I review the newly released Marvel Cinematic Universe flick, Captain Marvel. Watch out Thanos! She’s coming for you!
I review The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part, the sequel to the wildly successful 2014 film, The LEGO Movie.
Keanu Reeves and director Jeffrey Nachmanoff test the patience of hardcore science fiction fans and casual moviegoers alike in a film that answers the question, “Is it possible for a theatrically released feature film in the year 2019 A.D. to have worse CGI than the Sharknado series?” Click here for my review of Replicas (released January 11, 2019).
It's been a little over a month since Fallen Kingdom released in theaters and reigned supreme at the box office. Therefore, rather than just simply do a review, I'm going to dive into a spoilerific discussion and breakdown of not only Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, but of the Jurassic series as a whole, where it has excelled, where it has fallen short, and why, in my opinion, Fallen Kingdom tries so hard to hit the mark but just doesn't quite get there.
So let's start at the beginning. What made the original Jurassic Park such a timeless classic? Yes, it features state-of-the-art special effects, combining the strengths of practical, animatronic effects and CGI in order to seamlessly bring extinct creatures to life and still holds up today. Yes, it has uniquely awesome dinosaurs, which, in general, have captured the imagination of humanity for generations. And yes, Spielberg is a master of suspense and adventure, and he just so happened to be at the height of his career when he made the film. All the above being absolutely true, no film in history has enjoyed the level of international, perpetual pop culture relevance that Jurassic Park has enjoyed over 25 years without having some substance to go with all the bells and whistles.
Aside from having a wildly effective premise that captures the imagination (what if scientists bioengineered the DNA of dinosaurs, bringing them back from extinction, and put them in the greatest theme park in the world on a remote island?), the original Jurassic Park boasts a captivating moral theme as well: what are the consequences of ambition when humanity attempts to play God and tamper with nature? What happens when humanity thinks it has reached the height of not only the natural world, but even the metaphysical or supernatural world; not only partaking in the act of creation, but also having the audacity to think it can control it, "patent it, package it, slap it on a plastic lunch box, and sell it?"
We see this theme play out in several ways throughout the movie, most notably in a quasi-philosophical discussion between all the core characters at a lunch table (well before a rampaging T-Rex takes center stage). The affluent, charismatic Jurassic Park owner John Hammond makes claims such as "our scientists have done things that no one has ever done before" and poses questions such as "how can we stand in the light of discovery and not act?" To counter his arguments for what Hammond might call altruistic ambition, Dr. Ian Malcolm admonishes Hammond for lacking true respect for the scientific advancements that he had made, likening him discovering the power to resurrect dinosaurs from the dead to "a kid who's just found his dad's gun." He also goes on to criticize Hammond's scientists for being "too preoccupied with whether or not they could, they never stopped to think if they should." To cap off this round table discussion of the benefits and potential catastrophic downfalls of the park, Dr. Grant poses a wise yet humble rebuttal to Hammond's blind, earth-shattering ambition by posing the simple question, "Dinosaurs and man, two species separated by 65 million years have suddenly been thrown back into the mix together. How can we possibly have the slightest idea what to expect?" Is man meant to bring dinosaurs back to life, even if it can? What will the consequences be? Is this the next step in reasonable human progress or is it destructive hubris in the same vein as Icarus flying too close to the sun or even Adam eating the forbidden fruit? This single conversation captures the entire nature of the conflict and thematic weight contained within Jurassic Park, even once the dino mayhem ensues later on. What's more? The theme is interplayed between layered, fully fleshed out characters with true arcs and character development, most notably Dr. Grant and John Hammond, that ground the dinosaur action and thrills in something fundamental. Something innately human.
Since then, the Jurassic series has had 4 sequels. The 2 immediately following Jurassic Park (The Lost World: Jurassic Park & Jurassic Park III) remained relatively stagnant from a thematic standpoint; perfectly entertaining in their own right from a dinosaur action perspective, they were merely extensions of the consequences of the first film and were more of an excuse to go back to these islands rather than offer anything new to say about the morality or ethics of having brought dinosaurs back to life. After a 14 year hiatus, Jurassic World came along, and aside from demolishing the box office and offering bigger and better action than any previous installment, it actually played with some interesting concepts. It not only introduced a fully functioning theme park, as John Hammond once dreamed; the theme park had been in operation for over 10 years, which led to the general public having grown a bit tired of the spectacle. This dino fatigue led the corporate leaders of the park, Jurassic World manager Claire Dearing most notably, to introduce a genetically modified hybrid dinosaur, the Indominus Rex, in order to boost sales once more. To me, this concept was actually an intriguing and effective meta commentary on society and its attitudes not only towards entertainment, but also world-changing technological advancements in general, such as smart phones, the internet, medicine, etc. In today's society, we take these nearly miraculous advancements in technology and societal benefits as givens and are honestly not all that impressed with them on a day to day basis, just as the people in Jurassic World are apparently not all that impressed with genetically resurrected dinosaurs anymore. I also enjoyed the concept of humans interacting with and observing dinosaurs in the same manner as real people observe and interact with wild animals, specifically in how Owen interacts with the Raptors. Although potentially a little silly in a way, the way they treated this concept actually worked for me and sold me on the Raptors being real (albeit super dangerous) animals, rather than just movie monsters. While Jurassic World explored several cool concepts and had some of the best dinosaur action of the series that I absolutely adore, it essentially had the exact same thematic basis as the first one: should man tamper with nature (this time in even more ludicrous ways)? Only this time, the answer is obvious because 1) we've seen 3 other movies beforehand that essentially answer the question before the movie even starts, and 2) this time, we have flat, uninteresting, sometimes cartoony characters making dumb decisions that have obvious outcomes. For those reasons, Jurassic World, while admirable and certainly very entertaining, falls short of what a proper sequel to Jurassic Park should have been.
Finally, we arrive at Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Looking at the first half of the movie, the characters are faced with an ethical conundrum: should we just let the "beloved" dinosaurs that have terrorized us for decades die a fiery death in the wake of an activated volcano, or do we, as a society, have a moral obligation to do everything we can to save them from certain death? The second half of the flick shifts its focus WILDLY (and I mean "wildly" as in it's a 100% completely different movie with a different theme, aesthetic, genre, action type, moral argument, you name it; everything other than the core characters is completely different) to an ominous mansion where the "rescued" dinosaurs have been whisked away under false pretenses in order to be sold to the highest bidder in a black market auction, thanks to greedy, mustache-twirling villains who aggressively ignore the potential drawbacks to their hubris. The ethical conundrum that ends up plaguing our heroes at the end of this ("second") movie, given the unavoidable fact that the villains were stupid enough to bring dinosaurs back to the mainland rather than the nameless sanctuary island that was originally promised, the heroes must choose between two horrible outcomes: watch the dinosaurs die from carbon monoxide poisoning (or something), or "mercifully" set them free into the rest of civilization, thus completely ripping open the lid to Pandora's Box off its hinges and unleashing certain death on at least the local suburbs of the State of California, if not the rest of the world (Jurassic "WORLD" Get it? Huh? THEY HAD A PLAN ALL ALONG!...)?
Getting past the fact that this movie was essentially two separate movies (thus a veritable 10 pound crap stuffed into a 5 pound, structurally unsound bag), let's look closer at these two ethical conundrums, more specifically why they didn't work. The key problem with the first conundrum is there is a certain leap of logic....yes, I know it sounds absurd that a primary problem I have with a dinosaur-infested action fest on an exploding island with hybrid monsters is that there is a leap in logic, but hear me out. Going for an animal rights activism angle, Fallen Kingdom assumes audiences will view the active volcano on Isla Nublar as a modern day re-occurrence of an extinction event for dinosaurs. Two things: 1) these dinosaurs have caused nothing but destruction, death, and chaos, as Dr. Malcolm might put it, and, while humanity may not want to actively put them out of their misery, it's hard to believe that people would go out of their way to save these monsters from a natural disaster, and 2) even if humanity were to say that dinosaurs are worthy creatures of existence and, now that we've brought them back from extinction, we should do what we can to preserve them, this movie completely ignores the fact that the likes of Dr. Wu (and perhaps other scientists in the world) possess the ability to clone more dinosaurs. While there might be something convincing to be said for having a responsibility to take care of living things that you have now created, to frame the moral argument in a way that suggests we need to move the dinosaurs off the island in order to prevent the extinction of these creatures is disingenuous because it simply isn't true. Because cloning more dinosaurs in order to solve the "extinction" problem isn't even explored (even from an antagonistic point of view), the entire justification for going back to the island to "save the dinosaurs" comes across as a weak excuse for the characters to go back to the island and run around screaming for some good, fun dino action.
