The ‘Best’ of the Rest — Films I Enjoyed (or Not) in the Movie Theater (Part Two)

“Mad Max: Fury Road,” with Charlize Theron & Tom Hardy

Welcome back! Summer is fast approaching, and that means it’s time for movie-going season. Here’s the continuation of my truncated reviews of first-run movies that over the years yours truly has watched at our local multiplex cinema. The films are discussed in chronological order. Happy reading, everyone!

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Let’s start things off with a bang! This fabulous reboot of the old George Miller-directed Mad Max series (from 1979 to 1985), which featured the young Mel Gibson, makes the recent spate of American-made Marvel Universe and Justice League pictures look like finger painting by comparison. Starring British actor Tom Hardy as the laconic and psychologically-challenged ex-cop Max Rockatansky, the story takes place in a futuristic “society,” if that’s the correct verbiage; a blighted backdrop where some terrible form of global catastrophe has left the planet a barren waste land (or, at least, the section where Max and his cohorts dwell and fight in). Gas (or “guzzoline” as it is called here) is the currency that sets men free and enables them to lord it over their underlings. Women, who happen to be the community’s driving force and all-important keys to survival, are treated as breeders and/or nursemaids by the few who are able to procreate. The look, the feel, and the grime of this No Man’s Land have been recreated to a startling degree. Along with them, the power of the chase, and the use of makeshift automobiles and rough-and-ready trucks (such as the War Rig) of every size and description — which make up the bulk of the community’s transportation system — are part of several incredibly visceral scenes in this stunt-laden spectacular. There are a variety of set pieces, all of them plot driven. Gibson, the original Max, was initially tapped to give life to this sequel of sorts. Thankfully, however, director Miller made the decisive move to go with a younger actor. This is where Hardy’s grim visage and restrained thespian skills come in handy in depicting a character whose steely-eyed determination and spare gestures far outweigh his inability at conveying his profoundest thoughts. A man of action and instinct, Max is the “grin and bear it” type (more like grunt and grumble, as depicted in those early 1930s Popeye cartoons). Everything feels right about this continuation, which is light years removed from the Star Wars franchise, or any of those dreadful The Hobbit movies directed by Peter Jackson. Filmed on the desert terrain of Namibia in Africa, Mad Max: Fury Road is anchored by a seething, pitch-perfect performance from South-African born Charlize Theron as the one-armed Imperator Furiosa (a real spitfire), the real focus of this fire and brimstone road epic. Nicholas Hoult is the frenetic pumped-up Nux, with Hugh Keays-Byrne as the repulsive Immortan Joe, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as the Splendid Angharad, Nathan Jones as the hulking Rictus Erectus, and Riley Keough as Capable. Told in three parts (each with its own distinctive tinge), with brief flashbacks to prior incidents (more like electric-light sparks) that continue to pollute Max’s brain-wave patterns, the visual and coloristic elements in this latest entry in the apocalyptic realm are exhilarating, to say the least. Every aspect of this action-packed adventure flick is splendid and has been placed in more than capable hands (love those Pole Cats) by the visionary Dr. Miller, including the excellent soundtrack and the outstanding music score by Junkie XL. Our favorite weirdo characters: the actor and musician iOTA (real name: Sean Hape) as the fire spouting, electric guitar-playing The Doof Warrior; and the brief bit (accompanied by the “Dies irae” from Verdi’s Requiem) by the so-called Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter). Honorable Mention: The women who comprise the Vulvalini. Do see this in widescreen surround sound (or in a first-class home theater setting). The color range and amount of detail are positively astounding! You can turn the volume off and it would still make sense, it’s that good. Keep alert to the proposed sequel, Mad Max: Furiosa.

