A Review of Dunkirk

There are two possible Christopher Nolan films. In his great films (Memento, The Dark Knight, Inception) Nolan starts with a central idea and allows everything to build from it. In his not so great films (Interstellar, The Dark Knight Rises) Nolan piles as much as he can into the film to hide the fact that he doesn’t have a core to build from. Sometimes it’s still enjoyable due to the characters (like Rises) but I still leave the film missing something.

Dunkirk had the potential to fall into either category. It’s a very complicated narrative with some thin characters. But it’s also built on a great attention to detail that really captivated me. Despite knowing nothing about the characters, I still felt a deep connection with them.

Dunkirk is about the evacuation of Dunkirk. (Shocking, I know.) The film is separated into three separate stories – land, air, and sea. On land, soldiers try to evacuate France as the Nazis close in. In the air, members of the Royal Air Force try to protect the Navy ships full of soldiers from Dunkirk. On the sea, civilian sailboats sail to Dunkirk to support the Royal Navy as they ferry soldiers back after Germany destroys many naval ships.

What’s amazing is how Nolan wanted to create a spectacle on film. Dunkirk is the most amazing looking and amazing sounding film I’ve seen in a while. I don’t care how much you have to pay for a ticket. You owe it to yourself to see Dunkirk on the biggest screen you can.

It’s not just about the amazing visuals. It’s about the sense that you’re actually in Dunkirk with the troops, or that you’re on a ship that’s being torpedoed. There’s no sense of the larger battle. We never see a single German soldier nor do we get a sense of why Dunkirk is so strategically important.

Unfortunately, this leads to some bad characterization. I cannot name a single character from the film without checking IMDB nor can I identify a stand out performance. Everyone is never onscreen long enough for them to stand up for me. The point, I guess, is that each of these individuals were only in the background of the later conflict. This isn’t a film about intimacy. And the actors never challenge themselves in playing these characters. It’s reminiscent of old war epics from the 1950s. That sounds like a compliment, but think of how many performances from The Longest Day stand out to you.

Even though the acting is a tad wooden, it works for the film. The characters are running on base emotion – confusion, desperation, and anger. Unlike Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, no one bothers to philosophize about the war. That’s a conversation that’s worked for many films. But it wouldn’t work for Dunkirk. This tone works for this film because I get a greater emotional connection with the characters.

My personal favorite story was the “sea,” which saw boat owner Mr. Dawson traveling with his son and another boy to Dunkirk to rescue the troops. They find a sailor who survived a German attack. It’s a microcosm of every war film, with conflicting interests causing tragedy. And the actors were playing archetypes. Dawson was committed to duty while the soldier was in shock over seeing his friends die. 

I also enjoyed a scene on “land” in which a bunch of soldiers trying to escape in a shipwrecked boat are threatened by Germans using the boat for target practice and piercing the hull. It’s a tense scene out of a horror film, as the soldier try to remain calm as stray bullets threaten them. We see the bullet holes form on the side of the ship and hear the silence in the score. (There practically is no score, except for a ticking stop watch that permeates through every scene.) 

That last scene shows the intimacy in Dunkirk. It’s a simple scene shot in a grand way that really made me feel like I was there. Nolan is a director that still cares about the craft. He can take seemingly flimsy material and turn it into something incredible. 

Dunkirk is an experience that few films are willing to try anymore. It’s not about the characters. To paraphrase Casablanca, their problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. It’s about our sharing their experience. Dunkirk is one of the most effective war films to come along in quite some time.

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A Review of Atomic Blonde

The John Wick franchise has received a lot of critical praise. Most viewers see it as a return to the great, choreographed action films of the past. I’ve heard people talk about how it ranks with Die Hard.

I was not among the biggest fans of Wick. I enjoyed the technical skill but I didn’t feel engaged with any of the characters. Over the top action films can go in two different directions. They can be self-aware and use their elaborate scenes of violence for comedy. (See the underrated Shoot em Up) or the action underscores the internal conflict in the main characters. They are not shooting people to look cool, but to distract themselves from an internal struggle that’s much worse. (See John Woo’s classic The Killer.)

Wick tried to have it both ways. The revenge plot was dumb and was meant to be a flimsy excuse for the action sequences. This could have still worked if Wick embraced the absurd aspects of its premise. But Wick takes itself far too seriously. The best scenes weren’t even the action scenes, but the scenes of Wick talking to the concierge of the secret assassin’s hotel, making requests for room service. The action scenes were far too quick and never built up.

Atomic Blonde, by Wick co-director David Leitch, improves on its predecessor. First, the action scenes are much better. They’re allowed to build and allowed to continue as long as they need to. And I actually cared about the characters involved in the shooting.

The entire film is told as a debriefing by MI-6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron). She’s a very dissatisfied agent who wonders what’s going to happen to her. The film’s main actions take place roughly a month before the fall of the Berlin Wall and Lorraine is already trying to imagine a life after the Cold War. She drinks straight vodka and is constantly turning up with new bruises. She’s working with Percival (James McAvoy), a station agent in East Berlin who dresses like an English punk rocker. Neither of them are what they seem.

Theron is a great as a grizzled secret agent. She’s not a superhero that is always in command of a fight. She’s very vulnerable and constantly in pain. She’s required  to present a tough exterior, which is why she blows off people in her life. But much like Craig’s Bond, she’s chugging liquor in order to live with the things she’s done. Theron’s performance is about an internal struggle with everything she has to do.

