Mary and the Witch’s Flower

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is the first movie from Studio Ponoc, a successor to Studio Ghibli.  A few years ago, Studio Ghibli made some announcements that suggested that, with Hayao Miyazaki’s latest retirement, they would cease producing feature films, prompting some of its members to go their own way. This film is their first release and it shows that they are mostly carrying on the spirit of the previous studio.

Hiromasa Yonebayashi, director of Ghibli releases The Secret World of Arietty and When Marnie was There, directed Mary and the Witch’s Flower. It follows in that line of adaptations of children’s books that includes Kiki’s Delivery Service, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Arietty. It ends up feeling a bit like a Studio Ghibli greatest hits. That makes it sound worse than it is, this is frequently a touching and enthralling movie, but it never quite reaches the heights of its inspirations.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower follows Mary, a girl who feels like she is bad at everything, who moves in with her aunt in the country. She fights with a young boy her age and befriends a few stray cats before finding a mysterious flower in the woods. The flower gives her the ability to do magic. She finds a magic broom that whisks her away to a magic school in the sky, where things aren’t exactly what they seem.

I don’t want to spoil much of the movie, but it hits a lot of Ghibli notes. There is a young girl flying on a broom, like Kiki’s Delivery Service; there is a castle in the sky, like Castle in Sky. The movie also has echoes of films from Princess Mononoke to Ponyo.

The only real problem with the movie is that it doesn’t really have a resolution for its villains. They aren’t redeemed at all, but neither are they punished. They kind of learn the error of their ways, but it more that they just sort of fail. It is a real problem, the movie largely lack narrative stakes. It all just sort of happens.

Still, there is a lot to like in Mary and the Witch’s Flower. It ends up feeling much like Arietty; a little slight but otherwise enjoyable. It is a pleasant, enjoyable movie that doesn’t really have anything push it from being good to great.

****

Top 10 Movies of 2017

Making a top 10 list this year has proved pretty difficult. There were a lot of movies I liked, but few movies that I really, absolutely loved. I don’t think anything I saw this year was as good as last year’s The Nice Guys or Love and Friendship, let alone Mad Mad: Fury Road from the year before. But there were a lot of movies that I liked enough to consider for the back half of the list. Also, this year I watched a lot more movies than I have in years past, so I had a lot more to choose from. There are also several that I think I would like that I haven’t had the chance to see, like I, Tonya, Coco, or The Darkest Hour. But I didn’t manage to see them before I made the list, so they aren’t on it. It also might be noted that my review scores don’t match up exactly with how I ranked the movies on the list; I don’t care this is how much I like the movies compared to each other right now.

Honorable Mentions: Okja and Murder on the Orient Express. Both a lot of fun, but neither quite as good as the rest of the list. Still, I liked them well enough that I had a hard time not putting them on the list at all. Also, Dunkirk, which got bumped off the list just the other day when I saw my #1.

10. Logan Lucky I went into this with little in the way of expectations and I liked it. The further I get away from it, the more and more I like it. It is just a thoroughly enjoyable film.

9. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 It is like the first one, but more. Just more. It also held up better to a rewatch than I expected it to, though it does get pretty shaggy in the middle and I kind of hate the CGI-fest that is large parts of the finale.

8. Thor: Ragnarok A full on delight that I expect will play well on rewatches. I wish it would have pulled back on the humor just a bit so the more epic moments could hit a little harder, but I liked it anyway. It was frequently legitimately funny and had just enough the cosmic stuff to feel worth it.

7. John Wick 2 – The first John Wick movie was about a perfect distillation of everything great about action movies, the sequel is not quite as pure, but it is deeper and had just as great of action scenes. Keanu Reeves has more than cemented his place on the action movie Mt Rushmore, and this is just another feather in his cap.

6. Wonder Woman – This is one of the finest examples of just a straight up superhero movie to come out in long time. And the ending, which I had some problems with in the theater, played really good watching it over the holiday.

5. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri – A fascinating, difficult look at not entirely good people in tough circumstances. It is funny and sad and full of great performances.

4. Star Wars The Last Jedi – It moved the new Star Wars movies from being just retreads of the original series and on to being their own thing. It did it while pushing a lot of the themes that the series has been known for.

3. Blade Runner 2049 I’ve honestly never been the biggest fan of the original Blade Runner; it is a mood piece that just never quite connected with me. This sequel, though, is exactly what I wanted to see. It is a thoughtful, intelligent, gorgeous, sci-fi thriller.

