Jul 242017
 
two reels

Several years after the “Dutch Boy” weather control system saved millions of people by stopping massive storms caused by global warming, a village in Afghanistan is flash frozen. The Dutch Boy system is at fault and the only person who can save the day is Jake Lawson (Gerard Butler), the troubled scientist who built the system but was fired by his more political younger brother Max (Jim Sturgess). Jake heads up to a space station and quickly discovers that the problem is sabotage while Max finds this out separately on Earth. The two brothers must now uncover the plot and who is behind it in order to save the planet from a “geostorm” which will kill millions if not billions.

While advertized purely as a standard disaster feature, Geostorm is more akin to a SyFy channel disaster film. The normal multiple intertwined tales of unrelated and semi-related characters all experiencing the disaster in different locations are gone. Instead we have one rebellious he-man scientist and his unlikely younger brother (props to mom and dad for somehow raising two kids at the same time who appear to have been born 20 years apart) looking at computer screens and talking about conspiracies. Sure, there’s multiple scenes of disastrous storms knocking down building and killing folks, but these happen far away from anyone we know. Cut one or two of those, and cheapen the effects a bit and this would be a SyFy channel film.

Which isn’t to say Geostorm is bad. Those made-for-TV films can be fun in a stupid kind of way, and the FX aren’t cheap. It is more or less what you’d expect as the directorial debut of Dean Devlin, the writer and producer of Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla, and Independence Day: Resurgence, at least after bad test screenings caused a lot of reshoots with a different director. The film feels like it was constructed from scratch in editing, inventing a story to go with the footage they had on hand and covering the seams with those re-shoots. The big set pieces look like Independence Day, but who cares if there’s no human characters to follow as the streets rip open and the oceans freeze? I have to figure there were originally some major characters in India and Arabia who got cut, leaving us some nice shots of major mayhem that don’t matter.

But this is a disaster film, meaning things tend not to matter that much anyway, and that includes the plot. Geostorm is as silly as film gets, with a good deal of questionable storytelling, but “I didn’t find a deeply meaningful theme” and “At least half the movie is nonsense” are not legitimate complaints against the movie. The Poseidon Adventure was light on theme and Independence Day didn’t make a lot of sense either. Geostorm is what it is: mindless action with a lot of big things going boom. It’s been done better before, several times by Devlin, but it is passable in its subgenre. It needed more compelling characters (rumor has it Butler didn’t know his lines and that’s how it looks while watching) and a reason to care about those collapsing buildings, but if you ask little of it and don’t have to pay full price, you’ll have a good time.

 Disaster, Reviews Tagged with:
Jul 172017
 
two reels

Years after Samuel (Anthony LaPaglia) and Esther Mullins’s daughter is killed, the Mullins invite a nun and six orphans—including crippled Janice (Talitha Bateman) and her friend, and a pair of mean girls—when the orphanage is closed. Janice is driven to enter the dead girl’s room and encounters the doll, Annabelle. Thereafter, creepy and supernatural things begin to happen.

Call it Jump Scare, The Movie. Annabelle: Creation is the forth film in the Conjuring series and is a prequel to a prequel. The original Conjuring claims to be very loosely based on a true story—that true story coming from a pair of “paranormal investigators” and scam artists: Ed and Lorraine Warren. I saw them speak years ago; there is more money to be made in speaking tours on silly topics then in fake exorcisms.

The Conjuring series doesn’t exist because it has a string of stories to tell, but because the return on investment is fantastic. So Annabelle: Creation, like Annabelle before it, does not claim to be based on anything, which makes me look at it more favorably than the lying films. In wanting to make more films, the filmmakers needed some connection to the original, so the evil doll was what they had to work with. It’s not a bad choice.

I’m not a good reviewer for Annabelle: Creation because I look at story and theme and character, and this film isn’t interested in those. It is interested in frights. It layers scary moments on scary moments. They are mainly clichés, but they are well presented clichés—as well done as you are likely to find in midlevel horror—and I suspect they will be properly frightening for people who want to be frightened by movies. And those scares aren’t subtle. They are big, loud, and non-stop. Things appear and vanish. Demons and ghosts pop up. A doll is seen rocking in a chair but is gone when the door is opened. The lights go on and off, footprints appear, and the music swells. It would be silly in the hands of weaker actors and crew, but the young actors excel at appearing frightened and the folks over in the DCEU could take lessons from Annabelle: Creation on framing and how to film a dark scene.

By my definitions, Annabelle: Creation isn’t a film, but porn—fright porn—where its sole function is to get the viewer to feel, feel fear in this case. As a film, it fails. As fright porn, it is extremely effective.

 Demons, Horror, Reviews Tagged with:
Jul 162017
 
one reel

In a framing story, a kid wanders into a store run by Mr. Liu (Jackie Chan). That story doesn’t mean anything and we are then dropped into the animated LEGO section. There, super villain Garmadon (voice: Justin Theroux) attacks the city of Ninjago on a daily basis. His high school age son (voice: Dave Franco) secretly fights him as The Green Ninja, along with five other teen ninjas. They are trained by Master Wu (voice: Jackie Chan again). But more important than ninja fighting is parent abandonment issues. So many abandonment issues.

