The Dark Tower (Arcel; 2017)

The Dark Tower has had quite the long journey on its way to the screen.  The film is an adaptation of the book “The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger” written by Stephen King and originally published as novel in 1982, but its roots go back even farther than that as it was first published in installments from 1977 to 1981 in “The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction”.  Rumors of a film or series of films chronicling the adventures of Roland the Gunslinger have been circulating for decades due to the books’ huge fan base, but until now, 40 years after the initial story was printed, no one has actually been able or willing to make it happen.  Columbia Pictures has plans for this movie to be the first of a number of installments which will be released both in movie theaters and as television shows, another cash grab ala Marvel Studios and their Cinematic Universe, but while the rabid fanbase of the books may be able to still make that a reality, the quality of the flagship film in this series’ launch does not bode well for future endeavors in this Stephen King franchise.

The Dark Tower focuses on three main characters, two protagonists and an antagonist.  We are first introduced to Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) a young man of an indeterminate age, but young enough that if he has hit his teenage years its barely.  Jake has dreams which he draws in his art book of a tower, a man in black, a man with two six shooters, and the numbers 19-19.  His dreams are accompanied by earthquakes when he wakes up and everyone thinks he is crazy.  Matthew McConaughey plays the Man in Black from Jake’s dreams, and he is an evil sorcerer who uses psychic children as a weapon to destroy the Dark Tower which will allow demons to entire our universe and several others attached to ours.  Finally, Idris Elba plays the Gunslinger Roland who wants to kill the Man in Black as revenge for the murder of his father and the rest of the Gunslingers at the hands of the Man in Black.

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Let’s start with the good in this movie, which would be the acting.  Matthew McConaughey in particular is a lot of fun as the villainous Man in Black chewing the scenery with aplomb and radiating a cartoonish charm which you can’t help but enjoy.  Idris Elba is much more subdued as Roland, but an actor as accomplished as he can’t help but ooze charisma even if he tries to hide it.  Finally, while Tom Taylor is not the greatest child actor, he holds up his part of the story well enough to never be distracting.

Past that, there is not much to like about The Dark Tower.  The film is shot in the annoying fashion of the day with incredibly tight close ups at inappropriate times, jerky camera movements, and lighting dim enough that what we are seeing is barely more than a sillhouette.  Trying to follow the action here is nearly impossible as we are never given any anchor for our perspective and the action takes place willy-nilly with no context as to positions and movement.  The camera is more interested in framing whatever is the most spectacular thing to look at at the moment than it is with giving us a coherent vision of the action of the story.

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As bad as the camera work is, though, the script is far worse.  The visuals are at least decent during The Dark Tower‘s quieter moments and the special effects are fun, but the script has no saving grace whatsoever.  The entire story is written to formula, and very obviously so at that, with no thought given to anything beyond how the action of the story would fit into said formula.  Character motivations are non-existent.  Why does the Man in Black want to destroy the universes?  Er, he’s evil, and evil guys do that?  What did the Gunslingers do before they were all killed?  Hell if anyone knows.  What is a Gunslinger for that matter?  A guy with guns as far as I can tell.  Decisions made by the characters are nonsensical, doing something 2 seconds after they said they couldn’t do exactly that thing for reasons never really explained well, or just plain idiotic.  Characters make relationships just because it seems like they should and all of a sudden can do incredible things because they need to do it at that moment.  The story is easy enough to follow, so it isn’t Michael Bay level bad, but it is so obviously contrived it’s distractingly hilarious.

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I’ve never read “The Dark Tower” series of books, so I can’t speak to the quality of the film compared to the quality of the books.  However, I can say that knowing the books have such a large and loyal fan base, consisting of quite a few people whose taste I respect, I can only guess that fans of the books are going to come away greatly disappointed by the film, and those who have never read the books are not going to understand what others see in this series.

