Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2

August 2014: James Gunn’s “Guardians Of The Galaxy” lights up multiplexes, knifing a yawning hole in Marvel’s big screen comic book fabric. A whole new world of storytelling is opened to the Disney-owned studio. Tired superhero origin stories are out, celestial ne’er-do-wells fighting serialized space battles are back in, spearheaded by a boyish outlaw, a jade assassin, a dagger-wielding superhuman, a trigger-happy raccoon, and an anthropomorphic tree. Life is good in Star-Lord’s neighborhood. At least until the next psychotic E.T. comes gunning for him.

But just as soon as “Guardians” ignited, Marvel brought a neutered “Ant-Man” (“Hot Fuzz” filmmaker Edgar Wright famously left the project late in pre-production) and a stale “Doctor Strange” into the fold. It was almost as if Marvel president Kevin Feige had no idea that a film version of an obscure Marvel property helmed by the writer-director of 2006 body horror flick “Slither” and starring a previously schlubby “Parks And Recreation” funnyman would do nearly $800 million in worldwide box office receipts.

Behold a new wrinkle in Feige’s post-Guardians run: The sprawling, sinewy madness of James Gunn’s “Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2.” How a mogul like Feige could part ways with Edgar Wright over creative differences only to subsequently put his name on a summer tentpole as beautifully bizarre as “Vol. 2” might never be known. But “Vol. 2” is here, and it kills.

Immediately, as Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and his band of scrappy mercenaries take down a toothy, tentacled monster to the tune of Electric Light Orchestra’s Beatles-aping “Mr. Blue Sky,” it’s obvious that writer-director James Gunn is all in. More than ever before. What might have been an indistinct action scene turns into a full-on musical number that uproariously sets the stage for how useless Groot (Vin Diesel), now the humanoid tree equivalent of a toddler, will be throughout the film. Audiences are guaranteed smiles all around, but Gunn is just getting started.

As the group collects their bounty, Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) willfully angers their uppity employer (Elizabeth Debicki) and our quirky quintet is unwittingly off on a brand new life-or-death space odyssey. At first, what follows seems like an overlong, undercooked chase scene but soon becomes much more. Peter’s mysterious long-lost father Ego (Kurt Russell) enters the picture and the story’s frame has its engine.

By the end of act one, it’s obvious that Gunn has nothing but unconcern – maybe even a little disdain – for Marvel’s notoriously creaky plot mechanics. You know the ones: Bland villains with boring plans for world or galaxial domination and strained connections to the Marvel Cinematic Universe at-large. Wonderfully, almost impossibly, “Vol. 2” is a teeny-tiny family drama dressed in interstellar garb with not an Iron Man reference in sight; a sneakily brilliant juxtaposition of the small and the infinite that doubles down on what made the original so unique.

At the same time, it’s a very different film from its predecessor, making dozens of bold, risky choices certain to give many parents pause. It is, in its own way, more adult than the R-rated juvenilia of “Deadpool,” more mature than the rudimentary bloodlust of “Logan.” Off-color jokes and punctuations of violence are but a small part of the picture’s surprising maturity. It deals intensely with some very big themes (none of which this review will reveal), played strikingly by an uncommonly attuned cast and heightened by James Gunn’s adoration for his players.

It’s extraordinary to see a studio filmmaker so in love with his characters and the people playing them, a love that’s felt deep in the movie’s marrow. From the leads (Dave Bautista’s Drax is a standout) to supporting players like Gamora’s adopted sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) and telepath Mantis (Pom Klementieff), all receive meaningful moments that bolster the whole of the narrative. Look no further than the return of blue-skinned space pirate Yondu (Michael Rooker). For reasons that won’t be explained here, Yondu is the swollen, beating heart of the film, unknowingly connecting everyone in his universe. It’s a slightly different take on the character than that of the first film, but Rooker plays it masterfully, lending Yondu a multi-dimensionality that’s representative of the movie at large.

Steadily paced and bursting at the seams with humor (shout-out to Groot’s “finding Yondu’s fin” montage), the film works on nearly every conceivable level, from special effects sizzle reel to big studio comedy to the aforementioned family drama that Marvel hasn’t yet pulled off with its Avengers films. As such, Gunn has delivered a much better Star Wars film than either “The Force Awakens” or “Rogue One,” updating the contradictorily sprawling intimacy of George Lucas’ original series for the twenty-first century.

The only drawbacks are nitpicks. A few clumsy cameos, an excess of end credit stingers, and a soundtrack that doesn’t pop as much as the first time around. But that’s the magic of “Vol. 2.” No single element diverts attention from the big picture, with each song, each character, and moment working in concert to tell a pleasingly familiar story that’s never been told this distinctively.

“Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2” is a special movie that meaningfully improves on its predecessor, tastefully dusted with more of the same while giving spectacular new dimension to some already pretty spectacular characters. By firing them off into the far reaches of space to engage in a weird, wild voyage of self-discovery, James Gunn has done something few before him have managed: He’s followed a great film with an even greater sequel. Hats off, Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” on.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: May 5, 2017
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures, Marvel Studios
Director: James Gunn
Screenwriter: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Sean Gunn, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Kurt Russell, Sylvester Stallone
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language, and brief suggestive content)

The Circle

Springing off the resplendent one-two punch of indie dramas “The Spectacular Now” and “The End Of The Tour,” writer-director James Ponsoldt is back, but with a twist. He’s forgone his conversationalist wheelhouse for tech thriller “The Circle,” co-adapting with writer Dave Eggers from Eggers’ novel of the same name. But the twist isn’t that Ponsoldt has expanded his cinematic horizons; it’s that the results are dreadful. A first act that merely disappoints rolls into a calamitous second act, burdening a capable cast with remarkably crummy storytelling (the entire picture hinges on one character’s hankering for some late-night kayaking) and a Charybdis of overly simplistic warnings about the perils of technology – warnings that Hollywood has made many times before.

Emma Watson (“Beauty And The Beast”) headlines this mess as Mae, a new inductee into a Google-like corporation-slash-cult called The Circle. The company is in the midst of a new product launch: Tiny, rugged cameras. Stick these camouflaged orbs anywhere and everywhere implores Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), the head of the company, in a speech to a theater of fawning employees. The obvious privacy-related complications of such a product go down as you might expect, only with all the bad movie trappings you’d think the wildly talented Ponsoldt couldn’t possibly be a party to.

At the heart of the movie’s awfulness is actor Ellar Coltrane (“Boyhood”), saddled with one of the most unintentionally funny character arcs in recent memory. Coltrane plays Mercer, an artist and friend of Mae’s. Mercer’s talent for turning deer antlers into chandeliers gets filtered through Mae to her co-workers as animal abuse, ultimately turning everyone at The Circle against this person they don’t know and have no particular reason to care about.

As soon as he shows up unannounced on The Circle’s campus and a stranger yells “Deer killer!” at him, we can feel the movie begin to slide down the tubes, although it’s not immediately clear just how far down the tubes it’s about to go. The scene’s bad dialogue performed uneasily by Coltrane (combined with some very wide shots as to poorly conceal some overt dubbing) is the movie in a nutshell; both half-baked and burnt to a crisp, begging not for reshoots (the film went through reshoots just a few months ago), but a total rewrite.

Hanks’ role is nothing more than an extended cameo, his duties as producer presumably precluding him from more screen time. Or his character was further fleshed out in scenes left on the cutting room floor. Or the Oscar winner couldn’t be bothered to waste any more time on a sinking ship. Any which way, his presence is not a reason to check out the film; it’s very nearly one of many not to. It ranks among his worst (or least interesting) performances.

The rest of the supporting cast is almost an across-the-board bummer, too.

Stand-up comedian Patton Oswalt (“Ratatouille”) is dangerously out of his element as Bailey’s right-hand man. John Boyega (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) is bad as bad character Ty Lafitte, a mysterious figure that, in the end, might as well be a hologram for all the real world pull he has in the story. And, through no fault of the film, it’s a total downer to see the late Bill Paxton, in one of his final roles, play Mae’s dying father. (Paxton lends the picture its only human performance, but it’s hard to watch.) Only Karen Gillan (“Guardians Of The Galaxy”) is a pleasant surprise, and it’s for all the wrong reasons. She plays Annie Allerton, friend and co-worker of Mae’s, a character whose downward spiral from life of the party to emo kid is so sudden and inexplicable you’ll wonder if you took a bathroom break that you definitely didn’t take.

In the end, the movie is only redemptive in its late game idiocy. Its second half is truly a shame, the kind of shame that just happens to be a blast to make fun of. If it were an episode of Channel Four and Netflix’s “Black Mirror” (Eggers’ story is eerily similar to some of the TV show’s most well-known episodes), it would be the worst one by miles and miles, and the list of movies and shows with similar aim and better execution is long – and without the talent involved in “The Circle.” And that’s the project’s biggest sin. What reason in heaven or Earth is there for it to be so inept?

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Bad)

Release Date: April 28, 2017
Studio: STX Entertainment
Director: James Ponsoldt
Screenwriter: James Ponsoldt, Dave Eggers
Starring: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega, Karen Gillan, Ellar Coltrane, Patton Oswalt, Glenne Headly, Bill Paxton
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for a sexual situation, brief strong language and some thematic elements including drug use)

Free Fire

One cup Mamet, two cups Tarantino, a healthy splash of The Three Stooges, and voila! British writer-director Ben Wheatley has his “Free Fire,” a sly, occasionally screamingly funny cinematic take on what’s known in television as a bottle episode. Wheatley unfolds his entire $7 million actioner more or less in real time in a single location, following a baker’s dozen of goons through a weapons deal gone awry. But unlike in the filmmaker’s last go-round (“High-Rise”), his stubborn anti-narrative flies instead of fizzles, delivering on its promise of one of the longest and most head-spinning shootouts in movie history.

