Rogue One / ****

rogueone_onesheetaI’m naturally skeptical of the whole “extended universe” of Star Wars. It’s nothing really against Star Wars, which I like pretty well – I’m not an obsessive fan, but I’ve enjoyed the movies on the whole. But it’s not like the original extended universe of Star Wars was particularly great – need we remind everyone of the whole “Chewbacca was crushed by a moon” debacle? And now, with everything borrowing from Marvel’s “shared cinematic universe” thing, everything has to be a franchise, ideally without ever feeling too risky or interesting.

And yet, there’s a lot that’s promising about Rogue One, even though it’s an undeniably flawed movie. There’s the fact that, tonally, the movie feels legitimately different from the other Star Wars movies. Yes, it’s an adventure film, but there’s a different feel to it all, most notably in the ending. It feels like a movie made up of Han Solos, for lack of a better term; it’s a collection of selfish rogues, caught up in this story almost against their better judgment or rationale.

Better than that, though, is Rogue One‘s approach to action, which feels far richer and more ambitious than much that we’ve seen in any of the other Star Wars films. It’s not just that there’s no lightsabers deployed here; the action feels bigger and broader, turning into the first time we’ve seen a true “war” in the Star Wars films. And in Gareth Edwards’ hands, there’s a sense of dread in the scope that we haven’t seen. Just as Gareth slowly doled out the glimpses of Godzilla in his film, Edwards makes great use of the Imperial elements of his battles, whether it’s the terrifying reveal of the Walkers or the dreadful looming of the Death Star. And that doesn’t even get into the instantly iconic scene near the end of the film that finally underlines something that’s been an undercurrent for the whole series.

This all makes Rogue One sound great, and to be honest, whenever Rogue One is letting action loose, it’s phenomenal. But a movie has to have a script and a plot, and that’s where Rogue One falls down. In many ways, Rogue One is a heist movie; it’s about the theft of the Death Star plans that set the first film into motion, and the film’s climax is all about that heist. But any heist has to have a coming together of the crew, and Rogue One‘s motley cast, while enjoyable, never really comes to life more than as archetypes and sketches. Motivations feel rushed at times, most notably in the case of Felicity Jones’s lead role, which feels like she decided to join the Rebellion offstage between scenes. (That’s better than Forrest Whitaker’s non-role, which feels like a blatant nod for some tie-in novel somewhere.) We know who these characters are a little, but not much, and it’s hard to be too invested in their fates when they feel a bit tossed in. It all ends up feeling like a functional script, and not much more, and one that hopes that the director can paper over the holes.

The result isn’t a great film, really. But it’s a promising start for these spin-off films, in that it shows that there’s a chance for these stories to be their own thing – not just more Star Wars, but a chance to find some of their own personality and style. Rogue One isn’t quite there yet, but in its action and style, it’s a step in the right direction, with enough action and fun to keep fans happy.

IMDb
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Action/Comedy Movies x3

deadpool_ver5Even with all of the good buzz surrounding Deadpool, it’s taken me a bit to get around to seeing it. As much as I worried about Logan being self-consciously “edgy” and “extreme” with its adult rating, those worried paled in comparison to my fears about Deadpool, which I worried would be smug and crass rather than clever. Thankfully, it turned out that, against all odds, Deadpool manages to be gleefully profane, wonderfully childish and chaotic, and somehow nonetheless avoids trading in shock value or anything truly offensive (that is, it may mock everything mercilessly, but there’s a welcome dearth of ethnic jokes, gay panic jokes, and the like). Even better, the result is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny; even without the fourth-wall breaking, Ryan Reynolds’ constant patter and jokes somehow manages to be both entertaining and surprisingly unexhausting (for us, at least; the movie manages to have fun with the amount of hatred he inspires in the villains, and even some of the friends, around him). Yes, at times, Deadpool falls into the standard Marvel formula – origin story, big villain, etc. – and yes, really, beyond Reynolds, most of the characters never really come to life very much beyond what the plot requires. (That’s most true for the film’s use of Colossus as a stand-in for the rest of the X-Men, who really never brings much to the table other than being there.) Even so, with Reynolds and the film constantly taking jabs at itself and its dramatic beats, the result feels surprisingly enjoyable and light, never taking itself seriously for too long. In short, the Marvel movie parts? They’re okay – nothing special. But the humor and patter makes for a really fun watch that I enjoyed more than I expected. Rating: ****

