King Arthur: Legend of the Sword Review

This has become a surprisingly hard review to write.  I can’t think if a time when my personal opinion of a film was more divergent from relatively object measures of its quality.  Because I kind of loved King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, but I also think it is mostly a bad movie.  It has proven somewhat difficult to untangle my feelings toward.  

This is not a case like John Carter or Guy Ritchie’s previous movie, The Man from UNCLE; those were movies that, though they bombed, I thought and still think are excellent films.  King Arthur is undeniably kind of a mess.  Its different parts don’t mix together well and some of its biggest moments fall completely flat.  But I still greatly enjoyed watching.

Charlie Hunnam stars as Arthur, who grew up in a brothel after his uncle, King Vortigern, overthrew and killed his father using black magic.  Growing up in the brothel, Arthur has become a streetwise hustler and grifter.  He learned to fight thanks to the local, Medieval Londinium Kung Fu master and he knows which wheels to grease to keep things running smoothly.  That is until the sword in the stone is found and the prophecy of the born king triggers unrest in the kingdom.  Arthur is forced to take up the sword and fulfill his destiny as King.

There are two movies at war in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.  There is a ponderous fantasy epic in the vein of Willow or Hercules or, if you squint, Lord of the Rings.  Then there is the Guy Ritchie crime movie, him doing his low level criminals getting in over their heads sort of movie like Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.  These two separate kinds of movies never successfully combine. Neither one subsumes the other, either.  When Jude Law is the focus, it is the most serious sort of fantasy movie.  When it turns to Hunnam and his ragtag knights, it goes full Ritchie.  I like both kinds of movies here, and I enjoyed the juxtaposition. There are a few scenes that mix the two, the highlight being a quest to the completely undefined “dark realm” that is done almost entirely to loud music and quick cuts.  It is barely comprehensible, but that is the point. It is a strange, revelatory adventure in an unknown place.  It is purposefully disorienting. And since there is little drama in wondering if the title character will survive a mid-movie adventure, it is gotten through with quickly.  Unfortunately, the two different movies can’t be bridged at the end, when it should all come together.

The best parts are the one that lean into Ritchie’s filmmaking idiosyncrasies.  The bits with Arthur telling a story or laying a plan that are accompanied by shots of how things are exactly like he says/are the exact opposite of how he says. It is the same kind of fun stuff that made Snatch such a delight.  It is hard to ramp that up to a more traditional epic showdown, which this movie has and it is a big letdown.  

As much as I enjoyed this movie, which was a lot, I could never shake the feeling that things just weren’t working.  The movie skips over things, sometimes to streamline not particularly interesting yet necessary plot points, sometimes it makes things appear to happen out of nowhere.  The situation that leads to Arthur’s rise is never really shown, just assumed.

In the end, what matters to me is that I enjoyed this movie. I caters directly to my tastes.  I enjoy every ingredient found in this movie’s recipe, even if the end result is less than the sum of its parts.

***1/2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 Review

The first Guardians of the Galaxy is one of my favorite Marvel movies in large part for how different it is from the rest of them.  There are definitely certain beats that it hits that are similar, but it is not just the same origin story we’ve seen a dozen times now.  Its combination of action, humor and music made for an perfect theater going experience and James Gunn voice was apparent throughout. Its sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, doubles down on the things that made the first movie great.  Instead of trying to go bigger than its predecessor, it digs in deeper with its characters to make an unusual and wonderful sequel.

I won’t deny that Guardians 2 gets kind of messy at times.  There is plenty of convenience in the plot and characters have a habit of just flat out saying the themes in dialogue, tt splits the cast up into several smaller groups for most of the movie, limiting their ability to play off each other, and the final fight scene gets a little incoherent for stretches.  None of that did much to lessen my enjoyment of the movie.  

The plot involves giving the team exactly what they want, from Star-Lord meeting his dad to Rocket managing to push everyone away.  But like in nearly all fiction, maybe the things they wanted are not what they needed.  So obviously, things go awry.  That is true for returning supporting characters as well.  Nebula plays a big role again, with her allegiance shifting from being a villain to something more like a nemesis. Yondu, also sees a bigger role and reveals his true colors as the movie goes along.  At the end, you really feel like you know these characters better than you did before.