First, the players: It’s 1978 and mustachioed IRA members Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) wait shrouded in the Boston night for hired hoods Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti). Together they’ll commence a mid-level gun purchase: A briefcase full of cash for some M16s. With a mediator named Justine (Brie Larson) in tow, the group hooks up with a slickly coiffed arms dealer representative named Ord (Armie Hammer) outside of a warehouse.

Once inside, they meet the rest of the gang. Ord’s associates include Harry (Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor), two sides of the same neurotic coin, along with volatile gun runner Vernon (the inimitable Sharlto Copley) and his partner Martin (Babou Ceesay). Before long, a personal indiscretion between a member of each faction bubbles to the surface and the first shot is fired. The way these characters descend into violence as naturally as two neighbors might descend into a friendly conversation about lawn care is very funny, and the cast effectively teases out their idiosyncrasies with some tremendous physical acting and a bushel of hilarious exclamations. (Copley’s Vernon is, predictably, the showstopper.)

The film is necessarily an audiovisual tour de force, with Wheatley challenging himself to spin a feature out of close to zero plot. He does it well. The editing and sound design are both top notch, delivering just the right amount of disorientation in keeping with the characters’ ever-shifting playing field. And it’s a good-looking movie, low-budget or not, full up with creative shots and an appealing color palette that’s 70’s without being too 70’s. The brisk running time (85 minutes) doesn’t hurt, either.

Perhaps best of all, Wheatley has made a legitimately fun gun movie that doubles as a savvy indictment of gun culture – one that doesn’t feel like it’s trying to have it both ways. It presents its characters and their reality so naturally as to allow viewers to feel whatever they want towards them and it, all while baking in a wordless critique of the absurdities of the Second Amendment that’s easily accessible to anyone looking for it. As such, “Free Fire” ends up one of the few Tarantino-inspired pictures with an actual point of view (unlike, say, the amoral, unwatchable “Boondock Saints”), and that alone is reason enough for a fist pump or two.

Moviegoers expecting a streamlined actioner might be flummoxed, but Wheatley’s latest has cult classic tattooed on its forehead. Get on board the bandwagon while there’s still room.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: April 21, 2017
Studio: A24
Director: Ben Wheatley
Screenwriter: Ben Wheatley, Amy Jump
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, Michael Smiley, Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Jack Reynor, Sam Riley, Noah Taylor, Babou Ceesay, Enzo Cilenti
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual references and drug use)

The Fate Of The Furious

The little franchise that could – the one that began with 2001’s relatively small-scale “The Fast And The Furious” – continues its blossom into full-on action movie opium with eighth entry “The Fate Of The Furious.” The death of series star Paul Walker in 2013 made for an especially glum seventh go-round; horror director James Wan was left without a lead halfway through filming and it showed. Gladly, part eight knows very little of the real world, reuniting the franchise with cartoonish thrills and a few of its cast members with the eternally underrated “Straight Outta Compton” filmmaker F. Gary Gray.

But above all, “The Fate Of The Furious” locks up Vin Diesel’s spot as the century’s premier action star. It’s his first time headlining a “Fast” film on his own. He does it beautifully.

January’s delirious “xXx: Return Of Xander Cage” and Diesel’s wonderfully silly performance in it went a long way in reminding of the thespian’s undervalued elasticity. From the beginning of his career (his breakthrough came in 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan”), Diesel has been a living, breathing Rorschach test, an enigma of machismo and sensitivity. His self-ascribed “ethnic ambiguity” isn’t what made him into such a towering screen presence, seemingly born to the silver screen, but it’s certainly amplified his “man of the people” persona. He is his audience, not some indestructible Arnold Schwarzenegger clone.

It’s this same accessibility that’s made the “Fast” films into such smashes. Its racial representation – a relatively new thing in blockbusters – isn’t some premeditated thing; it’s the one point where series overlaps with the real world. “Xander Cage” had it, too. In that case, it came packaged with the perfect tonic to Diesel’s recent run of overly moody performances, a refresher seemingly taken to heart by the man himself.

The new Dom Toretto (Diesel) is as multi-dimensional as the character has been, he and his team a long way from commandeering semis full of DVD players. “Fate” has it that Dom’s past is the thing to be commandeered, to be leveraged by a dreadlocked megalomaniacal cyberterrorist named Cipher (a hilarious Charlize Theron) so that Dom has no choice but to turn against his loved ones; to help steal an EMP device and nuclear codes. The “how” and the “why” don’t matter. Only that we’re treated to a convincingly brooding but not humorless Dom and his forsaken but highly motivated team who’ll do anything to get their leader back. And save the world, of course. Not necessarily in that order.

Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), Roman (Tyrese), Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) are all back in the fold, hot on Dom’s trail, when a speedball is fired into the mix. Government agent Mr. Nobody (a returning Kurt Russell) abruptly makes an ally out of the team’s mortal enemy, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). The man who murdered their beloved Han! It’s an absurd plot twist that shouldn’t work but does because it’s done so confidently, giving both Johnson and Statham more screen time than they had in “Furious 7” – all of it more meaningful.

