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June 26, 2017 - Baby Driver 

At the beginning of Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, we open on the start of a heist. Baby (Ansel Elgort), the getaway driver,  sits in the car with his headphones on, while the others get out to begin the robbery. The action focuses on Baby, as he jams and sings along to Bellbottoms by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion while the robbery is taking place. Once the crew returns to the car, Baby is off on a police chase through downtown Atlanta, headphones still blaring the song. After some close calls and intense moments they make it to safety, and we get a small taste of the action to expect in the film.


Baby Driver is a movie with a simple enough premise; a young getaway driver with a big love of music, is looking to do some work before moving on from his life of crime. This involves working heists with Doc (Kevin Spacey), a ringleader of sorts who has criminal connections and sets up each job. Everyone gets a split of the earnings and people go on their way until Baby is contacted again for the next job. Along the way though, the movie becomes a love story, as Baby meets a waitress (Lily James) at a diner after one of the jobs, and begins to fall for her. While most action films add the romance as a B plot, Baby Driver shifts focus to give us a love story as the foundation to the film. This doesn’t diminish the action at all though, as Baby still has a job to do, and we get introduced to an excellent cast of criminals, from the impulsive Bats (Jamie Foxx) to the cool guy Buddy (Jon Hamm), both who join the crew for a big heist. While the plan for this heist is simple enough, distrust begins to grow among the group and things start to go wrong No one is safe as things spiral out of control and Baby must find a way to come out alive.


Edgar Wright is best known for his comedy films such as Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and has given us one of the best movies of the summer. In addition to the excellent performances by Spacey, Foxx, and Hamm, relative newcomer Elgort does a great job as our protagonist. He may seem goofy at first (as we see in the first scene) but Elgort delivers a performance that adds substance to the character. Wright, who also wrote the script, gives us an action story with emotion and twists, all to an awesome soundtrack that will have you looking it up after the film. Songs such as Queen’s Brighton Rock has never sounded better that it has when Baby is leading the getaway from the police. Everything comes together at just the right moment with just enough tension to keep you engaged.


The movie is not perfect though, as some scenes feel a little awkward and forced. One scene in particular, involving a bank robbery, has a normal citizen try to stop the robbery with his truck, chasing the criminals down the highway with a semi automatic weapon he just happened to have in the passenger’s seat. While it adds to the excitement of the scene, it’s hard to believe any citizen would chase an armed group of robber down the interstate just to stop a bank robbery. The title of the movie, while a reference to a Simon and Garfunkel song of the same name, does not invoke an image of a high end action film. Either way, this doesn’t distract too much from the film, and both can be overlooked. In the end, Wright does a wonderful job of creating the best action film of the year so far, with the help of a great soundtrack and a talented cast.


A


-  Adam Eltarhoni

June 5, 2017 -  Wonder Woman 


 

Diana (Gal Gadot) is not a fan of women’s fashion of the early 20th century. After arriving in London with Allied spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a fun little dressing montage ensues. New to the rest of the world, Diana comments that the outfits are constricting and does not allow for battle movement. With the help from Steve’s secretary Etta (Lucy Davis), Diana finds a suitable outfit and she continues her mission to find and kill Ares, the god of war.

This fish out of water theme is persistent in Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, the latest superhero movie to be released this year, and perhaps the best in the past few years.

 

Wonder Woman starts with Diana living in present day Paris, where she receives a photo of her from World War One. This triggers a flashback that takes us to the heart of the story, starting with a young Diana living on Themyscira, an island in the Mediterranean, wanting to learn to fight. Her mother, Queen Hippolyta, is queen of the Amazons, a warrior people whose duty is to protect the world from Ares, who defeated the rest of the gods ages ago. Her mother initially protests her training but Diana eventually grows up to become a great warrior. One day, she sees a plane crash into the water off the coast and rescues a man named Steve Trevor. Learning about the details of the great war that is happening in the rest of the world, Diana is convinced that this is the doing of Ares, and takes the godslayer, a weapon designed to stop Ares. With this, she leaves her home to help Steve, who has a notebook with information on a new chemical weapon, return it to London. This leads to them heading to the front lines with the assistance of a group of friends in order to stop German general Ludendorff, who Diana believes to be Ares in disguise. Along the way she learns the nature of man, and the horror of war. The world is more complicated that she thought, and she must come to terms with this reality.

