Baby Driver Review

Baby Driver

Rated R: Violence and Language Throughout

Reviewed by: Benjamin Ferrarini

Baby Driver Poster“Baby Driver” is the newest film from writer director Edgar Wright who is best know for “Shaun of the Dead”, “Hot Fuzz” and “World’s End”otherwise known as the Cornetto Trilogy.  “Baby Driver” follows a young getaway driver, Baby played by Ansel Elgort (“The Fault in Our Stars”) as he works for crime lord Doc portrayed by Kevin Spacey (“House of Cards”).  Baby is a reluctant participant in these heists, but doesn’t have a lot of options as he is working of a debt he owes to Doc.  But, his desire to escape increases as the people he is forced to work with grow increasingly more psychotic.  Crooks like Jamie Foxx’s (“Django Unchained”) character Bats who plays up his “eviler then though” persona by maiming and killing without provocation.  It all comes to head when Baby meets a local waitress named Debora played by Lilly James (“Cinderella”) and decides to go on the run with her.

Even though Wright is known for making action comedies “Baby Driver”, while having some humor, is not a comedy in the same vain.  This is a action, crime, drama fueled by the nonstop music tracks on Baby’s iPod.  Those tacks are the pulse of the film, driving the tone and emotion of Baby’s character as he navigates through the deadly world he hopes to escape from.  Much of “Baby Driver” has a kind of lyrical quality. The driving scenes which show off Baby’s skill behind the wheel feature practical stunt work and offer some beautifully crafted set pieces.  The dialog when it’s at its best likewise has a kind of flow that offers enough characterization to keep you invested in Baby’s journey.  Even the cinematography has it’s own rhythm.  The camera is continually moving throughout the film, at times feeling like it is dancing through the scenes.  This all works together to make what could have been a generic story about a reluctant criminal into something with style and heart that transcends it’s parts.

I also give credit to Wright with his twist on the genre.  One of the draw backs to traditional heist films is the ambivalence audiences feel about rooting for characters who in other films would be considered the “bad guys”.  Most attempt to skirt this with the concept of the “moral thief”.  Some one who is doing a wrong thing for a right, or just, cause.  Think “Oceans Eleven” or “Italian Job” where the adversary is so much more evil or unjust that the heroes are exacting just vengeance or else bear a Robin Hood mantle.  “Baby Driver” avoids all of this because it doesn’t even attempt to rationalize or moralize the thieving.  This is a corrupt world populated with crooked people who do bad things.  Baby is told right at the beginning that he will become one of them if he continues in the life.  What’s at stake isn’t just Baby’s life but his character, who he is and who he will become.  It also gives a look at what happens when an honest person is pushed too far and what they may be willing to do to get away from a corrupting influence.

While I think the pacing is solid over all, there is a segment in the second act where things slow down a little too much.  It offers an important look at what life could be like if Baby were free from driving for Doc, but at the same time it lasts a little long and skips a beat or two.  Also late in the second act Bats and some of the others criminals start to invade Baby’s personal life which leads to added confrontation within the group.  These scenes were a little forced and could have been set up better so that it felt more organic but these are very minor flaws in what is otherwise a well crafted film.

Baby Driver is as a fun action pact ride that doesn’t sacrifice the intelligence of its material or its audience (cough, “Transformers”) to deliver a thrilling adventure.  It is as smart as you’d hope an Edgar Wright film to be and rates with the best crime films in the genre.  If you are not a music fan the relentless pounding beats pouring from Baby’s ear buds might put you off, but if you enjoy music, action and cleaver writing then this is one of the best films you’ll find this summer.

 

5 stars
Final Score: 5 Stars

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Review

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

PG-13: Intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language

Review by: Benjamin Ferrarini

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

“Dawn” takes place a decade after the events of “Rise”.  The virus that was being tested on the Apes has gotten out killing a large portion of the world’s population.  Those with natural immunity have formed survivor enclaves, one of which is based in San Fransisco.  As the film opens a small group led by Malcom played by Jason Clarke (Terminator Salvation) attempts to pass through Muir woods.  Their hope is to reach and restart a hydro electric dam as a last means of generating electricity.  However, they quickly encounter Caesar and his community.  Tensions flair with neither side trusting the other.  Malcom is able to form a tenuous peace with Caesar allowing them access to the dam.  With so much fear and distrust, peace is a loosing proposition and conflict seems inevitable.

“Dawn” sees a new director, Matt Reeves, a writer/director who worked on the television series Felicity and directed the JJ Abrams’ produced Cloverfield in 2008.  Reeves builds on what Rupert Wyatt did in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” keeping the focus on the people and relationships that drove the first film.  Only this time an entire community of apes and other primates have formed around Caesar.  In a more pronounced way then the first film “Dawn” places the audience between disparate sides and the conflict between them.  Again there are good guys and bad guys on both sides.  Those who want peace and those who want war.  Seeing Malcolm and Caesar interact makes you want to see their efforts to co-exist work.  But, these movies aren’t just a reboot, but a prequel as well.  Thus we know where this story is headed, we know peace won’t last.  What makes “Dawn” compelling isn’t if war breaks out but how.   Furthermore how our characters react when put in situations where there are no good options.  The writing and performances deliver on this concept bolstered by powerful CG effects.  Weta manages to improve the look and feel of the apes making them even more believable then in “Rise”.  This is  good because there are more Apes with more screen time.  Whole scenes in Caesar’s community are made up of nothing but CG creatures.  “Dawn” pulls this off with an impressive amount of finesse.