commando-posterOkay, sure, Commando isn’t technically an action-comedy; it’s, on paper at least, a pure 80’s action movie. It’s also perhaps the most quintessential, archetypal example of what we’ve come to think of as the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle – absurd masculinity, lots of gun/fist fights, Arnie being Arnie, and ridiculous one-liners after every major death. Really, Commando has basically enough plot just to lead to lots and lots of action sequences – there’s a man (the always welcome Dan Hedaya, even though he doesn’t get much to do here) who wants Arnie to overthrow a South American country, and to motivate him, he’s kidnapped his daughter. As you might guess, Arnie’s not super on board with this, and decides to take them all out. Every part of what you imagine as 1980’s Arnie action movies is here – gratuitous nudity, sleazy chauvinist bad guys, a love interest who doesn’t really have any chemistry or purpose in the film, lots of absurdly big explosions, homoerotic tension and plenty of one-liners. In other words, it’s not like it’s a good movie, but it’s a really fun one to watch; sure, there’s some regrettably 80’s approaches to the world in here (particularly if you’re a woman), and no, it never really makes any sense. But if you can’t get behind Arnold picking up a phone booth with a bad guy in it and throwing it around, or his fighting about twenty cops at once and throwing them all off at the same time, well, what kind of garbage film lover are you? Rating: *** ½

czqsvbgumaayhmz-jpg-largeMeanwhile, if Commando is an action movie that occasionally gets ridiculous, Keanu, the first film by Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key after the end of their series Key and Peele, is a comedy that occasionally becomes an action film. The story of two African-American friends who pretend to be ruthless underworld criminals in an effort to get back a missing cat, Keanu is undeniably uneven and a bit thin at times, stretching a solid premise for a few skits to the breaking point and a bit beyond. Luckily, Keanu also features the ridiculous charisma and comic timing of Key and Peele, who never look like they’re working hard to make you laugh, but whose comic timing is absolutely impeccable and dead on at all times. (Also working for the film: an absolutely adorable kitten.) As you might expect, coming from a sketch show background, Keanu feels a bit disconnected at times, with some sequences feeling like sketches loosely connected to the story. That doesn’t make it any less funny to see Key attempting to sell a bunch of hardened street kids on the cred of George Michael, or to see Peele trying to convince everyone in a Truth or Dare game just how hardened and ruthless he is. But it does mean that the film is fairly hit and miss, with more plot than we really need (a fact I think the movie is in on, given how silly it gets in the final stretch). Nonetheless, all I can say is that I laughed pretty frequently throughout Keanu, and if a lot of that is simply thanks to Key and Peele’s fantastic comic presences, well, that’s no small thing. Rating: *** ½

IMDb: Deadpool | Commando | Keanu

Samurai Jack (Season 5) / *****

samurai-jack-posterI won’t lie to you: my first reaction, as the credits rolled over the last episode of Samurai Jack that we would ever get, was disappointment. Oh, sure, we got an ending, but it was a weak one, tucked into an episode that felt rushed and hurried. No, I didn’t mind the Pyrrhic nature of the victory, and I loved the beautiful, haunting final minutes of the episode. But that final showdown – was that really how it ended? It was…well, it was anticlimactic, and a bit hurried, and just…I dunno. It was a bit of a fizzle.

But then, right after the credits rolled, Adult Swim ran a promo for the marathon they were going to do of this entire final, revived season – a season that we had had no reason to ever expect, a season that gave us closure on a show that I, along with many others, had thought would simply fall between the cracks of time. And as this long promo ran, and recapped the great season, it drove something home to me: to focus too much on the ending of Samurai Jack is to miss the greatness of this final season, and to miss the joys that this show brought me, week in and week out.

