Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) – A Solid Return to the Basics of “Spider-Man”

      Sony sharing custody of Spider-Man was the best thing that could have happened to the character. After they tied to go “Dark Knight” with Spidey and failed miserably as they ended up focusing more on franchise management rather than story…it is good that they let the studio who knows story shape their character’s future. This is film that isn’t great, but it is good and it is one I’d highly recommend. The villain and support characters are wonderful and there is a lot of good setup for future films. Before I get into spoilers, if you like the MCU or are a fan of Spider-Man, chances are you will enjoy this film as I did.

The film was directed by Jon Watts, who co-wrote it with 5 other people (hello Sony and Marvel Studios) and produced by Kevin Feige and Amy Pascal.

After the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” Peter Parker is given a new suit by Tony Stark but soon finds himself left behind. As he finds himself pulled into thefts of alien technology around the city he must take on the mysterious Vulture while dealing with Tony Stark wanting him to stay out of it as he tries to juggle being Spider-Man and his complex social life at school and taking on the threat of the Vulture.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World of the MCU – The MCU is a world full of consequences. SHIELD was disbanded, the Avengers fell apart, some characters have died for good (though none of the biggies yet sadly) and each of the films plays into one another while still standing strong on their own. Spider-Man is one of my favorite comic book heroes, along with Batman when I was growing up and I’m glad he is in this Universe that is so rich and full of lore that now his amazing lore can once again be apart of as well.

Vulture – Michael Keaton is one of the best MCU villains to date. This is a guy who wants to look after his family after he loses out on a government contract to clean up New York after the events of the “Avengers.” You can understand his chip on his shoulder and he has a twisted sense of honor as even after he learns Spidey’s identity, he keeps it secret. His character manages to be both empathetic and threatening making him so very human…I’m glad that Marvel didn’t kill him off and can’t wait to see him in future Spidey films.

With Great Power – One of the key traits of Spider-Man is that, “With great power comes great responsibility” and this film illustrates it really well. The main arc is Spidey wanting to join the Avengers but he continues to mess up even as he tries to do good. So many of the problems that he has to fix are ones he created and his arc is the constant struggle with this as his social and super hero life collapse around him and he has to own up for his mistakes. It is his character and what defines him and the main arc that drives the story. Tom Holland really is wonderful in this role. This is a return to the basics of the character, which we needed after all the conspiracy Oscorp crap in the “Amazing Spider-Man” films.

Changes and Avoiding Past Pitfalls – There are things in here that I really liked that exist because the writers avoided doing what had been done before. We don’t have an Uncle Ben origin story death, there is not a Goblin to be seen, Peter doesn’t mope and the finale isn’t Spider-Man saving the love interest from the baddy who wants to destroy the city. These changes were masterful and in doing so let them do knew things like his friends Ned and Michelle, Ned who finds out he is Spider-Man and Michelle who ends up being a wonderful re-imagining of M.J. Seriously, Zendaya is the best part of this film outside of Vulture.

The Cons: The Point of Aunt May – Everybody creeps on Aunt May and I hate it. If the character is a guy he will comment on how hot she is and that is all she exists as. It is objectifying and annoying as she is Peter’s guardian and mentor and they could have done so much more with that. She has one scene where she comforts him but she almost wasn’t needed in this film as Tony Stark functions as a surrogate guardian.

The Uncle Ben Shaped Hole – Aunt May has been through a lot but we never know what happened to Uncle Ben or if he is even still alive in this version of the lore. I’m glad we didn’t get his death again but he should have at least been mentioned or dealt with as he is such a huge essential part of what drives Peter Parker and his becoming Spider-Man.

This is a solidly good film and one that I will probably go back and watch as I am a fan of Spider-Man. I hope we see more done with the characters and villains that are setup throughout the film as Spider-Man has one of the best rogues galleries outside of Batman and I can’t wait to see how the reveals done in this film payoff later as Marvel and Sony further develop one of the best characters to come out of Marvel Comics in the amazing world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Final Score:  8.2 / 10 Solidly good.

Okja (2017): Where Miyazaki Meets Horror

  “Okja” is a strange and wonderful film. This is a film that starts like a Miyazaki film and ends like horror movie and inbetween tries to political satire and be an all around adventure story. Did it work? Enough to the point that I did enjoy this film and recommend it. Netflix is getting better at putting out quality original work and this is a shining example of a great film of theirs that shows the streaming platform (and often times going cheap) can work for quality original works.

The film was directed by Bong Joon-Ho who co-wrote it along with Jon Ronson.  Bong Joon-Ho also was one of the seven producers on the film. The others were Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Lewis Taewan Kim, Dooho Choi, Seo Woo-Sik and Ted Sarandos.

The story involves the Mirando Corporation sending lab designed super pigs around the world to be raised by farmers in the best Pig Competition, where the winner will be crowned in 10 years. During that time Okja, one of the pigs is raised by Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and her Grandfather (Byun Hee-Bong). When the corporation returns and takes Okja Mija goes on a journey to save her friend and fights herself being manipulated by different political factions who want to use Okja to their own ends.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: Flawed Characters and Ego – Most of the minor characters in this are compelling in the ways their egos and drive them and make them flawed. There is Jay the leader of the Animal Liberation Front who believes in consent but ignores it for the overall aims in the end, there is Lucy Miranda who wants to make her company better than it is but not face the darker side of the slaughter house and there is the Grandfather who wants his granddaughter to have success but in the end misses how important Okja is to her. These characters make the narrative interesting.