The second moral conundrum that caps off the climactic end of the film, and virtually opens Pandora's Box, is pretty much laughable to me. Yes, it would be sad to watch any animal die a slow painful death, particularly the ones you've been trying to save from impending doom up until this point. But the other choice is to actively unleash dinosaurs unto the world, knowingly allowing the deaths of countless people in the immediate area and, if "life finds a way," a post-apocalyptic dystopia ruled by dinosaurs....THIS IS NO CHOICE AT ALL! Any sane human would choose to allow the dinosaurs to suffocate, while most likely acknowledging that it's terrible to watch them die this way, if it meant that the DINO-POCALYPSE could be prevented. While that's ultimately the decision Claire Dearing makes, it's sold as this gut-wrenching "what will she do?" moment that caused me to mentally scream "IF YOU PUSH THAT BUTTON YOU ARE THE STUPIDEST HUMAN EVER AND CERTAINLY THE WORST PROTAGONIST IN HISTORY!"...Ok, that specific sentence didn't go through my head at the time, but the visceral feeling of dumbfoundedness associated with that sentence certainly did. What's more? The precocious little girl pressed the button anyway!!! WHY?!, you might ask? Well, she's a clone......Oh yeah, the movie shoe-horned that detail in slightly earlier in the movie for the sole purpose of justifying her dumb decision to let the dinosaurs go and hoping the audience goes "You know what, I can't fully blame her since 'they're like her.'" YOU FOOLS! SHE'S DOOMED US ALL!......IS ANYONE GOING TO ACT LIKE IT? The answer is no. Instead, Owen, Claire, and clone girl ride off into the sunset in a station wagon as pteranodons fly along the coast, no doubt heading off to cause some raucous somewhere (Las Vegas, as we learn in the post-credit scene).
Much like Jurassic World, Fallen Kingdom brings several interesting concepts to the table and yet does little to nothing with them and has poorly written, flat characters to flesh them out. A dino crisis caused by a volcano, the moral dilemma of not only creating but preserving artificial life, selling dinosaurs in an auction for alternative purposes aside from theme park entertainment, and, finally, dinosaurs inevitably "finding a way" and escaping into the world are all bold, fresh ideas that could be natural progressions of the original ideas and concepts introduced in 1993. The manner in which those concepts are carried out, however, leave something to be desired.
The movie scratches the surface in one scene in particular, that being the scene where Eli confronts Owen and Claire in the little prison cell in the mansion basement. Eli suggests to Claire that she's no better than him; after all, she green lit the making of the Indominus Rex, the most vicious, dangerous creature that ever walked the Earth and the result of a mad scientist project, for a couple extra bucks of revenue. He essentially calls Owen a hypocrite as well for training the Raptors and yet being morally outraged at that training/research being used for the logical application of that research (at least insofar as what the movie deems "logical"). Although Eli twirls his mustache with the best of them, he reveals an irony and serious internal character conflict that Owen and Claire should have had. If the writers had spent more time and effort using those ironies and character conflicts and motivations and applying them to all of Owen's and Claire's decisions, we may have had a more memorable movie that had character depth rivaling that of the first film. Instead, they put all their eggs into the basket where Chris Pratt is a superhero, that Franklin kid is screaming insufferably all over the place and is only around because he can do computers, and that Buffalo Bill actor collects dinosaur teeth, which leads to him unwittingly letting the Indoraptor free.
I don't know, maybe I expect too much from a dinosaur action series at this point. And don't get me wrong, there were certainly positive aspects to this movie; the direction from J.A. Bayona, the 5 minute opening sequence, the Indoraptor, and the suspense in general being some of the key highlights. But the reason no one can honestly hold this, or any of the sequels really, to the same standard as the original Jurassic Park is because they have poorly written characters with nothing interesting to say, and because they lack logical, nuanced science-fiction based ethical debates that made the first one so iconic and memorable.
So those are my thoughts on Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. If you are a fan of the Jurassic series but understand that you won't get much thought-provoking material from it anymore, I'd still recommend going to see it. I just felt the need to rant about why I think it could have been so much more. Hopefully you enjoyed this long-winded, one-sided discussion!
What did you think about Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom? Hate it? Love it? Somewhere in between like me? Let me know! In the meantime, stay tuned and God Bless!
Hello fellow Laymen! Back from a long hiatus, I've returned to finish what I started. A few months ago, I gave you my 6-10 favorite movies from 2017, with the promise of revealing my 1-5 soon after....Well, while it may have been longer than I originally anticipated, I'm a man of my word and am here to give you my last thoughts on my favorite movies from last year.
Before I finish the list, here are a few Honorable Mentions that I still think you should check out but that just didn't quite crack the Top 10.
Third time's the charm! Tom Holland brings Spidey back to life, but this time, he's in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and, surprise surprise, it's great.
M. Night Shyamalan is back! James McAvoy plays a schizophrenic maniac with 27 alternate personalities with a horrifying 28th on the way, and he's fantastic (honestly deserved Oscar recognition for the sheer versatility alone). Creepy, unsettling, and thrilling from start to finish, Shyamalan proves once again that he is a great storyteller if he puts his mind to it. And that twist.........do yourself a favor and see it!
Anything directed by Christopher Nolan has a good chance of making my Top 10 in any given year. While I don't feel Dunkirk is among his top films, Nolan still delivers a visceral war movie experience unlike any other. Unfortunately, due to a lack of any tangible character arcs or stories or focus of any kind, Dunkirk just misses the cut for me. I'd still recommend seeing it for the spectacle alone though.
It Comes At Night
A genuine surprise, I chalked up It Comes At Night to be a by-the-numbers horror, haunted house movie that people have seen a million times and that I normally hate. Call it misleading or bad marketing, but It Comes At Night was not at all what I expected, and that worked heavily in its favor. More of a psychological thriller, It Comes At Night examines a common post-apocalyptic situation from one of the most grounded, realistic perspectives I've ever seen. There's no real protagonist or antagonist, or at least no clear good guys or bad guys. It simply places a scenario in front of the audience and asks "What would you do in this situation?" While this strategy wouldn't work for most movies, it's dreadfully effective for this movie. By all means unconventional, It Comes At Night was the dark horse of the 2017 movie pool.
Blade Runner 2049
The brilliantly stylistic and unique director of Sicario and Arrival, Dennis Villeneuve, directs the long-awaited sequel to the Ridley Scott classic, Blade Runner. Much like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 does an excellent job of asking existential, philosophical questions about the human experience, reality vs. the artificial, and the consequences of man's insatiable desire to play God, all set against the backdrop of a decaying human civilization that has lost most of its grasp on basic morality. Though a bit over-rated in my opinion, Blade Runner 2049 surpasses the original in just about every way for me and is a thought-provoking story with a satisfying conclusion.
Now that we've seen some of the movies I wrestled with putting on the list but ultimately felt were not quite up to par with the rest, here is the rest of my Top 10 List, starting with Number 5!
5. Wonder Woman
Returning to the list at hand, my Number 5 spot belongs to one of the most successful blockbusters of 2017, both financially and critically. Wonder Woman is the first big screen adaptation of the member of the mighty DC Comics Triumvirate not named Superman or Batman, and is directed by Patty Jenkins and stars Gal Gadot as Diana Prince and Chris Pine as ace World War I pilot, Steve Trevor. Hailing from the mythical, Amazonian women haven that is the island of Themyscira, Diana is a promising young Amazonian warrior and the daughter of Queen Hippolyta (played by Connie Nielsen) who is trying to learn the extent of her powers. As she deals with this struggle, she teams up with Allied pilot Steve Trevor and his motley crew of mercenaries and seeks out the God of War himself, Ares, who is supposedly corrupting the hearts of men and is the root cause of the Great War, "the war to end all wars."
Wonder Woman is an instant superhero classic. While it's not quite in the top tier of superhero flicks, such as The Dark Knight, The Avengers, or the last 2 Captain America movies, it is a thrilling addition to the genre that has inspiring themes of hope, optimism in the face of daunting odds, and humanitarian love in the face of war and destruction. Wonder Woman also pulls off a difficult balancing act between drama and levity. The other entries in the DCEU that came before Wonder Woman have been rebuked and criticized by many for being too dark. Therefore, this movie had the risk of falling victim to one extreme or the other: either go against the grain of its predecessors and be excessively silly and "fun" and be a complete departure from the rest of the series, or stick to its creative guns and be another overly-serious adaptation of a superhero. Luckily, Patty Jenkins pulled off the balancing act and was able to infuse a believable sense of humor that was based on the characters presented and the situations they found themselves in, rather than being the by-product of nervous execs who are desperate to get laughs at the expense of a quality story. The result? Wonder Woman is a hyper entertaining superhero action movie with strong, charming characters, a believable love story, plenty of laughs, and even more thrilling action and drama. Gal Gadot is sure to be a household name and an inspiration to many after this movie, and it's with good reason.
4. The Founder
Next up is one that apparently no one besides me saw, The Founder. Simply put, this movie is The Social Network, except with McDonald's.....Have I sold you on it yet? What if I told you Michael Keaton and Nick Offerman (a.k.a. Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation) were in it? Ok, in case you need a little more convincing, The Founder is the true story of Ray Kroc, a down-on-his-luck entrepreneur trying to find the next big thing to sell, and his fateful partnership with two well-meaning, folksy brothers who run a local burger joint bearing their name, McDonald's.
I actually watched this movie on an international flight as I scrolled through the in-flight movie list. I had seen a trailer for it months beforehand so I was intrigued, but I hadn't heard much about it since to be honest. I figured, "Hey, it's free. If it ends up being crappy or boring, it's just an in-flight movie. Besides, I'm watching it on a pixelated 7-inch screen on the back of the airplane seat of the guy in front of me who decided to lean his seat all the way back the moment he got on and then passed out for the rest of the flight..." In other words, I didn't have much to lose financially, emotionally, or in terms of time either way! Despite the circumstances surrounding watching this movie, The Founder was such an engaging story to me, and it's one that I still think about a lot to this day. I don't know what it is exactly about this movie, but I can't get over how much I liked it.