See, Samurai Jack was never a show about its story. Nominally, yes, it was the story of a samurai trapped in the future, where the warlord he opposed had become the cruel ruler of the planet. But in reality, it was a show that lived and died by its style, that succeeded not because of what was happened, but how it all happened. This was a show that eschewed dialogue, that let everything be conveyed visually, that wasn’t afraid to embrace dark screens, or stylized animation, or to toss out visual gags when unexpected. But more than anything else, Samurai Jack was a show about style – about the way it told its story. (The example I always fall back on is the episode about the blind archers, in which Jack learns to fight blindfolded – a feat the show conveyed by letting the screen go black, only to have the elements fade in as he heard them and identified them by noise. You can watch the clip here, if you’d like.)

And really, season 5 was no exception to that; it was a triumph of astonishing style, with multiple sequences every week that took my breath away. From the jagged shadows of a bloody Jack being tended to be a wolf to an underground cavern scored to a Morricone-inspired tune, from the haunting and beautiful final images to the oil-style painting that capped the penultimate episode, Samurai Jack made its way by telling a story visually, letting animation do the heavy lifting and letting the voice actors support the images, rather than the other way around.

Nonetheless, season 5 of Samurai Jack told a rich story, following up on a hero whose isolated, lost nature has only become more pronounced and haunting since the last time we met him, with madness settling in around the edges. This is a hero who cannot return home, who cannot protect his family, and who seems destined to forever wander the earth, isolated and alone. And over the course of season 5, we watch as Jack struggles to figure out his purpose, and what his quest even means. We see what first appears to be fan-service cameos, only to realize that what showrunner Genndy Tartakovsky is doing is showing us that Jack has changed this world, and for the better. And best of all, we watch as Jack finds an equal – another outcast – and for the first time, meets a kindred spirit.

And yes, it all built up to a fight that was somewhat anticlimactic. But the longer I’ve thought about that, the more okay I am with that fact. Aku may have been the villain of this story, but he was never Jack’s true nemesis. Indeed, Jack’s greatest nemesis of season 5 may have been himself – a warrior version of himself cast into doubt, into questioning, into a sense of hopelessness – and into a funk where he couldn’t even be sure he was the hero any longer. Tartakovsky drove that question home beautifully, as Jack’s sword, for the first time, began to slice not just robots, but also human beings. That’s heady, complex fare, and Tartakovsky doesn’t give us easy answers to it all, showing both the brutality of the fight and its necessity.

And so, by the time Jack fights Aku, it’s all over but the shouting. Jack has unified himself, found a purpose, pulled himself together, and realized his meaning. Why shouldn’t the fight be fast? This was never about Aku vs. Jack. It was about Jack’s journey, and what it would make of him by the end – a choice that makes the finale’s final moments of quiet and peace all the more effective. For all of the drama, for all of the action, for all of the imagination, the show’s final moments give us closure on Jack itself – and it’s the perfect way to end it.

IMDb

John Wick: Chapter 2 / ****

john-wick-chapter-2-posterI wasn’t really prepare for how much I enjoyed the original John Wick, which took what could be an absurd premise – a retired hitman who comes back to avenge the death of his dog – and turned it into something wonderfully original and fun, filling its running time with stylistic battles, wonderful character actors, and a rich and interesting world of criminal interactions and societies. (And that doesn’t even factor in my deep love of Ian McShane, whose presence in anything automatically makes it worth watching.) So there was no way I was going to pass up the chance to see more adventures with Keanu Reeves’ killing machine, and the rapturous reviews that John Wick: Chapter 2 was greeted with only made me more excited.

Now, here’s the thing: I really enjoyed John Wick: Chapter 2, which delivers exactly what you would want from a sequel. You get more of Wick’s brutal headshot delivery service, more exploration of this complex, labyrinthine underground economy of coins and markers, more wonderful character actors making an appearance and taking stock characters and investing them with life and personality. (The standout this time, apart from McShane, is Laurence Fishburne, having a blast as the head of a criminal group made up of the homeless.) And, of course, there’s insane, stylish action, with some brutal use of a pencil, a knockout streetfight, an even match for Wick, and a jawdropping finale in a hall of mirrors that’s just a joy to watch unfold.