Final verdict:  With good acting and absolutely nothing else going for it, give The Dark Tower a big miss.  It’s possible Columbia will go ahead with further film and television installments in this series, and it’s possible some of them could be good – the premise does have promise and Idris Elba has charisma and talent to spare.  If this is the case, then maybe come back and give this one a watch to catch up on the action.  Until then, though, I can’t see this formulaic to a nonsensical degree story appealing to anyone, fan of the books or no.  And, what is it with the Gunslinger’s mantra they say over and over in the film?  That thing isn’t cool or comforting, it’s downright creepy and disturbing.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Besson; 2017)

Even if you don’t immediately recognize the name Luc Besson, you will most certainly recognize at least a few of his movies.  In 1990 the French director brought us La Femme Nikita, not his first film, but the first most moviegoers are likely to recognize, in 1994 he gave us Leon: The Professional,  and 1997 The Fifth Element.  He also wrote the first two films in the Taken series.  That’s a damn good resume for someone who isn’t a household name outside of Europe.  While he has been steadily working in some form in the film industry this entire time, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is his first major cinematic directorial release in some time.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is based on the French comic book series “Valerian and Laureline” which was initially published in 1967 and has since influenced a lot of modern science fiction including Star Wars and the aforementioned The Fifth Element.   Valerian is very much a space opera as opposed to more real world based science fiction.  There is no explanation of the science behind the events and gadgets used in the story, it’s just enough that they exist and that they evoke a reaction.  Valerian, therefore, really has more in common with classic fantasy like “Lord of the Rings” than it does with harder science fiction like Blade Runner or “Star Trek”.

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Major Valerian is brought to life on screen by Dane DeHaan who appears to be doing his best Keanu Reeves impersonation.  He speaks and intones so much like Keanu for the entire film, I kept waiting for the “Whoa!”  Valerian’s partner and love interest Sergeant Laureline is played by Cara Delevigne whom we last saw as The Enchantress in Academy Award winning mess which was Suicide Squad.  She gives a better performance here than she did in last year’s film, but it still seems like Besson like Snyder last year is more interested in making sure we see what a fantastic body Delevigne has than how well she can portray a character.  As a heterosexual male I can definitely appreciate a good looking woman on screen, especially when she’s portrayed as a strong equal, if not superior, of any given man, alien, or robot around her, but when every scene comes up with an excuse for her to be wearing essentially underwear and even her full body combat suit she wears later is contoured to show off every last bit of her figure, it gets creepy and distracting.  I say this as more of a commentary on Besson as a director, though, and not of Delevigne’s performance, as she shows here she can have a very commanding presence on screen, and in my opinion was the best actor and character in the film.  Of the supporting cast, Rhianna gives the most interesting performance, but her character leaves the film far too quickly in my opinion, only staying around for a couple of scenes, and she is also as much a voice actor as a physical presence due to the very interesting nature of her role which I won’t spoil here.

The writing of the film is a bit of a mess, though a fun mess, trying to include a bit too much and therefore not fleshing out anything as much as it needs to be and leaving far too many frayed and swinging plot threads.  The main story surrounding the mystery regarding the destruction of a paradise planet 30 years before the film’s events is a good anchor for Valerian‘s story, and to the writer’s credit all the subplots branch into and out of this main plot fairly seamlessly and thoughtfully.  The problems come in when those subplots themselves are just left open.  Characters vowing to destroy our heroes are never seen again.  Interesting backstories are brought into play, only to be left by the wayside due to the interests of the main plot, and so on. In addition, certain major beats in the story make little sense or can be downright contradictory when a bit of thought is put into them, making one wonder how they made their way into the story in the first place.

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The spectacle on display in Valerian is absolutely top notch.  If nothing else can be said about the film, it is most certainly a delight for the eyes with its highly creative settings, creatures, gadgets, and situations which involve every environment you can think of including multi-dimensional settings which can have our characters in multiple environments at the same time (this was my favorite part of the film), more alien, truly alien sometimes, beings than you can take in in one viewing, and a near overload of motion and color.  This is a space opera nerds dream come true in many ways, though lovers of more traditional hard science fiction may roll their eyes at much of what is going on, and those who don’t care for science fiction in any form will most likely not understand why anyone would want to see this.