Magical Realism – Giant Pigs created in a lab transported around the world for a Best Pig competition that will take place 10 years later, and one of them is raised by a little girl in the mountains…it is right out of a Miyazaki film and was part of what made this film so fun. I’ve always loved the fantasy in magical realism and this film captures that really well.

A Critique of Ideology over People – Both the ALF and Mirando Corp don’t care about people, only ideology. We see this in how Lucy’s sister turns on her, on the lying that K and Jay both do to Mija in order to serve their overall goals and in the end the hero of this film has no ideology and just wants to be with her pig Okja. This is the core theme of the piece and from that do good where you can as you are and don’t let ideology consume you.

The Cruelty of Factory Farms – The film is extremely against factory farming and you get to see all the parts of it as the Super Pigs get slaughtered and how their different parts go to the different areas of the supermarket. Mija sees this first hand at the end and it is really well done…this is when the film turns into a horror film as we see it all through Mija’s and Okja’s eyes.

The Cons: The Satire – The Corporation doesn’t feel like it is full of people and the ALF is so disconnected and all over the place that they are hard to take seriously as a force. This really brings down the satire as our villains become a bit too cartoonish, which hurts the satirical argument in play.

This is a flawed film that also manages to just be great. Certain characters feel like caricatures (the Mirando Corporate characters as a whole (except maybe Lucy) and some of the Animal Liberation Front Members) but this didn’t bring down my overall enjoyment film. This film is solidly great and now that I’ve watched this and “Snowpiercer,” I can’t wait to see what director Bong Joon-Ho does next.

Final Score: 9 / 10

Baby Driver (2017): The Unforgettable Soundtrack of a Life

  Edgar Wright is one of my favorite directors at this point. He has created some of my favorite films…from the “Cornetta Trilogy” to “Scott Pilgrim.” Now “Baby Driver” joins those films as one that takes a unique take on a genre (in this case crime thrillers) and adds a whole new presentation of action while giving a powerful message and some of the best written gangsters in cinema. Seriously, I can’t recommend this film enough and as of this point in time, it is my favorite film of the year.

“Baby Driver” was written and directed by Edgar Wright while being produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Nira Park.

The story involves Baby (Ansel Elgort) who is a driver who can only function listening music, who works for Doc’s (Kevin Spacey) crime syndicate. He does one last job to get out of debt and ends up falling in love with Deborah (Lily James) a waitress at a local diner. Things soon go south when after the job all as not as it appears to be and Baby is in over his head.

The Pros: The Art of Soundtrack Intertwined Action – This is a film that is a masterful work of art and so much of that is in the sound editing and use of songs with action. The film kicks off with a heist where there is silence before the pin drop and build up of a song as the getaway occurs. This is just the first example of how the two are interwoven to show rather than tell action. You have scenes with characters with no dialogue is needed and the song and how it is edited with the action tells you all you need to know. Both “Guardians of the Galaxy” did this to some degree (Baby is even a bit like Star-lord with his family issues) but what differs is that here it is down to the details and we are given continuous shots to use a song to it’s fullest degree or whatever sound best serves to show us the action.

Flawed and Compelling, the Art of Character – The characters in this film are compelling and interesting. They are all bad to varying degrees (the exceptions being Deborah and Baby’s foster father) but even the baddies are complex. Each of the characters carry their scars and wounds and we see why some like Bats are so batty and distrust all, because of what they’d had to do, or are driven by a hedonistic love of life and one another (Darling and Buddy) or characters who are driven by a level of trust but also some longing for family connection (Doc) and in all cases this leads them to do bad and good things. These are characters who I wanted to learn more about and who revealed the different aspects of themselves over the course of a film. Even my favorite crime movies like first two “Godfathers,” “Goodfellas,” “Gangs of New York” and “Wolf of Wall Street” all didn’t quite pull off the ensemble exploration. This film does and it is part of what makes it the prefect film of it’s kind.

Letting Go and Redemption – A major theme of the film is letting go and and in turn finding redemption. We see obsession consume certain characters in the final act leading to their destruction, while others have to die to themselves and their dreams in order to care for another and in doing so find peace. I’m being purposely vague because I don’t want to spoil this movie. You really should see it.

Subverting Genre Tropes – Deborah is not a damsel in distress. She is as much an active participant in this crime thriller as Darling, Doc, Bats and Buddy. It is her choices and activeness that keep her from becoming the damsel that love interests so often become in these types of films. The ending also subverts the common tragedy trope that often happens in these types of films. I won’t say how it ends but I’ve never seen a crime thriller end this way.

You should go see this film. If you like great films and want a film that will keep you on the edge of your seat because the action has purpose, the soundtrack is amazing, the characters are compelling and the message is meaningful, than this is the film for you. This is the perfect film in it’s genre and I hope Edgar Wright wins awards for this masterpiece.  To any aspiring directors, take note of Wright’s work, he owns this craft as both a writer and director.

