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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Lost City of Z



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


Sunday, April 2, 2017

Ghost in the Shell Sample Scene


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


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.

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

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

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

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



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



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.




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



"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.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Marvel's Iron Fist


If you'd like to click on the photo of the glowing Iron Fist above, it'll take you to my Screen Rant Feature entitled Is Iron First Really The Worst Marvel-Netflix Show? There's a simple one word answer, but the couple of thousand words elaborates in greater detail. Iron Fist faces my kung fu finisher: The Clacking of the Furious Keyboard.

Here are some tweets with some extra musing on Iron Fist

Friday, March 10, 2017

Kong: Skull Island



Kong: Skull Island will make you love the smell of giant gorillas in the morning. A rollicking King Kong meets Apocalypse Now mashup, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts' Kong: Skull Island throws out the hoary old rulebook about how to do a King Kong movie. No, Kong is not ape-napped and brought back to New York City to go on a rampage. Seeing that monkey fall off the Empire State Building is like watching Bruce Wayne's parents get shot in that alley or Uncle Ben get murdered. Kong: Skull Island has other, much better ideas, and by the time the dust settles, the horrific other monsters on the Island are dead, and Kong beats his chest in triumph, we realize with delight that the planned MonsterVerse is just getting started. 

Set in 1973 at the conclusion of the Vietnam War, John Goodman, representing a shadowy organization called Monarch (they're like S.H.I.E.L.D. except they're all about giant monsters), bamboozles the US Military to back his expedition to the mysterious Skull Island - the only unexplored region on the map which is surrounded by perpetual storm clouds. Goodman has a motley crew with him: a platoon of soldiers led by Samuel L. Jackson, Monarch scientists Corey Hawkins and Jing Tian (from The Great Wall), photographer Brie Larson, and a former British SAS officer who's a expert in tracking through jungle terrain, Tom Hiddleston. They storm the island in a fleet of thirteen attack helicopters, dropping seismic bombs throughout the jungle, and they immediately raise the ire of Kong - the island's 104 foot tall gorilla protector. Kong is god around here, and the soldiers didn't know what hit them (trees thrown like javelins, Kong's big hands swatting the whirly birds down like flies) until most of them were already exploded.

Jackson - who says "Hold onto your butts!" for the first time since 1993; the mark of monster movie quality - immediately undergoes a psychotic form of jungle fever and declares war on Kong. Hiddleston, Larson, and some of the other survivors, separated from Jackson and his men, realize something even worse is happening on this crazy island. They meet John C. Reilly, a slightly loopy American World War II vet who crashed on Skull Island and survived for 28 years. Through Reilly, we get the wild info dump about Skull Island: it's a gateway for what's known as the "Hollow Earth" theory, that giant monsters lived on this planet long before Man and still reside in massive caverns underneath the surface. Through Skull Island, some can escape. Kong exists to fight them and kill them if they do. Skull Island is in fact crawling with all kinds of murderous beasts - giant spiders, flocks of killer birds, trees that are really enormous wooden insects - and not so dangerous, like gigantic water buffaloes. The worst are the Skull Crawlers, giant two armed lizards that killed Kong's family, leaving their skeletons in a massive Boneyard on the island. Kong is the last of his kind; if Kong goes, the whole island falls to the monsters.

Kong: Skull Island pushes all the right nerd buttons, especially for Marvel nerds. Through its sly casting, basically Loki, Captain Marvel, Nick Fury, Doctor Doom (Toby Kebbell), and Corpsman Dey from the Nova Corps all landed on the Savage Land. It's a pleasing multi-national cast where everyone is completely game; the characters are smart and make reasonable choices when faced with surviving an unbelievably dangerous environment. Jackson becomes deliciously unhinged, staring down the enormous Kong with rage in his eyes. Hiddleston is a solid and heroic center of gravity. Maybe the biggest bad ass of all the humans is Larson; while everyone else faces the giant monsters armed with guns, grenades and samurai swords, Larson only has a camera. She's the blonde woman in the group but she's no damsel in distress. Larson bravely risks her neck out there just the same. When Larson and Hiddleston meet Kong, it's happily a more Spielbergian Jurassic Park than screaming Fay Wray moment. As for Kong, we see loads of him in broad daylight, and he's magnificent. Kong's final battle with the Skull Crawler is appropriately awesome, with Kong using a ship's propeller and a chain as a weapon, overcoming the Skull Crawler with a little help from his new human friends. All of this is set to a blazing soundtrack of some of the finest 1970's rock.