The balance between characters isn’t perfect.  Drax has little to do besides be nearly perfect comic relief and Rocket gets largely sidelined after the midpoint.  New character Mantis’s role is small and very little about her is revealed.  The movie also continues Marvel’s villain problem, with this movies bad guy ceasing to be interesting at all once his villainy is revealed.  I don’t know that these are really problems. The movie is stuffed as it is, I don’t really see how much more they could have done with Rocket or Drax or Mantis without adding significantly to the movie.  

The soundtrack, a big part of the first movies charm, is maybe even better here.  This movie features some deeper cuts, and a does a little more work to call attention to itself, but it all works in context.  It also retains the humor from the first movie.  My two biggest complaints are about jokes that just absolutely didn’t land for me, but those are small problems in the deluge of moments that did work.

It also, to my complete delight, further embraces the acid trip weirdness of Marvel’s cosmic characters.  We actually see the face on Ego The Living Planet. Yondu gets his full mohawk.  It is just overall more willing to get weird with things, and that is what I love about comic books.  I am glad to see them be rewarded for embracing this stuff rather than trying to sand it off.  We’ve come a long way from the X-Men refusing to wear yellow in their first movie.

Maybe I am still just riding a sugar rush after watching this movie, but I loved it unreservedly. I haven’t really felt that way about one of these since the previous Guardians of the Galaxy, I guess.  In some ways it is the perfect example of more of the same, in others is wonderfully different.  I liked all of it.

****1/2

[Insert Tired Catchphrase Here]

Earlier this week was the 20th anniversary of the release of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. Which makes me feel very old. That movie, which came out when I wasn’t quite 12 years old, and its sequels were a staple of my high school years.  I am attempting to be more honest about my likes and influences on this blog.  Not that I was being dishonest before, but I have a bad habit of going with the critical consensus just because or just keeping my mouth shut when I disagree.  In my estimation, the first Austin Powers is a comedy masterpiece.

I, of course, didn’t see it twenty years ago.  Like almost everybody else, I first saw Austin Powers when it hit home video, probably a year or so later.  I didn’t see it at home.  I lived in an ineffective repressive religious household.  My brothers and I were not allowed to watch a whole host of things growing up, from wrestling to The Simpsons.  Austin Powers, with its blatantly sexual PG-13 jokes, was right out. These household bans were effective as one might expect in a home with more than a handful of boys, all of whom have friends with more lenient parents.  I could hit up a friend that live five blocks away and watch most forbidden movies; the same year Austin Powers came out his parents took the two of us to see Starship Troopers, a film with more sexual content than this movie.  There were other outlets as well. I knew that at my Grandma’s house there was a VHS tape with a half dozen episodes of The Simpsons recorded on it.  All the work that my Mom did to ban these bad influences only made me and my brothers more eager to track them down.  With Austin Powers quotes replacing Dumb and Dumber ones with my classmates, it was a movie that I kind of felt I had to see. That being said, I can’t quite remember where I saw it for the first time. Maybe my brother rented it.  Maybe I watched it at a friend’s.  I know I saw it before the sequel came out and loved it.

I like the Austin Powers sequels, though I won’t argue that they provide anything more than increasingly diminished returns.  The first movie, as I remember it, is an incredibly well-made spoof.  It fits right in the Mel Brooks mold and I would argue that it is better than any of Brook’s films since High Anxiety.  My recollections were confirmed when I sat down and really watched it for the first time in what seems like years last night.

The thing that stood out to me most during this rewatch is how tame it is.  For all that Austin Powers the character is all about sex, the movie is truly PG-13 with its sexual content.  He says a lot of things that sound dirty, but there is no actual nudity.  It is a movie that is largely about sex that is very careful to never actually show it, like in the famous object blocking nudity scenes.  There is also almost no cursing, a fact that doesn’t stand out until you start to think about it. I say it fits that arrogant mold that it doesn’t need cursing to be funny, unlike other movies.   For all of its eventually annoying catchphrases, Austin Powers has a lot of fun word play.  Plus, it’s funnier to hear Dr. Evil say “frikken” instead of actually dropping f-bombs.  Those catchphrases are a problem, though.  But not a problem with this movie, more a problem with its oversized impact on pop culture.  Every asshole spent that latter part of the 90’s quoting Austin Powers and it was never once funny.  The same thing happened with Borat, and in neither case is it the movie’s fault.

