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Bells and whistles and family values
When a movie has a single major flaw, writing a review is easy: just be sarcastic and keep hitting the same spot from different angles. But when a film, despite its gigantic proportions, is flawed on so many levels, you're often at a loss to choose which flaws to pursue. GotG2 is the perfect example of the latter case. So where do I begin?
The first thing that comes to mind is that, unlike the first GotG film, the sequel has lost the ability to get its act together. Sure, the first Guardians of the Galaxy was far from being a "serious" superhero movie (maybe because having Iron Man and Captain America battle each other is serious enough for the Marvel universe), but at least it could, when the circumstances demanded, be mature and even touching, the "we are Groot" moment being a perfect example. That contrast deepens the experience, making you care about what's going on ever so more.
This film, however, feels as if, with Groot reduced to a twig childhood state, the same happened to the brains of the other characters: now they are constantly risking the lives of their own and their friends' simply to pester their sense of masculinity or for the sake of unhealthy banter, only to end up with some turd jokes. There are a few glimpses of maturity here and there, but when yet another film with Kurt Russell and Vin Diesel tries to build all its pathos upon the "we're family" line, it becomes just too much to handle.
Another thing that strikes you about GotG2 is how all over the place it is. The Marvel universe is seriously lacking villains right now. And if the Avengers can afford to simply fight each other in the absence of a better thing to do, the Guardians have to be supplied with a multitude of strangely generic or single-use baddies, especially since the family values doctrine demands some old baddies to become goodies. The vindictive golden lady might have been mildly amusing if her plot line was put in here for jokes only, but the ending credits scene shows otherwise, so it's not even funny anymore. And the figure of Peter's father, despite all its technical grandiosity, ends up kinda hollow inside (in all senses). So even when the good (or should we say infantile and aggravating?) prevails, there's no true satisfaction in it.
Finally, there's this weird glossy neon atmosphere all around this film. Everything is polished and sparkling and blinking with a million different colors. In that sense, GotG2 definitely takes after Doctor Strange: both films, despite all their potential, look like some generic Japanese/Korean action RPG game: too fast-paced, too jerky and, most of the time, too meaningless. Maybe the overabundance of shiny objects and slapstick jokes was meant to hide that lack of essence the films fail to admit.
All in all, I take GotG2 as a sign of geriatric dementia for the whole Marvel universe. True, the style and the looks are still there, but when it comes to charting course forward, there seem to be no true aim ahead, and, most importantly, no true understanding of why such aim should exist in the first place. This makes the Guardians franchise not just the "style over substance" type, but simply pointless.
Alien: Covenant (2017)
A truly mixed bag
In certain circles, there's a term called "coproeconomics", which basically implies making inherently flawed products with planned ageing, so that you'd be able to sell the same thing, only slightly modified, again and again and again. The progress between iterations might be ever so slight, and the emphasis on quality might eliminate most of those iterations as unnecessary, yet the manufacturer needs its profits, and we need to buy something to feel up-to-date and privileged.
Alien: Covenant, if I'm not mistaken, is the 6th installment of the Alien franchise (if we take Prometheus, which I haven't seen, into account). Still a long way to go to catch up with the Fast'n'Furious production line, yet quite a handful in itself. How come Ridley Scott still has ideas to build new Alien films upon, and the audience keeps going to the theaters to check them out? The answer that seems correct to me is: to make something new, take something you already had, cripple it in some way and then add a speck of something refreshing to make up for it.
Covenant follows this recipe brilliantly when it comes to crippling. It's the umpteenth time we see humans land on a potentially dangerous planet - yet they keep making the same mistakes they oughta tell about at "Space Colonization 101". Still reckless, short-sighted, unable to control their emotions and follow the basic protocols. The equipment follows suit: withstanding extreme overloads, it (in)conveniently breaks exactly when someone's life depends on it. Looks like even in the XXII century the space programs follow the same principles of coproeconomics.