2. Baby Driver The Kevin Spacey stuff hangs over this like a pall. I don’t know that I’ll be able to rewatch this anytime soon and not think about that stuff. That doesn’t change the fact that for most of the year this is the best movie I saw in 2017. It isn’t Edgar Wright’s best movie, but it is perfectly fun.

1. The Shape of Water – I caught this a few days after New Years and I immediately fell in love with it. Del Toro spins another phenomenal fairy tale that really gets across his love of the monster in the monster movie. Del Toro makes movies just for me and I am glad of it.

Logan Lucky Review

I’m not a big Steven Soderbergh fan. Not that I don’t like his movies, only that I’ve only seen the Ocean’s trilogy and those, while enjoyable and essentially perfectly crafted, didn’t leave that big of an impression on me. Logan Lucky uses a similar formula, but replaces Ocean’s Vegas glitz with West Virginia grit. It works, with strong performances all around and funny moments from start to finish.

Channing Tatum plays Jimmy Logan; a divorced father who loses his job thanks to an old football injury that causes a liability issue at the same time he finds out his ex is taking their daughter and moving.  He needs money.  So he concocts a plan with his siblings, the one armed Clyde (Adam Driver) and hairdresser Mellie (Riley Keough), to rob a race track.  They recruit another group of siblings, the Bang brothers, to help them.  It is a heist movie, with the characters going through the usual hurdles of a heist movie, like needing to appear to be one place when they are actually somewhere else, before it all comes together.

It is a joy to watch even these largely kind of stupid characters be good at their jobs.  The Logan brothers are especially competent, while Joe Bang, played by a Daniel Craig who appears to be having a blast, MacGyver like knowledge of explosives is delightful.  Soderbergh knows the heist game as well as anybody, and he executes it again here.

I don’t want to explain more of the plot, because the joy is seeing it play out for yourself.  Any plot details, other than the base premise seem to spoil something.  This is a tight movie, with everything working just as it should.  Tatum is the perfect rock for the rest of oddball characters to play off of. He and Driver really manage to feel like brothers, with long standing gripes with each other but no doubt that the two of them always have each other’s backs.

This is the perfect movie to close out a somewhat disappointing summer.  It is just so competent and entertaining.  It isn’t a desperate attempt to set up a franchise or the dying gasp of last decade’s franchise.  Its plot is complex without being convoluted and just so goddamned effortlessly entertaining.

****1/2

The Dark Tower Review

I am disappointed on all fronts with The Dark Tower, as much because it is not especially bad as I am because it is not good.  I am not one, generally, to root against a movie.  I didn’t want The Dark Tower to be bad, but as its release neared and possibility that it would be good seemed ever more remote, I had hoped that it would be truly, spectacularly awful. At least that would have been interesting.  The Dark Tower can’t even manage that. It bungles everything just enough to blandly pointless, not to be terrible enough to get any ironic enjoyment out of it.

Idris Elba, who is awesome as usual, plays Roland, the last of the gunslingers.  I start with him, even though he is not the lead.  That is the young Tom Taylor who plays Jake Chambers, a young boy who has visions of the alternate reality where Roland and his enemy, the Man in Black, live.  The movie follows his story, not Roland’s, for almost the entire first half and the second half is at best even between the two.

Fans of the book will recognize many elements of the movie, but many of them who have been rearranged into new forms. I don’t want to give much away, because spotting call backs to the books is one of the chief pleasures anyone watching this movie will glean from it.

It starts with Jake having visions of the Man in Black and his attacks on the Tower.  The people around Jake think he is crazy, including his step-dad, who wants to send him to some kind of sanitarium.  Just as he is to be sent upstate to visit this facility, which he already knows is connected to the Man in Black and his evil allies.

From there, it is mostly a collection of disinterested clichés.  Roland has given up on his gunslinger calling, but Jake attempts to inspire him to be better while learning about the relationship between various alternate realities.  Idris Elba is really good, but the movie can’t maintain any moment or generate any really interest outside of a few isolated scenes, which leaves him with nothing to do most of the time.

I’ll repeat that it isn’t a disaster.  It feels like a case of too many cooks in the kitchen, which ended up sanding off anything interesting.  It makes sense from a scene to scene basis, though it never really takes the time to explain itself.  It feels less propulsive and more like the connections were edited out. Still, there is hint of something good here that just couldn’t find its way out.

I’m not really a fan of The Dark Tower books. I was at one time, but I really didn’t care for much in the last two books and found the ending somewhat insulting.  I haven’t read the books at all since I finished the 7th just a few days after I got it for Christmas the year if its release.  Watching this movie reminded me of what I once liked about this series, even if it actually delivers very little of that enjoyment.

