Capsule Reviews: Beauty and The Beast, Kong: Skull Island

The original 1991 Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorite classic Disney movies, right up there with Aladdin and 101 Dalmatians. Perhaps not coincidentally, these three movies also feature my favorite Disney villains, as I absolutely love Gaston, Jafar, and Cruella De Ville. Disney has had huge success making live-action versions of their classic animated films (The Jungle Book raked in more than $900 million worldwide last year), and Beauty and the Beast is the latest to receive the live-action treatment.

Well they’ve got another hit on their hands, since Beauty and the Beast scored a massive $350 million opening weekend worldwide. But is it good? I am happy to say that yes, it is. The new film delivers a faithful interpretation of a beloved classic, not without a few flaws, but the overall package is good enough to render its flaws easy to overlook.

The film’s cast is tremendous. Emma Watson as Belle, Dan Stevens as the Beast, Kevin Kline as Maurice, Luke Evans as Gaston, Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts, Ewan MacGregor as Lumierre, Ian McKellen as Cogsworth. The movie’s weakest link from an acting perspective is probably Emma Watson. I feel bad saying that, since I do like her, but she feels a bit one-note in comparison to the rest of the cast, like maybe she’s not having quite enough fun with it. She’s not terrible by any means, but her version of Belle is basically Hermione in a different setting. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but is also not the movie’s best feature.

I’m not going to say much about the plot, since most people are probably familiar with it. The new movie hits the same beats, while adding a few new wrinkles along the way. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the filmmakers have found a few ways to cleverly raise the stakes that I thought worked very well. Not all of the new plot additions are as good, though. There are a few subplots that felt out of place, including a subplot about Belle’s mother that didn’t go anywhere.

But everything you loved about the original is here. There are a few little snippets from the first movie that I liked that aren’t in the new movie, but that’s okay. It’s still a very faithful adaptation, clearly made with a great deal of care and attention to detail. And there’s an undeniable thrill in seeing these beloved characters and stories on the big screen in live action. Never underestimate the power of nostalgia.

While the cast is great overall, I like to talk about villains, so let’s talk about Gaston for a second. Gaston has always been one of my favorite Disney villains, an amorous lunkhead who turns out to have a real mean streak. I think of him as being like Johnny Bravo, if Johnny Bravo had been cruel and mean instead of just stupid. Gaston is Johnny Bravo gone terribly wrong, and Luke Evans plays him perfectly. He looks like he’s having a great time, and how could it not be fun to play a character as dastardly as ol’ Gasty? And he is a nasty piece of work, too. He punches Maurice in the face and leaves him in the woods for the wolves, and later shoots the Beast in the back. What a cad! Expect to see him in my villain roundup at the end of the year, he more than earns his place.

And yes, there was something of a hullaballoo when Disney announced that the character of LeFou would be gay. But this is something I thought the movie handled well. It’s not ostentatious about it. The viewer can tell that LeFou is gay, but the movie doesn’t make a big deal out of it. It’s something there for the viewer to notice, but the filmmakers don’t rub it in the audience’s face. It also results in some very funny moments, and Josh Gad plays the character well.

Beauty and the Beast is a fun, lively retelling of a timeless classic. It’s a bit clunky at times, but it was obviously made with care and attention to detail. The visuals and production design are excellent, and I had a lot of fun seeing some of my favorite Disney characters on the big screen in live action, along with all the classic songs from the original movie. I especially loved Lumierre and Cogsworth, since they have always been two of my all-time favorite Disney supporting characters. And Lumierre got to say “Sacre bleu! Invaders!” which was a line I loved as a kid. But the movie doesn’t rely too much on nostalgia and remembers to tell a fun and meaningful story. So if you haven’t already, go see it. It’s not perfect, but it’s a worthy retelling of a timeless classic, which makes it easy to recommend.

Speaking of famous cinematic beasts, there’s a new King Kong movie that came out a few weeks ago. It’s a movie with flat characters and a paper-thin plot, but I enjoyed it anyway. It’s action-packed and the special effects are tremendous, and for all its flaws it feels like an experience. There are some amazing-looking shots in this film. Helicopters approaching a giant ape, backgrounded by a hazy yellow sunset. The reflections of explosions in the sunglasses of a madly-grinning helicopter pilot. A man in a gas mask chopping flying creatures in half with a samurai sword. These are the kinds of images that sear themselves into your memory.

Skull Island was directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, an indie director making his first foray into the world of big-budget blockbusters. While he does struggle to make the characters interesting and give the movie a consistent tone, he nails the visuals and the action sequences. The dull characters are surprising, given the excellent actors portraying them. It’s a pretty major feat to have Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly in your movie and still have most of the characters be so forgettable.

The movie wears its influences on its sleeve. You wouldn’t be far off in thinking that it’s like Apocalypse Now with a giant ape, and the parallels to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness are also pretty obvious. Hiddleston’s character is named Conrad and Reilly’s character is named Marlow, for crying out loud. I guess calling Samuel L. Jackson’s character Kurtz would have been too on-the-nose. But the movie is entertaining enough that I didn’t mind its flaws too much, and since it takes place in the same universe as Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla movie, a Godzilla vs. Kong movie is currently in development, so we’ll just have to wait and see how that turns out.

 

Logan: A Brutal and Epic Sendoff

For the longest time, I had a list of my top five favorite movies. They were Die Hard, The Dark Knight, Hot Fuzz, Casino Royale, and Gladiator. Then in 2015 Mad Max Fury Road was released, and my top five became a top six.

Well, now it might have to become a top seven.