Making animated LEGO movies was clearly a bad idea. So it was a shock that The LEGO Movie was smart and funny. Then came The Lego Batman Movie, which was significantly weaker, but still fun, particularly in its commentary on the darker versions of Batman. But now we’ve reached the assumed beginning: The LEGO Ninjago Movie was a terrible idea.

The previous two were family films. This is a kid’s movie meant to distract a grumpy child while you are getting his juice box. Since that’s all it is—bright shiny lights on a screen—I’d have thought they’d have been better going entirely with jokes and action. Both of those are present—not all that funny nor exciting—but the film is less interested in those things that the target audience might enjoy and far more focused on discussing abandonment, lots and lots of abandonment discussions. The “jokes” are about abandonment. The action pauses every few seconds to dwell on abandonment. I suppose it is trying to tell kids how to deal with their missing parents, but no child is going to learn anything about absentee fathers from this cheap mess.

Of course what The LEGO Ninjago Movie is really trying to teach children is to buy some Ninjago toys. I suspect that would be a better way to spend your money than on this movie.

 Fantasy, Reviews Tagged with:
Jul 142017
 

civil-war-00001

I did it with Batmen; I can do it was Spider-men. Once again, animated versions confuse matters, so I’m sticking with live action.

One big difference between Spider-Man and Batman is that the secret identity is key with Bats, but not with Spidey. Batman and Bruce Wayne are different. Peter Parker is Spider-Man. He can relax as Spider-man, but his sense of humor, outlook and general persona doesn’t change. If an actor gets Peter Parker, chances are he gets Spider-Man.

But Peter Parker is a nearly impossible character to get right as he makes less sense than Batman, and that’s saying something. OK, what’s wrong with Peter? Well, he is the Marvel standard bearer for having real world problems. He’s just a regular teenager. He’s a little nerdy, so gets bullied. He’s not cool. He comes from a lower middle class family that is just trying to get by. OK. Oh, and to go with that slight nerdy reputation, he happens to be the smartest human being who has ever existed, and the greatest engineer—the web shooters are just the start of what he creates and he made those with no money. (Really, how does he manufacture that stuff?) He’s way, way, way too smart to be a regular teenager. He would never have been just some high school student. And he’s also the worlds greatest tailor. In fact, this average kid can pretty much do everything. He’s a fantasy for adults remembering their childhood and thinking what teen’s want. He’s even witty. He’s too perfect a human for his story. He’s a superhero without the spider. And that’s just too many coincidences: the guy who happens to be bitten by a radioactive spider also happens to be able to design and produce an amazing webbing material and also happens to be able to create fantastic web shooting devices. Huh.

Part of the problem is he was made up of other heroes. He has Batman’s motivation. But he has Superman’s folksy guardians to teach him how to be good. He has to be haunted, and also not haunted at all. He’s got to be jokey and fun to be around while simultaneously being overly pure and morose. He is the biggest star of Marvel comics, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that he’s been everything at one time or another. For a film, you just have to choose what parts to take. Unfortunately, comic book people are purists, and want it all. You can’t have it all.

So, how have the five live action versions of Spidey worked out? Let’s take a look. (Note: I’m not counting cameos for this list)

 

#5 Nicholas Hammond (The Amazing Spider-Man—1977-1979)

Nicholas Hammond spidermanWhat if Peter Parker was just dull? How about solving the problem of Peter Parker being too many things by making him not much of anything. This very ‘70s Spider-Man is uninteresting in and out of costume. Not unlike the TV Captain America of the time that is also painful to watch, this Spider-Man is true blue in the dullest sense. Hammond is 27, which isn’t as big a problem as it will be up this list, as Parker isn’t a teen and he doesn’t deal with teenage problems. When not politely looking for evil-doers, he’s acting like what people with no connection to physics imagine a physics grad student might be like.

His suit isn’t anything special, but not bad enough to lower the already low level of the show. Scuttling up walls is his main power. He rarely uses his webbing. Effects were not on his side, nor was fight chorography.

J. Jonah Jameson is the only member of Spidey’s comic book support staff that makes it to the show. David White does a reasonable job in the pilot, though his Jameson isn’t as unpleasant as fans are used to. He was replaced by Robert F. Simon, who gets my vote for the second best in that role.

Superman changed the way superheros were treated on the big and small screen. This Spider-Man predates that hero, and it shows. Everything is cheap. The villains are standard criminals and spies, and it is all boring.

 

#4 Tobey Maguire (The Spider-Man Trilogy—2002-2007)

tobey spiderWith the Maguire Spider-Man, they dealt with the “Spider-Man is everything” problem by dropping out Peter’s humor and wit as well as personal strength and maturity, and decreasing his intelligence to near human levels. He’s still a bit too bright for an average high school nerd, but at least he’s not inventing webbing materials or designing web shooters (although he’s still a world-class tailor). This version dealt almost exclusively with teen Peter and fantasy fulfillment teen Peter. Not only is he a teenager, but all of the themes and all of his issues are those of a teenager. His body is going through changes. He rebels and learns a painful lesson. He’s trying to find his place in the world. He feels lost, suffocated, and alone. He has a puppy love for a girl that he hardly knows (we hardly know her) merely because she is pretty and is nearby, and tries to impress her in immature ways; he then spends three films breaking up and getting back together with her. He is constantly searching for father figures that then turn into step-father figures that then turn into villains. Well, except for the villain part, that’s teenage life.