**1/2

Dunkirk Review

Dunkirk is another of Christopher Nolan’s puzzle box movies. Taking what could have been a very straightforward war movie, he does things with the timeline to make it clearly his own.  Even without the differing timelines, it still would not have been a particularly traditional war movie.  Dunkirk is an intense, impossible to look away from movie that is unlike any I’ve ever seen.

Dunkirk is a war movie, chronicling the escape from the Nazis of the defeated allied army from the beach at Dunkirk. It does this without ever showing an enemy soldier, other than a few planes.  They shoot from off-screen and drop bombs from mostly unseen planes.  It is all about the the soldiers on the beach, the civilians coming over in their own boats to help evacuate and the pilots flying cover for them.

Each of those three segments is also somewhat oddly structured.  For one, the characters are barely named.  We get some names, but we learn almost nothing about the majority of the characters.  We know almost nothing about the soldiers on the beach other than they are soldiers on the beach who want to get off the beach.  We know nothing about the pilots other than that they are pilots.  We do learn a fraction more about the civilians on the boat, but only a fraction.  That is not to say it doesn’t create relatable characters, only that they are largely examined in the present rather than the past.

Then there is how it handles its three different timelines.  Events on the beach take place over the course of a week, while events on the boat take place over the course of one day and events in the plane take place over the course of an hour. So things happen in the planes before we see their effects on the boat or the beach.

I’m not sure the structure, other than being interesting in and of itself, helps the telling of the story.  The story being told is good enough to not need any embellishing.  Each of the three storylines would be enough to support an entire movie in their own right.  There is heroism to be found in each part.

That is where the movie truly succeeds.  Each scene is tense and enthralling.  Whether it is the soldiers trying to escape a sinking ship or the pilots in an intense dogfight, every scene has something to add.  It is too the movie’s credit that each even though it never lets up it also never feels overwhelming.  It manages to make the evacuation seem not like a victory, which it wasn’t, but an achievement.

Dunkirk is easily among the best movies I’ve seen this year.  Nolan is a master craftsman and this movie shows it.  And if I am being honest, when the movie nears its end with Churchill’s address to the nation I teared up a little bit.  Nolan has long since proven himself a master, and Dunkirk is another feather in his cap.

*****

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets is not a movie for everybody. No movie is, but reactions to Luc Besson’s latest science fiction adventure seem to be especially divided.  It does just so happen to be a movie for me.  I loved every insane second of this glorious mess.

The complaints about this, upon reflection, are valid.  The two leads aren’t great.  I think Cara Delevingne does a pretty good job as Laureline, though she is given too little to do.  Dane Dehaan seems completely miscast as Valerian, who from his dialogue appears to be intended to be a seasoned soldier and adventurer while Dehaan looks like a teenager even though he is more than 30.  It seems slightly incongruous, and the awkward dialogue doesn’t help.  The dialogue feels like direct translations of lines written in another language.  Knowing that the movie is an adaptation of a French comic from a screenplay written by its French director leads me to believe that this is the case.  That is no excuse for a movie to sound awkward and stilted in the language all the characters are speaking.  Honestly, it rarely bothered me. Aside from some awkward phrasing, it mostly just added to the otherworldliness of it all.

There are also complaints about the plot, which fills some gaps with cliche and leaves a few other holes open, but it is mostly a straight line mystery that doesn’t do enough to disguise its obvious twists. It isn’t bad so much as episodic, with one set piece leading to another set piece, but not having those connect all that well.

I’ve laid out a pretty good explanation, I think, for why some people didn’t like this movie. Not a one of them bothered me while I was on this rollercoaster.  It starts with a mostly silent scene where a space station becomes a place for the meetings of different cultures, from various Earth based societies to eventually humans meeting alien lifeforms.  Each one builds its own addition to the space station, until it is big enough to disrupt Earth and is shot across the galaxy to find a new home.  It then cuts to an alien world, where we a given a brief look at the life of an alien society for tragedy strikes their planet.  Both of these sequences are wonderful. One is mostly just people shaking hands, but it lays across what is meant by the title so quickly and cleanly.  The other is its own mini-tragedy that is crushing yet visually amazing.