In every measurable way, Kong: Skull Island is superior to every other King Kong movie since the 1933 original classic, and it's worlds better than the 2014 Godzilla. Setting Skull Island in the 1970's was a savvy move; we've seen Godzilla tear apart our modern day cities and fight our modern day military. The retro-feel of more "innocent" Vietnam-era grunts facing giant monsters delivers a lot more analog fun. By the time the end credits finish rolling, Hiddleston and Larson are recruited not exactly kicking and screaming into Monarch - a nod to Nick Fury informing Tony Stark about the Avengers Initiative at the end of the first Iron Man. Hiddleston and Larson are shown cave drawings of some other familiar monster sights to Japanese kaiju nerds: Godzilla, Rodan, King Ghidorah, and Mothra. "Kong may be King, but there are other kings," Skull Island announces - a promise that Kong's monkey troubles are just beginning.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2



Good dog.

These are the main takeaways from the stylishly redundant John Wick: Chapter 2. Picking up more or less where the original John Wick left off, Keanu Reeves returns as the title character - the world's most dangerous and unkillable assassin/dog lover. Whereas before, John Wick goes on a murderous rampage against the Russian mafia for killing his beautiful, beloved, sweet little beagle, in Chapter 2, it's the Italians who are making life miserable for John Wick. At least they have the good sense to leave John Wick's new dog alone. The Italians aren't about to make the same mistake the Russians did; they'll make all their own mistakes.

Chapter 2 deepens the mythology of the various assassins in the John Wick universe. Basically, there are two types of people in this universe: there are assassins, which comprise roughly 50% of the population of New York and Rome, and there are the regular people who aren't assassins and are somehow completely oblivious to everyone around them who is an assassin, even when these assassins are shooting at each other in full view in shopping malls, subway platforms, and on trains. John Wick limps around New York and Rome covered in blood for the entire movie and no one bats an eye. No one except for the assassins out to kill him and collect the $7-million bounty the slimy head of the Italian Mafia, Riccardo Scamarcio, placed on John Wick's head. John Wick owes Scamarcio a debt when he got out of the assassin's life; now that he's back, Scamarcio comes to collect, blowing up John Wick's house to get him to assassinate his own sister in Rome. Of course, when John Wick succeeds, Scamarcio puts a hit out on John Wick because "what kind of a man would [I] be if he didn't try to avenge [my] sister?" Gotta admire that logic.

We learn more about the network of support given to this wide-ranging community of assassins. Ian McShane returns as the proprietor of the Continental, an exclusive luxury hotel catering to assassins with strict rules about no violence on the premises. McShane's Continental has a Roman counterpart, with all the finest high end perks, like the best tailor for bespoke bulletproof suits, and Peter Serafinowicz as an extremely cultured arms dealer. Hunting John Wick for the Italians are Common, a fellow assassin who's very professional, and Ruby Rose, a sign language-speaking letdown. Rose spends the whole movie pouting and letting John Wick slip through her fingers. When she finally gets to fight John Wick, she barely lasts a minute against him. More fun is a walk on by Laurence Fishburne, who reminds John Wick in a very-meta way that they "met many years ago." Fishburne is in charge of all the homeless people in New York City, who are all, you guessed it, assassins. 

John Wick: Chapter 2 is too much of a good thing, or rather, too much of the same thing. Same difference. Like playing a video game on the Easy setting where your character can't die, John Wick's exciting gunplay and ability to survive numerous point blank gunshots while executing every assassin in his way with deadly precision becomes less exciting the more we see it happen over and over again. By the ten millionth time John Wick gets shot, shrugs it off, and kills an assassin who can't do the same, we've long since gotten the idea that John Wick is un-killable. This, of course, doesn't mean every assassin in the universe won't try when John Wick is excommunicated and becomes the target of a $14-million global bounty, setting up John Wick: Chapter 3. When John Wick snarls, "I'll kill them all!" we don't doubt it, and it'll probably a lot more of what we've seen in these last two movies. 