And to play that we get twenty-seven-year-old Tobey Maguire. Maguire has the uncomfortable bit down, but I wonder if he could have passed for a teen when he was one. He looks like the parent of a teen. If this guy showed up in a classroom, the teacher would either assume it was for a parent-teacher conference or she’d call the police to deal with the pedophile. I wince when in the second film a man on the train sees the unmasked Peter and remarks, “He’s just a kid; no older than my son.” I suppose that would be an OK statement in the speaker was gray-haired and retired.

Look, you can have inappropriately aged actors playing youthful roles. It’s generally a bad idea, but it can be done. But then the central theme must be something other than “Gosh, I’m going through changes.”

Maguire is not only too old, he always looks like he’s about to take a nap. He’s one of the least energetic actors I know, which is a problematic choice for a superhero.

So, too old, sleepy, and humorless. That’s not a good start. What he does have is the haunted angle. This Peter is grief-stricken and controlled by guilt. That makes him no fun at all to watch, but it does make a kind of sense and fits with all his crying. His extensive whining is another matter. If that was consistent, it would make a good After School Special or teen drama, if you happen to think those things are ever good. But this Spider-Man is also wish-fulfillment for fanboys who want their hobby to be taken seriously. Thus, Spider-Man is a sad, nerdish, outsider, without a girlfriend, as they saw themselves in high school, but he’s also cool. That last bit explains the outrage when the 3rd film does something that makes sense for the character (the Venom symbiot bringing to the surface Peter’s very uncool vision of what being cool is) but violates the fantasy.

As with Batman, my Spider-Men get graded on the company they keep and this Spider-Man does poorly. He’s got an empty Mary Jane and James Franco either not bothering to play anything at all or just playing James Franco as Harry. He’s got an insufferable Uncle Ben (yeah, I know this is a kid’s movie, but actually having him spell out the life lessons is way too much) and a stereotypically saintly Aunt May. A few of the father figures would be pluses, except they turn into villains, and the coincidences become silly. He does have a great J. Jonah Jameson (JK Simmons).

 

#3 Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man Duology—2012-2014)

gar spiderAnd back we go to Peter being everything. He’s a super-genius, spectacular engineer, and topflight tailor. Where does he get the materials for his webbing, or for…everything? He’s also just your average, everyday teen, who is handsome, agile, and cool. He also can be funny, but that part of his character vanishes for long stretches. OK. a cool Peter can work. Not in this story, but it can work.

To go with the kitchen sink approach, this Peter is also haunted. He doesn’t weep as often as Maguire’s did and his whining is down 30%, but it is always there just under the surface. To make up for that, he’s more prone to tantrums. I don’t know who is supposed to enjoy that. He also stutters in the first film, though only the first. I guess that was supposed to be their nod to Peter not being cool.

The twenty-nine-year-old Garfield is again too old to play a teenager, but he doesn’t look like he has to shave between classes as Maguire did, so that’s an improvement.

Garfield (as he keeps removing his mask—I guess it is uncomfortable) and the CGI look reasonable in the fight scenes. It is a substantial improvement technically, although none of his actual combats are any more engaging than those in the Raimi films.

As for the company he keeps, again, this Spidey doesn’t do well, without even a J. Jonah to up the average. Uncle Ben is again sanctimonious but he’d have been a bit better if he wasn’t living under the shadow of the previous version, so constantly saying things in awkward ways to avoid quoting himself. Harry is, shockingly, worse than the James Franco version and that takes effort. Turning into Emo Goblin doesn’t help. Gwen Stacey is a generic girlfriend character but she is a step up from the previous Mary Jane, so I won’t be too down on her.

 

#2 Shinji Tôdô (“Japanese” Spider-Man—1978)

shinji TodoConsidering this came out so close to when the US TV show was canceled, it is bizarre how much better it is. Unlike Hammond’s Spidey who rarely wore his costume and did little with his powers besides climb walls, this Spider-Man shoots webs all the time, swings, and leaps around like…well, like Spider-Man. He also drives the Spider-car, and operates the Spider-robot. Hey, this is Japan, and this was a kid’s show.

So long after the fact, it feels like the Japanese armored, heroes & robots, children’s shows must have always existed, but they started in 1975. Stan Lee and Marvel saw those early shows and figured there was money to be made so they cut a deal: Spidey went to Japan and some Japanese armored characters showed up in Marvel comics.

Spider-Man is no longer Peter Parker (thank God; this is Japan). He’s Takuya Yamashiro, a motorcycle racer whose “astro-archeologist” father was killed by Professor Monster while investigating an alien spacecraft. He gains his powers from another alien, the last survivor of the planet Spider. That may sound silly, but not on the level of a radioactive spider imparting superpowers. He’s heroic, with a bit of the haunted quality without becoming maudlin.