The film also has a lot of something I thought John Wick was lacking – style. The film is made to look like an eighties synthpop music video occasionally interrupted by spray paint interstitials. It helps set the mood of the film as a fantasy rather than an a realistic portrayal of spy work – which helps explain the plot twists. John Wick threw neon everywhere to suggest something stylistic, while Atomic Blonde actually created a new action movie world.

Now, I cannot explain the plot. It has something to do with smuggling an East German refugee with knowledge of a list of deep cover agents across the Berlin Wall. But there are double and triple crosses between practically all of the characters. We’re never told exactly why the agent needs to be smuggled out against East Berlin when a physical copy of the list exists. We’re also introduced to numerous characters (including a man who hangs out on the roof of an East German movie theater) that the film promptly forgets. And the person telling this story may not be entirely reliable. This storytelling technique has been used to great effect in other films, but here it tested my patience.

But the action scenes work despite the confusion I felt at times. Atomic Blonde makes you feel for the characters and hope they succeed. The entire film can be summarized with the staircase fight scene. Lorraine tries to fight multiple assassins to protect Spyglass, the East German refugee. She’s outnumbered and there’s a chance she’ll be killed, but she presses on. The film pulls no punches, making the audience feel every blow and stab the assassins give to Lorraine. That’s how I felt watching the film. Not like I was being stabbed, but as though I couldn’t understand what was happening yet understood the stakes.

I enjoyed Atomic Blonde. Yes, I understand that it’s ridiculous. But to me that was part of the charm. I at least cared enough about the characters to care about the action scenes. Atomic Blonde is among the best pure action films to come out in some time.

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A Review of War for the Planet of the Apes

I really enjoyed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It took the first film as a starting point and focused on the apes actually creating a society from scratch. It wasn’t another mindless action film, but a film about “people” trying to figure out how they belong in a rapidly changing world.

Dawn worked because it wasn’t reliant on the first film. War leaves me conflicted. I still like it a lot. But should I praise it for giving me more of something I like or condemn it for not taking as many risks as its predecessor?

I’ll go with the former option. War does everything Dawn did correctly. There are also many nods to the original series. This new Apes has ended one of the best modern blockbuster trilogies. 

In the years since Dawn, Caesar and the apes have been at war with a group of humans. One, known as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) is becoming particularly vicious in his attacks. One of them kills Caesar’s wife and son. He sends his tribe to find a new home while he and a small group go to the Colonel’s compound. There they find the Colonel has captured his tribe and is using them to build a wall so he can continue fighting a civil war with what remains of the U.S. army.

Let’s start with Andy Serkis’ Caesar. Serkis has officially replaced Lon Chaney as the Man of 1000 Faces. He puts just as much effort into his mo-cap roles as Daniel Day Lewis does in his dramas. Caesar was bound to be impossible to play across an entire trilogy, going from a convincing ape to a convincing man.

Serkis in War plays Caesar as an ape doing his best to convince himself he’s something more. The film plants seeds of an epic myth that will be told by the ape society for centuries. Caesar seems keenly aware of this and wants to live up to that expectation. It would be challenging for an actor to play a character, much less one who has to do it as an animal. 

Besides Caesar, most of the apes still communicate in sign language. Think about the challenge. These actors have to convey complex emotions as creatures that can’t talk and that lives part of their lives unable to feel what they currently feel. 

I mention all of this because I don’t believe the acting in the Apes trilogy has been recognized enough. It’s a challenge to make these characters relatable and empathetic and to make poo tossing the ultimate symbol of rebellion. Yet the actors in War do it perfectly. 

What’s especially fascinating is how none of the films explain what’s happening to human civilization. I have no idea what really remains of society. There’s still an army, but no one seems to know who they’re serving. It makes the people left scared not just for their lives, but for their futures. Remember the first Apes film, when people couldn’t talk and functioned like wild animals? This film shows they may be well on their way to that fate. (One young girl even picks up a vanity key chain that reads “Nova.”) It makes for a complex villain in the Colonel. He’s not sadistic, but responding and imprisoning apes becauses he’s scared. 

Finally, the actual war scene is engaging. It’s not a battle between the apes and the humans. The apes are only caught in the middle as the humans fight. It’s in sync with the other films in the franchise. Apes were never meant to be man’s enemy. We were our own enemy who “blew it up.” And it’s exciting to watch Caesar dodge missiles as he tries to ensure his tribe’s survival. I was emotionally invested in Caesar and wanted him to prevail. 

Yes, I liked War. It’s perfect from a technical standpoint and kept me engaged the entire time. But I felt the film was reusing a lot of elements from Dawn. Caesar’s character arc is the same. He has to choose between his tribe and his own desires, often at times when he can’t see the consequences his decisions are having. It worked in Dawn because the villainous Koba was there as a foil to Caesar, but there’s no foil here. It was also odd seeing the apes back as the oppressed class. That had already been done in Rise. Using the apes as slave labor to build a wall sure does resonate in today’s climate and I was emotionally invested in their plight. But it also was something I’d seen before. 

So I’m not as enthusiastic about War as I was for Dawn. This approach was the safest the film could take. It’s the equivalent of going to a restaurant and re-ordering your favorite dish. It’s still enjoyable but the only reason that it became your favorite was because it surprised you when you first tried it. That surprise is gone. It’s not really anyone’s fault and I’m glad that I still enjoyed the experience. But can you imagine if War took a few more chances?

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A Review of Baby Driver

Most directors don’t pay attention to the past very much. Those that do make borrowing from the past their entire shtick. They want to be congratulated for remembering an obscure crime film from 1978.

It’s wonderful to have a filmmaker acknowledge the things he loved in his youth while trying to create something new to engage the next generation. That’s what Baby Driver is. Something for director Edgar Wright to share his passions with an audience.

Everything about Baby Driver is an homage to new Hollywood gangster films. Everything in this film may be a reference to something else. But that’s not the point. The point is that it feels like something new. Edgar Wright didn’t just copy movies like The Long Good Friday or The Driver. He used those as a starting point to craft something new.

Let’s start with the titular character. Baby (we don’t learn his real name until the very end) is a parody of the Melville “Samorai” character. He barely speaks, he’s obsessed with old technology, he lives a modest lifestyle with his adoptive father, and he’s constantly listening to music to drown out his tinnitus. He looks like any twenty something you would find in a large city while you’re shaking your head and wondering how he’ll amount to anything.

Baby’s been recruited to a be a getaway driver by Doc (Kevin Spacey) who puts together quick thefts. Baby is forced to go along with it because he owes Doc a lot of money for stealing one of his cars. But Baby is more interested in recording conversations and making electronic music from them. He doesn’t have dreams of something more, exactly. He just wants to get away from everything.

He may get his wish with Debora (Lily James), a diner waitress who takes a liking to him. But Doc hires a new crew member, Bats (Jamie Foxx), who suspects Baby doesn’t have his heart in the job. Buddy (Jon Hamm), a longtime…buddy of Baby, is also growing more distant from him.

What follows are the usual Heat inspired shootouts. But that’s not the main point of the film. The point is how Wright uses this familiar material to entice the audience. It would be impossible to identify every reference the film makes, mostly because it’s something that feels natural for the characters. They’re not talking like Hollywood gangsters for the sake of talking like Hollywood gangsters. They want to fit in.

One scene has Doc outlining his latest heist with a map. We don’t hear him talk, though. We only hear Baby’s music as he nods along. Only after Bats confronts Baby for his inattentiveness do we hear the plan. Baby recites it back with a bored tone as Doc shrugs. Normally this would be a pivotal scene in a heist movie. Wright’s technique isn’t even new. But Baby’s detachment from the scene says a lot about the tone of the film. It’s not pleased with itself but still feels like the smartest thing in the room.

Parody has long been a lost art. Most think that making something similar to another popular thing is enough to count as a joke. But that’s just a reminder of something that once happened. Even Airplane! knew that it had to be something that used familiarity as a starting point rather than an end. Baby Driver is obsessed with reminding us of things that happened in the past, but it’s used as a commentary on Baby’s world. I don’t know anyone who makes physical cassettes anymore or even people who literally hide cash under the floor. Baby does as an escape from his world. He wants to reconnect to the time his mother was still alive and singing to him.

The Atlanta setting also works for the film. Normally I’m on Truffaut’s side when it comes to films made in Atlanta, “A person can’t watch a film made in their house, because they’ll spend all their time looking at the wallpaper.” But Atlanta brings a level of strangeness yet familiarity. I don’t know why Baby would select to be a driver for Goodfellas (an Italian restaurant down the street from Georgia Tech). Even for people who live in the city, it’s an odd choice. One scene late in the film has Baby running through the Peachtree Center mall food court as police chase him, yelling about the shootout. It’s a nice bit of trivia for residents, but the focus is on Baby’s desperate running.

I also liked Lily James. She’s probably the weakest character in the film, but James plays the “dream girl” perfectly. Baby notices her when she starts singing his name in the diner. She’s a symbol for him – a sort of Freudian reminder of his young mother. And I did care about her and Baby and was shocked when Bats went into the diner and started threatening her. And I also wanted to know if they would have a happy ending.

But the best part of the film was Foxx’s Bats. He lives up to his name as a rambling lunatic and the perfect foil to Baby. Foxx doesn’t care about anything except the now. Whereas Baby wants to blend in the background, Bats wants to be the center of attention. His statements are stupid, (“He’s a loony, just like his tunes,” he says to describe Baby) but is nevertheless intimidating. Foxx’s performance blends all of his roles together, from his earlier comedic ones to his serious work.

Baby Driver is an excellent, subtle parody. It becomes funnier if you know a lot about the conventions of the genre but still works as a highly effective action film in its own right. Edgar Wright is a very talented director whose talent becomes more apparent as he adds to his filmography. Baby Driver is something fewer and fewer films have these days – a reward for audience who know how to pay attention.

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A Review of Wonder Woman

I’m at a loss.

There’s a part of me that wants to be happy Wonder Woman exists at all and has been critically and commercially successful. This may come as an enormous shock to people, but female comic book characters have never been treated well. While Batman and Superman have been used to make dreck, they are still given chances to make an impact on our culture. Even the most obscure male comic characters get multiple adaptations. Steel, despite only existing so DC could pretend that they actually killed Superman in the early ’90s, got a Hollywood movie. Spawn got a movie and an HBO animated show. The Punisher has gotten three movies and is about to get a Netflix show. Never mind the fact that of those movies have been trash.

Female superheroes are barely given a chance. Even when a movie like Catwoman gets made, no one cares to make it good. They focus more on the voyeuristic elements of her skimpy costume and their psychology is never explored. Yet when people get offended and walk away, the studio heads will claim there is no market for female superhero movies and perpetuate the cycle.

So here comes Wonder Woman, a film about a character that has inspired generations of feminists. She should have headlined several movie franchises by now, but was never given a chance. This was an important moment to a lot of fans and it’s good that they’re not being let down.

To those people who are taking their daughters dressed up in Wonder Woman’s iconic costume – enjoy! This film would have been unthinkable even a decade ago and I am glad that you are going to have a good time.

But what about to the jaded cynics like me? Is Wonder Woman a film that breaks in increasingly rigid mold of comic book films? Is it the next example of a great superhero movie?

Sadly, no.

The film falls back on too many superhero film clichés. We HAVE to have a big villain showdown, we have to spend too much time on Wonder Woman’s origin, we have to get an entire act of exposition, and we don’t get enough time with some of the great side characters. Why do we have to shove this film back into the mold?

What makes this more odd is that, for an entire act, the film is as great as many claim. Diana, Princess of Themyscira, has been raised on an island literally populated with Amazons. Everyone there is thousands of years old, and Diana is their last child. In 1918, Diana believes her moment to defeat Ares, The God of War has come after an American spy accidentally crashes a stolen German plane near her home. This man, Steve (Chris Pine) talks to her about a war that has lasted for years and killed millions fighting in trenches.

It can only be the work of Ares, Diana decides. So off she goes to London with Steve so they can stop the German general Ludendorff (Danny Houston) who is humiliated seeing his country about to sign the Treaty of Versailles. He’s working on developing a gas with Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya) that would dissolve gas masks.

This is the set up for a great, classic adventure film, and Wonder Woman delivers that in spades. There are great scenes of Wonder Woman storming into battle after the menfolk show themselves too scared out of their minds. The “crossing no man’s land” scene in particular is one that will go down in history as one of the all time great action scenes. But it’s not just the big action moments. Diana and Steve have great chemistry as Diana learns about our world – and how silly it seems compared to hers. The film’s funniest moment has Diana talking about how we should be proud of our achievements – when it comes to making ice cream.

The filmmakers respect Diana Prince. Gal Gadot gives the performance everything she has. Diana is strong, confident, and not anyone’s accessory. The film doesn’t fall for the temptation to focus on her sexuality or her looks. The only person with a nude scene is Pine, and when Diana sees him, she’s more bemused and disappointed than aroused. (“Are you an average member of your species?” she asks, eyebrows arched like a scientist looking into a microscope.) She’s so confident about her worldview that, when she arrives in London, her ideas sound sane while everyone else sounds foolish. One moment has Diana trying on “human” clothes. She tears through a dress as she tries to kick, asking how she’s supposed to fight in these outfits. As she looks around, the other women in the shop look back at her with an understanding. There’s never a moment where Diana is not in control of the scene.

While the second act of the film is fantastic, the first and third are really bad. The first act takes entirely on Themyscira as we focus on Diana’s childhood and her “destiny.” It’s told entirely in exposition and seems to hit all the Joseph Campbell-esque check boxes. Is Wonder Woman some sort of “chosen one?” Check. Are we introduced to “Chekov’s sword?” Check. Does her mother not want her “trained” in the way of the Amazons? Check? Is she trained anyway to fulfill her destiny? Check. Does she eventually discover a huge world beyond her tiny home? Check.

I shouldn’t be able to describe a film with a check list.

And then we get to the final “boss fight.” I will not mention names, but the next paragraph contains spoilers.

The entire film is about Wonder Woman’s search for Ares, and thinks she’s found him in General Ludendorff. Doing so will end the war. But after she kills him, no one stops fighting and the world is still in danger.

This is a pivotal moment for Wonder Woman. Are her beliefs wrong? Can she still save the world? How can she fight Ares when Ares is just an abstract concept that lives in everyone? Had the film continued with this line of questioning, it would have been a fantastic finale as Diana realizes there’s something in humankind she has to fight.

But no, it turns out Ares was another guy who had not been portrayed as evil or conniving in any way. We get the same sort of big CGI fight that had me looking for a Playstation 4 controller. There were no emotional stakes because we’d not been introduced to Ares before now.

Normally I would be more forgiving of all of this. But Wonder Woman comes at a time when we are not only saturated with superhero movies, but at a time when people are turning against them they stand out. Last year’s Batman V Superman would have been inconceivably popular, but was met with a shrug at best. People recognize the tropes that superhero movies keep using and are realizing how tired they are. Wonder Woman does nothing to address those tropes. There has to be an origin story and a third act “final battle” no matter how much those things harm the film’s themes.

What disappoints me the most is that I know how important this film is to a lot of people. This really did feel like an important monument for a generation of young women. For it to fall back on the superhero film mold felt like a cheat. I wanted a Wonder Woman who did what she’s been doing in comics for more than 75 years – smashing down boundaries. Having Diana Prince in what could be almost any superhero movie felt like a cheat.

So, I guess I have to split the difference. I am glad Wonder Woman exists and that the people involved care. But I also don’t understand those who, relieved just to see a woman superhero done well, are declaring this among the best comic book movies since the Dark Knight trilogy. It’s not. It’s a movie that’s held back by the superhero tropes it seemingly has to follow. There are some amazing scenes, the action is great, and the second act is a lot of fun. But I can’t get as enthusiastic about it as some other fans are.