The catchphrases and their enormous popularity do lead me to the most interesting thing about watching Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery 20 years later; the movie’s relationship to time.  It starts in 1967 before Austin is cryogenically frozen for 30 years.  While we are not quite as far from his own time as the movie is from ours, it is long enough for the modern stuff to seem as dated as Austin himself does to the other characters. The CD’s that baffle Austin are well on their way to being as dated as his record player. The movie is filled with late 90’s detritus. He’s got a comically small, yet bulky laptop, top of the line in 1997.  He uses AOL.  Dr. Evil does the Macarena. References that landed perfectly in the late 90’s seem like they are from another century today, which they literally are. The most late 90’s thing in Austin Powers, though, is Austin Powers himself.  For all of his 60’s stylings, pulled from Bond and other spy movies as well as The Beatles among many other inspirations, the character exploded to such popularity that nothing is more of the time of its release than Austin Powers.  

Still, for all its over-repeated catchphrases, dated references and constant mugging for the camera, Austin Powers remains a very funny movie.  Its sexual politics don’t really hold up, not that there was any chance they would when lampooning 60’s spies, but it is a mostly good natured spoof.  There is very little punching down.  You are laughing at Austin or Dr. Evil and the absurdities of their unfamiliarity with modern life.  It is just a charming movie.

What I Watched in April 2017

MOVIES

The Imitation Game – This is the please-give-us-awards biopic about computer scientist and WW2 codebreaker Alan Turing that was fictionalized enough to upsets purists but not enough to make it truly interesting.  ***

The Cold Light of Day – You’ve got a Taken knock-off with Henry Cavill, Bruce Willis and Sigorney Weaver, you really don’t expect Cavill to be the the only bright spot. Sure, at this point Willis has given more than his fair share of phoned in performances, but you usually get better from Weaver.  Cavill, though, is working his ass off.  Too bad the movie doesn’t really justify it.*1/2

Pompeii – This might be the best Paul WS Anderson movie, a statement which is meant to damn with faint praise.  It is not especially good. In fact, it is often flat out bad.  But there is an enjoyable enough energy to its mash up of Gladiator and Titanic to make it not feel like a complete waste. **1/2

I Don’t Feel At Home in this World Anymore – An odd, idiosyncratic exploration of despair. I don’t have a lot to say about it; it is very good. It is simultaneously darkly humorous and kind of uplifting. I really liked it. ****

Sicario – I really liked Arrival, so I checked out the director’s previous movie. This looks at the war on drugs in the south and Mexico and it pretty scathing. It is also beautifully shot. It is a great movie. ****1/2

The D Train – There is basis for a pretty great comedy here, but it kind of gets muddled. Jack Black’s character is too much of a loser to take seriously as a person, and his sitcom-esque plan to meet an old classmate is too silly for the rest of the plot.  It is a lot of interesting ideas done not very well. **1/2

10 Things I Hate About You – This is one of those movies that was always around when I was in high school, but I never actually watched it all the way through. I thought it was worth going back to thanks to its cast, which includes both Heath Ledger and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It’s a perfectly fine teen comedy, but it really isn’t more than that. ***

Midnight in Paris – This ranks up there as one of my favorite Woody Allen movies. It is kind of indulgent, but that doesn’t matter when it is indulging in things that I want to see indulged. ****1/2

Fate of the Furious – see review here. ***1/2

Furious 7 – I needed to get prepped for F8, so I popped in this Blu-ray.  It is still highly enjoyable, but it also pushes the ridiculousness a little too far into cartoonish-ness.  The ending is cheap emotional manipulation, but it is also highly effective emotional manipulation. ***1/2

Sandy Wexler – There is more effort on display here than in the last half dozen or so Sandler movies.  It still isn’t good, but at least it appears like he cares.  If you cut about 30 minutes out and tighten up a lot of it’s sloppier moments it might have been decent. **

Win it All – This was good enough.  I didn’t love it, it seemed to spend a lot time just sort of meandering. I’m not familiar with Joe Swanberg, but this is good enough.  It is often funny and frequently heartfelt, but it doesn’t feel like it adds up to much. Still, it is definitely worth a watch. ***1/2

The Man From UNCLE – Every time I watch this movie I like it more and more.  It is just so much fun, with charming performances from all three of its stars.  I hope the only slightly rumored sequel happens. ****

Deidra and Laney Rob a Train – a pretty solid comedy about poor black youths trying survive. It combines a fairly dark look at how even bright kids can get trapped in poverty and a funny caper. It is a lot of fun. ***1/2