The show was shot with a sense of style, had engaging characters, reasonable FX and… OK, it’s not great. It just is so much better than the American version of the time that it seems like great art if you watch one after the other. This one embraces its status as a children’s show. And the Japanese have always had a cooler notion of what is OK in a children’s show: people die and there’s a lot of really hot women showing enough skin that eight-year-old me would have been in heaven, and twelve-year-old me would have put up with the rest for that bikini scene. Our hero over-acts to epic levels, but I suppose if you are fighting guys wearing rubber shark heads, it isn’t too out of place.

Spider-Man has an annoying little brother as was common in daikaiju films of the era, but that’s made up for by his excessively pretty sister and girlfriend.

 

#1 Tom Holland (MCU—2016-?)

tom-holland-spider-manYeah, there is no competition. Sure, the steady improvement in CGI helps a lot in the fights, but that’s only a tiny fraction of what puts Holland on top. Finally we get a Peter who is a believable teen. Holland is still older than Peter, but he doesn’t look that much older (fifteen is hard to accept, but I’d buy seventeen without a blink). Here we have a Peter that does seem like a nerd (yes, he did develop his webbing and shooters, but we blow by that as his current toys, and his suit are supplied by Tony Stark so it isn’t constantly rammed into our faces that he is the smarter than God). He’s got nerdy friends and nerdy hobbies. He again has an immature crush on a girl he doesn’t really know, but she’s an actual character and that’s perfectly fitting for a fifteen-year-old. He’s strongly moral, but in the way a good kid can be, not in a whiny or self-righteous sense. And like many teens who look to the future, he wants to do more while desiring validation for who he is and what he does.

What really blasts him ahead of the competition is that he is likable. All the previous takes on Peter have been unpleasant. Sure, Maguire’s and Garfield’s Peters were good people, but I wouldn’t want to meet them, and only support them vaguely because they are the good guys. Emotionally, they are not engaging (and for Maguire’s taciturn version, I would make sure he was off any party guest list). Holland’s Peter is someone I’d cheer for.

And finally we have a Spider-Man who is humorous. He makes jokes and quips like he couldn’t keep his mouth shut if he tried and all those lines are funny.

This is a complete Spider-Man. He’s kind, smart, anxious, hopeful, and a load of fun. I wouldn’t put him up with Christopher Reeve as a perfect version of his superhero character, but he’s close.

As for who he hangs with, his teen friends appear as amusing, layered teenagers. And yes, that’s a good thing. As is having Iron Man as a mentor, particularly as Tony needs to learn the lessons he is trying to teach. And finally, an Aunt May who doesn’t feel like a stereotype from the 1930s. She hasn’t had enough screen time to be fully fleshed out (there’s a deleted scene of her saving someone in the neighborhood I want to see) but what’s there has been good.

It’s nice when the best is the most recent as we’ll be getting more of him, and I’m looking forward to those films, whereas I’m just as glad #3, #4, and #5 fade away.

Jul 122017
 
four reels

Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) has finally gotten a break with the contract to clean up the mess after the Avengers/Chitauri battle in New York, a break that is stripped away by the government and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Searching for a new way to support his family, he and his team find they can take the alien tech they’d already picked up, and create weapons, allowing them to acquire more high tech and create a black market. Elsewhere in the city, Peter Parker (Tom Holland), living with his Aunt May (Marisa Momei), is waiting for a call from Stark to bring him back into the Avengers—a call that doesn’t come. Peter stumbles upon Toomes’s weapons and decides to deal with the problem on his own, with a little help from his high school friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), which displeases Stark.

After Captain America: Civil War, it seemed that Marvel had a better idea of what to do with Spider-Man than anyone had had before. With Homecoming, they prove it. This first solo outing for Spider-Man in the MCU is exciting, funny, and captivating. It introduces new characters I’ll want to see more of and brings back a few old ones I can’t get enough of. The web-slinger has never been treated better.

It took six solo outings and three actors to correctly tell the story of a teenage Peter Parker. Tom Holland is too old, but he could pass for a high schooler, particularly compared to the twenty-seven-year-old Tobey Maguire and the twenty-nine-year-old Andrew Garfield, both of whom gave off a vibe somewhere between condescension and pedophilia. Not only did they get Peter Parker right, but the MCU team does a great job of revealing the high school experience and playing at the edges of teenage life. They apparently were inspired by John Hughes films. And in doing it so well, it brought up a problem for me: I don’t actually like teen movies. Not really. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is good, but for the most part, I just don’t care about teenage issues, and didn’t when I was a teenager. And that brought Spider-Man’s story down for me. He’s treated poorly by the school bullies, he has a crush on the school hottie and doesn’t know how to tell her, he gets in trouble with his teachers, and he has to sneak in at home—and I don’t care.

Luckily, Peter is funny. Was that so hard, people? Spider-Man has always been funny in the comics but five previous movies missed that, instead going for whiny. This time they nailed it. And they also nailed all his toys, with great web-shooting action scenes (helped by having Tony Stark supply his tech—Peter making his own costume was always a bridge too far for me).

