Wednesday, May 1, 2019

‘NUFF SAID: Go See Avengers: Endgame. [NO SPOILERS]



It’s been eleven years since Marvel Studios released its first entry, Iron Man (2008).  It’s been one year since audiences were hit with a gut-punch of a cliff-hanger with the end of Avengers: Infinity War (2018). Avengers: Endgame, directed by Anthony and Joseph V. Russo, not only concludes the Infinity War storyline, but also an era of filmmaking. It honors what came before while hinting at what’s to come, all the while presenting it epically, if not evenly.

The mad Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) has succeeded in his plan to wipe half of all life from the universe, including a good chunk of Our Heroes, leaving the survivors Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.); Captain America (Chris Evans); Thor (Chris Hemsworth); Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson); the Hulk (Mark Ruafflo); War Machine (Don Cheadle); Rocket (Bradley Cooper); and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), reeling from their collective and personal losses. A glimmer of hope comes in the form of the once-thought “dusted” Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), which leads the remaining Avengers to embark on a journey through time and space to put things right once and for all, a journey replete with trial, pain, heroism, and triumph, but not without loss.

The source may come from comics, but the Russos don’t treat the material as such. There is an overwhelming gravitas from the beginning, with each character trying to cope with the aftermath of their defeat in their own way. Just as it seems the film will be bogged down by that sense of oppression, the plot kicks into high gear with a narrative that is filled with homages and nods to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s collective history. Yet its to the Russo’s credit that the film never loses sight of the stakes not just from a universal standpoint, but for the characters own journeys whether it be ensuring family safety or suffering from PTSD; the end results of same being highly effective for some characters, egregiously ball-dropping and insulting for others (not just for a character in particular, but ideologies as a whole). What could have been a very dramatic examination of survivor’s guilt is offset with comedy of a, shall we say, derogatory connotations. To say more would be spoiling, but suffice to say that it’s one of the more off-putting, quixotic elements of the film, even if it does come with a very emotional payoff of its own.

With a cast this large, it would be expected that some character arcs would fall by the wayside but, given that the majority of the film focuses on the original line-up as presented in The Avengers, the slights are particularly deplorable. But on the flip side, when the arcs work, they are emotionally resonant. The film’s greatest asset is also its greatest weakness. It cannot stand alone as its own entity (which makes it so difficult to review in some respects) for not only does it rely on the film that came before it, but also on the audience’s emotional investment to these characters for over a decade. Without same, the film would be robbed of its dramatic heft. Yet it makes good use of said investment, creating a story that is epic in scope yet human in presentation. Yet all the goodwill in the world cannot save a film from bad acting, and all the actors, from franchise starter Downey, Jr. to latest additions Tom Holland (Spider-Man) to Brie Larson (Captain Marvel, who doesn’t have all that much to do in this film despite fears of acting as deux ex machina) dial their acting talents to “11” into this film to deliver a solid dramatic piece. It’s a cliché to say “you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, it’ll be a part of you”, but for this film it’s a certainty, and for as much of that credit goes to the directors and actors, a good chunk of it has to go to composer Alan Silvestri who, after mostly repetitive orchestrations in the past couple of years, delivers a score as powerfully evocative as the narrative it supports. It is a varied soundtrack that is by turns ominous, defeatist, light, humorous, rousing, heroic and, dare I say, epic. In truth, all involved in the production have brought their “A” game (pun intended) and it shows on the screen.

Speaking as a life-long comic book fan, however, the film is perhaps the closest representation to a living comic book put to screen. It’s the double-sized annual concluding a multi-issue story arc and presents it with all the grandeur and spectacle that is expected from the source medium. It builds to a rousing climax, even if it the denouement leaves the audience scratching their heads in some instances. Yes, it’s calculatedly manipulative.  But then, aren’t all movies?

Avengers: Endgame serves as a definitive statement of Marvel Studios’ dominance of the superhero film market. It marks the end of an era in some respects, and the beginning of the new in others, and does so with bombastic yet human style. It’s a film that, despite its narrative flaws and hiccups, makes the use of its…assemblage…for an epic, dramatic whole.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

CHARMED: "SHAZAM!" Casts A Mesmerizing Spell (MINOR SPOILERS)



"Big (1988)...but with super powers."

That's what Shazam! has been billed as prior to release. But it's more than that. It's an affirmation as to why these types of characters have endured for almost a century in popular culture. If Justice League was Warner Bros' first step in bringing fun back to their DC Extended Universe brand, Shazam! cements it. While more based on the 2011 comics relaunch material than the original version of the character, the film is sure to win over purists, casual fans, and non-fans. 