James Mangold’s Logan is a deeply moving film, and I left the theater with tears in my eyes. I was saddened by the end of the film. Saddened by the end of a story I love, and by the fact that one of my favorite fictional characters will not be seen again onscreen the same way. But at the same time, it was a good sort of sadness, the kind of sadness that you feel when a story you love is over, but you feel that it couldn’t have ended any other way.

Logan is an aptly named film. In many ways, this is not a superhero movie. It’s not a story about Wolverine, the superhero. It’s a story about Logan, the man.

It’s also a story about the toll that all the years of fighting and world-saving can take on a person, even one with superhuman regenerating powers. This movie takes beloved and iconic characters and brings them lower than they’ve ever been before, and the results are breathtaking.

Unlike its predecessors, this is a not a family-friendly movie. Seriously, leave the kids at home for this one. The success of Deadpool last year paved the way for R-rated superhero movies, and Logan takes full advantage of the freedom provided by the R rating. This is a far more violent film than Deadpool, much more realistic and less exaggerated. There are buckets of blood and gore. Limbs and heads are severed, bodies and craniums are slashed and impaled in gruesome detail.

But the film isn’t violent just for the sake of being violent. The violence in the film comes from a place of character, and all of it has meaning. Fans have long wanted a Wolverine movie that lets him really cut loose with his claws, and this is that movie. One review I read described the movie like this: the language is blue and the violence is red. It’s a completely accurate description.

In the movie, which takes place in 2029, mutants are a dying breed. We’re told that no mutants have been born in 25 years. Logan makes a meager living as a limo driver, and hides out in a compound on the Mexican border, where he cares for an ailing Charles Xavier.

Logan and Charles have both seen better days, to say the least. Logan’s healing factor isn’t as potent as it once was, and his body has started to betray him in other ways. He wears reading glasses because his eyesight is starting to go, and when he pops his claws early in the film, one of them only comes out halfway, prompting him to look at it in bewilderment.

Charles is in arguably worse shape. He’s now in his nineties and is starting to become senile. He takes medication to suppress his seizures, and what happens when the world’s most powerful telepath has seizures? Nothing good. The first time we see Charles, he’s rambling incoherently and refusing to take his meds. He’s belligerent and uncooperative, and tells Logan how much of a disappointment he is, and accuses Logan of wishing he would just die so that he wouldn’t have to take care of him anymore. As a person with a grandparent with Alzheimer’s, all of this cut me right to the bone.

But even if you don’t know someone with a degenerative brain disease, it’s not hard to sympathize with Charles. This is a character who in his previous appearances has been the embodiment of civility and intelligence, a bastion of order in the chaos. To see him brought down so low is upsetting. It hurts.

This is a film that deals with things no other superhero or comic book movie ever has. It’s about getting old. It’s about the inevitability of death and the unstoppable current of time. It’s part western, part road-trip movie, part passing the torch to the next generation.

That next generation arrives in the form of Laura, an 11-year-old girl with the same powers as Wolverine, right down to the claws that come out from between her knuckles, who is being pursued by sinister forces. Logan reluctantly agrees to take her north to the Canadian border, to a safe haven for mutants that may or may not even exist, with the bad guys in hot pursuit. Along the way we find out more about Laura, where she came from and what she has already gone through, and the three of them, Logan, Charles, and Laura, start to become a family.

Laura is played by a young actress named Dafne Keen, making her big-screen debut. And she knocks it out of the park. Laura is silent and unexpressive for much of the movie, and when her ferocity is unleashed it’s truly frightening. The mystery of Laura’s origin is compelling and provides a strong driving force for the movie’s plot.

And it conveys so much about the personalities of Logan and Charles. Logan doesn’t want to help Laura at first. He doesn’t do that kind of thing anymore. But in the end, he can’t help it. He simply has no other choice. Charles does want to help her, perhaps feeling the same kind of motivations that led him to open his school for mutants all those years ago. Maybe he just wants some purpose to his life, some light in the darkness that the last years of his life have become.

It’s hard to tell exactly where this film fits in to the X-Men series’ cinematic continuity. The series has gone through several reboots over the years so it’s not clear what is canon and what isn’t. But that doesn’t bother me with this movie. I prefer to think of the X-Men films like I think about comics. They’re different interpretations of the same characters, and maybe they’re not meant to take place in the same universe. The point is that the fractured continuity of the X-Men film series doesn’t effect one’s enjoyment of this film. I don’t care if it takes place in the same universe or not, it’s still a superb movie.

And let’s talk for a second about Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart. The first X-Men movie came out in 2000. Jackman and Stewart have been playing Logan and Charles for nearly two decades. When we see them in such dire straits, part of the reason it’s so affecting is that we’ve never seen them this way before, and we have memories of them in better days. Seeing them brought so low would have been moving anyway, but the fact that the movie carries nearly twenty years’ worth of previous movies behind it lends it even more weight. Needless to say, both actors are magnificent in this film, in what both have said will be their final appearances as these beloved and iconic characters.

There is a lot of action in this movie, and all of it is thrilling, but not necessarily what I would call “fun.” The action is well-filmed and choreographed, and it is easy to tell what is going on. But again, this is not a fun movie in the way that, say, an Avengers movie is fun. I would equate the experience of watching it to something like watching Gladiator. Spectacular action scenes, but hard to watch because of the brutality and the sheer emotional weight. The movie is beautifully directed by James Mangold, who also co-wrote the screenplay. He also directed Logan’s previous solo movie, 2013’s The Wolverine, and has a strong understanding of what makes Logan a compelling character. He directs the film with skill and grace, and it really feels like he cares about the characters. He has created a riveting film, from its startling opening scene to its haunting final image.

