Both ‘Baby Driver’ and ‘Okja’ represent directors in love with their work done right while ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ finally combines the best of both worlds

When I get two movies of this caliber back-to-back, I can’t help but write about them. It’s what I started this blog for in the first place and would be squandering an opportunity to rave about films I unequivocally loved from top to bottom.

I’ve lumped these two films into one post not only because they are both uniformly excellent (and the best of the year up to this point, bar none) but because they highlight something I argue for again and again on this website and that is vision.

Edgar Wright and Bong Joon-Ho are two writer/directors that have had clear trouble within the studio system lately. Wright’s came in the form of his very public split with Marvel over creative differences on Ant Man, a movie he was involved with for almost a decade; Joon-Ho’s was a fight for edits on his latest Snowpiercer. Prior to releasing the film in North America, the Weinstein Company (the distributer) attempting to cut down the film for wider appeal against the director’s wishes. While Joon-Ho eventually won out, I don’t doubt this experience may have soured him to the traditional studio/distributor model.

This isn’t to say studio collaboration is a wholly bad thing. More often than not (I assume), collaboration results in a better product as everyone is working towards making a better product.

However there’s a point where creators with a vision should be allowed to create collaboratively and others when a creator needs to be given more wiggle room.

In these two instances, the risks taken by both Sony and Netflix paid off spectacularly and resulted in two of the year’s finest.

….

Oh! Also I threw in a last minute Spider-Man: Homecoming review….

So we got ourselves a three-parter!

Baby Driver

The plot:

“After being coerced into working for a crime boss, a young getaway driver finds himself taking part in a heist doomed to fail.” – IMDb.com

The review:

Baby Driver will probably end up being one of my favorite movies of 2017. As of now, it sits comfortably right next to A Ghost Story (a movie I’d love to get into more here but alas I have two other movies to talk about already). There are a lot of days between now and the end of December but as far as a bar, Baby Driver is head and shoulders above just about everything else I’ve seen this year thus far and it DRIVES home a suspicion I’ve had about Wright for the better part of a decade…

Edgar Wright has no business making any movies outside of Edgar Wright movies.

While it’s a shame his vision for Ant Man didn’t work out it would have been an even bigger shame if he made the movie but without putting his entire heart into it. Something that transcends beyond just a movie-watching experience with every one of Wright’s five movies thus far is how much of himself the writer/director clearly puts into each film.

I ultimately really liked how Ant Man turned out (particularly given how much worse it could have been) but I’d be lying if I don’t ponder how it would have looked/played out under Wright’s direction. However given the creative differences we’ve all been made privy to between Wright and Marvel in the making of the movie, I’m happy he decided to step away. I don’t want to see a movie Edgar Wright made and didn’t love. He clearly LOVES Baby Driver and this luckily turns out for the best because his passion is simply infectious here.

Part of this, I assume, is because this is an idea/movie the guy’s been sitting on since as far back as the 90s (so long ago, I know) and even went so far as to let the general concept inform the music video he directed for Mint Royale.

Much has already been said about the film’s soundtrack, admittedly one of the best in a good long while. It’s one thing to have action set to good music; it’s another entirely to have the music direct action. Taking a cue from his music video experience, Wright masterfully weaves his mix tape into the proceedings and makes lanes of traffic his dance floor. Too often do we see  a recognizable song inserted into a movie to garner audience reaction (looking at you, Suicide Squad). Baby Driver‘s soundtrack has a clear mission statement and it’s “Buckle up.” It’s different even from James Gunn’s much beloved track lists for his two Guardians films. Whereas those film’s fit a specific niche (i.e. a mix of 70s/80s standards Peter Quill’s mother would realistically include on a mix tape), Wright assembles a mish mosh of different genres and eras of music to create some glorious clusterbibble of musical insanity, including songs you wouldn’t automatically associate with tension or high octane action. Like massive props for squeezing out as much tension out of Barry White track, something I never really ever considered I’d one day write.

Baby Driver is a pretty funny movie throughout, but Wright never loses focus on what exactly at stake here and what’s so refreshing about the film is that it feels as if there are actually stakes at play. Until now, Wright has utilized his considerable cinematic eye for the purpose of parody but like all great parodists he knows what makes his targets tick, and he’s a pro at mimicking the language of the movies he loves. Just like Jordan Peele did for horror with his directorial debut earlier this year in Get Out, Baby Driver not only pays tribute to the canon; it becomes a new defining contemporary. He’s always skirted the line of paying homage to idol turned friend Quentin Tarantino but here he goes all out. It’s as if Tarantino got a hold of the script for Drive and through in some Mario Kart, and as hokey as that sounds, it works like gangbusters.

I guess if I were to (nit)pick any element of the movie I’d point to the romantic aspect of the story being a little less developed than the crime side of things. True Romance (an obvious influence here) suffered from a similar problem. It isn’t bad per se. It’s just not as engaging, partly I assume due to the level of cast on the crime side where Ansel Elgort and Lily James, as good as they are, sort of pail in comparison when put side-by-side with Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm. Once again, I stress this is a nitpick more than an substantial complaint as the cast is uniformly spectacular, particularly Foxx and Hamm. No spoilers but where Hamm goes in this movie is easily the best stuff he’s done since Mad Men ended and a keen reminder that this guy needs to be headlining films. Eiza González rounds out the main criminal cast and is probably given the least to do. However thanks to sheer charisma, she leaves her mark and would not be upset to see her get more projects as a result of her participation here (and the same goes for everyone else in the cast too).

It’s really hard to pin down just what works best about Baby Driver when I unabashedly loved just about every square inch of it. Call me a Wright fanboy if you must, but that man’s cinematic sensibilities largely coincide with mine in a way not many other filmmakers do. Part of me wants him to return to making more films with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, yet a larger part of me wants him to keep exploring new, uncharted areas but most of all: KEEP MAKING EDGAR WRIGHT MOVIES.

Okja 

The plot:

“Meet Mija, a young girl who risks everything to prevent a powerful, multi-national company from kidnapping her best friend – a massive animal named Okja.” – IMDb.com

The review:

If you’re not a fan of Bong Joon-Ho’s earlier directorial outings (which include the likes of The HostMother and Snowpiercer), chances are Okja is going to do very little to convince you otherwise. The man’s chaotic sensibilities are all over this thing and admittedly not everything sticks; however, I can’t help but marvel at the attempt none-the-less. Part E.T., part Fast Food Nation, part Wes Anderson, part Pixar, part….countless other things, Okja is the cinematic equivalent to a pot luck dinner; everyone brings something unique to the table, and as is the case with good pot lucks, the end result is ultimately delicious.

And given the proceedings, “delicious” may not be the best term but I felt it was apt therefore I’m just going to commit to it. It’s been kind of odd to see Netflix market this thing as a more of a family film which it most certainly is not. The only real whimsy is near the beginning of the first act as we see Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and the super pig by which the film gets its name live out their idealistic lives in the South Korean countryside. After about 15 or 20 minutes though, things take a considerably darker turn. And not in the same way Gremlins or The Goonies did. While darkly comedic at points, this movie is pretty bleak and offers very little in the form of resolution. No spoilers but this movie ends about as happy as it could given everything that occurs.

That isn’t to say the movie isn’t fun at all. Joon-Ho sets his chase scenes up there with the best of them.

His camera glides set pieces, providing a genuine sense of scale, that harken back to the likes of Spielberg, a director to whom he is often compared. And that’s not the only bit of Sir Steven’s DNA Joon-Ho infuses in Okja. The same could be said of how he utilizes visual effects. Okja is a Netflix Original but you see quite a few dollars in its titular super pig. Joon-Ho really gets a handle on special effects being a tool rather than a crutch by which to set your film. Okja, and the rest of her ilk, all look startlingly real at points.

I also really hope he continues this trend he began with Snowpiercer in assembling a truly global cast. I know this is not the case but it felt like there was representation on every front here as reflected by a cast made up of some of our best and brightest actors working today. Rather than run through them all, I’ll make note of one in particular before saying the obvious…

Jake Gyllenhaal, one of the most underrated big name character actors we’ve got working today, goes full Nicholas Cage here in that he goes big. Like really big. What one may call hammy (pardon the pun) acting, I call rising to the material as many of the actors go really large here. I particularly liked the team of Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Daniel Henshall and Devon Bostick as a team of Animal Liberation Front members set on bringing the evil corporation behind the proceedings down in a flaming ball of wreckage. The movie could have easily made these characters noble martyrs devoid of anything interesting. Instead, we get a cluster of characters that may have hands just as dirty as those they condemn. Here’s hoping that if for whatever reason this spawned a sequel, that group would be at the center of it.

Now what was that obvious thing I was going to say?

Oh yeah, the cast is great and a great ensemble. Some have larger parts for sure, but I think everyone was great in terms of memorability. Also cool to have a cast of people I wouldn’t automatically associate with one another in any way come together and actually work really well together. Points to you, Okja cast.

That isn’t to say this movie is free of some heavy handed messages. The social commentary is laid on so thick this time out you may just feel your cholesterol rise at one point or another. When we advance to the more metropolitan area of the film, things start to become all at once more wacky and incredibly dour.

And it’s when those two key elements (the whimsy of the country side and the wacky yet bleak, over-the-top metropolis) where things don’t really click all the way for me. Perhaps Joon-Ho meshes these two, from the offset, incompatible sides intentionally. The down home values of rural living don’t often sit well with the cynical crassness of the corporate circus. It might be more than a little blunt, but that could also be the point.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

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The plot:

“Thrilled by his experience with the Avengers, Peter returns home, where he lives with his Aunt May, under the watchful eye of his new mentor Tony Stark, Peter tries to fall back into his normal daily routine – distracted by thoughts of proving himself to be more than just your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man – but when the Vulture emerges as a new villain, everything that Peter holds most important will be threatened.” – IMDb.com

The review:

I’m writing this one sort of last minute because…well, I don’t really have a proper excuse. It’s mainly to A) keep in line with my self-imposed Marvel tradition and B) I love Spider-Man….as in “He’s my favorite superhero” level of love (least we forget I wrote a terrible outline for a proposed 4th Sam Raimi movie…you may call it fan fiction) so I’d probably be a waste if I didn’t take some time to talk about this latest movie (the third cinematic iteration for those keeping count) starting ol’ Web Head.

I’d still say Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 is still the best of the Spidey films if only for the insanity he brought to the table, but this is EASILY the best one since that one. It’s always been comical how better adept Marvel is at making superhero movies than Sony is, objectionably solidified here as Marvel took the creative reigns with Homecoming and Sony footing the bill for distribution and marketing.

Perhaps the best thing about the film as a whole is how Marvel seemingly made a checklist of things we have and have not seen in a Spider-Man film (we’re up to 6 now), placing an emphasis on the “HAVE NOT” section. Elements worth noting: Spider-Man forced to traverse landscapes without the use of New York’s tall buildings, Peter gets a side-kick, no city-wide threat, minimal stakes (at least in relation to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole) and minimal set up for future films. Given it took six screenwriters to bring this latest outing to life, it’s remarkable this movie is as comprehensible and breezy as it is.

It’s been said a lot but this is Spider-Man at his most basic core and it is so f*cking refreshing to have him solving problems below the level of a city destroying disaster while also balancing high school problems like studying and finding a girlfriend. We’re also at the stage of Spider-Man’s superhero career where he’s about as competent at saving the day as the kids in director Jon Watts’ first feature Cop Car were at grand theft auto (and just as bad of a driver, I might add). We get a pop in from Tony Stark (played as always -until the money runs out- Robert Downey Jr) who offers kind of advice and glimpses at the larger universe Spider-Man has finally rightfully entered pop up here and there but this movie is at its prepubescent best when it “keeps its feet to the ground” and let’s Spider-Man be Spider-Man. I’m excited to see where Peter Parker fits in come Avengers time, but right now it’s just nice to have a solid solo adventure unconcerned with sequels and spin-offs. -coughAMAZINGSPIDERMAN2cough-

Based off of this sole outing, I’m happy to see where we go with these characters. I wasn’t immediately onboard with Peter Parker having a comedic sidekick but Jacob Batalon went far and above in winning me over. Peter’s never really had a sounding board in a movie before and it’s a refreshing change of pace to have someone he can communicate with about superheroing outside of a love interest. There’s been some chatter about Aunt May being played by a younger actress (in this case, Marisa Tomei) but I attribute that to just nerd bitching for the sake of bitching. I thought she was perfectly fine here and honestly wish we had gotten some more scenes between her and Peter.