The basics of the mythology established by Bill Parker and C.C.Beck's creation remain the same: Young orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is chosen by the ancient wizard known as "Shazam" (Djimon Hounsou, building serious comics cred) to become the champion bearing the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. However, in this case, his choice is predicated by necessity due to the release of the Seven Deadly Sins of Man by Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong, in DC's soapbox again after his turn as "Sinestro" in the abortive Green Lantern (2011)). Billy's life is replete with unwanted conditions, and he must learn to navigate them and his newfound abilities as the grown-up Cap...Shazam (an incredible Zachary Levi, Chuck)...lest Sivana and the Sins take that power for themselves.

While this sounds like yet another dark entry into the DC films staple, it is quite the opposite. While it does deal with heavy themes, in some ways less effective than others, it also offers a light-hearted, fun aspect to being a super-hero. Unlike previous iterations wherein the boy and the man were two distinctly separate personalities, here Billy and Cap...Shazam...are literally of the same mind and, along with his foster brother and self-proclaimed super-hero expert/fanboy Freddy Freeman (It's Jack Dylan Grazer), show a less heroic, yet arguably more realistic portrayal of a scenario wherein one is suddenly gifted with extraordinary abilities. It's Levi's realistic portrayal of a boy in a man's body...and his ability to capture Angel's personality without delving into parody, that sells this film in its entirety. His energy is infectious and the viewer cannot help but be drawn in by it. Director David F. Sandberg, working from a screenplay by Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke, endeavor to make magic, both literal and figurative, onto the big screen, even if it borrows concepts from franchises such as Harry Potter and Monsters Inc. to do it. And for the most part, they succeed. The film emphasizes fun with a capital "F" (showing respect to the concepts and history of the character) while at the same time handling weightier affairs such as child disenfranchisement, societal marginalization, and what it means to be "family" with mixed, short-changing results. Certain arcs, such as that of Grazer's Freddy, don't carry quite the heft they should. Its internal logic falters somewhat (Billy's possession yet lack of utilization of his power pantheon gifts in certain circumstances, for example) and the narrative contains pacing issues which undermine the whole. However, humor is at the forefront, from fish-out-of-water scenarios to the deft, tongue-in-cheek references and handling of Cap...Shazam's legal history regarding the character's name (which this purist author still has to reconcile, as if you couldn't tell) which is shared with another recent film by the Marvelous competition. It's that fun factor that overrides the films weaknesses. Despite it all, its the first "happy" film the DCEU has had since its launch.

It's clear that everyone is having a ball, from Angel's Batson, whose performance is eerily reminiscent of a young Tobey Maquire, to Strong's Sivana, who manages to exude super-villain menace without over-the-top "mustache twirling". But watch out for Faithe Herman as "Darla", one of Billy's foster siblings. She's so precocious she steals every scene she's in and melt's the coldest of hearts. There is not one sour note in the entire cast. Benjamin Wallfische's score is the film's acoustical mission statement, even as it borrows melodies from other superheroic franchises (one that is definitely intentional in a good way). The visuals are as bright as they've ever been in a DCEU entry (without going into Technicolor-overload as in the recent Aquaman), and the pop culture references are sure to bring smiles to comics and non-comics fans alike).

Shazam! is filled with stakes, adventure, and heart...so much so, I half expected the late Stan Lee (or even Tom Hanks) to cameo. However, this film is no Marvel Studios rip. It's a film that provides a tonal course correction while at the same time serving as one of the more feel-good film entries of 2019.  Shazam! casts a beguiling charm spell that will engage even the most jaded view. It captures the essence of the mythology (and the hopeful adventure it entailed) that enthralled a certain child to risk parental ire by breaking the antenna off an 70's-era AM/FM radio and, clad in nothing more than a white bath towel cape tied around his neck and his tighty whities, running and hoisting said antenna into the air and hollering "Shazam!" at the top of his lungs in the middle of a lightning storm (needless to say, the hide-tanning received was more painful than the possibly averted lightning strike). 

Shazam! is the closest that the DCEU has come to providing a comic book experience certain to charm both kids and adults alike, and that is certainly a cause for a celebratory dance.



Sunday, March 10, 2019

MARVEL-OUS: Despite The Controversy, "Captain Marvel" Is A Solid, Engaging Film.





'"Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play
And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake 
I shake it off, I shake it off." 

- Taylor Swift; "Shake It Off" (2014) 

Incomprehensible. 

Such a lovely, yet weighty word...a "twenty-dollar", haughty, and perhaps pretentious word; however, it's one that completely captures the essence of "DAFUQ[?]". 

