JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017): Minor League Is Better Than Nothing

Justice League is the culmination of so much for the DC film franchise. Four films of varying quality introduced us to this world of Gods among men. Of course, the greatest of those Gods is still Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), given the groundwork laid for her by this summer’s massive hit and first great film in this franchise. While striving for brave new ideas, Man of SteelBatman V. Superman and Suicide Squad all suffered from sprawling ideas that ultimately came up short. Now, Justice League has arrived and one can see the ship attempting to be steered back to harbor. It’s not an outright terrible blockbuster. Yet, it’s still guilty of something none of these earlier films seemed to exhibit: a total lack of ambition.

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Justice League swings for mid-field out of most players’ way and succeeds at that by a hair. Much of what transpires plotwise and how it does stylistically can only be described as “serviceable.” Basically, a big bad villain named Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) comes to earth and threatens several different colonies of Earth dwellers, eventually forcing Wonder Woman, Batman (Ben Affleck), The Flash (Ezra Miller), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa) to form a… Coalition of Righteousness, if you will. Justice League  is about as inoffensive a major blockbuster can get in terms of plot. That’s not entirely a slight, either. Despite lofty goals, the first three DC movies failed because of how badly they juggled their own shared universe concept. Simple isn’t necessarily a bad thing and makes this a far breezier ride than most of these others films in the series. Yet, that lack of ambition also makes the action scenes competent yet unremarkable on most every level. Director Zack Snyder made his career on the back of gorgeous pieces of action, but the visuals here are far more mechanical and workmanlike.

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Pretty unavoidable with a villain as bland as Steppenwolf. Crappy forgettable villains aren’t exclusive to Justice League, but Steppenwolf is the textbook example that may outdo someone like Malekith from Thor: The Dark World in terms of unmemorable monologues and underwhelming fight scenes. Him and his flying monkey-style lackeys are adequate to see storm against heroes, but the generic diatribes about “unleashing the motherbox” feel so lacking in personality. Even when Steppenwolf has moments for one liners, it seems jarring. He’s such an underdeveloped character that any semblance of a personality crawl out, it doesn’t seem to fit Steppenwolf’s clammy cold CG husk of a body he lumbers around in. He’s just an excuse for generic minions to menace our heroes and eventually have a giant figure to throw through walls a la the Injustice series of games.

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Of course, this is all just window dressing for the titular group of superheroes to come together as one group. This is probably done most cohesively with Batman and Wonder Woman, given those characters have some kind of a relationship that’s firmly established. Gadot carries that same compassionate warrior persona that made her the surprise hit of this summer, but Ben Affleck isn’t a slouch against her. He’s carrying baggage from the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), selling it far more than any previous scenes with the two of them in Batman V. Superman where he and Cavill scowled at each other. The foundation in general coming from the previous movies is the albatross hanging around Justice League as it tries to course correct. The Wonder Woman and Batman scenes do the best job of that course correction, as Batman acts like a cad with a dangerous yet fair idea for the group to consider. They feel the most like larger than life personas clashing about power and responsibility without over monologuing like Batman V Superman. With Diana calling out Bruce’s asinine behavior and Wayne apologizing to Prince. Character growth is always fun when it doesn’t involve people screaming Martha.

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Speaking of Superman, there’s a lot to go into that might spoil what his role is given his death at the end of Batman V Superman, though it should be pretty obvious from that ending that he’ll be soaring the skies at some point in Justice League. Yet, most of the problems with the effects work and the troubled production blatantly come from Superman’s presence. The biggest one is literally right under his nose, as the computer effects used to get rid of Cavill’s moustache during reshoots throw The Last Son of Krypton straight into the Uncanny Valley. Now, despite the modern news cycle of big budget films like Justice League, I try to not have production problems skew my thoughts on the film itself. Yet, this rush job is so noticeable that it takes you completely out of the proceedings and mutes much of the attempts here to return Clark Kent/Superman back to the roots of the character. Though it’s once again based within the foundation that doesn’t follow through, given the opening is focused around the “Hope” Kal-El inspired that looked far more like fascist fear mongering in the earlier films. This is all despite the best efforts of Diane Lane and Amy Adams who are far better used here than in the previous DC films. For what that’s worth.

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The other members of Justice League are a bit less consistent from there, though none of it really has to do with the performers. There’s an awkward pace going on during the first half of Justice League, as if this is more of a collection of short films about each character rather than one film. The stand out of the other members is honestly Ray Fisher, carrying the mopey tragedy spirit of this franchise with actual weight that makes sense given his origin story. His scenes with his father Dr. Silas Stone (Joe Morton) were some of the more compelling moments of superhuman drama, almost coming across as a Frankenstein monster style tragedy… that works best the less we see him in full Cyborg form. The computer effects aren’t Superman’s upper lip awful, but they occasionally render out in a fashion that makes Fisher look far more plastic than flesh and metal.

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Flash and Aquaman are more of modern and grounded characters meant to balance the team out a bit. Ezra Miller gives the speedster superhero an appropriate manic energy, though his comedic one liners rarely if ever hit. As does most of the humor in Justice League, honestly. Yet, the constantly jittering metabolism and fan boyish joy of being around superheroes made him at the very least a likable presence when used properly. Even if his Flash run is silly as all hell, at least the scenes of him moving fast make for the best use of Snyder’s speed up-slow-mo since 300 a decade ago. Jason Momoa’s Aquaman adopts a more “Thor as surfer dude bro” approach, but it’s not a bad turn at that concept. There’s a confidence and brashness that sells his distance from Atlantis far better than random moments of universe building featuring Amber Heard do. Momoa has a brashness that makes him stand out, which hopefully results in an Aquaman solo film that’s just as confident.

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All of this results in a Justice League film that really disappoints by simply being tolerable. Objectively it’s a more cohesive film that most of the predecessors in this universe, but that lack of ambition also results in less oasis high moments or memorably awful ones that made Batman V. Superman, Man of Steel and Suicide Squad weird cultural talking points. Removing the production problems that resulted in Snyder and writer/reshoot director Joss Whedon sharing a bit more shared credit, this still feels like a more consistent film story and character wise, which is a step in the right direction for the DC films moving forward. Yet, the wild tonal shifts and rather choppy scene to scene editing that especially plagues the first half of Justice League is noticeable regardless of that news weighing in on it. Justice League doesn’t inspire full on blind confidence as much as it does a small sigh of relief. Emphasis on ‘small.’ The future doesn’t look as bright as the sun that gives Kal-El his powers, but it’s at least not as dim as Snyder’s usual Instagram filter lenses he gives to his cinematographers.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Creepy Cavill Close Ups

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THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017): Sprawled Like Buckshot

Greek writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos is a man known for his sterile, sleek and odd productions. Two of his earlier films Dogtooth and The Lobster distinctly separated themselves from the real world. Dogtooth baked this into the premise, as it centers around a family that isolates its children from the modern world outside. The Lobster feels distinctly like an alternate universe where courtship is far more cold and impersonal. With Lanthimos’ newest film The Killing of a Sacred Deer however, that line seems to be far more blurry. We see Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) in a world firmly planted in 2017 America. Of course, this is a world that admittedly can seem alien and distant given the daily barrage of awful events.