The movie’s first trailer was accompanied by a Johnny Cash song, “Hurt.” The trailer was one of those rare movie trailers that turned out to perfectly encapsulate the feel of the film it was promoting. It captured the movie’s melancholy tone, while conveying the emotional strain of the pain these characters experience. The song includes the line “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel. I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real.” Logan and Charles live in a world of pain of all kinds: physical, mental, emotional. But the movie is about them realizing that there’s more to life than pain. There are things like love and family, and those things are what matter, those things are what last. It’s a lesson Logan and Charles have to learn the hard way, but it resonates throughout the film and beyond.

Jaws: When the Movie Is Better Than the Book

How many times have you heard someone say “The movie was all right, but the book was better”? It seems like an unwritten rule that the book is always better than the movie. But there is one instance where the consensus is exactly the opposite, and the movie is held in universally higher regard than the book. I am talking about Steven Spielberg’s classic 1975 film Jaws, based on the novel of the same name by Peter Benchley, about a man-eating great white shark terrorizing the summer town of Amity, New York. On vacation in Maui recently, I realized that I had never read the book nor seen the movie in its entirety, and set about to rectify the situation. After reading the book poolside and watching the movie, I concluded that the movie is better. Like, way better. A lot of people these days probably don’t realize that the movie is based on a book, and there are good reasons for that.

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Let’s start with the characters. In both versions, there are three main characters. There’s police chief Martin Brody (played by Roy Scheider in the film), ichthyologist Matt Hooper (played by Richard Dreyfuss), and the crusty sea captain known only as Quint (played by Robert Shaw). The number one reason the movie is better than the book is that in the book, these characters are jerks. Brody is the most likable of the three, but he still turns into a whiny little prat sometimes, fighting with his wife and being a complete ass at a dinner party she throws, and later trying to strangle Hooper.

Admittedly, he has a good reason for wanting to strangle Hooper, since he suspects Hooper has been sleeping with his wife (Which he has. More on this later). Hooper, in turn, is a complete bastard. He’s a selfish prick. In the book, he gets eaten by the shark, and I was glad to be rid of him. In the movie, he survives and swims back to shore with Brody after the shark has been vanquished, and it’s a great moment. He can be a bit annoying in the movie, but he’s far more likable onscreen than on the page.

Quint, meanwhile, is a foul-mouthed old sailor who uses illegal bait (dead baby dolphin fetuses he claims to have cut out of the mommy dolphin) and kills various sea creatures without mercy or hesitation, pretty much just for the fun of it. These three sound like swell guys, don’t they? In the movie they actually bond as they hunt the shark together, but in the book they spend the entire time on Quint’s boat together hating each other’s guts. You know the iconic scene in the movie where Hooper and Quint compare scars, Quint shares his tortured history, and the three of them sing drunkenly together? Yeah, that doesn’t happen in the book. They hate each other and are openly hostile the whole time.

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When reading the book, the basic rule that I discovered was that the stuff about the shark was great, and everything else kind of sucked. The book delves into the residents of Amity in more depth than the film, but none of it is very interesting. Amity is a small town of about a thousand year-round residents, with the population increasing to around ten thousand during the summer. The year-round residents depend on the summer crowds to sustain them through the rest of the year, so when the pesky shark starts dining on tourists and Sheriff Brody is forced to close the beaches, it could spell doom for the town. The book does a good job setting this up, but adds two hugely unnecessary subplots, one simply boring and the other horrendously offensive on just about every level.

We’ll start with the boring one. In the movie, the mayor of Amity, Larry Vaughan, is a slimy fellow who wears ugly suits, but his role in the movie is greatly diminished from his role in the book. In the book, he talks about getting pressure from his mysterious “partners” to keep the beaches open, and there is a lot of speculation from the other characters about who his “partners” are. Wouldn’t you know it, his partners turn out to be members of the Mafia. He owes them a lot of money and is basically trying to cover his own ass the entire time. He doesn’t care about the wellbeing of the townspeople, he wants to keep the beaches open so he won’t be ruined financially. The problem is: who cares? Vaughan’s subplot adds nothing to the story, it’s just filler. It doesn’t even get any resolution, Vaughan just disappears. Does he run away? Commit suicide? I dunno. None of this is in the movie, because it doesn’t need to be.

This brings us, unfortunately, to the really bad subplot. The stuff about the mayor’s mob ties may be boring but at least it’s not offensive. All of that is about to change. The book’s other major subplot involves Chief Brody’s wife, Ellen. Ellen came from a wealthy family, the kind of family who lives in Amity during the summer. She’s constantly thinking about her past, and even though she loves her husband, she can’t help but feel occasionally that she married below her station. All of this is iffy, but here’s where it goes off the rails. When Matt Hooper shows up to help out with the shark situation, she immediately becomes infatuated with him. She invites him out to lunch at a nice restaurant, far enough away from where she lives that she hopes no one will recognize her. You see where this is going, right?

But wait, it gets worse. Once Hooper shows up, the two of them proceed to have one of the most appallingly offensive conversations I have ever read in any book in my entire life, and I read a lot of books. She tells him about how she misses her family, and misses some of the circles she used to be a part of when she was younger. A bit odd to be sharing something so personal with someone you barely know, but all right. Then she starts telling him about what she fantasizes about. Uh-oh. She tells him she fantasizes about being raped. Aaaaand you’ve lost me. But it goes on. They proceed to have a detailed conversation about, if the two of them were to hook up, how they would do it. Which they then enact. And the entire sordid enterprise ends in a graphic sex scene between the two of them.

