Monday, May 9, 2016

YOU MOVE...TO YOUR LOCAL THEATER AND WATCH CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. [MINOR SPOILERS]




“You move.”

It’s a line that Agent 13/Sharon Carter (Emily Van Camp) says in the first act of Captain America: Civil War, and one that foreshadows the conflict the title implies, but it also serves as a promise that, despite its fantastical pageantry, it will emotionally move. 

Following the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, and the resulting collateral damage therein, the United Nations demand governmental oversight over the super-powered community and, through now-Secretary of State Thaddeus “Thunderbolt Ross” William Hurt (last seen in the 2008’s The Incredible Hulk), present to the Avengers “The Sokovia Accords” which give them a choice: either follow the letter of the law, or be branded as criminals. Loosely based on Marvel’s mini-series of the same name, Captain America: Civil War finds Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), at philosophical, ethical, professional, and ultimately personal odds; a rift heightened when the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) seemingly returns to disrupt ratification ceremony, an act which takes the lives of many including the King of the isolationist nation of Wakanda. It’s up to Captain America, Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Sam Wilson), and Carter, to ferret out the truth. Their actions set off a chain reaction that pits Avenger against Avenger, and friend against friend; even as new players The Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and The Amazing Spider-Man (Tom Holland) join the fray. Yet they're so busy fighting each other that they don't recognize the puppet master machinations of Zemo (Daniel Brühl) behind the scenes.

This is a thematically-dense but timely film, with its ruminations of family and trust, oversight necessity, and the global and personal costs of warfare all at play; questions which plague our society in real life are touched upon here without giving any real definitive answers because, despite the super-heroic trappings, this story is, first and foremost, a morality play, Shakespearian in both scope and character.

A wise man once said "[t]he more they overthink the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain."[1]  With a film of such largess, infused with so many characters and elements, it would take a small nudge to make this cinematic house of cards topple spectacularly. After all, one of the main criticisms against Joss Whedon's Avengers: Age of Ultron was its weak cohesiveness, i.e. its shoe-horning of situations that served as set up for future Marvel films (as the films are basically one big narrative with each installment feeding into the next). By contrast, Civil War flows more organically (though not completely. See below) and is surprisingly intimate. The Russo Brothers, working off of the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, juggle action and characterization, making requisite blockbuster tropes of fights and explosions service the story and characters as opposed to the other way around. Further, the main players’ motivations are identifiably personal. More amazingly, none of the characters on either side of this conflict are short changed either in screen time or characterization. After eight years, these characters are familial not only to each other but to us, the viewer; which makes the breakdown of relationships and descent to conflict all the more poignantly tragic, yet understandable within context. None of the characters are off key; all their motivations and decisions falling in line with what we’ve come to know of them. But even then, the returning characters show developmental nuance and, more importantly, growth:  RDJ's Stark is as arrogant as usual but, despite his renewed health (per Iron Man 3), he is still an emotionally wounded animal; one that uses that pain to make decisions that he believes are to the betterment of the super hero community in general and mankind in particular. Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johannsen) has significantly let down her emotional armor, playing the unlikely role of a mediator trying to keep her family together. The newly-minted Vision (Paul Bettany) shares awkward-yet-endearing interactions with The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who is still uncertain of her place in the world and with her powers. It's difficult to single out anyone's performance because these actors are so damned good in their roles.  The Falcon juggles his filial loyalty to Captain America with a budding love/hate bromance with the Winter Soldier; a good contrast to Secretary of State Ross’ mistrustful and uneasy alliance with Stark, all while barely containing his seething enmity against all super-powered vigilantes.

But much must be said of the newcomers. Chadwick Boseman plays the newly-minted King T’Challa, who assumes the legendary mantle of The Black Panther. Boseman captures the quiet regality and, dare I say, spiritual nobility of the source character. His inclusion into this cinematic universe flows naturally, unlike the OTHER big character introduction.

Marvel's acquisition of Spider-Man back from Sony coincided with Civil War's production and, as such, the character's inclusion into the proceedings was essentially last minute; unfortunately, it shows, leading to one of the film's few tonal hiccups. That being said, Tom Holland's performance as Peter Parker/Spider-Man more than makes up for the discordance. As clichéd as this will sound, Holland completely nails the role(s).  If this film is in any indication, Spider-Man’s future in the MCU is in very good hands.

All this talk of the supporting players, what of the title character himself? Chris Evans' Steve Rogers/Captain America is the answer to the controversy about the darkening of noble characters, proving once and for all that a character can be (seemingly) out of time in terms of his ethics and values yet still be compelling relevant to the time his story is told.  He is not blind to the darker nature of this new (to him) world, but refuses to fall into it. Despite assertions to the contrary, his character is as flawed as any human but unrepentantly strives to nobility. Evans’ performance evidencing his inner conflict between brothers old (Winter Soldier) and new (Iron Man) is subtle yet palpable. He anchors the film and provides a point of view that would not have been possible had this been called "Avengers: Civil War".  The Russos keep Captain America from being a guest star in his own film, but just barely. The addition of all these characters, including Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and War Machine (Don Cheadle), unfortunately short change Rogers’ own character development. His story beats, which should have carried more weight, lose some potency as a result. Regardless of that, Evans carries the film. At the risk of repeating myself I will repeat what I said in my review of Captain America: Winter Soldier, not since Christopher Reeve has an actor become the embodiment of a super-hero.

While Marvel cinematic villains are generally two-dimensional, Brühl’s Zemo slightly bucks that trend. To say more would be to give away the twists but, suffice it to say, Brühl plays of the more nuanced villains in this series of films to date and, perhaps, the most successful one.