The Director of Photography Michael Seresin (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) brings his own sense of look and feel to this film.  “Dawn” is a bit bleaker a story then “Rise” and that darker tone is reflected in the cinematography.  It’s effective but the muted desaturated color scheme is a bit over done these days and to an extent I fear it drains “Dawn” of some of the uniqueness “Rise” had.  That said when fighting does break out “Dawn” is able to capture the energy and frantic nature of the action without losing focus.

My biggest problem with “Dawn” has to do with some of it’s story logic.  The film opens with a montage of news reports explaining how the ALZ-113 virus, known as the Simian Flu, became a pandemic that destroyed the world as we know it.  One of the characters Ellie, played by Keri Russel, worked for the Center of Disease Control and offers some further exposition on how the virus works.  Thus there is some general knowledge about ALZ-113 and how it got loose.  However, even with this knowledge some of the humans are strangely ignorant of Caesar and his apes.  They don’t take their increased intelligence or their human traits into account and insist they are just dumb animals.  This seems counter intuitive offering forced incentive to discount the advances of peace made by Malcolm and Caesar.

My other criticism is more of a nitpick and comes from personal preference.  “Dawn’s” ending is more open ended then “Rise” making it feel less complete.  This is a common occurrence with the middle film in a trilogy.  Thankfully “Dawn” doesn’t end in a literal “to be continued” but the set up for an inevitable sequel is much more apparent.  There are exceptions but this is usually when a third entry isn’t planned or assured.  “Toy Story”, “Aliens”, or even “Scream” are all examples of trilogies where each entry stands on its own but also works collectively together.  As I said this really is a nitpick because “Dawn”handles it with the best.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a brilliant continuation of the story started in “Rise”.  It also doubles down on the philosophical tug of war the “Planet of the Apes” films are known for while adding more depth and complexity to the series.  If you haven’t seen “Rise” or “Dawn” now is a perfect time to get caught up before “War of the Planet of the Apes” releases on July 14th.

 

4 stars
Final Score: 4 Stars

Rise of the Planet of the Apes Review

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

PG-13: For intense and frightening sequences of action and violence

Review by: Benjamin Ferrarini

Confession number one: I am not reviewing Transformers The Last Knight.  I don’t plan on seeing it.  The Transformers movies have offered the same thing sequel after sequel.   They are repetitive, unimaginative and so tone deaf to critical analysis that I wonder if Michael Bay is doing it on purpose.  He may have a point since these movies continue to make money.  However, I’ve had enough and feel very little need to subject myself to another Transformers film.  So I’m skipping it this time.

Confession number two: For the most part I will be reviewing new releases however there will be times when I will take a look at older films.  This week for instance I was looking up the release schedule for next month and spotted  “War for the Planet of the Apes.” I realized I haven’t seen either of it’s predecessors.  I have been absent from this prequel trilogy… until now.  This week I sat down and caught up with “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”  Following is my review of “Rise”, a review of “Dawn” will follow early next week.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

The 1968 “Planet of the Apes” starring Charlton Heston is a classic piece of science fiction.  It offers commentary on the nature of humanity, animals and brutality.  It also featured a fantastic twist which left lots of questions.  The foremost of which was how the world got into the state it was in.  There is an implication of nuclear war but no specifics given.  “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was released in 2011 a year that also saw “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pt. 2”, “Cars 2”, “X-Men First class” and the first “Captain America”.  It was a busy year full of blockbuster films and, at the time, no one knew they even wanted a new “Planet of the Apes”.  Especially not after Tim Burton’s 2001 remake.  It was into this environment “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was released.  Directed by Rupert Wyatt (“The Gambler”) “Rise” is a bit of a reimagining as well as a reboot that centers on Will Rodman played by James Franco (“127 Hours”).  Will is a geneticist working on a miracle drug to cure Alzheimer’s.  Will’s father played by John Lithgow (“3ed Rock from the Sun”) is suffering from the disease and serves as his primary motivation.  Will is testing his drug on apes and other primates.  The drug works and one ape in particular, Caesar, gets smarter.  Caesar preformed by Andy Serkis (“Lord of the Rings”) and Will form a bond. As Caesar grows he becomes more aware that he is not human but something more than an animal.  The people around him become aware of this fact as well leading to a lot of tension and trouble.

“Rise” is a film that could have easily slipped into any of a number of traps.  It could have become a generic reboot trying too hard to either emulate or else divorce itself from its source material.  Issues which have plagued more recent films like “Star Wars the Force Awakens” which was criticized for being too similar to “A New Hope” or “Terminator Genesis” which attempted to retcon the whole series.   “Rise” could have played it safe offering little more then the same story told in a different setting.  It could have gone through motions full of forced exposition and plot contrivances.  However, “Rise” skillfully avoids all of these pitfalls by telling a grounded human story.  Will’s quest to find a drug is personal and maybe even a little selfish as he seeks to save his father from the ravages of Alzheimer’s.  It’s an anchor that is relatable and draws us in.  Seeing the paternal bond that forms between Will and Caesar also grows organically and provides an emotional arc that motivates both characters.  It’s important because it helps the balance the “bad” humans in the film.  Characters like the head of Will’s lab who is motivated by prophets not life saving drugs.  “Rise” does a good job of balancing the humanity of the film, so there aren’t any real heroes or villains just people both good and bad.

