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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Lost City of Z

THE LOST CITY OF Z

** SPOILERS **

In The Lost City of Z, Charlie Hunnam, a British Major strangely undecorated despite achieving that rank, is summoned to the Racist Royal Geographical Society by Emperor Palpatine himself (Ian McDiarmid). It is 1906, Europe is on the brink of the First World War, but Palpatine has a strange offer for Hunnam: go to the jungles of Amazonia between Bolivia and Brazil and survey the border between the two countries to prevent a war between them. Palpatine doesn't sugarcoat this sweetheart deal: "There will be terrible sickness, murderous savages, and you'll be gone for years." If he succeeds and, you know, lives, Hunnam gets a medal. Naturally, Hunnam jumps at the opportunity. He leaves behind his pregnant wife Sienna Miller, his young son, and heads to the jungle.

Dressed like Brian Fellows from Saturday Night Live and with an unrecognizable Rob Pattinson along for the journey, Hunnam's adventures in Amazonia involve floating on a rickety wooden raft, getting shot at by spears and arrows by "the Indians" who are all terrible shots, and finding pieces of pottery in the jungle. That last part is most significant; Hunnam realizes the tales of Conquistadors past who wrote about a fabled "lost city of gold" must be true. Hunnam doesn't stick around the jungle to keep looking for the city, though. He goes back to England to a hero's welcome and, in the movie's best scene, Hunnam stands in front of the assembled talking heads of the Racist Royal Geographical Society and argues that they must find the "Lost City of Zed" (they pronounce Z 'Zed' because British). Hunnam gets his expedition funded and back to Amazonia he goes, where he does not find the Lost City of Z and returns to England empty handed, just in time to be sent to World War I and nearly die after being gassed in the Battle of Somme.

Hunnan actually ventures into the jungle three times in Lost City of Z. Three times! Does he find the Lost City of Z? No, he does not. The movie takes place between 1906 and the 1920s, and by the third expedition, Hunnam brings along his grown son, Spider-Man (Tom Holland). Despite all of these walkabouts in Amazonia where the real Charlie Hunnam Leftenant Colonel Percy Fawcett spent years and years in the jungle searching for the Lost City, the movie itself doesn't even spend an hour of screen time in the jungle. Indiana Jones spent more screen time in the jungle in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. This true story tragically ends with Hunnam and son lost in Amazonia; they are never heard from again and the movie never shows us the Lost City. This is a gigantic ripoff. You know what? It doesn't matter what actually happened. This is a movie and there are rules to movies. By the third fucking time Hunnam goes into the fucking jungle, the audience deserved to see the fucking Lost City of Z. Even the stupid flying saucer Indiana Jones saw is better than no payoff at all.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Batman is Dumb

BATMAN IS DUMB
 









Sunday, April 2, 2017

Ghost in the Shell Sample Scene


** SPOILERS **

My rewrite of the key opening scene of Ghost in the Shell.

INT. TOKYO HIGH RISE - JAPANESE RESTAURANT - NIGHT

MICHAEL WINCOTT
Thanks for coming to this business dinner, Africans. We want to sell you robots. Hanka has had great success putting Japanese Ghosts in Caucasian Shells.

AFRICAN BUSINESS MAN
What do you mean 'great success'? We looked at your books. In 99 tries, you only made 1 that worked.

MICHAEL WINCOTT
Yes, but she's hot. She's about to burst in here and save your lives.

AFRICAN BUSINESS MAN
No, she won't. She'll be too late diving off the roof. We'll already be dead when she gets here.

MICHAEL WINCOTT
Yes. Well. We'd better make that deal now, then. Would you be interested in deep-diving a geisha?

  

Friday, March 31, 2017

Ghost in the Shell

GHOST IN THE SHELL

** SPOILERS **

The following review is written from the perspective of someone who has never seen the Ghost in the Shell anime, and never will.