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Special Report – A Review of The Thing in the Woods

Editor’s Note: Full disclosure: Matthew W Quinn asked that I review his latest book, The Thing in the Woods, as a favor. I still intend to give the book a fair review.

All artists take inspiration from what they loved as kids. The Thing in the Woods carries on this tradition. Author Matt Quinn pulls from his surroundings, from his love of supernatural horror to his youth in suburban Georgia.

But The Thing in the Woods isn’t just a nostalgia romp latching onto the Stranger Things bandwagon. It has a lot to say about 2017 and the “flyover country” that lead to our current situation. It’s thematically similar to Green Room, where a young man finds himself confronted with people he couldn’t believe existed in his own backyard.

The young protagonist in The Thing in the Woods, James, is a high school aged Best Buy employee who has moved out of Buckhead, the wealthiest district in Atlanta. While trying to beat some local kids at ATV racing, he stumbles upon a Lovecraftian creature who lives in the woods. James also discovers the strange cult lead by local restaurant owner Phillip Davidson that provides human sacrifices to this monster and, after he is blamed for a murder the monster causes, tries to prove his innocence.

The book has the plotting of a Goosebumps book. That’s not an insult. While the work is juvenile, it captures a similar spirit of youth R.L. Stine did. One character is said to be glad that the monster “doesn’t have to worry about heart disease” after eating a fat victim. There are scenes of secret meetings in the school yard and, of course, scenes of James trying to impress his crush Amber. And yes, the plot involves James getting grounded, which felt just as ominous to me now as those words did when I was younger. It’s familiar, but it felt appropriate for the material.

Horror is only scary when it feels like it’s something that can happen to you. I’ve never been scared by supernatural creatures. To me, it makes the situation to fantastical and separates it from the reality I live in. So the familiarity I felt with the material isn’t a detriment. Rather, it made me relate to the character’s plight.

Still, I wondered why the monster (which had apparently been worshiped by first nations people before “the white man came”) needed to be included at all. The cult itself was frightening enough. It recalls KKK meetings in the ’30s (particularly how the congregants refer to each other as “brother”) and it’s still something that’s happening today. The cult is made of up the sort of white supremacists that haunt the back woods of the internet today. They were scary to me because I’ve seen people who could very well be doing this.

The actual monster didn’t carry the same weight. But it did help set up a deeper mythology and mystery to the work. I at least wanted to know more about it and how Phillip used it to control people. But at least The Thing in the Woods provided memorable moments. It’s also a surprisingly quick read, perfect for this time of year. And the finally is a real page action-packed page turner.

The Thing in the Woods is an adolescent Southern Gothic novel by way of Clive Barker. It’s not just about creatures in the night. It’s about the sort of people who would use them to their advantage, and that’s what resonated far more than the tentacles and sharp teeth. That’s a message that seems especially poignant today.

You can check out The Thing in the Woods here.

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A Review of Alien: Covenant

Earlier this year, people were posting a list on their Facebook pages about their film preferences. They were asked to identify their favorite dramas, action films, “bad movies,” and the like. One of the categories was “favorite franchise.” I nearly put the Alien franchise, but then I realized how inconsistent it has been since 1992. The films had done nothing new or exciting. The aliens were no longer shocking and the filmmakers had nothing to say. Between Resurrection, the two Alien vs Predator movies, and Prometheus, I was tired of the chest bursting and the phallic skulls.

Everyone had decided that we need to copy Aliens, which was a mistake. Yes, Aliens is a fine action film with some great characters (except Newt) but it’s also not what an Alien is supposed to be about. Alien is about hopelessness and fear. It’s about how anyone can be a victim and that the hero is more determined by circumstances than anything else. That’s why I like Alien 3. It had flaws but it still didn’t pretend like everyone was going to make it out alive. It also took time to hold a mirror up to society and point out how many people’s values and the institutions they depend on will ultimately betray them. The first film was about how corporations view blue-collar workers, the third was about religion and how it cannot be counted on to save or even redeem sinners.

The other films are about nothing except people being eaten by giant monsters. The exception was Prometheus, which tried to comment…why scientists shouldn’t do dumb things? Prometheus was ultimately a very confused movie that depended on the characters doing things that made no logical sense. The android David was the worst. He seemingly became the villain because he lost a bet and was obligated to. It wasn’t even a proper Alien film, playing coy with H.R. Giger inspired images and the Engineers to pretend like it was part of a different franchise.

Still, I liked Alien: Covenant when it was announced because I knew Ridley Scott was going to be honest with this film. He wouldn’t tease us with Alien imagery and then decide that, no, he didn’t want to make an Alien film after all. Alien: Covenant would not be able to get away with fooling anyone. Good or bad, it would be an Alien film. The only question that was left was, “will this be good?”

Thankfully, yes. Alien: Covenant isn’t perfect but it’s by far one of the best sequels to the original film.

One of the best things about Covenant is that it’s not dependent on the established Alien cannon. It works perfectly as its own separate film and does not depend on repeating the same tricks that the original films had. The film’s plot is similar to Prometheus. A crew on their way to a new planet to start a colony (the colonists are all in suspended animation) find an uncharted planet that may be habitable to human life. Only the android Walter (Michael Fassbender) is awake to maintain the ship. Due to an emergency, the crew awakens and the captain, Oram (Billy Crudup) decides to go visit it despite the objections from his first mate Daniels (Katherine Waterston). On the planet they discover David (also Fassbender) the android from Prometheus who is the same model as Walter. He’s has been stranded on the planet for ten years and has used that time to study mysterious alien creatures that are now threatening the crew.