Nuance is evident throughout the film. The Russo Brothers play their direction like a fiddle, weaving elements from previous Marvel product into this story in such a way that the viewer doesn't need to refer back to get the gist. They manipulate audience expectation, subverting it even as the outcome makes perfect sense. Even the principle of Chekov's Gun (the introduction of an element that must be used by story’s end) is subverted in an organic, if not satisfying, result. The story keeps you guessing and on the edge of your seat. Henry Jackman's score fuels this tension without taking on a distracting identity of its own. Any hints of Alan Silvestri's "Captain America" theme are completely absent this time around; a fitting omission, given the film's ultimately tragic nature.

Captain America: Civil War had much to gain but so much more to lose.  It had to set the stage for the Marvel films going forward while juggling so many elements. It could have collapsed under its own weight.  Instead, it is a triumph of live-action super-heroic film-making, eclipsing what has come before. It does not compromise character for the sake of relevance, nor does it bring down any one character for the sake of another. It blends action, humor, pathos, and tragedy.  For all its bombast, its strength lies in its humanity.  

Other studios attempting to establish cinematic franchises should take note. This is how it’s done. 





[1] Captain Montgomery Scott (James Doohan); Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984).

Friday, April 8, 2016

NO PUSSYFOOTING AROUND: “Hardcore Henry” Is An Ambitious And Successful Cinematic Experiment



Rarely does a film's opening credits tell the audience exactly what sort of experience they’re in for. Hardcore Henry does exactly that with in-your-face, cringe-worthy, gleeful detail. It also implies that it’s about to offer a cinematic experience unlike any other; a declaration it lives up to.


Told you it was in your face.

You star as “Henry”, a resurrected cyborg with no memory of your past. It’s not long after you’ve been treated by your doctor wife, Estelle (Haley Bennett) before you’re attacked and Estelle is kidnapped by an industrialist warlord named Akan (Andrei Dementiev) and his band of mercenaries and chased through the streets of Moscow.  With the help of the mysterious Jimmy (Sharlto Copley, District 9, Malifecent, The A-Team), you try to avoid capture and find out why to…

…what’s that?

Yes, I said “you”.  Hardcore Henry is shot entirely in POV perspective, akin to a live-action first-person shooter game. First-time feature film director and main screenwriter Ilya Naishuller really pushes POV gaming aesthetic in every frame, complete with the pastiche that goes with it. The film, shot entirely with GoPro Hero3 Black Edition cameras, allows you the viewer to experience the film in “real time” as Henry does. This conceit is the film’s main draw.  Don't expect character depth or plot complexity save for the requisite twists and turns that you would expect in an action film in general, or a “shoot-‘em-up” game in particular. Do expect unrelenting, high-octane pacing from start to finish, wherein the quiet moments, few that there are, are still taut with tension.

This is the quiet part

While revolutionary, this first-person perspective is not without its weaknesses. The first issue is that of cinematic limitation. A film narrative is a fixed one.  One may mix and match scenes in different chronological order as opposed to linear storytelling (think Pulp Fiction), but no matter how the frames are stitched, the film is still fixed in narrative.  In games, video or otherwise, the player has to make choices in order to advance.  The problem here, and this will be especially true for avid gamers, is that the lack of audience control mutes the experience’s potency. The protagonist-as-viewer is illusory because there is no emotional connection to Henry himself. Viewers are only as emotionally invested in a narrative as they allow themselves to be; especially in cases when one is experiencing first person events visually, but not viscerally. It is not happening to the real “you”, which is the central problem with telling stories in the second person (in a literary narrative) or in the first person (visually). If we're not completely vested as a character by proxy, then we can't really feel what the protagonist is feeling. To his credit, Naishuller tries to approximate this, but he can only do so much. The viewer is not the protagonist; just along for the ride. While the “golly-gee-whiz” visuals are compellingly impressive, one cannot fully immerse themselves into whatever Henry's emotional journey is, if there is one. Quite honestly, this is one of those few films that I would recommend seeing it in 3D (if you can manage it; see below), if available, and more importantly, worth the extra expense to experience it in Dbox seating, as that will be the closest thing you will get to a virtually reality experience here.

Um, skip the Dbox for this moment.

The second issue is more individually subjective. While kudos go to the various-GoPro attired stuntmen who performed the dazzling stunt work and the editing of Steve Mirkovich, without whom the film would have no power or urgency. They do their job so well that this film could have had “Headache Henry” as an alternate title.  In fact, I'm surprised that there weren’t disclaimers at the film’s beginning because the film is so frenetic and spastic that it could possibly trigger an epileptic seizure and some people (and that’s without 3D and Dbox). Further, the point of view doesn’t always allow for a clear understanding of the events that goes on around Henry. Granted, that’s part and parcel with attempting to mirror real life. You don’t necessarily see what’s going on around you or see how it physically affects Henry, but this is a very minor quibble because the film moves with the speed of a cross-country Japanese super-train without stops; you’re carried to the next series of events while you’re still trying to process what just happened. Note there will be situations wherein the “whys” go unanswered. Roll with it.

The film’s main draw is the experience, and the director gleefully ratchets the action, gore, and absurdity to upper-Tarantino-ian levels; the latter of which is where most of the film’s humor resides. Naishuller pushes the boundaries of taste (and decency), but in such an absurd fashion that it strays into camp, in turns reveling in even as it mock’s its misogynistic and testosterone-fueled conventions. Film composer Darya Charusha’s musical choices match the tonality of this quixotic, chaotic match up, mixing Junkie XL scoring with soulful, old school classics like Queen’s "Don’t Stop Me Now” and the Temptations’ “My Girl” in situations so incongruous for the scenes they’re used they render them hilariously.