For all of that, though, John Wick: Chapter 2 doesn’t quite hit the peaks of the original film. That’s not to say that it’s bad, by any means; indeed, at some of those above-mentioned points, it exceeds the original and then some. But it’s a far more uneven film, and it suffers greatly from “middle film” syndrome – because, make no mistake, this feels like a setup for John Wick: Chapter 3 at times, and the lack of a true climax is a bit frustrating. More than that, at times, this feels like a bit of a retread; while it’s still fun to watch Wick lay waste to people, there’s a bit of a feeling of “Okay, sure, but what else do you have?”

Now, there comes a point about halfway through the film when everything changes – when this goes from John Wick being on a mission to being the prey, and it’s at that point that John Wick: Chapter 2 really finds its groove, and becomes a joy to watch. That’s the point where the film separates itself from the original, and becomes something new and exciting, and from that point on, the film is a blast to watch. But that doesn’t really excuse the first half from being…not bad, and certainly not boring, and not even unexciting. But not nearly as engaging as you’d hope.

All of this may sound like I didn’t like it, and I don’t mean that to be the case, because I had a blast with this movie. I could watch Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Lance Reddick, and others just live in their parts for hours; I love the small details of this strange world, and the complicated rules and bureaucracy we keep catching glimpses of. And I love Reeves’ Wick, a lethal man who just wants to be left alone – he makes for a fun reluctant hero, a man caught back in a life he doesn’t want to be in. And, more than anything else, I love the film’s sheer style, and refusal to do anything in half measures – from laser-drenched concerts to shattered mirror halls, from insane car crashes to fist fights in the middle of subways and fountains, the film goes out of its way to make every scene memorable and unique.

Is it the first one? Nah, not quite. But did I have fun? Oh, yes. And will I see the third one? As soon as I possibly can.

IMDb

Blade Runner / Escape from New York

It’s not as though the Full Moon Cineplex – a locally run new theater that specializes in double features of classic programming – could have known how appropriate their timing on their dystopian science-fiction was going to be when they scheduled it. But after a traumatizing election and an aftermath that only looked worse, it seemed appropriate to plunge into a pair of futuristic hopeless worlds to cap off the week. 

blade_runner_xlgMind you, describing Ridley Scott’s incredible Blade Runner as a dystopia doesn’t entirely cover that film’s greatness, but it’s a start. It’s hard to look at Blade Runner in terms of how groundbreaking it was at the time, or to see it as the influential, seminal work of style that it’s become. And, if I’m being honest, it’s a film that I’ve only slowly come to appreciate over the years, thanks in no small part to getting the chance to see it on the big screen and lose myself in its rich world building and astonishing style. (Really, I think seeing the film for the first time on a small TV via a grainy VHS was part of the reason I disliked it for so long; such a viewing robs the film of so much of its power and impact.) But watching Scott’s film projected onto a big screen (in the “Final Cut” version) gives you a chance to be awed by what the film accomplishes, creating a cyberpunk future before that word existed, laying the groundwork for countless works (both written and cinematic) to come, all while investing us in a profound, powerful story that uses its noir framework to probe deeper questions about existence and meaning.

At its core (and maybe this is just fresh in my mind because I’m currently teaching this book), Blade Runner owes perhaps more of a debt to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein than it does to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; here, after all, is a film about artificial life that has been created, but is viewed as monstrous by the world around it. More than that, it is about that artificial life seeking answers from the creator that made it – and, perhaps, cursed it. And it somehow engages with all of this, letting the subtext come through clearly, while plunging us into a futuristic world that’s haunting and eerily plausible in many ways. I have some issues – I still get frustrated with the way that Scott’s final cut removes any doubt about the “Is Deckard a replicant question?”; beyond that, the way that the plot sometimes recedes entirely from view, forcing us to engage with the subtext or lose interest, isn’t ideal for a propulsive piece of storytelling. But there’s no denying the richness of the film’s script, or the incredible world that Scott has created – and to see it on the big screen is to lose yourself in a film that still feels like little else that’s ever been done. Rating: *****

escape-from-new-yorkMeanwhile, John Carpenter’s Escape from New York is a pretty typical Carpenter movie: stylish, pulpy, and fun, sure, but also paper-thin, and even with its great hook, you can’t help but feel like Carpenter could have done so much more with it. (This is really the case for so many Carpenter films, isn’t it? I mean, apart from The Thing.)