What saves Covenant from being a total failure is that speck of originality that this time took form of Michael Fassbender. It's no big secret that in Covenant his character builds upon his role in Prometheus. But it's _how_ he does it that makes all the difference. The Alien movies always got their scares from the confrontation of humans and those deadly creatures. But this time there's something entirely different that makes this film scary, something borderline diabolical, and it's Fassbender's delivery that gave me most of the creeps this time. Without him, this film would've been completely pointless.
But even Michael's stellar job doesn't remedy the overall predictability of this film. Maybe if he was the only person on board of Covenant, this film might've become another Moon. But the surgical precision of Fassbender's synthetic character is muddied by the mere mortals making their typical mistakes and playing their typical games. Mere mortals including the director: the revelation near the ending could be seen from a mile away, and only made the sloppiness employed to make it happen more apparent. So unfortunate. But fear not: there's the sequel coming, which will surely fix all its predecessor's flaws. Only to add a load of its own ones. So don't forget to reserve a place in lines in front of the movie theaters: the wheel of coproeconomical samsara ain't gonna spin itself.
Today's illusion of past grandeur
The goal of art in general, and of cinema in particular, is to stir emotions in us. And if we take this as the sole criterion of our satisfaction, then King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is definitely a film worth watching, with some powerful moments you'd feel partial to. But if you're one of the "we need to go deeper" kind, someone who values not emotions per se but the way they've been nourished, then it's a trickier story.
First of all, I had no idea that it was a Guy Ritchie film until I saw his name in the opening credits. A few years ago that would've been a reassuring sign. But after The Man from UNCLE I grew somewhat suspicious of Ritchie's ability to produce anything truly impressive outside his home turf niche of London crime life. Whether he'd be able to pull off his old-time magic was both a question and a reason to keep watching and find out.
And no, I don't think he did it. King Arthur tries to be a typical Ritchie film much, MUCH harder than TMFU, with fast-paced caustic banter, lowlife scheming and certain camera tricks straight from RocknRolla. But there's still something crucial missing, and I think it's the texture of the setting. You just can't come to England of middle-age fables and make it look like you're about to start selling fake jewellery in a poor borough or setting up an underground boxing match. There's no believable background, and there are definitely no suitable men for the job. Even Charlie Hunnam, despite all his muscles and formal englishness, sounds more like an American to me. I'm Russian myself, so what do I know, but still he's no Gerard Butler and definitely no Jason Statham when it comes to talking like a true Brit with the taste for crime.
Still, this film does have life in it. Artificially created by the so-called "epic" scenes and dramatic score, and carefully produced by the dialogues full of pathos and exchanges of all-meaning glances. But, unlike TMFU that tried to look classy but ended up limp and weak, this one has something borderline visceral about it, something that manages to touch you even though you clearly realize it's purely fake and commercial. Maybe for all this we should be grateful to Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, probably the most exotic and stunning beauty I've seen in Western cinema in years - even though she's as far from being British as this film is far from a historical documentary -, to Aidan Gillen, who's now forever doomed to be Littlefinger but manages to use it to our mutual benefit by bringing over the image of a true cunning bastard, and to Jude Law, who doesn't only make sense of the devil but also produces the most authentic drama this film has to offer.
Overall, the film is quite bearable, if not pleasant, except for its jerky, chaotic and disturbingly surreal opening. But even that overall pleasantness is still a step down for the author. Once a visionary, able to turn into gold everything he touches, Ritchie is clearly out of depth these days, and even borrowing visual tricks from another once-a-visionary Zach Snyder hardly helps creating a sense of cinematographic magic, cocky and daring, which all his gangster films emanate. He's still far from the likes of M. Night Shyamalan, but if the trend is not reversed, we all will be sad to remember King Arthur among those films that took the path of the genius downhill towards the realm of generic and purely commercial.
The Fate of the Furious (2017)
Epically shameless nonsense Vol. 2
According to the famous marxist saying, there's no such crime capital wouldn't commit for a 300% profit. The Fate of the Furious might not aim to triple its budget in earnings, but the crime of the paycheck receivers is still there: to take us to the movie theaters yet again, this film resorts to being so ridiculously over the top that you'll be recalling Fast Five and its multi-ton safe "drag race" (pun intended) as the good ol' days of sheer realism. Even "jumping the shark" isn't strong enough for this franchise anymore, we should say "jumping the nuclear submarine" from now on. Alas, that's not even a metaphor.
