Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – Ghost Pirates and Zombie Sharks

Disney captured lightning in a bottle in 2003 with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. The movie defied all expectations for a movie based on a theme park ride and was a hit with critics and audiences alike. It made a ton of money and even earned Johnny Depp an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Now, fourteen years later, we are on the fifth installment of the franchise that started out so well but quickly succumbed to blockbuster bloat.

I don’t think the Pirates sequels are as bad as their reputation suggests. They’re deeply flawed and none of them quite managed to recapture the magic of the first movie, but there are things I like about them. My least favorite is the fourth film, On Stranger Tides, which suffered from lackadaisical pacing, an inconsequential plot, and what I felt was a lack of exciting action. Fortunately, the new movie, Dead Men Tell No Tales, is livelier than its immediate predecessor, although unsurprisingly it still has its share of flaws. It does have the good sense to be shorter than the previous films, and at just over two hours it is the shortest film in the entire series, so at least it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Let’s talk about Johnny Depp for a second. His portrayal of Jack Sparrow in the first movie was instantly iconic, and for all the issues the subsequent films had, Depp’s performance was not one of them. But in this movie, it feels less like Depp playing Jack Sparrow than Depp playing a guy playing Jack Sparrow. He’s become a caricature of himself. Remember Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder saying “I’m a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude”? It’s kind of like that. Depp had a way of purring his lines in the earlier films, and made the viewer think that he was always thinking several steps ahead, despite also appearing constantly inebriated. But in the latest film, he squeaks every line and is mostly a cartoonish buffoon. It’s hard to take him seriously as a protagonist anymore.

But on the plus side, I loved the villains in this movie. Javier Bardem, always an excellent choice to play a villain, plays Capitan Salazar, the spectral captain of a ship full of ghost pirates. The ghost pirates are extremely cool, and some of them are even missing body parts. These ghostly villains were the highlight of the movie for me, and Bardem in particular is fantastic. It’s not too surprising that Bardem steals the movie, since he neatly ran away with Skyfall and No Country For Old Men as well. Capitan Salazar is incredibly menacing, and his hair and parts of his costume appear to float around him, as if he were constantly underwater. He has history with Captain Jack and a deep hatred of all pirates, and doesn’t hesitate to kill whoever and whenever he wants. He and his crew can walk on water and unleash ZOMBIE SHARKS, which is a new one for this franchise.

The rest of the plot revolves around a quest for the Trident of Poseidon, and if you rolled your eyes at that, I don’t blame you. In addition to Captain Jack and the Ghost Pirates (which would be a good name for a rock band), there are a few new characters in the mix. One is a young man named Henry, played by Brenton Thwaites, and saying his character’s last name would give away a major plot point, but he’s got his own reasons for wanting to find the Trident, which has the power to end all sea-related curses and gives its wielder power over the sea itself. There’s also a young woman named Carina Smyth, played by Kaya Scodelario, a woman of science whom everyone thinks is a witch because she’s so smart.

The new characters are a bit bland, the actors’ performances are fine but there’s nothing really special about them. But it’s always fun to see Geoffrey Rush as Hector Barbossa, the once-undead, once-actually-dead, once-evil, now-good former captain of the Black Pearl. Times have been good for Barbossa, he commands a fleet of ships and his flagship is adorned with golden skulls. His long, curly hair makes him look quite a bit like the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz, but Rush looks like he’s having the most fun out of anyone in the movie.

There is no shortage of creative action in the movie, which made me happy since the previous film, On Stranger Tides, didn’t have as much action as I would have liked, and what action it did have was played mostly for laughs. This movie is more engaging and moves more smoothly than the third and fourth movies, despite Depp’s bizarre performance and the somewhat cliched plot. It also fixes one of the biggest issues I had with the resolution of the third movie, At World’s End, although to say more would spoil it. But I am glad that the filmmakers resolved this plot point, since it always bothered me.