But, man, what a great hook. New York has been turned into a giant prison, and the President has crashed there; our antihero, Snake Plissken, has been sent there to infiltrate the city, get the President, and get out. What you get is part heist film, part Warriors-style gang piece, and, generally, something that’s pretty fun. Carpenter populates his world with gloriously over-the-top characters and character actors who make the most of their presence. It’s hard, after all, to truly hate a movie with Harry Dean Stanton, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Adrienne Barbeau, Isaac Hayes, Donald Pleasance, and Kurt Russell in “bad-ass” mode. Somehow, though, they’re all overshadowed by Frank Doubleday’s gloriously weird and bizarre performance as the Duke’s right hand man, Romero.

The plot? Well, it leaves a bit to be desired. At times, Escape from New York feels like a short film stretched to feature length, and that can be frustrating; there’s a sense of that you can feel Carpenter’s low budget throughout, and that there’s a richer, more detailed story that could have been told. Sure, Carpenter turns New York into a hellscape (although you could argue that he wasn’t changing that much, given the timeframe during which he made the movie), but for all the talk about the various factions at play and the huge gangs wandering, you can’t help but feel like it’s a missed opportunity that we see precisely one group and a couple of stragglers. We get a small piece of this, and Carpenter leaves us wanting more, which can be frustrating.

Nonetheless, it’s hard not to enjoy Escape from New York as a fun piece of pulp. Snake is a great antihero, the environment is a blast, and the supporting characters are never not entertaining. It’s far from perfect, but it’s enjoyable in that way that Carpenter usually manages, turning a simple premise into something engaging, shadowy, and stylish. You just can’t help but wish that there was a bit more meat to it than what we get. Rating: *** ½

IMDb: Blade Runner | Escape from New York

Big Hero 6 / **** ½

big_hero_6_film_posterOver the last few years, I’ve gotten a reputation among my friends for being a bit grouchy and dismissive of the whole “Marvel Cinematic Universe” thing. And they’re not wrong, but what I say less is how disappointed I am that I don’t enjoy the MCU more. I grew up loving comic books – especially the X-Men – and so I should be right in the prime audience for the MCU. But as each new movie has come out, and have felt less and less interesting – and more and more interchangeable and generic – I found myself giving up on the whole thing.

All of which brings me to Big Hero 6, which is a Marvel movie at least in spirit, if not quite in canon. Based on an obscure Marvel property (one review I read said that Marvel had forgotten that they even owned the rights to it), Big Hero 6 bears the Marvel stamps, but without being tied into the MCU, and with the freedom that comes from being the property of Disney Animation. And so, while Big Hero 6 still has some of the Marvel staples – a tragic origin story, a theatrical villain, a requisite cameo (of sorts) – it feels not so much like the other Marvel films as it does itself, and that’s a step in the right direction – especially when that vision of itself is so much fun.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Big Hero 6 has such an interesting world to play in. Set in an alternate near future where San Francisco has been partially rebuilt and funded by Japanese investors and technology, the film wastes no time in diving into its setting, kicking things off with underground bot battling for money. From there, we rocket ahead with our tale, finding ourselves in a technology institute with college students on the verge of changing the world with lasers, chemicals, and more. And we see it all through young hero, well, Hiro – a precocious, gifted teenager who graduated at an early age and drifts through life without much purpose, until his brother shows him the wonders of life in an incredibly well-funded research lab.

In many ways, much of Big Hero 6 feels like a throwback to the original Iron Man; after all, both are about gifted, cocky characters whose gifts for science allow them to push the boundaries of technology and inadvertently create heroes. But what Big Hero 6 brings to the table is a sense of wonder and imagination, a feat assisted by its animated medium, which eliminates the usual restrictions of budget and effects. Instead, the film is free to create whatever it wants, and its use of nanobots ends up being a blast, creating something fluid and nearly sentient out of the technology. And, of course, there’s Baymax, the medical robot turned lackadaisical superhero, whose charming nature and calming voice bring both a hilarious sense of humor and a much needed dose of levity to a genre that too often takes itself overly seriously.

