At the Movies 2017: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
USA 2017
Written by James Gunn, Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning
Directed by James Gunn
Watched on 02.05.2017

The first one was arguably was Marvel’s biggest surprise so far (and also their biggest gamble, which paid off tremendously). A fun, epic space-action-romp with wonderful, original characters and an incredible sense of fun, but also a lot of heart and soul. Thus, “Vol. 2” has some huge shoes to fill. What’s more: Where the first one came out of the blue, people’s expectations are a lot higher this time around. However, I’m glad to report that in my book, “Vol. 2” is on par with its predecessor.

Granted, it’s not quite as fresh and original as the first one. They also go a little overboard with the action, especially during the finale, which is one of those typical superhero-CGI-fests, and thus its most common and least appealing trait. Not to mention that once again, the entire galaxy has to be saved; personally, I would have preferred smaller odds (like the Guardians just fighting to save Peter). The music mix is also mostly inferior; with the exception of the last song – which is not only great in its own right, but is also used extremely well – I found the tunes in the first movie to be much more iconic and catchy. And the story in “Vol. 1” seemed to have a little more momentum and was more varied, thanks to all those different locations we visited and characters we met along the way. However, all those shortcomings are made up by the much more personal story, more character depth and development (which is especially true for two previous adversaries, Nebula and Yondu), and especially one emotional moment at the end which was the saddest, most touching and heartwarming scene the MCU has offered so far. When a friggin’ racoon almost makes you cry, you know that you’re seeing something very special. And the rest of the movie is just like (and as good) as the first one: I’m still in love with – and awe of – all the characters. From the current Marvel-lineup, the Guardians definitely are the most fun to be around. Also, Vol. 2 once again is full of surprises, gags, and funny moments. However, despite all the humor, it never gets superficial and/or loses its focus, which lies always on its characters. And even though there’s plenty to laugh about, and despite all its goofiness, there’s an earnestness and weight to the proceedings which makes this so much more rewarding on an emotional level than your usual superhero roundup. Come for the laughs, stay for the heart.
9/10


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Viennale 2016 – Day 2: Aquarius

Aquarius
Brazil/France 2016
Written by Kleber Mendonça Filho
Directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho
Watched on 21.10.2016

When a movie starts with a song by “Queen”, who to this day are my favorite band of all time, and later on features even a second one, we’re already off to a good start. Unfortunately, the longer the movie progressed, the more it got obvious that it couldn’t quite refute my worry that it would end up being too long. The running time of over two hours was the main reason why I was reluctant to buy a ticket, but since they showed it between two movies that I absolutely had to see and I didn’t feel like wandering around for 2-3 hours, I decided to stay and watch it after all. Ultimately, I don’t regret seeing it, but had I done so in a couple of months or years when it’s streaming for free somewhere, I wouldn’t have missed much in the interim.

My main problem with “Aquarius” was that it tried too hard to urge its viewers to side with Clara – something that I had a hard time with. I felt manipulated, and what’s probably worse, at least in my case, it didn’t even really work. Because as much as I can understand her reluctance to leave the building in which she lived almost her entire life, given the safety and health issues, the offer from the building contractor, and the fact that her refusal to leave the apartment prevent them from building a new house – which would create jobs – she ultimately felt rather stubborn and selfish to me. Thus, I wasn’t really on her side. Then again, thanks to the less-than-sympathetic way the company handled the situation (and that’s not even taking into account the late reveal; which felt a little forced to me), I couldn’t side with them either. Ultimately, I was caught in the middle, not really rooting for anyone – which might be one of the major reasons why “Aquarius” never really gripped me. I’m also not sure if we really needed to see the prologue (even though you can never have enough Queen in your movie). And overall, “Aquarius” just was too long for its own good. What I liked most about it, was the part that concentrated on Clara itself. All those scenes that weren’t about her struggle with the apartment, but about her, period. “Aquarius” always worked best when it was simply a great portrait of this complex and headstrong middle-aged woman. It was further helped by great performances, especially from Sonia Braga and her film-daughter Maeve Jinkings. And a couple of individual moments were really strong, like her discussions with her family, the night with the gigolo, or the ending.