Akira – I finally had the opportunity to watch this anime classic.  It is still an amazing looking movie.  There are tons of impressively animated shots.  The story is overstuffed and nearly incoherent at times.  It is still really good and there is a lot to unpack, but it also feels like it was vastly edited down from a longer version.  ****

Sand Castle – This is a movie about the Iraq War; it is every movie you’ve seen about the Iraq War. That is the real problem, while this is a perfectly fine movie it doesn’t have anything you haven’t seen before. **½

The Discovery – This thing is so bleak and dreary.  It really wasn’t the movie I wanted to watch right now.  It raises some interesting questions, but I don’t think it really followed through on them. **½

Crank – Watching Fate of the Furious reminded me of how much I love Jason Statham, so I’ve started working my way through all the Statham movies I own.  Crank is nuts.  It is all insane energy that last just as long as it can keep it up. ***½

TV

Five Came Back – This series of documentaries about five Hollywood directors who volunteered during WWII and were put to work filming the war. It is really good. They interview five modern directors and use a lot of the footage from the time. It gets rough at times, especially when they uncover Dachau, but it is overall a really great exploration.

DC’s Legends of Tomorrow – The second season of Legends came to a close and while the show lost its most compelling character, Captain Cold, it managed an unthinkable turn around this season. I watched it last season thanks to how good the premise was, but there was too much dead weight in the cast and the show seemed unsure of what tone it should have. This season fixed nearly all those problems, with fun villains and dumping the Hawk people. It was the show it always should have been. Vixen was a good addition, and the rest of the team really found their roles. They jumped around time and went for big moments that nearly all landed. It was really great. Right now this might be the best of DC’s superhero shows.

The League S1-7 – I like a lot of the people involved in this show, and pending Netflix losses left me searching for new background noise comedy, so I gave this a watch.  The League is fine.  It really demonstrates how hard what Always Sunny in Philadelphia does is.  This fellow FX and FXX show does a lot of the same things, being a hard R show about a group of asshole friends, but it misses a lot more often than that true sitcom classic.  Too often, The League forgets that its characters are terrible and seems to want the viewer to sympathize with them.  That is not to say that the show isn’t frequently enjoyable and funny, but it also often seems mean just for the sake of being mean and can get hung up on unfunny bits that never seem to end.  As I said, it’s fine.

Documentary Now S2 – Another season of this great documentary spoof series. I don’t know that this season had quite the highs that season 1 had, but it was still excellent all the way through.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 The Return – I’m not quite completely through this, I’ve still got the last few episodes to go, but I have really liked it so far.  I don’t know that it is quite as good as old MST3K; they riff a lot faster which moves along a lot faster from bad jokes but also keeps good jokes from having time to land.  Still, even sometimes not excellent MST3K is better than no MST3K. I’m a latecomer to this series, but I am glad it is back.

Riverdale – This show just keeps getting crazier. The season ending is coming soon, but the show just keeps getting better. It really knows what its doing, so it is no surprise when an adult feeds a pregnant teenager a drugged milkshake.

Fargo S3 – The new season has started and it is great.  I don’t have a lot to say only two episodes in, but it is building something interesting about the characters and their relation to technology. It is really great.

The Fate of the Furious Review

The Fast and Furious series, despite its recent success, is in a state of flux. As emotional as the previous entry’s climax was, it also pushed the ridiculousness to the absolute limits and removed a vital part of the series’ appeal. Fate of the Furious finds a way to forge ahead after the loss of Paul Walker’s Brian, but the loss of his grounding presence is felt. While it doesn’t attempt to match Furious 7’s cartoonish ridiculousness, it also can’t match the movies genuine emotion. Still, there is a lot to like about this 8th entry in the series, like an increased amount of The Rock and more cohesive plot.

The Fate of the Furious starts with Vin Diesel’s Dom and Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty on their honeymoon in Cuba. After a very entertaining race, Dom meets with Cipher (Charlize Theron), who shows him something that upsets him. When the team is contacted by Hobbs (The Rock) to join him on a secret mission to retrieve an emp device from Germany, Dom turns on the team, stealing the device for Cipher. While Hobbs initially goes to jail for his part in the operation, he is soon extracted by Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) along with a new forced ally, the previous movies villain Deckard Shaw. From there, the team travels around the globe trying to stop Dom and Cipher while Dom tries to extricate himself from her blackmail. There are some really good action sequences, like the prison break and an extended fight sequence on a plane that makes full use of Jason Statham’s skills.