A hiccup: Getting there isn’t so much fun. The Havana street race that kicks things off is nearly too stupid, and a scene with Hobbs on a soccer pitch is straight out of a bad family movie, a thoughtless attempt to humanize a character that doesn’t require it. But by the time cars start dropping out of skyscrapers onto the New York City streets below, F. Gary Gray and screenwriter Chris Morgan have done more than just gotten into the spirit of the franchise; they’ve kicked off an hour-long run of some its best setpieces. The pic’s climax is a terrific marriage between tone and resources, coming off so much better than the “Die Another Day” comparisons its aroused in many critics. Tyrese’s cheesy one-liners and all.

Better yet, one of the series’ biggest running jokes – characters coming back from the dead – is paid off brilliantly in act three on the back of a gleeful cameo that will not be spoiled here. It might require patience through a less than stellar first act, but stick around and be paid handsomely.

Early stumbling blocks aside, F. Gary Gray is a pro’s pro, arguably the most talented filmmaker to join the “Fast” family. He proves much better equipped for the mayhem that Wan was, dovetailing with Vin Diesel the producer’s serious-with-a-side-of-silly sensibilities. It’s a match made in hot rod heaven, begging that Gray come back to give the series the head-to-toe white knuckler that “Fate” isn’t quite. But most of the film confidently walks a thin line between reinvention and legacy act, showing that one of Universal’s most prized properties has at least a half tank of gas left in it, that it can meaningfully evolve without getting a lick smarter – just how we want it.

And most of all, it cements Vin Diesel as the cool, everything-to-everyone movie star of our time, the thing he’s always teased. He carries the movie effortlessly, like the guy that his co-star (Johnson) has always tried so hard to be. In this context, the duo’s rumored rocky relationship makes all the sense in the world – but it doesn’t change that Vin is king.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: April 14, 2017
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: F. Gary Gray
Screenwriter: Chris Morgan
Starring: Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Nathalie Emmanuel, Charlize Theron, Elsa Pataky, Kurt Russell, Scott Eastwood
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for prolonged sequences of violence and destruction, suggestive content, and language)

T2 Trainspotting

When we last left Scottish heroin addict-turned-peddler Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), he was hightailing it out of London, away from cohorts Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller), Daniel “Spud” Murphy (Ewen Bremner), and Francis “Franco” Begbie (Robert Carlyle). The amount of cash in his clutches (£12,000) only told half of the story of his double cross.

Both his duffel bag and conscience were lighter than intended, with £4,000 waiting in a locker for sweet, stupid Spud, and for the first time, a future in widescreen – not necessarily constrained by drugs or deadbeat friends or hometown blues. Renton’s three-quarter-assed duplicity could mean an honest life thereafter. Or it could mean a further two weeks of drug-fueled folly capped off by a toe tag. It was the ending “Trainspotting” required, not just for its antihero, but also for director Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge to give audiences a chance to decompress, to make their own sense of the madness they’d just been a party to.

It also meant that a potential sequel would have to offer up a damn good reason to reunite Renton and his ex-friends – and us.

“T2 Trainspotting” never quite pinpoints that reason, never evokes any real pangs of nostalgia despite directly commenting on the very idea. Its primary function is as a vehicle for Danny Boyle to Danny Boyle all over the place. Frenzied editing, lurid imagery, and sharp narrative turns (all rightfully beloved hallmarks of the “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Steve Jobs” filmmaker) are too much here, overshadowing the reason anyone would be up for a “Trainspotting” sequel in the first place – the characters.

As the film opens, Renton is still running, running, running until he can’t anymore. The now forty-something literally falls off a treadmill, a laughably loud metaphor for what’s to follow. Although he’s clean and living a relatively normal life in the Netherlands, unseen domestic problems finally allow his past the jump on him. He returns to Edinburgh to repay Sick Boy, his erstwhile best friend who’s still understandably upset about Renton’s betrayal. This sets into motion some good (at long last clearing Spud of his druggie demons), some bad (a volatile friendship rekindled), and some very ugly (Franco, a prison fugitive, dreaming of Renton’s comeuppance).

About as loosely based on Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting follow-up Porno as the original film was based on the original novel, Boyle and Hodge imbue the picture with a familiar but far less graceful kind of tonal whiplash. As the duo trace their fearsome foursome through the turning over of new leaves and the return of some old ones, the film episodically, clumsily attempts to mirror its predecessor. What’s at first a bit of rambunctious fun reaches its nadir in the form of a groanworthy love story between Renton and Sick Boy’s prostitute girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova).

The purpose of their dalliance on the part of Hodge’s screenplay is twofold: One, to lend an air of believability to Renton and Sick Boy’s plan to start a brothel. Two, to allow Renton a reprisal of his famous “Choose Life” monologue. The scene is the worst kind of nostalgia play, further marred by wonky dubbing and the sense that it was written at least five years ago. Every other word seems outdated as it rolls off McGregor’s tongue.