What I mean by "DAFUQ" is the sheer level of controversy over a super-hero film about a character few outside of fandom even heard of (well, at least this version of the character with a famous and controversial name, but I digress). That's what I find incomprehensible. Don't get me wrong. I've heard all about Brie Larson's misconstrued comments, Samuel L. Jackson's comebacks to the "haters", fan blasts that the real "Captain Marvel" belongs to the distinguished competition, Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige's attempt to push the character as the greatest thing since Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster put pen to paper, Rotten Tomatoes review hacking, etc.... 

And this was all BEFORE the movie was released to the general public.

Incomprehensible.

"Incomprehensible" because the film itself is quite good, even if it arguably exists solely to keep the title character from becoming a deux ex machina in the forthcoming Avengers: Endgame.

Captain Marvel follows the journey of an amnesiac named "Vers" (Brie Larson) an intergalactic police person/warrior for an alien race known as the Kree who are attempting to eradicate their sworn enemy, a shape-shifting race known as the Skrulls. Sent on a mission to extract one of her own, the endeavor goes south and she ends up on Earth circa 1995, where she meets up with Agent Nicholas J. Fury (Jules Winnfield...er, Samuel L. Jackson) and his newly minted-partner Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). Pursued by Skrull leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), Vers goes on the run not only to find a human named Lawson (Annette Benning) who holds the key to the race war, but to find out the truth about herself and the power she wields.

Pretty straight forward, yes? Well, not quite. The movie almost follows Marvel Studios' by-the-numbers playbook, but it does manage to turn some aspects on their head, even if they telegraph the results before their revealed. Directorial duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck do a good job of keeping their screenplay (with assist by Geneva Robertson-Dworet) relatively brisk and engaging, even if the beginning plods with obligatory exposition. However, one of the strengths of the script is the willingness to subvert expectation. Some of those attempts work, some not quite as well. But on the whole it makes for a stronger film. Though it is blatant in its attempt to subliminally convince the viewer that Captain Marvel has always been in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, kudos go to the director/screenwriting team to pepper the film with pieces of the decade-plus history; pigeon-holding this film in that pantheon without contradicting or retconning what came before, even as it sets up the pieces and elements for the aforementioned Endgame. If you're a follower of these films, some questions will be answered, some will be raised, but none will be so jarring as to take you out of the narrative.

A word to comic purists, be warned...this film, more than any other Marvel film to date, throws out any and all comic canon regarding ANY of these characters, so expectations should be checked at the door.

Speaking of the narrative...it is a condition of storytelling that narratives reflect the times they are created, whether in agreement or in opposition. And it's this reflection of the cultural zeitgeist that is at the heart of the controversy (so perhaps it's not so incomprehensible in that perspective). Is there a feminist agenda? After all, there are women's issues referenced in the film that resonate even tody, but I would also state that there are strong human (and inhuman) characters in this film who happen to be of different genders and races so, if that's one's basis for the "feminist" critique, then yes it is, but it's nowhere near as heavy-handed as, say, the CW's Supergirl series. On the contrary, it's organic to the proceedings; undertoned but not existing for its own sake. But that argument is so pervasive in the discourse regarding this film, the meta-commentary regarding cultural assimilation and terrorism is practically swept under the proverbial rug. It makes for a subtle yet powerful commentary regarding patriotism and humanity, one that doesn't provide any easy answers, but makes for consideration if one knows where to look for it.

One of the few drawbacks to the film is that the script on its own is a perfunctory affair, where the characters go from point "A" to "B" without much effort. It's economic storytelling; omitting details that some might find necessary or useful. There may be some head scratching here or there, but given the ultimate purpose of this film, it's understandable why the producers chose to go that route. Another uneven element here is the film's special effects. In some aspects, they're above par but lacking in certain others. Luckily, the weaknesses are not so overt as to become distracting. Perhaps the focus was on the film's climax, which was as rousing a visual spectacle as Marvel Studios' has ever presented. Known primarily for his work on Sy-Fy's series Krypton, composer Pinar Toprak does provide a rousing, if generic, score that bolsters the proceedings.