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Final verdict:  Valerian is a mess, but it is a beautiful and fun mess.  The plot makes just enough sense to hold the story together and keep our interest, but it falls apart upon any sort of inspection whatsoever.  The acting is all over the place from Dane DeHaan channeling Keanu Reeves to play his role for him to Clive Owen’s cartoonish villainy to Cara Delevigne’s actually nuanced performance marred by the oversexualization of the actress (though, oddly, not the character).  If knowing a film is visually creative with non-stop action and neat takes on science is enough to pique your interest, then you should definitely see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets in the theater, in IMAX and 3-D if possible, where it is really meant to be seen.  If a strong story, character development, and some grounding in reality are necessary for you, though, Valerian is one to avoid, even when it comes out for the small screen in the future as then even its strengths won’t truly be on display as they are meant to be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transformers: The Last Knight (Bay; 2017)

I spoil the end of the movie in this review, if a movie this horrible to begin with can truly be said to be spoiled, so proceed at your own risk.  But, trust me, it’s a lousy movie which you shouldn’t see so the risk is pretty minimal.

Transformers: The Last Knight opens during the Dark Ages during a war between King Arthur (Liam Garrigan) and an unknown force.  The men in King Arthur’s cadre of warriors ask him about Merlin (Stanley Tucci) and where he is, while others write Merlin off as a worthless drunk.  We then cut to Merlin and find that he is, indeed, a drunk, but that he knows the location of a Transformer.  The Transformer has a staff that Merlin needs to control a dragon Transformer, and when drunk Merlin swears off drink and money for the rest of his life if he can have the staff, the Transformer for some unknown reason decides that Merlin can now have the staff and Merlin saves the day for Arthur with his mechanical dragon.  Why the staff is needed to bring the dragon into the fight is never made clear.  Why the dragon is needed to win in the first place is also never made even remotely clear since Arthur had 5 normal Transformers fighting for him where their unnamed enemy just had normal Dark Ages people with normal Dark Ages technology.  And, in the main story which takes place 1600 years later it is also never made clear why this staff can only be wielded by a descendant of Merlin nor why the staff is needed at Stonehenge when the planet of Cybertron and the creator of the Transformers,  Quintessa (Gemma Chan), are attacking Earth.  It’s even unclear in the film’s climax because when Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock) the said last descendant of Merlin gets her hands on the staff, the dragon shows up and the heroes just win.  Because. Cybertron is still there and it isn’t clear what happened to Quintessa, but the script and director apparently decided the plot did what it needed to do, so the heroes win.  Yay!

At one point mid-movie when Cogman (Jim Carter), a rather annoying butler Transformer (that’s a thing) is speaking to is speaking to Cade (Mark Wahlberg) one of the other Transformers, I can’t tell which one since all the Transformers show up at random with no purpose and have a line or two each at most, approaches them and asks “Who is this?”  Cogman immediately spins around and breaks all of the fingers on the larger Transformer’s right hand.  Why?  I guess random acts of extreme violence performed on a large thing by a small thing are hilarious in the minds of Michael Bay and his fans.

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Slightly before this, our female lead Vivian gets into an argument with her elder female family members about why she doesn’t have a boyfriend, so she gets into a car and reads a note, but the car is a Transformer which immediately kidnaps her!  Why did she just climb into a random car?  Beats the crap out of me.  How did she know there was a note inside that was for her?  Who knows?  But she needed to get kidnapped and whisked away to Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins) otherwise how could we have a good looking woman in the movie to gawk at?

This is the intelligence on display throughout the entirety of Transformers: The Last Knight‘s running time.  It’s not too uncommon for the cast and crew of a film to miss an important detail or two and leave behind plot holes to annoy their audience, but Transformers: The Last Knight never bothers to make any sense of anything from the get-go.  A character motivation is whatever Michael Bay incorrectly believes will get the biggest laugh and nothing more.  Occasionally it’s whatever will let him blow things up, but not a single action taken on the part of a single character is tied to any exposition, world laws, motivation, nor anything else other than the law of what would titillate a teenage male of very low intelligence.