There's no point describing the ins and outs of the film, even for the sake of sarcasm, because towards the 8th step of this path there's nothing new left to surprise, disgruntle or even enrage you anymore. I will say, however, that despite the departure of several prominent franchise heroes in the latest episodes, the new characters keep proliferating at an alarming pace, making you genuinely wonder whether it's hype or paycheck that draws people into this monstrosity, and how soon it will be renamed to something more fitting, like "Toretto's Eleven".
There are two unlinked things left to say, one good and one bad. The good one is that now there's not one Game of Thrones person in the film but two. Kristofer Hivju and his fiery beard definitely added some color to the film, although his character is made more of wood than of fire in here. The bad one is that, even though the film tries once again to pay tribute to Paul Walker by making a pretty sentimental reference to his character towards the end of the film, I simply couldn't recall the name of Paul Walker himself until later when I looked it up here on IMDb. Maybe that's just me being amnesiac, but in this rush to be larger than life every single second, the franchise loses the last remnants of true emotions and sincerity it once had, becoming instead a big hard-stomping caricature of itself. So maybe it's for the best that you have a hard time linking Paul Walker to this film in your mind: he was way too nimble and vivid for it, while Vin Diesel fits this image perfectly.
Kong: Skull Island (2017)
Technically, the most compelling Kong of 'em all
Yes, the review title may sound ridiculous, especially if you're one of those people who hate remakes. And I agree, it's kinda crazy that the story of a gigantic ape now got its fourth installment. But if you rise above the prejudice, you will see that there's more to this film than just a monetary incentive.
Over the years, I happened to watch all the King Kong films (not the sequels, just the story openers), including the 1933 classic. And while their plot is generally the same, it's the accents that make the difference and show what the films were about in each particular epoch. The first film was basically a wow-inducing breakthrough with a social undertone (showing a giant ape in chains for the white crowd's amusement might ring some bells in 30's America). The film from the 70's was much more of a melodramatic tear-jerker. And what Peter Jackson did, apart from actually remaking some of the original scenes like a fight with a T-Rex, was ultimately devoid of a substantial core of any kind, so the only thing I do remember from that film is Jack Black's character's ridiculous ending line said with a totally unfitting pathos.
But the progress moves on, and even the old tropes acquire additional depth the audience has come to expect from films no matter what the genre they belong to (unless the genre is the CGI metal porn directed by Michael Bay). And this Kong, compared to the previous films, tries its best not to be shallow.
We've been given the characters with reasonable agendas, ones that might seem insane per se but are quite believable in this particular setting. We've got the story progression that gradually shifts our view of Kong from a bloodthirsty killing machine to something worth feeling sympathy for. And all that is done without emotional manipulation of any sort - and that thing alone earns Kong: Skull Island my respect.
But the best thing of this film is that, unlike what others say and what I've been kinda expecting myself, it doesn't just spray acting talent around hoping that the famous names and faces cement the whole gig. No, the film exploits its acting squad just right, making even the secondary/expendable characters memorable. So it's actually not so big of a surprise that the whole emotional narrative of this film is built not around the classic "beauty and the beast" line but around a letter that one of the soldiers keeps writing to his son. And the fact that that soldier is played by Toby Kebbell, the same guy who's behind Kong himself, adds even more humanity to this film, something that even the talented Andy Serkis failed to bring to its 2005 predecessor.
Even though Kong: Skull Island is far from perfect, with its own preposterous moments, it's still a film that's enjoyable to watch. And it's something that even being the third remake can't spoil.
A cultural enigma - or a psychological mess
It's not often that we get to see the films made by Iranian crews, starring Iranian actors and filmed in Iran. And, for a non-expert viewer like myself, the "Iranian world" is more or less terra incognita, which, considering all the political turmoil and notions of religious radicalism surrounding the country, makes one expect Iran to be something like what Argo showed us: a place where ruthless brutes are ready to kill and destroy everything that doesn't conform with their views of the ideals of the Islamic Revolution.
Per se, such dense atmosphere may be a rich ground on which art with the great cultural suspense could grow. And The Salesman clearly draws some of its power from our expectations of inadequate reaction on its premise. A theater production based on some Western author's play that involves hookers and implies the actress being undressed - we can clearly sense the tension around the topic. Especially since the word "censorship" has been uttered.
But, despite all the strong hints from the film, it is not about government repressions and torch-light processions. It's about a particular crime against a particular person - and the way the person and those close to her choose to react. The film clearly tries to capitalize on the stark contrast between the Western ways of dealing with such things and the Iranian ways. I guess we were supposed to be perplexed by the complexity of the social traditions and prejudices that make things we see as simple and straightforward so contrived in Iran. And if that was the case, I think the movie would have deserved the praise it had received.
Yet, instead of clearly showing us the hard dilemmas that the Iranian people face when dealing with certain crimes, The Salesman tries to get away with simply piling up a bunch of self-contradictory behavior from the female protagonist. So, instead of learning _why_ she's so reluctant to oppose the issue that befell her, we have to guess what's so wrong with her head if she constantly blames others for her problems and pushes them around while actively obstructing their attempts to find a proper solution. And even the final showdown, that might clear the matters once and for all, obscures them even more instead.
It might be the case that the behavioral schizophrenia expressed by the movie characters is an accurate reflection of a latent mass psychosis taking place in the Iranian society, oppressed so much that they prefer to quietly lose their mind instead of venting their frustration. In that case this film, however inconsequential and bizarre, is a cultural enigma giving us an insight of how people live in totalitarian societies. However, with the directing so vague and inconcrete, the film might bear a different message entirely, in that case being just yet another example how people are affected by Stockholm syndrome or crumble under their own sense of victimness. Whichever interpretation is true is not for me to decide, but trying to sit on two totally different and unrelated chairs at the same, and doing that so clumsily, is clearly not what I call good cinema.
The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)
More of 'Big Hero 6' than of 'The Lego Movie'
The original The Lego Movie was visually novel and conceptually appealing, combining the in-movie world's "power of the small people" agenda with the 'outer' world's "power of the unregulated creativity" one. Combined with a grand dose of sheer humor, entertaining action, witty parody and versatile characters, that film was a pure joy to watch.
The LEGO Batman Movie spin-off tries to capitalize on the universe created, taking the visuals, parody and the humor from its predecessor and riding on the ever-fruitful theme of family values. And all these aspects are carried out pretty well. Then what's the problem? The problem is that the movie, in all its attempt to be witty and ironic, sort of forgets to be sincere. Yes, the love-hate relationship between Batman and Joker is a refreshing take on the lore, and the suppressed craving for company and appreciation is there for the movie psychology lovers, but the main characters feel too cartoonish and infantile, as if they embody the way nursery school kids view the world. Combined with the never-stopping slapstick action and puns, TLBM is the "strictly for kids" kind of entertainment, which puts it on par with the recent box-office triumph Big Hero 6.
That may be a paradigm shift in the animation production business. Since Toy Story and Shrek, the animation studios were trying to create films that could draw both the kids and their parents into the movie theaters. However, maybe these days the adults have too much entertainment catering specifically for their needs, and there's no point in making a complex multi-targeted product anymore. So while The LEGO Batman Movie is certainly a great entertainment flick for kids, the more grown-up people are bound to yawn and doze off while watching it.
T2 Trainspotting (2017)
The world has changed, the misfits are the same
The first Trainspotting was a movie that defined a generation. A generation rebelling against the social conventions and choosing self-destruction instead. Twenty one years later, the once familiar characters return, so that we can see where that rebellion has led them.
You might say that the sequel was unnecessary and it's a step down. It's a step down alright, but making that step has an important meaning attached. It shows us all that even for those who "choose life" as a mockery, the life still continues. In that sense, confirming that the pack of misfit heroes from the first movie lasted that far is a great sign of hope for those rebelling against the foundations of life today. Hope that this gamble doesn't need to be fatal.
However, T2 is by no means a manifesto its predecessor has become. The first Trainspotting's "choose life" was a truly powerful message, a statement of rejection of the contemporary values due to their utter vanity. People were betting their lives on that rejection, and that alone was putting them at the avant-garde of the modern art, winning the hearts and minds of millions.