This could be the plot to any ambitious science fiction movie. What makes this one an Alien film was that filmmakers realized audiences need to care about the characters again. The crew is all spouses, so when certain people start dying, the characters feel the loss. It also has more ideas than a simple monster movie. The first scene in the film is a discussion about the quest for God. The xenomorphs in this film explore the same things the Frankenstein monster did. Just because creatures can create the perfect organism doesn’t mean they should. The Xenomorphs are not just bug-eyed monsters anymore.

The film does have some connections to Prometheus, which are problematic at times. I was not interested in exploring those characters after that dull entry. But fortunately, Covenant uses the opportunity to address Prometheus’ shortcomings. For one, David finally works in this film. You’ll remember that one of my biggest complaints about Prometheus was the fact that David had no motivation. He switched from good to evil at the plot’s convenience. This film explores more about David’s motivations. He was an artificial being who was disappointed with his creator’s concept of God and the fact that the Engineers were the ones who had introduced life to Earth. He feels he’s in a position to do better with the xenomorphs. David was finally a character and not just a way to keep the plot moving forward. With Covenant, David becomes one of the most fascinating characters in the Alien franchise.

But every film has some issues and I don’t want to overlook the ones in Covenant. For one, the plot once again depends on characters doing stupid things. It’s not as blatant as in Prometheus and the plot does try to explain the crew’s inexperience with the situation they’re in. Still, would it kill them to wear helmets on a new planet? The captain is also incredibly gullible, especially with David. He sees David communicate with an alien and knows that he is doing experiments with them. But instead of destroying them, he somehow allows David to show him how deep his relationship with the aliens go, putting everyone in danger? I also guessed the big twist at the end. I can’t say that it wasn’t emotionally effective and presents a great set up for the next Alien film. It was only too obvious.

Alien: Covenant was the first Alien film in a long time that gave me hope about the future of the franchise. There are clearly new ideas that Ridley Scott wants to explore with the xenomorphs. Covenant is a film that offers glimmers of hope against a dark, hopeless backdrop. It’s what an Alien film is meant to be.

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A Review of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

I enjoyed the first Guardians of the Galaxy because it came out of left field. Everyone thought that this film about comic book characters no one recognized would horribly bomb. Disney seemingly made it as a contractual obligation, handing it to the guy that wrote 2002’s Scooby Doo and ensuring that the most recognizable cast members would only be in the film voicing a tree and a raccoon.

The film was still successful because everyone involved wasn’t constrained by Disney. The film’s third act was a retread of the Avengers’ third act, but it featured more exciting characters and created a living, breathing world for the audience to get lost in.

That lack of constraint in the first film is why I was worried about a Guardians of the Galaxy sequel. No one expected the first film to accomplish anything so the filmmakers were given free rein. Now that the suits at Marvel and Disney know the property is a hit, I knew they would try to micromanage the thing in order to “recapture the magic” that was only there in the first place because the filmmakers were left alone.

Luckily, the cast is having such a good time that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 is still immensely enjoyable. And the film still did what the first one did – creates a new, intriguing world that the audience is invited to get lost in. Still, I’m not entirely sold because I don’t quite understand what Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 is doing. A good sequel is supposed to use the original film as a starting point to help us explore new aspects of the characters and try new things with the previously established formula. Superhero films like The Dark Knight, X2, and Hellboy 2 all recognized this. But Guardians of the Galaxy 2 doesn’t do that throughout the run time. It doesn’t ruin the first film and still has some amazing scenes, but I got the sense that no one really wanted to do a sequel. It felt like an obligation rather than an exciting new chapter.

The film starts out fantastically. The Guardians, now an actual superhero team as opposed to a collection of motley fools, work as mercenaries. They’re hired to defend some sacred cosmic batteries from a Cthulu like monster. But the credits sequence barely shows this battle. It shows Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) dancing after he hooks up the sound system to play Star Lord’s (Chris Pratt) old cassette.

From there we get reintroduced to the rest of the Guardians, including the hulking, dim-witted Drax (Dave Bautista), bounty hunter Gamora (Zoe Salanda), and the wily Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), who steals the very thing they were hired to protect. This actually does a good job of kicking off the main plot, which involves the orphaned Star Lord discovering his long-lost father Ego (Kurt Russell), who despite being a seemingly benevolent alien god may not be all he seems. (As an aside, Star Lord is obsessed with the Earth culture of his youth but doesn’t realize that Snake Plissken is his father?)

This journey takes the Guardians to many new places and to encounters with face old and new. The effects in this film are beautiful. Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the few Marvel movies that introduces me to a new world. I particularly enjoyed the lush paradise Ego created for himself. It’s a gorgeous depiction of paradise that’s constantly surprising us. (Especially when we see the full planet from space.) The new characters, like the psychic Mantis (Pom Klementieff). She’s presented as the foil of Drax – a woman who knows all about emotion but nothing about the galaxy. She’s given some of the best lines as she tries to communicate what she can only feel.

I also like the world the film builds and the new ways it explores the characters. People have paid a lot of attention to Yondu (Michael Rooker) and how he’s developed in this film. Not only does he get the best action scene of the film (where he uses his arrow to take down an entire army), the filmmakers build on his character from the first film. Explaining it all would spoil the ending, but Yondu is not the stereotypical villain he was in the first film.