Transformers: The Last Knight is the cinematic equivalent of a cat chasing a laser pointer where the audience is the cat.  It’s staring at a screen, drooling, and exclaiming “Oooh colors!”, and if that were all there was to this movie I would simply chalk it up as a bad movie, tell you I don’t recommend it as anything more than the possible subject of a do it yourself MST3K party, and leave it at that.  But, Transformers: The Last Knight takes it one step farther and actually crosses the line from horrible into downright offensive.

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Yes, it does have the racist undertones of previous movies, but those jokes are at least a little toned down here, not that that’s an excuse just an explanation that this isn’t the film’s biggest problem.  Transformers: The Last Knight includes two characters amongst its cast that are touted as smart people.  One is the female lead Vivian mentioned a few times earlier.  She has a PhD in history and archaeology and is a professor at a prestigious English university, I can’t recall exactly which one.  The other smart character is a scientist of an unknown discipline who people in the Earth military call on when it’s found that Cybertron is making its way directly toward Earth.

Throughout the course of the movie, Vivian makes snarky comments to Cade, falls in love with Cade because he has abs, screams, wears skintight clothing and glasses (because she’s smart), finds out she is the last descendant of Merlin, gets kidnapped, and ends the movie when she touches the staff she’s supposed to touch.  It’s bad enough that so much of this is incredibly sexist, but it’s made worse by the fact that her multiple advanced degrees and prestigious employment are in the movie purely so Michael Bay can say he has a smart woman in the movie and so she has an excuse to look down on people arrogantly until she sees their abs.  The unnamed military scientist’s role is even worse, put into the film only to play an obnoxious, arrogant nerd stereotype and to scream about how physics are more dependable than magic only to then be wrong and screw up every single thing he does.  Transformers: The Last Knight does not settle for merely being stupid, it goes all the way to straight out anti-intellectual.

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Final verdict:  If Tom & Jerry cartoons confuse you due to the high amount of intellect required to understand them, then perhaps this is a movie for you. Otherwise, Transformers: The Last Knight is a movie that is not content to be simply terrible and a jumbled mess of confused actions and images, it is also racist, sexist, and paranoid of anything with an IQ greater than the mid double digits and any degree of any kind.  Transformers: The Last Knight should not just be avoided, it should be shunned, as it is the embodiment of exactly the attitude which is running through American culture right now that makes us so susceptible to charlatans and those who seek to exploit anyone they can for their own greed and narcissism.   This film is worse than bad, it’s downright irresponsible and evil.

 

 

Wonder Woman (Jenkins; 2017)

Last November, I wrote on article on what the Marvel film universe is getting right, and the DC film universe is getting wrong.  To sum it up, I stated that Warner Brothers and DC don’t understand their own characters, are starting their stories in the middle giving us no frame of reference, and they are focusing solely on action and using no other elements of genre.  We are shown a Batman who unthinkingly kills, a Superman who couldn’t care less about collateral damage, a Lex Luthor who acts like a clown, and a Joker who doesn’t.  We have a story where Batman has been fighting the good fight for a long time and supervillains are filling the prisons, but no one seems to have heard about any of them until now for some reason.  And, every movie has been little more than excuses for people wearing unusual clothing to punch and otherwise injure each other.   I am happy to announce that for at least one movie every single one of these issues has been fixed in a DC Universe film, and the result is a movie comic book fans, action film lovers, and women everywhere have been anxious to see for a long, long time.

The character of Wonder Woman has been a tough one to crack for a very long time for some reason, probably because until recently the comic book business has been all boys, and even now the number of women working in the superhero creation industry is a very, very small percentage.  The history of the character is a long and interesting one, but until the last decade and a half or so, her personality hasn’t been much more than a desire to do good, a mission statement, and some superpowers.  Modern writers have started to latch onto the fact that she is an Amazon warrior and have used that very element of her backstory to give her a role very different from her male counterparts and very well defined.  The film Wonder Woman captures those elements of her character perfectly and expands upon them, giving us the first protagonist, or really character of any size, in a DC film that is true to her source material and also captivating.