More alarming is the realization that John Wick's dog may also be a target of this global bounty hunt on John Wick. For while he admirably loves dogs, John Wick is a terrible dog owner. Not only does he make his loyal friend walk alongside him all the way from New Jersey to Manhattan and back (by way of the Brooklyn Bridge; all of the geography in John Wick: Chapter 2 is totally out of whack), he leaves his dog with the Continental's helpful concierge Lance Reddick. John Wick never even gives his dog a name, maybe so he doesn't get too attached? Someone needs to call the ASPCA and get that dog away from John Wick.

Friday, March 3, 2017




"Goddamn, Wolverine, it breaks my heart to see you like this!" one of the bad guys tells the Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and we nod, sadly, in agreement. The tides of time and the perils of a life lived violently have not been kind to old man Logan. Not that the Wolverine has ever had it easy, but his present - our future - is bleak. In director James Mangold's gloriously savage Logan, the year is 2029 and mutant kind has been all but eradicated. We recall that Logan was instrumental in saving the future from becoming a post-apocalyptic wasteland of mutants and humans hunted by robot Sentinels in X-Men: Days of Future Past. In Logan, a different type of apocalypse (not this guy) occurred, decimating the mutants down to a scant, desperate handful. The X-Men are dead, perished in an "incident in Westchester" (New York, where the Xavier School of Gifted Youngsters was located). The Wolverine survived, as he does, and he spends his days wishing he hadn't.

Logan is a crumbling wreck. His vaunted mutant healing factor has been failing him for years; the result of the adamantium that coats his skeleton poisoning him from within. His claws don't always pop out properly, the scars of a million bullet holes and stabbings riddle his ripped, grizzled physique, and Logan lumbers around with a permanent limp. Eking out a living as a chauffeur (Logan is quite an advertisement for the 2024 Chrysler limousine - that thing can take a beating!) in a Texas border town, Logan, using his birth name James Howlett, drives rich assholes and drunken party girls around by night. By day, Old Man Logan medicates on alcohol and prescription pills, while also taking care of an even older man, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). Charles, now in his 90's, is an even more crumbling wreck - the world's most powerful and dangerous mutant psychic mind dying from degenerative brain disease. Logan is aided by a long-suffering mutant named Caliban (Stephen Merchant), but neither seem grateful for the other's company. 

When a desperate Mexican nurse and a silent little girl come begging to Logan, offering him $50,000 to drive them to North Dakota, Logan's dreary existence is upended. The nurse and the girl are being chased by heavily armed shock troops all equipped with cybernetic limbs. When the nurse is murdered, Logan and Charles - two dusty old bags of mutant bones - take the girl, Laura (Dafne Keen), on the lam. It's a road trip that has fatal consequences for just about everyone they encounter. Of course, Laura is a mutant, one of a crop grown in an illegal Mexican lab from the captured DNA of mutants past. And of course, Laura was grown from Logan's DNA. "She's your daughter, Logan," Xavier helpfully spells out. Designated X-23, Laura is also a Wolverine, with two claws in her hands and a claw in each foot. She's a feral, acrobatic, insanely dangerous killer. Just as when we first met Logan he found himself taking care of a young girl, Rogue (Anna Paquin), in the first X-Men movie so many moons ago, Logan brings us full circle. Once more, Logan has a young girl in his care, a reluctant father figure as she puts her tiny, claw-popping hand in his. And, because Logan is basically a disaster, Laura - full of surprises - ends up taking care of him.

For fans of the X-Men movies, Logan paints a depressing future for the mutants. Nothing works out for them, no matter how hard they tried, and it turns out Richard E. Grant of all people is the architect of the end (and the new, terrible beginning) of mutantkind. Logan has a little wink wink fun with the existence of X-Men comics; the "real life" world-saving superhero adventures of Professor X's students have been turned into four color entertainment for children. The greatest tragedy of all is poor Charles Xavier, suffering from a mutant Alzheimer's, lucid only when heavily medicated. His most impressive power in the original X-Men trilogy - how he could freeze time and everyone he wishes in their tracks - is now a terrible psychic attack to anyone in his vicinity when he has a seizure. And when lucid, Charles remembers what happened in Westchester, and why his X-Men are dead. It's also sad and unfortunate that no one in charge of the X-Men franchise will ever plot a noble demise for Charles Xavier. In Logan, the man who once dreamed of and taught his students to fight for mutant coexistence with humanity dies on the flatbed of a pickup after being stabbed through the heart by the third Wolverine in this story, X-24, a fully grown, mindless killer clone of the Wolverine. No eternal flame on Xavier's monument this time; the world's most powerful mutant mind is buried in an unmarked grave off the interstate somewhere in Oklahoma. Is this a better end for Professor X than how he was splattered into Xavier bits and pieces all over crazy Jean Grey's bedroom wall in X-Men: The Last Stand? Your mileage may vary.