Final Score: 10 / 10. The first perfect film this year.

Shimmer Lake (2017): A Mystery Told in Reverse

I have yet to see a truly great film that is a Netflix original. Almost always the films go from bad to decent, though this is the first one I’ve seen since “Beats of no Nation” that was truly good. “Shimmer Lake” is very Coenesque in execution but doesn’t quite rise to the farcical comedies that pervades most of the Coen works. It is this lack of humor that really brings it down and keeps it from becoming great, though it is still worth checking out.

The film was directed by Oren Uziel who also wrote the film, while being produced by Adam Saunders and Britton Rizzio.

The story a small town sheriff named Walker who is investigating a bank robbery that involves his brother and two ex-friends. The story is told in reverse.

The Pros: The Premise – The idea of a small town bank robbery that turns into something bigger (being told from when the crime is done and the outcome to how it came about) is really cool. The setup was a large part of what kept me watching because I was waiting to learn more the different characters and their relationships. Rainn Wilson has so much charisma and I think having him be one of the first characters we meet who is so connected to the incident really strengthened the film.

The Cons: The Point of the Characters – This is a story full of betrayal and reveals, and at times does have comedy and even real drama between characters before many of them go full evil. It is this full range of character actions and types that fail to be a theme that are the largest con of the film. This film needed a focus for the mystery to truly be more than simply good.

I wish there was more to say about this film, but this is a film that doesn’t really have a larger point. It is a thriller and mystery where the catch is how the story is told (mystery in reverse) versus the point and themes of the story. I’m avoiding spoilers since the reveal is one of the few reasons to see this film but I also found that because it lacked a larger farcical bent or any major theme that was consistent across the board makes it a story that I will recommend but do not consider great. This film strives to be a Coen film when it should have sought more of it’s own voice.

Final Score: 8 / 10 A solid mystery.

Wonder Woman (2017): DC Finally Finds a Hero

     “Wonder Woman,” is a great. I just need to put that out there now before I get into the reasons why because it really is amazing and if you like comic book or super hero films you will enjoy this film. DC has been having a hard time finding heroes, Superman doesn’t really save anyone in the films he’s been in and when he does it is in a somber way, almost like he hates it…and Batman is beating up criminals and leaving them to die in prison so he isn’t exactly what I’d call a hero either as we never have the chance to connect with the people he is supposedly protecting. Wonder Woman changes all of that in her film. DC finally gives us the much needed hero which in turn may save their cinematic universe.

The film was directed by Patty Jenkins, written by Allan Heinberg and produced by Zack Snyder, Richard Suckle, Deborah Snyder and Charles Roven.

The story involves Diana (Gal Gadot) who is pulled into World War 1 when spy Steve Trevor’s (Chris Pine) plane crashes near her home, the Island of Themyscira. Going against the wishes of her mother Queen Hippolyta, she joins him to seek out and destroy Ares, who she believes is responsible for the War and the peace broken on her Island when Steve arrived.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Premise – The premise is wonderful as we get a fish out of water story as Diana and her Island are outside of the world in a magic bubble. This leads to some great moments where Diana has to adapt to a world full of technology where there is patriarchy in all power structures and her very existence upsets them (as she is a princess from a Matriarchal Island). The premise is not only her hunting down of Ares but her own self discovery and finding her purpose and living what it means to be a hero.

The Universe – Themyscira (the Amazon Island) is an amazing place that looks like an ancient Greek isle where women outside of time train and fight and have representatives and well as Queen ruling them…we have World War 1 and see the horrors of trench and chemical warfare and we have Diana in the present, unaged showing that even as he has changed she is still the Amazon who left that Island long ago.

The Characters – The characters are the best part of the film as each of them reveals contradictions about themselves. Diana is confident and driven, but also unsure and can easily despair. Steve is a spy who lies, smuggles and kills but also will risk everything to stop the greater conflict and the other side characters reveal things about themselves too. My favorite character was Queen Hippolyta’s sister Antiope (played by Robin Wright) who is the Amazon General and went against the rules to train Diana and in the end dies preparing Diana for the fight against Ares…and the commandos who go with Steve and Diana are amazing too as each of them is broken and courageous, each in their own way.

The Horrors of War – The horrors of war and despair it can bring are handled really well in this film. One of the characters we follow has PTSD and another lost his dream when the Great War began. Diana also loses her mentor, her Aunt Antiope to a German soldier when Steve’s plane crashes near the Island…and at one point in one of the best parts of the film, Diana breaks the No Man’s Land in the trenches and saves a starving village…only for the Germans to gas the village…There is so much despair and the hope that we see are in the acts of saving others or simply surviving. War is hell, and this film presents it beautifully.

Okay: The Villains – There is Doctor Poison who we never get to know but is a sociopath only wanting to kill and destroy, we have a war obsessed German General who hams it up well enough but is forgettable…and of course Ares who appears first as an ally and reveals that he didn’t have to corrupt humanity much at all, just push their own destructive urges. Ares is the best of the lot but even he could have been explored a lot more. Each of these villains have potential but like Marvel Phase 1 Villains they are disposable and fail to enhance the story.