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This seems to be part of the commentary that Yorgos is getting across. Murphy is a man who often desires power of others. Initially it’s the general superiority of being a man of science. A doctor who knows how to handle one of the vital organs of the human body: the heart. His identity is entrenched on knowing more than others and being the patriarch of his family. It’s something that Farrell shows off in his initially pent up performance during the first hour or so. There’s a delicate yet firm hand Farrell applies toward the other members of the family. He holds a stern hand yet distant hand on his children (Sunny Suljic and Raffey Cassidy) by having them do specific chores on a regular basis. Everyone has their place and disrupting it clearly upsets him. He also treats his wife Ann (Nicole Kidman) as prey in their sexual encounters. She lies still as if she’s under anesthesia as he pounces on her, showing his work does leave the office on a psychological level that keeps her humanity at a distance.

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It’s not subtle, but The Killing of a Sacred Deer shows right off the bat that there’s a weird order that can’t be disrupted for the Murphy household. Something that Martin (Barry Keoghan) barges into. The initial relationship that Martin has with Murphy comes off as a divorced father visiting his son. This is meant to translate to a mentor-mentee type molding, but the pity Murphy shows Martin is clearly the type that has the older man using this young boy. Not in an overtly disturbing way, but in a power struggle fashion. Murphy clearly sees him as a feeble socially awkward plaything under his guidance. He wants to mold Martin into something more because of how unassuming Martin is. He desires to make someone in his own image who he thinks has no direct image of his own.

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So therein lies the biggest asset of The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Barry Keoghan as Martin pulls off one of the most intriguing performances of the year. For the first half, he’s so unassuming. His initial moments feel like he has some form of neurodevelopmental disorder. Thus, when he slowly takes over the situation from the manipulative arm of Dr. Murphy, there’s almost a bit of satisfaction mixed in with the unsuspected terror. Martin never really changes his behavior, but the flat deadpan delivery that once seemed awkward now seems purposeful. It’s a quick statement of fact that challenges Murphy’s perception of what is real and what isn’t. Allowing Farrell’s irate mannerisms that follow to be understandable and enraging at the same time. Martin takes that power struggle and turns it on Murphy so fast he doesn’t even realize it until far too late in the game. Murphy is under the thumb of Martin’s poetic justice and won’t get from under it until Martin is satisfied. It’s a mesmerizing performance from Keoghan that mirrors Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in terms of gradual fear. The oddly insestuous undertones of his relationship with his glassy eyed mother (Alicia Silverstone) and a missing father don’t help things.

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Now, where the problem lies is in the comparison. While Martin’s closed off nature is chilling and gradually mesmerizing, it weirdly feels too similar to how cold and detached the Murphy family ultimately is. Particularly with the two children. That detachment may make sense of why they grow fond of Martin, especially since daughter Kim starts to fancy him in a young romantic way. Yet, their detachment makes very vital decisions near the finale feel so underwhelming. These kids feel like extras who are far too late to audition for Children of the Damned. Even Kidman – who initially shows off the type of raw sexual edge the recalls her underrated work in Eyes Wide Shut – grows stale and lifeless, not cold and desperate as the film seemingly wants her to be. Thus as a group, the Murphys never feel like a family or even an engaging gonzo satiric version of it. They feel like strangers in a room, but without the actual human qualities that would make that kind of punch take shape. Especially as we see the normal world all around and no consequence is really given for these actions. It just seems to open more doors for questioning than needed, even in a film where a huge tenant is based in a vague “curse.”

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The Killing of a Sacred Deer in the title doesn’t refer to a doe or buck, but is meant to give the idea that these pedestals a family is put under. It’s key to the kind of curse Martin puts on this family and the spell he weaves to break them apart. On that more clinical level, I can see what Lanthimos is striving for. A bitter take on the societal roles we place family into and the bitter ends that can meet when something threatens that reality. Yet, there’s no real foot in normalcy within the Murphys to make that have solid footing. Sure, they do seemingly normal things like water plants or go to choir practice, but it all seems so mechanical and displayed. This is obviously somewhat intentional, but only goes so far to get the satiric point across. When we have a clear grounding in the real world, there needs to be some kind of actual human emotion from these characters to ground the coldness that follows, yet it seems to be missing from the onset. There’s not build up to the desperation we’re supposed to get as the situation grows dire for this family.

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It’s all really in how Lanthimos frames the painting. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a horror film much in the vein of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Lots of aerial views from above gazing or long track shots from far ahead to show our characters inhabiting a space. Often times feeling like the presence of Martin is watching over these people as they try to make sense of the nonsensical. Cold, lifeless, detached. All while missing the bombastic emotion that gave something for the audience to grasp onto. Lanthimos mainly tries to make up for this with incredibly obvious music stings that Kubrick similarly used, though in place of visual ways to show off tension in the story rather than the ways Kubrick complimented his visuals. If anything, the more silent moments of oddly comic disturbing imagery works best. Such as when the children begin to crawl on the floor with numb legs, capturing intriguing levels of unsettling.

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So, the tug and pull of The Killing of a Sacred Deer is often unnerving in its underwhelming nature. Yet, stewing on it further and further gives the sterility more intrigue. It’s a story of asymmetry attacking the symmetric. Allowing those who can’t handle change to face it directly and not know why it’s there. In that way, the film itself challenge perceptions of reality and forces one to face it head on. That initial question might become a bit tone deaf as the ending draws closer, but there’s a lingering sense of dread and disruption that sticks with you as Barry Keoghan’s open mouth gaze haunts the soul. Not for his perceived social awkwardness, but by doubting the potential of those we see as different. A human feeling that could get us pounced on as our bubble is popped into trillions of soapy pieces. The Killing of a Sacred Deer‘s placement in our modern times does hurt the subversion by lacking foundation. Yet, there’s plenty of chilling off kilter scares that will burn in the synapses for some time.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Lost mp3 Players

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Thor Ragnarok (2017): Thor SMASH Expectations

Of The Avengers set of heroes, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) tend to be the black sheep in terms of their individual franchises. While Iron Man and Captain America have had solo efforts with lasting impact and praise, Thor’s earlier films have often been brushed off and dismissed. Hell, Hulk hasn’t even gotten a spin off film of his own since Ruffalo took over from Edward Norton. So, MCU puppet master Kevin Feige approved a pretty ingenious idea; why not team the two of them up? Thor Ragnarok is the third Thor film, but in many ways it feels like its own self contained Thor effort, allowing director Taika Waititi (who also plays the understated rock warrior Korg) to turn this into his own sci-fi fantasy comedy sandbox to play in. That definitely results in a rather amusing comedy, but at the same time you can tell the latter part of the title falls to the wayside.

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Mind you, that comedy is quite hysterical. Hemsworth shows off the type of comedic chops that were vital to him in Cabin in the Woods and the 2016 Ghostbusters here all while keeping his action persona of Thor intact. He emphasizes more on the oafish out of sorts charms that made the first Thor more of a charming character based story than some give it credit for. He does an excellent job of balancing the individual stakes for a situation while maintaining an air of confidence. He carries Thor Ragnarok through the jokes at pitfalls perfectly without ever missing a beat and at least attempting to keep his world together during times of extreme duress.