First off, Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc is absolutely riveting. The resurgence of Michael Keaton's career in the last 5 or so years has been amazing to watch, and this film is simply another fantastic step in the right direction for him. His dynamic with the McDonald's brothers, played non-ironically by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch, is shockingly gripping. With all their performances keeping you invested from start to finish, the story itself is told extremely well; watching the simple, clean local McDonald's operation transform slowly into the global mega-franchise we know it to be today was surprisingly dramatic and full of intrigue. At its core, The Founder explores the themes of making a name for yourself, the financial gain vs. the moral cost of ambition, and what that all does to you and your family. What's more? Much like Breaking Bad, it puts the audience in a position where by the end, it has to question whether or not the lessons taught in the story are justified or if they're despicable (it was really hard to get this point across without spoiling key parts of the movie so just watch it!).
3. John Wick: Chapter 2
Next up is probably the most fun I had in a movie theater in 2017, John Wick 2. Call me a sucker for seemingly substance-less popcorn action flicks, but like Die Hard, Predator, Lethal Weapon, The Running Man, Rambo and basically any Arnie and/or Sly picture that came before it, the John Wick franchise is pure, unadulterated shoot-em-up action fun, and I can't help but love it.
Having already come out of retirement in the first movie in order to exact his revenge on that Theon Greyjoy-lookin' punk and the rest of the vaguely Russian crime syndicate he once helped create, John Wick, played by veritable bad-ass and super humble guy Keanu Reeves, is once again trying to live in peace outside of the crazy assassin underworld in which he once thrived. This is until he is visited by a former colleague who coerces him into taking on one more job. As you can imagine, 2ish hours of marvelous "Gun-Fu" action ensues.
What I love about this movie is that it took aspects of the first movie and developed an intricate mythology surrounding the nature of "The Continental" hotels and the mysterious assassins that frequent them. There's a brilliant "honor among thieves" element that adds a whole other layer to what John Wick is doing and the dangers he faces. There's even elements of James Bond thrown in the mix. This is world building at its finest, and it accomplishes what most sequels fail to do in that regard. On top of enriching the franchise's lore, John Wick 2 has fantastic action fighting sequences. There's a breathtaking scene in particular that takes place in Rome, as well as one later on that involves a pencil...and if you love over the top fight sequences like I do, you'll have a blast with this film. Keanu Reeves, I commend you good sir.
2. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Bewildering, I know. Yet another Star Wars movie ending up in my Top 10 (The Force Awakens and Rogue One were both on my 2015 and 2016 Top 10 Lists, respectively). Yes, I have a soft spot for Star Wars movies, but when they keep making good ones, my hands are tied, as far as I'm concerned. I'll admit, this movie isn't perfect, or rather certain storylines don't work quite as well as the central storyline (which is phenomenal). But the more I thought about it after seeing it the first time, the issues I had with it bothered me less and less; in addition, I also continued to appreciate the aspects of it I liked more and more.
Not wanting to risk taking up an entire post's-worth of your time, we'll take the state-of-the-art special effects, high production value, and outstanding acting performances across the board as givens. The thing that stands out about this movie is its ability to subvert expectations from a story perspective. There were several story elements that The Force Awakens set up and had people asking questions that they assumed The Last Jedi would answer. Rian Johnson, the director, found a way to not let these expectations and questions hinder him from telling the best possible story, and I have to respect that. The dynamic between Rey and Kylo Ren was fantastic, every character's actions had legitimate consequences to them, and the direction they took with Luke Skywalker's character was absolutely pitch perfect for me. The Last Jedi also has one of my favorite lightsaber scenes in the entire series (for several reasons I won't mention here because they are MAJOR spoilers).
I know many people had problems with this film, for many of the same reasons that I actually love it. The Last Jedi is certainly the most divisive Star Wars movie amongst its die hard fan base. But I ultimately think the risks Rian Johnson and the rest of his team at Lucas Film took paid off, delivering a truly unique cinematic experience that deepens the lore of Star Wars and keeps the great aspects of this series alive and well moving forward.
At long last, here is my favorite film from last year, Logan. Reprising his role of Wolverine for the 8th time (9th if you count his hysterical cameo in X-Men: First Class) over a 17 year span, Hugh Jackman delivers perhaps his best performance as the character and one of his best performances of his career period. Logan follows the rugged, adamantium-laden hero as he struggles with on-set mortality in his twilight years. The X-Men as we know them are seemingly gone and no where to be found. All that is left is Logan and Professor Xavier, who is now suffering from some form of dementia making him mentally unstable (for a mutant whose power is mind reading and telekinesis, that could be a problem...); both are in hiding in the middle of the desert, seemingly waiting to die. This all changes when Logan is confronted by a little girl with a similar set of powers and abilities as him who is on the run from a mysterious group of mutant bounty hunters of some kind. Will Logan continue to hide from the world he once reluctantly protected, or will he risk it all for this one girl who seems to be the one glimmer of hope left in his life?
A common characteristic of today's best superhero movies is taking an established genre and disguising it as a superhero movie and, in the process, transcending the superhero genre. The Dark Knight is a crime thriller in the stylings of Heat and The Departed, Captain America: Winter Soldier is an '80s action spy flick like any Harrison Ford-led Jack Ryan movie, and now Logan delivers a John Wayne Western.....if John Wayne had metal claws and mercilessly eviscerated dozens of baddies at a time in blinding rage. The point is Logan is amongst a good company of stellar superhero flicks in the last 10-15 years that have continued to push the boundaries of what the superhero genre is capable of. The fact that Logan received a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars this year, a feat no other comic book movie has ever accomplished, is a testament to this milestone film and its importance to the genre and movies in general. All in all, Logan has a beautifully crafted story with phenomenal performances, in particular from Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart, and touching moments of family relationships, paternal responsibility, and giving everything you have to save the ones you love. Also, it has some amazing *SNIKT*erific action of Wolverine going banana-sandwich on all the bad guys. For all these reasons and more, Logan was my favorite movie of 2017.
In summary, my Top 10 List is as follows:
10. War for the Planet of the Apes
9. Baby Driver
8. Get Out
7. Wind River
6. Thor: Ragnarok
5. Wonder Woman
4. The Founder
3. John Wick: Chapter 2
2. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
There it is! I apologize that this post has been several months in the making. These past few months have been characteristically busy with work, and I just haven't had the energy in the little time off I've had to put in the 100% effort I feel that I owe you guys with these posts. For those of you who still stick around and read these whenever they're available, you are the ones I owe the most and I promise to do better to bring you movie reviews and other faith/movie based content more consistently. I hope you enjoyed this post and hopefully you reach back in this last year of movies to watch some of these great pictures if you haven't already!
As always, have a great day and God Bless!
What's up laymen?! Welcome back to the Layman's Movie Corner! I hope you're having a blessed day! Last time we were here, I got halfway through my Top 10 List of 2017. While I promised to finish the last 5 slots on the list with my next post, it's taking a little longer than I was hoping to wrap that up. So instead, I'll leave you with something a little different to hold you over until I knock out the rest of the list (I get it! I'm lazy, leave me alone!).
As you may or may not know, the 90th Annual Academy Awards are announcing their full list of nominations tomorrow. While I do think the Academy has gotten better about picking legitimately good movies instead of simply the most obscure indy flicks with political messages that no one outside Hollywood has seen, the voters still just can't help themselves sometimes. Personally, I think the superhero genre has been systematically and deliberately ignored ever since 2008's The Dark Knight didn't even receive a Best Picture nomination, one of the biggest Oscar snubs of all time. There has consistently been at least one superhero movie in my Top 10 list each year (SPOILER ALERT: 2017 is no exception), and it pains me to see the Academy failing to recognize legitimate contenders each year.
With this righteous indignation at full tilt, I am presenting you today with a poem and/or ballad I wrote in college that I think fits the timing of all this Oscar talk just right. As part of my Irish Comedy & Literature college course (it was a late senior year elective, don't judge me. And yes, it was a real course), we had to write a poem in the style and structure of Brian Merrimen's The Midnight Court. I'd highly recommend reading it in order to make sense of my poem (both mine and his are fairly lengthy so buckle up!) and get a feel for the flow of it. Let this ballad serve as both a plea and a mild threat to Hollywood and the Academy to please get off their high horses occasionally and recognize genre films, in particular superhero films, that are deserving of the recognition!
Without further ado, here is "The Justice Court of Avengers," written by yours truly! (circa 2015 A.D.)
Part I: Opening
One day, when all my work was done and gone,
I took a stroll to ease my stress ‘til dawn.
The “HOLLYWOOD” letters before me stood
Far more glorious than I ever could.
There I walked so underneath them I could lay
And contemplate the movies of the day.
For many years I worked for the Academy:
Far gone the days of gold in movie history;
Far gone the men like Humphrey Bogart; gone
The time of treasures like Goldie Hawn.
Instead of art inspired by Cit’zen Kane,
Ludicrous explosions the box office reign.
For hours I pondered the film industry’s plight,
As well as films that still provide it light,
And just as I was moments from my sleep,
A thund’rous crash above me bellowed deep.
Unholy darkened clouds suddenly formed,
The wild tempest raged and howled and stormed.