Cue Adele's "Hello"

As far as dramatis personae, the characters are as superficial as you would expect in a video game (That’s not a criticism). As “Estelle”, Haley Bennet’s character is just above stock. She starts Henry on his journey and serves as damsel in distress. As “Akan”, Andrei Dementiev seems to have not only studied at the Jesse Eisenberg School of Comic Book Villainy, but seems compelled to surpass his lessons.

Lex who?

Tim Roth has a brief but amusing cameo as Henry’s father. The best performance in this film Sharlto Copley’s “Jimmy” as he provides what little heart the film has; a performance infused with mania, levity, and surprising pathos. But then, who frickin' cares? For a story like this, it’s all expository stuff anyway.

On the whole, Hardcore Henry is a gonzo, absurdist joy ride filled with non-stop thrills. While that statement may be a lazy cliche in film criticism circles, Henry truly merits that description. The movie will either be a hit or miss, depending on one’s feelings about video games and nausea-inspiring visuals. Henry runs the risk of being viable only for a niche market. On the other hand, we could be witnessing the birth of a trend in cinema. Either way, this is not a film for everyone. Despite the onset of a headache, I thoroughly enjoyed the film, whereas a fellow film critic left mid-film in disgust, saying that he found the entire affair sophomoric and moronic. Whatever the opinion, one cannot deny that this film is dazzling, and dizzying, and disorienting. On the whole, Hardcore Henry is a an extremely well-executed, if somewhat jarring rollicking romp that should be applauded for its ambition and scope, if nothing else. It’s a cinematic roller coaster that hooks you by the naughty bits and doesn’t let go until literally the very end.

Monday, March 28, 2016

YAWN OF JUSTICE: "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice" Is High On Visuals, But Low In Enjoyment [MINOR SPOILERS]



Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, directed by Zach Snyder and screenwritten by David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio, is a direct continuation of Synder's 2012 effort Man of Steel. The plot, such as it is, begins with a rehash of the infamous “Battle for Metropolis” viewed from the ground zero vantage point of Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck). Almost two years later, Superman (Henry Cavill) has become both a fixture on the world stage, and a source of international controversy. Batman, however, is convinced that Superman is the harbinger of Earth’s destruction, and sees only one way to eliminate that threat. In that vein, he crosses the path of not only billionaire Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who has come into possession of an item Batman desperately needs, but the mysterious Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), who is skulking about Lexcorp for her own reasons.

The characters of Batman and Superman, in their 70-plus year publishing history, are a study in contrasts, a theme that is practically beaten over the viewer’s head like a crowbar.  Like the ostensible main characters, this film is a mess of contrasts: moments of spectacle alternatively presented with moments of moribund turgidity. Or rather, it’s just a mess.  The thing here is that there are moments of almost brilliance. There are some excellent concepts and ideas to be explored. Some are unrealized, some under-developed, while others are explored in depth…those that are successfully explored unsurprisingly focus on (and this is the reason why I say “ostensible” main characters because despite the misleading title) Batman. From the way his scenes are crafted, one gets the impression that this is the real character that Snyder and Co. want to explore. For example, there are a lot of psychological underpinnings that enhance the threadbare plot such as the helplessness Wayne feels during the events birthed the Batman and ushered the arrival of Superman. There's also Batman’s quest to bring down his red caped white whale, and the irony that his character arc leads him to become the very thing he perceives Superman to be. Also, there is the compare/contrast of what Batman has lost over what Superman still has…and stands to lose. 

By contrast, Superman gets the short shrift; existing more as a MacGuffin than a co-starring character until the film’s final act. If nothing else, this presentation highlights the fact the filmmakers don’t know what to do with him as a character (at best) or outright dislike him (at worst). I wonder if it is more than coincidental (other than Warner Bros. blinking at a Marvel cinematic stand-off between  BvS and the forthcoming Captain America: Civil War) that this film premiered on Easter weekend, because the “Superman-as-Christ” allusions were has heavy-handed as the rhetoric at a Donald Trump rally (yes, even more so than in MoS). The modern arguments against Superman as a character are pervasive here and even stated in dialogue:  He’s unapproachable. He’s something to be feared. He’s not one of us. He’s unrelatable. What moments of humanity he is allowed to show are tied to the women in his life, mainly Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane), As such, this lack of character development for Superman is evident in Cavill’s performance. The hint an optimistic take of the character hinted at the very end of Man of Steel is not carried through. Clark Kent is still burdened by the mantle, and spouts meta dialogue about his critics that may be Snyder’s way of saying “f*** you” to those who found MoS wanting. Good as he is with what little is given, Cavill could stand to utilize some of the charm he utilized as Napoleon Solo in the recent The Man From U.N.C.L.E. In his defense, there's little room for him to utilize it here.

The skeleton of this film comes from two DC Comics story lines from the late ‘80s and early 90s (one is The Dark Knight Returns; to name the other would give away a major plot point); and Ben Affleck’s version of Batman is based upon the former. As much of a revelation Affleck is in the role, as he arguably fits as both Wayne and Batman, this Batman has one major tweak from the story source. The DKR Batman was reluctant to kill, while this one kills with impunity, either directly or indirectly via bat-branding. It seems that in Synder’s view, superheroes have to be brooding killers in order to be effective.  Where’s the fun in that? 