The film is beautifully shot by Andrew Lesnie, the cinematographer for “The Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” trilogies.  Lesnie brings with him an eye for capturing breathtaking moments of beauty even in moments of narrative bleakness.  The climax on the golden gate bridge is a stunning example.  “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” exquisitely uses well written dialog, performances and visuals to tell a compelling story.   Similar to Golum in “Lord of the Rings”, Andy Serkis’ performance gives Caesar a level of humanity absent in other CG creatures.  This helps temper some of the moments when the CG falters.

There are of course a couple elements that could be stronger. The antagonist characters are bland and one note.  More could have been done to give them motivations for their actions and helped further nuance the moral scale the film works from.  Mid way through the film an event takes place involving an accident in Will’s lab.  It’s an important development which sets up a significant payoff later.  However the premise upon which the event happens is a little dubious narratively.  However, these are really the only things that stand out as problems in an over all exceptional film.

It can’t be understated how much “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”  succeeds at.  It  plays with some of the underlying themes that drove the original “Planet of the Apes”.  It stands as a reboot, a prequel, and it lays the foundation for future stories to be told.  It manages all this while telling a compelling story with dynamic characters and themes.

4 and a half stars
Final Score 4 1/2 Stars

Would You Kindly: Meta Narratives in BioShock and Prey 2017

Gaming, Opinion

Written By: Benjamin Ferrarini

Video games have come along way over the years.  What started with paddles and dots evolved to gangly figures jumping over alligators, Italian plumbers smashing blocks and eventually into immersive 3D worlds with ever heightening levels of realism.  One genre in particular that has grown leaps and bounds is the shooter genre.  Adventure games and RPGs have featured deep characters and complex stories for a long time;  since adventure games were text only and Roll Playing Games were pen and paper only.  Shooters whether 2D side scrollers like “Contra” or 3D FPS’s like “Doom” all had one thing in common;  a desperate lack of story.  They had a little sure, enough to point you in a direction and an enemy to fight whether it was nazis, aliens or invaders from hell.  Shooters also featured uncomplicated protagonists which range from meat heads who talk too much to silent vassals who never say anything.  These elements led critics to judge the shooter genre as not just shallow but hollow.  Lacking any substance to justify their violence.  While there are certainly some titles that exemplify these harsh criticisms some more recent titles have undergone a seismic shift.  Not only do many modern shooters incorporate complex stories and well written characters but they even offer some compelling commentary about their players.   The discussion ahead includes spoilers for the games “BioShock” and “Prey.”

BioShock 01

Irrational Game’s  2007 “BioShock” is a great example of how the shooter genre has advanced.  In some ways BioShock resembled some of the traits mentioned above.  As the player you inhabit the character Jack a mostly silent protagonist who is deposited in the ocean by a plane crash.  Right at the site of the crash there is a lighthouse.  In the lighthouse Jack finds a pod that takes him to the underwater city of Rapture.  The hidden city is the brain child of Andrew Ryan, a visionary who wanted a place for scientists to research and create a way from pesky things like ethics and morals.  Of course the dream has turned into a nightmare as the city has fallen into chaos and monsters roam freely through it’s halls.  Jack’s and by extension your only ally is a man named Atlas.  He contacts you via radio and offers advice and guidance.

However Atlas isn’t what he seems.  Throughout your interactions with Atlas he has a verbal quirk.  He has a habit of using the phrase “Would you kindly”.  It seems to just be part of his demeanor but it isn’t.  Near the end of the game it is revealed that Jack is a bit of an experiment.  He has been brought to Rapture on purpose and conditioned to respond to the trigger phrase “Would you kindly”.  This is a massive revelation that plays into “BioShock’s” theme of power and control but it also serves as commentary on the player.  It holds up a mirror suggesting that not only has Jack been manipulated but you have too.  Video games seem to offer some freedom of choice but do they really?  Level designs and game mechanics are built to push players in one direction or another.  In truth freedom is a carefully crafted illusion created by game developers.  Andrew Ryan has his own favorite phrase he spits at you. “A man chooses, a slave obeys”  which leaves BioShock asking the question how much choice do we surrender when interacting with video games, to what extent are we slaves to entertainment?

This year Bethesda Softworks released a new game titled “Prey.”  “Prey” takes place in an alternate time line in which humanity has a massive space station in orbit around the moon.  This facility Telos One is owned the multinational conglomerate TranStar corporation.  Telos One is the sight of extensive experimentation on something called Nuromods.  Artificial brain grafts that allow people to acquire special abilities in a matter of minutes.  This is made possible by the use of Alien DNA.  As a character named Morgan you find yourself trapped on Telos after these Aliens have broken free and are rampaging through the station.  It’s conveyed the Typhon are are dangerous because they’re totally devoid of sympathy.  They can not feel the pain of others and therefore no ethics about killing. Morgan’s directive is to find a way to contain the aliens, prevent them from getting off the station and to earth.  There are options in how you go about doing that.  Many of these options have to do with how you interact with other human survivors.  Do you help them, ignore them, or kill them all?  How you handle these situations doesn’t really impact the climax of the game which boils down to three or four options.  Escape the station alone, wipe out the Typhon, destroy the station with everyone aboard or destroy the station and rescue everyone you can.   Again thematically there isn’t a whole lot of differences between these endings.  Just a brief cinematic.  But, after the credits roll there is one last piece to the puzzle.

Prey 2017

In a post credit sequence it is revealed that the entire game has been a simulation based on memories of the real Morgan.  A simulation being run on one of the Typhon aliens.  In truth, earth has been overrun and there is ceaseless conflict.  Those who are running the simulation believe just as they were able to graph Typhon traits onto humans they may be able to graph human traits onto the Typhon.  Impart a measure of our empathy and compassion.  He thinks maybe just maybe this will build a bridge over the impassible gap between species.  It’s an interesting twist that takes your choices into account and give another layer of significance in how you’ve played the game.

Sadly Prey doesn’t take this to the same extent “BioShock” does.  There was room to offer some commentary on the player behind Morgan.  Have you made compassionate “human” choices or have you played more like a Typhon?  What did you chose and why?  What does it say about you?  Does it say anything?  Video Games after all are a form of escapism.  Stepping into someone else’s skin and doing things you’d never do in reality.  There is something cathartic about it.  At the same time acknowledging our capacity for empathy and violence, entertainment or no is important.  Especially in a genre that is drenched in violence.  Reminding us of the limits of choice within systems of control is likewise powerful.  It’s also something no other media  can do better then games like “BioShock” and “Prey.”

Cars 3 Review

 

Cars 3

Animated, Family, Adventure

Cars 3 Poster

Rated: G

Reviewed by: Benjamin Ferrarini

The “Cars” franchise has never been one of my favorites from Pixar.  The first film was a bit derivative with the only unique element being that it was set in a world of living cars.  The second film suffered from the same, plus odd tonal shifts that made it too mature for kids but too childish for adults.  Of all Pixar’s films, “Cars” has been so nonsensical and goofy that I couldn’t take it seriously.  However, I did my best to put all that aside going into “Cars 3”.  After all Pixar proved with “Toy Story” they could pull off a third installment with sophistication and style.  Could they do the same with this marketing giant, or would “Cars 3” be a pointless retread more interested in making money then doing anything new?

“Cars 3” opens on Lighting McQueen at the top of his game.  He’s got a group of friends on and off the track.  But this all changes with emergence of Jackson Storm.  A new breed of nextgen race car.  Storm started wining race after race opening the door for more cars like him to take over the sport.  McQueen quickly feels he’s being left behind and becomes desperate to prove he can still win races.  As you’ve seen in the trailers the drive leads to a massive wreck in which McQueen wipes out in the last race of the season.  This leaves McQueen with a question, does he give up and retire just as his racing friends have done or does he reinvent himself in order to continue to race?  Stung by the memory of Doc Hudson and how Doc’s career came to an end Lightning chooses to keep racing stating “I decide when I’m done.”

“Cars 3” is a simpler and more mature story then “Cars 2”.  It’s about life choices, growing older and letting go.  These themes give the film more heart and purpose and allows for some good character growth.  McQueen is once again surrounded by a strong supporting cast of characters with the bulk of screen time devoted to new characters like Lightning’s new trainer Cruz Ramirez played by Cristela Alonzo (“Angry Birds Movie”).  Sterling voiced by Nathan Fillion (“Firefly”, “Castle”) casts a sort of shadow over Lightning reminding him of his age and urging him to think of his legacy after his career comes to an end.  Jackson Storm, Lightning’s chief competitor, played by Armie Hammer (“Loan Ranger”) is a compelling villain who does a good job of egging Lightning on with barbed comments laced with mock praise.  These new character are well fleshed out but it’s the dynamic between Cruz and Lightning that provides much of the films heart.  “Cars 3” places much more of a focus on the sport of racing then it’s predecessor which used races as little more then a backdrop.  Even the race near the opening with the now infamous crash sequence is full of purpose.  McQueen doesn’t crash because of something Storm does as the trailer implies but because McQueen is so desperate he skips out of a pit stop before all this tires have been changed.  All of this helps set up McQueen’s mentality and plays into his motivations through the rest of the film.

While McQueen’s motivation works for the most part there are some exceptions.   McQueen’s attitude doesn’t quite feel right at a couple points in the film.  The fact that McQueen is near the end of his career and feeling outdated is nuanced and appropriate, but once or twice McQueen is a little too much like his cocky old self from the beginning of “Cars”.  A fight he has with Cruz mid way through the film especially feels a bit forced and out of character.  The film retreads elements that have appeared in both previous films and I’m not sure if they’re simple call backs or real lack of originality.  For instance the return of Chick Hicks as a trash talking TV show host adds little except unnecessary fan service.

I can comfortably say “Cars 3” is a better film then “Cars 2” and is a proper sequel to the first film.  Like “Toy Story 3”, it’s an attempt to tell a more mature story for an audience which has grown up since the first film was released.  For the most part it succeeds at what it tries to do with an ending that fits perfectly. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite succeed at building a deep emotional connection it’s going for.  How ever well some elements click it doesn’t quite hit the feels the way some Pixar films do.   Still it is a positive addition to the “Cars” franchises which capitalizes on the best parts of what made the first film work.  Because it deals with a story and themes that are more sophisticated it may work better for older kids.

On a final note I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Pixar Short that opens the film: “Lou”.  I mentioned “Cars 3” struggled to connect emotionally, “Lou” managed that feat in a 6 minute run time.  Set on a elementary playground “Lou” tells the story of a weird creature that inhabits the lost and found box, desiring to return toys and items to their rightful owners.  It does this while attempting to redeem a playground bully.  “Lou” quickly establishes humor, mystery and a poignant message about how we treat one another.  After all many kids who become bullies were once victims of bullying themselves. “Lou” is another fantastic short from Pixar and a worthy addition to their growing body of work.