For me, personally, watching Ghost in the Shell was akin to the experience of visiting an art museum. There's lots of cool stuff to look at, and sure, I dig what I'm seeing, but I was still kinda bored. In Ghost in the Shell, Scarlett Johansson is the Major; her human brain was implanted into a robotic Shell to make her the perfect super soldier. We witness her creation, which is similar to how the Hosts are 3D printed on Westworld, by the Hanka Corporation - a vast and powerful conglomerate super duper into human-looking robots. The money men and science-y types in the Hanka Corporation must have watched Robocop for decades, decided they wanted their own, but technology has evolved so no more clunky tin can cops. It's the high-tech, day-glo, holographic Tokyo of the future! Their robots need to be sleek and hot.

Scarlett is the first successful cyborg prototype after 98 previous attempts crashed and burned. And boy, Hanka did a good job with Scarlett. She has an awesome cloaking ability, she can leap off tall buildings without fear or dying, and she can kill with efficiency. In the Terminator movies, dogs always bark at the Terminators because they can sense they're artificial. Dogs love Scarlett in Ghost in the Shell, though, and dogs always know who and what's good. Scarlett's not flawless, though. Her human mind and her soul, which is called her Ghost in this movie, seems to be glitching. She randomly remembers people and things that are overriding what turns out to be memory implants Hanka placed in her to keep her from asking too many questions. Other than that, Scarlett is a model soldier. Hanka loans her out to Section 9, a black ops strike force, and for one year, Scarlett exhibits an exemplary record of successful kills. Johansson, the actress, does cool things as a cyborg; she stomps around instead of walking normally and stands with a weird gait, as if she can't figure out how to be properly idle in her Shell. Plus, she's really beautiful. Don't take my word or your own eyes for it; every character in the movie makes sure to tell Scarlett how beautiful she is.

One of the characters who tells Scarlett how beautiful she is happens to be Michael Pitt, a fellow cyborg who mounts cyber attacks against the Hanka Corporation. What he's after isn't hard to suss out even though the movie wants us to think it's a big mystery: Pitt is obviously a previous model of Hanka cyborg whose Ghost rejected his Shell. Pitt is kind of interesting in that he has a deformed cyborg body and he speaks with the voice of a Japanese man speaking English through Stephen Hawking's vocal simulator. But that's as far as Pitt being interesting goes; once he gives up the goose about who and what he is, he's out of ideas. He is literally just relying on Scarlett, armed with the information he delivers on who and what she is, to go on the offensive and bring down Hanka for both of them. Pitt tries to lend a hand, but he turns out to be pretty ineffective in battle with a huge Hanka Spider Tank. Pitt's really good at whispering sweet nothings in Scarlett's ear, though. "No matter what, I'll be with you in your Ghost," he romantically coos at her. A real Romeo, this Pitt is.

Of course, the real bad guy in Ghost in the Shell isn't Pitt. No surprise, the Big Bad is the evil Hanka Corporation itself, personified by its CEO Peter Ferdinando. Once he loses control of Scarlett, he decides to scrap her and start over, completely forgetting they had 98 failed prior attempts before succeeding with Scarlett and they don't have a viable back up Ghost to put in a new Shell. But never mind, Ferdinando is all about the bottom line: murder. He kills the kindly technician who built Scarlett's Shell, Juliette Binoche, and he declares war on Scarlett and Section 9. Luckily, Section 9 is commanded by "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, a crusty old chief who likes to communicate telepathically and is no pushover with his .44 Magnum. The war between Hanka and Scarlett is exceptionally brief, and guess who comes out on top.

"Say something nice," Scarlett says in the movie. Okay, here goes: I kinda dug Ghost in the Shell. Except for The Thing I Didn't Dig So Much. There's a Big Twist in Ghost in the Shell, and here it is: Hanka Corporation has a real case of white envy and white privilege. Ferdinando is a white guy in Japan who prefers Caucasian cyborgs. The Ghosts provided for all the failed Shells - and the one successful one, Scarlett - came from kidnapped Japanese people. Scarlett herself was actually a Japanese runaway who was dragged out of her hovel and had her brain removed from her real body and placed into the Scarlett Johansson Shell. Pitt was her Japanese boyfriend and had his brain removed and placed the Michael Pitt Shell. This is pretty wack. One way to possibly deflect this unsavory creative decision: the Spider Tank they fight should have been able to talk and could have said, "What are you two complaining about? I was a white guy they turned into a Spider Tank!" Then it'd be all about perspective for Ghosts in the Shells.