At least it looks like the supporting cast is having some fun. Jeremy Irons is appropriately droll as Wayne retainer/weapons manufacture Alfred Pennyworth, spouting lines lifted directly from “The Dark Knight Returns” with pitch-perfect scathing wit. He also serves as Bruce’s conscience and surprising supporter of Superman. On the flip side, Lawrence Fishburne’s Perry White is more entertaining than in the first film, being the gruff editor who once in a blue moon evinces a paternal side, even as he's lambasting his star reporters. As discordant as his Sherlock Holmes/Pirates of the Caribbean pastiche theme, Eisenberg’s Luthor is emotionally all over the place, as if someone had injected given his Mark Zuckerberg character a year’s worth of caffeine all at once, giving a manic performance that would have had Gene Hackman say “[w]hoa! Dial it back, son.” Yet, despite this, he does evoke the feeling that he is the smartest man in the room, even if (what passes for) the story structure doesn’t support the assertion.

One of the more confounding aspects of this film is its treatment of the female characters. Amy Adams’ Lois has not lost any of her spunk, but she still ultimately exists in deference to Superman. Despite the inner resolve that Adams imbues her character with, Lois goes back to traditionally finding herself in a jam to be rescued from. Further, she and Martha Kent seem to exist in this film as anchors to Superman’s humanity, a fact that is exploited. To be sure, this is a disservice to both accomplished thespians, but they make the most of their roles (though Ms. Lane does share an extremely humorous moment with a Hollywoodland co-star).  And no, I’m not forgetting Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. To be honest, her character is, for most of the movie, a cog in the hinting machine for the forthcoming Justice League. But she later becomes the deux ex machina in the film’s climax; however, for her part, she nails the role when she  stands revealed as (the still unnamed) Wonder Woman and, in one blink or you’ll miss it moment, she takes a moment that beautifully realizes the character completely. Her arrival, backed by a rollicking, guitar strumming theme, is a welcome addition (Xena who?). It may be short, but it is definitely sweet. More importantly, hers is the only introduction that remotely resembles anything powerful or heroic. When Superman and Batman are introduced, it’s done matter-of-factly sans any fanfare. Given what this film is trying to do and the characters being used, wouldn’t it be appropriate to give each hero’s initial entrance the importance they deserve? Is it that embarrassing to the filmmakers to express the epic nature of their titular protagonists? That corny? Don’t expect Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s score to imply heroism, though Batman’s new cacophonous sturm und drang theme acts as counterpoint to the MoS Superman theme, and works within the context of the film.

The spectacle overshadows the plot, which relies too much on coincidence at some points to get from points A to Z. Now, as of this writing there will be a three-hour, R-rated cut of the film to be released on blu-ray which will incorporate deleted scenes that address some of these narrative issues. Nevertheless, one shouldn't have to wait for a subsequent home video release to make up for storytelling shortcomings on initial release. The action scenes are ambitious and riveting...and would be more so if you could actually see them. In more than a few cases, these scenes take place either at night or in the dark and the frenetic pacing of the action coupled with the lighting make some of the events too indistinct to properly make out. Point taken. This is a dark take on superheroes. At least let the audience see them in action clearly. Given that, the run time is frankly too long. It seemingly takes forever to get to the film's purpose of seeing Supes and Bats trading fisticuffs.  

There are times that a movie’s story telling success is made or broken at the film’s climax. While it is technically unfair to do so, as a film should be judged solely on its own merit, I have to bring up a telling observation. When Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) fully assembled The Avengers on screen during its climatic battle, the audience cheering was deafening. For the first time, the DC trinity is brought together in live action and the audience response at my screening was…nil.  Granted, it could have been ruined by the fact that the shot has appeared online for at the very least a six months to a year, which could have diluted the impact of the moment. But then again, Avengers had a similar marketing strategy and, arguably, there had been years of build up with previous Marvel films. Yet, this particular event has been wished for since, oh, take your pick, the Adam West Batman, the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman, the Christopher Reeve Superman: The Movie…when the union happens, it feels…unearned. Perhaps it’s because there’s no real sense of heroism evident here; or rather, the feeling of it. Lip service is paid to it, but cynically so. The DC heroes, traditionally, have been aspirational characters; a hallmark that the Marvel Studios seemed to have appropriated. There's nothing to aspire to here. Warner Bros. insistence of being the “anti-Marvel” goes way too far and to both the parent company’s and characters’ detriment. Paranoia, fear…this is the world we’ve inherited post-9/11, and it has been infused into these heroes; so much so that there is no joy in the Snyderverse. There's a lot of bang for buck here, but its mostly well-executed choreographed moments, source material homages, and visual razzmatazz but with no real emotional hook; so much so that the climax, which should have affected me deeply, left me at "meh."  If and when you see the film, you'll understand why that's an issue. The film is too busy trying to world build a franchise in two-and-a-half hours while forgetting that it needs to give us a reason to want to visit that world.

I wanted to like this film as both a critic and a lifelong fan of these characters. To that end, as a visual spectacle, I found it more enjoyable than Man of Steel; which isn't saying much. It does have a lot going for it. Affleck naysayers will have to eat some bat guano. Maybe Batman could use a little dose of humor, but he's an accurate representation of the character's comic presentation from the mid-90s to the present. Gal Gadot shows promise as Wonder Woman and it will be interesting to see how she does with more screen time in her coming stand-alone film. The story is meandering and frustrating at times, but boy it sure is purdy t'look at...when there's enough light to see by.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice had a lot of promise. It has some enjoyable stand-alone moments, and it plants some interesting seeds for future DC live action films. As a whole, however, its a big, bombastic letdown. As Luthor alludes to the story of Icarus in film, it so serves as apt metaphor here. BvS reaches for the heavens, tries to reach the sun, but is ultimately brought down and consumed by its own darkness. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

POOLING RESOURCES: "Deadpool" Shoots An Entertaining Middle-Finger To A Self-Important Genre

"WTF?! Who told this guy he could write reviews?! Hey, baldy! My pawless dog can write better!"

