villains. This is a boy who grew up homeless in Oakland when T’Challa’s father kills his father, who was connected to the royal family through blood. He is driven by revenge from this moment on, but also by a desire to help the oppressed, driven by all he has lost. Killmonger is also a complete sociopath (his body is covered in self-inflicted scars for every person he has killed), but that doesn’t stop him from being complex. You can see where he is coming from, even if his way of going about it is all wrong.

Isolationism and its Consequences – The main idea explored is isolationism and the consequences of it is the main theme of the movie. T’Challa’s father commits a grave sin to keep Wakanda hidden from the rest of the world and it is up to T’Challa to face the consequences of his father’s sins. As Killmonger reminds T’Challa there are Africans both on the continent and in the world that Wakanda left behind. Wakanda let great evils like slavery, apartheid and countless other atrocities take place, when they could have done something to fight it. The primary conflict within Wakanda is to become an Empire to help oppressed groups (Killmonger’s vision), or stay hidden and protect Wakandan technology from those who would use it for ill (T’Challa’s father’s vision). T’Challa’s arc is finding that balance between perspectives and owning the mistakes of the past…and it is beautifully executed.

Okay:

Final Fight -The final fight is fine but compared to the rest of the film comes off as weak, especially in regards to the relationship between Okoye and W’Kabi. The emotional setup earlier in the film does not add up to the payoff during this fight, and so much more could have been done with some of the locations.

Okoye and W’Kabi – These two are star-crossed lovers who are on opposite sides and leaders of their tribes. I wanted more with both of them as they are both great actors, but we never got to see them in love, it is only ever given to us through exposition. Fully fleshing out their relationship could have given us the perfect film. 

This is a film that had the Marvel problem only in that Act 3 was still a battle, and there were some plot holes that I wish had been expanded upon. Regardless, this is a film that is deserving of all the hype and praise it has been receiving. It really is that good and I can’t wait to see what else they do with T’Challa and the Wakandans in later films. This film has social awareness you don’t always get in action films and at the core it seeks justice in a broken world.

Final Score: 9.7 / 10 One of my favorite films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

If you noticed something different about this review it is because I am now working with an editor! He is friend Brandon Cabusas and you can find him on instagram @brandoncabusas. If you need editing work, you should check him out.

The Shape of Water (2017): A Transcendent Romantic Fairy Tale

   “The Shape of Water” might end up being my favorite film of the year. This is a film that is beautifully told and reminds me of “Beauty and the Beast,” meets “Amelie” but with so much more going on than either of those stories. This is a film where every character, whether minor or major matters and out of it we get a compelling love story that is so much more. This is a story about characters who aren’t given a voice (both literally and metaphorically) finding their voice and from there, a level of transcendence or change within themselves or their situation. The cast was wonderfully done and for my non-spoiler thoughts…I can’t wait to watch it again. This is easily one of Guillermo del Toro’s best work, and given that he was co-writer and co-producer as well as the director, this story was clearly his vision and it is beautiful. Seriously, check this film out if you get the chance.

The film was directed, co-wrote and co-produced Guillermo del Toro, co-written by Vanessa Taylor and co-produced with J. Miles Dale.

The story follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who works at a secret government agency with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and sharing an apartment with her closeted friend Giles (Richard Jenkins). Her world is soon changed when a government agent Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings in a mysterious “asset,” a creature who changes Elisa’s life forever.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is that of the 1950’s of the United States but with fairy tale, fantasy and sci. fi. elements…both in how the story is presented and the amphibian man being so central to the plot, as well as the abilities he has. It is also a world full of twists since spies and government agents inhabit this cold world universe and the secret lab where most of the action takes place.

The Characters – The characters are the best part of this film. From Octavia Spencer’s Zelda, who is Elisa’s translator and calls out how bad their situation is (as the help no one notices or cares about them, just takes them for granted), Giles, who understands Elisa’s love for the creature and helps protect them and both rescue the creature from the lab and getting them both the docks. He is the narrator. Michael Shannon’s Colonel is unhinged and broken and is sympathetic in that, even though he never stops being a threat and monster. Elisa’s and the creature’s romance drives the story and it is awesome. I loved how confident Elisa is in her sexuality and her attachment to the creature as well as the creature’s humanity slowly being revealed as he opens up to her. Doug Jones once again owns this alien type role he is in. I can’t wait to buy this movie when it comes out.

The Soundtrack and Cinematography – The soundtrack has a fairy tale and jazz feel to it, intermixed with this dark foreboding when we are at the lab and the Colonel is on screen. The cinematography is amazing too, it reminded me of “Amelie” with the use of color contrasts but focusing in on Elisa’s perspective. Alexandre Desplat did a great job on the soundtrack and I loved Dan Laustsen’s cinematography.

The Romance – The romance is the main drive of the story and it is beautifully done. It starts with Elisa and the creature touching hands separated by glass, to her leaving him eggs, to eating in his area with him and teaching him sign language…to his rescue and eventually having to let him go as he dies not being in the salt water but has given Giles back his hair and healed a wound he caused on Giles accidentally. The romance is the core of the film and because it illustrates different aspects of the characters and the world they inhabit.

Surrealism and Fairy Tales – The Fairy Tale element is revealed most profoundly in the opening shot where Giles is giving the premise of a monster who turned two lovers’ world upside down…as we see a drowned how with Elisa floating, as if sleeping in the water. There is other imagery like this that gives the film a surrealist element and from that the fairy tale elements of the love story are given more power in their presentation. I love stories like this (“One-Hundred Years of Solitude, most Haruki Murakami, etc.) and this is one of the best presentations of this type of story.

Fighting Adversity and the Voice of the Voiceless – This is a film about giving voice to the voiceless in both the literal sense (our heroes being a mute and an amphibian creature who cannot speak), Zelda, who is black lady with an oppressive husband and Giles being in the closet and kept out from the wealth he once bad before as the marketing world just sees him as a has been. Each of them are trapped (the monster) or oppressed in different ways in a society that ignores them and it is the rescuing and finally freeing of the monster that Zelda finally speaks up against her husband and calls the cops on the Colonel, Giles fights and defends the monster and Elisa and Elisa transcends as she sacrifices herself to save the creature and her cuts she received as a baby are turned into gills, she is reborn by the creature and free to be with the creature, something that would have never been possible before. It is also her drive that helps the others to change their lives too, as she is directly fighting to system by freeing their “asset.”

Okay: First Act Goes a Little Long – The only real criticism I could find with the film is the first third of the film does go on a little long, but it picks up the moment the rescue plan is put into action by Elisa and after that, it doesn’t stop…and it does a good job setting up the world so I can’t put it is a con.

I highly recommend “The Shape of Water.” This film is going to make my Top 5 films of 2017 and if you are looking for a film where you will notice more each time around, as well simply enjoying a beautiful fairy tale that gives voice to the voiceless and has wonderfully compelling characters, who each get full arcs. I cared about where each their arcs were going, even the villain as no one was as simple as they first appeared to be. The film was all about layers and reveals, both in the nature of the characters and the creature and the payoff of their arcs. Check this film out, if you haven’t yet. Guillermo del Toro has done it again and I can’t wait to see what masterpiece he makes next.

Final Score: 10 / 10

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017) – An Amazing Subversion of Expectations

   “The Last Jedi” is my second favorite Star Wars film. This is a series that is second only to “The Empire Strikes Back,” and in many ways has greater depth even though the structure of this film is a bit of a mess. What this film does though is upset the status quo, delve into the reasons the First Order and Resistance have for even existing in the first place and also a much deeper analysis of “The Force” that we haven’t really gotten since the Original Trilogy. Before I get into spoilers, this is a film with the best characters and themes thus far, amazing character development and emotional payoff, amazing action and it is easily the most beautiful of all the Star Wars films. Seriously, check it out.

The film was directed and written by Rian Johnson while being produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Ram Bergman.

The story involves the Resistance attempting to escape from the First Order who are attacking them after the destruction of Starkiller Base, while Rey is seeking Luke’s help in their fight. Things soon get more complicated when the First Order executes a trap that forces members the Resistance to seek outside help  to escape the First Order trap, and a clash within the Resistance itself between Poe and Vice-Admiral Holdo after General Leia is incapacitated.

SPOILERS

The Pros: The Cinematography – This is visually the best looking of any film in the Star Wars franchise. Whether it is the filming of fight sequences in space or within a ship…the camera executes the action beautifully and each planet was somewhere I wanted to return back to after it was done.

The Universe – This Star Wars has quite a few different environments and animals. From the adorable porgs, to crystal foxes, to the salt world of Crait, Luke’s Island and Snoke’s Flagship and a Casino World. I was never bored because there was always more to see as each environment was so rich.

The Reason for Resistance – One of the major themes of the film is the reasons to resist. We see this as a class struggle in regards to oppression through the eyes of kids and Rose, a character we are introduced in this film…and also that personal identity is a huge role too and that finding the balance between them is important. Poe is driven by ego and glory for much of what he does but comes to see that it is bigger than each fight, the war is larger than any one person as the individuals and groups define what it means to resist, just as much as if not more than the personal reasons to fight.

The Cost of War – So many people die in this film. There are lots of heroic sacrifices, but also the people who are being oppressed by those profiting from the war, the deaths of so many soldiers on both sides who die. You feel that in this and it does a good job humanizing both the Resistance and the First Order. War is hell and sometimes no one wins, this film captures that theme beautifully.

The Characters – The characters are the best part of this film. This film is all about relationships between characters, be it Leia and Poe, Rose and Finn, Kylo and Rey or Luke and Rey. Each relationship gets developed over the course of the film and reveals layers to the characters that didn’t exist in “The Force Awakens.”

Vice Admiral Holdo – Holdo is a character who has got a lot of crap from the fanbase, but she was one of my favorite characters in the film. She was respected for winning in the past but Poe doesn’t get that. She is presented as an antagonist through a good portion of the film, and the payoff of who she actually is and what she is doing is great.

Rose and Finn – It is through these characters that we get to see another face of the Resistance and why they fight. Finn is originally a part because of his friends and is even willing to leave in order to protect Rey but Rose reminds him of the bigger picture and that at the core they exist to fight oppression. It is handled on the casino world and seeing their friendship bloom was one of the more memorable parts of this film.

Master Luke Skywalker – Luke is done with everything. Like before in the Original Trilogy guilt defines him and it is mistake that helped lead to Kylo Ren’s creation and that guilt is something he carries with him and resists until the end. He is wanting to destroy the Jedi order and die as the last Jedi until Rey helps him realize there is so much more that he’s forgotten and that he can still make a difference and change things. Mark Hamill is fantastic.

General Leia Organa – I miss Carrie Fisher. It was great seeing her in this, her whole drive is survival and protecting the Resistance from the First Order. She is the mentor who is there to remind the young folks there is a time and place for glory but you have to work to keep everyone alive, or there won’t be anyone else left to fight. This was my favorite presentation of her besides “Empire Strikes Back” and I’ll miss her in these films, now that she’s gone.

Rey and Kylo Ren – One of the core relationships is that between Kylo and Rey both of who are alone and seeking more beyond the old order as so much of who they were was tied to the legends of the past. They are connected but still adversaries and it is great relationship to see explored as Ren becomes more confident and much more of a bully and Rey finds an identity outside of her parents and her expectations of Luke and the Jedi.

Subverting Expectations – If you go in expecting “The Empire Strikes Back” or another version of “Return of the Jedi” or “A New Hope” prepare to be surprised. This is a film where most things don’t work out for any characters. Things change, both in the First Order and the Resistance in regards to their identities…but it doesn’t repeat the cycle. We get away from The Ring Cycle a bit here and from that “Star Wars” seems to finally be developing it’s own identity outside of the past. We also see The Force not being tied to bloodlines and the fantasy feel of the past films and midichlorians are implied to no longer be a factor (Rey’s background and the last scene of the film). I loved that, this is no longer the Skywalker show, Star Wars has to be bigger than one family drama and I can’t wait to see where the series goes.

Everybody Loses – Poe finds out he was wrong, Rose and Finn get betrayed, Rey isn’t able to turn Kylo Ren and even the Resistance only barely survives. The First Order isn’t in great shape either after the events that take place and it is going to be transforming further or it will collapse. That is powerful and with it we see the most potential for change both within the Resistance and the First Order. They’ve lost too much to remain static.

Okay: Welcome to the Casino / Side Quest – This first point is related to the second point, there is a side plot on a casino world in order for Rose and Finn to get a code breaker in order to break onto Snokes’s ship so that they shutdown the Empire’s ability to track the Resistance’s fleet. It explores the meaning of the Resistance so I’m not putting it as a total negative but it could have been shorter and achieved the same purpose in the plot, and I would have traded a few Finn and Rose scenes for more scenes with the codebreaker played by Del Toro named DJ. He is fun.

Structure and Clutter – The greatest issue with this film for me was the structure and how cluttered some of the different plots are. It wasn’t bad, I saw this film twice but it does feel long during some of the side tangents. The overall story and themes greatly overwhelm this in quality though and it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the film.

This is probably going to be in my Top 5 films at the end of the year. This is a film I’ve watched twice and is easily the most fun I’ve had at a film this year since “Baby Driver.” I can’t wait to see where things go after this film as it upsets so much of the status quo. I am a guy who loves the original Extended Universe and I always will, but I’m glad they didn’t repeat it (and I still enjoy it as another timeline of Star Wars). By the time of “The Force Awakens” I was done with the Skywalker drama, predictability will kill this franchise as so many of the problems that plagued the Prequels was the lazy recycling of the Original Trilogy. This film is strange, different, takes chances and changes things and honestly, it is the only way Star Wars can grow beyond the corner it was written in to. Here is to Disney embracing that change and giving us more great stories like this film.

Final Score: 9.8 / 10. Second best Star Wars film thus far.