What T2 poses as its message is not a defying challenge to the society, but rather a distress call of the helpless ones who failed to find their spot in this world. Those who aren't young anymore, not strong enough to swim against the current and not smart enough to have found a safe harbor. Right now their manifesto is nothing more than a bunch of reflections about the modern world from a bunch of sad and tired losers. They wish they could embrace the social values of the contemporary world - those values they once rebelled against - but nobody grants them that chance, so instead they are forced to parasitize - financially and conceptually - on the people they used to laugh at, yet are jealous of their current superficial wellbeing and shallow happiness.
Strangely enough, however, T2 bears much more hope for redemption than the image of the grinning Mark Renton crossing the bridge at the end of the 1996's film. Because, however worn out and disillusioned, the former rebels aren't running anymore - and being able to confront their inner demons and looming father figures from the past is worth more than one could imagine. If Trainspotting was the quintessence of escapism, then T2 is the epitome of homecoming. And maybe, for the first time in a long while, the weary souls can be in peace with themselves. That notion alone is enough reason for T2 to exist.
John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
Stylish, yet empty
John Wick is back, and once again he's the person others constantly sing praises to. Limping more than ever, and looking as if he's about to turn into wood any second, he's still inexplicably unkillable and wondrously fatal. So fatal that sometimes his victims prefer to kill themselves, simply to grant themselves the luxury of dying their own way.
This movie upped the stakes style- and execution-wise, that's for certain. And even though the plot is ridiculously thin and the action as repetitive as an FPS game, one could not deny John Wick: Chapter 2 a certain charm. However, just like Mr Wick's magical ability to withstand death, that charm is an artificially crafted gizmo delivered by the hands of many unnamed (or not so much) characters put everywhere for the entourage. The entourage that gets viciously exploited by Keanu Reeves wearing the same single face everywhere and saying his wooden lines like an animated corpse. Without Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, Lawrence Fushburne, Common, that equally hot and deadly mute girl, even without Riccardo Scamarcio and his character, John Wick is just a bogeyman: a ghost of a scary story which can only frighten little kids but loses its potency once they grow up a bit.
The Last Detail (1973)
Not bad, but too wooden overall
There is a popular concept that even though our world changes over time, people really don't, so we are still more or less the same as we were a couple decades ago. Well, when watching some films from that time, it certainly feels as if they were made for a different audience. I guess that's what moral ageing is about: if the film characters still feel like real natural people decades after, the film did something right. Casablanca is the kind of movie that haven't lost a thing over 70 years. Unfortunately, I can't say the same about The Last Order.
It's easy to be called a backwards moron by criticizing a movie nominated for three Oscars and starring Jack Nicholson, but I'll take my chances. The film's biggest problem is not even the plot, even though it feels way too straightforward, with side stories shallow as a puddle. It's the characters. Not a single person in this film felt natural, as if they were stiffly trying to impersonate someone but realized their failure and tried to compensate for it with over-acting. Monologues and dialogues, spontaneous yelling every now and then, all that stuff felt way too forced and uncalled for. Who knows, maybe 40 years ago the sailors were indeed overly aggressive and mentally unstable brutes mixed with whiny demented crybabies, but even civilians in this film act like people on drugs. Different characters on different drugs though, so I can admit some diversity on that account.
But, at the end of the day, you're left wondering what the purpose of this film was. To show the controversial deepness of people's souls which reveals itself in the most unlikely cases? Well, in that case The Last Detail didn't go deep enough and never dared to dig beyond the stereotypes and movie psychology. Was it to share a touching story that we should empathize with? That was it's also a miss, because the character of Meadows never felt like the person you'd feel for, instead, he looks like a halfwit who is always calling trouble upon himself, willingly or not. Being a sympathetic retard is a hard mission, and Forrest Gump is probably one of a few cases of that mission's success, but Randy Quaid is no Tom Hanks by any means.
Was this film awful, so that you'd regret spending 109 minutes of your time on it? Probably not. Is it safe to skip and spend your time on something else? Definitely so.