Overall, “Aquarius” is a nice movie with great performances and an ok-story, but is simply too long for its own good, and is further held back by Kleber Mendonça Filho’s insistence to have the viewer side with Clara – which in my case didn’t really/always work.
5/10


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At the Movies 2017: Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell
USA 2017
Written by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler & Ehren Kruger, based on the comic by Shirow Masamune
Directed by Rupert Sanders
Watched on 07.04.2017

First of all: I won’t get into the whitewashing-debate. I understand the arguments behind it, and I got my own opinion on that, but this review will deal exclusively with the movie itself. Also, please note that so far, I haven’t seen the original (an oversight that I’ll correct on May 13th, when it will be shown at the Vienna Filmcasino). Thus, if you automatically disregard any reviews that don’t complain about the whitewashing at length and/or compare this live-action film with the anime, you might as well stop here. This is about one thing, and one thing only: The movie, taken by itself.

One thing that “Ghost in the Shell” has going for itself is that it’s visually arresting. The beginning in particular offers a couple of beautiful images, culminating in a nice action sequence that, in my opinion, already was GitS’s best (the rest of the action was fine, but never quite reached the same level – which, with a movie like that, is a little bit of a problem). The score by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe was also quite good, and – with its mix of orchestra and synthesizer – fits the movie (and its theme of a fusion between men and machine, aka the “natural” and the “artificial”) quite nicely. I also think that Scarlett Johansson was pretty much perfect for the role. She’s a very physical actress, and very convincing in action scenes (see her Black Widow or “Lucy”), but she also has this knack for slightly outlandish and otherworldly characters (“Under the Skin”). “Ghost in the Shell” makes use of both of these qualities – and, of course, also her incredibly beautiful, angelic face – but she also shines in the few emotional moments that the movie gives her. The rest of the cast was great too. As for the characters, I liked that Dr. Ouelet wasn’t a typical mad scientist-kind of bad guy. Otherwise, most of them – including Major – were a little generic.

Which also brings us to its biggest disappointment for me: Maybe it’s because the trailer already gave too much away, or that the original anime movie served as inspiration for similarly themed movies, but… plot-wise, “Ghost in the Shell” didn’t feel particularly groundbreaking (to put in mildly). If the live-action film is a fair representation of the anime, I’d argue that it was heavily influenced by both “Blade Runner” and “Robocop” – two (better) movies that I had to think of quite often while watching this. But even apart from that, I had the feeling that there were a lot of really interesting themes and topics, which “Ghost in the Shell” unfortunately dealt with in a very superficial way. Take the idea that we’re not made by our memories, but our actions. It’s a sentiment that’s uttered twice within the movie – but we’re only told, not shown. It’s an idea presented only in words, but not within the plot of the movie. There were many other, interesting ideas in this which they never really got into – which is possibly the main reason why the reveals and certain moments never really resonated emotionally. “Ghost in the Shell” is an empty shell of a movie – albeit a visually beautiful, entertaining, and occasionally thrilling one – but it’s missing a soul. Which, given its subject matter, is not without a certain irony.
6/10


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Screener-Review: Battle Royale

Battle Royale
Japan 2000
Written by Kenta Fukasaku, based on the novel by Koushun Takami
Directed by Kinji Fukasaku
Watched on 03.04.2017

More than 16 years after its release in Japan, “Battle Royale” is finally going to be freely available in its uncut form in Germany – something the new distributor (who submitted the request for a new evaluation at the german ratings board) is going to celebrate with a limited theatrical release. And even though here in Austria we didn’t have the same problem and the Uncut DVDs and Blu-Rays were sold freely for years now, I somehow never came round to see it. Which is why I jumped at the chance to watch a screener of the new german release – and what can I say: I think that it’s still relevant, shocking and effective as hell.

I really liked the “Hunger Games”-movies, which – like the books they were based on – of course were heavily influenced by Koushun Tamaki’s novel and Kinji Fukasaku’s adaptation. Even though the similarities are striking, I still believe that ultimately, Suzanne Collins delivered more than a simple rip-off. She took the basic idea and made something new (and bigger) out of it. However, if there’s one aspect where the “Hunger Games”-series absolutely pales in comparison, it’s the violence. Where “The Hunger Games” held back in order to secure a PG-13 rating, “Battle Royale” shows no such restraint. It’s a bloody, gory and absolutely brutal affair. It never downplays, let alone celebrates the various fights, but presents them as absolutely harrowing – just as it should be, especially given the fact that its bloody 15-year-olds who slaughter each other. I also loved how “Battle Royale” shows the different ways in which those teenagers deal with the desperate and hopeless situation they find themselves in. Some give up and choose to kill themselves. Some seem to bury their heads in the sand, instead of facing the fate that awaits them. Some try to fight the oppressive system that forces them to kill each other. Some try their best to hold on to their humanity, even in the face of unspeakable horror. And then there are those who thrive and flourish under these circumstances, and relish the chance to finally set their inner psychopaths free. With all these different approaches, the movie ultimately forces the viewer to ask themselves how they would react if they’d find themselves in this terrible situation. How far would we go to save our own skin?