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It’s also a compliment to Waititi for being able to bounce from smaller budget indie comedies to large scale superhero fare without ever missing a beat. Various points of action feel like a great Scandinavian art that shows off the chaotic slow motion glory of various warriors leaping into battle with bombast. Yet, there’s also a great Flash Gordon-gorgeous color aesthetic going on at the same time, thanks to the colorful set design and Mark Mothersbaugh‘s John Carpenter style electronic score. Waititi does an impressive job of balancing all these characters, the elaborate action sequences and gorgeous bits of imagery without it feeling to incongruous. He even manages to integrate Benedict Cumberbatch‘s Doctor Strange into the proceedings for a cameo early on without things being too weird… though it does question why he doesn’t at least pop up at some point later to provide some assistance when Thor & co need it.

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Amongst those characters is Ruffalo’s Hulk, who truly feels like a character for the first time in the MCU. Beforehand, Hulk was merely the beast trapping Banner inside. Yet, we see here that the reason Banner is trapped is because Hulk himself is a larger than life persona that’s more than just “Hulk Smash.” He’s an ill tempered child that enjoys the glory he’s received as a gladiator. Hulk doesn’t want to be cooped up, which makes Banner’s eventual presence have more weight. Plus, Ruffalo’s almost Larry David level nebbish quality once he’s Banner is in perfect contrast to Hulk’s bombast as well as Thor’s main goal of trying to stop Ragnarok. Hemsworth and Ruffalo’s chemistry is the full display of what was promised with the great Hulk-Punching-Thor moment in The Avengers, hopefully meaning the two will get even more screentime in Avengers Infinity War.

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Tessa Thompson‘s Valkyrie provides an intriguing air of confidence, acting as an earlier version of Thor from his introductory film. The brash and drunken confidence hiding something lingering, though her issues are far more tragic and compelling to see her rise against than Thor’s daddy issues. She’s dealing with major regret and remorse, all while still keeping her individual personality and “no fucks given” attitude that makes her one of the standouts here. Of course, Thompson helps bring us closer to The Grandmaster, played with the type of weird rascally charm only Jeff Goldblum could pull off. Yet, it’s not just meme Goldblum that lazily appeared in Independence Day Resurgence. Goldblum inhabits this character with the type of hilarious relish that makes him the perfect benevolent ruler of a far off world.

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Since the start of this franchise, the yin to Thor’s yang has always been his adopted brother God of Mischief Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Loki was the breakout star of the initial Thor film and one of the few tolerable things about Thor The Dark World. He was a miscreant that served as a weakness for Thor as a character. Family that constantly screwed you over yet you still had an attachment to, even after they tried to destroy Earth in The Avengers. The chemistry between Hemsworth and Hiddleston is as on point as always, yet Loki feels more shoehorned into the proceedings here. At any point, Loki’s role is plot driven rather than character driven. It’s even turned into a joke at this point that Thor just usually trusts him despite all the evil he’s done. Then again, this is systematic of a larger problem with Asgard.

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The latter part of the title Thor Ragnarok refers to the complete destruction of Asgard, Thor’s home for eons that his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) rules over. Though not a fault of this third entry, one of the big problems we’ve had with this entire series is that Asgard has never been that well realized on a cultural level. Most of what we know is that Odin was the leader, Thor himself was the warrior glory hound,  Loki manipulated from the shadows, Heimdall (Idris Elba) is an intergalactic doorman and Thor has some warrior friends called The Warriors Three. The personalities of the latter group pretty much are chalked up to Valstag the fat guy (Ray Stevenson), swashbuckling Fandral (Zachary Levi) and the stoic Japanese guy Hogun (Tadanobu Asano). They’ve always been sort of sidelined since their introduction in the first Thor and ESPECIALLY in the forgettable unremarkable Thor The Dark World, leading to their early and unremarkable deaths that feel more like the filmmakers brushing dead weight instead of giving this world true weight. Odin suffers a similar fate early on that just seems like a plot contrivance rather than anything emotional. Hell, Jaimie Alexander isn’t even seen or mentioned as Lady Sif.

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Thus the real problem with Thor Ragnarok arises. Even though it’s rather entertaining and joyous, it feels completely incongruous to the world changing stakes at hand. The impact of this entire homeworld being destroyed is brushed off with a rather lazy “eh, home is where the heart is” type disclaimer that feels pretty dismissive of the stakes at play. Then again, most of this stuff isn’t as faulty with Thor Ragnarok as it is on the earlier films in the franchise just not giving this place more thought beyond the aesthetics. It helps that the villain of the piece Hela (Cate Blanchett) gives the old world of Asgard more reasoning that melts the facade we’ve known. A lot of this is revealed via exposition – a common fault with Thor Ragnarok overall – yet she exudes so much confidence and villainy with more pent up joy and violent lashing out to send terror through Asgard in a believable fashion. The arc of pulling between these two versions of Asgard and the potential power one can find within themselves is really well illustrated by Skruge, a henchman type role that Karl Urban gives a surprising amount of emotional weight to.

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Honestly, Sakaar has more vibrancy and world building to it here than Asgard ever has in any of these films. The sets feel more lived in and the cultural concepts of these games as well as Grandmaster’s presence as a tyrannical ruler. Hulk being a sort of cultural icon that people turn into a parade and the various strange creatures seen in the background give us the feeling that this world has existed for ages and we’re just stepping into it. Something that Asgard or any other MCU film rarely manages to translate very well even when we’re on a planet like Earth. Sakaar is where Thor Ragnarok builds up so much steam and barrels ahead with so much energy.

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Ultimately, Thor Ragnarok may feel a bit tone deaf in terms of how it relates to the other entries in its singular franchise, but that problem is only really hindered by the sins of the prior entries. Thor worked as a decent introduction to the character and the basic aesthetic of Asgard without making it feel too silly. Thor The Dark World sort of kept that aesthetic and added a few spaceships to it, but nothing else of true value culturally or stakes wise. Thor Ragnarok chooses to throw much of that out the window in an apocalyptic fashion that may seem a bit cold and kind of cruel due to some comedic jabs near the end. So, as a weird sort of soft reboot of this franchise, it manages to bring in plenty of new life to counterbalance the massive destruction, thanks to Taika Waititi’s spirited humor, a capable cast and a design team that makes this corner of the MCU far more well realized than it ever has. So bring on the Ragnarok and let it all burn, basically.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Notes on Grandmaster’s Synthesizer

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THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017): The Happiest Place Off Exit 58

Regular readers may not be aware that I was born, raised and still live in Florida. Less than two hours from the Walt Disney World Resorts. Central Florida is known for this shining beacon of expensive amusement and escape from the doldrums of real life. Yet, the part of Florida few dare to think about  just outside of Orlando. An exit or two off is Kissimmee, Florida. A city full of lesser income individuals whose main economic source is the housing and distraction of those who can’t afford to stay on Disney property. The people who run chintzy businesses outside the resort that Walt himself came to Florida to avoid around Disneyland in Anaheim, California. However, his project resulted in another Florida Project altogether. One that this film gets down so accurately, I could swear it was released in smell-o-vision from how it captured the true stench of that environment visually.

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The Florida Project wallows in the people who live in environments like this. Mainly the residents of the rather low star motel The Magic Castle. A true-to-life example of leeching off the magical marketing gimmicks of Disney to hustle people into a much lower rent area. Surrounding it are all these tacky souvenir shops adorned with wizard mascots and signs that say “Ask Us About Disney Specials.” There’s a consistent ploy of magic and escape trying to trick gullible tourists on the road to come by and get the same experience of the parks but for a smaller price. Yet, beyond this surface level cheap idea that tricks tourists, lies a community that makes tries to make the best of these circumstances.