Monday, March 27, 2017

T2 Trainspotting

T2 TRAINSPOTTING

** SPOILERS **

The first image we see in T2 Trainspotting is of a treadmill, and right away, director Danny Boyle slyly and deftly addresses our worst fear: a retread. Moments later, the treadmill's occupant, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) has a heart attack and is launched from the treadmill, collapsing in a heap on the floor. We're jolted, we're alarmed, we're uncomfortable, we laugh. This is Trainspotting. We're back, indeed.

20 years later, T2 Trainspotting reunites the original crew of Edinburgh drug-addicted hooligans. Improbably, they're all still alive: Renton, Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Spud (Ewen Bremner), and Begbie (Robert Carlyle). Sick Boy and Spud go by their Christian names now, Simon and Murphy. They're both still addicts; Simon's drug of choice is cocaine, while poor Murphy has never been able to shake heroin, which renders him unemployable and cost him a happy life with his wife and young son. They're both still hustlers, stalking the darker alleys of their yesteryear in this grander, cleaner, gentrified Edinburgh. As for that fearsome sociopath Begbie, he finally escapes prison after 20 years, little knowing the reason he went to prison in the first place has returned to Scotland. The joy of McGregor, Miller, Bremner, and Carlyle being reunited with Boyle behind the camera is palpable and electric.

Renton unceremoniously returns to the city he fled in 1996 after stealing 16,000 pounds from his mates. Spud, at least, is happy to see him, though this is after his initial bitterness at Renton for foiling his puke-filled suicide attempt. Sick Boy is less pleased to see Renton, but after coming to blows and declaring his intention to ruin Renton's life to his Bulgarian somewhat-girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova - a fantastic addition as the only woman in this movie), even she can see he's secretly over the moon Renton is back. "You two are clearly in love with each other," she tells them in Bulgarian. "It's uncomfortable for me to be in your presence." Of course, all they do is reminisce about old times and old football matches, and soon they're up to a scam: stealing and blackmailing to finance Sick Boy's dream of turning a dilapidated old pub into a bordello, pardon me, sauna. Meanwhile, Begbie has resumed his life of violent petty crime, until he learns Renton is in town in a callback to the Worst Toilet in Scotland in the original Trainspotting.

T2 Trainspotting is the rare sequel that walks in the same path as the original but not only moves the story forward, it recreates much of the same exhilaration while illuminating and enhancing the original film. As they look back on the friends and family they lost, the trouble they caused, the needles they shared, the scams they pulled, the music they heard, and the near misses of what might have been (Kelly MacDonald, now a successful barrister, is a welcome face to see again, for Renton and us), T2 Trainspotting makes us all complicit. In Sick Boy's words, we join Renton and we all become "tourists in our own youth." Through Renton and the boys falling into old patterns and getting into new trouble with the old gang, we remember that we were with them every step of the way, and we missed them as much as they missed each other.

Renton launches into a fantastic new version of his "Choose Life" monologue, not only telling us where it came from ("Choose Life" was an anti-drug epithet in the 1980s) but updating it in an inflammatory derision of Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, and our morally empty social media-obsessed culture. And we realize that Renton did choose life, but he, Sick Boy, Spud, and Begbie have been terrible at life, and always have been. They're right back where they were, older, sadder, maybe wiser, but at least without heroin. The bright spot, fittingly, comes from Spud. "First, there's opportunity, then a betrayal..." writes Spud, after Veronika encourages him to put pen to paper and tell the stories of himself, Renton, Sick Boy, and Begbie. Sick Boy wonders who would want to read these stories, but we know better. "I've thought of a title," Spud's wife says, and we smile, knowingly. With style, wit, joy, and utter confidence, T2 Trainspotting takes us back and pulls us forward, kicking and screaming, until we feel the same rush as young Renton running from the police down the streets of Edinburgh and the same release the now-46 year old Renton feels, dancing alone in his childhood bedroom to Iggy Pop.

