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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blade Runner 2049 (Villeneuve; 2017)

Making a sequel to the classic 1982 Harrison Ford science fiction film Blade Runner is either tremendously gutsy or stupid or both.  While it initially bombed at the box office, it has always been a critical success and it didn’t take long at all after its theater run for word of mouth to make Blade Runner a film which is now considered one of the greatest films ever made by many, and one of the greatest science fiction films ever made by so many that even its few detractors have to admit it’s something special.  In 2013, Denis Villeneuve caught the attention of smart filmgoers and Hollywood executives alike with Enemy.  Two years later he repeated his success in a more acceptably mainstream way with Sicario.  Then Arrival in 2016.  Denis Villeneuve finally gets his career making or breaking job with Blade Runner 2049, and not only is it certainly a career making job it’s one that cements him as one of the finest working directors and a man with the potential to be spoken about alongside the likes of Kubrick, Scorcese, and Hitchcock as one of the best directors of all time for giving us intelligent but also thrilling cinema.

Blade Runner‘s tone is instantly recognizable, yet also a little hard to grasp and explain.  It seems like it should be an action movie, yet it takes its time spacing the action far apart and getting it over with quickly.  It seems like mainstream science fiction, but it has camera work that so lovingly frames its painstakingly built world it’s more an art piece.  It seems like a simple good humans versus evil robots presence, but it’s really a treatise on what it means to be human.  Blade Runner 2049 understands all of this, and not only repeats it but manages to add more to the experience while also raising it to the next level.

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The tone and pacing which was the make or break element in the original Blade Runner for most is repeated in Blade Runner 2049.  Once again, we have a film which takes its time establishing its settings in silence before moving ahead with the action, a film which isn’t afraid to linger for a moment longer than usual on an empty room or a skyline.  While most appreciated this aspect of Blade Runner, there are those who say it makes the film boring.  Blade Runner 2049 uses this same style while also adding 45 minutes to the running time, so if you are in the Blade Runner is dull category, you will most likely feel the same about the sequel.

You’ll notice I didn’t do my usual brief plot summary of the film, and that is because to say anything about the plot of Blade Runner 2049 would be to spoil more than I like.  But, just like the original it is a story integrally tied to its themes.  It’s also a story which piggy backs both its plot and themes directly from the original in a way which both flows naturally and yet is also an entirely original creation.  In Blade Runner we were asked to think about what it means to be human and what our creations say about us, in 2049 we are asked again, and more dealing with memory, success, and the idea of our creations themselves becoming creators.

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The Vangelis soundtrack of Blade Runner was essential in establishing its unique dreamlike tone, and Blade Runner 2049 mimics that original soundtrack excellently with a gorgeous score from Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer.  Just like the story, the score mimics in exactly the way it needs to, yet still sets is self apart as its own entity showing us that the music just like everything else in Blade Runner 2049 is an evolution not a copy.

The cast of Blade Runner 2049 does the incredible job you would expect from this group of talented veterans.  Ryan Gosling in the lead, point of view role of “K” the replicant Blade Runner, does a fantastic job of portraying the artificial cop torn between doing what he was created and programmed for and his Pinocchio-like journey of self discovery and fulfillment which conflicts with his duties.  Harrison Ford reprises his role as Deckard, now confirmed to be a replicant, and gives us his best stuff despite being very vocal in the past about not liking nor truly understanding the first film.  Robin Wright is excellent as Ks boss/owner in the police department who brings a new twist to the role of hard ass cop with a soft spot for her subordinate, and relative newcomer Ana de Armas is a true revelation and a wonderful surprise in her part as K’s holographic companion.

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The crowning glory of Blade Runner 2049, though, is its visuals.  The special effects, art direction, and cinematography combine to make every frame a work of art.  The original Blade Runner practically invented the visual aesthetic of what we call cyberpunk, Blade Runner 2049‘s advanced technology and bigger budget takes that world we largely viewed from a distance and puts us right in the middle of it.  We get to look out the windshields of the flying cars as we weave between buildings, we interact with the larger than life holographic advertising which fills every available empty space, and we get to walk along streets then into alleys then through doorways filled with the desperate people of an overpopulated resource plundered world.  All this taken in and framed with the eye of a true auteur who makes the dystopia somehow beautiful and haunting and you have a masterpiece of visual artistry.

Final recommendation:  If you found the original Blade Runner overrated and dull, then you are not the audience for its sequel.  If you call yourself one of the millions, if not close to billions, of people who are a fan of the original, though, what you are getting in Blade Runner 2049 is more than just a continuation of the original story, much more than just an homage.  Blade Runner 2049 takes everything that made the original one of the greatest science fiction films of all time and somehow brings it to a level even greater.  Its themes are explored with even more nuance and depth, its characters more three dimensional and fascinating, its story even more gripping and surprising, and its visuals are of the sort that not just win awards, but which are shown off as examples which revolutionize the art of film making.  Blade Runner 2049 is a masterpiece, a more than worthy successor to the original, and of course I recommend it as wholeheartedly as is possible.

