Logan (2017) – Movie Review

logan

“Nature made me a freak. Man made me a weapon. And God made it last too long.” Logan (Hugh Jackman)

God is allowing us to enjoy the last in the X-Men /Wolverine cycle with Hugh Jackman having endured 17 years of pumping up to give adolescent males a reason to get up for the demands of an unforgiving world. However, this film, Logan, is not all blood and guts—it presents an aging hero coming to terms with the natural degeneration of his greatness and his legacy.

It’s really all about how these mutants, who clearly represent the fringes of society with odd residents marginalized by the homogeneity of the world. Inevitability hangs over this substantial hero saga, especially an iteration that suggests what even super heroes long for— immortality through lineage or enduring philosophy.

As the founder of the mutant school, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), tells it to Wolverine: “This is what life looks like: people love each other. You should take a moment . . . .” The film is suffused with a sense of the importance of family, not just Logan and his daughter, Laura (Dafne Keen), but also the new generation of mutants who must band together to survive.

The heroism turns on love rather than technology. The love is familial, in this case Logan discovering his daughter then sacrificing his safety to escort her to Eden, a place with other child mutants, who must hide from the dark forces bent on using them as soldiers. Although such bonding is the stuff of cliché, this film makes the growing love and sacrifice believable.

In the end, the search has been to discover what it’s like to live and love normally. Albeit briefly. Amidst the sturm and drang of violent, bloody super hero films, and this one has as much violence as any other, the discovery of homely love is the greatest adventure of all.

 

10 out of 10 stars

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X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) – Movie Review

wolverine origins

The problem with making a film about the origin of the mutant super-hero Wolverine is that he was never meant to have an origin. He was created as a throwaway character for an issue of The Incredible Hulk, then got picked up as a supporting character for the revamping of the X-Men. No one really thought he was important enough to have his own origin, but he became one of the most popular comic book characters of the last 30 years. That led to a series of attempts to graft a powerful and moving beginning onto a character that was only intended to be a badass with a cool gimmick. But instead of a simple but profound start like “Strange visitor from another planet” or “With great power comes great responsibility”, Wolverine got an origin that became increasingly convoluted and overwrought as more and more was added to it over time. That’s reflected in this movie, which actually crams at least three distinct origin tales into 107 minutes. Throw in the traditional “summer movie” boatload of explosions, gunfire and combat and there’s not much room left for a good story.

I mean, you know that scene where someone kneels over the body of a dead loved one and screams “Nooooooooo!” to the heavens? This movie has two scenes like that. It has a shot of Wolverine walking into the camera as a huge explosion goes off behind him. There’s a character who is clearly established as being a mass murderer, but then the film suddenly decides that being a mass murderer isn’t that big a deal. Not to mention that this is the first time I’ve ever seen a movie that literally stops to explain its own ending 15 minutes before it actually happens.

All that said, this isn’t a bad film. The action sequences are all pretty good, the acting is better than you usually get for this sort of thing and while the story is kind of a mess, it makes enough sense that you’re not left sitting in the theater thinking that every character in the movie is an idiot.

In fact, this is the rare action movie where the acting is probably the best thing about it. Ryan Reynolds and Kevin Durand are legitimately funny as mutants Deadpool and The Blob. Hugh Jackman is brilliant as usual. Danny Huston as William Stryker and Liev Schreiber and Sabretooth give probably the best performances of the film. It’s not always easy to play a younger version of a character already portrayed by a fine actor, but Huston makes Stryker just similar enough to the man from X-Men 2 and is able to give him a little more depth. Schreiber brings real emotion and a sense of legitimacy his furry mutant. His Sabretooth isn’t just a prop for Wolverine’s story, but a living, breathing character in his own right.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine tells a story that was never meant to be told. It doesn’t do it very well, but that it can do it at all without being a total disaster is something of an achievement. This movie doesn’t have a personal element that ever rises above the cliché and it has none of the broader moral or societal points that were found in the X-trilogy itself. This is just a big, dumb, fun “summer movie” and I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that.

