Monday, September 26, 2016

THE MEDIOCRE SEVEN: A Good Film That Doesn’t Merit Its Superlative.

I seek righteousness. But I'll take revenge.”

The above is stated by the widow Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) in response to a question posed by bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington). It is a declaration that acknowledges a desire for lofty aspirations, but opts instead for the banal; a sentiment that permeates The Magnificent Seven, a remake of John Sturges’ 1960 classic (itself a remake of Arika Kurosawa’s 1954 cinematic masterpiece, Seven Samurai). It would do the film a major disservice to compare it to its progenitors, for it falls woefully short in comparison. However, it is serviceably entertaining, though frustrating, film on its own merits.

Seven, directed by Antoine Fugua (Training Day, The Equalizer), screenplay by Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto, follows the same skeletal template. Ruthless business man Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) and his private army murders citizens of the mining town of Rose Creek to convince the survivors to sell their land to him for a fraction of its cost or face wholesale slaughter. Emma Cullen seeks out someone to help them before the deadline, and finds bounty hunter Chisolm, who is reluctant to give aid until he is told of Bogue’s involvement. Chisolm then recruits other gunslingers to aid him in the endeavor, consisting of gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), the tag team of ex-Confederate soldier and expert marksman Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and knife expert Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), wanted fugitive Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Fulfo), ex-scalp hunter Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), and Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) to engage in what may be the town’s last stand.

Though the setting is set in the Old West, it’s a thoroughly modern film in the sense that it’s infused with 21st century sensibilities. Instead of a (mostly) Caucasian cast in the 1960 film, the main cast is racially diverse, which lends the film with a more fantastical air than it should possess and incongruous for the era it represents. Yes, there were cowboys (and cowgirls) of all races and creeds. The point is that the racial prejudices of the era go largely unaddressed; a laudable and a long time coming sentiment for a story set in modern times, but inauthentic for its milieu and requiring a major suspension of disbelief. Such could be overlooked if it weren’t for the fact that there’s practically no conflict between the seven. Set ups for conflict galore: scalp hunter and a Comanche powder keg here, a Mexican in-joke there. Instead, hinted at possibilities and never developed. Drama is derived from conflict, and the differences between the seven are muted so that the eventual camaraderie between them is just an unearned, foregone conclusion; the characters are reduced to paper cutouts with no real empathetic investment. This is no fault of the actors though, as they all seem to be thoroughly enjoying playing cowboys.  The surprising thing about their performances are that, given that many of them have worked with the director, or each other before (Fugua, Washington, Hawke, Training Day; Fugua and Hawke, Brooklyn’s Finest, Fugua, Washington, and Bennett, The Equalizer, Pratt and D’Oronfino, Jurassic World; etc.), their work as a whole feels cookie-cutter bland. But then, despite the fact that this is an ensemble piece, the bulk of the work go to Washington, Pratt, Bennett and Hawke. As such, it’s no surprise that the rest get the short shrift in terms of satisfactory character development. Unfortunately, it undermines any possible emotional payoff that could have been derived from their interactions (though D’Orinfino’s Horne does come close to eliciting some poignancy).

Another thing that works to the film’s disadvantage is its penchant to eschew iconography for matter-of-fact realism. The cinematography is only beautiful when it could have been majestically evocative. It acts as travelogue for the YouTube generation. The film’s meat and potatoes are from the narrative, as everything is shot in paired down fashion. Unfortunately, its pacing is quixotically disjointed. The film plods where it should move briskly and, even more egregious, rushes moments meant to be held.  One of the basic hallmarks, and arguable necessity, of any western is the building of suspense; of using stillness and anticipation to ratchet tension in the viewer so that when the moment of action happens, the audience is ensnared in the payoff viscerally. For the majority of the film, this isn’t the case except for one instance near the climax. As such, the film’s impact is limited; not gone, but limited.  The action sequences are extremely well executed and attention grabbing and, again, the actor’s performances do draw one in, as does the soundtrack. For his last, posthumously-released score, James Horner’s treatment (fleshed out, adapted, and completed by his colleagues Simon Rhodes, orchestrator/conductor J.A.C. Redford, and music editors Joe E. Rand and Jim Henrikson) serve as a stylistic “greatest hits” for the late composer, with his acoustic trademarks evident throughout the score, giving epic weight that the film would lacks without it. It services the film by elevating it beyond its limitations; a fitting tribute to a sorely missed cinematic composer.

In all, The Magnificent Seven is merely mediocre. It is entertaining on the whole, but it’s undermined by its own self-consciousness. By eschewing the tropes that made the original a seminal classic in not just the Western genre but all of film, it only calls attention to them. It is a vehicle that is bogged down and neutered by its own political correctness. It’s not innovative. It’s a by-the-numbers affair that offers little more than an enjoyable shoot-‘em-up.

Ironically, there is one shot involving Washington’s Chisolm that happens before the climax that hints at what could have been. Alone astride his steed, his back towards the camera, his form obscured in silhouette, looking off in the d by the rising sun anticipating the arrival of his foe…a vista of crimson turning blue…for just a brief moment, Fugua presents a scene that epitomizes the epic, and then it’s gone, and the mundane sets in.  It reaches for greatness, but settles for mediocrity…and misses out on something truly magnificent. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016


Part one of a five part interview discussion regarding Hollywood's comic book output with the guys at Canonfire:

Monday, August 8, 2016

ABORT MISSION: Too Many Cooks Cause Suicide Squad To Commit The Act [MINOR SPOILERS]

Flavor Flav was right:  "Don't believe the hype."

That refrain played in a loop in my head as I watched David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, the latest film in Warner Bros./DC Comics' cinematic franchise. Unfortunately, it’s all pomp with very little by way of circumstance going for it.

After the events of Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) assembles a wetwork team of super-villains to take on end run missions that have minimal chances for survival and act as a metahuman deterrent. Among the villains she’s selected for the task are Floyd Lawton/Deadshot (Wil Smith), the assassin who never misses; Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), a loutish, uncouth master of the boomerang; El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a gangbanger with a fiery personality; Slipknot (Adam Beach), a rope-gimmick assassin; Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnoye-Agbaje), a deformed monstrosity; The Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), an ancient sorceress currently possessing the body of scientist June Moon; and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), moll of The Joker (Jared Leto), and a formidable psychopath in her own right.  The team is held in check by team leader Rick Flag, Jr. (Joel Kinnaman) and the resident martial artist with a soul trapping sword Katana (Karen Fukuhara).

“Suicide Squad” was a 1950’s DC Comic about four government agents who, under the Task Force X program, took on covert suicide missions the United States couldn’t touch during the Cold War. The title was revived in the mid-80’s for one purpose: copyright retention; i.e., “use it or lose it.” Writer John Ostrander revamped the concept so that super-villains were blackmailed into taking on those missions in exchange for commuted sentences (and limb/head retention). Whereas Ostrander and his wife Kim Yale (with artists John Byrne, Luke McDonnell, and Karl Kesel, among others), were able to churn out a suspenseful and successful comic out of a business necessity, Suicide Squad the film feels like it was solely made simply to keep the copyright alive.

Aesthetically, the film is a super-villain pastiche of The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Mission: Impossible (take your pick). In terms of structure and presentation, the more applicable film to reference would be The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966), with the breakdown being as follows:


Individual performances:  Taking into account Hollywood’s penchant for not being wholly faithful for the source material, one has to expect liberties with characterization going in. That said, Smith seems to be having a good time as Deadshot, even if he does deliver a moment of cringe-worthy line delivery here and there. Then, there’s Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller. This character may have been previously seen on live action shows such as Smallville and Arrow, but Davis’ take is by far the closest to the source material, and just as formidable. She’s tough and unlikable…the way Waller is supposed to be. Yet Davis hits the right beats to keep her character engaging. Jai Courtney finally finds a role of note in Boomerang, whose despicable character is somewhat entertaining (even if he’s given a fetish affectation as comedic shorthand) and frankly, like Smith, Courtney looks like he’s having the most fun he’s had on a film set. The most poignant of the bunch is Hernandez’ Diablo, whose reluctance to use his abilities come from a backstory that renders him the most sympathetic in the cast. Then, there’s Robbie’s Harley Quinn. Robbie captures most of the source character’s characteristics in what should have been a major break out role, but isn’t; reasons for same being cited below.

Ambition:      Suicide Squad is an ambitious film. To present a perception of a shared cinematic universe through the eyes of its villains is a bold choice to make; an opportunity to view its world (and the heroes that inhabit it) through a different set of glasses.

Homages/Easter Eggs:  Without spoiling anything, there are enough of them in this film presented in such a way to bring a smile to long time DC fans’ faces without taking the non-initiated out of the film (there are other reasons for that happenstance to take place).

The Visuals:  Color is used in a way here that was decidedly lacking in the first two DC Cinematic Universe offerings. It unapologetically uses bright, vibrant, primary colors to great effect, juxtaposing with the more muted and dour visuals of the film. 

The First Thirty Minutes:    Despite it seeming to take forever in exposition, the first thirty minutes of the film effectively establishes each character and their initial motivations as they are introduced.


Performances as A Collective Whole:  One of the greatest hurdles in any ensemble film, especially a film of this type, is the character juggling. Some films do it deftly, such as The Wild Bunch (1969). Suicide Squad is not that film. Motivations change at the drop of a hat. Granted, the argument to be made is that these are “evil” mercenaries and should have pliable motivation. In this case, though, it’s more bean-counter arbitrariness than it is in-story development. There are hints of development (such as in the cases of Boomerang and Croc), that are summarily dropped. These arcs, such as they are, lead nowhere. Other performances pander: Some expected (Harley Quinn), some groan inducing (The Enchantress); the latter to the brink of eye rolling.

