Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (Kasdan; 2017)

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a sort of sequel, but really more of a follow-up story, to the original Jumanji released in 1995.  We start this film one year after the original story of a board game which brought chaos to the town of Brantford, New Hampshire.  The mystical board game adapts to its time and transforms itself into a cartridge for a video game.  Four high school students who are given a chore to clean out some school storage areas as a punishment find this video game in 2017, and decide to give it a play as a distraction from their detention.  Each of the four students suddenly finds themself inside the video game as the character they chose to play, and they also find that they must complete the game in order to escape.

The story of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is its weakest element as it is really nothing more than an excuse for jokes and action scenes.   The villain of the film is so weak and so personality-free that he may as well not exist.  I am not exaggerating when I say that if the villain were edited completely out of the film but nothing else was changed you wouldn’t notice a difference to the story other than it would be tighter and shorter.  As to the actual goal of taking a jewel to a gigantic statue and replacing it, it’s just a reason for the characters to not remain in one place and we never get any real sense of travel in the film, we just get to see that one scene takes place in a village, another in a chasm, and so on.

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As for the movie’s greatest strength, that would be its performances and particularly the one given by Jack Black.  The main conceit of the film allows for each of the four main actors to play characters who are against type, and while all have some fun with the idea, it’s Black that really throws himself into his character of the beautiful but insecure Instagram girl and ends up giving us a performance that is hilarious but also touching, relatable, and believable.  He impresses so much that when I was describing the film to friends afterward I kept using “she” as the pronoun I’d refer to Jack Black with.  The other actors were all funny and obviously had a good time, but none manage to give the honest performance Black did.  The Rock occasionally remembers he’s supposed to be a teenage nerd who is afraid of everything, but most of the time he’s just having a grand time mugging for the camera, which since he’s so good at it is not at all a bad thing.  Karen Gillan also largely just plays herself, but does have one fantastic scene with Jack Black in which she gets to be the shy wallflower.  Finally, Kevin Hart just acts like himself the entire time forgetting he’s actually supposed to be a high school football player.  Skill of performance aside, though, all four are very funny, charming, and have incredible chemistry which do make the movie worth watching.

The video game element of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle also allows for some clever humor and situations.  The fact that the movie is meant to actually be a video game actually makes this a better video game film than any film actually based on an existing video game franchise as it never pretends to be anything else and can, therefore, have fun with video game tropes and cliches.  The downside to this is that once you learn what these tropes are or if you are an avid gamer it makes the film predictable as the rules of the world tend to telegraph how any given situation will be overcome.

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Final Verdict:  Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a fantastic film for kids, and still a relatively good one for the adults who take them.  The story is as predictable as they come, but the charming cast and the comedy at the expense of video games make up for that and make for an entertaining ride.  If the kids want to see this one, take them, but if it’s your adult friends who want to take you to see Jumanji you can wait until the movie comes out for streaming services and rentals.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Johnson; 2017)

This week’s review is going to be different than my normal.  When I review a film I assume that the people coming to my site have not yet seen it and are reading what I have to say in an attempt to decide whether it is a film worthy of their time and money.  This is not the case with Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  Since the majority of the world’s population is going to see this film no matter what reviews say, this week’s write up will be less review and more deconstruction.  I intend to talk about parts of the film in far more detail than I usually do and without trying to avoid talking about surprises and plot points which means there will be major, surprise ruining spoilers ahead.  I will write my usual Final Verdict section first without any spoilers, and from there on out do not read any farther unless you have already seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi or you don’t care at all about spoilers.

Final Verdict:  Star Wars: The Last Jedi very nearly, but not quite, manages to both take the Star Wars series of movies in a new direction while also remaining the Star Wars which enraptured us from 1977 – 1983.  Almost.  The film never quite has the guts to fully commit its bold changes to the Star Wars Universe’s usual moral tropes nor its strict adherence to the typical Hero’s Journey, but it does explore a less black and white view of morality often and maturely enough to raise eyebrows in a positive way for those who want a more modern Star Wars and in a negative way for those who find the white hat/black hat dichotomy the strongest part of Star Wars’ appeal.  The Last Jedi should appeal, and therefore I recommend it, to most audiences except for those who have never seen a Star Wars movie before, but I don’t see many coming away with it as their favorite Star Wars film.

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Establishing a universe is more than writing a story

Arguably the biggest challenge the makers of the new series of Star Wars films face is establishing a coherent universe in a series that really didn’t need one before.  We didn’t need to know how the Empire came to power, who the founders of the Rebellion were, nor what the relationships of one planetary system was to another in order for the original Star Wars trilogy to work.  We just needed to have characters we could invest ourselves in and an exciting, engaging story.  In fact, once George Lucas decided to start telling a story which needed to involve politics and a larger galactic timeline the seams of the universe Star Wars is set in not only started showing but also unraveling.

A lot has happened in the larger storyline which wasn’t created with an abundance of detail in mind, but now that we have a context of 8 films plus television shows plus a plethora of novels and even a few video games which take place in this galaxy far away questions which were unimportant before are necessary to establishing a decent amount of suspension of disbelief and show that these new films are an actual story and not just a cynical cash grab via nostalgia and toys.  After The Force Awakens, we were left with many questions.  Who are Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) parents and why is she such a natural at using the Force (and anything else she puts her mind to)?  Where did The First Order come from and how did they rise to power and crush the government created by the Rebel Alliance so quickly?  Who is Snoke (Andy Serkis), and why had we never heard of him in any of the other films before now?  What caused Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to turn to the Dark Side of the Force?  Why did Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) go into hiding?