Kylo Ren (l.) threatens Finn & Rey in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Ho-hum, another day, another lackluster science-fiction foray into the Star Wars universe! After creator, writer, director, and erstwhile producer George Lucas sold the rights to his money-making franchise to Disney, it seems that creativity and original content went out the door via the star-freighter’s garbage chute — and into the pockets of backers hoping to make a killing (or “chump change” in this instance) with this ponderous excuse for a continuation. This is one long and hopelessly hokey sequel, people. As longtime readers of this blog know, I have been a Star Wars fan since the first film appeared on the horizon (or in our solar system) back in 1977. I was present at every one of the premiere showings on the traditional Memorial Day weekend. I even stood on that endless line (which veered off into the stratosphere) for the initial run of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. You can imagine my disappointment, then, at this less than rousing epic, which is long (oh, soooo long) on special-FX and short on actual substance. A lot of sound and fury, as well as lightsabers and firepower, signifying …. Well, that’s a good point. What does this two-hour-and-fifteen-minute adventure-less thrill ride have to do with Lucas’ space fantasy? And where does one begin to relate the many problems we have with this film’s bogus story line? New characters abound throughout, which is all to the good. And familiar characters make spurious entrances, which is all to the bad. Some old favorites and friends (Han Solo, Chewbacca), and some overly recognizable wisecracks “help,” in a manner of speaking. There’s a little bit of everything for the geek in all of us, including a space-age kitchen sink to play in, and a new robotic android companion (BB-8) to squeak at. One thing I did like, and that was the elevated quality of the starships and cruisers, which have that solid, bulky, tactile-rendered, lived-in feeling from the originals. Indeed, the return of the Millennium Falcon intact was reason enough to cheer about. New cast members Daisy Ridley as Rey (game and lively), Adam Driver as Kylo Ren (brooding), John Boyega as Finn (clueless), Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron (wasted), Lupita Nyong’o as Maz Kanata (dig those crazy goggles), Domhnall Gleeson as the spittle-spewing General Hux, and Andy Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke (in motion-capture mode, just as Lupita was above) give it the old college try, along with a last-minute cameo from Mark Hamill as the bearded Luke Skywalker. Some mad dashing about by Harrison Ford as Han, as well as a badly aged Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels, and dozens more, provide some needed spunk. The brief bit by Gwendoline Christie (Brienne of Tarth in the Game of Throne series on HBO) as Captain Phasma promises more than it delivers. Truth be told, the old gang does add some flavor and spice but little else that’s nice to the circuitous plot. Ah, yes, the plot. The story takes place 30 years after the incidents that wrapped up Episode VI. It seems there’s another bunch of storm-trooping soldiers in charge, only this time they’re called the First Order (i.e., the bad guys) which rose from the remnants of the deposed Galactic Republic. On the opposite side of the tracks, there’s our correspondingly insignificant Rebellion, unconvincingly labeled the Resistance (the so-named good guys). The dark side of the Force makes a comeback, thanks to the badly damaged mask of the late Darth Vader, which holds a considerable grip on the impressionable Kylo Ren. Hmm, I wonder why ….. Yes, folks, the plot becomes oh-so predictable at this point that there’s no sense going into specifics. The more things change in that long ago and far, far away galaxy, the more they stay the same.

Beetle, Kubo & Monkey of “Kubo and the Two Strings”

