“Blade Runner: 2049”

I’ve now seen Denis Villeneuve’s highly anticipated film, Blade Runner: 2049 twice. That alone should tell you how I feel about the film.

Thirty years after Deckard (Harrison Ford) fled with Rachael (Sean Young), we’re introduced to a new blade runner named K (Ryan Gosling). K’s tasked uncovers a certain secret that’s connected to him and Deckard, and threatens what remains of order. That’s all you need to know.

Blade Runner: 2049 was my most anticipated film of 2017 and it lives up to the hype. This is a mesmerizing film that maintains its predecessor’s tone and aesthetics while acting as a stand alone film. It’s currently my favorite film of 2017.

A lot has changed between 2019 and 2049 in the Blade Runner universe. Replicants have evolved, computers have evolved, and the world is now overpopulated and decayed. LA isn’t just rainy; it’s snowy, foggy, and smoggy. There isn’t a single shot of sunshine, yet the film is still stunning.

From start to finish, Blade Runner: 2049 is eye candy. I was mesmerized between the aerial shots of K driving through the neon skyscrapers and the shots of him walking through dark hallways and smoggy landscapes. Cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall, The Shawshank Redemption, Prisoners, No Country for Old Men, Fargo) once again proves he’s the master of cinematography.

This isn’t a style over substance film by any means. Much like Ridley Scott’s masterful predecessor, Villeneuve’s sequel maintains the philosophical themes and ambiguous questions about life, death, and humanity. It also raises new ones about memory, miracles, evolution, and survival. 2049 isn’t at all a rehash of the first film.

2049 is 2 hours and 43 minutes long (roughly 44 minutes longer than the original) and is an epic in scale and tone. If you saw Villeneuve’s previous works Sicario and Prisoners, you know he has a knack for violent quick bursts of action. 2049 has enough to satisfy action lovers.

Everyone in the cast is perfect. Gosling delivers another cool, expressionistic performance as a troubled antihero. Ford portrays Deckard as a traumatized battle-torn veteran with grace. Robin Wright adds some humanity to her cold character Detective Joshi; she’s K’s superior and acts as a caring maternal figure. Even Jared Leto has a few golden moments as a god complex-ridden replicant manufacturer, Niander Wallace. Of all the performances, Sylvia Hoeks shines as Luv, Wallace’s replicant enforcer who wants to prove she’s the superior replicant.

Blade Runner was an acquired taste and 2049 isn’t any different. If you want an artistic epic that’s restrained in action but grandiose in themes, 2049 is for you. Villeneuve once again proves he’s one of the best working filmmakers to date.

Grade: A+

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“Kingsman: The Golden Circle”

Given how the kinetic and talented Matthew Vaughn (Kingsman: The Secret Service) directed Kingsman: The Golden Circle, it’s no wonder he doesn’t like doing sequels.

Set a year after Eggsy (Taron Egerton) thwarted the apocalypse in The Secret Service, a new diabolical villain named Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) surfaces with a plot to legalize drugs. Poppy destroys the Kingsman headquarters and kills several agents, forcing Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) to partner with the Statesman, their American counterpart. They also find Harry (Colin Firth) alive, who joins them on their mission.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle was one of my most anticipated movies since I was a big fan of its predecessor and Vaughn stayed committed to the sequel. While The Golden Circle has its moments, Vaughn still commits the biggest sequel sin: he tries too hard to top the first one. The Secret Service is a thrilling spy movie tribute that was an even balance of hardcore violence, political satire, and heart. The Golden Circle has some of its predecessor’s heart and satirical elements, but disappointingly focuses on violence and juvenile humor.

The action is undeniably impressive in The Golden Circle and Vaughn wastes no time throwing us in the middle of it. The opening car chase/fist fight in Eggsy’s cab is a fun, frenetic action sequence; the climactic gun fight at Poppy’s headquarters is a gadget-filled fact-paced spectacle reminiscent of the infamous church scene in The Secret Service (not as good, though).

There were complaints about the level of violence in The Secret Service, but I personally felt the gore was used sparingly and had greater impact; the film still focused on interrogation, covert ops, and surveillance with action thrown in the middle. The Golden Circle uses violence nonstop and there’s almost no spy sequences, save for one that’s a prolonged, offensive rape joke.

It’s great seeing Firth back as Harry; he’s once again a fun, competent action hero. Watching Harry struggle with coordination made his sequences exciting to watch. Egerton is once again likable as the underdog Eggsy. Some viewers will hate that the film focuses on his relationship, but I felt it was refreshing since Eggsy was growing up.

Like Samuel L. Jackson’s Valentine, Julianne Moore is a great blend of scary and funny as Poppy. Her plot to control drug distribution is a sharp political commentary on the War on Drugs.

I could have done without most of the Statesman characters. Jeff Bridges, Halle Berry, and Channing Tatum play the American agents, but they’re only on screen for a few minutes each. If you saw the trailers, you saw all of their scenes. On the other hand, the great Pedro Pascal (Oberyn Martel from Game of Thrones) is a blast as rogue Statesman, Whiskey.