A streak of lightning flashed across the sky;
The vicious hail did fall down from on high.
The storm subdued, I staggered to my feet;
A massive Nordic man my eyes did meet:
With face disheveled, long blonde greasy hair,
A pungent smell lingered in the air.
His armor’s molded with a chiseled physique,
But underneath, his overflowing flab’s unique.
With little more than unintelligible grunt,
The oaf did grab my arm with magnificent
Strength, and hurled the pair of us into the sky.
Away we flew, but I did not know why.
Part II: The Young Web-Slinger
Although it was a blur, a stone floor broke my fall,
I stood and found myself in a great, big hall.
Pillars, statues and paintings of heroes old,
Spread throughout the court, many epic tales they told.
Inside a courtyard I stood with trembling knee;
A bench of superheroes lay in front of me.
At the head, Kal-El himself did preside,
With Batman, Wonder Woman at his side.
The edges of the hall, swarmed with heroes all,
Ones I’d seen in films, and others I couldn’t recall.
A slender figure, from the rafters, swung,
Inches away from my nose, upside down he hung,
Then, with grace, he landed in the court away from the rest,
In red and blue tights with an emblem of a spider ‘cross his chest.
Though his mask, a hole for his mouth, did lack,
A teenaged voice came from this Spider-man’s unseen trap –
"Welcome, above all to you, Kal-El,
To your enemies, you bring ‘em hell
To the people of Earth, you bring ‘em hope
And, hopefully to Thor, you bring him soap.
Before you all, I bring my case against this man
Whose crime against our genre of film is grand.
Despite our progress into legitimate art,
Our recognition is lacking, thanks to people like this old fart.
The Academy, it shuns us, it is true,
Because we succeed, and are sexy too.
Our stories, inspired by the Greek gods themselves,
Are dusted off and gloriously taken off the shelves.
Shakespearean drama permeates the stories that we have told.
In our feats of great strength, the core of humanity you can behold.
Alas, the Oscars refuse to justify awarding our works.
Instead, we play second fiddle to Cohen films, which have no words.
The “subtle” films about social injustice reign supreme,
While people like him only high five our FX teams.
Despite the critics seeing the merits in what we do,
The rip-off of Schindler’s List wins because it’s important to me and you.
Until a change in the Oscars is made, there is no fixing
Being relegated to perpetually winning “Best Sound Mixing.”"
Part III: The Old Academy Vet
From the shadows, in an uproarious rage,
Came a spry old man of twilight age.
A director he was, an old school soul,
His angry bellows filled the hall, entire and whole –
"How dare you question classic films of yore?
Artistic masterpieces made before you were born!
Casablanca, Gone with the Wind,
To question them is worse than sin!
The Godfather and Raging Bull,
To place them with your films is to blacken the soul!
All your stories offer, other than cheap thrills,
Are grown men gallivanting in their silks.
You speak of human emotion, but where is it found?
With a man who can raze entire cities to the ground?
In what way can an audience connect with a man
Who beats a slew of criminals with his bare hands?
The only story close to matching the art of true drama
Was the Dark Knight, but to that I still say “Nuh-uh.”
Speak the reason why that admirable plot
Was muddled with a giant bat whose voice was shot.
The film’s critical ceiling is forever hamstringed by limitation,
Because of the hero who, if going for a throat cancer patient, did a suitable imitation.
The Academy, it does it right.
Rewarding true art, that is its mission alright.
It has no time for drivel such as this,
Superheroes dancing around with hardened fists."
Part IV: The Young Web-Slinger Again
At the close of the old director’s words
The young web-slinger sprang up and cursed –
"You old swine, lying in the mud of your ego!
Where in the industry did integrity go?
Brown-nosing, you do, at every turn,
What honorable achievement did you honestly earn?
You stand for true art? That narrative must end!
For all you care is that indy film made by your friend.
Give the award to a film deserving of recognition so great?
No, give it to the snooze fest made in ten years with a Super 8!
The Dark Knight, yes, true art deserving of a nomination,
But did it get it? No, it lost to a series of abominations.
The winner of which, Slumdog Millionaire, how inspirational!
A kid using his odd life experience to get rich and, in turn, the girl.
We make billions, you call it drivel,
At our art you sneer and snivel.
But did you stop to think that the stories we tell
Mean more than the “tour-de-force” that did not sell
A single ticket, for the world to see it,
Not because it’s unappreciated,
But because it’s self engorged in superiority,
To the point that the beholder cannot understand it with clarity?
I’ve laid out my case against these men and the industry.
I’ve exposed, clear as day, their hypocrisy.
Until we get the respect we deserve, indeed,
To your judgment, Kal-El, I do concede."
Part V: The Judgment
The sun emerged from the horizon, East,
Deliberation from everyone ceased,
And Superman arose, his cape flowed free,
With unquestioned authority, he did decree –
Thank you, Spider-man, for your speech.
Impassioned, it was, inspiring to each.
After consideration of the points, strengths and flaws,
From this day forward, all follow these laws:
One: At minimum, the Oscars will res-
Erve a nomination in two major categ’ries
For superhero films each year. If this
Requirement’s not met, your punishment is
Torture at the hands of villains’ tools.
Away to their lairs they’ll drag you fools.
Two: If categ’ries’ noms have more than two of the four
For independent films, but none for ours,
All involved with those films forbade,
For five years, from having movies made.
Three: For past transgressions made against our species,
Best Picture winners from post-sixties
Will burn in flames, never again to be,
And you must watch, your eyes must see.
With that, the heroes ‘round me swarmed,
They tied me up with their powers armed.
The Human Torch a pyre before me wrought,
And Batman, a box, menacingly brought.
From inside the box, he revealed
Every Best Pic from 1970 on, in their case sealed.
As Patton dropped into the burning flames,
I struggled and screamed the filmmakers’ names.
Before I lamented the writer, Farago,
From a deep and dark sleep I woke.
I looked into the city, the lights did gleam,
I caught my breath – ‘twas nothing but a dream.
(Merriman's "The Midnight Court": http://abitoblarney.com/themidnightcourt.htm)
What'd you think laymen? Is the Academy a bunch of crusty old farts looking for the next tour-de-force, or is there hope that the voters will learn the error of their ways and recognize superhero films (good ones anyway) as legitimate art and entertainment? We'll find out tomorrow when the nominees are revealed!
Until then, my fellow laymen, God Bless and stay tuned!
Long time no see, my fellow moviegoers and laymen! It's been several months since I've sat down and talked about the topic of film, and for the select few who actually paid attention to what I've been trying to do on here, I apologize for taking such a long hiatus. Unfortunately, the ole job has been extremely hectic and energy-sapping the last few months so it's taken me away from reviewing and talking movies. But laziness-related excuses aside, I'm back to make a more concerted effort to reintroduce movie discussions into my normal routine.
With the New Year well under way, I figured the best way to return to this whole movie reviewin' schtick was to breakdown what I thought were the Best of the Best, the Cream of the Crop, the Creme de la Creme, the...Bee's Knees? No, simply, the Top 10 movies I saw in 2017. Before I get into them, here is my general criteria for what I looked for and, ultimately, got out of the movies on my list and the rationale for why they ended up on my list:
1) They are movies I've actually seen. In other breaking and obvious news, water is wet, death and taxes are certain, and 2009's The Last Airbender is the worst adaptation of any beloved source material ever put to screen (sorry....that one still hurts). I know it seems self explanatory, but I feel it's important to mention because there are several movies I haven't been able to see this year that I feel would have a legitimate shot at making my list. Movies like The Disaster Artist, Darkest Hour, Coco, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Molly's Game, and several more have been getting rave reviews from critics and casual moviegoers alike, but unfortunately, I haven't been able to see them for a variety of reasons (the main one being a lot of them are your typical Oscar contenders/hopefuls who hold limited releases at the end of the year only to release them early the following year once the Oscar buzz has fully kicked in...a practice I hate because I want to see these movies now).
2) Technically and objectively, they were executed brilliantly. Being a layman in terms of filmmaking, I cannot go into full detail about what makes a movie great or horrible in terms of all the technical aspects. However, in general, if the movies look great and have well-written dialogue, believable and emotionally gripping acting, fascinating characters, top line visual effects, satisfying structure, story elements, you name it, and they blend all these components in a way that makes me appreciate them both during and after the experience, I cannot deny that they were objectively great and deserve a spot on my list.
3) They a) tell original stories or b) tell familiar stories but do so in a unique way, and because of this, they stuck with me. While there are movies on here that will seem like retreads or, dare I say, safe products produced by well-oiled machines (SPOILER ALERT: Marvel made its way onto my list. Sue me!), they still all found ways to deliver something to their stories that are truly unique and that separate them from the rest of the pack for me.
4) In lieu of or, preferably, in addition to being original and unique, their stories stick with me and demand that I continue to think about their themes, moral arguments, their inspiring and touching messages, and, in some cases, their haunting cautionary tale elements, long after I've left the theater (or closed my streaming browser on my computer).