The characters’ respective stations in life mostly make sense (Spud’s difficulties provide the film with its emotional throughline; Sick Boy’s scummy professional life feels authentic), but Franco’s is a bust. With his storyline not connecting to Renton’s for over an hour, he often seems as though he’s not just in a different film, but a different universe. His relatively cozy life as a prison escapee suggests that Scottish fugitives live comfortable lives at home, where the authorities would never think to look. It’s this kind of narrative crosstalk that consistently belies the intelligence of the original film.

Fatefully, the picture’s best scene comes when Renton and Franco finally come together, sort of, in adjacent bathroom stalls. It’s a brilliantly funny, harrowing moment that serves as a perfect representation of how scattershot and less than the sum of its parts the whole enterprise is.

A film that was surely a joy to make is only intermittently one to watch, its ear-splitting soundtrack intrusive in a way the original’s never was. A surprisingly dark climax marked with hilariously overwrought lighting is everything to love and hate about “T2 Trainspotting” – and Danny Boyle – all at once. Twenty years on from the filmmaker and cast’s first big score, they try with all their might to recapture that old magic whilst saying something new. They do a little of both, but not nearly enough, likely cementing Boyle’s previous averseness to sequels.

Should life provide you two hours to spend with Renton and company, choose “Trainspotting.”

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: March 17, 2017 (Limited)
Studio: TriStar Pictures (Sony)
Director: Danny Boyle
Screenwriter: John Hodge
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremner, Robert Carlyle, Anjela Nedyalkova, Kelly Macdonald
MPAA Rating: R (for drug use, language throughout, strong sexual content, graphic nudity and some violence)

Ghost In The Shell

Warning: moderate “Ghost In The Shell” spoilers below.

The instant Scarlett Johansson (“Under The Skin”) was announced as the lead in Hollywood’s live-action adaptation of 1989 Japanese manga and 1995 anime feature “Ghost In The Shell,” the knives came out. Accusations of whitewashing clanged around the Internet, loudened by ultimately unfounded rumors that Johansson, a white actress, would be made to appear Asian in the film. For the first hour and change of the finished film, the casting controversy seems a blessing in disguise for any Asian actress that might have had to shoulder such a mewling dud. Director Rupert Sanders’ sci-fi actioner comes off like a pained imitation of genre jewels “RoboCop” and “Blade Runner,” unduly proud of its gamut of glitzy establishing shots, airtight in its disinclination to charisma.

But then, the movie does something remarkable. It hands off its own whitewashing – its own insistence on having a bankable white actress on its one-sheet – onto the narrative itself. Johansson isn’t just playing anti-terrorist super-cop Major Mira Killian, human brain in a cybernetic body. She’s playing a Japanese girl whose brain has been non-consensually placed in a white cybernetic body. In passing the whitewashing buck onto the text, Rupert Sanders and screenwriters Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger pull off the triple Lutz of cynical studio filmmaking. It would be astounding if it weren’t so shameful.

Once past the racial overtones and some admittedly impressive imagery that, like a gumball, loses its flavor within minutes, the film is only noteworthy in that it’s Johansson’s fourth to take on the same subject matter: What it means to be human. Accordingly, the actress seems kind of over it. She lurches through the movie like a robot might lurch if robots starred in movies and were capable of being uninterested in the movies they were making. And she delivers her wooden dialogue with the same kind of indifference. But as a genuine movie star with built-in appeal, she’s a relative bright spot among the cast, the rest an abyss of charisma.

The worst transgressor is Danish actor Pilou Asbæk who co-stars as Batou, Major’s right hand. His resemblance to a young Stephen Lang is the only discernible skill he brings to the table, yielding a performance that could have only been improved by the likes of the oft-maligned Jai Courtney or his ilk. Michael Pitt (“Last Days”) turns in an appropriately confused performance as would-be villain and fellow Asian-turned-Caucasian cybernetic organism Hideo Kuze. And then there are Takeshi Kitano as Chief Aramaki and Juliette Binoche as the doctor responsible for Major’s transformation, two excellent actors tasked with carrying scenes dead before arrival.

It’s with good fortune that the producers secured the talents of composer Clint Mansell. He teams up with Lorne Balfe to lift the movie out of the narrative doldrums on musical ability alone, their synth-based score threatening to convince us that we’re watching something vital, something with something to say. Eventually, though, the screenplay and acting and nonstop visual trickery can’t be processed as anything more than digital noise, revealing the true form of “Ghost In The Shell” 2017: a two-hour flatline, best experienced in the form of its trailers or its soundtrack or anything but the film itself.

Instead of the movie’s creative team owning their desire for a white actress to headline a Japanese property, they got cute – or convinced themselves that they were being cute – expecting moviegoers to swallow their race-based twist as a clever bit of subverted expectations; to use their public relations nightmare to prop up a resolutely dull screenplay. They wanted to have their cake and eat it, too. And they have. The trouble is, it’s a really shitty, offensive cake.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: March 31, 2017
Studio: Dreamworks Pictures, Paramount Pictures
Director: Rupert Sanders
Screenwriter: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, Ehren Kruger
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Kaori Momoi, Chin Han, Danusia Samal, Yutaka Izumihara, Tuwanda Manyimo, Rila Fukushima
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images)

Power Rangers

With all the freshness of a discarded 7-Eleven tuna salad sandwich, “Power Rangers” spills into theaters a mess of soggy ingredients, its assembly line roots scarcely concealed. Even for a film based on a longtime merchandising juggernaut, it’s an especially crass bit of 90s revivalism. There’s the incessant product placement, sure. (Doughnut chain Krispy Kreme figures heavily into the narrative – “I just ate dinner at Krisy Kreme” heavy.) But it’s the rote superhero origin storytelling and wan visuals that all but staple the movie to the ground.