And if all of this sounds bad to read about, let me assure you that actually reading it in the book is much, much worse. It goes on and on and on. The entire scene takes up around 30 pages (a conservative estimate) and feels like it will never end. Not to mention that a woman telling a man she fantasizes about being raped is appalling and tone-deaf and just…unbelievable. I can’t believe Peter Benchley wrote this scene. I can’t believe his editors and publishers didn’t make him get rid of it. I can’t believe it made it into the book. Thank God the movie producers had the good sense to ditch all of that crap. Nothing of either of these two subplots is at all present in the movie, and the fact that the movie succeeds as well as it does is evidence that the subplots didn’t need to be there in the first place.

Remember when I mentioned that Brody tries to strangle Hooper? That’s because he suspects Hooper of sleeping with Ellen. But then Hooper gets eaten by the shark, and Brody paddles back to shore at the end of the novel without ever finding out the truth. Maybe I’m being too hard on Benchley about the whole Ellen/Hooper thing. Jaws was his first novel, after all, and maybe he ironed out some of these issues with his later works. But I wouldn’t know, because I haven’t read any of his other books, and after Jaws, I’m not exactly chomping at the bit to start. The bad subplots don’t completely ruin the book, but they come close. The section in the last third of the book with Brody, Quint and Hooper on Quint’s boat hunting the shark is tense and by far the novel’s strongest section, but it doesn’t resonate like the movie’s climax does.

And speaking of the ending of the movie, it’s great. Who can forget the iconic moment when Brody, desperate, alone, in the smashed remains of Quint’s boat, fires his rifle at the shark, shouting “Die, you son of a bitch!” before finally hitting the tank of compressed air lodged in Jaws’ jaws (eh?) and blasting the fearsome beast into ever so many chunks of shark meat? It’s freaking awesome, and it is not in the book. Neither is the scene, brutal even by today’s standards, where Quint is slowly consumed by the shark, screaming bloody murder while blood sprays from his mouth. In the book, Quint’s leg gets caught in the ropes attached to one of the harpoons that has been lodged in the shark, and gets pulled overboard. The shark succumbs to multiple harpoons and dies from its wounds, dragging Quint into the briny depths along with it. The shark expires, and Quint drowns. It’s anticlimactic, to say the least.

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It’s no wonder that the movie is better known and better liked than the book. It’s a near-perfect example of how to make a great movie out of less-than-stellar source material. It takes everything that’s good from the book and makes it better, while getting rid of the bad stuff. It tells the same story in a much more efficient and streamlined way. Jaws is a tale of man vs. nature and while the book sometimes loses sight of that the film never does, which is why it remains the superior version of the story.

Keanu Kraze: John Wick Chapter 2

Yeah, I’m thinking he’s back.

After racking up a phenomenal body count in 2014’s original film, Keanu Reeves is back in action as John Wick, the tormented yet unstoppable hitman. The movie was one of the best American action films of the past decade, and as soon as a sequel was announced I couldn’t have been more excited.

That sequel is finally here and it was worth the wait. In addition to being every bit as good as its predecessor, I would venture to say that John Wick Chapter 2 is one of the best action movies ever made, an instant classic that puts most modern action movies to shame.

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What makes it so great? Let’s start with the main actor: Keanu Reeves. The man is an absolute beast. Reeves trained extensively to play John Wick, in the special features of the first movie, the producers and trainers said that Keanu trained eight hours a day, five days a week, in weapons, martial arts, and stunt driving, for months. The dude is committed. When you see John Wick in action, you’re seeing the results of Keanu’s dedication, and it looks fantastic.

Much like its predecessor, John Wick Chapter 2 is a testament to good old-fashioned filmmaking ingenuity. Minimal CGI, lots of close-quarters combat, top-notch fight choreography, and daredevil stunt work, all filmed in-camera, with fluid camera movement and smooth editing, to ensure that the viewer is able to follow the fast-paced action. The first movie was directed by veteran stuntmen Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, and Stahelski goes solo for the sequel. He absolutely nails it, in many ways outdoing the excellent work he and Leitch did in the original.

And don’t worry, dog-lovers: despite the tragic fate of the adorable puppy from the first movie, no cute doggies are harmed in the sequel. Yes, John has the same dog he got at the conclusion of the first movie, but by the end of the second movie the sweet pooch is alive and well, and quite possibly the only friend John has in the world. The movie’s ending sets the stage for an epic continuation of the series, and Stahelski has stated that a third film is in the works. I can’t wait.

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But if his dog is alive and well, then what brings John back into the fold this time? It turns out that John owes a blood debt to a former associate, a slick fellow by the name of Santino D’Antonio. Santino gives John a seemingly impossible task, after which he will consider the debt paid. John is reluctant to comply with Santino’s request, but after some persuasion (Santino blows up his house), he accepts. Fulfilling Santino’s mission will have far-reaching consequences, something John is fully aware of. But he goes through with it, and when Santino inevitably stabs him in the back, every hitman in the country ends up gunning for him.

One of the most intriguing things about the story of the first movie was the glimpse into the assassin underworld which John was so desperate to escape from. There was the Continental Hotel, which catered to assassins, and the gold coins which served as currency. Chapter 2 shows us that this underworld is much more far-reaching than what we saw in the original film, and feels like a logical extension of the first film’s mythology.

John Wick 2 is also surprisingly funny. There’s a rich vein of twisted humor that runs throughout the film, and I loved it. The Continental Hotel has strict rules, foremost among them that no business will be conducted on company grounds. So when John and a henchman, locked in an epic battle that has already taken them down several seemingly endless flights of stairs, end up crashing through a window into the lobby of the hotel, they are scolded by the manager and told to go have a few drinks at the bar together to calm themselves down. The sommelier at the hotel specializes in high-end weaponry, and talks about guns in the way wine connoisseurs would talk about fine wine. And the movie’s biggest laugh comes when the manager of the Italian branch of the Continental (played by Franco Nero, who reminds me a lot of The Most Interesting Man in the World from those Dos Equis commercials) asks John if he’s there for the Pope.

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There’s also a badass and somewhat hilarious sequence where John fights countless assassins through the streets and subways of New York and it seems like the poor guy can’t go more than a few feet without somebody trying to whack him. He even gets to take out a couple of guys with a pencil. There’s a slyly funny bit during this sequence where John and an assassin exchange silenced gunfire while bystanders remain oblivious. John Wick is a human wrecking ball who kills his way through two movies, and if the ending of the second movie is any indication, John will have a lot more killing to do before his story is over.

But as unstoppable as John is, he’s not invulnerable. He gets shot, stabbed and hit by cars multiple times, and spends a substantial portion of both films limping and stumbling in pain. But the fact that he gets hurt only makes him even more badass, since he picks himself up and keeps on bringing the pain. The other extraordinary thing about these movies is that, as heightened as its world and its characters are, there’s nothing in either film that is completely impossible for an actual human being to accomplish.

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Another thing I love about both of these movies is the visuals. For the sequel, director Chad Stahelski has found all sorts of creative locations to stage epic gun battles. From a hazily lit tunnel in Rome to a subway in which the walls and ceilings are bright white (allowing for vivid red bursts of blood) and a stunning finale in an art exhibition full of mirrors and neon lights, the action scenes are some of the best ever put on screen. Both films are destined to become legendary for action fans.

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John Wick 2 is a beautiful, brutal movie, one which is not for the faint of heart. The violence is lightning-quick and relentless, leaving its protagonist and its audience no time to breathe. There are some truly brutal kills here (such as John’s aforementioned pencil trick) which are all filmed unflinchingly.

And throughout the mayhem, there is Keanu Fricking Reeves, who moves with such balletic grace that it gives the violent action a genuine sense of beauty. But aside from Reeves’ stunning physical performance, he’s playing a character with a surprising amount of depth. John Wick is a man without a place in the world. His wife offered him an escape from his violent life, and with her death, his life quickly spirals into chaos. At the end of the sequel, he is more alone than ever. Keanu doesn’t have a great deal of dialogue in either movie, but his physicality and the way he reacts to the world around him speak volumes about the kind of life he has lived.

I saw this movie in a theater that was at least three-quarters full, which just warmed my heart. It showed that not only did the first movie have a lot of fans, but that there is still an audience for hardcore R-rated action films. Movie studios seem to be realizing that people will still see R-rated action movies, if the success of Deadpool last year and the R rating of the upcoming third Wolverine movie are any indication. This makes me quite happy, since it shows that there is still a place in the world for the violent action movies I love.

I had a blast with John Wick 2. It was everything an action sequel should be. I really hope it doesn’t take three years for John Wick 3 to come out, because I don’t know if I can wait that long.

Rogue One, Suicide Squad, and The Myth of The Extended Cut

Rogue One was an action-packed blast that I enjoyed immensely, but according to the movie’s editors and at least one of the main actors, it could have been a lot different. Will there ever be an extended cut of Rogue One? Colin Goudie, one of the film’s editors, suggests that there won’t be. Goudie says that the first cut of the film ran maybe ten minutes longer and that “There’s no mythical four-hour cut, it doesn’t exist.” Actor Ben Mendelsohn, meanwhile, has stated that there were multiple different versions of many scenes, saying, “We did have multiple, multiple ways of going at any given scenario, we had multiple readings of it.” Even Gareth Edwards, the film’s director, has said that the film’s ending is different from what it had been originally.

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All of this got me thinking. It seems like every other movie these days comes out on Blu-Ray slapped with a gaudy label proclaiming it to be the “Unrated Extended Cut” or the “Ultimate Edition” or some other superlative. And after watching quite a few of these extended versions of movies, I have come to the conclusion that the theatrical version is almost always better.

Take, for example, the puzzling cases of Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Both of Warner Brothers’ 2016 DC Comics tentpole movies arrived in theaters last year with a great deal of fanfare, and both were met with mixed receptions, to put it mildly. When the films were later released on Blu-Ray, they were both touted as being the Ultimate Extended Unrated Cut. But I watched both of these so-called unrated extended versions of both movies, and in neither case did the extra footage add anything of substance.

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The theatrical cut of Batman v Superman already carried a hefty two-and-a-half-hour running time, and the longer version adds 30 more minutes of footage, bringing the running time to a whopping three hours and two minutes. But almost none of that footage makes the movie better. It adds a few extraneous subplots, makes the violence slightly more bloody, and includes one f-word. Big freaking deal. It slows down the pace of a movie that already had serious pacing issues, and it doesn’t improve the movie.

It’s even more egregious with Suicide Squad. The extended cut of Suicide Squad is a mere 11 minutes longer than the theatrical version, and the changes were so inconsequential I didn’t even notice what the changes were when I watched it. I had to go to a website that does analysis of different versions of films to even be able to figure out what had been added.

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This is especially galling when you consider that Suicide Squad is also a film that went through extensive reshoots. Many of the scenes depicting the abusive relationship between the Joker and Harley Quinn were considered too extreme by Warner Brothers and left on the cutting room floor. You’d think that some of this would be present on the Blu-ray release, but tough luck. The 11 minutes added to the film are just filler, and none of the potentially interesting stuff is anywhere to be found.

More often than not, extended unrated versions of movies are just a marketing ploy. Exhibit A: Death Race 2 and Death Race 3, two direct-to-video sequels (technically prequels but whatever) to the 2008 Jason Statham flick. Death Race 2 and 3 were both promoted as being “Unrated”, which is bullshit for a variety of reasons.

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First, neither movie was released theatrically, so there is absolutely no demand for an unrated version of a movie that almost nobody would have seen in the first place. Second, the differences between the R-rated and Unrated versions of both movies are minimal, to say the least. I know this because I watched them. Are they bad? Yes. Do I like them? Yes. The main difference between the two versions is that the unrated versions include shower scenes for the attractive female leads, while the R-rated versions do not. Both movies do this. Does this mean that the unrated versions are better? Obviously yes, but that’s not the point. The point is that there is no reason for these scenes to have been deleted in the firt place, and adding them back in simply means that the makers of these films can slap UNRATED on the DVD covers.

But who cares about direct-to-video action movies that not many people see, you might ask? All right, try this on for size. Recently I watched the extended cut of Sam Raimi’s 2004 superhero classic Spider-Man 2 with my family, and the reaction was unanimous: the theatrical version was way, way better. The extended version still captures the soul of the movie, but it changes certain scenes and adds more to other scenes that makes them go on for far too long.

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The extraordinary thing in all of this is that films are edited in such a way that watching the original version, you’d never guess that anything had been cut in the first place. Footage that gets cut from movies gets cut for a reason, and the movie is almost always better off without it. Even with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it’s fun to see the added footage in the extended versions, but since the footage that was cut doesn’t contribute to the story in a meaningful way, it’s understandable why it was left out.

There are exceptions, of course. Sometimes certain scenes are cut because the studio thought the movie ran too long otherwise. The extended versions of James Cameron’s classics Aliens and Terminator 2 are quite good, because the added scenes expand on the story and add more depth to the characters. But in most unrated/extended editions, this is simply not the case.

I’m not a luddite who thinks that extended cuts of movies should not exist. It can be fun to see the stuff the filmmakers didn’t include. What I’m saying is that if you take the time to watch both versions, most of the time you will realize one of two things. First, you’ll realize that the differences between the two versions are sometimes so minimal that you’ll wonder why they even bothered. The recent Fast and Furious movies are also good examples of this. The differences in runtime between the rated and unrated versions of those movies is maybe two minutes per movie. And those movies make so much money that there’s no need to splash UNRATED on the DVD cover in order to sell more copies, people will buy them regardless.

And second, you’ll realize that the theatrical version of the movie, the version put in theaters for millions of people to see, is almost always better.

Just in case anyone was wondering, here are some of the sources I used, just to show that I didn’t make stuff up.

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/rogue-one-reshoots-star-wars-spin-off-editor-suicide-squad-john-gilroy-cgi-tarkin-trailer-a-new-hope-a7519996.html

http://www.slashfilm.com/suicide-squad-deleted-scenes/

http://wegotthiscovered.com/movies/rogue-one-editors-say-theres-no-extended-cut-reveal-scenes-reshoots/

http://www.thewrap.com/ben-mendelsohn-rogue-one-different/

2016: The Year in Villainy

So much quality villainy this year! Let’s get to it.

Ajax and Angel Dust in Deadpool

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Revenge is always a strong motivator, and few movie characters were as single-minded in their pursuit of it this year as Wade Wilson, aka Deadpool. Ajax (whose real name is Francis, what a dweeb) and Angel Dust both possess superhuman strength and Ajax feels no pain, which makes both villains quite the handful. They’re a potent villain/villainess duo who prove that being evil isn’t just for men anymore. Angel Dust deserves the Henchwoman of the Year award and I’m not just saying that because Gina Carano is a total badass and could easily kick my butt. Not saying that I wouldn’t be okay with that, mind you. Seriously Gina, call me.

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Akan in Hardcore Henry

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You know how I said a second ago that few movie characters were as single-minded in their pursuit of revenge as Deadpool? Well, Henry the cyborg is right up there with him. Vengeance is literally the only thing that this mute tornado of death and destruction desires, and he will stop at nothing in his ultraviolent quest to reach the despicable Akan. Akan is a telepathic douchebag in charge of an army of henchmen, and in addition to his air of jackassery he has also captured Henry’s wife, and is awfully smug about it. Jeez, this guy is such a tool. Or should I say was such a tool, since he’s on the receiving end of one of the most hilariously brutal and over-the-top villain deaths of the year. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, though. Jerk.

Lex Luthor and Doomsday in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Zemo in Captain America: Civil War

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The villain is usually the character the heroes spend the most time fighting, but in the case of the year’s two biggest superhero team-ups, that’s not quite the case. In both films, the heroes spend the majority of their time fighting each other because there’s a villainous figure secretly manipulating them. I wasn’t a huge fan of Jesse Eisenberg’s bizarre portrayal of Lex Luthor, but I did like Zemo, who was a more understandable character. Any time a villain can get the heroes to do the work for him, that counts as a win in the Big Book O’ Villainy, and for that, Zemo and Lex deserve some evil kudos.

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I was not overly fond of Doomsday, an ugly CGI beast who menaces Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. But I can give him credit for being strong enough to require three heroes to defeat him, and his resilience earns him (it?) a mention on this list. And when you’re tough enough to (spoiler alert) KILL THE MAN OF STEEL, then you kind of have to be a badass.

Apocalypse in X-Men: Apocalypse

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Apocalypse is an ancient mutant, thousands of years old, who awakens in Cairo, Egypt in the 1980s and is not pleased with the way the world has developed during his several-thousand-years-long slumber. He promptly recruits some followers (because Apocalypse has to have his Horsemen, naturally), gaining their loyalty by enhancing their mutant powers and giving them a sense of belonging, while the rest of the world has cast them out. He then initiates a diabolical plot to destroy modern society and reshape the world the way he wants it to be. The previous X-film, Days of Future Past, was less black and white with its villains, but suffice to say the X-folks have their work cut out for them with Apocalypse.

The Alien Queen in Independence Day: Resurgence

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Resurgence was a mediocre film, but the Alien Queen was cool. Basically a roided-up version of the Independence Day aliens we’ve seen before, but massive and equipped with her own personal shield generator, which throws the film’s heroes for a loop. It takes a lot to bring her down, and she and her legions of alien henchmen (henchaliens?) cause untold mass destruction and millions of human casualties before she is defeated. The movie’s blatant sequel-bait ending strongly implies there are more of her kind in the universe, so we might be seeing more like her before too long, assuming the less-than-stellar reception Resurgence received didn’t put the kibosh on future installments.

Enchantress and the Joker in Suicide Squad

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Ironically, the movie that was all about the villains is probably the hardest movie to write about when it comes to said villains. The primary antagonist of the film’s ragtag bunch of miscreants was the Enchantress, basically an evil spirit possessing the body of a young doctor. She caused all kinds of trouble, although she was still pretty forgettable. Slightly more memorable was Jared Leto’s punk-rock Joker, who suffered from a similar lack of characterization but benefits from the weight of 75 years of comic-book history. He was relegated to the sidelines for most of the movie, but every time he showed up you knew some shit was about to go down, which is as it should be with the Joker.

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Kaecilius in Doctor Strange

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Mads Mikkelsen is one of my favorite actors, especially when he’s evil. The Danish actor brings the evil to Marvel’s latest franchise-starter, providing a compelling dark sorcerer to battle the Sorcerer Supreme played by Benedict Cumberbatch. The final showdown between the two is a sight to behold, as the opposing masters of magic square off against the backdrop of time moving backwards, and a destroyed city repairs itself. The only problem with Mikkelsen playing so many villains is that he tends to get killed off a lot, which means he won’t appear in the sequels. Oh, well. Beggars can’t be choosers.

Shere Khan in The Jungle Book

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It was a good year for Idris Elba playing villains. He provided the voice for Shere Khan, the evil tiger in Disney’s smash-hit live-action adaptation of The Jungle Book. Although it was more of an animated film since the entire movie was shot in front of green screens with only one live-action actor, but that’s beside the point. Despite being a special effect, Elba’s Shere Khan was sleek and scary, and may even have been a bit too scary for very young members of the audience. But scariness is one of the hallmarks of a great villain, and Shere Khan fits that description nicely.

The Shark in The Shallows

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It was also a good year for evil animals in the movies. A bloodthirsty Great White shark spends 86 minutes relentlessly trying to dine on the nubile flesh of Blake Lively in The Shallows. The film is a remarkably effective thriller, and although I have no idea if the movie’s portrayal of shark behavior is scientifically accurate, I don’t much care when it makes for such a watchable movie. The Shallows is similar to Alfonso Cuaron’s 2013 masterpiece Gravity in structure. It’s short, technically masterful, and mostly concerned with the trials and tribulations of a single female character. It’s an intense piece of work, and the toothy shark will be enough to make you afraid to go in the water all over again.

Krall in Star Trek Beyond

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Hey, it’s Idris Elba again! This time he’s playing Krall, a menacing alien creature who manages to completely trash the beloved starship Enterprise. He causes all kinds of trouble for Captain Kirk and his intrepid crew. Elba is mostly unrecognizable buried under layers of makeup and prosthetics, and his voice is sometimes hard to understand. Krall is basically an intergalactic version of Batman’s enemy Bane, and although Krall’s motivations turn out to not be anything unique (his motivations are quite similar to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness), but he remains a fun and intriguing villain.

John Boy in The Nice Guys

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You mean like John Boy from The Waltons? No, not like John Boy from The Waltons. Shane Black’s third directorial feature may have been a comedy, but John Boy was a brutal mob assassin who took no prisoners. He gunned people down with no remorse and even tossed a thirteen-year-old girl through a window, so you knew he meant business. The Nice Guys is a fantastic movie that is chock-full of memorable characters, even though not all of them are as likable as the hapless heroes played by Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling.

The Asset in Jason Bourne

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Every Bourne movie features at least one CIA asset sent to dispatch Jason Bourne, but the Asset in Bourne’s latest adventure, played by French actor Vincent Cassel, is particularly troublesome. It turns out that this asset has a personal grudge against Bourne, and his and Bourne’s histories are inextricably intertwined. This leads to an absolutely brutal showdown in Las Vegas, featuring quite possibly the most brutal hand-to-hand fight scene in a series known for brutal hand-to-hand fight scenes. Jason Bourne was a movie with a lot of flaws, but it delivered on the action sequences.

Bartholomew Bogue in The Magnificent Seven

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With a name like Bartholomew Bogue, you’re pretty much destined to be evil. Peter Sarsgaard plays the thoroughly ruthless and despicable industrialist who holds the town of Rose Creek hostage. This guy is one Grade-A son of a bitch, a character the viewer despises from the moment he sets foot onscreen. It’s an effective performance from Sarsgaard as an absolute bastard, and as is the case with many absolute bastards, he turns out to be a coward once his power is taken away from him. One of the most detestable villains of the year.

