Sorry for the length, but I didn't have time to write a short blog.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: We Must All Deal With Our Ego

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a fun romp back into the Marvel universe of what is one of the more successful, box office-wise, comic book movies. All the Guardians from Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) to Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to Groot (Vin Diesel) to Rocket (Bradley Cooper) to Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) are all back for Vol. 2.  Even Gamora's sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan) is in the movie. Like Vol. 1, this Guardians is a blend of humor, action, and emotions with an 80's and 90's soundtrack. It also marks something that no member of Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has really ever done. I liked Vol. 2. It's worth the price and 3-D works for this movie too. Is it the best in the MCU? No. It has some moments of just pointless humor and a couple of the characters need some depth and are more two-dimensional than usual. Hey, it's a comic book movie and it does just exactly what it is supposed to do. A clash between good and evil with a moral theme of what makes a family drives the movie. It is all about, ehem, overcoming Ego. 

So to discuss this movie further, I must do more detail. If you haven't seen it and don't want any spoilers, stop now. 


No member of the MCU movies has killed off a popular character permanently. Admittedly, shows like Agents of Shield have killed off a few of the good guys but the major and popular characters, no. With the death of Yondu (Michael Rooker) in Vol. 2, the MCU has taken a risk and also moved the franchise forward. Killing off Yondu allows the theme of what makes a family focus.  Yondu became a popular character and making him into Peter Quill's real parent built a strong case for our strange band of heroes as a family in a way that the Avengers never could. The death of Yondu is a risk that could pay dividends for the franchise in the future.

Guardians is in a tough position among its Marvel siblings. While the mainstays rely on the famous heroes like Iron Man, Spider-Man, Thor, Captain America, the Avengers, and X-Men, Guardians is something of the "red-headed stepchild" of the MCU. Not only was the first movie not expected to do as well as it did, it was also given a near-impossible task of setting up Thanos and the Infinity War which for you non-nerds is kind of a big deal. So the surprise hit became a franchise. People were captured by its charm, humor and moving characters that include a raccoon and a walking tree that can express itself in just three words better than Kristen Stewart ever has in any or the Twilight movies. 

The premise of Vol. 2 is multi-level. The main level is Peter Quill or Star-Lord finally meets the father that sent Yondu to collect. Quill's father is a celestial being, or basically a planet, that took human form. His name is Ego (Kurt Russel). In the comic book world, especially in the Guardian's universe, characters often live up to their names. Ego lives up to his name. So the Guardians must literally overcome Ego. Get it? It is what makes them become family.

The other level is the Sovereigns who are a golden, genetically engineered race that see themselves as superior. Like Ego, they live up to their names. Rocket, the raccoon, steals from them. Ironically, it is this theft that gives the Guardians what they need to face Ego and also the defeat of the Sovereigns brings us mention in the ending scenes of their intention to create a new being that they will call Adam. This is most likely a reference to Adam Warlock who was an essential character in the Infinity War comics. Like Vision of the Avengers, Adam Warlock is also one of the beings that can control an infinity stone. It is unclear if Adam will be used in the MCU version of the Infinity War, but it is also worth noting that Adam Warlock in the comics is also a Guardian. The movies have something of a record of making enemies into friends - dare I say family - and heroes. They really are the Guardians of the Galaxy. 

I will buy the Blu-Ray. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Ghost in the Shell: Bringing Anime to Life

If you don't like anime or manga or understand why anyone would like this kind of animation or graphic, then you will hate Ghost in the Shell. The movie has also been dogged by the "white washing" controversy that tends to attack any live-action adaptation of anime.  It is the pronouncement that a movie based on Asian material should star an Asian actress. It was a charge made against other adaptations most notably The Last Airbender. The problem with this is that anime more frequently than not draws its characters as non-Asian. If you think that because a movie Asian anime that only Asians should be cast, you've probably haven't seen much anime. Here endeth the rant.  