The performances are top notch, with Brie Larson leading the way. Her character is competent, tough, capable, yet surprisingly vulnerable. Her cool demeanor is a result of the character's journey and not the merits of Larson's acting. The fact that she can make such an initially distant character sympathetic with such ease belies that critique. Frankly, it's refreshing to see a superhero enjoy their powers on screen for a change (which, among another scene or two is, to this reviewer, reminiscent of another film circa 1978). Samuel Jackson presents a nascent Nick Fury, one who's not quite the hardened, world-weary spy we first see in Iron Man (2008) (speaking of which, kudos go to the SFX team for their work on both Jackson and Clark Gregg...cinematic de-aging has come a long way since Tron: Legacy (2010)), who enjoys a great chemistry with his co-star as well as allowing himself to show his "softer" side. Speaking of Gregg, while he doesn't have much to do in the film, it serves as a nice compare-and-contrast between his character here and how he's presented in ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. As far as the aliens, the casting of Mendelsohn as Talos was an inspired choice, both in terms of his surprisingly down-to-Earth (excuse the pun) performance but also the subliminal expectation his casting entails.As Kree warrior Yon-Rogg, Jude Law is as reliable as he always is, even if the material doesn't give him that much to work with. However, the MVP in this film supporting wise is Lashana Lynch as Maria Rambeau, whose friendship with Vers provides the emotional heart of the film, humanizing the main character even further. Also, keep a close eye on the character of Monica Rambeau (played by Azari Akbar and Akira Akbar, respectively), not only is the character precociously engaging, but will probably feature in the films to come. Special kudos go to Annette Benning as multiple characters, seemingly having a ball with her performance.

Captain Marvel is a solid, collaborative superhero film that works even as it tries to be fresh. While not among the best of Marvel Studios' output, it's a good film with strong characters running a spectrum of gender and race without calling undue attention to it. It also features not one, but two tributes to the recently-departed architect of the Marvel Universe, so be sure to bring a tissue or two (and minor spoiler...this is arguably the first cameo as the man himself and not some stock character. See the scene and you'll know what I mean). Whatever your prejudices or (mis)conceptions, Captain Marvel is enjoyable and fun. So ignore the haters, shake off the vitriol, watch this film and judge for yourself. To consider otherwise is...incomprehensible.

...or would you prefer, inconceivable?







Sunday, November 25, 2018

LEARNING FROM THE PAST: "Creed II" Is A Crowd-Pleasing Legacy Film That Resoundingly Stands On Its Own.



“It is unfortunate that in most cases the sins of the father
fall on the son…people refuse to forgive and forget and heap past wrongs upon
innocent generations.”

-          E.A. Bucchianeri

“We are born with our father’s names. We are not
responsible for their failures. We are responsible
for what they made us believe in. That is our only obligation. And it is
even then a choice which we may sometimes be wise to ignore.”

-          Warren Eyster

Legacy. It’s a weighted noun; one that comes to roost in all individuals at some point in their lives. It is measured in every walking step of life, either evolving or crumbling with every passing second even if it is not a conscious consideration until much later in life. It is either something we create, we destroy, something to live up to, or something to live down. “Legacy” weighs heavily indeed in Creed II, and it is explored and examined in a surprisingly deep and affecting way.

Of course, first and foremost, the film is either 1) the latest installment of a cinematic legacy; begun way back in 1976 with Rocky; or 2) the second of its own franchise, working to live up to the promise the film Creed hinted at. Either way, this film is the result of that legacy, and cannot but help to bear its burden.

"Creed II" is the sequel to the most disposable of the Rocky films. Thirty years after the events of Rocky IV, we come to learn that Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) has lost everything as a result of his defeat at the hands of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, who returns to the role yet again and serves as a producer and screenwriter). Abandoned by both wife and country, he is an embittered pariah-in-exile whose only hope of redemption rests in his son, Viktor, a heavyweight contender who is a match for his father in his prime. When Adonis "Donnie" Creed (Michael B. Jordan) finally wins the heavyweight championship title, the Drago clan challenges him for it. For the Dragos, it’s a chance to restore honor to the family name.  For Creed, it is the opportunity to confront his legacy head on, bearing the face of the family that killed the father he never knew, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, whose presence is felt in the film even though he is not).

One doesn't need to have seen the previous Rocky or Creed films to enjoy this one, as it's structured in such a way that a layperson could follow it easily. By the same token, however, the film is dramatically bolstered by that cinematic history. While the film follows the Rocky formula to a certain extent, director Steven Caple, Jr., along with screenwriters Sascha Penn, Juel Taylor, and Stallone tweak it so that the end result feels fresh. But then, the Creed films as a whole are more Rocky and Rocky Balboa than Rocky II – V. The film is a raw and more human presentation, and not  just because of its “street” undertones. Caple's direction is filled with close ups, lending itself to an immediacy and intimacy that reaches the viewer on a more personal level. It’s rich in characterization and, though the fight ring choreography is engaging and brutal, the real conflicts are internal as each character wrestles not only with the legacy they leave behind, but that of the seeds they plant.