There are some weak spots. Charlize Theron is almost completely wasted as Cipher, spending most of the movie standing on a plane looking at a computer monitor saying nonsense like “hack them all.” While Statham’s face turn is welcome, it feels like they all but ignore the fact that he killed Han. That should be a big deal. Also, once recurring character gets the rawest of raw deals. The team dynamic is also not quite what it should be. Part of that is the movie itself, with Dom being forced to play the villain, but it also due to the lack of Brian to be the counterweight to Dom’s self-seriousness. The movie tries to find a balance with more of Hobbs and an increased role for Statham, but neither of them are really playing people. They are almost cartoon characters. Completely delightful, but they are far from the grounding presence that Walker was. In a movie series that has pushed far into the stratosphere of ridiculousness as this one, having at least one character that plays it a little small really helps.

I’ve read several reviews compare Fate of the Furious to the Pierce Brosnan James Bond movies. This is usually an unfavorable comparison – because people tend to be wrong about how awesome those Bond movies were – but I think it is both apt and part of what makes the movie so enjoyable. It is a spy movie, filled with ridiculous near future technology and action that underplays its ridiculousness. While the stunts aren’t quite as crazy as the last movie, the plot coils around on itself into the pinnacle of preposterousness. The movie even manages to pull off the villain reveal that Spectre tripped over so pathetically. Fate of the Furious doesn’t come close to ascending to the heights of Fast 5, but it is still a solid entry into what the series became after the movie launched the series to the top of the action movie heap.

***1/2

The Definitive Fast & Furious Rankings

I was a late convert to the Fast & Furious series.  I saw the first movie back in high school and more or less enjoyed it.  The Fast & The Furious was one of ubiquitous movies high school movies where I’m from.  Everyone seemed to own it, either on DVD or VHS and those who didn’t own it were either renting it or borrowing it from a friend.  I can’t say the movie that much of an impression on me, but it was one of about 4 movies (this, an Austin Powers, Varsity Blues, Cruel Intentions) that always seemed to be playing in the background from junior high until I graduated.  I had seen it, it I had never really thought about it.  I found 2 Fast 2 Furious actively stupid and from there put the movie series out of my mind. I didn’t outright hate the series, I just couldn’t be forced to care.

The next three movies hit without me ever even considering changing my mind about it.  I was told that Fast 5 was excellent, but I didn’t listen.  Then I accidentally sawa trailer for Fast & Furious 6 before some movie, and I realized that I might have been wrong.  I still didn’t make it out to the sixth movie, but I grabbed a cheap DVD copy of Fast 5 before Furious 7 hit.  Even with all the love that movie had got I wasn’t ready for how much I enjoyed it. I instantly became a fan.

Now we are on the eve of the release of Fate of the Furious.  It isn’t quite my most anticipated movie this year, what with Star Wars and Justice League and Baby Driver and did you see that Thor: Ragnarok trailer, but it is probably in the top 5.  So before I amble down to the cinema to watch Fate of the Furious, I decided to rank the series.  Because that is really easy and quick and other people are doing it and they are doing it wrong.

7: 2 Fast 2 Furious – I don’t feel quite as uncharitable toward this movie as I did when I first saw it, and in many ways it lays down the path that the better entries in the series would take even if this one doesn’t execute it especially well.  But it is still a movie that doesn’t have a lot to recommend about it.

6: The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift – I know I’ve seen it, but it exists as kind of void in my memory.  It it largely unconnected to the rest of the series, other than introducing Han, which is reason enough not to ignore it.  Still, it probably the last movie I’d rewatch, despite thinking it is a slightly better film.

5: Fast & Furious
This movie is kind of necessary for the evolution of the series into into what it would become, this movie is kind of a miserable slog.  It leans into all of the series worst tendencies, but it also does a lot of plot lifting to get Dom and Brian back together.

4: The Fast & The Furious
This first one is just a moderately well-made Point Break knock-off.  Everything is laughably low stakes for what the series would become, but there is just enough interesting to make the whole thing watchable.

3: Furious 7
The end of this movie is emotionally devastating, and the rest of the movie is pure delightful nonsense.  It throws out any pretensions of presenting anything remotely realistic for parachuting cars out airplanes and driving them through skyscrapers.  It is excellent.

2: Fast & Furious 6
F&F6 sits at the midpoint between the bonkers lunacy of Furious 7 and the the regular over the top action movie nonsense of Fast 5.  It’s plot does feature a jumbo jumbo jet, a tank racing down a highway and plenty of amnesia, but it is perfectly fun and propulsive. It is a close call between this and 7, but this one barely edges it out.