 

6 out of 10 stars

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Star Trek: Beyond (2016) – Movie Review

star trek beyond

The third mission of the U.S.S Enterprise in the rebooted alternative timeline version of the original “Star Trek” goes a little less boldly than its two predecessors, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The most notable change is that J.J. Abrams abandoned the captain’s chair (for the other franchise starting with “Star”) and handed duties to Justin Lin of the “Fast & Furious” franchise. On scripting duties, Simon Pegg (who plays Scotty) and Doug Jung take over from Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof. Orci and Abrams still retain roles as producers, but that’s a pretty significant creative shift, and “Star Trek Beyond” ends up with a much different look and feel.

Tonally, 2009’s “Star Trek” and also “Star Trek Into Darkness” were a bit darker, more dramatic and theme-driven blockbusters. This was in following with the mold of most franchise reboots at the time, which demanded more grit and maturity to elevate ‘geeky’ pop-culture source material for 21st century sensibilities. “Beyond” jettisons that notion into the vacuum of outer space.

This should come as no surprise given Lin’s proclivities with the “Fast & Furious” movies, which made their fortune on wowing audiences with outlandish action sequences and a familiar, lovable ensemble cast. The formula works for the “Star Trek” universe, because nothing seems too ridiculous in space, plus most audiences are familiar with the current crew of Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin and John Cho. They’ve earned a chance to just have some fun.

“Beyond” is definitely fun, maybe bordering on mindless. It trades in the dramatic elements and character-building conflict of the last two films for a standalone outer space adventure. In that sense, it’s more in the tradition of older “Star Trek” movies, which operated independently and felt like long “Star Trek” episodes.

After a few years of status quo space exploration, the Enterprise crew docks in a snow globe-like starbase called Yorktown. There, the Federation picks up a distress signal from an alien who says her ship and crew are in danger on the far side of a treacherous nearby nebula. The Enterprise springs into action, but after they navigate to the other end of the nebula, they’re viciously attacked by an alien force and stranded on the aliens’ planet.

This first major action set piece is a pretty exhilarating launching pad into the bulk of the story, and it comes not a moment too soon. In classic fashion, it splits the crew up into small groups, and the second act sees these teams trying to reunite and escape from the clutches of Krall (Idris Elba), who is looking for a weapon of mass destruction in the crew’s possession. A bit of a “Mission: Impossible” factor (another Paramount franchise with Simon Pegg) sneaks in here as well, though the plot isn’t quite as clever.

The movie really hearkens back to “Star Trek” episodes and memorable films that take place off-ship and bring the crew to a strange new world where the audience gets to discover a new species right along with them. No knowledge of “Trek” lore required to enjoy this one, yet it’s still immersive like any good sci-fi movie should be.

This shift away from narrative continuity between films, diving into important themes and shooting for emotional catharsis is almost a relief. No film should shy away from that challenge, but there’s something pleasant about the way “Beyond” lets go of those notions and opts for a classic form of geeky science fiction that’s more about dazzling fun, witty banter and big action.

By the same token, “Beyond” lowers the “Star Trek” franchise’s ceiling. It’s still possible to have an action-filled, funny sci-fi romp that challenges its characters and tackles universal ideas beyond merely that unity is better than divisiveness. Pegg and Jung’s script is fun, but it’s clear that they were encouraged to go simple.

So the “Star Trek” franchise has traded ambition for a little more reliability. Three films in, that’s not necessarily a bad swap. Ambitious blockbusters can fall flat, and some would argue “Into Darkness” already did. When you consider that “Star Trek” is not a series that’s ever had neatly packaged trilogies or other overarching narrative structures, switching to a more episodic format helps maximize longevity. In other words, we got a slightly lesser “Star Trek” film that’s better for the future of “Star Trek.”

 

7 out of 10 stars

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Star Trek (2009) – Movie Review

star trek

It’s a little-known fact that none other than Lucille Ball is responsible for the birth of “Star Trek”. As the titular head of Desilu Studios in the 1960’s, she green-lit former LA cop Gene Roddenberry’s idea of an intergalactic western and championed the series during its brief three-year run on NBC. It is amazing to consider how the franchise continues to thrive 43 years later, so much so that director J.J. Abrams (“Lost”) and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have been able to re-imagine the legacy of the series without sacrificing the fidelity needed to satisfy the throngs of rabid fans who pushed the grosses north of the $200 million mark in its first week of release. As someone who is not remotely a Trekker, I have to admit the creators have done a fine job of reincarnating the familiar characters into their youthful counterparts and concocted an engaging, time-traversing plot that smartly avoids heavy exposition in favor of action and pyrotechnics. The result can be sometimes mind-numbing and trivial, but the 122-minute movie is never dull.

The densely populated plot throws us forward to the year 2233 (or backwards depending on your perspective on “Star Trek” lore) as the USS Kelvin confronts a major alien vessel captained by an embittered Romulan named Nero. An alternate timeline is revealed, and inevitable tragedies ensue. Years later, we meet the familiar characters from the TV series culminating in the USS Enterprise’s maiden voyage. James Kirk is a cocksure hothead with obvious Starfleet Academy potential, but he is haunted by the father he never knew. The half-human, half-Vulcan Spock is a brilliant student-turned-control freak by his nature but sometimes unable to reconcile the two sides of his identity. Their initially hostile relationship provides much of the film’s spark, as they one-up each other in the face of a common enemy in Nero. This provides a good excuse for the CGI-enhanced action sequences with a plethora of explosions and characters zooming in and out of frame. By the time you start to feel the excess and redundancy in this approach, the story wraps the viewer up in its core ethos – that the Enterprise crew is an extended rainbow coalition of a family even as entire civilizations are destroyed.

Abrams and crew are smart enough to recognize that the movie has to capture the heart of the original series in a way that doesn’t patronize fans yet engage us non-Trekkers. Most of the casting choices are solid, although a couple of them are rather distracting. With the lightweight veneer of a tween idol, Chris Pine captures the braggadocio and roughhewn manner of a youthful Kirk in a way that tethers him to Shatner’s real-life personality without doing an outright imitation of the elder actor. Even better is Zachary Quinto who has little latitude to vary Spock from fan expectation, yet he brings subtle but palpable currents of humanity to his stoic character. The rest of the crew is painted in broader strokes with Karl Urban coming closest to caricature as “Bones” McCoy; Anton Yelchin, laying on a thick, Cold War-era Russian accent as the extremely young Chekhov; and Simon Pegg (“Hot Fuzz”) pulling out all the comedy stops as exiled engineer Scotty. Somewhat more subtle are Zoë Saldana (“Guess Who”) as linguist specialist Uhuru, who has a surprising relationship with Spock, and John Cho (“Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle”) showing that he can handle action sequences with dexterity as neophyte helmsman Sulu.

Covered with latex, Eric Bana is hardly recognizable as Nero, although he makes the most of his character’s stock vengeance motives. It’s genuinely odd, however, to see Tyler Perry (“Madea Goes to Jail”) as the head of the Starfleet Academy and especially the still-doe-eyed Winona Ryder trying to look maternal as Spock’s human-side mother. Among cinema’s comic book franchises, this one is closer to “The Dark Knight” than “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” on the quality scale. Visually, it doesn’t disappoint with Daniel Mindel’s dazzling, kinetic cinematography and Scott Chambliss’ creative production design that mixes retro and futuristic elements seamlessly. At the same time, the convenient timeline jumble doesn’t really give rise to any complex moral quandaries beyond the importance of building friendships and trusting your colleagues. Nonetheless, the movie is propulsive entertainment which doesn’t tamper with its genesis and focuses squarely on the humanity of the familiar characters. For that accomplishment, we should all be grateful.

 

8 out of 10 stars

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Blade Runner 2049 (2017) – Movie Review

blade runner 2049

Ridley Scott’s original film was released in 1982 and based in 2019. The highly anticipated sequel from Denis Villenueve was released in 2017 and is based in 2049. So we have 35 years between films, and 30 years between story settings.

Obviously, the massive fan base that has grown over the years (the original was not an initial box office hit) will be filling the theatres the first weekend – even those who are ambivalent towards, or adamantly against, the idea of a sequel. The big question was whether screenwriters Hampton Fancher (maybe every writer should begin as a flamenco dancer) and Michael Green would be able to create a script that would attract new viewers while honoring the original film and source Philip K Dick novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” The answer is not only a resounding yes, but it’s likely even those who usually shy away from science-fiction may find themselves thoroughly enjoying the nearly 2 hours and 43 minute run time (it doesn’t seem too long).

The cast is deep and perfectly matched, and there are even a few surprises (no spoilers here). Ryan Gosling is fun to watch as the reserved K, an expert Blade Runner who tracks and “retires” old model replicants – the Nexus 8’s have been replaced by the more- controllable Nexus 9’s. An early sequence has K in combat mode against a protein farmer named Morton (played by the massive Dave Bautista). With all that is going on in these few scenes, director Villenueve is training us to lock in and pay attention, lest we miss the key to the rest of the movie and K’s motivation for most everything he does from this point on. Robin Wright plays K’s icy Lieutenant Joshi, who administers “baseline” tests to him after every successful mission – just to make certain he is still under her control.

Jared Leto delivers an understated and mesmerizing performance as the God-like Wallace who not only managed to solve global hunger, but also is a genetic engineer creating new beings. Somehow, this is one of Leto’s most normal roles (which makes quite a statement about his career) and yet his character is so intriguing, it could warrant a spin-off standalone film. Wallace’s trusted assistant is the ruthless bulldog mis-named Luv, played by Sylvia Hoeks. Her scene with Robin Wright is one of the best on screen female duels we’ve seen in awhile. One of the more unusual characters (and that’s saying a lot) is Joi (Ana de Armas), the Artificial Intelligence/hologram companion to K, whose presence is cued by Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf notes. Other support work to notice comes in brief but crucial roles by Hiam Abbas, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Barkhad Abdi and Lennie James.

Who is not listed above? Of course it’s Harrison Ford (as seen in the trailer), who reprises his Deckard role from the original. All these years later, he’s a grizzled recluse who doesn’t take kindly to home visitations. Mr. Ford offers up proof that he still possesses the acting ability that made him a movie star (even if his best piloting days have passed him by). It’s such a thrill to see him flash the screen presence that’s been missing for many years. And yes, fans of the first film will mourn the absence of the great Rutger Hauer, yet there is no need to dwell on one of the few negatives.

The story leans heavily on philosophical and metaphysical questions …just like every great sci-fi film. What makes us human, or better yet, is there a difference between humans and machines that can think and feel? Can memories be trusted, or can they be implanted or influenced over time? These are some of the post-movie discussion points, which are sure to include the cutting edge cinematography and use of lighting from the always-great Roger Deakins, and the production design from Dennis Gassner that somehow fits the tone, mood and texture of both the first film and this sequel. The set pieces are stunning and sometimes indistinguishable from the visual effects – a rarity these days.

There was some unwelcome drama a couple of months ago as noted composer Johann Johannsson dropped out and was replaced with Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. The resulting score complements the film without mimicking the original. Ridley Scott, who directed the original BLADE RUNNER (and its numerous versions over the years), was involved as Executive Producer, and to put things in perspective, the first film was released the same year as TOOTSIE and TRON. Denis Villenueve was Oscar nominated for directing ARRIVAL, and he has proved himself to be a superb and dependable filmmaker with SICARIO, PRISONERS, and INCENDIES. He deserves recognition and respect for his nods to the original (Pan Am, Atari) and ability to mold a sequel that stands on its own …and in my opinion, is better than the first.

 

10 out of 10 stars

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The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) – Movie Review

amazing spider-man

The Amazing Spider-Man is directed by Marc Webb and collectively written by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves. It stars Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen and Sally Field. Music is by James Horner and cinematography by John Schwartzman.

Peter Parker (Garfield) was orphaned as a boy when his parents were killed in a plane crash, raised by his Uncle Ben (Sheen) and Aunt May (Field), he is a clever lad but something of an outcast at high school. While investigating the disappearance of his parents and sporting a crush on class mate Gwen Stacy (Stone), Peter’s life is tipped upside down when he is bitten by a radioactive spider that gives him abnormal powers.

While the Spider-Man franchise doesn’t (thankfully) come packaged with the kind of bizarre mania that comes with Batman, the acolytes are a tough bunch to figure out. Sam Raimi’s trilogy garnered close towards $2.5 billion worldwide, yet now, with this reboot (actually it’s a reimaging) trundled off of the Sony production line, there are plenty of “fans” coming forward to say they never rated Raimi’s films! Magurie was this, Dunst was that, Raimi missed the beat of the comic version of Spidey and etc and etc. Well I’m sorry, but I just don’t remember any fall out apart from the near unanimously agreed upon over stuffing of Raimi’s part 3. Perhaps I just didn’t go on the right Spider-Man forums? But even then it’s hard to argue with a box office take of $2.5 billion, those figures have to be made up of a good proportion of Spidey fans, surely? You would reasonably think…

I mention it because The Amazing Spider-Man has met with reviews from each end of the scale. Those at the high end who support the “reimaging” seem to focus on it being close to the real Spidey universe they wanted, with great casting, better effects work and a origin story of worth. At the other end is the arguments that “reimaging” a film that is only ten years old is daft, especially since it actually doesn’t bring the promised new direction or origin story of worth. In fact it just juggles bits of the Raimi trilogy and plays it out with other Spider-Man characters instead. While Garfield is hardly an improvement since he’s way too old for high school as well! The truth is that Webb’s movie falls somewhere in between both sides of the argument, and that’s not just me being Switzerland and staying neutral!

Negatively it plays out as a compromised production and not the film that the makers initially set out to make, there are too many dangling threads and haphazard edits that leave narrative gaps. An Important character disappears off the radar, other characters are given limited time to breathe, and crucial plot points are arrived at with stupendous leaps of logic. A coda spliced into the end credits tries to entice us for the sequel, suggesting that the quick wipe over the origin “origin” story was deliberate, it’s unlikely, and feels like an afterthought. For a film that purports to be putting its own stamp on the Spidey universe, it quite often makes you think of Raimi’s films anyway. It may be The Lizard instead of Green Goblin and Gwen instead of MJ, but the emotional and psychological beats are still the same. Reboot? My arse. Oh and Horner, who I’m normally a fan of, has turned in a score that lacks vim and vigour, it aspires to be full of swirling superhero fervour to raise the goose flesh on your arms, but instead it’s just goose, and not a decently cooked one at that.

However, on the positive side of things, low expectation really helped me to enjoy the film, and I even watched it a second time to check over some initial reactions I had. There is still a lot to enjoy here. Acting is of a high standard (Ifans’ performance as Curt Connors gets better on repeat viewings), with good chemistry generated between Stone and Garfield, the effects work is (obviously) better ten years on; something which gives us a better-more acrobatic-moving Spider-Man, while the whole make-up of Parker as a geek who becomes cocky, even arrogant, really adds a kick to the first half of the movie’s coming-of-age narrative bent. It’s also good that with a running time of over two hours the makers have the time to expand Peter as a character, making the audience wait with expectation of his life changing date with the spider. As for the villain, it’s true enough to say that The Lizard is hardly an inspiring choice, but it does fit in with the whole origin story plan that Webb and his team want to tell. Though it should be noted that those seeking wall to wall fights between Spidey and The Liz are going to go a little hungry.

It’s big on human story and not the lazy cash in movie it could have been, and undeniably it’s fun, but the holes, dangling threads and logic leaps stop it breaking out to achieve its intentions. I was left looking forward to the sequel.

 

7 out of 10 stars

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Spider-Man 3 (2007) – Movie Review

spider-man 2007

This is a good film, but it is not on the same level as the first two. There are many good ideas to be found in the script by Sam Raimi, his elder brother Ivan and Alvin Sargent and it is quite well written but it is overstuffed. The film is surprisingly well paced considering its somewhat sprawling storyline and the fact that it is the longest of the trilogy. It is well directed by Sam Raimi but the action scenes are generally not the equal of the second film’s.

Tobey Maguire is again very strong as Peter Parker, who seems to have finally achieved the balance in his life that eluded him for most of the second film. In spite of J. Jonah Jameson’s best efforts over the years, the people of New York City have embraced Spider-Man as their hero. When it comes to his personal life, Peter is living the dream as he has been dating Mary Jane Watson for some time and he is planning to propose to her as soon as possible. Kirsten Dunst is good in the role but the material lets her down a bit. Mary Jane is having less success given that her career as a Broadway star died a quick death when she was fired. She thinks that Peter does not understand how she feels and that he tries to make everything about him as he often turns the conversation to his career as Spider-Man. The situation is not helped by the fact that Mary Jane is jealous of him re-enacting their upside down kiss with Gwen Stacy, a young woman whom he recently rescued as Spidey who just so happens to his lab partner as Peter. After a meteorite crashes to Earth, an alien symbiote bonds itself to Peter, amplifying his negative attributes. As the newly black suited Spider-Man, he goes from being a public hero to a public menace. He becomes callous and manipulative and is prone to outbursts of anger and violence. He also changes his image and begins to strut around the streets of New York trying to impress the ladies. These scenes were not really necessary but it was for the best that they were played for laughs. I am far less certain that this was the case when it came to his dancing in the jazz bar, one of the silliest scenes that I have seen in a film of this kind. Whether or not I was supposed to laugh, I did.

In the case of the three villains, the one in which I had the most vested interest was Harry Osborn, who discovered his late father Norman’s cache of Green Goblin weapons and gadgets and has taken on the mantle of the New Goblin. Much like Dunst, James Franco is good but would have benefited from stronger material. Armed with the knowledge that Peter is Spider-Man, Harry vows to destroy his erstwhile best friend in revenge for the supposed murder of his father. To that end, he attacks Peter in the skies above New York using his glider but falls from a great height and suffers a convenient loss of memory. In the process, he forgets all about Peter’s secret life and they resume their friendship, after a fashion. Things go a bit pear-shaped, however, when his memories reassert themselves and he forces Mary Jane to break up with Peter in order to save her boyfriend’s life.

Thomas Haden Church is a perfect fit for the Marko / Sandman role but the character is fairly uninteresting, particularly the clichéd sob story concerning his critically ill daughter. I thought that it was a serious mistake and ultimately rather pointless to retcon Uncle Ben’s death so that Marko and not his carjacker accomplice was the culprit. To a certain extent, it detracted from the first film’s storyline in a way that a sequel never should. Topher Grace is likewise fine but he does not have much to do as the obnoxious, sleazy and dishonest freelance photographer Eddie Brock who bonds with the symbiote after Peter frees himself from it, becoming Venom. I was pretty disappointed that Venom only had a few major scenes as he was always my favourite villain from the 1990s animated series. I would have been perfectly happy if they had saved Venom for a later installment and jettisoned Sandman altogether so that that the film would have involved a one- on-one confrontation between Peter and Harry, which the end of the second film seemed to be hinting at. I liked the redemption story arc towards the end but more of it would have been nice.

As in the previous films, I was very impressed by J.K. Simmons as Jameson and Rosemary Harris as Aunt May. Although his appearance as Uncle Ben is disappointingly brief, the film is notable as being Cliff Robertson’s final acting role before his death in 2011. Willem Dafoe’s cameo as Norman Osborn was even more evocative of “Hamlet” than in the second film, considering that he uses the phrase “Remember me” as did the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father. Had “Spider-Man 4” been produced, I assume that Bryce Dallas Howard would have reprised her role as Gwen Stacy and the character would have been killed off, in line with the comics. James Cromwell was wasted in his brief appearances as her father Captain George Stacy but they probably had plans for him too. As the maître d’, Bruce Campbell actually got to be a nice guy to Peter Parker for the only film in the series.

Overall, this is an enjoyable film in spite of its flaws but it could have been so much better

 

7 out of 10 stars

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