The Music:    On the surface, there is nothing wrong with it. Steven Price’s score is unrelentingly edgy, and some of the pop/rock inclusions to the soundtrack are inspired for the given situations and/or characters. However, the film is too peppered with the latter and the former inadvertently adds to the disjointed nature of the film itself. 


Narrative/Tonal Schizophrenia:  Plot? What plot?  It's not even worth mentioning David Ayer’s screen writing or direction because, even if there stories about the behind the scenes re-writes and re-shoots didn’t already about, the film as a structural and tonal narrative is a disjointed mess. The only thing approximating cohesion appears in the first 30 minutes. After that, it all goes to dung up. Ill-defined character motivation aside, the film’s overall aesthetic falls somewhere between post-apocalyptic chic and a MadTV episode. This is perhaps the most perplexing aspect of Suicide Squad.  Both Man of Steel and Batman versus Superman embraced sturm und drang grim and gritty, an aesthetic that is tailor-made for the this film. However, instead of owning the angst and depravity, we’re presented with a sanitized film more Hot Topic than hard core, wavering uncomfortably between callous violence and a more lighthearted romp reminiscent of Deadpool (but without its wit or willingness to laugh at itself).  One can practically point out scenes where Standards-and-Practices demanded changes. The movie jerks with so many starts and stops that it's like driving a stick-shift without the knowledge of how to do so. It’s jarring and minimizes the very nature of the Squad.

One Particular Performance (Why So Serious?):

The biggest draw for this film is Leto's Joker, and it’s his performance that most divisive and epitomizes Flav’s choral rallying cry. In all fairness to Leto, he does try his best step away from the mold created by his predecessors. This would be great…if there were something in the performance that said “Joker." There's very little to differentiate Leto’s take from any other psychopathic crime boss in recent cinema. It’s a self-involved performance that is more quirky for its own sake than character building, and he’s about as scary as a mime performing interpretive dance. Nevertheless, the Joker is extraneous to the film. He adds nothing to the narrative as a whole, much less to the lore of The Joker. It's an extended and unsatisfying cameo; one that could not live up to the hype building up to it. His Joker would have been better served in flashback and hiding behind the scenes, rather than interacting with the Squad.

What's Love Got To Do With It:

Speaking of the Harley/Joker dynamic, the two are not supposed to be a love affair of the ages, but rather the personification of spousal abuse and Stockholm Syndrome. Throughout his history, despite an occasional hiccup, The Joker is an irredeemable figure whose character is the epitome of chaotic evil. Yet this film humanizes him to the extent of giving him a redemptive aspect via Harley. Not only does this run counter to any previous take of The Joker, but it does Harley, and her agency, a disservice. This take implies that Harley is somewhat sane, because she is seeing something tangible that other people don't...his ability to care about someone. In the comics, Harley is a tragic but resolute figure as she has survived the abuses heaped upon her by “Mistah J”, even if her psyche hadn’t. Their insanity, and their core characters, are diminished both individually and as a couple. Word is that there are scenes regarding the Joker that show he only values Harley as property (if he values her at all). Despite the seemingly interminable runtime, the characters would have been better served if said scenes were included. As such, the relationship is one of the film’s biggest missteps.

* * * * *

Personally speaking, I really wanted to like this film. The tonal about-face from the previous films comes as quite a shock. There were a lot of elements here that had a lot of potential to make it the DC Universe’s version of Pulp Fiction, if not Inglorious Basterds.  The actors are all game, but there's very little in the film for them to sink their teeth into. Their performances are, given the film’s limitations serviceable. They inhabit their characters, but there's nothing that makes one clamor to see any of them again in an ensemble piece or a solo film (the exception being Robbie, because she gives enough to make you wonder what she’s capable of in the role with a good script). In truth, one would be better off watching the 2014 animated feature Batman: Assault on Arkham if one wants a satisfying Suicide Squad tale. Though it will no doubt make a ton of money for Warner Bros. just out of sheer curiosity alone, despite having some arguably fun (if not enjoyable) moments, Suicide Squad is, on the whole, a spectacular failure. One would have expected, given the antihero-as-protagonist conceit and the subject matter, this film to be a slam dunk. However, the film is nothing but fumble after fumble. It’s not enough to ask for a time out. It makes you want to call the game. 