The Golden Circle excels when it focuses on the Kingsman and their character arcs. Had Vaughn just focused on Harry and Eggsy and kept the new characters and their screen time to a minimum, The Golden Circle could have been as good as its predecessor.

Grade: C+

“War for the Planet of the Apes”

It’s time the Academy takes motion-capture work seriously because Andy Serkis is incredible in “War for the Planet of the Apes.” His performance throughout the three recent “Apes” films is an expressive and dynamic piece of work.

Two years after Caesar (Serkis) defeated Koba (Toby Kebbel) and prepared for war against humans, Caesar’s battling The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), a genocidal military leader hellbent on exterminating apes. Their recent battle results in significant losses for Caesar, leading him on a quest for vengeance. However, his loyal followers Maurice (Karin Konoval) and Rocket (Terry Notary) grow concerned as Caesar grows increasingly merciless.

“War for the Planet of the Apes” is an epic, brutal, and amazing installment of the franchise. Between the Vietnam War-inspired opening battle, Western-style cinematography, and some thought-provoking moments about evolution and devolution, this is a rare brainy blockbuster.

If you haven’t seen “Rise” or “Dawn,” you should definitely watch those before “War.” This is a trilogy that follows the evolution of a complex protagonist. Caesar has come a long way from a naive being that can only communicate in sign language. He can now communicate in full sentences and is aware of the world’s harsh realities. The humans on the other hand, are another story.

The Colonel is a mad leader that we’ve seen before in film and in history. Think a mixture of Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now”) and Hitler. Harrelson’s performance is insane-yet-restrained, which is enough to overcome the character’s cliches. The final showdown between he and Caesar is an unconventional one that suits both characters.

The underrated Steve Zahn also has a great supporting performance as Bad Ape, a cowardly ape drifter who aids Caesar. He adds much-needed humor to the film without imposing on its dark tone. The film occasionally focuses on Bad Ape being an unlikely hero and Maurice fathering a young mute orphan, which add heart to the film.

As much as I loved “War,” I was disappointed in its black-and-white approach on good and evil. In “Dawn,” we had good apes and humans, and bad apes and humans. This made “Dawn” morally complex since all characters were relatable. “War” goes back to the “Rise” roots with its good apes and bad humans mentality, which made the characters’ arcs simple.

Director Matt Reeves proved himself to be a visionary filmmaker with “Dawn” and “War,” showing he can make a spectacle with brains. Let’s see how he does with his Batman movies.

Grade: A-

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”

I am Groot… I am Groot…  I am impressed with “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” It’s the first MCU sequel done right since “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”

After completing another successful mission, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) meet the enigmatic Ego (Kurt Russell). He helps the group and reveals himself to be Peter’s dad, shocking the group.

Meanwhile, Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) return to settle their scores, Peter and Gamora must deal with their feelings, Rocket Raccoon comes to terms with who he is, and Baby Groot dances adorably.

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” maintains its predecessor’s energy, colorful effects, kinetic action sequences, and killer soundtrack. It takes the humor and character moments up a few notches, resulting in a surprisingly hilarious and emotional sequel. If “Vol. 1” is “A New Hope,” then “Vol. 2” is “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Without getting too much into the plot, the Guardians split into two groups where alliances form, betrayals occur, and revelations are revealed. Quill spends a portion of the movie torn between family and his destiny; it’s bittersweet and sometimes heartbreaking.

“Vol. 2” is fun, though! Don’t let my description fool you. The standout sequences are a delightful opening credits sequence, a space ship battle that’s an obvious nod to the arcade gaming era, and any scene involving Yondu (Rooker kills it).

The cast is once again great with their chemistry and comedic timing; they’re even better in their dramatic moments. Kurt Russell’s performance is a little too exposition-heavy, but his charm and charisma make it acceptable.

I could have done without Sylvester Stallone as Stakar Ogord. He literally has two minutes of screen time, angrily delivers exposition about Yondu, and leaves until the end. For a hyped character, I expected more for Sly to do.

The MCU has a bad history with sequels, but “Vol. 2” proves you don’t have to one-up all elements for a sequel; it’s okay to slow down and expand on the characters’ back story. You don’t see that in a superhero film often, which is admirable.

Grade: A-

“The Fate of the Furious”

Who would have thought that a “Point Break” rip-off called “The Fast & the Furious” would have spawned seven sequels? I didn’t. Who would have thought the franchise would have gone from the gearhead genre to the spy genre? I didn’t. “The Fate of the Furious” sticks to the spy roots.

Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are on their honeymoon when a mysterious terrorist named Cipher (Charlize Theron) persuades Dominic to join her organization. Letty and Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) lead their team alongside Mr Nobody (Kurt Russell) and their old nemesis Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) to stop Dominic and Cipher’s plan.

The “Fast and Furious” franchise is a ridiculous blast. I personally wasn’t a fan of the first two installments since they were too serious, but each installment got better. “The Fate of the Furious” doesn’t reach the same level of fun as “Fast Five” and “Fast and Furious 6,” or the same emotional level as “Furious 7,” but it’s still solid escapism.