And to make up for the youth of our hero, they gave me a villain I could love. Adrian Toomes is the opposite of Peter. He’s slipped out of middle age and has adult problems I understood and real world angers. He just wants to take care of his family, which is a more moving motivation than Peter’s naive view of good and evil. Toomes thinks he has been cheated and there is corruption at high levels by those who just don’t give a damn about the average guy. And he’s right, which makes this movie better than it could have been. Tommes isn’t reacting to unreal slights. He’s not only Spider-Man’s opposite, he’s rich, asshole Tony Stark’s opposite. He’s the villain, but one not only to respect, but one that most people could become—if alien tech happened to be around. Michael Keaton may have just become THE actor of superhero films as no one has created both a hero (Batman) and a villain and done them so well. Keaton has that everyman feeling. He’s a regular Joe. But he’s also got something darker inside, something that makes him a little crazy and a lot dangerous. It’s a great performance and it is nice to have a good villain in the MCU again (villains tend to be a weak spot).

The ads were misleading, implying it was almost a Spider-Man/Iron Man buddy picture. Downey Jr. and Jon Favreau (as his assistant Happy Hogan) have extended cameos and Gwyneth Paltrow has a sneeze-and-you’ll-miss-it part. But to make up for that, another Avenger shows up in three hysterical (if brief) scenes.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is another solid entry in the MCU franchise that can do no wrong. After the failures of The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), and the poorly-aged and repetitive Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004), and Spider-Man 3 (2007), we finally have a worthwhile film for Spidey. He’ll return with a horde of others in Avengers: Infinity War and I can’t wait.

FYI: Tom Holland and director Jon Watts have both stated that this is actually Peter Parker’s third MCU film. He appeared first as a child wearing an Iron Man mask in Iron Man 2.

 Reviews, Superhero Tagged with:
Jul 072017
 
2.5 reels
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In near-future Hong Kong, where cyber-enhancement of the human body is all the rage, Major (Scarlett Johansson), who was the victim of a terrorist attack, has had her brain placed into an android body by a blatantly evil robotics company. She’s intended to be the first in a long line of weapons, but for now she’s made a member of Section 9, a special police-type unit. An unknown hacker has begun killing the company’s scientists and Major, Batou (Pilou Asbaek), Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano), and the rest of the crew are tasked with catching the criminal. But all is not what it seems (at least if you didn’t realize the obviously evil company was evil) and Major begins to learn that her memories may be a fiction.

Ghost in the Shell (2017) is a remake of a Japanese anime, kinda. It in turn was inspired by a Japanese manga which has since been turned into an animated TV show (which was a procedural and my favorite of the lot) and several more films. Ghost in the Shell (1995) is a very peculiar anime, as action elements take a back seat to philosophical speculations on the nature of the mind, spirit, and body. And this is where my graduate work in philosophy kicks in to kill that older film for me as I cannot just “go with it.” Fans of the anime applaud the intelligent examination of important questions of identity. And me? You see, I studied identity in grad school and this isn’t a graduate level examination of identity. It isn’t an undergraduate level. It isn’t a sober man’s level. This is what you get when you run into a business major who is failing Phil 101 at a party and he’s really high. After gazing at his hand a while, the unfocused, juvenile insights that he spouts about identity—along with something about how the universe is in an atom and it is all so cosmic—that’s Ghost in the Shell. It is mentally deficient. Anime fans were so desperate for something deep in the genre that they just gobbled it up without noticing the emperor was naked.

Now I also studied physics, but I am not troubled by Star Wars and its impossible space ships and weapons, because Star Wars never stops to ramble on about how gravity works and mess it up. But Ghost in the Shell ‘95 does. It is a treatise on the meaning of self, written by a drugged fool to impress ten-year-olds, and my god is it dull.

To say that this work was a challenge to translate into a big budget action film is an understatement. The navel gazing of the original wasn’t going to work—the number of anime geeks who buy into the freshmen, general studies “depth” of that work is not nearly large enough for a “tent pole” film—so that had to go. But the faked intelligence was simply replaced by clear stupidity. Now, instead of going on and on and on about the intricacies of the ghost and getting nowhere, people just blurt out, “I/you am/are a robot” and “I/you am/are human” every few minutes. The film’s final monologue, given in voice-over, is so insipid I suggest ducking out early in order to miss it. Still, the brainlessness is an improvement as it wastes less time, but there’s no getting around how empty it is. Films should show, not tell, and both of these like to talk but have nothing worth saying.

The filmmakers jettisoned the plot as well; the replacement is filled with good material. Well, I’ll switch that to “potentially” good material as the movie feels the need to pay its respects to the anime and so gets distracted from what should be the plot. That means it never has time to do what films do best—get us emotionally involved. This was never going to be a clever film, but it could have been a moving one. But without the time to do that, the villain is too arch, the situations too simple, and the emotion lacking. Major’s trip to an apartment connected to her past gave a taste of what the move should have been. If they’d simple kept the theme of memoires instead of the whole “do robots have souls” bit, and cut out 50% of the first half so they could get to the real point, this could have been great. Well, I suppose a lot of films could be great if they were utterly changed.