The pic’s ancestry dates back to the 1993 debut of television’s “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers,” but another franchise and another era hang heavy.

Friday, May 3, 2002: Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” debuts in theaters across North America. By Sunday, the web-slinger has netted a then mind-exploding $115 million opening frame. The superhero floodgates are open in Tinseltown and studio executives begin a long, torrid love affair with superhero world building. Ten years later Sony needlessly rebuilds Spidey from the ground up, and fifteen years later, here we are, stuck with a Power Rangers movie that doesn’t get its heroes in their suits until 90 minutes in – suits that make them look like bionic Sleestaks.

A juvenile live action superhero franchise turned brooding origin tale (think “Chronicle”) is bad news for everyone; it’s especially bad news for “Project Almanac” filmmaker Dean Israelite. “Power Rangers” sees him directing with execs looming over his shoulder, leading his every move. Together they’ve puked up a lumpy paste of brooding teen drama based entirely on coincidence and action scenes edited so rashly that it’d be tough to know if shots from other movies slipped in. There are flashes of the resolutely silly original series, but they’re only flashes, clashing loudly with a long-winded screenplay and chromatically challenged visuals. The Saban Entertainment property has long been thoughtless in both its plotting and level of violence, but it was always colorful and its five leads reliably served up a surprising amount of personality.

Here the five leads only offer different shades of disappointment. Jason the Red Ranger (Dacre Montgomery), Zack the Black Ranger (Ludi Lin), and Trini the Yellow Ranger (Becky G.) make almost no impact at all, stifled by dull or altogether absent backstories, while Billy the Blue Ranger (RJ Cyler) and Kimberly the Pink Ranger (Naomi Scott) imbue a bit of personality into otherwise bewildering characters. Billy, clearly drawn as autistic by screenwriter John Gatins, is uncomfortably played as comic relief, while Kimberly, originated by the lively Amy Jo Johnson, seems to be missing crucial scenes that likely hit the cutting room floor.

The supporting cast is even more of a puzzle. The presence of Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”) and Bill Hader (“Trainwreck”) is always welcome, even if they’re mostly constrained to secondary animated parts (Zordon and Alpha 5, respectively). Meanwhile, Elizabeth Banks (“The Hunger Games”) as villain Rita Replusa comes closest to recapturing the campiness of the original series but mostly just embarrasses herself with consistently Razzie-ready line readings.

A new Power Rangers film with less exposition and a better grip on the appeal of its source material might have been a welcome addition to the blockbuster landscape. This iteration, however, is a giant question mark of resources and intentions. Who, exactly, was looking for a moody, overlong retelling of how the Power Rangers came into existence? Even 2014’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” had the sense to embrace its source material’s color and zip. “Power Rangers” 2017 sees the property drained of what made it popular in the first place, its only upside being that we won’t have to suffer through another Power Rangers origin tale – for a few years, at least.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: March 24, 2017
Studio: Lionsgate
Director: Dean Israelite
Screenwriter: John Gatins
Starring: Dacre Montgomery, RJ Cyler, Naomi Scott, Becky G., Ludi Lin, Elizabeth Banks, Bryan Cranston, Bill Hader
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, language, and for some crude humor)


How do you pay tribute to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror classic “Alien” while breathing fresh air into a long-collapsed narrative lung? In the case of Daniel Espinosa’s “Life,” you don’t. The “Safe House” director and “Deadpool” writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have merely aped “Alien” beat for beat, yielding a subpar creature feature with delusions of grandeur and a cheat of a twist ending. Graphic violence enacted by an E.T. has rarely been so boring.

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal (“Nightcrawler”), Rebecca Ferguson (“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”), and Ryan Reynolds (“Self/less”), the picture follows a sextet of astronauts aboard the International Space Station as they capture and examine a returning Martian soil sample. It turns out that the sample contains extraterrestrial life: a viscous glob that, at the provocation of a crew member, mutates into a phallic, bloodthirsty monster.

The cosmonauts are virtually interchangeable, little more than antipasti served up for the alien (named Calvin by earthbound schoolchildren when it was but a wee lump). Erudite chatter among the crew turns into stupid risk-taking (Why not give this obviously volatile organism a jolt of electricity?), which turns into several bloody deaths. The first fatality might come as a surprise to audience members until they realize just how calculated of a surprise it is, done to give an air of unpredictability to an otherwise staunchly predictable piece of sci-fi.