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

Another gorgeously constructed, brilliantly realized stop-motion tale from Laika Studios, the company that brought you Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012), and The Boxtrolls (2014). There is exemplary voiceover work by the ubiquitous Charlize Theron, in addition to Art Parkinson (excellent, by the way), Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei, and Matthew McConaughey. A decent score by Dario Marianelli (Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina), who also composed the music for The Boxtrolls, sets the right Oriental tone throughout this extended road and buddy picture. And the novel use of ex-Beatle George Harrison’s song, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” will surely bring a tear to one’s eye. Laika Studios, and especially its director, animator, and CEO Travis Knight, continue to mine the richly rewarding, frame-by-frame field that spotlights the struggles that young people face in life — in particular, the problems that kids encounter in convincing their elders, who should know better, to listen to their counsel and advice (a favorite topic of the above stop-motion features). In practically all of Laika’s movies, relatable characters such as Coraline, Norman, Eggs, and now Kubo continuously confront this challenge, sometimes head-on but most times by blindly stepping up to the challenge and taking charge of the situation. One such child, the 12-year-old Kubo, learns to live by his wits in the adult world and tries to cope with its troubling consequences — most of them not of his choosing and, in this unusual feature, inspired by Japanese woodblock prints, origami, the Shinto religion, and the supernatural (in the form of two wicked aunts and a sinisterly clever grandfather). He meets along the way the representative characters manifested by Monkey (Theron) and Beetle (McConaughey), his steadfast companions on a mission to track down his deceased father’s weapons and armor (as you can tell, there’s a lot of story to glean through). The importance of family and respect for one’s ancestors are stressed, something that Pixar Animation Studios later attempted with the award-winning Coco (2017). Ambitious in the extreme and a little long and murky at times, Kubo and the Two Strings remains an admirable effort at understanding a foreign culture; one that is so different from our own that the film ends up more as an evocative experiment rather than an emotionally cathartic one (which it aims gamely to put over, but ultimately fails). Small children may have difficulty deciphering the finer points that are tossed at them. They are not alone! When the story plays second samisen to the visuals, and when the conversation turns to thoughts of death, family, and (gulp) individual sacrifice, it starts asking an underage audience more questions than they can handle. It may not be the best told fable in the expanding Laika library, but it certainly is their best-looking and best-sounding picture to date. The opening tidal wave sequence alone is worth the investment. In that, Laika is the lone path-breaker in this once-vanishing form of stop-motion entertainment.     

(Clockwise from left): Valerian, Bubble, Commander Filitt & Laureline in “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Probably the most ambitious, sumptuously photographed, and seamlessly realized special FX feature of all the above and below entries. A bit lacking in dramatic impact, there is still that goofy kid’s eye-view feel (“Look, Ma, I-made-a-sci-fi-fantasy picture”) to this gargantuan production. At a cost of nearly US $200 million, director, writer, and co-producer Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the most expensive European co-production to date. It’s a bit more than just a Fifth Element retread, Besson’s earlier cult hit, which many critics have compared it to. Based on a French graphic publication from the 1960s, Valérian et Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, this literal comic-book come-to-life adventure film stars Dane DeHaan as Major Valerian, a hotshot space pilot in the Han Solo tradition of maverick gunfighters; and ex-model Cara Delevingne as his co-pilot Sergeant Laureline, a spry no-nonsense police woman and would-be girlfriend to the girl-crazy Valerian. This attractive couple spars in the age-old tradition of The Thin Man series (starring William Powell and Myrna Loy), with barely disguised intimations of the snappy repartee between Han Solo and Princess Leia. We know, from our extensive movie-going experience, that love-hate relationships such as these end up in only one way: the two young people will eventually fall into each other’s arms. Or will they? That’s but one of the many off-center “in jokes” that Besson’s film plays up. The others include state-of-the-art effects and brief star turns by an accomplished cast, which includes Clive Owen as the sullen Commander Filitt, Kris Wu as Sergeant Neza, jazzman Herbie Hancock as the holographic Defense Minister, Ethan Hawke doing his best Dennis Hopper imitation as Jolly the Pimp, Rutger Hauer in an all-too-brief-stint as President of the World State Federation, the voice of John Goodman as the formidable Jabba the Hutt lookalike and sound-alike Igon Siruss (with insinuations of a probable sequel afoot), and the remarkable if limited input of pop-star Rihanna as the shape-shifting alien Bubble. Her exotic dance number has to be seen to be believed! Surely viewers will be reminded of the opera diva Plavalaguna sequence in The Fifth Element. As a matter of fact, there are one-too-many references to that earlier feature, sometimes to the current one’s detriment. Nevertheless, here’s another instance where the opening episode highlighting the seven-foot tall bald-pated race known as Müls (who smack of the blue-skinned Na’vi from James Cameron’s Avatar) offers much promise, specifically when it deals with their planet’s annihilation and the fate of their race. A plethora of related complications and extraneous side characters (for example, the rollicking trio reminiscent of Donald Duck’s nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie) conflict with the main issue and leads to inevitable exhaustion on the part of the viewer. Likely, the film will play better on downloads and streaming devices, and in 4K or Blu-ray transmissions. Definitely a feast for the eyes as well as the ears, Valerian unfortunately veers off in too many directions at once. It can’t seem to make up its mind whether it wants to be taken seriously (in the manner of Blade Runner 2049 below) or wallow in self-parody. A pity! As with Mad Max: Fury Road, I look forward to a sequel that will flesh out and expand upon the material.