When one goes to the movies, they either get what they paid for, more than they bargained for, or leave demanding their money back…then there’s that rare film which makes one go “WTF did I just see?”

Deadpool falls like an anvil in the latter…in an extremely good way.
It’s quite possible that someone in Warner Bros.’ legal department is trying to cook up some way to sue 20th Century Fox and Marvel for copyright infringement, as Deadpool is practically a live action appropriation of a Looney Tunes cartoon. However, instead of a smart alec-y hare, we get smart alec-y with no hair “Wade Wilson” (played by Ryan Reynolds, returning to the role he first made [in]famous in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)), a merc with a mouth and a smidgen of decency who reluctantly avails himself of an offer to cure his aggressive cancer; subjecting himself to a series of "treatments" that trigger his latent mutant gene and, ostensibly, become a super-hero. Things don’t go as planned due to the sociopathic ministrations of the project’s leader, “Ajax” (Ed Skrein, Game of Thrones; The Transporter Refuled). With the (reluctant) help of X-Men “Colossus” (Stefan Kapicic, Greg LaSalle, and Yeygeniy Kartashov) and “Negasonic Teenage Warhead” (Brianna Hildebrand), Deadpool fights to regain his humanity so that he may once again be reunited with his ladylove and equal, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin, Firefly; Gotham). 

The character doesn’t fare well in origin, but the character’s fans, who were up in arms at the manner in which Deadpool was previously depicted in live action, can cry in orgiastic relief. Here, Deadpool is the comics character come to life: he’s flippant, he’s deadly, he’s anti-heroic, he’s ADHD, he loves saying "chimichanga", he breaks the fourth wall, and he’s R-rated! As such, this is one of the fewest instances of a film interpretation staying true to its comic book source. Wade Wilson is not just the character in name only, and the also alliteratively-named Reynolds brings him gleefully to life in a redemptive performance that not only washes away the “sins” of Origins, but also pokes (much deserved) fun at his maligned performance playing another super-hero owned by Marvel’s Distinguished Competition. It’s perhaps his most relaxed and effortless role to date, but it’s not without its nuance.
Deadpool is exactly what its advertising purported it to be. It’s a love story, a horror film, a super hero yarn, a buddy cop film, and a character study all rolled into a zany, madcap ball. But the kicker here is for a film whose protagonist is known for his annoying irreverence, it is a surprisingly well-crafted piece of art. By art, we’re not discussing the CGI (whose only weakness is the rendition of the mutant Colossus, which was somewhat distracting at time but worked on the whole), but rather the crafting of the story itself. For example, Skrein’s Ajax is not just a villain because the movie says he is. Director Tim Miller takes great pains to engender a visceral antipathy towards the character by use of pacing and camera angles; working to make Ajax’ villainy personal not only to Deadpool, but to the audience in general. Further, all the characters are interesting, including Karan Soni in a small but amusing role as a taxi driver with love problems, Nichelle Nichols look-a-like Leslie Uggams as “Blind Al”, Deadpool’s septuagenarian, ordinance savvy roommate with a lust for some ‘pool, and TJ Miller as Deadpool’s best bud “Weasal”. The film also features strong performances by two previous “Wonder Woman” contenders, the aforementioned Baccarin and former MMA Gina Carano (Haywire) as “Angel Dust”, Ajax’ right hand person, as well as Heldebrand as the gothic, snarky Warhead, who provides comic relief balanced with general character badassery. Tom Hokenborg a/k/a Junkie LX’s score is just as eclectic as the film it supports, and just as enjoyable.
If there’s only one complaint, is that the film may not be madcap enough, but expect that the lunacy will be ramped up in the inevitable sequel. It does, however, manage to balance the gonzo with enough gravitas to push the story forward without getting mired by either extreme. In many respects, Deadpool is the answer to many films within its genre that take themselves a little too seriously, while at the same time experimenting with the storytelling and pushing the boundaries of acceptability while embracing its iconoclastic nature in celebratory fashion. Some may find it offensive, but no one can deny that in a genre that is dangerously approaching glut, it is very refreshing and, dare I say, surprisingly original.
So jump into the rabbit hole, smuggle in a couple of chimichangas, and enjoy the experience that is Deadpool

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

“THE HATEFUL EIGHT” Is Quentin Tarantino At His Best...and Worst.



It’s safe to say that Quentin Tarantino is one of, if not the, most successfully controversial filmmaker in the past twenty years or so.  With (now) eight films under his belt, he has yet to produce an uninteresting or unprofitable film. His use of dialogue and mood is practically textbook. His movies have started some careers and famously revitalized others (John Travolta, Pam Grier, and Bruce Willis come to mind). He has managed to take a pastiche of the retro and manage to reassemble the pieces to seem something innovatingly fresh, even as their execution straddles the fine line between cinematic brilliance and sadistic exploitation. Some call him an auteur; others, a hack. Yet one thing remains certain: A new Quentin Tarantino release merits attention. Tarantino’s latest, The Hateful Eight, not only merits it, but boldly demands it.  Eight is Tarantino on steroids. All his cinematic bag of tricks is on display in exaggerated bas relief for better or worse. It is a melding of cinematic styles that both seductively entices as it viscerally repulses. It is his most passionate yet disturbing piece of cinematic art to date. Make no mistake...art, it is.