When you’re making a trilogy, most understand that not only do you not need to tell everything in the first installment but it’s actually best if you hold quite a bit back so you can create tension in the mystery and entertainment value from the reveal.  Since you want to establish your story and characters in the first installment and bring the story to its climactic finish in the third, most of these reveals will take place in the second installment.  The Last Jedi does hold to that pattern for the most part but it fails to answer a handful of important questions and many of the answers we get are at best unsatisfying and occasionally infuriating.

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We learn, for instance, that Rey’s parents were no one special.  They were just scavengers who abandoned her on Jakku.  There’s nothing wrong with that explanation, in fact, it’s rather nice that the makers of the film didn’t feel a need to tie her into the grander storyline through a shoehorned in explanation and went with something believable and realistic.  If that is her origin, though, how do we explain her extraordinary number of talents?  She could have learned to repair a starship and how to fight from her time scavenging, but how did she become an expert pilot?  How does she speak Wookie?  Or droid?  If she’s such a natural at using the Force, why did it never manifest itself in the many, many years she was struggling to eke out an existence before the start of the film?  The answer we’re given to Rey’s parentage is satisfying in that it is not the typical grandiose origin we expect, but it’s entirely unsatisfying in that it raises just as many questions as it answers, and in this case, those questions are not due to a mystery but due to sloppy character writing in The Force Awakens.

The reveal of Kylo Ren’s turn to the Dark Side is far more satisfying.  In fact, the two short scenes which deal with his turn are far more effective and engaging than three entire films dealing with Anakin Skywalker’s turn were.  We see his story from both Luke’s perspective and from Ren’s himself, and this sort of mini “Rashomon” shows how a character can become a Sith with far more nuance and true characterization than anything Star Wars has done before.  Luke senses Snoke’s influence in Kylo Ren, and in a moment of panic and doubt decides its best to kill Ren before he kills everyone else.  But, Ren wakes up at the last second, manages to defend himself, and Luke’s rash decision causes Ren to do exactly what Luke feared he would.  This shows that heroes in this universe are subject to panic and bad decisions, though we have seen that in good guys who aren’t necessarily the heroes before in Star Wars films, but more importantly it shows that the villains in a Star Wars story can have recognizable realistic motivations for their wrongdoing.  Sure, Snoke metaphorically whispered in Ren’s ear and planted some seeds of doubt, but it was Luke’s attack, his betrayal, which actually turned Ren.

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Examining the storylines

 The primary focus of the film is the relationships between the users of The Force.  In an obvious reference to The Empire Strikes Back, The Last Jedi starts with Rey seeking training from Luke which Luke is dead set against due to his past with Kylo Ren.  Shortly after we learn that much to their surprise Kylo Ren and Rey have some sort of mental link with each other through which they can see each other, but only each other and not their surroundings, and through which they can communicate.  It’s an odd situation which doesn’t entirely work, but it does accomplish something very important to The Last Jedi‘s plot, themes, and tone which is that the primary protagonist and primary antagonist can relate to and truly understand their opposite.  This link means that they are not just opposing forces needing to get the other out of the way to achieve a goal, but that they are mirror images who see in the other what they are seeking in themselves.  This is even more nuanced and three dimensional than the relationship Darth Vader and Luke had and it’s accomplished without resorting to familial relations and without a need for one of the characters to be ignorant of their ties.  We take this journey along with them, and that makes for a more organic and multi-faceted relationship than we are used to between hero and villain particularly in a Star Wars movie.

Luke and Snoke are also mirror images of one another in the film due to the fact that both have at one point been masters to Kylo Ren, one for the Light Side of the Force and one for the Dark.  This mirrored relationship is not as nuanced and important as that between Kylo Ren and Rey, though.  This is partially due to the fact that these two are more traditional Star Wars hero and villain, but the primary reason this relationship fails is that Snoke himself is such a nothing character with no obvious connection to any of the heroes in the story.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that with no explanation of where he was during any of the other films, where he came from, how he came to lead The First Order or any other background of any kind other than he’s Kylo Ren’s master, Snoke is less a character and more a simplistic plot device.

The way the confrontations play out between these four is also highly uneven in quality.  Snoke, once again, is nothing but a mouthpiece for stereotypical villainous dialogue –  threatening and glowering but never actually doing anything which drives the story.  When Kylo Ren kills Snoke it was so obviously telegraphed that it would have been far more surprising had Kylo Ren attacked Rey as Snoke was continuously monologuing he would.

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However, the confrontation immediately after between Rey and Kylo Ren largely makes up for the disappointment with Snoke.  This is where we see the two main characters recognizing in the other traits they need.  Ren killed Snoke where Rey couldn’t have and it was the fact that he is steeped in the Dark Side which allowed him to do it.  In Rey Ren sees the balance he needs to keep from losing himself entirely to his rage.  In earlier films, the “join me” invitation is one which comes from a tactical power grab.  Darth Vader and the Emperor get a powerful subordinate to help them in their quest for more power, but they are never prepared to make nor view their invitee as an equal.  This offer from Kylo Ren to Rey adds a new twist to this now familiar Star Wars trope.  You can tell he does view Rey as an equal, as a true partner, and this offer to join him is less a power grab and more a warped marriage proposal.  This is a great twist which gives new depth to the Star Wars Universe and its characters as we glimpse the fact that balance between the Light and the Dark does not necessarily mean an even conflict but can instead mean the two sides learning to combine their strengths and counteract their weaknesses.