We also have Zendaya playing Michelle “MJ” Jones. I think the whole crew has expressly said up to this point this character is not Mary Jane Watson, but I’d be interested to see if they go down that route in future film’s in having her become a love interest. Zendaya plays MJ more akin to Ally Sheedy’s in The Breakfast Club rather than the red headed, street smart bombshell Mary Jane is in the comics which I am by no means opposed to. I’m jut curious as to why Marvel opted to have her play a wholly originally character with the nod to Mary Jane without just having her play Mary Jane. Maybe I’m just over-thinking it but given the PP/MJ relationship is one of my favorites in all of comicdom, I’d be lying if I were to say I wasn’t just a little disappointed it apparently won’t have a place in the new films.

I think Tom Holland may represent the closest we come to in terms of a consensus on who is THE Spider-Man. Tobey Maguire was a wonderful Peter Parker, bringing a truly geeky shine to the part as well as shouldering the inner turmoil and downright bad luck that also defines just who Parker is. However his Spider-Man lacked zany energy and the nonstop banter we know and love from the comic. Andrew Garfield had the exact opposite problem. Where his Peter Parker was a vanilla hipster, his Spider-Man was just about everything you could want out of that character.

Holland is the first (in my opinion) to finally blend those two together, being at once the perfect Peter Parker AND Spider-Man. I believe he’s only a year or so younger than Maguire was when he first donned the tights but his overeagerness and endless enthusiasm make for a character that comes off as genuinely youthful where Maguire (and especially Garfield) seemed almost too old.

Marvel is actually 2 for 2 this year in the quality villain department between this and Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2. It’s been written about in length elsewhere, but most disappointingly the Marvel Studios films lack genuinely interesting menace.

Michael Keaton plays Adrian Toomes, more popularly known as the Vulture, a villain that’s never really lit my pants on fire in terms of Spider-Man’s main rouges gallery. Sure, he can be interesting but there are a lot more compelling cards in the deck if you catch my meaning. Well, I’m happy to eat my words here because Toomes, as played by Keaton, embodies everything I love about Spider-Man villains and why the represent the best of the bunch out of any Marvel superhero’s.

Toomes and his crew, rounded out by some other well-known (and not-so-well known) Spider-Man baddies, have no interest in global domination. They aren’t really out for revenge either. They mainly just want money and, at least in Toomes’ case, to provide for their families. In fact, the only time our villain kills someone it’s a complete accident…and I loved that. The best Spider-Man villains are generally either regular guys or super geniuses, all of whom could probably better humanity if their rage and/or interests were directed to positive outlets.

While this movie is really fun (outside of Baby Driver and Lego Batman, I’d reckon this is the most fun I’ve had at the cinema this year), it neglects one of the key aspects of the Spider-Man mythos that left me somewhat…cold.

I’m all for skipping the origin story. We’ve seen it enough times at this point, particularly in Spider-Man’s case. This movie never shows us the fateful spider bite. Nor does it show us the death of Uncle Ben. It fact, I don’t remember Ben Parker ever being mentioned even at one point and this leads into my larger issue with Disney’s approach here.

There’s really never any moment of grief expressed at almost any point in this roughly 2 hour movie. It’s clearly a calculated move and it takes a toll in more than one aspect. More than once, Peter’s inexperience threatens the lives of innocents. At no point are we really told, “Great power = great responsibility,” either explicitly or even through action. Not one of his stupid, selfish choices effect him or his life emotionally.

Let’s go down the list…

SPOILERS

Botch an attempt to stop a robbery and nearly get someone blown up. It’s fine. In fact, both he and his cat are also fine.

Ditch your friend at a party? It’s all good. He’s not mad. They called you,”Penis Parker” for a few seconds, but no one bullied you or made fun of you for not bringing Spider-Man.

Ditch your friends for a really important competition? It’s fine. They still won.

Almost get your friends killed at the Washington Monument through your own stupidity? It’s fine and you’re even more famous now and Tony is even happy with you. Good job blowing up the Washington Monument!

Foolishly attempt to thwart some bad guys on a boat which directly leads to its destruction? No one died so it’s all good…BUT YOU DON’T GET YOUR SUPER COOL SUIT ANYMORE.

Ditch your prom date? It’s fine and she wishes you luck later.

Steal someone’s car? It’s fine and it’s never mentioned again. It’s funny even! (Editor’s note: it is really, really funny. I really liked this bit….I’m just adding it to prove a point.)

Crash a plane into a populated area? No one was on it and no one died! Yay! Also the bad guy likes you now…and so does Tony! Good job! You get your suit back!

END OF SPOILERS

This lack of consequence is somewhat disappointing because it’s something the first two Raimi film’s emphasized so well. Spider-Man 2 hammers home just how much it sucks to be an adult, let alone an adult with spider powers. Adulthood limits us and comes with a true cost. It doesn’t come with a parent-block or imaginary line. You learn through the piles of shit life throws at you, not by life handing things to you and saying, “Good job.”

Perhaps it’s highly appropriate this movie references Ferris Bueller, a movie about the ultimate in unchecked teenage fantasy. The problem is the movie tells us differently at times. Tony gives Peter lectures about responsibility, but tangible consequences are no where to be found.

This by no means ruins the movie; it’s just something I wish had been included if only for a moment. Like it or not, tragedy is a defining element to the Spider-Man character. Hell, it’s a motivator for just about every superhero under the sun, both red and yellow. In Spider-Man’s case, the death of his uncle is something he could have prevented. The death of Gwen Stacy is something he directly caused. Now I don’t want a glum, emo Spider-Man. We got that with the last two movies and it sucked in every way conceivable. But this is a character that lends itself to some darker elements, and I hope Marvel doesn’t lose sight of that moving ahead. Luckily, at this point, I have a rather large amount of faith in that company given their track record so my expectations going into the sequel will be astronomical.

For what it is, Spider-Man: Homecoming is by and large my favorite of the comic book bunch this year which is saying a lot given what else is included in its 2017 graduating class (The Lego Batman Movie, Logan, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, Wonder Woman and those are just ones that have been released). And when I say, “favorite,” I wouldn’t automatically say that translates to best per se. This was just such a rejuvenating experience because this is largely what I’ve wanted from a Spider-Man movie for so f’ing long and it largely delivered on everything I wanted, checking off just about every box in my wish list.

It at once combines a lot of what I love about the comics with just about everything I love about the movies in one digestible cocktail. Here’s hoping they add just a little bit more spice on the next go around…in a sequel, not another goddamn reboot.

‘It Comes At Night’ revels in the enveloping fear of nothingness

I’ve gone through seemingly time-and-time again what I favor in a horror film. Time after time after time. Needless to say I’m going to try to hard on it again here too extensively. Suffice to say: I prefer a less is more approach.

It Comes At Night, much like 2016’s The Witch, is movie almost tailor-made to my horror sensibilities.

The plot:

“Secure within a desolate home as an unnatural threat terrorizes the world, the tenuous domestic order he has established with his wife and son is put to the ultimate test with the arrival of a desperate young family seeking refuge. Despite the best intentions of both families, paranoia and mistrust boil over as the horrors outside creep ever-closer, awakening something hidden and monstrous within him as he learns that the protection of his family comes at the cost of his soul.” – A24

The review:

As I’ve written in the past, any horror movie worth its weight in salt doesn’t simply taser your nerves with jump-scare after jump-scare. That’s completely within the realm of playing peek-a-boo with an infant. Look to any of the most iconic horror films, such as Alien or The Exorcist. There aren’t really roundtable scenes where the “rules” are discussed.

The more you know or understand about something, the less scary it becomes. It’s why the movement in the late 2000s to add backstory to some of cinema’s most iconic monsters (Leatherface, Michael Myers, etc) came off as simple sacrilege. It’s why I see little point in Ridley Scott diving into the origins of the xenomorph with his latest crop of Alien films. There’s definitely an argument to be made for some explanation (it all relates back to the movie itself and this is by no means a universal rule) but on the whole fear stems from a lack of understanding.

Generally fear comes from something you know very little about, and that’s the wheelhouse in which Trey Edward Shults opted to operate when crafting his second feature. There’s no scene of a news report providing exposition nor is there a scientist character to clue us in on what exactly our characters are dealing with.

As with his first film, Krisha, Shults translates the rawness of emotion from a personal tragedy (in this case the death of his father) to raw intensity, feeding into the universal fear of losing those closest to you. Like his earlier film, Shults explores the impulse and fruitlessness in seeking normalcy in extreme and strenuous circumstances, ultimately questioning whether such a normalcy is not only obtainable but if it even existed in the first place.

Those who come into It Comes At Night for an answer to what exactly “it” is, may leave this movie severally disappointed. There’s not a monster stalking the two families at its center. There isn’t even a clear villain or even a message. The horror at the movie’s core is a lot harder to define than something as tangible as a monster. Besides what could possibly more frightening outside than the thought of the danger being inside with you, under your skin.

The virus in the movie refreshingly doesn’t turn its victims into zombies or any form thereof. In fact, the film spends very little time what exactly the disease is or how exactly it works beyond being both highly contagious and incredibly fatal. We don’t know where it originated or just how widespread it is.

At the center of it all is Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who serves as our de facto avatar. He is in the company of his teacher cum survivalist father Paul (a career best performance from Joel Edgerton) and stressed out mother Sarah (the ever-dependable Carmen Ejogo). The family lives already lives on the thin edge of a razor in their respective isolation when a stranger named Will (Christopher Abbott) appears at their front door.

Will has his own clan consisting of wife Kim (Riley Keough) and young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). The two families soon merge and things are good…at first. But as movies demand, conflict arises as paranoia sets in. Travis’ nightmares, pouring with thoughts of hopelessness and desperation, become more and more frequent, eventually bleeding into reality. There’s all matter of combustions laid before the audience (sexual tension, conflated masculinity, “looking out for one’s own); all it takes is one match to set everything off.

What ultimately happens is at once shocking and inevitable, brutally so. This movie is scary enough on its own but its true horror only sinks in after its over and you attempt to wrap your head around what it all meant.

There’s an emptiness at the heart of It Comes At Night and in that emptiness viewers will either embrace the abject terror or find frustration at the lack of clear answers. Instead, we find blind animalistic panic, lashing out at an all-consuming darkness that will one day envelop us all.There are multiple sequences draped in shadow, darkness threatening to envelop the entire frame at points. It’s at these moments where the film really, really excels.

There’s no way to fully understand human nature; why we act the way we do when we’re scared. As the film’s tagline explicitly states, “Fear turns men into monsters.”

Allow me to play Carnac the Magnificent and glimpse into the future for a moment. This is a movie that will be completely bypassed come award season. I know it. You know it. Your mom knows it. And truth be told, there are much, much, MUCH worse things to be concerned about in this ever-troubling world of ours but it is a shame to be sure.

Drew Daniels paints a jaw-dropping canvas with his cinematography, by far the best I’ve seen this year. The shots within the house are tight and claustrophobic while the few times we leave for the outside feel expansive yet uncertain, leaving us never really at ease in the same way our characters are. It’s a commendable attribute for a cinematographer to pull something off like that in way that isn’t hand-holdy or obvious. The same could be said of Brian McOmber’s score which never dips into hysteria, instead serving its tight-wound atmosphere.

A common complaint I’ve been hearing relates back to the film’s marketing. Now, as of now, I’d say the film’s teaser (posted above) is one of the best I’ve seen in a good long while. Hands down the best for a movie to come out thus far. It works as a template of exactly what a trailer should be. It’s only when you look at the full trailer (posted below) do things get kind of murky.

I’d argue this cut is still streets ahead of your run-of-the-mill trailer house output, as is the case with a lot of A24’s stuff. However it does more explicitly market this as a more traditional horror film, which is most certainly is not. It’s only during the nightmare sequences does the film dip into more familiar ground with the occasional jump scare and shocking image. On CinemaScore, audiences gave the film an average grade of “D” on an A+ to F scale which is shockingly low but not really all that surprising.

This isn’t a movie for a “fun” movie night with your friends. Well unless those friends are like weird and “pretentious” like me or sadists. It Comes At Night is not a fun movie. It’s a movie that’s actually a lot more simple than it lets on, all while never going over the top (something its B-movie title may suggest) in a way that would feel false to the world Shults creates. Some may find this boring while I argue it’s refreshing.

Throughout the film, we are reminded of the red door which serves as the only entrance and exit for the home. Said door is never supposed to be opened after nightfall. As is the case with movies however, the door does open. However, we never get a glimpse of some horror such as a monster or zombie horde. Instead we only see empty blackness. A majority of horror films presume the former is scarier. Shults favors the latter however, allowing audiences to squirm in the expanse of the unknown and contemplate the familiarity we may find within our own souls.