So this version makes many, many references to the original; it keeps quite a few characters (their names and appearances, though not personalities), and multiple scenes (given a new context). But the real connection is the style. It looks exactly like the anime—except in live action. Some have complained that it is a rip-off of Blade Runner, which is true, but not directly. The anime ripped-off Blade Runner, and this copies the anime. Whatever the route, it is a good looking film, with robo-geishas, giant holograms, and neon mixed with grunge. It may not be original, but it’s snazzy.

The action is better than average and the cinematography is pleasant (I’m thrilled any time I find a modern big budget movie that uses color properly). Johansson is solid. After The Avengers, Under the Skin, and Lucy, she seems to be taking the acting path of Keanu Reeves in mastering kick-ass characters with something not right going on in their head. I wasn’t bored when the camera stuck with her. The rest of the cast do their jobs, not standing out positively or negatively, except for the Peter Ferdinando’s overwrought villain.

As for the often mentioned, white-wash casting of Johansson, it is far less troubling then in other recent productions like Gods of Egypt, Doctor Strange, The Great Wall, and Iron Fist, since it takes place in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic future, and is not in Japan. This isn’t Tokyo though still Asian. Go south. It would have been nice for an Asian actress to get the part, but nicer for Iron Fist to be Tibetan.

Ghost in the Shell was never going to really work as long as they insisted on extensive connections to the previous incarnation. They dumped so much. They needed to dump more and make their own film. Instead its an ungainly shadow that never figures out if it is supposed to be dark or fun, emotional or intellectual (well, that one was doomed), direct or symbolic, or even if it was an action film or a drama. I can see so many marvelous films hidden within this one, but the one on display has no ghost.

Jul 022017
 
two reels

Belle (Emma Watson) becomes the captive of an enchanted nobleman (Dan Stevens as CGI) who must find someone to love him or remain forever a beast. The magical castle is filled with servants who have been transformed into clocks, candelabra, tea pots and the like (Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson). Oh, come on, you know the story already.

I’m not opposed to new cinematic versions of previous successes, or better, failures. I just ask that there be some reason for them: a new take on the material. And a switch in style from animation to live action (well, CGI and live action) should meet my criteria. But in this case, it doesn’t. Here we’re in 1998 Psycho shot-for-shot remake territory, where it is all the same, but less.

Disney’s 1991 Beauty and the Beast worked as a great animated feature and a great musical. It had real heart and earned its classic status in record time. I suppose Disney feared messing too much with an artistic and financial triumph, and in the second they were right as this film has made a ridiculous amount of money. But artistically, they failed. Scene after scene mirror the animated versions, but lack the charm. Mostly it is simply a case that it worked better in a more abstract form, though the cast, none of whom are bad, can’t live up to the originals. McGregor and McKellen are actually quite good, but still can’t match Jerry Orbach’s and David Ogden Stiers’s voice portrayals. Emma Watson is too slight for the part. Her voice is nice, but “nice” is not enough to carry a musical. Emma Thompson does a reasonable rendition of the title song, but it lacked the emotion of Angela Lansbury’s. Only Josh Gad as Le Fou seems to realize that a broad take was the wise way to go. For a film about magic and monsters and talking furniture, it all is surprisingly staid.

The minuscule changes are unnecessary or annoying. The added songs are forgettable and supply nothing new. Making Belle’s father less quirky kills several jokes, though at least doesn’t create any large problems. The constant explanations on the other hand do create problems. Telling us that the servants deserved their fate because they weren’t helpful enough goes past blaming the victim and gives us an ugly philosophy. And having Belle teach reading to young girls and create a washing machine that is destroyed could, with very different writing, have made some meaningful statement about feminism, but as it goes nowhere is just embarrassing and screams “old guys pandering.”

An unpleasant portion of the potential audience went into homophobic conniption fits at news that Le Fou was gay. Discounting that this says more about their bigoted nature than the film, it was also a lot of wind about nothing. Le Fou is the same as he was in the animated version, which, when brought to live-action, makes his effeminate qualities more visible to those who tried to ignore them before.

If all copies of the 1991 version were lost, then I’d give this one another Reel, but as is, watch that one. If you want live-action, try Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête.

 Fantasy, Reviews Tagged with:
Jul 012017
 
three reels

In 2029, when most mutants have been wiped out, an aging, drunken Logan (Hugh Jackman) secretly cares for Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who’s suffering from dementia. Into their unhappy family comes Laura (Dafne Keen), a child obviously related to Wolverine. She is being chased by a team of villains who apparently hadn’t learned from the last time that putting adamantium into people with claws is a bad idea. Logan, against his desires, sets off to take Laura and Charles to a supposed safe zone.

The foundation of superhero films is adventure. Onto that is grafted comedy or action or social commentary, but we always start with adventure. Not Logan. Its foundation is the indie drama: the story of the never ending pressures and pain of modern life. It’s the ache of aging, but more, caring for the aged while you can barely take care of yourself. It is about a person who is neither particularly good, nor particularly smart, trying to survive day to day and not succeeding. It is the father forced to take care of his own father while refusing responsibility for his child.