Of the visibly apathetic cast, Gyllenhaal is most out of his element. Known for his impeccable taste in projects and consistently bullish performances, the actor’s involvement here is baffling. Why this project? Why this cipher of a character? His senior medical officer Dr. Jordan proves a lifeless proxy for the audience, spending large chunks of time off screen in favor of Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada as engineer Sho Murakami and black British actor Ariyon Bakare as biologist Hugh Derry, each doing much more to push the narrative forward than the trio of white faces on the film’s one-sheet.

Ferguson’s Dr. Miranda North might be the biggest blank of all, given to literally floating in and out of scenes in avoidance of Calvin – and not much else. To Ferguson’s credit, she’s able keep a straight face through Gyllenhaal’s climactic, deadly serious reading of children’s picture book Goodnight Moon, from which the solution to their potentially apocalyptic predicament is derived.

This all adds up to a monster movie reminiscent of poorly received Stephen King adaptation “Dreamcatcher,” only not as endearingly convoluted and not half as fun; a redo of “Alien” with a mean reductive streak. In kicking their film off with the kind of stateliness that suggests prestige sci-fi (“2001: A Space Odyssey”), Espinosa and his writers’ eventual creature feature stands no chance. Such a graceless segue between the two, without so much as a wink at the audience, absolutely murders any chance the movie might have had with fans of either genre.

Fans of the red stuff might go home happy – if they can stay awake between kills – but surely $60 million could have bought more than a few neat death scenes.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: March 24, 2017
Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Screenwriters: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, some sci-fi violence and terror)

Beauty And The Beast

It’s been a quarter-century since Walt Disney Pictures released instant classic “Beauty And The Beast” into the wild, netting the first-ever Best Picture nomination for an animated film – not to mention generations of obsessed fans. Not three years later, the studio began spinning their backlog of animated hits into live-action fare. 1994’s “Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book” and 1996’s “101 Dalmatians” would end up early test runs for the full-on blitz that began in 2014 with “Maleficent.” A “Cinderella,” another “Jungle Book,” and a “Pete’s Dragon” later, Disney was ready to stare creative dubiousness in the face. It was written: needless live-action versions of their very best animated films were worth the all but guaranteed billion-dollar profit margins.

Led by “Dreamgirls” director Bill Condon, the new “Beauty And The Beast” sees the spirit of the late artist Andy Warhol and his famous Campbell’s Soup Cans alive and well. Large swaths of the film are all naked reproduction, leaning hard on composer Alan Menken’s incredible original songs and the 1991 film’s now-ubiquitous imagery. In particular, “Be Our Guest” and the pic’s title track remain ideals of film songcraft, of matrimony between music and visuals. (The late Howard Ashman’s lyrics on the eponymous tune were almost singlehandedly responsible for making the awkward Stockholm syndrome bent of narrative at all palatable. People can change!)

Accordingly, Menken’s songs were and are good enough to levitate any picture lucky enough to bear their cascading melodies and acrobatic wordplay. Lucky for “Beauty And The Beast” 2017 – the mostly mechanical film needs them badly.

The titular tale as old as time, based on the 18th century French fairy tale of the same name, is immediately familiar, albeit filled out. The original’s 84-minute running time has ballooned to 129. You know the drill: A bookish, restless young woman named Belle (Emma Watson, the “Harry Potter” film series) resides in a small village with her widowed father, Maurice (Oscar-winner Kevin Kline, “A Fish Called Wanda”). On a horse-drawn trip to sell his music boxes, Maurice is attacked by wolves and forced to seek refuge in a dark, cavernous castle.

His innocent picking of a rose turns the castle’s inhabitant, a glowering man-beast (Dan Stevens, “The Guest”), against him. Maurice is taken as a prisoner, only released when Belle tracks down her father and trades her life for his. Thus begins a most unlikely love story, hastened by the castle’s assortment of anthropomorphic housewares; a cursed prince who must find love in order to steal back human form for him and his servants is given a fighting chance.

Dan Stevens’ mostly motion-capture performance as the Beast is merely adequate, hampered by the unreality of the CGI (the character’s famous hand-in-hand walk with Belle down the castle stairs is noticeably weightless) and a co-star even less convincing. Emma Watson, an able performer, is totally wrong for the role; too young to replicate the vocal presence of Paige O’Hara (who was well into her 30s when she originated the role) and too old to pass as a repressed teenager. It doesn’t help that her shaky singing voice has been pitch corrected to hell, as if to italicize her shortcomings as a vocalist.

The supporting cast fares better.

With more screen time, Luke Evans (“The Girl On The Train”) might have galloped away with the picture. His Gaston, a boastful, belligerent suitor of Belle’s (and the film’s human villain), is an improbably canny translation of the character’s cartoonish buffoonery into real life. Josh Gad (“Frozen”) fares similarly as Gaston’s right hand man LeFou, given welcome depth here as more than just a platonic admirer. Their big musical number, appropriately titled “Gaston,” is a gas, matched only in energy and color by the movie’s musical centerpiece.