The Message – The message is one of hope and love (which is alright in presentation, but seems to have been completely forgotten in her exile) and a call for equality (the message that worked) as Diana simply by existing and standing up for herself, changes the circumstances of those around her. In speaking up and taking action she is the hero…whether it is to Ares, her mother or the British and German Generals.

The Cons: Bullet Time – The action overall would be great if not for the bullet time. There are so many scenes were the action is slowed down and it just hurts the film. There is no reason for them to do this and it doesn’t add anything to the story and just distracts from whatever the focus in the scene should be. This is a Snyderism that should be used sparingly, if used at all.

Diana’s Exile – After Diana defeats Ares, she goes into exile. We never find out what she was doing in between World War 1 and “Batman v. Superman” but for a movie that had her say her message is to bring hope and love to the world…we don’t see any of that and her making that her thesis statement should have been shown, rather than her going underground and only becoming Wonder Women at the end of “Batman v. Superman.”

This movie won’t be in my Top 5 of the year, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is still a favorite. This is a movie that remembered what it means to be a hero as the whole point of Diana joining our world was to protect the weak and fight for the innocent. This was something DC forgot when they started their cinematic universe to compete with the MCU. I hope going forward they can remember it. This is a movie I highly recommend and I hope it not only changes the DC universe but gives us more heroes like Diana in future films as we finally see more of the amazing women that populate the world of heroes.

Final Score: 9.4 / 10

Colossal (2017): An Amazing Exploration of Monsters as Metaphor

     “Colossal” is an amazing film. This is a film that has giant monsters, explores ideas of addiction and abuse through use of the monsters and has a great script and actors to go along with it. Hathaway is empathetic but also monstrous at times and Sudeikis’s Oscar is this constant threat through the film that lends power to the narrative.  All this is explored masterfully by Sedakis and Hathaway and Vigalondo’s script is so tight that it flows from scene to scene in exploring each scene and never feels bogged down with McCeary’s music to help better express these themes. I’m a fan of Monster and Kaiju films and this is my favorite type of these films since “Pacific Rim.”

     The film was directed and written by Nacho Vigalondo and produced by Nicolas Chartier, Zev Foreman, Dominac Rustam, Nahikari Ipiña and Shawn Williamson.

      The story involves Gloria (Anne Hathaway) getting kicked out of her boyfriend’s apartment in New York after her life of drinking and joblessness has come to a breaking point. Having nowhere to go she returns to her childhood home where her childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) gets her a job at his bar. She soon realizes that the recent monster attacks in Seoul are from her as everytime she enters a playground the monster appears. From here she must deal with the consequences of becoming the monster while facing addiction and abuse.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Premise – The premise is powerful as the idea of someone controlling a monster when they enter a certain area is really neat as it allows for human psyche to be explored. The monster works as metaphor and lends power to the themes of addiction, abuse and going from selfish to selfless.

An Exploration of Abuse and Recovery – The main arc is Gloria getting over her alcohol addiction when she’s kicked out of her apartment in NY and returns to her childhood home where she reconnects with a childhood friend who starts gas-lighting her (as he does his other friends). It comes to a head when she realizes that in the park she becomes a monster and begins getting her life back on track when she realizes her drinking and walking through the park is killing people. As she realizes how toxic her boss is she tries to leave but he finds that he becomes a giant robot in South Korea so begins destroying Seoul or threatening too if she leaves the town. At this point she’s over her addiction and now it it getting rid of an abuser which she does by leaving to South Korea and in doing her Monster appears in the small town and throws him away, ending his threat and in turn she finally has freedom as she has cut out the addiction and stopped the abuse.

 Okay: The Location of the Monsters – Narratively it honestly would have made more sense for the Monsters to be fighting in NY since that is where Gloria leaves from when she is causing a lot of damage to those around her when she leaves. Because the location is South Korea we don’t get the perspectives of any of the South Koreans unlike traditional Kaiju movies where the people in the location are the ones who drive the plot and story. It was still okay as her going to South Korea was powerful and underspoken, no one knew she was the Monster so to the people of it was very much it’s own thing (she never gets credit for being the monster outside of her small friend group), a being in and of itself not being controlled but acting as a protector. If she’d been Korean it would have made more sense that the Monster was located there…instead her only connection is a school project to honor South Korea where her and Oscar get their powers. Again, it wasn’t bad but it still could have been better. She’s from NY so put the Monsters in NY or have her be Korean so we can get the perspective of the people there outside of news reports…and so it makes what is happening even more personal.

     As I said before, this is the best monster film I’ve watched since “Pacific Rim.” This is a film that is intelligent, explores big ideas and has really rich and flawed characters. The villain feels like a threat and someone you’d meet in real life and even my one issue with film is more of a nitpick, which really comes with being a critic. Go and check this film out if you have the chance. I saw it at Salem Cinema, the indie art house in my town, so that is probably your best bet for catching it…though if it becomes popular it will no doubt get the wider release it deserves. I highly recommend this film and hope we see more smart films like this in the future as this is easily one of my favorite films to come out this year.