 

At its’ heart, Wonder Woman is a superhero movie. Diana has powers and magical weapons, and the villain is a god, but underneath, you get a story of morality and sacrifice. Visiting the trenches in Belgium, Diana wants to help all the suffering people she comes across, yet Steve tells her that it is not possible. This is a new concept for her, as she has never experienced this. She also does not believe this, and she heads out of the trenches to help retake a village captured by the Germans. This leads to a great action sequence, where we see Diana and team take out the troops and liberate the city. The action in the film doesn’t feel out of place or dragged out, and we learn more about our team each time. In addition to that, the story feels fresh, with the setting in a war that was known for chemical weapons and trench warfare, a time we don’t often see in movies. As for the actors, Gal Gadot and Chris Pine are perfectly cast in their roles. Gal gives us a Diana that is innocent to the outside world yet presents a strength in her demeanor.  Chris plays the jaded spy well, who knows he must do what he can (good or bad) to complete his mission. Visually, the film hits the high marks, giving a great juxtaposition of Diana’s home with it’s clear blue skies, to Europe, covered in grey and ravaged by war. One gets a good sense of how this time period really was for Europeans.

 

This is not a perfect movie by all means though, as some scenes seem a little cheesy (the aforementioned dressing montage), and the dialogue is rough at parts. Even after Steve and his crew see Diana deflect bullets and leap great heights, they don’t seem too impressed, as if this is an everyday occurrence. Steve knows Diana is extraordinary, yet does not think that Ares is real, which is a bit hard for the audience to believe. It is also odd that Steve, an American, is a spy that works in London and reports to British intelligence. My knowledge of how that worked in reality is little, so I may be wrong, but it seemed out of place.  

 

Overall, this is a great superhero movie to add to the pantheon of others, and the best one so far this year. While I have never seen any previous Wonder Woman material, this is a great introduction to the character, and I look forward to seeing what she brings to the Justice League movie later this year. Even with the small shortcomings, Wonder Woman doesn’t disappoint.

 

A


-  Adam Eltarhoni

May 22, 2017 -  T2 Trainspotting

When we last saw Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) he was leaving town after robbing his mates. He decided to “Choose Life”, and break free from his drug addiction and friends that enable it. 20 years later, he is back in Edinburgh after living in Amsterdam and, as you can expect, they aren’t too happy to see him. After saving Daniel “Spud” (Ewen Bremner) from killing himself, Mark is attacked by Spud for leaving them so many years ago. The same thing happens when Mark revisits Simon “Sick Boy” (Jonny Lee Miller) at a his pub, where small talk turns into a fight with pool sticks breaking and pint glasses being hurled. This is a fitting homecoming for a man who betrayed his friends and left them to their self destructive lives.

 

Danny Boyle’s original Trainspotting film is a legacy in the British film scene, doing an incredible job of portraying the youth scene of a group of drug addicts in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh. He shows us a group of twenty somethings living for partying, petty crimes, violence, and heroin use based on the novel with the same name written by Irvine Welsh. While no one is truly a good person, Mark is the closest to being our protagonist, as a he does get his life back on track and sobers up. After leaving with the money at the end of the film, we are left with some hope for him, yet no true closure on the rest of our team. T2 intends to give us that closure without ruining the memory of the first film. It is a tough task to complete, in this age of unnecessary sequels, and it does the job well.

 

The death of his mother is the reason for Mark’s return to town after all this time, and after saving Spud’s life, Mark intends to help him break his addiction. We learn that Spud was on a good track for a little while with his girlfriend and kid, but after a timing mishap, he loses his job and the trust of his family. This leads him back down his path to heroin and an attempt at suicide. Mark’s assistance works, and he offers Spud to find a new addiction, one that is not harmful. Spud tells Mark he has to visit Simon, who has now been poorly running an extortion scheme with girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) as well as managing his aunt’s pub. Simon has a new plan to open a sauna (really a brothel), and wants Mark to help. Mark declines but eventually returns, as he reveals that his marriage is failing and he has nothing of importance to return to in Amsterdam. He decides to help Simon and Veronika pulling some petty crimes, while bringing Spud in to assist with remodeling the pub. During this time we also get a look into “Franko” Begbie (Robert Carlyle) life. A prisoner for the past 20 years, Franko escapes and is back to his old thieving ways, bringing his son into the mix. Paths cross eventually when he learns that Mark is back in town after a humorous exchange a nightclub. Driven by revenge, Franko involves the rest of the group in order to get to Mark, leading to a final confrontation to end our story. And while heroin addiction and escape was the theme of the first movie, reminiscence and finding meaning in life seems to be the theme in this film. No one has really moved forward in the past 20 years. By the end of our film though, we have some redemption, and that’s the best we can hope for from our crew of degenerates.