A perfectly imperfect organism: The beautiful metamorphosis of the ‘Alien’ quadrilogy

“Strange fascination, fascinating me / Changes are taking the pace I’m going through” – David Bowie, Changes

“If you are not willing to risk the unusual, you will have to settle for the ordinary.” – Jim Rohn

“The saddest journey in the world is the one that follows a precise itinerary. Then you’re not a traveler. You’re a f**king tourist.” – Guillermo del Toro

“Do what you haven’t done is the key, I think.” – Ridley Scott

Over the past few days there has been quite the influx of retrospectives regarding the Alien franchise. Such is the cycle of a franchise, particularly one that’s been around as long as this one.

Surely there will be much to be said of the first two film’s influence. There will be in-depth histories into the making of each, focusing once again (most likely) on the first two films and rightly so. Both Alien and Aliens are absolute masterclasses, representing the pinnacle of what can be achieved in their respective genres and their influence is obvious in just about subsequent, similar film that came afterwards. Released in 1979, Alien remains the standard of the wonders of horror and science fiction. Its sequel, Aliens, bares one of the distinct honors of being a rare sequel that meets the level of success its iconic predecessor if not wholly surpassing it. Much can also be said about the franchise’s refreshing and outright progressive steps in showcasing a genuinely badass female protagonist in the form of one Ellen Ripley, who actually showcases characterization outside of “badass female protagonist.” -COUGHJYNERSOCOUGH-

Reviewers will be quick to praise the success of these two films, all while quickly dismissing the two films that followed them (Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection respectively). Now while these films are far, far, FAR from perfect, I argue they are also very far from terrible and in some respects even almost secretly phenomenal. Now you are well within your right to argue to the contrary but I posit that each and every one of these movies have merit and that’s what I’m here to convince you of here and now.

I’m here to put forth that this franchise deserves commendation for a reason I don’t see cited all that often by critics or fans and if I can somehow convince you to see this series out, then I call that a win for both of us.

The first four Alien films stand singularly as a franchise benefited by multiple cooks in the kitchen, not least of which is the fact that each sports a different director at the helm with Ridley Scott tasked with the first film, James Cameron the second, David Fincher the troubled-third and Jean-Pierre Jeunet bringing in the rear with the utterly insane (once thought to be) final chapter. The utterly unique thing about them combined is that none remotely resemble each other in regards to their tone. Each perfectly represents what their respective director brings the table and I absolutely love that. I’d argue it may just be the most director-driven franchise we’ve yet to see.

Much like the xenomorph itself, each entry adapts to the vision of its host or in this case, the director. Over the years, this monster has evolved and warped to whoever oversaw it. Like the Mad Max films, there isn’t too much of an emphasis on continuity but there is, at the very least, a through-line through the first four; that being Ripley (Signourney Weaver), the Weyland-Yutani Corporation and the xenomorph itself. So there is a cannon and I’m all for that, but there’s also wiggle room to take the story in directions free from the constraints of your typical, more episodic narrative. I’d almost argue the DVD/Blu-ray collection should be called the Alien Anthology rather than the Quadrilogy.

Now it’d be ridiculous to fully credit each of these movies to the efforts of a single person. As someone whose never fully subscribed to the auteur theory, I think the individuality of each entry can be attributed to small armies worth of folks both in-front of and behind the camera. Watch the bonus features on the Alien Quadrilogy box set (perhaps the greatest DVD/Blu-ray release of the past decade given the absolute wealth of material) and you’ll lose track of just how many people played in important part in each, a fact we often lose sight of with every movie. The BTS material on this set covers every single aspect of the production of each film, beginning with their origins and spanning all the way to the final product’s release and reception. Every individual interviewed is refreshingly candid, unafraid to share their personal thoughts regardless of whether it paints them in a pretty picture. The making of each entry is as interesting (if not more so) as the films themselves.

Also important to note that I’m really only going to get into the first four films as well as a little on Prometheus later on so that means no Alien vs. Predator or its equally terrible sequel.  I don’t really consider either of those movies to be honest-to-Ripley sequels because outside of featuring xenomorphs, they largely stand apart. The sooner I, and the world, can forget about scenes like the one below, the sooner we can heal.

Also those movie are lack any sort of merit beyond just being bad and I’m trying to bring us up rather than down…at least in relation to the first four films. There will be plenty of Prometheus-bashing soon.

I’m not divulging that in-depth in relation to the plot of these movies but there will be some frank discussion about plot points in each film in the series meaning of course the ending or major twists will come up at one point or another.

So yeah there are some spoilers, Nick.

Alien

The gist:

“After a space merchant vessel perceives an unknown transmission as distress call, its landing on the source moon finds one of the crew attacked by a mysterious life-form, and they soon realize that its life cycle has merely begun.” – IMDb.com

So here’s our template, the movie that sets the tone for all that comes afterward. Almost all the major beats that take place a viewer from today may pass off as cliché neglecting the fact this is the film that not only created the cliché but perfected it. Typically, when EVERYTHING about a movie is iconic, it’s because more than one person was doing their job.

But another thing it deserves all the credit in the world for is just how dadgum relatable everything is. Yeah, I know. It takes place in space. Yeah, I know. There’s a face-hugging, chest-bursting monster at the center of it all. But as with the rest of these films, it’s really smart in its execution.

Our crew isn’t a group of scientists like in Prometheus. Nor are they an elite group of marines as in Aliens (with the term “elite” being used very, VERY liberally in this instance). They’re space truckers, and only one of them makes it out alive by the end. Even then, it’s by the absolute skin of her teeth. I think a lot of this reflects on the time this came out in the 1970s, where there was this larger push for the realistic; where films began to mirror documentaries in their presentation. Like A New Hope, Alien does not exist in a pristine future. It’s a world that’s been lived-in, where dated technology still exists and the grime carries over. This goes hand-in-hand with the way our character’s talk to one another. A lot has been said of the subtle yet noticeable way the crew talks over one another, similar to the way large groups of people do in real life. This is due to Scott trusting his actors in this case, allowing them to play off one another rather than fully adhering to the script.

It’s also incredibly important to point out how simple the whole affair is. The original theatrical cut clocks in at 117 minutes, chump change compared to today’s standard tent-pole but by no means a breezy movie either. But I can count only one hand how many major plot points there are, and I stress that the movie isn’t filler. It all comes down to the power of good pacing, matched with clever dialogue and stunning presentation.

In more cases than not, simple is the best option. Scott was setting out to make Dune (an adaptation he was originally supposed to direct funny enough before opting to do Blade Runner instead). There’s a much larger world in Alien, yes, but it’s at the service of the characters first. Go back and watch Alien and make a point to notice how all (or most) of the world-building is subjected largely to the background. That’s because Scott, at his best, is a MASTER CLASS world builder. When matched with a great screenplay, I argue he works best. It doesn’t hurt that he had the insight to bring in Swiss surrealist artist H. R. Giger to form his monster but everything involving the alien, ensuring a visual consistency on LV-426 and the crashed Space Jockey ship. I could go on but YouTuber kaptainkristian spoke in-depth on the matter and I’ll pass the baton off to him.

Another reason just about everyone loves (snobs and paupers alike) is that it appeases everyone’s sensibilities without ever once being condescending. It’s moody and dark, building tension to white-knuckle levels (Dallas in the vents), and it provides the ever-important gore (the chest-burster). Science fiction fans love the hardware, but those who don’t are never bored with techno-babble. It’s progressive in how it doesn’t fit any of its character into a box. No one is a damsel or tasteless stereotype. 

It checks off every box, making for as perfect of a film as there ever has been. I’d be lying if I thought it even needed a sequel let alone a franchise. But seeing as it made an estimated ALL OF THE MONEY in 1979, a sequel was all but assured. The question was however would said sequel be more of the same, but on a bigger scale or a different experience altogether set within the same world. The answer was a resounding….yes/no.

Aliens

“Fifty seven years after Ellen Ripley survived her disastrous ordeal, her escape vessel is recovered after drifting across the galaxy as she slept in cryogenic stasis. Back on Earth, nobody believed her story about the “Aliens” on the moon LV-426. After the “Company” orders the colony on LV-426 to investigate, however, all communication with the colony is lost. The Company enlists Ripley to aid a team of tough, rugged space marines on a rescue mission to the now partially terraformed moon to find out if there are aliens or survivors. As the mission unfolds, Ripley will be forced to come to grips with her worst nightmare, but even as she does, she finds that the worst is yet to come.” – IMDb.com

Hard to ever really accurately gauge but if I were to make an informed guess, I’d say Aliens is the fan favorite. I’d certainly argue this as I’d say it is hands-down my favorite two films as well.

Something that’s been noted in recent years is that Aliens, for all its bells and whistles, is practically the exact same movie as Alien in that it hits a lot of the same narrative beats. The key difference is where Scott took us inward, favoring claustrophobia and paranoia; director James Cameron went much bigger, favoring action beats and encompassing scope. The connecting tissue (at least thematically) is that bigger themes weren’t lost in the shuffle.

Cameron took the mantle from Scott effortlessly, taking the world he had established without going too large. This is a tight-rope too many sequels fall short of, simply taking a “bigger is better” approach. Aliens growth all flows naturally. Informed by the insect-like design of the monster, Cameron built on that and made his monsters hive-based going so far as to have a queen. Informed by the treachery of Ash in the last film, Cameron plays with our expectations with Bishop and allows for ready-made tension. 

For all intents and purposes Aliens is an action blockbuster but as with a majority of Cameron’s films, it is an exceedingly intelligent one. Too often I see folks criticize the space marines for being one-dimensional, but Cameron and the cast do an incredibly skillful job at characterizing them all. Who is to say we really need to hear the life-story of all of these guys and gals? There’s a great deal many more of them than there were Nostromo crew members, so efficiency is key. Largely, we get all the info we really need within a few seconds of meeting each new squad member.

I love, love, love that most action-oriented of the series is the most about female empowerment as well. The image of Ripley we so often see is the one she becomes in this movie, and the great thing is that it doesn’t just happen. Ripley just barely survived the film and it had a great deal to do with luck. This is Weaver’s best outing with the character by a large margin reflected by the fact she received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her efforts; something typically unheard of for science fiction and horror.

She plays Ripley as a woman looking to find her footing in an unfamiliar world. In the Director’s Cut, we learn that her daughter died while she was floating around in space. The only thing left to her is her cat (who really needed an epilogue now that I think about it). Deciding to return to LV-426, she finds a new purpose in Newt and in doing so reclaims that lost motherhood.

This plays larger into her conflict with the Alien Queen during the film’s climax (given Ripley saw fit to torch all of her babies), which boils down the movie to a knock-out, drag-down war for motherhood told through the prism of an old-fashioned war story.

It’s easily the most accessible of the four as well. Where Alien and Alien 3 may (wrongly) be accused of being “boring” and Resurrection too weird, Aliens is just the right mix of action/horror/comedy that reaches a wide audience. It’s no coincidence that, in many cases, some saw this movie before Alien.

And that accessibility without sacrificing genuine storytelling is something I don’t think Cameron gets nearly enough kudos for.  He’s been credited for raising the bar of where effects can take us time and time again, but he always does so in a way that compliments the story too. Sure, he can be written off as unoriginal but more often than not he’s falling back on the grand tradition of acquiring a previous work and running with it.

Aliens represents a sequel done not just well, but perfectly. Anything that followed would have considerable shoes to fill. Unfortunately, the series really never recaptures the glory of its first two films. But as I said before, that doesn’t mean the two final films were failures. In fact, I argue they’re secret successes.

Alien 3

“After escaping from the alien moon, the ship carrying Ellen Ripley crashes onto a remote and inhabited ore refinery. While living in the ore refinery until she is rescued by her employers, Ripley discovers the horrifying reason for her crash: An alien stowaway. As the alien matures and begins to kill off the inhabitants, Ripley is unaware that her true enemy is more than just the killer alien.” – IMDb.com

When I talk about Alien 3, I get kind of defensive due in no small part to the involvement of director David Fincher, a man for whom I give a great deal of admiration to.

I’ll concede that the theatrical cut is a bit of a mess, a clear victim of retooling and cuts. The effects are also a series low point when it comes to seeing a dog-like xenomorph (or a cow as is the case in the Director’s cut) fully in motion. This is something I think speaks more to the limitations of technology at the time and its an admittedly a cool idea to give us a new type of creature, enhanced by a canine rather than a human. It branches out the mythos in a subtle way rather than immediately throwing elephant xenos or tiger xenos. That said the effect looks pretty bad even by early 90’s standards and probably could have used some re-tooling.

I’m mainly drawing from the 2003 Assembly Cut, a version of the film that is exactly what it sounds like. Adding in about 37 minutes of new or unused footage, this version fits in line more with Fincher’s original vision. Now it too isn’t a perfect movie, but I’d wager it’s a much more complete, comprehensible of the narrative. Not that I fault the studio all that much for making the cuts they did.