Finally for this storyline is the climactic confrontation between Kylo Ren and Luke.  This is a highlight of the film cinematically and dramatically, but a lowlight thematically. Since the two major plotlines come together at this time, I’ll speak on that after I talk about the other major plot in The Last Jedi.

The other major storyline is that of the Resistance and primarily of Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran).  I found this to be the more interesting storyline of the two as here the writers had the guts to flip the usual Hero’s Journey story on its ear and also had the guts to commit to it unlike the primary storyline involving the Force users.  This is a subplot which seems to be the usual impetuous hero comes out on top by disobeying orders and showing his superiors that his way may not be by the book, but it is the best.  As we continue down the path Finn, Rose, and Poe (with BB-8 along for the ride) decide to take, though, we see that what they are doing just keeps making things worse and worse and the eventual payoff we’re expecting doesn’t appear to be coming into reach, and ultimately we learn that the more practical and less flashy plan the leaders of the Resistance came up with would have worked, but because Poe and Finn decided to buck command and be heroes, the Resistance is all but destroyed.  That is so un-Star Wars like as to be completely unexpected and is the real heart of The Last Jedi, in my opinion.  The second act of a trilogy is meant to leave the heroes at their lowest point, but it’s rare that that low point is reached due to their own arrogance and incompetence.  That is exactly what happens here and leaves room for a redemption storyline for the characters who are not Force users in Episode IX.

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The opening of the film in which Poe single-handedly confronts a First Order fleet in his X-Wing sets up this dynamic as his flyboy antics lead him to call in an entire bomber wing against the wisdom of his commanders, and while the target he wanted to destroy does get taken out, the Resistance loses nearly every pilot involved in the attack including every single bomber in their fleet.  This gets Poe demoted, but it doesn’t reign in his cockiness so when most of the Resistance leadership is killed (and Leia (Carrie Fisher) put into the hospital in a scene which is pure fan service and very out of place with the film’s overall tone) Poe refuses to listen to the deputy leaders thinking himself far more clever and instead ropes Finn and new character Rose into a desperate plan to save the few remaining members of the Resistance.

The actual implementation of the plan inside the casino is the weakest element of this storyline as not only is it tonally all over the place but also visually chaotic.  Finn and Rose seem absolutely lost as they try to take in everything around them and figure out how to find the master code breaker, and unfortunately, the audience shares that state of mind with them.  I imagine this was intended to be the most humorous scene in the film, but most of the comedy on display here falls flat (a lot of the film’s humor does as it seems to be aimed squarely at children, young stupid children, for the most part) and the attempt to make the setting look like a large, bustling playground for the rich just ends up becoming a dizzyingly busy crowd of CGI effects thrown at the screen.

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After the bit in the casino, and things calm down, the storyline really gets down to business again as we see Finn and Rose in their desperation to be heroes make bad decision after bad decision including trusting the enigmatic DJ (Benicio Del Toro) who ends up being one of the most mercenary characters in the Star Wars universe who isn’t a straight-up gangster or bounty hunter.  While DJ was definitely entertaining, he was another inconsistency in the film’s story.  I loved the fact that he was interested only in whomever could pay him the most, but seemed to want that person to be one of the good guys.  He seemed to have a political awareness and pragmatism rarely seen in epic stories and never before in a Star Wars film, but he was also so incredibly skilled and well equipped you had to wonder how he found himself inside a cell in the first place, especially since he demonstrated he could escape instantly at any time he wanted.

The inevitable capture during their mission to crack the First Order’s tracking system and subsequent betrayal by DJ is the ultimate payoff of this section of the film.  Finn’s confrontation with Captain Phasma is so disappointing that it would probably have been best not in the film at all, but aside from that the payoff of Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo’s (Laura Dern) being discovered by the First Order directly due to the arrogance and impetuousness of Poe and Finn is the most powerful moment in the film from a thematic standpoint.  The villain’s to date haven’t been that organized, intelligent, nor impressive.  The heroes fail not because the villains beat them, but because the heroes are undone by the foolhardiness of some of their own.

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The climactic scene

After those few left in the Resistance make their way to the salt planet Crait they are joined by Luke, Rey, Chewbacca, and the attack force led by Kylo Ren.  The concept of a planet made up of red salt covered with snow makes for some truly spectacular visuals.  The red and white powder being thrown into the air by the fast-moving vehicles and the impact of weapons fire is reminiscent of blood on a battlefield and makes for a gritty visceral feel you can’t normally get in a film made with a younger audience in mind.  Add to that the sense of scale and motion between the gigantic slow moving weapons used by The First Order versus the speedy but small and decrepit vehicles of the resistance followed by Luke standing on his own against an army of AT-AT Walkers and  we are treated to one of the most visually spectacular scenes ever put in a Star Wars film.

The resolution of the final conflict is also satisfying as it comes down to a battle of psychology.  By projecting his image onto the planet as Rey helps the survivors in the Resistance escape, Luke keeps Kylo Ren’s focus exactly where he wants it to be, on Luke, and plays off of Kylo Ren’s uncontrollable anger to distract him just long enough that the true objective of keeping the Resistance alive for a little while longer can be secured.  It’s also a pretty great payoff to the audience when we realize that Kylo Ren has been played and he was defeated not by greater power or skill, but by his own emotional weakness combined with the cunning of his opponent.  The only problem I had with the resolution of the final conflict was wondering why we had never seen a Jedi do something similar before with the Force.  Once again, creating a consistent universe containing numerous films, television shows, and books is far more difficult than creating a single contained story.

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Finally, we end with the death of Luke.  This was a strange choice which seemed to come from nowhere to me.  It seems almost a given that he will appear as a ghost in the next film, so unless I am completely wrong in thinking that and Mark Hamill is still contracted to appear in the next film I see no dramatic reason why he should just die alone far away from anyone he knows and apparently due to stress rather than an unnatural cause.  The wisdom of this choice will hopefully become apparent in Episode IX, but it certainly isn’t now.

So, in the end, The Last Jedi is one of the better installments in the Star Wars universe.  It still has a few too many poorly handled elements such as humor which doesn’t connect, fan service which is more distracting than pertinent, and clunky dialogue to be an honestly great movie like Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, but there are some glimpses here into true genius and talent.   Hopefully, next time around the cast and crew can continue their exploration of more realistic themes but without chickening out and returning to the standard black and white morality of the Star Wars films of the past.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Justice League (Snyder; 2017)

Warner Bros. more than just stumbled out of the gate when they started producing their line of films based on DC Comics which they are now claiming was never meant to be a cinematic universe.  They gave us a story in mid-telling with only the most minor of clues what had gone on before, they made this story overly dark both literally and figuratively, and worst of all it seemed they didn’t understand their own characters by giving us a Superman who doesn’t care about collateral damage and the lives of civilians, a Batman who mowed people down with guns, and a Joker and Lex Luthor who seemed to have switched bodies.  Then they gave us Wonder Woman.  Wonder Woman showed us they could make a character who could inspire, that they were capable of starting a story at the beginning without cloning every other origin story out there, that they could give us visuals that were both gorgeous and vibrant, and that they did understand at least one of their characters.

Justice League comes to us from Zack Snyder, the director of Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and since those are the two films which started the DC movies down the path of “what the hell are they doing?” I admit to a lot of skepticism over whether he could pull off a Justice League film.  When Snyder left the project after primary shooting was done, but before post-production was very far underway, and gave the reins of the project over to second unit director Joss Whedon my concerns became even stronger as even though I love most of Whedon’s work, the possible clashing of styles did not seem like a good omen.  I can say having now seen the film that while Whedon’s influence in the film’s script is definitely noticeable, the directorial styles did not overly clash.  Yes, you can notice Snyder’s heavier, darker style not blending that well with the more light-hearted, self-aware, bantery style of Whedon’s during Justice League‘s introductory scenes, but the film quickly hits its groove making you forget about its imperfect start rather quickly.

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Justice League also manages to get its focal characters which were so wrong in earlier DC movies right.  Ben Affleck as Batman, who I felt was the best part of Batman v. Superman, brings more of the same except without the inclination for murder and just a tad more humility and humor.  Not enough to break the character, but enough to make him more relatable.  Gal Gadot, on the other hand, does not quite give us the tour de force performance she gave as Wonder Woman in her solo movie, but she is still very much the same character inspiring those around her while also kicking ass and looking great doing it.  The only reason she doesn’t stand out as much is that she has to do so much spotlight sharing this time around.  Ezra Miller gives us a very fun, awkward Flash, and Ray Fisher’s Cyborg while perhaps the least dynamic member of the team in terms of personality is still well acted as he portrays a young man trying to come to terms with the fact that he has become something of a monster.  In the least surprising spoiler ever to be termed a spoiler, Henry Cavill returns as Superman and his performance may be most surprising of all finally showing us the Superman we all know and love who views himself as a humble, “aw shucks” protector of the weak and not as a powerhouse who happens to hate bad guys.  The chemistry among this crew is also excellent making the cast a true ensemble rather than a bunch of solo actors who happened to be thrown together.

You’ll notice I did not mention either Jason Momoa as Aquaman nor the villain (who I will not name so as to not spoil it, it’s not who you think it is) voiced by Claran Hinds, because they were the two disappointing characters in the bunch.  Aquaman may not be a character most understand past a joke character, but the one thing he has in common among all his various incarnations is a regal quality.  Sometimes he seems haughty, other times noble, but always regal.  Jason Momoa’s Aquaman struck me as a guy you’d see hanging out at a biker bar picking fights.  Sure, he’d be the wittiest guy at the biker bar, but he’s less a ruler and more an alpha dog, and there’s a big difference between the two.  Our villain is also disappointing because he is just so generic.  I don’t remember him ever rearing his head back and letting out an evil laugh but nearly every other bad stereotype a villain can encompass is there.  He even wears a helmet with devil’s horns.