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The central face of all this is Moonee, a six year old who wanders these Central Floridian roadside attractions all day with little to no adult supervision. Newcomer Brooklynn Prince plays Moonee with a wide eyed curiosity and rascally attitude that is so crucial to making The Florida Project work. Even as we’re seeing a young girl be devoid of an education and proper consistent care, Brooklynn gives Moonee such an adorable yet feisty presence that carries the film without being too annoying or cloying. It’s this delicate balance that keeps us involved and enraptured through some pretty slow moments revolving around exploring these backwoods of development outside of the Disney parks. Her observations are often as awkwardly hilarious as they are quietly reflective of her very complicated life here.

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These complications are especially present in the scenes with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). Vinaite’s role is a tough one to play, in which her white trash behavior and attitude show off a neglect and lax parental role which easily could turn off many to her as a character and rightly so. The actions Halley takes in raising Moonee clearly have harmful side effects on Moonee’s behavior and upbringing that leave her vulnerable to all sorts of outside circumstances. Yet, there’s a genuine love that shines through. In between scenes of neglect that gives Moonee and her friends license to be arrogant little nuisances, she and Halley share moments of connection and confidence building beauty that stretches beyond their hollow lives. If anything, it feels more like a sibling relationship due to Halley’s immaturity. Halley is a three dimensional character who one can’t completely side with, yet can consistently a humanity hidden beneath the bombast and trashy tatoos.

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The ringleader of all these people is The Magic Castle manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe). Seeing Bobby in his day to day is a weirdly visceral treat. He’s got to deal with tenants causing a raucous and maintenance that often splashes paint right in his face. He’s the guy trying to keep the chaos of white trash at bay while catering to tourists as best he can with his meager budget. Yet, no matter how annoyed he is with the residents, there’s an affection. Especially in his scenes with Moonee, where Bobby almost feels like a surrogate uncle type. He knows these children deserve better and tries to give them a better environment than what their parents could given the circumstances.  Dafoe shows off some of crazy side that’s painted his career, but also a very sincere subtle side that gives weight to crucial moments, whether it’s the big emotional climax or bumming a cigarette and having a laugh with the hotel’s often topless vagrant Gloria (Sandy Kane).

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These are the type of characters director/writer Sean Baker previously gave so much dimension in his West Coast small scale venture Tangerine. Ones who show off the humanity piled over grit and grime. There are so many gorgeous points showing the child-like importance and wonder out of the mundane. Sometimes this results in the more meandering moments of The Florida Project, but it also gives way to moments that paint a wonderful picture. A boy and his father leaving the hotel complex draws a massive crowd of children for a massive farewell. A power outage at the hotel draws everyone out of their rooms with the scale of town meeting at an orange hued dusk. Even an old building burning down is treated as a community event that draws everyone together in mutual awe of the destruction unfolding. A bit of schadenfreude to be sure, but there’s also a very primal joy on everyone’s faces that immerses them in the destructive joy of a fiery demise.

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When Walt Disney set out to make his own Florida Project, his vision for Epcot was an “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.” A city where the theme park was the center and branched off from it would be an utopian ever updating future society based in Disney’s image. Walt’s death and some half assed 80s era management of the Disney company results in these visions lying dormant, but Walt did create a community on the outskirts of Florida. One where the Disney resort still acts as an epicenter that trickles into the sidelines. It might not be the utopia Walt envisioned. Far from it. Yet, there’s all sorts of individual bits of wonder and joy to find hidden just beyond. Ironically, in his pursuit to keep the trashy roadside attractions away from the Florida parks, Walt’s vision ended up creating a symbiotic relationship between his resort and the chintzy places he attempted to avoid. One that may be dirty, but there’s a fair amount of beauty to uncover beneath the dirt. Some of this may be the Floridian talking in me, but it does feel like something The Florida Project translates on an universal level.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Twisty Treat Ice Cream Cones

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JIGSAW (2017): A Cut Above… Some of Them

It seems weird to be bringing back the Saw franchise right now. We’re not even a decade out from the previous entry and the world doesn’t seem too keen on a torturous ride through misery at the moment zeitgeist wise. Having recently watched all seven of the original entries, it doesn’t seem like something that could come back nor should come back for more entries. Luckily, Jigsaw seemed somewhat aware of that and dumped most of the continuity, a plus given how that is what sunk the later entries so hard. Yet, that doesn’t save Jigsaw from becoming something that clearly fits in the franchise. Jigsaw is more of a SeeSaw of an experience, teetering between advancing beyond the pitfalls of the original films and sinking back into their bad habits. Yet, it does both with a sense of confidence that’s commendable if not consistent.

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Jigsaw‘s biggest strengths are its two directors The Spierig Brothers. Michael and Peter Spierig got their start in smaller yet surprisingly ambitious genre fare like Daybreakers and Undead. They both took what little budgets they had and made something truly ambitious many times before, making them perfect candidates to graduate to the next step with a studio film that still has middling production costs on that scale. Money isn’t as much an issue here as dealing with the script, which falls back on many of the cliches that made Saw so frustrating after a certain point. The Brothers Spierig elect a more subtle tact for how they accomplish things here, mainly by showcasing most of these traps in far more well lit settings and gradually building up to the gross out scares that the later Saws used as a crutch. Even as the finale reveal is filled with some moronic twists and turns, Jigsaw remains the most sleek and colorful entry in the franchise that relishes in the hues of gore when needed and contrasts the horror of these traps in cool blues and harsh blaring sunlight yellows otherwise.

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Even the acting in Jigsaw is far more consistently tolerable than the soap opera levels of before. There’s not a Costas Mandylor level performance in sight. Now, that’s not to say anyone here is pulling off something masterful. Yet, the main actors we follow in the traditional Saw set up are probably the most engaging characters to follow, with Laura Vandervoort, Paul Braunstein and Mandela Van Peebles (son of Mario, grandson of Melvin) being a solid trio to get us through the more scaled down traps that fill most of Jigsaw. The more cop procedural elements are where things fall apart, as the tolerable acting can’t really disguise the glaring flaws that happen from here on in. I mean, actors like Matt Passmore or Callum Keith Rennie are solid for what they need to do. While that isn’t saying much, it’s a major step up from the mind bogglingly awful work of people like Costas Mandylor in the later entries. There’s even some clever ways of using series mascot Tobin Bell, though those reveals are where the real issues begin.

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These procedural elements that don’t work are mainly shot down by the story issues I mentioned prior. Jigsaw initially seems to be laying out more of a small scale yet intriguing mystery of who the copycat killer is that is echoing the crimes John Kramer committed during his living days. A fair amount of intrigue and surprise that is squarely meant to shock the audience at every turn. Yet, for any of the characters in this context, Jigsaw‘s big reveal and the hindsight of all the major motivating actions make little to no sense. It’s hard to obviously say this without spoilers, but I’ll try my best.

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On one hand, all the reveals in Jigsaw are well put together. The editing and dynamics of the traps distract you just enough to keep one’s eyes elsewhere. On the other, there’s no real story context for them. And I’m not even bothering to include these issues with the previously established continuity of the Saw franchise. That dumpster fire has been burning since Saw IV or so. Even within context of just Jigsaw itself, none of this connects in a way that seems logical. It’s the major reason why the conflict of the pretty muddled script and the intriguing direction have this tug and pull. They both clash and meld together so perfectly in throwing the audience off… until they over explain everything during the finale that ends Jigsaw on a dull period rather than the exclamation mark it clearly wants to be. This is also true of the tone, which occasionally throws in self aware zingers in the trap story, but stays deadly serious about recreating Jigsaw otherwise.