1: Fast 5 – This is just a notch short of being a perfect action movie.  The heist movie structure gives it a perfect reason to bring in most of the memorable characters from previous movies and adding The Rock as an admirable adversary is just perfect.  It has great action scenes that perfectly toe the line between gonzo nonsense and still being relatively grounded.  It is the perfect expression of what this series could be.

What I Watched March 2017

Movies

Kong: Skull Island – read review here. ****

The Hateful Eight – I still really like this movie. It isn’t my favorite Tarantino, but he has never made a bad film. This one has a lot of great moments and a ton of great performances, but it doesn’t quite delight me like Inglorious Basterds or Kill Bill. *****

Logan – read review here. ****

Far From the Madding Crowd – This is a competent, enjoyably literary adaptation. It isn’t going to blow anyone away, but it is well put together and well-acted and just all around enjoyable. ***1/2

Beauty and the Beast – read review here. **1/2

Sucker Punch – My thoughts haven’t changed much from when I saw it years ago, but I remained very impressed by it. Zack Snyder might have failed with this movie, but it audacious work. He turns intentionally turns the exploitation up to a disgusting degree, daring viewers to be titillated by an undeniably gross scenario. He doesn’t quite bring it all together in the end, but the intent is clear. **1/2

Pete’s Dragon – Calling something boring is a lazy criticism, avoiding actually engaging with a fictional work, but I can’t really think of any other way to describe this than dull. It has great actors and good special effects, but it all just sits on the screen, lifeless. It elicited no emotion from me. **

Ghost in the Shell – read about it here. **1/2

TV

Riverdale – This show really came into focus as it neared the halfway mark. Archie is still kind of a doofy hole in the middle of things, but I guess that is why the show isn’t called Archie; he isn’t the main character here, but just another piece of the ensemble. I don’t know that this show is good, but it is compelling.

Iron Fist – The reviews for this show weren’t kind, but after watching I have to say they weren’t wrong. It is the weakest of Netflix’s Marvel shows, but not by that great a margin. These shows started strong, with the solid first season of Daredevil and the excellent Jessica Jones, but Daredevil Season 2 was a muddled mess and Luke Cage hid its weaknesses behind a strong central performance. This one is just as much of an amorphous blob as most of these shows have been, but without that one terrific element to bind everything together. It takes itself way too seriously for a show about a man who does magical kung fu, it barely deigns to grapple with its central premise by not even showing Kun-lun, and it wastes so much time on the squabbling of the Meachum family. It is simply a mess. I’ll still come back for Defenders

Legion – As much as I like shows like The Flash that strive to put a superhero on screen in all of his comic book glory, there is something to be said for the approach FX and Noah Hawley have taken with Legion. They have taken a few X-Men characters and concepts and instead of trying to make them comic book accurate they have built a show around those concepts with just a handful of ties to other X-Men stuff. They have identified the essence of the title character, David Haller who occasionally goes by Legion, and of their villain, the mental parasite that has taken root in his brain. It shows the same strengths as Hawley’s Fargo, with a bunch of really well realized supporting characters. It manages to be a mind bending mystery that is shockingly comprehensible and straight forward. It fools the viewer with apparent misdirection, but the show never lies to the viewer. It really shows how mediocre the Netflix shows have been. The CW shows are operating on a different model and budget, but Legion does prestige superheroes and blows the likes of Daredevil and Luke Cage out of the water.

Snatch – I really shouldn’t like this show as much as I do. I really like the movie Snatch, but tries to ape its energy and ends up as kind of a pale shadow. It has the quick cuts and the zooms, but it employs them haphazardly. The stars, including Rupert “Ron Weasely” Grint, are having fun, though, and the show is actually structurally very strong. It might be lacking in dialogue, surprise and budget, but each episode is built on a solid structure. Each episode tells a story and builds logically from one place to the next. It is also light enough that its flaws don’t really hold it back. It is an enjoyable gangster/heist show that doesn’t really aspire to greatness, so it is fine when it doesn’t reach it. It is a solid bit of light fun that I wouldn’t mind seeing more of.