If one watches the BTS features on the Quadrilogy set (something I once again whole heartedly recommend), you’ll pick up on the fact that making each one of these movies was an absolute nightmare. Based on the production stories from Alien 3‘s surprisingly frank making-of documentaries, it’s a minor miracle that the either cut of the film is watchable at all.

Where Aliens was a big, loud, bombastic statement, Alien 3 brings everything inward; it cleans the slate, bringing everything back to a simplistic core. What it lacks in scope however it more than makes up with lofty ideas and imagery. It’s the closest the series has to an art film, something I attribute to Fincher and the early involvement of Vincent Ward, who brought forth a lot of religious context and themes to his original vision before Fincher took over. Fincher, to his credit, scaled things back considerably in favor of taking the series back to its roots. 

The last film sought to build Ripley up, elevating her to the badass we see often in the iconography.  Too often we neglect Alien 3 however, the movie that brought her right back down to lowest point we had yet to see her.

I think a lot of the hate this movie receives deals largely with the fact it is almost nothing like its largely revered predecessor. It’s in no way a fun movie and it isn’t a summer blockbuster. Hell, our movie opens with the death of Newt and Hicks. In the Assembly Cut, Newt’s autopsy is a critical scene for Ripley. There are very, very few scenes of levity to balance everything out so it is a really long, dour affair at the end of the day. I argue Fincher’s best stuff is pretty bleak though. He’s dabbled in darker comedy (Fight Club) and even prestige, feel-good whimsy (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), but his greatest movies (Seven, Zodiac, Gone Girl) match his (presumably) dark soul.

In Fincher’s hands, Alien 3 is an excursion into nihilism on a dilapidated, claustrophobic prison planet populated by celibate fundamentalist prisoners so it at least removes the immediate threat of sexual violence where they’re concerned which is refreshing. The xenomorph, in all its forms, is kind of one big sexual allegory any way so to add that unpleasant layer would have in no doubt been a major detractor given this series is sort of built upon “subtle” sexual imagery due in no small part to the involvement of Giger.

However I must concede that Alien 3 never fully recovers from just how bleak it is. Still there is a lot to be said about its stylistic bravado and the courage it has in taking the series’ darkest turns. Killing of Ripley was a bold, fitting move and one almost wishes this had been the final chapter. She and the xenomorph go down together, their fates forever entwined and closed.

But alas, nothing ends in Hollywood as long as there is money to be made.

Alien: Resurrection

“200 years after the conclusion of Alien 3, the Company is able to resurrect Ripley through the process of cloning and the scientists successfully take the Queen Alien out of her. But, Ripley’s DNA gets mixed up with the Queen’s and she begins to develop certain alien characteristics. The scientists begin breeding the aliens, but they later escape. Soon the Xeno-morphs are running amok on the ship, which is on course to Earth. The Queen then gives birth to a deadly new breed of alien, which could spell disaster for the entire human race. It’s up to Ripley and a band of space pirates to stop the ship before it reaches Earth.” – IMDb.com

At last, we arrive at the black sheep of the family.

Alien: Resurrection is hands down one of the most insane wide-releases I think a major studio has put out in the past 3 or 4 decades. It’s just so utterly bizarre it deserves a litany of think-pieces examining just how this storm came together.

Weirdly enough, it’s also the one that seems to have gotten the least amount of studio notes.

Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet had only done two movies at this point and had yet to complete the film for which he will forever be associated: Amélie.

Suffice to say, he doesn’t automatically scream franchise material. Let alone the million dollar behemoth that the Alien franchise represented at the time and unlike Fincher, I don’t think the studio hired him to be some puppet to blindly accept notes. I think this movie really only represents Jeunet’s single stab at making a Hollywood movie, and it’s really fun to see what exactly he brought to the table having since seen him find his groove outside of the system.

Oh and did I mention the screenplay comes from nerd messiah Joss Whedon? Now this may seem like an odd fit, but if you actually watch the movie you see Whedon’s finger prints all over the damn thing with all of its quippy dialogue (at inopportune times) and playful jabs at genre conventions. There’s even a pre-Firefly wacky family dynamic with the crew of the Beatty; not to mention Whedon inherits one of the most empowered female leads in cinematic history, something he made a staple throughout his work. (That said, it makes no logical sense to have Ripley be in this outside of just finding an excuse to include Weaver and the reason provided for Ripley’s “resurrection” is quite the stretch. Then again, a stupid cloning aspect fits in perfectly with all of the other stupid shit celebrated therein.)

To be fair to Whedon, he’s gone on record more than once that he’s not a fan of the final product. He’s quoted as saying:

“It wasn’t a question of doing everything differently, although they changed the ending; it was mostly a matter of doing everything wrong. They said the lines…mostly…but they said them all wrong. And they cast it wrong. And they designed it wrong. And they scored it wrong. They did everything wrong that they could possibly do. There’s actually a fascinating lesson in filmmaking, because everything that they did reflects back to the script or looks like something from the script, and people assume that, if I hated it, then they’d changed the script…but it wasn’t so much that they’d changed the script; it’s that they just executed it in such a ghastly fashion as to render it almost unwatchable.”

All credit to Whedon and he is fully entitled to his own opinion (it is a screenplay he wrote after all), but I humbly disagree. I think this a movie exudes a confidence that a lot of others of its scale at the time lacked and in that we find the spectacle.

You can almost get the sense Jeunet wanted to go crazier but was limited by plausibility and budget…probably the studio to a degree as well. This is the rare entry that probably could have used a bit more supervision to be sure. Frustratingly enough however, its utter insanity is what most elevates the movie from a forgettable chapter to arguably the most memorable if only for what your mind is assaulted with. It carries an odd integrity, consisting more of half-formed ideas combined with the ambitions of a French madman.

The one (of many) stupid things that probably could have used a touch up was….this stupid thing.

Look at its stupid face.

And my problem is more of nitpick because this…thing is supposed to be a half xenomorph/half human hybrid….even though the xenomorph is already supposed to be a half human hybrid. That said, I give it a pass because we get to see it die in a fashion that remains unmatched in the annals of cinema.

An element worth commendation that the movie never really executes is how it finally somewhat explores  the series-long thread of weaponizing the xenomorph. There’s a truly unsettling scene early on where the military is “farming” the aliens with live, human hosts they’ve essentially kidnapped. Unfortunately really never goes too in-depth with this aspect. It’d be interesting if a future movie examined this further.

While Resurrection is probably the weakest movie of all four, it features enough strong scenes like the one I just mentioned to keep it from devolving into simple schlock. It’s a roundtable movie, demanding discussion that all fall prey to it.

So while far from perfect, the Alien franchise had submitted its place as perhaps the most diverse cinematic franchise up to that point in that each entry represented something new, something different, something exciting. No two entries were ever the same. They didn’t always land, but they were distinct. In a world where studios are more concerned with consistency and inter-connecting episodic threads rather than something so risky, these movies would be downright revolutionary. 

Then Ridley Scott came back and fucked everything up…

Perhaps it’s unfair to join the masses in beating a long dead horse, airing my complains about a movie I’ve made sure to harp on in the past so I’m going to be as concise as I can before I send you out on your way. I could dedicate more than a few thousand words regarding plot holes, but that would be screaming into the abyss at this point. Add in the fact redlettermedia took on that task much more eloquently and concisely than I ever could.

Unlike AliensPrometheus doesn’t take risks with tone. It plays things safe, something no other entry had done up to that point. I can’t really stand on a chair above it, pretending I know what would have made a better movie or even that it’s a lazy movie. The production design and effects, for what they’re worth, clearly had a lot of effort put into them. It’s nice to say basic effort at least carried over where the visuals were concerned.

It would be unfair to say the movie is without merit and had it nothing to do with the world Scott helped begin all those decades ago, I’m sure my displeasure with it would have been tempered. In fact, I may have even enjoyed it a little bit more…not by much, but at least a little. The notion of Scott returning to a genre he helped define was enough to make one giddy. However it instead came off as Scott painting-by-numbers rather than be the innovator we all know him to be.

It was Alien but with a shittier coat of paint. Sure, it looks nice and new but the old layer hadn’t remotely begun to chip yet. There’s nothing distinctly praise-worthy about Prometheus outside of its visuals, a couple of half-baked unanswered questions and Michael Fassender’s turn as the android David, a character so developed and nuanced he’s a disservice to everyone else who comes off as flat and one-dimensional.

The comparisons to its forebear would have been there with Scott’s involvement alone but instead its hitched its trailer to a franchise it initially appears to share very little connective tissue with outside of its hard R-rating. I think this can possibly be faulted to pre-release build up that really wasn’t clear whether the film was indeed a prequel rather than a science fiction in the same vein as Alien. Given we now know it is a prequel, I believe comparisons are completely fair.

I hate accusations that a lot of hardcore Alien fans dismiss this movie because it “breaks from the formula.” This is something Scott has said in promoting the newest film, adding this is what led to said film’s creation and implying he’s “giving us what we want to see.”

I’ll get into it more in a bit, but this is probably the thing that enrages me most about Prometheus as a whole. It suggests we want to be spoon-fed rather than surprised. I could be wrong given how much money movies like the Beauty and the Beast remake make every year. It suggests audiences typically only want the same thing time after time. Sure, we love familiarity but there’s room for new stuff too…he said kind of simplistically.

Well if you want the same thing, look no further than Prometheus; a movie that could best be described as if Alien thought its audience consisted of nothing but morons. Where Alien had characters that felt like actual people, Prometheus “elevates” itself with dialogue no human being (not even a scientist) would utter.

Maybe it just falls back to personal preference. Where the characters in Alien were largely concerned about things like overtime and pay checks, the Prometheus crew are concerned with intangible concepts. “Is there a God?’ “Who made us?” “Why did he/she/it make us?” “Did I leave the stove light on?” These are not inherently boring ideas. They could be pretty interesting if framed properly. But Prometheus doesn’t really go for that. It largely hinges on the mystery. But in asking so many questions, it never really feels the need to answer any of them, leading to frustration. In a way, it undermines what made the original so great in the first place, complicating things that shouldn’t be all that complicated.

And it extends to matters beyond just dialogue as well. Whenever a new threat presents itself, the crew of the Nostromo make a point to map out to a degree their next course of action and in turn this allows us a chance to know them specifically as characters. The Prometheus crew, which I must remind you we are led to believe is a group of trained scientists that represent the highest potential in their respective fields (otherwise why else would they be recruited for potentially THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT DISCOVERY OF ALL TIME), lumber around like idiots, never really taking any time to discuss any intimidate action. We’re granted plenty of questions, but literally no payoff.

Hence my lack of excitement for the impending release of Alien: Covenant, yet another entry by Scott. From the grapevine I hear word that it is a soft reboot, meaning it is a reboot in everything but name so therefore could also be considered a prequel and/or sequel. There’s connective threads to what came before, but everything else is entirely new. Think of the Force Awakens, Jurassic World or the movie I just got done bitching about Prometheus as recent examples.

I have yet to see it, but I predict my reaction may be akin to how I gradually felt about Jurassic World, another soft reboot. I’m excited at first, seeing a franchise return to its roots but cools every single time I watch afterword.

Given it’s attached to Prometheus (thereby….sigh….attaching the two franchises), I also assume it’s a prequel. If there’s anything I didn’t need it was where the xenomorph came from. Maybe I’m in the minority here, but this is a monster that was much more interesting when my mind was allowed to fill in the gaps. Given they’re creatures that we’re not really ever asked to feel sympathy for (well, most of the time), in what instance is an origin needed.

One of the great joys in Alien is our characters land on LV-426, find a downed space ship they know nothing about. All we know is some insane parasitic creature has killed everyone on said ship, thereby making the jump to humans. Who is to say what they originally looked like? That’s never been a question lingering in my mind. I always viewed as this brilliant/terrifying coincidence that humans ran into this species at all. And as kaptainkristian pointed out so truthfully in his video essay, this is a creature we understand without any explanation. Thanks to the design, we fundamentally understand all three life stages of the xenomorph without all our characters gathered around a table to exposit each stage’s purpose.

And that’s why it sucks (to me) why Scott has saw fit to apparently take this series back under his wing, favoring a unified vision rather than experimentation. I fear we’re only going to get the same variation of the same movie year after year, joining the rank-and-file series it once set itself apart from. This isn’t to say I’m not in favor of a director overseeing an entire series. Without going down the entire list we have Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, James Gunn with the Guardians of the Galaxy and Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy for some prime examples. I’m simply arguing we could use more room for franchises that mix things up by letting new directors with different visions mess around and not in the same way as the James Bond series does, a franchise so beholden to its own formula it’s a point of humor in later installments.