Sure, in broad strokes, you’ve seen this story before. There’s an awful tragedy, and as a result of that, characters are forced into growth, finding in themselves a heroic side that they weren’t aware of. Meanwhile, a mysterious villain – motivated by revenge, naturally – is using some of our heroes’ own research and ideas against them. And it all comes down to a big, theatrical final confrontation (though luckily it avoids the usual “big beam of light into the sky” trope that’s been plaguing comic book movies).

And yet, I keep coming back to just how fun the whole thing is, and how it reminded me of what I loved about comics as a kid. It wasn’t always the plotting and the characters, though I loved that; it was the style, the action, the sense of glee at being “special”. And Big Hero 6 cashes in on that in spades, even going so far as to letting one of its characters be a gleeful fanboy who’s just excited to fight. And when it does get serious? It works pretty well, engaging with the emotions of loss and revel more thoughtfully than I expected.

In a lot of ways, Big Hero 6 is nothing special – another superhero movie, another kids movie about a misfit with a lovable sidekick, another unlikely hero story. And yet, there’s something really winning about the film, which gives us all of that, but does it in an interesting world, with good characters, a nice sense of style, a sense of humor and fun, and makes itself feel like its own product instead of another piece of a multi-part crossover event that you’ll finally see in ten years. In short, it’s a blast, and I’m glad I finally sat down and saw it.

IMDb

Lucy / ***

lucy-scarlett-johansson-posterLook, let’s get this out of the way: yes, the whole “we only use 10% of our brains” thing is an urban myth. It’s one of those things that gets said a lot, and seems to be accepted by some people, but it’s not true, and really doesn’t make much sense. And so, yeah, I suppose you could dismiss Lucy based off the fact that its entire premise revolves around that – it tells the story of a young woman who is tapping into her brain capacity more and more, giving her powers beyond any explanation.

And look, I guess I can’t argue with you if that’s your hang-up with the film, but in the end, the brain thing is a MacGuffin of sorts. No, it’s not what everyone is after, so it’s not a literal MacGuffin, but it’s a plot device – an excuse to let the film unfold, a hook to make things work. And whether it’s the 10% of our brain or a magical drug that gives her powers, it doesn’t really matter that much to the film around it. Well, more accurately, it shouldn’t matter that much. Because, really, Lucy is a pretty dumb movie. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad, mind you; it’s just a gleefully silly movie that wants to make a fun action flick, and needed an excuse to make it work.

And work it often does, if you can give yourself over to the silliness. Luc Besson knows what he’s doing behind a camera, and his staging and pacing of Lucy is generally a joy every time he lets the action unfold. There are scenes here that feel like what we kind of wanted The Matrix to be – a world where rules could be re-written – and every time Lucy goes for broke, the end result is silly, over-the-top fun, from a destructive car chase to a series of ineffective gun battles.

The problem, ultimately, comes in the disconnect between Lucy‘s best parts (the action) and the weakest – a part of the film that could charitably be called “technobabble”. In the best version of Lucy that exists in some alternate world, Besson lets the absurd premise dictate the film, and lets the gleefully weird action shine. Instead, Lucy takes itself oddly seriously at points, and as Lucy herself becomes more and more godlike, the film gives itself over to bizarre abstractions that feel like 2001 if it were…well, if it were filmed as a really dopey action movie. (Here’s a helpful guide to watching Lucy: if Morgan Freeman is in a scene, it’s because Besson needs him to keep everything from seeming as stupid as it is. Nothing against him, but every scene with Freeman is successively dumber than the ones before it.)

It’s hard to hate Lucy that much – it’s just a dopey, goofy movie that takes itself a bit too seriously, and feels, to steal a phrase from Matt Singer’s review, “like 2001: A Space Odyssey as reimagined by a pothead college dropout”. It’s entertaining and silly, to put it mildly, and it takes itself a bit too seriously by the end. (I really can’t express easily the weirdness of the ending, which I kind of loved as a gonzo filmmaking choice, even while I was baffled by using it as a way of ending this story.) That doesn’t mean it’s not fun, and it doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining; it just means that it’s pretty dumb, and ironically, doesn’t make the most of its potential.

IMDb