CW Superheroes – Somewhere during this season, Legends of Tomorrow has embraced its premise and become the best of the CW’s four shows. That has something to do with a little back half faltering from The Flash and Supergirl. The Flash has gone to the evil speedster well one too many times. It still shines on one off episodes, like the recent musical Supergirl crossover, but the central storyline is kind of a bust. Supergirl has been essentially coopted by Mon-el, turning him into the focal character at the expense of everyone else on the show. Both shows are still quite enjoyable, but only Legends of Tomorrow is really firing on all cylinders. As for Arrow, I’ll catch up when it hits Netflix in a month or two.

Ghost in the Shell Review

Ghost in the Shell is the last release in what has been a packed March for would be blockbusters. It was equally anticipated and dreaded by nerds, because it was an adaptation of a muck loved anime but also because they seemed deadest on scrubbing nearly everything interesting from it. The movie is not the complete disaster it could have been, like the Dragon Ball Z movie, but it also can’t meet the standards of the films that inspired it, like Robocop, Blade Runner and the original Ghost in the Shell movie. Ghost in the Shell is decently executed, but bland, emphasizing visuals and style over story.

I came into this not planning to even mention the whitewashing stuff. That conversation is an important one to have, but at some point you just have to deal with the movie that was made and not the one they should have made. But Ghost in the Shell makes it impossible to ignore this aspect by making it a central aspect of the film. Without spoiling things, how they handle the relationship between Scarlett Johansson’s Major and Ghost in the Shell usual protagonist Motoko Kusanagi seems to try to address concerns by doubling down on the problem. Instead of just doing its own thing, it draws attention to the difference and makes it impossible to enjoy the movie without the fact that they changed the race of the central character in mind. That approach contrast with how they handled Batou, who is also played by a white actor, but he just plays the character and is one of the best parts of the movie. Or they could have just left her Japanese like Chief Aramaki, played Beat Takeshi who speaks entirely in Japanese and is another high point.

Leaving aside her race, the changes made to the character make her a much less interesting protagonist. The Major is a stone cold badass, but Major (not the lack of definite article) is a robotic victim. Or I guess she a little of both. They strip the character of her identity and she spends the whole movie trying to figure out who she is. She still does some badass things, but not because she is innately a badass, but because she believes herself worthless and expendable. The whole movie is about her reclaiming who she starts out as in every other version of this property. Also, the story is now all about who she is, instead of being content to be a sci fi thriller. There are philosophical and ethical issues of identity and memory that are inherent in the concept of Ghost in the Shell, but this movie is very careful not to engage with any of them. There is little to no questioning in this movie, other than a tiny bit when Major realizes that the big mystery involves her personally.

Despite all my complaints, the movie is fairly well executed. It does a great job establishing in the setting, even if it isn’t interested in exploring it much. Most of the action scenes are well executed. The story makes sense. It is missing any semblance of a hook to take it from competently enjoyable to actually good. It is not unlike the director’s previous effort, Snow White and the Huntsman. That was another competently executed by barely engaging movie.

There just isn’t anything below the surface here. With the movie drawing attention to its whitewashing instead of just making the choice and going with it, it really needed to be good otherwise. And it kind of isn’t. Ghost in the Shell is all shell and no ghost.

**1/2

Beauty and the Beast Review

This may be the most pointless, unnecessary movie I’ve ever seen. That is a criticism I usually hate – what movie is necessary – but I think it fits here because this movie is almost identical, and somehow inferior, to the 1991 animated film. This Beauty and the Beast movie isn’t bad, like last year’s thoroughly dull Jungle Book remake, but I can’t see any reason to see this movie when the previous one exists.  Tremendous effort has been expended to make a movie that feels a little bit like going through the motions, with some new stuff that subtracts at least as much as it adds to the viewers enjoyment.

If you can’t manage to separate yourself from your memories of the original, which is no mean feat and at odds with Disney’s intentions here, there is still stuff here to enjoy.  The cast is a big part of that enjoyment.  Emma Watson’s Belle is a more active participant that her animated counterpart. This is still a movie that has her rush back to The Beast’s castle to watch the climactic confrontation, but a few additions and angrier line readings makes her more assertive than before. Luke Evans is, as usual, better than everything around him. Any scene with Evans’s Gaston is better than any without.  And Josh Gad manages to turn dim witted lackey Le Fou into something resembling a real character, which is no mean feat.

The only weak link in the cast is Dan Stevens as The Beast, but that might be more him having to act through a cg character when most of the rest are flesh and blood.  It’s not like his household servants, voiced by the likes of Ian McKellan and Ewan McGregor, are doing much more than providing voices.  Still, it is Stevens that must carry one half of the romantic couple and his Beast fails to even once feel real.