There’s another thing that makes “Battle Royale” even meaner than “The Hunger Games”: Instead of fighting against people of other districts which they didn’t know before (apart from the one companion from their own), “Battle Royale” sets the pupils of one class at each other. And even though I’d wager that none of us liked all our other classmates, there are still cliques and friends and even lovers here, who are forced to fight against each other. Somehow, this seems even worse than just fighting a random bunch of strangers. Overall, “Battle Royale” does a great job taking this fascinating and distressing concept and running with it. It’s very well shot, the classical music as well as the original score suit the movie incredibly well, the acting is (mostly) really good, and the action, as shocking as it may be, is also shot quite nicely. However, there’s one thing I didn’t much care for, and that is the rather one-dimensional and clichéd main bad guy – who stands out even more in such an – otherwise – unique and original movie. He’s just your typical sociopathic nutjob, who cheats his way into this battle. Personally, I would have found it much more interesting to follow a regular classmate (like no. 1) who, thanks to the unspeakable horrors he witnesses as well as the imminent threat to his own life, is slowly driven into madness. Instead, said guy already arrives at the island completely off-the-rails. Also, the fact that the movie doesn’t even try to disguise his role as the main bad guy made his fights quite uninteresting, since we already knew that he’d come out on top. For me, that was the one major mistake which hurt the movie a little bit. Other than that, “Battle Royale” is a highly fascinating, very entertaining and truly disturbing movie which offers an intriguing – and shocking – reflection on society that should leave just as much of an impression as its no-holds-barred depiction of violence.
9/10


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At the Movies 2017: Life

Life
USA 2017
Written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick
Directed by Daniel Espinosa
Watched on 04.04.2017

“Life” delivered pretty much exactly what I expected. It’s a solid B-science fiction-horror-movie with a good cast and a couple of visually stunning scenes, but ultimately, it’s nothing special. Like most films of the genre, it owes a lot to “Alien” – but also seemed to be heavily influenced by “Gravity”. This is especially true for the long scene at the beginning which appears to be one continuous shot, capturing the action with a seemingly floating camera. Since I’m a sucker for scenes like that, I loved this long take, and thought that it was the highlight of the movie. Unfortunately, nothing that came afterwards lived up that promising beginning, and overall, I felt that the movie pretty much went continuously downhill with each passing minute.

“Life” doesn’t even try to hide which characters it thinks are more and which are less important. The former get far more attention, screen time, and at least a basic background that should enable audiences to feel some sort of connection with them. The latter are hardly sketched out and, thus, are the first to die a slow and painful death at the hands of “Calvin”. Granted, the first death came as a little bit of a surprise, but afterwards, if was rather predictable, and in the end, the only real question left was if one or two of them would survive, or if they’d all die. During the middle part of the movie, though, there wasn’t really a lot of tension, since you only waited for the less important characters to bite the stardust. Also, once again, there characters don’t always act in the most intelligent way, and some of them really seem to see this as some sort of application video for the Prometheus. Their final plan, even though I get that it was an act of desperation, seemed especially badly thought out. And there also is the occasional bit where either the astronauts or the monster depend on coincidence, otherwise the movie would have been over way sooner. And the ending as well as their choice of credits song had me roll my eyes.

But even though “Life” is not especially innovative or surprising, it mostly manages to entertain. This is mostly due to the nice cast, who do their best with the little to nothing that they’re given. Daniel Espinosa’s direction is also solid, even though it lacks tension, and he never again reaches the high of the aforementioned awesome one-take-scene in the beginning. The sets are nice and seem convincing, and the effects – especially the ISS – are top-notch. And the monster was nice, and didn’t seem like something that we’ve already seen a zillion times. Granted, it won’t win any prices for originality, and the predictable finale hurts it considerably. But as long as you don’t expect too much, and bring a certain affection for the genre, you should find some life in this solid, run-of-the-mill B-SF-horror-movie.
6/10


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Screener-Review: The Void

The Void
USA 2016
Written by Jeremy Gillespie & Steven Kostanski
Directed by Jeremy Gillespie & Steven Kostanski
Watched on 03.04.2017

In recent years, we saw a rise in nostalgic entertainment, mostly when it comes to the 80s. “The Void” is yet another entry on that list, and in its case, the obviousness of its sources of inspiration (to name but a few: The works of H.P. Lovecraft, the chestbuster-scene from “Alien”, and especially the movies of John Carpenter, most notably “Prince of Darkness” and “The Thing”) are as much a curse as they are a blessing. A blessing because it gives the movie a certain nostalgic charm. A curse because it constantly reminds you of other and, most of all, more original films.