 

4 stars
Final Score: 4 Stars

Cinematic Unicorn: The Dream Of A Shared Universe

Commercial Hollywood is always looking for the next big thing, the hot ticket, the sure fire hit.  I still remember back in the late 1990’s after Pixar’s success with “Toy Story” and “A Bugs Life” and then subsequently DreamWorks’ hit “Shrek”; there was a perception that CG family friendly features were where the money was.  It was what audiences wanted.  Thus in the early 2000’s the market was flooded with CG animated films from every studio who could scrape a team of animators together.  Most of these offerings were unimaginative, boring as a result of being rushed into production as the studios toy storysought to cash in on the latest movie going craze.  What many studios missed was that it wasn’t the format but the content people were responding to.  Pixar had an incredibly deft touch at creating characters and stories that connected with people.  Resonated with them on a deep level.  Likewise “Shrek” was a smart, self aware film that spoofed many animated cliches and tropes while at the same time delivering fun relatable characters.  Rushed facsimiles aiming to be little more then cash grabs just couldn’t compete.

I bring this up because today we are faced with another case of studios with the “me to” complex.  Only today the golden calf Hollywood has been worshiping is the connected universe made popular by Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (abbreviated MCU).  The Marvel film franchises has made Disney billions (yes billion with a B) of dollars.  Four of it’s films have crossed the $1 billion mark in worldwide ticket sales.  With the impressive success of the MCU other studios have taken note and have laid their own plans to create a set of movies that will form a similar shared universe.  WB with DC has launched the DC Extended Universe which started with the Superman reboot “Man of Steel” but really got put into motion with “Batman V Superman” in 2016.  Most recently Universal has vowed to jump into the game attempting to bring back a shared universe populated by it’s classic monster franchises.  The first official kick off point being the reboot of “The Mummy” which premiered this past weekend.  The present reality is that none of the wannabes have been able to duplicate what Marvel has done.  There is a variety of reasons, but I am going to tackle the one I think is most influential.

Though everyone admires it no one has followed the model Marvel blazed when it was growing what came to be known as phase one of the MCU.  Marvel released a number of stand alone films.  “Iron Man” (May 2008), “The Incredible Hulk” (June 2008), “Iron Man 2”  (May 2010), “Thor” (May 2011), and “Captain America” (July 2011).  Marvel made five films over four years before they brought it all together in “The Avengers” in 2012.  Even iphone-wallpaper3though they wove some connecting threads throughout these films each one stood as it’s own unique story centered on a titular hero.  They allowed their characters to be developed organically.  When thrown together those established characters melded or clashed, not out of contrived scenarios or plot convenience.  One scene in “The Avengers” that illustrates this is shortly before the helicarrier is attacked.  All our heroes are gathered in the science lab and an argument has broken out.  Steve Rogers and Tony Stark’s quiet revelry blows up and it seems it may come to blows.  Rogers tells Stark that he isn’t a hero and Stark retorts that Rogers is a science experiment.  “Everything special about you came out of a bottle.” Stark says.  This line stings Rogers and if you’ve seen “Captain America The First Avenger” you know why.  In that film Dr. Erskine tells Rogers that his serum amplifies whatever is already inside someone.  So Rogers already had the heart of a hero before the serum turned him into Captain America.  Moments like this is what makes the MCU tick and it’s what everyone else has missed.

Warner Brothers and DC attempted to rush their DCEU with “Batman V Superman”.  They introduced a new older grizzled version of Batman with Ben Affleck.  They also introduced Wonder Woman, Lex Luthor and attempted to set up a larger world.  This was simply too much for what was originally supposed to be “Man of Steel 2”.  DC mistook people’s excitement over seeing all the Avengers assembled as the only thing people wanted.  “Batman V Superman” missed the heart and tone people were looking for and it didn’t provide characters people could relate to and feel invested in.  They went for style and spectacle over substance and it’s widely agreed they failed.  The next film “Suicide Squad” released later that same year, only magnified those same problems.  It wasn’t until this year that “Wonder Woman” broke that streak with a film that delivered a focused story with heart, character and spectacle too.

Now we come to Universal and the launch of “Dark Universe”.  This is a more perplexing case because Universal started work on a Mummy reboot back in 2012.  Universal had both Marvel’s success and DC’s failures which should have served as a list of do’s and don’ts.  Sadly they followed more in the footsteps of DC creating a pastiche of elements that don’t quite jive.  “The Mummy” isn’t really about the titular character, it’s about the “Dark Universe”.  The film feels more like an elongated pilot to a new series with the Mummy being the first villain (or monster) of the week.

The good news in all of this is that there is time for a corse correct.  Hopes are high that “Wonder Woman” isn’t a one off anomaly.  That they’ve learned from past missteps.  Likewise there is hope that the tepid reception “The Mummy” has received will lead Universal to pull back and rethink their strategy.  If they all want to find the kind of success Marvel has found then they need to pay attention to how they did it.  A focus on character, story, and building a connection that will bring people back to the theater and leave them wanting more.

The Mummy Review

The Mummy

Action, Adventure, Fantasy

The Mummy Poster

PG-13: violence, action and scary images, and for some suggestive content and partial nudity.

Review by: Benjamin Ferrarini

First let me admit that I was a fan of Stephen Sommers’ “The Mummy” back in 1999 which starred Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz.  I thought it struck a good balance between action and comedy, never taking itself too seriously.  It had elements of originality while keeping some of the campy monster movie fluff that made it a fun dumb summer film.  I wasn’t as fond of it’s 2001 follow up “The Mummy Returns” or any of the following sequels including the third film “Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” which I never saw.  Back in 2012 Universal announced it was rebooting the franchise and at the time Len Wiseman (“Underworld”, “Total Recall”)  was a attached to direct.  During the intervening years Wiseman dropped out of the project and the film was adapted to Universals “Dark Universe” plan.  Given the long history of Mummy films how does this latest incarnation fair?  Does it stand on it’s own?  Does it serve as a good start for Universal’s connected universe?