 

 

Having the original cast, who did such a great job in the original, and adding a few new elements creates a great film that pays homage to the first movie while giving us a new story. Each actor still brings a presence to the screen that feel authentic. Certain scenes are duplicated and locations revisted, such as the bathroom with “the worst toilet in Scotland.” At one point, when Veronika asks Mark what the Choose Life statement means, he gives us an updated version of the original monologue (...Choose an iPhone made in China by a woman who jumped out of a window and stick it in the pocket of your jacket fresh from a South-Asian Firetrap…). The writing is just a good as the original and the music is just as fun. Danny Boyle, who has become an acclaimed award winning director, adds his mix of filming and storytelling in a way that he does best keeping with the feel of the original film.

 

A


-  Adam Eltarhoni


May 15, 2017 -  King Arthur: Legend of the Sword 

In Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword we start with war, with the evil sorcerer Mordred advances his army towards Camelot. As the giant war elephants trample through the castle and soldiers, King Uther (Eric Bana) prepares to fight back. Running into Mordred’s encampment atop one of the elephants, Uther uses the magical sword Excalibur to kill Mordred and end the assault on Camelot. The victory is short lived however, and kicks off a chain of events which lead to a coup of the throne by Uther’s brother Vortigern (Jude Law). Before perishing, Uther and his wife send a young Arthur away on a boat, where he is eventually discovered by a group on women in Londinium. It is here that Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) grows up and where our true story begins.


There have been many iterations of of the King Arthur legend in cinema. From classics such as Disney’s Sword and the Stone and John Boorman’s Excalibur, to the BBC series Merlin. Each have their own spin on the story, and Guy Ritchie’s version is a great addition to the lore. Ritchie, who is most famous for films such as Snatch and the Sherlock Holmes movies, adds his trademark style to film. Interwoven scenes, sped up action, and unique camera angles all add to the fun of the film. A montage of Arthur growing up on the streets, from being bullied everyday and to learning to become a fighter, is done at twice the normal speed. This gives us a idea of how he came to be, without filling too much time. Present conversation between characters mixed with future scenes of what they are discussing helps move the story along without being confusing. Later, when an attempt on the king’s life does not go as planned, Arthur and crew must escape through the streets of Londinium with guards chasings. This allows Ritchie to showcase multiple fight scenes that are reminiscent of the Assassin’s Creed video game series. The action feels fresh and Ritchie gives us a sense of danger as they turn every corner.


Even the story feels fresh in this telling of the King Arthur story. As Vortigern is working on building a tower, Excalibur reveals itself in the stone. Vortigern realizes what this means and knows he must find his nephew, the only one who can pull the sword from the stone, and murder him to consolidate his power. He sends his guards throughout the land to bring in men of age who could be Arthur. Arthur, who is in Londinium at the moment and is avoiding soldiers for an incident regarding some Vikings, is found by the king’s guards, who think he is just a commoner of the right age. He is put on a ship to Camelot to join others in pulling the sword. To Arthur’s surprise he succeeds, and Vortigern plans a public execution. During the display Arthur is rescued by a mage who, with the assistance of a rebel group, free him and bring him to their hideout. Arthur is unwilling to help though, as he does not want any trouble and wants to return home. Over time, after Arthur learns more of his past and what happened the day his parents were murdered, he obliges and becomes committed to killing Vortigern. Instead of rallying armied against Vortigern though, they create a plan to pull Vortigern from Camelot, which leads to the previously mentioned assassination attempt in Londinium. It is here that Arthur, who has had trouble controlling the power of Excalibur, is able to use the sword to its full potential, and decimates a group of soldiers that surrounded him and his group. The group is able to escape the city with some casualties. Eventually he must confront his uncle and an assault on Camelot is planned, where Arthur finally defeats Vortigern and becomes King.


The theme of not wanting to be the hero has been used in films before, but King Arthur: Legend of the Sword presents it in a different light. I was pleased that the people trying to convince Arthur did not tell him it was his destiny (or that he is the chosen one), as that has been done in so many films in the past. Instead they want him to learn from Excalibur and find out his past, in order to see his way. Charlie Hunnam does a great job as Arthur, filling that role of a street hustler turned king. He has a certain attitude and presence about him that allows his delivery of dialogue and action to feel authentic. The rest of the cast do a great job as well, although it is still tough to believe Jude Law as a villainous character.  The dialogue, while not perfect, is fine overall, with some funny exchanges and witty remarks. It has a very Guy Ritchie feel to it. Most of the special effects are good as well, although the CGI in the final fight is a bit too unreal. Overall, Guy Ritchie gives us a great King Arthur story done his way and in his style. With medieval fantasy movies coming out every year, this one is a winner.