5) Last but not least, these movies entertained the crap out of me. As much as the moral absolutist in me enjoys taking what is subjective, such as film, and coming up with arguments for why it is objectively good or bad, there are some movies on here that I simply cannot deny were just plain awesome, as subjective as my opinion may be. While I've tried to broaden my appreciation for all film, both big and small, over the years, sometimes I just can't help but get swept up in a good action flick or something else that may not be as much of a "tour-de-force" as, say, Call Me By Your Name (as you can guess, that's not on my list. I'd bore you with why I'm not even considering watching it, but I'll let a simple Google search of its plot do the talking for me).
Now that I've established the ground rules, so to speak, I won't waste anymore time. Here it is! This is the Movie Layman's Top 10 Films of 2017!
10. War For the Planet of the Apes
Kicking off my list is the epic conclusion to the grand sci-fi trilogy reboot to the Planet of the Apes franchise, War For the Planet of the Apes. I've already given my full breakdown of this film in my Apes review, so I won't repeat everything I said there. That being said, I will reiterate that War is a satisfying and fitting conclusion to one of the best sci-fi franchises in recent years and one of the best complete movie trilogies of all time. While it didn't quite live up its namesake in terms of big battles and war-related action ("War" was a bit of a misnomer if you ask me), it is a mesmerizing and harrowing tale of Caesar (played brilliantly by a performance captured Andy Serkis) and his struggle to lead his apes/people in the face of impending doom, personified by Woody Harrelson's Colonel.
There are two things that ultimately keep this movie from being higher on my list. The first is that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the second installment in the rebooted Apes trilogy, was my favorite movie of 2014 and remains one of my favorite movies of all time. Unfortunately, War did not quite match the spectacle, story, and overall cinematic bliss present in Dawn, so chalk it up to being a hard act to follow. The second reason was the marketing. My expectations going into this film were wildly different from what I ultimately received from watching it, and I put that partially on the actual marketing and also on the name given to the movie itself. Rather than being a bombastic conclusion to an epic series, it is more of a character piece and introspective look at Caesar. Neither of these things are necessarily an indictment on the quality of the film itself; in fact, now that I know what to expect from the film, I feel that I would find a second viewing far more enjoyable because I would buy more into the examination of the psyche of Caesar. Therefore, these are sort of unfair criticisms. For that reason and the overall quality of filmmaking at play here, War For the Planet of the Apes is a brilliant achievement that deserves a spot among the best films of 2017.
9. Baby Driver
Next on the list is one of the most stylistically unique films of the year, and that is Baby Driver. Sporting a star studded cast consisting of Jaime Foxx, Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal, and Kevin Spacey (yikes...this is unfortunate), Baby Driver also introduced me to an extremely talented young actor by the name of Ansel Elgort, who plays the film's namesake, Baby. The film is a crime drama comedy potpourri infused with and driven by (PUN!!!!!!...I'm ashamed now) an infectious soundtrack that rivals that of Guardians of the Galaxy from a few years ago. Baby is a talented getaway driver under the employ of Kevin Spacey's Doc, who is some sort of crime boss who is in the business of planning heists and assembling the teams to carry out those heists. As he displays his impressive driving skills to keep the bank robbers out of the clutches of police, Baby meets a girl by the name of Debora (Lily James) along the way and finds what just might be true love (awwwwww :'D). But can Baby balance his budding romance with the treacherous risks associated with the lifestyle by which Doc has him imprisoned? Watch the movie to find out!
First off, elephant in the room time. Yes, Kevin Spacey is in this movie. Yes, by all accounts, he is a despicable human being who, if he is guilty of the allegations leveraged against him, deserves to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law (considering that his only "defense" was to "choose to live as a gay man," I think it's safe to say he is guilty of everything that has come out so far). Luckily, he is not the main character and he is supposed to be a despicable character in the movie anyway, so it sort of works out. Like I said, I hope he gets whatever he deserves legally. At the same time, I'm not going to retroactively despise all movies that happen to have him in them; I'm not going to give him that much power (I will say that I probably won't watch anything with him in the future...if he is ever able to get a job again to begin with).
All that being addressed, this movie is the definition of a fun, whacky adventure with a flavor of legitimate suspense, action, and even romance. Edgar Wright, who is responsible for one of my favorite comedies of all time, Shaun of the Dead, is the perfect director for a movie with this quirky style. He is able to infuse Baby Driver with strong characters and emotional depth, all while encouraging the audience to smile from ear to ear from start to finish. Baby Driver also takes a soundtrack that is strong and delightful in its own right and transforms it into a crucial aspect of Baby's character. Whenever a movie is able to inject a soundtrack directly into the movie's story without going too far by winking and nodding at the audience, I have to give it kudos. Full of heart pumping car chases and action sequences, laughs, and heartwarming performances from its romantic leads, Baby Driver was one of the biggest pleasant surprises for me going to the theaters this summer.
8. Get Out
Next up is Jordan Peele's writing and directorial debut and brilliant addition to a genre in which I usually have no interest whatsoever, Get Out. One half of the Key & Peele sketch comedy duo flips a switch and uses his innate comedic skills and applies them to a horror movie, and by some miracle, it works magnificently without coming off as a parody. Get Out follows a young man, Chris Washington (played by Daniel Kaluuya) who is dating a young woman, Rose Armitage (played by Allison Williams), and the beautiful couple decides it's time for Chris to meet Rose's parents. The catch? Chris is black and Rose's family is a bunch of old, crusty white people, and her parents don't know he's black! This sounds like the perfect set up to an unholy amalgamation of Meet the Parents and Blazing Saddles. Let the uncomfortable, racially based hijinks of this fish-out-of-water yuck fest begin, right? WRONG! What transpires after this straight forward set up is an incredibly unsettling mystery horror flick where our hero Chris becomes more and more disturbed by what he sees as he interacts with Rose's family and their black maid and groundskeeper. Is he simply paranoid, or are there nefarious deeds going on behind the scenes? Will Chris survive the weekend? Would Rose's dad actually have voted for Obama to a third term?
I didn't watch Get Out until this past week because, to be honest, it flew under my radar and I didn't expect much from it. Plus, I'm not a horror movie buff by any means so I didn't see the need to see it ever, let alone when it came out last February or March. But the word of mouth for this movie was so tremendous and ravenous that I've kept it in the back of my head until I finally decided to pull the trigger and watch it, and I must say, I'm glad I did. Get Out is the rare horror movie that focuses its attention more on the story being told, the characters involved, and the overall atmosphere that those two elements combine to create, rather than on jump scares or gruesome, highly disturbing visuals that are typical of Get Out's contemporaries. The writing for this movie was nearly flawless. The dialogue is some of the most natural, effortless, and subtly humorous dialogue of any movie all year. Moreover, there isn't a single wasted story element to be found; every piece of dialogue, backstory, exposition, and visual storytelling is used to setup something that will pay off later in the movie (I'm not here to spoil the movie so please see it so you know what I'm talking about). On top of all that, it accomplishes what other horror movies I enjoy, such as Silence of the Lambs, accomplish, and that is it sets up a nail-biting, atmospheric, and creepy mystery story in a way that doesn't go over the top in the gore or shock department. It's more creepy than scary, and that's exactly how I like my horror/suspense thrillers. Finally, for anyone who is worried that it hits you over the head with overt sociopolitical messages or political parallels, I suppose it is a little on the nose in light of all the racial unrest in our country over the past few years. However, I think it ultimately took the topic of under-the-surface racism and manipulated it into a fun, cathartic sci-fi suspense thriller that people on either side of that political issue can enjoy.
7. Wind River
At Number 7, I have CSI: Wyoming...whoops, I mean Wind River. This sweeping crime drama is written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, who wrote one of my favorite movies from last year, Hell or High Water, and stars Jeremy Renner as Cory Lambert, a Wildlife Services tracker in Wyoming on a Native American reservation, Wind River, and Elizabeth Olsen as Jane Banner, an FBI agent who comes to Wind River to investigate the murder of a teenage girl in the local Native American community. What follows is a harrowing whodunnit murder mystery that transports the audience into the harsh, frozen tundra of the Wind River reservation as Cory and Jane team up and do everything they can to find justice for a poor young girl in a place where law and order is little more than a pipe dream.
The success of this movie, for me, rests primarily on the shoulders of Taylor Sheridan, who tells an immersive story about community, loss, desperation, and survival in an area of the country that is rarely explored in film, and Jeremy Renner, who delivers his best dramatic performance since his breakout role in 2009's The Hurt Locker. Renner is given a tragic backstory that directly informs the connection he has with this community as well as why he finds such a deep sense of purpose in this case. While he has received more notoriety from his role in the Avengers movies as Hawkeye (which he knocks out of the park by the way), Wind River reminds the audience of why he has become such a huge star in the first place: at his roots, he is a tremendous actor. This isn't to take away from the rest of the cast. Elizabeth Olsen comes to play in her role as Jane and has great moments. One of the unsung heroes of the film is Gil Birmingham, who plays the father of the murdered young woman. His performance is truly heartbreaking and contextualizes all of the emotional beats of the film. One of my favorite scenes in Wind River is a conversation between him and Renner's Cory about their respective losses and how they continue on and cope. On top of all this, the last 30 minutes of the film are exhilarating and contain intense action that put a great cap on a compelling story. Overall, Wind River is a crime drama that doubles as a thoughtful examination of loss and justice in the face of that loss, as well as what separates justice from vengeance, and what moral challenges both present to the individual as well as a community.