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Thus, the give and take of Jigsaw. The example of two capable directors and a decent cast being held back by a story that dips very deep down into moronic facepalm worthy ideas that ultimately drag it back down to the traditional series standard. Watching Jigsaw makes one think it could easily stand on its own from the other films that had come before and honestly be all the better for it. Just be a complete reboot that didn’t bother thinking the earlier events. That’d be nice… if the sequence of events laid out here made sense within its own singular narrative. Yet, despite the story completely crumbling apart, this is still one of the better entries in the franchise. Once again, a low bar, but one that Jigsaw jumps over solidly. That all being said, I’d hope that Saw doesn’t continue from here. Keep things quiet and if we just have to see the blades & Billy The Puppet again, just reboot it. Burn the barn and start completely fresh to reinvent things. Then maybe we’ll get the Se7en-lite we truly deserve.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Dismembered Body Parts

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The Snowman (2017): Let It Melt Away

The key to making a great mystery film is keeping the audience on it’s toes. We get the clues, we’re shocked by the horrors of our killer and too distracted to piece everything together until just the right moment. This is classic Agatha Christie stuff here, folks. Unfortunately, The Snowman lacks the craft of even the least engaging adventure for Miss Marple. If anything, it feels more like the kind of half ass mystery that would have been thrown out by the staff writers of Colombo. The Snowman wants to evoke both of those characters with lead Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) as he drunkenly wobbles his way towards solving the main mystery at hand. Yup, his name is Harry Hole. And if you think that’s funny, don’t worry. They only repeat his full name at every opportunity possible. Trouble is, unlike fellow detectives with weird names Miss Marple and Colombo, the most interesting part of Harry’s character is his name.

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Though I’ve never read the novel of the same name The Snowman was based on, I’ve heard that the novel is the seventh in a series of novels featuring the Harry Hole character solving mysteries. This made far more sense of the lack of consistent narrative drive than the film adaptation ultimately did. We’re told several – and I mean *several* times – that Harry Hole is the best detective in Norway. He’s solve all the big cases, but he’s washed up due to his recent breakup with long-time girlfriend Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and destroyed fatherly connection with her son Oleg (Michael Yates). At least, that’s what the film wants us to go along with. It’s odd that this dynamic is spelled out multiple times through blunt exposition and bold emphasis, but none of it ever really sticks to the point where one could completely be forgiven if they totally forgot such a motivating factor. Oleg and Rakel swing in and out of relevance at a moment’s notice, leaving the awkward stumbling of Harry to fill the gaps.

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This may just be the worst performance in Fassbender’s young yet breathtaking career. None of the scenes showcasing his alcohol dependency feel authentic. Both on a superficial level due to Fassbender still keeping a rather strong physique despite being a guy out on his luck staring down a bottle as well as on a pure character level given none of the detective work of this supposedly amazing detective shows any forward progression. Harry Hole’s idea of contemplation is jutting out his lower jaw while a cigarette dangles from his mouth as he looks around dazed until he remembers some off handed point that suddenly gets us a step closer. The Snowman keeps trying to convince us that the killer “gave us all the clues” through letters found at crime scenes, but all they provide is one of three lame calling cards for our killer to leave as Fassbender steps over his feet finding them.

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The Snowman doesn’t do much service to any of the other surrounding characters.Rebecca Ferguson is stuck in a shallow determined young cop role. One that is supposed to create a dynamic that fizzles against the cold cynical views of Detective Hole. Yet, both characters are bland from completely opposing perspectives that the needed fizzle is about as frothy as flat soda. Ferguson and Fassbender have all the chemistry of oil and water. Despite being so close in proximity, their interactions seem like people on other ends of the world who won’t even share a Skype call. There’s nothing to be gained from them investigating this crime. They go through the procedural motions without any life or spark, making this such a dull two hours as they try to solve a mystery that’s pretty clear from the halfway point given how easy the red herrings are and how little we see of our ultimate killer.

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There are smaller appearances that mean just about as much. Chloë Sevigny plays a woman who’s part of the mystery & her twin who pops out of nowhere just so they can announce the fate of the first twin. J.K. Simmons plays a sleazy politician who takes pictures of women he finds attractive with the flash on in plain sight. Toby Jones has about two or three scenes as a cop to be interviewed and completely forgotten about. However, the prime example of pointless and horrendously put together scenes is Val Kilmer as an investigator of past examples of this crime. Kilmer – a recent cancer survivor in real life – shows clear signs of healing from his disease here. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem. In the right hands, The Snowman could have used this to play on that character’s drunkenness in a more silent manner. Unfortunately, it’s extremely evident that he was dubbed over by a completely different actor. This is some terrible Godzilla film level dubbing, perhaps the worst in a wide release I’ve seen in quite some time.

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This extends to the overall ADR (Additional Dialogue Recording) and filmmaking in general for The Snowman. Characters are dubbed over in very clear close up shots, eliminating whatever lingering threads of investment were still there. It helps break any illusion that this mystery had any tension or consistency left to it. The same goes for the editing, which is bafflingly amateurish. There’s a scene where Michael Fassbender looks at a folder in a car, suddenly cuts to an awkward Val Kilmer flashback… and then cuts back to that same scene of Fassbender only moments later getting out of the car. With no real purpose to it at all. And this happens *multiple times.* Plus, the editing also implies that there was literally no time to shoot coverage. For those unaware, this is when filmmakers shoot secondary shots to cut to to splice together takes or make a scene a bit more dynamic. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence of coverage, sometimes awkwardly cutting within a scene of a character going from a seated position to a standing one. The CG is also atrocious, from some horrendous green screened shots of seagulls to the gory moments of that have no stain power. It’s all so astonishingly awful that I’m flabbergasted as to how The Snowman got a wide release.

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The Snowman feels like a movie not made by humans. There are a few human beings in it. They seem to resemble homosapiens in terms of appearance, but nothing these people do resembles the behavior of people. Director Tomas Alfredson is usually someone who understands the subtleties of human interaction. It was a major aspect of what made his subtle vampire tragedy Let The Right One In and grounded spy thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy work so well. The Snowman wants to have this. It’s aiming to be a gritty noir thriller that captures the type of critical thinking and demented psychology that keeps humanity at a constant war within itself. Yet, The Snowman ultimately feels like an approximation of a gory crime thriller made by alien beings from another world. All the beats and talent are there for this to work. Yet, it never coalesces, resulting in a cruel yet pointless exercise. The Snowman just lies there in the flurry thinking it’s making a snow angel, when really it’s just making a giant puddle of yellow snow.

Rating: 0.5 out of 5 Snowman Heads

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Happy Death Day (2017): Surprise! You’re Dead!

Following in the footsteps of the sci-fi actioner Edge of Tomorrow, it seems like the horror flick Happy Death Day is officially turning Groundhog Day into a premise that can fit most any genre. Of course, all three of those films utilize the premise of deja vu repetition of the same day as comedic set pieces that allow the lead to gradually change over the course of their repetitive days. This time, that lead is a sorority girl named Tree (Jessica Rothe). Yes, her name is tree. No specifics on type, but she seems like a strong Willow. Determined, yet guarded by an outward display of leaves. In this case, the leaves are a snippy attitude that disrespects the people around her. A good/bad start for a character to grow from.

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There are so many ways a character like Tree could go wrong. Early on she dismisses people all the nice folks around her and is seemingly sympatico with those who are using her, whether it be the professor she’s sleeping with (Charles Aitken) or the sorority house leader that feeds off negative energy (Rachel Matthews). Screenwriter Scott Lobdell got his start writing for comics, mainly X-Men. He’s a guy who knows sci-fi concepts and how to weave endearing if harsh characters into them. That’s on display in a more mechanical form in Happy Death Day, though there are plenty of points where it seems like an older man trying hard to get down the language of modern youths. In the wrong hands, Happy Death Day could turn Tree into an unbearable walking cliche with sexist and dumbfounding undertones.

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Luckily, Happy Death Day made the wise decision to cast Jessica Rothe. There’s so much youthful vibrancy in her performance that truly evolves over the course of her ordeal. Her chemistry with Carter (Israel Broussard) – the young man she went home with the night before her repetitive dilemma – is initially scoffing but believably turns her into a resourcefully endearing final girl who’s also the only murder victim. Her growth from stuck up asshole to decent human being is enjoyable, especially as the tragedies of her life come to light through her behavior and subtle bits of physical acting. Like Bill Murray in Groundhog or Tom Cruise in Tomorrow, she gets us to go from being turned off by her holier than though attitude to rooting for her to resolve this conflict and get her reality in control.

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The rules of Happy Death Day aren’t too determined. We never do find out the reasoning why Tree repeats this day over and over. Which is honestly a plus. After all, Groundhog Day worked because we didn’t know why Bill Murray kept repeating the same day over and over. That reveal was honestly one of the few weak points of Edge of Tomorrow. This story is firmly about the actual character journey, not the reasoning behind the repetition. How much would this quick poppy movie drag if it stopped dead to explain the method behind the repetition? It was a smart decision to keep the reveal toward the killer, though the reveal itself is a bit telegraphed when most of the suspects that matter are eliminated pretty much by the halfway point.

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Then again, the menace and believability of that killer are pretty subdued by the rather goofy mask used here. While Happy Death Day is a comedy horror film, the one straight horror element they’re trying to keep consistent is that killer. Donning the mascot of the college setting as the serial slasher face makes enough sense, given Tree is under constant pressure from her school environment to fit a certain standard. Yet, the actual idea of any college having a baby as a mascot is honestly stretching the suspension of disbelief more than the whole “repeating the same day” premise. Any time this killer shows up, whatever menace we’re supposed to feel is sunk pretty hard. Mask designer Tony Gardner is best known as the man behind the iconic Scream mask, though the genius of that was how authentic and off the shelf it felt. Happy Death Day feels far more like a Hollywood inauthentic mask trying to create something iconic, which just ends up making it stand out awkwardly.

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Director Christopher Landon has shown slow yet steady improvement from his previous films Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones and Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. It’s clear that his interests are in interpersonal comedy between the scares and his most effective moments usually are the visual ways we attach to the characters. For Happy Death Day, it’s making subtle differences within the repetitive nature of the story. A simple slightly different angle on one scene we’ve seen half a dozen times gives us a fresh perspective that has us discover more about the side characters and potential outcomes with Tree. Well, at least in theory. Again, the reveal is easy to figure out after a certain point. Though I won’t go into detail.

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Happy Death Day is definitely what one would call fluff. Clever fluff, but ultimately fluff within the horror genre. There’s nothing wrong with being fluff if done well and Happy Death Day is definitely a fluffy confection. There’s a solid sense of humor throughout and a self awareness that makes it slightly above the average snoozer of a slasher. Think of it as a throwback to the tone of the obscurer holiday centered slashers that came in the wake of Halloween in the 80s like Happy Birthday to Me or April Fool’s Day. A lot of the flaws are put off to the side thanks to Jessica Rothe. If Happy Death Day does nothing else, it’s give her a spotlight to potentially craft into bigger roles. Or at the very least, make her a recurring scream queen for the Blumhouse arsenal.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Repetitive Wake Up Calls

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Blade Runner 2049 (2017): Tears That Stand Out In Rain

The original Blade Runner was a highly influential piece of art. Not only did many films copy the aesthetic of the dystopian future and apply it to their own future landscapes, but many television shows and video games as well.  Yet, Blade Runner was a major flop upon initial release in 1982, only gaining a cult following after director Ridley Scott released varying versions of the original film on home video. Blade Runner is a hard point of entry for many cinephiles out there. Wondering which version to watch or if lead character Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a replicant can disinterest some potential fans. The fact that it even managed to get a sequel is a miracle in and of itself. A miracle that one can witness, much like the ones Sapper (Dave Bautista) vaguely mentions to Joe (Ryan Gosling) in the first scene of Blade Runner 2049.

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Much like the original film, Blade Runner 2049 is an immersive look into a cold sleek environment. However, the then-distantly futuristic year of 2019 is now the distant past, showing us a world ravaged by decades past technological blackout and environmental damage that has left ecosystems destroyed. The world presented in this sequel is even more cold and unfeeling than the iconic futurescape of old.  Blade Runner 2049 depicts a world where the rain from before is a harbinger of the planet’s dying atmosphere. The city blocks have even less color than the neon Japanese signs of old. It’s a pessimistic future where the line between replicant and human isn’t even a factor anymore. It’s about silencing older models and allowing the new ones to live. But what are their lives? Wallowing in cramped apartments with hologram lovers. It’s a seemingly miserable life to even bothering going through.

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Yet, what makes Joe – a character who from the start we know is a replicant – so compelling is his attempts to make the best life he can of this situation. Gosling embus the character with a subtle but palpable sense of loneliness. One that makes him a bit more relatable a protagonist than a Deckard. Even his relationship with the hologram Joi (Ana de Armas) feels palpable from a different spectrum. Of two beings who aren’t traditionally human vying for a human connection but constantly being thwarted by physical barriers and humans who use them as tools. Admittedly, this is more from Gosling’s perspective than Armas’, but the two share this unique chemistry that’s beautiful in it’s crushing sadness. It’s a delicate dance that carries over the themes of artificial beings hoping for humanity despite lacking what traditionally matters to be human.

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Blade Runner 2049 focuses so much on Joe in a way that directly subverts many of the traditional blockbuster tropes. Namely, with how our lead conflates being the protagonist with being the most important character in the story. There’s some spoilers to tiptoe around here, but the major thing really is that we are seeing another small corner of this elaborate universe that splices into the major threads. That may seem underwhelming in theory, but in practice it shows the emotional weight and power of someone who may not be the biggest piece of a larger puzzle. The whole point is that certain people who are seemingly just backdrop dressing actually have larger potential than they think. They just may not be thee chosen one, but a crucial ally or figure in their story. Yet, the story of that smaller person can still flourish and matter where it counts.

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Even Deckard – once he becomes involved – seemingly doesn’t have that large a role in the overall story. He even references that at one point, saying his role is done and he’s just waiting to die out in quiet. Ford gives this an appropriate amount of nihilistic regret and understanding that combats with Gosling’s more hopeful subdued demeanor. Other characters that populate this world have a similar reflection on their menial service identities. Robin Wright plays a police chief who abides by keeping a status quo. Sylvia Hoeks is a henchwoman of a replicant who is determined to be a cog who kills. Bautista is a farmer that wants to live a quiet existence away from others. All are protective of what they know, even if what they know matters so little in the grand scale. 

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This is all part of the visual language of Blade Runner 2049, showing the grandiose landscapes and how small everyone feels within them. All of it is gorgeously put together by director Denis Villeneuve and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. The neon lighting here is dimmer, faded aside from a few shimmers. The sources are awe inspiring, but mere cold reflections of humanity’s dying interests in pop culture ephemera. It’s weirdly appropriate that all the former brands that were still relevant in 1982 somehow still survive like Pan Am or Atari, but in a world that itself is slowly dying and covered in ashen snow. Even the fight scenes have a rough and tumble effect that mostly is used to utilize how scrappy and empty this entire place is. Where people fend for themselves and barely scrape by. It’s a post-apocalyptic dystopia with just enough structure to seem civilized.

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This does lead to one of the larger problems with Blade Runner 2049 as a story overall though. As we get to the ending, it seems clear that there’s a lot to resolve. That much of the last 30 minutes or so feels like the end of a second act rather than the beginning of a third. The likelihood of getting another Blade Runner doesn’t seem high, but even if we never see this universe explored again, the overall crux is still firmly planted within the smaller perspective so it’s not a huge hurdle. It only really dissipates whenever Wallace (Jared Leto) waxes poetic about his grander scale in this universe and his calculated yet unmotivated Godliness that wants to be an intriguing inverse of both the Roy Batty and Tyrell characters from the original. Yet, he ultimately just sucks attention away into a grander vision that just doesn’t jell with the smaller perspective going on. Still, Leto is spot on casting for a cold uncaring pretentious asshole. 

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With the original Blade Runner, one could tell that these themes were what Scott was striving for. Finding a relatable pocket of a grand sci-fi idea and exploring it from a crouched human perspective. Denis Villeneuve took this to another level with Blade Runner 2049, taking a step forward by giving us the perspective of a humanoid who seeks to find humanity and longevity within a system that has kept him a slave. Sort of a more personable version of the Roy Batty character from the original. Trying to find that opportunity on the largest scale may disappoint, but there’s still something to be said about finding your niche and doing the most for society while you can. It may not come with a fancy title or promotion or a grander feeling of weight in the world, but it can come with a certain amount of satisfaction. Knowing that you had the empathy to stand with others when others wouldn’t stand with you can be it’s own reward in a world as cold and unfeeling as this one. It’s what makes a teardrop stand out – even for a moment – amongst the downpour.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Pieces of Hologram Tech

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“Cult of Chucky” (2017): Child’s Play Grows Up

Of all the 80s horror franchises, the Child’s Play franchise has the most unique evolution and consistent longevity in terms of continuity. Which is especially interesting given they were all written – and the last few directed – by the same man Don Mancini. 1988’s Child’s Play is a pretty straight forward narrative of killer-possesses-doll-then-manipulates-child-while-killing story, as Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif) becomes a Chucky “Good Guy Doll.” Child’s Play 2 followed suite to varying degrees of success. Bride of Chucky went the Scream route to satirize the concept and Seed of Chucky went the extra mile to turn into a goofy Hollywood satire that barely even resembled a horror movie. Then, Curse of Chucky went straight to video a few years ago and actually managed to go back to the roots of the franchise with a straight forward gory slasher and some of the best human characters of the series.

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One of those characters is Nica (Fiona Dourif, daughter of Brad) who we continue to follow in Cult of Chucky. Nica was introduced in Curse as a tragic character. Disabled from birth and looked down upon by her family as a burden, Nica shows a lot more intelligence and quick wit than many of the characters in this franchise. She’s on the up and up about Chucky fairly quickly into Curse, which makes the manipulation of her mind as she’s stuck in this mental institution. All the events she tried to prevent in Curse are pinned on her and now she is beaten down emotionally and psychologically by her abusive psychiatrist Dr. Foley (Michael Therriault). She’s definitely a victim of patriarchal abuse, but one who at least has an awareness of her surroundings and a desire to help those in need even if she can’t control it. Dourif mirrors her father in a few ways, with the fragile broken nature of his Billy Bibbit performances from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and the quiet intensity of his Gemini Killer character from Exorcist III. All while making this character her own and earning her leading position in the franchise. 

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Yet, she sort of ends up fading far more into the background of Cult of Chucky despite being a major motivation for the plot. It leads into Cult‘s largest problem: overstuffing. Don Mancini clearly has big plans for his universe and Cult ends up being more of a pot boiler to establish many of these ideas rather than a complete film on its own. One of the bigger examples of this is how Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent) – the original protagonist from the first three films in the series – is introduced as a lead character… only to weave in and out of the film unless it’s convenient for building the new elements of Chucky and his powers. Sure, these elements are intriguing, particularly as the title comes into play. Yet, it results in uneven storytelling. None of this is helped by a clear indication from Vincent’s montone performance that the naturalistic charm he had in the first two films didn’t carry over into his adulthood.

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Cult of Chucky has some smart twists and turns on the formulas established in the series nearly 30 years ago, but also does this at the sacrifice of developing some of the side characters introduced and tonally shifting things all over the place. There are points of extremely gruesome gore followed by a vaudeville style routine of Chucky that dips this between Curse level dark stylized horror and Seed cartoonish goofiness in ways that don’t always coalesce that well.  Still, there’s a consistent fun energy going on, particularly as Brad Dourif gets to show more than a few different shades of the Chucky character. Honestly, the ideas being teased are so inventive and fun for the series. Directions that make so much sense to go down… though Cult spends most of its time teasing rather than taking advantage.

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All of this shows just how much Mancini has done to creatively expand his universe. For something that started off as a pretty simple magical slasher franchise, Mancini has gone down crazy avenues that play on many of the facets of Chucky as a cultural icon. Cult of Chucky also showcases how much he’s improved as a director from the sloppy first effort of Seed. There’s a sleek sterile atmosphere to the asylum setting that makes the titular dolls stand out as he roams the halls to slice and dice. The kills are honestly kind of beautiful to behold. Even the Chucky puppet is still impressive, though not quite as seamless and authentic as Curse‘s animatronic managed to be.

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Overall, Cult of Chucky is a bit inferior to its surprisingly amazing previous entry. One can see the various directions in which the franchise can tumble down into from here, but for now this is a place setting entry for that potential. One would hope that Mancini takes this into the daring levels teased at the end of this film, with such an inventive fun spin going on and how elements from earlier in the franchise are being unveiled. Yet, there’s a disproportionate amount of time spent setting up and making the newer characters – mainly in the asylum alongside Nica – set up for kills. That can be fine in context of a simpler slasher like the earlier films in the series. But the aspirations established in Cult are much bigger, yet the character interactions feel truncated in the pursuit of its ambition. Let’s just see if you can keep a Good Guy Doll down come the next installment.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Smashed Liquor Bottles

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Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017): Too Much of a Gold Thing

Kingsman: The Secret Service was the sleeper hit of early 2015. At a time when James Bond was in a very gritty phase, Kingsman allows for a light fun diversion that recalled more of the Roger Moore era goofy nature of the character, though with a bit more self awareness. Add in director/co-writer Matthew Vaughn‘s kinetic action sensibilities, an eclectic soundtrack & The King’s Speech guy having fun for a change and you have yourself a fun spy comedy. Now, Kingsman: The Golden Circle lets us dive right back into that universe and one can tell Vaughn is eager to expand about that world. Maybe a bit… too eager.