Ghost in the Shell is among anime and manga lovers something of an iconic movie and graphic novel starting in the late 80's and being made into a movie in 1995. When I first saw that Ghost in the Shell would be adapted, several thoughts ran through my brain. First, I hope they don't do to Shell what was done to Aeon Flux. The filmmaker didn't. Second, will an American audience be ready for a movie that, if it stays true to the original, that will often have odd movement and dialog stilted and philosophical nature of a noir Japanese archetypal piece? Judging from ticket sales in the US, the answer is no. Third, how long after the casting of Scarlett Johansson will someone complain about a Caucasian actress being cast will it take for someone to complain? The answer was not long. Fourth, how long before the movie is made will someone complain about the casting choices? Also, not long. With all this in mind, the more I think about the movie the better I like it, but it also has problems.

Scarlett Johansson has built something of a reputation of playing ice queens with a heart in action flicks. Characters like Lucy and Black Widow have solidified this view. In Ghost in the Shell, she takes on the role of Major who is a cybernetic being in that her human brain is hosted in an unfeeling robotic body. Major is the first successful hybrid of her kind. Her real memories have been suppressed and altered by an evil corporation headed by Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) who views Major as a weapon and nothing more. Major is assigned to Section 9, a special government force led by the noble Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano). Major's partner is Batou (Pilou Asbæk) whose eyes are artificially enhanced when he is blinded in an explosion caused by Kuze (Michael Pitt) who was one of the failed attempts to create someone like Major. Kuze is loosely based on The Puppetmaster from the original. 

This is a world where humans regularly enhance themselves with mechanical devices. It also makes humans hackable. Major and Section 9 seek to protect humans from this. She learns that her memories have been altered. In a very Jason Bournesque way, Major begins to seek who she is. It is more than this, though. At the center of Ghost in the Shell is the question of what makes us human? It is not just the quest of Major to discover who she is. There is also Kuze and Batou and all the others who are enhanced. When does the machine replace the human or is there something more to us than our bodies? In short, there is our essence-our ghost- that makes us more than our physical mechanics. I told you that anime can become pretty philosophical.

Ghost in the Shell has a rich amount of material to draw from. I liked the casting. Johansson even moves in a somewhat anime and robot-like manner. The biggest problem that the movie faces is that it has far too many visual additions that really offer very little to the movie. It is at times a little disjointed in its plot and the visuals do tend to get in the way. I really didn't expect critics to like the movie and in all honesty, its anime style is not going to be something that American audiences are going to easily accept. I personally liked that the movie worked to remain true to its origins. It made me want to go back and re-watch the original animated film. Is it the best movie of the year? No. As a fan of the original, I liked the overall texture and casting of the movie. If you're going for just the action, it has that too, but if you want a little less anime form, you might want to stick with something like The Matrix

Again, if you're not a fan, you like most critics will probably not like Ghost in the Shell. I am a fan, and I did like it. I am going to guess that in the larger Asian market, it might do well and if it does, there might be more in store for Section 9 and Major. I liked it in 3-D and I will likely buy the Blu-ray. 

For fans, below are few pics comparing the actors with the original anime. 

Batou before enhancement



Monday, March 20, 2017

Beauty and the Beast: A "Live" Action Adaptation

There are no spoilers here for Beauty and the Beast if you've seen the 1991 Disney animated version or the Broadway show which opened in 1993. In reality, the new version is actually more of an adaptation of the Broadway show than the cartoon, but it does expand the mythology of the story. If my memory serves, the songs in the new movie that were not in the animated film and may be new to some are from the stage show with the exception of two new songs, "Evermore" and "Days in the Sun." At any rate, if you are expecting some strange twist in the new film there is nothing new. If you've never seen the original, you need to get out more often and you have no idea what you are missing.

There is only one real new reveal in this movie and that is we learn what happened to Belle's (Emma Watson) mother. No. I am not going to tell you. It also adds nothing to the story. There has also been some controversy as to including a gay character in the new version. In the original, LeFou, now played by Josh Gad, was kind of Chester, the little dog, with Gaston (Luke Evans) as Spike, the big dog, for kids. For adults, however, it was reasonably clear that part of the humor of Gaston and LeFou was that Gaston was so self-absorbed, he didn't get why LeFou idolized him. Trying to drive home this in the new movie also serves no real purpose. It is a controversy that is much ado.