This version of The Mummy features a new Mummy in the form of an Egyptian Princess named Ahmanet played by rising star Sofia Boutella.  Ahmanet is obsessed with bringing Set, explained as the Egyptian of death, into our world.  She is opposed by army recon scout Nick Morton played by Tom Cruise and archeologist Jenny Halsey played by Annabelle Wallis.  Nick is a charismatic thief who has been using his tour of duty in Iraq to plunder whatever riches he can, then selling them on the black market.  Don’t ask why there is still American active duty combat troops in “present day” Iraq because the film doesn’t even try to answer that question.  After a one night stand Nick has with Jenny he apparently stole information from her about the presence of some kind of treasure residing in Iraq.  After a brief skirmish with a band of Insurgents, Nick stumbles across Ahmanet’s tomb.  At this point Jenny catches up with him and pulls him into “a world of gods and monsters”  as she actually works for Dr. Jekyll and his shadowy organization which protects the world from supernatural threats.  The most imminent threat, of course, posed by the newly risen Ahmanet.

I wish I could offer a straight forward explanation and review of this film but as you may have gathered from by synopsis this film has a lot going on in it.  It’s not just a “Mummy” movie but the kick off point for Universal’s “Dark Universe”.  As such it must pull double and sometimes triple duty setting up a new universe in which future stories will be told.  This added pressure weighs the film down and leads to a lot of clumsy exposition in the form of awkward conversations that only serve to make sure you know what’s what.  Since much of these parts involve plot spoilers I won’t spend much time on this but I did want to point out some of the ways in which the “Dark Universe” elements drag on The Mummy’s story.

As far as the actually “Mummy” story goes I had several issues starting with the mummy herself. There was a lot of interest in the change up of having a female mummy this time around.  Boutella as Ahmanet is about as far from Arnold Vosloo’s hulking Imhotep as you can get.  This seemed to offer some hope of something unique and different.  Unfortunately, while Ahmanet is different from the mummies that came before her, she falls victim to some painful stereotypes.  Ahmanet is hyper sexualized appearing almost naked or completely naked throughout the film.  Her ability to suck the life out of people to restore her form is a callback to previous films but this time it requires her to “kiss” several men she comes across.  She also imprints on Nick pursuing him with a warped romantic interest.   This is terribly disappointing as much of it doesn’t seem to serve much purpose other then the obvious creepy factor.  Beyond this Ahmanet’s powers are not well defined beyond being told they come from Set.  But, it doesn’t explain how Ahmanet can control camel spiders, crows, and sand.  Ahmanet powers don’t feel grounded to anything and for that matter most of the film doesn’t either.

Usually in films like “The Mummy” there is a character that represents the audience.  Someone we can identify with, who can guide them through all the craziness happening in the story.  This character should be Nick, but for good parts of the film I found Nick somewhat abrasive.  He wasn’t relatable, interesting or even compelling.  Much is true for the rest of the cast who have precious little development leaving the audience without someone to care about.

However, for the most part the action in “The Mummy” is pretty solid.  The effects look good and are used well.  It’s well choreographed, shot and managed to keep me from getting lost.  One sequence featured in the trailers involving a plan crash is especially effective visually.  Of course a couple well done action sequences can’t carry the film.   Regrettably there’s too much that doesn’t work here from the way Ahmanet is portrayed, to the convoluted “Dark Universe” aspects, to the over serious way it takes itself.  It’s not scary, it’s not exciting and it isn’t very compelling.  In the end this is one mummy that should have stayed buried.

 

2 stars
Final Score: 2 Stars

Wonder Woman Review

Wonder WomanWonder Woman Poster

Action, Adventure, Super Hero

PG-13: Sequences of violence and action, and some suggestive content
By Benjamin Ferrarini

 

Wonder Women is the fourth film in Warner Brothers/DC’s Extended Universe.  Their set of connected film franchises started with Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot “Man of Steel” in 2013.  This was followed by “Batman V Superman” and “Suicide Squad” in 2016. I went into Wonder Women with a good amount of skepticism.  Even as aggregate review scores began ticking upward I still wasn’t convinced DC had averted the downward trend it’s DCEU had been on.  There was talk that Wonder Woman was surpassing expectations but then again after critical reception of Batman V. Superman and Suicide Squad received expectations weren’t exactly high to begin with.  That said Wonder Women is indeed a welcome change from what’s come before and hopefully an indicator of the potential many believed the DCEU had in it.

Wonder Women takes place during the final weeks of World War 1 and centers on Diana played by Gal Gadot.  Diana is Princess of the Amazons, a race of warrior women created by Zeus to protect the world from the God of War, Ares.  The Amazons live on a remote island, believing Ares to be in a state of hibernation, they train and wait for his return.  When a British pilot crashes his plane near the island Diana drags him to shore.  The pilot, Steve Trevor, played by Chris Pine tells the Amazons about the war which has encompassed the world.  Diana believes a war on world wide scale must be the work of Ares.  Diana decides to leave her island, to go with Steve back to the war hoping she can find and stop Ares.  However, having grown up in such a remote and sheltered way there is much Diana doesn’t understand.  I can’t get into much more without spoilers but suffice it to say there are a number of questions and reveals that are setup and have satisfying payoffs.