6. Thor: Ragnarok
Changing pace at Number 6, I have one of the most fun Marvel Studios experiences I've had in a theater in quite some time, Thor: Ragnarok. Marvel rarely misses these days, so it's not entirely surprising that one of their films usually ends up on my list each year. On the flip side of this coin though, Marvel's consistency can sometimes make it hard for its individual flicks to stand out from the rest of the (generally strong) pack. Thor: Ragnarok, however, succeeds in this sense for me, which is astonishing considering that it's the 3rd installment of an otherwise lackluster series of movies (I enjoy the first 2 Thor movies, but they're admittedly not all that great). Ragnarok follows Thor as he returns to Asgard after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, in which he received visions of the death and destruction of all things, "Ragnarok." Almost as if to answer the call, Thor and Loki are confronted by their sister (step-sister? She's Odin's daughter, I don't know), Hela (played by a charismatic Cate Blanchett), who threatens the safety of all of Asgard. At the same time, Thor finds himself hurled onto an unknown planet that has no knowledge of his status as God of Thunder, where he is essentially enslaved and forced to fight in gladiatorial combat for the entertainment of the eccentric Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum...AMAZING). From there, Thor needs to figure out a way to return to Asgard in order to prevent Ragnarok at the hands of his evil sister.
This movie is a Flash Gordon-esque, synthesized 80's rock infused, fantastic sci-fi trip. Wildly different from any Thor movie we've seen so far, Ragnarok is an inspired breath of fresh air that lets us see Thor in his full bad ass glory in a way that I haven't seen before. Plus, we are reunited with Mark Ruffalo's Hulk (whaaaaat???), and it's quite simply awesome. The movie is full of great fight sequences and action, it is hilarious, and it is everything that a summer blockbuster should try to be......even though it technically came out in November. I think the real reason this movie sticks out for me is that in addition to delivering on all the action and comedy that we've come to expect from Marvel, the movie quietly accomplishes a fairly compelling arc for our brash, typically hot-headed hero. Thor continues his development as the true leader of Asgard, and the twist they pull off in this movie was very clever and ultimately serves the character of Thor in a way I didn't expect. It also touches on the concept of community and the importance of preserving it. It actually echoes a key Catholic concept; the Catholic Church is more than just the physical constructions that make up a church or cathedral. The Church is, in fact, the members of the Catholic Church and their souls dedicated to Christ, united in communion with Christ. In a nutshell, it's the Body of Christ doctrine. The fact that this movie explored this concept, even if in a more secular way, from the perspective of the Asgardians was super impressive to me, in all honesty. Final note, Korg is my new favorite Marvel character and certainly one of its funniest. Hats off to you, director Taika Waititi, Thor: Ragnarok is officially awesome.
There is my Number 6-10. This will bring the first part of my list to a close. Next time, I'll go over some of my Honorable Mentions, and then dive into Numbers 1-5. I'd like to thank whoever read this. Hopefully you've enjoyed my thoughts so far on what I consider the best movies of 2017! If this brings even just one person some level of entertainment, or convinces someone to see these movies, or sparks debate as to what someone else's Top 10 list looks like, I'll be happy. What do you think of my list so far? Sound off in the comments below!
Until next time, God Bless and stay tuned!
Jason Bourne: Look at what I can do with a rolled up newspaper and a book!
Lorraine (from Atomic Blonde): Hold my beer *grabs water hose*
John Wick: That's cute *brandishes a #2 pencil*
Atomic Blonde is the latest in a long line of action movies that feature a singular bad-ass on a mission of some kind to take down all the bad guys. But wait! This time, the lead character is a woman, making this the first time in film history a woman has ever kicked ass! Sarcasm notwithstanding, let me give you a proper synopsis of this thing.
Starring Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton and directed by David Leitch, Atomic Blonde is a spy action thriller, adapted from the graphic novel, The Coldest City, that takes place in 1989 Berlin, Germany, mere days before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Amidst the Cold War era tension, MI6 has reason to believe that the Russian KGB has murdered one of its agents and acquired "the List," which is some sort of hard drive that contains the names and personal information of many British and other Western operatives. Eric Gray, played by Toby Jones, brings Lorraine in to help MI6 to investigate the circumstances of the killed agent's death and recover the List before the KGB uses it to compromise countless MI6 agents. As soon as Lorraine lands in Berlin, nothing is what it seems and she must learn quickly who she can trust and who is trying to double cross her. Let the convoluted and highly stylized espionage thrills begin!
What Was Good?
This movie goes all in on convincing you Charlize Theron is a one lady wrecking ball and a lean, mean, Russian-killing machine, and I must say that I bought it. Theron has a great physicality in Atomic Blonde and shows off impressive action choreography and fighting skills that you don't see from Hollywood A-listers outside of Keanu Reeves. If you come for fun spy, action fight sequences, you're not going to be disappointed. There's one scene in particular that is brutally mesmerizing; fans of the Netflix series Daredevil will notice many similarities with the scene in Atomic Blonde and two key ones in the series, one taking place in a hallway, the other taking place in a stairwell. While this particular scene is a stand out moment in the movie, just about every fight scene or action scene in the movie is a lot of fun to watch and provides the movie its primary entertainment value.
I also really enjoy the performances in this movie, in particular those of Charlize Theron and James McAvoy. Their banter back and forth made for some solid entertainment and comedic relief that broke up the gruesome violence and darker tones of the movie. McAvoy continues to amaze me as an actor. In the last 5 or so years, he's established himself as one of the best and, more importantly, most versatile actors working today. Am I saying that this was one of his best performances? Absolutely not. But I'm just saying it was a unique addition to his filmography and he was dang entertaining in it.
Here's a quick note on the soundtrack. If you enjoy the synthesized rock ballads of the '80s, you're going to love the Atomic Blonde soundtrack. Ever since 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy delighted audiences with its '60s and '70s infested soundtrack, it seems like more and more action movies are trying to duplicate the results. We've seen it now with 2016's Suicide Squad and this year's Baby Driver and now Atomic Blonde. The key difference is in Guardians of the Galaxy and Baby Driver, the soundtrack is not only stylish and full of nostalgia; it also actually has an impact and is incorporated with the characters in their respective movies. The soundtrack for Atomic Blonde does not have that kind of depth. While I've seen other reviews make similar distinctions, it actually doesn't bother me. I love how the soundtrack in Guardians and Baby Driver are used so well, but I also enjoy the stylistic flavor that Atomic Blonde's soundtrack adds to the movie. I ultimately still think it's a positive.
What Was Bad?
Unfortunately, in spite of its thrilling action, Atomic Blonde is sort of a mess from a narrative standpoint. Lacking the effective simplicity of the John Wick series and the well-executed political sophistication of the Bourne trilogy, Atomic Blonde falls awkwardly in the middle of those two great action franchises and becomes a kick ass thriller that tries to be more, but ends up miring itself in an incoherent plot with confusing character motivations. I won't spoil anything about this movie for my readers, assuming that you're all reading this to determine whether or not you should see it. However, I will tell you that in the last 10 minutes, the movie throws in about 3 or 4 plot twists that completely undo every aspect of the story that's occurred in the previous 100 minutes. I feel like the filmmakers behind this movie wanted the audience's response during the credits to be, "Woah! What?! That was nuts!". Unfortunately, when the credits rolled for me, I went "Woah! What?!.........wait a minute, that doesn't make sense."
The sign of a good plot twist (or twists) is that when you look back at the movie you just watched, you think "Oh wow, so that explains THIS part, and if THAT's true, then THIS is also true!...." and your mind gets progressively more blown as you unravel the rest of what you thought you saw. The context of the whole film changes as a result of the twist. When you look back at Atomic Blonde through the lens of its twists, however, you no longer understand why anyone did any of the things they did. The writers for this movie threw in twists for the sake of having twists because it was a spy movie, and that's what spy movies do. That type of laziness makes me pretty angry, especially when this movie really did have a lot of promise to be something special. Instead, Atomic Blonde is a Frankenstein monster of a movie that cherrypicks aspects of John Wick, Jason Bourne, and every other spy action thriller in the last 20 years and mashes them all together.
What Should Catholics Know?
Unfortunately, there's not much good here for Catholic viewers. Aside from the obvious spy vs. spy blood and violence that you were promised in the trailers, Atomic Blonde features a fairly graphic lesbian sex scene. In an attempt to present same sex relationships as beautiful and admirable in nature, consistent with today's society's agenda to do the same, Atomic Blonde uses this scene as a spring board for Theron and Sofia Boutella's characters' (a French spy) blooming romantic relationship. In an interview with Movie Pilot, Theron addresses the scene, saying, "...I just feel that this [LGBTQ] community is not represented the way that it should be in film. Actors are always talking about reflecting society in media, but if we're gonna do that, we should really do that. I could have hooked up with a guy, but it's great that I hooked up with a girl. I'm proud of that." It's clear that Theron and Hollywood as a whole are making deliberate efforts to normalize homosexual behavior in mainstream media and society. If that's their agenda, so be it. But for Catholics, it's important to remember that while Christ and His Church love and welcome all people, including members of the LGBQT community, they do not condone indulging in homosexual acts or behavior. This distinction of "loving the sinner but hating the sin" is important for Catholics and members of society who value conservative social norms to remember. If you go to see this movie, don't fall into the trap of using the emotional empathy Theron generates for her character in these scenes with Boutella as moral justification for homosexual acts.