The theme of the film is pure kiddie matinee material – you don’t have to search for your family when you’re around people who support you. But I do feel the film earns it and it leads to an emotionally satisfying ending. Comics have often relied on the most basic themes to attract a wide audience. Guardians of the Galaxy works because it’s not heavy-handed with its preaching and because I cared about most of the characters.

But at the same time, fatigue is starting to kick in for me. Some of the characters have been flanderized to the point of annoyance. Drax is particularly annoying – constantly saying the wrong thing for a cheap laugh.  Groot is barely in the film and Nebula changes from a villain to a hero with the snap of someone’s fingers. The worst is Gamora. She’s treated like an obligatory love interest, which does her character a disservice. I want the strong, confident woman from the first film back – the one who was not afraid to tell Star Lord “no.” Most ensemble pieces are not able to sustain my interest for every character. I walk away liking some but wishing they had not devoted so much time to others. One of the few exceptions to this was the first Guardians film. I could not imagine it without the entire team. This time around, the film suffers from an excess of useless characters.

I still like the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise but I haven’t had any of my concerns about future sequels addressed. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 feels like a good distraction. It has some of the best action scenes of the year and I still love the characters. It’s a ton of fun and, compared to the rest of the increasingly bloated and unwieldy “Marvel Universe,” Guardians of the Galaxy is probably the most enjoyable series they have. But maybe that’s also the problem for me. I’m worried that the second Guardians is making the same mistakes other Marvel films are – namely, useless characters. They’re seemingly only successful when the suits aren’t holding the writer’s hand and insisting they shoehorn in unnecessary scenes and characters to “maximize the appeal.” I want Guardians remain as loose and rebellious as possible, and I don’t know if Vol 2 shows that it will be in the future.

Oh, and finally, the post-credit scenes are nothing more than silly in-jokes than actual scenes. There’s one amusing little moment with a teenage Groot, but don’t feel like these are credits you need to sit through.

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A Review of Ghost in the Shell

Everyone who has seen the remake of Ghost in the Shell seems to be saying the same thing. It’s a beautiful film that is sadly lacking in any humanity.

I was skeptical of that feedback as I walked into the theater. That’s almost identical to what people said about Blade Runner in 1982. How can anyone talk about a lack of humanity in a film when the primary point of the film is to explore what it means to really be human?

The point of the original film was how Major, a woman who’s mind had been implanted into a robot’s body, wasn’t sure what her existence meant any more. Major wasn’t even sure if she had ever been human and that her memories are fake. Such a character is not going to be warm or easy to embrace.

So, the reviews made Ghost in the Shell  sound like the movie it needed to be.

I saw it myself and came away (mostly) impressed. This is one of the most gorgeous film’s I’ve ever seen. I cannot express how amazing the special effects in this film. From the shots of the neoTokyo skyline to the images of the robotic human faces, Ghost in the Shell builds the first world since Dark City I wanted to get lost in.

The plot does not follow the first film. Ghost in the Shell explores the conspiracy around a man named Kuze (Michael Pitt) who is killing the doctors that helped build the first robot with a human brain, Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson). Major finds out that Kuze contains secrets about who she was before her mind was inserted into her new body, which leads her to declare a war against her creators at Hanka Electronics.

Ghost in the Shell is also a wonderful throwback to the classic cyberpunk stories of the ’80s and ’90s. It’s not so much a remake of the 1995 animated film as it is an homage to it and stories like it. The film fetishizes Japanese culture, from the giant holograms of Japanese characters everywhere to the casting of Takeshi Kitano (who gets the best scene in the movie). But Ghost in the Shell also made me wonder why cyberpunk died out. In an age where everyone has access to a supercomputer in their pocket, the idea of people being augmented and upgraded doesn’t seem like science fiction. One character, Batou (Pilou Asbaek) loses his eyes in an explosion and replaces them with rather freaky camera lenses. There is also a scene (copied from the first film) in which a character being interrogated by the police realizes that his memories are a lie and his beloved child doesn’t exist. I always enjoyed those stories when I was younger and cyberpunk was fresh. In an age when the internet was still a new thing, at what point did we all start becoming faceless entities. Twenty years and several billion YouTube comments later, I still don’t have an answer.

I also liked Scarlett Johansson for the most part. She’s stiff and emotionless as Major, but there’s a very deep pain beneath the surface. One great scene in the film has Major buy time with a prostitute just so she can describe what it feels like when Major touches her. It’s a moment when Johansson explores both her “human” and robotic nature.

But it’s also Johansson who exposes the biggest flaws in the movie. To explain, I’ll go back to Blade Runner. Ridley Scott’s masterpiece had a lot to say about humanity, memory, and identity. But it didn’t directly say anything. We as an audience had to learn it through watching the replicants and listening to their speeches. Rachel’s tears as she realizes Deckard can recite her “memories” to her spoke volumes to the audience.

Ghost in the Shell doesn’t have any moments like that. It replaces those with moments where we’re told about how Major feels cut off from the world. She tells a doctor repairing her that “You have no idea how alone that makes me feel” upon being told that soon, everyone will be like her.

That is not a good way to explore any theme you want to present. It’s also not good storytelling. Major is, at times, so emotionally distant that her actions become impossible to predict. She seems to have no problems killing other human beings or being used as a weapon by Hanka and Section 9 despite the fact this is supposed to be her central conflict.