Still, “The Void” has a couple of things going for it. First and foremost: The practical SFX are very nice. Yes, the design of the monsters is heavily inspired by “The Thing”, but still, advocates for practical effects will love the respective work that was put into the making of this movie. Also, visually “The Void” was quite nice. Cinematographer Samy Inayeh does a great job and gives us a couple of stunning images and beautiful shots: The vibrant colors in the basement of the hospital, the cult members (whose robes – intentionally? – reminded me of the Ku-Klux-Klan) getting illuminated by the lights on top of the police car, or the finale with the glowing triangle. The directors also manage to build up a nice atmosphere here and there, and their story takes a couple of nice twists and turns, some of which I didn’t expect. I wouldn’t exactly call it totally unpredictable, but at least, there were a couple of nice surprises along the way. However, the acting is a little bit of a mixed bag. While I was rather taken with Ellen Wong (especially in her very first scene), and Kenneth Welsh chews up the scenery quite nicely, the rest was mostly “only” decent, and Aaron Poole wasn’t quite the charismatic lead the movie would have needed. Also, some of the exposition was a little hokey. The cultists never really worked as a threat for me. The story leaves a couple of things unresolved. Some of the dialogue was a little poor. And there’s hardly any real tension. The latter might be due to the movie’s biggest weakness: The characters are extremely clichéd and not really engaging. Thus, I didn’t really care about what happened to any of them. So while I watched the film with sufficient interest, it never really managed to grip me.

Overall, I’m not exactly sure whom “The Void” is made for. Because even though it tickles that certain nostalgic nerve, fans of said era, and the works of John Carpenter in particular, will spend most of its running time thinking about other, older – and arguably better – movies. Still, if you crave for more entertainment that harkens back to the films of the 80s, this is decent and entertaining enough to fill said void.
5/10


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Viennale 2016 – Day 2: Hidden Reserves (Stille Reserven)

stille-reservenStille Reserven
Austria 2016
Written by Valentin Hitz
Directed by Valentin Hitz
Watched on 21.10.2016

While Austria isn’t quite such a desert wasteland when it comes to genre movies as Germany, we hardly ever have a try at science fiction. So when such an attempt finally surfaces, that already is a big plus, at least from my point of view as an Austrian as well as a huge fan of the genre. I also really liked how international “Stille Reserven” looked. If it weren’t for the setting in a futuristic Vienna, this might as well have come directly out of Hollywood. The acting, the look of the movie, the cinematography, the digital color grading… all of that made it look and feel very American. Mind you, I don’t mind Austrian movies that wear their local origin on their sleeve, but it’s nice to see that if we want to, we’re also capable of making a movie that visually doesn’t have to hide away from the international competition. The setting also was quite nice, and – even though I don’t claim to know every SF-story ever written, or film ever made – also seemed quite fresh and original to me. I liked this vision of a futuristic Vienna, and the first third of the movie was quite promising.

Unfortunately, the more the movie progressed, the more it fell apart for me. It already starts with the central idea of selling and buying “death insurance”. Yes, it might be a rather new and imaginative idea, but unfortunately, since I personally couldn’t care less about what will happen to and with my body once I’ve died, it didn’t really have an impact on me. Thus, the dystopian part of the movie fell a little flat for me. I could appreciate it from an academic point of view, but didn’t find it particularly abhorrent. Also, as the story progresses, it gets quite clichéd and thus predictable, and also rather boring. A couple of scenes seem superfluous, and some also went on for far too long. I also didn’t really feel any connection to the characters. And the music was a little repetitive, and even though in itself it was quite nice, many a time it didn’t really fit the images and the content all too well. Add to that the fact that the movie needed some huge coincidences here and there to progress in the way the filmmakers wanted it to, and you have a movie that, unfortunately, wastes a lot of its potential. Nevertheless, it was nice to see an original science fiction-film from Austria, and I hope that there will be more of those in the future – and also, that they will fare better than this laudable, but ultimately unsatisfying attempt.
5/10


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