Furthermore, each character is broken in some fashion and are trying their best to make do with the pieces. Most impressive is that while they are the film’s antagonists, the Dragos are not villains. While Drago still harbors no remorse for killing Apollo, his failure has defined his life and has made a casualty of his son. Conversely, Viktor wants to redeem his father and his name. In fact, their inclusion in the proceedings make this film superior to the first Creed, as they provide a defined focus the first film lacked.

On the flip side, Rocky is yet-again estranged from Robert (Milo Vetimeglia) and has no desire to again cradle the broken body of a Creed. And at the center of all this is Adonis, who’s still trying to balance being his own man and living up to his father’s name, as well as wrestling with the prospect of history repeating itself, even as he and his lover and partner Bianca (Tessa Thomspon) work to find their footing as a couple while maintaining their individuality.

The narrative  borrows beats from Rocky II and III (especially the former) to push the story forward, yet they're tweaked so that they don’t come across as hackneyed rehash. The downside is that the pace slows considerably in the middle.  But this is one of those cases were “slow” doesn’t equate to “uninteresting”. There’s no navel gazing here, but instead successful investment of character that makes the slower-paced moments bearable if not involving. But when the action comes, it comes with an uncompromising in-your-face brutality that reminds us that violence is not a pretty thing. Kudos to the sound department for engendering wince-inducing effects that the audience is made to viscerally experience with each punishing blow. Unlike Balboa, who was practically superhuman at the apex of the film series, the underdog Adonis is more flesh and bone here, and he is made vulnerable in body and spirit more affectingly than Stallone was. Jordan’s acting ability is nothing short of phenomenal given his ability to evince the vulnerability behind his tough façade.

Yet this film is equally Stallone’s, wearing his second-go-around as a supporting character as comfortably as Rocky’s old hat and jacket. The weight of his years and legacy hang over Rocky’s still massive frame, a man who’s still trying to find his place in a world that is no longer his, and not wanting to see the mistakes of the past repeat. The moment when he comes to realize why Mickey walked away from the Clubber Lang challenge in Rocky III is nothing short of sublime. For all the knocks Stallone has gotten throughout his career, it’s easy to forget that he always considered himself an actor first and strived to live up to that designation. His old friend and sparring partner Lundgren is even more revelatory here. His Drago is, given his culture, upbringing, and circumstances, a hardened yet broken man. He says little, but his mannerisms speak volumes. And there are two poignant scenes that strip the character down and subvert the audiences' sympathies. The same can be said for Florian Munteanu as the Viktor, the gargantuan wrecking machine…one who was not made so by cutting-edge Soviet sports science, but by the in-the-trenches grit and determination of his father. He, too, is not all that he seems, and his true motivation for wanting to take Creed down also flips the script sympathetically. 

Tessa Thompson, who continues to impress in both acting and her set of pipes, is equally compelling as Bianca. While hers is a supporting role, her character stands equal to that of Creed’s. And though she never played the part in the original films, Phylicia Rashad commands the Mary Anne Creed character (and the screen) as if she’s always played it, imbuing the character with the actress’ own innate dignity and grace. Rashad's Mary Anne celebrates the Creed legacy even as she is a casualty of it, and grounds the film with the perspective of a mother who stands to lose another one of her men,  but with the strength of steel herself for the outcome and survive it.

The film is also a celebration of the franchise’s rich legacy, recalling poignant moments in Rocky’s life, as well as peppering it with little Easter eggs here and there (Hi, Cuff and Link!). Yet it still manages to stand as its own entity. It is a film of both regret and redemption, of condemnation and celebration. Yes, some of it is formulaic, but it is by no means predictable…at least, not completely, and it does so to such an extent that this reviewer recommends bringing a set of handkerchiefs to the theater. Trust me, they’ll be necessary. This film honors it's legacy even as it modifies it and, at the same time, forges its own.

Creed II is a quality legacy film that only seems like pop fluff on the surface. It is so dense and thematically rich that this review couldn’t even begin to dig deep enough for analysis. Despite a meandering middle, it is a rousing and satisfying film filled with surprising acting performances. It celebrates its cinematic past while leaving the viewer wondering what tomorrow will bring. The past is not disposable, the future is promising, and that will be this film’s legacy.

*Special thanks with gratitude to Ian Morris for proofing assist. 

Sunday, November 18, 2018

STOLEN HOURS: While It Has Its Charms, "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald" Is Anything But Magical


I'm sure you've heard some iteration of the following phrase before: "That's ___ hours of my life I"ll never get back." When that statement's uttered, the somewhat humorous implication is clear: time was stolen.  It's practically a crime. And, speaking of crimes, the Fantastic Beasts sub-franchise is a cash grab, plain and simple.

Ok...all attempts at snarky thematic humor aside, the above statement is less indictment than it is statement of fact.