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The story is a lot more coherent than the first three DC films.  Sure there are a few references here and there to past events, but never in such a way that it seemed like we missed some major plot point, so major it could be an entire film unto its own, like in Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad.  The story does have one rather large weakness in that it relies on the audience remembering Superman as the character he is in the comics rather than as the character he was in Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, and a lot of the character motivation loses most of its oomph due to that.  The story also is awfully generic in its villainous plot which we’ve seen many times before in comic book movies, but I can, for the most part, forgive this as what we needed in a Justice League movie was a solid establishment of the universe we’re in and the characters inhabiting it, so in a way a time-worn familiar plot is what we needed so as not to overly complicate the real focus of the story which is the formation of the world’s most famous team of superheroes.

It’s that story that really shines.  Seeing the group get together is very satisfying and entertaining.  Once we get past the missteps of the past and the film’s opening, we have a team which really is a team.  In The Avengers we saw a group who was a team because everyone knew their roles and performed them well, but in Justice League, we have a group who work well together, seem to really enjoy each others’ company, and who have each others’ backs while also having their roles, as well.

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Final verdict:  Justice League is far from perfect, but most of its imperfections are due to what came before.  If you look at the plot as the villain’s attempted takeover of Earth, then what you have is a very generic film, but the true story here is not that,  that’s just an excuse.  The true story is about the formation of a group of larger than life, powerful individuals finding each other, getting to know each other, and becoming a team who really like each other.  On that level, Justice League works wonderfully.  2017 has had a great many superhero films, and while I feel both Logan and Wonder Woman stand head and shoulders above the rest, Justice League acquits itself admirably putting it in the same category I’d put Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok – movies with no real depth, but are so much fun to experience you don’t really miss it while in the moment.

P.S.  Stay all the way through the credits.  Unsurprisingly there is a teaser for a future Justice League movie.  The surprising part is what they imply the plot will be, and if it’s true it could be a lot more fun than anything I was expecting.

Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi; 2017)

Thor: Ragnarok is the seventeenth movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Fifteen movies in nine years.  James Bond, of course, has more at twenty-five, but it took fifty-six years to get there.  Batman has had seventeen movies over twenty-eight years, but that’s not a franchise so much as a popular character getting rebooted.  Star Trek got thirteen movies over thirty-seven years.  Those numbers alone should show how remarkable the Marvel film franchise is, but all of those other long-lasting franchises have also had some terrible entries and box office flops, Marvel has yet to make a film that has disappointed on either an entertainment or a box-office level, though the Thor films have come the closest to doing both.  Thor: Ragnarok not only continues Marvel’s pedigree of excellence, but it is also far and away the best of the Thor films and in the upper echelon of Marvel movies period.

Marvel is advertising Thor: Ragnarok as the studio’s first comedy, though I would argue that the Guardians of the Galaxy movies and particularly Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 were, but if you know what the term Ragnarok means you know that it’s dealing with pretty dark subject matter for a Marvel movie let alone a comedy.  (If you don’t know, I won’t spoil it for you here.)  This contradiction is a balancing act walked throughout the entire film by its cast and crew as they try to keep things light-hearted and fun while at the same time showing that the story has serious stakes and consequences for those taking part in it.  While they do have to cheat here and there to pull off this feat, pull it off they do and spectacularly enough that the cheating can be mostly overlooked.

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Chris Hemsworth (Thor) was initially cast as Thor largely because of his appearance and because he’d worked with Joss Whedon earlier on Cabin in the Woods so he’d proven he could take on a large film anchoring role.  Take on the role he absolutely did, and with gusto, but the character of Thor is one the more bland Marvel heroes as he has to be both so immensely powerful as to rarely be in honest danger, but also has to embody humility and virtue so doesn’t really have major character flaws, either.  He’s Marvel’s Superman, but without a great rogue’s gallery and level of fame, and this made for a character that even when played as well as possible by Hemsworth is still the least interesting of the Avengers.  Over the last few years, though, Hemsworth has proven he has some real comic chops between his shorts as “roommate Thor” and being the funniest character in the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot.  Marvel very intelligently ran with that and allowed Thor to also be the funniest Avenger, which is the defining character trait he’s needed all along and allowed Thor: Ragnarok to finally be a truly special Thor movie.

The rest of the cast is also fantastic with Mark Ruffalo returning as The Hulk/Bruce Banner and showing that he also has comic talent, Tom Hiddleston giving us a Loki who we already knew could be both hilarious and nefarious, and Jeff Goldblum appears for the first time in a Marvel movie as the Grandmaster and manages to steal every scene he appears in with his own eccentric brand of comedic performance.  While these four give the film its heart and soul, Cate Blanchett as the god of death Hela is incredibly menacing and captivating, and Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie and Karl Urban as Skurge hold their own in this amazing cast as two Asgardians with more personality than we get from the majority of the gods.  The only real disappointments here are Idris Elba returning as Heimdall and Anthony Hopkins as Odin who both seem like they were more or less phoning in their roles, and Hopkins not even caring if anyone noticed.

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The movie does play fast and loose with the lore of both Marvel comics’ version of Thor and actual Norse mythology.  For the most part, the changes work and add a fun unpredictability to the film for those who know either story of Ragnarok well but could annoy the geekier purists out there.  The patchwork light and dark tones also make for a story able to surprise, particularly in the film’s climactic battle which is the most daring ending to a Marvel film yet, but it can also make for inconsistent motivations from the characters as they act in ways which are more concerned with what is funny or exciting than what is consistent or realistic.