Final Score: 9.7 / 10

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017): The Greatness of These Characters

 “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is on par with the first film, being it is once again comedic, dramatic and character greatness executed beautifully by James Gunn once again. For my non-spoiler thoughts…this film goes deeper into developing the characters, the action is solid and for once Marvel has a great villain in one of these films! I highly recommend this film and won’t be surprised if it ends up being in my Top 5 Films of 2017.

    The film was written and directed by James Gunn, while being produced by Kevin Feige.

  The story picks up a few months after the first film, with the Guardians protecting the Sovereign’s batteries, which are being targeted by a giant space creature. After the battle they receive Nebula as payment but soon find themselves being pursued by the Sovereign after Rocket steals their batteries after insulting them. After the battle the team is separated as Rocket and Baby Groot deal with the Ravagers, Gamora and Nebula face off and Peter meets his Father.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is wonderful and fascinating once again! We get to see the Ravager homeworld where they take up contracts and have fun, we meet the high strung Sovereign driven by genetic perfection and Ego, a being who is a living planet who wants to consume the Universe and cares about his son Quill. Each of these groups gets exploration that shows part of the reason why this is the best part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The Soundtrack – Tyler Bates did the soundtrack and we once again get some amazing hits that are masterfully woven into the fights, the character interactions and the tone and feeling of different scenes. I think the first film used the songs and feel slightly better, but this was still a blast.

The Action – The action is amazing! In this we see  smaller fights to clever traps laid by Rocket, to a giant faceoff with the Guardians facing Ego and the Sovereign. It is a lot of fun and the action serves a purpose as any time we get it it is advancing the plot.

The Characters and Their Arcs – James Gunn is a great writer and it is fully on display in this film as it is the character and their arcs and relationships that drive the action and story of the film. He is dealing with a lot of different character groups this time, but each of them has a huge emotional payoff in the end.

Drax and Mantis – Drax meets Mantis, who is Ego’s assistant who helps him sleep. She senses emotion and it is in their relationship we see her learn about the complexity of feelings as well as Drax finally opening up as we see his jokes hide how much he misses his wife and daughter. Their friendship is wonderful and platonic and has some of the best jokes.

Nebula and Gamora – Nebula and Gamora’s arc involves them opening up about the trauma Thanos put them through (we learn Nebula was torn apart and had her body replaced by machine parts every time she lost a fight to Gamora). In the end they forgive each other and realize they aren’t the enemy, Thanos is and from that they truly become sisters rather than weapons of Thanos.

Rocket and Yondu – Rocket and Yondu were outcasts who grew up with no one. Yondu was a Kree Slave who was rescued by a Ravager captain and in turn became one as well (until he loses it all over the course of the film) and Rocket is pushing everyone away until Yondu calls him out, letting him know it isn’t worth it and that he gets it too (what he only realizes after he’s lost everything). This arc was powerful as we see how rich their friendship is because of all they’ve lost and their devil may care attitude towards life. These two are my favorite characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe Films and possibly the MCU as a whole.

Peter and Ego – Peter really wants a father and learning Ego is his father is what he always wanted…until he realizes that Ego only cares about him as a means to an end. This leads to their fight as Peter gets beyond his need to be loved and accepts the love that he already has from the Guardians and Yondu an rejects the absolute power at that Ego is offering.

Ego – Ego is a Celestial and because of this is eternal and immortal. It is from this mindset that he came to the realization that he matters the most so all should become him. You can see where he comes from as he has outlived countless lives and species, but also how he misses the point that all life matters. He clearly cares for Peter but that is because Peter is a part of him. Like his name Ego never sees beyond his Ego and that is what leads to his destruction. If he valued others he would have lived and most likely become an ally or a powerful neutral force, instead he wanted it all and that was what lead to his destruction. Kurt Russell does an amazing performance, putting Ego as one of the best villains in the MCU.

Yondu and the Ravagers – Yondu’s main arc begins when the other Ravagers reject him for the child trafficking he was doing for Ego. His exile leads to him being taken out by Nebula who helps a rival among Yondu’s crew named Ravager take control of the ship and leads to the capture of Baby Groot and Rocket. In the end Yondu takes responsibility and we see him take the fight to the monster that is Ego and that he stopped trafficking once he realized that Ego was killing them (this is when he takes on Quill). In the end he realizes that he can’t atone for what he’s done and stands with the Guardians Ego, sacrificing himself to save Peter, his son, which leads to the Ravagers giving him a Ravager funeral and accepting him back in and honoring him in his death. Rooker really is fantastic.

Family is Greater Than Blood – Family being greater than blood is the main theme of the film besides letting go of the ego. We see this in how Yondu is the father that Peter’s actual father never was and that the Guardians are family with one another…they fight with each other but in the end they always have each other’s backs.

The Killing of the Ego – This idea functions as both a metaphor (Peter letting go of his need to please his Dad and his forgiving of Yondu) and Yondu losing everything but finding what matters moist…Quill and the Guardians…he finds family after his old family…the Ravager Captains exile him…Though he gets them in the end too as they find him redeemed in his fight where he helped defeat Ego and saved the Guardians. Ego is the antagonist and wants the Universe to be him and for a while this appeals to Quill when he sees eternity, until he realizes that it was Ego’s selfishness that lead to Ego killing his Mother which sets off the fight against him and saving the Universe again.