So let's talk movie! As long as you accept CGI as live action, then Beauty and the Beast is live action. There are a few characters that have been expanded upon with some favorites still offering us a chance to be their guest. There is, of course, Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) and Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) who play their respective roles perfectly. Emma Thompson lends her gifts to becoming Mrs. Potts and mother to Chip (Nathan Mack). The role of the feather duster, renamed Plumette from Fifi in the new version, is played Gugu Mbatha-Raw and the Wardrobe, Madame Garderobe, is played by Audra McDonald have expanded roles. A new addition is a harpsichord, Maestro Cadenza, played by the inestimable Stanley Tucci. The cast of "objects" are perfect and a great deal of fun.

Two other expanded roles are those of the Enchantress (Hattie Morahan) and the always astonishing Kevin Cline as Belle's dad, Maurice. Both add to and expand the original story. Cline shines in his playing of the single dad trying to bring up an educated female in Eighteenth-Century France.

The central characters are of course Belle, Gaston, LeFou and the Beast (Dan Stevens).  I thought Emma Watson was a bit weak in the opening number of "Bon Jour" but that may also just be the quality of the sound mixing for that number and that my hearing is not what it used to be. Watson though still captures our collective hearts as the girl who is just a little strange. Gaston and LeFou are fun and have captured the roles. I admit that I am not a huge fan of Josh Gad, but he is really suited to the role of LeFou. Evans is the quintessential egomaniac and Disney bad guy as Gaston, who is a bit less comic and a bit crueler than the original. To say that Dan Stevens is rapidly becoming one of my favorite actors is an understatement. His work in Legion is stellar and so is his performance as Beast.  It is little wonder that given the iconic nature of the original cast for the cartoon, Disney has pulled out all the stops in bringing together such an incredible cast of great actors to take on the roles that were immortalized in the animated version. 

If there is one thing that is a bit over-done in this version is the "flying camera" pan which seems to be director Bill Condon's favorite shot. While it is cool a couple of times, it gets a bit old and jarring in 3-D. Speaking of which, if you see the movie in 3-D the snowball is perhaps the first time I've ever almost ducked in a 3-D movie. 

I like the movie and it sets a great tone. I will buy the Blu-ray. 

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Logan, Not Your Average Superhero Movie

Seventeen years ago, Hugh Jackman became The Wolverine in the X-Men movie franchise. He was
an instant success. Despite some often panned movies, there was always Jackman's Logan, Weapon X, Wolverine...that fans loved. He is a fan favorite and will remain the iconic actor by which all who follow in the role will be measured. Even though Jackman's Wolverine never donned the famed yellow spandex of the comic book, He leaves us with his last and probably best of the X-Men movies ever made, Logan.

Logan is inspired by the comic book series Old Man Logan. It is loosely based on the alternative world series, but still, it works as yet another timeline in the X-Men saga. The movie is set in 2029. That does not mean it's the same timeline as the other movies since most of the X-Men movies are not sequential anyways. It is as Time puts it, perhaps the most complex timeline in the movie universe. It also doesn't actually mean that Logan takes place in any of the timelines.

Only a few minor spoilers follow. Nothing that isn't revealed in the exposition of the movie. 

Logan, who has tried to leave Wolverine behind him, drives a limousine in Texas. He has taken the now 90 plus year-old Professor Charles Xavier to live in an abandoned mill in Mexico. While he drives to make his living, Charles is cared for by mutant and one-time mutant hunter, Caliban, an albino. Professor X is suffering from a deteriorating brain disease which makes his powerful telepathic mind a danger. There are several veiled references to the three mutants as being in hiding because of an event in which Professor X lost control of his ability. There are also references that most of the other mutants have disappeared or died, but there is no reference or detail. Patrick Stewart returns as Professor X and has also announced that this too will be his last time in the chair.

