REVIEW ROUND-UP PART TWO
JOHN WICK 2
Nobody saw the first John Wick coming. It wasn’t based on a hot comic book, and isn’t a gritty re-imagining of an 80’s TV show. The directors aren’t big names, and the film’s star hadn’t been in a huge hit since the last Matrix movie. Nobody saw him coming, but now John Wick is here I don’t want him to ever leave.
As stated, these films aren’t based on some existing property, but there are such tantalising hints at a rich, deep mythology that you could easily think it is. There seem to be hundreds of stories playing in the background, or at the edge of frame in John Wick’s world. It is a world of systems and roles and oaths that are to be adhered to no matter the cost.
It is one such oath that brings John back into the action after his retirement at the end of the first film. The plot contrivances the film goes through in order to bring him back into the fold are fine, especially when they result in action scenes as enjoyable as this. The opening garage gun fight is a highlight, but the action doesn’t ever really dip in quality. It’s a ludicrously OTT bullet ballet throughout and we love it for it.
But as ridiculous as the action gets, Keanu Reeves keeps things grounded. His melancholy performance holds everything together. The slight cracks in his otherwise flat voice, and his deep, sorrowful eyes reveal the human behind the terminator. Wick is an interesting character in a wonderfully layered world, and I hope we get the chance to return to both of them.
KONG: SKULL ISLAND
Disappointing. If I had to use one word to sum up Kong: Skull Island that would be the one I’d use.
Everything seemed to be working for it in the trailers. The biggest Kong yet, crazy looking monsters, an excellent cast, a great soundtrack, and a heavy Apocalypse Now anti-war vibe. But when it all plays out on screen it never really comes together in any meaningful or satisfying way.
The action never gets the pulse pounding. The monsters don’t do anything impacting. The cast, with the exception of John C. Reilly, are all wasted. Some live, some die, and it matters not. They all just stand around, react when they need to, but fail to make an impression. Which is especially shocking when you consider we are talking about John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hiddleston, and Brie Larson. All fine actors. All forgettable here.
John C. Reilly, as a fighter pilot stuck on the island since World War 2, is the only one given anything to work with. His character is a delight, he gets all the best lines, and elicits both laughs and sympathy from the audience. When he’s on screen, it feels like maybe there is a film with something to say buried underneath all the excess fat.
I can see what they were trying to do with Kong: Skull Island, but an admirable failure is still a failure.
Hugh Jackman started playing this character seventeen years ago. Before that role we did not know him. He arrived as the Wolverine. He will always be the Wolverine.
Plenty of people have played Batman, and each have given that character something different, each have had their own successes with the character. But there will only ever be one Wolverine, and that is Hugh Jackman.
And here, in Logan, the summation of seventeen years worth of stories about pain, prejudice, fear, hope, strength, and redemption, it all culminates in Jackman’s finest performance.
In Logan the X-Men are gone. Mutants as the world once knew them are gone. They are no longer born, they are created, “perfected” to be used. They are no longer a minority. They are tools. All that remains of the old world are Charles Xavier, whose power to bring mutants together now only hurts people, and Logan. He’s a shell. No longer fighting for the world, but to escape it. He’s given up.
Then Laura comes into his life. One of the created mutants who has spent her short life an abused prisoner. In this darkness she turns to X-Men comics and reads tales of the heroic Wolverine and of a place where she can find sanctuary. A place to be free, where she can make her own choices.
What makes Logan such a strong film is not only the weight of history, but that it is an end. A full stop. Long form storytelling, being most prominently used in the Marvel movies currently, undoubtedly has its pros, but a lack of a definitive end point sometimes robs those stories of power.
Here, director James Mangold and Jackman get to bring their lengthy experiences with the character to bear. Jackman’s love and fatigue with the Wolverine are all felt. Logan feels old and tired, world weary and defeated, but not without life, and not without light. And when Laura comes into his life, that spark ignites in him and for one last time, The Wolverine is an X-Man.
One last ride for an icon. And what a ride it is.
One of the more excruciating film going experiences of the year, and rightly so. Jordan Peele’s Get Out is a scathing look at race relations in today’s society. A perfect balance of awkward laughs, uncomfortable silences, and outright dread, this is one of the most impressive debuts by a director in a long time. Important and entertaining, cathartic and yet simultaneously blood chilling, Get Out doesn’t ask What If? It tells us this is how it is, and what are we going to do about it?
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
The cynic in me sees these live action Disney remakes as nothing but a blatant cash grab. None of them have equaled the quality of the original, and few add anything to justify their existence so why bother?
Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland movies are dire. The Sleeping Beauty remake, Maleficent, at least came at the story from a different angle, even if it resulted in something mediocre. Cinderella and Jungle Book were both fine, but why not just watch the superior originals?
Now we have Beauty and the Beast, arguably the best animated feature in the Disney canon. And to my surprise, I like it.
The changes are subtle but important. The Beast doesn’t just give Belle a library, but has actually read the books. He can engage her on an intellectual level. Belle’s brief backstory involving her mother heightens our fondness for that father daughter relationship, as well as cementing exactly where Belle got her fearlessness from. The explanation as to why the castle servants were transformed along with the Beast is a little heavy handed, but does at least answer the question. None of the tweaks are game changers, but most are appreciated.
The music remains as powerful as ever, even if the songs are no longer performed by trained singers and auto-tune now most certainly plays a part. The visuals are enchanting, it really is the cartoon come to life. Admittedly, some of the character designs aren’t as iconic as their animated counterparts (most noticeably being Cogsworth), but that’s to be expected. The cartoon makes use of an elegant simplicity that a live action film cannot get away with.
The performances range from solid to great. Many questioned Emma Watson’s casting, but her chemistry with Dan Steven’s Beast is palpable. But the two show stealers, for me, are Luke Evans and Josh Gad as Gaston and LeFou respectively. Evans is so entertaining as the blustering airhead Gaston that I missed him whenever he wasn’t on screen. We love him, which makes his evil all the more insidious. And Gad brings a completely new wrinkle to LeFou, who in the animated version is truly despicable. Here, he is a misguided man who has simply fallen for the wrong person. His misdeeds stem from love, not hate, and it changes the character for the better.
All in all, a pleasant surprise.
Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire feels like an experiment. Like Wheatley wanted to test himself. To see if it was possible to have a whole movie be one long shoot out. And for the most part his experiment is a success.
He is helped by a game cast who all clearly enjoy going big with their thinly sketched characters. None of them are fully developed on the page, but the actors give each of them an interior life with small moments and gestures throughout the film.
Deserving special mention are Sharlto Copely who, unsurprisingly, chews the scenery like a madman, and Sam Riley who attempts to match him as a drugged out wild card.
It starts to drag a little in the final third, not completely able to sustain itself for a full running time, but the sense of fun in experimentation never fully diminishes.
It’s by no means a failure, but as a fan of Wheatley, I would like him to tackle something with a little more meat on its bones next time around.
THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS
By this point you are either on board with this franchise or you know it isn’t for you. And if it isn’t for you, that’s a real shame because you are missing out on the most consistent superhero movie franchise being made today.
Yes, Superheroes. That’s what these movies have become. Dominic Turetto and family are the drum and bass Avengers. And if you just cringed, then once again, these aren’t for you. That’s fine. Just don’t be a dick about it, no one wants to hear that you watched the sixth one and noticed the runway goes on forever. Good for you, you’re clearly smarter than the movie.
The Fast franchise is about a bunch of diverse superhuman men and women who can punch people through walls, hack any technology known to man, and be left unscathed after fist fights, gun fights, and earth rattling explosions. All that, plus ridiculous cars. One of which regularly wheelies. Sounds like superheroes to me. And, one thing it does better than the actual superhero movies out there, it redeems its villains. Brings them into the fold. Makes them part of the family. Where as every Marvel and DC film ends with that villain of the week dead and buried (Yes, except Loki).
These are big hearted family films disguised as moronic teenage entertainment. Yes the soundtracks listened to in isolation are terrible. Yes the jokes almost always fall flat. Yes the action is so over the top that it becomes laughable. And yes, the plots are nonsensical to the point you simply stop following them and just let it all wash over you. But over eight films (though really this started in the fourth installment) the creators and cast have been cultivating a very specific tone. These are hangout movies. The music you wouldn’t listen to on your own, but for the party they are throwing it sets the right mood. Loud and crazy. The jokes, whilst not funny, still somehow elicit a laugh, because they are coming from that friend who doesn’t stop telling them and you can’t help but appreciate the effort. The action may lack peril, but its about the buzz not the tension. And the plot? You get the necessities and follow it through to the next big high.
That is not to say these movies are beyond criticism. I found the lack of resistance to Statham’s character joining the team after he killed fan favourite Han to be an issue. The series has always had a tenuous relationship with continuity but this was a moment that actually deserved some weight behind it.
They aren’t perfect and nobody is saying they are. But what they do, they do very well, and it isn’t as easy as you’d think.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOLUME 2
Can we just take a second to acknowledge what a frickin’ achievement it is that two of the most popular characters in recent modern pop culture are a CGI anti-social Raccoon and a sentient tree who can only say three words?!
Respect to James Gunn, because that is no easy feat. And yet he made it look easy. With both the original and now Volume 2 he has taken characters that no-one was really all that interested in, or had even heard of, and made us love them. They don’t even need to be in some high stakes intergalactic battle, we’d be happy to watch them sit around and bicker. Luckily for us, they do both.
Volume 2 is primarily concerned with family, and how that concept has broken all of the principle characters and yet is the one thing that can mend them. Peter, having dealt with him fleeing his mother’s death bed when she reached for him in the first movie, is now dealing with his daddy issues. Gamora is trying to heal the old wounds between herself and her adopted sister, Nebula. Drax is still struggling with the loss of his wife and daughter. Rocket is doing his best to push everyone away before they have a chance to do the same to him. And Groot, well, he’s a baby now. All of these issues are brought to a head when Kurt Russell’s Ego The Living Planet turns up claiming to be Peter’s biological father. To say more would spoil much of the fun, and it is most definitely that.
James Gunn’s script and direction walks a tightrope throughout. The jokes never get in the way of the emotions, in fact they accentuate them. The emotions never get in the way of the action, in fact they elevate it. Each ingredient that makes up this bright, colourful, absurd little corner of the universe is perfectly balanced.
The only criticism I have is that some of the emotional breakthroughs come a little too quickly and easily. Gamora and Nebula for example, seemingly overcome the years of grief caused at the hands of one another with a quick fight and a few words. This was something I wanted to see worked through since the first movie and its resolution didn’t feel as hard earned as it perhaps should have.
But on the flip side of that, Peter gives a silly speech about David Hasselhoff that somehow distills a whole relationship so beautifully that I was almost moved to tears (….almost).
With many of Marvel’s properties part of the fun is seeing other creators come in and play with the toys, but Gunn has such a handle on this bunch of nutty goofballs that’d I’d be worried to see anyone else take control of them.
Volume Three can’t get here soon enough.
And that’s it for the year so far.
I’ll be back for Alien: Covenant, Wonder Woman, Spiderman, War for the Planet of the Apes, Thor, and the rest of what this year has to offer.