Dead Men Tell No Tales has its share of issues, but there’s fun to be had, and Captain Jack still has some tipsy adventures left in him. There’s a post-credits stinger that teases the possible return of a villain from the previous movies, so if this one makes enough money maybe we’ll be seeing him again, even though that wouldn’t make any sense from a plot standpoint. But it wouldn’t be the first time the series has brought previously-dead villains back to life, so who knows. In the meantime, I like to think the zombie sharks are still out there…

Le Cinema de WTF: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Guy Ritchie is his own worst enemy. He’s not a terrible director, he knows how to film an adrenaline-pumping action scene. But his movies are so overwhelmingly stylized that any artistic merits his films have are mostly drowned out by all the weird stuff he piles on top, and his latest film, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, is no exception.

On the one hand, you almost have to admire the guy (so to speak). Ritchie clearly has a way of making movies that he likes, and he sticks to his guns. But the fatal flaw with this approach is its hubris: Ritchie doesn’t seem to realize that just because he thinks something is cool, doesn’t mean everyone who watches his movies will think so too. Never is this more apparent than with his take on the King Arthur myth, which is hands-down the most aggressively bizarre cinematic experience I’ve had all year. Heck, maybe ever.

Here are just a few of the weird and/or crazy things in this movie. Giant animals (bats, rats, snakes, elephants, wolves, eagles). Demonic hell knights. Tentacle…witches, I guess? People with cockney gangster names like Goose Fat Bill and Flat Nose Mike. Slow-mo swordfights. Hyperactive, spastic editing. A completely bonkers plot. Nary a shred of plot cohesion or character development. In short, it’s a mess, a $175 million wannabe blockbuster that is the first major flop of the year, earning a paltry $15 million domestically in its opening weekend.

So what’s the plot, such as it is? Well, the movie opens with a battle scene featuring the aforementioned giant elephants, which are more akin to the huge elephant creatures in The Lord of the Rings than actual elephants. Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon defeats the elephants and the army accompanying them by killing their leader, a mage named Mordred, with the mystical powers of the sword Excalibur. And if you read that and thought to yourself, “Wait a minute, Mordred wasn’t a mage, he was the product of Arthur’s incestuous relationship with his half-sister,” then you would be right. This is the first sign that Ritchie’s version of King Arthur will have little to no resemblance to previous versions of the story.

Following this, Uther’s devious brother Vortigern stages a coup, and Uther and his wife are killed by a demonic-looking knight with a skull face, flaming cape, and double-bladed scythe. This guy looks like something from the cover of a heavy metal album, or maybe a Dark Souls boss. During his father’s battle with the Dark Souls boss, young Arthur gets in a boat which floats away, Moses-like, down the river where he eventually is found and taken in by prostitutes. There follows a rapid-fire montage of Arthur growing up rough in the streets of “Londinium” (was there ever such a place?), being raised by prostitutes, learning to fight and getting punched in the face a lot. As one might imagine, being raised in a brothel and getting face-punched a lot turns Arthur into a tough, scrappy adult. He is eventually forced to flee Londinium, ends up drawing Excalibur from the stone, and joins the resistance against the evil king Vortigern.

This is definitely a fantasy movie, and is not intended to be historically accurate. That much is apparent from the very first scene, and I’m fine with that. The movie doesn’t pretend to be “Based on a True Story” or anything like that, which is good because if it did claim to be based on a true story that would obviously be nonsense. I’m still annoyed that the 2003 King Arthur movie had the audacity to claim it was “The Untold True Story Behind the Legend” when it was nothing of the kind.

And I’m fine with this being a fantasy movie, because King Arthur stories have many elements of magic and mysticism. The problem with the fantasy elements in Ritchie’s film is that they make no sense. For example, Vortigern has this weird cavern under his tower. When we first see the cavern, a mass of tentacles emerges from the water, which unravel to reveal three women. Two of them are kinda hot, the third is massively fat. What the hell are these things? I guess they’re witches of some kind? The movie never explains what these things are, and they end up feeling arbitrary.

This is a movie where things just kind of…happen. There’s no real sense of conflict, and the supporting characters, despite being played by capable actors, are underdeveloped. Jude Law makes for a fun bad guy as Vortigern, and Charlie Hunnam is a charismatic Arthur. But despite having two good lead actors, the movie never really sells the rivalry between them. It also doesn’t help that Vortigern has to be at least 20 years older than Arthur, but Law doesn’t look much older than Hunnam at all. This could be because Hunnam is 37 and Law is 44. But aside from this discrepancy, the movie never gives a reason to care about the story. I like Hunnam as an actor and I liked his portrayal of Arthur, but I wasn’t invested in the story.

The movie also has editing issues. You’ve probably seen movies where people talk about doing something, then the movie cuts to the people doing the thing they’re talking about, then it cuts to them talking, then doing, and so on. This can be an effective technique when used properly. Think of a heist film, where we see the heist being planned out and executed step-by-step. This is good because it helps the viewer understand what’s going on, but Ritchie uses this editing technique when there’s really no need to, and as a result parts of the film are unnecessarily choppy.

I don’t hate this movie. It’s a mess, but it’s an enjoyable one, and it’s so full of crazy that it’s never boring. The acting is solid, the photography and special effects are good, and there are some fun action sequences. But ultimately it’s baffling. I would put this movie right up there with The Lone Ranger and Suicide Squad as one of the most bizarre blockbusters I’ve ever seen. But at least it’s more playful than other dour swords-and-sandals epics, such as Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood or Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur. Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur is a work of vision, even if it just so happens to be a completely demented vision.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: Never Break the Chain

Thank God for James Gunn. In an era of grim and gritty superhero movies, here is a guy who looks at that and says, “let’s have some fun.” Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Gunn’s sequel to his original Guardians of the Galaxy which was a hit in the summer of 2014, is finally here, and I am pleased to report that it is every bit as joyously fun as its predecessor.

I won’t say too much about the plot, since I generally try to avoid spoilers for brand-new films. But I will say that the story involves the mysterious parentage of Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord. I loved the film’s plot, it provided closure to lingering questions and did a great job of incorporating all the characters and making them feel necessary and vital. There are quite a few characters in the movie, and movies with such an abundance of characters sometimes struggle to make all of them feel important. Not the case with this movie, which manages to take Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, Baby Groot, Nebula, and Yondu and make them all vital parts of the story, while also adding a few new characters. This is not an easy feat, but Gunn’s clever screenplay makes it look easy.

All of the things audiences loved about the original are here: the memorable characters, the eye-popping visuals, the humor, and the rockin’ soundtrack. The music is a vital part of the Guardians movies. Where else will you find epic spaceship battles accompanied by 70’s pop hits? Gunn’s movies are unlike other Marvel Cinematic Universe movies in the best possible way. They’re playful and irreverent, while still delivering the thrilling action and emotional beats that make the best Marvel movies so enjoyable.

But let’s return to the soundtrack for a moment. I love the way Gunn incorporates the music into these films, and I think I liked the soundtrack in this movie even more than the first one. Every song fits perfectly, and many of them carry thematic significance, such as the Fleetwood Mac song that gives this post its subtitle. Gunn clearly put a lot of thought into which songs to use, and where in the film to use them, and he even manages to make a few of them part of the plot. By contrast, Suicide Squad is a recent example of a movie that tried to emulate Gunn’s excellent use of music, but didn’t do it nearly as well.

I would say that the movie is not quite as good overall as its predecessor, but just barely. The new film is a bit more cluttered and is slightly overstuffed. But this is a minor complaint, as it is still a heck of a lot of fun. It’s also a gorgeous movie to look at, and there is a wide variety of planets and environments that our misfit heroes’ adventures take them to, as well as many kinds of alien races and creative vehicles and weaponry, so there is no shortage of eye candy.

The cast has great chemistry, and Dave Bautista as Drax deserves a special shout-out. Who knew that a former pro wrestler could be so damn funny? Drax gets some of the biggest laughs of the movie, and this is a movie with a lot of laughs. Gunn’s Guardians films are easily the funniest Marvel movies, and the humor never feels forced. It doesn’t feel like there are jokes just for the sake of comic relief, the humor is a natural part of the story and the characters. This is also one of the more trippy Marvel movies, only Doctor Strange can come close to it in terms of psychedelic visuals, particularly during the lengthy final battle.

And oh, how I love Baby Groot. I need to go on Amazon and see if there is like, a plush Baby Groot or something that I can get, because that would make me so happy. Not only is Baby Groot adorable, but he also gets to help save the galaxy, so he’s not there just for the sake of being cute and/or funny, although he is definitely both of those things. When he gets caged by space pirates and they’re being mean to him, I spent the whole scene thinking “LEAVE BABY GROOT ALONE!!” One of my favorite lines comes when one space pirate asks the space pirate leader “Can I squish it with a rock?” and the leader replies, “No, Jeff, it is too adorable to kill!” (Some of my other favorite lines include “Die, spaceship!” and “You suck, Zylar.”) And of course there is Groot’s immortal catchphrase, “I am Groot,” which can mean anything at all. The film’s characters are all great but Baby Groot is my favorite.

And let us not forget that this is a movie with a lot of heart. We learn more about the characters and their relationships and backgrounds, and everything we learn feels meaningful, and is often quite touching. Gunn is able to deftly balance the emotional beats with the humor and the big action scenes, and somehow the tone of the film still feels consistent. There’s so much going on in any given scene that in a lesser director’s hand it could all fall apart, but once again Gunn makes it look easy. Gunn is such a surehanded director that it’s hard to believe this is only his fourth directorial feature. I hope the success of Guardians will lead to him getting more directorial gigs in the future, in case you couldn’t tell, I love this guy.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 delivers everything you want from a summer blockbuster. It’s smart, funny, well-directed, action-packed, and full of memorable characters. I could spend a lot more time going into details of specific scenes that I loved, but that would mean describing more or less the entire movie, and we don’t have all day. But suffice to say that I loved it, and I’m confident that you will, too. Also, be sure to stay all the way through the credits, because not only are there a whopping total of FIVE post-credits scenes, but the end credits also have several other little Easter eggs that are fun to look for. So go see it, have fun, and remember, I AM GROOT!

Le Cinema de WTF: Assassin’s Creed

To say that movies based on video games have a mixed track record would be putting it mildly. To put it less mildly, most of them suck. In the interests of full disclosure, I will admit to having a weakness for the Resident Evil and Tomb Raider movies. They are good popcorn movies. They are mindless fun. I enjoy them. But are they, strictly speaking, good movies? No. No, they are not.

Assassin’s Creed was the movie that was going to change all that. The movie adaptation of the long-running video game franchise stars Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, and Jeremy Freaking Irons. These have to be the three most critically-acclaimed actors to ever star in a game-based movie. The latter two are Oscar winners, and Fassbender is an Oscar nominee. The movie was directed by Justin Kurzel, a talented up-and-comer whose previous film was a well-received adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth which also starred Fassbender and Cotillard. Parts of the movie take place during the Spanish Inquisition, a time period the games have not explored and that I don’t think I’ve ever seen on film before. This was a movie with ambition, damn it.

And yet, it has a dismal 17% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, indicating that it was soundly thrashed by the critics.

So what happened?

Before I get into that, I need to explain how the games work, or none of this will make any sense. In the marketing for the games whenever a new one comes out, the trailers and TV commercials only show off the cool stuff: hooded badasses using hidden wrist blades and other pointy implements to singlehandedly take out legions of hapless suckers in cool historical backdrops. Sounds great, right? But what these ads don’t tell you is that the cool historical stuff is only part of the story.

