“We’ve Been Compromised, With Every Citizen At This Planet At Risk. Trust No One…”
With the catalogue of blockbusters appearing on the big screen post-Avengers: Endgame so far this year not exactly managing to hit the same levels of excellence in any way shape or form whatsoever, with the likes of Godzilla: King of the Monsters and X-Men: Dark Phoenix failing to win over both critics and the box office alike, one of Hollywood’s most rusty cinematic franchises is strangely brought back to life in the form of Men in Black: International in a last-ditch attempt to save the day for cinema chains across the world. With the original Men in Black from 1997 still too darn entertaining to be regarded as a guilty pleasure, with a typically sarcastic Tommy Lee Jones and a Will Smith in full-on Fresh Prince-era brilliance resulting in a cinematic partnership for the ages, the subsequent sequel and threequel failed to ignite similar levels of excellence, resulting in sheer bemusement when rumours of a fourth entry was on the way, and with the latest chapter this time being directed by F. Gary Gray, whose work on the excellent, Straight Outta Compton, has somewhat been overshadowed after the not-so excellent, The Fate of the Furious, it’s fair to say that International isn’t the most anticipated movie of the year thus far.
With the usual acting suspects dropped in favour of Thor and Valkyrie themselves, it’s fair to say that the likeable pairing of Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson (Avengers: Endgame) is one of the only good things about International, a lifeless, run-of-the-mill, cash-grab which sees Thompson as Molly Wright, a wide-eyed, alien-obsessed dreamer whose experience of the titular darkly attired agents as a young child results in her soon joining up herself and working alongside Hemsworth’s suitably cocky and annoyingly charming, Henry, in order to, you guessed it, save the world against an alien threat known as the hive. With cringe-inducing dialogue, poor storytelling and an over-reliance on forgettable special effects, Gray’s movie prefers the art of nonsensical explosions over a decent plot and whilst the inclusion of Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick) as the voice of a clingy, cutesy egg-shaped alien adds a much needed level of comedic spice, International is annoyingly both a gigantic waste of time and talent, adding itself rather nicely to the collection of half-baked summer blockbusters thus far. Neurolyse me now.
Overall Score: 4/10
“People Like Me, We Live In The Past. You Got People That Need You Now. You Got Everything To Lose, This Guy Has Got Nothing To Lose…”
Boosting the career of Ryan Coogler into the international stratosphere, 2016’s Creed remains arguably the most entertaining and thrilling entry into the Rocky franchise since the Oscar winning original, one which brought the leading boxing film series back into the eyes of critical admiration and most crucially, managed to place Everton’s beautifully old fashioned Goodison Park onto the big screen. With Coogler too busy to return to directorial duties, American filmmaker Steven Caple Jr. takes the reigns for a sequel which sees Michael B. Jordan’s (Black Panther) Adonis Creed be crowned as the new heavyweight champion of the world after a successful win against former foe, Danny “Stuntman” Wheeler, a title which is soon challenged from across the East when Creed is called out to partake in a high profile grudge match against the son of Dolph Lundgren’s (The Expendables 3) Ivan Drago, the Soviet Union muscle machine responsible for the death of Creed’s father in Rocky IV. With stakes higher than ever before, Creed II follows a very familiar and welcome filmic sensibility to Coogler’s re-shuffling of the tried and trusted boxing genre back in 2016, with Caple Jr. using the most cinematic of sports as a secondary measure to a story which centres on notions of grief, regret and ultimately redemption within a movie which wonderfully offers once again a much deeper and thematically complex narrative backbone than one would expect from what is essentially a big budget Hollywood sporting blockbuster.
By immediately accepting its’ role and responsibility of the Hollywood sequel with welcome arms from the offset, Creed II utilises a two hour plus runtime to balance expanded characterisation with gorgeous sporting spectacle, and with a central key narrative arc regarding the pressures of living up to individual legacy running parallel within both the tightly wound Creed party and the fiendish Drago camp, Caple Jr.’s movie impressively manages to focus enough on both protagonist and antagonist to allow an empathetic view into the trials and tribulations of their individual lives, ones separated not only by country but by lifestyle too. Offering bolder and bigger orchestrated set pieces, including not one, but two superb fights involving Creed and Drago, the narrative at times does sway into cliche, particularly to audiences already well versed in the ways and means of the Rocky franchise, but with beautiful dialogue and complex character development which carries on from the groundwork already put in by Coogler and co in the film’s predecessor, emotional involvement is achieved with astounding ease, resulting in you peering through your fingers as you witness the young Creed battle through broken ribs and busted eyes against the intimidating and physically mountainous presence of Florian Munteanu’s similarly youthful Drago. With the choreography of the central fights executed to an excellent degree and the long awaited ringside reunion between Stallone and Lundgren as gleefully exciting as the diner scene between Pacino and De Niro in the masterful Heat, Creed II is everything I expected from a follow-up to one of my favourite films of 2016 and even without the presence of Ryan Coogler, the latest Rocky picture is superb sporting cinema.
Overall Score: 8/10
“No World They Create For Us Can Compete With The Real One…”
With the finale of Westworld’s debut season a fascinating, masterful and downright majestic ninety minutes of television which not only offered up more questions than answers within a series which was getting more and more renowned for having more narrative rabbit holes than some audiences could feasibly cope with, but more importantly, set the base line for the second round of stories which would ultimately follow, “The Passenger”, the similarly feature length concluding arc of the show’s second season undoubtedly had a hard act to follow, particularly when the preceding nine episodes this time around have left arguably a wider amount of certain story-lines teetering on the edge. With deaths aplenty, brain-melting exposition and enough shocking twists to make M. Night Shyamalan bow to exhaustion, Westworld’s latest closing chapter was a plot heavy but familiarly beautiful example of science fiction at its’ most ludicrous and inventive, one which once again boldly offered up more question marks than straightforward answers in an attempt to lay the mouthwatering stepping stones for the future of the show which on the basis of its’ ever expanding nature, has endless possibilities lying ahead.
With the majority of the plot focused on a heavy proportion of the main characters converging at the Valley Beyond, now envisioned as a mystical, Stargate-esque gateway which the hosts enter in order to “free” their minds from the prison of the park and into a virtual reality free from their physical self, the chance to see a culmination of Maeve, Akecheta and the redeemed figure of Simon Quarterman’s Lee Sizemore all having their own particular second season character arcs come to a end was particularly well managed, even when after the sheer mastery of episode eight, Akecheta ultimately seemed a tad bit wasted over the course of the entire run amidst a few fatal plot holes such as the extent of Maeve’s Neo-like powers and the issue of why not everyone seemed to be effected by the Clementine spreading virus which swiftly turned the hosts into 28 Days Later inspired rampaging murderers. With the pace of the episode not allowing audiences the chance to come up for fresh air at all, the bulky exposition section involving Delores, Bernard and Charlotte Hale’s band of Delos security did ultimately seem rather mind-melting at times, particularly when we see Delores and Bernard jump into the storage pump of the guests and reunite with a virtual manifestation of Logan who proceeds to explain the predictability and simplicity of mankind in a elongated set piece which unfavourably reminded me of the convoluted Architect scene in The Matrix Reloaded, and whilst particular resolutions were brought to the table, their is no doubting that “The Passenger” is the sort of episode that requires second, third and even fourth viewings in order to dissect the entirety of the subject matter it attempts to portray.
With Westworld’s second season in general improving with every step, “The Passenger” reminded that even when the show is at its’ most extreme in terms of baffling its’ audiences, the beauty in its’ construction deserves to be wildly lauded, and with soaring, stunning cinematography once again and a masterful collection of musical pieces by Ramin Djawadi, including a concluding reworked version of Radiohead’s “Codex”, the show continues to be one of the most vividly rewarding televisual experiences of the moment, one which challenges works of cinema for sheer, resounding spectacle. With twist after twist and the finality of death not strictly being adhered to, the episodes’ final twenty minutes was undoubtedly close to pushing the panic button at times in terms of swaying from the realms of plausibility, but with a joyously entertaining turn of events which sees our favourite hosts transfer from one world to another and the fate of William/The Man in Black being well and truly thrown up into the air, “The Passenger” concluded a series by adhering to the show’s characteristic of being at times remarkable and challenging in equal measure, but with curious possibilities lying ahead to be explored, Westworld finished in a way which every season should by leaving the audience seriously wanting more.
Overall Episode Score: 9/10
Overall Season Score: 8.5/10
“The Only Real World Is The One Outside These Borders…”
With the entirety of last week’s episode of Westworld beautifully dedicated to Zahn McClarnon’s Akecheta and the origin of the Ghost Nation, the penultimate episode of the show’s wonderful second season resorts back to the multi-layered narrative strands which the series is renowned for, exploring a deeper characterisation of a key central character whilst attempting to lay out the explosive turn of events which are guaranteed to kick off in the series finale next week. With William/The Man in Black taking centre stage for the majority of the episode, several interesting notions which had previously been glanced at in the past were granted much needed exploration, particularly in regards to the previously ambiguous event of William’s wife’s mysterious suicide and his own dedicated purpose to the world which he has created. With William’s wife, the offspring of James Delos and sister of Logan, presented as a troubled, conflicted alcoholic whose uncertainty of her own husband forces her into a feeling of prolonged anger and hate, William’s revelation of his natural place in Westworld and embracing of his inner darkness acts as the deciding turn for her death, a decision which undeniably still haunts both William and daughter Emily.
With Emily’s own uncertainty about her father resulting in her attempting to save him in both physical and spiritual senses, her own discovery of her father’s true nature also led to a shocking conclusion, one which not only conclusively presented William as being well and truly lost and swallowed up by his inner turmoil but one which begged the question of whether William himself is human or host, a question echoed by the repeated voice of Emily who stated “if you keep pretending, you’re not going to remember who you are.” With the backstory of William’s wife also highlighting once again Ford’s knowledge of the “project” within the “valley beyond”, now confirmed to be a radical exploration of cognition replication in order to change guests into hosts, his personal struggle of being forced out of his own creation led to the promise of “one more game” and perhaps the fundamental reasoning for Ford’s willingness to facilitate the host’s defection, but with Bernard attempting to rid himself of Ford’s control in order to save Elsie, there still remains questions regarding Ford’s ultimate park endgame. Concluding with a rather emotional death and the sense that particular characters, both human and host, seem to be close to the edge of complete and utter desolation, the penultimate episode of Westworld was yet another majestically crafted hour of science fiction which sets up a concluding chapter which will simply be unmissable.
Overall Score: 9/10
“Death Is A Passage From This Brutal World. You Don’t Deserve The Exit…”
With Westworld in the past consigned to a natural and intended cold-hearted sensibility which entwines its’ way though the show’s genetic makeup, one which seems to mirror the stark alien and unforgivable landscape in which it details, one of the main issues which many have picked up is a rare absence of heart or emphatic empathy for pretty much any of the leading characters, Bernard aside, where even the radical characterisation of Delores this year has resulted in a change of outlook on arguably Season One’s most heartbreaking character. Step forward Zahn McClarnon this week however, an actor famous for his scene-stealing leading role in Noah Hawley’s second season of Fargo alongside cameo performances in the likes of Bone Tomahawk, and “Kiksuya”, the eighth episode of this rapidly improving ten episode haul, is undoubtedly the most impressive and deliriously heartbreaking episode of not only this season, but the entire show thus far, one which utilises historical exposition to detail the history of the intriguing Ghost Nation and one which proves that under that tough level of skin, Westworld can produce moments of pure, unrivalled beauty.
With the whole episode dedicated to the life of McClarnon’s host, Akecheta, the excessively painted leader of the Ghost Nation whose intentions up to now have seemed questionable to say the least, his ability to recall the past lives in which he has both lived and died paints a glorious travel through time as we swiftly move from the early origins of the park to the present day, gorgeous cinematography in hand, and one which develops the once ambiguous season subtitle, “The Door”, as we learn of both Akecheta’s, and in a brilliant concluding twist, Maeve’s endgame in attempting to reach a world which they believe rightfully belongs to them. With a narrative through line which sees Julia Jones as Kohana, Akecheta’s beautiful love interest, the heart-wrenching coldness of the park is executed with extraordinary success, with Akecheta’s personal discovery of the park’s true foundations resulting in a tear-inducing set piece, one made all the better by yet another brilliant Ramin Djawadi musical twist which this time sees a top-note piano rendition of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box”. With a heartfelt caressing of Westworld’s newest, and arguably, most interesting character this season, this week’s episode was a ravishing and visually stunning hour of larger-than-life television which halted the breaks on the action and took the time to delve deeper into a host POV which both balanced the pacing of the overall plot as well as adding to it with masterful results. This was HBO at its’ finest people.
Overall Score: 10/10
“The Passage From One World To The Next Requires Bold Steps Bernard…”
With the climax of last week’s episode teasing the return of Anthony Hopkins’ elegant and calculating Dr. Robert Ford, the question surrounding “Les Ecorches”, the seventh episode of the ever-improving second season of Westworld, was how big a part the character’s return would play in regards to answering the questions that seem to have all have arisen at the same time of his character’s infamous “death” in the debut season’s finale. With Bernard entering the dreamscape sensibility of the Cradle in order to make contact with Ford, his re-introduction this week alleviates a minor slither of ambiguity regarding the overall purpose of the park, with the notion of human survival seemingly the primary goal of the Westworld hierarchy, something of which was touched upon in previous episodes, particularly within “The Riddle of the Sphinx” in which the groundhog day effect of James Delos’ everlasting host seems much more crucial to the Westworld endgame in retrospect, and with Ford now still alive in conscious form rather than physical, his transfer into the mind of Bernard crafted up some rather creepy, spectre-esque imagery as Bernard was forced to murder against his will and fall in line towards the will of Ford and his calculating scheme of survival.
With the episode beginning with the secrets of Bernard being set free into the hands of Tessa Thompson’s Charlotte Hale, the ghost of Theresa Cullen loomed over Bernard as he was forced to face the truth surrounding his fundamental existence, and with the narrative chopping back and forth between time periods once again, the outcome of last week’s train bombing paid dividends with a long-awaited meeting between the two alpha females on each side of the pack. With Thompson’s Charlotte and Delores finally meeting head-to-head in the Westworld HQ compound, the former’s attempts at scrambling the mind of the now murderous host was swiftly eradicated, with Delores seemingly well aware of the bigger picture surrounding the park and the possibility of man’s wish of everlasting life, and with Charlotte close to experiencing the violent delights of the host’s capabilities, the interaction between the two was well executed and brilliantly tense. With action aplenty and numerous low-key character deaths, both human and host alike, “Les Ecorches” balanced action with meaningful exposition rather excellently, and with the return of Anthony Hopkins adding that extra slice of sinister charm that encompassed his character last season, this week’s episode of Westworld was an hour of absorbing and wholly entertaining science fiction spectacle.
Overall Score: 9/10
“We Each Deserve To Choose Our Fate. Even If That Fate Is Death…”
Arriving with a steadier, more productive narrative pacing than previous episodes so far this season, this week’s chapter of Westworld was undeniably the best entry within its’ second season so far, mixing superbly choreographed action set pieces with interesting core story developments and a surprising character return which ended the episode on the most thrilling cliffhanger yet, and whilst most of the action primarily occurred within the Shogunworld portion of the various narrative strands, each of the core character arcs did manage to be examined this week in a fashion which pushed the story further ahead in riotously entertaining fashion. With Maeve and co. wishing a fond farewell to the antics of Shogunworld for the time being, the episode at least managed to produce a swashbuckling samurai duel before returning to Maeve’s long lost home, where upon discovering the rules of Westworld at its’ coldest and cruellest, was seen to bear a similar path with that of the wildly unpredictable Ghost Nation.
Elsewhere, the fundamental changes implemented by Delores onto Teddy paid obvious dividends with a newly found murderous streak which even Delores seemed to find surprising, and with the first real productive attack on Westworld HQ, the endgame of Delores’ plan seems to be somewhat put in motion, but with an opening scene which detailed a test outlining the “fidelity” of Bernard’s host, this particular scene is yet another which hasn’t yet identified its’ place in the wandering time strands within Westworld‘s storytelling technique, outlining that there is still many more secrets to be let loose before anything can be taken as a certainty. Of course, the most interesting plot thread this week lands with Bernard and Elsie’s attempts to crack into the Cradle, a hybrid hive mind which seemingly acts as the home hub for everything within the park, including the mind of every single active host, defective or not defective, and with Bernard jacking himself into it in a The Matrix influenced sensibility in order to locate the source of a mysterious contact attempting to communicate with the Cradle, the episode ends with the ghostly reflection of Anthony Hopkins’ Dr. Ford and a cliffhanger which results in “Phase Space” being the most rewarding and deliciously entertaining hour to come out of Westworld season two so far.
Overall Score: 9/10
“Welcome To Shogunworld…”
With the ever expanding Westworld universe opening audiences’ eyes to the possibility of a samurai-inspired section of the park two weeks ago, the tantalising prospect of seeing sword swaying hosts in action was completely disregarded last week after leaving keen observers such as myself without a resolution to the cliffhanger the previous week, but with no time wasted this week, the half way mark of the second season brought with it action aplenty, mysterious god-like powers and the introduction to Shogunworld, a hostile laden territory designed for those who found Westworld “too tame”. With the hosts seemingly similarly malfunctioning within a land consisting of ninjas, ronin warriors and beautiful geisha’s, the episode focuses on Maeve’s struggle to remove herself and her party away from a narrative which bears an aching similarity to her own, with parallels between both Westworld and Shogunworld not only limited to host story-lines but their own personal characteristics too, evidenced by an excellent familiar set-piece in which Rodrigo Santoro’s Hector gets to see his own brand of infamous and criminal escapades played out in front of him.
With the real talking point of the episode landing on Maeve’s sudden ability for total hosts control without the use of speech or movement at all, her newly found “witchcraft” paints a clear picture which points to her as the most powerful corrupted host within the park, particularly in regards to her eagerness to dismantle many of her fellow hosts as possible, and with a concluding dance routine which features undoubtedly the season’s most violently beautiful host kill thus far, the introduction of Akane, a host bearing more than one similarity to Maeve, creates a wonderfully murderous double act for the continuation of their respective journey. On the other side of the park, the build-up of Delores’ deception against Teddy after she declares him to not be fit for her new world due to his fundamental empathetic and caring nature, ran parallel’s with the “present day” in which we see Teddy’s deceased corpse after it was fished out of the water by the Delos recovery team, and with Delos more than eager to be re-acquainted with Delores’ father, the missing Peter Abernathy, the narrative gaps are still plain to see but still interesting enough to be constantly engaging. With sword fights, gruesome deaths and the exploration of a fresh, if familiar, new park, Westworld was on excellent form once again this week and continued the strong start to a first half of a season which continues to make audiences think above all else.