Ryan Gosling as Officer K in one of many fabulous images from “Blade Runner 2049”

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

When I first saw this long anticipated follow-up to Ridley Scott’s visual masterpiece Blade Runner (1982), my initial reaction was, “Man, what a downer! How could the director and visionary of Arrival (see my previous review via the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2018/01/14/the-best-of-the-rest-films-i-enjoyed-or-not-in-the-movie-theater-part-one/) make such a depressingly bleak, snail’s-paced picture as this?” Yes, it’s impressive to look at, but God, does this movie crawl — sometimes on all fours. Looking back at that gut reaction, I realize that Denis Villeneuve, the French-Canadian filmmaker, had other things on his mind than a mere follow-up to an acknowledged cult classic. In that respect, I give Monsieur Denis the benefit of the doubt. What he and his committed cast and crew members have assembled here is a stand-alone project: their own fantastically sentient world; a visually stunning, intellectually stimulating science-fiction recreation of a future where Replicants (human lookalikes with limited life-spans) do the drudgework (much of it off-world), while Blade Runners (police officers charged with tracking down miscreant Replicants) bring “law and order” to a Hong Kong-like megalopolis populated by emotionless automatons. These are the human characters, mind you. There are multiple references to the earlier film (many of them quite subtle, while others are blatantly overt), as well as tributes to sci-fi sagas of decades past, including intermittent allusions to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both of these genre classics figure prominently in the ethos of Blade Runner 2049. Call it the “new noir,” or a sci-fi crime drama. Actually, it’s a literal police procedural, as Officer K (a relentlessly morose Ryan Gosling) begins the story by terminating a rogue Replicant named Sapper Morton (hulking Dave Bautista). The Replicants harbor a deep, dark secret: that one of their kind has given birth, something no Replicant was thought to be capable of. From this scene-setting prologue, we venture forth into the unimaginable: a futuristic Los Angeles, the city of “angels” (or “devils,” if you will), home of the Wallace Corporation, the business entity that took over for Dr. Eldon Tyrell and the Tyrell Corporation, where the original Replicants were grown and fabricated. The blind eccentric, CEO Niander Wallace (a creepy Jared Leto), has picked up where Tyrell left off. Obsessed with finding the culprit who gave birth, Wallace sends out his private bodyguard Luv (the equally glum Sylvia Hoeks), a supposedly detached Replicant but bubbling with pent-up emotions she can barely keep under control, to find the mysterious offspring of said Replicant. Meanwhile, Officer K has identity issues of his own. In his sparsely-decorated “space-age bachelor pad,” K keeps a holographic companion, the aptly named Joi (Ana de Armas), as sort of an artificially-intelligent girlfriend. Think Spike Jonze’s Her from 2013, but with a comelier shape and come-hither voice and eyes. Superbly photographed by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins, the murky screenplay is credited to original scenarist Hampton Francher, along with Michael Green. A bewhiskered Harrison Ford returns as former Blade Runner Rick Deckard, and Sean Young, the original Rachael (the one everybody believes has given birth) makes a cameo appearance via motion- and voice-capture technology. The remainder of the cast, to include Robin Wright as Lt. Joshi, Mackenzie Davis as Mariette (who shares a body meld with Joi in one of the film’s most memorable sequences), Carla Juri as Dr. Ana Stelline, Lennie James as Mr. Cotton (a makeshift Fagin to a bunch of urchin children), and Edward James Olmos in a neat little clip as Gaff, try to boldly go where no sequel has gone before. They succeed to some extent in delivering an original take on the plot, but that’s about it. Maybe they succeeded too well, for this film is extraordinarily dense, the story needlessly complex and meandering. Still, the sets, the costumes, the incredible holographic images, the soundtrack, and special FX are state-of-the-art miraculous. The overpoweringly loud and blaring music score, however (by veteran composer Hans Zimmer with contributions from Benjamin Wallfish), is much too self-indulgent to make an impact (except on your eardrums). Recommended but with hesitation, due to the high violence quotient and the disappointedly dragged-out-beyond-all-reasonable-limits story line.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) gawks at the “Asset” (Doug Jones) in Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water”