A


-  Adam Eltarhoni

May 8, 2017 -  Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2

At the beginning of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, we are placed right into the beginning of one of the team’s missions, protecting batteries from a monster that is coming to steal them. As the battle begins, Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) turns on the music and starts dancing as his teammates are thrown around in the fight as the opening credits roll. This scene is a hint  what to expect in the sequel to the 2015 hit movie about a rag tag group of criminals who save the galaxy and become heroes. Taking place a few months later after the first movie, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 features all of our favorite characters from the first movie on a new adventure to find the parental origin of group leader Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). Joining him are Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel).


The chain of events kick off after the team defeat the monster from the opening credits and collected their reward from a race of golden people called the Sovereigns. They receive their reward, Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), and leave, with Rocket deciding to steal some of the batteries they were paid to protect. This leads to a chase from the Sovereigns’ fleet which the Guardians almost don’t escape until they get saved by a mysterious man. After crash landing on a planet, they meet the man called Ego (Kurt Russell), who reveals to be Peter’s father and a being known as a Celestial, which is basically a god who created a planet with his mind and a physical form that has traveled the universe. In the meantime, the Sovereigns are on a hunt and hire the Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his ravager crew, who have been exiled by the greater ravager community, to find the Guardians. Plotlines converge as we learn the true intentions of Ego and more about Peter’s past, all to the tunes of hit music from the 70’s. In the end the team matures, and after a long battle, come out victorious as we are to expect with all the Marvel movies.


It’s tough to take a surprise hit such as Guardians of the Galaxy, a relatively unknown Marvel property, and create a sequel just as good, but James Gunn almost pulled it off. While not as good as the first, the movie keeps up the pacing of adventure and fun, especially with Baby Groot. Baby Groot fills the cute role to perfection and his actions are enjoyable on screen. The acting is well done for the most part, and besides adding Sylvester Stallone to the movie for some reason (he’s still not a good actor), everyone embraces their role. Music plays an important role in both films and while the mix from Vol 2 is not as strong, it is very enjoyable and includes strong hits such as The Chain by Fleetwood Mac and Mr. Blue Sky by  Electric Light Orchestra (you can find the playlist on Spotify). The music is integrated well and doesn’t feel too much of a burden. As for the story, it can get a bit bogged down at points, and the relentless assault from the Sovereign drones stretch the action until is it dull towards the end. Yet, once we get past all of that, we see a good story about family and acceptance, which is more than we have gotten from a lot of recent Marvel films. If that wasn’t enough, Baby Groot and his presence will keep you entertained. I look forward to the release of Vol 3 to continue the adventures of our Guardians of the Galaxy.


A-


-  Adam Eltarhoni

April 10, 2017 - Going In Style

Robbing a bank is no easy task, and it’s even harder when you are over 70 years old, as our main characters learn in Zach Braff’s remake of Going In Style. An attempt early in the film by Joe (Michael Caine) and Willie (Morgan Freeman) to steal from a grocery store ends in a humorous low speed chase that also gets third buddy, Albert (Alan Arkin) in trouble with the store security team. After getting off with a warning from the security manager, Joe and Willie realize they must get better prepared if they are going to pull off the heist.


The original Going in Style was released in 1979 and featured George Burns as the main character. With the recent trend of remaking all that is old, Zach Braff gives us a modern upgrade from the original crime comedy. Besides the main plot, three elderly friends decide to rob a bank, the two movies are not much alike. The film begins with Joe at his local bank at the time that it gets robbed. After a brief interaction with one of the robbers, he is less traumatized by the incident and more intrigued that the robbers got away without and trouble. He soon learns afterwards, along with Willie and Albert, that the pension funds that they were all receiving have stopped due to a new company buyout. With a family to support (Joe’s daughter and granddaughter stays with him), he begins to think about ways to make quick cash to save his house, which leads him to his decision to rob the bank. After some convincing, the other two are on board and they begin their plan to rob the same bank as earlier.