After all, J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" creation has become a pop-culture juggernaut, remarkably achieving in a twenty year or so span a level of beloved notoriety that rivals that of a certain mouse; not to mention filling the coffers of not just Ms. Rowling, but Bloomsbury Publishing, Scholastic Press, and Warner Bros., among others. The fact that the original "Potter" story was wrapped up in a tidy little bow in both print and film, was not going to deter the possibility of milking this particular cash cow for all its worth. It's to be expected these days, as shared cinematic universes are part of the current cinematic zeitgeist. Further, there isn't anything wrong with it, so long as what is being presented has not only maintains the quality of it's previously successful entries, but it's established lore as well.  Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald lacks in both departments

Taking place sometime after  Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, Magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is in quite a pickle. Under unwanted scrutiny from the Ministry of Magic, he's allowed the opportunity to travel abroad only if he accepts the offered position of Auror; a position he vehemently despises. Add to that that his childhood sweetheart, Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) is about to marry his high-ranking Auror Brother Theseus (Callum Turner), and that Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson) is cooler than a Dementor towards him, the normally-flummoxed Newt is practically discombobulated. Oh, the evil Gellert Grendelwald (Johnny Depp) has escaped and is hot on the trail of the "lost boy" Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who holds the key to Grendelwald's ascension to power, and Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Jacob Kowalski (Dan Folger) are in the midst of a domestic dispute.

Given all that director David Yeats, working from the noted-author’s screenplay, has a lot to juggle. It’s clear that Rowling is keen on expanding her Potterverse by world building a part of its past. However, unlike her original “Harry Potter” novels, which showed meticulous care and great attention to detail in every page with an organic flow, the script and presentation are cursory and haphazard due to the fact that the film tries to cram too much at once. As such, noted callbacks to the original story seem more an exercise in ersatz “name-dropping” as it is actual plot development. Further, die-hard Potter purists are sure to get their wands bent when the script plays the retcon game, and much of the action, while spectacularly rendered, lacks the weight necessary to hold much interest as it unfolds. Unfortunately, this carries over into the characters as well, as their motivations and presentation are so muddled that one could care less how the climax affects them. For example, the film violates the “show don’t tell” narrative rule frequently, allowing for some head-scratching developments. Perhaps Ms. Rowling will address them in the inevitable sequels. Perhaps not. The fact that the viewer is left to fill in the blanks on their own is a major weakness; egregiously so for those not chapter-and-versed in the Potterverse.

But, again, the film is not without its charms.  Redmeyne’s socially-awkward, absent-minded professor shtick as “Newt” continues to charm even the most jaded movie-goer, so much so that the film lacks when he is not on-screen.  Equally as missed, due to the fact that she doesn’t appear until much later in the film, is Katherine Waterston’s “Tina”. Their chemistry together is beguiling and sweet, and serves as reminder that theirs is a journey of equals, two parts of a whole struggling to find each other. Dan Folger’s fish-out-of-water comedy misses more than hits, but his character’s good-natured and well-meaning presence still lightens the mood, even if his and Sudol’s story arc is less than satisfactory. Ezra Miller is fascinating actor to watch, even if one is not quite aware of what he’s doing…which fits his character of "Credence". Jude Law’s take on an earlier version of a familiar character is all his own yet slyly hints at the individual he’s destined to become. Controversial though the casting was, Johnny Depp hangs up the proverbial phone and turns in a sinuous, charismaticly-arresting performance as the film’s big bad who acts as analogue to the current socio-political landscape, and adds a chilling element to his performance. If he had done this in his other established franchise, he might have not risked losing that gig.* Unfortunately, Zoe Kravitz is left with the short end of the stick. Her "Leta" never seems to rise above stock, despite her connections to both the main character as a piece and the universe as a whole. Yet to varying degrees each character is a victim of the busyness of the script.

Artistically rendered, it is a beautiful film to watch. The sets are evocative of early Disney, wherein one could feel themselves transported to a land of pure imagination.**The special effects, while still weak when it comes to kitchenware, improves with each film; especially the fantastical beasts who have such personality to make one wish they existed in real life. James Newton Howard’s score carries the film, blending original orchestrations with call backs to John William’s beloved score, carrying the film as it should, even keeping the more lackluster sequences buoyed.

But the film is, ultimately, “damn[ed] by faint praise.” While it does have good elements, The Crimes of Grindelwald is the weakest entry of all the Harry Potter universe films. In truth, it fails to deliver on the faint promise delivered by the first Fantastic Beasts. Thus, it robs the audience of its expectations, and that is the biggest crime this film could perpetrate.