Overall Score: 8/10
“My Memories, I Get Lost In Them. I Can’t Tell If This Is Now Or Then…”
With gunshots and spectacle taking centre stage last week to a solidly effective degree within an episode which not only offered up new characters, but fresh environments too, it comes as no surprise that this week’s trip into Westworld offered more of the baffling, brain-aching twisty narratives which the show is renowned for, utilising once again the power of uncertain timescale jumps as one of the more interesting questions of Season Two begins to unravel and the history and troubles of characters both old and new are efficiently examined. With a huge percentage of the episode focused on Bernard, both in the past and in the “present”, his reunion with long lost work counterpart Elise, returning after her unsatisfying mysterious disappearance in Season One, leads to one of the more interesting notions within the Westworld environment being slowly picked apart, and with guest star Peter Mullan brilliantly returning as James Delos, the father in law of William who was introduced earlier in the series, his seclusion within the confines of Groundhog Day style set up is superbly repeated throughout the episode as the layers of his existence begin to unravel, accumulating in an expertly crafted crossing of paths come the latter end of this week’s extended episode.
With Bernard and Elsie discovering the possibility of what seems to be a human/host hybrid project, one originally designed to house the mind of James Delos, the question now resides on who the latest choice for this particular endeavour is, one started by William himself and one which seems to be part of the many regrets torturing such a character, and with a strange, darkly nihilistic tone creeping over the mood of the episode this week, aided of course by the ever creepy drone hosts, the fundamental strangeness of the show was their to be seen in spades. With William/The Man in Black absent from proceedings last week, his explosive return explores his deeper sorrow at the loss of a loved one and his determination to continue on the hunt for Ford’s endgame. Crossing paths with the vengeful Lawrence after his betrayal by Delores/Wyatt, the usage of nitroglycerine was a key part in a couple of strongly orchestrated set pieces, one a slow, measured attempt to walk away without losing a limb and the other, the most rewarding exploding death of a host you’ll see all season. Concluding with a unexpected familial reunion, which in hindsight, makes complete sense, “The Riddle of the Sphinx” was a challenging, bizarre but overly rewarding slice of science fiction which shows that sometimes, brains over brawl is indeed the successful choice.
Overall Score: 8/10
“There Is Beauty In What We Are. Should We Too Try To Survive..?”
With this week meaning that we are already three episodes into the latest season of Westworld, one could argue that in terms of contrasting series tones, HBO’s flagship show of 2018 bears an aching similarity to Netflix’s maddeningly enjoyable adaptation of Marvel’s Daredevil, with the first season of each both being outdone in terms of adrenaline fuelled action by their follow up sisters, and what episode three of Westworld proves this week is that not only is the blockbuster budget being well and truly dug into in order to showcase much more expansive action set pieces, but the sense of widening exploration evident in the first two hours of the season is an element which continues to be thoroughly enjoyable and genuinely intriguing. With an Asian inspired rendition of “Seven Nation Army” opening the episode, we are swiftly introduced to the first real dip into wider Westworld territory, with Katja Herbers’ Grace violently coming across the host’s defection in a British Raj-themed park in which the introduction of creaky CGI Bengal tigers attempt to fill the narrative gap left at the end of the premiere episode’s interesting cliffhanger.
With the majority of the episode following on from the discovery of a new park primarily focusing on the giant action set piece at the militaristic Confederados fort between Delores’ quickly assembled band of hosts and the hunting party of Delos soldiers, the action unfolds heavily in the “present day” this week, with no time at all whatsoever for pre-park flashbacks or even the inclusion of Ed Harris’ Man in Black. With an electrifying, flashy pacing chugging the action on much more rapidly than any episode within its’ first season, it seems very obvious that show-runners Johnathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have taken it upon themselves to arguably make the second season more “appealing” to a larger audience, one who may have been put off ever so slightly by the first series’ somewhat alienating, complex tones and prefer action over dialogue heavy monologues. Personally, I’m happy for a heavy dose of both as long as the mix between them is substantive and necessary, and whilst I enjoyed this week’s gigantic host versus human shoot-a-thon, the more interesting developments were indeed elsewhere in the discovery of the park’s wider alternatives, and with a concluding shot which resulted in a squeal of joyous excitement, “Virtù e Fortuna” at least made me ready for more sooner rather than later.