And I’ve seen a lot of those and my God do they get tiresome. They are the darlings of the film festival circuit and are churned out by young filmmakers with little money and dreams of being artists. I suspect a good deal of the reaction to Logan comes from the average superhero audience member not being familiar with such movies. Well, I’ve never seen a superhero version before either.

Grafted onto that foundation is the second generation western, which is made literal by actually showing Shane on a TV in one scene. If you haven’t seen Shane, I promise you writer/director James Mangold has.

The advantage of this strange combination is that the western elements—aging gunslinger in a changing era, confrontations at the corral, the simply defined antagonists, the over-the-top violence and shootouts—liven up the normally drab and creaking indie bits. It’s easy to take a lecture on being responsible or an examination of dementia in the elderly when fifteen guys get stabbed in the head a few minutes later.

It also gives a superhero film a chance to do what they rarely can as adventure tales, which is actually be dark in the way life can be—instead of the faux-darkness that some play with—and to show the carnage inherent in the character. It’s been silly that for an entire franchise, the guy with daggers sticking out of his hands and whose entire personality is “he’s angry” has barely shed blood. This time, that brand of silliness is gone.

The disadvantage is these types of films are evaluated by different standards by the nature of their structure. The Magnificent Seven can play around with reality as long as the symbols make sense. And Captain America: Winter Soldier can have ridiculous plot elements because the bells and whistles and flashes hide them and allow for the big moments. An indie drama, however, has to make sense and match the real world, although bizarrely it allows for even greater stupidity as it is assumed the characters are making bad decisions. Still, it is much harder to ignore silly tropes and lapses that are part of the superhero genre when we’re dealing with indie drama. Why do the soldiers wait their turn to attack? Why do they get close enough for blades when they’ve got guns? Why do children trained as war machines not fight? (And why are those children “raised without human interaction” all calm and more reasonable than normal children.) And how, exactly, do we get a super secret organization of evil run by a super evil scientist with hundreds of disposable evil soldiers that somehow never makes the news—huh. I guess we can put Logan deciding to hide out at a casino in the bad decision category, but wow, it’s a bad decision.

We’re also stuck with another problem, which brings us back to metaphor. Westerns (and superhero films) are about symbols. The characters represent conditions and situations. They are icons. Indie dramas, however, are about real people. And Wolverine… He’s not much of a real person. He’s an adolescent boy’s fantasy. He’s rage and stabbing because those are “cool.” There really isn’t much else too him. Even amongst superheroes, he’s pretty dull outside of the kicking-ass thing. That’s why he spends most of his time in adventure stories leaning into simple action. He doesn’t have depths to plumb. This isn’t a flaw with the character. Shane (from Shane), Chris from The Magnificent Seven, The Man With No Name from A Fistful of Dollars, John T. Chance from Rio Bravo, and even Marshall Kane from High Noon aren’t complicated, fully human entities either. Sorry geeks, Logan isn’t deep, but then, he isn’t supposed to be. But that makes our indie drama really, really simple. The problems and realizations Logan comes to are juvenile in their simplicity, and would be laughed off the screen if there wasn’t someone’s brains being skewered around the same time. I am blown away that this film exists, that the powers that be let Mangold make an indie drama/western superhero film, but it is clear that the lead was chosen not because he was the best, or tenth best character for this story, but for the financial reason that Wolverine sells tickets.

On the plus side, you can’t say the violence is gratuitous or empty. The combat is savage, as it should be, and always has an emotional center. No meaningless punching here as in five Batman films and—well, let’s face it—most of the superhero genre. Every slash, every gunshot, every scream and death means something. I’ve complained about the fake bleakness of Bats v Supes and Man of Steel. Logan digs into that despair, but it earns it. Paradoxically, it is also more hopeful.

Hugh Jackman does a great job of giving the illusion of depth to Wolverine and this is the only time in an X-Men movie when Patrick Stewart has been allowed to show that he is a true actor. Still, the stand out is young Dafne Keen. She had the hardest job, to create a full, rich character with rarely a word, and mainly though her eyes, and she is amazing. It is Laura I cared about, and that is vital to the film.

Logan has the best plot of any superhero film, but the story is a bit shakier as it deals with icons being people. It is filled with theme but in the end, it doesn’t actually say that much. Aging is hard. Life and family can be painful. You have to live up to your responsibilities. What happiness there may be in life comes from those we love. Yeah, that’s all good stuff, and I guess making it the focus of a superhero film is remarkable, but it isn’t exactly edgy philosophy and I’m not sure the cost is worth it. The price, is that Logan isn’t much fun to watch. That’s fine, but then it needs to say a lot more than it is capable of. People will remember the plot, and it is a good send off for a couple of characters, but I doubt I’ll be watching it again soon, and I know it didn’t say anything I didn’t already know.

 Reviews, Superhero Tagged with:
Jul 012017
 
three reels

The crew of a colony ship is awakened by an accident—except for their synthetic, Walter (Michael Fassbender), who was awake—and while making repairs, picks up a signal. The new, uncertain captain, who needs the approval both of the crew and of God, decides to follow the signal to its Earth-like world which might be a better fit for a colony than the one they were headed for. Once on the world—and taking amazingly few precautions for pathogens—they are attacked first by the goop from Prometheus, and then from rapidly growing monsters. They are saved, for the moment, by David (also Michael Fassbender), the only survivor from the previous film who is the only living being on the planet.