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This film is also an origin story, which means we actually start the story at the beginning.  We get to see Diana’s (Gal Gadot) training on Themyscira, her relationship with the other Amazons as she was growing up, and her meeting with Steve Rogers (Chris Pine) which inspires her to leave her sanctuary and enter the world of men.  You would think giving characters motivations would be  an obvious element of story telling, but until now the motivations in the DC films have been muddied at best.  Not so here.  We get to see what inspires Diana, what her life was like growing up, and more so that we end up with a fully formed character we can relate to and root for rather than someone who is just fun to watch.

Wonder Woman is not just an origin story, it is also a film that takes place during World War I, giving us not only an additional genre of war film to work with, but also an interesting historical period as a backdrop, one not used nearly often enough in film.  We get to see a Europe ravaged by war, battles in which chemical weapons are an ever present threat and victories are measured in inches, and technologies which are nearly obsolete today are state of the art.  Throwing a fierce demigoddess into this mix works wonderfully, and gives us a truly original superhero origin story not quite like anything we’ve seen before.

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The one thing DC has always gotten right is its visuals.  While the stories are messy and the characters confused, watching the action on display in the DC Universe is a wonder to behold, and that is no different in Wonder Woman.  The sharply angled viewpoints, the technique of making some colors vibrant and others dull, and the use of slow motion to concentrate on detail rather than just being a cheap trick is all on display here.  This time around the battles are not just fun, though they certainly are that, but most are also inspiring.  Where most superhero action sequences are really a well choreographed dance with special effects mixed in, the battles here feel like battles, grittier than your usual comic book fare, and Wonder Woman herself feels less like an untouchable icon and more like a badass general leading and inspiring her troops to their best.

The relationship between Diana and Steve Trevor is handled as well as it possibly could be.  Chris Pine pleasantly surprised me last year with his tour-de-force performance in Hell or High Water which showed the world he had a lot more talent than just a pretty face and a decent Captain Kirk impersonation, and he brings that level once again here giving us just the right amount of confidence, smarts, self effacement, and wonderment to make a real person out of this character in a most surreal situation.  Chris Pine and Gal Gadot have some real chemistry going on, and half way through the film we feel it’s absolutely natural that this American spy and demigoddess should be so attached to and inspired by one another.

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The film does have a handful of minor issues, and two fairly major ones keeping it from being absolutely the best superhero film I’ve seen and only meaning that it’s in that conversation.  The film is fairly predictable.  They try to be clever about a major plot point which I won’t go into any more detail about, but if you’ve seen more than five movies in your life you will see a certain major reveal coming from miles and miles away.  The other major issue is that the climax of the film is a bit of a let down with a sort of deus ex machina of a type I thought movie studios were done with using a couple of decades ago giving Wonder Woman her ultimate victory.  These two disappointments were certainly not enough to sour the overall film’s effect for me, but they did make me sigh a bit.

Final verdict:  DC and Warner Brothers finally got it right, and in doing so they outdid themselves to a level that can only add pressure to both themselves and Marvel for the future.  Wonder Woman is exciting, inspirational, thoughtful, and visually stunning.  It makes a few missteps, but not fatal ones by a long shot, and I am so happy that the first superhero film in one of the comic universes starring and directed by women is one of the best films ever seen in the genre as a whole.  Wonder Woman is a must see movie.

 

Alien: Covenant (Scott; 2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (Gunn; 2017)

In 2014, Marvel Studios took a pretty big chance, which ended up having a huge payoff, in bringing us Guardians of the Galaxy, a Marvel property which was largely unknown even to comic book fans, let alone those who had never picked up a comic in their life.  In Guardians of the Galaxy movie fans got a fast paced space adventure with incredibly charismatic characters and just the right amounts of adventure and humor.  It was the best “Star Wars” movie since The Empire Strikes Back (I went there).  Three years later, and the Guardians are back, minus Groot but plus Baby Groot, except this time we already know and love these characters and are familiar with their schtick and how they fit into the Marvel Universe, so can Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 have the same impact as the original?