*Though other factors are mitigating that possible casting decision.
**Statement cribbed from a non-Disney film. 

Monday, June 11, 2018

GRRRR...EIGHT: "Ocean's Eight" Is An Enjoyable Film In It's Own Right.


The Ocean's Eleven reboot series of films, starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon, among others, was a successful franchise under the auspices of Steven Soderbergh. After the untimely demise of beloved cast member Bernie Mac, it was agreed among the cast that they could not continue the franchise without him, ending their run with 2007's Ocean's Thirteen. However, Hollywood isn't known for letting a good idea (and potential profit) go to waste. Thus, the reboot/spin-off Ocean's Eight is born, the concept retooled with an all-female main cast. A risky proposition, given the reception of the previous all-female reboot/spin-off of Ghostbusters (2016) both in terms of box office and opinion. The risk here was worth it. Eight stands as its own entertaining entity even as it respects and pays homage to the films that came before. 

Upon her release from prison after having been framed for a crime she (for once) did not commit, grifter Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), sister of the late Danny Ocean (George Clooney) devises a plan to pull of a multi-million dollar jewelry heist from the upcoming Met Gala. To pull it off, she enlists the aid of her bestie Lou (Cate Blanchett), and associates Amita (Mindy Kaling), 9-Ball (Rihanna), Tammy (Sarah Paulson), Constance (Awkwafina), and Rose Weil (Helena Bonham-Carter) to pull the job. And if she can get some payback while doing so, so much the better. 

The previous Ocean films ostensibly represented flash and style, but this film make them seem frat boy-ish in comparison. The main actresses carry themselves with an aplomb that distinguishes them from the original cast (yes, even among the octet's more urbane members). Of course, this could be a carry-over effect given the film's setting (the sophisticated New York art scene replaces the Las Vegas flash and dash), but it helps to cement this series as it's own entities, even if a couple of cameos give a respectful and poignant nod to what came before. Even franchise composer mainstay Daniel Pemberton's orchestrations give the film a musical identity that stands on its own even as it peppers it with acoustical tribute to its cinematic beginnings. 

The film has a brisk yet understated pace, bolstered by an intelligent script that manages to make a complicated heist easy to follow. Director Gary Ross focuses on character building moments which manage to remain as entertaining as the heist itself. In fact, it's the characterization that fuels the plot. Bullock's Debbie Ocean has a countenance of marble and a poise of cool detachment which belies the simmering emotions that seethes beneath the exterior. Blanchett's Lou is brash and serves as perfect counterpoint to her sister from another mister. The rest of the cast is entertaining, but the standouts are Bonham-Carter as the off-center and teetering on financial ruin fashion designer, Rihanna as the hacker with the devil-may-care attitude, and especially Anne Hathaway as the Hollywood It Girl de jour who is not quite what she seems; her performance being one of the film's highlights. The film has its shares of laughs, though not to the extent of the previous entries. By the same token, it's still joyous as it never takes itself too seriously. The cast must have had a great time shooting the film because it shows in the performances. If there are any weaknesses in the film, it's the lack of dramatic urgency which a bit of swapping of scene positions in the narrative could have addressed. While it might mar the film, it doesn't derail it. The energy among the cast, replete with surprise cameos that celebrate women of film outside of this series, makes it a pleasure to watch.

In sum, it would be a crime not to steal away some time to experience Ocean's Eight as it's a smart heist film that does justice to what came before, while showing promise for what is to come. Hollywood can't let go of a good thing, and Eight is a very good thing. 

Friday, April 27, 2018

TO INFINITY AND BEYOND: "Avengers: Infinity War" Is What A Super Hero Ensemble Should Be


Ten years.

Nineteen films.

Myriad characters whose adventures we've followed and whose personalities we've come to know as well as ourselves. Flawed individuals who've come together even as they've bickered among themselves, walking separately and together on the long and winding road that marked them as earning the mantle of  "hero".

A road that has led to Avengers: Infinity War

Infinity War is the first half of a culmination of a decade’s worth of cinematic world building. As such, the pressure was on not just Anthony and Joe Russo (and at least 14 credited screenwriters) to deliver, but for all the actors as well. Infinity War is both the end of a beginning and the beginning of an end. If that sounds operatic, then its a designation that befits the film.

After years of subplots and teases, the mad Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) finally makes his bid to collect the Infinity Stones, gems of power which have been peppered throughout the Marvel film narrative. Once collected, Thanos will use the stones to impose galactic cleansing on a universal scale, wiping out life everywhere. It will take the combined might of practically all the heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to attempt to stop him…though not without bitter sacrifice and loss.