Imagine how much more interesting if the Pirates of Caribbean series would have been if it ditched an over-arching narrative in favor of new directions with each entry? Much like the Back to the Future films, it dedicated its second and third to go hand-in-hand, leading to two movies that just sort of bleed into another without each really making a substantial impression. Whereas I argue the latter BtF films are marginally better, Pirates kept going after its original trilogy and appears to be going for something I’d initially consider a step in the right direction. Unfortunately it kind of comes too late. On Stranger Tides was so forgettable I struggle to remember a single thing that happened in or if I saw it all, and Dead Men Tell No Tales looks to be in the same vein. What that series could have benefited from is a new director each time, maybe focusing on someone other than Jack Sparrow and ditching a traditional arc; opting instead to bring us to new locales and adventures each outing.

This all wraps into why I’m here today, making a case for a series many dismiss as formulaic when in fact it’s a franchise (that once) was something special, something that changed from movie in the way a musical artist plays around with different genres; artists like Kanye West, Childish Gambino, Lady Gaga, David Bowie, Gorillaz and Bob Dylan.

I think we’ve largely grown complacent with sequels that barely register as mildly entertaining, and for what’s worth that’s not exactly the worst thing, but it also doesn’t really get the blood-pumping in a serious way either.

When you look back at the original four Alien films, you see a new vision each time. You see risk rather than safe, lazy imitation. For all its faults, Fox inadvertently created a highly, unique franchise (something that’s clear given they kept trying to bring back Scott and Cameron throughout the years), set apart from just about anything else of its scale in the Western studio system.

Does everything work? No. Not by a long shot but in a cinescape dominated by the “safe” and “episodic” there should still be room for a series that doesn’t adhere to a code, and mixes things up even if there are mistakes. So what if every beat doesn’t always land when the jump was completely watchable?

I argue these movies are anything but formulaic. There may be beats you expect, but tonally they could not be any more different. They match the tastes of four incredibly masterful and diverse directors, each sporting an entirely different feel than the last.

I can’t sit here and tell you what I want out of an Alien movie because my “dream Alien film” is one that I wouldn’t expect or at the very least one that is set apart from its predecessors. It would be one that does what this series and its monster (used) to do best: evolve.

‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’ impresses with its maturity and continued personality

Editor’s Note: In an attempt to keep some resemblance of consistency, I’m actually getting another review out the gate faster than I thought I would. I’ve written a review for almost every Marvel movie (Thor: The Dark World and Ant Man) since Iron Man so I wanted to get this out there as quickly as I could. Actually really liking the movie didn’t hurt either. 

The first Guardians of the Galaxy is definitively my favorite of the Marvel Studios’ canon at present period. I wouldn’t say there was a single terrible movie in the batch. It mainly falls to some being much more memorable than the others, and out of all of them I’d wager Guardians is the one to beat in that regard.

My review of the first film can be found here.

Writer/director James Gunn just brought such a voice to that film movie it  transcended beyond anything the company had done up to that point. Much credit to Marvel for actually allowing the guy to down his thing albeit within the confines of their big picture. I just wish the same sort of situation could have worked out for Edgar Wright and his Ant Man movie which I would have thought to the be the one that topped Guardians but I digress.

Going into the sequel, I didn’t have much doubt I’d enjoy it particularly since Gunn was coming back along with the entire original cast. The question was whether it could actually surpass the original. Too often sequels go too big, favoring familiar rather than innovation. Luckily Gunn is a smart enough filmmaker to largely bypass some sequel (Chris) prat falls other directors do, delivering a product that may not be as good as its predecessor but comes mighty damn close in some respects.

This will be a spoiler free review, Nick.

The plot:

“Set to the backdrop of ‘Awesome Mixtape #2,’ Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 continues the team’s adventures as they traverse the outer reaches of the cosmos. The Guardians must fight to keep their newfound family together as they unravel the mysteries of Peter Quill’s true parentage. Old foes become new allies and fan-favorite characters from the classic comics will come to our heroes’ aid as the Marvel cinematic universe continues to expand.” – IMDb.com

The review: 

Thankfully that all important personality I was drowning on and on about in the preface carries over here, almost even more so. There are so many weird things I want to talk about because Gunn goes for some off-the-beaten path pulls this time around. I remember freaking out in the first film when he went so far as to include Howard the Duck (who returns briefly) near the end. Here we have Ego the Living Planet as a major character as well as shout-outs to the original Guardians of the Galaxy (led by an actor I’m surprised wasn’t included in the marketing more) and even the Watchers.

Pardon me as a scratch off yet another thing I assumed I’d NEVER see in a major motion picture.

It’s also a movie bursting to the brim with color, unafraid to embrace an entire palate rather than brood in the shadows providing yet another line-in-the-sand for Marvel against their distinguished competition over at DC.

Gunn is our sole credited writer this time out and it shows, given this movie does something almost unthinkable in relation to the sequel-dominated cinescape we find ourselves in today: rather than expanding this insane universe, Gunn brings us inward. At times, this movie is downright intimate; given that once again a talking raccoon and sentient tree are major characters, this is all the more shocking.

From the offset, Gunn shows us how these characters have changed since last we met. Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) is a little less reckless, recognizing himself as the caretaker of his team’s larger-than-life personalities. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is less hardened, actually opening herself up to genuine care and affection. The same could be said of Drax (Dave Bautista), who is downright jovial this time around. Conversely, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) is a much more bitter; his wise cracks sporting a sharper edge.

Also Groot (Vin Diesel) is now a baby….referred to as Baby Groot, obviously.

Oh by the way, Gunn communicates all this subtly within the first ten minutes of the film; no easy feat to be sure, particularly just how many characters I just listed without even getting to the rest of the returning cast and new recruits.

Largely focused on the idea of a family being what you make of it (much like the first film), Vol 2 splits our characters off from one another for portions of the film, partnering them up with another guardian as to allow for some further development/playing of each other in different ways. 

Think of it like the fourth season of Arrested Development only here we actually have multiple scenes of the entire family altogether.

As you may have guessed, the story kind of takes a back seat in this entry leaving a film that is much more leisurely in its pacing. The larger MCU doesn’t really factor into the events, leaving our characters to take the reigns which I actually ended up liking quite a bit. It doesn’t hurt that these are such lovable and weird characters obviously.

The cast is again uniformly outstanding. Dave Bautista’s Drax is yet again the comedic highlight and in many ways come to represent the heart of this franchise. He gets to spend some quality time with Mantis (Pom Klementieff), a personal favorite of mine from the comics. Their interactions are basically everything I wanted and more, leading to some of the movie’s funniest bits.

I was kind of worried Marvel was going to lean in really hard on Baby Groot, who is obviously very adorable, but luckily he’s used effectively and more or less sparingly.

If the movie were to belong to anyone in front of the camera, it’d be Gunn mainstay Michael Rooker pictured below with a local drunk.

Rooker’s Yondu is partnered with Rocket and the two really get down to the nitty gritty as to why their characters are they way that they are, both of whom share arguably the best arcs in the entire film. Quill’s notion of “building your family around” is something that obviously stemmed from Yondu, and is explored to poignant effect here.

Rooker’s one of those character actors that is basically good in everything he appears in, which is no easy feat given the sheer scope of his body of work as a character is. Seriously go check out his IMDb page and come back. So know I’m serious when I say this may just be his best performance to date. I won’t divulge into specifics but the movie’s best beats (both comedic and dramatic) all go to him, and I feel it’s a performance we’ll all be talking about for a while. Given the guys super talented, it should come as no surprise and it’s awesome to see Gunn give his friend such a hefty role in such a huge movie. Not that he needs it, but I hope this means we’ll only see more of him in bigger films.

This film also passes the bechdel test, which is something I always like noting in major blockbusters. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, perhaps the least developed of the guardians, is given much more time with her adopted “sister” Nebula, played by my favorite companion Karen Gillan. The two share quite a few nice story beats throughout, playing once again into the whole family theme.

If anyone gets shortchanged, oddly enough it’d be Chris Pratt’s Star Lord, who is paired with his father Ego (of course he’s played by Kurt Russell). Pratt really doesn’t do a whole lot another the final act and it’s not like he’s out of commission a majority of the movie. He’s just a lot lest dynamic to the plot outside of he’s just met his apparent father. To go another further would be too spoiler-y, but even though it’s kind of late in the game, Pratt is consistently in his element here. Unlike Jurassic World or Interstellar, Pratt is the perfect quasi-level headed mantle piece for this insane galaxy to rest its shoulders. He’s an insanely charismatic everyman, unafraid to look stupid or take a joke at his expense.

So if I were to take any qualms with this one it’d be that it’s almost too easy on plotting, drifting off in some sections where some tightening could have been beneficial. This becomes increasingly apparent during the middle section where we linger on beats that drag on just a tad too long. This becomes jarring once things ramp up in the third act and we have action happening at a lighting fast rate.

The film’s soundtrack, following in the footsteps of the unlikely mega-hit that was the Awesome Mix, Vol 1, is similar to the film itself in that it is perfectly great but just not up to the exact bar of its predecessor. Their are certainly some stellar tracks put into play here though with my favorite Fleetwood Mac song of all time being the largest standout for me personally.

Although Glen Campbell’s inclusion was also a worthy of note too, particularly the ludicrously silly scene it accompanies.

To be a nitpick, I’d argue the songs in the first film “fit better” in that each and every one was obviously carefully picked one-by-one as to go specifically with each scene in which it appears. Vol. 2‘s soundtrack, while also doing this to a degree, feels just a little bit more like an oldies jukebox. There’s really nothing wrong with that. It kind of just boils down to personal preference. It comes no where near the level of ego/incompetence behind the ADD music cues in Suicide Squad, which were part showing off and part shamelessly attempting to emulate the success of the first Guardian‘s soundtrack.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether Vol. 2 a better movie than the first film; it’s a hell of a lot of fun all while being much more mature, opting not to rest solely on the past accomplishments of its predecessor to make it great. It builds on them. Think of this as the Paul’s Boutique to the first film’s License To Ill. Sure it lacks the populace appeal of the first outing as well as its conciseness, but it’s deceptively simple as it hides layers of complexity to be discussed and examined beyond its initial release.

I for one can’t wait to see this motley crew back in both Avengers 3 and the third (and presumably final) film with Gunn on writing and directing duties. Like it or not (why would you not), Gunn has carved out a whole universe for himself; largely undictated by the larger demands of the MCU and a sandbox for which he and his team may let their collective imagination run rampant.

Like (36 Chambers) or Fresh Cream, ‘Free Fire’ is a testament to the ensemble

The “fun” thing about transitioning to a “Do almost every movie I see” model of reviewing to a “Do it when I feel like it” model is it let’s me wax poetic about movies I actually have something to say about. Now that doesn’t mean I’m going to write anything transcendent or meaningful.

I’m just free to come and go as I please. Can’t promise that’ll translate to “better” posts all in all, but you may notice I am a bit more upbeat when I put them out.

Or not.

Who really cares?

Free Fire is a movie that’s been on my radar for almost a year now. I caught the trailer at a screening of Swiss Army Man (another A24 release) but there was no release date attached at that point. I guess it would be fair to say I keep my eye out for the A24 logo on just about anything really to be honest. A lot of that goes hand-in-hand with their remarkable track record, particularly in the low key genre films the studio distributes.

It must be said that I don’t think there is a company out there continually distributing mini-genre masterpieces at the same frequency as A24. I mean let’s look at some of their picks: Under the Skin, The Rover, Ex Machina, Slow WestMississippi Grind, The Witch, Green Room, The Monster and The Blackcoat’s Daughter to name just a few. And those are just what I’d consider their genre films. Least we forget they’re also behind bringing Room and Moonlight to the masses.

So it could almost go without saying that I was hoping for another home run with Free Fire, given not only A24’s interest in it and it’s brilliantly simple “I can’t believe this hasn’t been made before” premise but also the involvement of writer/director Ben Wheatley and just about every name listed in the cast. Having Martin Scorsese on as a producer only sweetened the pot as it were.

It may even be fair to say this paralleled my excitement levels for The Last Jedi, if not even surpassing it.

So was the hype met? Does A24 have another genre classic on their hands?

Unfortunately it falls a pretty sizable distance from of something I’d consider iconic. HOWEVER it is a ton of fun and a movie I could definitely foresee becoming a cult classic within a few years, played at 1 a.m. in dorm rooms around the country, the smell of herbal substances and Cheetos hanging in the air. And this is by no means a shot at the film. In a way I think that’s what it was going for. The plot never gets all that complicated and our characters aren’t exactly the most complex. What you see is what you get, and for what it is, it works.

The plot:

“Set in Boston in 1978, a meeting in a deserted warehouse between two gangs turns into a shootout and a game of survival.” – IMDb.com

The review: 

You look at bands like Cream or the Wu-Tang Clan; groups that made of considerable talent, with each individual member being a star in their own right.

Much can be said about the cast of Free Fire. 

We have Brie Larson for starters, who at 27 already has a much-deserved Academy Award. Props to Larson for not just cashing in, but continuing to strengthen her resume with massive blockbusters while still allowing herself to get her hands dirty with smaller films like this. She’s an actress I hope stays interesting as her career continues and even though she already has an Oscar, I hope we are far away from seeing her peak.

Then you fill in the gaps with the likes of Shartlo Copley, Cillian Murphy and Armie Hammer. All three of those guys are movie stars, turning in consistently solid work regardless of the quality of the project they’re in. Copley in particular is an actor who feels as if he should be on the A-list but opts to go for weirder, more memorable genre roles.

There’s handful of up-and-comers mixed with long-standing favorite character actors too. Standing alongside our marque talent we’ve got the MVP of last year’s Sing Street, Jack Reynor as well as Babou Ceesay, Enzo Cilenti, Sam Riley and Noah Taylor.

And who could forget Michael Smiley, or as he’s known in this household…

Possibly my absolute favorite thing about Free Fire outside of the bullet-ridden lunacy is that Wheatley doesn’t subject our lower-tier names to the sidelines. They’re placed forefront and center right alongside everyone else.

I am in no way accusing any one on this film of having an ego; this isn’t a Fast & the Furious movie. That’s a movie with stars, each with a contract I assume requires a certain allotted amount of screen-time, citing who gets to punch who and which person wins which fight.

I keep emphasizing this group effort because too often we see movies with large casts but they typically serve mainly to elevate one or two within the pool. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this mind you. I just truly appreciated how this movie didn’t have a star (singular); it has stars (plural). All our guys (and girl) feel equally integral to the story and they all elevate scenes rather than steal them.

In a movie like this, there isn’t a need for lengthy character development. Our cast of miscreants aren’t exactly the most lovable crayons in the box, if you catch my meaning. Setting the film in the 1970’s was another nice touch as it makes them think outside the box in terms of getting out of the shootout, providing at least the bare minimum of tension given they don’t have cell phone access. 

It’s a very silly movie with each of our characters serving as bullet sponges before they finally go down. For what that’s worth, I think that worked fine here for the most part. Sure, that kind of alleviates some the tension, knowing that your characters can’t really die at any moment instead straddling the suspension of disbelief as they take more and more damage without immediately bleeding out. 

This serviced the black, sort of wacky tone for me however, and I don’t think Wheatley and company were seeking any form of higher truth when crafting this movie. I could be wrong, but a movie like this isn’t going to solve many problems outside of entertaining you.And it does help that they DO actually seem to take damage with each hit, something I’ve harped on in the past. 

I guess that leads me to Wheatley himself. It’s been said many times before, but there is absolutely no consistency between this man’s films and I’m not referring to the quality. He may just be the most prolific director we have working right now. On the whole, I generally think most of his output is pretty damn spectacular. No, I’m speaking to the fact that all of his movies are widely different in terms of tone, look, approach, themes, etc. If you go in blind with no information provided as to what the connection is, you may be hard-pressed to determine what exactly the link is if forced to watch his library back-to-back. For example his last film, High Rise, dealt with big, lofty science fiction ideas. Where that film felt like Wheatley striving for Kubrick, Free Fire is his best take on Tarantino. The ending, in and off itself, might as well be a director nod to Reservoir Dogs and warehouse setting. Although this movie is much more violent and much less cruel.

Representing his first straight up foray into action, Wheatley does his best to keep the camera comprehensible before the bullets start zipping every which way. However, and somewhat disappointingly, he lacks the finesse of a John Woo.  Free Fire is more akin to a sloppy game of paintball with live rounds than a carefully orchestrated bullet opera.

Still, I guess some confusion keeps in tune with carelessness of our characters, who can’t even always remember who’s shot whom or which side to which they fall. Credit again to the uniformity of the stellar cast for keeping things light and falling perfectly in line with Wheatley’s black-comedic sensibilities, particularly Copley who may just represent a made in heaven actor-to-director match up Wheatley could draw upon for his future endeavors.

I think if I were to point to any sort substantial criticism to the flick, I’d say it lacks sequences. What I mean by that is I remember a handful of quick moments and lines, but the second half of this film is what equates to an extended action sequence. There’s not really any downtime and that sequence is largely made up of the following: characters shoot at each other for a bit mixed with some quips, the recover, change places and then shoot at each other again. Rinse and repeat about 10 or 20 more times. I’ll stress that the only point this kind of becomes monotonous is during the middle chapter where the threat of a sniper (or snipers?!) brings the momentum to an almost screeching halt as our characters are actually pinned down.

Wheatley’s prolific nature also serves as a double-edged sword as the film kind of lacks a director’s unique voice, something I was kind of hoping for.

I mentioned earlier how Wheatley likes to venture into new territory with each new film, which is all fine and well but that also means he lacks a definitive style. Compare this to other directors at (what I’d consider) Wheatley’s “precipice of mainstream” level like Jeremy Saulnier. Free Fire certainly has personality but its the personality of directors that influenced Wheatley, not Wheatley taking the proverbial baton and putting his own spin on it. At leas that’s how I interpreted it because, as I’ve said, I don’t really  have handle on what Wheately’s voice is exactly.

So Free Fire may not have blown my hair back in the way I wanted it to, but I still had plenty of fun watching it so in that it was successful. It’s something I’d fit in the category of “Hey gang! It’s 2 a.m. and we’re drunk. Let’s put on a movie.” And as far as I’m concerned, the world could always use more movies like that.

The 8th Wonder of the World: The Revolutionary Visual Effects of King Kong, and the 2005 Remake

For disclosure, I wrote this for a college film studies class.

Second full disclosure, I made a B+ on it. 

HOWEVER.

There is a new King Kong film out this weekend…

And sensing an opportunity to capitalize….I mean…discuss…yeah that’s it. Sensing an opportunity to discuss other Kong films, I thought I’d share this above average essay I wrote in college that just so happens to center on the big ape. I wouldn’t say it’s all that good per se. If anything, it’s overly simplistic. But given the fact I don’t really foresee posting stuff all that regularly anymore, this gives me a chance to at least get something else out this month. I have something in mind for the near future, but who knows if I’ll actually get to it….but I digress. 

Anyway, I hope at least one person finds this kind of maybe interesting? Maybe that’s being overly generous. I hope at least someone might glance of over it, see it’s too long and just leave. Is that too much to ask?! 

In his 1986 essay, “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde,” Tom Gunning coined the term “the cinema of attractions” in relation to early films. Before 1906, films were largely considered novelty attractions much like a roller coaster, or a haunted house. Their audiences were drawn to the new and exciting technology, with the thrill coming from the movement of the camera. In other words, the main draw was not necessarily the narrative because most films at the time did contain any form of traditional narrative, with notable exceptions including the films of Georges Méliès. However, even his films were heavily aided by the visual effects they utilized. As film technology evolved, so did the ability to tell narratives, and the special effects they could showcase.

 A common belief, both then and now, is that general audiences are not going to big-budget, effects driven films for substance. They come for the spectacle. Look to the recent revival of 3-D, for example. For the most part, the effects are dictating the story, not the other way around. However, when compelling material is combined with a team of talented artists with a vision, visual effects can transcend beyond some gimmick to sell tickets. When these effects are used as tool, instead of as a gimmick, a film can become a portal to another world, or house a beloved character that could not exist otherwise. In textual mediums, creating a character like this could be somewhat simple. The audience is asked to use their imagination to create this character in their heads. In film, however, this process can be trickier. You are asking an audience to accept this fictional character as an actuality. A number of factors have to work perfectly in order for general film goers to suspend their perception of reality just long enough to become invested in a character completely created by the use of visual effects. The performance no longer lies on the shoulders of one actor or actress, but a team of people behind the scenes. 

Over the decades there are numerous instances of a character created by visual effects finding mass acceptance by audiences, but there is one such character that has a unique distinction among his contemporaries. The two major film iterations in which he appears are also distinct for the same reason.  That character is King Kong, and the films are the 1933 original, and the 2005 remake.  These films share a plot, but also highlight the massive leap in visual effects technology between their two respective releases.  In her book, Tracking King Kong, Cynthia Erb calls Kong a “cultural icon,” and it’s hard to argue considering that the character has appeared in almost every facet of popular culture since his creation, becoming not only an icon of American cinema, but of the entire medium. The iconography of Kong’s last stand atop the Empire State Building has been etched into the public consciousness.  He is one of the most recognizable icons in movie history, and he could never have existed without the innovation of two different generations of visual effects , and the hard work of the artists that brought him to life.  This success completely legitimizes the use of visual effects in film.

It should be no secret that the original 1933 King Kong was the initial brainchild of one of its directors, Merian C. Cooper, but as with almost every creative process, it came in stages. It should also go without saying that the director’s vision could not have been possible without the assistance of various special effects pioneers. Ray Morton discusses Cooper’s initial idea for his proposed “ape picture,” as a combination of a longtime desire to make a film about gorillas, as well as a description of the newly found Komodo dragon by explorer W. Douglas Burden. Morton writes, “Cooper was intrigued by Burden’s description of the dragons and began imagining exiting scenes in which his gorillas would fight them. He planned to realize these scenes by filming the gorillas in their natural habitat (most likely in the Congo) and the dragons on Komodo and then intercutting the two, with some sort of artificial stand-ins used in joint shots.” Later, Cooper would go on to add various key elements to the narrative that can be seen in the final version of the film, such as the love story, the journey to a primitive island, and the tragic death of his simian hero in New York City.

The issues Cooper would have deal with while pitching Kong Kong would not only be how he intended to bring Kong to life, but also how he would create the world he inhabited. The director would go on to find a solution in a mixture of several innovative visual and audio techniques, not least of which was the stop-motion animation of special effects pioneer, Willis O’ Brien. Stop motion found its beginnings when early filmmakers attempted to make still two dimensional objects “come to life.” As Morton writes, “The motion picture image is an illusion created by photographing a series of individual still picture of a single moving subject one right after another in rapid succession a single strip of film. Each still picture captures an incremental piece of the subject’s overall movement. When the still pictures are projected onto a screen in rapid succession at the same rate of speed at which they were photographed, the human eye blends all of the images into one to create an impression of continuous action.” It was O’Brien that had the idea to apply this process to three-dimensional figures as well. Fueled by a life-long interest in dinosaurs, O’Brien shot a test film of a dinosaur fighting a caveman. In 1915, this test footage became The Dinosaur and the Missing Link, which was eventually picked up by the Edison Company for distribution. It wasn’t until 1925 that O’Brien and his team would first experience wide-spread acclaim for his work on the film adaptation of Arthur Conon Doyle’s The Lost World. This film was a massive worldwide success, and would eventually lead O’Brien to his masterpiece. 

After the success of The Lost World, its director, Harry O. Hoyt, began to work with O’Brian on a new script, titled Creation, for RKO Studios. Hoyt once again signed on O’Brien and his crew to work on the film’s special effects, and began to build models for several sequences for the film. The film’s script and test eventually crossed paths with none other than M.C. Cooper, who had been hired to do a studio inventory at the time. Cooper, who had little interest in the script, instead saw potential in the stop-motion effects that O’Brien and his team had created. Cooper would later say, “When I saw all the prehistoric animals they had lying around this studio, I decided to make my gorilla picture anyway – and make it right here.”  By using O’Brien’s animation, the studio could produce the film completely in-house, with no need for pricey and lengthy location shooting.  Soon, Creation was scrapped, and O’Brien began to work with Cooper on his new proposed feature film, which at the time, did not have a title.  Cooper was able to sell the film to RKO executives completely based off of a test sequence that used O’Brien’s models. Production soon began in earnest, and the film was granted an initial budget of $500,000, thanks to former RKO president, David O. Selznick, the film eventually found its title: King Kong

Cooper would soon share directing duties with long-time collaborator Ernest Schoedsack, who would direct most of the non-effect sequences of the film. As work began on the effects for the film, the two would complete another film for RKO, an adaptation of Richard Connell’s, “The Most Dangerous Game.” This production proved financially beneficial as Cooper and company were able to reuse the film’s jungle sets. On designing the title character, Cooper related,“O’ Brien built a miniature steel framework of a gorilla that had joints that could be locked into position so that you could get smooth movement when you animated.” After completing the framework, Marcel Delgado would go on to add rubber muscles that would bend and stretch realistically. This “skeleton” was then stuffed with cotton to produce an animal shape, and detail. It was then covered in prune rabbit fur. When it was completed, every feature of the miniature was moveable, weighed a little over ten pounds, and stood 18 inches high. In all, there were six miniature Kongs built, as well as full-sized sections of the ape for close-up shots, including a head, arm, and leg. For Kong’s movement, O’Brien and his animators observed gorillas at the Central Park Zoo in New York City, and according to IMDb.com, also drew inspiration from their directors for key sequences in the film. “Both Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack had been wrestlers, and they acted out the fighting moves for the battle between the T-Rex and Kong in the effects studio, before the animators shot the scene,” the site says. O’Brien, who had also been an amateur boxer in his youth, added several boxing moves into the fight scene. Cooper would also go on to act out Kong’s death sequence set on top of the Empire State Building. Cooper would later relate that the scene had to be redone due to Cooper’s initial overacting. Cooper said, “The first time I did it, I was too broad, too hammy, and they did it just like that. Well, it was the funniest damn thing you ever saw, that ape, pop-eyed, rolling, writhing, and clutching. We all had a good laugh and then I did it again for them, this time toning everything down, and this time they got exactly what I wanted.” Work on the animation was a slow process, and an increasingly frustrating one as the production moved into the summer months, making the non-air-conditioned stage comparable only to an oven. At one point, O’Brien’s hand developed gangrene from working with the various chemicals and moldy hides. While recovering, Cooper was forced to do much of the animation himself. 

Over the course of the film’s production, the issue of combing both the animation and the live action in a practical manner arose. Cooper and O’Brien would eventually devise an ingenious technique that would achieve a realistic blend of all the effects used in the film, that Cooper would later call “miniature projection.” As Cooper later explained it, “I would shoot my live actors going the motions of reacting to the beasts or Kong, or whatever, then these scenes would be projected on small-screens that Obie [O’Brien] had in his miniature sets. We would project a frame at a time, and Obie would animate the miniature action to match the live action.”  The technique of rear-screen projection was also utilized, pioneered by director, Georges Méliès, decades earlier. This process would give the actors something to react to other than their imagination and the director’s instruction while filming a scene. On their tireless collaboration, Cooper would later credit much of the film’s visual success to O’Brien. “O’Brien was a genius…Kong is as much his picture as it is mine. There was never anybody in his class as far as special effects went, there never was and there probably never will be.”

After nearly three years of production, King Kong was released on March 3, 1933, and was immediately both a critical and financial success. It would gross $90,000 its opening weekend, the biggest opening ever at the time, and save RKO from bankruptcy, according to IMDb.com. The film also saw numerous financially successful re-releases in 1938, 1942, 1946, and 1952. There were several iterations of the character in other films due to the characters status as public domain, including two from Japanese movie studio, Toho, and a remake produced by Dino De Laurentiis, known for being eccentric.

While not a critical success, the film found an audience, and would become a box office success. It would go on to win an Academy Award for its achievements in the area, something the 1933 original failed to do. The reason key reason it will not be discussed in great detail here, is that I believe it is an example of a film dictated by its visuals, and not the other way around. Both the original, and the 2005 remake, went through lengthy script construction and character development that allowed for collaborations between their filmmakers and their special effects teams during their respective  productions. While not perfect, the 2005 remake still obtains some of that magic the 1933 perfected. The 1976 remake seems to be a cash in, hoping to hook in audiences with its admittedly impressive visuals, but coming short in terms of story and depth. Laurentiis would go on to produce a sequel to the film, King Kong Lives, which had little success, and the character would remain theatrically dormant for another 20 years. 

In the late 1960s, a nine-year-old boy in New Zealand, named Peter Jackson, saw the original 1933 King Kong on television, and was inspired to create his very own films. He would even attempt to recreate the movie on a Super 8 film camera when he was 12. Many years later, Jackson became a world-renowned director, making films that were clearly inspired by the spectacle he had seen as a child, and would eventually be brought on to direct his own version of the story that had sparked in him a life-long love of movies. Jackson is quoted as saying, “No film has captivated my imagination more than King Kong. I’m making movies today because I saw this film when I was 9 years old. It has been my sustained dream to reinterpret this classic story for a new age.” Jackson was eventually brought on by Universal Studios, a company that had had a long gestating plan to release a remake of King Kong, in 1995 to discuss the possibility of directing a remake of 1954 film, The Creature From the Black Lagoon. Jackson turned the offer down, but knowing the director’s obsession with Kong, offered him a chance to write and direct a remake of his favorite film. Initially hesitant, Jackson eventually agreed to the position after he realized the position would just go to someone else and the film would be terrible. Jackson’s original script, that he cowrote with his wife, Fran Walsh, would differ from the 1933 film on several key story aspects, with the ultimate final product resembling the original film to a closer degree. Production was originally intended to begin at some point in 1997. The New Zealand based effects studios, WETA Digital and WETA Workshop, began a six month pre-production period in 1996. However, in February of 1997, Universal pulled the plug on the project after the market became flooded with other ape-related remakes, and Jackson along with WETA, began work on the The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

After the massive world-wide success of that series of films, Universal once again approached Jackson in early 2003 to try and tackle Kong once more. Jackson soon signed on again,  pre-production soon began, and thanks to the innovation of computer-generated imagery, or CGI for short, and the techniques that came along with it, Kong could be brought to life in a way the world had never seen before. 

If the 1933 Kong was a testament to the ingenuity and the of its effects team, cobbling together the limited resources they had at their disposal as well as creating completely new ones, the 2005 remake can be seen as a testament to Hollywood excess, fueled by the life-long fandom of its director. To a degree, this works in the film’s favor. Sporting a massive $207,000,000 budget, it was the most expensive film ever made at the time, and this further allowed Jackson and the effects team at WETA Digital to propel this movie into something bigger than Cooper or O’Brian could have ever thought of during the making of their film. Cooper’s Kong only faced one Tyrannosaurus, while Jackson’s fights three at the same time. Where Cooper had to cut his infamous spider-pit sequence for its graphic content, Jackson and his team lovingly reimagine the scene, and it really makes the viewer’s skin crawl. According to IMDb.com, the movie had the most number of visual special effect shots at the time of its release, at around 2400, along with over 800 miniature shots. The effects of WETA digital allow for almost a photorealistic effect on the creatures. The detail is so minute that one could count each and every one of the individual hairs on Kong’s body. Jackson was the equivalent of the preverbal kid in a candy store, and the director clearly spared no expense when it came to bringing his vision to life. 

In this iteration, the character of Kong is a complete special effect. However, thanks to the innovation of two techniques: motion capture and performance animation, bringing the character to life was no longer exclusively the job of the visual effects team, but also an actual actor. The animators working on the 1933 film had to hope that the movements they were painstakingly constructing were to the director’s satisfaction. Through motion capture, a performance can literally be translated beat for beat into a computer, and an animator can then translate that into the image that will ultimately appear in the final film in a product called performance animation. The two terms are often mistakenly used to represent the same thing, but are actually two different things. Alberto Meanche writes, “In short, motion capture is the collection of data that represents motion, whereas performance animation is the final product of a character driven by a performer.”

To help bring his Kong to life, Jackson cast actor, Andy Serkis, in the role of the titular ape star. The two had worked together in a similar context previously in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in which Serkis played the CG character, Gollum. Jackson decided fairly early that he did not want his Kong to act human, so he and the visual effects team at WETA Digital studied hours upon hours of footage of actual gorillas both in captivity and in the wild, much like O’Brian and his team did in the early 1930s. Jackson and his co-writers on the script, once again Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, would even create a quasi-backstory for the character to add a sense of realistic legitimacy and character.

Likewise, Serkis drew much of his performance on studying gorilla behavior firsthand, even going so far as to travel to Rwanda to observe mountain gorillas in the wild, as well as spending hours interacting with captive gorillas at the London Zoo. This animalistic quality was very important to the performance Serkis wanted to provide the animators.  On bringing Kong to life, Serkis would say, “We didn’t want to anthropomorphize him to the point where we were explaining every single little gesture. Gorillas both in captivity and the wild have an enigmatic quality – a sense of disconnect, of otherness.” In other words, the key distinct between O’Brian’s Kong and WETA’s Kong, beyond a technical level, are the performances each gives. Due to the limited knowledge of gorillas in O’Brian’s time, the characteristic gaps are filled with more human qualities, i.e. Kong boxing with the T-rex. By 2005, mass amounts of new information on gorilla behavior had been collected, as well as seemingly infinite sources to gather it all from. The Kong in Jackson’s film is very much the amalgamation of a study of gorilla movements, and expressions on WETA’s part, as well as a study of gorilla behavior on the part of Serkis. After almost ten years on-again, off-again production, the film would eventually be released on December 14, 2005, and would be a finical success, as well as a critical favorite of the year, and would go on to win three Academy Awards in 2006, including Best Visual Effects.

The technological achievements of these two King Kong films are unquestionable, but the question remains: what is so special about them? What sets them apart from the hundreds of effects-driven films that were released after the 1933 original? Is there something beyond sheer spectacle that these films provide? M.C. Cooper maintained that “King Kong was never intended to be anything more than the best damned adventure picture ever made. What it is; and that’s all it is.” Perhaps it is something that simple, that the films are an example of “the right place, at the right time.” Both films certainly work on a purely spectacle level, and their respective directors made sure that their audiences were entertained; however, it is in my opinion that the films’ success all relates back to the character of Kong himself. King Kong is a compelling character. These films demand that their audience relate to a giant ape, and against all odds, both films successful put the viewer firmly on Kong’s side. Most movies monsters exist to frighten their audience, but in Kong, the audience experiences something similar to a kinship. We cheer when Kong triumphantly roars over the slain T-rex at his feet, and we weep when he is gunned down all for the sin of falling in love. When Kong dies, it feels like you’ve lost a friend. I think Dino De Laurentiis, producer of 1976 remake, said it best, albeit crudely, “No one cry when Jaws die, but when the monkey die, people gonna cry.”  This fictional animal became real character to audiences, thanks in large part to a mixture of compelling material, visionary directors, and a teams of incredibly talented visual effects artists working together to make films that stand the test of time. King Kong is an icon because of all of these talented individuals’ work. 

Cinematic Soapbox #3 – Two there must be: The beauty and flexibility of’Lone Wolf and Cub’ as a narrative device and influence

Welcome to “Cinematic Soapbox!” Much like the AV Club’s Scenic Routes, I will discuss a movie, scene, series of movies, series of scenes, genre or some other cinematic element, why I think it works and what it means to me. I am obviously not the level of writer that Mike D’Angelo is so don’t expect the same quality and thoughtfulness he brings to his column.

Last night I caught a screening of Logan, what is expected to be Hugh Jackman’s final turn as the character he helped define for well over a decade. In today’s world of constant reboots and re-castings, that’s a borderline ludicrous notion.

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Wolverine, as a character, is a very Eastern concept presented in a traditional Western fashion. He is often likened to a rōnin, or a samurai without a lord or master would travel the country-side as a sell-sword. This connection only strengthened by the fact that his swords are built into his hands. 

If this is indeed Jackman’s final hurrah so to speak, it’s makes complete and utter sense that this is the sort of story he would want to leave Wolverine behind with as it fits a the type of arc writers have been utilizing the character over the past three or four decades.

Now before I get ahead of myself, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty, that being the reason I’m writing all of this.

While I was watching Logan, it became clear to me that it wore a number of its influences proudly on its sleeve. Shane, Unforgiven, Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s Old Man Logan arc, etc.

But it was the relationship between Logan and Laura that stood out the most to me, as was the intent of the movie once could surmise. That isn’t to say anything in the movie was specifically targeted at me but…you get what I’m saying.

This got me to thinking: where else have I seen this arc used so well before?

The answer?

Tons of places, particular over the past couple of decades or so.

For whatever reason however this particular format doesn’t seem to get mentioned a lot, or at the very least I don’t feel that many people I know seem all that aware that it’s a recurring story at all. And it isn’t a strictly cinematic story either. It’s origins rest in the page after all, and have transcended well beyond into television shows and video games.

For those unfamiliar with Lone Wolf and Cub, a 28-volume manga from the 1970s that has been adopted into everything from movies to stage plays, the gist is as follows:

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Written by Kazuo Koike and illustrated by artist Goseki Kojima, Lone Wolf and Cub begins when Shogunate executioner, Ogami Itto, is framed as a traitor by the agents of a rival clan. With his wife murdered and with an infant son to protect, Ogami opts for the path of a rōnin, with the pair adopting the moniker, “The Lone Wolf and Cub.” The two wander feudal Japan with Ogami’s sword now for hire, but all roads will lead them to a single destination: vengeance.