Orson Krennic in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) Ph: Jonathan Olley �Lucasfilm LFL 2016.

Rogue One was an action-packed thrill ride that I enjoyed the heck out of, but the main villain, played by Ben Mendelsohn, was a bit boring. There’s nothing really wrong with Mendelsohn’s performance, but his character is basically a bureaucrat and isn’t terribly interesting. Fortunately, another evil presence is waiting in the wings, and its name is…

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DARTH FREAKING VADER!! Holy crap, it was good to see Darth Vader on screen again. He doesn’t get a lot of screen time but he makes the most of his limited appearance in Rogue One, and gets the chance to kick some rebel ass in the process. It just makes me so happy that one of the most iconic villains in cinematic history is once again on movie screens, even if it is just briefly. The fact that he’s voiced by James Earl Jones is icing on the cake.

So there you have it, the best of the best of cinematic villainy. There’s another good slate of movies scheduled for release in 2017, so I’ll see you all again for another roundup before you know it.

The Impossibilities Are Endless With Doctor Strange

First Guardians of the Galaxy, then Ant-Man, and now Doctor Strange. Marvel has a knack for taking semi-obscure comic book characters and turning them into hit movies. Everyone knows Iron Man now, but back in 2008 Iron Man was nowhere near as well-known as he is now, and a big-budget movie about him was not necessarily a sure thing. Fortunately, that movie was awesome and was a big hit, and now, eight years and roughly a dozen movies later, here we are with Doctor Strange.

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I was never a big fan of the character, he showed up periodically in some Spider-Man comics I read as a kid and while I never hated the guy, I always thought he was just a bit dopey, always shouting silly things like “By the mystical Eye of Agamotto!” that sounds like it came from a 50’s sci-fi movie. But getting Benedict Cumberbatch to play the character was yet another brilliant bit of casting by Marvel, and went a long way towards dispelling some of the doubts I had about whether Doctor Strange would be a good subject for a movie.

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 Well, chalk up another one for Marvel, because Doctor Strange is a heck of a lot of fun. Cumberbatch plays Doctor Stephen Strange (whose insistence on being called “Doctor” reminded me of Jack Sparrow’s insistence on being called “Captain”), a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon. He’s similar to Tony Stark at first: talented, brilliant, wealthy, but a conceited prick.

After a brutal car crash, Strange is left with severe nerve damage in his hands. He is left unable to perform neurosurgery, since his hands are always shaking. Desperate, he tries different experimental medical procedures, but to no avail. After Western medicine fails him, he turns to the East, where he encounters the Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinton, and begins to learn the art of magic. A bit Harry Potter-ish, in a way.

Right off the bat, this is an incredible-looking movie. From the very first scene, a building-bending sorcerer battle, it’s apparent that the special effects in this film are unlike any other movie. This movie has some of the best special effects work I’ve ever seen, and is an absolute visual feast. Remember the scene in Inception where the city folds in on itself? There are scenes in Doctor Strange that are like that, but on steroids. Kaleidoscopic, trippy action sequences are the order of the day, and every one is a treat to watch.

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Needless to say, Cumberbatch is terrific in the title role. It’s off-putting at first to hear him speaking with a flat American accent, but you get used to it before too long. He nails the accent, as Brits often do when speaking with American accents (I find that British actors are far better at American accents than Americans are at British accents) and he looks great when fitted out with the full Doctor Strange costume, including the aforementioned Eye of Agamotto and the Cloak of Levitation, which has something of a mind of its own.

It’s nice to see an Eastern-influenced superhero. Doctor Strange feels like its own movie instead of a retread of previous Marvel movies. Admittedly, the story is nothing special, but the film’s visuals and performances elevate it above other run-of-the-mill blockbusters. The movie was directed by Scott Derrickson, a director known mostly for horror films such as Sinister, Deliver Us From Evil and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. This is a different kind of movie for him, and he handles it very well.

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The movie drew some accusations of whitewashing for casting Tilda Swinton, a white woman, in the role of the Ancient One, who in the comics was an Asian man. Not being very familiar with the comic book lore of Doctor Strange, this bit of casting did not bother me. Swinton is such a chameleonic actress that I’m pretty sure she could be in a movie where she plays every single character and no one would even notice, much less care.

There is a villain, of course. The wonderfully-named Kaecilius is played by Mads Mikkelsen, who also played Le Chiffre, one of my favorite Bond villains. Mikkelsen is incredibly menacing, and makes a compelling dark sorcerer. His origin story is fairly bland (he was a student of the Ancient One who was corrupted by dark magic) but Mikkelsen is very watchable. I’m a big fan of his, he’s always one of my favorite things about any movie I see him in (Clash of the Titans, for example. The only two things anyone remembers from that movie are RELEASE THE KRAKEN and Mads Mikkelsen being awesome).

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There’s a love interest, played by Rachel McAdams, and fellow sorcerers played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong, both of whom co-starred in The Martian last year. I like these actors and I liked their characters, but they still felt underused, especially McAdams, who doesn’t get to do much.

Doctor Strange is not a perfect movie. It’s not one of the top-tier Marvel movies. The plot is a bit rudimentary and some of the characters are underused. But it is still a lot of fun, with appealing characters and eye-popping visuals, and I am excited to see what the future has in store for Doctor Stephen Strange. Give Marvel a lot of credit for taking lesser-known characters and making fun, engaging movies out of them. I have yet to dislike any of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, and I can’t wait for next year’s entries, which will include Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and Thor Ragnarok.

And as always with Marvel movies, make sure you stay all the way until the end. That includes the end credits. You won’t regret it.