This time around, the characters are just as, if not more, charming as in the original.  Chris Pratt as Peter Quill (Star-Lord, man) is still the leader of the Guardians with Zoe Saldana as Gamora, his right hand bad ass assassin, Dave Bautista as Drax the overly literal Destroyer, Baby Groot voiced once again by Vin Diesel, and Sean Gunn and Bradely Cooper both working to bring weapons expert Rocket (don’t call him a Raccoon) to life.  Michael Rooker is also back as Yondu in an expanded role from the first Guardians of the Galaxy, and he deserves special mention as he and Dave Bautista are, in my opinion, the two true stand outs in the cast. Last time around, while the Guardians did ultimately end up as a complete group, there was still some definite pairing up going on with Quill and Gamora being one team, Rocket and Groot being a second, and Drax being the unfortunate fifth wheel.  This time around, the relationships are much more advanced with every character having quality time with each of the others and now very established ties to each other, making their interactions far more dynamic than the first time around – most of the time, but I’ll get to that in a few paragraphs.

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The visuals are of the quality we’ve come to expect from Marvel, with very proficient camera work and excellent special effects even if neither is ever terribly inventive.  The art direction on display, however, is definitely unique.  We are shown that the galaxy is a diverse place with equal parts ’60s psychedellia, dystopian grunge, and medieval retro pastiche making up its reaches.  The settings don’t always make a lot of sense, even within the confines of the story, but they are always creative and eye catching.  Even the opening and closing credits hold onto those creative and eye catching visual elements, with the opening credits being one of the most visually dynamic pieces in the entire film and a great way to open things up.

The script is well done with its dialogue being its stand out element.  The plot does have a few pacing issues unlike the first film, and the methods used to move it along can get a tad clunky, but overall it’s a story that does its job of drawing you in and raptly holding your attention, so even the few lulls aren’t obvious in the moment.  The dialogue, though, is the best I think has ever been written in a Marvel film.  Every single line is full of character, is crisp and entertaining, and this is by far the funniest Marvel film made to date with quip after quip, joke after joke, I was laughing so hard I had tears in the corners of my eyes for Guardian of the Galaxy, Vol. 2‘s entire running time, and I have never really found Marvel films quotable before despite how entertaining they are in general, but I’ve found myself wanting to quote many lines from this one, virtually biting my tongue even as I write this.

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This, however, leads me to the films largest flaw, and the flaw large enough that it keeps me from ranking it among Marvel’s best.  Can a movie be too funny?  The jokes are non-stop, one after the other, often verging into straight on slapstick territory, yet the film has a lot to say about familial themes.  Every character in the film deals with daddy issues on some level, with the exception of Baby Groot, and we see the Guardians and their various acquaintances playing the parts of a family unit in the film and all that entails.  It’s the point of the movie, showing when a family is at its strongest and when it can hold you back.  Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 has a lot to say about family, and it could say it well, except that it undercuts every serious moment in the film save one with a joke.  Sure the jokes work, but Gunn and the cast did not know when to let the humor go for a minute and let a poignant moment sink in.  I will say, though, that the part of me that’s more analyst and less film fan finds it fascinating that the movie’s main weakness is also its greatest strength.

To those who are wondering how this movie specifically plays into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and whether it can be seen without knowing much about the rest of the movies Marvel has created, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is practically a stand alone entity.  The only references to other films in the Marvel canon are to the original Guardians of the Galaxy, and even those are more character references and not needed to understand the story going on here.  The future world building that goes on in most Marvel films also seems to be absent here, though it is possible they are just more subtle about it than is often the case and we will see ripples from this movie in future Marvel installments, but importantly even if that is the case it is never distracting nor even obvious.  Anyone can see this movie without having seen another Marvel film in their life and still enjoy it just as much as someone who has seen every Marvel Studios movie to date.

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Final verdict:  Marvel films are always entertaining, they have yet to release an outright dud, and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, while not being one of Marvel’s greatest, is still excellent and continues the tradition of high quality we now have come to take for granted from Marvel.  While Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 may take the humor a bit too far at times, it is still Marvel’s funniest movie to date, never, ever letting up on the laughs while also giving us plenty of eye popping action taking place in eye popping settings.  You will be entertained, and you may even gain a little insight into family while you’re at it.  Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is highly recommended by yours truly, go make Marvel and Disney even richer than they already are, they keep earning it.