The Russo Brothers have clearly learned from their missteps in Captain America: Civil War (2016). There are no shoehorned narrative hiccups here. The story kicks off immediately after the events of the tonally-different Thor: Ragnarok (2017) with the speed and power of a rocket launch and, despite moments of quiescence here and there, does not let up. The action and story are so compelling one is barely aware of the two and a half hour run time. It’s visually stunning, narratively arresting, and cannily polished; perhaps too polished for the Marvel Studios naysayers who decry the studio’s “play-by-the-numbers” policy. But the films' flaws are conversely its’ strengths: it’s operatically epic, filled with the bombast and sturm und drang that one expects of an “end of the world” fable. Whether it’s one’s cup of tea or not is based solely upon the viewer’s taste and perspective. 

Polished it may be, but "safe" it isn't. From the first few minutes of the film, the directors establish that there are no sacred cows and that the phrase of the day is “anything goes”. As befitting the culmination of years-long universe construction, the stakes are as high as they’ve ever been and the fallout is sure to drop. As Steve Rogers’ (a bearded and resolute Chris Evans) disgraced uniform signifies, the film portents dark times. Yet his bearing and carriage also signify the hope and resoluteness that viewers have come to expect, not just from him, but of all the Marvel heroes in varying degrees. Alan Silvestri’s score enhances the contrast between the light and the dark, at turns portentous and uplifting. In truth, there is no “by the numbers” in this one…to a degree (to say more would be to spoil more).

An ambitious ensemble piece like this had more likelihood to crumble and fall under the weight of its sheer star power alone. Instead, the actors’ commitment to the film and the Russos’ direction show that, unlike another ensemble wannabe epic illustrated, it’s not the numbers of the players, but the construction of the playbook. And epic, it is. The story moves across a myriad worlds and landscapes, each sub-story working in service of the main one with hardly a one feeling ancillary. The weight of the stakes, and their costs, feel real in this film than they haven’t in a previous Marvel film. It is as emotionally charged as it is visually hypnotic. The visuals are so spot on they deserve the IMAX and 3-D treatment. So much goes on that it teeters on Avengers fatigue (and not of the sort implied by a noted director). It’s may look exhausting, but the film is as exhilarating as any super hero film has any right to be.

Further, Infinity War bears repeat viewing. There’s so much spectacle on the screen that moments of subtle import are lost in the shuffle. Character lines foreshadow character moments in a way that hit subconsciously in an effective manner (one moment in particular in the film’s climax comes to this critic’s mind. It won’t be spoiled here. Suffice it to say, it was an unspoken rebuttal to a previous statement that gave the film more power and import than it would have had alone. It was an unexpected example of brilliant storytelling). For all its character numbers and ratcheted action, character development is not sacrificed. Previous subplots from the preceding films are touched upon; some satisfactorily, some less so (but could be forgiven if addressed in next year’s as yet untitled Avengers film), but all respectfully and completely in character. It would be unfair to single out any of the approximately 64(!) main characters of this film here as they all bring their >ahem< “A” game. Yet the revelatory performance here is Brolin’s. It’s not incorrect to say that in all of Thanos’ previous appearances (save for the end tag of the first Avengers, who was played in profile by actor Damion Poitier), implied a standard, two-dimensional megalomaniac waiting behind the scenes. Now front and center, he is surprisingly three dimensional (realistic CGI notwithstanding). He’s a resolute man of singular purpose with, as with all Marvel films in the back half of their run, a totally topical and identifiable reason for his actions even if his methods of addressing same is anathema to anyone with a whit of sanity. Years ago, there was a news story detailing a real life genocidal dictator who showed love and affection for his dog; a marked and incongruous contrast between human being and mass slaughterer. In this fictional universe, Brolin manages to evince the same effect, making his moments of merciless brutality seem even the more terrifying as a result. On top of that, it’s this level of villainy that raises the stakes and, in contrasts, bolsters the actors’ performances as the heroes even further. If there were an MVP award for films, Brolin easily takes it here (while Peter Dinklage would win for “most ironic, tongue-in-cheek casting”).

As aforesaid, to say more would spoil more. In this day and age of the almighty entity known as “The Hype”, it is more the case than not to say that very rarely do event films live up to the hype leading up to it. Avengers: Infinity War is a successful exception to that expectation. As aforesaid, it’s no secret that there is one more Avengers film slated with this cast which tells the rest of the story. Yet for all that knowledge, this film is completely satisfying and successful on its own merits. For all its “darkest before the dawn” aesthetic, it is the first of a celebration of an experiment that began with a previously-disgraced actor in an iron suit. The pay-off is there successfully on the screen. Don’t war with yourself. Avengers: Infinity War is a must see.