The story revolves around the conflict between two ancient and secretive groups: the Assassins and the Templars. In most of the games, the player controls an Assassin, and the Templars are the primary antagonists. The games begin in the modern age, where a mega-corporation called Abstergo Industries (secretly run by the Templars) has developed a technology called the Animus, which allows people to relive their ancestors’ memories through a kind of super-advanced virtual reality.

The historical parts of the games are the main focus, but they’re all just flashbacks, a sort of game-within-a-game. The series’ timeline and mythology are incredibly convoluted, and even though I’ve played five or six of the games, I spend most of them not having any idea what is going on, and I couldn’t give less of a hoot about the Assassin/Templar conflict that has been raging throughout the centuries. Can you see how this might be problematic for a movie adaptation?

As much as I enjoy the historical parts of the games, the modern-day parts are an absolute snoozefest. In Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, for example, you spend most of the game doing awesome pirate stuff like sinking people’s ships and taking their stuff, but every once in a while the game kicks you back into the present day and makes you wander around an office building and hack into security systems with an iPad. If that sounds boring, I can assure you that it is. I love Black Flag, it’s a fantastic game, but the present-day sections are as boring as hell, and I would always complete them as fast as possible so I could get back to the fun pirate stuff.

Well, in this sense the movie is a good interpretation of the games, since the historical sections are great but the modern-day stuff, well, isn’t. The film opens in 1492, with a man named Aguilar being inducted into the Assassins Brotherhood. Fast forward to 1986, and a young boy named Callum Lynch. He walks into his house one day to find his mother dead, apparently killed by his father. Men with guns converge on the house, and Callum’s father tells him to run. As he flees, Callum’s father is taken into custody by the armed men, under the command of Dr. Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons). Fast forward again to Callum as an adult, now played by Michael Fassbender, who is on death row, and is soon executed by lethal injection.

Except he isn’t, or the movie would have ended a lot sooner. He wakes up at the Abstergo facility in Madrid, and is told by Dr. Sofia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard), Alan’s daughter, that Abstergo has secreted him away because they want to use him in the Animus. Abstergo is looking for the Apple of Eden, which contains the genetic code for free will, and Abstergo wants to use the Apple to subjugate humanity and end violence and corruption. Abstergo wants Callum to relive the memories of his ancestor Aguilar (also played by Fassbender), as they believe that Aguilar’s memories will lead them to the Apple.

Did you get all that? Well strap in, because we’re just getting started. This does present an intriguing ideological conflict, since it could be argued that Abstergo’s motives are pure. Ending violence and corruption in the world sounds good, but taking away humanity’s free will in the process would be less good. The Assassins want humanity to be free, even if that means being free to destroy itself. Abstergo and the Templars are like the League of Shadows in Batman Begins, as their motives are okay but their methods leave a lot to be desired.

But the movie’s plot is ridiculously hard to follow. I haven’t played every game in the series, but I’ve played quite a few of them, and I still had very little idea of what was going on for most of the movie. I can only imagine how confusing the movie would be for someone who hadn’t played any of the games. And I have to say that the movie has the most baffling ending of just about any movie I’ve seen in the last couple years. It should end with a bang, but it ends with a whimper. And the end credits are fifteen minutes long, which is ludicrous. The movie’s running time is 115 minutes, but fifteen of those minutes are taken up by the end credits.

The film’s best parts are the flashback sequences that take place during the Spanish Inquisition. These are the scenes that follow Callum’s ancestor Aguilar, as he fights to keep the Apple of Eden from falling into Templar hands. These scenes also comprise most of the action sequences, which is great because you know that whenever Aguilar and his sidekick Maria show up, shit is about to go down. And the action sequences are great. They do a fantastic job of emulating the free-running style of combat in the games, and the athleticism of the stunt performers is impressive.

They also look great. The locations look very good and the sets, special effects, and particularly the costumes are all great. I give special consideration to the costumes because the outfit Aguilar wears is so cool, and looks exactly like something that would be seen in the games. There’s a real thrill in seeing an actual person looking like he could have walked off the screen from a video game.

But as much as I like the Aguilar sequences, they have two crucial flaws. The first flaw stems from the decisions the filmmakers made in adapting the Animus for the screen. In the games, the Animus is basically a chair a person lies down on and is hooked up to a bunch of machines, like in The Matrix. The filmmakers apparently decided this would be boring for an audience to watch (or perhaps too similar to The Matrix), and turned the Animus into a giant harness that descends from the ceiling in the middle of a large room, allowing for the person plugged in to the Animus to move around as he literally re-enacts his ancestor’s actions. It’s a cool idea, but the problem is that in the middle of the Aguilar-based action scenes, the movie cuts back to Callum hooked up to the Animus mimicking Aguilar’s actions. It severely disrupts the pacing of the fast-paced action sequences.

The other problem with the action sequences is that they are almost entirely bloodless. People are slashed and stabbed with barely a drop of blood spilled. The movie is rated PG-13, which is weird when you consider that all the games are Mature-rated, which is the video game equivalent to an R-rating. I hate it when people are killed in movies with swords or knives and there’s no blood. This isn’t because I want every movie to be as bloody as possible (I don’t). It’s because it takes me out of the moment. It kills the immersion because it makes me think, “I am watching a movie that was edited in order to get a PG-13 rating.” This is something you don’t want to think while watching a movie, because it means you’re not fully in to the experience.

For me personally, Assassin’s Creed the movie may very well be one of the most accurate game-to-movie adaptations ever made, since it mirrors my experience of playing the games almost perfectly. I love the historical sections despite their flaws, but the modern-day stuff is slow and boring and I just want it to be over. Just like in the games, the film’s modern-day sections are dull, taking viewers away from the vibrancy of the historical settings and depositing them in drab-looking rooms and hallways. The plot is nearly incomprehensible, and the characters are hard to care about. Justin Kurzel is a talented director, but adapting such a dense and convoluted video-game mythology to the big screen was always going to be a tall order.

Kurzel’s adaptation of Macbeth is well worth checking out, however. Fassbender makes Macbeth a sympathetic character, a man who doesn’t realize he is a monster until it is far too late. And he has great chemistry with Marion Cotillard, who plays Lady Macbeth. It’s also a great-looking movie, and the ending sequence where Macbeth fights Macduff is stunning. Macbeth and Macduff do battle against the backdrop of a burning village, and the entire sequence is engulfed in an orange haze that gives it an eerie, dreamlike quality. The music in both Macbeth and Assassin’s Creed is awesome. Both films were scored by Kurzel’s brother Jed, and his moody, ominous music greatly improves each film. Both of Justin Kurzel’s films are rich in atmosphere, and Jed Kurzel’s music is a key part of that.

Is this, from a purely technical standpoint, the best video game movie ever made? Quite possibly, yes. It’s reasonably well-made and the acting is solid. But it is undone by several crippling flaws. In spite of its flaws, I have to give it some credit for at least trying to rise above its video-game-based-movie brethren. Can you think of any other movie based on a game that has actual ambition? This is the only one I know of. It’s hard to fault it for being too big for its britches because of this, even though the end result is a film that can generously be described as a mixed bag. Unsurprisingly, sequels are in the works, so maybe some of the narrative flaws will be worked out. I hope so, because there’s a lot of promise here. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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.

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.

john-wick-chapter-2-movie-poster-2017

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.

john-wick-2-poster-2

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.

john-wick-chapter-2-poster-08

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.

JW2_D25_7230.cr2

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.

john-wick-chapter-2-movie-images-keanu-reeves

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.

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.

doctor-strange-movie-poster-2016

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.

doctor-strange-comics

 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.

doctor-strange

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.

doctor-strange-imax-poster

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).

doctor-strange-mads-mikkelsen-movie

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.