Thor: Ragnarok has one of the most unusual soundtracks for a Marvel movie to date.  Most of the Marvel films use a classic orchestral score while the Guardians of the Galaxy films are famous for their use of classic rock.  Thor: Ragnarok has a largely orchestral score, but it also mixes in techno music reminiscent of 80’s New Age music and somehow has the rights to Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song” despite the band’s legendary stinginess with giving out the rights to their music.  This mix works for the most part and allows for some incredibly epic action, but every now and then it can be distracting enough to break the movie’s spell.

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Final verdict:  Thor: Ragnarok continues the Marvel tradition of giving us an excellent thrill ride with just enough of the familiar to make us comfortable and just enough spin to make a superhero movie not quite like any we’ve seen before.  Its mix of comedy and bold plot complications makes for a bit of a patchwork, but a pretty remarkable patchwork that manages to work far more often than it distracts, though it certainly isn’t perfect.  If you’re already a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe then heading out to see Thor: Ragnarok as soon as possible on the largest screen possible is an absolute no-brainer.  If you are either not a fan or have somehow avoided seeing any of the other fourteen films for this long, it’s not quite as easy of a recommendation, but while you will miss some of the nuance longtime fans of the series will enjoy, Thor: Ragnarok is so much pure fun that I find it hard to believe that any but the most interminable stick in the muds will find a good amount of enjoyment in it.

 

 

 

The Foreigner (Campbell; 2017)

To say that Jackie Chan has a specific signature style is an understatement.  At age 63 now, though, he can’t do the death defying seemingly superhuman stunts he was once capable.  He is still in remarkable shape, but a lifetime of stretching your physical capabilities to the limit, punishing your body, and just simple age mean that he has to change the way he approaches his roles.  In The Foreigner he does just that, and while there are still quite a few action scenes Chan does nearly a 180 degree turn from his usual frantic, comic, action based performance and attempts something more serious and thoughtful.

An IRA bombing of a bank kills 58 people and injures 21 in the opening scene of The Foreigner, and among the dead is Fan (Katie Leung) the daughter of Jackie Chan’s Quan Ngoc Minh.  Since she was the last family Quan had left in the world, he is struck particularly hard and also is able to leave everything else in the world behind as he seeks justice and revenge.  His search leads him to Liam Hennessey (Pierce Brosnan) a former member of the IRA who is now reformed and is a prominent Irish politician.  Quan is convinced Hennessey knows who performed the bombing and the remainder of the movie is a cat and mouse game between the two as Quan does whatever he feels is necessary to get the names from Hennessey, and Hennessey in return seeks to stop Quan in order to protect both his career and his family.

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The screenplay for The Foreigner is based on a book called “The Chinaman”.  I have never read the book, so I can’t give a comparison, but I can say the story of The Foreigner is an intelligent and intricate one, but the characters are so thin as to be more plot devices than actual people.   It makes for a somewhat irritating experience because you can truly get swept up in the story, and be honestly surprised as well as impressed by its thoughtfulness and realism, but despite that not a single character in the film has a single character trait beyond events that happen to them.  No one is funny, or gullible, or dour, instead they are a man who has lost his family, a mysterious politician, a nephew with military experience, a wife who doesn’t like her husband, and so on.  What this does is make for a film which can be appreciated, but not enjoyed as you never empathize with anyone on screen.  It’s hard to even say there are protagonists or antagonists in the film, let alone heroes and villains, just a bunch of people whose actions weave together to form a story.

That being said, it’s hard to say whether or not this turn of Jackie Chan’s is a good one.  He shows here that he is still capable of some fun action scenes, damn he is still in great shape, and that he can frown and squeeze out a tear here and there instead of constant smiling and laughter, but with no real personality traits to express we just get a Chan who is much more calm than we are used to rather than a true performance.   The same can be said of every performance in the film, though Chan’s is the only one most are paying close attention to since his is the only great departure from his usual style, there is nothing particularly wrong with the acting, it’s just that there is no character given to the actors to portray.

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The camerawork in The Foreigner never reaches artistic nor impressive levels, but is still very solidly pulled off.  The film has a lot of moving pieces which have to followed, and at no point does it ever become difficult for the audience to do so, though on a handful of occasions it does become a bit awkward to do so with some quick editing which is necessary but comes out of nowhere and could almost certainly have been handled in a better fashion.  Aside from those handful, and they really are rare which is probably why they are so jarring, we get a film that is easy enough to watch that you can forget you are watching things through someone else’s eye, and if you aren’t trying for a visual art piece, that is one of the best things to accomplish in a film’s cinematography.

The pacing of the film is on the slower side.  There is a lot of talk about the past, or about what people should do, or about plans, but there is very little direct action taken by the characters for the vast majority of the film.  This makes for a movie that seems far longer than it actually is, and while the realistic constant twisting of the story is enough to get you to stay until film’s end since you just have to know what’s really going on and you need that sense of closure, you will also find yourself wishing to yourself that they could just move things along already for quite a bit of the running time.