The musical numbers are still good, though the new ones much less so than the returning classics. Some of the singing voices aren’t the best, but that works with the actual, physical performances.

One thing that really kills the movie is padding.  Freed from animations costly restrictions, the run time on this balloons out over two hours, with none of the new scenes adding anything positive to the film. We don’t need to know about the tragic fate of Belle’s mother.  The 1991 version was lean perfection; this one feels flabby and bloated.  It sticks too close to the original to fix any of its admittedly minor problems, but when it strays it adds virtually nothing.  My complaints seem somewhat paradoxical; I want the movie to have changed more from the animated version, but I don’t like it when it did.  But that is the problem with hewing so closely to another version of the story.  The original had a vision; this one doesn’t.  It has that movie’s vision, so anytime its own voice creeps in it stands out.

Beauty and The Beast is pretty, but hollow. It is technically well made in many respects, but I don’t see much in it to recommend to anyone.  Disney is making a cottage industry out of live action versions of their animated classics, but the third time’s the charm for me; I’m out.  From Cinderella to The Jungle Book to Beauty and the Beast, I have seen enough bland regurgitations of animated films I grew up watching. These movies are not for me.

**1/2

Kong: Skull Island Review

Kong Skull Island is the second would be blockbuster of what looks to be a packed March.  It has a stellar cast and some amazing effects work and is just all around a great time.  It is a monster movie that doesn’t hide its monster. It doesn’t play coy or spend a lot of time with buildup; Kong Skull Island knows what viewers have come to see and it delivers immediately.

Kong Skull Island starts with John Goodman’s Randa begging for one chance to explore a newly discovered island in the Pacific as the US pulls its troops out of Vietnam.  He gets his last ditch approval by playing into Cold War scares and has Col. Packard’s (Sam Jackson) helicopter unit assigned to escort them on their mission.  Once there, they discover Kong and everything goes to hell.

Kong walks a fine line with its human characters, and I wouldn’t argue with you if you say it stumbles.  It kind of uses that wretched Michael Bay shorthand to introduce its characters, something that usually signals that the viewer is in for a bad time.  Here, though, that shorthand is not mistaken for actual character development. It only gives sketches of the more than dozen characters to go to the island because it simply doesn’t have time for more.  Kong needs viewers to like the characters at least a little, so they care when all but a handful of them are summarily killed off right after they hit the island.  But it can’t have the viewer care too much, because then seeing them all killed hurts.  It also doesn’t want to tip its hand as to who will soon be getting a close up look at the bottom of a monster’s foot, at least in regards to the soldiers.  With the civilian half of the expedition it is obvious.  A few characters develop into something more than that initial sketch, including John C Reilly’s Marlow, Packard and a few of the rank and file soldiers, Shea Whigham’s Cole and Jason Mitchell’s Mills.  Would be leads Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson have little to do other than be the voices of reason in an insane world.  

The star of the movie, though, is Kong.  Here he is reimagined as a skyscraper tall bigfoot. He stands upright and fights like a wrestler.  While he has a sad backstory, he is not the soulful ape of Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake from a decade ago.  Here is more a vast and unknowable god.  The best parts of the movie are the parts where Kong is on screen.  

The movie is a mishmash of tons of things.  It makes some motions toward the classic King Kong story, but they are fleeting and reimagined.  The island natives are peaceful and accommodating if not exactly friendly.  They are certainly not trying women up to offer them as a sacrifice to Kong.  Kong seems to like Larson’s character, but it is no weird tragic love story.  It also has allusions to Heart of Darkness, or at least to Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and Moby Dick.  It makes for some muddled messaging, but the anti-war intent comes through clearly. Sometimes an enemy doesn’t exist until you go looking for it.

Visually it is stunning, with Skull Island beautifully realized.  Director Vogt-Roberts has said that Princess Mononoke was among the inspirations for the creatures of the island and that comes through. To go with a genuinely wonderful island, there are at least a dozen beautiful, memorable shots.  The movies stunning posters are representative of how the entire movie looks.  

There are deficiencies in Kong Skull Island, but none that ever threatened to wipe the big silly grin from my face. It has the energy of a classic B-movie; it feels a lot like some of the better Godzilla movies.  It is that kind of silliness made with the sort of lavish budget that those movies couldn’t even dream about.  It is easily the most fun I’ve had at a movie in months.

****