Monday, August 1, 2016

BOURNE AGAIN: "Jason Bourne" Still Thrills Despite Retreading Ground

Eight years is a long time; especially in pop culture, more so in films, and most with franchise films which, by their very nature, tend to become more formulaic in execution as time goes on. And the longer the time, greater the frequency of the buzzword “reboot”. One need look no further than Sony’s Spider-Man series as a prime example, since it was rebooted within four years between films. More recently, the body heat from Christian Bale’s batsuit had barely cooled before Ben Affleck arrived to sweep the Nolan films under a proverbial rug. By the same token, it hasn't stopped Hollywood from churning out films way beyond their expiration date to mixed to negative result (Independence Day, anyone?). The most relevant example here was the tepidly received The Bourne Legacy (2012), a stealth reboot made a scant five years after the end of The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). For all intents and purposes, Ultimatum tied the story of amnesiac assassin David Webb/Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) into a satisfactory, if not totally neat, bow. His journey concluded and his identity reclaimed, Bourne dismantled Treadstone and swam off into the ocean depths and into self-imposed obscurity. However, Legacy's poor critical and financial reception made one thing clear...No Matt Damon, no Bourne

Eight years later (and some time after Legacy), ex-CIA agent turned hacker Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) hacks into the CIA mainframe and uncovers not only a more insidious program than Treadstone, but also more information about Jason Bourne. Unfortunately, her efforts are uncovered by Agent Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) who, after alerting CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) of the breach, targets Parsons for extraction. These events force Bourne out of hiding, and the cat-and-mouse hunt Bourne so desperately wished to leave behind begins anew.

As a film, Jason Bourne manages to mine the same territory while still remaining disturbingly topical. The technology has advanced, with all pervasive surveillance the result. Given the subject matter, it serves as sad indictment on our current socio-political climate. Returning director Paul Greengrass, with scriptwriter Christopher Rouse, brings all our current fears and questions regarding social media and privacy as the basis for the bare bones plot, along with an extra wrinkle to Bourne’s backstory to justify his return from exile; a wrinkle which seems to go coincidentally overboard in execution.

But despite the advances in technology, the story’s execution is familiar…so familiar that it falls into self-plagiaristic predictability (the very first chase scene is practically plucked from The Bourne Supremacy (2004)). It is not to say that the film isn’t satisfactory; quite the contrary. The action doesn’t let up from the moment it starts until the moment it ends. The fights and the stunts have been, by necessity, ratcheted up. For all that, however, there’s a strange lack of urgency in the proceedings, despite the ripping soundtrack by franchise orchestrator John Powell with assist by David Buckley. Perhaps it’s because the story beats are so subconsciously familiar that there’s very little sense of risk involved.

Perhaps that lack of urgency also stems from the fact that Jason Bourne is not as emotionally vulnerable as he was in the original trilogy. Jason was a killing machine, but his almost existential quest for identity humanized him to a great degree. Here, weathered of face, hardened in countenance, and armed with a hard won sense of self, Damon plays him as a self-assured, taciturn Terminator resolute with purposeful determination and a seething rage bubbling below the surface. Yet, Damon’s performance is such that a different sort of vulnerability evinces itself which keeps his character from delving into self-parody. By the same token, it’s a logical evolution of the character and Damon realizes it. Yet, at the same time, his capability minimizes the efforts of his foes, which includes a particularly vicious “asset” (Vincent Cassel, who co-starred with Damon in both Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen) with a major axe to grind. Cassel and Damon’s performances are inverse to previous asset antagonism as it is Cassel who’s the more emotionally invested assassin, thereby highlighting how much more self-contained and efficient Bourne has become. It’s one of the few surprises and highlight of the film.

Standing in for Joan Allen’s Pam Landy (who is indisposed after the events of Legacy), Alicia Vikander’s plays Heather Lee as a capable cipher, whose allegiance and motivations are in question throughout the film. She provides counterpoint to the more taciturn, scheming turn provided by Jones’ Dewey. Riz Ahmed has a MacGuffin-type role as Mark Zuckerberg-analogue Aaron Kalloor whose importance to the story is cursory at best. Regardless of this, all the performers make their characters engaging and hold audience interest.

Jason Bourne is an action packed but familiar thriller; a roller coaster ride of action and suspense even if it is not as viscerally engaging as its predecessors. Matt Damon is the reason these films exist past The Bourne Identity, and he is the reason to see this film. While he could have easily phoned in a well-worn performance, he invests it with an intensity and new perspective that gives a  freshness to an old cinematic friend, and reminds us why he is considered one of the best actors of his generation. The film’s title implies a new beginning/stand-alone aspect to this feature, signaling a continuation without being so mired to a past the series as a whole is tethered to. Sometimes, continuing a story after its natural conclusion leads to an unsatisfactory artistic denouement. On the other hand, other projects like Smallville and Supernatural thrived once they surpassed their initial mission statements. Time will tell on which side of that coin Jason Bourne will fall on. 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

BEYOND EXPECTATION: “Star Trek Beyond” Is The Apex Of The Rebooted Franchise. [POSSIBLE MINOR SPOILERS]

Because life is so brief, and time is a thief, when you're undecided….”
 - Rod Stewart; “Young Turks”.
Torches are curious things both literally and figuratively. They burn. They are carried and passed on, serving as both honor and burden. They can conversely be inflammatory and inspirational. They burn brightly. They ebb. They die. They relight. In this sense, torches metaphorically speak to legacy. Given that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the “Star Trek” franchise, Star Trek Beyond is a celebratory cinematic torch, as all the above-referenced themes are touched upon narratively and metatextually, making for a filmmaking experience that poignantly homages what has come before while wholly coming into its own.

More than halfway through their first five year mission into unexplored space, both Captain James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine) and Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) find themselves (much like the franchise itself) at a crossroads. Thoughts of untaken roads and the burden of legacy weigh heavily upon their shoulders, leading them to reconsider their lives. Meanwhile, Starfleet intercepts a refugee named Kalara (Lydia Wilson) who requests its aid on a matter of utmost importance. Being the only ship in the quadrant with the capabilities to traverse the nebula she emerged from, the Enterprise is dispatched to assess the situation and render aid. Needless to say, things don’t go as planned, leaving Kirk and his intrepid crew, with the aid of an alien warrior named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), to overcome practically insurmountable odds in a race against time to prevent the being known only as “Krall” (Idris Elba) from destroying the universe as they know it.
The previous film, Star Trek Into Darkness, left a bad taste among many, leading some to question its relevancy in the modern world. This idea being touched upon by Chris Pine in an interview wherein he stated that the current marketplace wouldn’t support a more traditionally cerebral take of the material. However, director Justin Lin brings his “fast and furious” penchant for speed and thrills while still retaining Trek’s spirit; a spirit encapsulated by the actors, most specifically by Simon Pegg, who co-wrote the screenplay with Dong Jung (along with some uncredited assist by Roberto Orci, Patrick McKay, and John D. Payne).
The conceit of the prime universe’s events asserting itself in this new timeline is subtly revisited, as certain story beats and themes from the original films are echoed here. Unlike Into Darkness, where the trope was used for underwhelming and trite shock value, these changes integrally and organically drive the plot. Furthermore, there’s a comfortable tone the previous two films lacked: a feeling most epitomized by the Enterprise itself, whose interiors, despite maintaining its Apple Store aesthetic, seems more lived in, even homey.
Speaking of visuals, it’s not hyperbole to state that the film is visually sumptuous, presenting a vibrancy at odds with, but still balancing, the film’s darker tone and themes. For those that say that Star Trek has run out of ideas, the VFX team certain science fiction concepts and visually give them a fresh retooling, which is most especially evident in the drone-like presentation of the enemy fleet. The visuals are so eye-popping and grand in scope, it’s a crime not to experience it in IMAX and/or 3-D.
Narratively, the film, no pun intended, engages. Without going into spoilers, one of Star Trek’s main strengths is serving as allegory for current, often controversial, issues, and Beyond carries on that tradition. Cultural and personal identity, personal relevance, life choice, past sins bearing bitter fruit, warfare, its aftermath, and their burning effects are all questions of consideration thematically; Beyond presents them in fast paced fashion. The script dots its “I”’s and crosses it’s “T”’s: Elements that are introduced are never unrealized. Further, the film holds your attention even throughout the quieter moments (especially when aided by the at turns bombastic and subtle score by Michael Giacchino, who without question provides his best score in this series to date).
This leads to the other strength that Star Trek has: Characterization. Pine, Quinto, Pegg (Montgomery Scott), Karl Urban (Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy), Zoe Saldana (Lieutenant Nyota Uhura), John Cho (Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu), and the late, and lamented, Anton Yelchin (Ensign Pavel Chekov) in the course of three films have transitioned from standard bearers to character embodiments for a new generation. Echoes of the original actors’ performances still remain, but the new cast shines, having made these roles their own, a fact this film cements. The script serves them well, as this time each character/actor is treated equally in terms of screen time and development. Most especially, despite rank, the characters respect each other, and the cast effectively convey a feeling of seasoned and hard earned camaraderie. Pine’s Kirk has made an interesting three-film turn from green rookie to seasoned commander. While still somewhat cocksure, Kirk’s maturity as both person and officer is evident, becoming more introspective and measured. Both Quinto and Urban are given much needed time to develop the humorous frienemy nature that typified Spock and McCoy. Pegg’s Scotty is still treated as comic relief, but at least here it’s not ludicrously contrived (“running gag”, anyone?). Cho’s Sulu is competency personified and, while the controversial nature of his character’s orientation tweak his been left on the cutting room floor, he nevertheless shows a softer, familial side that humanizes him further. Saldana’s Uhura, the most off model of all the characters (simply due to the socio-cultural climate and constraints original actor Nichelle Nichols had to contend with), is given the most leeway for character interpretation, and she more than makes Uhura hers.
Special mention: Given the short shrift his character received in Into Darkness, Yelchin’s Chekov is given a meatier and more integral role in the proceedings, with his untimely death unintentionally adding poignancy to his effervescently vibrant performance, hinting at acting possibilities that can no longer be.

Of the guest stars, cosplayers will find inspiration in Boutella’s Jaylah. Jaylah is fierce and deadly, but also imbued with a subtle vulnerability. Unrecognizable under tons of makeup, Idris Elba gives a menacing performance as the film’s heavy. His is a subversive performance, initially seems one-dimensional but it increases in complexity as the story progresses while still retaining a primal, vengeful edge. While the character's motivations could use more development, without equivocation his is one of the best villains the franchise has ever produced.
Despite all its modern trappings, Star Trek Beyond is a worthy celebration of the franchise’s half-century existence. There is respect and reverence for what has come before, while embracing what it is and the promise of what can be. This film isn’t Star Wars-lite. It’s an action-packed film ride of an adventure and an immersive experience filled with action, pathos, levity, and moments of unexpected, emotionally moving poignancy. For those who question Trek’s relevancy, it is effectively and timely resonant, as all of best Trek tales are.  The torch may have been cinematically passed eight years ago, but it’s proven to be held in comfortable hands and, if this film is any indication, stands to shine brightly for some time to come. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

BREATHE DEEP: "Don't Breathe" Is A Surprisingly Good And Complex Film [VERY MINOR SPOILERS]


Gazing downward from Olympian height...

Rows of abandoned, dilapidated, gutted houses…

Empty unkempt, foreboding streets, intersecting; gloomily criss-crossing...

Focus enlarging; crystallizing in slow, measured descent…

A hunched figure; seemingly Neanderthal...

Inexorably dragging a still, unmoving body down a street... 

Save for the crunch of disturbed gravel and asphalt, all is silence.

Such is the imagery that sets the tone for the latest horror film, Don’t Breathe, directed by Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead (2013)), written by Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues. It’s a simple but tense image; one that engenders a primal disquiet, yet arresting and fascinating. It image foreshadows nothing but grief, but is too compelling to turn away.

The best horror films aren’t the ones that feature the most blood or gore; they’re the ones that tap into the ”collective unconscious” and the culturally shared mythological imagery it possesses. If there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that the producing team of Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert really love their mythology. It’s evident in their creative output whether it’s adapting classical myths (Hercules: The Legendary Journeys), modern myths (Spider-Man), or creating their own (Xena: Warrior Princess; The Evil Dead franchise), and they do so in entertainingly subversive fashion.

In Detroit, Michigan, three youngsters Rocky (Jane Levy; Evil Dead (2013)); her brainy best friend, Alex (Dylan Minnette; Prisoners); and her lover, Money (Daniel Zovatto; Fear The Walking Dead) are small-time breaking and entering artists who steal goods to fence to finance their exodus from their economically depressed and hopeless circumstances. But the pickings are slim and slow going. Money’s fence, Trevor (Sergei Onopko), tells Money about a Vietnam vet known only as “The Blind Man” (Stephen Lang; Tombstone, Avatar), a disabled recluse who received a $300,000.00 settlement after a careless driver ran over and killed his daughter. Seeing that this would be the score that would be their ticket out of poverty, Money convinces the eager Rocky and reluctant Alex to perform one last job. From the moment the trio enters The Blind Man’s home, what starts out as a simple B&E job becomes a Jungian nightmare from which there may be no escape.

On the surface, it may seem like a run-of-the-mill slasher film. However, closer scrutiny reveals that this story takes its cues from the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The cinematography by Pedro Luque evokes a labyrinthine milieu both out of doors and within The Blind Man’s home, where much of the action takes place. Director Alvarez’s clever and, in some cases, inventive use of camera shots, lighting (or lack thereof), and stillness heightens the “mouse caught in a maze” feeling that becomes more oppressively claustrophobic as the film progresses. The same rooms are revisited frequently throughout the film, taking on a new meaning and disquiet a simple change of perspective. They become intricate, irregular, twisting, confusing, and terrifying. The film touches upon the mythological themes of descent and rising from the underworld, and the fact that such journeys rarely, if ever, leave one unscathed.

But no mythological maze would be complete without a Minotaur.  Stephen Lang, with his buffed, leathered, withered countenance and grotesquely glassy blind eyes, gives a performance that epitomizes Minotaur made flesh. Operating in total darkness from without and within, his heightened remaining senses and military training make for an unrelenting force; his grunts, creaking from implied prolong lack of use, only add to the illusion of mythological creature in human form. His is an imposing physical performance; his actual dialogue is scarce in comparison to his co-stars. Yet he evokes terror just by sheer presence alone. It touches the primal fear of the boogeyman in a way most slasher antagonists in the modern era fail to achieve. There is also a call out to the mythical mastiff Cerberus, complete with a tongue-in-cheek shout out to a Stephen King classic.

If it were only a clever reimagining of mythological tropes, this film would be interesting, but not compelling. However, much like the Raimi directed horror film Drag Me To Hell (2009), Don’t Breathe’s characters are complicated yet relatable individuals. Like most mythological heroes, they are neither completely good nor evil. They are, arguably, good people who do bad things. Rocky’s life is the school of hard knocks, and she wants out. Alex’s love for Rocky is unrequited, but he cares for and will do anything for her. Even the oily, loathsome Money is not all bad. He wants a better life for himself and Rocky (even if he does refer to her as “my bitch”). It’s hard not to sympathize with any of the characters; including, to a much lesser degree, The Blind Man. Generally, once a villain or monster’s motivations are explained, the inherent evil and horror of that character diminishes. This is the rare case wherein the monster is sympathetic (and make no mistake, a monster he is) yet still retains the same level of horror. Alvarez subverts the protagonist/antagonist dichotomy because, depending on one’s point of view, the characters act as both. It’s more an atheistic, Darwinian treatise than a morality play.

The film has an 88 minute run time, yet manages to be excruciatingly suspenseful while maintaining a breezing pacing. The tight editing keeps the action going and ratchets the unease within the corridor-laden house; even the quiet moments are fraught with tension and anxiety. However, the film contains moments of possibly unintended humor. I say “possibly” as Raimi and Tapert are known for their penchant for subversive, black humor. But the laughs are more from cathartic release than from any cliché eye rolling. Nevertheless, the tension runs that high throughout the film. Roque Baños’ minimalist but foreboding score adds to the tableau by acoustically grating the nerves. The narrative as a whole is terrifying yet engaging, holding your interest (and seat) up until the controversial conclusion.

Don’t Breathe is a breath of fresh air for its genre. For horror fans, it certainly entertains on that level. But, like any maze, the deeper one goes, the more complicated it becomes. As with any mythological sojourn, perceptions will change by journey’s end. It’s subversively compelling, but won’t allow you to breathe easily.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

WORTH A CALL: The "Ghostbusters" Reboot Is An Interesting But FlawedTake.

It’s difficult to begin this review without addressing the giant Stay-Puft-Marshmallow Man in the room, so I won’t even try. The new Ghostbusters was a contentious proposition even before a single frame was shot; a reboot boasting an all-new, completely female cast. Invectives were hurled, shade was thrown, declarations of youthful ruination abounded, and an a priori prejudice based solely on gender. Some of the feelings are understandable. In the course of 32 years, the original Ghostbusters, (starring Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, the late Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, and Rick Moranis), a poorly-reviewed film upon release, has almost achieved a quixotic level of beloved, almost mythic reverence in pop culture. “Quixotic” because when one scrutinizes the film, it is less a plot driven movie and more a string of SNL/SCTV skits held together by a narrative. The charm and, arguably put, power of the film primarily comes from the years-forged chemistry between the holy trinity of Murray, Ackroyd, and Ramis and, to be honest, they were either playing themselves or another permutation of characters they’ve played before, peppered with just enough nuance (if it can be called that) to avoid stereotype. Ramis’ “Egon” was just "Russell" from Stripes (1981) with a tighter sphincter. Ackroyd’s “Ray” was an exaggerated version of every other pretentious non-everyman he had played in the past, and Bill Murray…was Bill Murray. It was the (much of it improvised) interaction between the three (with great assist from Hudson and Weaver) that made the first film a classic, and its sequel just above tolerable.

Keep in mind that, again, it has been almost 30 years since the proverbial band got together. In that time, Ackroyd churned out scripts which director Ivan Reitman reportedly couldn’t get behind. Murray avoided reading them and continually passed. Ultimately and sadly, Ramis’ passing put a kibosh on any opportunity to revisit these characters one last time.

The above speaks to the main disadvantage of any Ghostbusters reboot that would've taken place: It would not have the chemistry that really was the films’ selling point. But there was too much financial potential in this franchise for Sony and Columbia not to exploit. Hence, its relaunch, this time with director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) at the helm (though Ivan Reitman, as well as Ackroyd, stayed on as producer) and the cast headed by Bridesmaids tag team of Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig, who play “Abby Yates” and “Erin Gilbert”, respectively; two estranged sisters-from-another-mister. When Erin’s tenure at a prestigious university is threatened by Abby’s re-releasing a paranormal book the duo co-authored, she goes to confront her frienemy but instead gets caught up in Abby and her “riot grrl”, fellow genius lab partner Jillian (a very manic Kate McKinnon) research into an increase of paranormal activity, which leads to them creating tech that can track and capture ghosts, and also realize that there’s a pattern to these sightings….

As with all reboots, it's an old story given a new coat of paint; a vibrant one at that, given the film’s visuals.  However, this serves to weaken the film and thus precludes it from standing on its own merits. Further, the film is extremely self-aware of not just the torch it’s carrying, but also the burden it's shouldering. It’s a rehash with a more drawn-out origin story. Unlike the original films which, as afore stated, relied on the years-honed chemistry between Murray, Ackroyd, and Ramis, it is absolutely necessary here. Unfortunately this means that the new leads, which include Leslie Jones as “Patty”, the “every person” Ghostbuster with a matchless knowledge of the city, have to go a long way to get a grasp of their characters and the struggle is, at times, noticeable; serving only to remind the viewers of the long shadow the first film casts.

The quixotic aspect of its film is that its respect and homage to the past is both its blessing and curse. It’s reverential to the source material (and its cast; especially in one blink-and-you-miss it moment that will bring a tear to the eye), to an almost slavish degree. While it shows respect, it also undermines its attempt at being its own, brand new entity. Also, it’s hyper aware of its controversy, as the dialogue is peppered with metatextual commentary about the fan uproar (one particular sublime scene is especially metatextual given the actor participating in it. Let’s just say a certain performer finally got his wish in much the same way Harrison Ford did, and leave that there). It is nevertheless a testament that the dialogue by screenwriter Katie Dippold (and Feig) is such that if one was not aware of the controversy leading up to the film, it wouldn’t be as distracting, if at all.

But that gender “controversy”(such as it is) is immaterial. These are not women who are Ghostbusters; they are Ghostbusters that just happen to be women. Their sex really isn’t a factor in the film (aside from maybe a joke or two about orifices). While it can be argued that this is a negative because presupposes that the characters could be interchanged all men or co-ed, it’s a positive because they’re treated as real people and individuals...which is a testament to the actors despite some of their struggles. The characters are presented and treated respectfully (as respected as Ghostbusters could be. They weren’t the apple of everyone’s eye in the original films either, regardless of sex).

That so much has been discussed above its easy to lose sight of the fact that this is a film to be analyzed and considered on its own merits. How does the reboot fare as its own entity? Unfortunately, for all its ambitions and good intentions, its a mixed bag. As a contemporary reboot, it’s darker and, in some respects, more disturbing. The current cinematic trend of disaster porn hasn't skipped this production. On the flip side, the film possess some heft and emotional weight. But, boy, at least the film looks good. The visual effects team must have raided all of Disney’s Haunted Mansions for the look. It’s a film grand in scope, but jerky in presentation. Not all the jokes hit, and the pacing issues echo those of 1989’s Ghostbusters II.  The stop-and-start nature narrative can be frustrating at times, but the climax of the film does manage to top that of the original film. By the same token, there’s so much going on and in such a scope that it threatens to overwhelm; a case of overcompensation and catering, perhaps, but damn if it doesn’t look engaging.

As to the performances, despite occasional hiccups, it seems that everyone is having a good time. McCarthy and Wiig deliver solid performances and effectively sell their emotional journey of trying to find reapproachment after years of estrangement. Leslie Jones has been the target of cyber-bullying of late because of this film, all of which meritless and unfounded, as she fully commits herself to her role and does so effectively and amusingly, her energy rivaled by her co-star McKinnon, who fully embraces her characters idiosyncratic iconoclasm. Andy Garcia appears as a very clueless image conscious mayor, who could be a metaphor for frankly any previous New York mayor of the past two decades. As the villain of the piece, Neil Casey is on note. His character is essentially a fade-to-the-background schlub, and the performance delivers, almost too well.

But the actor who steals the show right from under everyone is Chris Hemsworth as “Kevin”, the Ghostbusters’ gender-bent “dumb blonde” receptionist. Hemsworth, best known for superhero roles (which is nudge-nudge-winked-winked here), shows off his comedic chops to great effect to the extent that his performance dominates every scene he’s in. Even when a scene doesn’t work, he does. He’s clearly having the most fun he’s ever had in a role, even surpassing his extended cameo in the recent remake/reboot of National Lampoon’s Vacation. Yet he also manages to take this performance and use it to buoy, not overshadow, his costars.  

The score by Theodore Shapiro is effective, and incorporates Ray Parker, Jr.’s now-iconic theme into the orchestrations; something that the late great Elmer Bernstein hadn’t done. Which is (there’s that word again) quixotic: It stamps it as a Ghostbusters film when presented, but highlights how generic it is in its absence. Nevertheless, it does what a score should.

Ghostbusters does not ruin the franchise (or childhoods), but it doesn’t necessarily save it, either. It’s a noble effort in the sense that it had a lot to juggle and has varying degrees of success. It's ambitious but disjointed, and the laughs are farther in-between than one would like. The film is weighed down but dependent upon the mythology it celebrates. Time will tell whether or not this reboot of the franchise can make anything approximating in the impression that the original. Speaking strictly as a film critic, it’s worth seeing once on the big screen, but doesn’t offer much by way of repeated viewing. It’s an experiment that yields mixed results, and one that doesn’t narratively justify a sequel.  Speaking, however, as an individual, there is one aspect of the film it must be applauded for: It reinforces the notion that heroes are heroes, no matter what their race, creed, or (and especially) gender. That, above all else, is why Ghostbusters should be given the benefit of the doubt.