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Final verdict:  The Foreigner is a very mediocre film which also happens to have fantastic plotting.   If political thrillers or revenge stories are really your thing then I would say to give The Foreigner a look, thought not necessarily in the theater.  If characterization is important to you, though, expect to be disappointed, and if you are looking for an over-the-top hilarious action packed Jackie Chan flick then avoid The Foreigner at all costs, or at least seriously reconfigure your expectations to the near exact opposite.  The Foreigner had a lot of potential, but poor character writing kills it for this critic, making it difficult to sit through despite its wonderful story.

 

American Made (Liman; 2017)

Doug Liman, the director of this latest Tom Cruise vehicle, has a fairly hit or miss career as a director to date.  The Bourne Identity is now a classic which revitalized and revolutionized the spy genre, Swingers is a cult comedy classic, and Edge of Tomorrow (also titled Live, Die, Repeat in one of the worst marketing blunders in film history) was one of the biggest surprises of 2014 and is destined to become something of a sci-fi classic in its own right.  He also brought us Go, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and Jumper, and I’m betting the only reason you remember one of these movies is more for behind the scenes tabloid level drama than the film itself.  So, I wasn’t sure which Doug Liman we’d be getting as I went in to see American Made, I kept my expectations moderate, and leaving the theater I was pleasantly surprised having seen a film that I would rank up there amongst the films I just called classics – and while it’s going to take some more time and perspective to really classify American Made, my first impression and instinct is that I like it even more than two of those three great ones.

American Made is the Hollywoodized true story of Barry Seal, a TWA pilot recruited by the CIA to spy on the Soviet backed Nicaraguan Contras toward the tail end of the ’70s.  It’s the story of the beginning of the War on Drugs and its connection to the Iran-Contra scandals, but it’s the story told through the point of view of one of its lesser known central figures, which makes for an experience that’s both familiar and fresh at the same time.

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I probably shouldn’t have been so tepid in my expectations for American Made since it is pairing up Cruise and Liman for a second time, and Cruise has always shown he can give one hell of a great performance when paired up with a director who understands him, and Liman has already proven once before that he works really well with Cruise.  I won’t oversell Cruise’s performance here as one of the best of the year, but it is quintessential fun, charming Cruise.  Most of what Cruise gives us as Barry Seal is the manic charm that seems to take far more energy than a man in his 50’s seems capable of giving, but there is a nuanced vulnerability here, as well, that we see in many of Cruise’s best works. While he’s always go-go-go, we can also sense that Seal knows he is capable of making a bad decision despite his chutzpah and talent, and that bad decision which could ruin his life and his family is a nearly visible burden Cruise manages to subtly portray giving Seal a dimension which is all too often absent in your typical Tom Cruise action thriller.

The supporting cast also does a wonderful, if never quite spectacular, job bringing us a group of characters which are familiar enough to ground us but never dip into stereotype.  Domnhall Gleason as Schafer, Seal’s CIA recruiter, is definitely the shifty, never know exactly what he’s up to character we’ve come to expect from a middle-man secret agent type, but he also displays a lack of confidence in his own abilities that is incredibly rare in this same type of character making him a unique, memorable figure.  Sarah Wright as Lucy Seal, Barry’s wife, is also excellent truly embodying a family focused woman who loves her husband and children more than anything, hates what he’s doing, but is blinded by the money coming to the family so much she overlooks her own values and instincts.  She, in fact, is probably the most three dimensional and well acted character in the entire ensemble, and if I were to pick out a possible award winner to come out of this film, it would be her.

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The visuals of the film are excellent.  While I’m sure there is some CGI in the film, a scene in which two planes touch wings is one instance that comes to mind, it’s not at all obvious and it seems like what we are viewing is a combination of excellent cinematography combined with practical stunts and effects.  The cinematography really is excellent with its combination of gorgeous aerial shots and more practical yet still stylistic work when the action is grounded.  It’s nothing I would ever call truly artistic, but it most definitely has a style which meshes perfectly with its screenplay.

That screenplay is the most stand out element of American Made, a film which I obviously feel has quite a few stand out elements.  The tone and structure is one which reminds me a great deal of The Big Short from a few years back in that it educates its audience on a series of events that we are familiar with but may be lacking on details unless we are a scholar on the era and events, that education is not just on the history but also looks forward to how those events effect us today, and it does it all with a light, entertaining touch which makes the lesson oh-so-easy to take in that we don’t even realize we’re learning as much as we are until the film is over.  Combine that with the excellent character work mentioned earlier and snappy, witty dialogue, and you have the makings of a truly memorable bit of writing.