Then we finally get to our protagonists, and some leaden banter, before they go on another visually amazing adventure into another dimensional marketplace to retrieve stolen government property.  This movie runs more than 2 hours, and throughout its runtime it doesn’t go more than 15 minutes without introducing some crazy new thing.  Once they reach Alpha, the space station, Valerian and Laureline jump from section to section so fast it is hard to catch your breath.  The mystery unfolds, but it is pretty obvious who the the villain is from the moment he appears.  The only question is can our two heroes figure things out in time to prevent an inevitable tragedy.  Once the action was rolling, Dehaan’s youthful looks were not a distraction and he and Delevingne proved to be solid real elements to meet the nonsense that the movie threw at them.

There is such a sense of fun here that I was enthralled.  I wanted to see what new madness each segment of this movie could show me. It wasn’t all new, but it was all spectacular.  While it shares a lot in common with Besson’s own The Fifth Element, I also saw shades of John Carter and Flash Gordon.  Not all viewers will take those comparisons as positive things, but I think John Carter is one of the most underrated movies of the last decade and rank Flash Gordon was one of my personal favorite films.  To say that this movie reminded me of them is high praise.  This is almost exactly the kind of movie I want for Summer popcorn fare.  I loved every nonsensical second of it.

****1/2

Netflix Original Movies

A few months ago I had a very stupid thought.  On a wild hair, I decided that I was going to watch every original movie that Netflix released this year.  I wanted to see more new movies this year, and I figured the best way to do that was to watch the new movies that I was already paying for with my Netflix subscription.

This was a foolish idea for several reasons. The first is that this year Netflix has ramped up the number of new releases they are putting out, which seems to be around one a week.  Since I didn’t conceive of this plan until about two months into the year, I had quite the backlog as soon as I started.  Additionally, while I knew not all of the movies would be things that appeal to me, I thought seeing different things would help expand my taste. I’ve been writing movie reviews on this blog for more than 5 years, and in the process of setting up this index, I realized that I have given a lot more positive reviews than negative ones.  I generally only write reviews of movies I seen in the theater and it turns out I am a pretty good judge of my own taste. I don’t go see movies I don’t expect to like and while this isn’t foolproof – I did see Cowboys & Aliens – it makes most trips to the movies enjoyable. It also limits exposure to new experiences.

Netflix, though, has done a lot to help me find those new experiences.  I hadn’t really watched many Asian films before subscribing to the service, but I’ve developed a taste for Martial Arts movies and Wuxia.  Zeroing in on the Netflix originals, which started with Beasts of No Nation in 2015 though they came to my attention last year with the release of the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel, seemed like a good idea. So I am not only watching the movies that interest me, like the goofy British spoof Mindhorn or the war movie Sand Castle, but also the ones that don’t appear to be up my alley, like the foreign language acquisitions or low key thrillers like Small Crimes. It turns out, however, what I am forcing myself to do is watch movies I don’t think I’ll like instead of watching some I think I will like or already know I do like, making it even more likely that I will dislike the new thing.  That has made me resent this project and that massive fool forcing it on me (ie: myself).

It hasn’t been a complete failure, though. I have watched and enjoyed some movies that I likely never would have even considered before.  I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, unwieldy title aside, was very enjoyable.  I also really liked Win it All and Deidra & Laney Rob a Train.  I think I am going to keep going with this stupid plan, though I intend to have a much quicker hook for a movie a movie I do not like.

Below is a list containing all the movies I have watched, in order of how much I enjoyed them.  I’ve also included a one sentence review of each movie. There are still a handful of foreign language films and a documentary or two that I haven’t gotten to yet, but I hope to finish them up over the next few weeks or so.