In this promised one last ride, Jackman gives his most riveting performance as Logan. Jackman lays it all out there, a weary survivor eternally suffering, always in pain, loathe to give in to his better nature but he will anyway. The R-rating for Logan finally unleashes the primal, bloodthirsty Wolverine a ruthless killer whose primary weapons are six machete blades in his hands ought to be. (Stewart also indulges that R rating, unleashing an eyebrow-raising stream of F bombs we didn't know Professor X had in him.) Director Mangold goes for the jugular over and over, delivering a sprawling, satisfying, emotionally wrenching road trip headlong into doom that only occasionally stabs against the limits of creativity you can have with three Wolverines who growl, leap at, and horribly skewer and dismember people. Blatantly evoking classic Westerns like Shane, Mangold makes sure to strip Logan down to his trademark white tank top and jeans as he fights X-24, clad in a black tank top and jeans - an amusingly nice touch. As Laura, Dafne Keen is a tiny wunderkind. Bursting with magnetic charisma while saying nary a word, Keen's performance brings to mind Natalie Portman 20+ years ago in Leon: The Professional. Keen makes you believe there could be a future for an All-New Wolverine. Logan closes the book on Hugh Jackman's incarnation of the Wolverine in grand style. As a tribute to the enduring awesomeness of the Wolverine and of Hugh Jackman's 17 years and 9 films portraying the most popular mutant of all, Logan delivers a satisfyingly resonant end, and fittingly seals it with an X.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Great Wall



His name is Matt Damon. After years fighting for multiple kings, flags, and nations as a 10th century mercenary, he has come to Ancient China in the time of the Song Dynasty with only one goal: to steal "black powder" (gunpowder) from the Chinese. Then he runs into a million zillion alien monsters attacking the Great Wall of China. So he must become someone else. He must become... something else. It's not entirely out of bounds to see some parallels between Matt Damon's character and Oliver Queen of TV's Arrow. In a way, The Great Wall, a visually spectacular, historical-based action epic by director Zhang Yimou, and the first English language film shot entirely in China, is the best Green Arrow fighting aliens in China movie that could ever be made.

In The Great Wall, Damon and his Spanish compatriot Pedro Pascal (best known as The Red Viper from Game of Thrones) find themselves on the run in mainland China after unsuccessful attempts to steal precious black powder. In their desperate flight, they literally hit a wall - the Great Wall of China, which is under the command of the Nameless Order. The Nameless Order are an elite army charged with guarding the wall and repelling a siege by the Tao Tei, a horde of millions of alien monsters that arrived by a meteorite centuries ago and attack China every 60 years. Taken prisoner and brought to the top of the Wall, Damon and Pascal have prime seats for the attack by the Tao Tei. They distinguish themselves by fighting their hearts out and killing several of the monsters, impressing the Nameless Order's leadership: General Shao (Hanyu Zhang), their top scientific mind who boasts one of the greatest character names ever, Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), and the fiercely fetching Commander Lin (Jing Tian). There's also another European knight in the Wall; Lin's English and Latin tutor Ballard (Willem Dafoe).

Pascal and Dafoe immediately come to an understanding: by working together, they can steal the black powder and vamoose back to Europe and be rich. Damon, however, undergoes a change of heart from his greedy ways, in part because he realizes his amazing skills as an archer are needed by the Nameless Order, but mainly because he has the hots for Commander Lin. Damon is also taken by the breathtaking splendor of the Nameless Order, with their beautifully ornate color coded armor, and their acrobatically ineffective and insane strategy of fighting the Tao Tei: the Order's elite Crane Corps (all women) launch themselves over the wall on bungee cords swinging blades at the beasts. Most are quickly and gruesomely eaten by the monsters. Damon suggests other ways to fight the Tao Tei that maybe aren't as splendidly suicidal and Lin is willing to listen; she's also attracted to this handsome and unexpectedly noble white man.