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Final verdict:  American Made is yet another highlight in a year filled with so many of them.  It’s an important film with not an ounce of pretentiousness.  It’s a film with true weight and depth, but with such a light touch there is nearly no effort on the part of the audience to take in its insight.  It’s a film which is equal parts comedy, thriller, biopic, crime film, spy movie, and true history, and it works on every single one of those levels.  There are not many audiences I would not recommend American Made to, though I have a feeling those with a kinder vision of the Reagan era than the movie portrays may be offended by some of what the movie has to say, but I will also say that as fantastic as the film is, I don’t think many, if any, would pick it as their favorite film of the year.  As odd as it sounds, the film may be perhaps too well made because it seems to lack the spark of humanity present in the greatest works of art.  Still, this is one hell of a well made film, and if the premise interests you in the least I’d have to think you will get a lot out of it.  It’s good enough that I think it will even thrill a great many who find nothing to grab them from the marketing campaign alone.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (Vaughn; 2017)

Kingsman: The Secret Service was arguably the most pleasant surprise in film for the year 2014.  It was a film that capitalized on a nostalgia for the over-the-top camp prevalent in the spy films of the 70s and 80s while also modernizing them for today’s audience.  It did for the Roger Moore era James Bond what Casino Royale did for James Bond in general.  By giving us heroes and villains with realistic motivations and plot devices that paid off in droves by film’s end alongside action sequences ripped straight from the most bombastic of kung fu movies and cool gadgets that would only be ruined if they were explained in any way we saw a movie that knew exactly where to be smart and where to be dumb to make a roller coaster ride that had honest stakes.  When it made 414 million dollars from an 81 million dollar budget and only increased its following from there with incredible word of mouth, it was inevitable a sequel would be made.  Say hello to Kingsman: The Golden Circle written and directed by Matthew Vaughn just as the first film was.

It’s less than a minute before we are treated to the frenetic action and comic book gadgets of the first film, but moreso.  The combination car chase, fist fight, and gun fight shows off more spectacle than anything in Kingsman: The Secret Service, so it seems that we are about to get the creative adrenaline fueled film we were hoping for.  But, this leads us to the film’s first problem.   While it does have a lot of action scenes, all of them way over-the-top in the stunts and special effects departments, more action does not mean better when the scenes aren’t terribly well thought out.  Most of the action scenes come from an overly contrived situation or they involve actions taken by people that make no sense given the context of the scene around them.

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One area which was very smart in Secret Service is also excellent in The Golden Circle, and that’s the motivations of its villains.  In the first film we were given a villain who saw himself as the hero, or perhaps the anti-hero, doing a job that needed to be done even if it was distasteful.  Here, Julianne Moore as Poppy gives us a villain who knows she is one, but feels it’s unfair that the world considers her one and comes up with a grand scheme to make herself socially acceptable.  It’s a pretty fantastic motivation for a villain not quite like anything I’d seen before but still makes a lot of sense.  Add to that the reaction of the government of the United States to Poppy’s plot, and you have a really true to life reaction to an incredibly unbelievable situation.  There is a problem in the plot in that the scheme affects the entire world but only the reaction of the United States seems to matter, and this in a movie that focuses on a British Spy Agency and features a Swedish Princess, but for the most part the forces that drive the plot are quite intelligent and allow for real social commentary.

The rest of the writing, though, does not share this same intelligence.  The beats of the storyline feature manufactured drama after manufactured drama.  If a simple solution to a problem is apparent, you can be guaranteed that those involved will choose the most convoluted, illogical course of action nearly every time.  Kingsman: The Golden Circle relies on easily settled misunderstandings and epicly idiotic planning on the parts of its characters to work, and this very much soils the intelligence put into its overall premise.  Add to that that the opportunity for social commentary is largely wasted, and you have a script which is no where near the level fans of the first film were hoping for.

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The music in the original Kingsman subtly added quite a bit to its combination retro and modern feel by giving us a mainly orchestral score very. and purposely, reminiscent of a James Bond film, so that when “Freebird” suddenly comes in to the forefront in the infamous church scene it’s an adrenal shock to the system which adds an incredible amount to an already bonkers scene.  The Golden Circle does away almost entirely with the orchestral score and gives us action scenes set to Prince, and ZZ Top, and covers of classic rock songs done in different styles, and therefore ruins the juxtaposition of styles which added so much the original film and made for yet another Guardians of the Galaxy clone where the music is concerned, which was fun for a while and was shown it can still work in Baby Driver and Atomic Blonde, but this is a styling that is starting to wear very thin.

The performances here are on a par with the first film for the most part, though Julianne Moore’s villain has nowhere near the opportunities to shine that Samuel L. Jackson’s did and giving Elton John such a large role in the film in which he plays himself did not work for me, which is okay.  The Kingsman isn’t a showcase for acting, so we don’t really need more than okay in my opinion, though it would have been nice if someone could have given us at least a creatively thought out character like Samuel L. Jackson and Sofia Boutella did in the original, seeing the workmanlike but otherwise unspectacular performances here showed my just how much life those two brought to the first Kingsman.

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The cinematography is another high point of the film, with shots that are both good looking and practical at the same time, and while CGI is in obviously constant use it flows fairly seamlessly for the most part, though there are a handful of exceptions to this.  Even if the plot is dipping into one of its more stupid bits or the pacing of a given scene is leaving you bored or overstimulated you at least know that whatever’s in front of you will be great looking.

Final verdict: Fans of the original Kingsman: The Secret Service will almost certainly leave Kingsman: The Golden Circle disappointed.  The script is sloppier, the nostalgic James Bond feel nearly non-existent, and the plot holes are on larger than life display.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t things to love here, though.  The over-the-top action is still incredibly fun to watch and the comic booky spy trappings are still creative and fun.  Most Kingsman fans could probably wait until this is rentable to see the movie, or even better catch a cheap matinee if possible, but if you are more into the movies for the stunts and special effects more than for story, Kingsman: The Golden Circle should scratch the over-the-top spy flick itch nicely.