When Ewan MacGregor’s anthropomorphic candle Lumiere breaks into those famous words, “Be…. our…. guest,” it’s impossible not to crack a smile, much less suppress the urge to sing along. Lumiere and his fellow housewares’ big shining moment (MacGregor is joined by Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts, Ian McKellen as Cogsworth, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Plumette, and more) marks the pinnacle of the film’s lavish production design and intermittently dazzling special effects. For a few minutes at least, it’s immaterial that MacGregor is no Jerry Orbach, that Thompson is no Angela Lansbury, that “Beauty And The Beast” 2017 is no “Beauty And The Beast” 1991. It’s purely a joy to be taking in “Be Our Guest” in any form, even if performed by a supergroup-cum-cover band.

The screenplay, co-written by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, increases its diversions from the original as it chugs along, dotted with a couple middling new songs provided by Menken and some tedious backstory for Belle. The increased running time means more momentum lost between songs, and it eventually leads to a film off the rails. A torturously overlong finale pushes the film into “world’s most elaborate tribute act” territory, finally, fully breaking off from the breakneck pace of the original. By the time the Beast and his domestics are turned back into human beings, Ian McKellen’s bedraggled, grumpy appearance will speak for many.

Since “Beauty And The Beast” 2017 lives in a purgatory that grants no hope of living up to its predecessor, it’s tough to know what kind of curve to grade it on. Not a soul alive wouldn’t be better served by a return trip to the 1991 film. (Then there’s the added benefit of having an extra forty minutes to spare.) But take Emma Watson out of the equation and forgive the integrally more difficult suspension of disbelief (animation is a great lens for fantasy; at this remove this particular story is a little harder to take) and Condon’s film is just about what it should be: A fevered, overblown love letter to a classic. To heights it knows it couldn’t hope to reach.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: March 17, 2017
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Bill Condon
Screenwriter: Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos
Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Audra McDonald, Stanley Tucci
MPAA Rating: PG (for some action violence, peril and frightening images)


In 2012, actor Dax Shepard (“Idiocracy”) added writer and director to his résumé with sneakily charming action-comedy “Hit And Run.” His follow-up, “CHIPS,” based on the featherweight television series that ran on NBC from 1977 to 1983 and somehow still lives on in syndication, sees Shepard take a flamethrower to any goodwill left over from his debut. There is nothing funny, fun, or likable about his sophomore effort; nothing enjoyable about the way it flushes a $25 million budget and a typically game Michael Peña (“Ant-Man”) down the toilet in the name of pointless raunch. “CHIPS” is very, very bad.

Cue a laborious buddy-cop setup and score that sounds like it was recorded by an Audioslave cover band and we’re off on two wrong feet.

Shepard stars as rookie California Highway Patrol Jon Baker (role originated by Larry Wilcox), a former professional motorcyclist with the scars, opiate addiction, and trophy wife (Kristen Bell) to prove it. Peña co-stars a Miami-based FBI agent tasked with going undercover as California High Patrol, assuming the identity of Frank “Ponch” Poncherello (role originated by Erik Estrada). Baker’s painkiller problem and Ponch’s seemingly debilitating sex addiction are the movie’s only streams of would-be laughs, as if the past four years saw Shepard develop an allergy to humor.

It’s not just that the movie isn’t funny. It’s that it barely keeps up the appearance of trying to be funny, lazily tossing out sex references like an elderly magician biding his time throwing playing cards at a dusty top hat.

As the new partners set out to unravel a conspiracy within their ranks, Vincent D’Onofrio labors as the pic’s generic baddie. The mystery at the center of the movie is no mystery at all, letting us and just about everyone but Jon and Ponch in on it, failing to generate even the most basic kind of suspense. A modestly compelling story might have covered over the movie’s listless juvenilia and lack of chemistry between its stars. Alas, narrative might be the cellar for “CHIPS.”

There are, of course, vehicular chase scenes, none of them as crisply shot as those in “Hit And Run,” all of them rife with unconcern for geography and poor continuity editing. Even 2005’s comparable “The Dukes Of Hazzard” had the sense to dole out a handful of gnarly car chases. Here, the action is just as sloppy as everything else, ever so often punctuated with a dash cam shot as if to unconvincingly scream, “This is exciting!”

Dax Shepard has unwittingly made the Comic Sans of TV adaptations, only without the chance of future underdog status. Comic Sans, the oft-ridiculed sans-serif typeface, has cultivated a small but enthusiastic following on the Internet. “CHIPS” will cultivate no such following. It is as boring as it is awful, rolling in misogyny and homophobia like a pig in mud, sailing past the 90-minute mark with not a single laugh on the books, careening into its end credits with one last reference to analingus.

At least in its pointlessness, “CHIPS” is fervently committed to fulfilling its name.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Bad)

Release Date: March 24, 2017
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Dax Shepard
Screenwriter: Dax Shepard
Starring: Dax Shepard, Michael Peña, Rosa Salazar, Adam Brody, Kristen Bell, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jessica McNamee, Justin Chatwin
MPAA Rating: R (for crude sexual content, graphic nudity, pervasive language, some violence and drug use)

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