While the story is told in six chapters, its development is more appropriate to a three-act play. Set in the blizzard-ravaged mountains of Wyoming approximately a decade after the Civil War, ex-war hero turned bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) hitches a ride on a stagecoach run by O.B. Jackson (James Parks) with fellow bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), who is transporting his live bounty Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to hang in the town of Red Rock. They also come to pick up a man by the name of Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who not only may or may not be the Sheriff of Red Rock, but also harbors some deep seated prejudice against black folk. When the blizzard makes further progress impossible, they seek refuge at Minnie’s Haberdashery, which is occupied by the likes of Joe Gage (Michael Madsen); General Sandy Smithers (an ornery Bruce Dern); Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), the ostensible hangman of Red Rock; and a Mexican by the name of Bob (Demian Bichir), who claims to be running the place in Minnie’s absence. As the storm grows harder, tensions run higher. Not everyone is who or what they seem, and it becomes clear as time passes that not everyone, if anyone, will get out alive.

One of Tarantino’s hallmarks is taking unsavory characters and making them, if not sympathetic, then at least relatable…infusing them with something approximating the redemptive. Nothing of the sort can be found in this film, the western equivalent of Jean-Paul Sarte’s No Exit and Dante Alighierif’s Inferno by way of an Agatha Christie whodunit.  The setting is the key, as the majority of the film takes place within the confines of the haberdashery. One of Tarantino’s greatest strengths as a storyteller has been his ability to create tension in even the most innocuous of circumstances.  Here, the tension is as taut as piano wire. Combined with the judicious use of noise and minimal use of soundtrack, coupled with the crisp visuals brought on by the 70 mm ultra Panavision process, the film engenders a stifling, vertiginous sense of claustrophobia ratcheted to an uncomfortable degree.

The main theme in this film is “subversion”, which takes its form in both characterization and expectation. The film plays with audience assumption, then turns same on its head in entertainingly sadistic fashion. Don’t expect to root for anyone. There are no true protagonists or antagonists; they’re all interchangeable within their respective interpersonal dynamics. Each character is, to varying degrees, as sympathetic as they are repulsive. More to the point, while not exactly a divine comedy, Tarantino’s wickedly subversive sense of macabre humor is more “in your face” than ever here. It’s bloody and gory, but the violence is incongruently stylized yet minimalist, and filled with gallows humor. The sadism comes primarily from the characters’ motivations. They revel in the horror they inflict. They’re horrid, loathsome, yet completely fascinating.

For the first time in any Tarantino production, Samuel L. Jackson receives top billing honors, and it’s much deserved just for his work in this film alone (if not for his combined body of work in Tarantino’s back catalogue) for the hypnotic portrayal of his character epitomizes the film’s subversive nature; but his is not the only sublime performance.  Kurt Russell seemingly revels in his portrayal of the “The Hangman” and his macabrely comedic interactions with Leigh as the even more unsavory and uncouth Domergue. Russell and Leigh’s chemistry is one of the film’s highlights as they play off each other antagonistically but in a weird, old married, spousal abuse couple kind of way (sharing a film for the first time since 1991's Backdraft). Tim Roth tries his best to channel Christophe Waltz in a part that, based on the script and direction, was most likely written with the latter actor in mind; however, Roth is gamely entertaining even as he effects what is essentially a Waltz impersonation (given that The Hateful Eight takes place in the same universe and time period as Django Unchained (2012), it’s just as well Waltz wasn’t or couldn’t be cast). As for the rest, Bruce Dern, Walton Goggins, Michael Madsen, Lee Horsley, Channing Tatum(!)…all the actors deftly realize their characters, even though Demian Bichir’s “Bob” borders on caricature (but then, given the movie genre Eight emulates, the representation is sadly appropriate). The most surprising performance next to Jackson’s belongs to Leigh. A case can be made that this film is extremely misogynistic (the disposition of the supporting female characters, played by actresses Dana Gourrier, Zoe Bell, and Belinda Owino, would bolster that argument); however, even here Tarantino pulls a bait-and-switch which Leigh’s sublime performance effectively nails. Even when just sitting in the background, you feel her presence. She’s a ticking time bomb, and when the explosion comes, it is chillingly fierce.  She was once considered one of the promising new actors of the late '80s/early '90s, Her performance proves that potential has not been diminished by time.

All the characters are compelling on their own merits, but none of which are anyone you’d wish to share a beer with.  But perhaps the most important player of the film never appears on screen. In a feat not even Clint Eastwood could perform, Tarantino convinced Ennio Morricone to score an(almost) original score for a western for the first time in 40-plus years (and the first original score for a Tarantino film ever). Morricone, however, himself thwarts expectation by presenting a score unlike any he had ever produced for the spaghetti westerns which made his fortune, while at the same time seamlessly fitting the film. Instead of majestic, sweeping epic orchestrations, the film’s main theme, which dominates the score, is low-key, foreboding, sinuously suspenseful, tensely nihilistic, and macabrely humorous all at once. For all of his talents, the mood Tarantino establishes would be diminished without Morricone’s contributions. 