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What made the first Kingsman such a delight is the goofier tone bouncing off a more dignified frame. Given the cover of them being tailors, the titular group of spies had a typical British sense of manners that made the over the top action a fun subversion. Kingsman The Golden Circle initially brings back these themes to remind us of the relationship between Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and Harry (Colin Firth). How the former learned the manners that helped disguise the inner badass from the latter. Yet, now that Firth has seemingly died in the first film, Eggsy doesn’t seem to have retained much of any of that gentlemanly training. He still acts like a chavish idiot, even what not visiting his friends. He’s back to being a boarish oaf rather than a mixture that he managed to balance in the first film, despite Egerton’s own charms still oozing through on occasion. His relationship subplot with Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström) is so unneeded, given she’s a shallow device to make the world changing stakes plot personal, but she still has about the same amount of character as she had when she asked Eggsy to have anal sex with her. Oh, put a pin in the female character writing department. There’s a lot to talk about with that later.

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It’s a shame that Kingsman The Golden Circle diverges so much from the core relationship between Eggsy, Harry and Merlin (Mark Strong), who were the true heart of the previous film. The best scenes of the sequel involve Merlin and Eggsy trying to recoup after the fall of their beloved organization and comrades, while trying to bring a suddenly reappearing Harry out of amnesia. On paper, this whole bringing back Harry subplot is the most contrived idea, forcing Colin Firth to come back just because he was here the first time. Yet, that arc at least gives Eggsy a moment to come back to his senses and be a Kingsman agent with dignity. Plus, Firth’s slow realization back to his former self results in more than a few delightful subversions of what happened before for at least awhile… until it becomes more a convenient plot mechanism to have things go wrong. Strong even gets lost in the shuffle during all this, making a key moment of the climax feel like just another contrivance as emotional resonance whittles down to a bizarre musical number that feels especially familiar to films this year.

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So, those central characters were shuffled around to make room for The Statesman, a bunch of boasting cowboy Americans equivalent that hides behind the facade of selling liquor. Sounds like a great concept to play off our British boys… until one thinks about it for a bit. The world building isn’t nearly as airtight as when we were introduced to the titular group last time around. The Statesman are just a bunch of drunken loud southern “Good Ole Boys” who drink. There’s no point where the cover subverts the image. It just plays along, meaning there’s no subversive fun like the Kingsman. There’s nothing clever to that. It makes their action beats far more flashy and soulless rather than stylistically hilarious. Even in interacting beyond the first meeting, they ultimately seem like an extension of the same organization without any intriguing sense of individuality beyond their hats and boots.

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None of this is helped by how most of these actors are wasted. Channing Tatum has a propulsive introduction before being put on ice for most of the proceedings. Jeff Bridges does his Rooster Cockburn voice yet again. Halle Berry is… there. And has one of the worst attempted arcs of anyone. The only one with any life in them is Pedro Pascal who – even if overused – steals the spotlight with a rugged charm and some fanciful footwork during the action scenes. It’s honestly baffling that Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman bungled balancing an ensemble like this, given how well they managed to do it in not only the first Kingsman, but in previous efforts like Kick-Ass or Stardust. They’re just stuffing so much into here and not letting anything breathe, until they do stop… and the breathing room gives us lame duck character moments that just lay there. Packing a suitcase with too much, forcing the bottom to cave in under pressure as dirty clothes and used toiletries rain over the audience.

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But speaking of shoddy workmanship, let’s talk about how Vaughn depicts women. In the past, his work hasn’t been known to be all that savvy in terms of depicting women as dimensional characters. The first Kingsman even ended with an anal sex joke that gave the James Bond schtick an extra layer of creepy. Yet, there was never an illusion that such a depiction was grander than that. So even while not expecting much, I at least expected a bit of growth. Yet with the second Kingsman, Vaughn tries to disguise the misogynistic leering not in a parody of older spy tropes, but in some kind of seemingly important sense of plot or character. There’s the previously mentioned problems of Berry and Alstrom, who are merely there to introduce motivation for male characters and briefly be referred back to without a single ounce of character. They somehow have about as much character as a dead wife who briefly appears in flashback and has her character relevance exposited to the audience later in the climax.

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Yet, it gets so much worse when people like Roxy (Sophie Cookson) – a Kingsman operative with little development from the first film who at least did something and was a capable person – is unceremoniously offed early on along with the rest of the organization just to give Eggsy motivation after using her as a human Google to help impress his girlfriend’s family. Because competent women can’t even have a side plot to themselves, I guess? A side villain Clara (Poppy Delevingne) is literally just there for a double whammy fingering joke and plot contrivance for our heroes to go somewhere that’s ultimately pointless and wastes time for an action scene and developments that are repeated later anyway. Our villainess Poppy (Julianne Moore) is a drug cartel titan who feels like a copy of a copy of the type of 50s era satire that was played out by the mid 90s. She cooks and motherly condescends in ways that Moore tries to elevate, but ultimately result in her essentially playing a flat version of Mary Louise Parker on Weeds; a suburban mom who sells drugs and kills a few people. But much like Weeds, she overstays her welcome pretty quickly. All of them are underwhelming female roles that show less competence and individuality as much as they do supporting stereotypes for the sake of cheap jokes and motivations to keep this endless film going. She also introduces the weird political subplot that makes the ethics of original film look consistent by comparison.

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Not even Vaughn’s direction can quite keep this afloat. A few action sequences show some technical craft of choreography. The opening scene as Eggsy faces off against a bionic former colleague Charlie (Edward Holcroft) in a cab and the big snow slope ski lift stick out. Yet, once the climax gets going, the second Kingsman puts so much flashing lights and call backs that mean so little into such a quick package that never means much. It divulges into a cacophony of noise that wants to be entertaining and satisfying, but just starts and stops so much. 40 minutes or so can be chopped out of this sloppy story and have it be a much tighter ride that balances fun characters with flash instead of just flashing us like a broken camera with no film in it. None of this is helped by how much we go back to the well of apparent hilarity that is Elton John’s cameo-turned-unwanted-50th-supporting role. Seriously, this film is as addicted to unnecessary supporting characters as the drug addicts who Poppy profits off of are to hardcore narcotics.

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Ultimately, Kingsman The Golden Circle is a stark reminder of how bigger rarely means better. Sure, there’s more world building introduced. A new side of spies in this world we’ve never seen. Yet, that world is about as plentiful as a barrell of mediocre whiskey. Fine to get the job done of getting drunk, but lacking any flavor to savor. While pushing the old characters to the side, it gives more screen time to shove in dimensionless toothless characters that either identify with a skeevy type of male chauvinism or fade in the background to allow the former to thrive. While the first Kingsman gave us a world that both celebrated and satirized James Bond, this gives us more of a Die Another Day style shallow run through the cliches, thinking the winks and nods will be charming enough without any kind of subversion or new life. Kingsman The Golden Circle thinks the basic concept of these new ideas will be enough to charm, not wanting to put the work in like the lazy chav Eggsy used to be… and really still is thanks to a lack of forward momentum. While there are a few cool action scenes and a handful of fun character interactions, Kingsman The Golden Circle is about as half baked as some of the plot necessary stoners are. Then again, “half baked” might be too kind of a way to describe it. Perhaps “broiled over a stove until mostly diluted” would suffice?

Rating: 1.5 Out of 5 Endless Elton John Moments

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