  1. Okja – full review went up earlier. Okja is a near masterpiece that combines Steven Speilberg with Terry Gilliam.
  2. I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore – A woman gets burgled and teams up with her neighbor to get revenge; it is both charming and kind of dark.
  3. Mindhorn – a goofy spoof about a washed up TV detective desperate for one last chance at fame.
  4. Win it All – a gambling addict tries to go straight in this low key comedy.
  5. Nobody Speak – a documentary looking at the Hulk Hogan v Gawker lawsuit and the current attacks on the press.
  6. Deidra & Laney Rob a Train – two young girls rob a train to pay their mother’s bail, but its funnier than it sounds.
  7. Imperial Dreams – a newly paroled father tries to do what’s best for his son, but his past still has some hold on him. It is good if not groundbreaking.
  8. Joshua: Teenager vs Superpower – a both heartwarming and depressing look at a Chinese boy who lead protests against the Chinese government.
  9. Casting JonBenet – a documentary that examines the JonBenet Ramsay case by letting people familiar with talk at a supposed audition for a movie about it. Its pretty good.
  10. BLAME! – an anime movie about an automated city that no longer recognizes humanity as its master. It is good if dark.
  11. Handsome: A Netflix Movie Mystery – it is essentially a movie that is a fake episode of detective show that is charming but weightless.
  12. Girlfriend’s Day – a look at a fake new holiday in a world where greeting card writers are celebrities that ends just as it gets going.
  13. Shimmer Lake – a crime movie that plays out backwards but still holds few surprises.
  14. War Machine – a broad and disjointed satire of the later days of the war in Afghanistan. Sometimes it is really good, often it isn’t.
  15. In the Shadow of Iris – a sexy thriller about a faked abduction that turns into a murder. It is fine.
  16. Counterpunch – a look at the modern state of pro and amateur boxing in America.
  17. Get Me Roger Stone – a bleak look at a human cockroach. It veers a little too close to making anything the subject does sound acceptable to be good.
  18. Coin Heist – a kid’s dad is accused of defrauding a prep, so he and some friends try to rob the mint of quarters to get the money back.
  19. The Discovery – a man discovers proof of an afterlife and people deal with the consequences. I found it frustrating.
  20. Sand Castle – another modern war drama; it is perfectly serviceable but unoriginal.
  21. Journey to Greenland – two French guys go to Greenland to stay with one of their fathers, they have mildly interesting adventures.
  22. Burning Sands – a well-meaning but ham fisted look at problems prevalent in traditionally black fraternities.
  23. Sahara – a mediocre animated movie about snake racism.
  24. Small Crimes – bad people do bad things, lots of people end up dead, I don’t know why I should be entertained by it.
  25. Clinical – a horror movie that lives up to its name. You couldn’t pay me to care.
  26. David Brent: Life on the Road – a follow up to The Office with none of the humanity and an undeserved happy ending for its protagonist.
  27. The Most Hated Woman In America – this is about 3 different movies, but none of them work.
  28. Sandy Wexler – Adam Sandler appears to be trying, but this movie is too long and not very funny.
  29. You Get Me – Fatal Attraction for teenagers, but with even worse sexual politics.
  30. iBoy – a kid gets his phone shot into his face and uses his new phone powers to become some kind of would be superhero. It doesn’t really work.
  31. Tramps    – I checked out early and completely from this one, I can’t really give it a review.
  32. Take the 10 – a comedy about two kids’ attempts to get money to go to a concert or something. It isn’t good.

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

Logan Review

There is a strange paradox within Logan, Hugh Jackman’s final outing as Wolverine.  Logan is a movie that doesn’t require any previous knowledge of the 9 film franchise, in which Jackman has appeared as Wolverine in each. (Not counting the only loosely connected Deadpool)  But it also a movie that doesn’t really work with affection built up over the course of the seventeen years that he has been playing the character, or with Patrick Stewart’s Professor Xavier.  This is a movie built to be its own thing, but also a movie built up to be a well-earned farewell.  

It is hard to overstate how strong the opening of this movie it.  It sets the X-Men, reduced to just Wolverine and Professor X, along with a fore hire Caliban as the aged Xavier’s live in nurse, in their bleakest setting yet.  Yes, even more bleak than Days of Future Past’s nigh apocalypse.  Here, mutants have been all but wiped off the map. Logan makes his living driving a limo, while Professor X remains locked in a fallen water tower suffering from Alzheimer’s.  Logan is also worse for wear; he doesn’t heal like he used to and can’t even get his claws to pop properly.  Viewers have grown to love these actors in these roles, but here they have found an enemy they can never defeat: time.  When a mysterious nurse and tough guy Donald Pierce show up, Logan and Xavier are pulled into taking a young girl across the country to an Eden that may or may not exist.

Jackman gives probably his best performance as the aged Logan.  Every movement hurts him and his memories haunt him.  It is clear watching him that this is a man for whom every day is pain.  Stewart has always been good as Professor X, even when he hasn’t had much to do.  Here he plays Xavier as physically and mentally decrepit.  It is heartbreakingly believable.  There are some great newcomers to the franchise as well.  Dafne Keen as Laura is really good.  She is feral and believably dangerous despite her small stature.  And Boyd Holbrook is a delight as the menacing and faux amiable Donald Pierce.

Its action scenes, again especially the early ones, are really good. There is a car chase that has shades of Mad Max: Fury Road and some absurdly violent fight scenes with Logan and Laura.  This is the first Wolverine movie that really centers on the violence and more realistic mechanics of a man who fights with super sharp blades on his hands.  It is undeniably gruesome, but also completely in keeping with the rest of the film.  Logan is well shot all around, with clear action and some gorgeous shots.