Now it may or may not be important that I preface with the fact that I have not seen EVERY SINGLE ITERATION of this story. I’ve read a handful of the manga and seen maybe two or three of the films. I am not a scholar. I am but a humble internet voice with a blog that sports 3, possibly 4, recurring readers.

You’re welcome to chalk it up to personal preference, but let’s walk through some of the most recognizable instances of this formula and just how successful they’ve been.

It’s a model that traditionally sports two arcs for our main characters:

  1. Wolf, or the old master, is typically in search for some form of redemption or peace. Their lives have been defined by blood shed, with their only goal now to not only keep themselves alive but also the lives of their respective wards. They are often emotionally closed off when we meet them, having been through hell. As the story progresses, we peel back the layers as their young ward reminds him or her of the good person at their core. This character is typically male. Maybe as we attend to automatically assign a masculine connotation to qualities such as “gruffness” and “world-weariness.” It’s by no means a rule. It’s just something that happens to recur a lot in these stories.
  2. Cub, or the young accomplice, represents the new generation or a break from all the violence his or her master attempted to flee from. By the end of the story, this character must make a choice: continue down the path of violence or break the chain altogether. There’s often the recurring narrative choice to have this character be female. Once again, it’s not universal. Just a commonality.

These two characters also typically find themselves in a similar predicament: the younger individual is stuck in a hostile and unfamiliar world in which they are (often) highly unprepared to tackle solo and a world the older individual is all too familiar with. This can mean a path ravaged by the effects of some form of apocalypse or one simply laden with real-world dangers.

The appeal of such an arc is that it really allows for close examination to its two main characters. One (typically) carries the emotional baggage of a violent past whereas the other may provide for levity and in doing so open up the former for development.

Now I’m not going to touch on every example I think of that fits this narrative. To do so would lead to an overly long post that would touch on the same things over and over and over and over and over again. Think of this is as the Lone Wolf and Cub breakfast sampler, where I try to hit on how wide-ranging and re-occurring this story as well as how it continues to remain fresh and narratively engaging in spite of how many times creators dust off the cobwebs on it. I mean, just look at all the quality examples I don’t get to on this thing such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

And I don’t do this to point out something to the effect of “No new stories,” or “Originality dead?” I feel as if I come off as some sort of pretentious grouch that repeats those sentiments over and over again so fear not. I’m not

I do it to highlight a tried and true formula that works and works well when viewed through different prisms. Least you forget, this is story that came to us from Japan but has transcended beyond borders. Not only that but it’s a story steeped in centuries worth of Eastern mythology and pop culture.  If anything, it speaks to the power of story-telling which if you know a single thing about me it’s how lame and uncynical I get about just how goddamn essential story-telling is to the human condition.

Also SPOILERS for all discussed, Nick.

Road to Perdition

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Let’s start off with a cheat just to get it out-of-the-way, shall we? Road to Perdition is also based on a comic. You know what that comic is based on? You guessed it. Lone Wolf and Cub. I guess “homage” would be a more appropriate term, but you get the point.

In this instance, the story is transplanted from feudal Japan to 1930s American Midwest. Simply switch out samurai with gangsters and you’re there. Moving on….

All kidding aside, Road to Perdition may sport a similar structure to its predecessor but its themes couldn’t be more different for the most part. Tonally, this movie is much more subdued and goes out of its way to not canonize its violence, with most of the violent and bloody acts occurring off-screen and those that do appear as quickly as they would in the real-world. Whereas Lone Wolf, in adaptations such as Shogun Assassin, is so cartoonishly violent that you can’t help but laugh and cheer.

Perdition is a statement on violence and its consequences; a journey to hell and back again.

 Michael Sullivan, Sr.chose a path of violence in his youth and now considers himself to be irredeemable. He fears the same path for his son, Michael Jr., who seems enamored by his father’s exploits. However, as he attempts to shield his son from his past, the more harm he does. It’s why he  It’s only when the two are forced on the run does a bridge of communication open between them. Their shared tragedy bringing them closer together.

Adventure Time 

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Speaking of shared tragedy it’s not as if this show needed any more adult themes, amiright?

Now there are a lot of episodes of Adventure Show, and multiple that feature these two characters so let’s limit our scope to just two: “I Remember You” and “Simon and Marcie.”

At the core of this arc (which is also on-going) we have Simon Petrikov, or the man who would be Ice King, and Marcy, who will one day become the Marceline we all know and love. Before that though, we had a simple man losing his mind and a little girl with no home or family just trying to make it through a world torn asunder by “The Great Mushroom War.”

As we know, the roles eventually reverse with Marceline becoming Simon’s caretaker. (She’s not all that hands-on, but Ice King really isn’t all that much of a threat is he?) It’s a relationship unique to the others on here as we essentially learn about it in reverse. When we first meet Ice King and Marceline, they are already in the form they’ll carry for a majority of the series. There’ll be room for growth, (something not particularly easy to do with two characters that are for all intents and purposes are immortal), but they stay relatively the same in regards basic traits, strengths and vices.

With her vampirism serving as an oh so subtle allusion to clinical depression and his crown being a flat-out stand-in for a neurotic disease such as Alzheimer’s or dementia,  the two have their fair share of vices between them. So the reveal that the two have a shared past, while somewhat a shock at first, made sense.

The beauty of it all however is how this arc (as modeled on Lone Wolf) adds complexity to pre-established characters, information we didn’t even know we needed.

The tragedy at its core being two-fold: the tool giving Simon more time is slowly but surely driving him crazy, providing a very gut-punchy view of the lunacy that comes to define him later. That, in turn, leads him to all but forget just about all the memory of his former life, including his time with Marceline.

But in that there is hope.

Marceline may miss the way Simon used to be, but she’s still going to love the person that he is. She knows more than his name; she knows his true soul, and she’ll never forget that, even if he does.

And that hope grows brighter with each episode. The two even reunited (briefly) in a later season.

It’s an ongoing story and I’m interested to see where it goes, and hope for a satisfactory conclusion to their shared arc. Speaking of…

The Last of Us

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Here’s another obvious example.

The beauty and uniqueness of this relationship is how quickly Ellie becomes a necessary part of Joel’s journey. Unlike many of her colleagues on this list, she is far from helpless having had her own bought with fighting to survive well before having met Joel. This is the only world she knows after all, having been born before the Cordyceps epidemic that nearly wiped out all of humanity.

And she’s by no means a master at her craft either. That’s what separates her from characters like Hit-Girl for example. She’s sloppy in more ways than one, and she hasn’t been completely indoctrinated into the uncaring world around her due in part to her having nothing else to compare it to. The Apocalypse is her normal.

The same can’t be said for Joel, a man clearly still in mourning over the loss of his daughter twenty years before the game’s plot kicks in. He’s been operating at half-capacity ever since, simply survive as it is all he really has left.

The two become surrogates for one another. For Ellie, Joel represents a family she hasn’t experienced yet or at the very least some form of normalcy. For Joel, Ellie represents a second chance and could quite literally (and cynically) be considered a replacement kid.

It’s also an interesting relationship because, as with the original Lone Wolf and Adventure Time, it’s one we will get to see evolve. A sequel was announced a few months back, and it was initially news that filled me with a mix of both excitement and hesitancy.

I feel as if we left Joel and Ellie at such a narratively fulfilling place; a place so satisfying I wasn’t all that interested in seeing where it went beyond, “The End.” Sure, in retrospect, the door was left wide open for future stories, but lighting only strikes ever so often and rarely does it strike twice.

But I’ll admit, there is an overwhelming interest in seeing how these two advance particularly the Joel fibbing JUST A TAD about the fate of the Fireflies at the end of the first game.

Leon: The Professional

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The detriment in this one is that there is a hinted romance between our two characters, something I can’t really get around in terms of its ickiness. To be fair, those romantic feels come from the younger side and there are not (to my interpretation) reciprocated by the older.

This is also the only example I’ve included that doesn’t take place in an automatically hostile environment. I mean it is fair to say that Matilda didn’t really have a choice in the matter in terms of the shitty family she was saddled with. That’s the thing with families. A lot of time, people just have deal with the cards they’re dealt.

The lesson to be learned here is finding roots, not letting yourself be dictated by the wind…or in this case crazy, violent mobsters. Leon takes charge at the end, seeing the path laid before Matilda should she keep falling further and further into his world and sends her away, providing a chance for a (somewhat) normal adolescence.

Game of Thrones

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Now for a young girl that probably has NO CHANCE for an even somewhat normalized adulthood…

For my money, this is the best character pairing this series has glued together to date, both in the books and on the television show.

Ser Sandor Clegane, aka the Hound, is hardly the first character to get saddled with “baby-sitting” Arya Stark, but he is buy-and-large the character to produce the best story-telling results from her narrative thus far, which is no small statement.

She doesn’t become a better fighter with the Hound. We aren’t treated to any hokey training montage in which

She doesn’t particularly learn how to play the game either.

So what does Arya gain from a season’s worth of travels exactly with such a brute?

By the end, she is armed with something arguably a lot more useful tool than a new technique or insight into warfare and that is the utter unjust and uncaring nature of the universe.

Your oh-so-great sword teacher, the purported “First Sword of Braavos?”

He was (allegedly) killed by a shit fighter who happened to have armor and a better sword.

This kindly farmer who gave us food and shelter, and offered us honest work?

His farm is in the middle of an active war zone, and will probably be killed before the end of the week so might as well steal his money as it’s as good as stolen anyway.

No, I would say this is a particularly GOOD lesson per se but it is a necessary one; particularly for Arya, a girl from a house that put honor above all else. And where did that get them? Two dead parents, two dead siblings and a house in ruin.

Now the Starks are well on their way to a comeback, but in Season 4 (the season this interaction took place) they were all but kicked out of the game, on the run or held hostage.

So who better to give Arya a much-needed reality check on the way things work. She’d definitely seen some shit in the previous three season, no doubt about it, but she still held on to the antiquated “good and honor prevails” mumbo jumbo instilled in her from birth.

It’s also worth noting where these two leave each other, their roles essentially revered. Arya is now cold, looking to escape and leaves the Hound to suffer and die from his wounds in a fight he fought specifically for her. It’d be a stretch to say the Hound is all that different from where he started but he is more hopeful. Having survived, we later learn, he is more open to the kindness of others.

Logan

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I guess it’s kind of important I touch base on the inspiration on this article, huh?

I mentioned before Wolverine, as a character, is very East-meets-West kind of package, and no where has that been more evident than in Logan, an iteration of the character that could have easily been played by Clint Eastwood if the film came out 20 years ago. There are multiple gunslinger references peppered throughout, with Shane actually viewed by the characters and then quoted later. The plot also mirrors Unforgiven  in more ways than one.

He’s the most desperate we’ve ever seen him with his healing ability on its last legs and the adamantium grafted to his skin slowly killing him. He’s also paired with a dementia-ridden Charles Xavier, who tags a long for a good portion of this film. The film is at its most engaging however when it gets down to its central relationship between a man and his clone.

Laura (also known as X-23 in the comics and animated series) is somewhat comparable to Ellie in that she comes with her own baggage, with the difference being that she mirrors Logan’s powers. She even has two extra claws located in her feet. It may be derivative, but she is in essence Logan’s Mini-Me.

The interesting aspect in this instance is that Laura is a clean slate. She has baggage but its like a purse compared to the unending luggage of her clone daddy. She represents Wolverine’s literal second chance. It is in her that the Lone Wolf comparisons become evident.

Near the end of the film, Logan tells Lauren, “Don’t be what they made you.” It’s simple statement, but speaks volumes.

Both are weapons; designed to kill, kill more, sleep and then kill again. Whereas Logan nears the end of his life, Laura is right at the beginning of hers, and in her lie a crossroads. Does she follow the path of the bitter warrior defined by violence, hallow and full of regret, or something closer to a path of peace? Can there truly be “peace” for someone who’s committed such violent deeds.

This is where the R-rating really aided the story-telling, something I don’t want to come off as shallow for endorsing. It’s really, really, REALLY satisfying to see a Wolverine film in which the character is allowed to fulfill every inch of his violent potential. But it’s even more satisfying that it was allowed to happen in a story that actually called for it.

Just like Perdition, that violence wears on the soul; something I don’t think would have been nearly as effecting in a neutered-for-mass-appeal PG-13 cut.

We need to see the path of a VIOLENT man, the consequences made evident in severed limbs and heads, and the potential for what could happen to Laura should she allow it to define her life as well. The world of Wolverine, Xavier and the X-Men is fading away. The choice is up to Laura and her generation to decide what becomes of mutants, and by extension, humanity.

As Whitney Huston once sang…