 

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.

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.

 

 

 

The LEGO Batman Movie (McKay; 2017)

Batman has had a very long and storied history in cinema.  His first appearance on the big screen goes all the way back to 1943, but the Batman we know today really made his first appearance as a campy, not at all to be taken seriously character in the movie titled simply Batman in 1966.  This was a time when comic books were seen as purely for children, and the character Hollywood gave us was more comedian than vigilante in a likeness which winks so constantly at its audience its a wonder the Batman of today hasn’t taken on a permanent squint.  The 1989 film by Tim Burton also called just Batman gave us a more gothic representation of the character.  Not a comedian, but still not entirely serious, this Batman showed Hollywood that the character can be enjoyed seriously by older audiences, a lesson which they promptly forgot 6 years later in Batman Forever and threw entirely out the window in 1997s Batman and Robin, widely considered one of the worst films ever made.

Then, in 2005, along came Christopher Nolan with Batman Begins to show general audiences that Batman, and superhero characters in general, could be real three dimensional characters with honest to goodness depth and could do it without giving up the action heavy story lines which made the characters popular in the first place.  This was something fans of comic books and animated series had known for a long time, of course, and these fans were arguably the reason Nolan’s film was greenlighted in the first place, but the success of Nolan’s films would forever change how live action superhero movies were made.  Gone was the camp, the genre could now be taken seriously, and for the last 11 years it has been.

Superhero movies were making so much money for the studios that everyone was trying to start their own franchise, though with only Marvel studios having real success, and we were (and still are) so inundated with superhero movies that people are starting to get sick of them and everyone wonders when the superhero movie bubble is going to burst, and that’s when early 2016 brought us Deadpool.  Deadpool set so many box office records it proved that the public wasn’t as sick of superhero movies as everyone thought, they are just sick of the same old superhero movies over and over again.  While many credit Deadpool‘s success to its hard R-Rating, I don’t.  I believe that its success comes from its tone.  Deadpool was the first comic superhero movie to come along in a very long time.  Movies like Guardians of the Galaxy have a light touch and a definite sense of humor, but Deadpool was a sort of modern throw back to that Batman of 1966 in which nothing is sacred and the sense of fun is more important than the plot or themes.

Which now brings us full circle to The LEGO Batman Movie.

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It’s about time you got around to me!

The LEGO Batman Movie is very much a kid friendly version of Deadpool.  Yes, there’s a plot and that plot has a point, but what it really sets out to do is be fun.  If self aware humor annoys you, then this movie will, I’m afraid, but anyone who can still find a film that satirizes its own genre and audience entertaining, then I can guarantee a good time.  From beginning to end if there is something to poke fun of regarding the character of Batman, the superhero action genre, LEGOs, and the people who like these things, then the writers found a way to goof on it, and on many other pieces of pop culture which LEGO has the rights to, of which the number seems endless.

The spoofing is usually clever, always funny, but it never leaves the realm of child friendly.  The makers of The LEGO Batman movie know very well that their target audience is families, not children – families, and while it actually may make people think on things that could make them uncomfortable at times, yes, it does go to thoughtful places on occasion, it never presents anything in a way that you wouldn’t want a young child to see.  I’m guessing the only reason it has its PG rating, and not a G, is that it is a superhero movie, so cartoony violence is often used to solve problems, but it never goes to a place darker or meaner than a Looney Tunes cartoon.

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In comparison to the original The LEGO Movie, The LEGO Batman Movie seems to always fall just short, but only just.  The new big song,”The Batman Theme Song”, is funny, toe tapping, catchy, and will make you smile as you sway in your seat, but don’t expect it to get nominated for an Oscar like “Everything is Awesome” was.  The jokes come at a fast and furious pace and most are hilarious, but every once in a while they do miss their mark here.  The themes of friends being family do hit home and they give the movie a lot of heart, but they just don’t have the heart string tugging power of the themes of true family the first film had.  The LEGO Batman Movie tries to have the cake of The LEGO Movie and eat it, too, but it seems the recipe of the first movie was just a tad too rich to truly duplicate, but damn if The LEGO Batman Movie didn’t come close.

The animation of this film is one piece that may actually be slightly better than the first.  As amazing as some of the things the animators were able to do with LEGOs in the first film was, they learned and managed to up the spectacle here.  Flames burn everywhere, things freeze over, machines morph and twist, and the film is constantly lively and in motion.  They may not do all the “Hey, we’re in a world made of LEGOs” tricks they perform in the first film, but the ones they do manage are clever and look amazing.