The Shape of Water (2017)

Made up for any deficiencies noted in Pacific Rim (see my earlier reviews of this and other movies: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2018/01/14/the-best-of-the-rest-films-i-enjoyed-or-not-in-the-movie-theater-part-one/), Mexican director, producer, and screenwriter Guillermo del Toro’s “comeback” picture The Shape of Water features some of the best emoting on screen this year. A modern-day Beauty and the Beast turned Creature from the Black Lagoon fairy tale, combined with fantastical elements from King Kong, Mighty Joe Young, and other similarly themed productions, this film is what future generations may point to as the quintessential Del Toro picture. The color scheme, the use of water, shade and light, the enchanted and quixotic nature of the plot, and of course the “Asset” or Creature itself — played by the underrated mime and actor Doug Jones (Abe Sapien in the Hellboy series) — are too marvelous for words. The Shape of Water has all the essential ingredients of Del Toro’s high-concept mind-set, and can be favorably compared to his earlier output, especially The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth (part of Del Toro’s Spanish trilogy which began with Cronos), and even Mimic and Hellboy II: The Golden Army. This one features a fish out of water story. To put it plainly, a highly romanticized account of 1960s Cold War struggles depicting downtrodden working-class stiffs — the unlikely trio of mute cleaning woman Elisa Esposito (sensitive Sally Hawkins), her African American co-worker Zelda Fuller (spunky Octavia Spencer), and Elisa’s closeted gay neighbor Giles (Oscar-winner Richard Jenkins) — battling to spare the life of a poor misunderstood sea creature, the amphibious Gill-Man-like “Asset,” against the baser designs of vicious military colonel Strickland (a particularly manic Michael Shannon) and the combined forces of the U.S. Army. This being set during the height of Cold War tensions, the usual suspects are present, including a Russian operative posing as an upright American scientist (the always dependable Michael Stuhlbarg) interested in preserving the “Asset” for his own independent study. Both the scientist and Elisa share the same desire: to learn from this obviously intelligent and responsive creature, who when you get right down to it is more human than the humans who surround and abuse it. Their narratives are told in parallel and supplement the main plot line. As with all such stories, there are multiple viewpoints to ponder and a variety of takeaways to be discussed. For instance, Colonel Strickland is no cardboard cutout villain, but a complicated individual trying to come to terms with this discovery and stymied by the cleaning crew’s lack of cooperation. His own love life with his clueless bimbo-brained spouse Elaine (Lauren Lee Smith) is contrasted with the burgeoning love affair between the obviously smitten Elisa and the much more approachable creature, which she and her friends have kidnapped and hidden in Elisa’s bathtub. Now this is where things get a might “weird” and “kinky,” if you know what I mean. But remember, this is a fantasy, with elements of magical realism thrown in that will both delight and infuriate you. In one astonishing episode, Elisa and the “Asset” partake of an elaborate Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance routine. In another, Carmen Miranda is heard singing her trademark “Chica Chica Boom Chic” on the soundtrack. And speaking of the soundtrack, composer Alexandre Desplat has written a deceptively simple score which on first hearing may lull viewers into a state of blissful unawareness. As you can tell, this is both a film and a director enamored of Hollywood’s Golden Age. In combining his love of movies with his passion for the horror genre, Del Toro tries to do the impossible — which is, to make a picture that both die-hard romantics and confirmed horror and sci-fi buffs can look up to and enjoy on multiple levels. Not every critic was entranced by this production, but I can tell you that THIS horror, sci-fi and movie musical fan was thoroughly captivated by the director’s vision.

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes