‘Blade Runner 2049’ not only meets the quality of its predecessor, it surpasses it (SPOILERS)

Better late than never, right?

Last month, I dedicated a lot of words to It.

Some say too many words and I would not disagree with them.

There was just a lot personal context I felt needed to be expressed before getting into the nitty gritty of the movie because…well, because frankly I thought said context was important and possibly shaped how I view the final film.

You can bemoan that and I would not fault you. Typically, a film review should not consist of the reviewer inserting themselves into the movie they are writing about. Too frequently do I do that and just as frequently do I attempt to combat that.

Unfortunately, I kind of have to do the same thing with Blade Runner 2049. 

-BABBLING ABOUT THE ORIGINAL BEGINS HERE-

There’s been a lot said about Blade Runner. Like a whole lot. Like almost to the degree that the conversation around the film is almost more interesting than the film itself.

For those interested, there is a plethora of reading/documentaries on all the work that went into making the movie as well as multiple versions of the film itself, allowing for a unique compare and contrast opportunities. I highly recommend it as this movie has gone through quite a lot.

And if you haven’t seen the movie, I would most recommend the 2007 Final Cut (when I talk about the original, this will be the version I’m referring to) as it best cements everything director Ridley Scott intended, for better or worse.

To be blunt, I love just about every single technical aspect of Ridley Scott’s 1982 adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It’s only when we will look a little bit closer at the story do I really draw issues, particularly in the focus of Rick Deckard and the (added later) aspect that he may or may not be a replicant. I hate this addition because A) it really makes no sense, B) it has no real direct effect on the narrative and C) it’s a certainty now, according to Scott.

Far be it from me to tell Ridley fucking Scott how to direct a movie. I can only attest to my preferences. The overall appeal of Blade Runner to me, in relation to its story, is its ambiguity, favoring no one single interpretation. By retroactively adding a twist (that really amounts to nothing), Scott is in a sense straddling us with an unneeded practice in mental gymnastics.

That isn’t to say I think the story is bad. Not at all. It’s perfectly fine largely and even phenomenal in some areas, but in the years since I was first introduced to it I’ve noticed cracks in the armor of what equates to a technically perfect movie. If anything, I go back and forth on it on what feels like a regular basis.

On one hand, I love how (to a degree) how ambiguous and open to interpretation the whole movie is. Unlike Scott’s later works (coughPROETHEUScough), Blade Runner asks questions but they aren’t maddening questions that take pothole sized chunks out of the story; they’re maddening questions in that they linger in your head and leave room for healthy debate and interpretation. As one Leon says, “Nothing is worse than having an itch you can never scratch.”

It’s also a poignant story about loneliness, focusing on characters in search of meaning and identity in a  modern world.  The real fun is how it uploads old gumshoe troupes into a wholly new, futuristic setting, something that really hadn’t been put on display in a film beforehand.

Some detriments include the “love story,” if you can call it that. Harrison Ford and Sean Young share no chemistry, largely due to the fact the two hated each other behind the scenes. Ford and Scott also feuded so I’m sure that also didn’t lend a hand in making this movie any easier to make.

Once again, not to be harsh or anything. Both are…fine. I think Young may fare better given she’s suppose to act somewhat artificial. Ford has his moments in the film although sometimes his frustration is tangible.

The real stars of the show of the first film are the replicants however, particularly Roy Batty as played by Rutger Hauer.

It’s in these scenes the film flourishes. It’s here, in these moment, we get question of meaning. It is in Batty we see a being resign to his identity happily. His life having closed on a act of compassion and pity, Batty has seen the worth of not only his life, but all life: human and replicant.

So yeah, there are moments where the story gets pretty good and others where it isn’t. It’s only in the visuals, music and all technical aspects does the movie never falter. I’d go so far as to say these are the best effects of the pre-CGI era or at the very least the most influential and definitive. There had been future cityscapes before Blade Runner (in any number of things you are welcome to look up if you want to stick it to me), but I place my money on Blade Runner being the one that defined the look for just about every bit of media to utilize future cities that came afterwards.

TL;DR version: I’m much more in love with all of the technical aspects of Blade Runner than the actual story.

And I can’t be the only one that feels that way, can I? Surely not.

You hear this movie brought up a lot by movie nerds to the degree that I think it may be detrimental to those that come to it completely blind.

-BABBLING (LARGELY) OVER-

In almost every way, for me, this film surpasses the original. I was aghast and torn as the credits popped up. It was the exact same feeling I had at the end of Mad Max: Fury Road. Here we have a sequel to something commonly accepted as iconic. The even notion that a sequel could meet it (or even) surpass the original 30 or so years later is absolute lunacy on paper.

Equally surprising that it is a sequel I assumed would never happen/didn’t really want.

The original Blade Runner is such a seminal work, with influences felt to this day in science fiction and film. However it’s not a movie that initially made a lot of waves and watching the original theatrical version it’s easy to see why. The technical aspects are still masterful, but it’s largely hindered by an intentionally terrible V/O by a “couldn’t be bother” Harrison Ford really hinders it. It’s only after the tinkering I just spent a lot of time harping on did it become something truly special.

Therefore I kind of feared the same happenstance with this film. I fear we’d get something akin to a big budget fan film in the same vein as where it seems like Disney is taking Star Wars (something I’m going to be bringing up quite a bit below). I’m fine with a director and crew being head over heels for their source. If anything, that’s a huge positive. But there’s a line in which some directors/writers/studios can cross in which their fandom serves as a barrier, blocking them from doing anything truly interesting with a property.

There are going to be spoilers all throughout this review. I can’t really get into the nitty gritty of what I wanted to discuss without looking at some of the finer details of the plot. The reason I’m prefacing it here is A) common courtesy and B) I fully respect Blade Runner is a singular, definitive movie for a lot of people, myself included. Also I’m going to sound high/aloof at more than one point I’m sure given just how tired I am while I write this up. I wish I was in a better headspace given this review is going to be the last one for the year (if not ever on this site).

So as always…

I apologize for being kind of bad at this.

The plot:

“Thirty years after the events of the first film, a new blade runner, LAPD Officer K (Ryan Gosling), unearths a long-buried secret that has the potential to plunge what’s left of society into chaos. K’s discovery leads him on a quest to find Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former LAPD blade runner who has been missing for 30 years.” – Warner Bros. Pictures

The review: 

As with the original film, there is a lot to unpack here.

The two or three of you that actually read this may be wondering why I feel this movie is, in almost every way, superior to its predecessor. Well, let’s break that one down first, shall we?

Denis Villeneuve.

I’m starting to think the man is a replicant himself given just how consistently good the man’s output has been in a relatively short time frame. He’s directed 5 films (including this one) since 2013, all of which have been either perfect or as near to perfect as a film can be. His next project is an adaptation of another seminal science fiction classic, Dune. I can’t think of a director today whose hands I want on that particularly property more than Villeneuve’s.

There was a moment pretty early on whether this movie was in great hands. Apparently this was common knowledge that I was not privy too, but 2049‘s opening is a homage or reference to the original opening to Blade Runner. There’s a shot Scott talked about in a making-of documentary that would have had a replicant (something we don’t know yet) returning home to a farm in the middle of nowhere. As he enters his kitchen, Deckard is already there waiting. It’s a sequence that’s mirrored beat-for-beat here with Ryan Gosling’s K and Dave  Bautista’s Sapper Morton.

Now it shouldn’t be a surprise given Scott’s producer credit, but this subtle nod (to a concept scene that wasn’t even filmed) told me this was going to be a treat in more ways than one. I’d like to think this can be credited to returning screenwriter Hampton Fancher (who was a credited screenwriter on the first film although he too had issues with a Scott). He, along with Michael Green, recapture a lot of the same malaise that defined the story Fancher helped bring to life all those years ago.

Much like the earlier movie, 2049 is a visual masterpiece. No ifs, ands or buts about it. As far as I’m concerned, it should be a clean sweep for every technical award next year. It builds upon the foundations of the future L.A. we were treated to in the earlier film without exceeding plausibility. Every visual feels like the natural next step to something we saw in Scott’s movie.

I’m not exactly sure if it’s fair to say the effects are better this time around given the astronomical leap movie effects have made since 1982. I will say the effects carry the baton rather nicely however, keeping to pace with the innovation of the earlier model. Some of the effects heavy sequences are just utterly jaw-dropping. The synchronization sequence by itself may just be the most beautiful effects sequence of the year, allowing for a since of play I don’t think I’ve seen in a effects-driven scene for a little while. It’s up to par with what we got last year in Doctor Strange.

There’s also nice little world-building treats sprinkled throughout. We get to see where replicants’ memories are made and who makes them for example, similar to how we visited where they get their eyes in the previous movie. We don’t go to the off-planet colonies (a visual that I’m personally glad our filmmakers decided to avoid), but we do travel beyond L.A. to get a better scope of this crestfallen world. As A.A. Dowd writes, “If Blade Runner gave us the world, Blade Runner 2049 has come to fill in the universe.”

And it doesn’t stop at what they did in the film either. Three shorts were released online prior to the film’s release with each serving as a piece in the puzzle in terms of linking the 1982 film to 2017’s. The best of these (directed by Cowboy Bebop director Shinichirō Watanabe) gives us some insight into the much discussed earlier black out in the film.

It’s not necessary per se but it allows for more stories in a world I’m very interested in seeing more of. The world of Blade Runner (as established in the 1982 film) is one of untapped potential. And I don’t mean exclusively cinematically either. Quite the opposite actually. Given just how wide this (now) series’ influence is entrenched in science fiction, you’d think it’d provide so many creators a massive sandbox in which to define and expand. For what it’s worth, these shorts (particularly the one above) are great and I wish more studios would implement similar marketing tools.

It’s all stuff like this that make this such a good sequel and sets itself apart from other nostalgia-mining outputs (Rouge One: A Star Wars Story, Jurassic World) as those movies prefer to play it say, feeding audiences what they know will get a cheap applause. Villeneuve opts to explore uncharted territory however all while recognizing the original has fans for a reason. Harrison Ford, Edward James Olmos and Sean Young (via some visual trickery) all return in some way, shape or form but their appearances aren’t to illicit applause. Reactions for sure, but not for the simple sake of a reaction. Unlike this bullshit…

And it goes beyond just involving older elements, like Ford. It’s about utilizing them to an effect that is at once meaningful without shamelessly pandering.

I fully anticipated/fear this movie was going to flat out give us an answer regarding the whole Deckard being a replicant situation in the same way Scott thinks we, as an audience, want.

Villeneuve however decides to do something infinitely more interesting (and my opinion better) and posits the question, adds new layers to it and rests it in our laps to decipher for ourselves.

Story wise, we also get much more of a detective story than the first film. Whereas our time is split between the fugitive replicants and Deckard in the first film, we largely remain with K in 2049 leaving an air of mystery the first film kind of lacked. We know the replicants plot in Blade Runner and we basically just watched Deckard try to play catch up. We’re largely on the mission with K here and it adds more suspense to the overall narrative.

Other technical aspects worth raving about:

Roger Deakins. Basically the star (for me) in any movie he has a hand in. As a cinematographer, I believe Deakins remains unparrelled. What the man does with light and shadow is nothing short of miraculous.

I may have been hesitant going into this one, but I was absolutely foaming at the mouth to see what Deakins was going to present this world and he did not disappoint one iota. It’s almost tempting to just fill this post with screen shots from the film accompanied with text reading “OOOOOOOOO” and “AAAAAHHHHH.’

The bigger task was meeting the music of the original. Vengelis’ score is, without a doubt, my favorite film score of all time to this point. It transcends beyond a perfect film score and relays into the realm of just great music. It’s the music of a dream made tangible, while also perfectly underscoring this exact futuristic world that is at once foreign yet recognizable, grim and ugly yet hopeful and beautiful.

It should then be considered no coincidence the music in Blade Runner has apparently been sampled in music more than any other film of the 20th century.

(NOTE: this video refers to original 2049 composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who is Villeneuve’s go-to-guy for a trio of his films. Since this video was released however, the two split as Villeneuve felt the”movie needed something different, and I needed to go back to something closer to Vangelis.”)

Whoever was going to take up that task had mighty big shoes to fill. Luckily, Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch take the reigns almost effortlessly. There are echoes of that iconic score peppered throughout (and whenever it hit, I felt near tears every time) but they do such a spectacular job at making this score their own without betraying the masterwork Vengelis gave us all those years ago. There are times when Zimmer’s bombastic assault on the speakers threaten to cannibalize the more subtle ebbs and flows of the synth, but luckily those moments are few and far between.

As this is a sequel, we also get a plethora of new characters. Many are great while others kind of register more of exposition machines (heh, heh). But there is one major standout and thankful that is our lead. I think K may just be one of the best additions (character-wise) to science fiction we’ve gotten this year.

Man, I love the character of K (Gosling). His arc throughout the movie is so tragic yet uplifting. Right off the bat, we are told he is in fact a replicant. There’s no dancing around the issue here.

He also stands apart from Deckard. I was largely worried we’d be tasked with a relatively similar character and they certainly do mirror each other in a couple of ways, but K largely stands on his own and I’d say he’s even a more tragic character.

His relationship with hologram girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) is manufactured. He is tasked with hunting down his own kind for the sake of a populace that largely hates him. A highlight for him is getting an upgrade so said hologram can follow him around and unlike Her where the question of a program is called into question, 2049 all but confirms that Joi is in fact not much more than 1’s and 0’s in quietly devastating scene later in the movie.

Need more depression?

K’s arc is a complete subversion of the “chosen one” arc (character is plucked from obscurity to be the leader for a great wave of change), but in subverting it the movie elevates itself to something truly spectacular.

K is ultimately just another replicant, sharing some of the same memories as so many other replicants. In fact, he’s simply a decoy for the real hero this universe purportedly needs. That hero being the first child born to a replicant.

However…

In K’s role as a blade runner, he was the first replicant to end up in a respective memory i.e. the chance to actually test if their memory was legitimate. (This “test” being the sequence where he “returns” to the orphanage and finds the wooden horse.)

Much like Deckard, K is on a goal to find something that is not tangible. In Deckard’s case, we had a man (I’m retracting my earlier statements. I don’t give a fuck what you say, Ridley Scott. EVERYONE else in the production says he was not a replicant. HE’S NOT A REPLICANT.) looking to reclaim some semblance of his soul. With K, we have a replicant looking to see if he has a soul at all.

Once K witnesses the miracle he was told he had not witnessed earlier, he begins to rebel. While it may have been the wrong conclusion, a miracle does take place through his actions. We, as an audience, are with K. I don’t wish to speak for you, but if you’re like me you too bought into his supposed importance by this point. We sympathize with him, now believing him to be human.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether K was just a decoy or the chosen one: the only thing separating K from having a soul, so to speak, was his and the audience’s shared belief that he was in fact naturally born. He broke the “wall” that was spoken about by Robin Wright’s character at the beginning, without even knowing it.

Questions of what it means to be a live, questions of what it means to be “important.” It’s all material that define all truly great pieces of science fiction. There’s so many fucking great little touches sprinkled throughout that nearly demands a second viewing right after the first.

The scene near the end of K watching snowflakes softly hit his hand, realizing what it’s like to be human only to smash cut to the Ana with fake snow at the end, a real being unable to feel those same things. Or how about the fact that sinister yet malevolent CEO Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) has whited out eyes, fueling speculation he may in fact also be a replicant that has burnt out his eyes to remain undetected. It’s all makes for good after movie discussion and it’s the exact reason I still hold the original to such high regard even in the wake of script issues.

The main detriment for 2049 is, as you may have guessed, is its length. The movie runs at about 2 hours and 40 minutes. That’s quite a hefty runtime. It’s a movie so long you almost have to plan your day around it. It’s hard to argue given the depth of beauty we’re treated to, but I’d be lying if I said some scenes didn’t linger just a tad too long.

We have an extended sequence of K wandering around Las Vegas, now decimated by radiation. It’s jaw dropping but, man, it goes on for a bit without any sort of narrative action taking place.

There are moments where a huge revelation would occur and instead of proceeding the movie would loopback around to basically spoon feed us why the revelation was important. This is something that could make more sense if it were flashing back to an earlier movie but flashing back to events that occurred IN THE SAME MOVIE seems a bit gratuitous to me.

I’m not sure if I am in the minority in regards to thinking this movie is superior. Among my friends, I know I’m not. I don’t really get a common consensus for the world at-large however.

I’ve read a lot of trite regarding why this movie “failed” at the box office. Ranging from stupid and meaningless click-bait (Not enough women went to go see it apparently.) to pretty accurate (the marketing really did not have a handle on how to sell this one).

I really, really liked Blade Runner. Like I said, it’s everything I liked about the first movie amplified marginally and largely corrects many of the elements I didn’t.

So to me, it’s not a stretch to call this a great sequel. I think it’s a little hasty to be calling it one of the best of all-time however. I always am hesitant to say anything is the best of anything this close to release however. You kind of a need a year or two (in my opinion) to properly access something’s place in the canon.

2049 is a movie of the moment however, both personally and at-large. I see a future like this being all but plausible, (not so much in the flying cars) where things worsen before they get better. Where we drift further and further away from one another. Where meaning is reduced to lines of data in a computer. Where individuality is largely thought of as an illusion, progress defined by the backs of foundations to get us there.

Loneliness is already a known symptom of modernity. You see it in just about every daily aspect if you’re looking for it. At least I do and becomes more and more apparent everyday. It’s hard not to place yourself in K’s position, hoping you, as an individual, mean something more. To be special.

By what is special any more these days? How can one actually be considered special in such a crowded market place. I certainly don’t feel important or special all the time and it may be a mistake to think this but it’s true to a degree. I don’t matter and I’m not special. The list of people that’ll remember me when I’m gone will be short and effects of my web short-lived.

Think of it this way, in what way does this blog stand out? It’s written by me? But who am I? Why does my opinion matter in a sea of others that seem to have some value, whether intrinsic or carved out.

I guess all that matters is not whether we have meaning or not but whether we ourselves are meaningful. That’s really the best any of us can do, right? Do we let ourselves define who and what we mean or do we so ourselves? I don’t think there’s a right answer there. K finds himself at this crossroads and it’s this aspect I think I connected with most. Not many of us are very special and those that are face a similar gap in the sense what is that going to mean in millions of years?

It’s nihilistic yet also poignant, conflicting ideas that have all but defined what makes up the world of Blade Runner and now 2049.

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“It” successfully floats above countless failed Stephen King adaptations by way of its core cast and behind-the-scenes vision

I’m 12 years old, it’s summer and I’m reading Stephen King’s 1986 novel, It.

It’s night time so I have to use my book light, a solitary beacon in an otherwise pitch black bedroom. As I lay the book aside to go to bed, one thing becomes immediately apparent: my closet door is open. Now as I’m sure more than a few of you are aware, you can’t really see into a closet at night.

As the titular monster can shape-shift, there’s a literally cornucopia of places it could be. You know if it was real…which it definitely isn’t…right?

By having me second guess myself before getting up to close the door, King won.

When was 12, It was probably the scariest thing I willingly put myself through. There’s just something much more cerebral about a really scary book than there is a really scary movie. A movie spoon feeds you scary imagery and nightmare; a book makes your brain work against itself in conjuring up moments that will have you second guess getting out of bed to go to the bathroom at night.

“So what makes It so scary,” an individual who may not have read the book before may ponder.

I haven’t read most of King’s work but out of the small portion I have indulged in, It was was the most consistently terrifying. In it, King gives us a pervasive and nightmarish vision of an archetypical small town that’s sold its soul to a monster that puts on masks and eats children. Those masks provide It (technically It is a “she”, but that is a discussion for another day) and Stephen King with a chance to dig into just about every archetypal boogeyman imaginable, ranging from werewolves and mummies and even a giant bird.

And don’t forget Pennywise The Dancing Clown.

While many of King’s antagonists are scary, there’s something that sets Pennywise apart. There’s an imaginative brutality to his kills, the way gore and nightmare fuel combine with mean-spirited humor to create an impression of some sadistic, cosmic, shape-shifting bully; something that takes as much, if not more, pleasure in mocking you and your suffering as it does in ripping you to shreds. There’s also the matter of who he preys on specifically.

Several adults die within the book’s pages, but a majority of It’s victims are kids as they have a special vitality that the monster craves; a vitality that serves as one of the book’s major themes. Basically, it craves your fear over your flesh.

And it wasn’t just about the scares either. Sure, that played a big part but what made It such a powerful experience where who those scary things were happening to.

I wasn’t alive in 1958 yet King captures a certain feeling so accurately and enthusiastically that it doesn’t matter if the specifics weren’t something I could relate to. Reading about outcasts my own age, isolated from the larger portions of their peers in a way I understood, playing games in the woods away from things like football or band felt more real than my actual life in a way that’s hard to put into words. As broken as the members of the Loser’s Club are, they were friends, and that friendship, and the unwavering faith in that friendship, mattered a great deal to me.

To me, the book is and always will be this section:

“Maybe there aren’t any such things as good friends or bad friends – maybe there are just friends, people who stand by you when you’re hurt and who help you feel not so lonely. Maybe they’re always worth being scared for, and hoping for, and living for. Maybe worth dying for too, if that’s what has to be. No good friends. No bad friends. Only people you want, need to be with; people who build their houses in your heart.”

I think it’d be fair to say I didn’t really read the book as much as I experienced it (although I never had to personally deal with an intergalactic, fear-consuming clown but that’s neither here nor there), something I think every one goes through with more than one piece of popular media or literature in their respective lifetimes.

It tapped into a direct mainline of my subconscious and drilled down so fucking deep that I’ve never been entirely rid of it. Randomly, aspects of the book will pop into my mind and at times I’ll recognize it and others I won’t.

And this is all (mostly) in regards to the portion of the novel dedicated to the Losers as kids. The other portion sees them return to Derry to finish the job they started back over 20 years beforehand. When I was a kid reading that section seemed, not bad, but less important. Adulthood seemed so far away back then. It wasn’t something tangible. In the 1958 portion, most of the adults are largely neglectful, if not outright abusive. In this world, the kids are largely on their own.

As King writes, “Eddie discovered one of his childhood’s great truths. Grownups are the real monsters, he thought.”

Flash forward more than 10 years later.

I still hesitate to call myself an adult, but I’m certainly not a kid anymore.

Last summer, I found myself thinking a lot about It. I knew there was a new movie coming out and I had really fond memories of reading it as a kid but couldn’t remember every aspect of it as I once could. I wanted to go back, although I was initially intimidated by the length, and see if the book stood the test of time.  Because that’s what books do: they’re always the same when you reread them, but you’re always different. Even when you don’t want to be.

Now a “grown-up” myself, I’ve come to realize that the loss of vitality between the kid chapters and the adult ones is not an incidental effect; it is, in fact, a core feature of the premise of the entire book. Without those adult chapters, It would still be scary but it wouldn’t be special. 

As one Loser observes, growing up means the “magic of childhood belief” goes away. It’s never really clear when and where it happens, but it inevitably does. Everything that was big, bold and capitalized turns out not to be a really big deal after all. An adult Bill Denbrough (the Losers’ de facto leader) takes a taxi through Derry, the book’s setting, and reflects on a town he hasn’t seen since his adolescence. He’s shocked at how strained the place looks to him: how things have changed, and how even the things that stayed the same seem blander somehow. Almost like a knock-off of something that used to matter. Every time I go back to my home town, I almost always have a similar feeling.

It’s also about regret. There’s a reason why “Youth is wasted on the young” is an an age-old sentiment. We sometimes fall prey to looking at our childhoods with proverbial rose-tinted glasses, maybe bypassing the unpleasantness.

I finally watched T2: Trainspotting, a movie that I assume the second half to this latest It adaptation may mirror at least thematically in is that it doesn’t cherry coat that the notion that our youth can be just as grimy as our present. It’s really only by recognizing these do we become somewhat adept at dealing with them. And even then, some trauma can never really be healed.

That isn’t to say It a perfect book by any means. King could have definitely used some toning back. It’s a story that really has no need to be as long as it is and there are more than a few sequences that could have been cut as they are either A) unnecessary or B) largely uncomfortable to the service of nothing. (The sewer gang bang fits under both categories.)

Re-reading It was a lot more fun than I was expecting but I found myself appreciating the book’s sense of melancholy for things lost and hope for those gained more than the scares this time around. King doesn’t pull a single punch when it comes to the realities of getting older, but suggests there may be just a little magic left for those willing to fight for it.

Suffice to say, It is a pretty important book to me and any form of adaptation was going to be met with strict scrutiny. Not in the sense that I am a stickler for a film that was 100% faithful to the book. It is a beast of a novel, coming in at well over 1,000 pages. There’s a lot there that can be cut or modified (some material I fully advocate for the removal of, but more on that in a bit) and the story would remain largely the same.

No, I’m speaking more to the “feel” of the book. There’s a misconception that the book is a pretty simple read as well which it is really anything but.

Even though it’s in no way a book for children, there’s a ton of adolescent touchstones included in It, both apparent and hidden between the lines. First love, “lazy” summers, goofing off with your friends, adulthood on the horizon, the final days between “kid problems” and “adult problems,” etc.

Director Andrés Muschietti was not a name I was familiar with before this movie. I skipped Mama if only because it seemed like it fit into every category of something I don’t really want in a horror movie…

Still, I was willing to give the man the benefit of the doubt. First off, splitting book into two parts (the first half dedicated to the kid, the other to them as adults) was a pretty smart movie. The book cross-sections these two portions rather than divide them which works in that medium but would have ultimately been to the disservice to both had they been smushed together. Unfortunately, this could also lead to a movie that doesn’t feel whole as a result as it has been intentionally halved, a move that rarely ever works with films.

So I’ve rambled enough.

Did this experiment work? Did I leave this movie even remotely satisfied? Do you care?

Answers to all (maybe) below…

The plot:

“In the Town of Derry, the local kids are disappearing one by one, leaving behind bloody remains. In a place known as ‘The Barrens’, a group of seven kids are united by their horrifying and strange encounters with an evil clown and their determination to kill It.” – IMDb.com

The review: 

-Cracks knuckles-

Get comfortable, folks. We may be here for a little bit.

Right off the bat, I should say I really, really enjoyed this one. It’s way too early to fully declare but this was probably the warmest reaction I’ve had to a King film adaptation in a good long while.

That said, I think it’ll be hard to fully gauge this one as it is very much a Part 1 of a 2 part story. I can only assume that Warner Bros/New Line were hesitant to fully commit to immediately funding two movies back-to-back. These aren’t guaranteed hits like a Star Wars or Marvel film after all.

So while I stand by it being a smart that this was a movie split in half in the interest of telling the story more effectively, it comes at the cost of a first half feeling a little hallow and without a proper climax. Much like Kill BillIt very much feels like a flashier half of a longer story; the second, I expect, will slow things down considerably. It’s by no accident that the film’s conclusion doesn’t particularly feel like a victory. There’s a lot more ground to cover.

With the recent announcement there will apparently “for sure” be a Part 2, I’m a little bit more relieved but I’m not a fan of having to wait around and see if I’ll actually get the end to a story I want to see. It’s not a great model outside of television.

So I’m going to talk a bit about the differences between the book and movie in this upcoming section. If that annoys you/don’t want spoilers for the book (as a whole), I’ve sectioned it off for your convenience.

-ANNOYING BOOK CHATTER-

There are quite a few changes and omissions Muschietti implements in his version, many of which (surprisingly enough) work and even, in some instances, could be considered improvements. I won’t touch base on every, single one but I would like to highlight a couple (both positive and negative).

The update from the 1950s to 1980s was a little suspect to me, just given the recent popularity of Stranger Things (a series that owes more than a little to King and It in particular).

Largely, the movie (thankfully) doesn’t shove the 80’s down our throats as I was fearing more nostalgia overload. Outside of a few song choices, the basic story remains as timeless as ever.

We lose some of the bigger concepts of the book, i.e. It’s origins and The Turtle. I’m largely fine with this material beginning omitted in the interest of digestibility for a standard audience but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping that they’d at least touch on it a little bit in the sequel. For now though, it doesn’t really matter where It came from or what It wants. As is the case with many movie monsters, there is enough horror to be mined from the mere existence of a shape-shifting monster that kills and eats kids.

I’ve read that original director (and still credited co-screenwriter) Cary Fukunaga wanted to emphasize some of the darker sexual aspects of the book in his version of the film which I fully understand the studio hoping to, not avoid, but not exacerbate. Thank The Turtle the aforementioned sewer gang bang was mercifully left on the cutting room floor.

It’s important to remember this is meant to be a mass consumption version of the book. That isn’t to say a lot of that uncomfortableness doesn’t sprout up in different ways. A sexual-abuse subplot that largely remained subtext in the book is made much more apparent in the film, and a love triangle between three of the Losers is given outsized importance here.

I often find that page-to-screen adaptations either lose the subtly of their source material or the exact opposite and go for the obvious. Muschietti often goes for the latter, to mixed effect.

There are a couple of sequences and/or aspects I would have liked to see but am not all that disappointed by their exclusion such as Bev’s slingshot for example or Richie’s encounter with a teenage werewolf or more of Mike’s look into the town’s bloody past.

There’s been a lot said about the 1990 miniseries, an adaptation that I don’t think holds up very well with the exception of Tim Curry’s role as Pennywise. It does an okay job of telling a story about kids fighting a monster only to have to return as adults to finish the job. As an allegory for confronting childhood trauma, that’s fine but to me, the book was a lot more than just that.

For what it’s worth, I think this film does a much better job at compartmentalizing one half of the book while also delivering the tone/feel of its source material. It’s kind of disappointing to have what is not a conventional book crammed into a conventional three-act structure, the effort largely works here. Muschietti and the screenwriters made a clear effort at maintaining this tone, and show a clear affection that too often gets lost in translation. It is in this effort/affection, that I really appreciate what they’ve gone for. The only thing that worries me is that they’ll get lost in the shuffle when the studio gears up for the second round.

-ANNOYING BOOK CHATTER OVER (MOSTLY)-

Now let’s get on to the movie itself. Y’know, the reason why I assume most of you are here.

I don’t really want to deep dive into what I consider scary…I’ve done that waaaaaaaaay too much in the past. Suffice to say, I didn’t find this movie all that scary but there were some pretty effective scares in it. Muschietti has a pretty good eye for what dictates a good horror set piece. Rather than go for a slow build, he goes the alt route of big, bombast, making use some very effective nightmare imagery and creature effects. If anything, I’d say It is more intense than it is scary which I generally lean towards anyway.

Visually, the movie is straight dynamite. Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung delivers a movie that looks better than a grand majority of what else is out in cinemas right now, let alone just horror movies. This is combined with top notch sound and production design that makes for a movie for award consideration, but will sadly most likely be ignored due largely to the unfair stigma attached to the horror genre.

We open with the murder of six-year-old Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), arguable the novel’s most iconic scene, adapted largely beat-for-beat. The notable difference between this and the previous adaptation however is there aren’t prime time standards to adhere to. Kids are murdered en masses by It and Muschietti pulls no punches.

Speaking of horror, let’s take some time to talk about Pennywise, played here by Bill Skarsgård. Skarsgård’s performance isn’t as immediately iconic as Tim Curry’s and almost leans too heavily into the “creepy clown” troupe but more often than not he is effectively used. Delivering dialogue in a Bugs Bunny meet Bane lisp, his physical performance hints at an entity too big to fit fully into its shell; his eyes almost perpetually off-center.

All this horror, gloom and doom would be irrelevant if we didn’t have a quality set of characters trapped therein for us to root and cheer for, and luckily this movie carries more than its fair share of likable characters.

It may be somewhat pertinent that casting director Rich Delia be given his due as, with the exception of two, each of these kids were complete unknowns to me and each of them fits their respective Loser P-E-R-F-E-C-T-L-Y. I’ll concede that pacing and writing does some of them a disservice but none of our young actors falters and does a pretty spectacular job at bringing characters ingrained in my mind since youth to life. These kids have almost an inherent chemistry with one another and interact in a way that is believable and comes off as almost improvised.

As with the book, Richie (Finn Wolfhard) and Bev (Sophia Lillis) are personal standouts. I’d go so far as to say Wolfhard walks away with the movie given just how much comedic heavy lifting placed upon his shoulders. Lillis similarly has a lot of heavy lifting on the dramatic front, and seems to effortlessly elevate her role beyond “token girl” although, like the book, is the center of a love triangle, much more obviously here.

While I’m never really into those story angles, I think what was brought to the table here was as good as it could be. Both Bill (Jaeden Lieberher)and Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) are quick to fall in love with Bev, and the film is as sensitive to the sometimes tender, all-too-real awkwardness that occurs when puberty opts to rear its ugly head into the tight-rope of male-female friendships.

The group is rounded out by Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), a sheltered hypochondriac, Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), the skeptic and Mike (Chosen Jacobs), a home schooled kid from the other side of town. Like in the book, Mike tends to disappear in the group scenes. Hell, they give away his major task as “town historian” to another Loser so he’s often just there in many scenes. Some confusing edits suggest a longer version of the story in which more characters were allowed to develop.

There’s also some bullies led by Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) that play a role as secondary antagonists but kind of lose their edge as the movie bypasses a lot of their racism, misogyny and outright nastiness on full display in the book. They are, after all, Stephen King bullies. Given this movie only hints at the effect It has on Derry, all of the other antagonists feel…unnecessary.

A major complaint of mine is that there is a really odd rhythm to the pacing here. Like, it almost feels unnatural in the way it’s stacked together rather than organically building dread or building to its climax. I guess that can be chalked up to the transition. Where the book Losers get a whole summer to build their plan to fight back against Pennywise, their film counterparts get two hours.

And I think that largely sums up my thoughts on this end result and it’s sort of the cliche every review of an adaptation shares: it’s not the book, and that’s okay because it largely shares the heart of what made me like the original so much. The book will always be there as well my memories from reading the book.

The point is, it remains faithful without having to be 100% beholden to the book and that’s basically exactly what I wanted. There’s an ambition here that mainstream horror lacks these days and it’s exciting to see something like this with a little bit of cash behind it as well. If movie’s like this within the horror genre were the norm rather than the exception I feel like the stigma constantly holding it back would be lifted and richer cinematic landscape could prosper.

Now give me Chapter 2!

Over the Wall and through the snow, to the White Walkers’ house we go (A Game of Thrones Spoiler Blog)

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ZZZZZZZ

ZZZZZZZ

😯 !!!!

HUH?!

WHAT DO YOU WANT?!

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WELL I HARDLY SEE HOW THAT’S A CONCERN OF MI-

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WUT?

ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!

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THAT HAPPENED?!

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SHIT.

WELL, MAYBE I SHOULD COME BACK…

BUT, I’M GETTING TOO OLD FOR THIS, RIGHT? I MEAN WHO ACTUALLY CARES ABOUT MY OPINION ON SOME SHOW?

NOT TO MENTION THE SEASON’S ALREADY ALMOST OVER…

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-EXHALES-

FINE.

I’LL DO IT.

BUT YOU KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS, RIGHT?

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SPOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOILERS ABOUND!

 

THAT MEANS, AS ALWAYS, IF YOU HAVEN’T ACTUALLY SEEN THE LATEST EPISODE OF GAME OF THRONES AND WISH TO REMAIN UNSPOILED…

ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER.

THAT’S YOUR WARNING.

YOU HEAR THAT, NICK.

YEAH, I’M TALKING TO YOU NICK.

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I THINK NICK MAY STILL BE HERE.

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is he gone?

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OK LET’S GET THROUGH THIS BEFORE HE COMES BACK!

It sure does feel like it’s been a cool minute since I talked about this show. Not there is a lack of my (unwarranted) opinions readily available on the Internet. Just check my Twitter. Or here. Or here. Or here. Maybe even here. Shit, I forgot about here. And maybe a couple of times here and here.

(Oh and here.)

So yeah, if you’re new here I’m no stranger to the show as you may be able to ascertain.

The reason I’ve held off writing about it this season comes in the form of two excuses…I mean valid reasons. One, my depression has been at what feels like an all time high i.e. there have been other things more pressing on my mind outside of a television show (regardless of how much I like said television show). Two, this season’s been moving so fucking fast I feel like it may give me whiplash. Seriously, characters move around at a frequency that would have been unheard of seven years ago when it began and definitely not a practice of use in the books from which it is based.

So why exactly have I come back now, one of the two people reading this may be asking themselves.

To be frank, as a fan, there’s just too much at play here to not talk about it a little bit. (Also I have a personal one-blog a month quota to fill, but that’s neither here nor there.)

This should be everything I wanted from Rogue One, (in terms of bringing a team together) but where that movie failed to make me even remotely care about a single character or their mission I am 100% on board and was on the edge of my seat from the set up to the actual execution of Jon’s little suicide squad™. (Even though their “plan” was almost unforgivably stupid, which I will explain momentarily. )

Now you may argue, “Tyler, that was a movie so it’s not a fair comparison. It didn’t have as much time to develop all its characters in a way television is afforded.”

To that I respond, “I don’t care.”

The thing about our motley crew is that it consists of, with the exception of Jon, narrative outliers. Sure, all of these guys have had a part to play but I’d never go so far as to say the Hound, Ser Jorah or (especially) Gendry were necessary up to this point. That isn’t to say they weren’t great characters. If anything, in terms of geography, basically all of my favorite characters were north of the Wall this episode.

That said, we KNOW all of these characters even though many (with the exception of Jon) were never at the forefront of the show.

Another beautiful aspect of this team’s assembly is that each member has a specific, established reason for hating another. There’s a lot of dramatic/comedic material to mine here.

If you had told me this exact team was going to form before series end for this exact purpose, I’d have passed it off as fan fiction. Yet here we are. This, in turn, provides another treat given we’ve never seen some of these guys interact at all before.

It properly harkens back to films like Seven Samurai or The Dirty Dozen  where we have a group of low lives and outcasts assembled for a greater good. Where movies have to dedicate a good portion of its run time to assembling the crew, setting up the mission, etc., Game of Thrones was able to jump right in because the past seven seasons have done the heavy lifting and therefore allowing us to reap the rewards now. It’s not better per se; just something I’ve never really experienced before and it was so, so, so fucking satisfying but it also comes at a price as I must emphasize.

See, we’re in the fan service slash blockbuster field goal position of this show, an era that is at once exciting yet wholly unfamiliar for someone who reads the books. This is both a plus and a negative in very keen and succinct ways. HOWEVER before I get too negative, let’s start with some positives.

I also want to speak to Jon’s role in all of this, given he has now officially been established as the most important character in the series.

My favorite thing about Jon’s (and to a more obvious extent, Dany’s) arc is how naturally he’s shifted into the center of everything. He was obviously meant for bigger, better things but by sending him to the Wall, George R.R. Martin effectively went about downplaying all of these. Like many in Westeros, we as an audience become distracted by the (seemingly) larger conflict of the War of the Five Kings whereas Jon (and Dany across the Narrow Sea) seemed to have an abstract problem with an enemy that seemed far away.

Now, as is often the case in real life, those “far away” problems are now at the character’s figurative and literal doorsteps. As many have already pointed out, this mirrors threats we often pass off as intangible and/or nonexistent when the contrary is often the case.

-COUGHwhitesupremacistsCOUGHglobalwarmingCOUGH-

This isn’t to say I’m wholly satisfied with every aspect of story-telling on display here. This one was pretty patchy, folks. And that’s saying something given we are in latter Game of Thrones territory.

As I said before, things are moving fast at this point in the…game. That’s both a positive and a negative. It’s a positive in that we get multiple big moments per episode given the ever shrinking about of time remaining (7 episodes after this one). It’s a negative in that after all these big moments we lose a lot of subtle and/or meaningful character beats this show won me over with in the first place.

Here’s a for instance, Benjen Stark and Jon reunite in this episode.

Well…that is to say they have a scene together. Reunite may be a generous term. We really get a quick “Benjen Ex Machina” as he saves Jon only to (seemingly) die again at the hands of the White Walkers. They don’t even really exchange anything meaningful between each other. THIS IS THE MAN WHO LED JON TO JOINING THE MOTHER FLIPPING NIGHTS’ WATCH NEED I REMIND YOU. These two meeting up again was (I assumed) supposed to be a big deal. It instead plays out like the writers wrote themselves into a corner and suddenly remembered Benjen was a thing. If he is dead, I will be pretty pissed. Bringing a character back only to have them die almost immediately is not a technique I’m overly fond of (see Osha from last season). However it must be noted that we don’t actually see Benjen die but that’s what it seemed like. I guess we’ll see but I’m still in the negative on the whole thing.

And that’s a problem showcased multiple times throughout this entire episode; an episode, I may remind you, that was longer than the normal average runtime. How is that a show that runs over an hour still feels rushed?

I praised this team-up earlier but let’s boil this down real quick: we don’t learn anything new about these characters through their interactions with one another, something I was really hoping for.

Jorah is a disappointment. Jon is heroic to his own detriment (because seriously why did he keep fighting the wrights as opposed to just getting on the goddamned dragon). The Hound likes to say “fuck” a lot and tends to give very little about any sort of larger picture. The fact that some red shirts were thrown in really only served to distract and kind of took away from Thoros’ death (I mean that and the fact that he was gone so long beforehand. Maybe dedicate more time to him before killing him just because he’s expendable?). If we had limited it to just these seven guys, I could see the tension being a little higher.

This sort relates back to the plan at the center of “Beyond the Wall,” one that is as shakey as the ice lake our heroes find themselves on. We need a wight as proof for everyone south of the Wall that these things are real and on their way.

This is an adventure that could’ve used a couple of more episodes worth of fine-tuning, mainly in the interest of defining this pretty important plan. It is in this manner that this episode mirrors Rogue One, and yes if you were not clear at this point, I mean that as a detriment.

As with the Battle of the Bastards (where Sansa’s decision-making continually makes zero sense to me), we have a situation where a series of events engineered for action and suspense effectively sells out basically all of the characters involved.

Why should we take Jon seriously as a military leader and “King in the North” when he devises a plan that falls apart at the nearest breeze? Did he  even ask Daenerys about the possibility of using the dragons? Was it supposed to be implied when she didn’t IMMEDIATELY offer him help with his plan that he seemed to just be making up as he went along? I’m honestly asking here because I remember no such scene.

And it would be one thing if we had seen a sequence of Daenerys offering the dragons as support in “Eastwatch” and Jon stubbornly refusing, or Jon asking for the dragons but Dany being like “I need them more,” but neither happened on camera (I think).

Instead, we the impression that Jon just barreled into the beyond the Wall without much in the way of a plan, bailed out by (insert any number of the plot conveniences that save the day here). I mean we’re able to have a raven off to Dany only to have Dany show up just in time with dragons in tow in what felt like less than an hour within the world of the show.

And this isn’t to knock the action. Not one bit. Returning director Alan Taylor knows how to handle spectacle. But all that spectacle, at times, comes at the expense of the character, who must be temporarily lobotomized because said spectacle requires it. The Hound’s little rock-throwing blunder makes absolute sense for that character, but we’re supposed to buy into Jon at this point. Particularly since we’re this close to the in-zone.

And I’m not even going to touch the nonsense going over on at Winterfell currently. Suffice to say, I’m basically over Sansa and Arya at this point because I’m not even positive the writers seem to know what’s going between them at this point.

The same goes for the Jon/Dany romance. Yes, we have a precedence for incest on this show. Yes, they are both Targaryens (a House built almost entirely on the back of incest). But I just cannot get behind it. Not one iota and yes the ickiness factor plays a huge role but so does the underdeveloped feel of it all.

We should also briefly talk about what, I assume, is the most “HOLY SHIT” inducing moment of the episode…

No, not that one.

There we go.

So yeah this was pretty shocking but not altogether surprising given this was a log-standing prediction/fear for many fans. It also effectively quells the theory (at least in regards to the show) that there will be three Targaryen dragon riders (the theory being those riders are Dany, Jon and Tyrion respectively). Although you could make the case that the Night King is technically going to be a dragon rider I guess.

I also said “briefly” earlier mainly just due to may hatred of playing the speculation game too much. More often than not, I’m wrong but when I’m right it feels like spoiled something for myself inadvertently.

Killing off a dragon so quickly (as one shot from a fucking ice spear) is also great because, once again, it sets the White Walkers as THE threat. It adds yet another air of mystery around the opposing team. Who knows what other aces they have up their icy sleeves…y’know outside of an undead ice dragon.

It’s a pretty dreadful ending, and I mean that in a positive sense. For all the moving pieces, this feels like the first MAJOR game-changer this season. And it’s effective in the sense that this is the motivator for all the pieces to attempt a parley now that the real enemy has the GoT-equivalent to a nuke.

So those were my thoughts. I pretty much love/hated this episode in way similar to the “Battle of the Bastards” last year. I can only assume that most fans aren’t going to care all that much that things are moving so quickly now. If anything, I bet most are digging it. For me though, it just doesn’t feel as fulfilling as many of the earlier set pieces that had whole seasons dedicated to them, moving all the pieces towards a set purpose. Now we have MAJOR plans being “planned” and executed within the span of 2 episodes.

I place this firmly at the fact that we’re off-book at this point which I will once again emphasize isn’t a wholly bad thing. I’m not going to sit in the position of some usurped fanboy that can no longer sit in a place of power as he knows what’s going to happen next because he read the books. For what it’s worth, I’m very much enjoying the ride here and plan to see this through until the bitter, cold end.

I just miss George R.R. Martin’s trademark knack for set-up and love for his characters to a degree, which is both a blessing and a curse. (I shudder to remember the trudge that was a Feast for Crows.)  I love the spectacle we’re getting week-to-week, but I’m starting to see cracks in the way it seems to be adversely effecting the characters I love and hate.

Except the Hound.

The Hound is still perfect and deserves the Iron Throne and all of the love because he is the best and should never die but of course he’s going to die oh no oh no I need to go to my happy place.  Give me a clip!

HURRY!

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.

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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 on 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 for movie this year 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 still 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, sadists or both. 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.

‘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.