Most of the cast members are clearly having a blast. Johnson and Statham break character making each other laugh mid-banter, Kurt Russell is cool as always, and Tyrese Gibson and Ludracris once again add a great dose of humor. Even Helen Mirren has a rich cameo as a reluctant ally of the team.

Diesel, on the other hand, has no passion or effort in his performance. He goes from low tone to screaming like Nicolas Cage, and it’s sad to watch. I also expected more from Theron, but she phones in every cool-spoken philosophical monologue. It’s more cliched than menacing.

“The Fate of the Furious” features some frenetic action sequences, including raining cars from the sky and a battle royale-style prison fight. The climactic submarine duel is underwhelming since it feels reminiscent of “Fast and Furious 6’s” climax.

I applaud “The Fate of the Furious” for maintaining its fun over-the-top style and we have two more installments. However, with the loss of Paul Walker, the film struggles to maintain its heart and soul. Hopefully they’ll restore this within the next installment along with Diesel’s passion.

Grade: B-

Franchise ranked 1-8:

  1. Fast Five
  2. Fast & Furious 6
  3. Furious 7
  4. The Fast & the Furious: Tokyo Drift
  5. The Fate of the Furious
  6. Fast & Furious
  7. The Fast & the Furious
  8. 2 Fast 2 Furious

“T2: Trainspotting”

It’s about time Danny Boyle and Ewan McGregor made amends and followed up “Trainspotting” (one of my favorite films) with a sequel. It’s better than half of the long-waited sequels.

Nearly 20 years after Mark (McGregor) stole money from his friends, Mark now lives in Amsterdam with a wife and career. He unexpectedly returns to Scotland and reconciles with estranged friends Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) and Spud (Ewen Bremmer). They aren’t as fortunate since Simon now makes a living blackmailing people and Spud has relapsed into his heroin addiction. Then the psycho Begbie (Robert Carlyle) escapes prison, raising hell for the trio.

The brilliant and kinetic Boyle once again shows flare and energy in this long-waited followup. “T2” might seem unnecessary, but there’s a sequel book (“Trainspotting” is based on a novel), so it’s somewhat necessary. When it slows down in storytelling, Boyle makes up for it with his visuals and music.

There are quite a few transgressive moments in “T2” that have the same level of energy as “Trainspotting.” Most of these moments are electrified by the cast. Whether it’s Mark singing a song about King William killing Catholics in front of an ecstatic audience, or Mark and Begbie realizing they’ve ran into each other in a sleazy men’s bathroom, the laughs are consistent.

“T2” slows down halfway through and shifts to a nostalgic tone, which is both admirable and frustrating. We see the characters in a new light with Mark realizing he’s not as innocent as he lets on, he and Simon are criticized by Simon’s girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), and Begbie sees the error in his ways.

Simultaneously, Spud spends most of his time writing a novel and these scenes result in pacing issues. Veronika’s subplot with her, Mark, and Simon nearly turn the film into a formulaic romantic comedy, but thankfully Begbie (an always great Robert Carlyle) saves the film from going that direction. Another plus about the nostalgic tone is viewers don’t need to see “Trainspotting” to follow along. “T2” stands on its own.

The ending scene is dark if you analyze it closely. Characters seem okay either staying in the same place or simply going backwards. “Trainspotting” was about rebelling against society, so it’s obvious these characters won’t snap out of their rebellion. And I’m okay with that!

Grade: B

“John Wick: Chapter 2”

Keanu Reeves needs to keep making action movies because his stunt work in “John Wick: Chapter 2” is impeccable. He tops his work in the film’s predecessor.

Picking up where the first one ended, Wick reclaims his car and settles back into retirement with an adorable unnamed pit bull. When crime boss Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) asks Wick to pull off an impossible job, Wick is forced into it due to a blood oath. Wick soon finds himself double crossed and shooting his way out of both Rome and New York, as he finds a contract put on him.

“John Wick: Chapter 2” starts with a bang, combining a car chase with mixed martial arts in innovative fashion. It’s one of several versatile and jaw-dropping action sequences. While “Chapter 1” was mostly shooting, “Chapter 2” features knife fights, stealth kills, foot chases, and one epic gunfight in the Roman Catacombs where Reeves shows off impressive weapons training.

The action in “Chapter 2” ranges from brutal and intense (there’s a pencil kill that tops “The Dark Knight”) to plain ridiculous (look out for a never-ending stair scene). It’s even in both categories and Reeves once again delivers a restrained performance.

Director Chad Stahelski further expands the world building by diving deeper into the Continental’s rules and benefits, featuring some darkly funny moments. We even learn how large the assassin guild is since nearly everyone in “Chapter 2” is an assassin.

While “Chapter 2” improves in its world building and action sequences, it sadly declines in writing and gritty tone. Wick is fighting for survival, which isn’t as edgy or compelling as him seeking revenge. Santino isn’t nearly smug or despicable like the Tarasovs from “Chapter 1,” either.

The final act comes off forced and anti-climactic, but this is forgivable due to the film’s relentless pace and world building. Now when is “Chapter 3” coming out again?

Grade: B+