The Hateful Eight is a polarizing film. It is tantalizingly fascinating even as it’s abhorrent to witness. It's idiosyncratic and iconoclastic. The characters, to varying degrees are just, plain nasty; but through Tarantino’s lens, gleefully so.  It’s evil. It’s so good, it’s evil. It leaves you feeling dirty but not wanting to wash it off. It’s practically three hours long, but leaves you begging for more.  Tarantino attempts much in terms of style, themes, and presentation, and in varying degrees succeeds in each one.  Even more than Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2, this is Tarantion’s most epic film to date.  It ensnares you in its presentation, and stays with you long after the end credits roll. This film encompasses everything Tarantino represents as a filmmaker. So, if you love Tarantino, you’ll love this film. If you hate Tarantino, you’ll really hate this film. There is no in-between.  It leaves such a visceral impact in the way that powerful art in any medium is supposed to engender. In all honesty, there’s much to ruminate over the film that cannot be extrapolated in a mere movie review.  It's either his best film or his worst depending on your sensibilities. Suffice it to say, for a film to do all of that, it merits…demands…viewing. 

Thursday, December 3, 2015

I AM AFRAID.

Are you afraid?

I am.

I don't mind admitting it; after all, we’re being sold fear.

Terrorists ply in it.

Politicians and pundits sell it.

Media, digital and social, subsists on it…thrives on it.

In our modern world of mass-communication, coverage of terror-inducing events 24/7 is inescapable.

9/11, France, Russia, San Bernandino, Sandy Hook; “355” is the current magic number…gun control, guns out of control…yet according to myth the first murder was committed with a rock, which is far more plentiful than guns…

My religion’s better than your religion, my religion’s better than yooouuuurrrrrsssss….

Hurricanes, tsunamis, irradiated fish…

Prayers…words falling upon deafened ears….

Children kill parents and hold house parties while the corpses decompose in the upstairs bedroom.

Spouses kill each other over frivolous domestic disputes, and post it on social media for the world to see.

Shoppers send people to the hospital over a bargain TV.

A television actress brutalized by a homeless man for no discernable reason other than frenzied impulse.

My mother and her husband assaulted at gunpoint, the latter pistol-whipped, at a local pharmacy a couple of blocks from their home….

“They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue!”*

Damn right, I’m afraid.

The world is a frightening, dangerous place on its own. Always has been and, despite our more lofty ideations, it would be jejunely Pollyannaish to believe otherwise. Humanity’s contributions are the overabundance at an all-you-can-eat-buffet. We were never promised a rose garden. We can only till the soil we're given.

It’s a dangerous business…going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”**

I’m afraid and I live with that fear…but I refuse to live in fear. We must continue to live life as we choose to while respecting others’ right to live theirs, for this is a freedom that belongs to us all, and no fundamentalist of any persuasion has the right to take that away. This assertion has nothing to do with “letting terrorists win” rhetoric, but everything to do with the fact that we’re dying the moment we’re born; that at any second, through an outside agency having nothing to do with us or our circumstances, we’re here one moment and gone the next. Life is a finite commodity, and every moment spent cowering is a moment devoid of fulfilled expression.

"Pray for the dead. Fight like hell for the living."***

Be vigilant. Be protective. Be proactive. Know there are some things outside of your control, but you have the option to affect what you can.

Yes, I am afraid.

But as we breathe, we still live.

Make sure you do.


*           “Malone” (Sean Connery); The Untouchables (1987).
**         The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; J.R.R. Tolkein (1954).
***        Mother Jones.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

NOT SO HAUNTING: "Spectre" Falls Below Expectation [RECENT RETRO REVIEW - MINOR SPOILERS]



More often than not, the Bond title sequence theme songs hint at the overall tone of the films they accompany. Who can forget the Shirley Bassey, who belted out Goldfinger (1964) with a divaesque brassiness that was evocative of both the film and the titular villain, or her serenely luscious Moonraker (1979), which matched that film’s more laid back tone? Imagine Thunderball (1965) without Tom Jones’ dynamic tones whose vocal power matched the visuals of the first ever extended underwater fight sequence ever committed to film? Who can forget Tina Turner’s sultry-yet-attitude-filled rendition of Goldeneye (1995), announcing to the world that Bond was back with a vengeance? Even as recent an offering as Skyfall (2012) follows this trend: A tour-de-force performance by Adele which both paid homage to the Bassey-stylings of yesteryear and served as promise that the sins of the previous entry Quantum of Solace (2008) would soon be washed away.

Yet, after an over-the-top, visually fatiguing pre-title sequence, Sam Smith’s “The Writing On The Wall” informs us of what to expect from the rest Sam Mendes’ Spectre:  A whole lot of dull. That’s not exactly something you would hear being said about a James Bond film; especially not one as highly anticipated as a film titled "Spectre". After all, the evil organization, a thorn in Bond’s side since the first official Bond film (1962’s Dr. No), has been off limits to the producers for 44 years (34 if you count an unofficial “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” pre-title sequence in either 1981’s For Your Eyes Only or the 1983 unofficial Bond feature Never Say Never Again). But that is exactly what you get here.

Following up on a message from beyond the grave, Agent 007 (Daniel Craig) undertakes an unsanctioned mission in Mexico; the consequences of which cause not only his being benched from active duty, but embarks him on a trail (with the help of Miss Moneypenny (Naomi Harris), fish-out-of-water “Q” (Ben Whishaw), a crusty, reluctant “M” (Ralph Finnes), and Dr. Madelene Swann (Léa Seydoux), the daughter of an old enemy) that leads Bond to a secret organization known as Spectre, whose machinations stretch back further than Bond ever realized…and hits Bond more personally than he would care to admit. Meanwhile, MI6 is experiencing it’s own form of benching as an operative code-named “C” (Andrew Scott) works to consolidate the world’s intelligence agencies into one global surveillance network, effectively rendering MI6, and the “00” section, obsolete.

Spectre’s screenwriters John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth make good use the current cultural privacy zeitgeist as story fodder. While Skyfall leitmotif was about Bond’s obsolescence as an aging individual, Spectre ups the ante by focusing on MI6’s obsolescence as an outmoded relic in a world where 24 hour digital surveillance is now a sad reality; “Big Brother is watching you”, and Spectre succeeds in capturing the moody atmosphere that awareness would engender. Spectre is waiting in the shadows; too bad it doesn’t have teeth.

It’s hard to believe that both Skyfall and Spectre were directed by the same person. Whereas Sam Mendes’ Skyfall was tightly suspenseful, his Spectre is meanderingly listless. The action sequences, while craftily put together and are a visual delight, lack a visceral punch. Unfortunately, Thomas Newman’s score doesn’t help. While pleasing to the ear, his orchestrations don’t add the emotional impact the sequences demand; in fact, it’s arguable that they call attention to how disjointed they are.

While the film does drag, it does manage to build a credible plot filled with intrigue and distrust; at least, two thirds of the way through it.  However, by the time the film hits the third act, it’s less a cohesive story and more of a series of “what the f***” moments (and not in a good way). Character motivations and logic are practically thrown out the window in attempts at pseudo-emotional payoffs that either never come or, when they do, feel contrived and unearned. Of course, we’re talking about the Bond series of films where reality has always been either in flux or a non-issue. But, given that the credo of the Craig era has been a grittier, more realistic Bond, these issues become even more egregious in context.

Daniel Craig is a very interesting actor, given the incongruous nature of his fourth outing as the super-spy; it amazes how he can give a nuanced performance while seemingly bored with it all. His is a unique position in the Bond pantheon of actors because, unlike the previous Bonds who “reset” with each of their respective films, Craig’s films are thematically and chronologically connected, allowing him to build an actual, relatable flesh-and-blood character over time (a decade next year). But there are moments in his performance where it seems Craig’s tired of the journey; almost treading into by-the-numbers territory. Ben Whishaw (Cloud Atlas), in his second appearance as the quartermaster “Q”, is engaging as a hipster tech geek caught in an out-of-his-depth situation. While Naomi Harris’ Moneypenny is as capable and independent as she was in the previous film, her lighthearted banter with Bond, which served to humanize Bond further in the last film, is sorely missed here.

One of the bright spots performance-wise is the sparing-yet-effective use of Dave Bautista as “Mr. Hines”. Like “Oddjob” and “Jaws” before him, Hines is a big, laconic henchman assassin. While the role itself is underwritten, Bautista makes it memorable by the sheer force of his personality. He and Craig present one of the best Bond close-quarter fight scenes in the history of the series, right up there with From Russia With Love (1963) and Goldeneye. Much was made in the media of casting of Monica Bellucci as the “oldest Bond girl”; would that her role matched the hype. It is a wasteful disservice to cast the beautiful and soulful actress in what amounts to an extended expository cameo. By contrast, as Dr. Swann, Seydoux pops on screen, going toe-to-toe with Craig's Bond in terms of obstinate personality. Her chemistry with Craig is palpable, each bringing out the best acting out of the other. She presents one of the rare Bond girls who one could conceive Bond actually falling in love with (unlike, say, Dame Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) - yes, I went there) and effectively gives one of the most nuanced but powerful emotional beats James Bond has ever experienced on film.

The biggest, and most disappointing, role belongs to Christopher Waltz (Inglorious Basterds; Django Unchained). As the villain of the piece and given the film’s title, it should come as no surprise who his character really is. Unfortunately, that association comes with an expectation that is realized neither in concept nor performance; especially with the revamped personal connection between his character’s and Bond’s. There’s never a sense that a shared history between the two exists. The quiet menace Waltz brought to his role of “Hans Landa” Inglorious Basterds is completely absent here and minimizes the entire impact of both the character and the film as a whole.

Visually, the film is stunning to look at. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema brings a sumptuous aesthetic with expansive vistas and long shots rivaling those of the Disney Epcot Soarin’ ride that imply a sense of the epic that this film should have had. The world in Spectre is at turns exotically beautiful and darkly foreboding. In many respects, it’s what a Bond film should look, if not feel, like.

With a two hour, twenty-eight minute runtime, Spectre is the longest Bond film to date.  Unfortunately, much of that run time is devoted to long expository sequences that exist for the sake of hubris (Yes, I'm aware there are certain quarters who don’t mind seeing Daniel Craig performing a gratuitous sexy shimmy up a flight of stairs for an extended period of time…). Here, less would have been more. Instead of working to engage the audience, the excess detracts from the spectacle, leaving the viewer to wonder how much longer it will go on before they can get on with the actual story. With some trimming and tighter editing, this film could have been engagingly pulse-pounding instead of being quite the opposite. The film’s biggest enemy is self-indulgence.

In all, Spectre is a mixed bag. It establishes a pattern much like the old original cast series of Star Trek films (odd numbered films mediocre, even numbered good) to the Craig era. In this case, it’s only slightly better than Quantum of Solace, but way below par when compared to Casino Royale (2006) or Skyfall. As a film on its own merits, it’s seriously uneven to a distracting degree. When it’s good, it’s really good. When it isn’t, it’s all the more disappointing.  It’s definitely worth viewing on the big screen if your concerns are merely visual. In terms of story and entertainment, however, waiting for cable would be your best option. As usual, the end credits promise that “James Bond Will Return.”

Let’s hope he does so in a better vehicle.