More so then the previous DC movies the main characters are well established.  Diana’s motivations are clear and the choices she makes are consistent with her goals.  She is made sympathetic by an appropriate level of innocence about the world outside the island where she was raised.  Much as been made by Gal Gadot’s performance and she does a great job balancing Diana’s strength and naivety.  However, just as strong is Pine’s performance as Steve a British spy who’s experiences have left a mark on him.   Steve’s conflicted character balances Diana and provides quite a lot of nuanced material which Pine handles with a compelling deftness.  Together they have enough chemistry to carry the film with believability and finesse.  Because so many of these elements click, Wonder Women is a compelling journey that actually manages to build some emotional investment that is lacking in the other DCEU films.

This isn’t to say Wonder Women is a perfect film.  It has a few flaws that stand out partially because the rest of the film is so well done.  In previous reviews I made reference to poor use of exposition.  Wonder Women does better by showing instead of telling making use of flash backs to fill in information.  That said, I think it does this a little too often.  A good concept just over used.  Likewise the CG effects are mostly good but there are a couple action sequences in which it is over used.  One scene in particular in which CG stunt men are flung around by Diana doesn’t quite look right and takes away from effect.  My last real complaint is sadly almost obligatory when it comes to super hero films and that is about the film’s villains.  There are a couple antagonists in Wonder Women but they are the under developed “bad guys” who are there to be defeated.  Certainly there is a meta enemy in the war, but the film does employ a German General and his weapons expert to be focal point of the war threat.  Having them be more dynamic three dimensional characters would have helped the dramatic tension of the film, instead they are just proxies of a greater threat.  Given how much Diana and Steve are developed it’s a shame more time isn’t given to making sure they have worthy adversaries.

Director Patty Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg deserve a lot of credit for crafting a film that stands on it’s own and delivers on what fans have been waiting for.  It’s also nice to see Gal Gadot transition from the Fast and Furious franchise, proving she can handle a staring roll in a new franchise.  Despite a few flaws Wonder Women remains the best film in the DCEU and is quite possibly the best DC film since The Dark Knight.  With word that Joss Whedon has come on board to help finish Justice League and develop a stand alone Batgirl film there is hope that Wonder Women will set a new standard which future entries will follow.

4 stars
Final Score: 4 Stars

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell no Tales Review.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell no Tales Review.

Genre: Action/AdventurePirates poster

Rated: PG-13 for sequences of adventure violence, and some suggestive content

Review by Benjamin Ferrarini

Dead Men Tell no Tales is the fifth film in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.  It brings back several of the original cast members including Orlando Bloom as Will Turner.  It also adds a couple new comers: Brenton Thwaites who plays Henry and Kaya Scodelario who plays Carina.  You have guessed by now and if you haven’t it’s revealed in the first few minutes Henry is Will’s son who has become obsessed with freeing his father from the Flying Dutchman (the ship of the dead Will was bound to at the end of At World’s End).  Along the way Henry gets caught up with Carina, Jack Sparrow and a collection of pirates as they all run from Javier Bardem’s Captain Salazar, a ghost bent on revenge.

Right off the bat, Dead Men Tell no Tales cements itself as a Pirates film with an inane action sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the film.  Thankfully this Pirate’s film manages to avoid the jarring tonal shifts that plagued Dead Mans Cheat and At World’s End delivering a more even feel all the way through.  The themes of family and redemption provides a more upbeat atmosphere for this adventure into the Caribbean.  There is also a connection to past events that helps fill in some of Jack’s backstory.  This is the series at it’s best since Curse of the Black Pearl.  However, it falls short of the original because of some rather significant flaws.

For the most part, they do a good job of bringing back the old cast, but the newcomers are rather one dimensional.  Aside from their connections to the characters we already know there isn’t much to flesh them out.  We know Henry wants to help Will but not why and thus there is little reason for us to root for him other then the fact that we want to see Will saved too.  This means the story lacks the emotional punch it should have a key points.

Also the new curse that besets Salazar’s crew and the connection it has to Jack isn’t really explained.  In the first Pirates film the explanation of heathen gods cursing the gold may be a bit of a cop-out but the curse and it’s rules are laid out throughout the film.  That’s not to say the first film is perfect as it plays a little fast and loses it’s own rules especially in the third act.  However, the curse in Dead Men Tell no Tales isn’t defined and some of it’s effects seem more like plot conveniences rather then logical extensions of a source concept.

But, let me get back to what did work in this film.  While some may roll their eyes at going back again to Jack Sparrow and Barbossa, more then any of the other sequels in this series Dead Men Tell no Tales actually does a decent job of adding depth and complexity to the long running characters. Geoffrey Rush especially gets some good material to play with taking Barbossa from just another villain to a more complex and dynamic character.  There are a number of action set pieces which I think strike a comfortable balance between the first film and the growing ridiculousness of Pirates 2 and 3.  Some of these sequences actually manage to push the plot along and give a few character movements closer to Will and Jack’s first sword fight in first film.   All of this gives Dead Men Tell no Tales a feel more like Curse of the Black Pearl.  It’s more fun and more enjoyable then any of the other sequels.  It’s fun to see Will and Elizabeth again, it’s just a shame the attempt to breath new life into the world by introducing the next generation is so poorly handled.