Okay: Some Actions Sequences Go Too Long – The final fight against Ego could have been cut in half and still had the same power behind it. I didn’t care about the Sovereign arriving and felt that they were unnecessary. The best parts of the fight were the times that Ego was trying to sway Peter, when that wasn’t happening it looked cool, but the action stretched on too long for me to call it a pro.

Slow Down Shots – There a few times in the film where the action slows down to near standstill. I found this super distracting from the flow of the action that blended seamlessly with the music, with the exception of these sequences.

Motivation of the Sovereign – I get that these guys are easily insulted, but I was surprised they didn’t call up the Guardians first and attack only after Rocket would have most likely insulted them again. In this way they were way too reactive. They still worked as secondary antagonists but they weren’t as compelling as the Ravagers because of their motivation.

  This is a film that I highly recommend. This is where the Marvel Cinematic Universe remains fun and for once we get a story that has nothing to do with Infinity Stones, which in turn leads to us getting time to get to know the characters better. We also have a villain with motivations and a connection to our heroes that matters, and he feels like an actual threat as well as loss and character payoff that comes with a rocking soundtrack. As a side note, my friend was in one of the scenes at the end as one of the Ravager Captains bodyguards/lieutenants! I hope they do more with those Captains and their crew in Volume 3! I really enjoyed this film and it is definitely on par with the first “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Which is rare in Marvel Movies as often their sequels aren’t as strong as the originals. So if you haven’t watched this film yet, I highly recommend that you do.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

The Circle (2017): Just Watch “Black Mirror” Instead

      “The Circle” is an unfocused mess full of hack characters and no discernible theme. I hear the book is good so just read the book. I’ll go into why I went from disliking to hating this film in a moment because there is quite a lot to unload on this film, but the biggest parts are that lack of theme, half-formed characters and with all of that, failure to go full ham. If you are going to be cheesy you should bank on it and in doing so create your own form of malformed beauty.

  The film was directed by James Ponsoldt who was also one of the producers, written by Dave Eggers who also wrote the book and produced by Anthony Bregman and Gary Goetzman.

    The story involves Mae (Emma Watson) getting a job at The Circle (A facebookish tech. company) thanks to her friend Annie (Karen Gillan). She soon finds it is not the paradise it seems to be when the public sharing among the circle and constant call for interaction begins to unfold leading to dark consequences.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Concept – The concept is a lot like a “Black Mirror” episode. What happens when social media becomes a society and you are under pressure to reveal your life and what you are doing at all times? I like this concept but this isn’t the focus or the theme of the film, even though the trailers seem to set it up that way.

The Cinematography – The cinematography looks great, there are great uses of shadow and holograms to really illustrate the future. You can tell the director put a lot of love into this film…

The Cons: Hack Characters – Dave Eggars wrote the book, but apparently can’t write screenplays. None of these characters feel fully fleshed out. Mae the main character is almost set up to have a rise to power only to become a reformer…but the reasons with that don’t feel all that explored.

   She has an off the grid ex who is the “hero” of the film, which in turn shuts down her becoming a professional within her own life. He also gets harassed for his antler art? What the hell. He is a paranoid guy in the woods whose paranoia ends up being justified but we never get to know him. He is an idealized version of the off the grid blue collar hero. What the ever living hell…He’s not a character and they turn him into a martyr when people stalk him on a new program and he drives off a bridge. We are told they do things together or did things together, but we never see it. It is all tell and now show. Again, he’s an idea not a character.

Her best friend Annie is rising in the company and disappears. I wanted to see her rise and fall arc. But she is barely around…Same Ty Lafitte…John Boyega’s character who is fighting the Circle and invented another giant tech. media company…and finally Hanks’s Eamon, one of the founders whose agenda is never known and who is only around as a vague threat. These aren’t characters, these are concepts in a terrible script.

Social Media and Tech. Paranoia – We are told to fear tech. (her parents telling her not to trust the Circle and her ex being off the Grid) and we see how it turns her and Annie into monsters at times…but that is also contradicted with the ending. This is a vague theme that exists but doesn’t go anywhere and is never fully explored.

A Missed Corruption Arc – This is a hackneyed script in a hammy story…so knowing this, they should have just made Mae a villain. Her life is public, make her a Trump figure who can lampoon people she talks too and win by being horrible…since we see her do this a few times till “noble” ex gets the axe. I wanted her to take out the owners and gain control of the company. That would have made this film a beautiful disaster that is “So bad it’s good.” Sadly this potential is missed. They should have embraced tech and information as power that corrupts…what a waste.

Lack of any Theme – There is no core theme. There is a vague sense of distrusting smart phones and social media…but Mae makes everything public in the end to take out The Circle’s founders. So, what was the ever living point of this film? If you don’t have a purpose, why were you made? The sad thing is the author of the book was the screenwriter…A writer should know the themes they intend to explore.

  I don’t recommend this garbage. This was a film that could have been “So Bad it’s Good,” if it had been comfortable in tech. and information as corrupting influences of power theme, or it could have gone full revolution and had Boyega, Gillan and Watson team up early to take on the Founders. That’d be asking too much of this film though. This is a film that doesn’t know what it wants and doesn’t have any real characters, jut half formed ideas in a broken mess. Seriously, save your money and watch “Black Mirror,” you’ll get well focused themes of technology fears that have a clear focus in theme and character. This film is one of the worst I’ve watched in quite some time.