I would like to review Alien Covenant in a vacuum, but I can’t. Too much of what is on the screen is due not only to its cinematic predecessors, but to what went on behind the scenes. Besides, no one should start the Alien franchise with the sixth (or eighth, depending on what you count) entry. So, some background:

Ridley Scott’s Alien was not original in kind, borrowing heavily from several films of the ‘50s and ’60s, but no one had executed it like this before. It became a classic in both horror and space cinema, and when you put those words together, it became THE film. Its sequel, Aliens, directed by James Cameron, became a classic on its own by not repeating the original. It is perhaps the perfect sequel, switching genres to action. Alien 3, however, was doomed from the start. There’s plenty of flaws with the finished production that I could rip into and the production issues and arguments are famous, but even if it had been executed perfectly, Alien 3 could never have been great. Why? Because it was a return to Alien. It was once again SF horror. It was once again a small, isolated group of unskilled people in a confined area dealing with a monster. We’ve been there before. Alien Resurrection switched genres again, going for B-movie schlock and more or less succeeded, but by definition, there is no great schlock.

Ignoring the two Alien vs Predator films, Prometheus was next. Ridley Scott returned, but after rolling the material around a bit, he found he had little interest in vomiting up the same thing again. He was asked to essentially make Alien 3 and he rebelled and decided to make something new. Alien is a great film, but it is essentially themeless. Well, that had been early in his career. Now, Scott wanted to use the Alien universe to take a different look at the ideas he’d visited in Blade Runner: Who are we? His interest was in creator and created, parent and child, and the need we have to search out meaning in that relationship, and vitally, how it always goes wrong. Just asking the question harms you, and getting an answer only makes it worse. Notice in Prometheus, the only people who are happy and sane are the three members of the bridge crew who specifically don’t care about where they came from. Everyone else is unstable and miserable. Prometheus is brilliant, but flawed, and part of that flaw was the requisite Xenomorph material held over from Alien. It didn’t win over audiences, who didn’t like the philosophizing and not being spoon-fed answers, or fanboys, who just wanted to see the same old alien killing people thing we’d seen before. Scott’s plan had been to continue the adventure he set up in Prometheus, with Shaw and David going deeper down the rabbit hole and finding more mysteries and wonders and nightmares. But Scott said he got the message from the fans—although I wonder if it was the fans or the financiers who’s message he got. Whichever the case, he learned that what those fanboys wanted was a clear connection to the earlier film and the same chest-bursting, people hunting space horror we’d had before. So the word “Alien” was smashed onto the title and the movie he’d plan to make was replaced.

And the replacement is Alien: Covenant. To pacify the fanboys, all the tricky questions are now answered; we have answers to questions no one should have asked. Shaw was tossed aside, her story finishing off screen. And we have Xenomorphs again, doing exactly what was done eighteen years ago.

So, if you want Xenomorph action, then two things: 1—Here it is for you. And 2—What the hell is wrong with you? Damn, go watch Alien and Aliens. We’ve been there. It was done really, really well. We don’t need to do it again, ever. Sigh. Oh well.

Scott was clearly as interested in the same old alien attacks as I was. He tosses in the monster bloodshed with the same disdain for anyone looking for it as I have. “Here’s your bone. Now will you let me get back to something interesting?”

Luckily, he kept a bit of that interesting material in the film, and it involves David and Walter. Everything with Fassbender and Fassbender is marvelous and he eclipses all the other actors. I didn’t even list them or their characters above because they don’t register. Who lives and who dies just doesn’t matter. I didn’t know them, didn’t care to know them, and was happy to see them whittled away just so they’d stop taking up screentime. This is Michael Fassbender’s movie and he continues to show why he is one of our finest actors.

But with so much of the time wasted with monster attacks (the final one is particularly annoying as we know that it doesn’t matter), Scott never has a chance to dig into these brothers, their differences, and what it means to be free. It’s waved at us, tantalizing us about what might have been, but we end up with nothing that Scott hasn’t said before in Blade Runner and Prometheus. And it becomes hard to even care too much about what happens to those two. Walter is more enslaved and less concerned about being so than David. And David, well, as you should remember from Prometheus, has issues.

I’d hoped for some of the dark beauty of Prometheus and Alien, but except for a brief view of the Engineers’ city—before and after—and a marvelous use of Böcklin’s The Isle of the Dead which is sheer genus, it is visually drab. H.R. Giger is missed.

Alien: Covenant isn’t a bad picture. Measured again most space horror, it’s a very good one. Even the unnecessary Xenomorphs are reasonable—Scott ripping off himself, even without enthusiasm, is better than anyone else doing it. And Fassbender’s stuff is fantastic. But it could, and should, have been so much more. In trying to coddle fanboys, Scott ended up with a picture that isn’t completely satisfying to anyone.

 Aliens, Horror, Reviews Tagged with: