Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Movie Review - "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" (2017)

I'll be the first to admit that I was unnecessarily hard on "Guardians of the Galaxy," painting the movie in broad strokes and calling it a good "popcorn flick." And while the film does mostly aim for that demographic, after taking some to time to realize just how outstanding the good parts are, I realize now just how effective that film was. The characters are all given plenty of time to shine, the plot is refreshing filled with far more humanity than I gave it credit for, the comedy is surprisingly timeless, and the soundtrack is now classic.

While "Guardians of the Galaxy" is still certainly a popcorn flick, it is arguably the best one in the last several decades and right up there as one of the best Marvel movies to date.

This brings us to "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" which I feel is best described as more of the same. More one-liners and quotable scenes, more comedy, more of our "heroes" simply sitting down and trying to have a normal conversation, and more great uses of music. And while this does make for a great experience, it does leave me feeling like we've been down this road before, which somewhat taints the movie.

Now that our group of ragtag and misfit Guardians have made a name for themselves across the galaxy, Starlord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and baby Groot (Vin Disel) have been taking on stranger and more dangerous missions, which eventually leads them to encounter a powerful being known as Ego (Kurt Russell), who claims to be Starlord's father. Ego takes Peter, Gamora, and Drax to his planet, where he intends to prove he is ready to be a dad, while Rocket and Groot repair their damaged ship and are hunted by the Ravagers, led by Yondu (Michael Rooker).

Like with the first movie, what I found to be memorable was the comedy and the character interactions. How these vastly different personalities and quirks bounce off one another while Starlord tries to make everyone try to act like humans. Peter has clearly been teaching Rocket to understand sarcasm better through winking (though he always ends up winking with the wrong eye), as well as getting Drax to lay off his barbarian nature and learn when others are joking.

Some of the better lines come from Drax, who takes great joy in watching others suffer, whether through physical beatings or emotional assaults, while things like dancing or physical beauty repulse him. Yondu also gets some great moments, especially when we finally get to see him get to put his arrow abilities to full use. They make Yondu a much more sympathetic character in this movie instead of the vulture-ous character we got in the first film, to show that he's always had good intentions but has been normally given by greed or power, showing him for the misfit he truly is.

But my problem with "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" is similar to my feeling on "Avengers: Age of Ultron" and how that film up'ed the ante of "The Avengers" by taking everything that movie did but making it feel bigger.

In nearly every regard, "Age of Ultron" did everything "The Avengers" did, but better; yet we look back on the first film with awe and admiration, while the second one is just fine. The reason for this is because "The Avengers" was an experience, watching all these characters from five different movies come together in such a spectacular fashion for something unique and exciting. "Age of Ultron" was a sequel to an experience, and it does everything a good sequel should do - bigger stakes, bigger fights, more of what made the first one so good.

But everything it offers is something we've already seen, so that same magic that the first film had isn't there. We're not watching this one with fresh eyes. For all of its good points, "Age of Ultron" was just trying to be "The Avengers" again. Did it work? At times, yes, but the filmmakers we trying to recapture lightning after it had left its jar.

"Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" falls into the same category as "Age of Ultron" - trying to be far too much like its predecessor that it hardly creates its own identity. The first film was magical in its character interactions and writing, so I cannot blame James Gunn and crew for wanting to recapture that whimsy. But the tone, style, and sense of humor were so identical the previous movie that it feels like a watered-down version of the first movie.

Don't get me wrong, I still had a blast watching this movie. There are lots of memorable moments, some of them quieter heart-to-heart scenes between Gamora and her sister Nebula. I never once thought I was wasting my time or that this was a bad movie. I'm just a bit disappointed this one wasn't as much of an experience as "Guardians of the Galaxy."

Final Grade: B

Movie Review - "Alien: Covenant" (2017)

For a time, it felt like Ridley Scott's "Prometheus" was one of the more divisive films of 2012. While the idea of humans exploring the cosmos to find our creators, in whatever form or shape they might come in, is certainly an ambitious move, I felt that Scott didn't fully explore this concept to its fullest potential and focused more on the origin of the Xenomorphs, which I'm still unsure if people wanted to see that (I know I didn't want to). Part of the reason "Prometheus" did little for me was due to the incompetence of its cast of "geniuses" and how quickly it resorts to horror movie clichés, thus making everyone look like idiots.

If I had to describe "Prometheus" in one word it would be "stupid."

Of course "Prometheus" left a lot of questions unanswered and just made us far more confused as to how the events of that film tied into the creation of our favorite murderous aliens, which leads us to its sequel, "Alien: Covenant." I'm not sure if Ridley Scott intended for this origin story to be told through two movies or if he made this film to explain away all the problems people had with "Prometheus." But in any case, "Covenant" is more competently handled than its predecessor and actually gives audiences what they came here for - alien action and gore.

Set ten years after the events of "Prometheus," the colonization vessel Covenant is on its way to Origae-6, with more than two thousand colonists and a thousand embryos onboard, with the intention of forming a new society on a different planet. But after a random solar event, the main crew of the Covenant is forcibly woken up. They eventually discover a rogue transmission from an alien planet and learn that this world is much closer than Origae-6 and the crew decides to take a look. When they get there, they soon discover wheat but no sign of any other life forms, except for the transmission signal emanating from a nearby spaceship.

Coming out of "Covenant," my first thought was: It still has its problems, but at least it was better than "Prometheus."

This movie shares some of the problems of the previous one, in particular the characters still acting like morons who probably couldn't tie their shoes if you put them under the smallest amount of pressure. For example, their acting-captain Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) ignores the logical reasons presented to him against going to this new world from his second-in-command Daniels (Katherine Waterston), like how this could be trap. You would think the first danger flag would pop up when the alien starts to sing "Country Road," but our brave captain pushes to stupidity and beyond.

Part of the reason this is big deal for me is because my favorite film in this franchise is the first film, "Alien." It is one of the smartest horror movies of all time, where the actions of every single make logical sense and you can sympathize with every single one of them, including the alien itself. That movie prided itself on showing just how versatile and cunning humans can be in the face of imminent danger, never sacrificing one bit of intelligence for the sake of cheap horror.

Yet here we are, watching a couple make out in the shower while a monster is on the loose, or seeing our captain just stare at a deadly alien pod like nothing bad has ever happened to him. These moments don't happen nearly as often as they did in "Prometheus," but still enough that the lazy writing pokes through every once in a while.
That being said, the best part of "Covenant" was Michael Fassbender, playing two androids, the supportive yet rough Walter, and the megalomaniacal David, returning from the previous movie. It is fascinating how different these two are, yet still so much alike. They're both devoted, but to vastly diverse things - Walter is programmed to be loyal and to follow his duties, while David is programmed to be man's greatest achievement, something better than we could be; perfect. You can see the logical jump the android creators took, going from the life form that sees us as inferior creatures to the slave-like creatures meant to preform the tasks we cannot.

Fassbender steals the show as David, mostly because we just want to see how far his hatred of other beings goes. He seems to programmed to respect all life forms, showing everyone kindness and answering everyone's questions, but his new personality and ego trump those values in the end to show what he wants to be - a creator. To give the universe something new and to make his mark.

And hey, we actually get to see some aliens doing what they do best. That's more than I can say about "Prometheus."

Overall, "Alien: Covenant" certainly isn't a bad experience and an improvement from many of the previous Alien movies, with some great acting from Fassbender, Waterston, and Crudup. But it still gives in to many horror movie clichés and tropes and ends up dumbing down most of its cast for the sake of moving the story forward, which is disappointing to see from the creator of "Alien."

Final Grade: B-

Movie Review - "Coraline" (2009)

While I certainly feel that "Kubo and the Two Strings" is Lakia's most visually enthralling and captivating film, "Coraline" is Lakia's most well-told story with mesmerizing visuals that both astound and terrify. It shows that Lakia isn't just about making one-of-a-kind stop-motion movies, but can tell a tale that encases a multitude of emotions that can be enjoyed by people of all ages.

The movie follows its titular character, Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning), a young girl who just moved from the midwest to the west coast into a rundown boarding house. Her parents are far too focused on completing their gardening catalog to pay attention to her, and her new neighbors would rather talk about themselves instead of listen to what she has to say. But one day, Coraline discovers a secret door in her new house that ultimately leads to some sort of alternate world where everyone is nice, pleasant, and wants to make life exciting for Coraline. She is eventually presented with the possibility of staying in this world, but at the cost of having her eyes replaced with buttons.

Part of the reason "Coraline" is so enthralling is because of the pacing, which is just slow enough to cast doubt on this colorful world but to see why it is worth living in. Information about this "other world," and especially Coraline's "other mother" is slowly fed to us in a way that doesn't feel cheap or forced, so we put the pieces together just as Coraline does. It also helps that she is a clever protagonist who just wants to belong in the world. She completes the well-rounded mystery by making you want to pursue the truth.

The animation style is far more like "The Nightmare Before Christmas" than any other Lakia picture, with lots of vibrant colors that often take disturbing shapes, especially with the puppet motif in "Coraline." It helps that this movie had the same director as "Nightmare," Henry Selick, as he adds his visual hellish landscape-vibe to this movie.

Add in the well-paced story, a well-written main character, plenty of mystery and horror, yet still making it enjoyable for both children and adults, and you get a smart, fulfilling experience. "Coraline" is one the better Lakia movies and is certainly worth checking out.

Final Grade: A-

Movie Review - "Lady Snowblood" (1973)

Meet the biggest inspiration for the "Kill Bill" saga - "Lady Snowblood." And it is exactly what it sounds like.

Set in feudal Japan, at a time when thieves and mobsters ruled peasants through fear of samurais and warlords, a group of four criminals attack and kill a peaceful teacher in brutal fashion, in front of his wife and son. They proceed to kill the son and rape the wife, Sayo. One of the criminals takes Sayo for himself, hiding her away to work for him, while Sayo eventually kills this man but is sentenced to life in prison.

Sayo then realizes there is only one thing she can do - birth another child, and have that child carry on her plans of revenge and murder the other three criminals responsible for all this. She does eventually bring another child into this hateful world, a girl Yuki (Meiko Kaji). She is taught in the ways of sword fighting by a priest, who believes Yuki is a demon of vengeance, meant to bring order to a chaotic time.

The violence in "Lady Snowblood" is the over-the-top insanity you would expect from a 1970s Japanese movie, with vibrant colorful blood, and characters dying into the most exaggerated ways, especially with Yuki's main weapon being an umbrella with a dagger inside the handle. If that sounds like something you would enjoy, you will get a kick out of this movie.

This one is a nice change-of-pace for a Japanese samurai tale, since I don't recall many female sword users in Japanese cinema. That is a trend that comes up in other cultures, especially nowadays, but to see this happen in 1970s Japan is special. It could be that "Lady Snowblood" is based off a manga, but the movie rarely shows it with how authentic it feels to the samurai experience.

Overall, I had a lot of fun with "Lady Snowblood." It is grotesque, over-the-top, yet fateful to the samurai lifestyle to make its quieter moments hit harder. It is not hard to see how this film influenced Quentin Tarantino with its violent style that is wholly unique.

Final Grade: B+

Movie Review - "An Affair to Remember" (1957)

There's a strange concept to many "forbidden love" stories from the 1950s that often has me rolling my eyes - the tragic twist.

Years ago, I remember watching the Douglas Sirk movie, "All That Heaven Allows," which is about a middle-aged woman in small town falling for a much younger man. It was competently handled, if a bit uncomfortable to watch at times, but the only thing I remember is the tragic twist that comes near the end and how out of nowhere and infuriating it made me. I watched the film with a large group and I recall a few people walking of the movie with their arms thrown up in frustration at how absurd and unnecessary the ending felt.

I now realize that "All That Heaven Allows" was not the only one to do this, as "An Affair to Remember" has a similar scene that makes everything that came before this moment feel wasted and everything that comes after hard to watch.

To be fair, I went into "An Affair to Remember" expecting a much different movie - Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in the later years of their careers. I went in thinking this would be more of a screwball comedy, with lots of wordplay and sarcasm from Cary Grant, similar to his suave jerk persona in "North by Northwest" with some light romance with lost souls looking for another chance to love again.

And for about the first hour that is close to what we get. Grant plays a painter and well-known playboy, who is about to be married, and Kerr plays an aging nightclub singer, who is in an unhappy marriage, and the two meet on an ocean liner on its way from Europe to New York. They develop a friendship that quickly turns into a romance when Kerr sees there is more to Grant than just the party boy. As the cruise ends, they profess their feeling for one another, but are concerned about their committed relationships. So they make a promise - They will meet at the top of the Empire State Building in six months. If they are both up there, they will get married that day, but if one does not make it, then they will know it wasn't meant to be.

I will not give away the tragic twist ending, but let's just say it causes a drastic shift in the movie that was completely avoidable. This change occurs about two-thirds of the way through the film, and suddenly the film changes from a forbidden love story to one of acceptance. This works at times, but other times it comes across as the filmmakers not having enough material to work with so they insert at least two scenes of children singing instead.

These two stories are so drastically different that I lost interest the moment this tragic twist occurred. It also doesn't help that all the drama of this situation could have been avoided if either of them picked up the telephone and told the other exactly what happened. Instead, we get a third act where both characters think the other is a terrible person and needs to constantly be reminded of that.

At its best, "An Affair to Remember" is "North by Northwest"-lite - Funny, over-the-top banter from Cary Grant while he takes the opportunity to put the moves on a woman. It its worst, the film is groan-inducing and hard to get through without screaming at your TV screen. It's like watching two long lost lovers waiting for the other all night long, talking about how the other is a terrible human being, when all along they just got the addresses mixed up - You're invested in their struggle, but appalled at how stubborn and stupid they can be.

Final Grade: C