Where the movie fails is in the second half, where it tries to take its themes to their conclusion.  Leaving aside the effective but just short of laughably last scene, the movie doesn’t move smoothly from its start to its conclusion.  I can’t say what Logan or Laura has learned or how they have changed from start to finish.  The movie constantly evokes the classic Western Shane, but the themes of Shane don’t really fit with the themes of Logan.  That movie ends with Shane — likely dying from a gunshot — leaving the idyllic valley because his guns have no place there.  That is not the ending this movie finds. There are a few scenes where the mutants form something of a family, but the relationship between Logan and Laura never really changes after he truly meets her. Instead of developing promising villains, Pierce is completely sidelined.  

I am happy that a superhero movie is dark and serious, but the catch with being serious is that is runs the risk of people taking you seriously.  For all that Logan deals with serious, interesting subjects, it still falls back on genre clichés at the end.  It may want to evoke themes similar to those in films like Shane, but it doesn’t have the thematic death. Logan is undeniably well made, but all it has to offer is pain and suffering.

****

John Wick Chapter 2

jwc2

The first John Wick movie was a very well executed piece of pulp. It was a stripped down, lean revenge movie with excellent action sequences and some nice bits of humor. This follow up loses a lot of the humor, but comes back strong in every other regard, fleshing out the world that first movie only hinted at and doing its best to outdo that movies already terrific action. I don’t know that it quite succeeds in being better than the first movie, but if it’s not it is really close.

John Wick Chapter 2 picks up soon after the last movie left off. Once Wick (Keanu Reeves) has gotten revenge for the murder of his puppy, he sets out to retrieve the car that was stolen from him at the same time. Once that little detail is taken care of, he returns home with his new dog to resettle into retired life, only to find another link to his time as a hitman coming back in the form of Santino D’Antonio. Wick owes him a blood debt and since Santino has heard that Wick is out of retirement, he’s decided to cash in. After some convincing, Wick takes on the mission and the movie is off and going.

The movie does a lot of more to flesh out the intricate underworld that the first movie hinted at with its Continental hotel that caters to assassins and everyone pays in gold. The rules that they all live by, most importantly that no business is to be done on Continental grounds, are fleshed out and made more clear. It does this not through rote or dull dialogue, but by having Wick take advantage of the services provided and oblique conversations that mention new concepts. It gives the viewer just enough to understand the plot and to give the feeling that there is more going on in this world than is immediately apparent. The best little Continental interlude is easily Wick’s visit to the sommelier, who instead of dispensing wines he helps match customers to the proper weapons. It is one of the few scenes that keep the first film’s sense of humor.

Where the film truly shines is its actions scenes. Few movies have actions scenes as well choreographed and realized as the John Wick movies. Much of the thanks goes to Keanu Reeves, who is able to do the extended takes that many of the action scenes here feature. Unlike many choppy action movies, John Wick’s fight scenes are frequently smooth takes that go on much longer than most and zoom out further to give the viewer a better view of scene rather than closer to hide how much of it isn’t really happening. It helps that whoever staged the action did simply an incredible job. The action is as good as it gets and that is why you are coming. It is worth mentioning, though, that the fights have incredibly graphic violence, so those with an aversion to blood or unspeakable things done with a pencil might want to think long and hard before watching this.

The film’s storytelling economy that reveals its world is also put to good use introducing characters, especially since the bulk of the characters from the last movie didn’t make it out alive. John Wick Chapter 2 introduces some rival assassins in Common’s Cassian and Ruby Rose’s Ares, both of which are given fairly full sketches with only small amounts of screen time. It also introduces Laurence Fishbourne as some sort of homeless king in a fun cameo, as well as maximizing the time to the returning Ian McShane and Lance Reddick.

The title character changes the most in this second film, or more accurately our perception of him changes the most. In the first he was a retired assassin out for revenge, now he is an assassin out of retirement. Before it was kind of fun, this time it is more sad. There is no escape for John Wick, and when there is an escape he seems incapable of taking it. It changes him from a driven, talented man out for revenge to a very sad man with a death wish. He could walk away, he should walk away but what does he have to walk away to? This movie systematically strips the few things he had after the last movie away from him, leaving him with nothing.

While it is something of a downer, it is still an excellent film. It is the Empire Strikes Back to the first John Wick’s Star Wars. With a third movie already announced on the way let’s hope there is a satisfying next chapter in this tale.

****1/2