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Final recommendation:  If you have young kids, this one is a no-brainer, treat them and yourselves to this one, though maybe at a matinee if at all possible to keep the cost down.  For the rest, whether to see this one or not rests highly on what you thought of the first film or how much of a nerd you are.  The constant references that can actually get incredibly deep into Batman lore are fast and furious and will cause a comic book geek to fall in love with what they are doing here.  If you loved the original The LEGO movie, you will probably enjoy this one, too, just don’t set your expectations quite up to that one’s level and you will have a grand time.  This really is a Deadpool for kids so if you think of it along those lines, you should be able to figure out whether this is a movie for you.

Finding Dory (Stanton & MacLane; 2016)

It’s been 13 years since Pixar brought us its 5th movie, Finding Nemo, a film about a practical, loving, but pessimistic widower clown fish named Marlin (Albert Brooks) who has to break out of his comfort zone when his son, Nemo (Hayden Rolence), is abducted.  Early on in his journey to save his son, Marlin runs into Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a fish with short term memory loss, and Dory ends up being instrumental in the quest to find and save Marlin because of her optimism, charm, and her willingness to do the impractical and dangerous.

Finding Dory picks up shortly after the first film left off, we know this because the fish in the first film are mostly here and haven’t aged much if at all, with Dory now being a part of the community in the reef where Marlin and Nemo live.  She has a place and a family now, and probably because of the fact she now has a place where she can feel at home and call those around her family, Dory begins having flashes of memories of where she came from, and in particular of her mother and father.  She is compelled to find them, and Marlin and Nemo come along to help because she did the same for them.

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They are absolutely thrilled to help out.

Finding Dory has an awful lot to live up to.  It’s the sequel to a film that introduced us to characters that have become inconic, the revolutionized the art of computer animation, and that solidified Pixar’s place as a company that could out-Disney Disney.  When it takes this long between films to release a sequel, there is more reason to hope that what we’ll be getting is a true labor of love and not just a studio making a cash grab while a commodity is hot.  Finding Dory is most definitely that labor of love, but while it is a good film, it is one that can’t match the original, unfortunately.

The characters in Finding Dory aren’t quite as charming as in the original.  There aren’t as many characters to be found here and the personalities aren’t as varied.  We can see that Marlin has truly grown as a, um, person? due to the influence of Dory in Finding Nemo.  While he is still a pessimist at heart, he’s learned to be able to set his doubts aside and put himself in harms way when the goal is important enough.  Other than Marlin, though, the returning characters don’t seem to have changed much if at all.  Most, in fact, receive nothing more than a quick cameo followed by a good bye.  The new characters don’t have as much of a range of personality as those in the original film, and really are just a group of agreeable, and very similar characters who serve no purpose in the story other than to guide Dory through one trial or another.  The only stand-out new character is the octopus Hank (Ed O’Neill) who really adds a lot of life to the story as a gruff old man with a heart of gold who just wants to be sent to an aquarium in Cleveland but gets dragged along on Dory’s adventure despite himself.

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I’m really just Carl from Up.  Shh.  Don’t tell anybody.

The animation in Finding Dory is the true acheivement of the film.  As innovative as the animation in Finding Nemo was, the animation here is polished.  The colors are vibrant, the motion realistic, the framing is perfection, every second of the screen is a work of art the likes of which we haven’t seen since The Revenant and haven’t seen in an animated film since Spirited Away.  I am, of course, comparing Finding Dory to those films purely on quality and not on style.  Stylistically, Finding Dory is very much the child of its forerunner, but has improved on it in every single way, including charm.

The messages of family are definitely passed along from the original, and really aren’t expounded upon in any significant way.  The messages in Finding Nemo that family is the most important thing, but that family doesn’t necessarily have to be blood are all here, and shown to us in the same way and with very little to add.  It’s a good message, and it’s presented well, but it’s just a reminder for those who have seen Finding Nemo.  There is a bit of a new message in a running theme of people emulating Dory to be seen throughout the film, but this message is not only not as well unveiled to us as the messages on family, they are also not necessarily a positive message for a kid’s film, as this attitude causes as many problems as it solves, and in reality it could be highly dangerous.

Finding Dory is not going to be remembered as one of the greats in Pixar’s body of work.  In fact, it is ironically one of their more forgettable pieces.  It is still Pixar, though, which means that if nothing else it delivers a solid, if maybe a bit too familiar at times, story with gorgeous animation and charming characters with great voice acting.   This is a movie kids will love more than the adults, but the adults will still have fun.  If you have younger children, this one is a definite recommendation.  It’s a little more hit and miss for the adults out there, but I tend to lean more towards the hit side for all but the most cynical or pretentious out there in the movie going audience.

Rating:  7.8 out of 10