Life

LIFE

** SPOILERS **

Remember how good you felt when you watched Gravity? Sandra Bullock was stuck in outer space orbit, the International Space Station got smashed up by meteors, George Clooney was there too for some reason, and Bullock had to figure out a way to get back to Earth. And then she did, and it was awesome, and we felt great for her and for us. That's not Life.

In Life, the International Space Station is crewed by six movie movie star astronauts. Ryan Reynolds plays Deadpool, who brings soil samples straight from Mars on board to study. They discover a single celled organism that quickly - and I mean quickly - grows and involves into a tentacled starfish the size of a large pizza box in a matter of weeks. The Martian is kind of like Starro the Conquerer from DC Comics, so we'll just call it Starro from here on out. At first benign when it's just a miraculous little microscopic dot confined to a quarantined lab, Starro suddenly becomes incredibly violent and starts murdering the astronauts, crawling inside them as if all evil starfish on Mars have seen the Alien movies. Reynolds locks himself in the lab with Starro and tries to roast it with a blowtorch, but Starro takes out Deadpool and does him in from the inside out.

The rest of the astronauts, including Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson, scramble to figure out how to lock Starro out of the ISS. But that insidious Martian starfish outsmarts their best science-y efforts at every turn and starts picking off the crew in grotesque ways. Then, and here's when Life really jumped the shark, Starro grows an evil alien face so it can have eye-to-eye staredowns with the humans. It soon becomes clear, especially when Earth receives the ISS's distress beacon and Starro massacres the crew of the rescue ship that docks with the station, that there's no way to beat Starro. The only thing that matters now is to keep it from reaching Earth. 

Gyllenhaal comes up with a plan to use the last two Lifeboats to trick Starro; he'll pilot one into deep space with Starro on board and sacrifice his life to save Earth while Ferguson takes the second Lifeboat and tells the world what happened. This is when Life really screws us, manipulatively fooling the audience into thinking the plan is working when the exact opposite happened: Ferguson's Lifeboat got hit with debris and careened into deep space while Starro tentacle-to-arm wrestled Gyllenhaal for control of his Lifeboat and sent them both to Earth. The well-meaning fisherman in Thailand who sailed to meet the Lifeboat that landed in their waters never knew what hit them. But we know. It was Life that fucked them, and us, over.

Life was going pretty well in the beginning, seeming like a derivative, but well-shot and decently interesting science fiction story in the serious and thoughtful vein of Arrival. When Starro instantly grows into an unstoppable CGI movie monster impervious to fire or the vacuum of space while managing to outwit six super duper brainy movie star scientists at every turn, Life goes right down the shitter. All I know is Life sucks, and everyone who sees it deserves a better Life.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Power Rangers

POWER RANGERS

** SPOILERS **

"Different colors. Different kids. Different colored kids!" remarks the trusty little robot Alpha-5 (voiced by Bill Hader) when he meets the five teenagers who are destined to become the Power Rangers. He's a little disappointed. After all, Alpha-5 waited 65,000 years for these kids to come along, claim the colorful Power Coins, and become the new team of heroic warriors destined to protect the universe. They don't seem to be up for the challenge, and they're not. How the five teenagers get there and earn the right to be called Power Rangers is at the root of why Power Rangers, the big budget feature film reboot of the long-running television series directed by Dean Israelite, works. 

Jason Scott (Dacre Montgomery) has the entire town of Angel Grove in his hands. The star high school quarterback, he's a natural leader and a good friend, but he has an absurdly self-destructive streak - the kind that has him running from two police chases in the first 20 minutes of the movie. Jason is kinda like Jim Kirk from JJ Abrams' Star Trek, and the references to other movies don't stop there: Fitted with an ankle bracelet and forced to attend detention every Saturday if he wishes to graduate, Jason meets - a la The Breakfast Club - Billy Cranston (RJ Cyler), a brilliant autistic kid, and Kimberly Hart (Naomi Scott), the hottest and most troubled girl in school. Through wild coincidence (or contrivance, take your pick), the three find themselves at the local quarry and run into two more delinquents: Zack (Ludi Lin), a braggadocio who secretly tends to his poor old sick mother at home, and Trini (Becky G.), the new kid in school who's been there a year but no one ever remembers her. The five discover glowing colored coins and the next day - a la Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man - they all wake up transformed: they're super strong, tough as nails, and can leap over Springfield Gorge in a single bound in a way Homer Simpson could only dream of.

What does this all mean? The answer, of course, (like it did for Henry Cavill's Man of Steel) lies in a space ship buried deep in the quarry, which has been there since the Cretaceous Period. A war fought in the stars came to pre-historic Earth, where Zordon (Bryan Cranston), the Red Ranger of the Power Rangers, buried the precious Neo Crystal - capable of creating and destroying life - deep in the Earth to keep it from his adversary, the evil Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks, having a ball even though in most of her scenes, she's all by her lonesome). Reawakened as a face in the wall of his space ship, a frustrated Zordon finds the five human teenagers who inherited his Power Coins wanting. He'd like his body back, please. But the only way is if these five screw ups can learn to work together, trust one another, and become a team - become the Power Rangers. Time's running out because Rita Repulsa has reawakened (found by a fishing boat a la The Perfect Storm), and she plans to create a giant golden monster called Goldar to dig up the Neo Crystal. It's buried underneath the local Krispy Kreme.

All of that sounds utterly ridiculous, or makes perfect sense if you grew up watching any or all of the 23 seasons of Power Rangers on TV. That show, adapted from the long-running Japanese Super Sentai series, was aimed squarely at very young children. This Power Rangers movie, however, skews a bit older. Power Rangers is steeped in the growing pains and struggles of Millennial teens and has bold ideas and ambitions: they're actually trying to be a good movie. One with something to say. Power Rangers comes with a timely and even poignant message of inclusiveness, of five teens of different colors (and sexual orientation - Trini is the first Power Ranger to be LGBTQ) who are strangers coming together to find commonality. Trust and acceptance, of each other and of themselves, is the beating heart of Power Rangers. To become the Power Rangers, the five need to Morph into their armor, and for a long time, Jason, Kimberly, Billy, Zack, and Trini can't find it in themselves to become, respectively, the Red, Pink, Blue, Black, and Yellow Rangers. And yet, for all of its goofiness, Power Rangers wears its colors with pride, and the five Rangers are far more interesting and even endearing without their armor. 

To the movie's credit, when they finally don their color-coded gear, each looking like a Crayola box Iron Man, and pilot their robot dinosaur vehicles called Zords, Power Rangers wisely removes their masks so we can see the actors' faces. Their expressive faces tell the whole story; the fear, the panic at the mortal peril they face, and the exhilaration they feel, especially when they finally learn how to combine their Zords into the gigantic Megazord, and work together to defeat Rita and Goldar. It's big, fun robot-slamming action like Pacific Rim gave us a few years ago and the Transformers franchise (a yellow Dodge Charger is destroyed with a shout out to Bumblebee) won't stop giving us. If there isn't quite enough of the giant robot-on-giant monster action, that's in a way a compliment. Power Rangers actually leaves us wanting more. For about ten minutes in the third act, when the Rangers are in full costume, the movie morphs into the old TV show complete with the original "Go Go" theme song, tons of chop-socky karate fighting with hordes of Puddy monsters, and even welcome cameos from Jason David Frank and Amy Jo Johnson, the original Green and Pink Ranger. But then Power Rangers morphs right back to being the surprisingly pretty good movie it was all along.

Power Rangers clears a very low bar as the Best Power Rangers Movie Ever, but it does so by leaps and bounds. Clunky and uneven in spots, Power Rangers is good fun overall. There's a pleasing sincerity throughout and the five Rangers win the day in more ways than one. Even without the colorful armor and giant robot dinosaurs, we find we are on the Rangers' side: Zack playing chess with his ailing mother. Kimberly learning to live with betraying her former friends and questioning what kind of person she is. Trini struggling to be understood by her family, and finding the camaraderie she has always longed for among her new friends. Jason standing up for Billy against the school bully, and Billy gaining the backbone to stand up for himself. And Jason bringing his team together to earn Zordon's respect as a leader. Five different kids, of different colors, joining as one, stronger together. That's worth more than all the gold in Goldar and all the Power Coins in existence.

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