On top of this, the movie features generally despicable people doing despicable things to each other, wholly unnecessary nude shots of Charlize Theron sprinkled throughout, and gratuitous violence (although much of Theron's violent acts are in self-defense, so I guess you could argue in most cases she's morally justified to do what she's doing, but that may be a bit of a stretch). This movie certainly earns its R-rating and is not for young children or teenagers.
Should You See It?
Atomic Blonde is an entertaining piece of spy action cinema that, unfortunately, is held back by odd story and narrative choices and is too convoluted for its own good. Featuring stand out performances by Charlize Theron and James McAvoy, the film has one of the most thrilling fight scenes in a movie I've seen all year and contains a nostalgia-driven '80s rock soundtrack that gives the movie a unique stylistic flair, even though it may feel a bit forced at times. For my fellow Catholics, I'd recommend waiting until this movie comes out on Netflix or some other streaming service, fast-forward through the lesbian and nude scenes, and enjoy the fight scenes for what they are. Or just don't see it altogether.
My judgment: 4.9/10
What do you think, fellow laymen and laywomen? Did I judge Atomic Blonde too harshly? Are you still planning on seeing the movie? If you've seen it already, is there an aspect of the film that I missed in my review? Please leave a like, a comment, and a prayer!
Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!
Charlton Heston's famous line from the original film in the series all but a memory at this point (aside from that Draco Malfoy-looking kid's reference to it in Rise of the Planet of the Apes), the Planet of the Apes franchise has come a long way from being a campy, classic '60s sci-fi action flick to now containing one of the best, most complete dramatic film trilogies of all time. War for the Planet of the Apes is the third and final film in the Matt Reeves-directed prequel series of movies chronicling the Rise, Dawn, and War of hyper-intelligent, genetically modified apes as they face off against their human counterparts, led by their wise, powerful, and awe-inspiring leader, Caesar.
War starts where Dawn leaves off; following the devastating aftermath of Koba's (he was the evil ape for those who can't or find it difficult to care to remember a fictional ape character's name) rise to power and brutal confrontation with the human survivor community, led by Gary Oldman's character, a highly lethal and well-trained militia to the north has received word of the apes' aggression and have mobilized to take out Caesar and all ape-kind that remain. What follows is both a militaristic and psychological war between Caesar, played by the incomparable Andy Serkis (Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, King Kong from King Kong (2005)), and the Colonel, played by Woody Harrelson (Detective Marty Hart from True Detective, Haymitch Abernathy from The Hunger Games series) as they both struggle for personal survival and that of their respective species.
What Was Good?
First off, let's start off the with the most obvious thing about this movie: it looks amazing! The special effects are state of the art and, arguably, some of the best use of CGI in a film I have ever seen. Every ape in War looks as real as any animal you might see in the wild or at the zoo. On top of that, with the use of "performance capture" technology, Caesar and the gang are given incredible emotional depth and characterization that might trick you into thinking these apes are actually highly sentient beings that broke big into the Hollywood scene with their tour-de-force acting prowess and make use of the Kraft services table on set in between takes. Do not be fooled! They are, in fact, human beings in silly gray leotards with white balls and head-rigged cameras who happen to be outstanding actors who combine their talents as actors with the special effects wizards to create the magic on-screen that we, as audience members, tend to take for granted. On a pure digital craftsmanship level, War for the Planet of the Apes is a masterpiece.
Next, I want to highlight the director of the film, Matt Reeves. In his own words, Reeves describes his film as "an ape war movie Biblical epic...and a revenge western" (here's the interview: SPOILER ALERT!!! DON'T WATCH UNTIL YOU'VE SEEN THE MOVIE!!!!!! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gaWLT1hp1JU). That just about sums up the general plot of the movie, and it's undeniably thrilling from start to finish (with the exception of a 15 minute section about halfway or two-thirds of the way through the movie). I won't delve into each beat of the film because I don't want to spoil it for you in this review, but I will say that Reeves has such an intimate grasp of what this franchise is and knows how to highlight the strengths of this story and its characters. He understands that this story is truly about the apes themselves, and not just how they end up in a position where they've enslaved Charlton Heston in the 1968 film. The physical struggle of Caesar and his followers is expertly matched by the emotional and psychological struggle as they try to find their place in the world, especially in the face of the last ditch militaristic might of what is left of humanity. For the most part, Reeves sticks the landing on a very emotionally impactful and satisfying trilogy that happens to be an awesome ape-filled sci-fi franchise.
The film is carried by a multitude of fantastic performances, and yes, that primarily includes the ape performances. One of the newcomers to the franchise was Steve Zahn (Lenny Haise from That Thing You Do) as "Bad Ape," and his performance is the most unique of the franchise. Primarily the comic relief, Bad Ape actually has some engaging personality and some under-the-surface emotional baggage that allow the inevitable yucks to happen without the eye-rolling associated with the Jar Jar Binks of the world. He was a pleasant surprise in this movie. Woody Harrelson as "the Colonel" was an inspired choice for the villain of this movie, although he was unfortunately not given as much to do as I think he should have. That being said, his Amon Goeth-type presence is felt through out the film and is effective for the most part (he's certainly not as despicable as Amon Goeth from Schindler's List and, thus, not as good of a villain).
The real star of the movie, however, is none other than Andy Serkis as the titular character, Caesar. Never before has a CGI character evoked such raw emotion and dramatization for its audience. It may be a controversial stance amongst those in the business or even the general public, but I still believe that Serkis gave an Oscar-worthy performance in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. While I enjoyed that movie, and possibly even his performance in that movie, more than War, Serkis once again delivers a nuanced and multi-layered performance that, I believe, has a legitimate chance of generating Oscar buzz. People long believed that superhero movie performances could never earn the honor, and yet Heath Ledger did just that with his turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight in 2008. Andy Serkis is not only a masterclass actor; he is also a champion of the innovative Performance Capture technology and is a big reason people are starting to see it more as an alternate means of immersing an actor into a character, along the lines of digital makeup. With his skills as an actor matched with the breaking down of that barrier, I hope the Academy recognizes the incredible performance Andy Serkis gives in this movie by at least nominating him for Best Actor, because I sincerely believe he deserves it.
What Was Bad?
I absolutely hate to say it, but as great as this movie was on a technical level and even with regard to its performances and story, it just didn't quite measure up to my expectations or to the quality of the previous installment, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Both movies share the fact that they subverted assumed plot lines and took the movies in different directions than the trailers would have the audience believe. The difference is, for me, the direction that Dawn went was way better than I thought it would be. Rather than just being a straight forward misunderstood apes vs. evil humans conflict, Dawn contained a Hamlet-esque twist that resulted in an ape civil war and sported nuanced and complex character motivations on both the ape and human sides of the conflict. For this reason, as well as the state of the art effects, the beautiful execution from director Matt Reeves, and a bevy of other reasons I won't go into here, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of my favorite movies of all time.
Much like Dawn, War for the Planet of the Apes ends up going a completely different direction than originally expected. Unfortunately, the movie War promised to be was superior to the one we ended up getting. How do I know? Because the first 10 minutes showed a glorious glimpse of what War could have been, and I loved it. It's an all out war film, complete with guerilla warfare *holds in chuckles and gives self high five*, sweeping battle sequence shots, Zero Dark Thirty-level tension, and so much more that told me, "This could be one of the greatest war films of all-time, ape or no ape." Despite this tremendously strong start, the movie devolves into a revenge thriller that ends up taking more pages out of the Bridge on the River Kwai and The Great Escape playbook than that of Saving Private Ryan or Black Hawk Down, or even The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan has been known to compare the tone of his third Batman film to that of a war film, and it shows). The movie is ultimately still thrilling and super entertaining, but it left me a bit disappointed because the film did not live up to its title or the epic battle-filled conclusion it promised to be.
What Should Catholics Know?
While filled with some PG-13 blood and violence, War for the Planet of the Apes is a generally Catholic-friendly flick with some morally rich themes and concepts, if one can reconcile the fact that these themes and concepts are explored through the perspective of a hyper intelligent ape. It explores the obsessive and destructive nature of revenge, and shows that even if we feel justified in carrying it out, revenge is a disastrous road that results in the one carrying it out becoming as immoral as the one who has committed the seemingly unforgivable offense. It also shows that this revenge-seeking will not only do nothing to ease emotional pain, but will also bring about further torment and danger and harm to those we love who still depend on us to lead and nurture them.
It's also worth noting that Caesar, who is ultimately the hero and star of this rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy, bears similarities to several Biblical characters, bearing the wisdom of King Solomon, the compassion of King David, and the fearless leadership into the Promised Land of milk and honey of Moses. All of these strong character traits are carried over from the previous two films and are very much present in the third installment.
Should You See It?
Matt Reeves completes this incredible trilogy of films on an overall high note that concludes the epic story of Caesar and the Rise, Dawn and War for the Planet of the Apes. Although not really a war movie, War for the Planet of the Apes contains outstanding performances from its actors, led by the incredible Andy Serkis, and contains some of the best digital special effects of any movie I've ever seen. Thrilling and action-packed, yet morally challenging and emotionally gripping, War once again turns the Apes franchise into one of the most relevant and meaningful blockbuster franchises of our generation.