It makes the action scenes more gratuitous. Why should I applaud scenes of Major shooting everyone when the film has told me that she’s supposed to be very conflicted about the fact she’s been reprogrammed to be a killing machine? And the film doesn’t end with Major having a profound revelation. She goes right back to doing what she was at the start of the film.

This is a woman who had found out her existence was a lie, but did practically nothing with this information. Major even shrugs off the fact that Hanka destroyed her identity. Some audiences were horrified by the casting of Scarlett Johansson, claiming it was whitewashing. The film tried to incorporate this into its plot, especially in the scene where Major meets her birth mother. But there’s no payoff to it after Major decides to basically stay the way she is.

Ghost in the Shell is a gorgeous movie that’s a little too obvious. But it’s still not bad. I enjoyed watching it and have a desire to see it again just to see the city again. It’s a very immersive film, but I don’t believe it rewards audiences who want to get lost in it. Imagine a gorgeous, complex maze that contains nothing but a single piece of rotten fruit in the center. That’s a little worse than Ghost in the Shell is, but you have some idea of what viewing it is like.

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A Review of The Lego Batman Movie

The Lego Movie was one of my favorite films of 2014. I enjoyed how it was written like a film written by an eight year old playing with Legos in his basement. It was energetic and hilarious. Even if the plot was a lift from Joseph Campbell, it never felt pedantic. And it appealed to adults without relying on double entendres.

Now comes The Lego Batman film, a movie I looked forward to. Will Arnett’s portrayal of The Dark Knight in The Lego Movie was a standout. If Batman really existed, surely he would be the selfish braggart that was seen in that movie. And the Batman mythology is already known enough to create the pop culture gags that The Lego Movie depended on.

But something feels off about The Lego Batman Movie. It’s still funny and includes a lot of in-jokes that only Batman fans would get. (Did anyone else notice the Blight cameo or the Batman Beyond costume in the Batcave?) But the script doesn’t feel like it was written by a child playing with Legos. It plays like an adult who is imagining that he or she is a child playing with Legos. The film is ultimately about how it’s important to have friends and only teamwork will save the day. That sounds like something that’s better learned on Sesame Street. Again, The Lego Movie was childish, but it had earned the right to be. The Lego Batman Movie never earns that right.

The plot is the Batman plot. The Joker is up to something, Batman tries to stop him, finds he can’t do it alone, so must rely on help from his Bat-family. In this film, Batman wants to get rid of the Joker by banishing him to the Phantom Zone, while the Joker wants to recruit some of the biggest villains (like Voldemort and the Daleks, labeled as “British robots” in the movie) from there to prove he is truly Batman’s greatest enemy.

I enjoyed how many Batman Easter eggs were scattered throughout the film. The Lego Batman Movie is sure to remind the audience of Batman’s grittier films – and then points out how ridiculous some of those gritty moments are.Batman, if he existed in real life, would not be the tortured soul that exists in the Christopher Nolan movies. He would be the narcissistic man who exists in the Lego universe. He wouldn’t live in the dark, but in the camera flash as he’s mocking the garish criminals he fights. He wouldn’t love Gotham, he’d barely take notice of it as he admires himself in the mirror.

Batman would not have lasted 78 years if he’d been consistently portrayed this way. But for a ninety minute satire, it’s perfect. I was concerned this film would be an overexposure of the character. The Lego Movie was right to only feature Batman in small doses. Yet Will Arnett and the filmmakers find the perfect balance between funny and grating. One scene I really enjoyed was the scene in which Batman visits an orphanage and makes sure to bring along a cannon to fire t-shirts at the orphans.

Bateman’s supporting characters also work well in this spoof. I liked Zach Galifinakis’ lovesick Joker, who only wants Batman to hate him more than anyone else. Michael Cera is an amusing Dick Grayson. Far removed from the child acrobat of the comics, this Grayson is a hopeless nerd who views the Batcave as a comic convention vendor hall. Ralph Fiennes is a great Alfred Pennyworth who fills the “father role” in a way live action Alfreds have not. And Barbara Gordon…well she’s a reprise of Lucy from The Lego Movie. It still works because Barbara tries so hard to be the voice of reason in the comics like she is here.

So far, it sounds like the perfect Batman riff with some great casting. So what’s the problem?

The Lego Batman Movie doesn’t capture the same tone that The Lego Movie did. That film had a very childish and dumb plot. But it worked because it felt like the sort of plot that a child would create while playing with his toys.

The Lego Batman Movie feels like the sort of cartoon pitched at eight year old children. Ultimately the film is about the importance of friendship and how Batman can’t save the day by himself. To be fair, several famous comics have addressed that theme. (Check out Bruce Wayne: Murderer for an example.) But it’s not a lot of fun seeing it done here. I felt like I was being talked down to throughout the film.

This is also bad because the film is full of gags that are not likely to appeal to children. All of the jokes about the shark repellent and references to the Joker on a parade float “while Prince songs play” are going to go over the heads of children. So why insult the adult audience with such prof themes after doing so much to ensure your film appeals to them?

I don’t hate The Lego Batman Movie. As a Spaceballs-esque spoof of the Batman mythology, I can imagine a far worse film. The creators of the film love the character while also recognizing the cracks in Batman’s armor. But it’s too childish and doesn’t have the same sense of fun The Lego Movie had. As a result, instead of being the joy The Lego Movie was, it feels more like a cartoon cable series that wouldn’t have much crossover appeal.

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