I feel I would be remise if I didn’t mention one last thing.  Dead Men Tell no Tales had a estimated budget of $230 million.  This is the most expensive film in the franchise and one of the more expensive summer blockbusters period.  Much of this budget most likely went into the film’s digital effects.   Salazar and his ghost army are in quite a few scenes and they mostly look pretty good.  Unfortunately there are other areas where the CG is painfully obvious as during one scene when fire catches on the deck of a ship embers rain down on the deck below.  The glowing embers have an artificial quality which was sadly distracting.  This is a consistent problem in this film, there is so much that is good in concept but poor in execution.  It has some good parts, but those parts don’t add up, and a myriad of flaws hold back what could have otherwise been the strongest entry in the franchise

 

3 stars
Final Score: 3 stars

Alien Covenant Review Pt. 2

Alien Covenant                                                                                                                               Genre: Hororalien-1sheet-1000x1480

Rated: R for sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity

Review Part 2 Spoiler analysis.

By Benjamin Ferrarini

 

 

spoiler

Warning this post will explore the plot and themes of Alien Covenant with FULL SPOILERS!  So please go see Covenant before reading this analysis or if you don’t mind spoilers by all means read on.

I wrote in my review that Alien Covenant has two major problems, first it relies to heavily on tropes from other Alien films and overused horror clichés.  Second it attempts to carry certain elements over from Prometheus while abandoning other, arguably stronger, elements.  This is your last chance to stop before hitting spoiler territory.

I don’t have much to say about the tropes or predictability.  Suffice it to say Covenant starts on a ship drifting through space and ends with an Alien stowing away on the ship and getting spaced via an airlock.  There’s nothing wrong with this per se, however given how often these elements have featured in past Alien films it’s a little disappointing.  It gives too much of Alien Covenant a feeling of been there seen that.  But, this isn’t the films real problem.  The problem with Alien Covenant starts with Prometheus.

Covenant’s Prometheus problem:                                                                                               Alien Covenant opens on a subtle moment of exposition.  The moment David was brought online by Weyland.  In a sparse white room.  David ask Weyland why he was created.  Weyland tells David they are going to look for answers together.  Answers to who created mankind.  You see Weyland doesn’t believe the Darwinian explanation that we are products of random chance.  Just has he labored to create a machine in the image of man Weyland believes some extraterrestrial intelligence created man in theirs.  But where did the Aliens come from?  Why did they create us and why have they since decided to wipe us out.

These are the questions Prometheus doesn’t answer.  The way it ends though would seem to imply answers could come at some point.  The final shot of Prometheus has Shaw flying off promising to find answers.  From a philosophical stand point I get it.  The film mirrors reality.  We often don’t have answers to big questions in life and so the film doesn’t try to answer them either.  However, from a narrative stance  I have an issue with this.  I don’t like when a story sets up a mythos, when it asks a lot of questions and then doesn’t bring any of it to fruition.  I think it is lazy and frustrating.  Especially when a film like Prometheus is setting up a new series of film.  Prometheus sets up a lot that Covenant abandons.  Instead it tries to answer different questions, namely where the Xenomorphs come from and how the events of Prometheus connect with Alien.  Even these answers are probably not what your expecting.  The answers are all connected to David.

In the opening of Covenant David quickly surmises he is superior to Wayland his creator and superior to his mission.  After Wayland died at the end of Prometheus David was freed.  Released to his own recognizance to his own mission, one that isn’t about answers.  You may have guessed by now, the planet the crew of the Covenant find is the Engineer’s home world.  The planet Shaw and David were looking for.  When they found it David moved on his own plan.  He dropped a payload of black goo onto the alien city whipping them out.  He did so just to study the effects of the engineer’s biological weapon.  He then proceeded to experiment on the surviving aliens, the animal life and even Shaw herself as he become obsessed with creating the perfect Alien life form… the Xenomorph.  Yes you read that right… The Xenomorphs aren’t natural creatures but the result of bioengineering.  David created the iconic Aliens we all know and fear.  This isn’t the pay off most of us were hoping for and it robs the Xenomorphs of some of their mystery.

By the time the surviving crew figures out what David is up to it’s a little too late.  In fact David manages to swap places with Covenant’s Android Walter (an updated version of David also played by Michael Fassbender).  Our main character doesn’t realize this until David is placing her back into cryogenic stasis.  This ranks among the most bleak endings of any of the Alien films.  I mean even in Alien 3 when Ripply died you knew it was to stop the Xenomorphs.  Her sacrifice bought something.  Alien Covenant reveals Shaw’s depressing fate as David’s test subject.   Further the way Covenant end implies the surviving crew of the Covenant and the 2,000 of the colonists will all share Shaw’s fate.  Unless the inevitable sequel introduces some kind of miraculous escape… and that brings me to my last point… where is the series going from here?

Scott has been pretty vocal about having a multi-film plan for a set of prequels that will wrap around to the original Alien.  At the end of Covenant we’re still pretty far from knowing how that Engineer ship crashed on LV-426.  If anything this set of prequels is building out the world the Alien films take place in.  Fleshing out the origins of the Xenomorphs and the shadowy “company” that has been present all the way through.  While world building can be a good thing the way Covenant drops some of the deeper philosophical questioning makes me worry about the series added breadth but not depth.  What is at the end of the prequels and what lays beyond?

There are rumors that Ridley Scott has plans of some kind of sequel to Aliens in the works… something that may retcon Alien 3 and Resurrection.  I hope Ridley Scott has some sort of payoff planned at the end of the series.  If all this isn’t leading up to something, after six movies of death and slaughter then Alien may just be one of the most nihilistic movie franchise in history.