My judgment: 8.5/10
That's it for this review everybody! I hope you've enjoyed my take on the latest Apes movie. What did you think of Matt Reeves' final Apes film? Are there Catholic or moral themes in this movie you'd like me to discuss further in a podcast? Please comment below and let me know what you think!
Christopher Nolan continues to challenge himself by diving into yet another genre of film he has yet to tackle in his impressive career: the war film. Dunkirk is director Christopher Nolan's 10th movie and is set during World War II in 1940. On the beaches of Dunkirk, France, overlooking the English Channel, nearly 400,000 British and Allied Soldiers await evacuation to Britain as they are surrounded by German forces on land, in the air, and at sea. Based on a true story, Dunkirk follows several characters in their desperate attempts to survive German dive-bombers and U-boats, including a handful of Soldiers on the beach, the Naval commander overseeing the evacuation, a pair of British Royal Air Force Spitfire pilots, and a man and his sons who, along with many other civilians from the homeland, make the journey across the Channel to Dunkirk to assist in the evacuation of their Soldiers.
I am an enormous fan of Christopher Nolan's body of work; Memento is a blind-blowing masterclass in plot structure manipulation in order to reflect the psyche and mental state of its protagonist, The Dark Knight Trilogy revolutionized the superhero film in terms of what it can accomplish in both spectacle and emotional and moral depth and helped establish the "Golden Age of Superhero Movies," and Inception combined awe-inspiring visual innovation with existential science-fiction concepts that have permeated into modern pop-culture in the tradition of 1999's The Matrix. Even seemingly underwhelming yet truly brilliant films like The Prestige are criminally under-rated by the general public. Needless to say, I think Christopher Nolan has been one of the most talented, technically proficient, and imaginative directors and storytellers working in the last 15+ years. Naturally, Dunkirk was one of my most anticipated movies ever since it was announced a few years ago. I mean, with everything else he's done up to this point, the math adds up to this being the best, most inventive war movie ever made, right?
But is Dunkirk the game-changing war film that everyone, including myself, expected from Nolan?
In a word, no.
On the bright side, this fact shatters any potential perception that I'm just a blind "Nolanite" or Nolan fanboy who just eats up anything he craps out with vigorous aplomb. In case anyone isn't familiar with what the heck I'm talking about (aside from the "vigorous aplomb" part), there are groups of people on the internets who, in order to counter the uprising of overwhelming support and praise of Christopher Nolan movies over the years, have voiced their disdain for Nolan movies and have labeled anyone who likes his stuff as Nolanites, or essentially sheep who can't think for themselves and are just drinking the proverbially Kool-Aid that is Christopher Nolan's filmography. My counter-point to these "haters," as the kids say these days, is that just because a guy is pitching a perfect game (that's a sports reference! :D), it doesn't mean that you're a mindless schmuck for liking what he's got. Anyway, let's get back on track.
I'll start with what I liked about this film. First off, the first 30-40 minutes of this film are breathtaking in so many ways. There's no drawn out prelude or set up that tell you exactly where you are, why you're there, what's at stake, or who is going to be impacted by the outcomes that are about to unfold. From the first minute of the movie, the audience is placed in the midst of a shoot out and, ultimately, a fight for survival. The movie very much starts in Medias Res and barely let's up until the final credits. The film's score, underscored with a ticking-time clock, combined with the sweeping visual of these Soldiers standing along the shores of Dunkirk awaiting either their rescue or their imminent demise, the heart-dropping screeches of the German dive bombers as they make bombing and strafing runs along the beach and the pier, and the desperate looks on the faces of the Soldiers and their frantic shots from their rifles as they exhaust all options in this cruel game of survival, all combine to create a legitimate sense of dread and real-life horror in the viewer as these events occur. As far as war-based action scenes, the opening half hour of this film is on par with the Normandy invasion in Saving Private Ryan and the Bin Laden compound infiltration scene in Zero Dark Thirty when it comes to hair-raising suspense and showcasing the horrors of war.
Another brilliant aspect of this film was what I like to call "Large Scale Claustrophobia." Dunkirk truly does present a grand sweeping spectacle that somehow exudes a breathless sensation of being trapped, no matter the setting or the situation. As I vaguely alluded to when I gave the synopsis for the movie, Dunkirk is broken down into three settings, or arenas, if you will: land, air, and sea. You have the 400,000 Soldiers on the beach, a group of Royal Air Force pilots patrolling the skies, and a group of people trying to escape Dunkirk and a civilian boat making its way on the English Channel toward them and the rest of the Soldiers. However, a common thread, or theme, that is consistent throughout the film in all three of these settings is that every character a) is trapped in a very confined area with no tangible means of escape, and b) they are further constrained not only by physical space, but also by the inevitable and incessant marching of time. The characters on land are confined to a single beach and a narrow pier, surrounded by a perimeter of German tanks and Luftwaffe dive bombers, and the sea. The pilots are confined to the cockpits of their Spitfires as well as the deep abyss of the sea should their planes crash. The civilian boat and the characters attempting to escape on ships are confined to the vulnerable hulls of their vessels amidst U-boat invested waters and bombers from the sky. Furthermore, they are all at the mercy of the limited time they have available to them. It's only a matter of time before the Germans decide to advance their tanks onto the beach and finish off the Allies. It's only a matter of time before the RAF pilots run out of fuel and crash their aircraft into the sea; every minute they spend fighting and saving their brothers in arms, the greater the likelihood of them not making it back safely. It's only a matter of time until the civilian boat gets sunk or, perhaps even worse, arrives at Dunkirk only to find out it's too late and all is lost. It's fascinating to see how each of these three settings combine to generate an over-arching sensation of "Large Scale Claustrophobia" for all the film's characters.
Speaking of the film's characters, Dunkirk is filled to the conceptual brim with great performances. With actors like Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Harry Styles (wait, what?!), and newcomer Fionn Whitehead leading the charge, there really isn't a weak performance to be found in this impressive cast. Despite my incredulousness at the fact that some One Direction pretty boy found his way onto the set of a dramatic Christopher Nolan production, Styles actually did an admirable job in the role he was given. However, while the performances were solid all around, I will say that the characters themselves in this movie were weak in that they were given very little to do in terms of character development. They had plenty to do and deal with from an action standpoint, but in terms of intriguing dialogue, conflicting and changing motivations, moral conflicts, and personal stakes created from interesting characterizations, the pickings were rather slim in this script. The story, instead, focused on immersing the audience in a particular moment in history that defined 300,000 plus people's lives and an entire nation through grand spectacle and suspenseful action. This is all well and good, but to ignore the characters and their thoughts, values, who they are, and why it's important to them, and by extension to us, to get off that beach seemed to be an unwise choice from a storytelling perspective. I don't even know anyone's name in this movie, for goodness sake!
Does that mean Dunkirk needed to fall prey to worn out war movie tropes like the ol' "Brooklyn Soldier #2 saying 'When I get home, I'm gonna...'" bit, or the the classic "My wife gave birth today; it's a baby boy!" line, right before the new father tragically dies in the next scene? No, but in order for me to attach the visceral sense of dread that the movie excellently generates to anything meaningful, I need something that allows me to care for the characters undergoing peril and hardship. That's what separates a motion picture from a documentary, however superb that documentary may be.
My other main gripe with this flick is the use of nonlinear plot structure. It took me about halfway through the movie to realize that a scene I was watching had already happened about 20 minutes prior, but instead of seeing it from the perspective of the pilots, it was from the Mark Rylance's character's point of view on the boat. Knowing Nolan's films pretty well, I know that fluid timelines and nonlinear storytelling is right in his wheel-house as a director. The difference is that in most of his other movies in which he employs this technique, he has a very deliberate reason for doing it. Whether it's to withhold certain information from the audience until just the right moment or to completely re-contextualize a previous scene and change the entire meaning of the movie, Nolan is a master when it comes to playing with time in his movies. In Dunkirk, however, it just didn't accomplish anything for me. It seemed as though he felt obligated to do it for Dunkirk just because he has done it so many other times and that's just what he does. The result was a muddled plot that left me a bit confused at times, and not in a good way. It just disrupted the whole flow of events for me and took me out of the movie for a little while. If the movie had played out more chronologically, I think the tension and suspense that it had already built throughout would have been more intensified and satisfying.
Don't let these script and plot issues distract you from the fact that this is a beautifully made war film that captures a moment in the history of World War II of which I had no prior knowledge. Dunkirk provides an inspiring snapshot of what unwavering patriotism, duty to a cause greater than oneself, and commitment to your fellow man can accomplish in the face of insurmountable odds.
This is an expertly crafted war film from a director who has a tremendous respect both for the medium as well as the historical events he portrays. Thrilling from start to finish, Dunkirk unfortunately suffers from a confusing and, ultimately, misguided plot structure that detract from the tremendous action sequences it displays and the suspense it creates. It also struggles with generating tangible character development, or characterization of any kind, really. Luckily, the true to life situation created and the action depicted in the film fully immerses the viewer in the events of Dunkirk with an unmistakable sense of realism that, at the very least, allows the viewer to understand the desperation, fear and triumph felt by its characters. Although far from perfect, Dunkirk proves that Christopher Nolan continues to impress and amaze audiences with a diverse repertoire of filmmaking techniques and tools few filmmakers possess. I'd definitely recommend seeing this film in theaters if you get the chance.
My score: 7.2/10