With this cast of talented actors and story, Going in Style gives us a fun adventure that keeps your interest. Michael Caine does a wonderful job as Joe, the leader of the group, who wants the best for his granddaughter. Morgan Freeman, who seems to do one of these “old people go on an adventure” types of movies each year, also does not disappoint. His reasons for wanting to rob the bank is quite different though, as his kidney failure is getting serious, and he wants travel to see his granddaughter before he gets worse. Alan Arkin provides a good compliment to the other two, as the most reluctant member of the three. He doesn’t have any family to concern himself with, and he doesn’t mind being broke, so he has no reason to become a criminal. He eventually agrees to the plan, once he learns that the bank will have their pension money. This leaves his motivation as the weakest of the team, but it’s a Hollywood movie and we must have the team together. They all add great comedy though, and caters to the crowd of the older movie going population. There a good amount of age jokes, and references that an older crowd would enjoy. Besides the comedy, Zach Braff does a good job of setting up the tension on whether or not they can pull it off. On the day of the robbery, Joe, who walks his granddaughter to school every morning, brings along her estranged father to help do the walks in the future. There is a lot of uncertainty on if Joe believes he will succeed, and wants to prepare for the worst. The feeling of dread continues throughout the day as Joe, Willie, and Al do final preparations. I won’t go into too much detail about the plan, but they have come a long way from the grocery store incident, and it shows.


Overall, Going in Style hits a few high marks, primarily with the actors, but does not do much more than entertain. The comedy is there, as well as a story that will keep your interest, which is good enough for the intended audience.


B-


-Adam Eltarhoni

April 3, 2017 -  Ghost in the Shell 

Within the first 15 minutes of Ghost in the Shell, our main character Major (Scarlett Johansson) infiltrates and takes out a group of villains with relative ease. From jumping off a building, to attacking the criminals in her invisible outfit, the movie gives us a taste of the style and action to be expected. How does she manage this feat? Major is a cyborg, the first of her kind she is told, one that has a human brain placed in a robotic body. This is a future where people can get cybernetic enhancements to any part of their body, and she is the next level in this technical evolution.


It is always a tough task to take a beloved franchise such as Ghost in the Shell and turn it into a live action film. First appearing in 1989 as a manga, Ghost in the Shell takes place in a futuristic Japanese city and follows the story of Major, who is a member of an anti-terrorist force known as Section 9, it became an anime film in 1995 followed by a series and another film. With a lot of source material to pull from, writers Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger along with director Rupert Sanders create a film that seems to be a mix of old references and new details. In addition to Johansson as Major, the cast features Pilou Asbæk as Batou, Major’s partner in the force, Michael Pitt as Hideo Kuze, the man Major is hunting, and Takeshi Kitano as Chief Daisuke Aramaki, the head of the police force. While Scarlett is a little bland as Major, the others do a wonderful job in the film. The setting is also nice. Section 9’s city feels over the top, with its holographic advertisements everywhere, but also realistic, with its run down areas and overcrowded landscape.


For the plot, Ghost in the Shell has the feel of an anime, and for an audience who hasn't seen any previous material, such as myself, the story is entertaining without being too dependent on the source material. It has a feel of a 90s plotline though, and does not offer too many surprises.  One year after becoming a cyborg, Major begins to have “glitches” in the forms of visions she sees in real life. She has no knowledge of her life before becoming a cyborg, and Major begins to think these glitches may have something to do with her past. Meanwhile, she is also on a hunt for a mysterious person who is looking to take down the Hanka Organization, one of the largest robotics company in the world. Helping her with this task is Batou, the hard scrabbled partner who prefers feeding stray dogs over hanging out with people. The back and forth between the two feels natural, and adds to some of the best moments of the film. On top of that is the previously mentioned action sequences that make the movie an entertaining experience. The fights are fun, and the shootouts are even better, leaving you wanting more.


The film is not without its problems though, with a clichéd dialogue being the primary issue. The interactions with the Hanka corporation CEO Cutter and most other characters are full of one liners that are laughable, and the movie does not want to let you forget that Major is like a “ghost in a shell”, repeating this concept constantly, as if we don’t get the meaning of a human in a robot body. Certain scenes seem unnecessary as well. Major’s visit to the bottom of the bay for some alone time provides no real importance besides the fact that it is pretty to see the sea creatures swimming around her. While Johansson, as mentioned earlier, does not add much to the character, although without seeing any previous material from the series, it may be intentional.


Overall though, we are given a fun futuristic action movie that doesn’t try to be overcomplicated or surprising. As long as that is all you are expecting, you will be entertained.

B+


-Adam Eltarhoni