Final Score: 3 / 10

Ghost in the Shell (2017): True to the World and Ideas of the Anime but a bit Jumbled in Execution

  The new film “Ghost in the Shell” is complicated. I enjoyed it but there were certain things about it that annoyed me, largely tied to how the Major’s story is told and presented. This was film that was on the edge of being really good and possibly even great, but it tried to tie into many things and how they handle and present Major Kusanagi. To give my non-spoiler thoughts as what I mean with the problem of the Major will be spoilerific, is that the world works and feels like the world from the show but combining too many stories from the films and show and failing to give us the Major kept it from being great.

   The film was directed by Rupert Sanders, written by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler an Ehren Kruger and produced by Avi and Ari Arad, Steven Paul and Michael Costigan.

   The story involves Major Killian (Scarlett Johansson) and the government organization she is with known as Section 9 hunting down a hacker who is killing people tied to Hanka Robotics. As the Conspiracy unfolds the Major learns the secrets of her past and who she once was.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world if Neo-Tokyo is a really beautiful and diverse cyberpunk world. While in the films and movies the city is largely homogenized with the exception of immigration zones, this one the diversity is one display everywhere. I loved this version of Tokyo and felt it lended power to the film, as it felt like the future. This cyberpunk world has androids, human brains in robotic bodies, spider tanks and the hacking of human minds. It is very much the world of the show in all of it’s glory.

The Soundtrack – Hans Zimmer did the soundtrack with Lorne Balfe and it is absolutely stunning. It pulls inspiration from the tv show and films and gives it the epic movie level quality that was needed.

The Special Effects – The special effects are absolutely stunning. This is a beautiful film and it captures the future in a stunning way. Giant holographic adds hang on buildings, the Major going invisible is handled well, the spider tank looks and feels like it is actually present and the Major’s android body feels artificial.

Section 9 – Section 9 is the government organization that deals with threats to Japan both internal and external. They are a diverse organization in this with people from all over the place (like in the show). You don’t really get to know anyone besides this version of the Major, Batou and Chief Arakami but they get some good exploration.

Batou – Batou is the Major’s best friend and second in command. He’s the kind to her hard and we see he will do anything for her (just like in the show). Pilou Asbaek gives a lot of empathy and strength to the role as we see him supporting the Major through her journey and in unraveling the conspiracy.

Chief Arakami – Arakami is amazing! In this film we get to see why he’s the leader of Section 9 and that he is a combat veteran (something you never see in any of the films or shows that I’ve watched so far). He’s protective of the Major and has her back too. Even when Hanka tries to blackmail him he doesn’t budge and throws it right back at them as well as taking out a few of their goons when they ambush him. Takeshi Kitano make not look like how he looks on the show (he’s usually presented as small, in this he’s a little tall and big) but he captures the core of the character beautifully.

Okay: The Major – I don’t consider this character Major Kusanagi. Kusanagi is a character who is always striving to be more and pushing her limits…and that means more than just injuring her robotic body. In this that is the only way she pushes the limits. There isn’t that search and desire for knowledge and truth (outside of her past), which was a shame. Johannson is fine in the role but this isn’t the Major.

The Cons: Lack of Focus on a Past “Ghost in the Shell” Story – At first it looks like they are going to be having the Puppet Master story be key with a rogue A.I. that develops intelligence, than we find out it is a childhood friend and we get the Individual 11 storyline from Season 2 of “Ghost in the Shell,” and we get echoes of early Major…so maybe trying to do own story? I would have preferred they just pick one and focus on it.

Missing the Point of the Major –  I can’t express this enough because this is what bothered me the most…the Major is the philosopher warrior, she is always seeking more and will dive into another’s mind to become more if given the chance. She is willing to risk all to not just learn the truth but to become a higher and better overall. The show had none of that and just made her a superhero who wants to know about her past. She is simplified and in turn I don’t know how anyone can see her as the Major.

Representation and the Major’s Character – They made this Major’s past important they even reveal that she has her Japanese name like in the manga, film and shows…so why not give her a Japanese body or have her choose to have one at the end since she knows who she is now and that her Killian persona is a lie and that the Hanka corporation stole her childhood before making her a weapon. This show rightfully gets criticism for white-washing when this was so easy to avoid, even within what they setup within the story. There is zero reason for her to keep the same body at the end or to have even had it in the first place given Hanka is always a Japanese name. The corporation seems to be run by Mr. Cutter who is European…but he is defeated in the end, so what is preventing her from choosing another shell since her past and present as Kusanagi (She even has a friendship with her Mom Mrs. Kusanagi after she finds her, who is obviously Japanese) so why not follow through?

   This was a film that rightfully got called out for white-washing. The Major learns about her past as Kusanagi and even finds her mother, and though she rejected becoming more we never see her choose another shell rather she keeps the one the corporation used when they turned her into a weapon. Given that her past was so important to her (in the films and show I don’t remember it being as important, it was her desire to be more and transcend, her shell wasn’t important…in this her past makes her shell important) it felt like a major missed opportunity. Fans of the show I’ve talked to still enjoyed the film and actually had less to nitpick than me but for me, besides the jumbling together of a few different stories and missing the core desire of the Major to become more kept it from being good. If you like the show I’m curious to hear your thoughts if you saw the film.

Final Score: 7.5 / 10

Kong: Skull Island (2017) – Good Casting Keeps This Film at Level but the Film Never Reaches Great

   This was the first official “King Kong” movie I’ve ever watched. My familiarity with this genre as far a giant ape interacting humans was only the remake of “Mighty Joe Young” that Disney made back in the 90’s, though culturally I’ve always been familiar with the great ape and the tropes that usually surround his genre. Tropes that I find troublesome that this film does a good job at not using (presentation of islanders as Cannibals ready to sacrifice visitors and of course Kong being attracted to a human lady). Avoiding these tropes gave the film strength, though it suffers from other issues that keep it from reaching greatness.

    The film was directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, written by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly, and produced by Jon Jashni, Alex Garcia, Thomas Tull and Mary Parent.

    The story takes place at the end of the Vietnam War as Bill (John Goodman) wants to get his organization Monarch (organization that researches monsters and was in the last American “Godzilla” movie) to Skull Island while U.S. Forces are still near the Island. He gets the approval is joined by a tracker named James (Tom Hiddleson) an anti-war photographer Mason (Brie Larson) and troops lead by Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) who when they all reach Island realizes what information Bill was holding back and that Kong is not the worst threat on the Island.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is fantastic! It is our world but with untouchable islands, monsters underneath the ground and giant creatures that feel complicated emotions and are more complex than us at times.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful and really captures the beauty and danger of “Skull Island.” This movie has a lot of color, which is a nice change of pace from WB’s coloring everything in drab and grey (Hell the DC Cinematic Universe). This helped give the story more life when the dialogue wasn’t cutting it.

Colonel Packard – Samuel L. Jackson’s character is very much a Captain Ahab as he is overwhelmed by what he thinks the war took from him (the U.S. leaving Vietnam he took to be his own failure) and in turn he is itching for a fight. We see him become obsessed with taking out Kong after his men die when they bombing Kong’s Island. It finally ends with one of his men turning on him as his care for them lead to his obsession with killing Kong and that being all that mattered. Jackson truly is remarkable in the world.

Hank Marlow – John C. Reilly plays a half-mad pilot from World War 2 who made friends with the Japanese pilot who crashed on the island with him and with the people in the tribe. He is a fun character and we see him facing his fear of the Skullcrawlers and in the end he gets to meet his wife and son back in America. I enjoyed his arc and really enjoyed how this role showed just how great Reilly’s range is.

Kong – Kong is humanized in this! In the film he protects the tribe from the Skullcrawlers who come from below. Kong is the last of his kind and we see him judge humans based off how they treat him. There is a lot of great emotion shown in his eyes on a few different scenes and it is wonderful when we see him team up with the heroes to take out the gaint Skullcrawler.

Okay: The Characters – This is an ensemble cast and because of it being an ensemble cast I never felt that we got to know anyone outside of 2 characters. Mason and James tell us a lot about themselves, but we never see it. They are ciphers that we can put ourselves into but that doesn’t make good character. Goodman’s character gets some exploration too but he ceases to do anything once he reaches Skull Island. His tory is taken over by Colonel Packard. The other two members of Monarch don’t get any exploration at all and are just kind of there. Most of the characters die randomly as well.

The Tribe – The tribe is non-verbal and worships Kong. I like how they are presented in that they aren’t the usual cannibals that these films sadly take the path of doing and they are still complicated as in you mess up their sacred areas, they will kill you. I didn’t put them as a pro only because they exist as one unit when they should have been more explored as individuals.

The Cons: The Sullcrawlers – Like the villains in the new American “Godzilla,” these guys are kind of lame. They are giant two legged lizards that eat and kill anything. They are monsters but their design isn’t memorable or unique and they never felt like a giant threat. Colonel Packard felt like a larger threat than these guys ever were.

Structure is a Mess – At first it looks like Goodman’s Bill is the main character, than he gets killed off and the film tries to make Mason and James the main characters, but that never works because they aren’t written fully formed so minor characters like Reilly’s Hank or antagonists like Packard take over the weight which leaves the structure imbalanced. The ending is also left open as we see that the U.S. army clearly sees Kong when he screams to them. This was stupid given that the film was over and they should have just returned home. In that way I think Franchise management is a big part of what ruined the structure. We had to know we’d see Kong later (that didn’t need to be shown) and in doing so editing the script or better exploring a main character fell to the wayside.

   In the end I still enjoyed this movie enough to call it a good B movie. It isn’t great by any stretch of the imagination. It is well cast though which fills in some of the lack of character development as both Hiddleson and Larson have great charisma in their roles, which keeps them from becoming a con. I also enjoyed the idea of Kong as a protector and how fantasy the movie felt with all the giant monsters living under the ground (“Pacific Rim” style almost). I’m curious to see what else happens in this universe and after this film, I may have to give the other “King Kong” films a chance.

Final Score: 8 / 10