The futility of the Nameless Order's mission soon becomes evident as the Tao Tei, which are smarter than the average alien lizards, manage to breach the Wall and attack the Imperial City and their boy Emperor (Karry Wang), who's kind of like a Chinese King Joffrey. Damon and Lin lead a stunning and ludicrously dangerous hot air balloon charge to defend the Imperial City, and by this point in the third act, The Great Wall's tenuous balancing act of being an entertaining dumb action movie tumbles headlong into becoming a really, really dumb action movie. The Tao Tei are as derivative from the monsters in Alien, Pitch Black and countless other movie monsters of the sort as you can get, right down to having a Queen. "Kill the Queen!" and they stop the monsters; literally, the monsters just fall lifeless to the ground by the millions. The Tao Tei can also be fought with magnets - a magnet to a Tao Tei is the equivalent of Samuel L. Jackson reading "Go the Fuck to Sleep."

Despite reservations many might harbor, Damon's presence in the movie is not white-washing as he doesn't replace any character who was originally Asian. Nor is Damon a Great White Savior who bails the Chinese out of a terrible mess; Damon works together with the Nameless Order, merely lending his skills as a man who could be the ancestor to the Green Arrow - including trick arrows like screaming sonic arrows and exploding tipped arrows! - to help the Chinese fight these ridiculous and plentiful monsters. Jing Tian's Commander Lin calls the shots in The Great Wall, and Damon gladly serves at her side. Finally, The Great Wall's costumes are magnificent. The Nameless Order are all clad in colorful armor that's a joy to behold. As an operatic ballet of colorful violence against relentlessly attacking alien monsters, The Great Wall is a whole lot of absurd, eye-popping fun.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The LEGO Batman Movie



Batman learns the meaning of family in The LEGO Batman Movie, an absurdly funny, balls-to-the-wall celebration on pretty much everything cool, funny and weird about Batman. Let's face it, there's a lot weird about Batman. Gleefully referencing over 75 years of Batman history, especially all of the previous live action Batman movies and the classic 1960s Batman TV show - all done in the inimitable LEGO style - The LEGO Batman Movie is a loving takedown of the Dark Knight and tries to lighten him up a little. As Batman (who hardly ever removes his cowl and identifies mainly as Batman - Bruce Wayne is just a guy who lives in Batman's attic), Will Arnett pushes his irrepressible voice to its gravelly max as he portrays the most unapologetically idiosyncratic version of the Caped Crusader we've ever seen.

Arnett's LEGO Batman is a swoll alpha-bro narcissist with unlimited billions to spend on the coolest gadgets ("Iron Man sucks!") to protect Gotham City from the scores of super villains trying to destroy it. Batman is totally into himself, but his self-absorbed swagger masks a lifetime of pain and fear of abandonment after (stop me if you've heard this one) his parents were killed in front of him when he was a boy. The LEGO Batman Movie completely understands that Batman, with his cars, toys, and his endless assortment of Bat-branded paraphernalia, is essentially a 10 year old's response to a violent world around him. LEGO is the perfect way to depict Batman's ridiculous excesses to compensate.

The LEGO Batman Movie's heart is in Batman growing to accept that he needs relationships in his life, be it with his long-suffering arch foe The Joker (Zach Galifianakis), who longs for the affirmation from Batman that he is Batman's greatest enemy, to Gotham's new Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), whom Batman totally has the hots for, to his newly adopted son Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), a lonely orphan who needs Batman just as much as Batman needs him. However, Batman is a huge dick, and it takes him the entire length of The LEGO Batman Movie to stop abusing everyone in his life and accept that being Batman alone isn't as fulfilling as being the head of the Batman Family.

A lot of the fun of The LEGO Batman Movie comes from the free-for-all of characters throughout. Batman's entire rogue's gallery is in the movie from Bane, to The Penguin, to Poison Ivy, to Harley Quinn down to the deepest cut C-grade baddies like King Tut and Condiment King. The Justice League are in the movie, throwing a party in Superman's Fortress of Solitude (Batman's email invite must have gotten lost). Most fun of all are the scores of villains from outside the DC Comics Universe who The Joker recruits to help him destroy Gotham, including Lord Voldemort, Sauron from The Lord of the Rings, Daleks from Doctor Who, and Medusa and the Kraken from Clash of the Titans. (Incredibly, Ralph Fiennes provides the voice of Alfred, but he does not voice Voldemort. Eddie Izzard does the honors.) In the end, Batman becomes an even greater hero (not just because of his killer 9-pack abs) and learns that having the biggest Batcave is meaningless without people in his life to fill it with. Lobster Thermidor for everyone!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Screen Rant

I'm excited to announce that I've joined the talented folks at Screen Rant as a Feature Writer. From here on in, I'll be delivering at least 10 Feature articles for Screen Rant a month, ranging from movies, television, comic books, pop culture, whatever's happening.

It's only been a week, but I have a handful of Features already published that I'd love to have your cursor clicking on and your eyeballs peeping at. There's a lot more on the way, I can assure you.

Click on the photo above or the big ass Screen Rant banner at the top of the page to go to my Archive of Screen Rant Features. Please bookmark it so you don't miss a thing. 

Back of the Head isn't going away. I'll still be reviewing movies on here the way I always have, but Screen Rant will have wholly original content from me.

Thank you for checking out my work, and I hope you enjoy coming along on this new venture with me.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017




There is a famous photograph taken in the hours after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy of Lyndon Johnson taking the oath of office on Air Force One. To the now-President Johnson's right is his wife Lady Bird, and to his left, shell-shocked, mouth agape, is the newly widowed former First Lady Jackie Kennedy. Director Pablo Larrain's dreamy, artful Jackie casts a sublime Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy. In one fatal afternoon in Dallas on November 22, 1963, the United States in a macro sense lost their President and the imagined dream-state of "Camelot" the Kennedys inhabited and cultivated. But for Jackie, what was lost was much more personal and harrowing: she lost her husband, their young children Caroline and John Jr. lost their father, and Jackie lost her home and sense of security, and indeed, for a time, her sense of self.

Given a chance to tell "her side of the story" to a reporter (Billy Crudup) days after the assassination, Jackie labors to come to terms with not just the events of that tragic day -- literally holding her dead husband's brain from falling out of his head as their limousine raced to a hospital -- but with preserving JFK's legacy against the machine of Washington inevitably marching forward. Larrain depicts Jackie's famous television special hosting a tour of the White House, giving us a glimpse of the nervous, hoping-to-please woman behind the cultured facade the First Lady presented to the nation.  The Jack Kennedy she spoke of is the one only she knew; she forgives his displeasure at her spending and especially his womanizing, focusing on what a doting father he was. Much of Jackie revolves around Mrs. Kennedy's planning of her husband's grand funeral, taking cues from the funeral of Abraham Lincoln. Jackie depicts how isolated Jackie Kennedy became; her closest advisor within the family was Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), himself mourning his brother and how little their administration was able to accomplish compared to their big dreams. And yet, even in mourning, Jackie reveals Mrs. Kennedy as cunning and calculating to the reporter, seething and lashing out with "off the record" bombs of truth that she "never said."

Though she at times struggles with Jackie's famous accent, poise, and finishing school manners,  Portman persuasively inhabits the dresses, hats, and skin of Jackie Kennedy. The most heartbreaking moments of Jackie are when Jackie stumbles alone within the empty private residence of the White House she must soon vacate. It's moving when she confesses to her priest (John Hurt - in a V For Vendetta reunion where Evie is now looking for solace from Chancellor Sutler) that though she is still a relatively young woman, she fears no man will want a widowed ex-First Lady with two children who also buried two previous children. When her closest confidant Nancy (Greta Gerwig) tries to encourage her that her children are still so lucky to have her, Jackie replies in anguish "That isn't true at all!"; the film is knowingly aware of the further tragedy that would visit her family decades later. One wishes Jackie would take the advice she is given to escape Washington, D.C., "build a fortress in Boston and never look back." Jackie indulges the wistful memory of "Camelot," going so far as to lean a bit heavily on the audio of the musical Jack Kennedy loved as a boy, yet overall, Jackie is an wondrous tribute to the 20th century's most graceful and one of its most important First Ladies.

Monday, January 2, 2017




Passengers reassures all mankind that in the future, white privilege is alive and well in outer space. Aboard the corporate-owned starship Avalon, basically EPCOT Center if it was squeezed into a space ship, Chris Pratt awakens from his cryo-sleep 90 years ahead of schedule. The Avalon, transporting 5,000 souls to a new colony planet millions of lightyears from Earth, is an automated ghost ship with everyone else sound asleep. Except for little Roomba robots and an android bartender played by Michael Sheen, who is as if Dr. Ford from Westworld ran out of humanoid parts and just grafted a Segueway onto Sheen's torso and called it a day. Pratt is understandably distressed to be the only one awake onboard. With 90 more years of interstellar travel to go, and cryo-sleep being a one-way street, Pratt is doomed to spend the remainder of his life alone in a space mall. He handles it the way Will Forte does in Last Man on Earth. He spends a year getting all scraggly and slovenly and making a mess of the place. He is lonely and desperate for companionship, until one day, after contemplating suicide via airlock, he runs into the knocked out, cryo-sleeping form of knockout Jennifer Lawrence

Kif, Pratt has a conundrum: should he be a good, decent, moral person and accept his fate, or does he succumb to his asshole selfishness and wake Lawrence up (and lie to her about how she woke up), thereby dooming her chances at arriving on the new planet but strongly increasing his chances of getting laid? (There appears to be no porn on the Avalon, no sex-bots, no futuristic virtual reality spank machines. Thanks, Homestead Corporation!) Pratt succumbs to his assholishness, because he must. (Must he really? According to director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Jon Spaihts he does, instead pursuing all kinds of better, less scummy story options.) And for a while, Pratt's plan worked. Lawrence indeed becomes his sexy time girlfriend. Oh, what a love story in space this is. (Pratt does "feel bad" about the whole thing, the movie is at pains to keep reminding us with regular hang dog looks and puppy dog eyes from Pratt.) Unfortunately for Pratt, he confided everything to his robot bartender, who's also programmed to be a robot snitch. Sheen drops the bomb on Lawrence just when Pratt was about to pop the question. Lawrence justifiably goes nuclear and stops just short of Hunger Gaming Pratt.

What Pratt Did is nigh impossible for Passengers to walk back from, but boy, does the movie try. When crew member Laurence Fishburne suddenly awakens and discovers What Pratt Did, Lawrence announces that What Pratt Did to her can be considered "Murder!" Fishburne agrees with her, but then actually tries to justify What Pratt Did using the ol' "but a man has needs" argument. Bros before hos. Also, it's nice to see a non-white face after over an hour of Passengers, but don't get too used to him! Fishburne is dying, see - of over 200 medical ailments no less! He's like Mr. Burns in space; he has every disease! Fishburne's dying moments are a bizarre and unexpected cosplay of Forest Whitaker's cyborg in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. All he was missing were cyborg legs and an oxygen tank. Fishburne should have wheezed, "Save the Avalon! Save the Dream!" to Pratt and Lawrence before dropping dead. Speaking of Star Wars, there happens to be one other non-Caucasian character in Passengers, the Avalon's captain inexplicably played by Andy Garcia, who appears for a few seconds right before the end credits. Garcia has no dialogue so I guess he and Mark Hamill have the same agent. 

Passengers is as empty as the space ship it depicts. There's no deeper theme, no grander commentary on the human condition. It isn't about anything beyond What Pratt Did and whether he's an okay guy anyway. The mystery of what's wrong with the malfunctioning Avalon turns out to be a simple, head scratcher of a reveal: even though the ship is meteorite-proof, it got hit by a bunch of meteorites. Thus the ship's systems are all wonky and about to kill all 5,000 souls aboard -- unless Pratt and Lawrence can combine their action movie hero prowess to save the Avalon (and save the Dream)! Pratt goes all in with an attempt at a Noble Heroic Sacrifice as Passengers does everything under the sun to literally spacewalk back from What Pratt Did and make him redeemable. As she must adhere to the demands of the screenplay and director, Lawrence goes along with this, declaring her love for him after all, and saving Pratt's life from the cold, cruel void of death in outer space after he manages to save the Avalon and all aboard (dressed in an Iron Man-like space suit and hefting a Captain America-like shield, mind you. Marvel represent!). So one must swallow disappointment and accept that these two deserve each other. Pratt and Lawrence live out their life of white privilege together, presumably shuffling off this mortal coil before the ship arrives at her final destination. The 4,997 other people aboard the Avalon awake on schedule from their cryo-sleep, unaware of What Pratt Did during their slumber. Pratt, however, did grow an entire park, complete with grass and trees, inside the Avalon, thereby doing at least one thing that would make his old boss Leslie Knope proud.