Logan has finally begun to age. Something is physically wrong with the superhero but has he also lost his drive to do good? We will find out when Logan and Professor X are introduced to a young mutant named Laura. Laura is a mutant that was created through genetic manipulation using Logan's own DNA. In the comics, she will become Weapon 23 who donned the mantle of the Wolverine in the alternative world. In the movie, she is a child who was first trained as a weapon and killer.  She is played by the newcomer, Dafne Keen who plays a very believable child-weapon. They are confronted by villains galore. Most notably is the leader of the military team trying to recapture Laura, Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and evil mad-scientist Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant).

Logan is a different superhero movie. Its tone is somber and often dark. Wolverine is not the man he once was. He is beaten by what he has witnessed by his long life. His only remaining "family" is Professor X and the albino mutant, Caliban, that once hunted him and others like him. It is this that drives the movie, and also makes it probably the best in the saga so far. I for one will miss Jackman and Stewart but I also look forward to the new. Logan is the perfect bookend to the time that Jackman has spent as The Wolverine and the best, I think, of the X-Men franchise.

Logan is rated R for language and its extreme violence. The rating truly matches the gritty tone of the movie. It also has no after credit scene. Don't despair. It makes perfect sense and if you truly miss the after credit scene, you get a brief preview of Deadpool 2 at the beginning.

I will buy the Blue-ray.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Single-Minded Action: John Wick, Chapter 2

Action hero, anti-hero, cold-blooded killer, ultimate killing machine...all fit the character of John Wick played by Keanu Reeves. There is something different about the action movie series John Wick. The first movie was the story of this ultimate assassin who gave up his legendary status in the underworld for love. When his wife dies, Wick is left with only the memory of his wife, the dog she gave him, and his car. When the car is stolen and the dog killed by a reckless member of the Russian underworld who attacks Wick in his home, Wick returns momentarily to seek vengeance and get his car back. The action sequences of the first John Wick film are, to say the least, astonishing. The movie was a surprise hit.

In John Wick, Chapter 2, Wick is once again forced to return to his old life as "The Boogey Man" when a member of the Italian underworld, Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), demands his services using a marker or blood oath that in Wick's world is inviolate. Wick begs Santino not to call in this marker, but Santino will not be put off and destroys Wick's home and so many of the memories that Wick has used for his wife. And so, Wick meets his tormentor's demands and then turns on the tormentor. 

If possible, the action sequences are even more astonishing than the original. John Wick, Chapter 2 is an action movie in every sense of the word. What makes it work is not just the seemingly continuous action sequences that are seamlessly staged, the movie gives the audience moments to breath filled with often dark humor. Wick is played by Reeves not as some sociopath but with a certain moral code and empathetic feel. He is not just good at what he does, he is the most efficient in the world. John Wick, Chapter 2 is an enjoyable, over-the-top movie that is a fun watch and every bit as much fun as the first. John Wick, Chapter 2 is rated R for extreme violence and brief nudity. While Lionsgate has not officially green-lit Chapter 3, it is pretty clear from the end of Chapter 2, Keanu Reeves and director, Chad Stahelski, that it is already in the works and both actor and director are looking forward to making the third installment of the franchise.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Hidden Figures: A Story that Should Always Be Visible

I always approach movies that start with "based on a true story" with a bit of trepidation because far too often the statement should also include "with a lot of fictional stuff too." Hidden Figures is astonishing at capturing an astounding and often shameful era in our history. What makes Hidden Figures different is that, aside from the creation of a few fictional characters who are more composite characters, it strives to show a culture which many would like to think of as long past. Sadly, even today, we still see such beliefs rise up again and again. 

I was born in the late 1950's. When I first learned of the idea of separate but equal and things like "colored only" bathrooms or drinking fountains, it was beyond my understanding. Yes, it's true. I grew up in a small town in Colorado which had no African Americans, and we were sheltered from the Civil Rights movement. I'm not saying that there were no people of color in my life. I would no sooner think of my Hispanic buddies as needing a separate fountains or bathrooms than I would a family member. The point is that such an idea I still find foreign and that is what makes Hidden Figures important. It brings to life a time that we must always guard against.

Hidden Figures is the story of three remarkable women from the early days of NASA. It is the story of Katherine Johnson (), a NASA mathematician who calculated flight paths for the early space flights including John Glenn's historic orbit, Alan Shepard's first flight into space, the flight path for Apollo 11 and was involved in solving the problems of returning Apollo 13 safely home; Dorothy Vaughn (), NASA's first African American and woman supervisor of the new IBM computer systems; and Mary Jackson, (), the remarkable first African American NASA engineer who won the right to attend White college extension classes in segregated West Virginia. These three ladies crossed lines of race, gender, and profession to not only work with the some of the greatest minds of the mid-Twentieth Century but became leaders of those teams tasked with the space race to the moon in the 1960s. It was a remarkable time of great change and turmoil and Johnson, Vaughn, and Johnson were astonishing people. 

While characters like Al Harrison (), Vivian Mitchell (), and Paul Stafford () are actually composite or even symbolic of people from the era. Al Harrison is actually a composite of three supervisors, and Stafford and Mitchell are symbolic of the problems that the three mathematicians or computers had to face. It gives us a chance to see that the people like Stafford and Mitchell weren't evil or villains, they were a product of the era.  The problem of societal racism is one that still exists. The movie shows how easy it is not to be aware of the problem. As Mitchell tells Vaughn, "Despite what you may think, I have nothing against y'all" (meaning African Americans), it is Vaughn's revealing reply for all to heed, "I know you probably believe that."

If you don't cheer, tear up a bit, or feel a burst of joy at the accomplishments and tenacity of these three "hidden figures," you have no heart. It is a wonderful story of tenacity and power. While some of the stories are a bit of fiction and some of the characters are fictional composites and symbols, Hidden Figures is a movie that not only reminds us of the problems and glory of our history but also reminds us that we must always guard and fight against becoming that society. Hidden Figures also offers us something else. It shows us hope and joy that we can become the society we should become. It is a story that should always be visible.

Friday, January 13, 2017

La La Land: A Tribute to a Gone By Era

I am not sure why I like La La Land, but I do. It is both a tribute to musicals of the Golden Age and a modern, bitter-sweet romantic comedy. La La Land is built around the simple and classic premise of boy meets girl. They both have dreams. They get their dreams to come true, but it is not necessarily the happy ending of the old musicals. Yet, the ending is uplifting in its way as the time flies in an impressionist tribute to the way time moves and how if La La Land were a 1940's musical it could have ended. The movie isn't that 1940's love story though, and so we remember our first loves but like time life flows onward.

Writer/Director Damien Chazelle, whose credits include the intense movie Whiplash, creates a love letter to the fanciful era of musicals like Singing in the Rain when people burst out into song. It is fun and lively and, like the musicals it pays tribute to, has a storyline that is fairly predictable. Chazelle even manages to show his love of jazz and the conflict that drives jazz as a music form just as he did in Whiplash. 

The story is about the love affair between a struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) and struggling jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). We follow them on a romp through LA as each seeks their dream. Mia dreams of becoming the great actress and Sebastian of opening a jazz club where he will renew the dying art form. While neither Gosling nor Stone are powerhouse singers or dancers, there is chemistry and magic in their performance. Emma Stone's performance is a tour de force of her talent.  If her charm and big eyes don't reach you, you have no heart. Ryan Gosling is perfect as the struggling jazz artist who is torn between a modern world and the music of a past era. the music of a past era.

La La Land has the feel of a stage style musical or one of those old MGM musicals. It starts with a rather strange song and dance number on a freeway in LA that makes you wonder what on Earth have you've let yourself in for, and then draws you into its embrace. By the end, you will want to sit in your car and lean on the horn. It is one of the better movies of the season.